What I’m Up To Wednesday: Fascinating facts

Welcome to another WIUTW! Yes, that’s two consecutive Wednesdays. Things are looking up.

This week I have mainly been editing my book of folktales about  adventuring girls, which I’m pleased to report has now been sent to the publisher. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s finished – there will still be further edits, and reviewing illustrations, and proofreading to do – but the bulk of the writing itself is done.

It’s been a fascinating journey, researching not just the folktales themselves, but enough background culture and colour to retell each in an authentic and entertaining way. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve learned what Lent is like in Greece, why the Basotho people wear blankets, and how to joust if you’re smaller than your opponent. I’ve dipped into the volcanology of Java, the history of the Algonquin people and the Confucian ideal of filial piety.

The trouble with doing all that research is that barely any of the interesting facts and figures I discover actually make it into the text of the book. If you were looking for the results of my studies, you could spot them in the backdrop of the stories, but they’re not supposed to stand out. That’s why, at the end of writing this book, I’m a fount of completely useless knowledge, and the only place to deposit it all is in this blog.

For example, did you know that Ahasuerus and Xerxes are exactly the same name, transliterated from Persian into Latin and Greek? You didn’t, did you? And you didn’t particularly want to know that either, did you?

It’s far too easy to get distracted when you need to research and you have the internet, especially with the way that Wikipedia gives you helpful links to other articles. For example, writing a story set by the Nile, I wanted to have a kingfisher flitting into the water. ‘Are there kingfishers by the Nile?’ I wondered. I don’t know what a writer would have done about that before Google, but within a few moments I knew that there are kingfishers by the Nile, but unlike our kingfishers here, they are black and white. They’re called pied kingfishers. Pied_kingfisher_(Ceryle_rudis_leucomelanurus)_femaleIn fact there are 114 different species of kingfisher across the world, and did you know that the laughing kookaburra is a kind of kingfisher?

Ten minutes and a video of a laughing kookaburra later, I decided not to put a kingfisher in the story after all.

Now imagine doing that across fourteen different stories from all over the world, and you’ll have a grasp of the amazing array of fascinating factoids that are currently taking up all the space in my brain. Now would be the moment to claim me for a pub quiz team. On the other hand, if you have any allergies to trivia, you might want to stay away from me for the next few weeks until it all settles down…and I start researching the next book.

 

Poetry Monday: Trees

I’m not sure how this poem is not yet included in my blog, given that it has now appeared in several other places on the internet. Time to put that right.

The poem grew from a remark made by Malcolm Guite on one of his retreat days at Otley hall; I forget the context, but “Trees are a way of thinking” stuck in my mind and became the first line of a poem.

The poem was then found on Facebook by Chris Upton, who set it to music, and I was lucky enough to attend a concert at which it was performed by Seraphim, an excellent all-female ensemble choir. (You can hear it performed here and access the sheet music from this page)

It gained another claim to fame earlier this year when I sent a copy to Dame Judi Dench after watching her beautiful documentary My Passion for Trees. She sent a lovely thank you note in reply, and I’d like to think that she read it (preferably out loud in that famous voice!) and has tucked the sheet music away somewhere.

Here is the poem:

Trees are a way of thinking, for every tree is given
an appetite for earth with an ambition to reach heaven,
a fingerprinted bark to wrap up memories in rings
of a hundred winters fading, followed by a hundred springs.

Trees are a way of praying, for every tree’s a church:
the cathedral of the willow and the steeple of the birch,
the summoning of seasons in the sacrifice of leaves
and stained-glass window winter skies through criss-cross branching eaves.

Trees are a way of hearing, for those with ears to hear,
about the hope locked into seeds, the blessing of the year.
Happy is nature’s poet when he has an eye that sees
for parables of roots and fruits, you can rely on trees.

What I’m Up To Wednesday: the BIPs

Oh, dear. Six months since I last blogged. What on earth have I been up to?

Well, since January, I have been writing full time for the first time ever. I haven’t booked any new appearances or visits since the beginning of 2018. I’ve even turned down my favourite, regular gigs (I miss you guys! Please ask me again next year!)  

So if I’ve been writing full time – why haven’t I been writing this blog?

