Friday, 19 September 2014

Marking a Day of History - A Call to Write: Lucy Coats

It is hard to know what to write today - because I am writing this in the past. Today's landscape may be very different from yesterday's. Are we a nation irrevocably divided or a nation still hanging together by a thread? You, reading this, will know if Scotland is still with us. I do not yet.

It is a rare thing to realise, in advance, that a day of history is happening. Normally we can only look back and see with hindsight that it was so. Sometimes it's a small thing - a pebble which rolls a little way, almost unnoticed, and then sets off an avalanche of global proportions. Sometimes it's something so epic, so inconceivable, that it is itself the avalanche.

As writers and readers, I think we have a responsibility to mark days of history, even if only for ourselves. So I ask this of all of you reading this, writers or not: will you write today, please? Whichever side of the debate you have been on, - yes, no, or none - will you write down your experience of it so that future generations can know how you felt today? Whether you choose fiction or fact doesn't matter, whether you publish or keep it private doesn't matter. What matters is that it's there, a body of evidence for future generations if they want to read it. I will come back later today and write down my own reactions below. It will probably be a very emotional addendum, whatever the result. I am a Scot, after all.

Postscriptum: 8.30am 19th September 2014 written as events unfolded:

"I wake all at once, dumped rudely out of sleep, ears full of the morning twittering of the blackbird in the apple tree. He is louder than usual, his song urgent, a reveille.
Get up get up get up! 
Then I remember.
My heart gives a great bang, and my inner workings tingle, small jolts of nerve lightning tugging at and twitching my muscles. My belly is uneasy, empty yet clenching, surging upwards.
It is today.
I want to know. And yet, I don't.
I lie there, warm, until I can't any more, then I open the shutters. The sudden flood of grey light makes me squint, screw up my blind mole eyes. There are more fallen apples today, and a crow flies away into the dim mist. Am I looking out on a world quite changed from yesterday?

I went to bed before midnight, unable to bear the vapid maundering on the BBC. At the bottom of everything then lay the one fact: "We don't know anything, and we're going to tell you so over and over in a myriad ways." The news pundits on Twitter though - they thought differently. Most had already called it for the No camp.
But will it be?
I can't bear to turn on the radio or TV yet. Because when I do it will be real - whatever 'it' is. It can't be undone. I won't be able to go back to nervous ignorance. You may wonder why I'm making such a fuss. It's hard to explain. I tried writing a love letter to Scotland earlier in the week. It goes some way to telling you how important this vote is to me. Right now, though, the memory I have which comes closest to the way I feel now is 17 January 1991 when I watched the first planes go into Iraq and wondered, as I laid hands on my three-month-pregnant belly, what sort of world I was bringing my child into. I have the same sense that the world is about to shift under my feet.
It's time.
I can't be a coward any longer.
The stairs creak under my feet in the empty house.
My fingers slide and stumble on the small round buttons.
Oh God! Anticlimax. It's the weather. Hurry up, woman! I want to know now, get it over. Oh, please. I don't care about muggy nights and chilly in rural areas...cloudy, murky, dawn bright over Scotland, the words tumble past, meaningless.
No 55%
Yes 45%
The figures flash up on the screen, red and green. Suddenly I'm not sure how I feel as the politicians witter on and on to BBC Hugh.
Am I happy we're still together?
Yes. I wanted that. I believe in our Union.
Am I proud?
Yes. Immensely. This is democracy at work. People - old ones and young ones and all in between - have voted in millions. An 86% turnout? There's a tightening in my throat and a prickling in my nose. That's amazing, humbling.
But although we are still together, those Scots, my soul brothers and sisters, my family, have changed the landscape of the (still) United Kingdom together and forever through the power of the ballot box.
Their voices cannot be ignored, and I find myself on my feet and cheering that.
It is time and past time for change.
So thank you, beloved Scotland, both the passionate Ayes and the passionate Noes. You have done us all a service. We just don't know the shape of it yet.

Millions more words of witness will be written to mark this day of history. These are mine."

New dates announced for Lucy's Guardian Masterclass on 'How to Write for Children' Why not book now?

Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is now out from Nosy Crow!
"If you’re going to select only one revolting, repulsive pirate book, this is arrrr-guably the best." Kirkus
"What right-minded child could resist his allure?" Books for Keeps
"A rollicking story and a quite gloriously disgusting book that children (especially boys) will adore!" Parents In Touch magazine
Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths is available from Orion Children's Books.
"A splendid reminder of the wonder of the oldest of stories…should be in every home and classroom" The Bookseller
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Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Yes, No, Maybe? Decisions are the stuff of life.

Today, the 18th of September 2014, is the day Scotland goes to the polls to decide whether to become and independent country or to stay within the United Kingdom and much of the world is looking on.
Living and working in Scotland it would be difficult to ignore what is going on all around me and it is too important.  But this is not a blog about the Referendum, because votes are being cast as you read this, the decision is already being made and the outcome will be something we will all have to live, with whatever our own thoughts are.

Decisions are sometimes easy and at other times much more difficult so I wanted to look at the decisions we make as we write.

As I have said before, I am not a planner, so when I am starting to write a new book an idea pops into my head and I start to write about it, often with no idea what the story is or where it is going.
I need to try it out, run with it and see where it takes me.  It is a very exciting stage.

When I started writing Dead Boy Talking I was on a train coming back from visiting a school and with a notebook open in front of me I was thinking about what my next YA novel would be.

The title DEAD BOY TALKING was the first thing I wrote down, followed by the first line...

                       'In 25 minutes I will be dead.'

I had a picture in my head of a boy sitting on a pavement bleeding from a knife wound and it was cold, but most of all he was alone.
I was wondering how desperate that would be, how scared I would be if it was me. I started to write but it was his voice I could hear.

The first page of the book hardly changed from the words I scribbled in my notebook that day...

  'The knife slipped into my body a bright, sharp edge of death, a thief.  It sliced easily through leather, skin and flesh. Hot, red blood coating it's blade, warming the icy metal with a precious searing heat....  '

I was imagining how it might feel to be stabbed, scared and all alone.  But then I started wondering if the reader would be thinking that this was another book where the main character is dead before it starts. Almost without making a conscious decision,  the boy's voice intruded on my thoughts again. I feel it is instinctive at this stage and I try not to over-think it.

  'No, this is not some  dead person talking from the grave. It's just me, Josh, You know me.
  I'm not scared.
  I'm not!
  Who am I kidding?
  It can't really be happening to me, can it?'

There - I knew his name now!
But I still knew very little about Josh or why he was in that situation and what had happened to him that led to this.  Also one of the crucial things I didn't know was whether his statement about having 25 minutes to live was right or not. Would I have him alive or dead at the end of the book?

Many of the decisions are made as the story progresses and I get to know the characters better.  If I know them well enough I know how they would act in any situation and as long as I am true to their character the reader will find it credible.  But sometimes the decision is about whether the character will do something completely at odds with their normal behaviour.
That is a decision that often shows how multifaceted the character is. We are all complex human beings so if I decide he has to act contrary to his nature there has to be a strong driving force that leads him to do that, otherwise it will not be believable.

How often have you seen someone act in a way that surprises you? It just shows that we can never fully know another person but if they do act out of character there will be a reason behind it.

The decision about whether he would survive or not was a difficult one, it could go either way.  Much the same as in ordinary life, we cannot know if someone will survive a knife wound. In the end I went with my gut feeling about what was right for the story but somewhere in the back of my mind is always the reader, so whatever the outcome there has to be, in my  opinion, a sense of hope. They need to know that whatever happens, life will go on.

There were also other things to find out about Josh. What was his family like, who are his friends, what was the pivotal thing in his life that changed everything. In this case it was his older brother running away from home, and never coming back.  Josh's life changed that day because everyone around him was focussed on his brother, and he felt lost and betrayed but there was nothing he could do about any of it.

 A writer has to make many decisions as a story progresses but perhaps the most important are how it begins and how it ends.
If the beginning does not draw the reader in they might not bother reading on.  I always feel that when you get to the end of a book you should feel satisfied, like having had a good meal, not too much or too little but a sense that you have come to the end of a journey.

What decisions are you most aware of when you start writing?

