Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Beakin' My Balls And Breakin' My Bells......

The original title of this blog was going to be: Death of baby animals - the reason for which will become clear later - but I thought that might put people off. And besides, I wanted to begin with a rant about this hellish Wednesday.

You know how it goes, it starts off small with the District line - for the third week in a row experiencing signal failures resulting in severely delayed services in and out of Earl's Court, meaning I have to set off earlier in order to make my first class. And then it's the first Toddler class - which has been broken about as long as the District line. Have you ever tried to teach a class of six under 2 and half, one of which has decided she now wants to cry and scream and snot all the way through her lessons? No? Well I highly recommend it especially if you have no patience and a penchant for throwing things. I of course have neither of these things and still I had a strong urge to walk out and never return. Breakin' my balls!

It doesn't help that the teachers are in and out, setting up activities around the room, as I'm trying to focus them and start an activity of my own. Scream-a-lot won't stop, she just wants to go to her teacher, but I need her to snap out of that otherwise this will be my Wednesday, every Wednesday. So I sit her on my knee whilst the other kids essentially run around with the instruments, not listening or doing anything remotely constructive, and start messing around with whatever else they can get their tiny little hands on. I've never been more certain of upping the age of my classes, as I was after that farce of a lesson.

But then just to break my spirit further, at my next school in the preschool class of all classes, one of the children destroys one of the instruments right in front of me, pulling the ringer out of the bell where it now hangs limply never to serve its purpose again - or maybe it will if I can find a way to re-spring a spring, if you get what I mean? Needless to say, my nice act dropped for a few minutes and my grumpy back up act took over. Hilariously though, the other children were telling off the child that had broken the bell, wanting to pretend to be the teacher. I felt like saying, here, you take over, please. I would quite happily have played the kid today and have someone else teach the little monsters.

Oh yeah, and one of the new kids, pinched me really hard. He literally pinched an inch of my slightly plump gut. Thanks for reminding me I need to work out, little savage.

So with broken balls, a broken spirit and a broken instrument, I make my way home, only to encounter crazy abusive guy on the train. He strolled in from the next carriage, slamming the door several times. It was the same sound the windows make on a bus when you open and close them, but of course there are no windows on the tube that open. So then he walked past loads of vacant seats to my part of the carriage and sat fairly quiet, just occasionally talking to himself. Then when he gets off, he starts effin' and jeffin' at another guy waiting to alight, getting right up in his face for no reason and storms off. Luckily the guy also getting off was clearly a) confused and b) placid enough to take a step back and just realise there was a problem there. Other people may have given a shove or a punch, but luckily I didn't have to witness a brawl, I might have started using instruments as weapons.

Okay, so Wednesday hasn't been particularly kind to me, but I did swing past the library and pick up some swag, all before arriving home to the wrong Veronica Mars Season 2 disc. Damn it. Disc 3 should have come yesterday but didn't, and guess what arrived today? Disc 4. Bugger. I need to find out what happens. Hellish, hellish, Wednesday. It just means we'll have to watch another Life Story episode.........

Which brings me nicely to my next rant. Anyone been watching the Grim Reaper's new series: Death of baby animals? Sorry, you might know it as: David Attenborough's: Life Story. Spoiler alert: loads of baby/adolescent animals die.

The first episode was harrowing, especially the kamikaze geese, and it was followed up with a dead Tiger in episode two, amongst other deaths. It is tempting to create a rather macabre drinking game out of it. Every time an animal dies, drink!

We love you David Attenborough, but you just keep killing off our favourite characters. You get us all attached and then, bam, they're gone. Oh, all the eaten baby birds still in their eggs. I feel I must clarify, it's not actually Mr Attenborough killing them off, it's their families, or their predators, but it's freakin' edge of your seat stuff, and more harrowing than half the horror films I've seen, I'm talking cushion cuddling, feet hiding the screen sort of viewing. High peril rating.

Still, it won't stop us watching more tonight - damn Veronica Mars disc 3 - and it won't stop A flapping over all the cute animals, until they're torn to pieces in front of him.

I hope your Wednesday's have been kinder to you than mine was. But, it did give me all this ammunition for a blog, which makes me slightly happier because I came home and wrote and now I'm going to continue to write some of my NaNoWriMo entry, and by the time A comes home, I might be in a fit state to socialise.

