Showing posts with label Catherine Johnson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catherine Johnson. Show all posts

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Humble-bragging. Soz - Rowena House

Many apologies, Awfully Big Blog readers, but I’m up to my neck in GCSE and A-level English teaching, and after two abortive attempts to produce a readable piece for this month, I’ve got to accept reality: at the moment I can’t think straight and chew cud!

Instead, here are links to the Historical Association’s Young Quill readers’ reviews of their choices for the 2019 shortlist for novels for 11-13 year old readers - and anyone else who loves a good historical yarn. I’m so proud that The Goose Road sits alongside these fabulous books by Hilary McKay, Catherine Johnson, Emma Carroll, Pippa Goodheart and Stuart Hill.
Congratulations to you all.
Other age categories have super choices, too, so please direct your young people, their teachers, families and friends to all of the honest, insightful reviews. What a great time for our genre! And thank you to the Historical Association, and every one of their reviewers.  






Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Fifty Five Books in 2015 by Savita Kalhan

In 2015 I did my usual thing of trying to read at least fifty five books, and I managed to reach my target. I love reading, but sometimes work and life can get in the way, so having a target and keeping a record helps keep me on track.

It's also interesting to look back at what I've spent the year reading. Some of it is work related, of course, and some constitutes research. But it's definitely quite an eclectic list that ranges from middle grade books, to teen books, young adult, and general fiction. 

Last year I also set up a teen reading group at my local library, and what I discovered was that the kids in my group not only share my love of reading, but that, like me, they love a huge range of location, theme and genres in the books they read.

Interestingly, what they don't like is being misled by the blurb on the back of a book - especially if it's written in a very different style to the book. They like an honest blurb that more accurately describes the book. Some of them like chapter headings, some of them glance at the last page - just to make sure that the ending isn't going to be one they're not going to like, which can make them put the book down before the end.

My group are mainly younger teens, so although we did shadow the Carnegie for a while, we moved on within a few months. We discussed all the books on the long list and short list, and the group read several of them, but there were a few books that they could not finish because, in the kids' words, 'they were for much older kids.' I'm glad they tried them and knew when to put them down. Some of them will come back to them in a few years, I'm sure.

So here are a few of mine and my teen library group's favourite reads last year:

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Silent Saturday by Helen Grant
Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill
I Heard the Owl Call my Name by Margaret Craven
Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman
Cow Girl by G R Gemin
Whale Boy by Nicola Davies
Liccle Bit by Alex Wheatle

And some more:
Half Lives by Sara Grant
Lockwood and Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan
Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar
She is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson
13 Hours by Narinder Dhami

I wish I could fit in more than fifty five books. Maybe I'll raise the bar to sixty books this year...

Happy reading in 2016!

Savita's website
Facebook page

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Publishing and #diversedecember by Savita Kalhan

#diversedecember was launched on Twitter on the 1st of December to celebrate BAME, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, authors, and to highlight the continuing lack of diversity in publishing.

I have blogged about the lack of diversity in children's literature here and blogged about how the States was tackling the very same problem - #weneeddiversebooksUK

I also blogged about Malorie Blackman and Bali Rai's call for more diversity in children's literature, and how the lack of diversity affected me when I was growing up - Black and White and Everything in Between

Rosie Canning and Lindsey Bamfield highlighted the lack of diversity and held a Diverse Author Day in September, which I blogged about - #diverseauthorday

Now, Nikesh Shukla has joined Jon McGregor in an attack slamming the elitism of an industry which “work[s] to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home."

You can read the Guardian article here -
Where are the Brown People?: authors slam lack of diversity in UK publishing

On Twitter people have been sharing what they want to read this month and recommending books. It's easier to do this with contemporary fiction because there seem to be far fewer published books by BAME teen writers.

So, in that spirit, I'll be reading these two great new books published this year by BAME teen/YA authors:

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson
13 Hours by Narinder Dhami

Please add any book recommendations in the comments below.

I'll also be reading these adult fiction books:
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur
A Restless Wind by Sharukh Husain

Nosy Crow has announced that they would like to support #diversedecember. So if there are any BAME authors out there, now is your chance to submit. Check out the submission guidelines first here - Nosy Crow

Tom from Nosy Crow said, "Today we’re announcing an open call for children’s fiction submissions from debut BAME writers. I think that it’s incredibly important that our industry represents a wide range of voices, not only so that children from every background can recognise their own lives and experiences in the books that they read, but also simply to enrich the body of children’s literature that we publish, by moving out of a monoculture and embracing a wider world of ideas."

Nikesh Shukla is also compiling an anthology of essays by BAME authors, The Good Immigrant, fifteen writers who will be exploring what it means to be Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic in the UK today. He is looking for funding - here's the link if you'd like to pledge - UNBOUND
J K Rowling has just pledged £5K.

You can follow #diversedecember on Twitter for more book recommendations and news.

