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The Ramblings of A Few Scattered Authors. 15 British children's authors from the SAS (Scattered Authors Society) get together to tell it like it really is. Tips on writing, not-writing and all the assorted hopes, dreams, fears and practicalities of our profession.
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Over the past few months I've travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain visiting lots of schools and libraries to share stories, poems and rhymes, talk about writing and being a writer, lead writing workshops and answer any and all questions - it's usually fun and inspiring and always utterly exhausting.
My aim is to get children enthused and excited about books and stories, reading and writing - and also to try and demystify the process of writing and being an author - and of course to promote myself and my books at the same time. To make each session personal and unique to the groups I'm working with I encourage lots of questions and interaction as the sessions progress, and barring a few exceptions, the questions posed are generally of the same type - Where do you get your ideas? How much do you earn? What's your favourite animal? I've got a cat!!! and Are you famous? (always a little deflating that one - but no... I'm not famous). With this final question, however, I like to play a little game...
I always tell the audience (children and adults alike) that there are lots of brilliant authors that write books for children but there aren't many really
famous ones. People involved with children's books - be it authors, publishers, librarians etc can make a long list of authors, but sadly, it's not as easy for others.
I'm a little naughty with this game as I tell the audience that they should name an author that is still alive (and they should also try and name a different one from the person next to them) but to compensate for this I do give the group three lives...
There are some exceptions but sadly, most groups do not progress very far before losing all of their lives. Some children can't name any authors at all and look completely blank - I'm a nice guy and tell them not to worry (no need to embarrass an individual child) - so quickly move on to the next.
I've made a note of the answers that have been bounced back over the last few months and here they are (in no particular order);
J.K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Dav Pilky, Jeff Kinney, Julia Donaldson, You (raised eyebrow and smile here), Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams, Francesca Simon, Michael Morpurgo, Dick King Smith and a few more (but not many).
In a couple of schools other authors have been named too - Malorie Blackman, Steve Cole, Adam Blade, Daisy Meadows and William Shakespeare to name a few.
The point of the game is to show that fame isn't everything and that few writers write to become famous - there's more to life than that (keep telling yourself this and I'm sure it'll be fine) - just why writers, or me in particular, write, will be the subject of a later post...
Teachers often pop their hands up so they can join in the game, but occasionally not - and for some reason or other the devil inside can't help encouraging them to join in whether they want to or not. At a recent bout of sessions held in a library, children from a school that had been targeted as being reluctant readers were brought in. During the session the Fame Game was played and teachers were encouraged to join in. I, and the librarians were dismayed when the two teachers only managed to name one author between them and then declared that they weren't really book people !!! And they wonder why the children are reluctant readers...
Finding time to read out loud to children in a class isn't always easy - there are lots of things in a school day that can eat up the time and reading and sharing books and stories can easily get pushed to the back... but it's such an important thing to do and it's something that continues to be important even when children can read for themselves.
So no... being famous isn't important. There are far more important things than that... though the money that can go with fame would be most welcome.
What makes a story? I've been thinking a lot about this lately as a story I've been writing isn't playing ball. It keeps slipping away into exciting incidents that are fine on their own but don't move things along quickly enough. Each incident has its own logic - but it must all build into the larger story. So I thought I'd take a more analytical, logical approach to it. I've been writing about the Enlightenment, Pascal and Utilitarianism* so I'm in the sort of frame of mind - it's not just perversity.
A story should have an excitement graph something like this:
Time goes along the bottom, excitement is on the y-axis.
How many peaks there are before the climax will depend on how long the book is. Even a picture book of 300 words benefits from at least one peak before the big one. A book of 500 pages will need a good many peaks, and probably have this pattern repeated within each peak. The general shape of the story is shown by the red line here:
Underneath that, it can fractalise as much as necessary to hold the reader's interest. Keeping excitement at a very high pitch for a long time, as some films do, is tiring for the reader and can exhaust their sympathy. There needs to be a breathing space now and then.
Essentially, a story can be reduced to any of these:
First...then...and - this is quite boring. If it gets progressively more miserable, it's a misery memoir. Or Black Beauty. It's really a re-phrasing of the And then... and then... and then... structure that children themselves use in their very first attempts at narrative.
First... then... so - this at least has causation. Progress.
First... then... but... so...- ah, conflict!
As soon as we start getting some 'but's there is conflict/challenge and excitement. Each incident has this shape, and the 'so' should lead naturally to the next incident.
First... then... but... so... then... but... so... then... but... so
It's the 'so's I'm having trouble with.I have all the little mountain shapes but they aren't sticking together. It could almost be Black Beauty
. No, quite that unconnected - the incidents are held together with more than string. But they need to grow out of each other in an order that looks inevitable and then looks set in stone - like mountains growing from their foothillls.
-- * --
* The Utilitarianism and so on is for The Story of Philosophy
, published in August/September this year.
** With thanks to Descartes for use of the X/Y axes, appropriated for this non-mathematical use
Anne Rooney - new website!
Stroppy Author - new address!
Last week felt a little empty. No sense of anticipation at 4.55pm on Monday and Thursday. No twitter feeds to check and recheck. No twitter chats with fellow author Zoe Marriott about the nuance, the romance, the drama of our latest fix.
|Darcy and Lizzie play Darcy and Lizzie ...|If you felt similarly afflicted you’ll know what I’m talking about. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries ended last week, a project that made me think anew about the future of books, television, story-telling in general. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, updated to the present day, re-located to California and told through social media. Lizzie has a video blog, posting twice a week for a year, so does her sister Lydia. Her other sister Jane posts on Pinterest, Lookbook and Tumblr. Almost every character is on Twitter, even Kitty Bennet, who is a cat (a clever move, Kitty in the book does little except cough and stare). Later in the series there are videos from Georgiana Darcy (renamed Gigi) and most of the main characters make appearances in Lizzie’s vlogs, or are played by other characters in scripted ‘costume dramas.’ In one of my favourite episodes Lizzie forces Darcy to act as himself. Some people I know couldn’t get past the first few videos, and indeed didn't really get it at all (‘Some ghastly American woman murdering Jane Austen,’ as one of my friends put it.) I resisted trying it out for a long time. But then I watched one video. And another. And then I watched 80 in one day, completely transfixed by the sheer cleverness, the inventiveness, the new insights and the performances – especially that of Mary-Kate Wiles as Lydia. And for the last ten weeks of the series I was hooked. A new video was posted and life stopped for the few minutes it took to watch.
Hank Green (brother of the YA author John Green) and Bernie Su, creators of the LBD Diaries are planning a spin off, in which GG Darcy goes to Sanditon. They're raising funds to bring out the LBD dvd and talking about adapting other classics.
Some UK authors create twitter accounts for their characters, some write blogs in their names. Some make film trailers for their books, others sell film, television or theatre rights and may be lucky enough to see their work performed. In the meantime there’s a boom in UK vloggers, building up big audiences for their films on YouTube. When will we see a British LBD? If they can take on Austen, why can’t we nab The Great Gatsby? Or how about adapting out own books for YouTube? I've seen the future and I think that Jane Austen would approve.
A survey was reported this week which proclaimed Roald Dahl as the favourite author not only of children, but their parents too. According to the Guardian
, half of kids voted for Dahl; about a third for JK Rowling; and the rest for Beatrix Potter. Their parents voted Dahl first, Enid Blyton second and Rowling third.
I wouldn't take the survey too seriously; it was conducted by some PR company to promote something or other, and surely wasn't in the least bit scientific. But there's no doubt that Roald Dahl is enormously popular among children at the moment; perhaps more popular than he ever has been.
