Monday, 23 January 2017

'And the knights are no more, and the dragons are dead' by Steve Gladwin

Sometimes I can’t sleep. This has been going on for seven years. I wouldn’t call it insomnia exactly, because I wouldn’t want to insult real insomniacs who I’m sure suffer a lot more than I do. If I can’t get off to sleep it’s usually because I’m trying too hard, or something has happened earlier or recently that I can’t get out of my mind. My real problems however come with getting back to sleep. It’s then that my chattering mind starts to misbehave and refuses to be put on the naughty step.

So what keeps me awake? Is it plot because I’m a writer, or seeking to solve the human condition in the nearly Trump era, (a sentence that isn’t half as funny as it sounds!). No, for the most part I’m kept awake by the trivial, the pointless and the peripheral, and especially with poems and song lyrics running forever through my mind, like a Dr Beeching branch line that no-one has told had been dismantled.  

I used to love Gilbert and Sullivan when I was a teenager, got all the records out of the library and sung happily along to the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song from 'Iolanthe'. I can still recite this and I know Neil Gaiman can too! Not anymore! I still quite like G and S and I actually bought ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ last Christmas, but I can’t play it because the lyrics run through in my head and keep me awake. The same goes for my favourite musical, ‘Kiss me Kate’. Rosie and I have a system whereby we agree never to watch the film after a certain time of day, because otherwise ‘I’ve Come To Wife It Wealthily In Padua’ will go through our heads and we’ll hate men all night, (see what I did there?)

And yet, do you know, I’m happy that my brain can retain even the most obscure lines and facts, and that I can remember all of Oberon’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even though I’ll probably never need them again. I’m even more happy that I was one of a generation of children who learnt stories and poems in the 1960’s and retained them, and that my parents read me stories and introduced me to new ones, taught me nursery rhymes and all kinds of songs they’d learnt themselves. I’m happy that we gathered round the piano every Christmas and sung carols together - including 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful' with the descant for Sing Choirs of Angels - and our family party piece of 'The Shepherd’s Farewell' by Berlioz. I’m happy to be a rememberer and a rote learner, for all the bad press the enforcing of such methods quite rightly gets.

In my blog several months ago, I explored some of the ideas I learnt on the future learn course Mental Health in Literature, and related how one of the interviews was about using poetry with Alzheimer’s patients, and the wonderful results that have come from it, where patients who have formerly only been distressed or aggressive, have calmed down within a few lines of Wordsworth’s daffodils and said ‘more, more.’

These elderly patients have the wonderful advantage of being of the generation just before mine when children still learnt poems and stories and rhymes in school. I remember sadly reflecting at the time how , when the current children of this generation become old, if there are still such conditions as Alzheimer’s and dementia, there will be no rote-learnt poems to call on in their memory bank, no magical moment like this one.

It was Christmas Day sometime in the 1970’s. We were gathered in the ‘front room’ with my auntie and uncle and three surviving grandparents, when my grandma Gladwin began to recite poetry she remembered from school. Now there is nothing that unusual about this, but in her case one poem led to another and another and another, before twenty minutes must have gone by and everyone sat there gasping in amazement. When she’d finished her impromptu recital, my Grandma gave a typical chuckle and said that most of them she hadn’t spoken since school.

On a later date my dad got her to recite all of the poems she could remember into a tape recorder and she filled a whole side of a C90. My Granddad said there were some even he’d never heard. My parents still have the recording. Here is the poem I remember best and I wonder if anyone else recognises or had to learn it.

The Little Doll
~Charles Kingsley

I once had a sweet little doll, dears,
The prettiest doll in the world;
Her cheeks were so red and so white; dears,
And her hair was so charmingly curled.
But I lost my poor little doll, dears,
As I played in the heath one day;
And I cried for her more than a week, dears;
But I never could find where she lay.
I found my poor little doll, dears,
As I played in the heath one day:
Folks say she is terrible changed, dears,
For her paint is all washed away,
And her arm trodden off by the cows, dears,
And her hair not the least bit curled:
Yet for old sakes' sake she is still, dears,
The prettiest doll in the world.