You can follow me on Twitter here @savitakalhan
My website -
My Facebook page - Savita Kalhan Author

Thursday, 6 March 2014

I just can't get you out of my mind...

I've always found that there are certain characters in books of whom I get so fond that I don't want to say goodbye to them when the book ends. The hobbits were like that; when I finished The Lord of the Rings, I walked around in mourning for some days because I was no longer in a world where they were. Perhaps oddly, Horatio, in Hamlet, is another. There's something I really like about Horatio. He's on the edge of things, watching, but loyal and caring and clever. I picture him with a long scarf wound round his neck, glasses, a shock of dark hair, a wry smile. A bit like a French assistant we had when I was in the sixth form, as it happens!

And it's the same with the books I write. A few years ago, I wrote a book about Alfred the Great. It was called Warrior King. It's out of print now, but like Arnie, it'll be back. Soonish, I hope! There was a character in there called Cerys, a magic lady, a wise woman, with silver eyes. I really liked her.

She emerged from my imagination, but the other character from that book who stayed in my mind was real. She was Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed (though in the book I called her Fleda - it made it less confusing, because there were so many other Aethel-whatnots hanging around). I discovered her when I was looking for a child who could be my point-of-view character when telling the story of Alfred - it was such a gift when I discovered that his oldest child was a daughter who would be just the right age at the time of the events in my story.

But Fleda became much more than that. I grew very fond of her. She was warm, impulsive, brave, and she could be defiant when she was defending something she believed in. I knew she must have been like that, because I knew that later, after the scope of my book, she married the Lord of the Mercians - and after his death, she became the Lady of the Mercians, Myrcna Hlaefdige, their de facto queen. She led them into battle and rebuilt their towns, and after her death, she was named in the Annals of Ulster as 'famosissima regina Saxonum', that most famous queen of the Saxons.

So when I got the chance to write a story for an anthology called Daughters of Time, a collection of stories about remarkable women from British history, written by contributors to the History Girls blog, it took no thinking at all to decide whom I would choose. I wrote about Aethelflaed at a time of transition for her, when she went from being princess of Wessex to wife of the Lord of the Mercians. It was an absolute joy to spend more time with her.

The only trouble is that the more I read about her, the more interesting she became. She had one daughter, Aelfwyn. She fostered her brother's oldest (but not quite legitimate) son, Aethelstan (who later became a great king of England): her brother was Edward, who succeeded Alfred. She fought alongside her brother; they must surely have been close. Yet after Aethelflaed's death, when Aelfwyn should have succeeded her, Edward rode in and carried Aelfwyn away into Wessex... and nothing more was heard of her. Edward became King then of Mercia as well as Wessex. Maybe she was put into a nunnery - or maybe not.

How much conflict and conniving, triumph and sadness, lie behind those few bare facts! I'd love to spend more time with Aethelflaed - and with Aethelstan and Aelfwyn. I'd love to explore their stories and try to understand their lives. One day, perhaps!

Daughters of Time is published this weekend. My story of the Lady of the Mercians is in there, but so are twelve other fascinating stories, many by writers who have blogged on An Awfully Big blog Adventure: Penny Dolan, for example, has written about Mary Wollstonecraft, Joan Lennon about Mary Anning, Catherine Johnson about Mary Seacole, Dianne Hofmeyr about Elizabeth Stuart. If you don't know much about any of these - as I didn't - you know what you need to do!

Monday, 17 September 2012

What I did on my summer holiday in the real world - Anne Rooney

Fabulously serious logo by Sarah McIntyre
I got back from my summer holiday last night. I went to CWIG, which is not an obscure Welsh village, but the Society of Authors Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group conference. It happens every three years in different cities, and this year it was in Reading.It was called 'Joined-up Reading'. Is that 'joined-up reading' or 'joined-up Reading'? Who knows. Maybe both.

Normally, we writers and illustrators spend our days doing what we want, bossing around people  who don't exist and skiving work to chat on Skype/Facebook/twitter about the work we should be doing. We're not used to being with other people all the time, or doing as we're told. We're not used to having to get dressed before working, eat at regular times, use a knife and fork nicely or sit quietly without telling a bunch of lies. But a conference is a proper organised thing with set mealtimes, talks to attend and other people to interact with.

So why do we go? Holiday!

CWIG is a delight. Full of old friends and potential new friends, a chance to gossip, eat, drink and whinge. If any snippet of useful information leaks in, that's a bonus.

Nicola Davies, unfazed by being
elbowed by a giant ghost - all in a
day's work for us
CWIG is just writers and illustrators - it's not somewhere to look for an agent or publisher,  no one has to be impressive, there's no point in showing off, and we can all just relax. It's a time for singing silly songs and drinking the bar out of wine. (We did that on the first night; the last time I was party to drinking a bar out of wine was in Outer Mongolia in 1990 on the day the Iraq War started.)

