Tuesday, 29 July 2014

SCHOOL'S OUT! Or is it . . . ? by Anna Wilson

In January I wrote about the joys of giving children notebooks and letting them run riot with their story ideas. Since then I have met many teachers and parents who have done just this. They have told me how wonderful it is to see this space being used. The freedom to write or draw whatever the child wants has fed into stories she or he has often then gone on to polish in class in structured writing time. (This has not, of course, always been a direct result of my post – many teachers and parents were already giving their children the chance to explore their writing in this way.)

I would not be blogging about this again, were it not for something I witnessed on a long train journey last week; something which had me thinking again about how constraining we can be in our approach to our children’s education and the damage that can be done when pleasure is forsaken in favour of ticking boxes and getting things ‘right’. And, perhaps more importantly, when this approach leaks into home life.

A mum got on the train with her two small daughters, whom I guessed to be about five and six, and her son, who, I thought, looked about eight. They settled into their seats and the mother brought out some pens and pencils, paper and notebooks.

The little girls immediately clamoured, ‘I want my notebook!’ ‘I am going to write you a story!’

How lovely! I thought. What a great way to spend a few hours on the train.

‘Yes,’ said the mother. ‘You each have twenty minutes to write a beautiful story, and then I will read it and check it. Now – remember I want to see “wow” words, good punctuation, proper spelling, neat handwriting and lots of interesting verbs and adjectives—’

The boy groaned loudly (or was it me?) and put his head in his hands. ‘I don’t WANT to write a story!’ he complained. ‘I don’t like writing stories and I am no good at them.’

His mother placated him with promises of chocolate biscuits if he would only ‘be good like the girls and write for twenty minutes without making a fuss’. His sisters were indeed already scribbling away and reading aloud what they had written, eager to share it with their mother. She praised them and told them to keep going for the full twenty minutes.

What is it with this twenty minutes thing? I thought. Maybe she is desperate for a bit of peace and quiet. Don’t judge! You were in this situation not so long ago yourself: long train journeys with young children are tiresome and they have to have things to do otherwise you go crazy and so do they.

The boy then handed over his story. His mother, glancing at it, said, ‘Well, that’s not very interesting, is it? You haven’t used good connectives, there are no “wow” words, your handwriting is messy and you just haven’t made an effort.’

Pretty harsh, I thought.

Then came the killer blow.

‘You really have got to start making an effort with your writing, you know,’ the mother went on. ‘Next year you will have to write for twenty minutes and put all these things into your stories. You have been on holiday for a week already and you have done no writing. You must promise you’ll concentrate on this for another twenty minutes, or you will be no good at this next year.’

I must confess that, at the time, I wanted to lean across and engage the boy in conversation. I wanted to ask him if he liked reading and, if so, what kind of stories did he like best? What about his favourite films? I wanted to get him chatting about his likes and dislikes and encourage him to scribble them down, to use this precious ‘writing time’ as a chance to let his brain go wild. I wanted to tell him that it was OK to do that, and that afterwards he could go back over his story and concentrate on the connectives and the punctuation and the neat handwriting. I wanted to say that all those things his mother was talking about were indeed important, but that perhaps the reason he hated writing so much was that he was struggling with remembering the rules; that if he could forget the rules to start with, he would then perhaps find he loved writing stories, and that he had piles and piles of them to tell. I might perhaps have added that, as a published writer, I would be paralysed if I had to write a clean first draft from the off which obeyed all the rules of Standard English . . . 

Of course I didn’t. I did not want to upset his mother – after all, it was none of my business. In any case, on reflection, it was not her behaviour with her children that upset me the most, rather the fact that she clearly felt anxious that her son was not up to scratch with his English. Indeed, she was so anxious that he improve that she was insisting he work on it over the summer holidays, and work on it in the exact same way he is required to at school. She was armed to the hilt with educational jargon and was turning this terrifying arsenal on her weary son.

