Saturday, 22 October 2016

How do you know when your book is any good? By Dan Metcalf

The question of 'How do you know when your book is any good?' cropped up on a discussion topic and I found myself feeling quite passionate about my answer. So here goes:

I think you know when your book is good when it excites you. When you can't wait to dive back in and go through it with a fine toothcomb and rewrite it. When you think about it all the time – in the shower, on the drive to work, during mealtimes and in a meeting when you really should be paying attention to what the other person is saying. When you find yourself sneaking a look at the manuscript during the time you're supposed to be letting it rest in a drawer. And when the characters play on in your mind long after you've put down the pen, chattering and arguing in their own unique voice.

If you hate writing the story, if you can't face another day in front of the keyboard, or if you plain old can’t stand your characters, then put it aside or try to reinvent the story so that it is fun for you to write. If you don't have fun writing it, then no one will have fun reading it. Be your own biggest fan, and write the story you want to read.

So don't rewrite something if you know it’s really good, unless you or your editor have a blinkin' good reason to find fault in it. And yes, if it doesn't excite you, cast it aside! You should be your own critic, but unfortunately I think most writers have a very loud internal critic already, poo-pooing their ideas before they hit paper. I'd just like to fly the flag for believing in your own work, and making sure that you love every last letter of it.

How do you feel about this? What safeguards have you got in place to ensure your writing doesn't suck? Let me know in the comments.

Dan Metcalf -

Friday, 21 October 2016

A good neighbour and the gentleness of donkeys by Anne Booth

I am writing a story which has a donkey in it. Now, this is not the first time. Last year I wrote  ‘Refuge’ which is the Christmas story, including the flight into Egypt, as told by the donkey who carried  first the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, and then Mary and baby Jesus into Egypt.  It was illustrated by Sam Usher and published by Nosy Crow to raise awareness of and money for refugees. This year it is being re-issued in paperback format and Nosy Crow have  arranged that it will still raise money for refugees, which is wonderful.

So I am writing another story about a donkey, and I decided I would really actually like to see one in real life. I have always loved donkeys, and I remember happy holidays in Ireland as a child, and Jenny, my Uncle’s donkey. But I haven’t seen one for AGES. I have been reading about donkey sanctuaries online and watching YouTube videos, but that’s not the same.

So I asked a question on Facebook as to whether any of my neighbours knew of any donkeys nearby, and my lovely neighbour Emma messaged me and invited me to tea at a local cidery and tea rooms with farm animals. She was sure there were donkeys.

We got there and had a delicious cream tea served by very friendly staff. We saw llamas and chickens and horses and big guinea pigs called maras, but no donkeys. We were told that the donkeys had been re-homed as apparently the horses in the field kept kicking them and there wasn’t enough room for them to have separate fields. When my friend and neighbour heard where they had been re-homed, she  decided that we would drive there -  the Lord Whisky Animal Sanctuary, where, amazingly, the very kind ladies let us meet Snowdrop and Primrose, whose ears were very soft and with whom I fell in love.

What is the point of this story, apart from sharing pictures of donkeys and confessing to my longing to have some?

Well, this time last week I had to go to London to get my and my husband’s passports urgently renewed. We are going away to Ireland for two nights soon as a special wedding anniversary trip, and having booked the trip I realised our passports would run out before we left. So I had to go up to London to get them fast- tracked. I felt very nervous and irrationally sure that for some reason they would refuse me a passport. My nervousness wasn’t helped by my handbag setting off the alarms as I went through security and the man shouting ‘she’s got a scissors!’. 
But then suddenly everything was fine. The staff - who were white, asian and black, were a great example of multicultural Britain. They were quick to find and confiscate my nail scissors but were kind and understanding, whilst being reassuringly on top of security. When I went upstairs I saw people from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds waiting for British passports, and I suddenly felt really comforted that in spite of the many horrible headlines we read every day, that British people were still tolerant and kind. The man who processed my passport had a daughter at university where I live, and so we had a nice chat about his imminent visit to her.
That wasn’t the only nice thing which happened last Friday. A man working in the underground - a member of the station staff - complimented me on my coat and said it was very unusual, and when I said it was a Nomads fair trade coat he said ‘you’re speaking my language’. When I got the train home a man came and sat next to me eating cashew nuts, and very cheerfully offered me some. I told him that was very kind, and that lots of people had been lovely that day, and he said, ‘yes, you mustn't believe the headlines, people are much nicer than the papers say.’

