Showing posts with label Elen Caldecott. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elen Caldecott. Show all posts

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Writers in Landscape. My interview with Elen Caldecott by Steve Gladwin

This month I'm really delighted to have the chance to chat with Elen Caldecott about her new novel 'The Short Knife', which will be published by Anderson Press in July. Needless to say, this also gave me the wonderful opportunity to read the book and get to know Mai and her world before everyone else - something for which I'm really grateful, as I enjoyed that world, book and characters immensely.

Thanks for thinking of me!

One of the things I’m asking people to do in these interviews is to take a landscape from one of their own stories and imagine we’ve been set down and looking at it. So, tell me, if we were transported back to the fifth century and the landscape of The Short Knife, what is it we would see in front of us.

This interview is happening in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown, which makes this question especially poignant. In my novel, we join the characters some 40 years after the cataclysm – the end of Roman Britain and the beginning of the Saxon world. So, life has changed forever, though the characters might not have accepted it yet. There was a population drop, probably because of a perfect storm of economic collapse, badly maintained infrastructure and subsequent disease. So, arable fields would be rewilding; roads would be falling into disrepair. But the sound of birdsong would be louder and the character’s awareness of their place in the natural world would be heightened as creature comforts fall away.

West Stow

But the main feature I noticed and which is a thread which runs throughout the book, is the use of language. Now in order to understand all that, it would be good for you to explain how the book came about.

It has been around for a really long time, in the back of my mind. I grew up fascinated by the Roman Empire, especially the empire in Britain. I’m from Wrexham in North Wales, so Chester was really close, which was a legionary city. I wanted to write about the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England and the time of the Princes of Wales (not the Charles-kind, the early medieval kind). I hadn’t a clue how to do it for a really long time, but then it occurred to me that language was the key. Your ‘mother tongue’ is a complicated idea that holds so much political charge (see all the rage around people not choosing to speak English at all times in 21st century Britain, as if English is in danger somehow, and needs protecting). I imagined a character who is forced to stop speaking her native British (Welsh) and instead has to learn Saxon (English). The plot emerged from that starting point.

Replica Saxon Buildings

Usually in these interviews I don’t ask an author to describe the plot, or repeat the blurb you’ve already got ready in your head in case you’re asked. But this time I will ask you, because all the mystery is yet to come.

Mai has lived a sheltered life until three Saxon travellers stop at her family’s farm. They wreak havoc and she is forced to flee. She, and what’s left of her family, seek refuge with the local British warlord. However, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire – or ‘out of the rain, but under the waterfall’, as Mai might put it.

It’s probably accurate to say that the three main characters may all be teenage girls, but are very different in their attitudes and outlook to each other. Going back to the question of language, what is it that makes Mai, the leading character different.

She loves language, I think. She’s a linguaphile. So, she has a natural curiosity about the changes that are happening on the island – the arrival of the Saxons is both terrifying but also alluring, she’s interested in their culture. She also believes in the power of stories, so she often sees the world through the lens of tall tales and heroes and villains. It makes her naïve, but essentially hopeful.

What are your personal feelings about language, Elen? Its clearly something we need to hang on to and value, not to mention pass those values on to others.

I’m not sure I agree with ‘clearly’, or ‘values’. I think it’s more complicated than that. Just because something is traditional doesn’t make it inherently good. I think more that language is a link to the past, to our forebears, but it is at its best when it’s allowed to evolve – to meet the needs of people who are actually using it. So, I have no time for language academies, or people who insist on the subjunctive, or any conception of the ‘right sort’ of language coding.

Let’s return to landscape and begin with the first one you encountered. Where were you born and could you recollect it for us, and describe what you would see there now.

I grew up in North Wales, along the A5. We moved houses from time to time, but stayed close to that stretch of road. It goes through hills that eventually rise to become Snowdonia. It also passes industrial and post-industrial landscapes. I played on the banks of the river Dee, but I also played in disused quarries, on slag heaps and even at the edges of a Monsanto chemical plant – I thought the cooling towers and green lit-up tubing was glamorously futuristic.

Dinas Emrys 

Did this landscape have a fundamental effect on your writing? Is there a particular landscape you know, that you have taken into your books?

Not in any strict literal sense – I have not yet set a book in my home village. However, I do love to write – and write sympathetically – about the human landscape. I like canals, and roads and concrete towers. I think coming from a place where I didn’t differential between ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ beauty has made it possible for me to write about urban life with love.

When you were growing up did the authors and landscapes you chose to spend time in change much as you got older?

I moved away from mountains to cities. I love the bustle and anonymity. But my reading taste varies widely – the only place I don’t enjoy reading about is Cornwall, weirdly. I think because it bears the traces of its ‘celtic’ past, in its placenames and so on, but that history has been pushed right to the brink. I find it melancholy.

Now, as people read this, we may or may not be under lockdown. But, even if we no longer are, it will be still very fresh in our minds. It all makes me think about the vast contrast between life in sixth century Wales and our modern spoiled existence. Can you see yourself living happily in that era or in any aspect of it? Or any other perhaps.

Spoiled? It’s true that fewer of us die in wars statistically; across the world there are better rates of infant mortality and life expectancy is higher. But there are still vast rates of inequality. For some people in the world today, subsistence farming, with the ever-present threat of violence, is still very much the norm, as it is for my characters. I don’t romanticise that state of affairs, no. I think it would be a grim life. I’m deeply grateful that the nearest I get to it is via my keyboard.


Mai’s story, is of course, crying out for further adventures. Are you keen to take the story on?

It was such a labour of love – it took a year just to perfect the voice – that I can’t imagine revisiting it at the moment. Never say never, of course, but for now, she’s done.

Thanks, Elen for giving us a sneak preview of The Short Knife.

You’re so welcome! Thanks for giving it such a close, sympathetic read. I really appreciate it.

.Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'
01938 500728/01485007189/[email protected]/[email protected]

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Writing Friends, Old and New - Elen Caldecott

This blog came about because a group of children's writers who were feeling isolated and remote (in the days before t'internets) formed a society. Members of that society later went on to invent An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Later still (if this were a film, I'd do a montage), other members (including me!) established the Winter Warmer.
This is an annual retreat in which relaxation and creativity are the main focus. It takes place in the Somerset countryside amid hills and sheep and such. You have to be very careful on the drive in not to hit something cute and furry. And even more careful on the night-time drive out, on a desperate booze-run after the group has - literally - drunk the bar dry, (naming-no-names, but you-know-who-you-are!).

I set off to Somerset this year with a little trepidation. I was one of the organisers and heavy rain was threatening to make the event a wash-out. In the end, one dramatic night of gales brought out something of the Blitz spirit. And the muddy trousers after tramps in the hills were more of a badge of honour.

The studios we stayed in
The weekend is made up of optional talks and workshops; lots of good food, and quiet spaces to work. Though, if you'd like to spend the whole time in bed, re-reading all of Harry Potter, then no-one will mind.
Equally, you can attend all the talks. This year, I found them to be hugely entertaining, and even moving.
The focus on creativity means that no business talks are planned. There's nothing on the schedule about working with agents, or honing your pitch, or managing self-publishing. (By the way, I have nothing against such talks, they can be incredibly helpful and other Scattered Authors' conferences do include them). Instead, people shared tricky writing experiences; suggested ways to inject a bit more fun; shared tips on things that had worked for them. They were open, honest and frank in a way that felt like a stiff broom brushing out brain-webs.

I particularly enjoyed Liz Kessler's poi workshop. At the end of which, I was battered, bruised in some odd places, but with the new-found ability to twirl a ball on a string. Proper playtime.

Proper playtime

There appeared to be a bottomless vat of cake, which is terrible for the diet, but certainly made me feel snuggly and wintery.

In between workshops, there was enough free-time for me to work on a proposal I have for a play script. I wrote the lyrics to six songs, I wrote one long monologue and also collaged the main character's living room (is that actually work? It didn't feel like it, but it was ace).

I met up with what feel like old friends, made lots of new ones and came away enthused and refreshed.

I felt like a part of an extended family of very generous writers - thank you, all!
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 

Monday, 12 November 2012

This is Not a Book Review - Elen Caldecott

Today I thought I would look at one specific book and see if I can share what I've learned from it. This isn't a review, or a critical reading, this is an author looking at a book I admire to see the nuts and bolts of its construction. WARNING: If you have not read Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce and would like to do so one day without being encumbered with a sackful of spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

Everyone else, here's what I've learned from the book, in visual form:

Each of those post-it notes represents a moment where I said 'ooh, that's clever.' Shows why it wins prizes!
The idea for this post owes a lot to Stroppy Author's Book Vivisection (which I'd love to see more of.) But, it also owes as much to the current MA students in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University who shared their thoughts about the book with me during a recent seminar.

I can't share every single post-it note, so instead, I have decided to share my top five post-it note revelations (TFPINR from here on in).

TFPINR No. 5 - Prologue Pro
Online writing advice would have you believe that prologues are the work of the devil and his literary minion, Beelzebook. Received wisdom has it that they shamelessly trick the reader into swallowing a boring Chapter 1. In Cosmic, Cottrell Boyce has the briefest of prologues. It is a media clip announcing a missing space rocket. It tells you that you're in a world a lot like ours, but with one crucial difference - manned space programmes are active. Immediately following this, there's the traditional Chapter 1, which begins 'i am not exactly in the lake district'. The hook for Chapter 1 is more interesting than the prologue, not less.

TFPINR No. 4 - First-Person Present and Correct.
I have a confession. I don't much like first-person present. As a teen reader I always wondered 'who are you talking to? And why?'. Cottrell Boyce neatly deals with this question, wraps it up and puts it to bed. The MC, Liam, is recording his last words on his mobile phone. He's lost in space, you see. He hopes some friendly alien race will one day send the recording home to his mum and dad, with Liam's love.
The narrative then moves regularly into first-person past by using flashbacks. The transitions into these flashbacks are superbly handled. My favourite goes (to paraphrase): 'I can see Earth. All my stuff is on Earth. Including my house and everything in it. Like my Viking Playmobile. Except I gave it away when I was big enough to grow facial hair. I didn't notice the facial hair. Everyone else did, on my Year 6 leavers' trip. The trip was...cue anecdote about leavers' trip.' Seamless.

TFPINR No. 3 - Themes Legit
There's a masterly orchestration to the way that symbols are handled. They are the wing-men to the major theme, always there to get his back. A distilled statement of the theme might be (with thanks to the MA Group!) 'No matter how far you go, your dad (God?!) will always bring you back.' The symbols are a scaffold to support this theme: circles; gravity; space; playing; Waterloo and Dads. They all pop up at the right moment to explore different facets of the theme.

TFPINR No. 2 - Engage Disbelief Suspension
The idea of the book is ridiculous: a group of children get themselves lost in space and manage to find their way home again. Completely implausible. However, the main action (told in flashback during the second act), is foreshadowed by three separate events. These events rely on the same type of misunderstanding, without being so similar to be repetitious. Another regularly utilised concept is the game imagery that plants the idea of skills 'levelling-up'. Liam collects the skills to be an adult, so of course he has to put them to use.
Also, everytime that something truly ridiculous happens - for example, the point where the children are told they will go to space alone - Cottrell Boyce uses a bait-and-switch, stating the ridiculous then talking about something completely different at length.

TFPINR No. 1 - Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh
At number one in the TFPINR chart is the humour. In these 300-odd pages, there are examples of all the following types of jokes: puns and wordplay; visual humour; juxtaposition; physical comedy; irony; comic characters; observational comedy; hyperbole and litotes; parody (a difficult one to use in books for young readers, but in this case skillfully foreshadowed); sarcasm; situational comedy and one-liners. Blimes. That's one funny book.

