Friday, 24 October 2014

Only Disconnect

As writers, one of the things that lies at the heart of our intentions is connection. We write books that we want people to read. We share our thoughts, our fantasies, the products of our imagination, sometimes our biggest secrets and the deepest angst in our souls - and we put it all out there for the world to read about.

‘Only connect,’ said EM Forster, and, over a hundred years later, this is still what drives us. And I don’t think this desire is restricted to writers. We all want it. That’s why telephones were invented. It’s why the internet has pretty much taken over the world. It’s why Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc etc etc are as massively popular as they are. They allow us to reach out, communicate, share, meet, interact…connect.

So what happened? How did these means of connection suddenly become the very things that keep us isolated and disconnected?

Actually, it didn’t happen suddenly at all. It sneaked up on us so gradually that most of us don’t even realise that it has happened to us.

I used to live on a narrowboat on the canal. I remember the day BT put a line across the farmer’s field and I plugged a phone into it. Out there, on a boat on a canal in pretty much the middle of nowhere, I was connected. It was incredible. (Till the day the farmer ploughed his field and cut the line to shreds – but that’s a different story.)

Me on my beloved boat, Jester. Crikey, my hair was short back then.
I remember my first mobile phone. I remember the first time someone showed me how to send an email – and my awe at the notion that the recipient could read it from anywhere in the world moments later. It was all very new at that time, and I’m glad that I am part of a generation that still remembers a time before these things were taken for granted. I still am in awe of the internet and what we can do with it.

But sometimes I wish we could all take a couple of steps back.

Phones today can do SO much – and the problem is that, nowadays, we so often use them to separate ourselves from the world around us, rather than connect us to it.

A couple of examples.

I was catching a train yesterday. Whilst I waited for my train, I looked around. On the platform opposite there were about eight people. A few of them in pairs and a few on their own, waiting for the same train. EVERY SINGLE ONE of them was looking at their phone. Every one. Not talking to the person they were with. Not smiling at a stranger. Not noticing anyone or anything around them. Each of them was locked away on their own with their screen.

The night before that, I’d been to a Lady Gaga concert. (It was amazing, by the way. The woman is utterly bonkers but WOW – what a show she puts on!)

The best decision my partner and I made (other than to buy 'Early Entry' tickets and get a great spot!) was to leave our phones at home. We met a couple of guys on our way in and became instant friends. The four of us watched, listened, sang, danced and loved every minute of the concert. I took it all in. Gaga, the dancers, the crowds, the outfits, the music. I was there.

Around us, probably half the people I could see spent most of the evening holding out their phones to photograph and record the gig – presumably to then share it on some social networking site and say ‘Look, I was there!’

But were they? Were they really there?

Generic photo off the internet - as I didn't have my phone/camera to take a pic!
We’d been chatting with a young woman beside us before the show began. Once it started, she was one of those who brought her phone out. At one point, when Lady Gaga was behind us, the woman videoed her back. At another point, when Gaga was too far away to get a decent shot, she videoed the dark stage with the blurry figure at the edge of it. When Lady Gaga and the dancers were out of our sight completely, the young woman held her phone out at the big screen and videoed that! 

She wasn't the only one; far from it. All these people around us, so busy framing their shots, zooming in, zooming out, focussing, refocussing, they weren't even aware that in their haste to show they were there, they actually weren't there at all. They were watching an event via a tiny screen held up in the air that they could have watched for real if they put their phones away.

This isn’t a criticism of any of these people. Heck, I’ve done it myself. I’ve experienced something and started composing a Facebook status about it in my head before the moment is even over. I’ve half-watched a TV programme whilst on twitter and spent as much time reading tweets about it as taking in the programme itself. I’ve even sent a text to my partner from one end of the sofa to the other, asking for a cup of tea. (Only as a joke, I should point out.)

But I can’t help thinking that we have to start reversing things before it’s too late and we forget the art of human interaction altogether.

Last weekend, I was told about a site that I’d never heard of, but which apparently most people in their twenties already know about/use, called Tinder. The idea is that you log in to the app, tell it who you are looking for (gender, age group etc) and what kind of radius you are interested in, to a minimum of one kilometre, and the app does the rest. Any time someone fitting your wishlist comes into your specified zone, you get a notification. You check out their photos. If you like them, you give them a tick. If they like you, they give you a tick – then you can ‘chat’ and arrange to meet or whatever. (And I imagine that for many of the users, it’s the ‘or whatever’ that interests them.)