Here's hoping Thursday isn't quite as much of a bitch.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

STREAM 2014 - The First South London Book Festival

The date: Saturday 8th November. The venue: Streatham and Clapham High School. The event: Stream. The first South London Book Festival.

With slight trepidation I entered the gates of the grand, all-girls school, trying not to have too many traumatic high school flashbacks, only to be greeted and accompanied by children of all ages and their parents, and not only that but some extremely giddy children desperate to clap eyes on their favourite writer, or illustrator.

I wish events like these had been around when I was a child. Though there has always been something rather mystical for me about the author. I've always seen the author as a picture in the back of a book, a face to associate with the stories you love, or hate, of course. A mystery. But nowadays, it's all about being out there and engaging with your audience, beyond the mere pages of your book. They want to know what you look like, probably want to touch you to make sure you're real. They want to ask you questions and want you to sign their books. They want a picture of you to show their friends and preserve the memory. They no longer allow the author to live in a cave shut away from the world, creating. The audience demands a more hands on, face on approach and it certainly isn't hurting.

Children's and YA books are booming. And with events like these it is not difficult to see why. How inspiring is it to hear your favourite author talk about their craft? How spectacular is it to see your favourite illustrator drawing right in front of you? These events are not only giving children an opportunity to engage with their favourite authors, but they are opening up more children to the magic of creation and storytelling. I feel there will be more and more children and young adults aspiring to be writers and illustrators, and with schools starting to offer Creative writing at GCSE level, it is another encouraging step towards an inclusive curriculum of creation and academics and life skills.

Boasting a huge variety of children's authors from all over the country, with events and activities for children aged 3 all the way up to teen and YA, Stream literally had something for everyone.

Now being one of very few independent writers/YA fans/ bloggers there, and having no children in sight and also not being a child or YA - sadly - myself, I did stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, but I was not about to let that deter me from a day of exciting talks, panels and some wise words from some lovely authors.

My day was geared around YA, though I know that there were some fantastic authors for younger children, including Nicholas Allan, Lauren Child, Mo O'Hara and Chris Riddell, to name a few.

So I of course kicked off with the wondrous legend of literature, defender of libraries and all around incredible author: Malorie Blackman. I have seen her speak before and can honestly say I could not pass up the opportunity to hear her again. Such enthusiasm for her craft and the people she writes for. Such encouraging words and belief in those wanting to follow in her footsteps. And definitely someone who makes you down right belly laugh.

Malorie Blackman in conversation with Guardian Children's Editor Emily Drabble.

I have pages of notes from this talk but I won't bore you will every sinew. It was however, interesting to hear about her upbringing and how a lack of fiction at home sent her looking for fiction elsewhere. She found it in her local library, where she would escape at the weekends and read as broadly as she could. She was and presumably still is a self-confessed day dreamer, an attribute that is not compulsory for writers, but I can say, certainly helps.

Crap quality, but I promise you that is Malorie and Emily. 

She talked about the 82 rejection letters she received before getting her first book published, paling my 7 rejections into insignificance. She was so determined this was the right path for her that she promised not to give up until her 1000th rejection. I'm not sure I want to set my sights so high, as I think a further 993 rejections might just kill me, but I see where she was going with this. She didn't want to give up on her dream, and by setting a ludicrous failure mark, so far off in the distance, she was almost removing her chances of failure. Her philosophy was: 'If they don't like this one, they'll like the next one.'

Malorie was happy to discuss many of her books, and especially subjects of race within her Noughts and Crosses series. It was a subject she put off through the first 49 books, as she felt, 'people would presume as a black person, I could only write about race.' But by the 50th book she was ready. In the end what happened was that people took that idea of two factions in conflict and took it to fit their own lives. They would liken it to Catholics and Protestants, or other religious and cultural sectors that were in conflict. It wasn't just about colour it was about so much more and that resonated with its readers all over the world.

Malorie also admitted that being the Children's Laureate was hard work and yes it did take time away from writing and reading, but it also gave her more time to encourage teens to read and to work with that age group. It gave her the time and opportunity to campaign for local libraries and reiterate their importance to communities up and down the country.