I was so grateful to my kind neighbour today for taking me not only for a cream tea but for two trips to find donkeys. I was grateful to meet the kind people who look after the donkeys and other animals who need care, and the gentle animals themselves. I really needed that trip, as I have been feeling very depressed about the way our media have been talking about refugees. Today and last Friday reminded me that, like the family Sam Usher drew so beautifully at the end of ‘Refuge’ - we still have great capacity for welcome and kindness in big and little ways, and we need to tell and listen to stories which celebrate this and make our voices be heard above the vile headlines stirring up hate. I am glad that I am writing another story with a gentle donkey in - we can’t have too many of them in this world.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Boys Don't - Joan Lennon

Boys Don't - trailer from Papertale on Vimeo.

I was so impressed by this Vimeo trailer, I wanted to share it.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Support groups for writers - Linda Strachan

As writers we tend to spend a lot of time on our own, unless you count the voices in our heads. Writing is generally a solitary occupation, those hours days and months wrestling with a plot, getting to know our characters and living through their lives, loves and difficulties as if they were our own.  

We find that friends and family who are not writers, however much they try to be accommodating, often do not seem to understand how we feel about being interrupted just at that point when we have finally managed to settle deep into the words and are living and breathing the story.   Even if that interruption is to offer a cup of coffee. 

They cannot see why it can take anything from a few minutes to a few hours of circling the desk, looking out of the window, procrastinating on social media, or playing with exciting stationery and possibly starting a new notebook ...

... before we actually get enticed by the ideas in our heads and settle down to become totally engrossed  in the story.

That is the point when we need to be left alone.  But when we have spent those hours pouring over a keyboard or notebook, this is when we need to get outside, to meet other people and get some exercise.  

A writer's life is a rollercoaster of emotion and only some of that ends up on the page!  We feel such elation when someone likes our new book, or praises our writing, and the flip side - the deep misery when there is a bad review or yet another rejection arrives, however nicely it is phrased. 

We try to control the green eyed monster that makes us feel a deep rage when others are doing well at a time when we  hit a bad patch and is the exact opposite to the need to have people celebrate with us when we are suddenly wanting to scream with delight and share that wonderful feeling of success.  

This is when true and trusted writer friends are what you need.  Friends who know how it feels, have been there and understand the nature of what we do. Most of the writers I know are kind and generous people and I am happy to be part of several different groups of writers who work as a support network for both good and bad times.  

The SAS (Scattered Authors Society), some of whom write on this blog, are a wonderful and diverse group of writers at all stages of their careers, writing many different genres -  all write for children and young adults.  

As the Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland part of my work is to organise events for our members, some of them purely social events, which are a great way of getting to know writers who operate in completely different circles, and sharing experiences and knowledge.
There is a need for trust in any group of people who work in the same industry and especially amongst writers because opening up to others about your writing can leave you feeling vulnerable, and sharp unthinking criticism can be very destructive. 

Sometimes old friends who are not writers struggle to understand what we do and make comments that can cut deeply.  Often delighted that they know a 'real published writer' at others they can be jealous because they are completely unaware of true nature of our business, and believe all the stereotypes portrayed by the media without questioning the reality. 
The idea that all writers are wealthy and sit about all day daydreaming (when we are not going to glitzy parties and signing books for adoring fans); that we get paid the cover price on the books and we just have to go on producing our books and the publishers will publish them, without question, because that is how it works - isn't it? 
No matter how much you try to explain the truth to be honest most people do not want to hear it.

So aside from personal friends who are writers I also belong to a small group of about 7 writers who communicate very regularly.  We share our troubles and our joys, understanding the need at times to state a goal for writing, or ask questions when struggling with a plot problem.  Most of all we trust each other with our hopes and dreams, applaud successes and support each other when things are not so great. 

Some writers get together to share work for criticism but that is something that has to be considered very carefully.  Honest and positive crits are great, but destructive comments can be crippling and unhelpful. When being honest we all need a little kindness even if the news is not good because as writers we are all learning all the time.

 The most important thing about a writers group is that it is supportive and I think it is imperative that there is a strict understanding of what the group is for and if that will work for you, at your particular stage of writing. That said it is one of the best things about being a writer, being able to share your enthusiasm with like minded people.

Do you belong to a writers' group?  If so how important is it to you, and what do you think are the positives and negatives? 


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.

Linda is currently Chair of the SOAiS - The Society of Authors in Scotland 

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me . 

She is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her bestselling series Hamish McHaggis illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby.

blog:  Bookwords 

Monday, 17 October 2016

What's In a Name? - Quite a Lot When you are Writing a Children's Book - by Emma Barnes

What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

Names really shouldn't matter, should they? But actually, if you are writing a book they count for a lot. I doubt that I'm the only writer that only feels I've “got” a character when I've found the right name for them, and worries away until I do.

