Category Archives: Writing

Steve Cole – ‘Made to eat salad’

Steve Cole

On the 482nd anniversary of Anne Boleyn losing her head, Steve Cole walked into the Tolbooth in Stirling for his Off the Page event, to ‘deafening applause’ on a day when a few other things were also happening. Royal weddings, football, warm sunny weather. That kind of thing. He was going to tell us about writing, with the help of a ukulele. The telling, more than the writing, I believe.

Stirling Off the Page

I’d successfully climbed the hill, almost all the way to the castle, and Steve had come all the way from England, and this after his first – very eventful – encounter with oysters. The plane’s cabin crew had apparently questioned whether he really should be flying, but Steve insisted, and with a huge stack of sick bags at his side, he made it all the way.

Steve Cole

He treated us to his version of the Sick Man Blues, on ukulele. I shouldn’t think anyone in the audience will be having a meal of oysters any time soon.

This man who has written 157 books in the last 20 years, got his career started with the diary they had to write for Mrs Cave at school, every Monday. It got so boring he began to make it up, and seemingly Mrs Cave was also bored, so she told him to continue making things up.

Steve Cole

From oysters to salads, and more vomiting, this time courtesy of the dinner ladies at school. Once Steve’s parents realised they made him eat salad every Wednesday, an early introduction of packed lunches occurred. This was the dark days of the 1970s. But let that be a lesson to you; tell your parents if you are ever forced to eat your salad.

Some years after the eight-year-old Steve wrote his own Mister Men book, Mister Paint, he moved on to his Astrosaurs series of books, partly with the help of Enid Blyton’s daughter. The nice one. He told us in great detail how the dinosaurs got their names, but I suppose it’s what you should expect from the office junior at Noddy magazine.

Steve Cole

From Astrosaurs Steve went to writing Doctor Who stories, but then felt the need to return to writing about his own characters. Which must be why he borrowed Lucy the labrador from a child in the audience, and made Lucy – who I am sure is an upright, if doggy, citizen – into a secret bank robber, Canine X, master of crime. It was really to show how you can play with everyday stuff, or dogs, and make them do surprising things. Stories are everywhere.

Steve’s own alternate reality features cows. On this sad anniversary (for Anne Boleyn) he tested the audience on their knowledge of the wives of Henry VIII, and we eventually arrived at ‘the other Anne’ [of Cleves] who appears in his first CIA book. Something to do with a concrete cowpat.

This was a suitably Royal ending to an event on a day when we could hardly avoid hearing about other royal wives.

Steve Cole feedback, or book selling

The children bought books, and filled in feedback forms. (I didn’t, as I was a bit embarrassed about my age. I almost claimed I’m a year older than I am…)

Steve Cole

Steve encouraged the children to ask him questions over the book signing, and as far as I managed to overhear, there were several who required some writing advice.

Steve Cole

Steve Cole

There just might have been a hug for me as we swapped questions. I asked if he’ll ever eat oysters again, and Steve asked after Daughter. I almost suggested that next time it might be she who dedicates a ‘space book’ to him.

And no, he won’t have more oysters and advised me not to, either.

As I walked down the hill, I thought, not for the first time, how very dutiful my authors are, whether it’s murderous new boots, or oysters. They persevere, and come to talk to their fans. It’s why I love them.

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Favours

I’ll see your lost blurb and raise you a plumbing emergency.

There I was on Daughter’s newly renovated Swiss balcony (they do these things ‘for free’ over there, just because it will enhance the block of flats), with nothing to do, when the email came from author friend in another country. She had misplaced her blurb.

Well, she hadn’t. She knew fine where it was. It just happened to be in the wrong place. And she knew she’d sent it to me, so wondered if I could possibly send it back to her, electronically. I could, except I couldn’t. In my balcony state, I had just my mobile phone, which didn’t seem to return attachments. (By which I mean I didn’t know how.)

So I Facetimed the Resident IT Consultant, and he actually answered. I sent him downstairs to my abandoned laptop and instructed him to return the blurb. As the author remarked afterwards, this turned into a three-country operation.


There I was, just arriving at Son’s new home, which had been anything but ‘free.’ He was in the midst of taking a call from a friend – in another country – who’d just opened up a mains water tap that I am technically responsible for. It was not good news. It was also after hours on the Friday of the Ascension long weekend (other countries do this) when no one in their right minds would be at work, or seemingly, have emergency plumbing cover.

A few panics later I phoned the author of the lost blurb, because according to my information she should be ‘not far away’ from the gushing pipework. She gathered up her husband and his toolbox and went to the rescue. She married a lovely and useful man, so he identified the problem, went home to see if he had one of those thingummies, and when he didn’t, asked the neighbours. As you do. Someone did have one of these plumbing antiques, and it was fitted and the water stopped running more than it was supposed to.

And in my other country, I was at last able to have a cup of tea.

Sensitivity readers?

Honestly. This might well be the last nail in the coffin; the one that makes me hang up my broom.

I read the article with some interest, but in the end it left me both furious and dismayed, as well as once again agreeing with Lionel Shriver, which is something I cannot take lightly.

We should have editors who find language issues in a manuscript. If they are generally wise they might also point out certain other things that could do with changing or adding or leaving out.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of peer reading/editing either. Many authors have a trusted friend/colleague or two who read through and comment on their work. I myself have done a little of this.

