Tuesday, 30 June 2015

I don’t know much about art, but… Lari Don

I’m a writer because I love telling stories with words. And those are two of the few things I’m particularly experienced or skilled at. Stories. Words.

But as a writer, I’m frequently asked to do things that I’m not really qualified to do.

In the box of things I’m not qualified to do, I would include moving heavy furniture to make the best space for an author event, and judging fancy dress competitions on World Book Day. But one thing that I definitely don’t feel qualified to do, yet I’m regularly expected to do (three times in the last month, for example) is comment on the work of visual artists.

Sketches for the Tale of Tam Linn, by Philip Longson 
(My comments were limited to ‘ooooh, isn’t that lovely’ for most of this book!)
As a writer of picture books and a writer of collections of myths, legends and fairy tales, I’m often sent roughs, layouts and proofs of books, and asked for my comments on the illustrations. And I know that the editor doesn’t just want me to say ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely’ (though it usually is!) They want something a bit more … professional.

But at school, I was never taught to look at art, to discuss it, to assess it. I was taught to draw still lifes of teapots and make pottery owls. Now I’m asked for comments on the art of proper professional artists. And my comments might (or might not!) affect the final look of the book.

I have no qualifications or experience to prepare me for this responsibility. Yet, 16 of my 22 books so far have illustrations, even my 6 novels have cover art, and I’ve been consulted, to some extent or another, on every single one of them.

Why? Why ask the writer about the pictures? Initially I thought it was because the publishers wanted me to be happy with the pictures. (!) Lately I’ve realised that it’s probably because, as the writer, I know the story better than anyone.

Striking early illustration from Girls Godddesses and Giants
by Francesca Greenwood, with illegible scribble by me…
I’ve realised that the comments that are most useful aren’t the ‘oooh, I like that’, or ‘oh dear, I don’t like that’ but specific comments actually related to the story. Pointing out that there are three rabbits in the picture when there are only two rabbits in the text, or the fish looks more like an goldfish than a salmon, etc. Not opinions, but facts. Not whether I like it, but whether the illustration works for and with the story.

So perhaps, as the person who created the story, I am qualified to comment on the pictures after all!

And I should say loud and clear that I am always, without exception, bowled over by how illustrations add to the story, and bring it to life. I’ve been privileged to have words of mine appear on pages beside pictures by wonderful artists. And my comments almost always do start with a deeply unhelpful but entirely heartfelt ‘oooh, isn’t that lovely…’

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.

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Monday, 29 June 2015

A small grey pigeon - John Dougherty

You may have read this ABBA piece by the most excellent CJ Busby of this parish. In case you’re the sort of reader who can’t be doing with clicking links, it’s the one with the open letter to the education secretary about the way that children are taught to consciously overcomplicate their writing, cramming it with superfluous adjectives and unwieldy subordinate clauses, in order to… er… well, I’m not quite sure, actually. I imagine it’s in order to show that Somebody is Doing Something.

The Guardian picked up on this, interviewing both CJ and me for this article. You’re going to have to click that link yourself, I’m afraid.

I mention this, because the very day that Guardian article appeared, my 14-year old son came home from school and told me that his English teacher had asked him to amend a description in a piece of writing because the vocabulary used wasn’t ‘advanced’ enough. The description was:

“A small, grey pigeon”.

My son spent several minutes trying to work out how to change the word ‘small’ and the word ‘grey’ to make them more “advanced”. “I could say it’s minuscule,” he said; “but it’s not minuscule. It’s just small.” I suggested he ask his mother, who appears to know more names for colours than Dulux and Farrow & Ball put together, for alternatives for grey, or try something like ‘marl’ or ‘slate’.

In the end, rather than change the description, he changed that whole section of the passage. He made the bird much more significant; it became a strutting monarch in an iridescent grey robe, demanding discarded chips from its subjects. It was quite a neat solution to a wholly unnecessary problem, I thought. 

 Image courtesy of digidreamgrafix
 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I say “wholly unnecessary” because to demand the original description be reframed in more ‘advanced’ vocabulary completely missed the point of the description, as far as I could see. The small, grey pigeon was a powerful image exactly because of its commonplace simplicity. To use more flowery language - to turn it, for instance, into a bijou, gunmetal pigeon, or a compact, cloud-coloured pigeon -  would have robbed it of its ordinariness, turned it into something remarkable. The vocabulary might have been more “advanced”, but the writing, frankly, would have been worse, and the description less accurate. As my son put it, in a burst of frustration before settling down to the task:

“It’s just a small, grey pigeon.”

