Wednesday, 23 April 2014

UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day - Maeve Friel

Happy Book Day! No, I haven´t got my dates mixed up. 23rd April,  is the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day, a worldwide celebration of the book, the publishing industry and the intellectual property rights of the author. (Britain and Ireland as always are out of step with the rest of the world!)

The date was chosen by UNESCO because both Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) and William Shakespeare died on that day (although that is not strictly true because of the difference in the Gregorian and Julian Calendars).

In Spain, Cervantes Day has been celebrated since 1923 and Cervantes is treated with the same veneration and respect as Shakespeare.  In Cataluña, the day coincides with the feastday of their national saint, St. George or Sant Jordi, and there is a longstanding tradition there of people exchanging roses and books on 23rd April although this custom is widespread throughout Spain now. Many bookshops present you with a rose when you buy a book and nearly all stay open late. There are thousands of book related activities throughout the country.

If you were in Madrid today, you could celebrate the life of Cervantes by going to the Convento de las Trinitarias, an old convent in the Barrio de las Letras (The Arts Quarter), where the Academy hold a memorial Mass with an empty coffin on display. Cervantes chose to be buried here because the Trinitarian Monks had helped organise his release after he was kidnapped and enslaved by Algerian corsairs on his return from the Battle of Lepanto (where he lost an arm): unfortunately, the location of the grave has long been lost.

Or you could take the train out to the old university town of Alcalá de Henares where Cervantes was born, the son of a barber-surgeon and a minor impoverished aristocrat.  His home is now a casa-museo and is a fascinating glimpse into 16th century domestic architecture.

Or you could go farther afield to Argamasilla in Castilla La Mancha. This small town claims to be the home of Don Quixote, "the place whose name I do not wish to remember"  - (el) lugar de La Mancha de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme. It is now firmly on the literary tourist map, on the Ruta de Don Quijote, a fabulous landscape with its wide horizons, crumbling castles and dozens of white windmills on the crests of the hills.

Cervantes, always poor, always unfortunate in business and in love, was thrown into prison in Argamasilla.  It was here that he said he had the idea for Don Quijote, who may have been based on the local Duke Rodrigo de Pacheco, the duke of the long countenance, who suffered from mental illness. His ex voto portrait hangs in the local church (he´s the man in the ruff, bottom right hand corner):

Or you could simply take down a copy of Don Quixote, the Ingenious Hidalgo of La Mancha and browse. Often cited as the first modern European novel, and nominated again and again by writers as their favourite book, it is funny, touching, wise and full of beautiful language - and yes, there are boring bits too but you can skip them. There are literally hundreds of editions, including ones illustrated by Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.  In the whole literary canon, are there any profiles as recognisable as the long skinny lance-wielding hidalgo and his small round companion Sancho Panza?

Can I also recommend Don Quixote´s Delusions - Travels in Castilian Spain by Miranda France, an unusual travel book/memoir/literary biography. It will make you laugh out loud but is also a scholarly and insightful introduction to Don Quijote.

I have not been above borrowing a little from Cervantes. My books Tiger Lily - A Heroine in the Making, Tiger Lily - A Heroine with a Mission, Tiger Lily - A Heroine for All Seasons all feature a girl who, like Don Quijote, has also become a little mad from reading so many books and determines to become a heroine and escape from her home in the Middle of Nowhere in search of adventure.

"When Don Quijote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel." Milan Kundera

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Praise be to editors - by Nicola Morgan

This won't be the first time an ABBA blogger has praised editors but it would be hard to praise them too often, so I'm going to do it again.

When I had my Help! I Need a Publisher! blog, I used to come across so many writers who had turned or were planning to turn their back on the idea of aiming for trade publication because "the editing process would suppress my voice" or some such twaddle. Because twaddle it is. A good editor is a bit like a good singing teacher: nurtures and nourishes your voice so that it can sound its best. A singing teacher would also be a critic, suggesting when you've got it wrong. And you might occasionally disagree with the teacher, and you might be right, but that wouldn't make them not a great teacher.

Stick with the voice analogy for a moment: you accept how when you sing or speak you are hearing your voice through your own head, reverberating differently so that it sounds different when it hits someone's ears? Well, a good editor is that other pair of ears and can show you how you might wish to tweak or polish your voice to sound best for other ears. Because what it sounds like in your own head isn't as important as how it sounds to others.

