Monthly Archives: January 2010

Drinks with Ellie

In my mind I call her Penelope.

I work visually when it comes to words and names, which is why I still have great difficulty keeping Birmingham and Liverpool apart. The Resident IT Consultant has never understood this.

So after weeks of being able to think of Eleanor Updale as just that, she suddenly turned into Penelope on Monday. Can anyone see why? Please. Everyone else refers to her as Ellie, which I with my strict use of names will have to work hard to adapt to.

Drinks on Monday evening, even if it was in the King’s Cross area, was an innocent affair. Eleanor had coffee, and I had tea and Clare drank water, which means we were all very sober. I’m really exceedingly grateful to Eleanor for sparing some time, since she was on her way to something else afterwards and had come from yet another event before. The social life of authors…

Had I had my wits about me, I would have taken a photo of her, as she looked stunning in red, which is often hard to do. And I feel vaguely guilty that she had to cart around this fascinating bagful of novel-inspiration, just to show me.

You can tell she’s a historian from her understanding of what makes sense to find and collect. I got a thorough lesson in old coins (although I am so old that I did visit England while they existed), and we had a peep at some old newspapers. She brought the ones she felt wouldn’t disintegrate in transit. And there was the peace mug from 1919, which got her started on Johnny Swanson.

In return for all this knowledge, I went on to shatter both Eleanor’s and Clare’s beliefs in Sweden as the promised land with white uncluttered rooms and where everything is lovely, although the police are morose. I shall have to learn to tread more carefully in future. It is nice, honestly. Just not paradise.

Then we did what women do everywhere; talk children and universities and other titillating stuff.

My Random day

I’d like to claim that the dog ate my ‘homework’ and that there will be no blog, but that would be cheating. So here is brief summary of Tuesday at Random, and I’m hoping to be able to get in lots of Random puns in this, I can tell you.

The coffee ice cream on Monday night kept me alert a little too long, but I was up and sufficiently awake by the time Random’s Catherine (thank you!) arrived to walk me to the office. They walk fast, those Random ladies. Or is it the witch who walks slowly? Didn’t think of that.

Breezed into the acquisitions meeting on the dot, except MD Philippa Dickinson had already begun. Oh, well. It is so embarrassing being introduced to seventeen people staring at me. Limelight is not for me. At the covers meeting next, it was all I could do to refrain from offering up my opinions all the time. The smokey blue with orange looked fantastic, I thought.

Then it was Georgia and a look into the future. There will be books. Next came Lauren’s ABC – or more like A to Z – of life in publicity. B is for bloggers, but I couldn’t help feeling it should be amended to B for bookwitch.

At lunchtime editors Sarah and another Clare had drawn the short straw, so marched me off for some pizza and book chatter. Very nice. They even tried to edit away ten minutes of the fifteen we were late back for me to see the head mistress. Sorry, I mean boss Philippa. Just imagine, a simple bookwitch and the boss lady herself. I was quite impressed to find that she had located an ADHD book for me, which hopefully has added itself to the ginormous pile with my name on it. They decided that my arms didn’t need to get any longer, so it will be the end of my postman instead.

Digital marketing is the future. Take my word for it. After admiring trailers and websites and fiercebook (they can’t spell, obviously), I was actually given a quarter of an hour in which to do nothing. After which Clare (‘Mum’) and I set off at that Random speed again to catch a train to the National Theatre, where we snuck in through the stage door.

We were whisked north in a green carpeted elevator (padded cell?). On arrival your witch met up with the real witch specialist Terry Pratchett, who ‘just happened’ to be there for a platform appearance somewhat later.

The DiscWorld King had spent so long being interviewed by important and real people, that when he got to me, all he wanted was a Mars bar. Or something. Which he didn’t get, I’m sorry to say. I’d have come equipped myself if I’d had the slightest inkling. Instead he got the bookwitch interview experience, which is an entirely different kettle of fish from chocolates.

The Random day finished with Terry’s platform, in the company of Philippa and other important people, like Terry’s PA Rob, as previously seen on television. It was meant to be a Q&A session on Nation at the National, but not surprisingly it turned into more of a DiscWorld fan convention. The short version.

Post-platform I made my way to another platform. The kind with the train home. Quick detour to Drummond Street for a pakora or two.

Thank you to all! (I still don’t know why you wanted me to come. By now you will be asking yourselves that, too.) And as I mentioned towards the end of my day; I had intended to take photos of everyone, but that good intention vanished as my brain scrambled.

And There Is No Dog.

Monday – take two

Authors, for instance. The lovely, but misguided people at Random House have invited me to come and visit them. Hence the travelling. Random’s Clare, who despite still not being blonde, can be my new Mum, because she is almost better than the witch at doing personalised timetables for people and things. She even made sure I had all the books I needed and the real Mother-of-witch never got that involved.

