Tuesday, 30 November 2010

I had a dream - Michelle Lovric

In the cold light of dawn, there’s nothing my husband dreads more than the words, ‘Darling, I had a dream …’

My subconscious has always enacted dreadful deeds in the dead of night. And my almost blameless spouse has been the villain of a great many of them. He used to protest his innocence, but now he knows better. Every morning after, he apologises abjectly for whatever he (didn’t) do in my dream, makes tea and comforts me.

But secretly, I know, he shares William Dean Howells’ opinion of the matter:
The habit husbands and wives have of making each other listen to their dreams is especially cruel. They have each other quite helpless, and for this reason they should all the more carefully guard themselves from abusing their advantage. Parents should not afflict their offspring with the rehearsal of their mental maunderings in sleep, and children should learn that one of the first duties a child owes its parents is to spare them the anguish of hearing what it has dreamed about overnight …

Howells also documents the way the dreamer often turns on the dreamt-about, blaming them for dreamt-up sins. Unhelpfully, he adds, The only thing that I can think to do about it is to urge people to keep out of other people’s dreams by every means in their power.

‘But I didn’t ask to be in your dreams,’ protests my husband.

My latest novel for children, The Mourning Emporium, was published on October 28th. This means that my husband gets a break, because in the weeks around publication, my dreams change. All paranoia focuses on the act of publication and its sister-acts of publicity, performance and parties.

Here’s a selection of what my subconscious been up to in the small hours the last few weeks:

I am in a locked car, improbably parked on a jetty near our home in Venice. I’m tied up. The car teeters on the edge of the jetty and then drops into the dark green depths. A person I don’t know stands on the jetty, watching impassively.

I’m on a strobe-lit stage, wearing only a slightly grubby spotted sheet. The dancing mistress hisses from the wings, ‘DO YOUR BUTTERFLY DANCE!’ I stumble around like a blowfly who’s just been sprayed with DDT. I fall off the stage, crushing to powder a lady who has the shape and texture of a vast meringue. It turns out she was the one VIP I was supposed to impress.

I am at a party. I’m comprehensively snubbed by someone I am particularly happy to see – someone to whom I would have given custody of my professional happiness or with whom I would have shared my last Bendicks Bittermint. People turn away from my naked grief. I go to the kitchen and start washing dishes.

I am flattered into judging a literary competition. It will be good for my career, I’m assured. The UPS boat arrives, and a huge box is unloaded for me. It is as big as I am. These are the competition entries. I have two hours to read them all. Then the UPS man stagger onto the jetty with another box. And another. The whole boat is full of entries. I stare at the hopes and dreams of other writers and know that I am about to betray all of them.

The bitter aftertaste of bad dreams like these can linger till sunset. They leave the dreamer drained and feeling guilty. A really bad dream can perpetuate the sense of inadequacy it evokes by rendering the dreamer inadequate for the tasks of the day.

In Japanese mythology there’s a creature called a Baku, who looks something like a tapir crossed with a lion and elephant. It feeds on the bad dreams of humanity. I imagine it rather corpulent. But it can dine on dreams only if they are offered up voluntarily. The dreamer must cry, ‘Devour, O Baku’ three times before he or she may be freed from his hallucinatory tortures.

Does anyone else have any titbits for the Japanese tapir god?

Does anyone else have special nightmares on publication street?

Michelle Lovric’s website
William Dean Howells’ full essay on dreams can be found in Impressions and Experiences, 1896.

Block print of Baku by Katsushika Hokusai

Monday, 29 November 2010

Browsing - Josh Lacey

About a month ago, I visited a couple of schools in Basingstoke as part of the Wessex Book Festival and had lunch with some librarians from the Hampshire School Library Service. Over our sandwiches, we were talking about the future of books, reading and libraries, and one of the librarians made a fascinating observation which has lingered in my mind since.

Children aren't being taught to browse, she said. If they can't browse, then they can't use libraries and bookshops properly. They can't discover books for themselves.

Of course, children know how to browse on the internet. They can use search engines; they can hunt down information; they can leap from page to page. These skills are taught to them at school.

But no one teaches them to browse the shelves of a library or a bookshop, hunting for new books, new authors, new connections.

I'd never thought about browsing before. To me, it's an almost instinctive activity and feels so everyday, so ordinary, that I could hardly even imagine it as a teachable skill. I wander into a bookshop, glance at the array of covers spread out on tables or stacked on shelves, pick up a book, skim the blurb, read the first line or two, and, usually, put it back and look for something more interesting.

I'm always hoping that something will snag my attention: a cover, an author, the distant memory of a review or a recommendation. But, even more, I hope I'll find something by accident, a new writer, a book that I've never heard of. I'll open the book. The first few sentences will suck me in. I'll have to hurry away and find a quiet place and read it to the end.

According to those librarians in Hampshire, most of the children who walk into their libraries don't have this skill. Unable to browse, they're bewildered by the array of books on offer. They don't know where to start or how to progress from one author to another. So they are very conservative. They pick the next in a series. A book by an author that they know or have been ordered to read at school. Rather than discovering new authors, new books. Rather than exploring.

Josh Lacey

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Experimental writing, by Leslie Wilson

From time to time people say it might be a good idea for authors to take on board the way in which other media work, and incorporate it into their writing mode. I am impressed by this, and thought I might try it. I’m thinking about the kind of tv programme that not only shows its subject matter, but also breaks to show the preparations for filming, the presenters and other programme-makers in their time off, etc. So I wondered how a work of fiction would function in this way. I thought I’d use my own novel Last Train from Kummersdorf to illustrate the modus operandi. So: here goes.

They were rolling the blankets up when the old woman got down out of her waggon and went into the trees to do her business. Coming back, she called out to them.
‘Good morning. Are you off already?’
On the off-chance, Hanno asked: ‘Have you got any sausage? For another fag?’
Frau Rupf hesitated, then she winked at Hanno – she had a soft spot for him, he did right to be cheeky. Stealthily, she walked to the waggon, fished about among the sacks, did something in there and came to him with her hands behind her back. She winked again.
‘Which side?’
‘Either,’ said Hanno. He wasn’t going to play children’s games.
She showed him a good piece of sausage, about two centimetres thick, ten centimetres wide, real meat, pocketed with fat. Worth a fag, there was enough for him and Effi both. But old Rupf wasn’t after cigarettes this morning.
‘Give me a kiss.’ Her voice had gone soft, sentimental.

End of the day! Leslie goes into the kitchen and meets her daughter, Kathy, who’s at home, having returned from two years’ VSO in China. She’s doing work experience at Oxfam and financing herself by doing part-time work.
Leslie: ‘How was Autotrader?’
Kathy: ‘Someone got really angry with me. It wasn’t even anything I’d done! He said his advert hadn’t appeared in the paper. What’s for dinner? Shall I help you?’
Leslie: ‘Thanks. We’re having chicken provencale. Can you chop some peppers? You’re really good at that?’
Kathy (fetching chopping board and knife): ‘How’s the book coming on?’
Leslie: ‘Not bad at all. I’ve got to chapter ten, now. They’ve just spent a night in a wood and met some of the other main characters. Frau Rupf. She’s from Silesia, you know, where Grandma came from…’
Fadeout. Next day, Leslie is at the keyboard again, typing busily.