At the risk of sounding like the oldest fogiest old fogey in the room….


What happened to looking around? To conversation? To gradually getting to know someone? I’m not against online dating. Not remotely. I’m not, in fact, against any of this, and like I said, I'm as guilty of iPhone overuse as the next person. But I'm concerned by the constant speeding up of everything, and the taking us out of our surroundings to make us look at a screen instead of the things and the people around us.

So here’s my challenge – and I make it for myself as much as for anyone reading this. It’s not a super-radical idea. It’s about taking small steps.

Each day, use your phone a tiny bit less than you used it the day before. Make one decision a day where you say, ‘No, I won’t take my phone out of my pocket, I’ll smile at a stranger instead.’ Or one occasion where you decide, ‘I will allow myself this experience without having to share it online afterwards’. Just one small decision a day. Before we know it, we’ll all be connecting up again.

On which note I’m off for walkies with my partner, to chat, look at the waves, feel the salty air in my face and throw some stones for the dog.

And no, I’m not taking my phone.

Here's one I took earlier. 

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Thursday, 23 October 2014

Diversity in Children´s Books - Maeve Friel

I am sure that everyone reading this is aware that Guardian Teen Books recently celebrated a week focussing on diversity in books for children.
By diversity, they mean “books by and about all kinds of people… boys, girls, all different colours, all different races and religions, all different sexualities and all different disabilities and anything else you can think of – so our books don’t leave anyone out.”

Benjamin Zephaniah whose Terror Kid is the Guardian Teen Book Club choice says:
“I love diversity. I love multiculturalism… It makes Britain´s music interesting. It makes our food interesting. It makes our literature interesting and it makes for a more interesting country …   To me it’s not about black, white, Asian; it’s about literature for everybody.”

And there you have it: the criterion must be the quality of the literature. I see little value in writing or publishing books to satisfy some sort of quota to reflect the percentages of ethnic or racial populations or other minorities.

The Guardian published a list of 50 books chosen to represent all manner of cultural diversity, from the amazing Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman to Oranges in No Man´s Land by Elizabeth Laird.

Here are a few of my favourite books that are outstanding in every way and that also open windows on to different ways of seeing the world.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, is a wordless book about the experience of emigration/immigration, following the lonely journey of a man to a new country where everything is different and inexplicable. (He signed my copy when he spoke at a Children´s Books Ireland conference a few years ago and it is one of most treasured possessions.)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, is a graphic novel based on her experiences during the cultural and political upheaval of the Iranian revolution after the overthrown of the Shah.  This is a real eye-opener from the first pages showing tiny girls swathed in unfamiliar and unwanted veils in their school playground.

My Dad´s A Birdman, by David Almond, illustrated joyfully and colourfully by Polly Dunbar, is a terrific book about a young girl and her dad who is so overwhelmed with grief that he goes off the rails. It is suffused with love and tenderness and faith in the act of flying as Dad and daughter take part in a madcap and magical contest to sprout wings and fly across the river.  

Wonder by R.J. Palacio is the story of Auggie, a boy with a shocking facial disfigurement who is
starting 5th grade after years of home schooling: imagine how he is dreading it -  “I won´t describe what I look like. Whatever you´re thinking, it´s probably worse.

I would like to add two more joyful books to the mix:

From Tangerine Books, a wonderful picture book, Larry and Friends,  by Ecuadorian illustrator Carla Torres in collaboration with Belgian/Venezuelan writer Nat Jasper celebrating the modern melting pot that is New York.
Larry, the New York dog, holds a party for all his amazing immigrant friends among them Magpa the pig from Poland who became a tightrope artist, Laila the Iranian entomologist, Edgar the Colombian alligator street musician, Ulises, the Greek cook and  a host of other talented and tolerant newcomers to the city – all apparently based on real people and how they met up.  
The book project was successfully funded by kickstarter – see more about it here.

As you can see, the illustrations are divine - this is Layla, the Iranian entomologist who works at the museum.

And finally, another great classic is The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1963), possibly one of the earliest American picture books to feature a young African-American hero – although this is never mentioned in the text. It simply tells the story of a young four year old boy discovering snow in the city for the first time. 

