Sunday, 22 October 2017

Top Ten Tools For Us Writery Types, by Dan Metcalf

I like making a list or two so I thought for my ABBA offering this month I'd lay out the top ten things I need to write. This list is entirely subjective of course and I'd love to hear what you consider an absolutely essential item for your writing life.

  1. Laptop – I'd love to say that I can get away with a pad of A4 paper and a pen, but the reality of life is that work has to be typed on a computer, laid out in a certain way and increasing, submitted to publishers electronically too. I'm also a tad reliant on websites and databases for research (though nothing beats a library for real research!). Mine is an 11.5” ASUS netbook, which does all I ask of it. The memory is running out now, to which I have bodged a solution by whacking in a cheap SD card in the side and occasioanlly importing stuff over to it. I have two cloud backup services too; ASUS Webstorage (came with the computer) and google drive. I'm also sticking stuff on a USB memory stick because I know from bitter experience that YOU CAN NEVER BACK UP ENOUGH.

  2. Notebooks – I covet these little things. Even though I have more than enough at home, waiting to be filled, I still find myself wondering into Waterstones or Paperchase and stroking the spines of the lovely blank tomes available. In a perfect world I would have a subscription to moleskine or field notes to deliver a parcel to my house every few months full of the bleeders, but unless I suddenly hit Pullman-esque standards of success, I'll make do with whatever comes to hand. And in all truth, paper is paper. A 50p jotter from the post office works just as well as an ornate faux-leather ideaspad. 

  3. Mechanic pencils – Okay, I'm going to say this here and now – mechanical/propelling pencils are better. Just BETTER. Better than a pen (ballpoint or fountain) and better than your regular dead-tree pencil. For one, pencils provide a transience that I like – anything I write with them can be deleted or edited immediately. For two, the propelling pencil has a clarity that I love. Because they have small graphite sticks, you get a fixed width line instead of a thin and pointy line which then devolves into a stubby grey mess further down the page. Also: clickable. None of that pencil sharpener/whittling with a craft knife nonsense. (Only downside I find is that the plastic variety are disposable and bad for the environment – if this bothers you, kindly have a whipround and buy me one of these, because I get through heaps of the plastic Bic jobbies.

  4. Tea – You may think I'm being flippant here, but I do drink tonnes of the stuff. I have had to switch to decaffinated which is frankly just as nice and means you can drink more of it without having to jog off the excess energy every few hours. Brands don't matter, no matter what that woollen monkey off the telly tells you. I also have a back-up of Green Tea with Lemon which provides the taste without the need for milk. I'm drinking it now. Slurp. Yum yum.

  5. A flask – hows this for a productivity hack? My 1000ml stainless steel thermos flask from Asda has served me well. I fill it with hot water in the morning and then bring it to my desk so I can work. This is absolute genius in two ways – One, I don't have to leave my desk and interrupt the flow when I'm writing and two, it saves on your electricity bill by not popping up to boil the kettle every 30 minutes. (But what about milk? I hear you cry; that's where the aforementioned green tea with lemon comes in to play) Try it and thank me later.
  6. Mini wireless mouse – Not essential, but I'm one of these fogies that gets in a tizz when trying to use the touchpad on my laptop. This little beauty has a small USB plugin neatly hidden in the battery compartment which can take out and stick in your laptop. The AAA battery powered mouse then connects automatically. Soooo much easier (and dirt cheap).

  7. A mug – okay I realise that now three of these 'writing' tips are beverage based, but if you think about it, doesn't the quality of the mug affect the quality of the drink? And therefore the quality of your mood? And therefore the quality of your writing? Of course it does. You know it makes sense... My favourite writing mug is this fella from the Literary Gift Company.
  8. Sounds – In an ideal world I would sit in silence and type away to my heart's content but as we all know, we do not live in an ideal world (for proof, check out who leads the world nowadays.). We live in a world where phones, radios and washing machines bleep at you throughout the day. We live in a world where my delightful sons shoot Nerf guns at each other outside my office window. This world needs white noise and I choose You can set the ambient sounds however you wish and block out the rest of reality. I recommend a blend of a crackling fire and thunderstorms.
  9. Bullet Journal – Time management is very much a work in progress for me, and has been ever since I left school. I've still not cracked it but the closest I ever come is when I keep up my bullet journal. Everything goes into this; story ideas, first drafts, appointments, etc. The buttet journal system helps to keep them all in check. I have tried using evernote and my phone's diary, but somehow it doesn't work for me (but am always open to better time management solutions – leave 'em in the comments) (oh, you don't need to buy an official journal either – I prefer a thick blank A4 pad but loads of people work out of moleskines)
  10. My brain – I'd be lost without it. No one else's will do, either. It's my own or nothing. In fact, out of all of these items on the list, this is probably the most important, because all you need to create a story is your brain and a wee bit of motivation.