Was he so loved and respected when he was alive? He certainly didn't win any of the major children's book prizes. Was that simply because he was loved more by readers than "gatekeepers"? Or has his status grown in the years since his death in 1990?
I've been thinking a lot about Dahl recently. I'm working as Writer-in-Residence at the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, a wonderful little museum packed with his possessions and full of displays about his characters and books.
I visited Dahl's grave the other day; it's a short stroll up the hill from the museum.
I was very surprised to see who inhabits the plot next door to Dahl's: it belongs to someone who shares my surname. As far as I know, we're not related.
I'd like to know more about Dahl himself. A few years ago, I read Jeremy Treglown's biography, which was a clear case of a biographer growing to dislike his subject more and more as he learnt more about him. I'm going to read Donald Sturridge's more recent Storyteller: the Life of Roald Dahl
, which was authorised by the family and is apparently much more sympathetic, perhaps too much so; and Michael Rosen's Fantastic Mr Dahl
, which was published last year.
Before reading either of those, I've been re-reading Dahl's own books. I've also been reading The BFG
to my daughter. She loves it so much, she takes it to bed.
The other night, I tiptoed into her room before going to bed myself and found the book nestling on the pillow beside her, the pages crinkling under her cheek.
She's only four, and on her first reading of Roald Dahl's books, but he has already taken his place in her affections and imagination.
I love the spaces between words. Those powerful silences when emotions run too deep to be expressed by mere words. A poem or a song might fill the void but most people in ‘real life’ sadly do not burst into song or have the perfect poem off pat. There is usually just silence. Portraying these moments in fiction can be a challenge.
For my own sanity I have to spend at least five minutes of every day inhabiting that space. When I am not speaking there is time to listen to the noisy jumble of thoughts and ideas that are bouncing around inside my head. If I’m not given enough time to think, I become melancholy and irritable.
Yesterday as I was walking along the South Bank I was accosted by a man who said, “London Bridge Hospital. Where is London Bridge Hospital?” I was shocked and for a minute I was once again transported back to The London Hospital in the eighteenth century. I had just come for the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Menexhibition. By the time I had pulled myself together, worked out that he probably meant Guy’s Hospital, he had moved off from me in disgust and was making his desperate appeal to someone else. Thoughts like fine wine need time to breathe. They need rousing time!
Every morning as a child my mother would wake up my brother and I by calling our names from the bottom of the stairs. When we answered her call she would give us rousing time. Five minutes or so of precious time to gather one’s thoughts, banish bad dreams and prepare for the day ahead. I still wake up each day and give myself rousing time.
As a teacher I have learned the power of silence. If I wait long enough with the right attitude - judgemental or irritated waiting will not do - then the child will invariably find the right words or the courage to speak out. It is one piece of advice that I give to colleagues: “Give the child time.” In class rooms it can be horrifying how little time is given between asking a question and waiting for the answer.
Theatre and film are more obvious mediums for showing what happens in the space between words. In storytelling, there is interior monologue, or the narrator’s voice, or observations from another character’s point of view.
I often describe periods of time in companionable silence to show an emotional connection between characters. How do you write the space between words?
When I wrote my teen/YA thriller, The Long Weekend, I was very much a novice in terms of my knowledge of the publishing industry, and in terms of book marketing and publicity, and also the internet. All have undergone considerable changes over the last few years, and a writer now must be far more savvy about the workings of the publishing industry than ever before.
This is a list of the ten things I wish I had known before writing a book. There are many other things I could have added to this list, but I had to stop somewhere...
1. Join a writers group. Most full-time writers write in long periods of isolation, so it’s good to know other people in the same situation. It’s a great support network!
2. Research your publishers, so that you know exactly who they are, their reputation and what they will do for you.
3. Find out where and when your book will be placed in different markets – and make sure your publishers adhere to the plan.
4. This one links to the above two – maintain a good relationship with your publishers and as far as possible, work together on a publicity plan for when the book is published.
5. Get a good agent – an agent is invaluable in fighting your corner. They’ve got contacts with publishing houses, they’ll promote your book, and they’ll decipher your contract if you’re lucky to get offered one.
6. Get on the internet and research all the book magazines and papers that review books and make sure review copies have been sent out. This is usually handled by the publisher, but it’s always worth checking up on.
7. Stay on the internet and research all the book blogging sites – this may take some time as there are so many and they are spread right across the world! Most publishers are now sending review copies to book bloggers on your behalf – if they are not then you may have to do this yourself, but it’s money well spent. Ask the bloggers to review your book – that’s what I did! They are wonderful, committed readers who love books and love reading, and if they like a book, they do a lot of shouting out about it for you. A public profile is very important, especially for publishers.
8. Before your book launch make sure you have told the world about your book and when it will be published. Surround the event with as much buzz as you can – raise your profile on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter.
9. Arrange to have your book launch in a book shop – if you’re very lucky your publisher will pay something towards such an event. Make sure the event is well-publicised. Invite everyone you know, and people you don’t know too! Invite your local librarians, school librarians, any teachers you know, any book reviewers or book bloggers, local press. Publicity is the key factor to success, and the more you can generate for your book the better.
10. Don’t give up the day-job, but don’t stop reading, and never stop writing! And did I mention about not giving up the day job...?
For experienced ABBA authors, much of the above will be old hat. But as a new author, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed and make mistakes, just as I did. So if you are a new or aspiring new writer and you’ve found this website, then in all likelihood you’re already a step ahead of where I was when I was first published!
Anything you wished you’d known before writing a book?
Last week, I was a judge in the regional Staffordshire/Shropshire heat of the first ever National Poetry by Heart competition. ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that,’ I’d airily said, imagining how nice it would be to sit listening to young people bringing poems to life. The night before the competition, however, I lay awake worrying. All those young people with their hopes of making it through to the final at the National Portrait Gallery - I imagined them practicing hard, giving it their best, trying to remember their selected poems and deliver them in a way that proved they understood them. And all to be marked on score cards by judges which included me.
What if I got it wrong? Never mind the other judges - what if the best boy/girl didn’t win and I was the one to blame? Would I be the one the audience would end up shaking its collective head at when so-and-so’s shining talent was overlooked? I mugged up on all the poems to prepare myself. Some of my favourites on the judging list hadn’t been chosen to my disappointment, but that’s the way things go. There were some brilliant choices too.
I read the poems out loud to get a feel for how easy or difficult they might be, both to understand and to perform. Then I waded my way through the judging criteria [as complicated as a national curriculum in miniature – were we really meant to take all this into account in the short time that a poem was being read?]. I practiced judging using performances on line. Finally I was about as prepared as I could be - yet still I had that niggling doubt. I feared my judgment would let someone’s talent fail to shine.
But then I don’t like judgments. Never have done. God help the general public if I’d ever been a magistrate. I shudder to imagine the petty criminals who’d have walked free to re- offend.
So why had I agreed to do this, you might well ask? Certainly it wasn’t born of a desire to select the best at the expense of the rest. No, it was for the poetry that I said ‘yes’. ‘Best news of the week after the renaissance of Ziggy Stardust,’ is how John Walsh, in the Independent, described the Poetry by Heart competition back in January when it was announced. ‘School champions will declaim Keats or Browning at oikish rivals from other schools. There’ll be heats and a nail-biting final in April. It’s very Michael Gove – and I’m all for it.’
Good for you, John Walsh. I’m ignoring your mention of John Gove [and Keats and Browning, since so many modern poets are included too] but when you say that poetry learned by heart is like a private iPoems library available for download, I’m with you. And I’m with Andrew Motion when he talks about poetry moving us before we understand it, because it operates as ‘emotional noise’. ‘Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads,’ Andrew Motion says.
