Friday, 18 February 2011

Votes, splats and books

I have just been listening to David Cameron explaining why we shouldn't change the voting system in the UK...because it could lead to a government that no one actually wanted. Hmmm.
Anyway, I am going to be shameless as any politician today and ask for your votes. The Coventry Inspiration Awards have been running for quite a few weeks now, with school pupils encouraged to read the books on a series of lengthy shortlists and vote for the ones they like best. Each week two books are eliminated, with a horrible splat obliterating the covers on the website.
In the Simply the Book category for 14+ readers, When I Was Joe is now into the final two! So vote,vote, vote for Joe, here . You don't have to be at school (just put N/A). You don't have to live in Coventry, or indeed the UK (just put your postcode, whatever it is). You can vote again and again (but you have to leave a bit of a space between votes.) The poll closes next Wednesday. It would be fantastic to win (err, although Helena Bonham Carter was right, it's not the winning that matters...ahem).
Nicola Morgan and I have formed an unofficial coalitian when it comes to begging for votes (Oooh, we are David and Nick! Or maybe NOT) Her wonderful exceptionally clever book Wasted is in the  Read It or Else category. You can vote for Wasted here.
In the next age group down, my son is backing Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic , a book which entertained and informed and did everything that good children's books should do superlatively well.
Getting to the last two of an award like this is fantastic -  and winning would be even better, it is true. But there's also something strange about pitting books against eachother when reading is such a subjective process. I don't feel triumphant when I see that splat against other great books -  I feel a bit bad. All of them are excellent reads, and these shortlists are perfect places to start if you're looking for something new to read.  But beyond the splat factor is the knowledge that, thanks to the organisers of these and many other book award schemes, loads of kids are reading lots of books that they might never have otherwise learned about. The X Factor style website is just a part of it. Every book on that shortlist has been promoted, in Coventry and beyond, for the sheer love and importance of reading. There's more at stake here than a writer's ego.
Organising awards like this is just one of the valuable things that librarians do. The importance of libraries to children's reading was underlined today with the news that seven out of the ten most-borrowed authors in British libraries write for children. Shutting libraries, sacking librarians, building Learning Resource Centres for schools with no space for books -  these are all an assault on children's right to read. Our government listened fast enough when the public spoke out about the proposed sell-off of forests. Libraries are another kind of shared space. They should be protected, developed and expanded not attacked. Vote for me if you want to, but raise your voice for our libraries as well.

Update: Thanks to all who voted -  When I Was Joe came second...only mildly gutted, as being runner up is nothing to complain about. And hurray for Nicola Morgan's Wasted which won its category!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

What's amiss with Amis

'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book', but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

Now then. I know that everyone’s had their say on Martin Amis’s comment above, and I know it’s a big insult and he’s an idiot to have said it.
 I know someone with a serious brain injury. My brother’s brain was starved of oxygen at birth and he was left with cerebal palsy. He has physical disabilities, which have made his life much harder than it should have been.  It is not something that anyone would wish for.
Cerebal palsy has not affected his intelligence one little bit. In fact he is one of the cleverest people I know, and he has the qualifications to prove it. He has a First from Cambridge University and a PhD from Oxford University in English Literature. He has two Masters degrees, one in IT, the other in Philosophy. He won a scholarship to study at Harvard. He has a successful career and a demanding job.
  So maybe…just maybe…when Martin Amis said ‘If I had a serious brain injury’, he had someone like my brother in mind. Maybe he actually meant ‘If I were clever and determined, hard-working and bloody-minded enough, if I were able to rise above the trials that life has sent me and tackle any challenge going, then I might well write a children’s book. Unfortunately I don’t possess enough of these attributes to take on that challenge.’
 This charitable view of Martin Amis’s statement seems to be backed by his next statement. “…the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”
If a writer ignores all  restrictions or awareness of potential readers, if he allows himself complete freedom in content, in vocabulary, in style, length or any other way, then he is making life much easier for himself. (I say 'he' and 'him' for reasons of my own which may well be construed as sexist, but which illustrate the joy of complete freedom of expression.)
Working within restrictions  may be irksome, it may be difficult, but it does not necessarily produce work of lower quality. In fact, quite the opposite. The writer who takes on the challenge of writing for younger readers may not succeed in creating anything special -  but when she does, it is perhaps even more remarkable than the work of an untrammelled artist  such as Martin Amis, especially when he has admitted that he could not do such a thing.
So perhaps what he meant to say was: ‘I am incapable of imagining the effect my work will have on a particular reader, nor am I selfless enough to want to try. My writing skills are limited and I cannot cope with any restrictions at all.'
 I think if he’d said it like that he might have had a more sympathetic hearing. But it’s difficult, isn’t it, admitting one’s  shortcomings on television, especially in the context of a programme about heroes.
 I have to admit that I used to share the view that Mr Amis may or may not hold, that the shorter and simpler the book, the easier it will be to write. Once I started thinking about actually writing a short, simple book for young children, I soon changed my mind. I started my course of evening classes in Writing for Children intending to write short books for 6 to 8 year olds. I ended up writing an 83,000 word book for teenagers. Quite frankly, I did it that way because it was an easier prospect.
 It’s a long time since I’ve read a book by Martin Amis. His recent remarks haven’t put me off, on the contrary, I’m interested to see the effect of writing with complete  unrestricted freedom, and whether it produces something as dull as it promises.In his hands, I doubt it. I remember him as a mischievous writer who delights in tricks and wordplay. In fact, he is exactly the sort of person who might one day be able to take on the biggest challenge of all -  yes, a picture book text.
When he’s ready.

