Monday, December 1, 2008

RIP Bunny Bertagna

Grief for a pet is so uncomplicated. Normally stoic in a crisis, I've been a sniffling mess all day. Hoping that I could put the red-eyed look down to it being an eye-watering minus 4 degrees today in Glasgow, the whole city sparkling with frost, I had to take the laptop out and work my way around cafes and museums. Just couldn't face sitting alone at my desk without my little foot-warmer and writing companion, the beloved Bunny Bertagna. Poor little thing was suffering badly and we couldn't let that go on.

As I said in a post last year:

A rabbit is the perfect writing companion. He needs no walkies when you are lost in that hard-won mysterious 'zone' when the hours fly by and writing is a dream. Cast a few carrot chunks about the room and he will amuse himself quietly all afternoon by foraging in corners. Rabbits don't bark or twitter, just make sweet gruntings and look impossibly cute when they want something. They are the ultimate muse: when you read a bit of the book you are working on, they never look bored or less than impressed. And they are the best foot warmer in winter, as you sit at your desk.

What more could a writer want?

So, to possibly the most spoiled house rabbit ever, thank you for a bunny-load of love, fun and foot-warming. We miss you lots.

Monday, November 3, 2008

One City

Our City brings together ten of Scotland's top children's writers, with specially commissioned stories inspired by Edinburgh and introduced by children's-favourite, BBC presenter, Raven.

6 November 2008 at 4.30pm

Meet all ten authors of Our City - come along to Ocean terminal, Edinburgh, and get your very own copy of the book signed by all ten authors.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Teapots on Pluto

Are there? Who knows? Scientists Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins caused a rumpus by comparing belief in God to the unprovable belief that there is a teapot orbiting Pluto. My story, A Teapot on Pluto, is not about God; it's about time travel (yes, my head is stuck in the future, but one of these days I'll get back to the here and now). The teapot has been tucked away in the back of my mind, gathering dust and waiting for its moment, and when I read about the big Atom-Smasher switch-on last month (see post below) I found it.

Read the story here or download it from Scottish Book Trust's excellent site. Check out the stories by other authors too.

I've put lots of hot links within the story, for a truly interactive read. So have fun - click away, and see what you find...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Well, I didn't expect that at all. I was up for the Catalyst Book Award along with double-Carnegie Medal winner Berlie Doherty whose books I love, and Cathy MacPhail who wins awards all the time (but you just can't hate her, she's great) and Tabitha Suzuma who is an exciting new writer on the YA book scene. I was shortlisted for ZENITH, which was never going to win against that lot, and also because it's a sequel, and sequels never win. So I was very relaxed. So relaxed, and so 110% certain that I wouldn't win, that I didn't see the point in preparing a winning speech - or in saying 'no' to a late, too-big glass of wine with last year's winner and this year's Master of Ceremony, Anthony McGowan...

That's how I came to be standing on the Catalyst stage with a headache and without a speech, apart from an astonished 'wow, thank you.' Thanks indeed to all the enthusiastic teenagers who read and debate the books and vote on the award, and to the teachers and librarians from about 30 schools who make the Catalyst Award such a fantastic event for all the writers involved. You are all really inspiring.

It was a thrill to win and so was seeing so many excited teenagers who were really into books. I was very moved by the connection so many teenagers made with ZENITH, and with the other shortlisted books. The Catalyst Award is a brilliant catalyst for making sparks fly between teenagers and books.

And it all very powerfully proved wrong an article I just read on Achuka.

Big thanks to Cara Murray, a trainee teacher who has been doing a fantastic project with children, based on my Ice Cream Machine books. I'm going to set up a page for schools with ideas and photos of activities from Cara's project and others.

Proof that two days are rarely the same in this job- I was asked to be a BAFTA Scotland judge for the children's TV award by the MD of SMG who made the Ice Cream Machine TV series, and had a great time wrangling with the other judges. Our chosen shortlist is announced tomorrow. My invitation to the Baftas says, intimidatingly, 'Black tie and glamour'. Oh, I'll try...