And that was what happened on the night. Without delving into the secrets of the judges’ deliberations, I can tell you that though the choice was tight the best girl won and, as far as I was concerned, she did it with her second poem, Edwin Morgan’s ‘Strawberries’, which she absolutely made her own. Before the competition, I’d identified this poem as one of those that interested me least, but Shropshire/Staffordshire finalist, Concorde College's Alexandra Tham, unwrapped what it was saying and made it shine.
With the snow still piled up in drifts and Artic winds blowing, I thought I'd introduce a bit of warmth with a hot African story... THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE
'Long ago a dry wind blew across the plains of Africa.
No rain fell. The grass shrivelled. Trees died.
The earth was as dry as a piece of old leather.
Elephant, Giraffe, Zebra, Monkey and Tortoise trudged
across the cracked earth looking for a smidgen to eat.'
I won't give a page by page account of the story. Suffice to say... when the animals discover a splendid tree covered in exotic fruit, guarded by a HUGE python, they need someone clever, brave and without hubris to save them.
I don't know about being clever... but you certainly have to be brave and without hubris if you take your books into schools.
But what I have discovered is how readily young children warm to storytelling... much more so, than when having the story read to them. They seem to respond more when they're able to use their imaginations to conjure up the sounds and atmosphere in a story, than when they are confined to seeing printed words and pictures on a page.
When telling a story you can't be too fixated about using the exact words. A few might get left out and each time you tell the story, it might be a little different, but something vital happens when you get off your chair and become the lion or the elephant or do the 'chitter chatter' silly monkey bit. A few musical affects to stretch the pause and the tension... a single bang on a xylophone, the sharp clap of a coconut clapper or the twang of a thumb piano... all help. You don't have to be musically gifted. Children are very forgiving.
Here are my very simple musical accompaniments for THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE.
And with a pair of pliers, some twists of wire and and a bit of imagination I now have an elephant 'in the making' (the wire contraption... not my son!)
And with an enlargement of Piet's tortoise, to use as a rod puppet, I'm all set.
So stand aside War Horse... THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE is ready to take you on!!!
And since my animals now speak fluent Brazilian Portuguese, German, Japanese and Afrikaans, if anyone needs them to go on tour beyond the hot plains of Africa, they'll be happy to do so. Their puppet-master unfortunately is not too fluent in these languages but hopefully the action will be enough to free the imagination.
P.S. They speak English too.
THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE, illustrated with gusto by the amazing Piet Grobler and published by Frances Lincoln, is out on 4th April.
Today is an April Fool of an Easter Monday, when the sun should be shining and daffodils dancing and all should look right with the world.
Once the days might have been perfect. Once the cheery sunny days returned after they'd gone, recaptured in pictures projected on machines that had to be balanced on handy bits of furniture. The projectors had plastic holders where the slides/pictures had to be packed, by hand, in the right order and the right way up. (Or was it the wrong way up?)
The images of happy childhood - and more - appeared as if lit from within, as if their world was the bright truth.
There's a dim echo of that prestigious device in the “ show slideshow” button of every computer image system, but I do feel the showing lacks the drama of the past. People rarely huddle round in well-fed but slightly bored darkness to await the click and the next over-bright image. Or are in danger of a good slap for commenting on Aunty Aggie's visible bloomer line.
Now back when slide projectors were in use, a wonderful and eccentric man was making stories in a large shed. The shed was large because he told his stories with drawings and with puppets.
His name was Oliver Postgate and - working with the technology of the time - he became the master storyteller of children’s television.
At least twice a week I give thanks to the Blessed Mr Postgate, because time after time, while struggling through a piece of writing – whether the construction of the whole thing, or the order and arrangement of scenes or even the phrasing of a sentence so the image in my head becomes clear to the young reader - I remember the words found in his not-entirely cheery autobiography “Seeing Things”.
Although he was talking about film making, his explanation of how writing works seems incredibly apt and true.
WRITING A STORY IS NOT SIMPLY
A MATTER OF WRITING LINES OF WORDS
BUT CALLS ON THE WRITER
TO ASSEMBLE SENTENCES IN SUCH A WAY
THAT THE READER RECEIVES THEM
IN THE RIGHT ORDER FOR STACKING IN THE MIND
Think on it and its wiser advice.
Have a Happy Easter Monday!
(And are you doing Clanger whistling yet?)
Images from Wiki Commons. Thank you.
I have always loved the idea of magic, ever since I was read my first fairy tales. It didn't matter whether they were twinkly ones with fairy godmothers and wonderful pink ball-gown confections, Ladybird books with powdered Regency princes, or the dark, tangled, thrilling tales in Andrew Lang's collections, illustrated, preferably, by Arthur Rackham. All of them had magic, and so all of them had something that fed my strong desire for the unknown, the extraordinary.
As I got older, I graduated to C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones - wonderful, glorious books that made it seem entirely plausible that there was magic in the real world, or at least held out the chance of slipping into other worlds where magic existed. As an adult, I veered away from fantasy (mainly because most adult fantasy conforms too closely to the model lampooned so hilariously by Diana Wynne Jones in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland) but I never really lost the sense that magic was out there, just out of reach, visible in the corner of your eye.
So, when I started write my own books for children, I knew they'd have magic in them. The question was, what kind? What would be the logic of the magic I wrote? Fairy-tale magic is mostly based on cauldrons, spells, witches and waving wands, although there are some strange and wonderful ways that magic works, too - feather cloaks that turn their wearers into swans; geese that lay golden eggs; combs that, thrown behind you, turn into mountain ranges. My first and best guide to magic in older fiction, though, was Diana Wynne Jones.
In Jones's Chrestomanci series, there are witches, warlocks and potions, ingredients like newt's eyes, snake's tongues and dragon's blood, and spells that are made by grinding, heating and muttering, as in all the best fairy tales. But she also has more powerful and exciting magic, magic that happens when someone with the right sort of power simply tells the world to be different - and it is. This is the magic that belongs specifically to enchanters, and when you realise that someone in a Diana Wynne Jones book has it (and you nearly always find at least one) you know you are in for some seriously delightful mayhem.
There's another, very different, magical logic at work in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus books. Here, magicians lord it over the non-magical commoners, but their dark secret is that none of their magic is really done by themselves. Wizards' only power is the ability to raise afrits, imps, djinni and demons from the 'other place', and all their apparently wonderful spells are carried out by the sweat and toil of these enslaved and invisible beings. It allows Stroud to have a lot of fun with the quarrelsome, vain and power-hungry magicians of his alternative London, while also giving us possibly the best fictional depiction of a djinni ever - Bartimaeus himself.
Perhaps the most technically minded inventor of magic for children is J.K. Rowling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books (despite being slightly bemused at how much attention they received) but I find magic in her books to be very 'National Curriculum': once spotted at 11, you just have to learn how to do it the right way, and pass exams, and then you are a proper witch or wizard. Despite the constant reiteration that some wizards are more powerful than others, we never really see much evidence of this. Hermione Granger is said to be 'the best witch of her generation', but we get no sense of any raw power that is simply part of her very being - instead, we get the impression that she's just very precise and has a good memory. The witch as swot, rather than enchanter. So when I wrote 'Frogspell', which is set in the mythical time of King Arthur, I decided to go with the cauldrons, spells and potions of fairy-tale and legend, but I also wanted a sense that magic was something not just anyone could do - there had to be a special part of you, a power you had that others didn't. As the stories progress, my novice wizard, Max Pendragon, discovers more and more about the logic of magic, learns to tell one person's magic apart from another's, and finally realises that he doesn't need potions or spells, he can (like his hero, Merlin) do spells with his mind. Max, in fact, is an enchanter, of sorts - and it's a power that is crucial, in the end, to his defeat of the icy sorceress, Morgana le Fay.
