Wednesday, 25 April 2018

How Do You Count The Words? by Jo Franklin

Authors are obsessed with word count. Firstly they obsess over how many words they should aim for when writing a book. Then they obsess over how many words they have written to reach that target.

Luckily these days word processing packages count our words for us so we can easily keep track of the length of our current document.

Word count for my current document is 8,443, thanks for asking. That feels pretty good as I have been in a fallow writing period recently. But counting how many words I have written today is a little harder. I used to keep a spreadsheet of each days word count. (Yep, this author likes spreadsheets!) but I don't bother with that any more. Any way counting the words I have written today isn't as simple as glancing down at the screen. I have to highlight the text first. What a chore!

These days I calculate my productivity a different way. When I am actively writing, I write a chapter a day. That's about 1,200 -1,500 words, or 5-6 pages double line spaced for my middle grade fiction. I've got a terrible psychological block about writing more than that in a single day. In fact if I push myself and write another chapter I tend to dry up for a week afterwards so I don't bother trying any more. Just like Stephen King, there are days when my chapter is written before 11am. I feel liberated and free to spend the rest of the day in whatever way I chose. Other days getting the words down on paper is excruciatingly hard work. Like yesterday, the words were wooden and had to be revised again and again to make them intelligible. Imagine my horror when I came to print out that chapter and there were only three pages. I can only have written about 800 words! That chapter is going to need some serious work come the second draft.

Another way I count my productivity is to assess my waste paper output. As I write long hand with a pen in a spiral bound A5 notebook, I have pages covered in my scrawl to get rid of at the end of every day. I don't edit as I write but I have many aborted attempts at completing a decent sentence and I write in a very scruffy, for-my-eyes-only handwriting so I produce a lot of waste paper.

Top tip : although authors obsess about their word count, it is probably best not to ask them about it as sometimes the answer is zero. And that is a very big number.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Rules of Reading by Steve Gladwin

You know how it is, you pick up a book and sometimes you’re hardly aware of why - It’s either the one on the top of the pile, or the one you’ve always promised yourself you’ll get round to - something someone else recommended, so you think maybe you should, or just the thing you fancy at that time.

But how many times are we actually aware of how and why we’re reading? The same applies to the book we’re in the middle of. More likely than not we simply pick it up and either find the place thoughtfully guarded for us by the handy bookmark, (some of which regularly go walk about, only to turn up months later down the back of the settee where we'd DEFINITELY looked), or in my case read five or six seemingly familiar pages before I realise I’ve already been there and I can never get that five minutes of my life back!

It’s certainly unlikely that we ever go through the following thought process. Oh, here’s that book I was reading last night that I’m so enjoying. I wonder what it is about it that is so engaging me about this particular author’s style or those well-drawn characters.
More often it’s more a case of let’s get those pages read before I start to nod off.

Another thing I’ve become equally fascinated by in those many bored moments when I can’t get back to sleep due to being obsessed by some stupid bit of trivia, is how fast I read certain parts of a book. Has anyone ever done a comparison of the reading speed of the first fifty pages – that whole getting into a book phase - and the last hundred when we’re screaming all the way downhill towards the startling identity of our villain, or both shattering and unlikely plot twist.

So I’ve decided to ask myself such questions. Feel free to step off and go to sleep any time along the journey, but I hope that at least you will spare a few thoughts to your own reading habits next time you too have those 'can’t get back to sleep' moments.

So here’s what I want to ask myself and therefore you, my eager studio audience.

How much do I think about what I'm reading?
Do I read different sections at different speeds?
What if anything is my regular reading pattern?
When and why do I read certain genres?

I read a lot. To my knowledge I never stop. The only time I remember when I stopped reading for any length of time was years ago when I went to druid camps armed with about four books and never read a page of either! Before and since it’s been almost constant and when you think about it that’s almost scary, because it feels – probably quite rightly - that I just couldn’t live happily without that constant stream of reading, story and inquiry. I remember a few weeks ago I found myself reading only factual books for a few days. Eventually I had to pick up a novel because if any length of time passes without some sort of plot I feel bereft.

I read for many reasons; to engage my brain, to test my brain, to fill my brain - and of course for enjoyment. Certain books I read for fact and knowledge or because they’re describing places and experiences that now I may never know or have, in the same way I watch Planet Earth 2 “ because it’s unlikely that I’ll ever see a three toed sloth in the wild, (unless it’s a quick shock in the bathroom mirror!)

