Category Archives: Writing

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.


Michele Hanson

Michele Hanson – marvellous columnist in the Guardian – died last week. Today, for International Women’s Day, I need to write about what she meant to me.

For me, coming from a two-generation female home, it was refreshing to read about the three generations of women living under Michele’s roof. The weekly tales of her life with her mother and her daughter, and the dogs, were quite ordinary. In many cases what Michele wrote about could be almost anybody’s life, and that’s what made it so real, so eye-opening.

I too held those opinions. I just needed someone else to show them to me.

Mostly, Michele’s daughter was a teenager to me. I was a bit enraged when she grew up and left home, but it’s what children do. And then it was Michele and her mother. And the dogs. They argued, and we worried about her mother’s health, but she hung on for a long time, and I was sad when she died.

Then, for financial reasons, for a long time we didn’t buy the Guardian every day, and it was hit and miss what I’d be able to read on the days when we did get the paper. More recently, the Resident IT Consultant came home with a Tuesday Guardian, and I was so very happy to be back, reading about Michele’s life. I told him that if he only got one weekday Guardian, it had better be the day of Michele’s column. Because it made me feel good.

And also a bit unwell. I didn’t know that I ought to be concerned for my old age, until reading about Michele and her friends, worrying about hospital visits and GPs, and old age. It made me realise life wouldn’t always be mundanely middle-aged.

It was only going to get worse.

Michele was 75 when she died. Far too young. But it seemed so fitting that she had walked her dogs last Thursday, before having the stroke that killed her. No care home for her, and no pole dancers.

Scottish Book Trust Awards 2018

After months of secrecy, all the Scottish Book Trust Awards for this year have been made public, culminating in an awards ceremony in Edinburgh last night.

I don’t actually know where to start. They are all important, so does one go from less to more, or the other way round?

OK, I’ll go with the Learning Professional Award. Where would we be without such hardworking people, especially someone who sounds as absolutely fabulous as Eileen Littlewood, Head Teacher at Forthview Primary in Edinburgh? First I marvelled at all Eileen has achieved, and then I quickly felt both exhausted and not a little envious of all her great work.

Eileen Littlewood upright pic - credit Jonathan Ley

When Eileen started, the school library had been dismantled, and in order to create her vision of an in-house library catering for all ages, she applied for and secured over £10k of funding. She was able to start a reading community, and also helped the Family Support Teacher to start a parent book group, using Quick Reads and comic books to engage parents who were reluctant to read.

Eileen has established a paired reading initiative, has organised author visits to the school and has ensured her staff are trained to deliver reading projects. She also runs a lunchtime book club for pupils, as well as regular writing workshops. And she has recently worked with parents to create a book of poems on mental health to share with their children.

The Outstanding Achievement Award has gone to Vivian French, who has written hundreds of books. She has also worked hard to promote books by other authors and illustrators. Vivian is not only an inspiring figure to those in the industry, but has also acted as a mentor to budding authors and artists. Vivian is an active advocate for dyslexia.

In 2012, she and Lucy Juckes set up Picture Hooks, a mentoring scheme to encourage emerging Scottish illustrators.  And Vivian has been Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and a guest selector for the children’s programme. She also teaches at Edinburgh College of Art in the illustration department and is a Patron of the Borders Book Festival.

Vivian French wide pic - credit Jonathan Ley

Vivian’s comment to all this was; ‘I have the most wonderful time visiting schools and festivals, tutoring young illustrators, talking (always talking!) and discussing books and pictures… surely such an award should be for someone who’s earned it by the sweat of their brow? Not someone like me, who skips about having such a very lovely time! I’m not ungrateful – truly I’m not – it’s the most amazing award to be given… but I’m going to redouble my efforts now to ensure that I really deserve it.’

There’s modesty, and then there’s modesty. Vivian deserves this award!


And finally, there’s the Bookbug Picture Book Prize for Gorilla Loves Vanilla by Chae Strathie and Nicola O’Byrne, and the Scottish Teenage Book Prize to Caighlan Smith for Children of Icarus.

Caighlan Smith

Mustn’t forget to mention runners-up Michelle Sloan and Kasia Matyjaszek, Debi Gliori and Alison Brown, Danny Weston and Elizabeth Laird.

Phew, what a lot of talent and good books!

Is last best?

I’d been all set to muse a bit about third books in trilogies, when Helen Grant mentioned another [potentially bad] aspect of writing trilogies, at her Thursday launch.

When asked about the likelihood of a sequel for Ghost, and the question then sliding quickly on to trilogies, Helen pointed out that one awkward thing about them is that for the author who carefully plots books one, two and three, there is much that needs to be written after the first book. But if that doesn’t sell well, the publisher might decide against the next two books.

And then where will you be, a third into a story and no end in sight?

It is, of course, what initially happened to Nick Green’s The Cat Kin. He self published the second and third books, before the whole trilogy was picked up by Strident.

But as Helen said, while she was lucky with her Forbidden Spaces trilogy and it did get published, there was perhaps rather too scant attention from the publisher towards the end.

So, there is every reason to stick to standalone novels. There is always the possibility of sequels by public demand.

Anyway, what I was really getting to here, is the seeming lack of interest from publishers when book three is about to be born. Increasingly, I hear nothing about the ends of trilogies, and there are no review copies available.