I was an editor before I was fortunate enough to develop my career as a writer. I know as well as anyone the importance of good grammar and correct punctuation. I appreciate clean, clear writing and a well-structured plot. I know good dialogue when I see it. My own children will roll their eyes and tell you that I am the first person to howl at the misuse of the apostrophe on a street sign or restaurant menu. Of course I can see why we have to teach these things and why parents should care about their children’s level of competence in English.

However, it makes me extremely upset that an obsession with such technicalities has the potential to wreck a child’s love of their own language. When you are as young as that little lad, creative writing should be fun, shouldn’t it? Leaving aside the dubious value in making your child work over the summer holidays in such a joyless way, I found it heartbreaking that the mother seemed not to see the potential for fun in giving her son a notebook and letting him run riot with his imagination before giving him guidance and advice on how to hone his ideas. Even more heartbreaking, though, was the thought of how anxious the woman seemed to feel about her son attaining certain targets in the academic year to come. She cannot be alone in feeling this.

I only hope that, come September, her son will find himself fortunate to have one of the many inspirational teachers we have in this country who are still in love enough with their subject to occasionally throw out the rulebook and teach from the heart instead.


Monday, 28 July 2014

Writings and paintings

This passage from Kate Rundell's gorgeous Rooftoppers always makes me think of an impressionistic painting:

Paris lay still below them. From where Sophie stood, with both her hands wrapped round the neck of a carved saint, it was a mass of silver, except where the river shone a rusty-gold colour in the lamplight. (p.224)

The way she adds the 'rusty-gold' to the 'mass of silver' - what a lovely contrast of warm and cold metals... and look at those tiny yellow specks from 'the lamplight', which you can just see, can't you, on the surface of the Seine? 

I love the fact that it's a child seeing all this from above, from a place that people generally don't go to, and that she's there with her arms hugging a stern, stone figure - as if trying to give it the affection it's never had. For me, it's this painting:

Gustave Caillebotte, Rue Halévy (1878)

Stories almost never unfold in my head like films when I read, but I do sometimes 'see' static images - paintings, photographs - often specific styles or artistic currents. Sometimes it's the other way around: I'm reminded of a book when I look at a work of art. The other day I went to Madrid for the first time, and I saw in the huge and wonderful Prado museum this well-known triptych by Bosch:

Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490?)
Immediately I was reminded - of course in part because I'd just read it - of J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm, with its grotesque gallery of monstrous protagonists and torture scenes:

But also, one little detail called back to my mind a similarly gripping summer read from years ago I'd almost entirely forgotten, Michael Connelly's A Darkness More Than Night... A Harry Bosch adventure, not coincidentally:

it's a story full of Boschian owls, that's all I can remember...
Now Galbraith and Connelly are linked in my mind as inextricably as Rundell and Caillebotte.

Generally, it happens with very famous rather than obscure works of art, perhaps because those tend to stick in one's head more. In children's literature, here are other associations, personal and therefore not always logical, though some are much more obvious than others:

Lois Lowry's The Giver and the 1956 French film The Red Balloon
Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses and Norman Rockwell's 'The Problem We All Live With' (1964)

Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon is Anselm Kiefer all the way. Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch is this Edward Hopper...:

yep, it's the Bates Motel, too... not a coincidence, I'm sure.

I didn't like Neil Gaiman's Coraline very much (sorry), but it was Louise Bourgeois's 'Maman' spiders:

Some authors make explicit reference to paintings, films or other visual art forms, like Marcus Sedgwick in Midwinterblood. I love that - I love looking up the works of art mentioned in books, especially when I have no clue what they are and it throws a completely new light on the text. Some painters, some paintings and some movements seem to crystallise writers' attention. Da Vinci, of course, but also the Surrealists in general, it seems.

Similarly, when I write, I never really picture my characters in my head, but there's always a lot of colours, and many static images, like paintings or stills from films or photographs. Fun adventure stories, whether I write them or read them, look quite like Sonia Delaunay's circles and spirals:

Pippi Longstocking!
Is it a kind of synaesthesia? Not sure, it's not automatic - it only happens with some books, and some paintings or works of art. It also depends hugely on what I've just read or seen, and in which contexts. Does that happen to you too? With which texts and which images? 

Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter humour/adventure series - the Sesame Seade mysteries with Hodder, the Holy-Moly Holiday series with Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Geopolitics - Lily Hyde

This time last year I wrote a cheerful ABBA post from high in the Carpathian mountains in west Ukraine. I’d been listening to sad and fascinating family stories that are not just stories, from the woman who is and is not Lesya, and thinking I should write them down somehow. 

They were not just stories, although they felt like it to me a year ago. This now is not exactly a story either. 

I went to the village market early, down by the bridge where the icy river rushes along its bed of pale pebbles. The bridge was still in the shade, the sun not yet clear of the pine-green, copper-green mountains. 
The woman who sells there glass jars of bilberries sat as always in her faded apron, her daughter at her side – and this morning the woman was weeping and wailing, her salty tears running down into the jars. The little girl fiddled with the apron strings with fingers berry-stained blue, and said sternly, stop crying, Mama. Stop it. 
There was no need to ask why she was crying. But in the Russian she learned at school, peppered with words from Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian, the woman told me anyway. 
Yesterday she was out on the polyana, the high Carpathian mountain pasture where the village sheep flocks wander all summer. She looked up from the bilberry bushes and watched the animals feeding on the steep slopes, like a handful of white and brown beads scattering from a broken string. 
This was what her great-grandfather saw each summer, here on these same mountains, before he was taken off to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914 and never came back. This is what her grandfather saw, before he was mobilised in 1938 by the Czechoslovak army, and what, via Hungarian, German and Soviet armies, he at last came home to. 
This is what she grew up with, this woman I’ll call Lesya. Her husband grew up with it; their daughter will grow up with it, maybe, although this traditional way of life is dying out at last and anyway Lesya wants something better for their daughter: Europe, travel, civilization, not smelly sheep on high pastures and a hard struggle for existence that hasn’t changed for centuries. 
That doesn’t stop Lesya thinking it’s the most beautiful and precious thing in the world; it is her world, her country, these sheep strung out over the green mountainside, the crystal air flush with their bleating and their ringing collar bells.    
She watched the sheep, and then she turned back to picking bilberries because her husband’s pay as a mobilised soldier in the Ukrainian army isn’t much. As well as jar-fulls at the market she can sell berries by the kilo to traders, who haul them off in refrigerated lorries to far-away Kyiv, maybe even to where her husband is now in further-away east Ukraine, a world she’s never seen though it is part of her country too, apparently. 
You already know how the rest of this story goes. While Lesya was picking bilberries, her husband was killed yesterday in that far-off East Ukraine war. She came home in the evening down the familiar paths to the village, when the news was already old. Early this morning she walked to market to sell those berries she was picking at the time her husband died, because what else can she do? 
And I bought them, because what else could I do? I bought the glass jar they were in too, for much more money than it is worth. I hold it in my hands now, full of tears stained berry blue, as I listen to that stern little girl’s voice saying, stop crying, stop it. 


Saturday, 26 July 2014

Things that no-one tells you about publishing: deadlines - Cavan Scott


That's the noise I'm making today. Why? Because this blog post is an hour or so late going up online. Quick, hit me with a stick ancient deadline-gods.

Douglas Adams famously said: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by!"

I'm the other way. I have a pathological fear of missing deadlines. It comes from my magazine background. My first ever job in publishing wasn't in editorial but in print production, sending the files - long before digital - to the printers. Most of the time, this meant I was in the hands of the editorial teams. If they were late, I was late and would have to field increasingly angry calls from my contact at the printers, worried about the yawning gap appearing their print slots.

Now, as a work-for-hire writer, I'm forever juggling deadlines. But one thing no-one ever, ever mentions when you start out is that deadlines can shift when you least expect it, which can have a house of cards effect. It could be as simple as having to rely on materials sent by a publisher to write your book. If the materials are late, it knocks everything back. Usually the publisher will try and give you a new deadline, but it's not always possible. And if they do, that can impact on another project.