In the process of writing the whole series, I found myself discovering and exploring more and more about how magic in this world worked, and I realised something else that gave me a huge thrill. Writing is a little like doing magic. Finally, I am a kind of enchanter!
By: Sue Purkiss
Blog: An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
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This week I've been staying with my son and his family in Brussels, One of the very many nice things about doing this is that I get the opportunity to read lots of new books. It starts on the journey over there. I travel from Bristol to London by train or bus, and then usually on the Eurostar, so there's plenty of time to read, and my Kindle allows me to take a good supply of books along with me. This time I finished the second book of The Flaxfield Quartet by Toby Forward, which is a fantasy about wizards (but not at all like Harry Potter). It's very good, and I'll be reviewing it soon over on Abba Reviews. Then I began The Storm Bottle, an unusual adventure story set in Bermuda, by fellow SAS author Nick Green, who knows so much about dolphins that I suspect he may have been one in another life. I'll finish that later today on the journey back.
Then I have a treat in store - Mary Hoffman's David, which is about the model for Michelangelo's famous statue. Mary Hoffman is another SAS person, and I first heard about this book when she talked about it at an SAS conference, just before it was published a few years ago. I've been meaning to read it ever since, and now the right moment has arrived: yesterday, I went to an exhibition in Brussels about Leonardo da Vinci, with my son and eldest grandson, Oskar. There were models of many of Leonardo's inventions - here's Oskar trying one out - and a film about his life and about the re-creation of some of his designs: notably an early parachute which an English adventurer with a gleam in his eye decided to try out - and survived to tell the tale! Anyway, there were hints of a not-very-friendly rivalry between Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo, so I'm hoping Mary might have something to say about that. Even if she doesn't, I just want a pass into the world of fifteenth century Italy, and I know her book will give me that.
Richard and Joanna are great readers, so there are usually lots unfamiliar books for me to read here - though nowadays Richard mostly uses his Kindle: apart from the convenience, it's much cheaper to buy English books in Belgium that way. Still, I was able to read Ian Rankin's latest, Standing In Another Man's Grave, in which crotchety detective Rebus makes a welcome return from retirement, and also a book called Train Dreams, by an American writer called Denis Johnson. I'd never come across this author before. The book, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, is very short (only 116 small pages), but it packs quite a punch without wasting a word. It's about an ordinary man, Robert Grainier, living in rural America in the first half of the 20th century, and it reveals how the extraordinary can be found inside the apparently ordinary: Robert is an unassuming, kindly man who endures some terrible things, and just keeps on. Despite being so short, it somehow manages to have an epic sweep.
Joanna is Polish, and she lent me a book of poetry by a poet called Wislawa Szymborska, called Tutaj/Here. The poet was 85 when this book was published, but her quiet, ironic, amused voice is ageless. I particularly liked a poem called Thoughts That Visit Me on a Busy Street, which ponders the possibility that Nature recycles faces:
These passersby might be Archimedes in jeans
Catherine the Great draped in resale,
some pharoah with briefcase and glasses.
Then there are the books I read with my grandchildren. Oskar has been 'doing' Julia Donaldson at school, so we read several of hers, and also a book I'd taken over for him - Vivian French's Hedgehogs Don't Eat Hamburgers, which is a rhythmic, funny delight. Casper is only sixteen months old, but he already has his favourites: Rod Campbell's flap book, Dear Zoo, an Usborne nursery rhyme book which plays the tunes, and two French board books which he knows will play sounds if he presses a finger in the right spot. I took him a book by Jack Tickle called The Very Silly Sheep, which has brilliantly engineered pop-up animals. Casper loves it, as you can see, but I'm not sure how long it will survive intact!
This is my last post for the time being; I decided it was time to stand aside for a while. You'll see some exciting new blogsters joining us over the next month, namely Damian Harvey, Lari Don, Saviour Pirotta and Anna Wilson. I'll continue to review over on ABBA Reviews, and to post on The History Girls. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you over there!
7th March 2013 was World Book Day. As usual, the requests came in: “Would you like to visit our school for Book Week...the children would love to meet a real, live author”. This year I visited primaries in Sheffield, Leeds, North Yorkshire and Edinburgh and, now that all the rushing about is over, I’ve time to reflect a bit about what authors can bring to schools.
When I visit a school, part of it is “the talk” – often to an assembly group. In this session I’m trying to do a few things: share my excitement about books and reading, get across that reading is not a “worthy” activity but something that can take you into new worlds and generate real, edge-of –the-seat excitement; and convey that my job is fundamentally about STORY – creating narratives that people want to read, and where all the time they are demanding “what happens next?”
It’s important for primary children to realise that this is an entirely different skill to handwriting, spelling or punctuation (which they may be bad at, and heartily dislike.) It’s not necessarily got much to do with adverbs, “openers”, “connectives” or “wow words” either. These are just parts of the tool-kit, that can be brought out when required. The aim is to create the world – the characters within it – and their story. As well as talking to the children, I do workshops. I spend a lot of time preparing these, and asking myself the question – what extra thing can I, as a writer, bring to the children? What can I provide, that a teacher, however well-trained and inspired, might not?
|....What if your mother was a witch?|
Increasingly, I focus on story. A lot of the writing that children do is not based around creating stories – yet for me, that is the key part of being a writer. And it’s hard, incredibly hard, to come up with a gripping story – one that holds attention, suspends disbelief and both surprises and satisfies.
|Imagine Jessica's problem....|
So most of my workshops are about finding different ways into a story. Whether it’s about inventing a surprising character (a mermaid who can’t swim, a dragon that can’t breathe fire), looking at a place you know and searching out the things that happen there, or thinking about a “What If...” situation...What if your mother was a witch? (Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher). What if your new dog turned out to be a wolf? (Wolfie).
Some of the most fun I’ve had in schools recently has been creating stories in groups. I start the ball rolling...”What is your character’s name?” “How old are they?” And in a surprisingly short time we will develop a story...sometimes an amazing story, in which I will be astonished by the creativity and imagination all around me. “I think I’ll steal this one for my next book” I tell them (actually quite tempted!)
Best of all are the comments from teachers, about the children who have taken their stories home, or gone on working at them at playtime or in class. Sometimes I’m sent copies of the finished versions!
Emma Barnes's web-site
Emma's latest book is Wolfie - available from Amazon
Wolfie: "funny, clever and satisfying" - Book of the Week, Books for Keeps
If you’d asked me what I’d expect to be working on five years ago, I definitely wouldn’t have said ‘I’ll be retelling Tess of the d’Urbervilles for children.’ I might have shuddered at the very idea of compressing a book I loved so much into 6,500 words. I’d have thought of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, and worse, Bowdler!
But I’m in good company. Michael Rosen retold Romeo and Juliet, and recently Philip Pullman published his version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I knew the publishers of the Real Reads series from another connection, and sitting in their garden one day I gulped and said ‘I’d like to do one of those’ - and then wondered what I’d let myself in for.
When I looked at the books I began to see the point, and the skilful way these little books lead readers from the shallows into deeper, perhaps more satisfying waters. Gill Tavner, who tackled Dickens, Jane Austen and more greats for Real Reads, puts it this way:
‘I have long thought that there must be a way of making the qualities of ‘classics’ accessible to most readers, but I was unconvinced that abridging was the answer. As a mother of two young children, I have endured the pain of reading abridged fairy tales and Disney films. These often machine-gun the reader with a list of events. Rarely do they offer the reader an opportunity to develop interest in or appreciation of varied vocabulary, style or themes. Do abridged versions need to be like this? Surely there is a way to make an abridged version an enjoyable and enriching rather than simply informative reading experience? Surely this is an important distinction if we aim to nurture keen, confident readers?’
