Category Archives: Writing

Storm Witch

Ellen Renner’s description of Storm and her mother returning home in her new book Storm Witch took me straight back to my own childhood and the home where I lived with my mother. I have as good a memory of that time as can be expected at my age, but I have never before had that exact feeling conveyed in a piece of writing.

People sometimes ask if the writing in a book is good, and I don’t always know. This time though, I can tell you it is very good writing. I feel as if Ellen gave me back something I’d lost.

Ellen Renner, Storm Witch

Storm is 13 and it’s time for her age group to be chosen by the island’s Elementals. They determine what the young person will be doing for the rest of their life. It’s the usual drama; you fear you won’t be chosen at all, or that it will be the wrong choice, or that you will disappoint your family. Storm does too, and then she’s chosen by more than one of the Elements.

Being special isn’t much fun, either. And it doesn’t prevent the bullying. You might be the most powerful person on the island, but your bully still hates you.

The story is a mix of the normal childhood feelings most of us have, and then there is the magic, and the difficult tasks Storm has to tackle.

There are more books to come. I can guess at where Ellen will take her characters. I’ll be interested to see if I’m right.

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Only a little gone

I wondered if anyone would notice. That I was mostly not here over the weekend, I mean. One of you wrote to see if I was all right. (I was.) Another checking if I was taking it easy. (And I was. Sort of.)

For health and sanity reasons I’ve decided to write slightly less frequently on here. Maybe five days a week instead of all seven. A Bookwitch might not technically belong to a union, but in my heart I feel I do, and that I am allowed time off.

Once the Edinburgh International Book Festival was over, I thought I’d experiment with weekends off, unless something momentous happens to be on outside Mondays to Fridays. But perhaps it’s too boring to have the same most recent blog post for three mornings – or whenever it is you call round? What do you think?

I could make it one day off at the weekend and one midweek? Or I could be irregular and inconsistent. Yeah, that sounds more like me.

Whatever it turns out to be, I hope I will be having a rest and not be dead. Earlier today sister Culture celebrated her tenth birthday by taking part in a car park rage, which luckily didn’t have her run over by the irate Danish driver who preferred the way out, for coming in.

I’ve obviously since cursed him. (He argued back at me.)

I might be on holiday this week – by which I mean that I am – but I won’t abandon you. Books will be read and bookish stuff will appear on here.

Coo, or ko

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

(Photos Helen Giles)

My day 2 of the 2018 EIBF

Thank goodness for favourite publicists! They have a way of making a witch feel better. Just before leaving Charlotte Square on Tuesday afternoon I went to Lindsey Davis’s signing, and no slight intended for this amusing and successful crime writer, but I popped by to say hello to Kerry Hood. We chatted, she asked after Offspring – all these many years later! – and we sort of competed on who was the oldest and most confused of us.

We both won.

After discovering I had a problem with my book on the train to Edinburgh (it was too short. The book. Not the train), my day started with a woman on the bus who was not prepared for what you do on buses, which is pay, and to have your purse standing by to do it with. That cost me the photocall with Frank Cottrell Boyce. Oh well. I got to see him at his event.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Ate my Three-Men-in-a-Boat cheese sandwich watching Chris Close photograph a fairly reluctant author. And then it rained. I also discovered I had pockets, having spent the morning mourning the loss of them.

Louis de Bernières

After Frank’s event I battled the bad light in his signing tent, toing and froing between him and Louis de Bernières, while also trying not to miss Lindsey’s photocall. In the end I did that thing which works when waiting for the gasman, except instead of going to the bathroom, I popped back in to see Frank and also opened the door for a young man carrying 16 pints of milk, and there she was. Works – almost – every time!

Lindsey Davis

Bumped into Sally Gardner and we had a chat, and then I went over to the children’s bookshop to see if I could corner Alison Murray who was supposed to be there. While I waited I snapped Sibéal Pounder signing books, and chatted to Ann Landmann who had chaired her event, which sounded as if it had been great fun. I then proceeded to show my writer’s credentials to Ann by talking about the light across the square as having been badder. Worser. Or it was simply brighter where we were…

Sibéal Pounder

Alison Murray

Then it was time for Sally Gardner’s event with Sophie Cameron, where I encountered L J MacWhirter again. Instead of brandishing a prawn sandwich at her, we talked about hen parties and fangirl moments. Charlotte Square is good for the latter.