He kissed her old dry cheek, thinking he was only doing it for the meat, but then he found himself half-liking her. She had guts.
‘Now go away,’ she said. ‘I don’t want my daughter to know what I’ve been up to.’
They ate the sausage on the way back to the westward road. It was wonderful.
‘I’m not going to look like that when I’m old,’ said Effi.
‘How can you get out of it?’

At this point, Leslie tries to print and discovers that there’s no ink left in the printer. She rummages in the drawer and discovers that she hasn’t, after all, got a spare ink cartridge. We see her go out, go to the car, open the door and drive off.
In Office World
Leslie: ‘I’m looking for one of these ink cartridges, but I can’t see one out?
Shop assistant: ‘I’ll go and look for you.’
Focus on Leslie.
Leslie: I’m feeling really frustrated because I want to be writing more than anything else, but any time I get among stationery, I still have to look and I want to buy all kinds of crazy things, like these nice heart-shaped post-its -’
Assistant returns. ‘Here you are.’
Leslie: ‘Thank goodness for that.’ Goes to checkout. View of nice pink heart-shaped post-its going towards the till..

There were hardly any refugees on the road yet, but after a while they heard an engine running behind them and turned round to see a big silver car, dulled with dirt. There was a woman in the back wearing furs, you could see her felt hat inside the ruff of fuzzy darkness, a curl of smoke, a pair of made-up eyes. The driver blew his horn at them.
‘Lucky bitch,’ said Effi. Look at the fur coat. Sable. One day I’m going to have a coat as nice as that. Hey, d’you think it’s Eva Braun?’

Leslie suffers a total failure of imagination.
Leslie: ‘Only one thing for it. I need chocolate! Searches in fridge. No chocolate. Searches in storm porch. Still no chocolate. Now she gets her handbag and cycling clothes: if she cycles to the shop for chocolate, probably it will burn up the calories she gets from eating it.
In the future such novels will be able to include mini-MRI scans of writerly thoughts going round in her head as she cycles down the hill to Waitrose. After all, we do a lot of work when not at our desks.

And sometime, maybe, we’ll get back to the story...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Title Fight Anne Cassidy

I have a new book coming out in February called Heart Burn. It’s a story about a girl called Ashley who owes a favour to a boy called Tyler. She once had a relationship with this boy and she still has strong feelings for him. When she hears that he’s been beaten up and left for dead she is deeply shocked. Tyler asks her to go and see him in the hospital and then he asks for her help.

When I first thought of this story I had a working title in my head YOU OWE ME. I wrote a lot of the book calling it this. Then one day I didn’t like it. The story is told in the first person and it seemed better if the title contained the words of the girl. So I decided it had to be I OWE YOU.

I did a few school visits round this time and students often ask “What are you working on now?” I tried to explain the story to them and as soon as I said the title I OWE YOU an image of I O U came into my head. So the story ceased to be about a favour owed and became a kind of cash transaction. I spent a lot of time clarifying to the students what the title meant.

It wasn’t working so I threw it out.

When I looked at the story it was about a favour owed but that favour was only important because Ashley LOVED Tyler, had never gotten over him.
So the title HEART BURN seemed to fit.

I showed it to my husband and his response was “Indigestion?”

I ignored him. What does he know about teen fiction?

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Timed to Talk? - Lucy Coats

I'm warning you--this post may sound a bit OCD.  That's because, where giving a talk is concerned, I am obsessive-compulsive.  Take the recent SCBWI 10th Anniversary conference (written about here recently by Ellen Renner).  I was asked to be on one of their new 'Pulse' panels talking about 'How to Sell Your Book' way back in the summer when November seemed a long way off.  I said yes, of course, though I'd never done a panel talk before.  After all, how hard could being on a panel be?  There'd be at least two other people on it, if not three...and it would mostly be audience questions.  Wouldn't it?

Jon Mayhew, Sarah McIntyre and Lucy Coats in action on SCBWI Pulse Panel
And then the instructions arrived. 'Give an 8 minute talk', they said.  That's when I started obsessing.  Because I'm someone who likes to get it right where talks are concerned. 
Really right.
So I wrote the damn speech (let's not mention the time spent doing the PowerPoint which went with it here--that's a whole other story).  Then I got my kitchen timer and my stopwatch (one counts up, one counts down--no room for any error of timing there, then).
Now pause for a second and imagine the mad authory person striding up and down the her office, declaiming to three long-suffering dogs.
Oops!  The beeper goes off. 
There is still a lot of stuff to say.
The damn speech must be cut.
And cut again.
And snipped still further.
Time must be squeezed till it fits.

After hours (yes, hours) more cutting and striding about I have something which runs between 7 minutes 44 seconds and 8 minutes 15 seconds depending on declamation speed.  It is not absolutely and exactly perfect (this, worryingly, worries me--I did warn you), but it will have to do. Perfectionism can only go so far.

There's nothing worse than a panel speaker who rambles on and on, going over their allotted timeslot and messing up all the other panel members.  That's why I give thanks for my talk timing OCD. It means I'll never be one of them.  The dogs still think I'm mad--but that's a price I'm happy to pay.

The Nearly-Perfect 8 minute Speech

Thanks to Nicky Schmidt for SCBWI conference photos

Lucy's website is at http://www.lucycoats.com/
Lucy's blog is at http://www.scribblecitycentral.blogspot.com/
(Shortlisted for the Author Blog Awards 2010)
Lucy's Facebook Fanpage is at http://tinyurl.com/lucycoatsfacebook
Lucy's Twitter page is at http://www.twitter.com/lucycoats

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Not So Easy - John Dougherty

I’m having a coffee with my friend Ed. He’s just got home, and we have a lot of catching up to do.

“So - how did the writing go?” I ask. Ed’s been away for a few years: his wife was posted overseas, and of course the family went too. Although there was no problem about Ed and the kids going with her, he wasn’t covered by the work permit, so he’d planned to do some writing while the children were at school.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, I think, was the hope that perhaps it would provide a means of escape: whilst he loved teaching, there were too many times when the culture of tick-boxes and targets got in the way of the job. The idea of being able to choose to not return to his career when he returned to the UK was an appealing one.

Clearly, it didn’t work out. “I didn’t really get any done,” he admits. “I mean - I did some. I sat down and tried. And I kept trying. But whatever I wrote, when I read it back... I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like how it read. I never got the voice right...”

He shrugs; takes another sip of his coffee, warming his hands on the cup.

“When I look at your books,” he says; “well, your characters don’t all sound like the same person. Even the narrative voices: they’re different from each other, and they just... fit the story somehow. But mine?” He trails off for a moment, then suddenly becomes animated. “There’s no problem with ideas. I’ve got ideas. Loads of ideas. And I always thought that if I just had the chance - if I had the time - then I could write. But... well, I learned something.”

He looks at me. His expression is open, and genuine, and once again I’m reminded of why I like him so much, and why I’m glad he’s back.

“What I learned,” he says thoughtfully, “is that writing is hard.”

