Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Loogabarooga Festival 2016

'Incredible Illustrations, Brilliant Books...'

The second Loogabarooga Festival did not disappoint. Over six days, there were theatre shows, talks, creative sessions, exhibitions, workshops, readings, films, book signings... Famous authors and illustrators flocked to Loughborough - like Michael Rosen, Julian Clary, David Roberts, Philip Reeve, Sarah McIntyre, Daisy Hirst, Andrew Everitt-Stewart, Emma Yarleti... I've probably missed a few. We even had Roald Dahl's BFG in the town centre!

And then there was me.

I offered to visit schools in the area, to talk about writing or hold a creative writing session. The Loogabarooga Festival team said 'yes please' (hooray!) and so I found myself last Monday ready to present three different sessions at two very different schools.

Limehurst Academy asked me to give an assembly-type talk and Q&A session to 120 Year 7's, followed by a creative writing session for one lucky class from the same year group.

At first the 120 pairs of eyes staring up at me was a bit daunting, but I recognised a few ex-Mountfields pupils among them as well as at least one member of staff who went to school with me in my own Limehurst Girls High School (as it was back in the 1970's) days, so I soon relaxed. In fact, I took a photo of me in my school uniform to show the current students...

I gave a short talk about how I got into writing and the long journey that StarMark had made before leading on to questions. Someone asked whether any of my books had been made into films - which was the perfect opportunity to show the book trailer for StarMark on the big screen... It looks even better sized up!

We finished with the three objects challenge - each of the six classes had a representative to choose three things from my story bag and I challenged them to go away and write up a short story including the items. We had some great mixes; it almost makes me want to have a go at another 'Challenge me' on the Scribbles... Here's what came out of the bag - if you're a writer yourself, why not pick one and have a go? You have 500 words...

For the workshop, I used my current favourite story starter - 'The antique glass bottle contained...' The students came up with (among other things) swords, lungs, bullets of mutating agent, secrets, and blue dragon smoke. We used huge sheets of brown sugar paper and lots of coloured pens to map out the stories and by the end of the session, everyone had at least made a start on writing their stories.

Feedback from the workshop was good, highlighting again how much the students enjoy actually being able to write a story, instead of learning about the individual component parts and never having an opportunity to put all that learning together. Interestingly, there were several comments about how inspiring and encouraging I was, which is somewhat humbling because I never set out with that in mind.

In the afternoon, I visited the Year 5's and 6's at Sacred Heart Catholic Voluntary Academy. These children had attended another Loogabarooga event in the morning with Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre - I was a little worried that after such literary celebrity, my own offering would fall a bit short.

We focused this time on Granny Rainbow and More Granny Rainbow, as the children had been introduced to the stories and I planned that they should write their own versions. Because Granny Rainbow is good at solving problems, the children came up with new characters, gave them a problem and decided how Granny Rainbow would solve it. At the end of the session the children had drawn their characters AND had the beginnings of their stories.

One young man deserves special mention for his story. I got the impression he doesn't always focus on the work in hand, but for some reason this task caught his imagination. He did everything that was asked of him and ended up having written a whole story where (I don't want to spoil his story, so forgive me if I'm a little vague here!) the character wanted to be different; Granny Rainbow made the change but - and this is the first time it's ever occurred to anyone to do this within the Granny Rainbow 'formula', including me - the character wasn't happy with the situation, decided they were happier before and asked Granny Rainbow to change them back! He was so proud of his work...and I felt a glow of pride for being the tool, if you like, that made it happen.

The younger children also had some very interesting questions. Like:

How much money do you get for each book? (Varies, but the kids were shocked it might only be 10% of cover price...)

How does it make you feel when you sell a book? (Good, but not as good as when someone tells me afterwards that they've loved the stories! That's payment beyond measure.)

Was there ever a time you thought you couldn't write for children? (Yes. I didn't write for a whole year. Then I came back fighting - and look where it's got me.)

What football team do you support? (Cue horrified gasps when I said I didn't. Not even Leicester City, our nearest team.)

I have agreed to revisit Sacred Heart in a couple of weeks' time to follow up and help the children with editing their stories. Can't wait to see them!

At the end of the afternoon, I was shattered, but happy-shattered from a rewarding day. Things to note for these kind of events in the future are probably to allow a bit more time between school changes, as I had no time for lunch (snatched a cereal bar in the car park) and was feeling a little jaded by half way through this afternoon session. Oh - and although high heels are great to make me feel a bit better when standing next to the Year 7's (I got a couple of 'Nice shoes, Miss!') they don't half kill your feet and ankles after a whole day wearing them!

If I'm honest, I think I prefer the interactive workshops over talks, but I can see how advantageous it is to do a presentation to larger groups and spread the experience of having an author come to visit the school. But at least I've proved to myself - and others - that I am capable of doing larger presentations, so who knows where it'll take me from here?

Loogabarooga 2017? I can but hope...

Friday, 21 October 2016

StarMark: the film!

One thing I really wanted to produce to help market StarMark was a book trailer.