Before the Q&A session, we had a brief insight into Malorie and her love of comics and graphic novels. She spoke about there still being certain stigma around graphic based books and how they are often seen as less than a novel. But if that is what gets people excited about reading, why should it be questioned? The idea is for every child to be reading something and there is no right or wrong selection. Read what you like, there is something out there for everyone and once you find your way in to the world of books, there is a never ending labyrinth of possibilities that will keep you entertained.

The kids in the audience had some great questions, including: If you had a time machine, where would you go? In which Malorie replied, 500 years in the future. She answered questions about writer's block, editing, new projects and how she never has any problem finishing a book as she always plans ahead.

What a remarkable lady with such infectious enthusiasm. The crowd were hanging on her every word and the children were so giddy they had stunned themselves into silence.

The Teen Thriller: How Far Can You Go?

My next event was an interesting panel with the lovely authors: Rachel Ward, Sophia Bennett, Sam Hepburn and James Dawson. This was of particular interest to me as I am currently working on two thriller novels, one of which has strong horror overtones.

From L to R: Sophia Bennett, James Dawson, Rachel Ward and Sam Hepburn. And the chair of the event, who I apologise I didn't catch the name of and it wasn't printed in the programme. Sorry. 

Before the panel it became clear I was the only adult not with one of the authors and not with any children. I strangely felt like a naughty school girl caught out of class, or somehow trapped in the wrong class. But luckily the librarian of the school came to chat, as she too was probably wondering what on earth I was doing there by myself. Once I admitted I was an author and YA fan here for research, she was very sweet and even asked my name to look out for me in the future. (Only 75 rejections to go. Ha ha.)

Each author introduced their latest books and gave a brief outline of the story, minimal spoilers, before the questions and discussions began. They all had very different approaches to their novels, as you would expect, and it was interesting to really explore those differences through the panel questions, but see how there is no right or wrong way of working as a writer, it just has to be the way that suits you.

Influences: Conscious or subconscious?

Sophia told us how her books usually involve an issue she is very angry about, alongside something she finds fascinating, and that her stories always manifest around the two ideas.

James revealed that for his latest Horror YA - Say Her Name - he was heavily influenced by Korean, Japanese and Thai horror films, and that he was determined to scare himself and in the process his readers, after a friend had claimed that 'nothing modern can be scary.'

Rachel admitted that she tended not to read around her subject matter as she wanted to write in as air tight a vacuum as she could. She 'didn't want to know what everyone else was writing, she simply wanted to write her own book.' But she also said that whilst your influences might not always be obvious, you are inspired by the world around you and that 'things can stick in there and pop out unexpectedly.'

Sam said she was interested in 'extraordinary things happening close to home', and 'how people change in different circumstances.'

Dysfunctional Characters. Bleak Backgrounds. 

In this discussion the authors all agreed that to get rid of the parents was to set the characters free on their journey or adventure. James added that 'there are two things that aren't scary: mobile phones and parents. Get rid of them. And never trust a teacher.' They also revealed they had quite loving and ordinary childhoods, but that their characters were often faced with very difficult situations and homes that aren't safe. The idea being that readers could explore these difficult situations within the safe environment of the book.

Strong bonds between two characters.

No matter how bleak the outlook, there has to be some seed of hope for our character and that usually arrives or is rooted in their bond with another character, whether real or imagined, animal or human.
James discussed the idea of female friendships in his books and how he prefers a friendship to be established before any romantic notions are thrown in the way, as quite often female characters are fighting against each other, mainly for the attention of a boy, and not working to strengthen their friendships or establish new ones.
Sophia told of the friendships in her books actually driving the story forward, and that they were rarely of a romantic nature. She also admitted a love for writing dialogue ensuring that she would always have at least two characters so she could write cool dialogue.

Chunky Novels/Tablets/Attention Span

Sophia and James revealed short attention spans and being impatient readers. They want fast paced, short chapters and to be gripped from the word go, which in turn influences how they themselves write. They also discussed the term: page turner, and how it is often used negatively, but what else would you want your book to be? If no one is turning the page, then no one is reading your story.
Rachel said 'it's about finding the right book for the right person,' and that it doesn't matter whether they are reading it on a tablet or a kindle or in paperback, if they have found something that suits them, then that is all that matters. Sam reiterated that reading a book rather than messing on your phone, or playing games or texting, offers them 'a different treat' and she didn't think children or young adults would be deterred by a chunky novel.

