Wednesday 21 October 2009

Cross-cultural thinking

Something a student said to me today pulled me up rather sharply. Could she include books form other cultures in her Critical Analysis and Evaluation? Yes, of course yes, oh yes and yes.
After all, the person writing this blog is the one whose Ph D Thesis is subtitled “Towards a Global Definition of the Young Adult Novel.”
I’ve spent considerable time in my “Introduction to Children’s Literature” talking about how books today have to be “politically correct” and in particular how young people should not be left alone or left with dubious adults. This, of course, refers only to texts, written in English, about characters in the Northern Hemisphere, Western World and white South Africa.
There are numerous picture books, for instance, still written in English, but based on other native populations on the African, American, Oceania continents and the Indian subcontinent showing young people operating within other cultures – cultures where the children work with the adults, where they are left alone and where they are in many ways more “street” or “worldly” wise than their first world peers.
What a wake-up call!

Monday 19 October 2009

The Excitement of a New Book Coming Out

I’ve been really busy this weekend. I’ve been putting together two of our collections which I hope will be out by the end of the month, in time for Halloween, as they’re a collection of ghost stories – Spooked - and a collection of horror stories- Scream.
The covers are glorious – we seem to be going form strength to strength with those. One of our authors doesn’t like one of the covers, but actually it’s quite unusual for authors to like coves at all. So, all in all, we’re actually winning.
I’ve had lots of buzzy ideas about selling these two collections at a discount. Or also selling our whole collection at a discount, with a further 25% off for authors.
So, lets set it up and get the orders rolling in.
This is going to make an excellent “day job” for me when I retire.

Friday 16 October 2009

Being an Editor

It is so interesting seeing it from the other side. I have to reject really well written pieces sometimes. Often, it is because there is really no story in a piece, or not enough tension, or the pace is all wrong, or everything is great but what is produced just does not fit what we’re looking for. Sometimes, also, it’s a matter of scale. Sometimes we just happen to have extraordinarily good examples for a particular title.
Then there is the editing process itself. I think of editing at three main stages:
Overall structure
Grammar, punctuation, formatting.
The less editing that is needed the better, but if something is going to be extraordinary with a bit of work, lets do the work.
Unfortunately, you do not know until you start how people are going to react towards being asked to edit. Most writers are fine, some don’t mind the suggestions but can’t react to them and a minority become very precious about their work and refuse to budge. Note to self: never accept anything again by people from the third group and if time is pressing, avoid the second group as well. If an author can’t respond to editorial advice, the editors themselves have to make the changes. Fine, but where’s the time? And actually, the results are usually better if the editor and the writer work together to find a third, much superior way.
Then there is author anxiety. When will this book come out? Why haven’t I heard from you? When will we get the proofs? Well, actually, as soon as possible…. And sooner if I don’t stop to answer this question.
I know, too, as a writer who networks with other writers that even those published by the big guys in Random House end up doing a lot of their own marketing. We’re only a small company. The staff work for love and peanuts. We give as much of our time as we can. What we can’t do is pay Waterstones £25,000 to frontline our books. What we can do is produce wonderful books and I think, on the whole we do.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Another Bridge House Publication is Out There

I was pleased yesterday to get my proof copy of Alternative Renditions. It looks good. Our covers are getting better and better. Are our artists getting competitive? This one looks really good, but we know that the covers for Spooked and Scream are even better.
The book is our fattest yet and the stories are extraordinary. Although they are fairy stories, they are not at all for children. They are written from an adult point of view. The protagonist is not usually the normal one. Sometimes it is the enemy sometimes it is a minor character. Sometimes it is even a mere onlooker. One exception is Goldilocks but even she unusually is portrayed as a horrible adolescent instead of the normal innocent.
It’s a good read, even though I say so myself. It’s the most solid book we’ve done yet.