What did I miss? Leave your suggestions below.

Dan :¬)
Dan Metcalf's most recent book is Codebusters from Bloomsbury. He is also experimenting with Wattpad stories for a YA audience, so take a look HERE.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

What gives me hope as a writer? by Anne Booth

I've been published now since 2014. My first books were published when I was 49.  First it was my MG novel

and then it was the first of what has become a series for OUP (the 4th one has just come out)

But I first said I wanted to be a children's book writer when I was still at school, and I was 49 when that finally happened, so there was rather a big gap! I even applied for a degree course (English at the University of York) where part of the degree could be a children's novel - but once I had got in, I lost my creative confidence and just stuck to academic essays.

But somehow, I think I mustn't have lost hope. I can't have, not completely, or I wouldn't be published now, would I?

And as freelance writers, moving from one contract to the next, nothing can be certain. We can never be sure that our books will stay in print, or that we will be asked to write another. So how do we keep our hopes up? I thought I'd share the things which have given me Hope.

1) First of all, I am so lucky that I have such a supportive husband. He used to really embarrass me when we met new people, because he described me as a writer long before I had had any book published. But I really appreciate that, as he kept hoping in me, and he tried to help me see myself as a writer and take myself seriously. Now, he keeps having hope that I will continue to be published, and he keeps talking me up to anyone who will listen, and he gives me hope when I worry! I hope that all writers have someone who is their cheer leader - and that we can each be the cheer leader for someone else.

2) My children as well, listened to and liked my stories, and said lovely things and made me think I wasn't deluding myself.

3) Old friends had hope in me, new friends on courses (Arvon courses and an MA in Creative writing) gave me hope-full feedback. They said they could imagine me being published. That helped. A lot. Imagining good things for ourselves and for others is a good way to foster hope.

4) My agent, Anne Clark - if anyone has hope in a writer, it is their agent. Without them, you are really hampered. (I know people do get published with no agent, but I think they must have a level of self belief I don't have, or can't maintain consistently without Anne feeding back to me!)

5)Publishers - once we are published, we still need to be given hope that our book will sell, by our editors and marketing people. So I am grateful to Catnip, OUP, Nosy Crow, Lion and Bounce marketing for all the encouragement, past, present and future.

6) Kind bloggers and tweeters and Facebook friends - many of whom are fellow writers - like those who write for this very blog (!) feeding back positive things, saying they are looking forward to reading 'the next thing'. Again - we can do this for each other.

7) Booksellers and librarians saying lovely things and sharing stories of readers who enjoyed my books.

8) READERS. Readers give me hope. I absolutely love getting letters from readers, or meeting  children at school and sharing my books and talking to them. They remind me why I do this job and that I CAN do this job, that I am not just deluding myself.

This week, the illustrator Amy Proud shared this with me. It was sent to her by a mum who said our book 'I want a Friend' was helping her little boy settle into school. Amy asked if we could share , and she said 'yes', and to tell me that her little boy asks for it to be read to him every day, and every time hears the bit about Arthur trying to catch a friend with a 'great, ginormous net', he bursts out laughing.  This gives me Hope - hope that books can make things better, even in little ways, for children, and that I can write books which make a little boy laugh. What an honour! What a great thing to hope for! I hope we sell lots and lots of copies of this book, but just having made this little boy laugh and settle into school with this one copy is a great achievement - and a source of future hope for the work Amy and I will do in the future, separately or together.