Through a marketing company, I was put in touch with Just Anim8, a small animation company based at Loughborough University. We got together to discuss possibilities and I'm delighted to say that I now have a book trailer - essence of StarMark, animated!

It hasn't been an easy process - both I and the team at Just Anim8 have learned a lot over the last few months. . (You can create trailers yourself, of course, but I'm not tec-savvy enough to manage that. You should have seen me trying to upload the video link to youtube...)

But, if anyone out there is hoping to produce a book trailer using professional film-makers, here's my top tips for a smoother process.

1. Agree a contract. (Ours was verbal, and both parties agreed it probably should have been written to avoid some of the problems we encountered later.)

Ensure from the outset you know exactly what you are agreeing to in the process, especially with respect to the number of revisions you are getting for your money. Part of the delay and increased cost of the trailer was due to my misunderstanding how many times I could ask for changes to the storyboard once animating had begun. I'm sure every time I said "Can we just...?" the team's collective heart must've sunk, but eventually we both bought into an idea and it all came together pretty quickly from then on. But that leads nicely onto...

2. Do your homework! 

Research other book trailers. Get a feel for a style or approach you like and keep the idea simple if you can - you're not aiming for Gone With the Wind. Think about the sort of images and colours and even soundtrack you think might work with the atmosphere of your book. Remember that you are distilling the essence of your story into possibly two or three minutes, and it's no good having a dark, gothic approach if your book is a light romance! Try to have an idea of what you are trying to get across to the potential reader - consider it a visual book blurb, if you will; punchy, to the point, and with enough of a hook to make people want to buy the book and read it.

If the filming/animation team are happy to read your book, let them; it also gives them a better understanding of what they are going to be representing visually. I only passed the book on to the creative team towards the end of the process - they said it would have been more useful earlier on.

3. Try to lay as much definite groundwork as you can before the animation or filming stage.

Talk it through with the creative team as much as you need to and don't be afraid to ask questions - though hopefully, if you've done your homework, you should both have a good idea of what you're aiming for as an end result. In my case, I had a definite idea but I don't think I explained it well enough up front, which takes me back to the fundamental 'do your homework'...

4. Make sure you understand what the creative team are sending you when the first few clips/scenes come through.

I didn't - I thought what I was being sent were stills, when in fact they were movie clips and I made judgements based on static pictures rather than moving ones. This resulted in the team continuing so far down the animation path, it became costly to rectify when I realised later that I didn't actually like the moving images when they came pieced together in larger chunks...and we ended up cutting a lot of the original storyboard in an attempt to simplify the film.

5. Give the project enough time if you want to meet a deadline.

My original deadline slipped...and slipped...and slipped. It was mainly my own fault because of the changes I kept requesting, but the team also admitted that book trailers were a new area for them which probably made the process a little slower this first time.

6. Be prepared for working with other creative types!

I am a creative person in all sorts of ways - I often have a really good visual idea of the end result I want to achieve, whether I'm sewing, painting or flower arranging. The problem is, if you gave any group of creative types the same project, they would all approach it differently...just think of how different some of the NIBS writing has been, even though it's all generated from the same prompts.

This is where you have to be prepared either to do enough work to be able to explain EXACTLY what you want up front, OR be prepared to compromise and maybe even hand over the project to the person you're employing to do the job. I hadn't realised how much control I wanted to keep over this project, and I can accept that this made it hard for Just Anim8, who are possibly more used to having clients who give them a less specific brief. Nothing wrong with a specific brief - but you need to have (yep, going to say it again!) done your homework first if you need that level of control for your own satisfaction.

Ultimately, the animated trailer cost me a lot more financially than I wanted it to, but the end result is very pleasing to me. I chose animation over video because I know some readers prefer not to have a visual image of the characters in a book forced upon them - they want to 'see' the characters in their heads, the way they choose. That was one of the reasons for choosing Just Anim8 in the end, because their style is bold and not finely detailed; I could show a man who might be Lord Terenz, but he'd be vague enough no to upset those who prefer to imagine characters for themselves. I loved the colour palette chosen for the film as well as the mix of pictures and words. My favourite bit is when the StarMark turns to gold; I nearly cried when I saw that for the first time...

I'd be interested to know what you think, too, especially as I am hoping to work with Just Anim8 next year, when I sort out a second book trailer for Kingstone.

Mind you, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll have done my homework for that one.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Goodbye to The Mound.

About thirteen, maybe fourteen years ago, Mr Squidge and I decided to give the back garden a makeover. This was due - in part - to having had little Squidgelings, and we felt the need for a slabbed play space for wet days as well as lots of grass and lovely borders.

With the help of a good friend who owns his own landscaping business, we set to work.

One of the problems in our garden was the step up onto our lawn; the small patio outside the French doors was a good six inches lower than the grass. To increase the patio size, we needed to shift an awful lot of topsoil to make everything level.

To save on skip fees and carting goodness knows how much earth to the tip, G suggested building a mound at the end of the garden with the topsoil he removed. It would give the kids a little hill to roll down, and - most cunningly of all - it would have lengths of pipe buried inside it so that cars and balls could be rolled down the inside of the hill.