I've had another case recently when a big deadline suddenly came forward as the the publication date came forward six months. Cue much frantic rescheduling and biscuits. (Biscuits always help)

Usually, despite the stress, such goalpost-moving is manageable, even if it means burning the midnight oil from time to time and, in one extreme case last year, cancelling a holiday. And, by and large, publishers are understanding, especially when they've made the change. It's just another of those things you're never really told when you start out in this crazy business. Hmmmm, perhaps we should start a list of things you should expect but no-one ever talks about...

Anyone got any others?

Friday, 25 July 2014

Turning to Crime - Tamsyn Murray


You...yes, you...come here, I've got a confession to make. I've been a naughty girl, see. I've been thinking bad thoughts. I have been working out the best ways to break the law. And last weekend, I met up with a bunch of people who were doing exactly the same thing. I went to the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.

First of all, can I say that there can be no finer place for contemplating murder than Harrogate. It's genteel and gorgeous and manicured to within an inch of its life. If you were to bump someone off, I feel the chief concern would be not getting blood on the geraniums. But we weren't there to admire the blooms or take in a cream tea in Bettys Tea Rooms (although naturally, I did) - we were there to consider dark deeds and twisted motives. We were there to bring on a crime-wave.

TOP Crime Festival is a great mixture of readers and writers. Because I don't write crime, I was technically there as a reader and I certainly picked up a lot of new books but I actually went as a writer, to see how other authors put their stories together. I'm a great believer in being inspired by fellow writers and I knew from the very first talk I attended that I'd made a good choice in coming to Harrogate. Not only did I flesh out my crime novel idea (well you knew that was coming, didn't you?) but I learned a lot too. Denise Mina taught me about Narrative Inevitability (the way the story arcs towards an inescapable conclusion), Natalie Haynes explained that Oedipus Rex was the first whodunnit? SJ Watson revealed the meaning of the Rubber Ducky moment, where an antagonist confesses that the reason he is a cold-blooded serial killer is because his mother took his rubber ducky away when he was six. And I know way more than I need to about the effects of rats on corpses and the inner workings of saunas.

One of my biggest light-bulb moments came during JK Rowling's interview as Robert Galbraith. In her discussion with Val McDermid, they touched upon why whichever book you are writing feels like your worst story ever, and why the book you want to write next is so enticing. And I was amazed to discover that JK Rowling herself suffers from the same insecurities and fears we do. I frequently tell my writing students that every writer I know fears they might never write another book again. At TOP Crime Festival, I discovered that it really is true: even the most successful among us struggle with self-doubt and the conviction that our WIP is a steaming pile of poo.

Now I'm back home and I'm still thinking about breaking the law. The difference is that I know exactly how I'm going to do it now. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why I've switched to self-publishing: Diana Kimpton

We're delighted today to have a guest post from author Diana Kimpton, well-known to many for running, with her husband Steve, the website ContactAnAuthor. She's recently started up a new website about self-publishing, and here she tells us why.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I knew I already had two publishers eager to see my first novel for older readers. I knew that if I went with one of them, I’d be likely to get a good advance and good sales. 
But I also knew that the world of publishing was changing fast. Self publishing was now a viable option -  I’d already tried it with two backlist titles so I knew what was involved. And I also knew that There Must Be Horses was the best book I had ever written. Did I want to hand it over to someone else or did I want to stay in control?
In the end, I decided to do it my way, and I published There Must Be Horses myself in October 2012.  The ebook came first, closely followed by a print-on-demand print version and a few months later by a short print run organised and distributed by Troubador because I’d discovered that I hated handling orders.
Almost two years on, I’m convinced I made the right decision. I probably would have sold more copies initially with a traditional publishing deal, but I make more per book so I don’t mind. Despite being self-published, the book has been reviewed in PONY magazine and The School Librarian, and it’s still selling steadily, often featuring in the best selling list for its genre. (It’s topped it once or twice.)
Of course, there was no advance and I had to pay all the up-front costs myself. But these were much lower than I’d expected – £650 for the ebook and POD edition, plus about the same for the print run – and I’d covered all those costs by January of this year so all the money I receive from the book now is pure profit. Plus I still hold all the rights to the book so what happens to it in the future is entirely up to me.
Would I do it again? Now’s a good time to ask that as I’ve just had the latest in my Pony-Mad Princess series, published traditionally. On the plus side for the traditional route, the advance for Princess Ellie’s Perfect Plan was very welcome. I’ve enjoyed working with a very pleasant bunch of people and the final book looks good. On the minus side, I’ve had to give up the rights to my book for many years to come. I’ve missed the fun and satisfaction of self-publishing and, right now, I’m missing the instant access to sales figures that I get when I use Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace.
That's why I’ve decided to stick with self-publishing for the foreseeable future. As I work on the final rewrites for The Green Sheep, I know that the book should be in the hands of readers before the year is over. The cover is already underway thanks to a brilliant bit of drawing by illustrator Jonathan Allen and I’m already working on a marketing plan.
There’s only one thing I’m going to change. I published There Must Be Horses under my own name because I didn’t want to hide the fact that I was self-publishing. But that looks odd when written in a magazine review so The Green Sheep and the books that follow it will be published under my own imprint – Kubby Bridge Books.