John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, will be published on July 2nd.

In the meantime, you can read these.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Fear and Wondering - Clémentine Beauvais

Let me introduce you to the disturbing awesomeness of Wonder Ponder. Wonder Ponder is a small publishing imprint, founded by Anglo-Spanish writer Ellen Duthie, which produces desks of philosophical cards for children. On one side of each card, there’s a picture, on the other, a number of philosophical questions to be asked to the child about the picture. Simple. The first deck of cards is called Cruelty Bites (Mundo Cruel); the second, I, Person (Yo, Persona).

Look at how great these cards are:

Another one features a family eating cat soup. Actually, that’s even the one that’s the cover image for the box of cards:

 On the other side of the cards, the questions are thought-provoking whether one is a child or an adult. Is it less bad to kill an ant than another animal? Is it never OK to force someone to do something they don’t want to do? As with many works of philosophy for children, those are time-old, ageless questions, meant to be discussed or debated but not solved. They are not, in themselves, exceptionally original questions for this purpose, though they are certainly picked well and phrased crisply.

But Wonder Ponder is different, in its daringness, to other works I’ve seen of philosophy for children. The graphic style, to start with. The pictures are decidedly dark, hectic, perturbing. Daniela Martagon’s visual identity is that of a cheeky, misbehaving, imaginative child, who loves drawing scenes of war and desolation, squashing ants with a pen, and retorting ‘why not?’ to those who ask ‘why are you so cruel?’.

The provocativeness is, I think, brilliant. Of course, not everyone agrees, and unsurprisingly Wonder Ponder have received some criticism for the overt violence of some of the scenes. They’ve responded with typical wit:

More interesting than the straightforward haters, though, are the people who, in order to make sense of these merciless cards, have suggested that they in fact promote kind and positive messages: Wonder Ponder are pro-animal rights, aren’t they? They suggest ways of becoming nicer to one another, don’t they?

No, has been Duthie’s categorical reply. In a blog post, (which also contains some close-ups of other cards, and a video) she noted with palpable amusement that many people have tried to reclaim Wonder Ponder cards for their own ideological agendas - but she immediately specified that “we don't have contents we wish to insert in the reader, nor specific "right" values to transmit to them.” All they want is for the adult mediator “to have the guts not to indoctrinate”.

Duthie also states, again and again, that no one from Wonder Ponder will ever provide answers or guidelines for reflection to the adult mediators. To play the game, adults must lay their cards on the table, too; no bluffing allowed, no steering the child into specific perspectives or opinions planned in advance.

But surely, people enquired, Wonder Ponder could at least do a box showing nice things, instead of all this distasteful cruelty? Another no from Duthie, in another remarkably smart blog post entitled ‘Why we’d never do a box on “kindness” or accepting diversity’.

Duthie’s blog post is one of these calm, matter-of-fact pieces of writing whose radical nature only truly sinks in on the second or third rereading. Here’s a bit for those of you who are too tired to click on the link:

“The children's literature market is full of positive models of kindness, generosity and tolerance. Children are fed these messages non-stop: be good, be accepting of others, share.
To understand to what extent children are bombarded with these commandments and messages, check out a 6-7 year old's comment on the scene below: 

-Is it cruel?
-Because he's not sharing it with the baby lions.”

What do you think of Duthie's words? agree? disagree? what do you think this example tells us? that the child is wrong? or right? that society is wrong?

I have a lot of time for didactic, political, committed literature for children - it was my PhD topic, and I enjoyed much of the primary material. And I tend to distrust educational enterprises that insist too much on the freedom they supposedly leave the child. I much prefer an openly committed book with a clear thesis to a benevolently liberal one that doesn’t acknowledge that it has a thesis. 

But in the case of Wonder Ponder, I’m completely on board. Perhaps it’s because of the iconoclastic, deliciously naughty feel of it. Perhaps it's because I like Duthie's coherent, plucky position, displayed both in the cards and in the extra-textual material - online, in her promotion plan, etc. Perhaps it's because I'm always in awe of people taking risks to launch cultural and educational projects like these, especially when they're sure to make at least a few people squirmish. But also more simply perhaps because it makes me want to sit down with some kids, and adults, and play the game with them.

Note: A big thank you to Celia, who got me my first Wonder Ponder box

Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia. 