Put the balls in the pipe at the top...
...and collect them at the bottom

We went along with the idea and over the years, have had great fun on The Mound. (The photos above were taken in 2002, the year the garden was finished.) It was a dingly-dell for a fairy birthday party, and a castle for the pirates who came to another. It gave us a shaded seat in the summer and on occasion has allowed us to nip over the fence into the neighbour's garden to retrieve tennis balls, shuttlecocks and off-target stomp rockets when said neighbour was away. The local fox used to use it for sunbathing in the mornings, but we haven't seen him around for ages.

All that is about to change.

Yesterday, Mr Squidge and Squidgeling T took a crowbar and lump hammer to the retaining wall that holds The Mound up.

Still two more sides to knock down once the earth's out...

It's all part of a wider plan to build a large shed-cum-outdoor-room at the bottom of the garden. The idea was sold to me as a writer's den (I am assured it will have heating) but T seems to think it'll be far better used as a rehearsal space for his band. It's also the reason why the slide, climbing frame and swing have finally been dismantled...(We still have the tree house, thank goodness, but even that's had a makeover in the last twelve months and is much more grown up than the old one.)

By the end of this weekend, The Mound will become The Flat Space At The End Of The Garden.

I can't help feeling sad about it. Not because the mound is being dug out (yes, we are paying for a skip to get rid of the soil this time!) but more because its removal seems to mark the end of childish things. My children aren't children any more - they are young people, on the cusp of adulthood. Gone are the days of fairies and pirates and the simplicity of rolling balls through a tube. Now it's Warhammer model painting and studying for exams and whether we can boost the Wifi signal to the end of the garden for the inevitable smartphone...

The end of an era. *sigh* And maybe, the start of a new one?

I'll let you know how I feel about that once the shed-cum-outdoor-room's finished...

Saturday, 15 October 2016

You know you've 'arrived' when you've been plagiarised!

Earlier this week, someone posted a prologue to a children's story on a writing forum. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except that when I read it, I realised it was similar - VERY similar - to Granny Rainbow and the Black Shadow, which was first published back in 2013 in Reading is Magic.

There were enough differences to make it not the same, but there were enough similarities to know that this was essentially the beginning of my story, adapted.

I'll be honest - my first reaction was "Flippin' heck!" (Except not quite so polite) "Someone's nicked my story!" I felt sick and could not believe what I was reading.

Then, I looked again. The writer appeared to be pretty inexperienced - there were lots of newbie mistakes in the writing that indicated the author was a fair way off being published. And different authors do sometimes have similar ideas - it depends on how you write the story that makes it 'yours'. So it IS feasible that someone else has had the idea of a baddie who leaches colour from the world...

I gave the author the benefit of the doubt; I responded by noting the similarities to the original story and offered some advice to improving their writing.

That night happened to be NIBS night. I told a couple of friends there what had happened and one remarked "You know you've arrived when you've been plagiarized!"

Plagiarism is a serious matter. I haven't lost money or sleep over it - unlike some authors whose work is shamefully pirated to the extent that they lose income, or others who see their own complete novels plagiarised by rogue authors. A little bit of me thinks that if a novice author thinks my ideas good enough to use as their starting point, I'm flattered.

Providing they don't make a habit of it or take something so similar to publication.

And anyway, how can I complain when, as an author visiting schools, the teaching staff and I have encouraged children (up to Y6) to use the framework of Granny Rainbow stories to create their own tales? For some children, rewriting the original story in their own words and with as few original elements as possible is as much as they can manage, yet still presents a huge leap forward in how much writing they can do. In a literal sense I suppose that's plagiarism too, except that in this case, Granny Rainbow is a tool in the classroom and no-one is trying to pass it off as their own. For all I know, the author of the plagiarised piece could have been a child - though I would not expect children to be present on the writing forum. Teenagers, maybe, although I don't use Granny Rainbow when I'm working with that age group.

So. There you have it. The first case of plagiarism of my work. We'll see what happens from here on in...

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Why I write fantasy...

I'm a guest blogger over on the Retreat West site today. I've known Amanda Saint for quite a few years now - she's a fellow cloudie, author, (As If I Were A River, also available from Waterstones) and I was published in a Retreat West competition anthology three years ago. (My story title gave the anthology its title: The Colour of Life) used for the anthology.

Hop on over to the Retreat West blog if you want to find out why I write fantasy...

Monday, 10 October 2016

Reading guides...the Arty version!

When Bedazzled Ink asked me to produce a reading guide for StarMark which could be used by readers and book clubs, I was a little taken aback. Oh, I'd seen reading guides in the back of books before - completely ignored them, if I'm honest - but I had no idea how to prepare one for my own story. The analytical approach (What was the author trying to convey by having Manuel spill the parsnip soup? Do you think the main character struggles more with their work or love life?) leaves me cold. As a reader, all I want to do is read the story, not read into it, if you see what I mean?

I wasn't even sure that a reading guide would ever be needed for StarMark, especially as it's supposed to be a children's book and I'd never heard of a reading guide being used by children, let alone whether children's book clubs existed.