I loved it. And like all the best holidays, it had its grumble-points. The food was poor, the bar was hopeless, the cabaret compulsory (hah! we laugh in the face of compulsory!), the coffee undrinkable (that's serious) and the microphones non-functional. The Germans took all the sun loungers and there was tar on the beach. Oh. Hang on.

But we don't get this stuff every day, unlike, say, manager-type-people who are forever going to conferences and staying in the Scunthorpe (or Dubai) BestWesternMarriotHilton hotel. To be in a whole room of around 100 people, none of whom can be given green hair or three arms on a whim, is quite a novelty. CWIG is a weekend away in the real world.

Only our invisible friends were
skiving outside
But we can do it.

We talked about the state of publishing (in turmoil), of what the hell the government thinks it's doing with libraries (wanton armageddonising), of the progress of e-books in children's publishing (mollusc-like in its rapidity) and whether Allan Ahlberg's glass contained red wine or Ribena (who knows?) And heard the usual disingenuous comment from a publisher that there's never been a better time to be a children's writer.

Now for my holiday snaps. Don't shuffle like that. You might like to visit the real world one day.

Here is our venue: a very plausible-looking Henley Business Centre at Reading University.

We had proper signage, just like real business people. Well, perhaps not quite like real business people.

Just in case we didn't know where to walk ...

.... and where to dance, there were some stick people drawn on the floor.

(Obviously the nice people at Reading know that all writers - and  especially illustrators - speak fluent stick.)

We know how to dress. Alan Gibbons and John Dougherty, as usual, wore shirts chosen to burn out the eyes of Ed Vaizey. I won't dazzle you with those. Sarah McIntyre chaired her session in the best conference hat I have ever seen. [What do you mean, 'what's a conference hat?']

 Allan Ahlberg brought his teddy.

And he had a drink on the stage, though his wasn't see-through, like they usually are when you see conferences on TV.

We all transacted our own little bits of networking and business. I secured a promise from Catherine Johnson to translate some text into Jamaican Fairy and asked Jane Ray if I could commission a dodo from her.

So you see, we do know how to do it.

I had a wonderful time, but holidays can't last forever and it's time to settle be back into speaking stick and bossing around a steam-powered autamaton and an orphan in a boat. Sigh.

(If you would like to read a more informative account of what happened at CWIG, you could turn to David Thorpe. I'm sure more will appear, and I'll update this list later in the day/week/millennium.) 

Anne Rooney
(Stroppy Author)

Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do children own? – Michelle Lovric

Children have little claim on the material world. They own neither property nor cars. They do not hold mortgages. They can’t vote and they must live pretty much as their elders and would-be betters dictate.

Yet where’s the child who fails to make great claims on the universe? You see their imprint everywhere and most of all in the way in which they customize everything they touch.

I first started thinking about this idea a few years ago when our own lovely Catherine Johnson responded to my plea to be allowed to accompany an experienced writer on something that was new and terrifying to me – a school visit. At Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School, I watched thirty-odd girls at a time enter the library, take possession of the tables and begin to engage with ideas of writing. Catherine had them spellbound. I started to notice the girls’ pencil cases. Every child had a different one. Some were fluffy Hello Kitty, some were sleek Ted Baker; others had foxy tails or soft toys attached.

These girls were bound to wear the same uniforms but, where they could, they expressed their personalities abundantly and vibrantly.

I began to imagine what they did to their own bedrooms at home. In their own rooms, children express themselves, their tastes, their creativity, in every imaginable way. Even the music that fills the space; even the underwear scattered on the floor; even the Jurassic-period sandwich mouldering on a bookshelf; even the dried-out bottles of lurid nail varnish; even the desire to obliterate the light and paint the walls black.

And this gave me an idea for my new book, Talina in the Tower, in which a girl has everything taken away from her – her parents, her home, her neighbourhood, her freedom. Talina is an aspiring writer, and this is what she decides to do with her room in the lonely tower where she and her cat Drusilla are forced to live with a cold-hearted Guardian who writes morbid cautionary tales for children:
Talina’s huge bed was nothing more than a straw pallet supported on four piles of encyclopaedias. The counterpane was covered with books three layers deep. This left just a narrow channel in the middle, into which Talina inserted herself and Drusilla, like two letters in an envelope …
Much as she despised her Guardian’s books, Talina was determined to be a writer too. She’d been writing stories since she was five … Some of her most vivid ideas came from her dreams, especially since her parents had disappeared. She was so afraid to lose a brilliant thought in the night that she’d hung hundreds of pencils and pieces of paper from the roof’s beams on lengths of string. So, without even lighting a candle, she could always find a pencil with her fingers and make notes on the nearest scrap of paper. Some mornings, she woke up to find all the pieces of paper covered with scribbles. Sometimes she’d written ten different things one over the other on the same piece of paper, which was very irritating.