 (P.S. - lest this last bit has seemed a bit braggy and self promoting, to put it in context - Amy and I have had to have a LOT of hope in this book, as its publisher went through radical change & downsizing and we lost our wonderful commissioning editor and editor and marketing person; we thought at one time it would never get published at all - so we are very glad it actually saw the light of day, and hearing good things about it is especially sweet!)

(9) Me. I have to be hopeful. It is no good my family and friends, my agents and publishers and booksellers and librarians and even readers, giving me hope, if I sabotage that by talking myself down. I think all  the writers I know have massive bouts of self doubt - we need to help each there out with this - but also - be kind to ourselves. We must celebrate the successes before worrying about the failures. Stop and smell the roses! I am a hypocrite here, but just because I am a hypocrite doesn't mean I am not right!

10) Most of all, as a writer, I think the act of writing itself ultimately gives me hope in writing. My husband is right - I was, and am, a writer. It may not be easy , it may go wrong, it may make me tired, or despairing, it may not be the first thing I want to do when I get up, (actually, it nearly always is!) and I may write lots which won't get published, but I need to do it,  regardless of being published, and it feeds something in me. It is worthwhile. My husband was right to say I was a writer, because he knew that, even though I wasn't published, I needed to write. I write my prayers every day, and it grounds me and somehow gives me back a sense of who I am, recalls me to myself, and helps me to engage with reality. The best thing I can do to keep my hope in writing, is actually to forget about 'being a writer' as such and actually let myself write!

Friday, 20 October 2017

That Blurb Word by Joan Lennon

Writers know it - kids in schools know it - booksellers sell books by it - it's the blurb word. And though lots of these people may already know where the word came from, I didn't. Didn't have a clue.

So I went looking - and this is what I found ...

(click on the image to make it bigger)

Coined by the American humorist Gelett Burgess, it is thought to have first appeared here, on the jacket of Are You a Bromide? - a limited edition slim volume produced for an annual trade association dinner in 1906.  It i
ntroduces "Miss Belinda Blurb* In the Act of Blurbing" and then ... 

I won't lie to you - I WANT PROSE LIKE THIS ON THE BACK OF MY NOVELS!!!  I want my publishers to be saying about a book of mine:

"It has gush and go to it, it has that Certain Something which makes you want to crawl through thirty miles of dense tropical jungle and bite somebody in the neck."


"... you'll sic it onto your mother-in-law, your dentist and the pale youth who dips hot-air into Little Marjorie until 4 Q.M.** in the front parlour."

and that

"This Book is the Proud Purple Penultimate!!"

Wouldn't you?!  It may not tell us much about what Burgess' book is about, but oh, the enthusiasm!

So here is the man himself -

Gelett Burgess circa 1910

Thanks for that blurb word, Mr Burgess!

And what is my favourite back cover blurbing?  There are many priceless gems out there, but if I had to choose just one, how about the 1977 classic Juggling for the Complete Klutz by John Cassidy and B.C. Rimbeaux, Illustrations by Diane Waller -

If you can scramble an egg, find reverse in a Volkswagen, or stumble onto the light switch in the bathroom at night ... you can learn how to juggle.

"Very possibly, the best book of the decade!"
Mrs. Anna M. Cassidy

"Can you believe it? My son, the author - who hasn't written me a letter since I don't know when."
Mrs. Ethel T. Rimbeaux

"For this we sent her to college?"
Mr John J. Waller

How about yours?  Share a favourite blurb or two in the comments below.

* How on earth did she get her hair to stand up like that?
** Can anyone help me here?  My guess is "hot-air dipping" is something like "whispering sweet nothings" but Q.M.?  Unlikely to be referring to "Quartermaster", "Quantitative Macroeconomics" or "Air Malawi" but it not, then ...?

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

After Great Pain: The Power of Words -- Lucy Coats

"After great pain," says Emily Dickinson, "a formal feeling comes...". It is a poem I go back and back to, to try and make sense of painful episodes in my own life. I have always felt emotional pain in a very visceral way, in my solar plexus, and the way I try to deal with it is, like Dickinson, to externalise it, to write it down, and get the pain onto paper. Mostly I do this by writing poetry. As anyone who follows my Instagram feed will know, sometimes I post these publicly -- especially if they are about my ongoing struggles with depression. I choose to do this because I know (from the messages and comments which come to me afterwards) that it helps others to feel that they are not alone.