How much do I think about what I'm reading?

I do think about what I’m reading of course, but usually more while I’m actually reading than when I pick up the book, which is more or less automatic. There is usually some debate over whether I read the novel or the historical/ nature/ travel etc book, as I usually have one of both on the go. That is a fairly hard and fast and therefore manageable rule, but just looking around my corner of the settee I find I have the following.

One paperback copy of The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri.
One paperback copy of The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliffe.
One hardback copy of The Mabinogi – Poems by Matthew Francis.
The February edition of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal.
One paper back copy of Time’s Oriel – poems by Kevin Crossley Holland.
One paperback copy of Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

At least two of those could actually come under the headings of both work or research, (not that that doesn’t also make them a pleasure!)

 In the meantime any thoughts I might have about any of these is generally only of the ‘which one this time variety.’ I mean you don’t exactly question what you’re already reading, do you, unless it’s because the book is failing my usually strict hundred page rule, where if it hasn’t got your interest by then, it’s out. I do have weak points however, I once plowed through a turgid four hundred page biography of Bruce Springsteen by an academic who had never met either Boss or Band.

If I do think about a book when I’m reading it, it’s usually because ‘the author has put something shocking or unexpected in the plot’, (I read a lot of crime!), or because the writing is either so beautiful, (John Lewis-Stempel), witty and hilarious, (Andrea Camilleri), or thrilling and heart-breaking (Rosemary Sutcliffe). It might be a beautifully caught moment, (Kevin Crossley-Holland/Matthew Francis), or news about yet another CD I probably shouldn’t buy, (Vaughan Williams).

Very rarely do I enjoy a reading experience so immersive that I consciously enjoy every moment of it and slow my reading to accommodate it. This brings us to the next heading.

Do I read different sections at different speeds?

The books that don’t pass my 100 page test just don’t have enough of plot or interest to keep me grabbed. The vast majority of the rest usually manage to grow that feeling over the first fifty or seventy pages if it isn’t there from the start. Yes it can still be a grind, but I do feel like I’m getting somewhere, so I trust my author to provide that breakthrough moment. I suspect it would be interesting if you were to time me at that point, because this can often be like the athlete’s run-up, a sort of limbering or lumbering like a creaking old bear, until you gain the momentum to leave terra firma behind and first float then fly gracefully through the air.

Usually at this early stage I’m still accumulating character detail and motivation or crime scene detail and assimilating it all in my eternal plot computer.

Compare that with the final 120 pages, (which is incidentally the most pages I’ll allow myself to complete a book before snuggle down) and in contrast I must be breaking all records, turning pages feverishly, pulse racing, hand poised over my mouth pre startling revelation. And in between the two there’s that whole middle section, a good half of your average crime novel. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know at what pace we read each bit and whether that wavers subject to genre, energy levels etc.

What, if anything, is my regular reading pattern?

My own reading pattern is I suppose pretty normal for someone who is self-employed but has always managed to successful separate work and leisure time. I read when I get up, for an hour or so before tea and in the two or so hours before I go to bed. I’m at my most alert in the first, so anything more involved or theoretical, or with small print, (I need new glasses!) is best done then. The pattern is often different at weekends and when I take holidays at Easter and Christmas it’s often the opportunity to read three or four books, something which I take unbounded pleasure in. And I have to say that there is still little to beat the sheer pleasure of living in a book which you just cruise through.

When and why do I read certain genres?

As for genre, well, as regular readers of these blogs may recognise, most of my favourites just happen to be in the above list. I came late to poetry and tend to attack it in short bursts now, reading each poem twice and maybe more if I find it all a bit confusing. I read very little fantasy and not enough children’s books. I read an inordinate amount of crime and detective stories like the rest of my family and we often pass them on to each other.

But I suppose most of us have genre moods too, or maybe it’s as simple as I can’t face another one of that type, I need something different now. Maybe we blitz a whole series of books like we do some series on HBO. I remember reading the quote from Stephen King on Elmore Leonard, which was something along the lines of he went straight out and bought everything ‘Dutch’ had ever written. Well sure, good for Stephen King, who has readies enough and that kind of eccentricity in plenty. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to build a collection of a favourite author gradually, enjoying and savouring it all, having it a course at a time, rather than in a great splurge of a Chinese banquet. In the same way as when we were little we had to actually ‘save up’ for something and in the process grew increasingly excited as our target – rather like one of those ones with Blue Peter milk bottle tops – grew ever closer. It’s nice to have such choice by your bedside or in your bookcase in the ways I’ve suggested, but what’s the use of having everything there on tap?