After some thinking, I managed to come up with a handful of questions that weren't too 'deep' for children to tackle and weren't based simply on written exercises. The end result is here, on BInk's website.

Bit of a waste of time, I thought. It'll never get used.

I should have had more faith.

StarMark is currently being read by a Year 7 bookclub at Stamford High School. Their teacher, Miss S, contacted me recently to say that the girls are enjoying the book and they've had a go at answering the first question on the reading guide;

'In Irvana’s world, all the overlords have a coat-of-arms which tells people something about them. If you had to design a coat-of-arms for yourself, what symbol(s) would you use, and why?'

(If you've read the book, you'll know for example that the overlords of Koltarn all have a golden star on them - except for Lord Terenz. His is a black star on a white background.)

Miss S sent me photos of some of the girls' finished coat-of-arms, and here they are!

I'm part of a display! How cool is THAT?

Art, food and cats...some of my favourite things, too!

Fabulous motto - Live, love, learn. Love it!

The House of Dach...Game of Thrones fan?

And a rainbow... *smiles*
So colourful - and another good motto

They're so good, I decided that perhaps I ought to draw mine, too...

Literally just finished...

Can you 'see' me in this...? *winks*

So there you go - if you fancy having a go yourself, what would be on YOUR coat-of-arms?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Talking to the 'youth'

Last Thursday, I spent an evening with a church youth group in Sileby, talking about writing.

I'd been invited to go by a friend who helps run teh youth group - I've known J for many years, ever since my brother was in his scout unit and Mr Squidge (still just someone I admired from afar at that stage!) was in J's Venture Scout unit. J was also very good friends with some of my school mates, and we all used to go together to a youth group on a Friday night. In fact, I have hazy memories of putting on a performance and having to rock and roll with J...

Anyway, J had thought the 'youth' in the group might find it interesting to hear about what I'd been up to.

Have to say, it goes down as the first author talk I've given where pizza was on the menu! I think I'm going to request it at every talk I do in the future... *winks*

There weren't many of us in the lovely large social centre: just seven young folk between the ages of maybe 11 and 16, plus three or four adults - one of whom is in the early stages of a PhD to study how older people are portrayed in children's literature. (That led to some interesting conversation!) And would you believe that two of the children, I'd already met at another author talk? They were pupils of St. Crispin's School in Leicester, which I'd visited back in March.

Anyway, we got started and I introduced myself before moving onto a timeline of my writing, using the books I'd been published in as props. I quite impressed myself, actually - there was quite a stack to work through, even without including where I'd been published in a purely digital format.

I also took along some of my notebooks, complete with scribbles and crossings out and maps and castle plans, along with my 'box-a-day-of-writing' plan to show how I create the outline of a story before typing it up. We also had the opportunity for a Q&A session, but the youngsters were all a bit shy, so most of the questions came from the adults.

I set the youngsters off on a writing exercise, using the starter 'The antique glass bottle contained...' As always, I was really pleased that everyone was willing to give it a go, whatever their ability. Mind maps, sketches and notes were used to outline some stories, and some stories were written straight off the cuff. Some of the ideas were absolute corkers - and if I wasn't the writer of integrity that I am, I'd have loved to have pinched a few of them!

Everyone seemed to go home happy - and full of pizza - at the end of the session, and that's all I could have asked for, really.

Roll on the next one!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Monsters and mermaids

I'm proud to belong to the Random Writers. And immensely proud of the stories I've had published in the first two Random Writers anthologies - A Seeming Glass and Something Rich and Strange - The Past is Prologue.

When the third anthology was announced earlier this year, my heart leapt. Then it sank a bit. What the heck was a cryptid? And I'd never heard of some of the mythical beasts that were suggested as potential story material... Never one to resist a challenge, I did some research to find a creature I could write about.

I quite fancied mermaids...and discovered the Inuit legend of Sedna, which is told throughout the Arctic. She is the goddess of the sea and lives on the bottom of the ocean, appearing with the top half of a woman and the tail of a fish.

I started to write a story based around Sedna. However, in spite of best laid plans, life interfered - big time. I knew I wouldn't be able to do the story justice before the deadline and reluctantly decided not to offer anything.

Whilst I was disappointed - very disappointed - not to be included this time, I did have the honour of proofreading the dozen short stories in the finished book.

In it, there were cryptids and monsters and mythical beasts galore, all wrapped in the kind of wonderful wordiness that the Randoms seem to be able to generate with ease. The kind of wonderful wordiness that makes me wish I could write that way. There were times, during my reading, that I forgot to check the n-dashes and spellings, so carried away was I by the standard and beauty and poeticness (I don't think that's a real word, but you know what I mean!) of the writing. There were stories that unsettled, that made me begin to wonder exactly who - or what - the monster really is. And, most worryingly, could it actually be me?

Today, the Randoms are having a Book Blast because Stalking Leviathan - A Bestiary of Tales was published last week, and I'm doing my bit to encourage as many people as possible to buy and read it.

It's worth the investment, I promise. And fingers crossed, there'll be a fourth anthology sometime...and life might give me the chance to be in it.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Crystal Keeper’s Daughter.