There are loads more post-its. But this is already the most wordy blog post I've ever written.
One often hears writers advise novice writers to read. I would expand on that and say read like a writer. Tear apart books you admire and work out how they do the things they do. Get the post-its out and sticker like it was a skinny stick-insect stuck in glue.
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Show Me The Money - Elen Caldecott

I never studied economics at all, but I have a vague idea that the cost of things, commodities, objects, is determined by balancing what people are willing to sell it for with what people are willing to pay. Plus taxes, of course.

This can be illustrated by my recent decision to buy, on Kindle, Marian Keyes' latest novel The Mystery of Mercy Close. It was £10 as an instant ebook, but only £9 as a snail-mail hardback. If I'd been willing to wait even longer, I could have got it for £7 as a paperback, or 60p from the library (I'd have to reserve it), or, if I waited two years, I could have bought it for 1p plus post and packaging on Amazon. However, I wanted to read it immediately, so, it was worth £10 to me.

More recently, J K Rowling suffered a series (what's the collective noun? A witch-hunt? A mass hysteria?) of 1-star reviews, based solely on the fact that the £12 price-tag of the ebook was deemed too expensive. The convenience of an instant book wasn't worth it to the reviewers.

Of course, much of the vitriol came from the fact that JK is assumed not to need the money (there was little mention of the publishers who presumably paid huge amounts for the rights and need to make back their investment).

So, does the value of a product change if the person selling it doesn't need the money? There's a slim case for that, based on my understanding of how prices are set. But the amount of time spent on making the product isn't any less. The effort and graft are the same.

There seems to be an idea, among the general public, that writers are either starving in attics (which is considered stupid, but morally sound), or greedy fat-cats milking their fans.
I know lots of writers, but I know none who match either image. Most are trying to maintain a modest life-style through precarious means. Like any small-business owners, they have to be mindful of income and expenditure.

Personally, about half my income comes from writing and writing-related activities. The rest comes from three shifts a week selling tickets (so, you can probably make a reasonably sound guesstimate of my level of income! No lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills going on in this part of the West Country!). I write five or six books a year, some long, some short. I teach creative writing. I visit schools and libraries. I work reasonably hard (is it always a self-employed person's curse to believe they are lazy? But I digress...) So, I get cross when people demand that writers subsidise entertainment by producing cheap books.

If you don't think the price is worth it to you, wait until it becomes available in a cheaper format, wait 48 hours for the hardback to be delivered, but don't insist that the seller has to change their position. No-one owes writers a living, but equally, no-one has the right to take that living away. Not even from the rich ones.
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Slanislavski and Me - Elen Caldecott

Many moons ago, way back before email and wikipedia, I did Drama A-Level. I went to the library and hand-wrote essays about Brecht and Stanislavski.

I remember very little about this time (too much cider and Bjork to recall it all properly), but one thing I do remember is Stanislavski's acting method, which would later evolve, by a cunning word-switch, into method acting.

I had reason to think of this last week. Some of you may know that I have recently moved into my first owned-by-me-and-the-bank home (rather than owned by my-landlord-and-the-bank). It has been incredibly stressful (well, duh). There have been moments where my partner and I have wanted to bury ourselves under duvets and only come out once the nasty damp has gone away. I realise this isn't an effective approach to home maintenance, but at times it has been the best we've had.

Anyway, under such circumstances, it has been difficult to find the joy in writing. It has all felt very leaden, lifeless, heavy, murky, like a bad souffle, where you've forgotten the eggs.

Back to Stanislavski.

I had been working on a particularly dreadful scene. I gave up in disgust and went to my day-job. There, I found a member of staff, a pile of cardboard and no customers.

In no time, the member of staff had turned the pile of cardboard into some cute, teeny-tiny houses, as though Kevin McCloud had visited Toytown.

My skill with the scissors couldn't run to houses, but I felt brave enough to try a kennel to go with them. Once that was mastered, I found an online guide to making an origami dog to go in it.

Our little street joined some of the other paper-craft creations that 'decorate' (also known as 'clutter') our collective workspace.

Later, when I revisited the annoying, leaden scene, I found that I was approaching it with a new lightness of heart. It seems that the act of playing made my writing more playful.

I was reminded then of Stanislavski and his belief that good acting came from finding the real emotion, rather than simply declaiming lines. In other words, you just have to feel it.

I have resolved that whenever my writing is doing it's no-egg-souffle impression, I'm going to get out the origami, or the colouring, or the placticine and remind myself of how writing should feel. It should be like playing.

And at least it will take my mind off the damp.
I'd love to hear about other creative outlets help you with your writing!
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott

Monday, 30 July 2012

We Need to Talk About the Mid-list - Elen Caldecott

Before being published I had dreams of what it would mean: seeing my book on the shelf in a bookshop; seeing tattered copies full of library stamps; typing away on a shady balcony in some village in the south of France. I'm sure you know the sort of thing. I was dreaming bestseller.

(c) Christopher S. Penn
No-one ever sets out to become a mid-list writer, such dreams would be more getting texts from friends saying 'I was in Coventry Waterstones and they don't have your book'; being able to reserve your book only via the inter-library loan system; typing in the early hours before you go off to your day job. Nope, those dreams don't keep us going in the long, dark editing hours. But it is the reality for most writers.

The reason I'm talking about this is because I had a meeting with my publishers last week about 'reaching the next level'. It was a lovely, supportive, cake-filled meeting, but the bottom line was the bottom line. What can we all do (me, editor, art director, sales and marketing, publicity etc) to go from solid to spectacular sales? We discussed various strategies and ate some delicious scones.

But, a week later, I was left wondering at the disconnect between the art and the business of books. You see, solid sales give me a nice lifestyle that I really enjoy. I write three days a week on projects I find entertaining. I work three days a week in a lovely place alongside good friends. I live in a house that's just big enough, with a nice park nearby for walking the dog.

What's to be gained by going from solid to stellar?

There's the relationship with the publisher, of course. A good long-term business proposition, that sees them making money, will give me security. There's ego. It would be nice to not have to explain who I am to school receptionists. There's money. I could add a conservatory, or really have a flat in the south of France. All of that would be lovely.
But these feel a bit like the pre-publication dreams. While dreaming is attractive, I actually enjoy living my life in a quotidian way, without pinning too many hopes on the future.