Friday 9 October 2009

Introduction to Children;s Literature

I have started teaching a new course at the university. I am delighted with the response of the students. Each week they have a mini-lecture which summarises the main points from the theoretical material they have been asked to read. They also present work they have looked at during the week. They are asked to give a close reading of the type of text we looked at the week before. Finally, in small groups, we look at texts of the type we are studying in the current week.
I take two different groups. A colleague takes a third. In one group, I get round everybody. In the second group, each student has so much to say that we only get through two or three. I keep a strict register so that I can give everyone a fair chance to speak.
These particular students seem to have taken on board that their course is 120 hours long. They have twenty hours fifteen minutes contact time with me. A little less perhaps – we have a ten minute break in the middle of each session.
We ‘re looking at many aspects of children’s literature, mainly 21st Century, though the first session was on the history of children’s literature. This week we looked at picture book texts. Then we’ll move on to chapter book, books for fluent readers, books for teens, books for young adults, high-lows and graphic novels.
We practise an analysis method I call text autopsy. It’s a very special form of close reading and resembles the French “explication de texte”. It allows the student to analyse a text quite objectively, and resembles a little also the way a pathologist describes the body on the slab – moving form the generic to the specific and establishing the unusual. Students are asked to comment on: what the text actually is, how the content is developed, any linguistic and visual devices used, how the text conceded to the reader and how it fits with other texts of its own generation and historically.
So far, the students have taken this on with gusto. I know a lot about this topic but I’m also learning with them.

Thursday 8 October 2009


Memory is an important ingredient in writing. We use it all the time. Even when we write fantasy or science-fiction we are using our knowledge of how the world works. We look at scenes in our imagination and set about writing with our senses. But what makes us choose those particular visuals, those particular sounds, those tastes, those smells and feelings? And the colours we see and the order in which we describe the details?
Our mind jumps around in a particular random way and we seem to have three levels of consciousness, almost. There is the higher self, having its grand thoughts, often analysing and symbolising the world. A matter-of fact voice then just describes what is happening in human terms and a third part is just aware physically of the world around us. Which voice speaks in those rich scenes created with the senses?
I’ve been teaching this week about the characteristics of the novel and about writing autobiography. Both can use some of the same techniques and it’s often all to do with bringing the reader into the middle of a scene, setting them in what feels like a real time / space. We create that scene with our imagination and our memory and our imagination is based upon our memory.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Creativity in All Things

I’m currently reading quite a heavy academic book about creativity. It’s hard-going and I have to read each paragraph several times in order to really understand it. It’s made me somewhat preoccupied with the whole idea of creativity.
Creativity isn’t just there in great artistic works and great literary works. It’s there in everything we do. Including in planning and delivering lectures. I find it is actually a great part of the job I have now. I have to design my lectures: what I say, what I show on PowerPoint, what is in the handout and what goes on Blackboard, our VLE, are all slightly different but they come together in a harmonious whole. Is the whole greater than the parts? Each part matches a learning style or an aspect of a learning style. There is some repetition. There is something new in each bit.
It’s been a little rushed this time. I’ve had to put some things together very last minute. That should be part of the skills I hold anyway. If the opportunity offers itself, it will be good to revise in more detail before next year.
It’s a very enjoyable process, bringing the components together. It was also one of the most enjoyable aspects of secondary school-teaching: lesson planning. That’s creativity I guess.

Friday 2 October 2009

Research Day

Today is my research day. Today is the day I concentrate on my own writing. After last week’s fiasco when I lost six hours’ worth of work at the touch of a button, I am being more careful this week. I am not multi-tasking. The only thing I have open apart form Word is Twitter. Twitter is non-invasive I find. I just “tweet” when I finish something, and I then reload the page and see what other people have been up to.
I’ve even got my mobile switched off and the house-phone is on answer machine – though it will probably still annoy me.
So, in a few minutes, I’ll be returning to Babel and carrying on with the scene where Kaleem meets the medics who are rebelling against Switch-Off. Then I shall try to repair the damage from last week. Writing is hard. Do we sometimes do everything we can to avoid it?

Thursday 1 October 2009

Keen Creative Writing Students

I met the new students for the first time in a lecture yesterday. They are absolutely clued up and raring to go. They are going to be a delight to work with. It really is good to talk to students about writing and have them so attentive. They are bursting with ideas. At the end of the session, I had a real job getting away form them.
They are proactive:
There are more people willing to be student reps than there are vacancies.
They are forming their own critique group.
All good stuff.