(Thanks to Fiona Dunbar for her help with this post.)

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Sophia Bennett on writing series

 Today's post is written by the very wonderful Sophia Bennett, whose latest book Sequins, Stars and Spotlights is out this week - eagerly awaited by fans of the trilogy which started with the prize-winning Threads and continued with Beads, Boys and Bangles.
The books don't just give readers funny, heart-warming and believable stories, they also tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the fashion industry -  from child labour to the lives of the supermodels.
Writing a series isn't as easy as it looks. As I embark on my third 'Ty' book I'm concerned about keeping the storyline going, without boring the readers or clogging up the narrative with too much backstory. So I thought I'd ask Sophia for some advice cleverly disguised as being part of her blog tour for Sequins, Stars and Spotlights. And, clever person that she is, she obligingly interviewed herself!  

 Hi Keren. Thanks so much for hosting this stage of the tour, and for suggesting the topic of series fiction. Nobody’s asked me about that before. I imagined this as a Q&A … which may give the impression that I talk to myself a lot. I do, so that’s probably no bad thing.

So, Sophia, what is the secret of a good series, do you think?

Six words: strong characters, strong characters, strong characters. Plots can be tiny or huge. If a reader loves the characters, she’ll follow them through.

What makes writing a series different from a single book?

Books for the age group I write for (tween and teen) have to be quite short, so there simply isn’t time to develop a character in many complex ways. My narrator, Nonie, doesn’t understand what’s going on as well as she thinks she does. Over the three books, she gets the chance to get things wrong about herself and other people, think she’s learned from her mistakes, get them wrong again and finally get them right. She’s a different girl by the end of the series, because her world is changing fast around her and she’s losing her hold on it. I couldn’t have packed all of that into one book, but it was great fun to develop it over time. Poor Nonie. (She’s all right in the end, though.)

Anything to avoid?

When you come up with your sheer genius title for book 1, make sure that you or your publisher will be able to think of associated sheer genius titles for books 2 and 3. We quickly rejected ‘Stitches’ and ‘Ribbons’ and probably spent longer thinking about titles than we did editing the books. I thought I had it cracked with ‘Beads Boys & Bangles’, but that meant I had to think of three more words for book 3. At one stage, it was going to be ‘Frills, Fame and Frappucinos’, I think. Good grief. And book 1 became ‘Sequins, Secrets and Silver Linings’ in America, so I have no idea what book 3 will be over there …

Anything else?

Sophia's suitably stylish...
Making the timescale in each book last up to two years can be a no-no. My timescales were based on Jenny’s acting career and the things I wanted her to achieve in each book. (Which is odd, because she was the last character I created and she was supposed to just fit in around the others and wear nice frocks occasionally, but she wasn’t having any of it …). But the problem is that after a mere three books, the older girls were 18 and leaving school already. How quickly they grow up! I have a successful writing friend who insists each book in her current series should last a maximum of 6 months. Very sensible. I’ll bear that in mind next time …

Another problem you just have to grapple with is the need to keep plot twists original. There were a few times when I thought – I know, that character can solve the problem by doing that. But he or she couldn’t, because they’d done something similar before. Oh, and blatant repetition. I think it’s inevitable. You need a beady-eyed editor to point out that the same girl made the same observation two books earlier.

