My Top Five Must-Haves for Writing

  1. Timer

This really does come first. I use a timer for motivation in all kinds of work, and it really does help. When I’m struggling to focus (i.e. cataloguing socks is suddenly looking ridiculously tempting), just setting a simple kitchen timer for 15 minutes, putting the phone away, turning wifi off and doing NOTHING ELSE for those 15 minutes will get me started. It’s great for busy days too – 15 minutes each on a handful of tasks moves me further in a morning than the faffing that I would do otherwise.

  1. Stamps

Not postage ones, but children’s brightly coloured stars, hearts, faces etc. Some people use stickers. This is exactly the same principle, but stamps are less consumable (and, I suppose, less varied). It’s a simple yet effective anti-procrastination motivational technique which becomes more powerful the more stamps/stickers you have lined up – once there are a few in a row,  it becomes more and more important (and easier) to keep going.

I use a set of Crayola pen stampers and assign different meanings to different designs, so 1 is for exercise, 1 for writing a blog, another for fiction writing and so on. When I’ve done the thing, I stamp the calendar day. It works really well to help build and maintain ‘streaks’ of good habits. Some people allocate a stamp/sticker to a certain number of words written or to pages edited etc or to time spent; I just credit for having done it at all (my standards are low, alright?).

  1. SCBWI membership

The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is a fabulous organisation for those of us working in that area. A lot of what is offered is geared to fiction, but non-fiction writers are welcomed too. Membership is open to anyone interested in children’s books – you do not need to be published. The Society organises critique groups, a British Isles conference (which I went to for the first time this year, and loved) and many smaller events. I am drafting this on the train to a day workshop on writing series fiction for 5-8 yr olds taught by a successful author in that area, for example. There is a lot of skill-sharing, which is invaluable, and conducted with a generosity of spirit.

  1. Notebook and pencil

I write on computer, but all my planning and ideas generation is carried out by paper and pencil – or occasionally an array of coloured pens. I could not write anything without this stage.  Of course, when I say notebook, I really mean my trusty organiser from Cordwain Higgler. Isn’t she lovely? I’m going to do a post all about her one day.

  1. Scrivener

I am a relatively recent convert, but I have transferred all my novel plotting to Scrivener’s outline board and I love it. It allows for clear organisation of ideas; moving around (and insertion) of parts; separation into scenes/chapters/acts to clearly see turning points etc – fabulous for a structure junkie like me! You can alo have character notes, older drafts, research notes and anything else you like saved right in the file but not part of the word count of the story for easy viewing – so useful! (yes, yes, I know – I should have been using this years ago and no, I’m not on commission, and I know it would be even better if I were a Mac person, but there we are…).

What are your writing must-haves?

UKYA Review: Mind The Gap by Phil Earle

Mind The Gap, Phil Earle, (Barrington Stoke, Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basicsWhen Mikey’s dad died, something in Mikey died too. He loved his old man and he never stopped dreaming that one day his dad would land the role of a lifetime, prove them all wrong, and rock back up to the estate in the flashiest car anyone had ever seen. Now there’s just numbness, and not caring, and really, really stupid decisions. He says the worst of it is that he can’t even remember his dad’s voice any more. Eventually Mikey’s best mate can’t bear it any more, and so he sets out to give Mikey the memories – and his dad’s voice – back.

Review-in-a-tweet:  Gripping and emotive tale of mates and choices. ‘Super-readable’, sharply contemporary, realistic; will strike a chord with many teens.

The emotional ride: Obviously, at times this is tough. Mikey’s pain over losing his Dad is clear, but it is generally quite understated. It’s more about the immediate problems of Mikey acting stupidly because he doesn’t care about things any more, and about his mate’s quest to find a way to give Mikey his dad’s voice once more.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: The biggest opportunity this book (and others from Barrington Stoke) offers teachers is the chance to get students reading for pleasure. It’s a genuine gift in that department.

At Yr 11 Parents’ Evening last week, I had this along with The Liar’s Handbook and Unboxed from Barrington Stoke, (and some other YA titles of various kinds) on my desk ready for the ‘but I don’t know what to read’ moment, and it was brilliant to be able to show them the fantastic package that these little books are to make them super-readable:

  • clear sans-serif font
  • tinted pages (one mum said ‘I have dyslexia and I can see those words – I couldn’t on the sheet of exam dates you just showed me’)
  • short chapters and overall book length
  • stories by authors already successful for this age group, not teachers or ‘dyslexia experts’
  • topics and themes found in other YA novels, nothing simplified in content, only in readability

Several students took photos of the books, to be able to buy them later/find them in a library – yay!

Main character: I’d say it’s impossible to read this and not be behind Mikey 100%, even when he’s being an idiot (and he really is, at times). Phil Earle makes you understand why he’s being an idiot, so you just feel for him even more (that’s part of the ‘not simplified content’ thing about these books – they require an emotional maturity, but the reading age is only 8. No mean feat!)

