Friday, 28 July 2017

Reading Proofs - Clémentine Beauvais

I've just finished proofreading The Edinburgh Companion to Children's Literature, which I'm coediting with Maria Nikolajeva. It's coming out later this year, and it's a pretty thick volume with 29 contributions by some of the best people in the field (including one who may be lurking around on this blog and wrote a brilliant chapter on counterfactual historical fiction. Guess who?)
our baby's cute little face 

Proofreading the mahoosive thing really took over my life in the past week. Proofs in French are called épreuves, which can also mean a chore, trial or ordeal, and it's really what they are. A lot of chocolate is required.

chocolate, coffee and red ink

Reading proofs is one of those activities that are associated to writing, but that are not really writing, and that are absolutely incompressible - you just can't speed them up, you have to go through them. Others include reading contracts, answering emails to plan school visits, all kinds of admin, etc. However, reading proofs has that particular texture, frustrating, mind-numbing and also, as Dianne Hofmeyr says, perversely satisfying, that sets it apart in my mind from everything else.

You have to adjust everything in your life in order to read proofs. Carve out three hours at a time, no distraction, no music, no phone winking at you from the corner of the desk. It will take however much time it needs to take, no less. That's weirdly stabilising. Somewhere in the world, a big pack of pages awaits, and it's got its own internal duration that doesn't care at all about your own clock-bound imperatives. In a world where you don't really take the time for anything, you suddenly have something forcibly taking your time.

You have to adjust your mind to read proofs. Reading line by line, with a ruler blocking the rest of the paragraph, you let your eyes drift robotically across each word, letter by letter, fighting the urge to process everything whole-word as you might usually do. Only then can you spot the mipslaced lteter, the verb ending that doesn't works, the the repeated particle, the sneaky apostrophes', the weird change of font for no reason, the word that missing.

Because of this insane amount of concentration on tiny units of language - the word, the letter, the punctuation mark - there's, episodically, moments of complete brainfreeze. Not sure anymore how 'children's literature' is spelled. Is it childrens literature. Childrens' literature. Chlidrens laterutiure. Can I even speak English anymore ? And you are taken back to childhood, when you would repeat your own name fifty times in front of the mirror and both name and face would gradually disappear into absolute nothingness.

At that stage, profound anxiety strikes. What am I doing with my life? How many people are actually going to read this? What would my 15-year-old self think?

You have to radically adjust what you consider to be existentially meaningful. It's impossible to proofread such a massive academic book without thinking often that these are hours of your life that you'll never get back.  To be clear, the chapters are brilliant, I promise. But for the proofreader there is no newness. You've already read the contributions many times, edited them at least twice on screen. You know that in the grand scheme of things, it absolutely doesn't matter if someone misspelled the name of Valdimir Propp. Yet when you catch that Valdimir, there's this strange endorphin rush, and even though it's such a minute, inconsequential thing, it gives meaning to the whole chase.

Your reward system gets completely mixed up. A week ago, for true joy to occur, you would have needed an email telling you gushingly about how wonderful they found such or such thing you did. Today, a missing comma in a reference list is all you need. What you are doing suddenly has meaning: you spotted that one of the entries in the bibliography isn't in correct alphabetical order.

You have just made the world a tiny bit more orderly.


Clémentine Beauvais is a children's and young adult author in French and English, as well as a literary translator. Her latest YA novel, Piglettes, is out with Pushkin Press.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Writing Buddies by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

We all need friends for our emotional well being. That's a universal truth. For writers, we need 'professional friends,' too. Writing buddies have your back. They hand you a lifeline when you are discouraged, and cheer-lead you when you are down. They celebrate your successes when they happen. The best writing buddies dispense rather tough love techniques though.

Yesterday, we had the first meeting of our new writing group. Very small; just four participants. We are just called 'Writing Group' - no bells or whistles. We could alternately be called the 'Bottom-Booting Club' as that is our main function for one another. Accountability. Someone to answer to every day, to make sure we are nagged if our writing doesn't get done. No excuses.

On Saturday, I am taking part in another writing group. This one is all about exploring, experimenting and hopefully, collaborating. I am excited about the possibilities.

I have been a member (and still am a member) of many writing groups both online and in-person over my twenty years as a published writer. They are great for helping you to learn new things; to experiment and explore; to just talk to other writers - important for sharing whinges and moans as well as successes, with people who care and understand. Writing can be an isolated profession.

