Monday, 24 April 2017

Why do you blog? by Tracy Alexander

It’s publicity.

I started blogging in 2009 to create some presence as a newly published author. I fashioned a website with the usual pages – about me, school visits, books, contact, and ‘the blog’. And so the ramblings began. It would appear that I was quite conscientious for a few months, posting regularly, finding visuals to entertain. Thereafter, random would be the word. And random described the content too – occasionally writerly, sometimes personal, anecdotes from the family, pics of birthday cakes, book and school events, holidays . . . whatever came to mind. It dawned on me some way down the line that I should have had a theme. Oh well, too late.

Hardly anyone ever looked at my website. I used to check the data but it was dispiriting and then I forgot how to do it. I never knew who I was writing for. Or who my (few) visitors were. My books were for ages 7-11 and I suspected my blog readers were teachers from schools I’d visited, librarians and my friends. My interest dwindled. The blog seemed pointless.

When my two YA novels arrived in their oh-so-happening jackets my enthusiasm for an online personality was renewed. I made a new site because, from a scan of the 27 pages that occupied, I decided I didn’t appear edgy enough to write thrillers. I had also been reincarnated so was born. But my heart wasn’t in it. It’s a largely empty embarrassment.

And now I only blog on ABBA. Being part of an interesting and lively multi-author channel with a loyal audience is great and I can see the point. (And it's a commitment.) Good.

And yet . . . all those posts from 2009 . . .

I haven’t been a diary writer since my early twenties. Decades exist only in my memory or through photographic evidence. But the eight years since I began writing are documented and, for me, compelling reading. In that way that authors show themselves in their work without meaning to, regardless of the topic my life is charted through my posts. Passing comments, dotted about to give flavour, assume a new significance as I look back. My children start off small, dependent, comic and then move out of focus. We see that I have no idea my dad is going to die.  The early forays into the public eye are fraught. The joy of being published morphs into a journey of highs and lows. The gaps speak too. Of months where writing seemed an indulgence life couldn’t afford. I would have forgotten the clay mummy ‘clummy’ without my blog. I would have forgotten Charlie’s picture of Bee - the girl in the Tribe gang - given to me at the Appledore Book Festival. Brian Moses, walking with his iguana, would also be lost to me. I would not be, as I write, reliving my role as narrator at the Babar concert – unable to read the music being played, desperate not to miss my cue.

I may not have furthered my career, but I’ve captured a period of my life where my children became adults and I became a writer.
Maybe all that time I was writing to myself . . .

Tracy Alexander

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Shakespeare Stressed/Unstressed by Steve Gladwin

One of the great joys of being a 23rd of the month blogger is that I always get to do Shakespeare’s birthday. The fact that this date may well be inaccurate is neither here nor there because if you have any interest in writing or literature, or have been variously bullied, persuaded or cajoled into studying it, Shakespeare is an ever present.

More or less everything has been written, dreamed or conjectured about Shakespeare. There may be one or two plot quantum leaps to make still, for example a confused Will turning up as potential velociraptor fodder in the latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, or even being an occasional guest blogger here on ABBA, (oh go on someone!) By and large however we’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities with The Bard.

One thing Shakespeare would almost certainly not have had the benefit of is counselling and it’s that somewhat odd idea that is the subject of this blog. Before we proceed though I have an apology to make.

A year ago I expressed my excitement and enthusiasm about the appointment of Emma Rice, the former director and performer in Kneehigh and Theare Alibi as the new director of the Globe Theatre. Sadly Emma’s tenure did not work out and she is already set to leave in 2018. I do hope I didn’t put the mockers on this stage of her career and wish her all the best in finding somewhere new for her extraordinary talents.