I haven’t read too many children’s books of late, but I’ve recently and rather late, discovered Rosemary Sutcliff, and having read some of her wonderful take on King Arthur I now want to read everything I missed. But I also want there to be some struggle element in my quest to a complete a collection of her books, some two or three that are almost impossible to obtain and then one day – hey presto!

I like having gaps in my collections, like the fact that there are still a couple of Inspector Montalbano’s I have yet to buy, or still four to go of Phil Rickman’s wonderful Merrily Watkins series, or that I’ve lost track of some of David Almond’s recent books and hope to one day investigate.

And I suppose that’s the thing about books , that the more you set yourself rules, the keener you may end up being to break them, that the more certain you become that doing something one way is right, the more you are reminded of the rogue few who don’t fit the bill or your restrictions. After all the reason we read is often to escape, so why cage the books we read by categorising or setting rules for them.

And yes, I’m talking to myself here!

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

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

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Writing with the Imp, by Dan Metcalf

Many stories are sparked by a simple but thought-provoking phrase: ‘What if...’

What if there was a competition where children had to kill each other? (Hunger Games)
What if a small, timid hero was tasked with the most important adventure ever; to save the world? (The Lord of the Rings)
What if clones were bred in order to harvest their organs? (Never Let Me Go)

And this is often the advice which creative writing tutors give to hungry students in search of a ‘quick fix’. If you wonder ‘what if’, then your story will be laid out in front of you.

As a writer of some years now, I have come to believe that this is only half the truth. Because while writers always need that imp on their shoulders prompting ‘What if? What if?’, they will also need another imp on the other shoulder, poking and prodding and cajolling, saying ‘Then what?’.

'The Imp of the Perverse' from the short story by Edgar Allen Poe, illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 1935.

An example might be Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. “What if,” said Mr Pullman to himself, one windy Oxfordshire night, “What if there was a world like ours, but where people had their souls on the outside of their body?” And thus the concept of daemons was born. A fine concept, I think we can all agree, but left to a less enquiring mind, that’s where the idea may have been left; as a concept. It requires a writer and that cheeky imp on the shoulder prompting ‘Then what? Then what?’ to get a full story out of it.

IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Well, then there might be an adventurous young girl who has to battle an evil cabal of church elders.
IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Um...maybe a boy from our world works out how to cut a hole between the two worlds?
IMP: Then what?
PULLMAN: Then they team up to kill God!
IMP: Oh, um, really? I thought this was a kid’s book?

And so on. You get the idea.

My own ‘What if’ moment for my latest book had already been done for me:

What if humans could grow dinosaurs from their DNA?’

That’s the concept Michael Crichton came up with nearly 30 years ago, and his Jurassic Park book laid the foundation for the film franchise that still rakes in the big bucks today; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is released this June. So in Crichton’s/ Spielburg’s world, the dinosaurs are brought back in the name of entertainment. When I wanted to write a series of children’s adventures, I started with the same concept as Jurassic Park, but the responses to my imp’s ‘Then what?’ took the world in a different direction:

DAN: What if humans could grow dinosaurs from their DNA?
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Well, then they would breed them for war; make them into weapons.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: The dinosaurs would be bred to be sentient. They can talk and think.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Then the dinosaurs start to wonder why they are being used as instruments of war. They rebel.
IMP: Then what?
DAN: Then they start the Dino Wars! Humans vs Dinosaurs in the future! With laser guns!
IMP: Okay, calm down Dan.
DAN: Then after the war, humanity is nearly extinct! The dinosaurs have re-inhabited the Earth!
IMP: Um…
DAN: And our hero, a kid from a peaceful settlement, has to try and save the world by gathering together four precious power-giving crystals!
IMP: Well, I’ll be off then. You clearly don’t need me around here…

And lo! DINO WARS was born. The adventure is set in a far-flung future and book one sees Adam Caine discover the trial he is about to endure, and discover a city full of gun-toting velociraptors. In all honesty, writing this series of books is the best fun I have had in ages. And it was all down to two little words…

‘Then what?’


