Saturday, 24 July 2010

Sometimes it's right to be wrong

I know the rules of English grammar. I do, honestly I do. I understand who and whom, your and you’re, and where words go in sentences.

I’ve had rows with people about English grammar. A mother at my children's school got very upset because the class teacher had written a sentence which ended with a preposition. ‘You learn that you shouldn’t do that in sixth grade!’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine,’ I replied. ‘You’re wrong,’ she said.

I gritted my teeth. How dare she challenge me? I had been a commissioning editor on a broadsheet national paper. How dare she! I’m ashamed to admit that I spent the evening printing out pages from the internet ('You've finally gone mad' said my husband) proving that I was correct – and presented her with them the following day. This is the kind of petty mania which possesses expat mothers, cut off from their professional lives. Quite soon afterwards I found myself a local job as an editor.

But in When I Was Joe and Almost True I break rule after rule, with abandon. It’s all in the voice. Ty says less when he should say fewer, he splits infinitives, he says ‘like’ instead of ‘as if’. Reading the final version of Almost True, I was horrified to find an error – a place where Ty uses correct grammar in saying ‘If I were Harry Potter’. Of course he should have said, incorrectly, ‘If I was..’

Sometimes I felt I should put a disclaimer at the beginning of the books reading: ‘The author would like to apologise for the narrator’s poor grammar, and assure readers that the mistakes are deliberate.’ But I didn’t. So if the preposition stickler mum ever gets hold of a copy then she will probably wave it in the air, saying ‘I knew it! She knows nothing about grammar.’

The final edit for Almost True was an exercise in thinking about grammar. The proof reader and editor had identified 972 instances where there could be a comma added or removed. I had to consider each one, thinking about the pace, the context, the clarity of the sentence. My instinct when writing was to avoid punctuation as much as possible, and to keep it simple. No colons or semi-colons, lots of ellipses, dashes - I love dashes – and full stops. Quite often my response to these phantom missing commas was to find a way to avoid their use altogether by cutting out sub-clauses and creating new short sentences.

I loved a recent obituary in The Economist for the Portuguese Nobel laureate in literature Jose Saramago, pictured above. Here is an extract from it:

Punctuation, he said, was like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you travelled, and if you wondered, Wouldn’t writing be rather confusing without it, he would say No, it was like the constant wash and turn of the sea, sounding even more sibilant in Portuguese than in English, or like a journey taken by a traveller, every step linked to the next and every end to a beginning, or like the press of time, no sooner coming than going, never stopping in the present, which consequently never existed.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Almost True giveaway!

It's here! My advance copy of Almost True arrived in the post today, and I couldn't be more excited. The cover looks great - the orange is gorgeous - and the boys look very nice together I think. It'll be in the shops by September, and I'll be launching it and signing copies at Waterstones in Islington on September 16.

That's a long time away though. So, I have persuaded my lovely editor to give me another copy for a giveaway on the When I Was Joe Facebook page. There is one copy of Almost True and three copies of When I Was Joe to win.
This is what you have to do.
Sign up on the page
Recommend it to lots of friends
Get them to write on the page's wall, saying you sent them
The person who gets the most mentions by 5pm on Friday July 23rd wins a signed copy of Almost True
All the people who write on the wall go into a hat to win three signed copies of When I Was Joe
And of course new people can also get their friends to sign up and mention them to try and win Almost True as well.
Hope that's clear, and lots of people will enter. Any questions??

Saturday, 10 July 2010

How to make an author happy

1. Read her book.
2. If you enjoyed it - tell her. Tell her what you liked and why. Ask questions.
3. Review the book - maybe here or maybe there.
4. Tell your friends about it.
5. Tell booksellers about it
6. If you are a bookseller then put it in your window. Or on your display table. Or on that recommended shelf. Or any combination of the above.
7. If you work for a large chain of booksellers then tell everyone in the company about it.
8. Tell librarians about it. Especially school librarians.
9. If you are a school librarian invite her to your school. Promote it to your pupils. Sell lots of books during the visit.
10. If you're a pupil at her school visit, ask lots of intelligent and interesting questions.
11. If you're the Education Secretary, make sure school libraries are funded and schools have the cash for new books, librarians and author visits.
12. Tweet about it.
13. Like its Facebook page. Write on the Facebook page's wall. Share the Facebook page's post.
14. Write about it on your blog. Interview the author. Ask her to write guest blogs.
15. Do clever and funny things with its this
16. Tell your friends that they have to buy their own copy…
17. …or buy them a copy for their birthday. Or for any other reason.
18. Pre-order the sequel at your local bookshop. Or even here.
19. Tell other people that the sequel is out in September.
20. Tell her that you're so excited about the sequel that you can't sleep.
21. Borrow it from the library - even if you've read it already.
22. Oh and if you hated the book…errr…keep it to yourself.