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Where will you go Today? Lynn Huggins-Cooper

I love being an author - but I love being a publisher nearly as much! I have been published for over eighteen years, and I recently started my own small publishing company, The Forest House Press. It is a small concern, but sits snugly in its little niche, producing educational, craft and self help books. This week, we had a fantastic meeting with the Just for Women centre. The centre stands in an old mining town that has suffered terribly from the pit closures in the 1980s, and has never recovered. Yet the women who go to the centre to craft, and share their lives, have created a vibrant, wonderful community. The women are telling their stories and sharing their crafts - and we are creating a book from their writing.

The central idea of the book is how therapeutic crafts can be. I am a crafter as well as an author, and I understand this feeling. I write craft books, as well as many other types of book, and I get to play with lots of beautiful materials in the course of writing my patterns and instructions. Today, I went to Woolfest in Cumbria, and played with everything from sari silk to soft angora wool (and angora rabbits). The materials were beautifully inspiring, which is a great thing as I am in the middle of writing a book about making textile faeries, called Faerierealms.

For me, though, as therapeutic as crafts are, reading (and writing) are just as good. Books take me out of myself, whether I am reading them or writing them. When I read a novel, I drift from my world into a new one. It's like taking a holiday without leaving home. Where will you go today?

Friday, 26 June 2015

Under Cover by Julie Sykes

In the good old days if you’d asked me what I was reading I would give you the title of my current book. Ask me the author and I’d know that, too. Ask me the publisher and you’d have yourself a hat trick.

Fast forward to now. Ask me the title of the book I’m currently reading and I would have to think about it. I might remember eventually. Then again, I might not. I would struggle to tell you the author and as for the publisher. No chance.

So what’s changed, apart from my age - and seriously, I’m not anywhere near old enough to start blaming that for a poor memory.

Well, I think it’s the way I’m reading. In the good old days I bought books. Lots of them. My guilty pleasure was to have a stack of books, lying horizontally on the shelf, all waiting to be read.

These days I read on a Kindle. It’s SO transportable. When I go on a journey I can take as many books as I like and all in the one handbag. It’s much easier to buy books. I finish one and can purchase and download the next, immediately. And (I’m VERY ashamed to admit to this – probably a post for another blog!) e-books are cheap.

And here lies the problem with my poor memory. When you put a book down the cover is there, waving. Goodbye. It winks each time you pass it. Remember me? We were having such fun together. When are you coming back? It shouts LOUDLY at you when you finally pick it up again. Yay! Knew you couldn’t resist me.

The author’s name plays along. On the cover, nudging you gently. Whispering in your ear. My name’s…..Can we be friends?

The publisher’s name is there, too, a little more discrete, often on the spine, but still a presence. Ahem, excuse me for butting in, but did you know that The Little Fox Paw Printing Press brought you this story?

There are many excellent things about the e-reader, but trust me, the cover isn’t one. For a start, unless you read on a tablet or something similar, the cover is grey. It’s also very shy. You see it once, at the start, and sometimes not even then if the book automatically opens on the first page.

So here’s a challenge to any clever inventors or techie types out there. Design a cover for an e-reader that displays the book currently being read and in colour. Can it be done? Is there a market for it? What do you think?

ps My current reading book is a real one. Bits of its lovely cover are shown here in the text. If you haven’t guessed by now, then it’s I’ll give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson, published in the UK by Walker Books.

I knew all that without having to think about it!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Deadlines in the Rear View Mirror by Tamsyn Murray

"I love deadlines," said Douglas Adams. "I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

This has been my mantra this year. Well, one of them anyway. It's been a difficult year, personally, although excellent on a professional front. I've got a few books out and lots of more to write. I'm giving up my day job next week, which has been a dream and a goal for seven years. The trouble is that the personal stuff gets tangled with the professional and it's impossible to unravel the two. For me, on a tight writing schedule as well as juggling two jobs and a three year old, that's meant there've been more whooshing sounds than I'd like. And the problem is that deadlines love to whoosh: once one does it, they all get in on the fun and before you know it, there's more whoosh than a rave in an ecstasy factory. Even this blog post is late.

My editors have been fabulous, despite having little or no wiggle room in their schedules. And I know books sometimes are tricksy, writhing creatures that defy all your efforts to pin them down: they're often delivered late. The trouble is that I like to consider myself a professional and I hate failing to do a job by the agreed date, no matter what the circumstances. I've had to rely on the kindness of my publishers, admit that there's a problem and deal with the feelings of failure that has engendered, on top of everything else I've been going through. Grief is a bugger too; just when you think you've got it licked and you're back on track, it twists its sly fingers into your heart again and you realise it never really left.