And for Jack (who gets a gold star for stumping me on a question at the Catalyst Schools events!): you asked how many people are at risk on the drowning islands of Kiribati in the South Seas (which originally gave me the idea for Exodus and Zenith) - it's 107, 817 people, Jack.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Medieval technology

And thanks to Steve Augarde via Fidra for making me smile at the end of a truly horrible week.

Or there's this; not so funny but cheering all the same.

Catalysts and black holes

Is it coincidence that so many big banks have imploded all across the world since the switch-on of the big Atom-Smasher (or Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva? Or have they been sucked into big black holes?

I couldn't help wondering, as I've just finished a story inspired by this amazing idea. The story, A Teapot on Pluto, should appear soon on the Young Scottish Book Trust blog where Keith Gray is their first Online Writer in Residence. (Obviously I'll have to buy Keith a few beers for the nice things he said about me.) Meanwhile, you can read and download his story and others here and watch Keith's brilliant podcasts for budding writers here. I've been picking up a few tips.

In a few weeks I'm off to do a run of events for the Catalyst Book Award. ZENITH has been shortlisted, along with books by Berlie Doherty, Cathy MacPhail, Antony Macgowan and Tabitha Suzuma - fantastic writers all. It's a great shortlist and great to be there. Best of all, Catalyst gets teenagers reading and arguing over books.

In November, I'll be involved in an exciting launch with TV's 'Raven' for Our City for the OneCity Trust. It's a project close to my heart and I always wanted to rewrite the story of the Pied Piper - this gave me the perfect chance, with Edinburgh instead of Hamburg as the dramatic setting for a fairytale that haunted me as a child.

And I've just seen the stunning new cover of the US Zenith. More soon!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pullman and Banksy fight the good fight

Philip Pullman debunks another false god - and Banksy (above) is on side.

"Worshipping the market....: by handing over vast amounts of money to Tesco’s, for example, in order to bring about a miracle – and sure, enough, the god responds: the book they nominate is labelled No. 1 at Tesco’s, and behold! They have a bestseller. In reality, success comes so unpredictably..." Read the rest here, along with Anne Fine.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Summer is the season of book tents

This week, I'm doing an event at Edinburgh's Old Town Festival, as part of REFUGEE WEEK (see wed 18th June). On Friday I'll be in Kelso at the Borders Book Festival. There will be heart-stopping visuals and I'll bring you face to face with the real, world-shattering SOS that lies behind the epic stories of EXODUS, ZENITH and AURORA.

And I hope the nice SLA conference people I spoke to yesterday enjoyed their night in the badlands of Glasgow...

There's also my FUTURE SHOCK event at the Edinburgh Book Festival 25th August, with inspiration from Bladerunner, The Matrix - and the Sex Pistols. Well, why not?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Revolting authors and children

It takes a lot to get the nation's children's authors, a peaceable lot, to amass in an uprising. But this week Philip Pullman led an outpouring of dismay over some UK publishers' plans to put age recommendations, without consultation, on our books. So much has been said by authors and publishers and journalists, but the most important views, surely, are those of young readers.

Which says it all, really.

If you want to find out why so many authors, including all four Children's Laureates and some of our most wonderful writers and illustrators, such as Alan Garner, felt the need to say 'not in our name' to the proposed plans, have a look here and here and here and here and here... and there's a good summary of both arguments here.

Here are Philip Pullman and Darren Shan, and an excellent post at Fidra Books where Alan Garner comments.

If I had never read the books of Alan Garner (as with Ursula Le Guin) I might not be a writer today. I have read Alan Garner, as many people do, at ten years old, at fifteen and as an adult, and each time I find something startling and new. The impossibility of age-banding his novels hits on what is wrong with the uninspired commercial impulse of this idea - a dull, wrong-headed, narrow marketing approach that completely goes against the grain of what the wide-open universe of books is all about.