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Mind the Gap is out now in the UK from Barrington Stoke, who kindly provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017: my third for the challenge.

Blog Tour: Flexing Your Creative Muscle with Maz Evans

Today, I’ve got Maz Evans here as part of her Who Let the Gods Out blog tour (see below for more on the fab Greek-mythology-based romp for 9+)

As our heartfelt New Year promises to nurture physical muscles languish at the bottom of a selection box, I propose that now is a good time to turn our attention to a different muscle – our creativity.

No, I’m not high on my gluten-free, alkaline, low-GI protein smoothie – creativity is a muscle like any other. Use it often and it will become more powerful. Let it waste and no amount of supportive underwear can help it.

Think about it. At some point in your life, maybe you’ve learned to play an instrument or taken up a sport? You weren’t born with these skills. You may have had some natural ability, but in order to fully realise it, you had to practice. The more you play the violin, the less your neighbours want to move. The more you practise your penalty shoot-outs, the fewer windows needed replacing. The more creative you are, the more creative you become.

When I run my Story Stew workshops, I always start by asking everyone if they believe themselves to be a creative, or non-creative person. Various hands go up – as does a sigh of disbelief when I tell them there is no such thing as a non-creative person. But you have to be creative to get through a day on planet Earth. You solve problems – creative. You tell stories – creative. You persuade people to do things for you – creative. You probably tell at least one lie – wrong, but creative.

Next time you’re writing a story, force your creativity to work harder. If you’re writing about a man who wants a dog, why not make him a woman? And she’s a hippo. And she actually wants a parsnip. But she lives on Jupiter where no parsnips will grow. And unless she delivers a parsnip trifle by 3pm, the Lesser-Spotted Krinkenshlob will eat her favourite orange stripy hat…

As demonstrated, you may come up with a load of rubbish. Sometimes your first idea is your best. But somewhere in the mental seed-tray, an idea might start to germinate. At the very least, now your brain is warmed up, you will make your original idea more inventive. Your brain is busy and looking for an easy solution – make it work harder.

So this February, resolve to tone up your creativity and whip your ideas into shape.

Because let’s be honest. It’s got to leave a better taste than this smoothie…

@MaryAliceEvans

Maz Evans runs creative writing workshops for all ages. For more info visit www.maz.world.

Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Who Let the Gods Out is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February and is out now from Chicken House.

 

The Reading Teacher: A New Crop of Weekly Recommendations to Share

Here are my latest weekly book recs, which I display at the start of lessons in the hope of encouraging some students to find something that appeals to them. I am happy to report that some students have noted down the odd title in lessons, so I feel I’m making some kind of a difference. If I can introduce somebody to something they like that they wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s worth it, right?

Download For catharsis slide as pdf.

Many students enjoy a good ‘weepie’ and these should appeal to those who’ve outgrown Jacqueline Wilson and gone through the Cathy Cassidy collection. They all cover difficult issues with heart and occasionally with humour.  

Download For fantasy fans slide as pdf.

Fantasy remains a staple popular genre and these are all excellent choices. I’ve tried to avoid some of the more heavily-promoted series in favour of novels students are perhaps less likely to have heard of – and couldn’t resist making a(nother) plug for Pratchett.

Download LGBT History Month slide as pdf.

February is LGBT history month and this is a good set of contemporary novels for students to find a range of sexualities and gender identities represented. If you want some non-fic on this theme, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson (older printings may still say James Dawson) is excellent, and I would also recommend Beyond Magenta, which collects interviews with transgender teens, although this is a US text so some experiences are very US-centric.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read the majority of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others. The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story. For more on my reading recs, this page of my website collects my #ReadingTeacher recommendations and blog posts.

UK Crime Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie

Today I am part of the review tour for a new UK crime novel, out in e-book this week.

Burned and Broken, Mark Hardie, (Sphere, e-book out Jan 2017, paperback May 2017).

Genres in the mix: crime, police procedural

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from the back cover) A vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

The charred body of a policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend seafront.

To DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell of the Essex Police Major Investigation Team, the two events seem unconnected. But as they dig deeper into their colleague’s murder, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Can Pearson and Russell solve both cases, before more lives are destroyed?

Mark Hardie was born in 1960 in Bow, East London. He began writing fulltime after completely losing his eyesight in 2002. He has completed a creative writing course and an advanced creative writing course at the Open University, both with distinction.

Review-in-a-tweet: An intriguing, if not always easy read, which certainly keeps you on your toes. No by-the-book crime thriller!

