Friday, 30 September 2016

Banned Books

For my birthday in June, Mr Squidge bought me a bracelet of enamelled metal plates of book covers. Just like this one:

(You can buy something similar from the Literary Gift Company)

One of the plates says 'I read banned books'. Well, that couldn't be right I thought - Alice in Wonderland? Huckleberry Finn? I knew Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned because of the S-E-X across the class divide years ago, but that was years ago.

I decided that, if these books were banned - or had been banned at some point - I would attempt to read them all; work my way round my bracelet and read things I'd never read before.

The first I tackled was The Color Purple. Banned on various grounds, including racism, inappropriate language, violence and physical abuse. You could also add rape, promiscuity, drugs... Definitely not what I'd call a light read. Yet I devoured it in one sitting, and it's a book that will stay with me for life.

I decided to do a bit of digging into banned books, and found that, purely by coincidence, I had read The Color Purple during Banned Books Week, a time when the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association seeks to celebrate the freedom to read and draws attention to the harm caused by censorship of reading materials. There's a wealth of information on their website if, like me, you want to know more.

It made me wonder how I feel about censorship of books. 

We all want to protect - particularly our children - from inappropriate content. Isn't reading a banned book a bit like letting them loose on an unprotected internet? 

I don't think so. Perhaps that's because of my own view on books; when the Squidgelings were younger and their reading ability outstripped the 'suitable' books available for their age group, I let them have free choice. But - I always tried to read the same books as them so I had an idea of what they contained. Can't say I enjoyed reading spy stories with lots of violence, but at least I was prepared when the kids told me how many people died and in how many yukky ways. It meant we could talk about it - together.

There's a quote I love:

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." – Neil Gaiman

Could we apply the same kind of approach to reading material which challenges our view of the world? The books that deal with social issues such as racism, homelessness, sexuality, mental issues? Not that these are necessarily to be seen as 'dragons' to be beaten...but we at least become aware of their existence as things that might be different to our individual norm. And as a result we broaden our thinking, become - one hopes - more tolerant of differences and issues in our world. 

Instead, it seems that some people want to 'protect' our children and offer them a sanitised view of the world in which they live. One that does not include witches (Yup - Harry Potter has been banned quite a lot!) or topless sunbathers (a teeny tiny picture in a Where's Wally book) or animals that act like humans (Alice in Wonderland). If we narrow the reading experience, will that not raise narrow thinkers?

I began to wonder whether the addition of ages to children's books by publishers is a form of much subtler censorship - if you're not THIS old, you can't read THIS book. Or when in schools the system sometimes limits the child's reading material to a particular 'band' because they do not have the skills to read the stories they choose for themselves. Whilst I agree there is much to be said for encouraging children to read what they are capable of - which requires time and adult supervision to work properly - what's wrong with allowing a child to take a story that is beyond their capability so that they can share it or listen to it thanks to a more able reader at home?

Is there ever a time when reading material should be banned? I honestly don't know. My preferred approach would be to allow free choice - but to inform, so that the choices made are by the reader, not by those who seek to wield power over people's minds and thoughts and view of the world. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Author visits...

I've done several author visits to date. Most have had small groups working on some element of creative writing and a Q&A session. I'm happy with that. It works and I'm comfortable doing it.

In the last few weeks, I've had lots of requests for author talks - which is pretty fab, actually. (I've also seen a reasonable spike in sales of paperback copies of StarMark since the magazine article - perhaps the two are linked?)

Over the next couple of months, as well as trying to write more of CKD, I will also be...

1. Giving two author visits to secondary schools as part of the Loogabarooga Festival, which happens over Leicestershire's half term.
2. Giving a talk to a ladies group at my church. (I say talk, but they WILL be writing at some point...)
3. Running a creative writing day at my local primary school, similar to the one I ran last year.
4. Following up enquiries from another local primary school and a secondary school book club a bit further from two other secondary schools have shown interest too.
5. Speaking to a church youth group.
6. Putting a booking in my diary as a speaker for October - 2017!

All lovely and exciting - but look back at number 1 on my list...

The first of these visits to be confirmed is actually going to be at a school I attended, over thirty years ago. I have been asked to speak to an entire year group of Year 7's (11-12yrs old). That's one hundred and twenty pupils. ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY! Because the school has stated it would like as many pupils as possible to be enthused and inspired by my visit.

No pressure there then!

(Fortunately, I have delivered - in a previous life! - training sessions to similar numbers of adults, so I am confident I can deliver a good assembly-type talk about writing and some of the journey I've been on so far. Oh - and afterwards? I'm holding a one-hour workshop for one class in the library...)

I find it quite humbling - and very scary - to be viewed as an inspiration.