Facebook groups can be fantastic...or just another way of procrastinating. However, some of my most helpful writing buddies exist, for me, only via the Internet. We check in with one another and share our progress. NanoWrimo helps too. Not just the actual November-writing-furiously event; also the community that builds up around it.

So - where are your writing buddies found? Where is your writing tribe?

As far as organisations go, (using the word loosely) I would obviously recommend The Scattered Author's Society, or I wouldn't be here!  NibWeb is great for cnf writers. I'd also recommend well known organisations such as SCBWI and the Society of Authors. Belonging to these groups bring all sorts of benefits, but the biggest is the writing community that they offer. Look for your writing tribe by haunting listings for local writing groups - you may find your writing buddies in a community centre, library or cafe.

Once you have found them, your writing will benefit massively - and so will your well-being, and your view of yourself as 'writer.' Do it today!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Dreamy Island Day - Eloise Williams

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, and probably again after that – sometimes the endless online business of being a writer becomes too much and I have got to take a break.

I’ve done it again. I’ve taken ANOTHER day off.

I know, I know… slovenly, slack, and absolutely needed.

After chasing up the addresses for books I have already posted, forgetting my father is having an operation, and many fitful nights filled with little sleep and lots of nightmares which mostly consisted of filling in forms, I decided my brain was too addled to be able to create anything.

My husband, who sleeps / doesn’t sleep next to me when I’m like this, suggested a day on Skomer Island and it was exactly the right tonic.

I forget, when I’m sat in front of my laptop all day, that to write well it is actually quite important to experience life well too.

We set off at stupid o’clock this morning, sausage baps in hand (than you Linda McCartney) and furrowed brow beneath a floppy brimmed sunhat in hope of turning my frown upside down. It isn’t all that far from where we live to Martin’s Haven where you catch the boat and as we were there early – because you have to be to actually get a space – we wandered about amongst cows and bumble bees waiting for our turn to board. I managed to keep the frown this far.

I worried about rain. I hadn’t brought a coat of any kind which is an almost deadly option here in west Wales. I hadn’t had enough caffeine before our stupid o’clock leaving time. Thankfully, there is a helpful coffee machine to hand. I would have to do this, that, and about fifteen other things when I got home. Lists ran through my head like Mo Farah on a roundabout. I was careful I didn’t walk too close to the cliff edge in case lovely husband, Guy, decided to put me out of my misery once and for all.

Finally, we boarded. The sun came out. The sea was a clear turquoise blue. A seal swam past us and I cried. It was the seal, for sure. Nature has always been my first love and it moves me beyond measure, but it was also remembering that I am a human and humans need to have a brain break now and again.

We spent several hours wandering around Skomer. Laughing and doing impressions of puffins – I used to be an actor so mine were very much better than spouse’s efforts. Snoozing and snoring (Guy, not me) on the salty, sun-soaked grass. Smiling, laughing, breathing all the air out from our lungs to take a whole new fresh peaceful lot in. Eating apples and ginger biscuits and slugging water back as if it was the most magical liquid in the world – which of course, it is.

And then something happened which I wasn’t expecting to happen. I took out a notebook and started to write a completely new story.
It’s not one I’d been thinking about and I won’t bore you with it here but it was remarkable to me that after only a few hours of what I am now calling a ‘Brian break’ instead of a brain break, my creativity would come back to me.

I’ve spoken about this in previous blogs but I am so quick to forget the importance of getting away from the screen and getting out there, wherever that may be, instead of typing away till my hands are gnarled hooks which I can’t even use to rub at my own square-shaped eyes.

And on that note…  

Eloise Williams

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

A Tove Jansson exhibition - by Sue Purkiss

I somehow missed the Moomins as a child. I think after that I was vaguely aware that they existed (cue existential debate!), but the first Tove Jansson book I read was one for adults, The Summer Book. I came across it in a bookshop, and just liked the look of it; it's very blue, which is my favourite colour, and it shows a small island floating between sea and sky.

It's about a summer in the lives of a child, Sophie, and her grandmother, on a tiny island off the Finnish coast. Sophie's mother is dead; her father's there some of the time, but he's very much a background presence. It's about the small things that happen each day: the things you have to be careful of when you live on a very small island which is vulnerable to fierce storms, like tying your boat up securely; the flowers and shells you find; the talks you have; the people who occasionally visit. It's suffused with the calmness of the sea, but also the underlying threat of storms. Tove Jansson's prose is clear as a rock pool, as elegant and beautifully shaped as a sea-washed pebble.