One thing Emma Rice or any theatre director would have easy recourse to in this day and age, is a whole range of therapeutic help which sits outside medicine and more often than not deals with the problems of the mind as much as the body. Should we wish we can choose between Reiki and Alexander Technique, Reflexology and Indian Head Massage, Sports Massage and Hypnotherapy. Just imagine if any of this had been around in the time of Shakespeare and Burbage. Instead of relying on the gorging powers of the humble leech or close examination of stool samples, the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men would instead learn how to align their chakras or correct their posture. Foot massage would be a way of helping poisons to pass more easily through their systems and Big Margaret in Cheapside would be someone you paid to deal with shin splints rather than more earthy diversions. You can only imagine how much fun the people of Elizabeth and James the First’s London would have with such a fund of new alternatives to occupy them.

One of my greatest bugbears about Shakespearian knowledge or scholarship is not the argument that someone else wrote some or all of his works, (just read the plays and see a theatrical as well as a written craftsman at work and try to imagine Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere writing in the voice of the poor or country folk), but the idea of this thing called authentic Shakespeare performance.

This mistaken notion comes because people see the results of the quarto or folio editions as representing how the plays themselves were written. This is clearly not the case and indeed the editions were put together by Heminges and Condell as a collection to celebrate the work of their friend and fellow actor, rather than a fair representation of what the actual rehearsal scripts looked like. It’s accepted now that these were likely a right mess with scrawls, doodles, mistakes and possibly the equivalent of Tudor phone numbers and ‘Dick was here’ type graffiti. They would not have been a solid whole but a mismatched collection of parts for a single actor which would later have to be reassembled in retrospect as an article you could actually sell to the public. Most significantly, and far more like a latter day shooting script, more or less everything was subject to change either by the cancelling or addition of new material or by the improvisation of the actor in the role. After all, actors in a live bear pit like the Globe or the Curtain would rarely be able or inclined to stick to the words as written.

But what about Will Shakespeare himself, the man charged with the task of producing the words and parts? It always makes me laugh when people talk about the beautiful language which he, (no doubt) composed and this mistaken belief of how eloquently and slowly it must have been spoken to the groundlings. The truth is that until the nineteenth century the theatre was a place of raucous noise and disruption where anyone not enough on their game was seen as prime pickings for the wit of hecklers and well-aimed rotten fruit. Our cerebral view of Shakespeare’s theatre simply didn’t exist until people invented it as a way of preserving performance practice that never was in aspic. The real thing was far more interesting.

Meantime our Will is upstairs sweating it out with a scene or soliloquy and he’s promised the actors the next act in time for the first run through and just where is it going to come from? He is early on in his career, the time of Titus and the early Henrys, when he is still slightly star struck in the wake of bright Kit Marlowe.

Obviously our boy’s going to do alright, but just in case he struggles, we’re going to give him a leg-up courtesy of a bunch of helpful twenty first century children’s writers. The members of this particular self-help group come from the Charney retreat of 2015.

Here you go then Will. A few suggestions for looking after yourself as a writer. The often unfunny editions are sadly mine own.

Drink lots of water.
Keep getting up from your desk/quill/candle.
Unfollow anyone who’s having more success than you. (Or nearest equivalent)
Don’t spend too much time in self-congratulation.
Make sure you have a really good friend. (Rules out most critics).
Get a dog, which is perfect writer’s assistant.
Have a writing location without a computer. (Not difficult in your case!)
Practice Mindfulness
Put together a nice writing critique group. (Maybe not the lads downstairs)
Use an egg timer.
Do some gardening.
Practice your breathing and meditation. (Beats leeches anytime!)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (Erm!)
Have a hot bath. (Preferably with a hot companion)
Have friends who aren’t writers.
Avoid the ‘if I can just’.
Invite your unpublished self-round to tea.
Don’t eat chocolate etc.
Eat plenty of chocolate etc.
Listen to audio books. (Or Burbage reciting his lines)
Bathe in the power of fan love. (but look out for the obvious stalkers!)
Write light as well as dark.
Write in notebooks in pencil.
Listen to the right music. (Say John Dowland’s Twenty Golden Lute Greats)
Rest when you need it.
Lead a more balanced life.
Pick things each day that make you happy. (Molly from the dairy say)
Know that you’re not alone. (Kit Marlowe and Tom Kydd have struggled there before you but you didn’t get tortured or stabbed in the eye).
Build a shed.
Use a footrest. (A suitably willing small child may do for this)
Have writer friends, (but not Robert Greene!)
Eat four squares of chocolate. (There’s a bit of a theme developing here!)
Exercise the friend muscle
Be where you are.
Review your day.
Practice alignment.
Tell yourself you are not just a writer. (maybe trying for a spot on the Elizabethan X-Factor?).
Say ‘no’ and don’t feel bad.
Read comfort books.
Be happy.
Eat dark chocolate. (See what I mean?)
Use comments feature in Word. (Alternatively treat yourself to a new quill).

To that I’d like to add a couple of additions.
Leave town at the first sign the plague hits.
Don’t do that special performance of Richard the Second.

There you go our Will. You’ll be fine.

Oh sorry - almost forgot.

Happy Birthday mate.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed being a fly in the attic at Will Shakespeare’s first therapy session as much as I have. Apologies to all my friends at Charney 2015 for making merry with their genuinely useful advice. Comments or complaints on a parchment please to –

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Saturday, 22 April 2017

The View from Here - By Dan Metcalf

I live in a fairly standard 2.5 bedroom house. My sons' double bedroom is at the front of the house as well as our boxroom/office/spare bedroom. My wife and I have a bedroom at the rear and one day we were having a very lazy Sunday lie-in (and, might I add, very rare). Cups of tea from a proper teapot, a sneaky biscuit, an erudite prize-winning novel for my wife and a comic book for me. My eldest son, then four, barrels in to the room and demands breakfast, which is when we reluctantly give up and get up, donning dressing gowns and rubbing the sleep from our eyes.

It was a spring day; out of our bedroom window, we could see the blossom on a tree floating down, the leaves blowing in the breeze and over our garden fence, the meadow beyond was shining in the sun. My youngest son, then three, charges in and repeats the call for breakfast.

“Ah, look!” calls my wife. “Fifi is on the roof!” 

She points. Our neighbour's cat is balanced precariously on the roof of another neighbour's garage. We all say 'ahh' and call over to her to be careful. I look over and see that my youngest son has left the room. I hear the thump thump thump on the stairs and see him return with a small stool in hand, which usually lives in the kitchen. He places it down near the window and stands on it. He looks out and smiles.

“Oh! A garden!” he announces.

It had completely passed my by that not only was he not able to see the feline high-wire act we were watching due to his height, but he had never been able to see out of that window. He had never peeked over to see our back garden from above. The sight was new and strange to him, and novel.

As grown ups (a title I begrudgingly accept) we often forget how a child thinks, or how they view the world. But as a children's writer, it is something I am mindful of. Is the story written from a point of view that the child reader will recognize? Would my character really see things in the same light, that I, a beardy writer who is thirty years their senior, does?

The old saying says that you should walk in someone's shoes to get a better appreciation of their situation, but as children's writers, maybe we should be kneeling down, and viewing the world from their own, unique, perspective.

Dan :¬)

Dan Metcalf is a writer for children. You can find out more about him, his books and subscribe to his email newsletter on his website:

Friday, 21 April 2017

I love the pictures in picture books! by Anne Booth

One of the things I most enjoy about being an author is writing picture books and working with the illustrators. I’ve always been passionate about picture books, and when I did an MA in the History and development of Children’s Literature I chose to do my dissertation on the depiction on mothering in the books of Shirley Hughes. That was back in 1993-95, so there would be even more books by Shirley Hughes to write about if I were to do it now! 

You can tell how much I still love Shirley Hughes by the Mothering Sunday present I was given this year by my children - (aged 17, 19 and 20!) The card has an illustration by Anita Jeram, the pencil case has Helen Oxenbury's illustrations to Michael Rosen's 'We're going on a Bear Hunt'! And then there is the may be argued somewhat essential for illustrators and writers alike.

Anyway, it is a dream come true to actually have written some picture books myself, and so much fun to share them with children in schools - but when I do share my picture books I always give the children lots of love from the illustrators and make sure we always look carefully at, and talk about, how wonderful the pictures are.

I absolutely love how Rosalind Beardshaw imagined Betty, ‘The Fairest Fairy’, for example.

I was delighted when a mum sent me a picture of her little girl, pointing out how much she looked like Rosalind’s depiction of Clara, The Christmas Fairy.

Sam Usher did such a lovely job of illustrating ‘Refuge’ - so much so that the illustrations for ‘Refuge’ earned him a nomination for the prestigious Greenaway award.

My most recent book is ‘I want a Friend’ , illustrated by Amy Proud. We are working together on a series of three books for Lion Publishing. They are each set in the same nursery, and everyone working on it wanted, and was delighted with, the diversity in her illustrations. You can tell Amy has been a teaching assistant and she really captures nursery school life.

I will also have a Christmas book out in 2018, illustrated by Ruth Hearson. It’s about a shy angel called Jenny, and the  illustrations I have seen so far are adorable.

And I have just signed up for two illustration courses myself - a day at the House of Illustration in June - and a week in July. I think ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ and even if I turn out not to be good enough to be an illustrator myself, (I would so love if I were!) I will have lots of fun and end up knowing that much more about how illustrators work and that can only help my writing.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Cabinet of Curiosities - Joan Lennon

Like every writer who goes into schools, I have been asked many times, "Where do you get your ideas?"  And I trot out the same old answer, how everything I see or hear or do or come across or experience in any old way goes into the soup between my ears, and how then this bit and then that bit and then another bit will float to the surface and bump into each other and a what if will ensue ...  And it all sounds pretty revolting, really.  And then, not long ago, I rediscovered the delectable Lucinda Lambton and her beguiling TV programmes from the 80s* and I realised how much more elegant it would be to compare a head full of this and that to a cabinet of curiosities -

Domenico Remps** (1620-1699)

Ole Worm** (1588-1654)

Frans Francken the Younger** (1581-1642)

(all images from Wiki Commons)

So the next time I'm asked, the process of collection remains the same, but I will ditch the soup and describe myself as having a head like a cabinet of curiosities, each experience and snippet having its own little drawer or place on a shelf.  Beats a bobbing bit of carrot any day!

* such as this one on, in fact, Cabinets of Curiosities.  Wonderful!
** And those names - fabulous!  I'll be having those for my cabinet, for sure!

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

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Comfort Books and Writing Heroes - Lucy Coats

The world is a fairly scary place right now, and when I'm scared, or tired, or ill, I turn to books. Most specifically comfort books. There are many writers I could turn to, but for this post I want to talk about one in particular -- Robin McKinley, because that's who I'm re-reading right now. Maybe it's because unpacking any one of her books is the thing that makes anywhere I am—hospital, house, holiday—feel like home.  Maybe it's because her books are the first thing I reach for in times of stress or trouble. Maybe it's because she’s brave and crabby and funny and she likes dogs and horses and roses and bells and quirky female protagonists who like books.

I remember the exact moment Robin first thumped into my consciousness like some ‘oh yes’ meteor moment. I was a young editor then, and her first two books—The Blue Sword (Newbery Honor) and The Hero and the Crown (Newbery Award)—had just been published in the UK by the great Julia MacRae.  I was sitting in a little green office, looking at a brick wall, opening a book I'd nicked from the publisher next door, and suddenly I was somewhere else.  This wonderful writer had taken me away, entranced me, made me forget who I was and where I was and what I was supposed to be doing.  She’d opened the door to a whole new world of fantasy and I jumped in and slammed it shut behind me.  When, years later, I defected from the world of editing to the world of being a writer myself, hers was one of the sure hands I felt on my shoulder, guiding me as I wrote my first novel, Hootcat Hill.  It’s not that I wanted to write like some fan-fic Robin clone—I have my own style and voice.  It was more a case of a kind of writerly cameraderie, feeling as if she and I come from the same sort of universe—a universe where mythical dragons, women of strong opinions, and the minutiae of growing things in gardens are part of our mutual language.

Right now I'm reading her two retellings of the Beauty and the Beast story, Beauty and Rose Daughter. It's rare to find an author so entranced by a story that she tells it twice, and I love both versions. I know it's rampant escapism -- but isn't that what we as authors do? Isn't that what all good books do? Don't get me wrong -- I love a book which makes me think. But in the end, what I really desire is for the story and characters to pull me in and take me somewhere else, to dunk and immerse me so fully that everything else recedes. Revisiting these old favourites is just what I need right now, and, let's face it, it's better for me than a mound of chocolate which would be the other feelgood option.

What are your favourite comfort reads? And are you, like me, currently in need of them?

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review

Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Creating worlds by Lu Hersey

Like most writers, I try to include a real sense of place in whatever I write. A place that feels so real to the reader, they can almost touch it. And up until now, that’s always been a landscape I’m really familiar with.

Setting my first novel, Deep Water, in Cornwall gave me the excuse to spend huge amounts of time there. Holidays spent snorkelling over sunlight Cornish seas, traipsing across rugged clifftop paths, exploring villages, soaking up the ambience of Cornish graveyards and chapels - and many rainy days of research in the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle.

I immersed myself in Daphne du Maurier books, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series, and tomes on Cornish myth and legend. I told myself it would be easier to write, and the book would only work, if I covered every angle of the geography and the atmosphere of the world it's set in. The upshot was it took blooming YEARS to write.

The same thing happened when writing my second book, Broken Ground (currently undergoing its zillionth edit). The setting for this one is a fictionalised version of the area around Silbury Hill and Avebury. I spent so long immersing myself in the Neolithic in this part of the country, I probably deserve a burial space in West Kennet longbarrow. And, of course, all the months of research meant Broken Ground also took an eon to write.

But my current work in progress is a complete departure. It’s a myth-based sci-fi story, much of it set in a desert world. I know little of deserts. Once, when I was about seven, my parents drove us over the Atlas mountains to the edge of the Sahara. All I remember is it was hot and dry, and smelt of camel dung. But there are no camels in my fictional world. And it’s not the Sahara.

I haven’t been to this place, because it exists only in my imagination. My research on deserts, and desert plants and animals, is done entirely online - where scale is almost impossible to judge, and you can’t smell a thing. The upshot is I’m writing much, much faster this time round. I can’t spend time faffing about in deserts because I don't have the time or the money, so the plot is cracking along at a good pace. 

To help me work out how to conjure up the ambience of an unknown environment, I’ve been reading lots of extraordinary, inspirational books set in imaginary landscapes to see how other writers do it. Most recently, I've re-explored Wrath, the dump world where Eugene Lambert’s brilliant The Sign of One sci-fi novel is set, with the publication of the gripping sequel, Into the No Zone. I've skirted around the vast expanse of SF Said's amazing universe in Phoenix, and am currently captivated by the fantastic seascapes and ice lands of Sarah Driver’s Sea. I’m awed by the way these writers conjure fantastical worlds which have such a real feel to them that the reader is totally sucked in. And hopefully, by reading, I've learnt something.

Now I'm wondering why I didn't think of creating a landscape earlier. Today my desert world needs a dog creature, so I can make one up, from the smell of its rancid fur to the noise it makes in its throat. I don’t need to spend weeks hanging out with dingos, or African painted dogs – my dog creature is conjured from years of David Attenborough documentaries and a childhood growing up with a couple of smelly corgis. 

The dunes in my desert can be as ochre red as they like, riddled with all the caves and hiding places I need for the characters to hide. Animals and plants grow according to how much danger I need, or simply because the characters need to eat.

So would I go back to real world landscape? Yes of course. The book I write after this may well be set in Cornwall again. Or Somerset. Or Wiltshire. Somewhere I know well. But it might not. The landscapes seeded in my mind have taught me a lot. I can set a story anywhere my imagination can take me.

However, if anyone has a spare ticket, I’d really appreciate a quick research trip to the Sonoran Desert…

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
Instagram: luwrites
blog: Lu Writes