Monthly Archives: March 2019

HerStory (2) – talking books, writers and readers.

Saturday 30th March. Picture for yourself nearly 20 women and two men, aged from about 15 to 70, in an airless, windowless, side-room in Coventry city’s main library. Outside is is a beautiful spring day. Inside we are talking about HerStory – why women write and do they get a fair deal?

The poet, Emilie Lauren Jones compered, and I was on the panel with two poets, Sarah Leavelsey, and Malka Al-Haddad who is originally from Iraq. It was all part of the Positive Images Festival 2019, in Coventry – the nominated City of Culture for 2021. There was plenty of audience participation.

First of all we discussed whether women get the recognition they deserve. Why it is that awards seem to go to books where the protagonist is male, even if the author is female. Is it because female readers will read about male or female characters, but male readers prefer a male protagonist? Why does the gender bias also seem to apply in regard to the author’s sex? For example, the Bronte sisters had to write under men’s names in the nineteenth century just to get published. But more recently, J.K. Rowling chose to conceal her sex when publishing the Harry Potter books (and her more recent books for adults). On the other hand, many men writing romances (for Mills and Boon, for example) will adopt a female pen name. We could all agree that, for many reasons, women writers have not always had the recognition they deserve – though the last Man Booker prize went to Anna Burns for Milkman, which, despite the title, had a female protagonist.

Later we discussed how we decided what to write about. For Malka this was very much her experiences as a refugee, asylum seeker, and campaigner for human rights. Sarah and I drew on more prosaic experiences, listening to those around us and mixing real experience with imagination. For us, getting the voices to sound authentic was important and could influence whether we wrote in the first, third, or even second person. For Malka, the message was the important inspiration for her poetry, which perhaps made her writing more personal. For all of us, making the people in our novels or poems believable, especially our female characters, was very important, and that means drawing on personal experiences – though in my case at least, the experiences get shared around various characters as I am not comfortable writing anything too easily identifiable with me or those around me.

Finally, we talked about our habits as readers, and I find I am not the only one who likes reading in the bath. (Warning – don’t try this with a Kindle). All of us on the panel, and the audience, agreed that reading, as well as being a joy in itself, was important preparation for a writer. A sentiment which led nicely into the time allotted to selling our books.

You may not have been there but, if you are interested to find out more about the panelists and their work, here are the links to our websites or other social media:

Sarah Leavesley

Malka Al-Haddad:

And my links: Links to my books and social media


HerStory – why women write.

On Saturday 30th March I am participating in HerStory, a free literary event aimed primarily at women writers and readers. It is part of the build up to Coventry being the City of Culture in 2021. It is hosted by the poet, Emilie Lauren Jones, and will be taking place in the Central library in Coventry from 1pm to 3.30pm. And did I mention that it’s FREE!

We will be talking among other things, about how can you tell if the writer is male or female? And does it matter? Is there a ‘recognition gap’ between the ranking of male and female writers? Is there one for male or female characters?

On a more personal level we will talk about why we write; how we choose what to write about; and how important are female characters in the story / poem / play?

And, because writers need readers (see my last post) what sort of stuff do we like reading? And where do we like to read?

Of course, there’s plenty more going on, including readings and a Q&A session. But you’ll have to be there to get the full flavour. That, and read my next blog where I will report on how it all went.

Links to my books and social media

Readers wanted!

In a blog a week or so ago I wrote about how publishers and literary agents need writers or they would be out of work. If only it felt, as a writer, that we had the upper hand, rather than struggling to keep that pleading tone out of our cover letters!

It can feel like a struggle when looking in the other direction too: writers need readers. But how do we get people to buy our books whilst not sounding too desperate in our ‘buy my book please!’ tweets and Facebook posts? After all, why should someone read our books? Indeed, why does anyone read books at all, when there are so many other interesting things to do? Reading, is such a solitary activity, why would someone want to look like a loner, only one small consonant away from being a loser?

Not so, according to C.S. Lewis, who wrote “We read to know we are not alone.” And, after a moment’s thought, you can see what he was getting at. People read for enjoyment, or to obtain facts. They read to understand how people tick. They read to distract themselves from the stresses of their demanding job, or the give the brain a work out after a day of mind-numbing routine. Some doctors (but not enough) prescribe books to help patients deal with pain, or chronic illness, or depression. William Sieghart’s book, The Poetry Pharmacy, has a poem for every type of illness. A re-reading of Persuasion, or I Capture the Castle, works wonders for me.

The Queen is an avid book worm, a fact Alan Bennett’s book, The Uncommon Reader, makes gentle fun of. By contrast, Donald Trump is rumoured to pride himself on never reading a book. Not sure what that says about our respective nations!

Many quite famous and / or busy people have taken up the 52 book challenge – that is, to read one book a week throughout the year. Some of the big names in social media, like Evan Spiegal, a co-founder of Snapchat, limit their own family’s screen time in favour of reading. Other tech entrepreneurs seem to prefer amassing libraries to art work.

Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, sums it up. “The ability and opportunity to read widely – to stand in the shoes of the different and the dead, to travel to other times and into other cultures – is an important part of being human.
Which leads me to my book links. Please buy, oh go on!

Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

Links to my books and social media

Pitching your work

I recently attended an excellent workshop on how to pitch your masterpiece – sorry, manuscript – to a potential agent or publisher. The workshop concentrated on doing face to face pitches, but much of the advice applies to the pitch you would want to make in a cover letter. I will just refer to an agent here, but the same goes for pitching to a publisher who accepts unsolicited submissions

First and foremost, of course, you need to actually have a completed manuscript. No good having most of it still in your head if an agent gets back to you and says they want to read the whole lot next week!

Assuming you’re good to go, the pitch needs to answer the agent’s unspoken question – Why would I want to take on this book? You need to research which agencies – and which agent within that agency – deals with books like yours.

As a rough estimate, a pitch should take about two minutes to deliver. At three words per second, and allowing for a few pauses to take a breath, that comes to about 350 words.

When you get going, don’t be apologetic. Remember, agents depend on writers for their living; you just might be their next best seller. You are also selling yourself as a dependable addition to their literary empire.

A verbal pitch is a performance, but don’t overdo the dramatics – just because you’ve written a hilarious book about Brussel sprouts, doesn’t mean you have to go dressed as one.

Have a ‘headline’ opening comment. It doesn’t all depend on the first thirty seconds, but you do want to pique their interest, so get what’s special about your book in early, e.g. does it deal with something really topical – like knife crime, or climate change? Introduce the main character early on.

Expand on your headline with more details, e.g. a brief resume of the plot, the catalysts that change things, and the other key characters. If you have relevant knowledge, e’g it’s set in the Amish community and you are Amish, mention it. Name your genre, the word count and the likely readership. (Maybe also a famous author whose work yours could be compared to – especially if this author is with this agency.)

Don’t get side tracked into every twist and turn of the plot or name check every character – remember you’ve only got two minutes!

Don’t leave cliff hangers – the agent wants to know what they’re buying in full. The teaser ‘what happens next?’ as a final statement, is for your back cover blurb, not your pitch.

Don’t just dry up at the end. A closing sentence could be something like ‘… from what I’ve read about your agency, I feel my book would be a good fit and I’d love to be able to work with you in the future. Thank you.’

It’s OK to pitch to more than one agent at a time. It’s a competitive world out there, so not every pitch is going to result in an immediate acceptance.

Links to my books and social media

Is it ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ – and does it matter?

A bit of grammar today, and a report of a minor tiff between a reader, a writer, and a sub-editor on The Times in December 2018.

An article stated that a forthcoming event was ‘fewer than two weeks away.’ This prompted a letter from a reader pointing out that the writer had used the wrong word:

‘We have here a sense that ‘fewer’ rather than ‘less’ is needed because we are dealing with a number of weeks. But this isn’t so. The only number of weeks that is fewer than two is one, and a reader who encounters ‘fewer’ is automatically led to think of a whole number – and thinks of one week.’

Well, I wouldn’t say this would have been my first thought, but what The Times writer intended to convey was that the event was under two weeks away. When he submitted his copy he had written ‘less’ not ‘fewer’ – which would have satisfied this grammatically aware reader. Unfortunately the sub-editor changed it to ‘fewer,’ in contravention of the paper’s own style guide.

This guide says: ‘Fewer in number, and generally with plural nouns (fewer goals, fewer people); less in size or quantity and with singular nouns (less confusion, less work). Treat duration, distance etc. like size – i.e. singular (time, space) even if the units (years, miles) are plural. [BUT] this is an area where prescriptive zeal should not trump common sense.’

In other words, use what sounds right – and don’t lecture the poor sales assistant on the checkout till, next time you visit a supermarket, and the sign above says ‘10 items or less.’ Of course you know it should be ‘fewer,’ but life’s too short.

Links to my books and social media

What’s your reading age?

Recent research by Renaissance UK into the length of sentences and words in books intended for children and young people has come up with some surprising results. The research is intended to guide teachers when deciding what books their students should read.

One result that has raised eyebrows is that the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves which are intended for the youngest pupils and pre-schoolers is rated as harder than some of the Roald Dahl books, and almost as hard as John Steinbeck.

Some passages in, for instance, Mr Greedy are indeed quite complex: Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious spell, A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.

Yes, plenty of long words and sentences. However, as some people have pointed out, books by authors like Roald Dahl might be linguistically simpler, but the stories themselves are more complex and often morally ambivalent, so more challenging for the reader, and therefore more suitable for an older child.

Each Mr Men book, on the other hand, follows a simple structure, has a simple resolution and a happy ending, and so is more suitable for a young child. What they might also have said is that the Mr Men books are intended to be read aloud, so we’re really talking about young listeners rather than young readers. Parents and teachers can have fun reading a paragraph like the one above, building up the picture and the excitement with the repetition of the lists of words. They are books intended for an almost theatrical performance by the adult, rather than for a child to read quietly in a corner. And very good for this purpose they are too. But an older child, once able to read independently, is going to want a bit more of a story line and plotting, even if that means shorter words and sentences initially.

Which leaves me wondering, is this sort of research, done by computers scanning word and sentence length, actually any help to teachers? Or wouldn’t actually reading the books for themselves give them a better idea of what is suitable for the ages and abilities of the children in their class? (Which is probably what they do anyway).

Links to my books and social media