Narrative style: This is one of the things that makes this book different and, at times, difficult. The perspective/point of view shifts every chapter, and sometimes more frequently, not always with a clear anchor to indicate whose viewpoint we’re in within the first sentence or so. This said, the range of perspectives and ‘insider views’ offered as a result of this is useful and certainly adds to the intrigue, but I do feel it could be handled more tightly at times.

The material at the end of the book says that the author is a fan of both crime and literary fiction, and I think that shows in what he’s doing with the book. This is a relatively unusual crime novel in some ways, in that it is trying to avoid some of the conventions (which it perhaps sees as cliches). At times, however, it felt a bit too much like hard work, as I found myself lost as to whose ‘head’ I was in or even a little unsure as to what had just happened. Not one for late night reading when you’re dozy…

Main characters: I grew to admire DS Pearson, although I wasn’t enamoured of him at first. He doesn’t fit established crime series ‘types’ for the main character, which is nice – in a few key ways, this book does ignore/avoid conventions – and he isn’t always likeable, but not in a maverick cop/tough guy way. I really liked DC Russell though, and she had my sympathy from the start. I thought Hardie did a good job of painting a conflicted female character in a tough spot without resorting to the kinds of cliches male crime writers often have. Donna (the ‘vulnerable young woman’) also avoided some obvious cliches in her presentation I think and although her sections were often tough reading, I feel they were done well.

Hearthfire rating: 7/10 A book to cosy up with

Burned and Broken is out now in e-book format in the UK from Sphere (Little, Brown Books), who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

The blog tour continues tomorrow with these blogs taking part.

The Reading Teacher: Recommendations to Share

Welcome to a new blog feature. I’ve been making recommendations over on Twitter for a while, with a particular eye on teachers’ needs, using the hashtag #ReadingTeacher and I thought I’d share a few here with a bit more detail (and some resources to share with students!). I’ve already blogged about this idea in general terms, so I’ll just cut straight to recommending some books, if that’s ok 🙂 Here are some I’ll be recommending to my classes over the next couple of weeks:

Download Lemony Snicket slide    Download Narrative Voice slide

I don’t know about you, but my resident teens and I have become big fans of the Netflix version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, so I thought that making some recommendations based on that might be prudent. I’ve gone for a gothic vibe largely, general weirdness and a dark comic tone as you can see from the info on the slide. I first read Good Omens in sixth form and it was certainly accessible (although I think there were references I only understood on re-reading as an adult), so I’m hopeful some bright yr11s might like it. Incidentally, there will be a Good Omens series (penned by Gaiman) on Amazon and the BBC in 2018.

As for my ‘narrative voice’ collection, I thought it would be nice to cluster books by literary feature sometimes rather than theme, as it allows for a broader spread of content and gives me more chance to offer something to catch the interest of more students in a class.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read most of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others (confession: I haven’t read Miss Peregrine – yet – but many of my go-to trusted bloggers have). The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story.

UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

Three Recommendations for Transgender Rep: Non-Fic, YA and MG

Non-Fic Recommendation: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin

Recommended for: parents, teachers, youth workers, teens and tweens of all gender identities (and sexualities) – transgender, cisgender (non-trans), non-binary, agender.

The style of this book is very journalistic, but incredibly hands-off. Put together by photographer-author Susan Kuklin, it is clear that she allowed her teen subjects a lot of freedom in expressing themselves. It is also clear that she is a cis author seeking information from that perspective and for that reason, this book is perhaps slightly more useful for a cis audience. That said, there are clear efforts for the book to be representative in that there are two each male-to-female, female-to-male and non-binary teens presented in the book, so it would be very difficult to leave it with the impression that there is one transgender experience, which is great.

At times, probably because of their young age, some of the books’ subjects are a little dogmatic in their opinions and it might have been nice to balance this with the perspective of older, more settled, transgender narratives, but there is also much value in sharing teens’ voices. If a key purpose of the book is to help transgender teens see others in the same position, then the book certainly achieves that. Another would be to help cis teens understand, and I think that purpose is also well met. There are comprehensive lists of resources for support (US and UK) at the end of the book.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Beyond Magenta is out now in the UK from Walker Books, who provided me with a review copy. It was a 2015 Stonewall Honor Book in the US.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.


YA Recommendation: If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo

 

Recommended for: YA contemporary fans of all ages and gender identities. There are separate notes for both trans and cis readers at the end of the novel (which are brilliant and generous but should only be read after the story because of spoilers).

This #ownvoices contemporary YA romance about Amanda with flashes to when she was Andrew is nicely put together and offers a satisfying story with some fantastic characterisation. I thought Amanda’s parents were well drawn, especially her Dad’s struggles with his daughter’s identity. That would be easy to present as black/white, but he is a fully-realised character with plenty of grey and I really enjoyed seeing that. Complex parents are not always something you get in YA.