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Tale of Two Book Festivals: from Leeds to Edinburgh - by Emma Barnes

After speaking to 350 children at Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s easy to get depressed in the worlds of children’s books: whether it’s the ongoing closure of public libraries, the fact that writers are earning less and less or the dismal statistic that over 1 in 4 British children don't own a single book.  But, if you haven’t abandoned me already, there ARE bright spots.  One of these positive trends is the amazing growth of literary festivals.

Big festivals are growing.  Small festivals are mushrooming. 

This summer I witnessed both ends of this spectrum, doing events at one of the newest festivals and  one of the most long established. 

Leeds Big Book End - Children's Programme

The Leeds Big Bookend has been set up by a bunch of enthusiastic and dynamic people in the city where I live, Leeds, who felt that with virtually everywhere else around us boasting a festival – Ilkley, Harrogate, Morley, Wakefield (I could go on) Leeds should have one too.  Entirely run by volunteers, it’s obviously been immensely hard work.

The children’s venue was rather tucked away above a health food shop…and yet inside the organizers had built a wonderful story-telling yurt, to which every child in the place immediately gravitated.  It was lovely.  And still small enough and intimate enough that I probably had chat with every child there.

Fellow author Kate Pankhurst in the Leeds yurt: Photo credit - Coronita Coronado

Then, at the end of August, I was off to one of the biggest and most well-established of festivals – the EdinburghInternational Book Festival (EIBF), where I was taking part in the Schools Gala Day.  The EIBF is a major event in the literary world, where probably the highlight of a packed children's programme this year was an appearance by Malala Yousafzai, introduced by JK Rowling.

Edinburgh is my original home town and I’ve been to the book festival there for years.  I remember sitting in small tents, sometimes with a handful of people, listening to the speakers organized by Scottish Book Trust.   Now the programme has grown hugely and the marquees in Charlotte Square are a hub bub of activity, with enormous queues, packed out events, famous faces passing in the crowd and a whole lot of people eating ice cream and sunning themselves on the grass  (well, Edinburgh weather permitting).

Of course, I’ve heard critics say that this growth in festivals only affects a few people – the book-buying public, and the families who encourage their children to read anyway.   In other words, festivals are the past-time of a literary elite.

Not so.  My own first event was for an audience of around 350 children who had traveled to the Festival with their schools – seven different primaries from across Scotland.  And in the afternoon, I did another school event in a local library – part of the Festival’s Outreach Programme, that takes writers and illustrators to meet children who most likely wouldn’t have the chance to come to the Festival.  And this year Edinburgh also ran a Writer in Residence scheme – enabling a writer to go in and work with children in a school over an extended period, creating their own picture books.

Questions prepared by the children at my EIBF outreach event

Edinburgh isn’t alone in this.  Many literary festivals run programmes of school visits, bringing together teachers, children, writers and illustrators.

When I was growing up, I never met an author or illustrator.  I was fascinated by books, but I never thought that writing them was something that living, breathing people did.  (I knew Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl were dead…I reckoned the rest probably were too.)

Now, many children are meeting authors, and that has a lot to do with book festivals.

Did I inspire any of the children I met this year?  I don’t know.  I know they laughed a lot.  I know they had lots of questions.  And I know when a bunch of those 350 children came up onto the stage and acted out their own story about my character, Wild Thing (where she and her sister visited Edinburgh Castle and accidentally set off the One O’clock Gun) they certainly inspired me.


Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Why I'm a Happy Hybrid, by Jenny Alexander

Today we have very welcome guest post from Jenny Alexander, who continues the discussion started by Nicola Morgan and Diana Kimpton on self-publishing.

In recent posts, Nicola Morgan wrote: ‘Why I don’t want to self-publish again’ and Diana Kimpton: ‘Why I’ve switched to self-publishing’ -  and both of them made points I completely agree with. I’m like the characters in the supermarket ad - ‘I like this one... but I also like this one!’ I’m just delighted that now we have a choice.

I’ve got two books in the publication process at the moment, one with a traditional publisher and one that I’m publishing myself.

The Binding will be published by A and C Black, in February 2015.