And even if I we do make changes, will it even work? I think there's just a kind of magic stardust that gets sprinkled on some projects and not others. If you work diligently and you write with a commercial audience in mind, that doesn't mean you're bound to become stellar. No-one knows what makes a book take off in that way. And I don't have a handy packet of stardust in my desk drawer. Furthermore, I don't believe that being mid-list means that you've failed.

I came away from the meeting full of excitement. I will do the sort of thing they want to reach 'the next level', I do want a good relationship and a boosted ego, after all. But it's also important for me to remember that life is about the way I live right now, today and I have to be proud of the daily choices I make.

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
Elen's Facebook Page

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Wickworth Manor - A Competition!

There's an arcane bylaw round these part that is rarely used, but I'm going to today because I'm super-excited. The bylaw is that if you have something interesting to say and it isn't your day to post, then you can say it after 3pm.

So, my interesting thing is, that to celebrate today's launch of The Mystery of Wickworth Manor I'm running a competition.The prize is a signed copy of the book, a signed poster and a badge set. There are five prizes to give away.

To enter, simply 'like' my Facebook Page. For those not yet old enough to be on Facebook/not into Facebook/hate Facebook, it is fine to persuade a friend/parent/guardian to enter on your behalf. On 19th July, I'll randomly select five 'likers'. The competition is open to anyone, anywhere in the world. Good luck!!

I'm not the only one with a book birthday today. Congratulations also to Sarah Hammond; Susie Day; Mary Hoffman; Kate Harrison; Jenny Colgan; Marcus Sedgewick; Jackie Marchant; Zoe Marriott; Sophie McKenzie; Mary Hooper... who've I missed?

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Negro Coachboy; inspiration and indecision - Elen Caldecott

My newest novel was inspired by a painting. It is a painting that I was very familiar with as a child. It hangs in Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, which was our day-out of choice on rainy weekends, because of the amazing dollshouse in the nursery.

I remember being puzzled by the painting. The boy in it is black, definitely black. But I had seen Sunday night adaptations of Austen and Dickens et al and, in the 1980s, all the people in them were white. As far as I could tell, the 18th and 19th centuries were wall-to-wall Anglo-Saxons, unless there was a scene in an opium den.

So, who was this boy in the painting?

It took me a long time to decide to write about him. It was problematic in many ways.

First, there is the difficultly of writing about an ethnicity which is not your own. This is not something that held me back for long. I think it is more important that there is diversity in children's book than wondering where that diversity comes from. Research and imagination can fill the gaps of experience.

However, once I had begun my research, then I realised that there would be a bigger problem.

It has long been an accusation that the ghetto-ising of minority experience does more damage than simply ignoring those experiences. So, for example, there are people who feel that Black History Month is problematic because black history should be taught alongside other histories on a daily basis (though this criticism has been loudest in America). One heartfelt and regular cry is that so much black history is associated with the slave trade - as if no other history exists.

Well, I researched the boy and the conclusion was, if he existed, then he was a slave.


I absolutely did not want to write a book in which black experience is a slave's experience.

Which meant that the book had to take some interesting detours.
I decided that I would not simply tell the boy's story in a simple narrative - I decided to get metatextual (check me!). I have used careful devices to avoid presenting his life as a de facto stand-in for everyone who sailed the middle passage.

I moved the time-frame. Although the boy's story is told, it is done through the eyes of contemporary children (I nicked some ideas from Possession which sounds massively hubristic now I've said so out loud, but there you go).

Most importantly, I have diversified the ethnic stories that are told within the novel. Have you heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on the subject? If not, I recommend it. Her lesson is worth bearing in mind, whoever you're write about. I followed her lesson and have three black boys in the novel, each with very different experiences. Here's the talk in full, if you have a bit of spare time:

The Negro Coachboy was a problematic inspiration, but I really hope that he finds readers. And, if I manage to sell film rights, maybe he will be in a Sunday night adaptation, after all.

What do you think? Am I worrying about nothing? Or am I trampling through history that I should leave well alone?

The Mystery of Wickworth Manor, a novel for children inspired by the painting 'A Negro Coachboy', is published on 5th July by Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Writing Mentors - Elen Caldecott

On Tuesday this week, I felt like a proud godparent. Two talented writers that I've been working with (and 13 others, that I haven't!) launched their anthology, Writes of Passage. I stood in Foyles Charing Cross with a glass of white wine, a label on my front declaring me to be a tutor and watched as agents and editors hustled to speak to 'our' writers.
Julia Green and agent Jodie Marsh

These students will always be special, as they are the first ones I tutored on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa Uni. I say tutored, because that's what it says on my pay slip. But that isn't really what it felt like. They already had talent, technique and an excellent work ethic. So, I felt more like a mentor. My job really was to drink tea, read attentively and listen while they found solutions.

I love the idea of mentors. I have been very lucky as a number of writers who's careers are further along than mine have taken the time to listen to me, to give advice and say 'that's normal, we all feel like that'.

My own MA tutor, Julia Green (who has a new book out this month Bringing the Summer!) was such a graceful mentor. She told me I had to re-write the first half of my novel with such kindness that I left her office grinning, not crying.
Me and the anthology editor, Sarah Benwell

Other writers have given me wonderful pieces of advice; Marie-Louise Jensen told me about the Scattered Authors' Society, through which I've come to know some wonderful writers. Liz Kessler has been fab at making this industry feel like fun when it can so easily grind you down (see her post on her love affair with Twitter, somehow everything she works on feels like that). Actually, there's lots of great Liz-advice to choose from, but my favourite was during a discussion of commercial books: 'write whatever you want, but then stick wings or a tail on it'.