I’ve been asked so many questions about self-publishing that I’ve started helpwithpublishing.com: a website with a growing list of articles as well as a database of freelance editors, designers and illustrators who are willing to work directly with authors.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Back Home - Maeve Friel

After nearly two years in Panamá, I am back in my own house in a tiny village in Alicante, Spain. (That´s my front door with the lovely iron door knocker which is very traditional in this area - it´s a gloved hand knocking at the door with an orange.) 

When I first went to Panamá, I knew little about it except that it had a canal and a hat (and the hats, it turned out, were actually from Ecuador). I quickly embarked on  a rapid immersion course of Panamanian ecology, political history and culture. My head was soon spinning with tales of Spanish conquistadors, Welsh and English pirates in the Caribbean, runaway slaves, pearl fishermen, the 49ers who crossed the isthmus to get to the California gold rush, the Chinese workers who built the railway.

 I read about the thousands of men who died of yellow fever and malaria during the first doomed attempt by the French to build the canal. I learned how President Truman engineered Panamá´s independence from Colombia in 1903 and the subsequent land grab so that the Americans could take over and complete the canal. I read Grahame Greene´s Getting to Know the General about his friendship with the dictator Trujillo who made the Americans return the canal to Panamanian governance. I visited the grave of ballerina Margot Fonteyn whose Panamanian playboy husband was shot and left paraplegic by a furious husband. I went to an exhibition about Paul Gauguin´s stay in Panamá when he worked as a labourer on the canal during the French era.  

Panama city was a city of huge contrasts, with soaring skyscrapers and an old and very beautiful colonial city emerging from years of neglect. 
I spent weekends walking in rainforests or visiting South Sea and Caribbean islands. We took the train through the jungle (from Pacific to Atlantic in an hour) and did a full canal transit (about eight hours).  
On the nights of the full moon, we joined the hundreds of drummers who gathered around the huge curutú tree in the City of Knowledge. I overcame my fear of heights and swam in a swimming-pool on the twenty-seventh floor of our apartment building. 

The biodiversity was amazing - blue morpho butterflies as big as saucers, a sloth which hung on the school playground fence,  flocks of pelicans on the roof of the fish market, gangs of bandit coatimundis raiding the bins,  a toucan in the mango tree and huge migrations of vultures which soared over the city in October and November making their way from Canada to Chile.  One week,  millions of luminous black and emerald butterflies crossed the isthmus, clouds of them fluttering over the heads of the joggers on the coastal strip - it was like  living in a Gabriel García Marquez novel.  

Surely, I thought, I can get a book out of all this. 

Last winter, I started a novel which is set in Panamá in the 1920s but I haven´t even got a decent first draft yet. However, since leaving the country,  I have discovered something very important. 
I need to do some very major surgery. I need to cut the hooptedoodle (the part that readers tend to skip, as Elmore Leonard called it). There is too much information.  I don´t need my reader to know as much as I now do about my beloved Panamá. 
Actually, what I most need to do, is close that door up there and ignore anyone knocking.