The format for Real Reads includes a list of the main characters, questions to follow up the story, a list of follow-up books, films and websites, the historical context of the book and some thoughts about what readers might find if they braved the whole thing. There are also some lovely illustrations. The books were originally intended for children aged about 8-11, but they sell well to readers of English as a Second Language, and to adults who want a way into difficult books - I’ve just ordered a copy of the Ramayana, for example, as I just can’t get into reading the whole thing.
I was lucky - I got to choose my writer and which books I’d like to do. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was the first, and perhaps the easiest. I had to retell the story in a way which makes it come alive, and with something of Hardy’s style. My usual writing voice is about as far away from Hardy’s as you could get, so it was quite a challenge.
But I learned a lot from the process. First, I learned to step a long way back from the story, not to immerse myself in it. What were the key themes, the journeys of the characters? What was essential? What made it live? Those are important questions to ask of any book.
Then I realised that I couldn’t go through chapter by chapter summing them up as I went. That would end up as a list of events, not a story. I had to put the book aside and tell Tess’s story from her humble beginnings to her tragic arrest for murder. And I had to think of Hardy’s feelings about Tess. He used a sub-title for the book - ‘A Pure Woman’. He clearly didn’t think Tess is to blame for what happens to her, but blamed a society with double standards. Angel Clare, who becomes Tess’s husband, has had an affair, but he leaves Tess when she admits to the same.
There were some tricky issues too - like the scene where Alec d’Urberville rapes Tess in the forest. How could I write that essential scene for a children’s book? Hardy isn’t explicit, but he’s clear enough. I watched all the films and TV series for some help - but the directors fudged the issue, or came down on one side or the other. Here’s how I did it:
'Alec got lost in the wood. Tess was exhausted, and he helped her to lie down on the ground and covered her with his coat, while he went off to find his bearings.
When he came back, she was asleep. Alec could just make out her face in the dark. He knelt beside her, his cheek next to hers. He could still see a tear on her face.
As her people would say, it was to be. This was the last they would see of the Tess who left home to try her fortune.
A chasm was to divide her from that former self.'
The last sentence is direct from Hardy’s book. The scene’s very close to his own.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was the most difficult of the Hardy novels to retell - it’s so rich in plot, so much happens, that I felt I had to butcher some of the story to get it into the word count. But I learned so much about editing, about looking at a book from a long way back, and from very close up, from the work I did on Hardy’s books. I still love the originals. But I’m quite proud of what I’ve done with them.
There’s only one book to get me through the present icy weather, and that’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter.
There something to be said for escapist books full of sunshine and palm trees and cocktails for cold times. But I find burying myself in the blizzards and hardship endured by the indomitable Ingalls family in their 1880s Dakota frontier town both puts our present disastrous weather into perspective and does that most comforting thing – makes it into a childhood story.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Little House on the Prairie books since I was about seven and my aunt gave me the first one – I promptly wrote her a letter asking if she could give me the next six forthwith. I loved rebellious Laura, the sense of independence and adventure, and also all the practical and at the same time (to me) exotic details, about how to build a log house or collect maple syrup or trap gophers (I still don’t really know what a gopher is; as a child I somehow got the idea that it was a sort of big furry spider). I loved the close-knit family, Pa’s fiddle music, their poor but deliriously happy Christmases.
So rereading The Long Winter is a nostalgic trip back into the comfort of childhood, when all I did was sit curled up with a book, living other people’s adventures in my head and dreaming up my own. I’m still struck by the adventurousness, and by the reassuringly calm heroics of Ma and Pa Ingalls keeping the family together. I’m more appalled by the hardship now; and suspect that in truth they survived seven months of awful claustrophobia and boredom on top of hunger and weakness and cold with a lot more than just one temper tantrum from Laura... And I find the story of Almanzo’s brave trip into a blizzard to find corn to feed the starving townspeople (when in fact he has a load of his own corn squirreled away in town that he’s saving to plant in spring) a lot more morally interesting as an adult.
In the years since, I’ve read many more winter books, and lived through quite a few seven-month Ukrainian winters of my own. Now, even while I’m commiserating with my poor parents up in the north-west, I’m worrying about Ukrainian and Russian friends stuck with record snow-drifts this year. But The Long Winter is still my paradigm of wintry hardship endured and overcome.
(Although if we really have a whole month of this coming up, I may have to turn to The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Scott’s last trip to the Antarctic. Several hours thawing out a sleeping bag just enough to actually be able to get inside it, every night, for weeks... Now that puts our weather into perspective.)
What books are getting you through the cold?
I’ve just finished a book that’s taken me six years to complete. The idea was a simple one, but it grew out of control. It got messy and took over my life. I spent six years trying to find its shape. Six years looking for characters, their voices, their motives. I did other things too. My children went through high school. I got progressively worse at my day job. I shall not talk about that here.
I loved my book so much I didn’t want to finish it. It was always going so well. People would ask me when it was coming out and I’d say, well, I don’t know, we’ll see, the market is tough at the moment. But a couple of months ago, or thereabouts, I realised it was reaching its end. I always knew what was going to happen in the final chapters, so it was quite exciting to actually get there. Not so exciting to realise it was almost 120,000 words long. There are examples of longer works for younger people. Who was counting?
I read it through. It seemed magnificent. It also seemed long. Ah well.
I sent it to my agent. She liked it, was very encouraging, but asked me to cut it down. I got out the scalpel. I redrafted. I sent it back. She asked me to cut more. I was happy to do so. I took out the carving knife. I went through it again and again. I sent it back. She asked me to cut more. I took out the chainsaw.
(Health and Safety advice: always use protective clothing when using a chainsaw. They are dangerous. Especially inside the house. Don’t use a chainsaw close to furniture. Or pets. Or people.)
The book, along with my kitchen table, and a chest of drawers, was cut it in half. All those years of espresso fuelled mania cut away. All those deliriously beautifully crafted chapters gone.
Most of them in which next to nothing happens.
I loved the book so much I had taken every plotline too far, every digression along a meandering path to nowhere. It was like a maze of very decorative topiary. Plenty to look at along the way, but you haven’t a clue where you’re going.
But by cutting and cutting and cutting I found my way through the maze. I found the book that was in there. The book inside.
I should have been able to find it in the first draft, but I couldn’t. I was far too immersed in it. I was lost in the dream of my own book. It became a parallel reality. The ejected chapter that takes place on a Normandy beach - was that real? Didn’t it actually happen? I wasn’t just cutting away words; I was cutting memories.
It’s like discarding the keepsakes of an infant's years: locks of hair, milk teeth, silly drawings, the ‘I LOV U DADDY’ post it notes. They mean a lot to me, but I don’t think the rest of the world would be interested.
But without them my book wouldn’t have grown, wouldn’t have enjoyed the normal, stable upbringing it needed.
Even now I know it might not get published. I’ve sent it out into the world, my darling little book, so trim and tailored. I hope it doesn’t come back in a few weeks asking for a room.
I think it's safe to say most of us have had it up to here with snow. Once a year is nice, twice a year is bearable but this never-ending snow is too Narnia for words. How do people in places like Norway cope with perpetual snow?
The thing I'm struggling with the most is writing about somewhere hot while I can barely feel my toes. I have a story set in Morocco to write, it never snows there. But somehow, I am supposed to imagine the souks of Marrakech when I feel like I'm living in a snowglobe.