I asked my father if he could remember the first poem he ever had to recite and he came up with this one. He recalls how my grandma being at pains to coach him to make the words ‘soft as silk’ sound just that.

A little fly was looking round for something good to eat,
A lump of sugar he did spy, he thought it quite a treat,
He saw a jug and off he flew on wings as soft as silk,
But when he tried to peep inside, he tumbled in the milk.

Oh dear, or dear!

As for me, well I learnt many things by rote both at school and play, but I’ll always remember us chanting this little hymn as we trooped into assembly – whether it was junior or secondary I can’t remember.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.

After the sun, the rain;
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Til the work be done.

All that we need to do;
Be we low or high;
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer to god on high.

By Lizette W Reese (1856-1935

Now there’s an odd thing, because I remember the last verse ending ‘nearer the sky’, so did we learn it that way, or is it my memory that’s had it wrong all these years?

But this whole thing started because of two entirely separate incidents. The first was that – quite by chance - the words of a song from  childhood came into my head, and I remembered how much I’d loved it. Anyone remember this one.

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
For God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
Though back into storyland giants have fled,
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
'Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
And let me set free with the sword of my youth,
From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.

I later learnt that these lyrics were used as the basis of Alan Ahlberg’s ‘Headmaster’s Hymn’ where the children are trying to recite it while several insist on misbehaving. The poem combines the two. I also learnt that the version we sung was to a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose footsteps, regular readers might recount, I seem to be constantly stepping in.

The other morning I was reading Ruth’s recent abba blog on Monica Edwards, where she asked if there were any modern children’s stories which might be considered unputdownable. Instead I found myself reflecting on what I used to read, as I do increasingly nowadays. My thoughts led me to Malcolm Saville and the Lone Pine Mysteries, which for a long time I’ve wanted to read again. Looking at the list of twenty Lone Pine books, I noticed that one was called ‘Seven White Gates’. My thoughts immediately went back to another song I learnt from my parents which I surely haven’t thought of since, and we were off again.

Seven locks upon the red gate, 
Seven gates about the red town. 
In the town there lives a butcher 
And his name is Handsome John Brown.
In the town there lives a butcher 
And his name is Handsome John Brown. 

John Browns's boots are polished so fine,
John Brown's spurs they jingle and shine.
On his coat a crimson flower,
In his hand a glass of red wine.
On his coat a crimson flower,
In his hand a glass of red wine.

In the night. the golden spurs ring,
In the dark, the leather boots shine.
Don't come tapping at the window,
Now your heart no longer is mine.
Don't come tapping at the window,
Now your heart no longer is mine.

‘The Handsome Butcher was set to music by Matyas Gyorgy Seiber and it was clearly this version which my sister and I were taught by my parents.
Apart from indulging in a bit of nostalgia for myself and hopefully for a few others, what am I saying in this blog? I guess it’s partly a lament for that which has been lost, but thankfully not irretrievably. However I hope it’s also a celebration of the memories so many of us have been gifted with, whether from the positive rote learning of their schools, or the actions, nurture and love of forward thinking parents who also thought backwards to provide for their children those things which had been best in their own childhood. For all the technology which now impacts on my life and yours, a wonderful shining part of me will remain in the time of living knights and unslain dragons, where the butcher’s spurs will always ring and his boots shine as he taps ever hopefully at the window.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Power of Free – By Dan Metcalf

The conundrum over whether to give away things for free has been explored here on ABBA a few times. When I came to write about it I was shocked how much authors seem to distrust the tactic, when it is a custom employed almost everywhere in other industries. I certainly love a freebie; I'll fill my pockets with mini-toothpaste tubes any time I go to the dentist. Yet the marketing ploy of giving things away for free seems to divide the writing community.

I had cause to go on some business training recently and I have been emersing myself in the strange world of online marketing where 'free' is king. 'Give away your finest advice and materials, and the audience will trust you and beg for more', is the lesson I have been told many a time. Not only that, but they will seek you out and invest heavily when you eventually ask for money in return for your products.

You'll see the type of thing I'm taking about everywhere once you look – people who offer a free email newsletter either monthly or weekly (have a look at Warren Ellis's Orbital Operations). That's a free piece of news or entertainment that will arrive directly into your inbox. Some people will promise you a free ebook in exchange for your email address – a free book! Imagine!

But I can't afford to give away a free book, I hear you cry. But can't you? I'd say that you can't afford NOT to.

In marketing terms, this is called a funnel. You invite people to connect with you (in the form of giving you their email address and the permission to email them without it going to the spam folder) in exchange for the free gift. Now you have the contact details of someone who is interested in your work; they wouldn't have grabbed the free gift otherwise. Now you can continue to contact them, offering them little freebies so that you can ensure they pay attention everytime you write to them. If they aren't interested, they'll unsubscribe from your emails. That's fine. You only want to contact the people who are really invested in your brand and your work anyway. Then, when you announce your latest piece of work, be it a book, training course, merchandise or other, you know you're preaching to the converted.

And here's the great thing: the giveaway does not have to be a free book! It can be a sample of an ebook, a short blog post you have converted into a PDF, a short story you have had lying around for years, a deleted chapter from your latest publication, or access to an exclusive video. Simply look at your work and re-purpose it into something your fans would love to have.

I took the training I received and implemented it; I now give away an ebook sampler if you subscribe to my newsletter. The ebook contains some flash fiction that I found teachers like to use as creative writing story starters before I come to their schools to speak. I have also got a whole freebies page, including audio and video of myself reading the first chapters of my books, so you can check out the stories and teachers have something to show their students before I arrive at their school. I even re-purposed a creative writing talk I did for my local library and stuck it up as a free e-course for those who want to find ways to access their creative writing brain!

And does it work? Well, it is early days, but school visits have increased with teachers saying they found the free materials fun and useful.

If you want to get on the freebie bandwagon, grab a copy of 10 Ways to Make Money in a Free World (available free, naturally) and get started. How much will all this cost you? Nothing, obviously. You can start a website for free with blogger. You can sign up for a newsletter service for free with mailchimp. You can host your free digital gifts on Google Drive. You can advertise it all on social media for- you guessed it – free.

Even if your freebies convert to one new sale, it'll have made its money back. What's more, it'll have earned you a new fan – and that's priceless.

Dan Metcalf is the writer of The Lottie Lipton Adventures. See for more info on Dan and his books.His freebies are available HERE and a new selection of non-fiction ebooks HERE.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

A Change is as good as a Rest by Anne Booth

This is not an easy time to keep mentally and emotionally and physically well.  The world news is very worrying, and it is easy to feel powerless or depressed. The weather can be cold and although the days are getting longer, it is often dark and wet outside.

I am aware that my health needs care. Physically I need to sleep and eat properly and take exercise. Mentally and emotionally I need to be stimulated without being anxious or depressed. 

I'm not a sporty person, nor at home in gyms, but I'm really lucky, because I live in a place where I can easily take these individuals for lovely  walks - and somehow the weather is never as bad when you are out in it as when you are reluctantly preparing to leave the house.

Here is Ben in a delighted blur! Timmy looks very happy. It's hard not to feel cheered by such enthusiasm.

Watching Timmy, our 11 year old retriever, delight in a walk is such a gift and a good reminder for me to live in the moment and stop worrying about the future so much:

We also need to feel loved and to give love. Writing can be very isolating and it can be easy to sit alone and fret and worry and imagine all sorts of dire scenarios and feel self confidence slipping away. Meditation is good, and prayer, but sometimes that feels hard to do.  Ben, our spaniel, is very up for walks but also for being cuddled by any member of our family who would like to, (here is a picture of a teenager getting pre-exam therapy!) and I recommend every writer working alone at home  to have someone like Ben as an assistant! Cats can also be great - and if you can't have an animal - have a teddy!

My resolutions for 2017 include cycling (my birthday is in February and I am asking for a bike!) I  want to cycle to yoga and or pilates classes, as I know that sitting typing for hours isn't good for the posture or muscles, and exercise is good for the spirit as well as the body.

I love Music and want to listen to it more. I think I would like to find a dance class, and I want to continue piano lessons - I won some in a raffle and the teacher is so good I want to ask him if I can have regular lessons. I haven't been very good at practicing - but I mean to improve and make the most of the opportunity. I know that this will cost money, and money is often a worry for a writer, but I am going to try to budget for at least some of these ideas in order to keep healthy this year. And singing costs nothing -and I want to sing more too!

Lastly - I want to do more Art. I spent yesterday morning back at Life Drawing class - and that was wonderful. It was great, as a writer, to do something where I wasn't using words, where I was looking carefully and making marks and noticing tones, where my mind was clear of worries because just trying to really see what was in front of me was fully occupying my attention.

It was also good to be away from home. Writing at home can be something people yearn for when they can't do it, but when you work and live in the same space all the time and spend long hours alone, you can slide into depression without realising it. 

I feel much better now that I have changed my routine, caught the bus and done something other than writing today. My dogs were pleased to see me come home, and now I will make myself a cup of tea and then take the dogs out for a quick walk before sorting out dinner for my returning family. I may
 not have written much today, but my health and writing tomorrow will be better for it, I am sure.

Friday, 20 January 2017

I'm a Wuss by Joan Lennon

I'm a wuss about all sorts of things - time travel, for example (I'm cowardly about bad smells and no painkillers and dying in childbirth and what do I do if my glasses break?) and going into caves and aggressively spicy food and the fear of falling through not-quite-thick-enough river ice. And as a writer, I'm a wuss about killing characters.

Knight, Death and the Devil by Albrecht Durer 1513 (wiki commons)

Now, mostly I'm able to avoid the scary stuff by choosing not to time travel, go into caves, eat spicy food or walk out onto dodgy river ice. But as a writer, sometimes, the choice isn't mine. In the story (for 10+) that is currently banging about in my head, shouting for attention, the plot requires death. And not just a few random extras in red shirts. Central characters are going to die. And I don't like it. I've put off starting this book. I've danced about trying to find ways of saving everybody. And it just can't be done. Characters are going to have to die and, not only that, characters are going to have to grieve, which is worse. Unlike Stranger than Fiction, there is no way out for me. I'm going to have to face my wussiness.

I just need to woman up and get writing. Any thoughts, advice, reactions would be gratefully received, though.  Thanks!

Yours wussfully,

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

'Go and Read a Children's Book' - A Response to Mark Gatiss - Lucy Coats

Being angry makes me exhausted -- and I am angry about a lot these days: the way Brexit is being handled by the government, the fact that on Friday the nominal 'leader of the free world' will be a narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic bigot... All that, but this is a children's book blog, and what has made me angry in our particular sphere is Mark Gatiss's comment that those who thought the plot of the current BBC series of 'Sherlock' was too complicated should (and I quote):
"Go and read a children’s book with hard pages if you don’t want to be challenged."
Image of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss from BBC Radio Times

Oh dear, Mr Gatiss. Really? Those who have read this blog for a while will remember that I had a few things to say when Martin Amis made his famous comment that he "might well write a children's book if [he] had a serious brain injury.'  I have a few more things to say now.

Leaving aside anything else, this is an incredibly patronising and arrogant attitude to have towards his viewers, (many of whom, quite incidentally, can spot a series of massive plot holes a mile off). Gatiss went on to say: "We’re making the show we want to make. We don’t make it a certain way because fans are pressuring us." That, of course, is his privilege, but to drag children's books into the critical argument is entirely unnecessary, and yes, it makes me angry when a man who purports to be intelligent equates children's books with a lack of the same quality. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: some of the most intelligent and thoughtful writing in any sphere can be found within children's books, whether with hard pages or not. If Gatiss doesn't realise that, then he needs to educate himself out of his creative ivory tower.