Words, as all who read this blog know, are powerful things. They can wound and hurt when used carelessly -- but they can also provide succour and healing. Another thing that words can do is to bring a group of people, who would never otherwise know about each other, together. In the last week, we have seen many distressing revelations from Hollywood. Many women are coming forward with stories about sexual abuse and harassment in the acting profession, and talking openly about the hurt, fear and mental damage which are caused by a powerful person in the industry abusing that power. It has also had another effect. After an actress called Rose McGowan was (I and many others think unjustly and unnecessarily) suspended from Twitter for reasons which are linked to the story I have just mentioned, another actress decided to do something about it. (McGowan, incidentally, also tweeted the entirety of William Blake's 'A Poison Tree' -- which made me understand that poem in a whole other way). Alyssa Milano tweeted a hashtag with just two small words: #metoo and asked women to tweet it if they too had suffered sexual abuse or harassment ( it should be noted that the #metoo movement was originally started in 2006 by Tarana Burke, to spread awareness and understanding of sexual assault in underprivileged communities of colour).  What I have seen grow in the last few days under the umbrella of those two small words has been extraordinary. Women all over the world have brought forth a tsunami of stories, all linked by what we (and yes, I do include myself) have suffered in this way. Seeing friends, relatives, those I know well and not so well, complete strangers, share their stories in this way has been a powerful experience. It has made me weep. It has made me angry. It has made me realise yet again that far far too many of us have been subjected to stuff that is not now and never was acceptable, and also that even now, many of us will be too scared to speak out at all, because of the culture of shame and silence which has always been a part of the hidden story of abuse.

A few years ago, as some here may remember, I wrote about the first instance of my own abuse. It was probably the hardest thing I've ever written (that particular incident happened when I was 8), but getting the words onto paper and sharing them was, in its own way, a path to freedom from those memories that I'd suppressed and ignored for so long. Many women have suffered far worse than I did. But that doesn't matter. Whatever story you have, whatever abuse or harassment you have suffered, feels very very real at the time. The judgement of degrees, of thinking 'oh, my story is not worthy to be told because it's not bad enough' is not a thing anyone should be feeling. I have already described these stories as a tsunami, because that is how overwhelming it has felt to me. But maybe I should also describe them as a great tapestry, with every woman putting in a stitch for every instance of sexual abuse or harassment she has suffered (and yes, I know others suffer this too). Our stories matter, and it is only by sharing them on this kind of scale that the realisation of just how widespread this problem is can be measured, and I hope this time, finally addressed in a meaningful way, though there is a very very long way to go before that happens. It might, perhaps, begin, with a much larger two word tsunami of #IDid from men.

Words, as I said, are powerful tools -- even the small ones. #metooas Suzanne Moore puts it so eloquently, "is showing the ubiquity of sexual assault". And that is not a small thing at all.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Sea Monsters by Lu Hersey

Sea monsters are part of our psyche, and we’ve been fascinated by them for millennia. No amount of diving with sharks or watching Blue Planet can take away the potential terror of being seized and swallowed by a monster from the deep – which makes them ideal fodder for fiction.

Something no sailor wants to encounter

Sea monsters have featured high on the list of fabulous beasts we love to fear, for as long as we’ve been telling stories. From the Greek Cetea (nasty scaly, fanged sea creatures that ate people) and probably long before that, they've have lurked on the edges of our reality. Even the bible has the story of Jonah in the stomach of a giant whale (always slightly confused in my mind with  Monstro swallowing Pinocchio, an image which has haunted me since I was three years old!)

Disney can give you a lifetime of nightmares

In the medieval world, sea monsters fill all corners of the oceans. Illuminated manuscripts and ancient sea charts are filled with them. Vast, tentacled beasts drag down sailing ships, and all manner of half human, half monster creatures appear in the waves, waiting to lure sailors to their doom.

An early map of Iceland, featuring some wonderful sea monsters

But these sea monsters images may not be as far fetched as we think. Many are based on real encounters with sea animals and have simply become part of our folklore. Take the Kraken. First mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga, the original was said to be a mile long, and big enough to be mistaken for an island.