What happened was that, after quite a bit of playing with ideas and sending things off and chatting to publishers at events like CRT,  three Big Important Projects (BIPs) came along at once, like buses. Most of the details of these are still cloaked in secrecy right now, (though if you follow this blog, I do intend to do a gradual reveal as each one gets closer to publication) but I can tell you that they consist of three books, two for children and one for adults, that none of them are due to appear until next year, and that one of them is nearly complete and has reached the headaches, coffee and editing stage.

At the same time as what I’ve started referring to as my ‘year of three books’, I’ve been doing smaller bits of writing too: I’ve penned a sonnet series to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, which you’ll hear more about in the Autumn, I’ve done a few small bits and pieces for Area 52, and I’ve been busy editing the new ACW Christmas anthology, which will be appearing this summer. Oh, and I’ve entered two poetry competitions – fingers crossed!

I’ve told a few  people about my three BIPs (hey, that could also stand for Books In Process). The ones who were writers laughed at me (fair enough) and the others said, “I don’t know where you find the time!”

And I said, “If you saw my house, you’d understand”.  

Seriously, I’m not doing anything else. Not performance work, not housework, not reading if it doesn’t count as research, not having a social life (that’s nothing new) and not blogging. But I intend to rectify at least that last one.

So I’m sorry I’ve been a silent recluse, but stick with me, because things are about to get wild around here, and you don’t want to miss it.

Tuesday, Reviews day: Livi Starling

One of the best things about being a member of the Association of Christian Writers is the opportunity to meet other writers and discover new books.  Recently I’ve been doing a bit of light reading penned by a new friend, and here is my review:

I’ve just finished reading two of the four Livi Starling books by Karen Ingerslev. Starring an eponymous 14 year old heroine, these are Christian books for teens – and British, which is so unusual and welcome for this genre!

The books are brilliantly written. For a start, they’re hilarious. The characters are all very appealing: stylistically, the books remind me a little of the Anastasia Krupnik series that I adored as a teen.  The author is so creative that even her whimsical, fictional reality TV shows or social media sites sound more fun (and sometimes, more possible) than the real ones they are parodying.

The Christianity in the books is handled perfectly – seen from the outside by the narrator, it’s detailed but not cringeworthy, and still very recognisable to a Christian from that church culture. It helps that the main Christian family depicted are delightfully eccentric, and that the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how weird and funny Christians can look and how oddly they can behave!  She also depicts Christians of many different flavours and experiences, rather than sticking to the bland or perfect image that some Christian YA writers fall prey to.

The storyline is gripping and relevant and completely unpredictable – I thought I knew where the first one was going, but I was wrong and loved being surprised by it!

Highly recommended for young teens. And adults, apparently – I now can’t wait to read the next two!

Tuesday, Reviews Day: Those Who Wait

I have been very fortunate recently to be part of the launch teams for a few great books.  One of these, which came out yesterday, is Tanya Marlow’s Those Who Wait.

Marlow

It’s a gorgeous book which explores, through the imagined thoughts and feelings of four Bible characters, all the spiritual learning and longing that comes with waiting for something.  From distant promises to urgent needs, the heartfelt desires of Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary are seen from the perspective of not-there-yet, which gives a new breath of life to stories whose endings can be a little too familiar.

I loved lots of things about this book.  I loved Tanya’s skillful drawing of the characters so that each of them has a distinct voice.  I loved her equally clever weaving of little common elements through all of the stories (I won’t give examples, because half the fun is in spotting them for yourself).  I loved the combination of creative, imaginative retelling with detailed historical notes at the end of the book.  I loved her prayers, her benedictions and her insightful, gentle questions after each chapter and section.  And, being an Anglican and a season-dweller, I absolutely adored that the characters correspond with the candles on an Advent wreath; this book will definitely be coming back down from the shelf in December for journaling and prayer.

Whether you are waiting for a bus, a miracle or the return of Jesus, this book is super.  Grab a copy now while it’s still at the introduction price.  Lots more details and a link to buy are here.

Poetry Mondays: A Good Book

Last week has been full of Bible storytelling, which has included reading, writing, performing and watching some really creative takes on Bible stories.  On Saturday 7th, I was in London for an ACW event, hearing Glen Scrivener talking about telling God’s story; yesterday I had another opportunity to watch the great Bob Hartman at work; in between, I met up with other creatives working on retellings and resources for the lectionary in Area 52.  That’s why this poem has come to the front of my mind.  It’s a performance poem I often use at the end of a training event, just to remind everyone how full of great stories the Bible really is.  See how many stories you can count and recognise!