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

What is the theme of your novel? Miriam Halahmy

I have just finished reading 'Boys Don't Cry' by Malorie Blackman and as I read through the book I automatically decided on Malorie's main theme - Taking Responsibility for your Actions. Why did I do this?
Because in the summer of 2009 I did an Arvon course with Malorie Blackman and Melvyn Burgess. One of the most significant statements Malorie made - for me anyway - was to make sure you are clear about the themes of your novels. This will help both to focus your writing and tighten the  focused pitch to agents/editors/ other gatekeepers once your opus magnus is ready to fly.

I hadn't really thought about my novels in terms of central themes before and so I spent some time that week thinking about the three novels in my Hayling Cycle and crystallising the themes. It was a very worthwhile experience. I had always known these themes but they had remained in the background, not clearly articulated. I had come up with clear and crisp one-line pitches for each book but these were not the same as themes. Once I had decided on the themes I then put them at the top of each synopsis or outline for the third as yet unwritten novel.
It was just in time really  because the Summer of 2009 was when all the editors suddenly sat up and decided they loved the first novel, HIDDEN, that my agent had been submitting. The year before it was all rejection including two on a single Friday afternoon - that made for a great weekend as you can imagine!
Here are the themes to each of my three novels in the cycle, followed by a bit of plot summary to show the role of the theme in the book. My publishers are Meadowside Books.

HIDDEN, March 2011
The theme of this novel is the courage to stand up for what you believe in, against the crowd.
The main character, Alix, sticks up for Samir, the foreign boy in her class, who is the victim of racist bullying.
Her courage is tested when they find an illegal immigrant washed up on a beach and Samir pleads with her to help hide him, to save him from being deported.

ILLEGAL, February 2012
The themes of this novel are identity and independence. Lindy is looking after Cousin Colin's cannabis farm which is fine. But then he forces her into pushing cocaine which terrifies her. She doesn't want to end up in prison like her brothers. 'I'm better than my family,' Lindy tells herself and the only way she can prove it is to free herself from Colin's clutches and find her own salvation.

STUFFED, September 2012The theme of this novel is loyalty : loyalty tested and loyalty reaffirmed. . As this is work in progress, I'll leave it at that.

When I was called in by editors and then as we went forward with Meadowside who ultimately became my wonderful publishers, having clear themes in my head which I could trot out and illustrate with bits from the books, clarified the whole cycle and certainly helped towards the offer of a three book contract.
It has also given me a much firmer base to build on when talking about my books.

My Hayling Cycle is not based on a theme, it is based on a landscape and a group of young people. This is intentional; I wanted each book to be stand alone, with specific links. However, clarifying my themes strengthened my concept of writing a cycle as opposed to a trilogy or a series.
And if my publishers want to continue with the cycle there are plenty more themes to build plots around that I can explore.

What are the themes of your novels?

www. miriamhalahmy.blogspot.com

Monday, 22 November 2010

Living narrative: N M Browne

Do you live in narrative? Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting, describing, novelising your daily life?
If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist.
I now think the most usual answer is c) but as a child I did worry that it was a) or b). No one ever talked about it and, fearing that this endless descriptive flow was at worst mad and at best pretentiously self indulgent, I never raised the subject. I identified with Joe Marsh and Ann of Green Gables, and even most disturbingly with the ghastly girls of the Chalet School and as they apparently thought in well structured sentences so did I.
Later, when I was older, I became concerned that this measured ( third person) narrator’s voice mediated my experience, distanced me from living in the moment and prevented me from responding instinctively to people and situations. I am not sure that was true, but nonetheless ‘I resolved to give it up’ ( I am pretty sure of that because back then I definitely was the kind of girl who ‘resolved’. )
Fast forward thirty years and in a series of tentative, cautious conversations with other novelists I discover that this literary voice endlessly forming sentences as an hour by hour commentary on life is not so unusual. Lots of perfectly sane people do it. Who knew?
While I can’t say I regret its loss overmuch, I do think it was incredibly useful. I grew up writing and even in the years when my pen never touched the paper, I thought in prose. I was probably more fluent, more literary as a young woman than as an old working writer. When as a student I needed the words they were always there, tumbling out of me, faster than I could write: clause and sub clause unrolling like a carpet under my feet, taking my argument wherever I wanted it to go.
Of course it isn’t like that now. Words elude me all the time and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of incipient mental decay or if it's because I no longer live in narrative: I just live. What about you?

Friday, 19 November 2010

Covers Catherine Johnson

The last school visit I did - to a lovely school in Welwyn Garden City - went off suddenly and at a most interesting tangent. I was working in the library with a group of Year 8s. It was a great school library with a huge range of fiction.
As the session drew to an end, and I can't remember how the conversation began, we started talking about covers. They were all library monitors and big readers so they knew what they were talking about.
It was exhilarating, a fiery exchange of ideas, the students pulling books off the shelves that had great covers, but had disappointed, and those that had what they thought were poor covers but good stories.
It was fascinating, I learnt so much in about half an hour of frenzied sharing. It was so interesting I hope to go back, hopefully with a publisher or a designer and have some further discussions. It's too late for my next book, and I'm not advocating cover design by committee, but I think it's worth knowing - and listening to - what our audiences are looking for in a book cover.
I know it's hard for children's book, some are pitched at parents or adults, others jump on bandwagons, some authors are definite brands.
Very soon I think covers might cease to be as much of an issue anyway. Will e-readers mean that cover art is destined to be a thing of the past?
I hope not.
The picture is my next book from Barrington Stoke, and I think it looks rather good.

Are you living your life or just twittering on about it? - Linda Strachan

It's not that I have anything against social networking, in fact I do like the fact that you can communicate with lots of people so easily.

Social networking as a writer is a good way of reaching a wider audience; of getting in touch with other writers, readers and interested people, as well as keeping in touch with close friends.  But is it all becoming too invasive?

Are we wasting so much of our lives tapping information on small electronic devices, when we could be living more?

Being able to call or text or email almost anyone, at any time of the day or night can be incredibly useful, and at times it is a lot of fun. But is there a point where it stops being fun and becomes compulsive and potentially destructive?

Could we be forgetting to live our lives because we are so desperate to share every little detail with people we hardly know, and may not even have met.

Imagine that you are relaxing on a beautiful beach watching a fabulous sunset.  It is quiet and peaceful and you are getting away from all the hustle and bustle of life at home. Do you still feel the need to twitter about it?

Immediately you pick up your phone and tap away, twittering the details to the wider world. But as you concentrate on the tiny screen the beautiful sunset in front of you is changing from moment to moment.  You are missing it - spoiling the moment because you are now reading what someone else has said about their roof leaking, their dog scratching itself or possibly something equally inane and pointless.

Meanwhile the life you could be leading is passing by unnoticed.

It sounds to me like the start of some horrific tale of the future. Have we become that society that is so busy being busy that we have no time to 'stop and stare'.

Do you feel bereft if your mobile device is lost or stolen?  What if you have left it at home or can't get an internet connection and are unable to communicate with the world for - heaven forbid- an hour or two? If this is you perhaps you need to start weaning yourself off this dreadful anchor that is insidiously draining away your ability to survive without it.