I guess our ability to do this - imagine our characters in places or situations we're not in ourselves - is part of the skill of being a writer. I've never been dead but I could imagine well enough what it would be like for my characters to be ghosts. There's no such place as The Church of the Dearly Departed (the spiritualist church in the Afterlife books) but I visualised it readily enough when I wrote about it. So it seems that I should be able to channel Marrakech when it's freezing cold outside. But it's a real struggle. Is anyone else finding this or is it just me? Are we going to be faced by a new genre of YA next year - Weatherian, where the planet has been turned into a snow-swept wasteland and snowmen are the ruling elite. Hey, it could catch on...
Read the rest of this post
Have you ever noticed how much of this job, which we think is all about words, is in fact about numbers?
We preoccupy ourselves with questions that involve counting. How many words have you written today? How much was your last advance? How many books have you sold? How many people follow you on twitter, ‘like’ your new facebook author page, commented on your latest blog post? How many people came to your book signing? And how all of this is…
Because one day, in the midst of all of these words and numbers, something happens out of the blue that changes the game. For example, something like your partner waking up one morning with a bad headache and memory loss, that leads to a chat with the on-call doctor, that leads to the GP sending them for tests, that leads to some scary discoveries, that leads to weeks of worrying, that leads to a day that suddenly feels very real when it smacks you in the face.
Then there are more numbers. First the hours of waiting while they are in surgery. All seven of them. And in each one, the fears grow bigger and bigger until you find yourself contemplating the worst thoughts you can imagine and you force them away because they will swallow you up if you let them in.
And then the waiting is over and your partner is OK. And together, you begin the slow, careful journey of recovery. Again with the numbers. Day one, day two, day three…better with each one.
So, just supposing this is what happens, and supposing during your hospital visits, you see and talk with people whose lives are very seriously in question, sit in waiting rooms with their families, all of you moving through these days as if in a parallel universe where you are still part of the world you know, but separated from it by an invisible line the width of a hair…
…then what? Do you really still care about those numbers? Does your ego still make the same demands? Or do you find yourself waking up to new truths, new realities, new priorities?
How can you care about the old things any more? And if you don’t care, how can you do your job?
A week later, there are numbers again. The twenty-three staples being removed from the back of your partner's head. The cards and flowers and messages from friends and family that are everywhere. Actually, you don’t count these, but the fact that you are surrounded by them is like having a blanket made out of love around you.
“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”
And that was my problem. I realised that I had lost some of my love for my work. Over the last few years, I think I had become too concerned with trying to please other people (publishers, readers, bloggers, reviewers etc etc) and lost sight of what it meant to me and why I was doing it. I did care about the advances. I did check my Amazon rankings when a new book came out. I was obsessed with my daily word count. I had forgotten why I was driven to write in the first place. I was too busy thinking of it as a job that I wanted to be successful at, and had forgotten that it is a passion that comes from my heart. And the last few months have made me refocus on what really counts on every level.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my publisher and will always want to do my best for them. I adore all the bloggers and reviewers I've met and absolutely love it when they like my books. And my readers and the interaction I have with them are without question one of the best parts of my job.
But second-guessing what I might need to do to please all of these people mustn’t ever be the starting point of writing a book. If I am extremely lucky, it will be a by-product of what happens when I write, but the important thing to remember is that writing, for me, is not about asking my readers what they want to read, or asking my publisher what they think will sell, or a bookshop what they'd like to stock, or bloggers what they think is 'on trend'.
It’s about asking myself what do I care about, what do I have to say, what do I want to share with the world? What gets me up early in the mornings, excited and raring to go? What makes me finish work each evening looking forward to spending time with my characters again the next day?
And if people want to hear what I have to say, fantastic. But if they don’t, I can live with it. Because these questions will lead me back to working with love. And right now, I can’t help believing that love, in its many forms and expressions, is all that really matters.
It doesn’t matter if you're writing a 70,000-word novel or a 600-word picture book creating an interesting story is simply a task of asking yourself questions. Perhaps the most helpful source for what to ask yourself was penned by Rudyard Kipling (30th December 1865 – 18th January 1936),
“I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” The four lines above have helped me on many an occasion. What follows is how I use the above to help me construct a picture book story.
The 'who' is obviously your main character or characters. As a picture book writer this can be animal, human, robot, alien, fairy, wizard, monster, I could go on. Basically almost anything you like. However many an editor will tell you to keep away from talking inanimate objects. Yet Disney still manage to create characters from cars, toys, garden gnomes etc. that children love, so perhaps you can to.
The 'what' can be what happens in your story or it can be what your theme is. For example the theme for my picture book A Book For Bramble is loneliness, missing a friend and how my character Teasel deals with this loneliness. Although it didn't start out as that. It started with me wondering what hedgehogs dream about when they hibernate. But many authors will tell you the first idea they have will evolve and change as they work on the story. 'Why' is linked into the 'what.' So ask yourself what happens and why. For example in my book The Best Jumper the 'what' is Spindle the mouse has a jumper that appears to be shrinking. However the 'why' it is shrinking is because he is growing. In picture books this is perhaps one of the less important questions. Many of the picture books I've read can be set in any time period. A book about fairies inhabiting a different world could be now or 100 years ago, there is no real relation to ‘our’ time. Many picture books are set within their own world. For example my book Dog Did It is a mythical world populated by trolls. My book A Book For Bramble could be almost anywhere in the world where a mouse lives in a hole under a hedge. As the author I saw Teasel and his family living in the English countryside. However he would be just at home in any European country or even in some parts of the US. This is quite a big question. However I normally use it to answer the question of how my character overcomes the problem/issue I've given them. If you're a reader of picture books you'll notice the how to overcome the problem doesn't always work first time. Often the character has to have three attempts to resolve the problem/issue before they succeed.
So what ever you're writing if you're stuck for an idea (plot or character) then why not give the 5 W's and H a go. It works for me, it may work for you.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Those around World Book Day always are. I’ve been at the Whatever It Takes Author Week in Leicester, the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow, and schools in Gloucestershire, Surrey, Essex & Nottinghamshire.
I’ve also been at the International School of Aberdeen, where in addition to some of my usual sessions they asked me to do a few sessions on poetry for older children.
I don’t normally work with groups above primary-age - simply because I don’t often visit schools that aren’t primaries -
|The scene from my hotel window!|
and the last time I did instructional work on poetry I was a teacher rather than a visiting author; but, well, I thought, why not? Because I’m really nervous about it, a voice in my head replied, but I ignored it and got thinking.
Planning has never been my forte - too much of it and I find it difficult to adapt on the spur of the moment - so I decided the best plan was to fling a few ideas into the cauldron of my cerebrum, stir them round, and leave them to stew.
One thing I knew I was going to need, though, was a practical sort of joining-in activity that would get some kind of response from the group without putting any pressure on the individual. I settled on bubbles.
The simple bubble-wand was one of my main props as a supply teacher. I got the idea from a former colleague, the lovely Mrs Pam Hotchkiss (hello, Pam, if you’re reading this!). It’s beautifully simple. You blow some bubbles, get the kids to describe them, ask them to elaborate on the description, and take it from there; and one of the lovely things about it is that it adapts for any age. I, er, hoped. I’d never tried it with secondary-school kids.
Well, I tried it with the first group - 8th-Graders: 12-14 years old, I suppose, though they looked bigger and older than that. They’d been great, but there had been a certain amount of Teenage Cool in the room. Until I took out the wand and blew.
“Ooooh! Bubbles!!!” Instantly, some of their reserve just, well, popped. It was great. We talked about them in general terms, got a few words to describe them - fragile, colourful, that sort of thing - and then we began to differentiate.
As the conversation developed, it became clear that these meant different things to different children. One said they reminded her of pink skies in the morning; another of unstable chemical compounds.
One girl said they reminded her of funerals. There was a bit of nervous giggling around her. I asked her why.