The Kraken, big enough to have an island on its back

Okay, so that's highly unlikely. But in the more rational 18th century, the Kraken was more seriously classified as a giant cephalopod – very likely the giant squid, which living at great depths was rarely seen. Recent footage of the giant squid, with its shimmering golden body and amazingly intelligent looking eyes, makes it a creature truly worthy of any myth.

I still shudder at the idea of going down in a bathysphere (or even a deep sea explorer submarine) having read John Wyndham’s Kraken Wakes as a teenager. And in non-fiction, who can forget the thousands of squid eyes, lit up with phosphoresence, staring at the Kon-tiki from the waves in the dark? Or the mysterious luminous living creature, as big as the raft, the crew saw down in the depths?

As for whales – the most amazing and intelligent creatures you’ll ever see – how much do we really know about their lives? How does it feel to dive to the depths for up to an hour and battle with Kraken the way sperm whales do - and how did they ever evolve to know those things were down there?

Even if you think sea monsters are part of our ignorant, non-scientific past, it’s hard to swim out to sea without an image from Jaws pushing up from your subconscious, or hear that theme music echoing in some part of your brain before you quosh it. I love the sea, but all my life I’ve been haunted by sea monsters – and yet a the same time, I can’t get enough of them. Blue Planet is my all time favourite documentary series (and there’s a new series starting this week!!)

It’s also why, after a gap of time writing land based stories, I need to go back under water. There are whole worlds down there, just waiting for me to write about them...

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
book: Deep Water

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Evolving Writing Spaces by Chitra Soundar

 My writing space has evolved over the last fifteen years of my writing life. I always had a desk (which was really for my computer) and used to write there. For me going to that desk meant I had changed roles from executive or sister or daughter to writer.

While I write in notebooks by longhand a lot, especially the first drafts of my picture books, I still like to do revisions and the edits on my computer. I almost never write more than the first chapter of a longer story in my notebook. My typing is definitely faster than my longhand writing and I want to get the words down before they slip away from my brain.

The other thing I used to do a lot especially when I was working full time at the day job, was writing in coffee shops, libraries, on trains and parks. But nowadays I realise, as I have gotten older, I prefer to write at home than anywhere else. While I can block out all noise and write in a coffee shop or a library, the sheer effort of going from one quiet place (which is my flat) to another not-so-quiet place with travel and standing in the queue to buy an espresso behind someone who’s buying a skinny latte decaf with almond milk and chocolate on top, feels counter-productive.

The fact that I write from five in the morning till eleven also means writing at home is far more convenient. I don’t have to change out of my pyjamas until my writing is done and I can have as many coffees I want (although I do only one), without a queue or a foamy flower on top.

My writing space preferences have also changed since I’ve been travelling a lot more and relying on my laptop than desktop. I’ve hardly used my desktop Mac in a year or two and I like the convenience of my laptop. That also has freed me from the desk. I write on the sofa, or on my bed propped up by pillows. Even when I do write at the desk, I stand up write as my table can rise higher when I want to do that.

I used to dream about writing sheds and comfy sofas, a bookshelf on the side, a fire in the corner and such. But I realise I’m most comfortable in my living space – especially because I live alone and I am always near a power point for my phone and laptop and the Wi-Fi is of good strength. And of course setting up a shed inside a London flat might not be a good idea anyway. Unless of course, I can build a tiny one and I can shrink myself to enter a new world full of imaginary people.

Because I’ve changed from desk to bed/sofa writer, I’ve been looking at ergonomic ideas that could help me. Just a word of caution – I’m not recommending or endorsing any of the below. I just want to share some of the research I’m doing to improve my writing space.

Here are a couple of examples of a prop-up pillow or wedges as they are called – for reading or writing.

And here are some tables that go up or down and help you write sitting down or standing up. 

I also checked out some famous people to see where they write. Here is a wonderful selection of American writers and poets and their writing spaces.

So has your writing space evolved? If so why? Are you still comfortable at the kitchen table or the sofa or do you prefer a white noise environment like a coffee shop or library? Tell us all about it.