 I like this one because:

  • I’ve got a brilliant editor who loves the book – which is very affirming!
  • I haven’t had to do anything except some light edits and help in choosing the cover.
  • A team of top experts have taken care of all the design so I know it will be a top quality product.
  • I’ve been paid an advance and will receive royalties.
  • In an increasingly competitive market, there’s still kudos in being traditionally published.
  • I won’t be completely on my own with promoting and marketing.
  • My agent will be taking it to Frankfurt, seeking foreign deals.

Writing in the House of Dreams will be published by Five Lanes Press (ie me) on October 15th 2014.

I like this one because:
  • I’ve had complete creative control.
  • I’ve set my own publication date and chosen my own sales channels.
  • I know it will stay in print for as long as I want it to'
  • I’ll earn a far higher royalty on units sold'
  • It’s felt completely empowering to be able to give it a chance.
Before the self-publishing option was available, this child-of-my-heart book would have sat on my shelf, gathering dust. I know it’s of publishable quality because my agent was happy to represent it and the feedback we’ve had from publishers has been entirely positive, including such comments as ‘I found it gripping’ and ‘I read it in a single sitting,’ which is pretty good for a non-fiction book. The reason most of them gave for rejecting it was that the subject is ‘too niche for the market.’

Because it’s hard to get traditional publishers to take on books which don’t have mass-market appeal these days, experienced authors are increasingly turning to self-publishing for their hard-to-place and out-of-print books and therefore the self-publishing route is becoming more respectable.
Self-published authors can join professional societies such as the Society of Authors on the strength of their sales figures, and submit their books for literary prizes. Self-publishing is no longer always the second choice, and I won’t be looking for a traditional publisher for my second book about writing, When a Writer Isn’t Writing. Here’s a sneak preview of the cover.

I definitely hope to go on being traditionally published as well, but it feels a lot less difficult and soul-destroying trying to sustain a writing career in such a sales-driven market now that I know everything I write which is of publishable quality will be published, because I can do it myself.

Jenny's website is:

Monday, 15 September 2014

Cornwall - my latest obsession! by Miriam Halahmy

Mylor Bridge and creek

I have just spent a week in Cornwall with a friend and fellow writer, Jane Moss. I have only been to Cornwall once before, when the kids were young. I'd just lost my Dad and we were all very bereaved and all I remember is wall to wall mist and sunken lanes and no views. We stayed in St Just. The day we went to St Ives it rained. The journey was horrendous and I haven't been back since.

But I have fallen deeply, totally, completely utterly in love with Cornwall and now everything about Cornwall has to be read, watched on TV, flagged up on Facebook, etc, etc. Every book I have read this summer has been set in Cornwall - including the first four volumes of the Poldark saga and I think I'm just running out of steam. I read all twelve when I was a teenager and they are wonderful. But the absolutely best thing was I recognised all the places.

Jane Moss

My friend Jane lives in Mylor Bridge, on the damp, warm, sub-tropical south coast half and hour from Truro. My goodness - down at the creek is exactly like something out of a Daphne Du Maurier novel. We walked and walked and ate fish and chips and I swear the fish was still jumping on the plate it was so fresh. We went to Tressilick gardens which reminded me of the atmosphere of Singapore - my only experience of the sub-tropics. But then Jane made a wonderful discovery!

I very much wanted to go to Zennor where D.H. Lawrence had tried to set up some sort of writers' commune. Also to go back to the mining landscape I remembered from our last visit. We went down Geevor mine on the last day of mining ever in Cornwall. Zennor is on the craggy, heath covered, blustery north coast and we had proper overcast weather. I loved it. It was pouring by the time we reached the Tinners' Arms where Lawrence and co. used to drink. But in the tiny museum we saw a reference to poor, sick, consumptive Katherine Mansfield who came down with Murry, and only lasted a matter of weeks - what one earth was Murry thinking of, taking her to such a climate!! - and then they fled to Mylor Bridge!! Which of course makes perfect sense because its so much warmer!

Of course I fell in love with the north coast too but now Jane is on a mission to find where Mansfield stayed - probably round the corner from her lovely home.
And of course - I've added Mansfield to my post Cornwall reading list.

Travelling and reading have always gone hand in hand for most people. I took the train to Truro and it felt like I was going to the ends of the earth. I am working on a poem about that amazing journey.

When you find yourself in a landscape which is almost entirely new and which offers in a relatively small area such a wonderful range of experiences AND there is literature to almost drown yourself in - is it a wonder I have become an obsessive consumer of everything Cornwall??

Sunday, 14 September 2014

How Long is a Story? Anne Cassidy

I usually get asked this question when I’m teaching creative writing classes. It’s usually How long is a short story? And the general answer is that it’s as long as a piece of string. All very unsatisfactory when you’re trying to learn something.

I have thought about this and now have another answer, probably equally unsatisfying. It’s something I’ve learned slowly over the years and this answer will certainly come as no surprise to writers of fiction. A story is longer (bigger, wider, deeper) than the words on the page. I used to think this only worked for short stories so I drew a diagram of an iceberg in true primary school style with the tip above the water the rest below. But I now realise that this works for any story. A novel stretches out before the beginning of the book and goes on after it is finished. If you’ve engaged your audience they should wonder what happens to the characters (as I did, with rage, when I reached the end of THE LORD OF THE FLIES). This was the very reason that I wrote the sequel to Looking for JJ, FINDING JENNIFER JONES. People kept asking me what happened next. Now people ask me what happens after the end of FINDING JENNIFER JONES. I don’t know. It’s up to them to decide.

A short story does this beautifully. A snapshot of a moment in time; it spreads out further, deeper, wider into the past and into the future. I’m enjoying the fashion for really short stories. Here I’ve written a 100 word crime short story.  

A Bit of Education  
There was blood on the hammer. Dexy wiped it off. 
The old man lay face down on the kitchen floor.  On the table was a set of exercise books. Must do better. Must work harder. Dexy remembered his book from years before. It curled at the corners and was full of angry red writing. When he opened it the words seem to shout out at him.
This time he had been the one to do the shouting. He tore off a sheet of paper and wrote A* on it. He placed it on the teacher’s head. Then he left.

Hopefully the story it tells is longer than the words on the page.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Once upon a time... the end

In my past life, as a teacher, one of my most disliked tasks was marking. Not because I didn’t like reading my pupils’ work (though I often didn’t), but because having to assess a piece of writing against a set of increasingly arbitrary assessment objectives sometimes made me think it was all about jumping through hoops rather than the actual rules of good writing.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to judge a short story competition, I delighted in the fact that this time I was setting my own objectives, and they were pretty simple. Does this story work? Does it draw me in and keep me hooked? Do I feel confident in this writer’s hands?

I’ve won quite a few short story competitions, and it was flattering to be asked to judge this one. It was a fairly small, but very professionally-run competition, organised by a magazine. The magazine is Ireland-based, as am I, but attracted entries from all over the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The stories had been pre-shortlisted and were judged anonymously. Not knowing anything about a writer really makes you focus on what’s important in the story.

I’ve often read judges’ reports on competitions which say that the winner announced itself in the first few sentences, and I know agents and publishers often say that they can tell almost at once if a book is going to impress. This wasn’t my experience. Instead, though I found it easy to choose the winning story, several stories promised a great deal in the first paragraph, only to disappoint as the story went on. Some writers had put so much emphasis on that all-important hooking of the reader that they forgot to reel her in, and she was left dangling.

Several of the stories contained fantastic writing – really imaginative use of language. Heart-stopping moments. Intense character identification. Yet none of these stories was placed. Why? Because great use of language isn’t enough – a story has a job to do, and if it doesn’t do that, if it doesn’t take a character from A to B, it doesn’t matter how delightful its metaphors are. 

I write young adult fiction, and it’s normally a 70,000 word novel as opposed to a 2,000 word story. Yet I found the experience of assessing these stories really helped me to look dispassionately at my own work. Young adults, like short story judges, are hard to please. They aren’t fooled by metaphor-fur-coat and no story-knickers. They won’t keep going if a story doesn’t live up to early promise.

I enjoyed assessing these stories, and I’m looking forward to meeting the winners at the ceremony in November. But even more, I enjoyed being reminded of the nuts and bolts of good story-telling, and I hope my own readers stand to benefit from that.