You can also find me on Twitter @MaeveFriel

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Top Tips for Tip Top Events - by Nicola Morgan

Lots of hard work goes into producing the best school/library* events - hard work from the author/illustrator* and hard work from the organiser. Based on hundreds of different sorts of events over the years, and after learning more from my mistakes than successes, I thought I'd put together my top tips for each side.

(*I'll just say "school" from now on but I'll mean "school or library etc" and "author" will mean "author, illustrator or storyteller" - btw, see Sarah McIntyre's excellent post about authors/illustrators.)

Top Tips for Organisers

  1. Before sending the invitation: choose your author because you genuinely want that author, not just any bod with a pen; investigate their website so you know what they do; work out your budget; get relevant staff on-side.
  2. In your invitation, say you'd really love to invite them and what for; ask about fees and expenses; say what you are hoping for during the day (eg two workshops for Y4 and Y5 and a ten-minute assembly slot). 
  3. During the conversation, make sure you are clear about year groups, audience size, timings, etc, but be as flexible as you can. The author will know what works for her/him and you'll do no one any favours by making an author jump through hoops if that authors doesn't jump through hoops. 
  4. Discuss bookselling. Some authors prefer to bring their own books to sell; others prefer you to use your normal supplier. (Note that authors earn very little per book, so this does not make much difference to income, but we like to foster bookselling, for many reasons.) Don't forget to build time into the day for this.
  5. Ask the author in advance what support they need on the day: Being collected from station? Or directions. Lift/taxi back to station? //  Coffee etc on arrival? Other food during the day? Time-out?  //  Technical equipment. (Powerpoint presentations are always best sent in advance and set up ready.) Any other equipment?
  6. Well before the event, brief all relevant staff and generate excitement. Relevant subject-teachers should know about the author and have read some of their works, and class or subject-teachers should brief pupils, get them excited and have them prepare interesting questions.
  7. If you're having bookselling, make sure every child who wants to buy a book can. In practice this means sending a letter home and somehow making sure it gets there. There is little more upsetting for an author than carting dozens of books around, or expecting a bookseller to, and then no one buying one because a) time was not set aside b) book-selling was not advertised and c) money did not appear.
  8. Always introduce the author to each audience in a positive and upbeat way. "Today we have a famous author..." is a great way to boost the spirits of an author facing a class of kids who really don't know who he/she is. It boosts the audience's spirits, too.
  9. Make sure the author's books are in the libraray. It's fantastic to arrive in a school and see a display about us: could you get selected pupils to make one?
  10. Follow up: for the event to have the most effect on the pupils, the following equation is the only one to go for: preparation + good event + follow-up = great event + long effect. So, get pupils to write about or respond to the event in some way. What did thy like about it? What did they learn?
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

Top tips for authors
  1. Make sure your website is very clear about what you do and don't do.
  2. When the invitation arrives, wave your crystal ball and listen to the twitchings of your finger-tips. The forewarnings of a good/bad experience are usually there. The following are good signs: the organiser has obviously read your website; the organiser knows fairly clearly what she/he wants; your fee will be adequate; they really do want you. These may be bad signs: the invitation is to "Dear Sandra," when that's not your name; they try to beat your fee down to an amount you don't feel happy with or tell you what a good promotional opportunity it will be. I don't blame a school for trying, but it suggests a lack of understanding of what we do and how we (don't) earn a living. Some great events can be run on a shoestring but enthusiasm, efficiency and respect have to be 100%.
  3. Be very clear at the start exactly what you are agreeing to do and for what fee+expenses. Create a T&C document, which organisers must agree to. (Mine is on this page here - scroll down to "What to do next".) 
  4. Learn from each event what you need and what makes you work most effectively. If you need a break between each event, say so. If you need to have lunch-time on your own or go for a walk, say so. If you need a ball of candy floss, don't say so - that's just annoying. 
  5. Prepare perfectly and be über-organised. But always have a Plan B.
  6. If you're having book-selling, check that the organiser has done the requisite sending home of letters about bringing in money. And check again. 
  7. I find that the "geography" of the room makes a huge difference to how comfortable I feel and therefore how well I perform: the distance from the audience, the lectern or table, the acoustics, the position of my laptop if I'm using Powerpoint, whether teachers are pacing up and down the edges like security guards. Some of these you can't control but two things help: seeing the room beforehand, so you can adjust your table as required and stand there absorbing the vibe and imagining the event; and recognising what things make you tense and learning to breathe through them when they happen.
  8. Take easy snack foods with you - my preferred ones are nuts and dried fruit. They keep for ages and are easy to snack on when blood sugar drops, either just before or just after your talk. Ideally not in the middle, as pistachio nut in teeth is not a professional look.
  9. Remember that the organiser will very likely be stressed and nervous. Usually, they want everything to go well and a lot rides on it for them. A warm smile and a kind remark go a long way. 
  10. If something goes wrong, whoever's fault it is, keep smiling and always be professional. Learn from it, if necessary. If it goes right, be proud - and say thank you. When an event goes well, everyone gains.
In short: positivity, clarity, professionalism, preparation, detail and excitement.