“Well,” she said, smiling, “at my friend’s funeral they blew bubbles over the coffin, and we’d been all sad, but suddenly it was happy again.”
That was a moment, I can tell you, and it wasn’t the only one. At another point during the session, the subject of the bubbles’ endings came up. We’d been talking about how they drift down.
“And what happens then?” I asked.
There was a pause, during which I waited for the usual reflections on mortality. And then one boy put his hand up.
“Yes,” I asked.
“It gets adopted by the floor.”
The other day I was asked for my do’s and don’ts when writing for children. I resisted, with difficulty, the obvious reply - don’t write for children (or at least not if you seek an easy, lucrative living) and attempted to say something sensible. It was more difficult than I thought. So off the top of my head:
Don’t patronise your readers - children are demanding readers and hate being patronised as much as I do. They will notice if a plot doesn’t make sense, and being cute is no substitute for being entertaining.
Do think about the age of your would be readers and their interests.
Don’t make your sentences too long, your language too complex and don’t try to show off. Delete any beautiful sentences that stand out - chances are they belong to another book.
Do write vividly and clearly.
Don’t summarise events too much and get lost in your characters' heads.
Do dramatise as much as you can ( ie show don’t tell, but I hate that phrase.)
Don’t write stereotypyes
Do write compelling characters (though that one is a bit hard to define.)
Don’t expect to be the next JK Rowling/Stephanie Meyer/ random multimillionaire writer.
Do enjoy what you do because if you don’t there is very little point
What would yours be?
I get ideas from all sorts of places.
Sometimes it is a snippet of conversation, a person or object in an unexpected place, or how two people I see in the street react to each other.
Often I start my story journey with one or more characters, but not always. It might be a scene that suggests a question..such as 'what happened here? or what happens next?
Look at this calm and peaceful image of beautiful sun-dappled water and an open balcony door.
It could so easily be the start of some gentle tale of romance on holiday but there has to be some kind of twist, otherwise there is no story worth telling, or reading.
Sometimes the ideas that come to mind are anything but calm.
Is this the peaceful scene before a murder, or just after? Could there be a body lying below the balcony, as yet undiscovered? What was the mayhem that preceded this quiet serenity?
Drifting into the realms of fantasy - is the rail on the balcony the spot where a small dragon alights, searching for its soul mate, a human life partner. Is it looking for only one who will save the species from extinction?
Is it a time-slip, one moment we are here and now, the next forward 500 years? The sea is the same but is the world outside this room still the unchanged or even recognisable?
What, why and how, who, where and when. These are the tools of a writer's trade, and the freedom we give our imagination.
What do you think the picture is about? In your eyes, what is the story?
...........................................Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and a writing handbook Writing For Children
Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me published by Strident 2012
I've had a book birthday this week - Bear's Best Friend
is born and out in the world now, and garnering some nice reviews and media attention, (which is a thing that always makes authors happy). The ever-wonderful Armadillo Magazine
have done an interview with me, which you can read HERE
- there's a signed copy of the book to win there too, so it's well worth having a look!
Of course, a book birthday also means that the Publicity Event Train sets out on its journey round the country. Normally, I talk to schools and festivals about Greek myths. I've been giving my Journey Into Greek Myth
talk for many years. I know my stuff, and it's a well-honed, well-oiled machine by now. But Bear's Best Friend
is a picture book. I've been out of the picture book loop for a long time, so as well as giving birth to a book, I've also had to give birth to a brand new event to go with it. Luckily this time, I don't have to do it alone. For the first time ever I'm part of a double act, since my wonderful illustrator, Sarah Dyer
is an integral part of this new creation.
As a writer, working with an illustrator is, for me, a bit like magic. There are my words, spilled out of my head and onto paper in black and white rows, and then there they are, magically translated into pictures through the amazing lens of an artist’s imagination. It's a process that never ceases to amaze me. But doing a joint gig? How was that going to work? Who would go first? How would we structure the event? It was a step into the unknown for both of us.
We talked a lot on the phone. We emailed each other ideas. What emerged was an interactive event based around our Bear's (slightly strange) hobby of topiary, with parts for both of us to play, including props of bear ears/hats, leaves, a foolproof way to draw a teddy, and, of course, many many bears. But would it work in practice?
On Saturday, we set off to find out, and I'm glad to report that the answer is - it did, brilliantly! Sarah and I have just finished our first ever joint session at the fabulous Seven Stories
in Newcastle (which I wrote about here a couple of months ago
). Public events can be tricky to handle, but not only did we manage to get through storytelling, animal noises and chatting about best friends (my bit), but also an incredible amount of top-notch creative stuff (Sarah's bit). By the end, the whole place was a sea of Beary pictures, some of which were pretty impressive, given that the average age of the artists was 3 1/2
. (I'm sorry I can't show them to you here due to a slight technical hitch on the photography front).
Now that we've cracked the whole joint event thing, I'm looking forward to doing a lot more with Sarah. We'll be at the Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop
on Tuesday 28th May and at the Discover Story Centre
on 1st June, so do come and see us in action if you're nearby and have small kids. I can't speak for Sarah, but personally I can't wait to put on my fluffy bear ears again!
Lucy and Sarah's new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books.
The older I get, the more I try to learn the art of leaving stuff to one side. It’s a life skill, all right. And it’s hard. And it’s easy to get wrong. Bruising of various shades of tenderness can ensue. Just like when knapping.
"Knapping is the shaping of flint, chert, obsidian or other conchoidal fracturing stone through the process of lithic reduction." *
On the way to making a really excellent axe, the knapper has to delete a lot of material. Skilful bashing produces flakes of varying sizes, from quite substantial, useful for cutting meat or hide, down to those small and slender enough to make into needles and bores. But, inevitably, there will also be flakes that are useless. We find them centuries later, cast away in middens and slag heaps. (Though we candeduce from them that knapping activities took place in the vicinity so, given time and the invention of archaeology, eventually they do have a use.)
As it is with life, and with knapping, so it is, I’m finding more and more, with editing. The last two books I wrote both stalled near the finish line, for the simple reason that there were things in them that didn’t belong. Just dancing around making elegant joining-up bits wasn’t enough. I had to get out my hammer and get lithic-ly reductive. The potentially-excellent axe was in there – you just couldn’t see it for all the extraneous flint.
Why is editing so hard? I don't meant technically hard, so much as knocking off bits of your own flesh hard. (Not that that's something I do all that much, but you know what I mean.) Is it arrogance? Short-sightedness? Being just plain bloody-minded?
Whatever the reason, here's to getting better at bashing -
* Thank you, Wikipedia. Phrases like "conchoidal fracturing" and “the process of lithic reduction” just don’t get used as much as they should, I feel.
My golden retriever, Traffy, has been a therapy dog for the last three years and has been irregularly visiting our local school for children with multiple sensory impairments as well as a home for people with Alzheimer's. It wasn't supposed to be irregular it was supposed to be regular but last year Traffy got very sick and had to have a benign tumour, the size of a newborn baby, removed from her abdomen. She'd had the same problem three years before but the cause of the problem wasn't diagnosed then, which it now has been and so hopefully there'll be no more tumours and she's back to being her healthy, full of energy, lovely self. The first time she had the problem I was told that she should be put down as there was no hope of her getting better (there'd been complications after the operation) but I said no give her more time and she recovered and once she was fully better she became a therapy dog.
And now she's going to be going into a school as a reading dog which I'm very excited about and hope she will enjoy, which I think she will as she loves children. There's quite a few charities that provide dogs to help children read in schools and I think it's a very good idea. When I told friends about it one of them said they hated reading aloud at school and would have done anything to avoid it.
'But I'd have loved to have read to a dog...'