Dan Metcalf is the author of Dino Wars: Rise of the Raptors, which is published by Maverick Arts Publishing on the 28th April 2018. For more details and to order your copy, head on over to

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Being One of Many

Being One of Many
 (or being happy with who we are as writers, whilst appreciating that others are as good or better.) 
by Anne Booth

Any published writers (with the possible exception of some celebrities) will have got to the point of being published after experiencing the pain of having their writing rejected. We have all realised, or been told, that our work was not good enough, and have had to discard or revise and re-submit it.  The odds were against us, but still we persisted, and then, somehow, self-belief or drive or simple need to write, sustained us until our luck turned, and/or our craft improved to such an extent that somebody decided that one (or two) of the books we had written were worth publishing, and we finally became published authors.

But as we all know, it doesn’t end there. Sustaining our careers and continuing to write and re-write and edit and start again, requires energy, and it also seems that a continuing self-belief and ability to self-promote is required that sometimes seems at odd with being sensitive and able to write worthwhile fiction in the first place. This is where supportive agents and publishers are vital, and those of us with loving families and friends are blessed.

But in the end, it does all come down to us. People can tell us until they are blue in the face that we are good, but if we don’t listen, there is nothing they can do about it. We need to be realistic about our ability to self-sabotage. If reading a mildly critical review of a published book we have written can send us off into a self-doubting tail spin for weeks, render us unable to work and mess up our writing schedule for the next month, perhaps it might be good to not read reviews at all and ask our agent to pass us any good ones. Most of all, we need to monitor any negative comments we make to ourselves. Sometimes we can be our own worst critics.

I’ve been thinking about this recently. There are some absolutely amazing children’s books about, and I’ve been reading and buying lots of them.  I have a lovely time buying children’s books and supporting fellow writers, reading them and understanding my own market more, and then I pass them on to my book buddy school in Liverpool  or  local schools in my area which are facing huge budget cuts. It’s win-win all round. Recently I have read and really enjoyed ‘The Children of Castle Rock’ by Natasha Farrant. What a great story! Last night I began ‘Tin’ by  Pádraig Kenny and am hooked - it is so original and well written and I LOVE it. Bought and on the  current TBR pile are ‘The Goose Road’ by Rowena House, ‘Pax’ by Sara Pennypacker, ‘Skychasers’ by Emma Carroll and ‘The Eye of the North’ by Sinéad O’Hart. They all look brilliant.

Why doesn’t their brilliance make me want to give up? Realistically, it definitely could. I admire so many writers. There are so many  amazing books out there. Why do I think that I have anything extra to offer? I certainly didn’t always think so. I didn’t attempt to write children’s books for years because, as a bookseller, and after studying for an MA in Children’s Literature, I was well aware of how difficult children’s books are to write, how important they are, and how many people had succeeded already in writing amazing stories I was in awe of. I did wonder why I thought I had the right to try. But I  kept reading, and secretly writing, and went on Arvon courses, and I enjoyed writing so much, that I finally realised that this was the job I loved above all others, and needed to do. I am so proud now to be one of Anne Clark's writers, and to be published by wonderful publishers. I don't want to be falsely modest - I know I have written good books and I am proud of them and really am determined to write more and better ones. I don't want to stop. But, as we all know, it isn't an easy profession and there are so many good writers and books out there.

I think that is what is freeing for me  is knowing, and  remembering that knowledge, that no one book by me or others, however good, will satisfy every single reader, and certainly not every critic.  In spite of the existence of the competitive world of awards  and long lists and starred reviews and, let’s face it, huge differences in advances and earnings and publicity budgets, (all of which can bring on the demons of self-doubt and comparison)  I think one thing which cheers me up about being a writer for children and keeps me going, is that  ultimately we writers are not really in competition but in community. What we are doing together is a wonderful, worthwhile  thing which adds to the total of children’s happiness, and so, as fortunate parts of that community, we can hope that each of our published books, (providing we have done our very best when writing it) does have something positive to offer to the sum total of what is out there. 

 I am not saying that we always feel inspired and never feel overawed by others’ brilliance, (and I must have had a bit of a wobble  or I wouldn’t have thought of writing this post in the first place!)  but all the published children’s writers I know genuinely love reading children’s books by other people, and I think that enthusiasm and belief in and love for the genre we work in is what will keep us going and writing more books. 

I am also not saying that publishers shouldn’t look carefully at writers’ earnings and discounted sales, and I definitely believe that in order for us to continue we need to campaign for libraries to stay open and be given the funds to re-stock. People have limited funds for books, and so of course, we are competing in a crowded market, but still, ultimately, when we support and genuinely praise our fellow writers’ work we are not strengthening the competition so much as validating ourselves in a way for being part of such a wonderful enterprise. 