For Chloe and the Secret Princess Club, I didn't happen on the right name right away. When I was working on the book proposal, I thought of my main character as “Cleo”. Somehow this didn't feel quite right, and when my editor suggested “Chloe” instead, I immediately felt we'd got the right name for my character.

Chloe or Cleo?

Why? Well, my character has big dreams, but an ordinary life, and so Chloe made more sense for her than the rather exotic “Cleo”. (She does get to be a Cleo though – briefly and rather disastrously – towards the end of the book.)

Secondly, I have good associations with the name Chloe. One of my favourite picture books is Chloe and Maude by Sandra Boynton. Chloe and Maude is very much a story of friendship, and so is Chloe and the Secret Princess Club.

There was also a presenter called Chloe on Playschool – a TV show I loved as a child.

Playschool: Chloe with Brian, Humpty and Jemima

Thirdly, although I have good associations with “Chloe” I don't actually know any Chloes. On the whole, I don't like using the names of people I know well as my main characters. It gets in the way somehow.

Fourth and finally, the meaning of the name “Chloe” is green shoot – and this is perfect for my character, because first she is full of bright ideas, and second her mum is a keen gardener.

Aisha left, Eliza centre, Chloe right.  Illustrator: Monique Dong

Then there are Chloe's friends. Chloe's best friend is a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage and I found her name tricky to choose. I know the popular Muslim girls' names in my neighbourhood, but I don't really know the nuances of why particular names might be popular. After trying out several options, I chose Aisha, which is a classic name, but again not a name that I associate with anyone I know.

The third member of the club, Eliza, is Jewish. But most of the Jewish people I know don't choose especially Jewish names for their children. I chose Eliza because 1) it was a name I liked 2) I don't know anyone in real life by that name and 3) it's a bit out of the ordinary. Somehow it seemed the kind of name her parents - healthy-eating, slightly pushy professionals - might be expected to like.

Another important thing was that none of the names of the three main characters began with the same letter or sounded too similar or looked too much the same written down.

Although I didn't plan it that way, if you look at the letters of their first names – they spell ACE. 
And that seemed a nice thing too!

They weren't the only important characters in the book. Chloe has a twin brother, and he was Arthur from the start. This seemed right because Chloe's mum (like Chloe herself) is a bit of romantic, so would have loved the idea of naming her son after the famous King Arthur of Camelot.

But also, I suspect, I had another association in my head – this time with Arthur the Church Mouse, from Graham Oakley's wonderful Church Mice books. Arthur the mouse is practical, sensible and down-to-earth (and rather scathing of those people who aren't) and that's just how I saw my Arthur too!

Of course, like all children everywhere, my characters don't like their names. (No gratitude at all for the time I spent choosing them!) Part of their pleasure in their secret club is that they get to choose new secret names. Aisha becomes Araminta, Eliza is Elisabetta, while Chloe goes for Clarinda (that is until her class do a workshop on Ancient Egypt and she opts for Cleo instead).

What are your favourite character names in the books you've read?  How do you choose names for the characters you create?

Emma Barnes's book Chloe's Secret Princess Club is out now.
Find out more about Emma's books on her web-site.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

DUBS NOW by Tess Berry-Hart

On Friday evening at Liverpool Street Station, people gathered outside the statue of the Kindertransport, where 70 years ago refugee children arrived from Europe on the eve of the Second World War. On Saturday afternoon, crowds marched from Westminster to Downing Street to demand that refugee children be allowed in to the UK. The signs that the campaigners held bore amongst others, the wording: LET THE REFUGEE CHILDREN IN and #DUBSNOW.

There are two routes whereby unaccompanied children in camps in Europe might be brought over to the UK: either to join family in the UK either under the Dublin Protocols (EU family reunification policy) or the Dubs Amendment (67 of the Immigration Act 2016) whereby the UK government should make arrangements to relocate unaccompanied children in Europe.

The Dubs Amendment does not require an unaccompanied child to have family in the UK, but simply to have arrived in Europe before the 20th March 2016 (when the EU-Turkey border deal came into being) and where it is in the child's "best interest" to be relocated to the UK.

Dublin and Dubs sound similar but are actually different: there is an existing, though bureaucratically clogged, system of transfer between the French and UK governments for "Dublin" children, whereas at the moment there is no such system for "Dubs" children. The fear is that the UK government will concentrate on bringing over "Dublin" children with relatives (out of 178 "Dublin" children six arrived on Saturday) and marginalise the "Dubs" children (at least 209 children in the camp have a workable case according to Citizens UK).