I went on from there to read most of her other adult books, but The Summer Book remains my favourite. I've also now read a couple of the children's books, which share the same precise prose, apparently grave but with laughter underlying it. She's incredibly inventive. As you travel with the Moomins through their world, its landscape and inhabitants unfold perfectly naturally, as if they've existed forever.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary about her life, and saw the island and the house which feature in The Summer Book, and the footage of Tove taken by her partner, Tuulikki - of Tove dancing beside the sea with flowers in her hair. So a few weeks ago, when we were on holiday in Copenhagen and saw that an exhibition about her was to begin while we were there, it was too good a chance to miss.

It was fascinating. It showed how talented she was in so many ways. She started as an artist - and very much wanted to succeed as a painter, not only as an illustrator. So here are many of her paintings, as well as satirical illustrations from the war years (Finland was invaded by Russia in 1939) in a magazine called Garm, and illustrations she did for other books besides her own.

Alice in Wonderland

The exhibition was first put on in Helsinki, in 2014, 100 years after her birth, and now it's touring Europe. I'm not certain, but I think it may be the one that's going to be at the Dulwich Art Gallery from 25th October this year. It certainly has some of the same works. (I hope it also has the wonderful room for children which was at the top of the building in Copenhagen: a sort of enchanted forest with crayons dangling from white columns, where you are invited to make your own notes and sketches - see below.)

I thought the self-portraits were particularly interesting. Very honest - almost brutally so. She saw so very clearly.

Monday, 24 July 2017

An evening with Patrick Gale by Tracy Alexander

Patrick Gale had a desire to be anything that didn’t make money ­– a musician, an actor, an author . . .

A friend of a friend ‘won’ him in an auction and so I heard this first hand in her living room. It’s always a treat to see inside another author’s mind, and to meet someone whose books I have enjoyed – most recently, A Place Called Winter – made it all the more interesting. Here’s some more of what the author of 16 novels and many other written works, including Man in an Orange Shirt soon to be aired on BBC TV, had to say:

Learning to write – Reading teaches you to write.

Writing is a 9 to 5 job ­– Patrick gets up and out to his office by 9, unless he’s in publicity mode.

Pens and paper still have a place ­–  He writes the whole manuscript in a notebook. The front is the story. The back is his quarry where he jots notes. He carries it around with him. There’s no copy! When the draft is finished, he types it up, editing along the way.

Structure – Chronology isn’t something he’s fond of. Many of his books play with structure – it’s something he’s interested in. Time, character, place . . . can all dictate the final shape. When he transfers the words from the notebook to the computer and can cut and paste huge swathes at will he finds the right way to tell the story. Breaking up the narrative means you can avoid the boring bits and focus on crisis points. When using time shifts, he finds the historical parts are more compelling and have more energy – maybe because they take more effort.

On research in the field –­ Write as much of the story as you can before you go so that your time is targeted and you don’t end up shoe-horning in stuff because you bothered to find it out!

His territory – Family, of which he has a rich personal source.

Titles – How refreshing to learn that he changes his mind repeatedly . . . The Lead-lined Room has become Thumb Position and now maybe The Rocks Along Our Way.

His favourite book – Most proud of the most recent. Most protective of the WIP.

His favourite writer – Colm Tóibín

Noting down snippets in wee jotters for future use – Not something he does. ‘The things you need to remember you’ll remember when you need them.’

And the future – Patrick is getting braver . . . and darker.

Tracy Alexander

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Bananas, Stones And A Blade Forever Flashing - Part Two by Steve Gladwin

This month my blog goes out on a Sunday, so for those of you who are reading it and are at a bit of a loose end, here’s an idea. Get on youtube and find the complete version of Children of the Stones, an acknowledged seventies TV eerie classic.

This month I intended to re- watch favourite seventies children’s TV. I was going to again give myself the pleasure of Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade, as I have copies of both. I might even have called in on The Banana Splits and The Arabian Knights segment in particular, or listened to the theme music to Freewheelers and hummed along for a bit. (If confused see last month!)

However rather typically I didn’t think about doing any of this until I realised in a mad rush a few days ago. So with thanks to the generous soul who planted it on youtube, I sat down with my partner a few days ago to watch Children of the Stones. My first and only viewing of it was when it was first transmitted in 1977. In retrospect I’m more than a little shocked to realise I was already eighteen at the time.