Sophie Cameron

Back out to photograph Sally’s gorgeous new hair in the bookshop. It’s a sort of cerise. Her hair, I mean.

Sally Gardner

That’s me back at the beginning, telling Kerry about Offspring and her saying I shouldn’t keep them waiting.

So I didn’t. Even if Son had mentioned I’d be better not arriving too early…

EIBF 2018 – Day 1

Philip Pullman and I talked about the weather, which was Goldilocks-like. Not too hot and not too cold. Not wet. Nor sunny. It felt very British, on this the first day of the book festival in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

Philip Pullman

It’s a new, streamlined square. Less higgledy piggledy, although no doubt more ‘character’ will find its way onto the fresh decking before long. I offered them my sandwich wrapping, but it seems they didn’t feel the need for it. I now know how they were able to make the Main theatre bigger. They picked up a whole theatre and put it in the middle of George Street. Very clever.

The Photographer and I arrived early and had a leisurely start, collecting tickets and getting to grips with all the changes, saying hello to press boss Frances, and gossiping with Theresa Breslin’s Mr B – whose t-shirt sported Mary Queen of Scots on the front and Rasputin’s dagger ‘in’ the back, so he had everything covered. Waved to Cathy Cassidy (wearing an unexpected red…), before venturing across to George Street to watch her signing in the much improved signing tent.

Cathy Cassidy

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

After noting that the festival regular with the magnificent beard was there again, we went to Theresa Breslin’s event with Holly Webb, chaired by Daniel Hahn. It was really full, despite Theresa’s grandchild choosing to go to see Terry Deary instead.

Chatted to Kate Leiper in the bookshop afterwards, and then went back to the behind-the-scenes decking where we found Philip Pullman with a pile of [his] books. Had a second go at chatting to Cathy Cassidy, and watched as Chris Close photographed an unknown, attractive female author who, when I got to my next event, turned out to be Tomi Adeyemi, appearing with Sophie Anderson.

Holly Webb and Theresa Breslin

Tomi Adeyemi and Sophie Anderson

This was another full event, and I realised that having left the Photographer to deal with Philip, I was on my own and needed to take pictures of Sophie and Tomi in the bookshop. I’m short, so was able to use the entrance for hobbits and munchkins. Saw Vikki Gemmell and wanted to say hello, but she ran away. Quite understandable.

There is a blur after that, but I definitely saw Linda Strachan and Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Kathryn Ross, and Carol Ann Duffy. Val McDermid was around, as Philip Pullman’s chair. Someone came up to me and asked if I was Bookwitch, so I had to admit I was. Seems our paths have kept crossing, and now she wanted to say hello.

L J MacWhirter found me mid-prawn sandwich, and I had no idea that this would scare her off so fast. Didn’t mean to, L J! And while I was enjoying those prawns I watched as Chris Close commented on Jacek Dehnel’s outfit – it was very, erm, chequered – before persuading him to pose.

Jacek Dehnel

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o was being interviewed nearby, before also getting the Close photo treatment, and director Barley himself brought some more tartan for this venerable author.

Ngūgī wa Thiong'o

My Photographer returned when Philip Pullman’s sold-out event came to an end, and we gathered ourselves and went in search of a train home, hoping that seven was both early enough and late enough and would mean there was room for two tired witches. There was. Just.

(Photos Helen Giles + Bookwitch)

L J on her roots

When I discovered that debut author L J MacWhirter had attended the same secondary school as Offspring, I felt I had to know more. There were a few years between their appearances at this institution for education, and I don’t know about L J, but we were more than satisfied with the place. Although it has to be said that neither Offspring went in for history, either.

L.J. MacWhirter

How I wish I’d known that Ruth’s home was ‘really’ Bramall Hall! Why didn’t you say? I was busy trying to imagine where she lived and what it might look like.