This might suggest that I don’t enjoy doing it, which isn’t true at all. Because if you’ve created characters you enjoy writing about, there’s nothing nicer than living in their world for a couple of years, and having readers look forward to what they’re going to get up to next, too.

How do you plan your series?

I wrote ‘Threads’ as a one-off book. For nine-tenths of the writing process, I simply couldn’t imagine how anything could possibly follow after the final scene. And then … I knew my characters so well that I realised I did know what they did next. And it was kind of interesting. And there was another save-the-world issue that I really wanted to address: child labour. So by the time I had a contract for ‘Threads’, I’d already written 10,000 words of ‘Beads Boys & Bangles’. Of all the books, that was the easiest to write.

Anyway, by then I thought I had this series thing sorted. I needed another save-the-world issue and more great fashion heights for my girls to scale. Except, that’s not what happened at all. The issue I decided to write about was very local, and very personal. And on the fashion front, I wanted to write more about how you need to pace yourself, gain experience, and not do too much too soon. It took ages to make it all work in a way I was happy with.

So I suppose my answer is, there must be a successful way to plan a series, but I don’t know what it is yet. I suggest reading the Hunger Games trilogy and working it out from that. Or Harry Potter, obviously.

One thing I don’t like are series books that end on an obvious cliff-hanger, so you simply have to read the next book to find out what happened. I think each book should be self-contained. After all, the reader has paid for a complete story, and that’s what she deserves.

Will you always write series books?

I write what comes to me. At the moment, I don’t know if the book I’ve just handed in is part of a series or not. It depends on whether my publisher thinks the characters are strong enough, and whether more of their stories occur to me (mind you, the second book is already bubbling away …).

I do like series books. When I was in my early teens I adored series fiction and would happily read ten books about the same teen detective, ballet dancer or pony fanatic. My son is ten now, and as soon as he’s finished a book he loves, he wants the next one – Artemis Fowl, Skulduggery Pleasant, Percy Jackson ... I know lots of readers feel the same way.

I hope Threads isn’t my only series. Writing the books was a very happy, busy time for me.

 (Keren again) Thanks Sophia! I learned a lot there...and I'm sure Threads will be the first series of many.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

To Amanda Holden...

...and any other woman who loses a baby in late pregancy.