Molly Drury, Maudie Smith and Sarah Benwell
I remember wondering when I was a teenager how 'schools' of art could arise. At the time, the idea of working with other people, sharing with other people seemed impossible - I kept my angsty poetry close to my chest. But now, it seems obvious. You help people who can learn from you because you have been taught by others. And soon, your pupils will become teachers themselves. There's a lovely sense of inheritance to it; Julia Green was helped early in her career by David Almond. In a way, myself and my students are still benefiting from his mentorship.

Of course, there are writers who would rather stab themselves with their HB pencil than work with others, but I think they are in a minority. The students who launched their careers on Tuesday are joining a very welcoming community of children's writers and we are all the better for that.

Have you had a mentor, and how far back can you trace your 'sense of inheritance'?

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
Elen's Facebook Page

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Regional Book Awards - Elen Caldecott

We all love libraries. We know that. The easy access to research titles, the new fiction, the computers and databases and music and films, it's all brilliant.

But there's another reason why contemporary authors love libraries and that's the regional books awards. These annual or bi-annual events select recently published titles and bring together schools, clubs and families to vote for their favourites.

There are some well established ones, like the Leeds and Sheffield awards, there are some that are specific to new authors, like the Heart of Hawick or the New Horizons Book award, there are others that are just starting out (Hi, Warwickshire Junior Book Award!). But what all of these awards have in common is the dedicated professionals behind them working hard to encourage reading. They might be county or school's service librarians, or even teachers with responsibility for the school library and they work hard to bring new books to new readers.

As an author, I am immensely grateful for that.

(l-r) Gill Lewis, Fiona Dunbar, Elen Caldecott
It's too easy for children to stick with tried-and-tested books - school copies of Roald Dahl, or presents from well-meaning relatives who buy books they remember from their youth (how many versions of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' does there need to be, I ask you?).

By having these awards, librarians bring the best in contemporary publishing to the forefront and give those works a chance to vie against the classics for children's attention.

I've been lucky enough to be shortlisted for a few of the regional awards - I rarely win, but I will always turn up at the ceremony and I'll always say thank you. Whether I win, or not, my books have been given a chance to meet readers. What more can a writer ask for?

Gill on stage
On Monday, I attended the Solihull Children's Book Award. It was won by Gill Lewis for her amazing book Sky Hawk. Fiona Dunbar and I were given bottles of fizzy booze to take away for being runners-up.
And while the booze was lovely, the best thing about this award process was getting this review from one of the participants:

"I am not someone that reads all the time but with this book i did. This book gave me a big step in my reading but the book was so good it made me want to read all the three books [nominated for the award]".

My book, my book, has made a reader out of a non-reader. Flipping heck. And the librarians who organised this award made that happen.

So, this is my very public thank you to librarians in all our regions - long may you be there.

Elen will be appearing at the Explore! Children's Festival in Cardiff on 11th April.

For more info about Elen and her books, go to:
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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Existential Thanks - Elen Caldecott

Usually I live on a literary diet that ranges from the Gruffalo to the Gallagher Girls and the munchables in between. I rarely pick up books intended for adults. But this week has been different. I've had two experiences that have made me, not change my view of books exactly, but have made me think more carefully about what I do.

First, on the recommendation of Rosy Thornton, I'm reading James Wood's How Fiction Works. It's a short book of literary criticism. It's a manual on how books function. It's a thesis on modernism. It's pretty good, really. I have found that what I thought was writerly intuition, is in fact a cultural construct that I can't escape. The close-third-person points of view of my characters have come to me in a line of influence directly from Flaubert. Who'd have thought?
The second experience I had was hearing Hisham Matar speak about his work at the Bath Festival of Literature. He discussed the process of writing In the Country of Men. So much of what he said sounded so right that I was a bit dazzled by it all. In much the same way that people with faith might feel when they hear an inspirational preacher. (As an aside, he read from his work and described being in the shade in Tripoli as being in 'grey patches of mercy' - yum.) What I took from the talk was that Matar is secretive about his work as he writes, then confused and surprised by it when it's done. He also said that to write was an act of praise; that by taking, naming and recording we were celebrating living.

I loved the idea that I am part of a tradition of writing that goes back centuries. Like a beacon fire passing information across great distances, our words record what it means to be alive now, our concerns and preoccupations, our joys and fears.

Reading what were contemporary novels when they were written, but are now 'classics' offer us a way to time travel. Austen is a favourite writer of mine; her wit is surprising to us, given the ponderous length of her sentences. But her sentence length is just when she was. Her wit is what she was. She was a product of her time as much as we are and we can visit that time by opening her books. She noticed, named and recorded the early nineteenth century

Next time I sit down to write a novel (which will be in April, I expect), I will have a deeper understanding of the tools I have at my disposal. I'll also bear in mind that every detail I choose to include can be seen as an act of praise. An act of celebrating life as I'm living it. Unless it's a book about squabbling siblings, or missing animals, or urban covens. In which case it will just be business as usual. But right now, I'm inspired.
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 30 January 2012

Live and In Person - Elen Caldecott

I thought I would chime in in what appears to have become an unofficial and impromptu publicity week on the blog.

(c) Eye Imagery
We've had great posts already from Liz, Nicola and Celia on the subject. I commented on one of those posts that my favourite part of book publicity was the live events. I would much rather talk to a room of 200 school children than try to follow a conversation on Twitter. So, events are always a big part of my promo efforts.
But what are events for? What can they achieve? And are they a good use of my time?

I am a secret exhibitionist. If there is such a thing, of course. I did Theatre Studies at A-level and was part of my local Youth Theatre. Whenever there was any getting up on stage and showing off to be done, I was your girl. But I came to dislike the close physicality of the business of show - everyone wanted to plait each other's hair all the time. Ewww.

Doing events pleases my inner thesp. I tell stories, I do the voices, I make 'em laugh, make 'em cry (I do a good 'angry security guard', and that usually terrifies someone...). So, I have a great time, but what else is gained?

In my opinion, there are three main audiences for events. First, there's the actual children sitting in front of you; they need to have a good time. Second, the person who booked you, so that might be a teacher, librarian or festival organiser; they're hoping that you'll bring some added value to their organisation. Finally, there's your publisher and perhaps a bookseller; they hope that you'll actually shift some copies.
And who does the author try to please? All of them, of course!