I wrote this list as a jokey post, and then I realised that people have done every one of these things for me and my first book...except for number 11, which is possibly too much to hope for. Even (I assume) number 22. And I got a bit choked up, and I wanted to say thanks to everyone. This week it was Alison, Alana, Ingrid, Gabriel and Amna in particular. But over the six months since When I Was Joe was published, it's been so many more people. I really appreciate it. And it does make me very happy.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

You should have been there, Mr Gove

How do you get children to enjoy reading? How do you encourage non-readers to pick up a book, when there are so many other cool things that they’d prefer to do?

This year, the London borough of Haringey, where I live, has been running all kinds of interesting schemes in schools to address this question. The Building Reading Communities programme kicked off with a launch at the Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham, with authors and musicians to entertain the children.

Then different schools tried all sorts of projects to enthuse the children in their schools and get them reading. This week they held an event bringing teachers, librarians and children from all the participating schools together to hear about each other’s experiences. I can honestly say it was one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever attended.

Children talked about buddy schemes, museum visits, designing a book corner for the classroom. They’d had author visits, and, on World Book Day, been to places all over the borough to have stories read to them - a restaurant, a fire station, Alexandra Palace. As the picture shows, some children had story time on a bus.

Some children had been to the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green and been allowed to choose two free books. One boy had picked the biggest, thickest books he could find - ‘and then he read every word,’ said his teacher ‘And now he’s written 34 chapters of his own book.’

The author Jonny Zucker – we’d never met, but we share a publisher and we’d had a long chat on the phone once and he felt like an old friend – was compere, and he’d visited every school but one during the year. Jonny’s a star at author visits, for not only does he have many great books to talk about (Striker Boy is the latest) but he also does magic tricks. Time and time again in the presentations, kids talked about the impact that meeting Jonny had on them. He’d made them see that reading was fun…exciting…interesting. He inspired them. He was one of their favourite authors. If anyone doubts the worth of author visits to schools, they should ask Haringey schoolchildren about Jonny Zucker. To them, he's a superstar.

I wasn’t there as an author, but as a volunteer. My daughter’s school decided to participate by asking parents to come in and meet each week with Y7 pupils who had fallen behind with their reading. I’m sure other mums put themselves forward out of the goodness of their hearts. I, rather selfishly, thought it’d be fascinating for a writer to spend time with kids who don’t like to read.

The two boys that I worked with, F and M, were great, and I did learn a lot from working with them. I was asked to speak about my experiences at the Haringey event, and I told them about the first time I met with F, and how I could see from his face that he wasn’t impressed when we started off with an ‘easy read’. I didn’t blame him. The plot was so transparent that we could see the denouement coming by the end of chapter two.

When we talked, it was clear that the problem lay with the gap between the books that he enjoyed - Antony Horowitz, Mal Peet, Justin Somper - and his actual reading level as assessed by the school. He was bored and frustrated when expected to read at his ‘level’, and we were much more successful when we read the books that he liked and trying to work out how to solve the problems that he had.

Three things were helpful – you could call them the three P’s. Practice was essential - F is a skateboarder and a footballer, so I compared reading to learning new skating skills. Without practice, it doesn’t happen. Or, to take a footballing analogy, if Cesc Fabregas didn’t bother to train he’d soon find himself out of the team. If you read regularly - perhaps 15 minutes every evening - then you improve your fluency and you give yourself the chance of getting into a story

Once you’re into a story then you might stand a chance of experiencing the pleasure of reading. I spent a lot of time with both my reluctant readers working out what they liked about books, what they enjoyed, what made them want to read a book. M likes funny books, and books which have been made into a film – because then it is easier for him to visualise the story. F enjoys quite complex books and a lot of action and adventure. We spent time just talking about the books we read - what worked, what didn’t, what did we think about the characters, the wordplay? Books are for sharing, and if you know someone’s going to ask you about a book you’ve got an incentive to read it.

The last thing to tackle is the performance aspect of reading aloud. Reading silently to yourself is all very well, but reading aloud has so many potential pitfalls that it can put off even enthusiastic readers. In our sessions we talked about tackling long words, using punctuation to tell you when to pause, and listening to audio books with the text in front of you, to hear how prose should flow. I’d like to see school drama departments get involved in helping children to read out loud. I’d like to see more acknowledgment that reading aloud isn’t the best way to judge reading skills. And I’d like to see more audio books in school libraries.

The event was a huge success. Every child had a story to tell - about the events which had inspired them, about the progress they had made. Some of the pupils had only lived in England for a short time, and to read an English book was a triumph. To top it all we were entertained by an amazingly talented musician and poet, El Crisis, whose voice and performance was spine-chillingly moving.

The room was full and the weather was hot but the children concentrated really well. I wish there had been an extra member of our audience. I wish that Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary had been there. He would have learned so much about how to inspire and educate children.

He would have seen the importance of author visits, of school trips, of school libraries - all threatened by the public spending cuts.

He would have seen the fantastic contribution that a Local Education Authority can make to schools - a contribution that often he doesn’t seem to understand or value.
And he would have seen the creativity and achievement that comes when teachers and pupils are set free from the National Curriculum - something that should not be confined to the 'free' schools that are his pet project.

I was really proud to be part of Haringey's Building Reading Communities programme this year. I hope Mr Gove doesn't make it impossible for the project to continue in the future.