Sunday, 4 December 2016

Rainbow cake and VIP-ing

Remember my blog about the Loogabarooga Festival?

One of the schools I visited was Sacred Heart Catholic Voluntary Academy, where I worked with Years 5 and 6. A few weeks ago, I went back for a morning, voluntarily, to help the children to edit the stories they had started on the day of my visit. (Brilliant morning - I used a genuine Granny Rainbow story written by a child and we worked our way through it looking for how it could have been improved before applying the lessons learnt to the Sacred Heart children's stories).

What I didn't expect after that, was an invitation to Year 5's class assembly, all about what they had learnt from the author visits they'd attended as part of Loogabarooga. (They were lucky enough to have spent the morning listening to Philip Reeve - of Mortal Engines - and Sarah MacIntyre - Oliver and the Seawigs - and then have little old me in the afternoon).

I was honoured - but wasn't sure quite what to expect...

The parents filed into the hall and I followed. Year 5 were all sitting at the front with their English books, and on the stage behind them was a rainbow house and other rainbowy items - one of which was a rainbow layer cake, made by a Y5 child's mum! Someone spotted me, yelled "Katherine Hetzel!" and everyone started shouting and waving.

I now know how celebrities feel!

All the parents turned to look, no doubt wondering who the heck had just walked in (one dad did remark he thought it might've been a visit from the Queen), so I sat myself in the middle of the back row, out of the way - only to be told by Mrs D that the children were going to invite me to say a few words at the end of the assembly... So I stepped on toes and brushed past knees to get to the end of the row while the rest of the school came in.

The assembly was brilliant!

The children began by explaining what they'd learnt with the different authors, and followed it with a demonstration of how to write a story - BY WRITING A BRAND NEW GRANNY RAINBOW STORY AS A CLASS, which they acted on stage during the reading AND supplemented that with identifying the different writing techniques used on boards, which were held up at the relevant time. (I learned what a fronted adverbial was!)

Awesome.

And yes, I said a few words afterwards. About reading lots and keeping on writing and keeping on learning. And how bowled over I was at how much work Y5 had done by writing yet another Granny Rainbow story. (It was about Dr Lettergo and his potion-enhanced, first-letter-stealing cake, in case you were wondering...) I felt so proud of the children, and honoured to have been invited to such a special celebration of their learning.

After the assembly, I was invited back to the classroom for a slice of rainbow cake, (DELICIOUS!) and Mrs D told me that she has seen a big improvement in some of her class's writing - particularly for some of the boys - since my visits. The work I did on editing seems to have boosted confidence and enthused even the most reluctant writer, because I demonstrated practically how we can always make our writing better.

THAT is what makes these author visits so worthwhile; in a small way, I can make a big difference.

Perhaps I ought to extend my strapline? Katherine Hetzel, the short author who tells tall tales and makes a big difference...


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

AGES since I last blogged!

Christmas is beginning to loom large - part of the reason I'm not blogging so frequently - and I've had a massive helping of Christmassy things over the last week, which I thought I'd share.

First, it was the Community Christmas Tree Festival in the town's Parish Church, All Saints and Holy Trinity. I had help with our church tree this year, and between myself and Liv, we took on a music and craft theme to look forward to the Nanpantan Festival which happens next year.


There were a few other trees that caught my eye - here are a few of them;

British Heart Foundation - Rainbow Hearts

A hairdresser's tree. Don't think it was REAL hair...

Tatted Angels - last year it was snowflakes

The War Memorial Poppy Trees


The Rainbows Hospice tree

Then it was off to Germany for the weekend. Without the children. Which was a whole new level of nervyness for me - the first time they'd been left home alone, even though grandparents were on call just up the road...

Anyway, the reason for the trip was that every year, with our very good friends, we cook a Christmas meal together and dress up in DJ's and posh frocks. It's a tradition that - we think - has been running for thirty years, with only a couple of years off in all that time. Our friends in Germany more often than not come over to England, but this year we travelled to them instead.