Later in the book, Talina escapes from her tower. At first she is relieved. But our fearless heroine is almost undone when she returns after many adventures to find that her cold-hearted Guardian has purged her room of every trace of her. Later, she tells him of the effect of this act on her feelings and her morale:
‘Great-Uncle Uberto, do you know what one of your worst deeds was? It was the way you emptied my room in your tower … Of course, I did not own that room – a child owns no place in the whole world, really. I knew it was yours, your tower, your walls, your everything – but I had made it mine, my refuge, the only way I could, with my little things, my pencils, my hanging books, my pictures. I’d hardly been gone a few days and you – you – you – expunged me, as if I were dead. As if I had never existed … What had I ever done to deserve that?’

Those pencil cases at Bishop’s Hatfield Girls School have a lot to answer for, as they also led me to look into other aspects of ownership in Talina in the Tower.

Can a human, for example, own an animal? I looked at our relationships with so-called domesticated creatures and those we deem wild. Who owns a city – the person who owns the land, those with a vision to build its wonders, or those who inhabit it with love?

As ever, Venice provided me with a perfect world in miniature on which to test my ideas. I watched the grannies of Quintavalle – a part of Venice where tourists are rarely seen – possessing their grandchildren in great waves of nagging and kissing. I saw monstrous cruise-liners subordinating Venice’s skyline. I saw arrogant tourists acting as if they owned the city by virtue of the money they had to spend. I saw the sponsors brutalizing the city by plastering cinema-screen-sized and tasteless photographs of their products over architecture whose remembered beauty burned their images right through the billboards. I saw children taking possession of Campo Santa Margherita and Campo Santo Stefano for their games. I watched my nephew climb a lamp-post and lord it over everyone.

I saw the other side of owning: being owned, and realized that, perversely, it is something most of us seek. We want to ‘belong’. But the bonds of good ownership are made not of money, power, or size. They are made of affection.

And this is something to which children may lay claim, and in extravagant portions.

Michelle Lovric’s website - see the new Talina web pages up now.
Talina in the Tower is published on February 2nd, 2012, by Orion Children’s Books
Michelle Lovric also blogs on the History Girls website

Friday, 28 October 2011

Selling and Not Sellling Catherine Johnson

Dear people, I know this is stupid, seeing as I do try and earn some money from writing, but one thing I find excruciating is trying to sell my own books. I know some people can do this, and I wish it was a skill I had, but the times when I've been behind a book shop counter or stall I have found it so much easier to sell other people’s.
Look at it this way, you may not even like my book, I mean, I can't really explain what it's about, not coherently, not in one sentence or less, and anyway aren't there a gazillion better books than mine out there?
I love it when I find something that I think is fabulous and will rant on and on about it, Nicky Browne's Wolf Blood? Brilliant,.... Sarra Manning's Let's Get Lost? Heartbreaking... The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman and David Roberts? Sheer genius... and I haven’t even mentioned The Sterkarms or anyone of the many other books I hold close to my heart. You would be here all day.
My own stuff? Well, it's all right I suppose, some of it....if you like that sort of thing...
Talk like that though, If you are not careful, can end up close to the other end of the spectrum which is - in my mind anyway - quite sick making. The 'little me' fishing for compliments thing. As our young people say today: ew!
So how does one sell a book, how do you say to someone who isn't related to you, that you think they might like, or might know someone who might like your book? Shouldn't you hone that this is my book in one sentence thing? So that when you do go into schools and stuff you can be confident about it? I suppose so....
And for some of my books it really does come easy, for example, NEST OF VIPERS is that TV programme, Hustle, set in the 18th century, with teenagers.
But this new one has been hard.
Try this; BRAVE NEW GIRL by Catherine Johnson, a novel about Seren, her best mate Keith, and her complicated family, she tries to make things right and only ends up making everything a whole lot worse! That just sounds like so many books.
No, please, I hear you say, what is it about, really?
How about; Friends, films, falling out and family. There.
Now, lets hear yours for your books....

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Last Gasp of the Mid Lister Catherine Johnson

I love being a writer. I have been a mid list writer, writing books that get lovely reviews, that get chosen in 'best of' round ups, and put on shortlists (not winning though and sadly not selling that much), for longer than is technically possible. In fact, last week at a swanky private view in town, I talked to a literary scout. When she asked me what I did she said, "Mid list? I didn't think the mid list existed anymore,"
I know, from talking to friends that I am not alone. And of course I'm not about to jack it in. I know I live a charmed live, with plenty of everything except money. But things have changed. This time a year ago I had bookings that began in September, packed out October, trailed off in November, but filled my next years diary as far as next May. This year, apart from two visits to the wonderful Discovery Centre in Stratford I have none. Nil. Zero. Nothing.
I know I haven't had a 'big' book out for a year or two, and I am doing a couple of free events in local schools in November when the next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL, since you ask, comes out.
But this is the first year in, oooh, ten, years, when I have hadn't gone into a school and been paid to do workshops or booktalks or anything.
I remember telling some adult would-be children's writers that yes, we do get smaller advances than adults, but that's ok because we have another revenue stream; school visits. Well it looks like that one just dried up.
Of course I am not suggesting there will suddenly be a drought of children's books. There are always new writers and there are always people (me! here I am!) who want to write. But advances are going down, and I do worry children's writing might become something that only the people who sell shedloads or who are lucky enough to do because they are already wealthy are able to do.....