Obviously, this can be carried too far and  if I bankrupt myself buying other people’s books, or spend all my time praising others whilst not getting on with or promoting my own work, that isn’t good for me, my family, or indeed that my agent or publishers.  It does make me glow inside whenever a child says I am their favourite writer - that’s definitely so wonderful to hear and inspires me to keep going - and I would obviously love more and more children to say that. Frankly, I would love every child in the world to say that!  But as an individual, realistically I can’t be EVERY child’s favourite writer and also, thankfully, children will not only ever read one book or one author.  Even if we are a child’s 10th or even 100th favourite writer, that still puts us in with a chance! The more diverse and different we writers are,( and again, the industry needs to keep an eye on that) the more unique and wonderful books out there by us and others, the more happiness for the children reading them, and hopefully, we can all take collective credit!!  

And now, to contradict myself, here is the cover by the wonderful illustrator Rosie Butcher for my book with OUP (illustrated inside by Rosie too) due out in June, a book which, of course, despite my protestations,  I would secretly (or not so secretly!) still love every single child in the world to enjoy, every single parent, godparent, aunty, uncle, sibling, cousin, teacher and friend to buy, and every single bookseller and librarian to stock!  

Friday, 20 April 2018

Where's Your Favourite Place? by Joan Lennon

Claude Monet Springtime 1872

Spring was late here, so for a long while, my favourite place to read has been in bed, where it's cosy, or, when I can find one, snuggled up by an open fire.  Maybe it's time to rediscover some of those other favourite places - under a tree like Monet's reader or at least by an open window.

Johannes Vermeer Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window circa 1659

Are your favourite reading places seasonal?  Or do you stay loyal year round to bed, bath, train or treehouse?  Are some of your favourites out of the ordinary or just plain odd?  Let us know where you like to read.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Only in Glastonbury by Lu Hersey

Since moving a couple of weeks ago, I feel I now live in the country, even though Glastonbury is actually a small town. But compared to Bristol, it’s country - and not just any piece of country. This is the heart of Avalon, land of myth and legend. As a self-proclaimed writer of myth-based, kitchen sink paranormal fiction, I thought coming here might be a positive move.

The day I picked up the keys to the house, this photo appeared on Google Earth. It’s of me and my friend Laura Daligan (the only person I knew in Glastonbury before moving here). An acquaintance of Laura's had posted it on her facebook page, having recognised her in the picture.

You may notice there’s something very odd about it. Laura and I are simultaneously at the side of the road, and in the middle of the road – in the same photo. Which possibly proves Schrodinger’s cat could actually be dead and alive at the same time (or hopefully, alive in two different places). 

By odd coincidence, I noticed today's Robert Macfarlane’s word of the day on twitter is 'fetch' - meaning  the distance a wave can travel unobstructedly, but also used to mean the wraithe, or double of a living person. Perhaps an alternative explanation for the photo is that Laura and I have ‘fetches’, or doppelgangers...

The same day I saw the Google Earth photo, artist friend Keone sent me an image of the painting I'd commissioned for my new home. I’d left the subject matter up to him, knowing that he would dream something interesting. I just wasn't expecting something so completely extraordinary.

It's an awe-inspiring vision of a powerful (and slightly terrifying) goddess of Avalon rising above Glastonbury Tor. And yes, gobbling the tower. And, er, possibly displaying her cosmic vagina. Don’t get me wrong, I love the painting – I'm just learning this landscape is more powerful than I realised.

In an attempt to get a more serious background to life in the town, I started reading an old English Heritage book on Glastonbury. It turned out to be a very dry, academic read, and the author was obviously no fan of myth or folklore. The only thing he had to say about all the local legends was that none of them could be proven and therefore they almost certainly weren’t true. In fact he went out of his way to rubbish them all, from the Abbey being King Arthur's last resting place, to the legend of Joseph of Arimathea's flowering staff, supposedly the original Glastonbury thorn. I got annoyed and gave up reading. Of course myths, like magic, are impossible to prove – but does that make them completely untrue?

I’d like to say Laura and I were searching for a portal to an alternate universe when the Google Earth picture was taken. Actually she was just showing me the short cut to Morrisons…

Magic is never how you expect it to be.

Lu Hersey