And I am not so arrogant that I don't want to listen to a trusted expert, a trusted expert who a) wants my book to be as good as possible and b) can help me make it so.

Here I have to mention the long-suffering, eagle-eyed, hyper-intelligent and just plain darn brilliant editors working on The Teenage Guide to Stress with* me. Caz Royds and Alice Horrocks are editors to die for. And this has been a BIG task. (Notice the "with", because this is the ultimate teamwork.)

Editing fiction is a tricky thing (and they do that, too) but editing non-fiction requires a different set of skills and tuning. Five levels of headings - and have we at last got the hierarchy of information right??? Is the order of material right? Is everything perfectly balanced and weighted? What do we do about the fact that the author is paranoid about leaving things out and yet perhaps it can't all go in? Have we got the voice just right for 12 year-olds and 18 year-olds and adults? Is it sufficiently serious and yet not too dark? How do you tackle blushing and self-harming, sweating and suicidal thoughts all in one book? How deep should the contents list go? Index? Wahhhh! Glossary or not? And then the design issues that come with non-fiction become part of the editorial process - and here a big mention for the so-patient and talented Beth Aves, who somehow manages to incorporate every text change or order switch without complaint.

The complications of this rather large book meant that we have gone to the wire, time-wise, with last-minute "ARGGGGH"s flying back and forth, and yet with humour, respect and mutual admiration all the time. We go to print on April 29th and I'm sending them fizz to celebrate. We may have to have a Skype party!

Next project: The Demented Writer's Guide to Self-Inflicted Stress. You can all contribute!

NOTE: For the chance to win a copy of The Teenage Guide to Stress, signed on or before publication day, visit my blog and leave a comment on any/all April/May posts with "Exam tips" in the title. Each comment = one entry to the random draw, so comment on each post if you wish!


Nicola Morgan's free Brain Sane newsletter is full of links and articles about the brain, reading, stress, positive psychology and mental health. Next issue is a special one on SLEEP, with gorgeous sleepy giveaways and books to be won. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Anyone for Easter Solitaire? - Megan Rix

Did you know that there’s actually an Easter Solitaire game on the internet? I never let myself play games on my computer because I know it'd be too easy for me to get addicted and I'd end up spending all my days playing instead of writing. l don’t switch the TV on during the day either - for the same reason. :(

I was only looking up card games for this blog because I’d read that there are more ways to arrange a deck of cards than the number of atoms in the world!!!!?????!!!!

Quite often I hear authors say: l wanted to write a story about such and such eg. vampires (lions (hedgehogs) headless zombies / Cinderella etc etc but I didn’t because so and so had already done it.

But the thing is, I always want to say, the way you tell a story is personal to you. Even if you start off with the same characters you will end up with a different story by the end because your version is different to everyone else’s. There’s lots of lovely writing exercises at

Every character we write about has multiple choices to choose from and every plot a myriad of twists and turns.

There's a whole TV channel devoted to crime dramas and each of them are their own unique selves.


Just like the storyteller and the story.

Hope you all have/had a very happy and creative Easter break. I'm still dancing with joy at my first ever book award. 'The Victory Dogs' has won Stockton Children's Book of the Year for 2014. Many many thanks to all the children that voted for it. :)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Is Competition Good for Us? by Joan Lennon

Children's writers are a bit like fish in those shrinking ponds in a drought.  We're not yet at the stage of trying to breathe mud, but still, times are tight.  So, is competition good for us?

First, watch the video ...

Now, discuss!

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

Saturday, 19 April 2014

It's Our Turn Now! Celebrating Project #UKYA - Lucy Coats

If you haven't already heard about it, I'd like to introduce you to Project UKYA, set up in September 2013 by Lucy Powrie, a teenage Force for Good, and a manic bibliophile. Essentially, Lucy has come up with the brilliant idea of blowing the trumpet loudly and publicly for UK Young Adult authors and their books, with a different 'project' happening each month. Right now there's a marvellously wide-ranging series of chats going on on Twitter under the hashtag #ukyachat. People are sharing books they love, and talking about different aspects of UKYA. Next month a new longterm project launches - a monthly (to begin with) 'livechat' on YouTube, talking about the latest UKYA releases, discussing UKYA books and much more, including special guests and author Q and As.