After a couple of weeks of not feeling very well at all (lovely new term bugs!) I finally am feeling well enough to sit down and get to grips with the WIP again. 

I'm about three chapters in, so things WILL change, but I thought I might be brave and post a chunk on the Scribbles, to mark the point at which I'm trying to be more disciplined about the writing of it. Y'see over the summer I've done all the notebooky stuff during snatched moments - the bashing out a story and getting it straight in my head and questions and playing with the shape of Zanni's story. 

This - the first draft - marks the start of the 'telling it to a reader' version instead of the 'telling it to myself' one. As such, it is raw; raw, untested, and liable to be cut if I look back in six months' time and decide that the story started in the wrong place. It might therefore be the only place this bit'll ever be published...

Be interested to know what you think.

“All out! All out for Lorisam 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 into the mountains.” Pa shot a glance at Zanni over the top of his glasses. “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…
            The door opened and Stefan poked his head inside. “Here we go, sir and miss. All ready to be fed and watered and bedded down?” He held out a hand to Zanni, as he always did.
            Zanni ignored it and jumped down, wincing at the stiffness in her legs. She needed a good long walk, that’s what she needed, but she wasn’t going to get it today. The sun was already low in the sky and long shadows were creeping down the rocky slopes above them. She shivered. Better to get inside, sharpish. But inside where?
            As she took stock of her surroundings, Zanni realised they couldn’t possibly be in Lorisam. She stared at the plain square house in front of her that was tiled with grey slates and patterned with dark timbers. It looked in need of a lick of paint, some clean windows, and the faded sign swinging above the door needed oiling. The only sign of life was provided by a few scrawny chickens scratching in the dirt; there wasn’t a single other building – or person, apart from themselves - in sight.
            “Um, Stefan? This isn’t Lorisam, is it?”
            “Nope. It’s the Fox and Rooster.”
            “So why have we stopped here?”
            “Cos it’s the last place to get bed and board before Lorisam, which is another day’s travel away.” Stefan thumbed towards a point much higher up the mountain.
            “Another day?” Zanni whirled round as Pa stepped out of the carriage behind her. “Oh, Pa!”
            He’d taken off his glasses and now he rubbed the bridge of his nose, a sure sign he was tired. “It’s only one more day, Zanni. Surely you can put up with one more day in the coach?”
            “You won’t have to.” Stefan said. “It’s mules and pack horses from here on. Terrain’s too steep for carriages and definitely not wide enough when you reach the Stoppers. Not easy to get to Lorisam. That’s why no-one ever goes there. Excepting yourselves o’ course. You’re going.”
            A slow smile spread across Pa’s face. “We are, aren’t we?”
            Zanni sighed; if only they weren’t.
            “Ah, well, people has their reasons I suppose. Me, I’m heading back down after I’ve dropped you off.” Stefan shook his head and added in an undertone, “Gives me the shivers when the stones light up.”
            Zanni’s ears pricked up. “When what lights up?”
            But Stefan didn’t answer. He’d leapt up onto the carriage and was untying the bags and trunks.
            “Doesn’t look too bad, does it?” Pa said.
            Zanni couldn’t agree. They’d stayed in many different lodgings over the course of two weeks on the road, but even the worst of them had looked better than this at first sight.  
            “And anyway, it’s only for one night,” Pa continued. He did up the buttons on his coat and smoothed his hair flat. “Shall we go in? Get some dinner? I could eat a horse.” He walked towards the building, picking his way between the chickens at his feet.
            Zanni’s shoulders drooped. “Careful what you wish for, Pa. By the look of it, horse might actually be on the menu,” she muttered as she followed him.
            Inside was worse than outside - dirty floor, stained tables, mismatched chairs - lit and wreathed in oily smoke from a handful of cracked lanterns. A dog with half its fur missing slunk under one of the tables as Zanni hurried over to the low counter where Pa was heading.
            As they approached, the man sitting behind the counter eased his bulk off the stool, setting his enormous gut wobbling.
            Zanni’s eyes were drawn to a large area of pasty white flesh, exposed thanks to several missing buttons on the man’s shirt. “Uurgh!” She shuddered and looked instead at the man’s face. It was soft and round and reminded her of a ball of dough, into which two currant eyes had been pressed above a long drooping moustache. And – oh, goodness – were those bits of food caught up in the moustache?
            “Welcome ter the Fox an’ Rooster. I’m Reg. I own this place.” Reg studied them as he scratched an armpit. “Mek yersel’s at home.”
            “Thank you…Reg. I’m sure we’ll be most comfortable here.” Pa caught Zanni’s eye and his own widened above a fixed smile.  
            “Yer’ll want some dinner?” This time Reg poked a finger in his ear and waggled it around. “An’ a coupla beds?” He pulled the finger out again.
            Oh, don’t let him look, don’t let him– Zanni closed her eyes.
            “Just for the one night, if you’d be so kind,” she heard Pa say. “Tomorrow, we–”
            Reg’s bellow cut Pa off and startled Zanni into opening her eyes. A hatch she hadn’t noticed in the wall behind Reg banged open. A face appeared in the hole.
            “What?” Alise screamed.
            Reg nodded in the direction of his clients. “Stew. Twice.”
            Zanni had a brief glimpse of matted hair, a sweaty brow and crooked teeth before Alise slammed the hatch shut again. There was the muffled sound of pots and pans clattering and banging behind it.
            Reg sniffed loudly. “Drink?”
            Pa eyed the barrels lined up behind the counter. There weren’t many. “Dark ale for me and a watered wine for my daughter, please. We’ll just wait over there, shall we?” He took Zanni’s elbow and steered her towards a table by the wall. 
            Zanni sat on her wobbly chair in the pool of yellow lamplight and tried not to touch the table top. She’d probably stick to it if she did.
            “This is nice, isn’t it?” Pa said brightly as Reg banged a battered metal tankard in front of him and a chipped glass in front of Zanni.
            Zanni waited until he was out of earshot before she answered. “No, Pa. It’s not. Tell me again why we had to come here.”
             Pa reeled off his well-rehearsed list again, ticking them off on his fingers. “One, the business wasn’t doing so well.”
            That much was true. How could someone call himself a crystal seller when he couldn’t bear to part with most of the crystals that he was supposed to sell? Zanni had often wondered how Pa ever made any money at all.
            “Two, it was an opportunity too good to miss.”
            Zanni frowned. “Well, yes, but I still don’t understand how no-one else applied for the Crystal Keeper job. I mean, you know a lot about crystals for sure, but there are plenty of real experts at the Institut. Why didn’t they get considered?” Her eyes narrowed when Pa refused to meet her eye. “Pa? What aren’t you telling me?”