I try to make sure that every child feels involved and inspired. I show them how stories work and regularly have zombie invasions, pirates, aliens rampaging over magical landscapes. Last week I started a Jelly Babies versus Gummy Bears war, it can get very raucous. For the teachers, I smuggle in some genuine useful information in with the messing around. And I'll plug the books too.

It's that last part that I have the most trouble with - to my publicist's occasional chagrin. I'm more of a children's tv presenter than salesperson. Still, two happy audiences out of three ain't bad.

If you do events, who are you hoping to please? If you attend events, what do you hope to get from them?

If you'd like to see me at my capering best, you can catch me at the Imagine Festival in London on 16th February.
Elen's Facebook Page

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Top Reads of 2011 - Elen Caldecott

There is a section of this blog devoted to reviews, so it might seem odd to post about my favourites here. But sometimes, rather than review, it's nice to simply celebrate the books you've enjoyed. Reviews seem such a grown-up thing to me, perhaps with a touch of A-Level English about them - character development, plot arcs, language and imagery... It also gets especially difficult when you know the writers, may even be friends with them! Sometimes, it's better to just press a book into someone's hand and say, "read this. You'll love it."

So here I am, pressing books into your hand. "Read these. You'll love them."

A Tangle of Magicks by Stephanie Burgis was a real treat this year. It's a sequel, so do read A Most Improper Magick first. It's a lovely mix of a Georgian comedy of manners and witchcraft - Jane Austen does Hogwarts. I loved the sequel as it's set in Bath and makes good use of the ancient elements of the city.

A Year Without Autumn by Liz Kessler was a joy. It's a time-slip novel, but rather than finding herself in a Victorian kitchen or Medieval stable or somesuch, the heroine moves forward through her own teenage years. She sees the consequences of one event played out among her family and friends. It's warm, sad and very readable.

One Dog and His Boy by Eva Ibbotson may be my new favourite book (sorry, Holes by Louis Sachar, but you had a good run). It is really simple, direct and honest. I wish I'd have written it. Sigh. Still, that's why reading is so good for writers - it should inspire us to try harder ourselves. It's the story of a lonely boy and his quest to keep the dog he loves; this is one I'll come back to again and again.

I do occasionally read books for adults too. So, I have a grown-up choice to add. A Song of Fire and Ice by George R R Martin is quite an old series of books now (the first, A Game of Thrones was published in 1996), but the TV adaptation was first aired in 2011, so I'm counting it for that reason. I started watching the series, but having to wait a week for each installment was killing me, so I stopped watching the show and read the books instead. I say 'read', actually I'm listening to the unabridged audio books. They weigh in at 40 hours per book and with seven books planned for the series I have a lot of epic, sword and sorcery to come. Hurray!

So, those are my highlights of 2011. What would you have chosen?
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Obstructions and Freedoms - Elen Caldecott

I have two very different takes on the creative process to share today: obstruction and freedom. They may seem like opposites, but I think they can both benefit creative people.

Obstructions are the limits that other people set on what we can do. I first came across this idea a good few years ago when I watched Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions in which von Trier challenged his friend and mentor, Jorgen Leth to remake the same short film five times, each time with an arbitrarily imposed obstruction. Lars chose the obstructions, naturally, and they ranged from technical (one short could only be made up of sections that were 12 frames long) to the emotional (another short had to be filmed in the worst place in the world). It should have been a disaster, but Leth rose to the challenge and, for the most part, the short films he produces are sublime. In each case, it is the obstructions that inspire Leth to try harder, to think bigger, to be bold.

Freedoms, on the other hand, are what you have when no-one is looking over your shoulder. When an idea comes, characters take shape, words spring and there are no deadlines and contracts and editors. Freedom is what you have when writing is done simply for pleasure. It is often the thing that self-publishers will guard jealously.

This week I attended a meeting for a writing project that comes laden with obstructions - it is for the educational market. There will be no violence, no dangerous activities, no pigs, no swearing. There will be a phonics list. I might have felt the weight of a depressing constraint. But I didn't. Instead, I felt challenged - how do you make a story exciting if it also has to be safe? How can I keep readers asking for 'just one more chapter' if it all has to be written in phoneme-decodable language?

Actually, I found myself bristling with ideas. By setting up obstructions, the publishers are forcing me to think harder, to be ingenious.

Next week, I'm attending a writer's retreat. That will be all freedom (even the freedom to lie around in bed eating biscuits all day, if I want). I won't be doing any contracted writing. I hope that it will be invigorating and luxurious. It is just this kind of freedom that keeps writing fresh for me.

And just to illustrate how good things can be with a bit of obstruction, here's Jorgen Leth's 'cartoon perfect human':
Elen's Facebook Page

Monday, 10 October 2011

Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune... - Elen Caldecott

As people who know me well will know, films come a very close second to books on my list of 'things I'd rather be doing'. I go to the cinema usually once a week and will also watch a couple on LoveFilm or on TV too.

Last week's cinema expedition was something different to the norm. I went to see Red State by Kevin Smith. When I say 'by' Kevin Smith, that's pretty much exactly what I mean - written by, directed by, distributed by...that Kevin Smith. Even the funding for the film was raised by Kevin Smith from private donors. Once the film was made, most of his marketing was done via podcasts, personal appearances and literally schleping the film from city to city - at least in the US. This film is more the vision of one person than any I've seen in the cinema outside a short film festival.

This kind of one-man-band of filmmaking is a close equivalent to serious self-publishing. Like buying a self-published book for cold hard cash, I went to a cinema, paid the standard fee, bought popcorn, watched ads and trailers and then saw a product that came to me pretty directly from the mind of its creator. It was free of influence of studios, focus groups, distributors etc. All the people who are usually accused of forcing directors to churn out guff like Final Destination 5 (my own personal title-stuffed-with-irony favourite). The publishing parallel to those people might be the bookchains who don't like a book's cover, or the marketing dept who don't like the main character's ethnicity. The people that are usually the subject of irate rants on writers' forums.