I think a lot of it comes from trying to put ourselves in each other's shoes. We need to understand what schools want and they need to understand what we can give and how to help us give it.

I love the mutual buzziness of a good school event, one where they wanted me and they knew what they wanted from me, and I worked my posterior off to give it to them. 

Thinking of asking me to come and do an event on the brain/stress for your pupils? I have a better and much cheaper idea: buy a Brain Stick™ :)

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye-eee.... Megan Rix / Ruth Symes

How time has flown. I've just looked back at my blog posts and see I started way back in November 2011 and here we are 3 years later and my last post for now.

I've just finished my latest book tour as Megan Rix. This time it was for my book 'The Hero Pup' and we got to have guide dogs and hearing dogs and medical alert dogs, as well as my own two, Traffy and Bella, coming along to different sessions. It was fantastic! My favourite tour so far :) Back in 2011 I hadn't done any week long book tours and now I have 5 under my belt. I'd also never done a ppt presentation but now when we turn up at a school and they're having problems setting it up I'm (don't want to jinx it) so will just say usually able to sort it out. And requests to speak to 700 children plus staff at once - a breeze - done it twice now.

This year has been amazing. Two children's book
of the year award wins - one for 'Victory Dogs' at
lovely Stockton-on-Tees and one for 'The Bomber Dog' at beautiful Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury even provided a dog to come out on stage with me - not a german shepherd like Grey in Bomber Dog but a lively ball loving spaniel who works as a bomb sniffing dog.

Dogs are so wonderful and I never tire of telling children all the brilliant things they can do as well as showing pictures of the things my two get up to. Fortunately I have lots of pictures and the one where Bella as a tiny pup is trying to bury a sock always goes down well. As does the fox poo one :)

I've been so proud of Traffy coming into our local school with me to listen to children read. She's been such a hit and is always ready with a wag of her tail as a new child coos over her. Her special reading mat with letters on it was a true find and the children who've read to her have shown improvements even more than the school had hoped for.

The school was also the first one to hear a very early first chapter of 'Cornflake the Dragon' my new Secret Animal Society series that I'm writing as Ruth Symes. The Ruth Symes books tend to be for slightly younger children than the Megan Rix ones and I love getting letters from readers and pictures of the toys that have been made of the characters. I especially treasured an email I got recently about 'Dancing Harriet' and how the book was being used at a school in India to help teach tolerance and inclusion.

I'm going to miss not writing for ABBA for a while (other than hopefully an occasional guest post) but I've just got a bit too overworked what with running two careers as Ruth Symes and Megan Rix and so it's best to step out rather than find blogging a chore rather than a pleasure. But I'll still be reading it and looking forward to catching up with what's happening  :)

PS Just found out 'A Soldier's Friend' is one of the nominated books for 2015's Carnegie medal - yahoo! Good luck to everyone with books in it xx

PPS Thanks so much to Carol Christie for saying her son got switched back on to reading by The Bomber Dog I hadn't seen the comment at the end of my Dog Days posts until I looked back at the old posts I'd done yesterday. That's what it's all about :) and and

Monday, 20 October 2014

Out of Season - Joan Lennon

Many of us have done author events at the Wigtown Book Festival but if you're like me, you rarely leave the centre of town, where the action is fabulously, alluringly booky.  But the festival is over for another year and I'm here instead to house- and dog-sit.  And I'm seeing a whole different Wigtown, which I'd like to share with you.  From sunrises to sunsets, with some cows in-between - 

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Shakespeare and Company - Lucy Coats

There have been many bookshops marking all the pages of my life from childhood onwards. There was Mr Oxley's in Alresford, there was the first ever Hammicks, there were all the bookshops of Hay, there was James Thin in Edinburgh, the Libreria Aqua in Venice - each has a special place in my heart. But the one I love most is in Paris.