You can survive this. You can and will. It may feel as though nothing in your life will ever be normal again, as though the pain is too much to bear, but it is possible to carry on. You will even laugh again. You will even feel happy again. Life will once again feel precious.
The shock will wear off (although it may muffle your life for weeks). The pain will get worse. This may even feel perversely comforting and necessary. The pain brings you closer to your baby. Don’t try and be brave. Work hard at being the opposite of brave.
You will cry unexpectedly. There will be conversations and situations that are impossible for you. This is not your fault, so don’t apologise. At least – always a silver lining – you, Amanda, will never have to explain to people why you are in tears in the middle of a crowded cafĂ© (a sleeping baby, an over-inquisitive friend). The rest of us have to learn to say the words: my baby died. I can’t always cope. I need to go. I just need some air. Leave me alone. I don’t want to tell you that. I don’t want to talk. I need to talk. Let me tell you what happened to me. Let me tell you about my son.
You have not lost him completely. I hope you have pictures, a name, some memories. I can still see Daniel’s golden hair, his soft skin, his peaceful face. I have photos, which were no good, so I wrapped them in a baby blanket and put them away. I have a picture of him sketched by a friend. I have memories of his movements, when he moved. I have memories of his birth.  Best of all, I have a feeling of his presence in my life, which has been with me for 13 years now. Sometimes I hear his voice. It is very real and it is a great comfort.
You are not the only one who has lost him. Your loss is shared by his father, his sister, his family. By your friends. People will forget and people will remember. His life touched them all. He will never be nothing. As long as you live, he will never be forgotten.
It was not your fault. Women treat their bodies far worse than anything you might have done, and their babies are born healthy and whole. You may never know why he died. We believe we are so advanced, so knowledgeable, but we are not. In some ways we are like medieval peasants. You may feel full of fury at the ignorance unveiled by your loss, but there is nothing that you can do, except to talk about it, raise money for research, do all you can to back the people trying to find out why babies die in the womb for no known reason. I discovered - three years or so on - that samples of Daniel’s body had been retained for use in medical experiments. I could have been angry - no permission has been granted – but I was not. I was comforted. Our loss, our son was helping to prevent others losing their children. It helped to know that. It helped to remember that scientific research marches on.
You and his father may mourn differently. It is a very lonely feeling. Some people will attempt to help by quoting scary figures about the large proportion of couples who split up after losing a child. Ignore them. Tell them this is not the sort of help you need.  Allow him to grieve in his own way. He may not be the best person to support you at all times. Sometimes you will mourn together and sometimes apart. Don’t judge someone in extreme circumstances. And try and make your baby’s legacy one of love and understanding, however difficult that might be.
You are still allowed to be funny and laugh and be the person that you are. You do not have to laugh about his loss. But the small stuff -  the gaffes, the misunderstandings, the strangeness -  a robust sense of humour can help.
You may become hyper-sensitive. You may begin to hate people who call your loss a disappointment, a miscarriage (no less loss, by the way, but different), even meant to be. Not to be.You may tear up Christmas cards bearing pictures of other people’s babies. You may resent pregnant woman, women with babies, people who tell you your loss is not so great (yes, some people will tell you this). You must honour your feelings while acknowledging your lack of reason. You must be forgiving and unforgiving at the same time. It is not easy. It becomes easier. The first five years are the hardest.
You are part of a sisterhood. Lots of us go through this, we understand how it may feel. You will find us everywhere. We understand, we care, we are here for you and for all of us.
You may remember him with actions and symbols. With candles, flowers, trees. With tattoos and jewellery (see my ring, engraved with his name, the stone yellow as his hair). With fund-raising, befriending, marathons. With God or nature, in the stars, in heaven, on Earth. In the arms of a lost friend, or a grandmother. After a week, a month, a year. On his birthday. For ever and ever.
In time,  he  may give you more compassion, more wisdom, more patience. In time, his loss may make you a better person, a better actress, a better friend. He may transform you. Take strength from the knowledge that you are suffering as much as you can. So many things will feel easier to bear after this. After you have survived this. And you can survive this.

Amanda Holden is a British actress and judge on Britain's Got Talent whose son was stillborn this weekend at seven months gestation. Our second child, Daniel was inexplicably stillborn on February 10 1998, at 38 weeks. I wrote about his loss on this blog last year.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Fighting knife crime..

Ben Kinsella
 The government has announced an £18million package to fight knife crime among teengers, following a report from campaigner Brooke Kinsella, the Eastenders actress whose 16-year-old brother Ben was murdered in Islington in 2008.
 The plans include educational material for schools, including primary schools, to make children think about why people carry knives and the harm they can do. The Fear and Fashion programme, which runs workshops in schools and youth clubs is singled out as an example of good practice.
I applaud Home Secretary Theresa May for finding the money to back these projects. I hope that other government spending plans -  in particular the 20 per cent cut to the police budget, and the plan to fill gaps in policing by using volunteers - will not negate its good effect.
I also wonder about the effect of Justice Minister Ken Clarke's enlightened stand against short prison sentences, which led to the abandonment of David Cameron's election pledge to put everyone convicted of carrying a knife in jail. I wrote about that here.
My daughter is at school in north London, roughly equidistant from Ben Kinsella's school and from Park View Academy,  which suffered the loss of a pupil, Kasey Gordon, a few weeks ago, stabbed to death in broad daylight as he walked home from school (a man has been charged). Her school has staged several anti-knife crime assemblies and programmes. The last one seemed very effective - the bereaved mother of a knife crime victim spoke, and then a doctor who deals with stabbings in a casualty unit. Girls cried, reported my daughter, and everyone paid attention.
So, it's good to hear about the funding for more anti-knife education. I hope these intiatives will succeed despite the other public spending cuts. And well done to Brooke Kinsella for finding such an active and positive way to commemorate her brother, so cruelly stolen from his family.