Actually that is never going to happen. Writing books reminds me of suburban riding schools. There are a few lucky ones who actually own ponies, and there's the rest of us; hundreds of eager, keen as mustard kids who would do anything, mucking out, cleaning tack, running errands, licking the salt lick or abasing ourselves in any possible way, just to have a go at brushing the pony let alone sitting on it and having a ride.

By the way, the picture is of me at the Mudchute Riding School on the Isle of Dogs in about 1985.

My next novel, BRAVE NEW GIRL is out on November 3rd published by Frances Lincoln. It's funny and warm. Honest.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Action! Catherine Johnson

This is a happy blog. I have had a good year writing wise, although my finances are in ruins there is plenty of hope on the horizon with a lovely TV commission which I must get writing now.
I've always done bits and pieces of screenwriting and think the parallels between this sort of writing and writing Young Fiction are legion. I thought I'd share, but I do hope you're not all going to go and start writing incredibly brilliant TV drama and leave me standing...
It's obvious really, when we write for young readers we have to tell our stories through action, through drama, rather than simply sitting inside our characters heads. We want our readers to know our characters by what they say and how they say it, and what they do and how they do it, not by streams of consciousness or acres of description.
We need to be able to do good dialogue, to hear our characters speak so our readers can hear them too.
All those little nuances of emotion and tendernesses, all the ways our stories hurtle towards their conclusions, have to be shown and not told.
Every scene has to work really hard, to be revealing as much of the story as possible, to be revealing more stuff about our characters and worlds without once telling the reader or hitting them over the head with exposition.
That's it really, externalise, dramatise and show. Easy.

So I'm off, in my head, to South Tottenham in 1971, (I know? prescient or what!). For a feel good, rags to riches, hard hitting, roller coaster story about the birth of now (the birth of now? Did I just right that? Have I had enough of pitching to TV companies....)
Anyway, there's a great soundtrack, from Ride a White Swan by T Rex, Knock Three Times, by Tony Orlando (and Dawn) to Rougher Yet by Slim Smith if you don't know it.
And of course it may never get made, but hey ho, that's life....

Photo is by Colin Jones

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Rastamouse, The Moomins and Me - Catherine Johnson

If you’re reading this on Saturday the 9th, at home with a cup of coffee and a bit of toast, think of me, sitting in a tent, a real live three dimensional one, in Coram’s Fields in London.

I will be slap bang in the middle of a real literature fest, my tent, pitched between two towering colossi of children’s literature. A minnow swimming with sharks, much as I am here, in amongst brilliant stars, old and new.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

What Works For You Catherine Johnson

I have just finished a bit of teaching I do with adults on a general writing course. It's a nice easy job, everyone's keen and I only do half the sessions, including the one on plot. I know that a lot of those new writers hope that I will impart a magic formula that will make writing a novel a matter of simple, bite size, steps, .

Of course, sadly I don’t. If it was that easy we’d all be doing it, and rewrites would become distant memories.

I know some of us use plot wheels, others do mounds of planning and have charts and post it notes stuck onto the walls of our writing sheds like sort of inverse advent calendar windows.

This is what I do:

I started off in film, but my education was mostly about abstract films – an hour and a half of a leaf going in and out of focus for example. Although I do remember the best class ever, a marvellous editor from Zagreb, talking us through Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which is still one of my all time favourite films.

So, when I started writing, structure was always the scariest thing. I just dived into stories, hoping I would work it all out by the time I got to the end. And I still do that a little, (or a lot sometimes) but now I use – a loose – three act structure – and beat sheet to make sure enough things are happening and that my plot is thickening up nicely.

In fact, I am knee deep in rewrites at the moment and although I’m more than happy with my characters and situation, there’s a definite sag after the end of Act One.

So I’m stepping back and allowing my two leads to enjoy themselves a bit after the upheavals of Act One, before they have to get back to the roller coaster of the story.

It all sounds so easy when you put it like that, as do all the other structural recipes. It’s the putting those recipes into practice that’s hard.