Heh heh. Loosely, yes. But for the plot, Ruth’s home needed to be located about a day’s horse ride from London, so I invented Crowbury Hall. Perhaps the paperback should feature a picture of Bramall Hall 😉

And while we’re in Bramhall… Can we blame your old school for your vivid imagination? Did you daydream in the classroom?

Absolutely. Especially during history lessons…

The science in your book, and the interest in space; is that something you share with Ruth and her father, and grandfather? Or was it more of a plot device?

Both. My own father was an engineer and gave me microscopes and chemistry labs for teen birthdays, although all I really wanted was a hairdryer and vinyl! He took us to museums around Manchester to see working steam trains and mill pistons from the industrial revolution, which seeped into my unconscious.

I’ve always found the weird vastness of space and time completely mind-blowing. So when I visited the Science Museum in Florence, Italy, I was struck by the 16thcentury mechanical Armillary Sphere with its old representation of ‘the heavens’ with the earth at the centre. This Sphere became an important motif in Black Snow Falling.

Ruth comes across as a fairly modern girl. Did you give her a more recent type of personality to assist with her search for the truth?

Long answer to this one! According to historians, the 16thcentury was early modern Britain, and so I made Ruth an early modern girl, influenced by progressive values. Her father was an adventurous merchant in the new ‘middling’ class – socially mobile – who had married into nobility. As her mother had long since died, Ruth had been largely left her to her own devices before the Countess came along, so she was friendlier with the household than her contemporaries.

This was the time of the late Renaissance, so Ruth was well educated and had absorbed the radical notion of individuals beginning to think for themselves, especially with a secret copy of Copernicus’ heretical book (early science) in their possession. Books were Ruth’s lifeline to the outside world, which her father inhabited. These influences made her slightly out of step with her friend, Meg, who was blue-blooded nobility. The tectonic plates of culture were shifting and Ruth, with her early modernity, is trapped in those fault lines. I set this up to expose the monstrous sexism of the time.

The Countess can force Ruth into marriage and she also tells Ruth to stop reading, as it was believed to affect a woman’s fertility. I also gave Ruth universal problems that we all share. What do you do when your understanding of someone is shattered? How do you cope when you’re betrayed – or when you have let a friend down? Ruth’s story is her journey to find agency. I confess I did make her language and thought processes sound much less Elizabethan so readers could relate to her more easily.

I know you spent many years writing this book, but it is still admirably short compared to current trends of thick trilogies, or worse. Did you have to prune a lot, or is this pretty much what you wanted your story to be?

I’m a copywriter by trade. I’m pithy all over.

And what comes next?

There’s a juicy synopsis for a follow-up to Black Snow Falling but I’m enjoying writing something completely different right now, a love story set in war torn Scotland. There’s also a contemporary thriller that keeps calling me.

It remains to be seen what our pithy L J will come up with. Her hair looks fine, so I imagine the hairdryer materialised at some point. And I do hope the school library where I spent four years will buy a copy of L J’s first book. There must be some sort of proud list of what former students have got up to after they left…

Pay the authors!!!

It’s the extra bottle of wine I always remember when I think of pay for authors.

I used to believe that when things are tough, they are tough(-ish) for all of us. That if times are bad and books don’t sell so well (hah), then it’s understandable if there is less money for publishers to pay authors with.

Except this doesn’t seem to be the case. Books sell. Well, some books do, and it appears publishers are rolling in it. And it seems as if the better someone does, the less likely they are to share.

This article in the Guardian by Danuta Kean quotes Philip Pullman and Sally Gardner, to name a couple of children’s authors who have done well. Or used to. Authors are now getting paid less than they were before, and it’s not because the publishers are on the brink of ruin.

It’s time this changed! Pay the people who do the most important work for you!

The wine? It was some time ago now, but I was already concerned over the potential end of the good life for publishers, when at an event with one such (big) company, where there had already been drinks organised for slightly later that evening, the publicist I was with, looked round and decided we needed some wine now, whipped out the company credit card and spent £30 on a bottle for those who couldn’t wait.

I get that even if this bottle could have been bought for £6 in a supermarket, that it was hardly going to break the bank at five times the cost. But in my mind I multiplied this unnecessary bottle and it brought down all the publishing houses. And then where would we be?