But I have never done it as the elderly fat Swede, pointing out where the young and slim English author got it wrong [in his novel about grey and overweight Scandinavians]. Life doesn’t work like that. If we’re going to have ‘lay’ readers who charge for sensitivity reading of novels to make sure that everything about a particular type of person in a work of fiction satisfies them (not necessarily everyone else), and making the poor author write and rewrite until their fingers bleed, there is something seriously wrong in the publishing world.

There is something so smug about the censor who understands ‘sensitivity’ so much better than anyone else, and there is something so sad about the author who is made to believe they must listen to this.

As I said, I wanted to give up, there and then.

No more wardrobing

I’m guessing Son’s had it with working in wardrobes.

Personally I liked – or rather, I preferred – to have my [holiday] desk in a wardrobe than not to have one at all. Although I will admit to moving to the dining table more these days, so maybe my wardrobe days are over.

Office

When it came to serious writing some months ago, Son clearly didn’t want to sit tight, so to speak, so he sourced a leftover, cobwebby desk and carried into a ‘free’ space. I suspect he just wanted to sit next to the cardboard fish on the wall. Not everyone has them.

Temporary office

After all, if he was that fond of ex-wardrobes, he could have stayed at home and sat in his own closet office.

The office

And now, he’s finally some place where he can build a proper workspace, even if it doesn’t look so promising yet.

Office-to-be

Maybe I should get him a fish.

Learning to write?

To be honest, I have always wondered if you can really go to classes to learn how to write a book. A real book, that someone would want to publish, and others would want to read. Somehow the snob in me says that if you’re any good, then you just sit down and write and out comes a masterpiece. Rather like concert pianists, who sat down in front of a piano and…

Hang on. They didn’t. They quite possibly had a piano teacher. Maybe struggled a little even, before greatness struck.

So while I did initially wonder if taking a year out to learn how to write a children’s book at some university or other, was actually time well spent, I have come to the conclusion that it is. Far too many authors, whose books I have enjoyed, have done those courses, for it to be a fluke. Perhaps they would have done well regardless, but I’m sure the classes helped.

‘MA Creative Writing-speak’ was a new concept to me when it appeared in Julie Myerson’s review of debut author Sharlene Teo’s novel in the Guardian. She didn’t like it much, I think. And she seemingly doesn’t care for authors who have taken writing classes. Except, I understand that she teaches writing. For the Guardian.

Most of us learned to write at school, and not necessarily from a teacher who was terribly good at it. But we did learn, and some have gone on to be quite marvellous at it. I’ll repeat what I used to preach at Offspring; any way that we learn something is a good way.

But on the whole I’d rather that my surgeon went to medical school before she does anything to me. None of this feeling inspired and deciding to have a go to see what it’s like.

Or you could just be famous. That usually helps with the writing skills.

ALMA for Jacqueline Woodson

The 2018 winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is Jacqueline Woodson.

I had heard of her, but only just. Based on what I’ve found out after yesterday’s announcement, I am looking forward to learning much more about Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Woodson, by Marty Umans

‘Jacqueline Woodson is an American author, born in 1963 and residing in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of more than thirty books, including novels, poetry and picture books. She writes primarily for young teens, but also for children and adults. One of her most lauded books is the award winning autobiographical Brown Girl Dreaming.

Jacqueline Woodson frequently writes about teens making the transition from childhood to adult life. Her books are written in the first person, usually from a female point of view. Racism, segregation, economic injustice, social exclusion, prejudice and sexual identity are all recurring themes. In January she was named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the United States.

The young Jacqueline grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, decades marked in the US by civil rights marches, police brutality and violence. Her most recent novel, Another Brooklyn, published in 2016 and a National Book Award nominee, portrays the fascination and challenges of growing up as a young girl in the Brooklyn of the 1970s.

Her books have been translated into more than ten languages.Woodson’s many honours include the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor Awards.’

Sounds great, right?

Finding Matt

I was getting rid of more books the other evening. After weeks of staring at flats for sale online, and admiring how nearly all of the owners have managed to prune their belongings to a ridiculous extent for the estate agent’s photographer, I felt that I would quite like my home to look as though it was for sale. Even when it isn’t. The empty surfaces appealed to me.

Hence the books facing the chop. Some were easy and some were keepers. And then there was one, which I didn’t immediately recognise from the spine, so pulled it out to look at. It turned out to be a short story collection from almost five years ago. Written by already authors as well as hopefuls, with a connection to MMU’s writing school, I remembered them sending me the anthology. I kept it because it looked good, and then I moved house and it sort of disappeared, until I found it this week.

And that was a good thing. Had it been much earlier, the name Matt Killeen would not have meant anything to me. (If you look back to the beginning of this week, you’ll see his debut novel reviewed by your Bookwitch.) I had seen in the press release that he was an MMU alumnus. And here he was, hiding in ‘the gym’ which is where my intermediate reading material rests.

Timelines (MMU)

In Lucky Hits the Skin, we meet a young drummer boy in the army, during the [I think] Napoleonic wars. It’s short, but those ten pages are at least as good as the WWII novel Orphan Monster Spy. It’s nice to see that so many of the people who enrol in the writing schools at our universities show so much promise, and that they go on to be published, and hopefully madly successful. (Liz Kessler is one of MMU’s.)

Now that it’s out of the gym, so to speak, I’ll have a go at some of the other stories, too. Coincidence is a funny thing.