No I didn't know that it was a novel either.

I remember it having quite an effect on me, being enthralled by the plot and the eerie music and I also remember people saying ‘Happy Day’ all the time.
After a recent conversation with a fellow fan, (thanks Kelly) I decided to chase up the DVD - which I really must get some time - but now we’ve seen it on youtube I REALLY MUST get the DVD because let me tell you folks that Children of the Stones is still fantastic.

There are one or two weaknesses I suppose. It has a dated feel sure, but not as much as you'd expect, and one or two of the child actors are a bit MFI and the housekeeper is a wee bit clichéd and Freddie Jones as Dai the poacher does tend to mumble, but these are minor quibbles when the story, script, performances, music and effects are so good for their time. Having urged you to watch it however I have no intention of ruining the plot for you, but here’s a brief summary of the initial premise.

Adam Brake, an astrophysicist and his son Matthew move to the Avebury lookalike village of Milbury, (the series was filmed in Avebury) where they find that nearly everyone is rather alarmingly happy. In the one classroom school, Matthew finds that the children on the top table can solve alarmingly complex equations, whereas most of those new to the village don’t know where to start. These includes Matthew, who is almost as bright as his dad.

Gareth Thomas, Iain Cuthberston and the children.

It soon becomes apparent that the whole village is in some way under the control of the local squire figure Hendrick, whose house lies on a confluence of Milbury’s many ley lines. When people try to leave the village, they are first stopped by the stones and later 'assimilated'.  It turns out that everything that is happening in the village is a consequence of a long ago super nova which was actually named after Hendrick, who discovered it, and to say that it’s gone to his head is a wee bit of an under-statement.

There’s a whole lot more to it than that of course, and for a piece of so called children’s TV it is remarkably multi-layered with many concepts and ideas far ahead of their time being discussed intelligently not just by adults, but often by Matt and his dad. There is also an absence of overt cliché and just when you think it’s inevitable, the script pulls back and that’s maybe one of the reasons the whole thing ends up feeling so well rounded. Although Matt and his dad team up with Margaret, who runs the local museum and her rather odd little daughter Sandra, this story is very much about a boy and his father and the fact that one is not only a chip off the old block, but one whose opinions and skills are increasingly honoured and appreciated by his dad, adds to it considerably.

Matt is aided in his discoveries by both the old poacher Dai and particularly by an evocative painting of the stone circle itself, which he was mysteriously drawn to years before he ever heard of Milbury, (now tell me you don’t want to watch it now?).

If there is the equivalent of a leit motif in the series it is this painting which not only has the poor house keeper fainting and spilling her tray of chocolate cake, when she first sets eyes on it, but which also alters in strange ways and provides more than one clue to the developing mystery.

As my partner said, this also a very sciency series, but it’s one whose concepts you feel like you can get your heads round, (which for me is something, let me tell you!). What I really appreciated was how the real and the - pseudo but based on actual fact and religious or scientific practice - seem to meld so convincingly. And like in the best and most enduring eerie children’s classics, (The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising for example) we ourselves are drawn in through the eyes of Matt.

I said before that Children of the Stones stops short of actual cliché and that is mainly due to the acting, particularly the adults, but it’s particularly so in the case of Iain Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Hendrick, who is urbane and smooth very much in the manner of Charles Gray in either The Devil Rides Out or as a nemesis to Bond in Diamonds are Forever. Like Charles Gray, Iain Cuthbertson understands that even in a series made for children, it is studied normality rather than hectoring bombast or piling on the slime that brings the best results. Freddie Jones just about avoids going in either direction, and both Gareth Thomas as Adam Brake and Veronica Strong, (the wife of series co-creator Jeremy Burnham) as Margaret, give solid portrayals of Everyman and Woman. The best scenes for me involve either Matt and his dad or Adam and Hendrick.

There seems to be an odd emphasis in the series on the single parent family, and of the four pairs of newcomers to the village, three are fathers and sons. Is there something they aren’t telling us? Peter Demin was actually 17 years old at the time he played Matt and perhaps that helps give the character some of the age-old wisdom he seems to have.

Another thing I noticed at the end of our two and a half hour watch is that there are so many ideas and layers here, (such as the workings of an atomic clock and the idea of free will) that it’s a wonder they could fit them all in. Apparently when the director Peter Graham-Scott first saw the script, he couldn't believe something so eerie and disturbing was meant to be for children. Most TV shows nowadays would give their eye-teeth for half of the good ideas Children of the Stones effortlessly piles up and in the last of its seven episode alone, part one ends up at the point where most other shows would seriously fizzle out. Not a bit of it with COTS, for after the break, mystery continues to be piled on mystery until perhaps the greatest of all is left right until the end.

I could go on and on about what makes COTS tick so well and in the context of the series this is a highly appropriate metaphor. It’s difficult to have something you only vaguely remember come so far past expectations, but while we were watching the series I was able to recapture just a little of my past and possibly conjure up just a little of the excitement I must have felt each week as each episode is left on an always exciting cliff-hanger. One of the series unique features by the way is how the word circle appears in all seven episodes, as follows.

Into the Circle, Circle of Fear, The Serpent in the Circle, Narrowing Circle, Charmed Circle, Squaring the Circle, Full Circle.

However, if there is one thing which makes the series stand out, (and I haven't forgotten either the incredibly eerie choral music by composer Sidney Sagar, performed so memorably by the Ambrosian Singers), it must be its unique location in the actual village in the middle of a stone circle, Avebury. Watching COTS, you simply can’t avoid either the presence of the stones, or the feel of there being a village within it. And the stones themselves are used in so many inventive and often terrifying ways, sometimes just part of the landscape we come to take for granted, and just as often symbolic of other concepts or terrifying discoveries. This is echoed equally in the ever recurring picture which depicts the original sequence of events in megalithic times now being repeated by Matt and his dad.

The painting by west country artist Les Matthews, which now lives in Avebury Manor

And that's what Children of the Stones felt like to me on only my second viewing forty years onwards. What it was to me then, it certainly remains now - an exciting voyage of discovery with a surprise around every corner. Do yourself a favour and seek it out.

'Happy Day.'   

PS If you didn't know, Jeremy Burnham wrote both a novel and this sequel.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Birthing a Book, by Dan Metcalf

Above all, remember to breathe...

You've carried this strange beast inside of you for far too long. When you first announced it, you were happy to talk and show off about your new found authorship. People were happy for you – you seemed happy too, exuding a kind of care-free 'glow'. People made plans. Big plans.

“We're going to have a party to celebrate its arrival!” they said. You were pleased, but now you are not so sure. You just want a quiet time. No fuss, just a few drinks with friends. If you're not too tired.

But wait. Let's go back to the beginning. The conception of the thing is a hazy memory; you had had too much to drink. It seemed like a good idea. At the time.

And so you did the deed – in a splurge of creativity you made this small 'thing'. Was it a book? You weren't sure. You needed to check with someone.

You told a few people about it, and they were enthusiastic too. Word got around and you went to the big meeting, holding your partner's hand with sweaty palms. You were nervous. You were excited too, but excitement doesn't always come with heart palpitations and perspiration. Then the man behind the desk gives you the news you'd been waiting for. You're going to be expecting...a new book.

The celebrations begin, but you still have the gestation period to go. You stare at your baby, caring for it and gazing at its perfection on the screen. Then you go for regular check-ups with the editor. This is where they drop the heart-shattering message:

“Your book is fine, but...”

But? But what? It's defected in some way? Underdeveloped?

Nothing a few doses of redrafting can't fix, the editor says. Phew. Now you get to spend more time with your baby. Endless nights, tending it and checking it is okay every five minutes.

Endless. Nights.

Slowly, you begin to resent the book. You resent it for the amount of time it takes from you, for the social life it robbed from you. But you love it too. You love its crinkly edges and imperfections, the way it makes you feel; how could you not? It came from you, remember?

In the weeks before it is due to come out, friends will call you.

“Hi! Is it out yet?”

You stare down the phone. Of course it isn't out yet! You're still waking at nights thinking about it, drudging around in the daytime in a half-coma. You would have told someone if it was out yet! You would have told everyone!

Then the day comes. The date that had been emblazoned on your brain for months arrives and your new creation is set free into the world. People congratulate you! Strangers congratulate you! You feel elated, lighter than you have done for months. Your baby, the thing you made from nothing, is now part of the world. You're happy.

You look at it. It's ugly at first; not what you expected. But God, you love it, and you will until your dying day.

Dan Metcalf proudly gave birth to his newest addition, Codebusters, on July 13. It weighs in at 127 grams and is 144 pages long. You can look at it here and here. Dan, being an overly-proud father, has even started posting videos about it on YouTube. Don't worry about the yellow cover; that's a design choice, not jaundice.