So, what was a 'self-published' film like?
Well, quite good.

I had thought about posting the trailer here...but it's 18-rated and so it could get me into trouble. It's on YouTube if you want a look. In a nutshell, three boys get kidnapped by a family of fundamentalist Christians and are punished for their perceived sins. Like I say, it's an 18. In the hands of a studio it would probably have been a shlock-horror, perhaps with a bit of torture porn thrown in. In the hands of a single-voice director, it is something less polished, but also strangely satisfying. Kevin Smith actually has something to say and he uses the actors as mouthpieces for his idea. Admittedly, there are over-long speeches and it's disconcerting not to have a clear hero. But it was also very refreshing indeed.

Auteurs aren't new, of course. But for most of my cinema-going life, they've been the stuff of myth. I'm much more used to studio-productions. Just as I've been used to publisher-led fiction. I wonder, will we find that the self-publishing revolution that's taking place around us will lead to auteurs making their mark in our industry too?
Elen's Facebook Page

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

I have often walked down this street before - Elen Caldecott

This isn't going to be about writing, I'm afraid.

Instead, I thought I would tell you about the affect that art is having in Bristol.

Like London, Birmingham and other UK cities, Bristol has had its share of trouble lately. Young people have felt an appaling disconnect between themselves and the city that is their home - with ugly consequences.
But two weeks after the riots, a different kind of ugly has taken hold and it has changed the way that Bristolians see their streets, well, one street anyway.

Nelson Street in central Bristol was always rough as a badger's brillos. It has high-rise buildings, many deserted; overhead walkways that smelled of tramp's undercrackers and alleys that may as well have had 'get mugged here' written in neon above them.

But last weekend, a group of international street artists reclaimed the walls. The graffiti they produced is breathtaking in scale. Everyone who walks down Nelson Street now is affected by it.

The most noticable thing is the change of pace, no-one hurries anymore. People stop to stare, take pictures, point out things they want others to notice. Complete strangers smile at each other.

It isn't confined to the usual suspects either, urban hipsters and trustafarians are outnumbered by families, tourists, older folks and children. I saw one older lady being helped up steps to get a better view - steps that two weeks earlier would have needed a bleach enema before anyone could walk on them.

I don't pretend that this will cure all Bristols ills. But I do think that anything that makes us feel more connected, less afraid, can only be a good thing.

Here, with apologies to those using dial-up, are some pictures:

The building my husband works in

Steps and walkways

Slowing for a look

My favourite - these columns are wearing knitted jerseys. And check out the new sign.

Adding greenery to the cityscape

Find out more about Elen on Facebook or at

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Carnegie Shadowing - Elen Caldecott

One of the troubles with sharing a blog with so many other lovely people is that you have to wait in line for your turn. There's no pushing in. So, a few weeks late, I'm going to tell you about my experience of the Carnegie Medal this year.

For those who don't know, the Carnegie is probably the most prestigious award given to a UK children's writer annually. The longlist is very long, but the shortlist is usually whittled down to about 6 or 8 books by a team of dedicated children's librarians.
This year I was invited to visit a school in Swansea to spend a few hours with their Carnegie Shadowing students - a group of book-mad Years 7-9 with lots of energy, enthusiasm and some very honest opinions!
In advance of the visit, I had a lot of reading to do. The shortlist this year was:
  • Prisoner of the Inquisition by Theresa Breslin
  • The Death Defying Pepper Roux by Geraldine McCaughrean
  • Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
  • The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff
  • White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick
  • Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace
I also promised the students that I would ask a few question of the authors on their behalf, more on that in a moment.

First we decided on our criteria for what made a good book. We had a huge list of everything from 'makes me laugh' and 'great cover' to 'inspiring characters' and 'feels like I'm there' (none of us could spell verisimilitude...).

Each student judged the books by choosing the three criteria that mattered most to them.
Then, the discussion began...

It became clear quite quickly that despite saying that they didn't judge a book by it's cover, they all had. Very few of them had read all six books, and the cover had had a huge influence on what they'd selected to read. None of the boys had read Prisoner of the Inquisition (I told them what idiots they were being, as this was in my own personal top three). The size of the book mattered too. Hardly any had read Monsters of Men; some of the smaller Year 7s could hardly lift it.

Hearing from the authors influenced their opinions too. After hearing that Geraldine McCaughrean's favourite bit of her book was a transvestite sailor, the students snatched copies of the book from one another searching for La Duchesse. The favourite answer of all though was Marcus Sedgwick's laconic response to a question about the title: 'read the book.' It became our catchphrase for the day.

While we had a great time, it was clear that the challenging nature of almost all of the books had intimidated the students. I'm not sure there is a solution to that. The award is intended to reward excellence and excellence is challenging. A shorter shortlist, perhaps?

Finally we had to declare a winner. After the votes were counted, we found we didn't agree with the official result (sorry, Patrick). Our winner was Marcus Sedgwick with White Crow. Possibly because of that very sage piece of advice 'read the book'.

Elen's latest book Operation Eiffel Tower is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The ABBAlitfest Story - Lucy Coats

More than 10,000 views later, I think I can safely say that the first-ever online children’s book festival has been a huge success. The Awfully Big Blog Adventure Online Literary Festival has been tweeted many hundreds of times, been splashed all over Facebook, been commented on, blogged about, and generally feted with praise and raised glasses.  All of us who took part—both organisers and bloggers—would like to say thank you to all of you who came, saw, and stayed for some or all of the 20 hour, 40 post duration--and to those of you who are STILL coming back to catch up with everything! It took a lot of hard work (and maybe even a tear or two) to get us here—and so we thought you’d like to know a bit about how it all came to pass....  