Shakespeare and Company sits across from the Seine, on a street slightly aslant from the Quai St Michel, and I loved it the moment I first walked into it in 1981. In those days (and probably still), you could work there for a bed in one of the book-lined upstairs rooms. 

I did for a while, and it was a place of companionship, laughter, and above all, a shared love of books. It is, quite literally, a treasure trove, a mish-mash of the new, the secondhand and the simply arcane and archaic. I went back there today with my children, and they were immediately lured in and entranced by the smell of dusty paper, the feeling that the perfect book must be just around the next corner, or just out of reach up that wooden ladder. 

For all that it is much more of a tourist destination nowadays, the old magic is still there. It has that indefinable Narnia feel which makes you believe that somewhere in there is a door or doors to another world. There are, of course, because that's what books are - but surely somewhere there's a tiny key, or a bookspine to rub which will take you somewhere else entirely. 

Every writer who visits Paris has been there - and it is a great honour to be asked to read in the little upstairs room with the sofas and the book nook with a tiny desk and endless fluttering pieces of paper, covered in scribbled dreams. Some of those writers are even featured on the wallpaper...

There is a wonderful children's and YA section, where I was happy to see many of my lovely author friends featured (though sadly not me), and an invitingly padded alcove just perfect for a child to curl up on and read one of the pile of picture books which leans against the wall. 

If you go to Paris, do try to make time to go there - and may you be as transported with delight as I have always been...(and take note of my favourite quote above)! 

New dates announced for Lucy's Guardian Masterclass on 'How to Write for Children' 
Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is now out from Nosy Crow!
"If you’re going to select only one revolting, repulsive pirate book, this is arrrr-guably the best." Kirkus
Website and blog
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Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Creative Energy and Space - Linda Strachan

It takes energy to be creative, and a certain amount of space in your head.

To bring ideas out into the light of day and shape them, change them, discard some and let others blossom.  Making hundreds of little decisions, and some big ones. To decide which ideas are worth pursuing and which are only half-baked. To hold onto the reins of a story that is burgeoning and almost out of control, takes strength of will and the time and energy to see it to the end. There is then the sheer physical task of getting those words or images down in print, paper or computer.

It is not easy having an idea, or a whole pot of ideas, that stumble and crash into each other like bubbles, as you try not to burst or lose them. The ache as they disappear into the ether, slipping away before they are fully grasped or remembered, leaving hardly a scent of themselves - lost forever.
Sometimes they stick together and at other times are subsumed into one huge mass often unwieldy mass that needs careful cutting or shaping and at times brutal harsh editing.

Corralling them into a story, or a novel is not a simple process. Moulding the ideas that crop up almost out of nowhere, shaping the characters and plot, worrying about whether what you are creating has any worth at all.

All this requires creative energy.

It is hard work, not like scrubbing a floor or digging a ditch but concentration, sometimes head-in-hands exasperation and, thankfully, moments of sheer joy!
Ideas can be forced by a deadline and that constraint will at times produce an unexpectedly interesting result but there are other times when the chaos of daily grind, surroundings and distractions, however lovely or interesting, can make it so much more difficult.

A room of one's own, a place of quiet seclusion where the writer or artist can have all distractions taken away, to allow the mind to wander at will and the imagination to blossom, can make all the difference.

A walk alone where the waves lap at the shore...

or where the leaves flutter in the breeze...  

It  will let the imagination wander and often release a knot in the mind, letting the answer unravel in the subconscious.

At times like these it may be difficult for those around us who are not writers or artists to understand the need for that particular kind of peace and space.

While inside our heads our thoughts are wrestling with the problem, it may seem to the outside world that we are not actually working.
It may be difficult for others around us to  understand the kind of energy that is required to work the creative process.

That is why the company of other writers and artists is so important; those people who understand perfectly the stresses and strains involved and the drive to keep doing this amazingly wonderful, dreadful and compulsive thing we do.

There may be times when we cannot find that creative energy, for reasons as varied as there are people. But even in those times, which eventually pass, thoughts and ideas are lingering quietly in a corner waiting for the time when the creative energy returns.

It always does.

So give your creative energy time and space, and nurture it.  You know you want to!

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

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

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  and she is 
  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

blog:  Bookwords