Good luck with all the stories,


Monday, 23 May 2011

Two years. Two months. Catherine Johnson

The great thing about writers’ blogs is that you understand, whatever way we do it, in caffs, in huts, in sheds or on the kitchen table, we are all pretty much the same. We all have ups and downs.
We all think everyone elses books are selling in twice the amounts of ones own (although this is true for me). That everyone else wins bucket loads of prizes, gets invited to every festival going, and lives on nothing but red wine and chocolate while churning out five thousand words a day wearing couture and nice shoes.
Meanwhile we sit at home in our writing pyjamas eating chocolate frogs and looking out of the window, wondering how the hell to get character A doing what we want with character B.
What we all want is to be so gripped by a story, a set of characters, a situation, that we might as well be wearing Alexander McQueen and eating chocolate frogs hand rolled by virgin chocolatiers (of either or both sex depending on your preference).
So, back to my title, and since I expect you’re wondering what the illustration is, back to that too.
I last blogged about a story I had laid to rest quietly at the beginning of March.
That same week I went on a day out in town with my grown up son. He’s been having a difficult time and we went for a walk and lunch and round a museum neither of us had ever been to.
Two months later I have finished a first draft of something new, and if not prize winning, then at least (I hope) publishable. The picture is a present from my daughter who read it as I went along and helped with plot holes. The characters are Ezra McAdam, surgeons’ apprentice and Loveday Finch, ex magicians’ assistant. She is using a stick on account of hurting her leg in a thrilling escape through Smithfield market being pursued by a gang of resurrection men.
I hope in a year or so someone else gets to read about them too, in the meantime happy writing. Catherine Johnson

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Nurse! The screens! Catherine Johnson

Do you have any dead books in a drawer? Ones you love but couldn't finish? Ones you finished but no one else loved?
Last month I put a would-be book to bed, on the equivalent of a long term life support system. It's not dead exactly, although I think it would need some huge electric jolt to make it work, and after eighteen months of hard work, involving plenty of thinking and not thinking, I'm calling it a day.
That brings my 'almost' collection of novels that never made it to three and a half. Let me talk you through some of them.
The first story I never finished was my difficult second book. I had written the first couple of chapters, 15k of lovely (I thought) words, it was set in a seaside town I think, but I can't for the
life of me remember the characters names. I had left the small film company I worked for they presented me with a computer, my first Apple. I typed in 15k words, pressed a button and put the whole thing into alphabetical order. It looked like this;

A A A A an an an an an and and and and and at at ( you get the idea).

I couldn't work out how to put it back. It remains, of course, my great lost masterpiece.

The second story featured my first ever male protagonist, I thought it was fab; Josh is gorgeous, just finished his GCSEs, when his Mum dies of MS. His estranged Dad turns to help him sort out the funeral and finds Josh in bed with his Mums' beautiful Slovakian carer (she is 22). Dad is a self centred film director with a new wife, who uproots Josh to London and then everything changes.
It was obviously not as fab as I thought....

The one I've just settled down in intensive care was historical and based on a true story. I think that was my mistake. The true story was so mad, whatever I made up around it couldn't compete. I finished it twice, thousands and thousands of poor, wasted, early nineteenth century, words. That's a lot of empire line frocks, believe.

I suppose I should be more mad or sad. How many people would do all that work for nothing? But the reason I'm not, is I have started on something new. I've got that new story, everything is right in the world, and even though you just made a creme caramel that didn't set, who cares feeling...

This one is the one. Oh yes.
Until it isn't. Or until the next one, whichever is sooner....

Friday, 11 March 2011

What (Not) To Wear

I could do with a restyle. Not of my everyday writer uniform of pyjama bottoms and old shirts, and even older worn down birkenstocks, that works fine.
But as you all know, it's just been World Book Day and I've had quite a few school visits back to back. This has meant wearing proper clothes out and about, and not just my lucky school talk outfit. It could do with a complete overhaul.
I was thinking about this and wondering if any of you have lucky outfits. I always find schools horribly hot, and dread pouring with sweat so my lucky outfit is a t-shirt (nice, and not boring honest) not too tight, with flat shoes and a sensible - not too short but not too long to be too uninteresting - skirt.
But I could do with something a little more exciting, perhaps a headress or a giant fur muff like the one in the photo.
You might think my lucky clothes are a bit dull, but I have had several wardrobe malfunctions in public, a few examples of which include wearing a pencil skirt so tight I couldn't sit at a coffee bar stool without falling off the other side, and getting a long, floaty summer skirt caught in an escalator as I tried and talk to, and appear intelligent and sensible to, a certain well known publisher. I have also gone shopping with my skirt tucked into my knickers.
So although my lucky outfit is a little on the safe side, it is at least trustworthy.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

What's That You're Wearing? Catherine Johnson

Sparked by a vicarious frock fest on facebook, and possible ideas for a writer's work uniform (anything from slankets to tassled jumpsuits since you're asking)I thought I'd talk about clothes.
I love thinking about what my characters are wearing, whether it's stays from the 18th century or regency Jane Austenesque muslins, 1940s siren suits, or 1970s Faye-Dunaway- as-Bonnie-from-Bonnie-and-Clyde 30s rip offs. Obviously I get the chance to dress up as a boy too, Russian leather boots, really good hats and floppy lace collars. Actually what I like, as a bloke, is a really good white stock collar and well fitting breeches, and this has nothing to do with Colin Firth.

Historical fiction does give you the ultimate dressing up box. In past stories I've had characters dress as Russian countesses, in Victorian mourning, as posture club molls, and in 1970's fabulous.