Back in the bleakness of mid-February 2011, Sam Mills mentioned that she’d seen a feature about an online literary festival in a newspaper, and suggested that The Scattered Authors could hold the first-ever online children's festival on our shared blog. Sam says:
“I worried the idea might be rubbish, so I was excited by the positive and enthused response. The festival was on!”
So The Awfully Big Blog Adventure Online Literary Festival was born.  It’s quite a mouthful. So we quickly shortened it to ABBAlitfest. Short, sweet, and easy on everyone’s typing fingers.  Sam then approached each author-blogger individually about doing something for the festival—even though she knew it would take many times as long as doing a group-mailing.
“Day after day, I shot off email after email. I was so pleased when the first authors I approached, Liz Kessler and Adele Geras, said YES and agreed to do giveaways. Soon I had 12 authors on board and I began to compose a timetable. By the end we had a grand total of 47 authors. All the pieces were of such good quality...I think that made the festival.”

While Sam was working her socks off, wrangling authors and posts into place (much like herding cats, some say), another piece of the festival jigsaw was quietly being put into place by Elen Caldecott, our new Blogmistress Supreme.  The old blog was looking a bit dated, so Elen volunteered to oversee and take on the huge task of creating a brand new blog look in time for our third blogoversary on 9th July.  Elen says:
“I was on a massive learning curve. I thought I knew how it would work, but with so much varied material, I had to think on my feet a bit. I know a lot more about Blogger now than I did before!”
Not only did Elen revamp the entire blog, she also had to contend with designing our very popular I ♥ ABBAlitfest blog button and pre-loading all the author posts which arrived in several neat email bundles from Sam (all very-time consuming).  What surprised her was how willing so many were to use technology to meet and interact with readers and other writers.
“Blogging, of course, but also making videos, both unheard of ten years ago! Writers are adapting well, I think. I came away very hopeful and inspired.”

So what did I do?  Well, since I seem to have acquired a reputation as a mistress of the dark arts of social networking, I was designated Publicity Campaign Director. I started the ABBAlitfest campaign 3/4 of the way through June, though the planning had been done long before. Like Sam, I sent out email after personal email (with press release attached)—to bloggers, newspapers, journalists, magazines, publishers, bookish organisations and bodies—anyone I thought might be interested in linking to us or writing about us, or generally spreading the word.  The response was immediate and incredible, and like Elen, I had a steep learning curve. 
I had to be disciplined (that this happened is possibly a small miracle), and very very focused. If I had a day or so off, my inbox exploded (the final email count was nearly 1000). There was a Twitter #ABBAlitfest hashtag and a Facebook Event Page to run—and the task of co-ordinating all the guest posts for the various wonderful bloggers who’d agreed to host our author-bloggers in the run up to the festival weekend.  On the weekend itself, I felt as if I was juggling about a million slippery batons at once—and dropping one was not an option!  I was glued to the computer screen almost permanently—cross-posting links to Twitter from two accounts, updating Facebook, retweeting, replying, reading posts (and checking they all appeared), watching videos, viewing our ever-rising visitor numbers with growing excitement—and living on Earl Grey tea and adrenaline. 

It’s been a rollercoaster ride into new realms for all of us Festival organisers, and we’ve learned lots of lessons along the way about how to run an online children’s book festival (and some about how not to!) . But I think it’s safe to say we’ve all enjoyed it hugely (most of the time).  And for those of you who asked immediately it ended if we’ll be doing it again next year...(for pity’s sake, people—could we not have had ONE day to recover!!)...well, the answer is probably yes.  Maybe. If you twist our arms a bit and give us chocolate.  We’ll, er, keep you posted!  

Lucy's website
Lucy's blog
Lucy on Twitter

Saturday, 9 July 2011

WIN: Operation Eiffel Tower - Elen Caldecott

Win one of 3 signed copies of Operation Eiffel Tower by Elen Caldecott.
Lauren, Jack, Ruby and Billy live by the seaside with their mum and dad. But their parents are always arguing, and then their dad moves out. Lauren and Jack decide they have to get them together again. And so begins Operation Eiffel Tower... Suitable for boys and girls aged 8-12.
To enter, answer the following question.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Attack of the Graphic Novel - Elen Caldecott

I have a new book coming out at the beginning of July. The sensible thing to do right now would be to tell you about it. Maybe show a photo of the cover, or quote from a review, or something. If I was a proper businessperson, that’s what I'd do.

But I’m not a businessperson. I’m a writer, a reader and a booklover first and foremost. So, that’s not what I’m doing.

Instead, I wanted to tell you about some books that I’ve recently got excited about. Well, not books. Not exactly. I have stumbled into the darkest recesses of the library and struggled through the angst, boy stench and geek glares to find the graphic novels section. Yes, I’ve been reading comics.

It started at Christmas, when my husband told me that there was a Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. ‘Season Eight’? I squealed in a hopeless fan-girl way (knowing full-well that Season 7 saw the end of Buffy's Vampire-fighting days). ‘Yup,’ he said, ‘and I’ve got you episode 1.’ He then handed over a comic. I was wary to begin with. After all, Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2D must be missing a dimension?

It took about three pages for me to be hooked. It was an experience similar to watching TV or reading a book, but not exactly like either. I felt as though the characters spoke and moved in front of me, but with no time taken up with description or linking scenes. I had to work quite hard to keep up, but at the same time it was a quick read.

Since then, I’ve read the first few episodes of the brilliant Fables; the intriguing Y: The Last Man and the deliciously long Walking Dead. I’ve got most of these from the library and the ragged pages and mile-long date stamps suggest that I’m far from being alone. The library only has a small number of copies of each episode and the wait for current lenders to return them is agonising.

It strikes me that if I had an iPad then graphic novel apps would be so easy to spend money on. They have the addictive quality of a good TV Box Set, where you find yourself saying ‘just one more’ even though it’s 11pm and you know you’ll be bleary eyed in the morning. It would cost a fortune, but they’d be available right then and there and wouldn’t smell like teenage boy.

Are there any comics...sorry, graphic novels...that you know of that I should add to my list?

Oh, and in case my editor reads this, then the new book is called ‘Operation Eiffel Tower’, it's out on 4th July and you can read more about it on my website: