Friday, 31 August 2007

The Grand Plan 2: The Timetable

The lovely friend came around today to plan my writing schedule. This girl is scarily good (and brings croissants, always a bonus) – and I now have a timetable to work to. Wahey!

I have decided I am only going to focus on one novel idea, the idea that is most finished, eg I know exactly where this one is going. It was an idea I had in June 2004, whilst on the train to work. As with all ideas I get, I seem to get a glimmer of the idea, and then, just like a merry go round, I have to let it go and not worry it to death. If it is a good idea, it will circle around and pop up again in an inappropriate place, usually when I have no pen or paper handy. If that happens, I have been known to type it all as a draft text on my phone – now surely you have to be dedicated to do that. The second time around, I will see more of the story and off it will go again. With this idea, I saw the beginning and the end straight away; it was the stuff in the middle that grew from there.

My timetable is now strict, considering the budget only lasts until Feb at a push. I finished the Chapter Plan this week, so I know exactly what is due to happen, and it feels so good to have that in front of me. And the chapter plan gives me 18 chapters, so we have worked out I have to do a chapter a week to be within my budget, starting from next week.

I love having this structure. I love someone caring what I am doing… oh I know they all care, but I love it when the people I respect treat it seriously, like a real job. I haven’t told my family I am doing this, as far as they know they think I am still in full time employment, as I couldn’t deal with my mum fretting. Sometimes she goes into ‘glass half empty’ mode, and I am nervous enough without having to think constantly yes it will all go wrong and I will have ruined my life! Haha (nervous cackle).

But I am really excited, to tell the truth. I really love this story idea, it sort of verges towards dark comedy and that is a genre I definitely like to play with. And, totally off subject, that newspaper idea I had a while back? They asked for my picture earlier this month, and I assumed they would possibly do a small pic byline beside my next article. So I almost dropped the paper yesterday, to see a huge picture of myself looking back at me. Eek! Still unpaid mind you... but definitely on target to soon take a deep breath and ask for payment (grins).

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Blog Leap

That ‘next blog’ button up there is strangely addictive. I sometimes gaze at it thinking ‘where will it take me today?’ So far, every time I click on it, I go to two places, either to a God-fearing church person, whose profile starts with ‘I Love Jesus’, or to some ‘subscribe here for sexy women’ site type thing. It seems it is either Heaven or Hell in ‘next blog’ world. Or there is the third place, which could be either about God or about sexy women, I wouldn’t know as it is in a different language.

So let’s see where I go today… We are going to play a new game, based on the TV show Quantum Leap. It is called Blog Leap. I am going to take five leaps into the unknown. Maybe I will find a new blog to read to add to my not-quite-up-here-yet list of blogs. Maybe I will find something that makes me want to back away as fast as I can click. Who knows…

My first click takes me to Celebrity Gossip News, updated today with an entry stating ‘Zeta-Jones has a mouth like a truck driver!’ It is a blatant blog hoping to get money for ads, and looks like it is updated by a feed (every update is at 1.02am, very accurate for your usual blogger). It also feels like a disguised 'sexy woman' site. Let’s leap onwards to…

Marcia Marchi, a Malaysian girl’s blog. Since I cannot read Malaysian, I have no idea what she is blogging about apart from she likes to take pictures of fish and it was updated today. Skipping onwards…

To Thoughts, Reflexions and More Rambling. Am already frowning at the word ‘reflexions’, but lets assume he is some yoga buff and is trying to be clever. Actually, I think it may have been just a typo. The blog was updated today, is written by a Belgian man in English (ok, now I feel bad for pointing out a mistake) and some posts did catch my eye. Not sure it is one I will return to, but a good leap, that. Moving on to…

KiRei Site, an Inonysian girl’s blog. Written in her native language, I cannot understand a word, apart from that scripture on the left hand side. Uh huh… a look at her profile: ‘Nice, Friendly, sweetie, God lover’ and it is time to leap on to…

Wassenaar (Netherlands) Daily Photo. This site is from ‘Former Detroiters/Chicagoans now enjoying the expat life in The Netherlands.’ And yes, they post a daily photo about their new life. Sort of interesting if you like facts about The Hague.

So what did I get?

Sexy women: 1
God: 1
Different language: 2

The winner of today's Blog Leap is Thoughts, Reflexions and More Rambling, mainly because it is the only one that I can read that is a proper blog. It hasn't made it to the Link Hall of Fame, but it got me through my morning coffee.

If you want to find any of these blogs, I am sure a quick copy and paste into a search engine will take you there. That is if you really want to go there, of course.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Rejecting work

I turned down a job today. It was something that would have been very time-consuming, doing something that I dislike(cold-calling for short interviews with local shops) for little reward. But I still felt absolutely awful about saying no, firstly because it is in my nature to say yes and secondly that I felt bad for the person who needed that job done.

I have accepted so many small jobs in the past that literally gave me a sinking feeling even as I said yes, so this time I recognised that feeling and allowed it to speak first. The only problem with this is that I said an outright ‘no’ without properly exploring the pay (I suspect this would have been minimal, but there is always room for negotiation), which in hindsight was a bit stupid. And I didn’t give the true reason for saying no, I said something inane such as I wasn’t local to the area, which is doubly stupid as with the Internet you don’t need to be, so that just made me sound unprofessional.

The true reason was I hate cold-calling, and generally need a lot of money to be even vaguely interested, which there wouldn’t have been. But rather than talk money, I avoided it and instead said something that made me sound like a bit of a div. AGH!

I find it really hard selling my talents and abilities, and find talking money very difficult – all of which is a really silly thing for a freelancer. I wonder why – maybe it is a confidence issue, such as ‘am I really worth that amount’? But if you know you are a good worker and will get the job done well, then surely it is just self-belief? I have never been good at self-promotion, either. And writing a book these days is all about marketing yourself and your idea to people – I find I am fine and dandy via email, but cannot speak like a grown up on the phone. I cannot imagine the day I turn from the phone, punch the air and happily commend myself for sealing a good deal. Maybe I need to dress the part and invest in shoulder pads.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

The Grand Plan

Out celebrating a friend’s amazing new job, conversation turned to me and what I am doing, hopefully not out of the fear that one day they will all swoosh past me in posh cars as I ready my cardboard box for the night. Said friend is a brilliant project manager, and she had a gleam in her eye that usually appears at the start of a project or when she spies a bottle of champagne at the end of a long day.

“Do you want me to nag you?” she asked me seriously, and considering she is brilliant at her job, I hastily agreed. As if by magic, a pad and pen appeared and she swiftly jotted down things I should be doing. And these are as follows:

• Define your working week – at least two days are ONLY for writing
• 5 day week: Monday – Friday ONLY
• 2 days writing main novel
• 1 day editing (chose Friday)
• 2 days children’s books (if not busy on main idea)
• Split writing into 2 sessions (eg 7 hour day, 3 hours a time writing)
• Write a Chapter Plan

Now, she has hit the nail on the head – I write a few pages and then spend what feels like sixty days editing those down until I have roughly a sentence. No wonder I feel like I am getting nowhere fast. Editing yourself is absolutely awful. I am either over-critical or far too lenient. So I am going to spend one day a week editing, and the rest of the time forging onwards.

Strange as it may seem, although I know where everything is going, I don’t have a detailed chapter plan for any of the ideas, so that is what I am working on today, and it is surprisingly fun. I think the whole point is to find a structure to work to, I need to feel like this is an academic exercise almost, and to stop splashing around. My best time to work, for example, is between 2 and 10pm, as I seem to be able to rocket on in those hours. Start me off at 8am and watch as I spend all morning /day faffing – reading, checking emails, poodling off to make coffee or tidy up.
So this is now The Grand Plan – I hope it works.

Also had a quick check of the budget…While it is alarming to see your bank account spiral (alarming, she says, who am I kidding!), I am actually two grand up on where I thought I would be at this point. This is good, as I have already been through the world’s worst month (July) and the next one that is due to be horrible is December, so possibly I have a little longer than I first thought. I might have until February, which will be a good thing, if I can just live off Value Beans at some point in the future (sighs).

Monday, 27 August 2007

Bank holiday madness

For those of us not attempting to journey into London for the Notting Hill Carnival (easy enough to get to, as hard to leave the area as a fly escaping a Venus Flytrap), the only plan was to drive away from town, due North.

Every bank holiday it is the same, a wave of cabin fever sets in around 10am, and suddenly we are hauling maps around the living room wondering where we can escape to. John has the idea that everywhere in the UK is fairly accessible for a daytrip as long as a) I am ready to leave right now, and don’t stop to pick up that hairbrush again; b) he has petrol and c) enough cigarettes to see him there and safely back again. At this point he will be considering Exeter, Northumberland and the Penines.

I, however, will have nothing more concrete in my head than ‘wouldn’t it be nice to go to a little village’, and am convinced little villages with welcoming pubs that do roast dinners are a) up the road a bit, b) can therefore wait while I find my hairbrush as well as c) sort out a bottle of squash and some biscuits for the journey. At this point I will be considering a big vague area called countryside. This is different to when I get it into my head to find a beach, John will be thinking Cornwall, and I will be thinking vague thoughts of an area called seaside.

We decided instead on Duxford, as it has an amazing Imperial War Museum full of planes, keeping both of us happy.

To anyone who hasn’t been, Duxford is huge and full of British planes, American planes and exhibitions such as The Battle of Britain. It is a large airfield to walk around, and since it is a working airfield, there is a pleasing backdrop of light aircraft taking off and pulling up as you stroll about.

It does leach money from you though, albeit in a forgivable subtle way. “Donate your tax from the entry fee!” said a smiling twinkle-eyed lady on the way in. This translated into donating roughly £4 on top of the £15 it costs each adult to get in, although with that you get a £1.50 voucher to spend in the shop (guaranteeing you will buy something on your exit that will no doubt cost more than £1.50). Then there was the coffee shop – 65p per piece of fruit, which was like a toddler size apple. Then there are extra prices to ride in tanks, appeals to help save certain planes, raffles… Actually the raffle was well worth it, £1 for the chance in a million to fly in a Spitfire or Lancaster. We bought two; the man in front bought ten…

But hey, it is a great place with some beautiful planes, so we gave willingly (apart from the fruit squizz, they can so keep their apples). We watched large tanks do a large tank demonstration (surprisingly nifty), we read a highly amusing leaflet given to GI’s before they came over to Britain, ('Thames' is pronounced ‘Tems’, British people play rugger “which is like American Football but without all the padding”), and I think I recognised a Mustang take off in the distance. Since I call everything a Spitfire, Stearman or ‘plane’, I was rather proud, in a 'John didn't see it all that clearly so I can speak with authority' sort of way.

Sunday, 26 August 2007


If you slide your eyes to the left… you will see I have added a Flickr flash badge link.

Oh the troubles I had editing the HTML of this blog to add it… It’s easy! Says Flickr. It’s simple! Says Blogger. Yet every time I tried to add it, when I went to ‘preview’ I was informed I had bollocksed it up somewhere en route. Now if in doubt with the web, go to someone else’s site that has what you want and view source, is what I say.

I haven’t done any links yet to blogs I enjoy reading, although this is next on my list to work out, but one of them that I enjoy who has a Flickr account is Dave Gorman. So I went there, had a look at his source, and tried to work out how he had done it. This sort of helped, or at least stopped giving my preview button fits every time I pressed it. And eventually the badge fitted into place and is where it is, although I really want to change the background black to a nice grey, to fit in more with this page. But since it all seems to work, I have no urge to change the equilibrium just yet, as me and HTML work best generally at a distance from each other.

The photographs are all from the air display I went to recently, at Rougham air field and considering it was a gorgeous grey summer’s day, I have boosted a few with Photoshop here and there. You can probably tell which ones…

The day was fab though - if you like vintage cars and classic planes, you absolutely must dress in your best cagoule and go to the nearest one to you. You can read about it here.

And as for Flickr, well, am still learning my way around. But it seems a good place to dump and then organise photographs, should I need another distraction to my day. Oh darn…

Friday, 24 August 2007

Jill Barklem

This might be the first example I had of coming to a children’s book via merchandise. I was given Brambly Hedge stationary as a gift and wrote my first ever story in the exercise book. I was also intrigued by the words on the back:

“The mice of Brambly Hedge live on the other side of the stream across the field. If you look very hard amongst the tangled roots and stems, you may see a wisp of smoke from a small chimney, or through an open door, a steep flight of stairs deep within the trunk of a tree…”

I love the fact they could be anywhere, near anyone. They could be other side of my stream, your stream, anyone’s field. It was a really clever way to start the imagination firing… And the illustrations are gorgeous, highly detailed, mixing animals with nature.

I had the very good fortune to chat to Jill some years ago, as she was another very kind lady like Shirley Hughes, who responded when I sent them a letter asking for help during a University project. I was amazed and thrilled that Jill phoned for a chat, she was a lovely lady to speak to.

Jill told me that she got interested in art as she had an eye complaint that was thought to worsen if she played sport at school, so sat drawing in the Art room instead. She went to St Martins School of Art and would sketch the countryside on her hour long train journey into London. Interested in both biology and art, ‘Brambly Hedge’ is a mixture of the Lake District and Epping Forest, near her home.

She has a studio in her house with a large desk and various cubby holes filled with odd bits, leaves and berries. She draws a rough version of her sketch first, and then photocopies the roughs and goes over the characters in pencil, adding ink, and then watercolour for a final result. Jill likes to draw out of season, as “if you draw out of season you look back with more nostalgia.”

She had just got married when she started Brambly Hedge in 1980, so her husband supported her financially at first. She took her portfolio and lots of research to three different publishers at the same time, which she admitted was a little naughty, but received an offer within two days.

Her favourite book to date is The Secret Staircase, as she likes to draw exteriors and interiors, and I could hear the smile in her voice when she said that her drawings can take ages, but are helped along with a bit of chocolate! However, she had an eye operation which meant since then she had only done bits and pieces of work. Even though her eyesight is now better, she said it was hard to take the plunge to do the books again. She sounded a very nice person, and seemed very pleased I liked her books.

Our chat was back in 1998, and it seems the last new book Jill wrote about Brambly Hedge was Poppy’s Babies, in 1994, although all eight are so popular that they are continually in reprint. It is a speculation, but perhaps her eyesight now struggles with the tiny detailed precision that her illustrations require, so, since Poppy's Babies felt like a natural stop, perhaps she has decided it is best to leave the mice there.

Since then, the books have been successfully adapted to a TV series by the BBC, and there is plenty of collectable merchandise out there, so the world of Brambly Hedge lives on… So next time you are passing a stream, do look towards the other side, as you never know what you may see…

Thursday, 23 August 2007

Joyce Lankester Brisley

Sweet, simple stories, this is how you can describe the Milly Molly Mandy books. Set in the English countryside of the 1930s or so, Milly Molly Mandy is a little girl with a long name, who lives with her extended family in a cottage with a thatched roof. All her small adventures may seem quaint by today’s standards, such as growing mustard and cress, making a hide out, going blackberry picking, but it is almost The Good Life, how nice things could be away from computers and cars, and our ‘want, want, need, need’ society.

Joyce Lankester Brisley was born in 1896 and lived in London; however she frequently visited the countryside, where she took inspiration for her most famous character. She started earning money from illustrating when she was sixteen, and the first publishers of the M M M stories was The Christian Science Monitor in 1925, which sounds more like an academic paper than a publisher of children’s books. However, the format in which we today know the books was published three years later by Harraps, and Joyce went on to produce six collections of Milly Molly Mandy stories, the last one to appear in 1967.

The best thing about the Milly Molly Mandy books is that at the start of each book there is a large picture map of the village she lives in, so you can trace her journeys with your finger. In each subsequent book, the village changes a little, just as it would in real life, which is a great touch to look out for. The line illustrations inside the book effortlessly capture the essence of characters, with larger pictures full of detail and smaller, thoughtful studies in amongst the words.

The front cover says ‘Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, told and drawn by Joyce Lankester Brisley’. I love that – ‘told’. And each small adventure is told exactly as a child would see it, from the names of people (little-friend-Susan, Miss Muggins’s Jilly) to the descriptions of the village. The stories reinforce values such as friendship, of helping out, of responsibilities and of fun.

I was also delighted to read that Shirley Hughes wrote the foreword to a recent (2001) collection of Milly Molly Mandy stories, and described how much she loved them too. She went on to say how through reading the Milly Molly Mandy books, that she learnt the importance of building a complete picture of where her characters (such as Alfie) live and that her daughter went on to be the most recent illustrator of current editions of Milly Molly Mandy. What a fab full circle!

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Cicely Mary Barker

“Why do you want that book?” my mum asked me, as we paused in WH Smiths on a wet Saturday afternoon some 27 years ago. (That faint sound you just heard was an age-related wince, please ignore it).

My reply was that the drawings were pretty, and I guess I have never updated that thought when it comes to the illustrations of Cicely Mary Barker. But they are definitely more than pretty, she created a world (again, a very popular theme) of fairies that looked after nature, at just the time when the world and Arthur Conan Doyle were going fairy mad

Cicely was born in 1895 in Croydon, London, and suffered from epilepsy so was unable to go to school, resulting in a lot of time spent on her own, reading and drawing. Hmm, sounds uncannily like ol’ Beetroot Potter, doesn’t it? At least this lass didn’t take her rabbit for walks around Kensington…

Her parents at least encouraged her art, and put her forward to join the Croydon Art Society at 13 years old, and she was elected a life member at just 16, the youngest person ever to receive this honour. Her father again submitted some of her work to a printer, who bought the drawings for greetings cards, and since then she was always able to sell her work, which came in handy for the family fortunes.

Her flower fairies began in when she was 28 years old, and she was paid £25 for 24 illustrations and verse, which became her first book, Flower Fairies of the Spring. She based her fairies on children, using real-life models from the nursery her sister Dorothy ran, and would ask the child to hold the flower, twig or blossom and then enlarge the plant to be the same size as the child. Her flowers are botanically accurate; she used to enlist the staff at Kew Gardens to help her if she could not find the plant herself.

She didn’t publish many of these books during her lifetime, which is surprising considering how much related merchandise seems to appear in shops. There is an anthology you can buy, and my favourite would probably be Flower Fairies of the Wayside, as I guess the word ‘wayside’ conjures up a romantic image of sauntering along a country lane. Considering I am city born and bred, it is amazing how you can feel nostalgic for something you never had.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Shirley Hughes

Shirley Hughes is a gifted children’s illustrator and writer, creating many original characters over the years that have stood the test of time, from Alfie and little sister Annie-Rose, to Lucy and Tom.

What can I say about this talented lady? That she was kind enough to reply to me when I wrote to her during my Illustration degree, that the world she sculpts from her pencil leaps off the page, that she never talks down to children but presents the world from their angle, and that all her books simply smile at you from the shelf.

As seen here, one of her early books, Moving Molly (first published 1978), was one of my favourites. It presented my world, the world of London - of playing out in the street, of cats watching from their perch on garden walls, of the importance of imagination. She captures expressions very well and there is great attention to detail – especially in the clothes, which isn’t so surprising when you find out that Shirley trained in costume design, before going on to the Ruskin School of Drawing in Oxford.

Shirley Hughes started her life in illustration by trying to come up with sketches that would look good in her portfolio and then making a list of publishers, telephoning around to requesting an appointment with the art editor. This led to some paying work, which grew with each successful commission. Eventually, her work led around to children’s books and in 1960, she published Lucy and Tom’s Day, although it was from 1970, at the start of a long association with publishers The Bodley Head, that she came into her own as a children’s illustrator and author. She has won countless awards, including the prestigious Kate Greenaway award twice, and an OBE.

And, even better, she has just published her most recent book, Alfie and the Big Boys, this month. Nice to see she is still going strong! What can I learn from this lady - to carry a sketchbook around with me where-ever I go. And, like writing, to get any good you really have to do some of it each day.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Girls don't like boys, girls like cars and planes...

Adapting the lyrics of the Good Charlotte song ever so slightly, this weekend I am off to an air show, that has Spitfires and Lancasters, classic cars and hopefully one of those lovely rummage-y car bric-a-brac markets that often go hand in glove-compartment with these type of things.

I love bric-a-brac sales, especially when they are connected to classic cars. Have no idea why, possibly as I cannot drive (yet), so it is all a mystery. I think I love especially that 1920s - 40s time of driving, as I spend most of my time lingering over those gorgeous wicker picnic baskets that summed up driving back then - when you drive, you drive to a picnic spot.

I guess it is the romantic era of driving, way before the possibility of being stuck on the A406 (or equivalent motorway) reared its ugly head. And planes! I have never been to an air show, but I love classic planes - Spitfires, Lancasters, Stearmans - I cannot name anymore, as my knowledge woefully lags from here on in, but am looking forward to spending all Sunday going 'look - it's a plane! Woo, another plane!' to my pal, who is considerably more knowledgeable on planes and may be nice enough to tell me what is what, to save her eardrums.

See you next Monday, have a good weekend all.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton was so prolific an author that she must have done nothing else but write books. She produced an estimated 800 books in 40 years, so I make that 20 books a year, so approximately one and a half books a month. For forty years! No wonder everyone has read something of Enid Blyton, you couldn’t get away from her if you tried.

She produced three types of books – the ‘ordinary children have an adventure’ type (Famous Five, Five Find-Outers and Dog, Secret Seven, Adventure series), the boarding school story (Malory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl) and fantasy stories (Magic Faraway Tree, Wishing Well). She also created Noddy, wrote tons of short stories and was surely surgically glued to her pen.

These type of books worked very well with me. Apart from the fantasy ones (a theme I never enjoyed, even though The Magic Faraway Tree was voted the Nation’s 66th favourite in the 2003 poll The Big Read), I frequently lost myself in the world of midnight feasts, practical jokes, mysteries and adventures. They were easy to read, often repeated key facts and had children my age (or a little older) going off totally on their own, which is very appealing.

You’ll notice time and again in popular children’s literature that the main characters are usually free of adult supervision. In fact, when writing for this age of children (7 – 11 years I think), the first thought you should have is how to bin the adults.

Boarding school stories nicely get rid of parents, mum and dad sadly dying (very early on, so no one is upset) is another good one, as then the hero or heroine lives with mad old uncle, batty old aunt and can do as they please. If there was a blueprint for these types of stories, J K Rowling surely swallowed it, as her Harry Potter books perfectly sum up what children like.

Enid Blyton knew that the way to children’s hearts was to give them power.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

C. S. Lewis

In-between writing books about Christianity and debating with pal J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia.

Oh I loved Narnia when I was a little lass. I thought I was Lucy, and went through a time where I crossed her name out and put mine. I was a bit scared of Aslan, wanted to slap Edmund, hated Turkish Delight with a passion and used to sit in my wardrobe hoping something magical would happen. And then I got bored and doodled in felt tip on the wood, spending the next few years hoping no one would notice.

I remember being very cross with the BBC when they made a 1988 adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, as the girl they chose for Lucy was not my idea of Lucy at all, and I couldn’t watch it, I felt so disappointed.

But it was only returning to the books as an adult that I finally got the point of it all.

I decided a while ago to read the series, starting in the chronological order, with The Magician's Nephew, as opposed to the publishing order, which is The Lion etc. Since they were originally printed without numbers, and ol’ C. S himself wrote the first couple without knowing they were to be a series, the order of how you read them has caused some hoo-har, with the sort of people that presumably have nothing else in their lives to get hoo-har-ish about. I chose the following order:

It was while reading The Last Battle that I suddenly got the message. It really was a defining moment, perhaps other people realised the whole series was bubbling with Godly undertones but I was reading it as a pure story, not looking for any hidden meanings. So for me, it was a revelation and I thought it was very clever. Indeed, C. S. Lewis won the Carnegie Medal for this book in 1956.

In later years, he gets criticised for seemingly everything – his books are too godly, too sexist, too racist… applying our modern sensibilities now to practically anything from the past and people will find something to comment on. Even J.K Rowling has said, according to Wikipedia...

“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.”

I never thought that, I just thought Susan had lost the child in her that could still believe. Like Wendy in Peter Pan, like believing in Father Christmas, there comes a time when you don’t wait in the wardrobe hoping to find Narnia.

And as for too Godly, well… children like morals, they like good being good and bad being punished, and surely the most plain example of both is to be found in religion, no matter what faith. Children like to see people get their comeuppance – look at fairy tales! It surely is no coincidence that the most famous were collected by a family called Grimm.

I loved The Last Battle. You can see the whole progression in Narnia, from The Lion etc, which is clearly for children, through to The Last Battle, which could easily be for adults. And even better, it is a satisfactory, definite ending – where you can put the book down, reflect pleasantly for a few minutes and then get up and do something else.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Beatrix Potter

I have never been a complete fan of Beatrix. Firstly as when I was younger I thought her name was Beetroot, and secondly as her books seemed so twee, with pale drawings and pocket sized books that screamed ‘I am for a child’. However, you have to take your hat off to anyone who writes a children’s story with the word ‘soporific’ in it, as well as to someone who liked to dissect ol’ Peter the bunny before she drew him.

Here is Beatrix Potter at the age of 15 with her dog, Spot, shortly before she no doubt dissected him as well.

Beatrix came from a rich family, and spent her time taking her rabbit for walks on a lead. And no one thought this was odd…? However, she lived in Kensington, so perhaps that explains that. Reading into her life, she appears a somewhat bored, somewhat repressed lady, or at least to my 21st century sensibilities, she wasn’t allowed to be educated or really do anything, apart from be her parent’s housekeeper. She invented her own code when writing her diary, now surely you have to be bored to do that, as unless you are the prime minister, who would darn well care whether you put ‘I made the tea’ in code? &*^)”*($&”), is what I say to that. And she studied fungi, which in my book, is mould. Ah Beetroot, I am beginning to understand…

At the age of 36, she finally published The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which went down a treat with the children of 1902. A following 22 books were to come, all about bunnies, frogs, squirrels and kittens. The sort of animals that were familiar to children back then, not the sort of animal’s children have as pets today, no cosy heart-warming tale of Tessie the Tarantula, or Simon the Snake.

Still, this changed her life and brought her out of her parents shadow, enabling her to buy land and a cottage called Hill Top in the Lake District. She even married, and perhaps no longer needed to write in code. At least, one hopes so.

As for her books – well, they are still considered best sellers with children and with adults. First editions fetch up to £100 each on eBay, a current sale has bids already up to £50, with 6 days left to go. Children can get Peter Rabbit Song books, magnets and stationary. The website of publisher Frederick Warne, now an imprint of Penguin, is simply and you can visit Hill Top Cottage and immerse yourself in Beatrix Potter world, should you wish. I presume the dissecting table is not on show?

So she caught the imagination of the time and cornered the market in books on bunnies. What can I learn from her? Diligence, patience, drawing everything you see around you, making up stories about your world. She is rather a hard act to follow...

Monday, 13 August 2007

Normal service has resumed…with bingo

Ah Mondays, glorious Mondays…now there is a thought I never had when commuting on the tube. In fact, I was more likely to be listening to Boomtown Rats ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ and Madness’ ‘Tomorrow is Just Another Day’, which probably explains why I used to pop up like a mole in another part of town with a face that could scare small children.

Before we head back eagerly to children’s book month, can I just share with you that I am supposedly being a bingo caller for old folk this afternoon? It is part of this local newspaper idea I had a while back, and I arranged to spend time with a local elderly group at their weekly get-together. My idea was a gentle chat and to possibly make them some tea, I have no idea where ‘me as a bingo caller’ came into the equation, as I am actually quite shy despite all the weird situations my subconscious conspires to veer me into.

So, yet another week starts with me going ‘eek’. Altogether now, erm...‘two fat ladies’? Legs Eleven? Oh God help me… Actually, while I am waiting, this website might help in the meantime… although I really don’t think I can shout out ‘Fat lady and a little wee’ for 81, it might be a bit too close to home, and who would get 23 from ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’? Not to mention my grand afternoon starts with me waiting at a bus depot to be picked up by the charity van... I really doubt my sanity sometimes.

Children’s book month will kick off with the heavyweights tomorrow, until then eyes down for the next game…

Friday, 10 August 2007

The Work Experience

Trips in flat, hugs the sofa and pats nice speedy computer.

I did it; I survived a whole week of work experience! I know how bad that sounds, but bear with me, I usually work from my little room via ‘you have mail’ and the bat-phone, so to be back in an office again is like, woah. I See Real People.

Being work experience, you do get given the dodgy computer (you know the sort of thing, you can make a cup of tea while waiting for I.E to open google), but they were a nice bunch of people from what I could see (team of eight, five talked to me, three blokes studiously avoided all eye contact).

I mainly subbed and edited freelancers work, and wrote a few reviews etc that may or may not make the grade in the October issue. And to my silent amusement, Chas and Dave and the Velvet Underground were part of two separate features I worked on, which if you read this post, might shed light on why I chuckled. All good stuff, and you never know what comes of it.

But now I am back, and itching to get on with the book. I made a surreptitious start inbetween subbing the world’s longest article, and am determined that I am going to get up at 7 every day and start working. No more lying in bed until 8.30, those bad old days are over. So I think the week really did wonders for my motivation.

And… (rubs chin thoughtfully), possibly renting space in an office might be an idea to consider in the future. I felt quite inspired today, managing to bang out the beginning pages of the novel when all last week I couldn’t even think of a good sentence to start it with. See, it is so important, that beginning. It can be the make or break. No one is going to care that there is a gorgeous twisty bit in chapter four if they never get beyond page one. But perhaps that can be a post for another day, as now I am going to have a much needed glass of wine and chill out!

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Wake up call

A quick update for you all (technorati spiders and occasional lost wanderers, so I presume). The work experience is going well, apart from they all seem to think I am straight from University. “So, are you on a media course?” asks one. “Ah, no,” says I. “What are you studying?” asks another. “I studied Illustration,” reply I, smiling benignly. I am figuring the benign smile will stop further age-related questions, and so far I am right. See, this is London – never trust a smiling person.

It’s nice to work in an office again, even though I am now itching to get back here and get started. I need to re-think my original plan. The original plan was to keep up with professional writing by writing for a few magazines / local paper, so there is a trickle of money coming in and then spend all the rest of my time writing the book. However, I think I have complicated the issue as I have spent a lot of time researching magazines etc, and now I do write for one paper and a potential two magazines, but this piece work is now taking up the book time. And I am supposed to be designing two websites, one for me, one for a friend – and both of these are also taking time away from the book.

I need to say to myself the following and repeat it everyday if I am in danger of forgetting:

1 – I am not rich.
2 – The only reason I am not in fulltime employment is that I want to write my book.
3 – If I do not write my book, than in 3 months time I will be skint anyway and needing a job.
4 – It is highly unlikely I will be able to save up this sort of cash to do this again.
5 – So it is sort of now or never.

Ah, nothing like the faint whiff of pressure last thing at night…

Sunday, 5 August 2007

What do you listen to?

As tomorrow I will working at a music magazine, this is a question that has occupied my thoughts, as surely one of the first questions I will have to answer tomorrow will be ‘what do you listen to?’

I find this question a little hard to answer, at least in a coherent format. If only I listened to just one genre of music, then I could just state ‘hip hop’ and that would be the end of it. If I was that focused, then I could talk knowledgeably about Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy, and I would have a specialist subject should I ever be asked to appear on Mastermind.

Sadly, instead I have been like a kid in a sweet shop, mixing up all the decades and genres in one big bag of musical pick ‘n’ mix. Julie London, Chas ‘n’ Dave, Beatles, Kinks, Chad Jackson, Prodigy, Sabbath, Metallica, Brian & Micheal, Edward Elgar, E.L.O… I must have the only ipod where ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ leads into ‘Sad but True’.

Friends wince at my music. They cannot understand how I can enjoy everything from Frank Sinatra to The Killers. We play ‘Name that Tune’ to my ipod, with bonus points for guessing the correct year. I am usually great in pub quizzes, all eyes swivelling my way as soon as any vague old band is mentioned. I am smug as the question ‘what is Paul McCartney’s real name' stumps the rest of the table. ‘Paul, of course,’ they will all say, as I shake my head in manner of wise old sage. Answer below…

But the problem with all these fabulous bands whirling around my brain is where do I start? What bands or musicians do I name? I don’t wish to pull out some Velvet Underground credibility, I am quite happy to say exactly what I am listening to, but who do I possibly pick? As whatever you say seems to shape who you are… Oh sod it, I’ll say how much I appreciate the lyrical dexterity of ‘The Sideboard Song’ and leave it as that.

Did I say I was cacking it about tomorrow? I am excited but…God. I haven’t done work experience since I was a teen. I am terrified I will be a) old, b) drop the tea tray and send scones all over the carpet and c) well, a mixture of a & b, really. Still, this is something that should be fun and generally I am a curious soul (some may say nosy), so am looking forward to seeing behind the scenes. It's just... I wish it was Friday already!

Wish me luck – I will try to post each day, but possibly won’t get a chance to catch up here until next weekend, so see you then…

Answer: Paul McCartney's real name is James. Now go forth and impress your friends!

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Uncle Mac of the BBC

The drive to Stoke Newington in London meant two things, when I was a child. One, I would shortly be eating a viscount biscuit courtesy of my Nan. And two – I could reacquaint myself with a children’s book that intrigued me, called Uncle Mac’s Children’s Hour Book.

This was a collection of short stories that had been broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, which had been a radio serial for children from 1922 to 1964. ‘Uncle Mac’ was Derek McCulloch, (pictured), who had full control of Children’s Hour from 1933 to 1950. His sign off line was ‘Goodnight children, everywhere’ which became especially poignant during the war years, with many children evacuated far away from their families in the countryside.

The book had been passed through my older brother’s hands by the time it got to me, and either of us could have been responsible for the embellishment of large looping scribbles that sadly cover many of the pages. However you can still read the stories, and what strange ones they are.

My favourites were:

King Arthur’s Tree by Alison Uttley
Sandy the Blue Lion by Edward D Dickenson
The Necklace of Stars by Geoffrey Dearmer
The Smoking Chimney by Olive Dehn
The Ear-Ring in the Underground by Daphne Nicol

King Arthur’s Tree
is about a boy from the town staying at the seaside, friends with a local girl. A local legend was if a certain sea plant washes up and you make a wish, then it comes true. The boy saw the plant and wished to see Merlin, if only for a short time…

“I came when you called me,” said Merlin. “I came out of the rocks where I have been hidden and asleep for centuries. You have Kind Arthur’s Tree in your hands, Boy. What do you want of me? I can give you anything you desire – Life, Death, Fame, Riches, Strength, Wisdom – all are mine to give for the tree’s sake!”

It is a tale of longing, of understanding the passage of time, of realising the immortality of the tide, of the seasons.

Sandy the Blue Lion is an Inn sign that came to life when a Wizard’s spell got tangled around the picture. Sandy proceeded to teach a local boy his viewpoint on life until sadly the spell blew away and he couldn’t come to life again, but the boy grew up and never forgot…

In due course, Sir William Wortleberry passed away, and it was discovered that he had made a provision in his will for the sign of the Blue Lion to be freshly painted in bright colours, once every year on the first day of Spring.

Even though the story says you mustn’t feel sorry for the lion, I did, I so did, even now looking at it again I feel a bit sad. Poor Sandy…

The Necklace of Stars is about a sick little girl who is dying. She dreams she needs a necklace of stars to make her better, and God gives her a choice, she can have a necklace of stars and die, or she can throw them away and get better…

“She must choose,” said the Voice. Again the strange constellations changed, giving place to the familiar, and the Hand was moved back through space till it rested palm upwards about her garden where the little girl’s still body lay. And beside it stood the Mother and Father in tears.

It is a bit Godly, but it is a story that stuck with me throughout the years, even though its message – don’t wish for the stars – is sort of dour.

The Smoking Chimney is about a widow and her two children, who had purchased a cottage that was already home to gnomes, who didn’t appreciate her new spinning cowl to stop the chimney from smoking…

Tonk… Tonk… Linda Lee…When will you…Have eyes to see…Other people’s…Mis-er-ee…Will you never…Let us be…Tonk…Tonk…Linda Lee

It was a little spooky and I liked the rhythms the spinning cowl made and the fact they all made friends in the end… I also had no idea what a spinning cowl was (and still don’t, to be honest) so there was a nice ‘age’ feel to this story.

The Ear-Ring in the Underground was about a somewhat selfish and popular girl travelling home from school, when a mysterious women leaves behind a pair of pearl earrings. They are magical and allow her to hear people’s thoughts and she realises that she can help change the lives of some of the people close to her…

Suddenly Janet realised there was someone sitting on the seat beside her; someone she hadn’t noticed before. She had not seen her come into the carriage, nor had she been aware of her sitting down beside her. Now she glanced sideways at this curious figure of her neighbour, who was a very slender woman dressed in black. As she looked at this strange woman an uneasy shiver ran down Janet’s spine.

I love the idea of being privy to someone’s thoughts, love the fact it was set on the Underground, in the days when there could be ‘ a business man with hat and briefcase, a schoolgirl in a boater and an old washerwoman with a bundle of washing tied in a sheet’ travelling next to you.

I guess these stories and this book are tied up in a big bow of nostalgia for me, and the fact that it now lives with me as opposed to being at my Nan’s will probably tell you what has changed. But it goes to show that nostalgia is a powerful weapon when thinking about writing for children, for the children reading the stories and the adults buying them.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Roger Red Hat and Tracker Books

I know lots of people have fond memories of learning to read in school with Shelia McCullagh’s characters – Roger Red-hat, Billy Blue-hat and Johnny and Jennifer Yellow-hat. These characters lived in The Village With Three Corners, which was part of her ‘1,2, 3 and Away’ series of books, starting with pre-readers and building into stories for older Infants.

God, how I hated them. By now, I was reading quite a bit at home, and it felt like starting again in a way to me, even at that young age. So I raced through them, quickly becoming rather bored in class. So my teacher told me I could pick any book from the school library to read instead…

I chose Tracker books.

Brief Interlude

Incidentally, you have no idea (actually you will, as I am about to tell you) the difficulty I just had tracking (sorry) these books down. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what they were called and kept bumping into 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books, which were definitely not the ones I remembered. The ones I remembered were in a landscape format, had strange black and white illustrations on every facing page and were somewhat creepy. Then, just as I was about to give up, my brain spun up the word Tracker books and here we are!


Tracker books were probably the first series of gamebooks on the market. They had an odd landscape format, and the reader chose his or her fate according to either text choices or picture arrows in the strangely stark illustrations that appeared on each opposite page. Their titles are as follows:

1. Mission to Planet L
2. Secret of the Seventh Star
3. The Black Dragon Mystery
4. Treasure of Shark Island
5. Codebreaker
6. Skyjacked
7. Action Football
8. Three Men in a Maze
9. Rugger Final
10. Road Racer
11. Reporter on the Trail
12. Codebreaker International

Although I recall Mission to Planet L, Treasure of Shark Island and Skyjacked – it was the Secret of the Seventh Star that gripped me. The blurb was:

"Will you be able to follow the clues, or will the murderer escape and the house retain its secrets?"

It was scary, the illustrations were dark and menacing, the people drawn were ugly and there was an old shrunken man dead in a bath tub. Also nearly every decision I took seemed to end up with me dying a horrible death.

Thinking back, this does seem an odd choice to be allowed to read. The later 'Choose Your Own Adventure' series seemed a hell of a lot tamer than the Tracker books, although I had a couple of those where my fate always seemed to be being eaten by a minotaur.

I didn’t have much luck with these books.

But I can see why they held my attention.

(Incidentally, I actually do own the Tracker books I mention up here, I liked them that much at the time that my parents bought them for me. So there will be a scan or two appearing here at some point this month.)

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Ladybird books

See Spot run. Run, Spot, run!

The Ladybird books of my childhood represented a 1950s white middle class existence, with Father pictured going to work with his briefcase in hand and Mother shown with her apron on in the kitchen. It didn’t quite match up to life where I lived in London, but was a nostalgic view of a bygone generation’s idyllic childhood filled with adventure, rock pools and castle’s to explore. Sort of like the Famous Five, except Peter and Jane spoke in a weird, repetitive language that drove you mad after the age of six.

Ladybird books attempt to teach children to read and speak by repetition of key words and a grading system of books that increase vocabulary as the reader builds confidence. The books show the different ways you can use words in language, even if by the end you feel as if you have been hit over the head with a sledge hammer with the word ‘run’ on it. Although it would be quite fun (and potentially maddening) to introduce it in day-to-day life…

“Shall we go for a beer, J? J, shall we go for a beer? I like beer. J likes beer. Let’s all go for a beer!”

Although the first Ladybird books came into being in 1940 with ‘Bunnikin's Picnic party’, the publishers behind them, Wills and Hepworth, published a series of books for children throughout the war years of 1915 -1938. In one of these, an ABC, children were taught that ‘A’ stood for ‘Armoured Train’ – a lot different to my 1970’s Ladybird ABC with a picture of an apple.

Also, because Ladybird printed many factual books as well, it wasn’t just children that benefited – the Ministry of Defence had ‘The Computer: How It Works’ in 1971, but they asked for a special edition to be printed just for them, in plain covers without the copyright information in case it embarrassed the training staff. And ‘How it Works: The Motor Car’ (1965) was used by Thames Valley police driving school as a general guide.

Ladybird books didn’t just teach children, our police force and worryingly our Ministry of Defence, they also had many series of books that illustrated the classics – Cinderella, Puss in Boots, The Gingerbread Man. These are the three I remember and what a surprise, a cat lurks here too.

The strength of Ladybird was the illustrations, again, they were very detailed and the text beside it so sparse, that you were encouraged to think up more of the story. And I think they gave parents pleasure, as they looked at the pictures, perhaps gave them a chance to wistfully dream as well… Here are some titles and editions I remember from my childhood…

If you are interested in reading further about Ladybird books, I would advise you to have a look at the following links:
Ladybird - this is the official site, yet I didn't find it all that helpful.
The Wee Web - history of Ladybird, and a lot more besides. A lot of the links came up with an error for me, but that might be just today...
Craig's Ladybird Book Site - fantastic stuff from a collector's point of view. The site needs better navigation though, and was last updated in Feb 2006, but it is a good comprehensive guide.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Memories of a Reader

Ever since a little girl, I loved books.

I liked the feel of them, the colours within them, and the unseen magic that could move me from the settee to another world entirely. The weekend started for me on a Saturday morning, when my mother and I would walk down to the old library so I could choose the following week’s entertainment. Would I go to a boarding school this week and swim in Malory Towers glorious outdoor rock pool? Would I join the animals on the other side of the stream, across the field in Brambly Hedge? Would I be the sixth, sadly silent member of the Famous Five? It was very exciting and I would debate for hours, to the consternation of my mum, who really wanted to get to Tesco to buy some pork chops for dinner.

The first picture books I can remember enjoying were:

Moving Molly by Shirley Hughes

Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottles by Terry Furchgott and Linda Dawson

Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

Haunted House by Jan Pieńkowski

The Church Mouse by Graham Oakley

The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss

Precisely why did I love these so? It hasn’t escaped my notice that four of the six stories have cats within them somewhere, whether in the title or in the illustrations. So even from a young age, personal choice is rife, as I wanted a cat so badly… In fact, that is not strictly true. At a very young age I actually wanted to be a cat, I did wonder why most adults raised their eyebrows when asking me what I wanted to be when I was grown up...

Three of the six have excellent and detailed illustration – Moving Molly, Phoebe, and The Church Mice – in each of these you will find illustrations that include items or people not mentioned in the text, leaving you as a reader free to spot more clues about that world in your own time. Mog was a sweet little story I liked to return to, it was a ‘quick read’, not to study too closely as there was not a lot else in the illustrations to look at. The Cat in the Hat (and all illustrations in Dr Seuss) used to scare me, something about these manic, so-intent little creatures, with weird swished hands and feet – I was intrigued by it, and thought it funny, but just a tad alarming. They were all so mad… Even the characters supposedly in charge were mad... I think adults behaving irrationally either in fiction or real-life, is one of the most scariest things for a child to comprehend… Haunted House was another ‘mad’ thing – I loved this book, but to my dismay never owned a copy.

So – detailed illustrations ‘when you were in the mood’, somewhat scary topics or pictures, and cats. Lots of cats. This was the foundation for my life as a reader, books I chose myself, that I was happy to return to. But of course, the flip side to that is books you were told to read... But that is for tomorrow.