Imagine how you'd cope with doing anything wearing stays, or layers of heavy wool. I suppose this is easier for me as I can remember life before lycra. And now I now longer spend the hours I used to thinking about how I look, I can at least dress my pretend people.
I've always loved the idea that clothes could transform - even though it never worked in real life - that you could go from scruffy to sublime with some well judged under garments and good grooming.

I usually wear writing clothes around the house - a variation on pyjamas and t shirts. I think these days pretend clothes are more improtant that real ones.
Having said tha,t there are some real clothes I look back on very fondly, I remember when a second hand clothes shop opened up in my London suburb in 1979. Punk, which involved a lot of dresses made out of pillow cases, (for me anyway) was over, by then and I had some of my best finds there; a cream lace flapper dress that I wore until it disintegrated, a pair of black satin 1940s utility shoes that were always too high for me, a couple of horrockses cotton summer frocks with boned bodices one white with navy polka dots, one pink and flowery. I still have the polka dot one in my wardrobe, one day it will look as ridiculous as the stays.
What are your most memorable outfits, yours or your characters?
Happy writing.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

New Year, New Publisher Catherine Johnson

How's your year been? I think I have had the pre-requisite number of ups and downs. I don't think I would be still writing if I weren't a glass half full sort of person, one who thinks something good is just around the corner and it will all work out in the end, even if my tax bill is looming and there's now sign of a holiday this year...
Anyway here they are...

1. New publisher! Thanks to Frances Lincoln for taking me on and thinking Brave New Girl is 'funny and warm'. Out in September which, I know, is aaagges away!
2. Jo De Giuia at Victoria Park Books. A woman who works so hard for books and writers and whose shop must rank as the best specialist children's bookshop in London and it's on my doorstep. Thanks to her and Dylan Calder for StarLit and for a new London wide chldren's festival coming next year called Pop-Up.
3. Lovely books! This year I enjoyed Gillian Philips; Firebrand, Let's Get Lost by Sarra Manning, The Long Song by Andrea Levy and Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell, Slightly Invisible by Lauren Child and There are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwarz.
4. I am still writing. I have not had to get a proper job for ages. I feel totally blessed.
5. Meeting lovely writer friends. This could be a lonely job, but it isn't because we get to chat. How lucky am I!

1. No book out this year. The Barrington Stoke has been pushed back, and due to being dropped by Random House I have had a gap....
2. Not finishing the book I was supposed to finish....well I sort of finished it once and am dragging my feet a bit *sigh*
3. Still no Pony. When I was around eight I read a story about a girl who opened her bedroom window on Christmas morning and saw a pony waiting for her outside. This has never happened to me.
4. Katie Price selling more books than me. Ho hum.
5. Don't get me started on the new government!

HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, my all the words flow and may you never get stuck!
xxx Catherine

Friday, 19 November 2010

Covers Catherine Johnson

The last school visit I did - to a lovely school in Welwyn Garden City - went off suddenly and at a most interesting tangent. I was working in the library with a group of Year 8s. It was a great school library with a huge range of fiction.
As the session drew to an end, and I can't remember how the conversation began, we started talking about covers. They were all library monitors and big readers so they knew what they were talking about.
It was exhilarating, a fiery exchange of ideas, the students pulling books off the shelves that had great covers, but had disappointed, and those that had what they thought were poor covers but good stories.
It was fascinating, I learnt so much in about half an hour of frenzied sharing. It was so interesting I hope to go back, hopefully with a publisher or a designer and have some further discussions. It's too late for my next book, and I'm not advocating cover design by committee, but I think it's worth knowing - and listening to - what our audiences are looking for in a book cover.
I know it's hard for children's book, some are pitched at parents or adults, others jump on bandwagons, some authors are definite brands.
Very soon I think covers might cease to be as much of an issue anyway. Will e-readers mean that cover art is destined to be a thing of the past?
I hope not.
The picture is my next book from Barrington Stoke, and I think it looks rather good.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Black History Month Catherine Johnson

I like Black History Month. Of course it does sound a bit American, and to be absolutely honest I think it should be called British History Month because that's what it is, it's all of our history whatever colour we are. But it does help to know that there is a history of not white people that goes back an awful long way in these islands, and I do passionately believe we should all know about it. At least once a year.
I started writing historical novels because I loved those Sunday afternoon serials we had on the BBC in the 70s. I always loved the clothes and would have diued for an empire line frock, or at a pinch, a long Scottish Widows style velvet cloak I could throw on when I had a delivery to make on my horse.
Basically, I wanted to write stories that had people like me in fancy threads.The only historical outfits I ever saw black people in were slave rags or loin cloths.
Then I found this photo. It's my grandmother, also a Catherine, there on the left, with her mother in the centre, and her sisters. Look at their hats! Aren't they fabulous? This is black people in full late Victorian garb, these people are reasonably well to do and they are sitting there in all their finery for the photographer, just like people do everywhere.
And that's the point of it I suppose, not just Black History Month or history or stories; its that we're all pretty much the same.
Catherine Johnson
PS apologies for the mis post yesterday, I am in Lancashire thanks to the wonderful librarians of the county. If any of you get a chance to go to Shout About Books go! Many thanks to Alison, Allyson, Suzanne and Susan and Sandra. And more apologies to Linda, I tried to reply to your email but postmaster wouldn't let me.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Happy New Year! Catherine Johnson