I think it's important to acknowledge that writing isn't always easy. There's a tendency to pretend everything is fine, everything is SHINY and AMAZING when it might not be. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining in any way - I know I am very lucky to have deadlines and normally I thrive on them. I'm just looking forward to a time when I see them in my rear view mirror and can put my foot down before they whoosh by.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Riding the wave of procrastination - Liz Kessler

My actual job at this moment is to write a book. It will be my second YA novel. It is due with my editor in September. I am loving writing it. But because I am cursed with The Procrastinatory Mind Of The Writer, my days involve a LOT, LOT more than actual writing of this book.

And by the way, The Procrastinatory Mind Of The Writer is an actual thing. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself – why are you here? What are you REALLY meant to be doing whilst you are instead reading this? Huh?


Oh, and before you accuse me of having written about this before. Well, yes. Maybe I have. Twice. But it’s a big subject and there’s a lot to say – so I’m saying it again.

My daily work target is to write 1,500 words. In theory, I do NOTHING until I have done at least half of this. No internet, no walking the dog, no phoning my mum. Nothing.

Here’s what I did yesterday before writing a word of my novel. I think the first group of activities count as work.
  • Watched the live feed of the Carnegie Medal award. (It’s about writers.)
  • Looked up methods of exorcising ghosts. (Research for current book.)
  • Made about seven cups of tea. (Fuel?)
  • Answered some questions for a friend’s article in The Author. (A magazine for writers.)
  • Looked up articles about gender and language to prepare for a Radio Three programme I’m going to be on this week. (Raising profile.)
  • Replied to many emails. (Mostly work.)

The next few activities might not be quite so easily classified as work:
  • Made arrangements for meeting up with my mum next week.
  • Ditto for meeting up with sister.
  • Started a long thread on Facebook about a splinter in my toe.
  • Removed said splinter with the help of partner, tweezers, needle and iPhone torch.
  • Frightened myself silly over various friends’ splinter-related horror stories.
  • Ordered a birthday present for partner.
  • Generally chatted with friends on Facebook.
  • And Twitter.
  • And maybe posted a photo on Instagram.
  • Perhaps had a few goes of a ridiculously addictive game called 'Dots'. (Don't look it up. Don't do it. Take it from me: you will lose days of your life to it.)
  • Looked out at the sea and wondered about going surfing. 
  • Ate fridge cake.

At some point, meandering through all of this like a river determined to reach its destination despite looking very much like a half-hearted trickle in places, the words got written. They got written! All 1,500 of them.

There's a voice inside me somewhere, shouting: ‘But this isn’t how I want to work!!!!!’ It’s disjointed, it’s messy, it’s lacking in solid focus, it’s undisciplined.

But then there’s another voice. This one is coming from the side of me that has learned about mindfulness techniques where you accept what ‘is’ rather than battle against it. And it’s the side that remembers many conversations with my lovely friend Jen who introduced me to the idea that the process of writing a book has seasons.

This voice says: look, the book is getting written. It’s happening. You’re on schedule. So why sweat it? Yes, you could switch off the internet a bit more. Yes, you could write maybe a little more than one sentence at a time before distracting yourself with yet another activity that is not writing the book. But maybe all of these things are what you need to do, while the story brews in the background.

I’m liking this voice. 

And in fact, I only have to look outside my window for confirmation that it might be right. Watching people surf – or being on the waves myself – is a good example of how this whole thing works. See, there is a lot more to surfing than the moment when you ride a wave. You have to hoik yourself into your wetsuit, get your board, go down to the beach, do a few stretches, run down to the water, paddle out to the breaking waves, sit on your board and wait, then paddle like crazy and then, THEN, you get maybe ten seconds – at most – of that exhilarating feeling of riding the wave. That moment is a fraction of the whole experience.

So perhaps that is how it is with writing, too. All the other activities are the warm-ups and preparation. The writing – the bit that does in fact make my heart sing – is the moment of riding the wave. 

Once I accept this fact, I can already start to relax. This doesn’t mean I can give myself permission to faff for almost the entire day. The background work needs to feel more focussed, I admit, and genuinely needs to be part of supporting the writing process in one way or another. But there’s no point in thinking that I can just jump out of bed and onto a wave. It simply doesn’t work like that for me. 

I’ve often told beginner writers that they need to learn what their own process is and be happy with it. So I need to do the same.

On which note, I am off to catch a metaphorical wave.

But I might just do one or two more metaphorical stretching exercises first.

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