While there, we visited a genuine German Christmas market - small and intimate, in streets between pastel-coloured beamed buildings twinkling with lights under the eaves. There was Gluwein and wurst and gingerbread, Advent wreaths and baubles and Christmas candles. And a minecraft-style Nativity scene inside a giant snow globe. The photos are a bit blurry as I forgot the camera - Mr Squidge took these on his phone as the light was fading.





The biggest Advent calendar I've EVER seen...

And here's the whole gang - though I think you can only see the top of Nicola's head, cos she was taking a photo too!


One thing I hadn't realised in Germany is how important Advent wreaths - or Adventkranz - are. I know what an Advent wreath IS - we have one in church, and light a new candle on the four Sundays before Christmas, with a special one lit on Christmas Day.

In Germany, most homes have an AdventKranz too. Apparently they were a way of bringing evergreen into the house in advance of Christmas Eve, which is traditionally when the Christmas tree is decorated. Nicola had made two:

White and silver, to complement the antique glass baubles

Glass birds with feather and fibre tails. This wreath is about two feet across!

I like this idea so much, I think I will make an Adventkranz for Chateau Squidge later this week, because our tree never goes up until a week before Christmas and it would be nice to have something Christmassy (apart from cards and wrapping paper!) before then...

Stars play a big part in the Advent preparations too. Very popular are paper star lampshades for inside and out.

All set for dinner...

Although our hosts had prepared and cooked everything, Mr Squidge couldn't resist stirring the gravy...


One other difference this year - apart from being in Germany for our Christmas meal - was our dress code; black tie, posh frock and Christmas slipper socks! 

Look closely and you'll spot the sequins!

The weekend was finished off by a walk through the forest behind the house on Sunday morning, to see the view over Darmstadt and visit an alpine hut for frikadellen before flying home to the Squidgelings.

Somehow, this was the best meal ever. Thinking about it afterwards, I wondered if it was due in part to the fact that it wasn't JUST an evening meal with our friends. It was a whole weekend, with time to talk and relax and leave all the 'normal' stuff behind at home. We've all got some wonderful memories from a very special forty-eight hours.

Next year, I think we'll be back in Blighty. I'll offer to host it here, assuming we manage to get our new kitchen in by then...

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Collaboration

So the Scribbles have been a little quiet in the last two weeks as I've been recovering from the chest infection.

Thank goodness, I'm feeling a lot better; this week I've managed to get through the week without a mid-afternoon nap and I've even had music on and managed to have enough breath in me to sing along. Cold air still makes me cough, and there's a very slight ache in my ribs left over, but I think we can safely say I'm pretty much there.

So - back to blogging! And the subject today is...collaboration.

One of the things that popped up on my facebook feed was a link to That Thorn Guy's blog. In case you haven't read him yet, Mark Lawrence IS That Thorn Guy, although That Thorn Guy's blog is more information about Mark and his writing than his own blog, per se. (I became a fan of Mark's writing after reading Prince of Thorns, the first book in the Broken Empire Trilogy, on a whim, and I love the way he interacts with readers and his fans.)

Anyway, on the blog at the moment is a collaborative story, written by eight authors with a few names you might recognise. As well as Mark, the list includes Miles Cameron, Sebastien de Castell, John Gwynne, Conn Iggulden, Jane Johnson, Peter Newman and Garth Nix. It's a great read - I laughed out loud in several places and loved the earthyness of it and the end twist - but it's also a competition. Basically, the reader has to identify which author wrote which section of the story. My own entry is a complete shot in the dark - as I noted in the comments, I'm not fussed about winning. It was enough of a prize to simply read the story!

But it reminded me of my own involvement with collaborative stories. There was one about the Spanish treasure hunters of Aztec gold, and another about vampires. Both totally NOT what I usually write about! I found them great fun though, because they brought together a variety of different styles of writing and were a real challenge. The end results were something quite unique that all the participants could take ownership of.

Collaborating on stories like this seems to work with any size of group - the smallest one I took part in had only four authors involved, the most: eight. The order of writers was decided up front, and we kept cycling round until the story came to a conclusion.

However, there were problems. First, you have to have a good way of contacting the next in line to let them know it's their turn. If they only answer email once a week, it slows things down. You have to keep the momentum going. As the story progresses, more characters and places and problems are introduced and there is a danger that instead of keeping the story focused, it becomes a sprawling beast with far too many people and places and things happening to tie together for a satisfactory conclusion. And you often need to re-read the story so far in its entirety, otherwise you get lots of rookie continuity errors!

It's also really tempting to plan what you want to happen next - but you do so at your peril, because there could be quite a few authors changing the direction of the story to something quite different before you get your next turn. It can (and did) cause friction sometimes when authors 'lost' their storyline. It makes it important for everyone to be clear from the beginning that the story is free to go in whatever direction each author chooses to take it. So you end up not being able to plan, which doesn't sit well with natural planners.

In fact, as I think about it, I'd love to do another collaboration. Anyone out there want to join me? I'll start it, pass it on and then if you send your piece back, I'll forward the story as it stands to the next person on the list, they add to it, send it back, I forward it... And then I'll blog the end result and the names of all the participants but as a list.

Are you up for it? If you are, message me your email on microscribbler@gmail.com and we'll get started... Happy Scribbling!

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

P-p-p-poorly

I hate being ill. I mean properly ill, as opposed to a few sniffles or a day or two feeling a bit under the weather.

Four weeks ago, I had a virus. Four days of almost-flu, followed by feeling better but left with a cough.

The cough persisted. Sometimes, it was so bad I couldn't catch my breath and I was retching. Then it would ease off for hours and I thought it'd gone. Except it hadn't. It became an irritating dry tickly thing...and yet I knew there was no point going to the doctor's because coughs caused by viruses can take up to six weeks to disappear.

Except that things changed on Monday night; I got a pain in my back, assumed I'd pulled a muscle through coughing.

Tuesday, the pain had moved into the ribs on my left side, just at bra-level under my arm. As the day progressed, the pain got steadily worse. Every time I coughed, it was like someone was jabbing me with a sharp stick just below my left breast...and when I sneezed once? I nearly leapt off the sofa.

By this morning, the pain was unbearable. I left my bra off, because even the pressure of the elastic hurt my ribs. Movement caused a deep ache from the bottom of my ribs on the left hand side right up into my shoulder, and I had to hold myself tight every time I tried to cough.

Definitely not normal - so I made an appointment to see the doctor as a matter of urgency.

As I described my symptoms, and then had to pause to hold myself and cough, I saw her shake her head. "That does not sound good," she said.

The diagnosis? My lung was crackling...chest infection. Pneumonia was mentioned, in passing.

Treatment? Painkillers, Strong antibiotics for five days, a chest X-ray (still waiting to hear about that), and rest. Lots of rest. Follow up appointment in a week's time.

That's when I started bawling - poor doctor, she wasn't expecting that - because I felt so rough, and I knew I would have to let people down. Tonight, I should have been giving a talk to a group from church. Tomorrow, I should have been running a creative writing day for twenty Y6's. And sitting in that doctor's chair, I knew I would have to cancel both.

I know that folk will be understanding...I know I can rearrange...I know I have a responsibility to myself and my family to let myself take the time I need to recover. Even if it's 'just' a lung infection, rather than the 'pneumony'...

But it doesn't stop me hating being ill because I'm restricted in what I can do and am so stupidly tired by the simplest of tasks...

Ah well. Soon be fit as a fiddle again.

I hope.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Loogabarooga Festival 2016

'Incredible Illustrations, Brilliant Books...'



The second Loogabarooga Festival did not disappoint. Over six days, there were theatre shows, talks, creative sessions, exhibitions, workshops, readings, films, book signings... Famous authors and illustrators flocked to Loughborough - like Michael Rosen, Julian Clary, David Roberts, Philip Reeve, Sarah McIntyre, Daisy Hirst, Andrew Everitt-Stewart, Emma Yarleti... I've probably missed a few. We even had Roald Dahl's BFG in the town centre!

And then there was me.

I offered to visit schools in the area, to talk about writing or hold a creative writing session. The Loogabarooga Festival team said 'yes please' (hooray!) and so I found myself last Monday ready to present three different sessions at two very different schools.

Limehurst Academy asked me to give an assembly-type talk and Q&A session to 120 Year 7's, followed by a creative writing session for one lucky class from the same year group.

At first the 120 pairs of eyes staring up at me was a bit daunting, but I recognised a few ex-Mountfields pupils among them as well as at least one member of staff who went to school with me in my own Limehurst Girls High School (as it was back in the 1970's) days, so I soon relaxed. In fact, I took a photo of me in my school uniform to show the current students...



I gave a short talk about how I got into writing and the long journey that StarMark had made before leading on to questions. Someone asked whether any of my books had been made into films - which was the perfect opportunity to show the book trailer for StarMark on the big screen... It looks even better sized up!

We finished with the three objects challenge - each of the six classes had a representative to choose three things from my story bag and I challenged them to go away and write up a short story including the items. We had some great mixes; it almost makes me want to have a go at another 'Challenge me' on the Scribbles... Here's what came out of the bag - if you're a writer yourself, why not pick one and have a go? You have 500 words...








For the workshop, I used my current favourite story starter - 'The antique glass bottle contained...' The students came up with (among other things) swords, lungs, bullets of mutating agent, secrets, and blue dragon smoke. We used huge sheets of brown sugar paper and lots of coloured pens to map out the stories and by the end of the session, everyone had at least made a start on writing their stories.

Feedback from the workshop was good, highlighting again how much the students enjoy actually being able to write a story, instead of learning about the individual component parts and never having an opportunity to put all that learning together. Interestingly, there were several comments about how inspiring and encouraging I was, which is somewhat humbling because I never set out with that in mind.

In the afternoon, I visited the Year 5's and 6's at Sacred Heart Catholic Voluntary Academy. These children had attended another Loogabarooga event in the morning with Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre - I was a little worried that after such literary celebrity, my own offering would fall a bit short.

We focused this time on Granny Rainbow and More Granny Rainbow, as the children had been introduced to the stories and I planned that they should write their own versions. Because Granny Rainbow is good at solving problems, the children came up with new characters, gave them a problem and decided how Granny Rainbow would solve it. At the end of the session the children had drawn their characters AND had the beginnings of their stories.

One young man deserves special mention for his story. I got the impression he doesn't always focus on the work in hand, but for some reason this task caught his imagination. He did everything that was asked of him and ended up having written a whole story where (I don't want to spoil his story, so forgive me if I'm a little vague here!) the character wanted to be different; Granny Rainbow made the change but - and this is the first time it's ever occurred to anyone to do this within the Granny Rainbow 'formula', including me - the character wasn't happy with the situation, decided they were happier before and asked Granny Rainbow to change them back! He was so proud of his work...and I felt a glow of pride for being the tool, if you like, that made it happen.

The younger children also had some very interesting questions. Like:

How much money do you get for each book? (Varies, but the kids were shocked it might only be 10% of cover price...)

How does it make you feel when you sell a book? (Good, but not as good as when someone tells me afterwards that they've loved the stories! That's payment beyond measure.)

Was there ever a time you thought you couldn't write for children? (Yes. I didn't write for a whole year. Then I came back fighting - and look where it's got me.)

What football team do you support? (Cue horrified gasps when I said I didn't. Not even Leicester City, our nearest team.)

I have agreed to revisit Sacred Heart in a couple of weeks' time to follow up and help the children with editing their stories. Can't wait to see them!

At the end of the afternoon, I was shattered, but happy-shattered from a rewarding day. Things to note for these kind of events in the future are probably to allow a bit more time between school changes, as I had no time for lunch (snatched a cereal bar in the car park) and was feeling a little jaded by half way through this afternoon session. Oh - and although high heels are great to make me feel a bit better when standing next to the Year 7's (I got a couple of 'Nice shoes, Miss!') they don't half kill your feet and ankles after a whole day wearing them!

If I'm honest, I think I prefer the interactive workshops over talks, but I can see how advantageous it is to do a presentation to larger groups and spread the experience of having an author come to visit the school. But at least I've proved to myself - and others - that I am capable of doing larger presentations, so who knows where it'll take me from here?

Loogabarooga 2017? I can but hope...

Friday, 21 October 2016

StarMark: the film!

One thing I really wanted to produce to help market StarMark was a book trailer.

Through a marketing company, I was put in touch with Just Anim8, a small animation company based at Loughborough University. We got together to discuss possibilities and I'm delighted to say that I now have a book trailer - essence of StarMark, animated!




It hasn't been an easy process - both I and the team at Just Anim8 have learned a lot over the last few months. . (You can create trailers yourself, of course, but I'm not tec-savvy enough to manage that. You should have seen me trying to upload the video link to youtube...)

But, if anyone out there is hoping to produce a book trailer using professional film-makers, here's my top tips for a smoother process.

1. Agree a contract. (Ours was verbal, and both parties agreed it probably should have been written to avoid some of the problems we encountered later.)

Ensure from the outset you know exactly what you are agreeing to in the process, especially with respect to the number of revisions you are getting for your money. Part of the delay and increased cost of the trailer was due to my misunderstanding how many times I could ask for changes to the storyboard once animating had begun. I'm sure every time I said "Can we just...?" the team's collective heart must've sunk, but eventually we both bought into an idea and it all came together pretty quickly from then on. But that leads nicely onto...

2. Do your homework! 

Research other book trailers. Get a feel for a style or approach you like and keep the idea simple if you can - you're not aiming for Gone With the Wind. Think about the sort of images and colours and even soundtrack you think might work with the atmosphere of your book. Remember that you are distilling the essence of your story into possibly two or three minutes, and it's no good having a dark, gothic approach if your book is a light romance! Try to have an idea of what you are trying to get across to the potential reader - consider it a visual book blurb, if you will; punchy, to the point, and with enough of a hook to make people want to buy the book and read it.

If the filming/animation team are happy to read your book, let them; it also gives them a better understanding of what they are going to be representing visually. I only passed the book on to the creative team towards the end of the process - they said it would have been more useful earlier on.

3. Try to lay as much definite groundwork as you can before the animation or filming stage.

Talk it through with the creative team as much as you need to and don't be afraid to ask questions - though hopefully, if you've done your homework, you should both have a good idea of what you're aiming for as an end result. In my case, I had a definite idea but I don't think I explained it well enough up front, which takes me back to the fundamental 'do your homework'...

4. Make sure you understand what the creative team are sending you when the first few clips/scenes come through.

I didn't - I thought what I was being sent were stills, when in fact they were movie clips and I made judgements based on static pictures rather than moving ones. This resulted in the team continuing so far down the animation path, it became costly to rectify when I realised later that I didn't actually like the moving images when they came pieced together in larger chunks...and we ended up cutting a lot of the original storyboard in an attempt to simplify the film.

5. Give the project enough time if you want to meet a deadline.

My original deadline slipped...and slipped...and slipped. It was mainly my own fault because of the changes I kept requesting, but the team also admitted that book trailers were a new area for them which probably made the process a little slower this first time.

6. Be prepared for working with other creative types!

I am a creative person in all sorts of ways - I often have a really good visual idea of the end result I want to achieve, whether I'm sewing, painting or flower arranging. The problem is, if you gave any group of creative types the same project, they would all approach it differently...just think of how different some of the NIBS writing has been, even though it's all generated from the same prompts.

This is where you have to be prepared either to do enough work to be able to explain EXACTLY what you want up front, OR be prepared to compromise and maybe even hand over the project to the person you're employing to do the job. I hadn't realised how much control I wanted to keep over this project, and I can accept that this made it hard for Just Anim8, who are possibly more used to having clients who give them a less specific brief. Nothing wrong with a specific brief - but you need to have (yep, going to say it again!) done your homework first if you need that level of control for your own satisfaction.


Ultimately, the animated trailer cost me a lot more financially than I wanted it to, but the end result is very pleasing to me. I chose animation over video because I know some readers prefer not to have a visual image of the characters in a book forced upon them - they want to 'see' the characters in their heads, the way they choose. That was one of the reasons for choosing Just Anim8 in the end, because their style is bold and not finely detailed; I could show a man who might be Lord Terenz, but he'd be vague enough no to upset those who prefer to imagine characters for themselves. I loved the colour palette chosen for the film as well as the mix of pictures and words. My favourite bit is when the StarMark turns to gold; I nearly cried when I saw that for the first time...

I'd be interested to know what you think, too, especially as I am hoping to work with Just Anim8 next year, when I sort out a second book trailer for Kingstone.

Mind you, you can bet your bottom dollar I'll have done my homework for that one.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Goodbye to The Mound.

About thirteen, maybe fourteen years ago, Mr Squidge and I decided to give the back garden a makeover. This was due - in part - to having had little Squidgelings, and we felt the need for a slabbed play space for wet days as well as lots of grass and lovely borders.

With the help of a good friend who owns his own landscaping business, we set to work.

One of the problems in our garden was the step up onto our lawn; the small patio outside the French doors was a good six inches lower than the grass. To increase the patio size, we needed to shift an awful lot of topsoil to make everything level.

To save on skip fees and carting goodness knows how much earth to the tip, G suggested building a mound at the end of the garden with the topsoil he removed. It would give the kids a little hill to roll down, and - most cunningly of all - it would have lengths of pipe buried inside it so that cars and balls could be rolled down the inside of the hill.

Put the balls in the pipe at the top...
...and collect them at the bottom

We went along with the idea and over the years, have had great fun on The Mound. (The photos above were taken in 2002, the year the garden was finished.) It was a dingly-dell for a fairy birthday party, and a castle for the pirates who came to another. It gave us a shaded seat in the summer and on occasion has allowed us to nip over the fence into the neighbour's garden to retrieve tennis balls, shuttlecocks and off-target stomp rockets when said neighbour was away. The local fox used to use it for sunbathing in the mornings, but we haven't seen him around for ages.

All that is about to change.

Yesterday, Mr Squidge and Squidgeling T took a crowbar and lump hammer to the retaining wall that holds The Mound up.


Still two more sides to knock down once the earth's out...

It's all part of a wider plan to build a large shed-cum-outdoor-room at the bottom of the garden. The idea was sold to me as a writer's den (I am assured it will have heating) but T seems to think it'll be far better used as a rehearsal space for his band. It's also the reason why the slide, climbing frame and swing have finally been dismantled...(We still have the tree house, thank goodness, but even that's had a makeover in the last twelve months and is much more grown up than the old one.)

By the end of this weekend, The Mound will become The Flat Space At The End Of The Garden.

I can't help feeling sad about it. Not because the mound is being dug out (yes, we are paying for a skip to get rid of the soil this time!) but more because its removal seems to mark the end of childish things. My children aren't children any more - they are young people, on the cusp of adulthood. Gone are the days of fairies and pirates and the simplicity of rolling balls through a tube. Now it's Warhammer model painting and studying for exams and whether we can boost the Wifi signal to the end of the garden for the inevitable smartphone...

The end of an era. *sigh* And maybe, the start of a new one?

I'll let you know how I feel about that once the shed-cum-outdoor-room's finished...