A Good Book

What other book has
Wise men, starlight,
Sheep, a baby,
A cruel king, a great escape?
Some books, maybe.

What other book has
A donkey’s jawbone
A cockerel’s crow
A lions’ den, and two she-bears?
No book I know.

What other book has
A finger writing,
Dry bones walking,
Bushes burning,
A donkey talking,
A cloudy pillar,
A river of blood,
A wrestling angel,
An epic flood,
A still, small voice,
A beauty queen
And – toilet humour?
No book I’ve seen.

What other book has
God among us
Death and sadness
Resurrection
Joy and gladness
A heavenly Father,
Risen glory,
Life for ever​​
All a true story?

It doesn’t matter how far you look –
There’s only one.
Now that’s a Good Book.

Tuesday, Reviews day: CRT titles

A couple of weeks ago, I attended Christian Resources Together, a conference for those in the world of Christian publishing and retail to network, resource each other and celebrate successes together.  I was there as publicity officer for ACW (The Association of Christian Writers), which didn’t stop me having a good natter with some publishers as well!

As ever, it was fun to meet up and hang out with other authors that I know online, or from their books, or through ACW, but rarely get to see.

There was also lots of book launching going on, and I came away with a pile of free copies, signed by the author – next time I’ll be bringing a spare suitcase for them!  So I thought I’d pop some book reviews here for the next couple of weeks, as I get through them.  I’m also in several book launch teams at the moment, so look out for Tuesday Reviews and I’ll do my best to keep up!

Here are the books from CRT I’ve read so far:

Rebecca and Jade: Choices, by Eleanor Watkins

This was a light read on a heavy topic.  Rebecca and Jade are two girls from very different backgrounds, whose unlikely friendship carries them through a teen pregnancy.  I say it’s a light read because it’s teen fiction, so it’s simply written and I felt that it skimmed over the surface of events rather than taking time to explore emotions and character motivations more deeply.  However, it addresses the issues sensitively and thoughtfully, and includes a convincing portrayal of one of the girls’ encounter with Christianity which manages not to be too cheesy or to provide all the answers in the plot – a temptation not all Christian teen fiction manages to avoid so well.  All in all, I’d definitely recommend it to a teen audience.

 

Still Emily, by Emily Owen

This is the autobiographical story of Emily, who was diagnosed as a teenager with Neurofibromatosis and as a result faced a devastating catalogue of losses.  It’s very well written, full of honesty and a real page-turner as well: Emily invites the reader right into her experience and I was in agonies for her, especially as she described her last day of being able to hear.  But the most remarkable thing about the book is its positivity, encouragement and realistic hope as Emily, experiencing this loss of Job-like proportions, finds the place where she is still Emily and God is still God.  

As well as being lucky enough to hear her speak at CRT, I picked up two books by Emily, and I can’t wait to read the second.

 

Out of Silence, by Annie Try

As it says on the stunning front cover, this is ‘a Dr Mike Lewis story’ about a clinical psychologist who has already appeared as a smaller character in Annie Try’s ‘Trying to Fly’ but now takes centre stage.  We meet him struggling at a low point in his life, grieving the death of his son and separated from his wife.  He is given the case of ‘Johnny Two’ a refugee who so far has not said a word – but why is he so silent?

The double plot of Mike’s relationships and Johnny’s trauma make this a page-turner, and I really enjoyed reading it, though I still felt by the end that some loose ends hadn’t been tied up – left for future Dr Mike books, perhaps?  It was fun to spot the previous character and plotline from ‘Trying to Fly’ making brief appearances through this book, so I’m hoping that clients who got no more than a tantalising mention or two might eventually appear at the centres of their very own stories!

What I’m Up To Wednesday: Our Book Is Here!

There is nothing much more exciting than opening a big box and finding shiny, new copies of your own writing: picking up and feeling the weight of your own book for the first time.

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But this one isn’t my own book!  At least, it isn’t all my own.  The plot, the characters and lots of the writing come from my brilliant Snail Tales colleague Chip, who created a storytelling stage show and asked me to help him write the ‘book of the show’.  Some of the characterisation came from the stars of that show, which I went to see in Cambridge: L-J Richardson as Knut and Olivia Balzano as Ethelred.  Many of the stories within the book and the show come, not from Chip, but from children who have taken part in Snail Tales workshops.  And the illustrations, of course, come from Dave Hingley.  I didn’t know he was going to draw a cartoon version of me…

So, this is not just my celebration.  It’s been lots of fun to work as part of a team and part of a wider project again.  It’s also been a real challenge to find a way to make an interactive storytelling show into a readable book without losing its essence.  Plenty of extra material went in, but best of all are the blank pages, waiting to be filled out by young storytellers.  This is a book which will not be complete until YOU have read it!