I think it's because I'm still getting to grips with the fact that I am viewed by other people now as a proper author (I know, I AM one, but compared to other authors who sell hundreds or thousands of copies and make their living from the art, I'm such a small fish...) I'm discovering that it's the relationship you can have with your readers - or potential readers in most cases - that makes the difference in how you are viewed as an author. I can sit in my lounge and write all the good stories I can, but it's when I talk to children, help them to grow and learn in their own attempts at writing creatively, that I reap the rewards - and I'm not talking purely of sales here. I'm talking about reputation, about word of mouth recommendation, about delivering a quality product, whether that ends up being an author visit or a novel. And I'm also talking about the feedback I get, when pupils return the their classrooms and put into practise what we have covered with massively increased confidence.

It goes right back to my original motivation - enthusing children to love the written word, whether they are creating it for themselves or reading it when it's been written by another.

I am nervous of the task I face, but equally I am excited to have such a large audience on a single occasion. I really, really hope I can give them something to remember.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Stalking Leviathan


Behold! The amazing cover of the soon-to-be-published third anthology from The Random Writers! 

If you like mythical beasties, you're going to love this one; twelve tales that go in search of creatures of myth, legend and the spaces between the real and imagined. From the overwhelming confusion of the Irish Civil War to the eerie expanse of modern day Bodmin Moor; from Elizabethan England to the skies above Persia, the Random Writers quest for an answer to the question - What is the nature of the beast?

Unfortunately, I don't have a story in this anthology - it's been such a busy year, I simply didn't feel I had the time to do it justice - but I have proofread the anthology and it is stunning. I wish I could write even half as poetically as some of the guys whose stories ARE in here.

Stalking Leviathan, a Bestiary of Tales is due for publication at the end of this month.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

York 2016

I had mixed feelings about York this time. For a start, my driving buddy wasn't going this time, so it was a bit different having to lug a case full of books onto the train.

I'd also done a lot of the workshops in previous years and wondered whether there'd be enough new stuff to keep me inspired. That said, there's no harm in going to subjects you have covered before with a different speaker, because you might just pick up a different way of thinking about or approaching the same topic.

And I wasn't doing any 1-2-1's, something I was worried might seem a bit arrogant. A kind of 'I'm published now, so I don't need them' approach, rather than an 'I don't have anything I can show you!' wail of despair (which is actually the reality).

But I went. The best bit has to be that I met so many cloudies again - and others that I'd never met before in real life - and we all sat talking about writing. In my fifth festival, I also found I was also more confident about talking to agents and book doctors and speakers without fearing they'd cut me dead. Maybe they were getting to recognise me, too?

So to the nitty gritty, the learning, the 'what I got out of it'...

Friday afternoon I sat in Brian Keaney's mini course on the golden rules of children's literature. A lot of it I knew already, but what stuck with me was Brian's insistence that you have to address a child you know when telling your story (your own or someone else's), or reconnect with your inner child, something he went into in more depth in a later session about the role of insight in children's literature. I came away wondering what I do - is it my inner child that writes my stories, or do I have a particular child in mind when I write?

We also touched on the issue of 'cross-over' books which appeal to both children and adults. Brian was of the opinion that a lot of adults who read children's fiction are looking for something with a good story that isn't depressing, something I found particularly interesting as StarMark has been read by more adults than children at this point in time. And as I'm a sucker for a happy(ish) ending myself, perhaps I'm unknowingly writing what a lot of adults - as well as children - are craving?

He also observed that often, children are powerless in their world. Stories have to reflect that powerlessness in order to inform and colour the decisions made by the child to shape the story you're telling on their behalf. And remember; children are human beings too.

There were excellent keynote speakers this year. C.L.Taylor, (Home for Christmas, The Missing, The Lie) and Jo Cannon (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, whose talk I mostly missed because we had to get an earlier taxi to avoid the traffic delays caused by SkyRide York!) both proved that the unthinkable CAN happen if you want to be a bestselling author, but the road is often long and fraught with brutal edits and personal difficulties which mean the overnight success takes years to achieve.

Have to say that although I love hearing different authors' writing journeys, they always tend to be really big names at the Festival. I know that's bound to be a draw, but just once, it'd be great to hear from someone with - I was going to say less success, but of course that's completely wrong! From someone with less of a 'Big 5' approach to the business, because I am certain that most of the audience at York will probably end up as self-pubbed or small press pubbed authors rather than those who are discovered and experience a meteoric rise to fame. It would be no less inspiring to hear of other writing journeys and non-bestseller successes in publication... but perhaps that wouldn't be enough of a draw for the punters.