PS: And while I'm on a roll (sorry - spoilers here, and my feminist teeth showing) -- the tired old trope of the madwoman in the attic/long lost wicked sister, and the saving of the day via a handy Sherlock hug (despite the fact that she's recently murdered five people)? Seriously, Mr Gatiss? I thought we were long past that kind of lazy writing, not to mention being past the one-dimensional 'evil female' characterisation that was poor Eurus's lot. Ho hum.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy blogs at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure (No. 1 UK Literature Blog) 

Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

'Emily's Surprising Voyage': how a character came to life - by Sue Purkiss

Some years ago, I wrote a book set on the ss Great Britain. This ship was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it was immensely significant: the first iron ship, the first ship to be driven by steam, the biggest ship in the world at the time it was built. For a good part of its early career, it took settlers from Britain to Australia. Its fortunes gradually declined, and it was eventually abandoned off the Falklands; then, many years later, a group of enthusiasts rescued it and brought it back to Bristol, where it was built. When it came home, the banks of the river were lined with Bristolians welcoming it home; some hearts broke at the sight of the rusting hulk which was what Brunel's beautiful ship had become.

My father was a boiler operator in a power station: he knew about steam, and was fascinated by steam engines. So one time when he and mum came down to stay, he asked if we could go to visit this ship which was being restored. By this time, the ship was safe in dry dock, and they'd done a lot of work on the hull and the deck. The insides were pretty empty, but as dad walked round, his face lit up, he could tell us where the engines would have been, and why the ship was so important.

After that, we revisited the ship every so often to see how it was getting on. Now, it's fully restored, and a visit is marvellous; when you walk on to the quay it's easy to imagine that you're about to cast off on the voyage of a lifetime. The museum is full of information about the ship, the men who crewed her and the people who travelled on her; and on the ship itself, you can gaze into cabins and marvel at how tiny the bunks were, and see the contrast between travelling first class and travelling in steerage. (And there's a talking toilet, which is hugely popular with children!)

On those journeys to Australia, people married, they gave birth, they died. Most of the people who went out there never came back to Britain, never saw their families again. One much-loved captain disappeared from his cabin one day, and was presumed to have committed suicide. So much drama, so many stories!
So I wrote a story, featuring a girl called Emily in first class and a boy called Thomas Drew in steerage. (Yes, yes, I know - very Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, very Titanic.) It was published by Walker, who got James De La Rue to do the most marvellous illustrations, and it even got nominated for the Carnegie. Here it is, on sale in the Great Britain shop.

I'd hoped there might be an appetite for a sequel - children who read it often wanted to know what happened to Emily and Thomas. There could have been lots more adventures on board ship, and I also had some ideas about what would happen to their two families when they reached Australia.

But like so many publishing dreams, it wasn't to be, and Emily and Thomas stayed between the covers of that single book.

Or so I thought.

Until last year, when out of the blue, I received an email from someone I'd never heard of - a photographer in Australia called Dean Gale. This is what he said.

'...this afternoon I came across an excerpt on the Walker book site from your Emily book...The reason I found your book is that I have recently moved to South Australia and purchased an old homestead.

I have been researching the history of the house... whilst researching the history of the families that came here in the 1800's I began researching the Drew family. Thomas Drew from Somerset came to Australia on the SS Great Britain. He became a prominent businessman and it is his family who I purchased the house from.

So of course what I am wondering is how or why you chose to use the character called Thomas Drew in your book?

The funny thing is that one of the young Drew family has just been studying migration at school and she chose me as her subject because I originally emigrated from the UK.

Now her ancestor is in your book? But I suspect that Thomas Drew was a little older than your character?

Anyway please if you have the time maybe you could let me know why you chose Thomas Drew?'