I have seen people sitting together -  no one is talking to the group they are with because they are all either talking on their phones, sending or receiving text messages or twittering?  Is that because they think the people they are with are not interesting or important enough to talk to?  If so why are they spending time with them at all?  Or is it that they are so insecure that they have to prove they have lots of friends or important things that must be communicated immediately?

It is not just phones - computers and laptops can be just as enticing, and all consuming.

I know that there are many people out there who are not welded to their technology. But if you are one of those for whom the temptation of just one more text or email, just another minute or two, (which turns into an hour before you realise it) is irresistible - perhaps it is time to check and see if you are indeed able to do without it for an entire day, or if you have the kind of withdrawal pains or summon up the same excuses that we associate with any other addiction....

Linda's latest teenage novel is Dead Boy Talking (Strident Publishing)
Her writing handbook Writing for Children (A & C Black) ideal reading for all aspiring and newly published writers
For younger children the Hamish McHaggis series (GW Publishing)
Follow her blog  - Bookwords - writingthebookwords.blogspot.com
Visit her website -www.lindastrachan.com

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ten Things I Learned at the SCBWI Conference -- Ellen Renner

This weekend Winchester was overrun with illustrators, writers, editors, agents, publishers, string quartets and a certain amazing, talented cake maker as the British branch of SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) celebrated its tenth birthday.

I've been going to Scooby conferences for seven of those ten years, but there has never been such a buzzy, sparkling, friendly, aspirational, confident event as this year's get together. Added excitement was due to the huge party on Saturday evening to celebrate the mass book launch of seventeen SCBWI members with publications out this year.

SCBWI has a lot to celebrate, as increasing numbers of its members buck the tough publishing climate and secure first deals, helped by initiatives like the Undiscovered Voices anthology. In the space of a few short years Scooby has grown from an invaluable support network for unpublished writers and illustrators into a unique organisation which continues to help beginners while also providing opportunities for published members. There is nothing else out there remotely like it.

So what did I learn?

1) BE POSITIVE! Too often, when more than two writers (I can't speak for illustrators) gather in one place it isn't long before the air is filled with the gnashing of teeth, the beating of breasts and low rumbles of discontent. With reason: writers are all too often the canon-fodder of the publishing industry, especially in these tough economic times. But the Winchester university campus positively vibrated with the optimism and enjoyment of the artists, writers and creatives gathered there. And if I bring nothing else away from the conference, it will be that word: joy. The joy of creating. I have been reminded of why I write: because I love it.

2) Facebook friends are even better in real life: I was thrilled to meet Keren David at last. We're writing twins (first books published on the same day) and we share an agent. I'm a huge fan of Keren's and it was lovely to get to meet her at last. And there was much excitement as Nicky Schmidt of Absolute Vanilla fame flew in all the way from South Africa, to the delight of her many friends at the conference. Fabulous meeting you, Nicky!

3) A good critique group is worth its collective weight in gold, which I already knew. But what I discovered was that limiting time during a live critique session focuses the mind and makes for a stronger experience for everyone.

4) If you are speaking at the conference, it's guaranteed to be at the same time as the one or two other sessions you desperately wanted to attend.

5) No one knows what the future holds for the book. Contradiction lies at the heart of the publishing: What the editors would like to publish and what they are allowed to publish are not always the same thing. During the industry panel, the editors explained that when taking on a new writer, they were looking for a unique voice. Almost with the same breath they were trying to predict the next big 'trend'. But all had to acknowledge that the gatekeepers now are the buyers for the huge retail chains, which inevitably leads to copy-cat publishing as retailers only want to buy in what was known to sell last year. So when the black and red vampires finally sink back into the grave (soon, please!) another writing fad will inevitably rise to take their place. The wild card in all this is e-books. The entire industry seems to be holding its breath. Will publishers be out of a job? No one knows, but the consensus was that gatekeepers of some sort are essential.

6) More mass book launches, please! This is certainly the way to go. Shared stress, shared joy, and lots of people enjoying themselves. The best book launch I've been to by seven leagues. Celebrants included: Mike Brownlow, Dinosaurs of Doom; Jason Chapman, Stan and Mabel, Jane Clarke, Gilbert the Hero; Lucy Coats, The Beasts in the Jar; Keren David, Almost True; Candy Gourlay, Tall Story; Savita Kalhan, The Long Weekend; Maxine Linnell, Vintage; Anita Loughrey, Shapes Around Me Squares; Jon Mayhew, Mortlock; Sarah McIntyre, Vern and Lettuce; Tamsyn Murray, My So-Called Haunting; John Shelly, Outside-In; Donna Vann, New York City Adventures; L. A. Weatherly, Angel; Sheen Wilkinson, Taking Flight; and my own City of Thieves. Whew!

7) Tea breaks are essential to a functioning brain.

8) Most writers fall into two camps: plot-driven and character driven. This became a topic of debate during the conference. Should the 'what' drive the 'why' or the other way round? For me, action derives from character; that may be why I don't plot in huge detail in advance. Or perhaps I'm just lazy.

9)Someone can be in their 33rd year in publishing and still radiate optimism, enthusiasm and inspiration – as long as that person is David Fickling.

And 10) As Mr Fickling reminded the writers and illustrators in the audience repeatedly: You are the makers. We can't do it without you.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Innocent Until Proven Experienced - Charlie Butler

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons depicts a nursery worker explaining her establishment’s ethos to a pair of prospective parents. “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous and sometimes frightening place,” she says as toddlers play around her feet, “while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.”
That combination of mutually-exclusive demands – teach our children about the world, while keeping them innocent of the world – is one that children’s writers also face, from parents and others. When I talk to adults about children’s literature one of the qualities mentioned most often is that of “innocence”. Books that represent innocence, and especially books that work to preserve innocence in their young readers, are to be applauded. Books that raise unpleasant subjects, or include taboos such as death, sex, violence and abuse are to be treated with suspicion. For teenagers, maybe – but for young children? At the same time, there is a demand that books should have some kind of educative value, teaching children about the world in which they live and preparing them for adult life.
As a matter of fact – and this may seem an embarrassing admission for a children’s writer to make – I’m not at all sure what innocence is. It’s usually discussed as if it were a positive quality, but the only ways it seems to be commonly defined are in terms of a lack: lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of adult responsibility, lack of cynicism, heedlessness, perhaps even heartlessness. Perhaps innocence is like Captain Hook’s “good form”: you’re not allowed into Pop until you can prove that you don’t know you’ve got it.
I think that there are two contending ideas about childhood here, ones that go far beyond children’s literature and early-years education. They can be represented by two Biblical texts:
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10.14)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face. (I Cor 13.11)

Jesus and St Paul seem here to be singing from different hymn sheets. What are we to make of it? Is growing up a fall from grace, or a consummation to be wished? It may be relevant to remember that St Paul, who I think rather liked the idea of being able to mix it with the Greek philosophers, was addressing a Greek audience. For Greeks such as Aristotle children were simply incomplete adults. Human development was teleological: it had a direction and a goal, that of being a mature (and preferably male) human being. In that context it makes perfect sense to put away childish things, and to associate children with poor spiritual vision. After all, they’re only half finished.
But this Hellenic vision of childhood seems quite incompatible with the one articulated by Jesus, which reverses the direction of travel and says that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. These opposing visions have coexisted uneasily throughout the last two thousand years. You can watch them contending in all sorts of places. For those of us interested in the history of language, it’s enlightening to see how individual words can become a battle-ground. “Silly,” for example, is now a pejorative – but in Elizabethan English it means something much closer to “inexperienced”, while in older forms yet it means “blessed” or “holy” (as modern German selig still does). That particular word, we might say, has fallen prey to the Pauline vision of childhood. “Innocent” is at the centre of a similar tussle. We like children to be innocent, and in law innocent is the desirable opposite of guilty; but no one wants to be considered an innocent. That would be to be thought ... well, silly.
As the nursery worker said: it’s tricky. But it might help if I had a better idea of what innocence actually was.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Straying from the path - Anne Rooney

Last Thursday, I gave a class to a group of delightful second-year creative writing students at the University of Essex. Their tutor had asked me to tell them what I do, how I got to be doing it, and what it's like day to day, as well talking about writing creative non-fiction.