And to entice me to come (that wasn’t necessary, you know) she has been offering up authors for me to meet as though they were candy. Hang on, one of them was Candy. Candy Gourlay, the new star in David Fickling’s literary stables. I have just read a very early draft of her debut children’s book, Tall Story, which isn’t out until June, and it’s so good. So very good. Definitely something for all to look forward to. I recommend you do it impatiently, if you can manage it.

Candy and I and Mum Clare had dinner last night, and other than having a really great time, Candy and I have worryingly similar tastes in food. Lots of juicy gossip, of which there will be none mentioned here, and some deep literary discussions took place. But not only am I short of time, because Clare set me homework for Tuesday, but I need to conserve my baby’s battery as the hotel has power points not geared for Macs. Shall have to refuel at Random, where I hope they do have normal sockets, positioned in normal places.

Before dinner I had drinks with Eleanor Updale, which felt very grown-up sort of behaviour for a country witch. I was introduced to Eleanor briefly in October, but we didn’t really talk then. We talked this time, in a bar near King’s Cross and it was almost as exciting trying to get there as you’d think. (As in ‘is that a normal, cheap hotel, or is it a ..?’) Only Clare almost got lost, so age won out.

I had just had time to finish reading Eleanor’s next book for David Fickling, and it was good to be able to confess that up until almost halfway I felt so anxious reading it that I could barely contain myself. But then luckily some awful things happened in the plot and I felt fine. Eleanor seemed to find this useful knowledge. Note that this new Johnny Swanson is also a very good book, which you needn’t wait quite so long for. March, I think.

More gossip that can’t be mentioned here, plus a good look at 1920s ‘things’ that Eleanor had brought to show us, which had helped her with writing Johnny, including the catalyst for the whole book which was an old chipped mug. Be careful what you buy in jumble sales.

Unless amnesia sets in I will return some more to these two ladies and their novels later.

I’m off

to London this morning. Can’t tell you what for, since it hasn’t happened yet. But I’ve been busy preparing, and working out how small a toothbrush I can get away with packing. It’s hard to travel light in the book business. First you probably need something connected to why you’re going, and then you might want to read on the train. A spare is always good, so that there is no need to buy an emergency Terry Pratchett at the station like that other time.

Pendolino broomstick

And lovely though it is, you may get given a book. Or five, or ten. So an extra bag for that happy possibility.

My reminder notes telling me where to go and when. Possibly even why. Emergency snacks to ward off migraine due to unusual meal times and the (happy) stress. Two decent teabags for the hotel room. Have you any idea how much nicer it is with Nairobi Earl Grey than Twinings?

Any relevant background material to do with what I’m doing. Train tickets. Oystercard.

Last but not least, laptop. That very heavy baby that it’s possible to live without, but if you, dear readers, are to be served a fresh blog in the morning, the baby has to come too.

That’s my packing done.



Close in the footsteps of the promotion discussion this week, there has been some Facebook talk about book launch parties. Whether to have them, if they do any good and more importantly, who pays.

Not surprisingly, people had very differing opinions, but maybe no more than people do about birthday parties. Some don’t need them, but many do. Same for book launches, surely. A writer has laboured long and hard over a book, so why not do something festive to celebrate its arrival in the real world?

I don’t feel they are meant to ‘sell’ books in the physical sense. If you have a party in a shop, then obviously they can sell, but unless you have hundreds of guests it’s not going to make you rich, and by the time someone has paid for the wine, there won’t be any money gained.

Your witch hasn’t been to that many launches, but has definitely seen both ends of the market. There was the budget one near me where it turned out I wasn’t expected, despite a public invitation, and where I left pretty swiftly. And a few weeks later I was at the Jacqueline Wilson launch for Hetty Feather, which was very upmarket and lovely. I know which one I preferred, and it wasn’t because of the money lavished.

More launches than I was aware of seem to be paid for at least partly by the author. If a publisher doesn’t have an enormous budget (hah), then maybe it has to be a modest affair, but it’s not the amount of money spent that matters.

We’re real cheapskates at Bookwitch Towers, and our few parties have all been done on the cheap. Since we are boring people, I don’t think our guests would have had more fun if we’d been at the Ritz. But should we ever write a book, we’ll have to see about a launch party.

So that will be never.

Waterstone’s shortlist

There are so many book awards that I’m quickly losing count, and I can’t claim to know much about any of them. Here is the shortlist for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize.

1.       Flyaway by Lucy Christopher (Chicken House)

2.       The Great Hamster Massacre by Katie Davies (Simon & Schuster)

3.       The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester (Macmillan)

4.       Seven Sorcerers by Caro King (Quercus)

5.       Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur (Puffin)

6.       The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt (David Fickling Books)

7.       Desperate Measures by Laura Summers (Piccadilly Press)

8.       Superhuman: Meteorite Strike by A.G Taylor (Usborne)

9.       The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh (Chicken House)

I was a little concerned at first when I could only recognise one of the nine, but the prize is for authors who have written no more than two fiction books, and it’s for books aimed at the ages 7-13.

The winner will be announced on 10th February in the Piccadilly store. £5000 would be nice to win.

No Wallander this

Anyone used to Henning Mankell’s crime novels, or his other adult books, or for that matter his children’s books about Joel, might be surprised by The Cat Who Liked Rain. It’s for quite young readers, around seven, like its main character Lukas, I should think. It’s a very gentle tale about a boy and his beloved cat.

It’s also very Swedish, for all that it’s been translated (by Laurie Thompson whose name crops up often in these circumstances) into English. You’d need to understand why a seven-year-old doesn’t go to school yet. You also get introduced to the Swedish way of holidaying. And I was more than surprised to find a stay-at-home mum, which is very unusual, even for 1992.

The seasons confused me until I thought that perhaps I mustn’t be quite so southern about it. If this book is set in the far north of Sweden I can just about accept that you sweep leaves before school starts around August 20th, and that you might ‘catch your death of cold’ by going outside without shoes in August.

Lukas is given a kitten for his seventh birthday, and it changes his life. The quiet little boy simply falls in love with his cat, and they are never apart. At least as much as is possible with a cat. And then of course the cat does what cats often do. It disappears.

This story doesn’t end quite as you’d expect, or might fear.

What if?

It’s not easy being misunderstood. I just want you to know that.

OK, so I’m not good at saying what I mean all the time. Let’s continue yesterday’s discussion here, since I can’t put all I need to say, or try to, in a comment.

To Meg Rosoff; I’m not talking about a ‘what if’ situation. I like them and they are fair game and all that.

I like alternate settings as well as the next witch. I don’t mind authors borrowing plots from other books or real events if you can’t come up with anything original. But the book I moaned about on Wednesday should have been written either as a fact book about an actual mission, or as an adventure that was almost, but not quite the same as the original one in real life.

Then I started thinking about The Three Musketeers as an example. Dumas wrote about real people like kings and cardinals, but his main characters were the fictional musketeers. Maybe Buckingham had an affair with the Queen of France. Maybe he didn’t. That kind of playing around with what someone might have done but most likely didn’t do, is normal fiction.

Thinking about later generations being upset at what’s been done to the memory of someone ‘great’ who achieved something special, I pondered what could be done to ruin the Resident IT Consultant’s ancestor Michael Faraday. You could write a book of fiction where someone else discovers Faraday’s cage, for example. But the best, and I think commonest, way of dealing with Faraday and his cage in fiction would be to let him have a young assistant as the main character, and to see Faraday through their eyes. I feel that’s what Theresa Breslin does in The Nostradamus Prophecy.

We were sitting around wondering if Anne Frank was a good example, but I suspect not. There could easily genuinely be ten girls in her situation, writing diaries which are found and published.

OK, how about this as an example? In fifty year’s time someone writes a novel about an author who writes a brilliant first novel called How I Live Now, and who wins awards for it, and takes up horse riding and goes around telling people to start blogs. Except in this novel the author is 23 and Italian and is not called Meg Rosoff.

I’m not getting it right, am I?

This isn’t libel, because the people originally involved are not mentioned or named. They should have been. Some are dead, but I believe that some are still alive. (I know I’m getting closer to giving things away.) They most likely won’t be reading a children’s book, but their grandchildren might. And what this novel says is that Granddad never did that heroic thing. It was really a bunch of children.

From what I hear from some of you who write fiction, editors often tell authors to change things. I’d like to know what this editor thought he/she was doing, letting this through.

How far can you change history?

‘Any resemblance to … is pure coincidence.’ Of course it is. Usually I don’t mind heavy borrowing from real life in a work of fiction. There is often a good reason and if used well there is no problem.

Now I do have a problem, and it’s not whether or not to blog about a certain book. I hope I can blog without giving away which book it is, since I don’t want to be mean, and this will most likely be a popular action/thriller book for a lot of young readers. It’s not out yet, and I only just received the proof in the post. I won’t be reading it, nor reviewing it, because I feel it has overstepped a boundary.

I suspected as much from the press release and by reading the first few pages and dipping into the book here and there. And then I found the Resident IT Consultant had read it in one sitting, since he wanted some light entertainment, so I was able to ask him for clarification on the details.

It’s about a real event, and one that maybe I know more about than the general public, which is why I was surprised to read the blurb in the first place. I assumed initially that the plot of this real event had been ‘improved’ by adding some adventurous children to make it suitable for a children’s book.

What has happened is that what the adults did in the real event, has now been done exclusively by the children in the book. What was heroic in real life has suddenly been taken away from the people involved, for fictional purposes. Is that OK?

I’m struggling to find something similar to make my point, but how does the novel about an Apollo 11 crew of three 13-year-olds strike you?

An author is welcome to model their plot and characters and setting on real life. But by using the real event, someone has first skimped on plot, and then they have taken away an achievement from those who accomplished the original deed. As for the setting, it strikes me that a little more research might have been useful. And since this is historical, it would have been worth considering whether things were done as we do them now, or if a past decade had a different flavour to it.

When I first saw the cover of the book and its title, my reaction was ‘Wow!’ and I felt it was right up my street. So much so, that I just don’t feel you can cheat quite this much.


After I’d blogged about When I Was Joe by Keren David last week, I very carelessly asked Keren if she had any events coming up. A festival in October and some school invitations, was her answer.

This set me thinking. Some of you will remember me moaning about the lack of effort Faber put in for Nick Green’s The Cat Kin book, and then dropping the second novel because the first one didn’t sell fast enough. Seemed to me that was in proportion to their efforts.

Surely it’s for the publisher to do something of some kind for any new book, and especially when a new author is involved? Once Keren’s tenth book is out and if there is no publicity, I and other fans could at least realistically go into a bookshop, should they still exist, and ask if Keren has a new book out, or do they have Keren’s latest book? If I don’t know she exists or that she has written a book, I’ll never ask those questions in the first place, will I?

It’s now nearly two years since I wrote my Guardian blog about Nick, which received a number of useful comments, and in particular one from Joe Craig, who wrote about what he’d done. By the sound of it, he made two school visits per week for 18 months, which is enough to make anyone tired. And not everyone can do it, as there might be boring things like paid jobs getting in the way. But I can’t help feeling that if the publisher doesn’t wheel you out to all sorts of places with good support, getting prospective fans to you, then it’s what you must do. We have a Joe Craig book upstairs in Daughter’s bookcase, which is proof that it works. Daughter is not really prime Joe Craig fan material, but she was moved to buy a book because she saw him.

Facebook has been reeling under discussions about whether fan pages are a good way of spreading the word about new books. I don’t know. Is it? Keren made her own page, because her publishers didn’t know how to do it. I can’t help but think that in that case they should learn. I had an email from Bloomsbury ages ago about their new page for My Love Lies Bleeding, which is yet another vampire book. I haven’t read it, but it looks fun, so it all depends on my time. But I would guess Bloomsbury did the work. And if a page like that has little or no effect, it doesn’t cost anything to make.

I suspect authors have to do much of the work themselves. Caroline Lawrence spent years promoting herself and her books, or so it seemed to me as the on-looker. She had a great act, with all her Roman stuff, so it was probably easy to attract interest and to entertain the thousands of children who saw her. But she still had to do the work, and write, and do research. And get up early to travel.

Back to Keren, who made sure I got a copy of When I Was Joe. The publishers sent it out, but she supplied my name. I don’t have a relationship with them at all, since if I had, the logical thing would be for them to send me Keren’s book, or ask me if I’d like to see it. It’s what other PR departments do. Hopefully they won’t do a Faber on her, and I really feel this novel should do well, but even rather good ones need plenty of elbow grease. Mainly the author’s.

I checked with Keren, and in her own words, this is what she did:

“-  joined SAS and SCBWI and connected with as many people as possible. Very much helped by general welcoming loveliness of everyone I ‘met’.
– increased contacts on Facebook.
–  started a blog. Also started reading and visiting other people’s blogs and leaving comments.
–  identified good book blogs to send review copies to. Offered to write guest posts. Took up offers of interviews on blogs.
– joined Twitter and built up followers on Twitter by following lots of other people.
–  created Facebook page.

In general I try and make sure that I support others by twittering their stuff and reading their blogs and supporting their work and generally putting in what I take out.  Have met brilliant people through all this, made fantastic friendships and gained a lot of what publishers call ‘early buzz’ that I hope will be useful for the sales team to use.

Some unexpected things that have happened as a result:
My book is featured prominently on a dating blog written by a 29 year old guy in Liverpool about his disastrous romantic life.
A book blogger threw an online  launch party for me, which attracted hundreds of hits and 73 comments.
‘Met’ Caroline Lawrence as we twittered about X Factor and she kindly offered to read my book and then reviewed it on Amazon.
I have had two mentions on the Book Brunch email that goes out to the publishing world.”

That just leaves the hundreds of school visits and Keren should be fine… Though like any sensible writer, it appears she’d prefer to be writing another book.