What is too far?

The final question for the panel was about how far you could go in YA and whether there were any subjects they would bow out of and why.

Sam started off that she thought it was 'the way a subject was dealt with, rather than the subject matter itself' that was the issue. Sophia added that she sometimes had to 'tone things down' as suggested by her agent or editor. James said he had to be 'wary of not sacrificing the story', but also that there's nothing he wouldn't do. He said there will always be an element of humour and slapstick within his books and that he will do 'whatever is right for the book' he is writing. Rachel admitted that swearing was an issue for her, and that she was always being told to tone it down, even when she felt it was integral to the story. She wanted it to be 'believable but not offensive' and so there is often a hybrid somewhere between the two. She says 'the issues are there in context' and that things shouldn't be sanitized, they should be as real as you can make them.

James added that there is badness happening in the world, and horrible situations, isn't it better that teens be able to explore and feel about them in a safe environment where they are in control of it? And Sam finished off by saying that every fairy tale is based on something darker than the watered down versions we give to children now. The original ending of sleeping beauty was her waking up as she was giving birth to twins. Now that's something to think about.

The Q&A brought up further discussions on scaring yourself as a writer and whether that helps convince you that you will scare the reader. The authors also talked about modifying their plot when working with an editor, and admitted that they all needed their editors as they help to make the book the best it can possibly be.

A fantastic panel with very relevant advice for any writers in the YA genre and definitely some interesting things to take away from the session.

Teen Issues

My final panel of the day was the somewhat unusual: Teen Issues Game Show: Tissues for Issues.
James Dawson was back as chair and game show host, joined by a dazzling array of literary ladies:
Isobel Harrop, Non Pratt, Lil Chase and Keren David.

From L to R: Non Pratt, Keren David, James Dawson, Lil Chase and Isobel Harrop.

The idea was that teens from the audience and from the school had submitted some of their current 'Teen Issues' and the panellists were there to offer advice and hopefully solve that issue, which would result in the winning of a packet of tissues.

The panel covered a wide range of very current issues and some sadly recurring ones that have been plaguing teens for generations. It was great to have lots of teens in the audience, who were able to share their own experiences and discuss the issues with the panel.

The issues were as follows:

Issue 1: Jennifer Lawrence/Online Protection

Issue 2: Trolling (Online bullying)

Issue 3: Is 20 Years too long? (For the boy who stabbed his teacher.)

Issue 4: Street Harassment

Issue 5: Should I come out at school?

I won't go into depth on the responses for each issue as the blog is fast becoming novella length, but I will say what an interesting and very different panel it was, and I hope to see more events like this where current and very new issues raised by the constant innovation in technology and the see and hear everything world that we live in, are explored and discussed.

The environment allowed the freedom to discuss without judgement or criticism, just a forum to explore ideas and issues that teens may not feel comfortable talking to other adults about, and it was a complete success. Keren David was the winner of most tissues, with a whopping three packets. Well done Keren and the rest of the panel.

Stream conclusions:

From the general vibe floating around the halls, there were some very impressed parents, children, and authors. It was a great success and will hopefully be something that is continued for years to come, allowing authors to engage with their audiences, allowing children to see and touch and speak to the genius behind their favourite books, and for parents to share it with them.

It would have been beneficial for more teens to attend the Teen Issues panel, but then there were other panels, signings and workshops happening at the same time, so it was understandable that not everyone could be everywhere.

As usual I was the ghost like entity, walking the halls alone, recording my notes quietly on a seat near the back, conversing with only one author, one librarian and the guys who made my delicious lamb wrap - did I mention the food in the court yard? A fabulous selection of vegan, vegetarian, meat loving, sweet, savoury and coffee - in the whole day. But sometimes observing these things from behind a veil is the best way to really see them. And what I saw was a successful day of literary loveliness and the start of something new.

Many thanks to all the organisers and Streatham and Clapham Girls School for hosting the event. Thank you to all the authors who made a lot of children very happy, and thanks you to every one's favourite Children's Laureate: Malorie Blackman for making sure I don't give up any time soon!