At the end of the class, one girl asked 'If someone else had to do your job, they would need knowledge in so many different areas. How would they do it?' And of course the answer is that they wouldn't. No two people - and so no two writers - have exactly the same skill set and knowledge set. That's why our books are unique. It's one of the things that makes writing such an exciting and rewarding job. As writers, what we sell is not just our ability to string words together, but the peculiar mix of interests, insights, passions, knowledge and experiences that defines us as individuals. Leaving aside straight text books, no two writers would ever write exactly the same book. There are creative skills we can all develop (assuming some native talent to start with), but the way we all work our magic on the content, and the content we come up with in the first place, are intensely personal and individual.

When we read or hear about writers' lives, it's often the strangeness of the path that has led them to their books that is most intriguing. No-one else would ever follow quite the same path or end up in quite the same place. So I'm not sure how useful my talk was for the student writers, in that I couldn't give them a road map or even any hints as to how to get to my job. I didn't get here by following a clear route. If anything, I got here by straying from the obvious path at every opportunity, blundering through the deep, dark forest with scant regard for the bears and wolves that might inhabit it. And the job? As for all writers, my job is simply being me. And doing a bit of writing at the points where being me intersect with what other people might be interested in.

Anne Rooney
Stroppy Author blog

Friday, 12 November 2010

The arts - who needs them? Sue Purkiss

Somerset, where I live, is a very beautiful county. (See picture of Glastonbury Tor for example of beauteousness.) It's also very rural. Its only city, Wells, is a pocket Venus, with a population of 10 500. The county town, Taunton, is just that - a town. It is one of the few counties which doesn't have a university. (Bath and Bristol are nearby, but they're not in Somerset.)

So it doesn't have the usual springboards for the arts; it doesn't have very much money. Despite this, there are several small theatres, in Frome, Taunton, Street and Yeovil. There's a group called Takeart, which takes drama round to schools and villages. There are stacks of amazing artists and craftspeople, drawn by the magical landscape of the levels, the hills, woods and streams of Exmoor, the Somerset coast, the Quantocks. And there are writers, of course.

Up until now, the County Council has helped to support the arts. The amount of money involved wasn't huge: £159 000, or 0.0004% of the total budget. (There has never been enough for luxuries such as a literature development officer.) But two days ago, the Conserative led council voted not just to cut the budget by 26% over four years, as had been anticipated: with a fine sweep of the pen, they have decided to cut the arts development budget completely. The only arts projects which will have any support are those which will be able to show a direct economic benefit for the community. Imaginative as they are, organisations such as the theatres and Takeart will find it difficult to plug the holes in their budgets - difficult to persuade other hard-pushed organisations such as the Arts Council to take up the slack.

This seems to be part of a general drift towards a society where the arts are valued only for their direct contribution to the economy. So - universities are to be encouraged by means of funding to favour science over the arts. Students are to pick up the tab for their studies because, after all, they will get a better job because of their degree. There seems to be a notion that artists and thinkers are a luxury, not a necessity in these difficult economic times. Well, I don't believe this is so. Let me quote this, from www.takeart.org:

In Somerset we believe in the transformational power of the arts, their capacity to fire the imagination, their ability to give meaning to our lives and our relationships with each other, a language to enable us to celebrate our common bonds – they empower and enable the 'Big Society'. We also believe all groups in society should be able to access the arts, such as those living in isolated, rural communities or children and young people living in difficult financial circumstances.

Wednesday was a sad day for Somerset. Maybe it's worth considering: why do we remember Ancient Greece? Worthy and important as they no doubt were, is it because of the tax gatherers? Probably not...

The Day We Went to Bangor by Keren David

‘I didn’t know librarians had conferences,’ said my friend when I explained why I’d been to Northern Ireland this week. ‘I think of them sitting behind desks, checking out books.’
Well, had she been at the Youth Librarians’ Group Book Day in Bangor, she’d have had her ideas about librarians considerably broadened.
She'd have heard Siobhan Parkinson, the Irish Children’s Laureate (or Laureate na nOg) give an speech, in which the metaphors danced and flew as she described the importance of books and stories in a child’s journey from the early years of endless imaginative possibilities, as they move through the education that they need to prepare for adulthood. ‘Literature is the kite, literacy the string…’ she said, ‘…and the library is wonderland.’ So inspiring was her speech that the authors in the audience were quoting it to each other all day, and I spent quite some time today trying to find the  You Tube interview that she mentioned with Nobel literature prize winner JMG le Clezio.
Then  authors Gillian Cross, Geraldine McCaughrean and Paul Dowswell talked about writing historical fiction. I loved the idea floated for a book of lost chapters - for all those bits of juicy research that didn’t quite make it. How fascinating to hear them discuss the responsibility that authors have to reflect the past accurately -  ‘I’m incensed by bad history,’ said Paul Dowswell -  against the demands of the story they are telling. ‘Writing fiction is about what you can get away with,’ said Gillian, ‘it’s like being a conjuror, rather than a historian.’
Then came sessions on Ireland’s writers in Libraries Project – how sensible and enlightened to have a central body supporting author visits to schools and libraries -  and a presentation by  publishers Barrington Stoke whose books are designed and written with dyslexic readers in mind – down to the off-white page colour and the clean, clear font, without patronising the reader or sacrificing a jot of quality.
I missed the session on the Carnegie prize, because it was time for me to be interviewed alongside MG Harris, whose compelling thrillers The Joshua Files have temporarily taken over my life. Joy Court, a leading light in the YLG and one of the day’s organisers, interviewed us, asking what it’s like being women writing as teenage boys.  We tried to give convincing answers, although I suspect that underneath our fictional boys' stroppiness and testosterone, they're not all that dissimilar from MG and  me. 
The last session was devoted to the Society of Authors’ Just Read campaign, with Gillian Cross explaining the importance of introducing children to reading for pleasure -  an obvious point, one might think, but one  too often missed by an education system which feeds children extracts and phonics, so they can learn to read without ever becoming readers. . There’s a petition here  which you might want to sign.
So, a day for librarians to learn  about books, about reading and writing, about the work of  authors, new and established, about different genres, different reading levels, all sorts of ways to excite and inspire, entertain and inform children. 
The headmaster of Bangor Grammar School, where the event was held, explained how the school was being rebuilt, with the library at its centre. Here was an educator with complete understanding of the importance of books and reading In fact, so impressive was he, that I briefly wondered if we could move to Bangor to send our son to his school.
 It’s up to head teachers to protect school libraries and librarians when they look for ways to make cuts to their budgets. It’s up to local councils to keep public libraries open and continue to employ qualified librarians, rather than rely on willing but ignorant volunteers.
I was horrified the other day to hear a reporter on Radio Four’s You and Yours describe libraries as a soft target for spending cuts, ‘because all information is now available on the internet.’  Another Radio Four interviewer asked writer Malorie Blackman what ‘rental cost’ her local library charged for taking out a book. I wish they could have come along to Bangor. It might have broadened their minds about what libraries are for, how they work, what they can achieve.
  ‘Didn’t we have a lovely time, the day we went to Bangor,’ goes the song, and indeed we did. But the treats in store weren’t fun fairs or brass bands, chocolate ice and cider. Instead we celebrated words and ideas, books and stories.  Of course, they can be just as fun.
(The picture, by the way, is of my visit to Hampton Academy in south west London. A great example of a school which values and utilises the resources of the library and the wisdom of its librarian).

Thursday, 11 November 2010

My Halcyon Day by Lynda Waterhouse

I have seen three kingfishers in my life so far. The first time was one autumn day when I was twenty and visiting my first ever RSPB bird sanctuary in Ynys Hir in Mid Wales. I just caught a flash of turquoise. My next sighting was on another autumn day fifteen years later on an artificial lake in Chingford. Again it was just a fleeting glimpse. On Sunday at Minismere nature reserve in Suffolk just as I was leaving a hide I turned and looked through the window behind me. A kingfisher rose up from the reeds and hovered above the surface of the pond. It was an intense three seconds as my heart stopped and my mind’s eye worked overtime desperately trying to preserve the image. Why did my halcyon moments mean so much to me?
In Greek mythology Alcyone was the daughter of Aeolus the guardian of the winds. When her beloved husband, Ceyx was drowned she threw herself into the sea and was turned into a kingfisher. When she builds her nest at sea Aeolus stills the wind for seven days to keep the next generation of his family safe.
Another legend says that the kingfisher buries her dead mate in the winter before laying her eggs in a nest of fish bones which then floats out to sea. This image makes me remember the pagan myths about the moon goddess carrying the body of the dead king, symbolic of the old year, to his final resting place. Then I find myself in the realm of the Fisher King. The wounded king who is waiting for a knight to return and bring the secret that will heal himself and bring life to his desolated kingdom.
As I write this post I realise that the kingfisher and the stories that surround it have helped me to clarify what is driving my passion to write at the moment. I now understand what the theme is that I am trying to capture and keep. It is hard to put into bare words. It needs a calm sea, a still wind and a story to express it

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

SCBWI Savita Kalhan

This weekend I will be getting on the train at Paddington and heading down to the beautiful city of Winchester for an Event. I don’t know why I’ve never been there before, but I haven’t. It is, after all, less than an hour and a half from London. I’ve heard that it’s very beautiful and well worth the visit. It’s a paradise for shopping connoisseurs, apparently, although I’m not going for the shopping, and it’s packed with museums and historic buildings. It even boasts a couple of haunted inns and a theatre!

In my bag I will have packed something that passes for smart evening wear for the Event. I’ve agonised over it, read the messages toing and froing between the people attending it, and have settled on an outfit that doesn’t involve any of the banned items of clothing – jeans, slippers and a comfy jumper! But does involve a few sequins and some bling. I will be finishing the look with the only type of heels I can guarantee I won’t fall over in – wedged boots! (If I do fall over, it’ll happen at the end of the night and it won’t have anything to do with the heels!) As long as no one looks at my feet, I’ll be fine!

But of course no one is going to be looking at my feet. We’re all going to be too busy talking books, chatting, drinking, eating, and generally having a good time. It’s SCBWI’s annual conference – their tenth anniversary, and it promises to be a fantastic event, complete with sparkling wine and a string quartet.

For those of you who do not know about SCBWI here’s what it’s all about. SCBWI stands for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and it’s open to published writers and illustrators and those yet to be published. SCBWI is international, and it runs lots of events from writing workshops, critique groups, discussion groups, talks by published writers to meeting in a pub and sharing stories. It’s great for networking and learning the ins and outs of the craft of writing and working in the children’s book industry.

I came to SCBWI very late having already had my novel published. I did a lot of things the wrong way round, but better that way round than not at all. But there is still so much that the organisation can offer in terms of advice, guidance and support even after you have been published. And when you feel confident enough, there are many writers who have yet to find the elusive publication deal, who might benefit from knowing what a published writer has learnt along the way. Once they have found that deal, we might see their names on the SAS roll call as well as SCBWI’s.

So cheers to SCBWI - I’m really looking forward to Saturday night, meeting lots of new children’s writers and talking children’s books.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

GREEK MYTHS by Ann Turnbull, illustrated by Sarah Young. Walker Books, hbk £15.00

If I hadn’t recently moved house from Manchester to Cambridge, I would have tried to post an illustration from this book here but at the moment I’m not going to risk trying to deal with pictures of any kind. So you will have to Google Sarah Young and see for yourselves how very beautiful her work is. There’s something in it of Jane Ray; something of Jackie Morris, but she’s her own artist and has a beautiful, dramatic and lyrical way of putting the images on the page to enhance the text and enchant the reader. I’d have thought that a Greenaway medal nomination should follow shortly, although it seems to me that this style of illustration isn’t as loved as it ought to be. It’s formal. The artist has learned how to draw. The colours are rich and strange and touched with gold. It’s opulent and lovely and you could simply turn the pages and that pleasure in itself would be well worth your £15.00

But you also have, of course, Ann Turnbull’s sensitive, elegant and characteristically honest retellings of the Greek myths. If ever there was a book to turn children on to these terrific stories, this is it. Walker Books have produced it in time for Christmas and I can’t think of a better gift. They are the supreme publishers of gorgeous volumes for the young and this is one of the most lavish and tempting I’ve seen. I’m not a fan of sans serif fonts and wondered at first whether I’d be bothered by the one used here, but have to confess that it worked very well with the content of the stories.

Readers of this blog and members of the SAS know Ann Turnbull and know what a good writer she is. She deserves to be far better known, and far more widely read. She’s written many excellent novels (I reviewed ALICE IN LOVE AND WAR on this blog) but with these retellings, she will, I hope, reach a far wider audience. Certainly children of any age from about 7 will love this book and the sophisticated style of the illustrations means that it’s perfect as a gift for teenage readers.

Some of the best-known stories are here: Persephone, the Minotaur, Pandora and her jar (not box, as in the original story), Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head and Orpheus and Eurydice. But lesser- known tales take their place alongside these and we read, among other things, about Arachne, the birth of Pan, and the Kalydonian boar hunt. I like the way Ann uses K instead of C for names like Kalydon. I did the same thing in my novel Ithaka and many people have asked me why. I don’t know Ann’s reason for doing this but I did it because (and there’s no rational basis for the feeling I have) it makes things feel/look a bit more classically Greek.

These are stories which deserve to be remembered and this is the book to ensure that their wonders are spread about among the young. If you’re a teacher then it ought to be in your school library. It’s a treasure on every level.

WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David Frances Lincoln pbks.£6.99

I was much relieved, when I came to the end of this début novel, to find the first chapter of the sequel, otherwise I’d have been really worried about Joe, (who isn’t really Joe at all but Ty) and his family and desperate to know how the whole story was going to pan out. The taster chapter of the next book, which is called ALMOST TRUE, is very dramatic indeed and leaves us with an even cliffier cliffhanger, but hey, it’s okay because we are sure that the second part is on its way and we’ll just wait till it appears. Making sure your readers want to turn the pages to find out what happens next, is arguably the most important talent any writer can have. I’ve put it in bold type because it’s so crucial. The most exquisite prose, the most carefully-wrought sentences, the most subtle of themes and the most intricate network of symbols count for nothing if people close the book before they’ve even properly got into it.

There's no chance of that here. David has written a really exciting thriller. It doesn’t dwell on violence but it doesn’t soft-pedal it either. It’s told in the first person by a fifteen- year- old boy who has witnessed a knifing and maybe has played a worse part in the incident than we at first realize. He and his family are taken into witness protection because their lives are at risk. Ty (or Joe as he becomes) is going to give evidence in the pending court case and there are those who are anxious for him not to say a word and who are moreover prepared to use any means to stop him: intimidation, arson, and in the taster chapter of the second book, fatal shooting.

As well as having to live an elaborate lie, Joe has to negotiate first love, school bullying, ambitions to be a sports star, absence of his beloved Gran, dealing with his at times flakey mother and with the police charged with his care. Towards the end of the book, Joe is moved again and has to become Jake....it’s a lot for a boy to deal with and the fact that we always care about our hero and always sympathize with him is to Keren David’s great credit. She writes with humour and understanding and we are always right in there in the thick of the action with Joe. Her fifteen-year-old boy’s voice is convincing. Her depiction of the mixture of boredom and fear is spot on and I’m sure this will be a very popular book with teenagers. I can’t wait to see what happens. Roll on the publication date of ALMOST TRUE, and meanwhile, do put this novel in front of anyone who is moaning that books are boring. This one is the very opposite: involving, fast-moving and full of surprises.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Gap ... Joan Lennon

... is what I'm currently struggling with. Well, we're all ALWAYS struggling with it, but I'm finding it a particularly fierce stushie at the moment. I'm trying to bridge the gap between what's in my head and what's on the page - a sort of mental tug of war - trying to drag the story and the words closer together by brute force and sheer doggedness.

Well, it's my job, when all's said and done, but sometimes it feels a lot harder than it should!

It's that old Platonic Ideal thing - the story exists - it really does - and all I can do is my best to get it (as near as possible) down on paper. I'm never going to find the words to match the Ideal. To match the reality. But I'm bound to try.

Which makes it sound all hopeless and grim. Which is sometimes true. But I'm just about to head out to a whole slew of author visits where I'm going to be telling all sorts of kids that I love my job because it is probably the best job in the world.

And that's true too.

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Saturday, 6 November 2010

Being quietly attentive – Dianne Hofmeyr

It was lovely to be back in New York after 15 years. I was visiting my editor (for the US editions of Eye of the Moon & Eye of the Sun which were complete rewrites). The city seemed gentler and Barnes and Noble seemed to have shrunk (maybe Waterstones has just grown bigger!) but B & N covered a huge range of picturebooks. So I would say the picturebook market is flourishing in the US. I hope it bodes well for co-productions with the UK

In the Scholastic Bookshop in SoHo (yes… a publisher with its OWN bookshop and huge at that!) I found some Jon Muth’s I’d been looking for. He’s known primarily for his giant panda character Stillwater, who won him the Caldecott Honour Book with a book called Zen Shorts. Jon Muth, from the website of the Allen Spiegel Fine Arts Agency has this to say…

‘My work in children's books really grew out of a desire to explore what I was feeling as a new father. At the time, I was working in comics -- a natural forum for expressions of angst and questioning one's place in the universe. With the births of my children, there was a kind of seismic shift in where my work seemed appropriate -- it became important to say other things about the world.’

Zen Shorts came from wondering, "What it would be like to live down the street from a Zen master... who happened to be a Giant Panda?" My stories often come from questions, "Why is this so?"... "If this, then why not that?"... and of course, "What if...?" Sometimes words come first and sometimes an image will prod a story out into the open.’

Stillwater, the giant panda, tells stories about peace and love and taking the moment as it comes and not letting insults get you down. He suggests that adversity turns around when you are quietly attentive and aware of your surroundings. Stillwater has dark panda eyes that show no expression. Yet they somehow do… as I page through the book I feel he is imbued with the presence I need.

I picked up Zen Ghosts too which at first appears to be a book based on Halloween. But Muth is full of surprises and he weaves into it a story that was recorded long ago by Buddhist monks about duality. He says he offers it to children because at a very young age children come to recognize that the ‘me’ they are with their friends, is different to the ‘me’ they are with their mother. It poses the question who are they when they are with both their friends and their mother? Do they act differently?

There is a wonderful stillness to Muth’s illustrations that almost begs you to slow down as you are looking at them. The quiet calmness of them manages to echo not just the story but the cadence of the story. There are no right or wrong answer to these ancient Chinese questionings. One of his books is called The Three Questions, is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. Another, for younger readers, City Dog and Country Frog, depicts friendship and loss.
Perhaps why I’m writing about him so specifically is because I’m trying to be still and in the moment and accept that even though he was suggested as a possibility to do one of my stories, it all fell away through complications when an editor was made redundant. So I’m being quietly attentive of my surroundings.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Fire and fireworks

I wonder about Bonfire Night, I really do. I wonder how it started. I can’t believe that, even in the 1600s, ordinary English folk were so uncritically in love with their MPs that they consciously decided to dedicate a night every year to burning an effigy of the man who tried to get rid of them. I mean, we don't burn effigies of the Brighton bomber.

I suppose that people’s outrage stemmed less from the threat to the government, and more from the fact that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up St Stephen’s Hall, the symbolic home of popular liberties and rights. Also, from the terror of being taken over by the Catholic powers of Europe. These things could all make you afraid and angry enough to burn a man for centuries after he’s dead.

But probably it really started unconsciously, more by accident than design. An ancient festival happened to coincide with the biggest news of the year. What the Guy on the bonfire actually represented was a mixture of things: the man himself, the old year, the folk memory of a sacrificial king, an all-purpose Papist, a horrible foreigner. And because the Guy was a mixture of things, he was strong enough to survive. He always meant something to someone. As I think about him, he’s already starting to take shape as a possible character in a possible book in my head.

Nowadays, happily, Bonfire night means mostly good things to people, and especially to children. It’s the start of the long, wonderful slide down into Christmas. My mum and my husband complain at this time of year, they hate the evenings drawing in, but I have always loved it. It’s wonderfully portentous, witnessing the increasing power of the night. And it’s a perfect excuse for curling up; in a pub, with a book, in front of the TV, anywhere cosy and warm.

I like Bonfire night because it’s the ceremonial start of winter, the start of the magic and stories season. It's a time to feel the delight of a hot potato in cold gloved hands, to snuff up the smell of sparklers. It’s a time to stand close to someone you love and watch fireworks re-enact the Big Bang over and over and over. It’s a time for danger, too. My Bonfire night is haunted by the ghost of my mum’s childhood friend who had a firework explode in her face some time in the 1940s and died, only to revive as a wraithly story every November of my childhood. And that, too, is a possible book, or part of one.

So while you’re enjoying a happy and safe Bonfire night, don’t forget to keep an eye out for stories and characters – they’re everywhere at this time of year.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Think Herzog - Andrew Strong

Werner Herzog's ‘Heart of Glass’ is a film that still haunts me, long after I first saw it. The actors, famously hypnotised into stilted and glazed performances, play characters struggling to rediscover the recipe for blood red glass, a secret lost when an old glassmaker dies. Without this knowledge the village economy begins to collapse. It is apocalyptic, visionary, idiosyncratic and very, very weird.

There aren't a lot of jokes in ‘Heart of Glass', but like all Herzog’s films, it is extremely funny.

One of Herzog's more recent productions is a documentary about a man who wants to commune with bears. It's a true and tragic story. The bears eat him in the end. They do, really. And then there’s the film in which Herzog eats his shoe, inspirationally titled ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’.

Herzog's films teeter between the mystical and the insane; between high art and farce.

Whenever I set out to write a book, I watch a little of ‘Heart of Glass’. I want something of that weirdness in everything I do. Ideas for books usually begin with a subtle image: a dilapidated shop, a boy on sunlit steps. I want to create half-worlds in which realities are questioned and undermined.

If my books turn out a little weird (or ‘bonkers’ as one editor put it) then all the better. I realise it gets harder and harder for publishers to accept eccentric books, but I’m not going to write something that I hate, just to please someone who probably doesn’t really want what they are asking for in the first place.

Herzog never worries about what anyone wants. He does what he likes. He has been an outsider all his life, but has produced works of incomparable beauty and strangeness.

In these difficult times it may be that many children’s writers will take stock and decide to write something mainstream; something that will sell. Instead of doing what instinct has us do, we might try and determine a gap in the market, or attempt to have a guess at what will the next big thing. We’ve had wizards and vampires, what next, wombats?

I'm lucky, I have a day job, it affords me the luxury of being able to write what I like, and if I don't get published, I don't starve. But I still want to encourage everyone to Think Like Werner Herzog, do something extreme, and do it with all the energy you can muster. Be yourself. Be weird. You already are anyway. Just admit it.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

My Enid - by Elen Caldecott

I was charmed and delighted when the Bookwitch reviewed How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini. She compared it to Enid Blyton, but much better written. I loved the review, but this comment has stayed with me. Is Enid really that bad?
I am sure that we all watched Enid, the BBC4 dramatisation of her life. I watched in shock as Helena Bonham Carter turned a childhood hero into a monster. Apparently, she was self-absorbed, manipulative and borderline abusive towards her own children.
But the critical-rot for Blyton set in much earlier than this drama. For years, she has been dismissed as a writer; not simply for her archaic attitudes (it is always the 'swarthy' character that has to be watched in the Famous Five), but also because of her carbon copy plots, her 2D characters, her wilful use of adverbs.

Even in the 1980s, when I was a child, some of my friends weren't allowed to read her. These same friends were also subjected to such outlandish things as soya milk and yoga, so in my eight-year-old eyes they were already to be pitied. But to be deprived of Enid Blyton seemed especially cruel, because for me, Enid Blyton was so much more than a writer. She was a haven. There were days when I desperately needed to hide and I hid inside my collection of Blytons.

Don't worry, this post isn't the opening of a misery memoir. Rather, I'd like to consider what it was about these critically trashed books that made them so powerful.

I knew that the Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers and the Secret Seven and the 'of Adventure' lot were all the same characters but with different names. I knew that. But I didn't care. In fact, the very opposite. I was glad to see them again in their different incarnations.

And I knew that Malory Towers and St Claire's weren't real (although that didn't stop me demanding a detour when, on a family holiday in South Wales, I misread a signpost). But despite the fact that I knew it was fiction, I had such a yearning to be part of the stable, unchanging world of lacrosse and midnight feasts and the upper fourth. It didn't matter that I couldn't tell a lacrosse stick from a liquorice stick. These girls were my friends. I loved that their characters didn't change, that there wasn't an emotional journey in sight.

I guess I'm saying that Enid Blyton's faults were the things that I loved - the unchanging, predictable world of a middle-class country I had never known.

It is telling, I think, that in the 9-12 section of my local Waterstones, Enid Blyton still takes up the most shelf space - yes, Michael Morpurgo has a fair spread and Jacqueline Wilson does even better. But Blyton is still Queen. Kids still need stories they can rely on.

Recently I read Ali Sparkes' Frozen in Time. It is a deliberate and well-observed homage to the Famous Five. I enjoyed reading it very much. I was so pleased to find that the shades of Blyton live on in contemporary children's literature because we can be too snobbish, I think. We want our books to be weighty and meaningful. We want them to explore the 'real' world - I do this myself, so I do know this is a pot-kettle situation. But, sometimes, when life gets tough, you don't want to read about woe. Sometimes, all you want is to whiz around country lanes with a knapsack full of ginger beer. Sometimes, you just need Enid.
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Monday, 1 November 2010

The Subtle Censor - Celia Rees

A quick look through recent blogs will tell you that writers for Young Adults spend a lot of time worrying about their readers and what is deemed to be appropriate or inappropriate in their fiction. More so than other writers, as Nicky Morgan pointed out last week. Other people also get exercised about this, hence the calls for book banning and burning that have been discussed here, too. The difficulties are almost always to do with sexual content. Violence not so much. Language a bit more concerning. But sex. That's the difficult one. This puts the writer for Young Adults in a bit of a dilemma. Do you, or don't you? If you do, how are you going to do it? I'm not talking about putting yourself forward for the Bad Sex Prize here, more how you are going to mention it at all.

Here are some rules: Sex is OK if...*

You are a male writer of some stature or a male writer who is Well Known For It (preferably both).

You are the above and writing about boys from a boy's point of view (but NOT homosexuality).

You make sex into a metaphor, so you are not writing about sex per se but something else, something Other, something to be put off for a long time (preferably altogether) or something Bad will happen and your heroine will never be the Same Again. It is better to burn than turn.

The outcome is Bad. See under abuse, rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, because then it is a) A Serious Issue, b) not the heroine's fault and c) even though it is not her fault, she's getting punished for it anyway.

Sex for sex's sake. Sex where people enjoy it. Sex that is part of everyday life, even if it is safe, legal and not frightening the horses.

So there is a kind of censorship, nothing official, nothing as dramatic as banning and burning, but it is there, nonetheless. Most damagingly, it can get into the writer's own head after years of being told to take it out or tone it down because if you don't then the libraries won't take it, the schools won't like it, the booksellers won't know where to put it and, oh, you can forget the Carnegie. No mention, of course, of teenagers, the actual readers, who might like to see their lives reflected with veracity and applaud the book's honesty.
* ellipses are useful in this area of writing.