I was astonished - I thought I'd made Thomas Drew up. Yet here he was - a real person, whose life had carried on after his journey on the ss Great Britain, and whose descendants still live in Australia today.

Here is the business - Drew & Crews - which his family owned. And here are three Drew girls - the family aren't sure exactly who they are, but they're certainly related to Thomas.

So I didn't get the chance to carry on Thomas's story - but it carried on regardless, and he did well, just as I thought he would. I do wonder about Emily, though; I hope she was okay too...

(Incidentally, there was another twist. During our correspondence, Dean happened to mention that, though he himself was from the Midlands, he had known a girl whose family moved to Cheddar, and whose father became the headmaster of the local school. She's a friend of ours, and I used to teach at the school where her father was head!)

(The last two photographs are courtesy of Dean Gale and the Drew family.)

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Too Much Plot! by Susie Day

Reader, I have a problem.

I’m addicted to plot. I might start a new 9-12 book with all good intentions of a strong, clear A thread (sparky 11-year-old Billie wants to find out more about her mum, who died when she was five, and discovers more than she planned) and a fun B plot (she’s starting at secondary school). But then I go and give her brothers. Three big taking-up-space brothers. One’s getting married and wants her to be bridesmaid, so she decides to be their wedding planner. One’s having an existential crisis about packing lettuces in a Tesco warehouse (his first of six jobs, all of which he gets fired from). One’s struggling with being the school rugby star and all the girls who want to nibble his ear on the bus, when actually he’s not all that fussed.

Then there are her three new school friends: the one who can’t work out how to fit in at Big School either, the desperately anxious one, and the one who is apparently intent on making Billie’s life miserable (though , of course, it turns out she might be quite miserable too). And then there’s funny, self-sacrificing Dad who runs a greasy spoon... and lovely Miss Eagle at school whose Hero project sets Billie off on the quest to find out about her mum... and Dr Paget and Dr Skidelsky who live over the road...

It’s a lovely book, I think. It’s funny and serious, heartfelt and bittersweet and ultimately very kind - like the Pea’s Book series it spins off from. But it's a bit full. Pleasantly stuffed, but perhaps better if it didn't have that fifth roast potato. Too long to be class readers, except for an extremely patient class (and teacher!).

Could we pare it down next time, perhaps? asks my editor, gently, every time. I definitely will! I say gamely. And then I write the next one about two families blending together, and not just one family secret but a whole Year Seven classful of them, and a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that needs to be saved, and one entrepreneurial mum who runs her own company called Fairy Dusters, and one who might be a witch with magic powers (at least her daughter hopes so)...

The trouble is, I always write about big families; the sort of comfy, mildly chaotic collectives of that I grew up reading about. Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma books, with the effortlessly musical Robinsons. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows, and Amazons, and Ds. Enough ordinariness for there to be one character I could decide was like me, with all the oddball quirks and special talents to be just that little bit better.

But I never want to short-change any one character. Sketched-in background adults who occasionally mumble, ‘You’ll be late for school,’ are not for me. Same for siblings, and friends. I want there to be something for everyone to be doing, not just the protagonist. And that means an A plot, and a B plot, and then the entire alphabet.

I suspect, in part, it’s because I’m not all that fussed on heroes. Buffy’s great - but I care a lot more about Willow and the rest of the Scoobies. I always preferred Sally to Darrell in Malory Towers. I grew up shy; I think as I always saw myself as a sidekick - useful, even necessary, but never in the uncomfortable spotlight.

But I’ve resolved - since this is a New Year - to knock this nonsense on the head. Next, I’m writing a picture book, and there is no room in my 500ish words to cram in dozens of sub-plots. It’s the perfect creative exercise for me to learn how to trim. I’m starting with a cat, and the little girl who chooses him as a kitten to take home. With her brother and sister. And Mum. And Granny and Grandad.

Reader, I still have a problem...

Susie Day - books for kids about families, friendship, feelings and funny stuff
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