I always feel a bit guilty at this point. Am I merely seen as looking for a free book for my own reading pleasure?


While I can see there might be less of a need for a big fanfare or a highly publicised launch for the end of a trilogy, a few review copies won’t cost much, compared with other kinds of advertising. Maybe not send out unsolicited book threes, but send to anyone who inquires?

Because I feel third books have often been the best. It’s as if the whole trilogy has been moving towards this point. Not that it’s only a book much the same as the first two and what’s the fuss?

Helen’s Urban Legends was riveting. Especially page 38! And the third books in Michael Grant’s Front Lines and Lee Weatherly’s alternate WWII series were masterpieces of great YA writing. Maybe publishers assume that the fans liked the first ones, so they will discover a way to the end, without reviews or mentions of the books.

These days I find myself looking at sequels to books I’ve never heard of, or the last in a series of books where the publisher has dutifully sent out both proofs and finished copies, when I’ve not shown interest in any of them.

(And, I don’t actually know this, but did J K Rowling get a contract for all seven Harry Potter books? From the start, I mean. Also, there didn’t seem to be any lulls in the publicity when we got to books five, six or even seven. We should have been tired of them by then, surely?)

A pile of ideas

It’s about an inch thick, with a rubber band keeping all the bits of paper under control. They are occasionally cuttings from magazines or newspapers, but mostly my own homemade ‘note paper’ cut from the backs of A4 sheets; old letters or press releases. You get eight if you cut it one way, or nine if you cut it the other way.

They are my ideas for blog posts. Sometimes I sprout so many ideas, so quickly, that I have to write them down to keep for later, and then I stuff them in with all the others, and when I’m desperate for something to write, I search through the bunch of notes.

I’ve only just realised that some of these notes have been with me A Very Long Time. Some are almost as old as Bookwitch. The blog, not the witch. I can tell from the handwriting that some of them were written absolutely ages ago. My writing has changed, mainly because I mostly type, and have half forgotten how to use a pen.


At times I find a real gold nugget in there. (Don’t be silly. Not gold gold. Just a good idea.) But mostly there’s a reason they have been rubber-banded in for over ten years, and that’s because the idea is terrible, and I’ve clearly not been desperate enough to use it. Every now and then I go through it and throw away ideas that will never amount to anything. Or the words are so incomprehensible I have no idea what I had in mind.

(The illustrated ideas above can be explained as follows: Photo of Jo Nadin. Prize for Chae Strathie. And it needs to be pointed out that when Hillary Clinton and Mary Beard first met each other, it was in the presence of Daughter. Sort of. And that I’ve not yet managed to do anything with it.)

All those ghastly women

Now, I obviously don’t mean that. But it doesn’t mean that certain people don’t think along those lines.

Not having read anything by David Walliams, I am no expert. But it appears he’s not keen on women. If they get a mention in his books, it’s the horror version of the female of the species.

This is so wrong. No one should write children’s books if they can’t get rid of their unwanted women in a more elegant way. And if the author can’t do it, perhaps an enlightened editor could suggest a less crude way of describing, and even removing, any surplus females?

I accept that mothers, even grandmothers, and maybe the odd sister, could get in the way of the character[s] in some stories. They could be killed without being described as grotesque. The [child] character could be distanced from its females in some other way. This has always been done.

There’s an author I’ve read at least a couple of books by, and the reason it didn’t end up being more, was I didn’t care for the unpleasant way he dealt with the women. I just hadn’t realised that DW now does something similar.

And of course, Roald Dahl, hero to so many, had a way with women too. I remember reading and re-reading the bit where the plan is to poison the grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, simply because I couldn’t believe you were allowed to put something like that in a children’s book. But I suppose if the book’s old enough, and ‘classic’ enough, you can be [c]rude to women.

That way the future is secure. There will be more writers who believe that this is quite an OK thing to do.


I love the cover of 1947. This ‘literary scrapbook of the year’ by Elisabeth Åsbrink consists of a somewhat odd collection of facts from the year ‘when now begins’ as it says on that attractive cover.

Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947

Maybe it’s true that life as we recognise it came into being two years after WWII ended. I don’t know. I began reading 1947 with the expectation of finding out; discovering some startling proof. But the book is mainly a series of unrelated stuff happening to people or countries during that year. I was waiting for a reason why George Orwell was in there, and what the significance of Simone de Beauvoir’s romantic interlude with some man in America might be for me.

There are flying saucers. I like flying saucers, but why were they in there? About the most interesting fact – to me – was the possible background to the disappearance of Dagmar Hagelin in Argentina in the 1970s. That was part of my growing up.

Elisabeth appears to have grabbed facts as she found them, putting them in for artistic effect. It feels a rather Swedish thing to be doing at the moment. For that’s what this is, the latest ‘historical’ offering from a woman whose own father escaped Hungary after the war. But that doesn’t explain all the rest; the UN, Palestine, Mahatma Gandhi, Christian Dior, Swedish nazis and fleeing nazi war survivors.

I was hoping it would be fascinating, that it would teach me something new. Instead it was a return to the Emperor’s New Clothes, all over again.

It’ll be fun to see how the rest of the world receives 1947. I found the English translation by Fiona Graham good enough to make me forget I was reading in the ‘wrong’ language.