The ways in which this does fulfil YA tropes are that Amanda is beautiful and desirable and, sometimes, things seem easier for her than they will be for many trans teens who read this. At first, this worried me reading it, but then I realised that it is intended to offer hope and, in fact, the more negative aspects of transition are discussed, they just might be in Amanda’s past or happen to others rather than being centre stage. This is also discussed in the author’s notes.

Overall, the charming story will easily carry readers through, while the author’s notes at the end serve nicely to emphasise the relevant points about trans experience. There are also adverts for UK-specific support services at the end.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

If I Was Your Girl is out now in the UK from Usborne. It was selected as a ‘Zoella book club’ title for W H Smith.


MG Recommendation: George, Alex Gino

Recommended for: readers 9+ (including teachers and parents)

This book really blew me away. I’d read other trans rep before this one, but I couldn’t say I’d had the experience shown to me so definitively before. It’s all in the pronouns and voice.

George is presented using female pronouns (she/her) and, when the book starts, she’s at home by herself. When you then see her interacting with others who refer to her as a boy, it’s jarring. And then you get it – that’s how clearly and viscerally Alex Gino presents the reader with George’s experience. They never describe George as ‘wanting to be’ a girl or ‘feeling like she is’ a girl, she just is a girl, but everyone inexplicably treats her as a boy. And there it is. For this cis reader, that was the clearest presentation I’d come across. I don’t consider myself stupid and I would say I had (intellectually) understood the concept before, but no-one had made me feel it before. I was right there with George, though.

For a book geek, another delight of this book is the way Charlotte’s Web is used. George’s class is studying the book and they’re going to do a performance of it and George wants to be Charlotte. Of course, her teacher won’t let her be Charlotte because, to her, George is a boy and boys should be Wilbur or Templeton. In all, it’s a lovely story, warmly told, pitched perfectly for the MG audience (I also appreciated that we don’t get into discussing transition or the big questions of how George will be in the future – there’s plenty of time for that). This is the perfect, reassuring and warm introduction to the idea for MG readers who may or may not have questions about gender at this point in time.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

George is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I hope this round-up has been helpful and I really hope to see more books exploring the range of human identity coming out in the future. Some of these books have been out for a while in the States but are fairly new to the UK. I know that in schools we’re starting to see more kids expressing different gender identities and it would be good for teachers and support workers to have resources available to support them and other kids around them.

UKMG Review: A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson

28168228A Girl Called Owl, Amy Wilson, (Macmillan Children’s Books, 26 Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, contemporary, school setting, folklore

Age target: MG

Story basics: (blurb) It’s bad enough having a mum dippy enough to name you Owl, but when you’ve got a dad you’ve never met, a best friend who needs you more than ever, and a new boy at school giving you weird looks, there’s not a lot of room for much else.

So when Owl starts seeing strange frost patterns on her skin, she’s tempted to just burrow down under the duvet and forget all about it. Could her strange new powers be linked to her mysterious father?And what will happen when she enters the magical world of winter for the first time?

A glittering story of frost and friendship, with writing full of magic and heart, A Girl Called Owl is a stunning debut about family, responsibility and the beauty of the natural world.

Review-in-a-tweet: Classic-toned story in today’s world. Great on big themes of family, friendship and fitting in, woven through a fantasy landscape using folklore.

 

Plotting and pacing: I felt this was managed perfectly for its tween audience. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it, portioned out slowly enough for young readers who are unfamiliar with the folklore to handle.

Main character: Owl is a lovely character – very easy to relate to and empathise with. Young readers will readily engage with her all-too-familiar worries about not fitting in if she reveals her secrets, even though her problems are magical in origin.

Supporting cast: I loved the relationships created in this book; they are very emotionally realistic. I’m sure many readers will also love Mallory (Owl’s best friend) and Alberic (mysterious new boy at school).

Hearthfire rating:  8/10 Sizzling

A Girl Called Owl  comes out on the 26th January in the UK from Macmillan Childrens, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Diverse Reading Challenge 2017

I like to look out for diversity in my reading matter, and representation is always something I’m aware of, so this seems like a good challenge for me. It’s a simple one, with a straightforward aim: to try to include diverse representation in your reading.

The challenge is jointly hosted across two blogs: Read.Sleep.Repeat. and Chasing Faerytales, and they define diversity broadly, following We Need Diverse Books’ lead.

There is a theme per month, but this is optional, and diverse books not fitting that theme can also be counted towards the challenge. I do intend to use some of the themes and the suggested reading list/recommendations on Twitter to help me broaden out my reading, though. January’s theme is ‘stories based on/ inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology’, so that’s a bit of a challenge for me straightaway. I’ve read Zoe Marriott’s excellent The Night Itself trilogy (Japanese folklore-based, UK-set urban fantasy YA), which is on the list for that section, but I’ll need to get a move on if I’m going to find and read something new and review it this month – eek!

Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.