To preorder from Amazon, click here and please leave a review once you’ve enjoyed the book!

Poetry Mondays: Why doesn’t prayer work on sleepless children?

I think it’s time to bring one of my most-shared poems to a new home on this page.  I wrote it in 2012 when most of my nights consisted of pacing the floor with my baby son, punctuated by replacing my three year old in her bed.  With both of them, I often resorted to sitting on the floor next to them and singing hymns – the only songs for which my tired brain was able to dredge up all the words.  That’s probably when I came up with this.

Thankfully they both sleep a lot better now, but this modern mothers’ psalm seems to have struck a chord with lots of others.  For me, the very last line is still just as heartfelt.

Why doesn’t prayer work on sleepless children?

God, why doesn’t prayer work on sleepless children?
I mean, considering your flair with wine and water
your feeding of the five thousand
and the way you have raising the dead down to a T
I would have thought that settling this screaming baby would be relatively easy.

So why doesn’t prayer work on sleepless children?
Because it really, really doesn’t (I’ve tried over and over)
and although I’ve known prayer to work on sickness,
impossible tasks,
broken down vehicles
the weather
and lost property,
it never, never works on screaming sleepless babies.

Is it, Lord, because you were once a screaming, sleepless baby yourself?
Do you sympathise?
Do you remember what it’s like to need something,
and not know what it is,
and not have any words for it
only tears?

I suppose this baby is praying too,
crying out to you in the only way he knows,
and you have answered his prayer.
You have given him me.
And you have equipped me for the task:
you have given me a body that can nurture him,
arms that can hold and rock him
a voice to sing to him
a scent that comforts him
and a heart that loves him
even at 3am
even though he is screaming and snotty
and that teaches me about the way in which you love me
which, in turn, leads me to tell other people about the way in which you love them.

In fact, this baby is your evangelist
your teacher and preacher
your intercessor
for me, at 3am

which perhaps is why prayer doesn’t work on sleepless babies.
I suppose I should be thankful for that.

(But, God, if prayer can’t work on sleepless children,
Please could it work on laundry instead?)

Amen.

What I’m Up to Wednesday: Creatively Retreating

There’s something about the summer time that makes me want to study.  Apparently the sunshine makes most people want to lie by the sea and do nothing, but I have a sort of Pavlov’s dog reaction after so many years of summer meaning revision and exam time.

It’s always good to set aside a little time for what in teaching used to be called ‘continuing professional development’, so I’ve been along to a few workshops recently.  The first was a poetry workshop led by Gregory Warren Wilson.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw the poster: I had to run to my bookshelf to make sure that I’d recognised the name, because this was a poet who read my poems nearly twenty years ago when they were mostly teenage drivel, annotated them, and met up with me and my cello teacher in a little cafe in Sevenoaks to go through them one by one.  IMG_1597

His workshop, on poetry and music, was wonderful.  In time-limited tasks, we played with rhythm and its effect of language.  My favourite exercise was to ‘translate’ a poem from a language nobody in the group knew, going only by the rhythm, line breaks and sound of the words to discern meaning.

Of course, I had to catch him afterwards to thank him profusely for taking me seriously in 1999.  He didn’t remember doing it, but was glad he had, because, he said, “Someone did the same for me before my voice had formed, when my poetry didn’t deserve to be seen.”  It struck a chord, reminding me of that part of the communion service, ‘When we were still far off, you met us in your son…’ A sort of poet-to-poet version of grace.

Next, I returned to Otley Hall, where I try not to miss anything Malcolm Guite ever does, and listened to him talk about Tennyson.  The retreat day took place, as he pointed out, in the garden of a ‘moated grange’ and surrounded by the mournful cries of peacocks.  It’s a wonderful place if you ever get the chance to go.  I learned that I didn’t know nearly enough Tennyson.

Finally, this weekend, I shall be at Scargill House on my favourite retreat of all, the ACW* writers’ weekend.  I’ll have to write about that one once it’s actually happened.  I wonder whether I will have got my summer learning urge out of my system by then?