Why does this matter? It matters because YA from the US has held the balance of power in the public perception of YA for far too long. While the likes of Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments have all sold millions of copies and had films made in a relatively short time after publication, UK YA authors have been lagging behind in terms both of sales and of international recognition. We need to try and change that, because the pool of UK writing talent is immense, and yes, I'm going to say it, just as good if not better than anything coming out of America. All of us who care about books and reading need to work together to get the word out there to YA readers about just how good British books are at the moment.

This is absolutely not to denigrate US writers - I'm very excited currently about Laini Taylor and Sarah J Maas's forthcoming titles, among others. It's just that I'm equally excited - or more so - about Clare Furniss's Year of the Rat, Keren David's Salvage, Teri Terry's Shattered, Claire McFall's Bombmaker, Ruth Warburton's Witchfinder, Gillian Philip's Icefall, Ellen Renner's Tribute, James Dawson's Cruel Summer, Candy Gourlay's Shine and the new film of Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed Me. And that's just touching the surface of what's out there right now. I could spend the rest of this post just making a list of great UKYA books and writers (don't worry, I won't).

So, really what I'm asking you to do here is to support Project UKYA. Follow it on Twitter and take part in the chat, join its Facebook page, read and comment on the blog - but above all, spread the word about its existence to everyone you know who loves good books. UKYA books and authors deserve to be known and celebrated all over the world - let's be the pebbles which start the avalanche.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Creative Writing- can it be taught? - Linda Strachan

There has been a lot of debate about whether creative writing can be taught and whether it should be taught.  
I do believe that you can teach certain aspects of creative writing - but then I would say that, having written a book about it!   
Some say writers should be free to find their own way, to experiment. That is fine, but why reinvent the wheel?
I think it is akin to someone who wants to draw buildings or street scenes being told that no one should teach them about perspective, they should find out by trial and error.

There are aspects of any skill, including writing, that can be taught, there is always something new to learn and I think the best teachers in any field will encourage students to go out and experiment, but they give them some kind of board to dive from.
It is important that the people who are teaching have some kind of credibility and publishing credentials. There are so many universities and colleges offering creative writing courses and I often wonder how many of them give their students any insight into the realities of what it takes to survive as a writer in this day and age. Do they tell them how uncertain a career path it is, that even if the book they write on the course gets published (with lots of time, help and support when writing it), that is no guarantee for the future?

I get a real buzz from working with emerging writers of any age. I love encouraging people to explore their creativity, and watching as they discover they have written something that surprises them; seeing ideas blossom into stories and their characters growing into fully fleshed out people.
We all know that writing can be scary, and sharing it with others is sometimes the most difficult thing, which is why creating a sense of trust within a group of students is so important. They should feel safe, and confident that any comments though honest, will not be destructive.  Whether a novice writing in secret, or an experienced writer waiting to hear what people think of your new book, we all feel wary when putting our latest creation out there. People may not like it!  But we keep on writing, because we love it, and hate it, and we just have to do it.
Moniack Mhor

I recently spent a weekend at Scotland's Creative Writing Centre, Moniack Mhor.  I've been there a few times before, tutoring Arvon courses much like those discussed in the post last Sunday The Arvon Habit by Sheena Wilkinson.   

This time I was working with a group of adults both at Moniack Mhor and at the Abriachan Forest Trust, on a short course called Words in the Landscape, and what a landscape it is!
View from my window at Moniack Mhor

We spent one day at Abriachan walking in the forest, being inspired by our surroundings. 

It was wonderful to stand quietly in the middle of the forest and -

LISTEN to the quiet, and the noises we often miss because we are talking or making noise ourselves -
Abriachan Forest Trust cabin classroom

LOOK at everything around us from the great majesty of trees to the smallest insect walking on the water - 

FEEL the wind against your skin, the warmth of the early spring sunshine -

IMAGINE what creatures might have inhabited these woods thousands of years ago, or in an imaginary world far away.  

Artist's Impression of Straw Bale Studio

On the second afternoon at Moniack Mhor some of us were lucky enough to be the first to try out the newly finished Straw Bale Studio, an 'eco friendly tutorial space. It was really exciting to see it finished.

I had watched some of the early stages of the build when I was there in August last year.

The group created some great stories and ideas for further writing.

I always come away inspired and ready to get back to my own writing. 

Running courses in creative writing reminds me to make sure my readers will care about my characters; to make the plot layered, the characters flawed and fascinating; to work harder on dialogue, and at making the plot grab the reader and pull them through the story.  It sharpens my critical senses and reminds me of all the things I have been working on with my students.  

Teaching creative writing is hard work but rewarding in so many ways.


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  

Her latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  

Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

blog:  Bookwords

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The best bums in children’s fiction – or, why so many kid’s books about bottoms? – Emma Barnes

A favourite bottom book!

And another!
I’ve jumped onto the bottom bandwagon!

I didn’t meant to. I didn’t consciously set out to write a book featuring bottoms. It was only when Penny Dolan wrote that Wild Thing was “much more than a book that gets 8 year-old children laughing because they enjoy reading about rude words” that I realized what I’d done. I, too, had written a book featuring children's fascination with their nether regions.

 It’s not exactly an untapped theme in children’s literature. (In modern times, anyway – you won’t find Jo March, Anne of Green Gables or even Just William having much to say about posteriors.) But whether it’s Nicholas Allen’s delightful Cinderella’s Bum or the famously scatological The Little Mole Who Thought It Was None Of His Business, there’s a whole branch of kids’ books about rear ends and what comes out of them. In fact when I (rather bravely) did some googling, I was stunned to find out just how many titles there were.

I suppose the whole bottom thing can be seen as a cynical ploy. If you want to get children laughing, then “rude words” as Penny implies, are a good way to do it. This wasn’t really on my mind, though. The truth is, having spent the last several years in close contact with young children, I’ve been forcibly reminded how fascinating all things bum and poo –related are to them. I’ve walked behind four year olds whose only obsession is with spotting possible dog poo – and not to avoid standing in it, but out of pure fascination with the subject. “No, that’s only a dead leaf,” I’ve said wearily, more times than I can  remember.

So it’s not surprising the theme cropped up in Wild Thing, which is at heart a realistic, family story. The subject first arises when an inadvertent slip of the tongue by Gran allows five year old Wild Thing to get going on a favourite subject.

“Gran said bottom!” 
“No, she didn’t.” 
“Yes, she did.” Wild Thing grinned. “A butt is a bottom.You’ve got a big butt!” She pointed at me. “And Gran’s got a wrinkly one!” 
Then she danced off across the garden, shouting, “BUTT! BEHIND! BOTTOM! BUM!” at the top of her voice. She almost crashed into a tree. 

Wild Thing waggles her bum (Jamie Littler illustrator)

The incident leads to a wild chase and the invention of the Bite the Bottom game – yet another source of daily embarrassment for poor older sister Kate! When I’ve read the passage aloud in schools, the effect has been electrifying. On the occasion where I had a staff member “signing” the bottom-biting scene (and giving a fine theatrical performance of the bottom-chomping incident) I thought everyone was going to be reduced to a dangerous level of hysteria.

It’s true, folks. Rude bits really do make them laugh.
In school...the arrow fittingly pointing at a certain place!

Grown-ups can be a bit sniffy, I suppose, and feel that the whole bottom thing is crude, overdone, and playing to the crowd. But then children feel much the same about adult interests. Remember The Princess Bride and the little boy recoiling from the sloppy bits – “Yuk kissing!” Anyone who has watched TV with a child will recognize that response. (It’s also beautifully captured in Judith Viorst’s classic picture book, Alexander’s Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day – where the kissing on TV is almost as bad as the lima beans for dinner.)

So let’s allow children their interests, just as adults are allowed theirs. After all, for the average five year old, toilet training and bed wetting are still very immediate issues, and getting oneself to the toilet on time can be a source of pride (or sometimes an embarrassing failure). Adults take all this for granted – although actually, of course, many adults, especially in later life, don’t. Sadly, it often becomes a source of shame and embarrassment again, with many incontinent adults suffering in silence. So if children can openly laugh and celebrate all things rear-end, then let’s embrace that! Humour, as a recent ABBA poster pointed out, is also a way of dealing with things that trouble us.

So Bottoms Up, folks! And why not nominate your own favourite rude title?

Emma's new book, Wild Thing,  about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways), is out now from Scholastic. It is the first of a series for readers 8+.
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman
"Charming modern version of My Naughty Little Sister" Armadillo Mag

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps
"This delightful story is an ideal mix of love and loyalty, stirred together with a little magic and fantasy" Carousel 

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