            He took a swallow of his beer before he answered. “I might have… er… skewed things in my favour a little.”
            Pa leaned across the table as though worried about being overheard. “I happened to be in the Institut when the advert went up on the vacancies board. I took it down as soon as I read it so no-one else would see it.”
            “You did what? Oh, Pa!” Zanni rubbed her forehead. She had a headache building.
            “And three,” Pa continued, taking Zanni’s free hand in his as he spoke. “Three, I could take you away from your so-called friends.”   
            “Oh. That.” Zanni put her other hand over Pa’s and squeezed gently. “As long as I’ve a lantern at night and I don’t go into small dark places alone, I’m fine. Honest.” She managed half a smile.
            “Are you sure? You had the dream just two nights ago. I worry that–”
            Two bowls thumped onto the table, narrowly missing Zanni and Pa’s joined hands.
            “Stew. Lamb an’ brains.”
            Zanni’s stomach tightened as she stared into the bowl. Floating in the thick brown gravy were several pink, wrinkled… “Brains?” she whispered.
            Alise rolled her eyes. “Not real ones. Dumplings, covered in pink cheese. House special.” She dug deep in the pocket of her apron and pulled out an assortment of cutlery and what looked like half a loaf. She selected a couple of knives and forks and dropped them on the table with the bread. “Enjoy.”
            As soon as Alise’s back turned, Zanni used her coat sleeve to wipe her cutlery. Then she poked the pink lumps with her clean knife, still suspicious.
            Pa wasn’t so cautious. He tucked his handkerchief under his chin with a flourish, speared a chunk of what Zanni really hoped was meat, and popped it into his mouth with apparent pleasure.
            “Mm-mmmm.” He chewed, swallowed, and gestured at Zanni with his fork. “Eat. It’s delicious.”
            Zanni nibbled a tiny piece of dumpling. Pa was right – it was good. With more enthusiasm she tucked into the melt-in-your-mouth, meaty stew. Eventually she wiped the last drop of thick rich gravy from her bowl with a particularly cheesy bit of dumpling, leaned back in her chair and sighed in contentment. “At least we know the food’s going to be good here.”
            Pa was distracted, his gaze falling somewhere over Zanni’s shoulder. He appeared to be looking out of the window, so she swivelled in her chair to look too.
            The view outside was somewhat obscured, but even through the mucky glass Zanni could see a strange green glow. Her stomach clenched tight. “Pa? Pa, what is it?”
            “I think…yes…it must be…” Pa stood up quickly and almost ran across the room. He flung the door open and paused there for a moment before turning back to Zanni. “It is! Come and see.” And without another word he disappeared into the darkness.
            Zanni’s heart thudded against her ribs as slowly – so very slowly – she stood. He wanted her to follow him, outside? Into the dark? But he knew–
            Pa’s face appeared in the doorway. “Are you coming, Zanni? You simply have to see this.”                   She couldn’t speak, couldn’t tell him that she’d forgotten the fear while she was inside, near the lamp. That the very thought of going outside had filled her head with the memories, that her chest had tightened so she couldn’t breathe, she could see nothing but the blackness and–
            Her hands were snatched up, held uncomfortably tight.
            “Breathe! Breathe, Zanni. I’m here. I never thought…Zanni? Look at me. Look at me, it’s alright.”
            Pa’s frightened face appeared out of the blackness and Zanni gulped in a breath.
            “That’s it. Breathe. Slowly, in…out…”
            Pa’s half-smile, half-frown filled Zanni’s vision. She fought to take another breath, then another. After what felt like a lifetime her heart settled in her chest and the fear shrank back into the place where she tried to keep it locked away.
            Pa’s face relaxed. “That’s my girl. Better?”
            She managed a nod.
            “Good.” Pa let go of one of one of her hands and threaded the other through the crook of his arm. “Now, I didn’t tell you everything because I wanted it to be a surprise. Being the Crystal Keeper in Lorisam means looking after some special crystals. They do something quite amazing which means that the place is never in darkness.”
            While he’d been speaking, Pa had gently drawn Zanni across the room and to the door. At the threshold her feet froze and she pulled him to a halt.
            Pa smiled and patted her hand. “I’m with you. It’s safe. Trust me.”
            Could she do it? Step into the darkness outside? The sick feeling in the pit of stomach was still there, the fear still looming, ready to overwhelm her. But she had Pa with her, didn’t she… Trembling like a leaf in a breeze, Zanni gripped Pa’s arm really tight, took a deep breath and forced her feet to move.
            “That’s it. Well done. Now, the best view is from over here.” Pa led Zanni to the side of the building and pointed. “Look. Up there.”
            At first, all she could see was inky blue sky, dotted with twinkling diamonds. Then she made out the silhouette of the mountain, a deeper shadow against the blue, patterned in one area with regular patterns of light. Was that Lorisam? But before she could ask she saw the glow underneath what she assumed was their destination, a long band of bright green light stretching across the mountain.
            “What is that?” she whispered.
            Pa’s voice came out of the darkness. “It’s the Crystal Forest, Zanni. That’s what I’m here to look after.”
            “A forest? Of crystals? But it’s glowing. Green.” Zanni couldn’t stop staring. “It’s beautiful.”
            “And it glows like this every night.”
            “So…it’s never really dark here?”
            Pa kissed the top of her head. “Night time here is tinged with green. Always.”
            Zanni looked up at Pa, but his face was in shadow. “Did you know about this when you took the advert down?”
            “There might have been something written about it. I can’t quite remember.”
            So that’s why he’d moved them both so far away. Reason number four – the job came with light up crystals that meant he thought she didn’t have to be afraid of the dark. Would it work? Well it hadn’t so far. Zanni could feel her palms sweating and wanted nothing more to get back inside, in the light.
            “Right.” Pa gave her hand a squeeze. “Bed, I think. We’ve another day of travel tomorrow and it’ll be an early start.”
            A sudden thought hit Zanni as they walked back inside. “Pa, I can still have my night lantern, can’t I? I mean, the green glow doesn’t reach down here and…”
            “Of course. In fact, I might ask for one myself.” Pa grinned. “Let’s see what Reg can find, eh?”
            Up in her room, Zanni took one last look out of the window at the green glow. No wonder Pa was excited by the prospect of his new job. Then she set the dented night lantern which Reg had grudgingly found for her on the bedside table and climbed into bed. She lay on her side and stared at the flickering light. Would it be enough to keep the fear locked away for another night?