Last week the UK government announced that some children from the Calais camp would be allowed into the UK prior to the Calais Jungle being demolished. In Calais, the race is on by volunteer groups to make sure that the 1,022 unaccompanied children are registered by the French authorities before evictions start in earnest next week. Many volunteers report an inconsistent and system by the French authorities in Calais in registering children. The very real fear is that many children will not be registered, or that, mistrusting the system which has tear-gassed and beaten them - they will simply pick up a backpack and disappear.

Since partial demolitions in February, 129 children have gone missing, and 18 more since July, when a list of those eligible to enter the UK under Dublin family regulations (178) or the Dubs Amendment (209) was delivered to the Government.

As regards the rest of the camp, the French authorities have committed to demolishing Calais by the end of October (it's illegal to evict people in winter so they're making sure they do it before November sets in). They have spoken about it for a while but with the French presidential elections looming they mean it this time.

The official line is that camp residents will be put on buses to other parts of France where they will have their asylum claims considered. Concerns have been raised in the French and UK press - by the French defenseur du droit amongst others - that the authorities are not managing the process correctly as they do not have enough places, and those places available are badly converted derelict buildings or garages, often in far-flung places in France.
However, this process does not take account of those residents who have a claim to enter the UK under the Dublin family reunification rules or those children under the Dubs Amendment. Many people will not choose to take up the asylum option, and instead disappear to set up numerous squats and impromptu camps around northern France. The Jungle may disappear, but the need will never disappear.

Last September I visited the camp at Calais for the first time and was horribly stunned at the conditions that people were living in, so much so that I got involved with newly-founded volunteer group Calais Action. If you'd told me that one year on I'd still be working as a volunteer aid worker and campaigning for refugee rights I would have been amazed. I think everyone in the movement would have been amazed - back then we all thought that we needed to stop the gap for a few months until the governments sorted it out. But they will ONLY sort it out when WE, THE PEOPLE, pressure them!

How you can help


PLEASE TWEET @amberrudd_MP using the hashtag #DubsNow to encourage her to take MORE refugee children in Calais - not just "Dublin" children - but "Dubs" children!

PLEASE WRITE to your MP and Theresa May via asking that unaccompanied children under the Dubs Amendment (ie, those WITHOUT family in the UK) ALSO be brought over from Calais immediately. Make clear that you know the difference!

PLEASE SHARE our #DubsNow video on Twitter and Facebook and follow Calais Action and I Am Red on Facebook for more updates!

For evictions:

Please text CALA85 + the amount you want to donate to 70070
Phone credit is often the only security that refugees, and refugee children, have

To buy online and have goods delivered straight to the warehouse, please visit:

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Do you get them post-book blues? by Miriam Halahmy

At first I thought it was the flue jab I had at the end of last week. I had a day of feeling rather unwell - reaction no doubt - and of course that made me feel down in the dumps. But I didn't really pick up.

I wandered around,sighing, made the odd meal, flicked the occasional duster, picked up toys scattered by visiting grandchild, pretended to tidy up. I moved piles of paper from one end of the dining table to the other.

Still sighing.

We were invited out to tea and dinner.
 It was Jewish New Year and the family came over for lunch. Said grandchild was too young for honey with apples and so enthusiastically attacked a dollop of Nutella. Note to self -  Nutella will now be family tradition each New Year.

But I was still sighing.

It was the better half who wearily pointed out the problem. "You're always like this, every single time, only you never remember"
"What?" I sighed in a querying, querulous tone.
"When you finish writing your latest book."
"Oh?"  still vague.
"Yes!" Slightly raised tone. "You always get that ,,,I don't know...empty, post book blues."

Is he going to break into song, I wonder and sit on a crate as he slaps it in time?

But the penny drops. I finished my latest book last week and sent it off to my agent and now it feels as though my hands are empty, My diary's blank. I haven't any days noted in capital letters   WRITE   so that I don't make any coffee or lunch dates.

Well, of course, there are lovely grandparent duties, shopping, cleaning, visiting friends and family, going to art exhibitions...

and of course reading all the books I couldn't allow myself in the last crazy mad-dash weeks when I had to finish the manuscript...I just had to ... I couldn't let it meander any longer through my life...

But it strangely still feels like there is nothing to do.

Right now its a case of coming to terms with PBB and allowing my brain time to rest and recoup before I start something else.

But of course you can't switch off the imagination. The ideas keep coming and coming and...

How do you cope with PBB?