I would have done too. In preparation for next week's first visit I now have a special mat for her to sit on with letters on it - so she'll get used to knowing why we're at the school and I have been practising reading to my dogs on it. (It's only Traffy who's going but my other goldie, Bella, likes sitting on the mat too.) They react to being read to differently but both are happy to sit on the mat and have a cuddle. Traffy watches my face all the time I'm reading but Bella looks at each of the pictures as I point at them. Tray's also now got a special book with lots of photos and text about the things she likes to do to take with her.
We're going in with our area reading advisor and I think there's going to be some group activity as well as individual reading. I'm a tiny bit worried that they'll want long sessions and over-tire her - although so far when we've visited places if she's had enough she goes to the door and gives me a pointed look to tell me it's time to go. I'm only planning to visit once a month at first.
I think lots of schools would like visits. This morning a teacher friend told me how they'd really like a therapy dog in their school for a boy who's having huge problems making friends and very poor social skills.
'A therapy dog could help...' she said wistfully.
Maybe. I think probably. In my opinion dogs usually do help.
Anyway, will let you know how it goes. I'd love to hear if you've had any experience with therapy or reading dogs.
Ruth writes both as Ruth Symes and Megan Rix.
Ruth Symes' website is www.ruthsymes.com
Megan Rix's is www.meganrix.com
and her dog Bella tweets at puppy girl_bella.Megan's latest book 'The Victory Dogs' is published by Puffin on 4 April. It's set during the Blitz and is about twopuppies born on the London Underground.
By: Nicola Morgan
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Note 1: No shed necessary. That's a promise!
Note 2: Those who came to the SAS Conference in Peterborough this year know all about this and know that it's called Stimulus Generalisation
Working well shouldn’t be difficult. Make a list of things to do; tell yourself that you will do a, b and c before lunch; apply posterior to chair; do a, b and c. But most of us know what actually happens: in the absence of a boss to enforce when and where we produce a piece of work, bad habits come into play and we (I) play Spider Solitaire, go on Twitter, answer social emails, pay bills, make more coffee, dust behind the fridge…
That was me, until May 2011. Years of self-employment and working from home had created appallingly chaotic working habits. I got the work done – never missed a deadline yet – but it felt unhappily ill-disciplined, ineffective, pathetic. Social, domestic and work tasks were mixed up; the hours spent at my desk were too long and ineffective; real writing seemed to come last, if at all. Work-life not so much balance as collapsed in a heap of tangled intentions.
In May that changed. Now, if I say “shed”, you’ll roll your eyes and want to switch off, but I promise this is not about getting a writing shed. It’s about stimulus generalisation, as I now realise, thanks to my clinical psychologist friend who nodded wisely when I told her how my working habits changed instantly, the day I got a shed. Stimulus generalisation is something psychologists harness when dealing with addictions and negative habits, she said. Hmmm, sounds like me. Does it sound like you?
I’ll briefly explain the relevant aspects of stimulus generalisation but then, more importantly, unpick the elements of what I accidentally did, in order to make suggestions that anyone can use to alter poor working habits, including internet addiction. (Disclosure: I’m not a trained psychologist, though some of my work involves a degree of understanding of how our brains work; I’m just making sense of what happened to me and what might help others.)
Stimulus generalisation is akin to a Pavlovian response, although reflexes are not necessarily involved. Behaviour (leading to habits) is conditioned subconsciously by stimuli around us. So, if you tend to have a glass of wine while cooking the evening meal, cooking the evening meal becomes part of the set of triggers to have a glass of wine. Aspects of cooking the evening meal are the general stimuli around you: the clock saying 7pm, the light falling, the sound of a partner coming home, your own body clock, the smells in the kitchen, all the cues to anticipation of a relaxing evening. Together, these stimuli subconsciously reinforce a habit; and breaking the habit will be very hard if you don’t break the stimuli. In theory, you could just say, “I won’t have a glass of wine,” but the stimuli play heavily on your desires and behaviours and you are pretty likely to have that glass of wine. Thus speaks the voice of experience.
So, let’s unpick what happened with my shed. Effectively, I had suddenly changed almost all the stimuli around me, in one go. This made my existing desire to change working habits much easier; it enabled an immediate fresh slate, allowing new stimuli to create new habits. In the same way, an addict is encouraged, as part of therapy, to remove all physical aspects of the situations in which previously he took the addictive substance. Move house; throw away posters, furniture, possessions; avoid the friends who accompanied the addictive behaviour; take up new activities; change as much about your life and environs as possible. Every repeated stimulus has a hold on the person, each one like a strand within a rope.
Let’s move away from the specific shed example and generalise the conditions which may make new behaviours possible, conditions which any of us could replicate if we wanted to break undesired working habits.
1. Desire to change. We need to know what we want to change, and to want it strongly enough that we will make effort and think positively about the outcome. Part of this may involve feeling sufficiently negative about the current situation.
2. Planning ahead. Making detailed advance decisions about the changes, and setting a date on which the changes will start, help prime the mind to activate those changes.
3. Investment. It makes sense that if we have invested time, money and/or effort in the changes, this will help motivation.
4. Rising anticipation. If we have to wait eagerly for the start date, this is likely to help.
5. Support from others. Support from partner, family or friends, and their own investment in your success, are likely to have a positive effect.
6. Out with the old and in with the new. The tendency of the brain towards stimulus generalisation means that the more physical surroundings you can change, the better. You may not be able to afford a whole new room, or to replace all the furniture in it, but the more you can alter the physical surroundings, the better.
7. The use of all the senses. Our brains learn best when several senses are used.
8. Blitzing it. I suspect that doing it all at once makes a greater impact.
Based on those principles, there follow some specific suggestions to help change working habits. Some are small and may seem trivial but your brain will notice more than you think. Some of the larger things won’t be practical for everyone and I’m not suggesting anyone does them all: pick a few that suit your situation; plan when to instigate the new regime; then do them all at once. Remember: once you have selected your new stimuli, make sure you apply them to your working hours, not your social or domestic hours. The point is to use a specific setting to teach your brain that it is supposed to be working, not doing social or domestic tasks. Or playing Spider Solitaire… The new environment will perform the role of a boss.
o Move your work-space to a different room.
o Rearrange the furniture in your work-space, including the position of your desk and your view.
o Redecorate with new colours, changing as much as possible.
o Choose new furniture, particularly chair and desk and whatever is in your range of sight while working.
o Create a time-table for arriving and leaving work; leave your office door open if just taking a break, but close it (lock it?) when your working day ends. Make sure you take everything you will need during the evening, just as if you worked away from home; use a briefcase?!
o Have a separate in-tray for domestic/social tasks, and only deal with them outside working hours.
o Even something small can help, such as using a specific mug during working hours, or a particular pen or notebook for “real” writing.
o Anything separate for “work” use will help: stationery, clothes, shelves, diary, etc. Make use of the visual element: eg if you use blue files for work docs, have only the blue files in front of you during work hours or in your work space.
o Use all the senses. The suggestions above are all about what you can see but consider the following: you might play music when working (or when not working); you might harness the sense of smell by lighting a scented candle when doing writing work, or enjoy the smell and taste of real coffee; and yes, you have my permission to eat chocolate to herald the start of a writing session… Anything that you can commit to doing every time you start what is supposed to be a proper working (or writing) session.
The more we can change, the more coherently we plan the changes and the more simultaneously we effect them all, the easier it is for our brain to break old habits and allow new behaviours.
But you’ve got to want to, as much as I wanted that shed, and you’ve got to keep wanting it. Old habits not only die hard, they can return. Be vigilant!
By the way, a new edition of my book, BLAME MY BRAIN - The Teenage Brain Revealed, is available from May, also with an ebook version.