            “Please, don’t let me have The Dream again,” she whispered, and shut her eyes.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ask the Laureate (or - The Day I met Chris Riddell!)

Up front - this is a long blog post! Make yourself comfy while you read it!

Sometimes in life, you're lucky enough to meet the very people whose work you have enjoyed and loved for a long time and who inspire you in your own efforts.

Yesterday, I met one of those someones, because yesterday - as part of Leicester City's 'Everybody's Reading' Festival - I went with Laura Buckland (Granny Rainbow illustrator) to an Ask the Laureate event.

Which meant I met Chris Riddell.

*pause while I run round the room, squeeeing with excitement. Again. Afraid I did a lot of that yesterday*

In case you don't know, Chris is the current Waterstones Children's Laureate and he is the most amazing illustrator, storyteller and all round lovely person. (He's also apparently the Children's Laundrette, according to a friend of his who is German and got her words a little confused when she congratulated him on his appointment!)

I first saw Chris's drawings in The Edge Chronicles, a series created by him and Paul Stewart, when I used to go the library a lot more with the Squidgelings. While they found their books in the children's library, I used to find mine - in the same place. As soon as I saw The Edge Chronicles I loved the detail in Chris's pictures, the imagination he had, his masterful characterisation and how perfectly he seemed to capture the world of The Edge Chronicles in the 'simple' strokes of a pencil.

I was hooked. A quiet fan.

(As an aside - Squidgeling T also likes Chris's style; three years ago he used Chris for a school art project about an author study.)

When I wrote Granny Rainbow, Chris's style of characterisation became the inspiration for the pictures I asked Laura to create for the book - which we told Chris yesterday. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the story...

From Sunflower Saturday in a copy of Granny Rainbow I
added red noses to for a charity sale at the last Red Nose Day

Over the years, I've bought books like Goth Girl (a beautiful thing - I blogged about it here) and The Graveyard Book, and I began following Chris on facebook because he posts sketches on there from his personal notebooks as well as his Laureate Log. Never a day goes by without one of his sneaky train passenger portraits...or someone famous he's met...or something inspired by poetry or music or current affairs. I love it!