No I'm not Jewish, although I do feel sort of vestigally Jewish on account of my secondary school being heavily Jewish, still being able to sing the whole of Hava Nagila and nursing a fondness for latke. It's just this time of year, back to school, back to work - even if like me you spent the summer months too close to your desk for comfort.

Both my children are adults and I have no ties to the turning of the school year but I still feel chained to the cycle of three terms a year. I've done my first session in a school - it was with teachers so doesn't quite count - and today after a four week break I looked at my current work in progress.

I have been doing other stuff, writing a lovely treatment for an early seventies set film, tweaking a modern, inner city funny book for girls (set for publishing with Frances Lincoln next year yippee!) and avoiding vengeful Mama Mia fans who simply won't accept that I an not that Catherine Johnson.

I have one other nugget of exciting news. I've been lucky enough to be on a committee to commission the new medals for the London Olympics. So during the summer I had the opportunity to go backstage at the British Museum handling renaissance medals struck by Italian masters for their Florentine Dukes.

There's nothing like touching something that was made in 1444 to make you imagine you could shut your eyes, open them again and actually be there. It didn't work, but you never know....if there's no post from me in a months time you'll know where I'll be.


Thursday, 29 July 2010

Five Books That Went Under the Radar Catherine Johnson

I know a bit of a silly title. Come on though, you know what I mean, five books for children - of all ages - that came out and never made it onto anyone's bestseller lists. Brilliant wonderful books that deserved a fraction more of the publicity department's budget than it should have.

Every year so many brilliant books are published and usually it's only a tiny portion of those which get the fanfare and the reviews and ultimately the readers. It seems to me that publishers are like gamblers, sending out loads of books and crossing their fingers that one or two make it. This means of course that there are very many hidden gems, and I am hoping to point you in their direction.

Every one of these books, I believe, is rewarding. And I don't doubt there are very many more out there so please add yours.

1. Donald and the Singing Fish by Peter Lubach Macmillan 1992 Picture Book OOP
This is a gem. I don't know if Peter Lubach ever produced another book but this is perfection. It is a wordless picture book set on the Scottish coast concerning a young fisherman who one day, out in his boat, catches a fish that (obviously) sings. It is in almost comic strip style with some full page illustrations, but mostly up to six pictures a page. The drawings are marvellous, the story is both clear and deep and Donald and the fish are brilliant characters. The end is so touching that so long as you haven't just seen Toy Story 3 it will (maybe) make you cry.

2. Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks Alternative Comics 2004
Another book with pictures and fish. This time a graphic novel which is a coming of age story about a salmon called Geoff and the meaning of life. Set in a large school (of fish hem hem) it's quite a bittersweet tale, the dialogue is sharp and the story is lovely and deeper than one might imagine, but hey, these aren't your farmed salmon. I wanted to put in Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, the last in the series is just out, but given that in a few weeks the major Hollywood film is released, Scott Pilgrim will be well known to everyone any second now. But if you've a teenage boy or girl who loves comics and computer games these are wonderful.

3. The Rules of Magic by Annie Dalton Egmont 2004 Teen
Annie Dalton is a fantastic writer who has had a good deal of commercial success with the Angels Unlimited series, but this book, which is a much meatier read, didn't have half the success it should have had. Have you read it? No, thought not. What I like about this is it's a book about teens, with magic, set in the inner city. It's not all Hogwarts, this concerns the 13th floor of a tower block where a boy went missing on Halloween. The characters, Dino and Bee are wonderful and it feels real, for all the supernature.

4. Accidental Friends by Helena Pielichaty OUP 2008 YA
I nearly didn't include this because it had five reviews on Amazon and so, is almost too well known. It was shortlisted for a prize, and it really is a very good read set at the start of sixth form college. It should have been stellar, it is funny, and thrilling and features a totally engaging, and very different, group of sixteen year olds whose lives collide. Why OUP didn't make more of this god only knows, and why oh why is the cover brown?
By the way I wanted to include Shadow Web by N.M. Browne but this also had five reviews and made the Carnegie Longlist but should have been mega too. Oh and Riding Icarus by Lily Hyde and anything by Catherine Fisher who is brilliant.

I have realised that I've chosen more than five books already. And of course I wanted to mention one of my own, one that I thought was really quite good - one of my best I think - and probably sold two copies which is why I have just heard this morning that it will be going out of print; The Dying Game, there I said it.

So there you go. I am sure we've all got books we think deserve more success and more readers, go on share....