Julie Cohen's First 100 Words session was a blast! Not only were we given hints and tips on how to grab our reader in the opening few sentences, we were also given the opportunity to send in our first 100 words for Julie's opinion. She gave feedback on 26 previously unread submissions, rattling off first impressions at breakneck speed. Mine was one of them - number 13, but I'm not superstitious. Here's the piece I sent and what I jotted down of Julie's comments:

“All out! All out for Kartalma, if you please!”
            Zanni groaned and stretched. “Why’s he yelling, when there’s only two of us?”
            “I daresay he doesn’t get the chance to do it very often. Few people come this far so he’s making the most of it.” Pa pushed his glasses up his nose and shot a glance at Zanni. “At least it’s not dark yet.”
            Zanni was glad of it; too many of their travelling days had ended with night drawing in and the inside of the carriage being plunged into the kind of darkness which had brought the fear flooding back.

Great - fear of dark there. No backstory and keep backstory shrunk. Keeps us reading on. Where is it happening? Where is Kartalma? More sense of place.

I took notes on all 26 pieces and there were lots of positives as well as points for improvement. Interesting that some of the ones Julie loved, I was a bit 'meh' about - but that just reinforces the subjective nature of the written word and what appeals to different readers.

Thriller Plotting Techniques with Daren King was a strange session. There was lots of really useful tips in it, proving that Daren knew his stuff. But unfortunately he was a very nervous speaker which made it hard to listen to him until he'd begun to relax about half way through the allotted time. Daren introduced many 'concepts' which could be applied to a story to essentially increase the tension in a variety of ways, and I found myself jotting little notes about CKD (my current WIP) as he spoke, because I could see how something I'd already written into the novel's outline could be used to greater effect. There were also some useful definitions of bribery vs extortion (paying someone as opposed to forcing someone) and mystery and suspense (a question mark over the past or present, as opposed to a question mark hanging over the future) that I will be making much use of.

I attended two sessions by C.M.Taylor on Character is Destiny. By which, I mean I didn't do the same one twice - there was a part one and two! Part 1 looked at the golden triangle used by screenwriters to boost the emotional power of plot which I'd taken two years ago. (You can read about it by clicking here) and also introduced the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks. The latter is a device which produces a variation on a character arc within the four act structure, and I have to say I struggle to understand all the different phases. Well, I don't - I can understand them when I see the arc in front of me, but - and this is the pain in the bum bit - I don't know how to apply it to my own writing!

In part 2, Craig looked at how theme could be used to determine a character's destiny in combination with the golden triangle and transformational arc. Basically, when you have the theme of your novel, you can design characters to reflect the theme, oppose the theme, be ambivalent to the theme, or even be the neg of neg, ie someone who thinks they have solved the problem but in fact has not. (Deluded with respect to the theme, maybe?) The more fatuous the theme, the better this works because the more variations on the theme you can introduce. (It's also something I'd heard before in a session with Julie Cohen) Craig gave a great worked example based on a piece he'd been commissioned to write based on the barred list in a London pub.

Mind you, since having come home and tried to tackle the outline of CKD in this way, I got completely disillusioned and despairing because although I can see the events in my novel, I'm not sure whether they are the resistance or exhaustion phase, what my inciting incident is, how I push my character to breaking point...etc etc. I looked on the web to see if I could find anything to help, and surprisingly found a few articles on why the three act structure can actually stifle your creativity and you should focus on the natural story structure instead.

I like that idea a lot more, so I'll work with what I've got whilst sticking to a general intro, build-up, hi point, oh s**t moment, climax and resolution. It's vague enough for this mainly-pantsing writer!

Last of all, I attended Jeremy Sheldon's Endings and How to Climax in any Genre. (I like Jeremy - we shared a table for Sunday breakfast when I was running some ideas past Brian Keaney - and he really knows his stuff when it comes to screenwriting and how you can apply screenwriting tricks to the written word.)

This session came about because often, we focus on grabbing a reader at the start of our book - but do we apply the same effort to giving them a satisfactory ending? Compelling climaxes are decisive (no going back, time running out) substantive (present a risk to self or others) and spiritual (can be moral, psychological or emotional). They require that the protagonist makes a previously impossible choice to gain a slim chance at achieving the impossible. Put simply, the choicemaking has to be the most difficult it can be at this point of the novel. Make your protagonist work for every inch of gained ground until the situation is resolved...or not.

And there you have it. The only other things to report back on are the gala dinner (I wore a tiara thought there isn't much photographic evidence of that fact. Check out Debi Alper's blog for lots of pics of the FoW2016 - I'm in there somewhere), which didn't have dancing this year (boo!) but had lovely food and very good company as always; the futurecast session, where the issue of ebook pricing was hotly discussed though we all agreed to disagree and be polite while we were doing it; several cloudies had full MS requests and there was some very good news on the agent front for another; and last, but not least, I sold 10 of the 14 copies of StarMark I'd taken with me.

Not bad, eh?

Roll on FoW 2017...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Where did the summer go?

Actually, that's a misleading title.

If we're talking weather, then the summer is well and truly here this week, with very warm days and the threat of thunder. By 'summer', I'm talking about the holidays. Long, leisurely lazy mornings and nothing much planned. Instead, we're back at school (Leicestershire goes back immediately after the August Bank Holiday) and hit the ground running with new timetables, changes to after-school clubs, scouting,'s a bit of a shock to the system.

Add to that a wedding (more of that later), the Festival of Writing and a NIBS meeting, and I've not really felt much like blogging til now.

So let's start with the wedding. It was held in the Roman Baths in Bath, and was a beautiful occasion, full of love and very emotional. I'm only going to share one photo with you though. This one, taken outside the door of Bath Abbey by an obliging passer-by:

An ageing hippy/intellectual type with an armful of paperwork offered to take the pic for us. As the four of us (sis, Mum, Dad and me) posed, we started to giggle because our well-meaning photographer had the camera at a weird angle. It seems to be the trendy thing to do, to slant your photos, but we just laughed and let him get on with it. Look to the right of the photo too - he managed to get his pile of paperwork in, even if he did chop mum and sis off... 

The Festival of Writing...always a fab experience, and no less special this year than in previous years. The best bit, as always, is meeting friends old and new, and catching up on how everyone's doing in their quest to be published. I will blog about some of the sessions I attended and what I learned about myself and my writing this time, so more of that later...

And NIBS. Our little writing group met last night to get in touch with our inner child (inspired by a couple of York sessions). One of the exercises we tried was to produce something in the style of a well known children's author. When the Squidgelings were small, one of their favourite bedtime books was Peepo, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, so that's what I used as a starting point. Thought I'd share it with you...

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
On his way to school
What does he see?
He sees his neighbour sitting
in a chair all alone
But he carries on by 
Cos he's kicking a stone
He sees a little lady
With a big black dog
And then he pretends 
To be a green frog.

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
Gets to the playground
What does he see?
His friends Ben and Jerry 
are running round and round.
Chasing little Katy
With a leaf they've found.
He sees the dinner trolley
With packed lunches piled high
And the mums and dads all talking
as a plane flies by.

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
sits in the classroom
What does he see?
He sees the teacher smiling
as she ticks off names
and a table in the corner
where there's lots of games
He sees the coloured pencils
in the pencil pot
And the numberline and playdough
and a book he's got.

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
Eating his dinner now
What does he see?
He sees the dinner ladies
in their aprons blue
and chips and bananas
and fishfingers too.
He sees his squished up sarnies
with the marmite in
and the juicebox of orange
with a tiger's grin.

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
outside for P.E
What does he see?
He sees a bag of footballs
and some bright red cones
A running track of nice green grass 
and no sharp stones.
He sees the teacher's stopwatch
hears the whistle too
And remembers - should've gone before!
He needs the loo.

Here's a little schoolboy
One, two, three.
The schoolday's over
What does he see?
He sees his mummy waiting
With a smile on her face
And there's his little sister
in the usual place.
He sees the clock hands moving 
Til they point to three
The door opens - out he runs
It's nearly time for tea!

So if you had to write in the style of a children's author you love, who would it be? 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Those first few words...

Since early this year, I've been scribbling - on and off - notes for a new WIP. I've tentatively called it The Crystal Keeper's Daughter, although there are a lot of 'crystal keepers' if you search the web, so it's not exactly unique as a title. It's taken many months, in between the other life stuff that inevitably rolled up, to get to grips with this story.

I finally feel like I've got everything plotted, in that I know the rough shape of the story and where it begins and where it ends. I have my MC, Zanni, who is turning out to be quite feisty when she wants to be. I have a theme running through, though I hope it won't be so obvious it hits the reader between the eyes. And I have that feeling now that I need to write, to actually commit words to hard drive (or memory stick in this case) and shape all the messy notes into something readable.

Yesterday, I wrote the first couple of hundred words.

They're nowhere near being right as an opening scene, but you have to start somewhere. From past experience, I know that once I begin, the story will evolve until I hit my stride and pick up the rhythm of Zanni's huge adventure until it begins to feel like the novel I hope it will be.

How long will it take? No idea. I managed a first handwritten draft of Kingstone in just over 70 days and a first typed draft after a further month. (Bear in mind this was my box-ticked-when-I-wrote-something method, and not a count over consecutive days). I've not kept track so far this time as carefully, but I am determined to track the typed draft to make sure I don't leave the work for too long.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and if I need inspiration, I'll simply take a peek at my little basket of crystals and imagine I'm in Zanni's world...