The first verse of a poem by Neil Gaiman that Chris drew on the way to Leicester.
You can see the other verses he illustrated on the way home on his
facebook page in the album 'Witch Work'.

Anyway, whilst browsing the old Book of Face a couple of weeks ago, I found out - purely by chance - that the Everybody's Reading Festival was hosting an Ask the Laureate event.

I knew I had to go.

Laura came with me. We submitted our questions for the Laureate and sat together (to start with - I gave up my seat for some little girls who I thought might see better, before discovering they'd moved elsewhere and I daren't move again, so we ended up sitting apart!) in the beautiful Y Theatre near Leicester Station, initially watching Chris sharpen his pencils. I have never seen anyone sharpen their leads SO long before without them snapping...

Then we watched while he flicked through the pages of one of those amazing sketchbooks and drew Emperor Smackbotty the Third AND a couple of audience portraits...

Emperor Smackbotty III (with Kraisie Mouse and nappy rash) from Alienography.

So funny, watching the mum and daughter trying to work this out,
then suddenly realising 'it's US!'

Lumberjack in The Sketchbook...

(Apologies for the quality of the photos - some are mine, some Laura's - but the necessary subdued lighting made things a bit difficult.)

The audience was very mixed; parents with children, fans of Chris's work (like us) and students of illustration. There wasn't a bad seat in the house, so everyone got to see what Chris was drawing.

Train passenger - not the man i the audience...

The question was 'When were you born?' and Chris added where
(South Africa) and that he was probably dreaming of wine gums even then...

I can't explain how amazing it was, to see drawings come to life on the big screen as answers to questions. There was an enormous wodge of postcards and Chris managed to answer a fair few; the lucky questioners got to keep either what Chris had drawn or - if it was a question he'd already answered - 'one he'd prepared earlier'.

We learnt about his earliest inspiration...his love of wine gums (a man after my own heart - but I wonder if I'd have to fight him for the black and red ones?) he was tutored by Raymond Briggs...and how his first story to be published (Mr Underbed) was written in a single evening in pure panic because when the publisher (with the extremely bushy eyebrows) who told him he could draw asked 'Where are your stories?', Chris lied and said 'I've got one, but I left it at home.' They told him to return with it the following day...

We learned what Chris would do if he was told he could never pick up a pencil again. He didn't know what he could have done to deserve this cruel punishment, but his answer was:

We also got to see how passionately he feels about reading and school libraries and the issue of grammar schools. I'm not sure if every Laureate has a campaign as such, but allowing children access to books is certainly something Chris feels very strongly about and champions at every opportunity.

He's also keen on the power of encouragement, something evident in the way he answered a couple of questions from the illustrators in the audience. He advised drawing every day - what you want to, not what you think you ought to - and researching the publishers where you think you might fit. And don't wait for things to happen. Sometimes you just have to be brave and take the next step.

We discovered the inspiration behind Lord Goth - Lord Byron - who is 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Gnomes' because he (Lord Goth, not Chris) rides around his estate on a Regency bicycle, carrying a blunderbuss. Then, when inspiration for his poetry strikes, he proceeds to blow the head off a gnome statue. Loved that tale...and kudos to the publisher who said 'yes, go ahead Chris!' without flinching when he took the proposal for Lord Goth to them.

The talk ended all too soon, (about an hour) and then we joined the signing queue. I'd taken Goth Girl and bought a copy of The Sleeper and the Spindle on the day (word of caution - the beautiful dust jacket will warp if you get it too near a heat source, as I discovered to my disappointment when I got it home). It took us three quarters of an hour to get to the front of the queue, simply because Chris was an absolute star, signing every book anyone put under his nose (some of the children looked to have bought their entire Riddell collection!) and he had a word to share with everyone. He came across as genuinely liking people - always good when you meet your fans! - and he was interested to hear what you had to say.

I really DID meet him! Still can't quite believe it...

I thanked him for everything he does for school libraries because I am, after all, a volunteer school librarian - and was astounded when he thanked me for doing that job! I told him I wouldn't be able to if he and others like him didn't write such fab stories for children to enjoy.

When it was Laura's turn he asked about her illustration degree and she told him about collaborating with me on Granny Rainbow; he wished her good luck in her future projects.

Laura getting her book signed...and the rest of the queue, still waiting patiently.

Oh - and if there are any Blue Peter fans reading this, Chris was wearing his GOLD BLUE PETER BADGE! He doesn't like to wear his Laureate's medal when he goes on tour - keeps it in a box on the mantelpiece - but he has been known to wear it whilst emptying the dishwasher because he is an Important Person.

One of the question postcards and my two signed books...

It was an awesome afternoon. I didn't get my question answered (I asked where is your favourite holiday destination - and do you take holiday snaps or draw holiday sketches?) but I had such a great time without that, I wasn't bothered!

Meeting Chris in person, watching him work, exchanging a few words with him AND getting my books signed...I think I almost floated home. 

And my most favourite thing that Chris said? 

"As creative people, keep creating."

I think that's just become my new mantra.