Friday, May 23, 2008

And from Bearsden to Earthsea

I never could have imagined, all those years ago, curled up in the windowseat of Bearsden Library, escaping from life into the wizard world of Earthsea, that I would ever grow up to write books of my own, and that one of my books would one day end up on the American Booklists's Top Ten SF/ Fantasy Titles for Youth 2008 alongside a book by Ursula Le Guin.


As Mara found out in EXODUS, miracles can happen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Wise Woman of Earthsea

Working alone at a desk can be wonderful and it can be hard. Not as hard as lots of other things I've done, but still. What do you do when inspiration goes awol? Most often you look to other writers- ransack the bookshelves and the teetering piles on the desk. But there's often inspiration - and distractions - to be had online, on the phone, a quick coffee-therapy with another writer. And I like to dip into Ursula Le Guin's site ; it's like a brisk talking-to from a wise old auntie, if that's not too disrespectful. Full of nuggets of wisdom and insight. Aged 14, I submerged myself in her Earthsea books. That's a map of Earthsea above. I fled my life and a rainsodden Scottish summer on the windowseat of my local library. (Is it any wonder I ended up writing about an Earth all at sea?) I just read this on Sara O'Leary's site via the bookwitch, who just tagged me (see below).

Anyway, some wise words from Le Guin: "the writers who are my friends now are generous people with a strong sense of community. I keep away from writers who think art is a competition for fame, money, prizes, etc. What matters is the work."

Which sort of leads me onto bookwitch's 'tagging game' this morning. She does these things just to keep us off our work.

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Okay, 6th sentence on p123 of my nearest book, Keith Gray's soon-to-be-published 'Ostrich Boys':
"'I pulled my rucksack closer to my feet, wrapped my legs around it as if to protect what was inside. At last Sim said: 'You know. Just...' 'O-kay. Dodgy question,' Joe said."

Wise woman Ursula would approve of Keith and it's a cracking read.

My chosen taggees, who might want to avoid some work by joining the blogchain (do steps I to 5 above) are: The Greenhouse, Julia Bell, Fidra, Notes from The Slushpile and Normblog.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Not an April Fool

It's Publication Day for EXODUS in the USA. A bit of a worrying date! So I did a quick check on but it's definitely there.

It's been a long journey for Exodus to reach the USA. When it was first published in 2002, America was, understandably, caught up in the aftermath of September 11th. A novel about a flooded world was just the wrong book at the wrong time, though it was going down a storm here, published as it was during a summer of mass floods in Asia, Europe and the UK. My home city, Glasgow, which I'd envisioned engulfed by floods in the year 2100 had cars floating down the streets that monsoon summer.... I felt like a prophet of doom.

Now, it's been published in many countries and America has suffered its own catastrophic floods too. So for all the wrong, sad reasons this feels like the right time for the book there. The responses so far have been amazing. But it's early days. Books provoke all kinds of reactions, so we'll see....

But so far so good. The ALA (American Library Association) BOOKLIST made Exodus a front page feature, which was wonderful. See Love Among The Ruins Booklist feature and review.

Another review from Jen Robinson's fantastic site - a small universe of books in one blog, and, oops, I've managed to lose the links for the other nice ones, like the US School Library Journal. Obviously I won't put them all up but publishing a book is as scary as it is exciting. Anyone can strangle your baby, so to speak, so it's great when people welcome it to the world. Most of all, I've been overwhelmed by the passion of young readers - their emails and debates are furiously passionate, obsessional, inspiring!

If you are a reading group, a teacher or librarian and want to get the debate going, Walker have published a wonderful reading guide for the US publication, downloadable here.

Facts and reality are often too overwhelming. Humans have always needed stories. I think of stories as a map, torch and compass to take on the journey through life. Maybe that's why Mara's journey, and the other young characters in Exodus and Zenith, have such resonance for young people (and a lot of older ones too) who are wondering and worrying about the future. It's such a vast, exciting and scary unknown. But an epic adventure with characters you love - well, all I can say is I loved writing it, even when it's bending my brain!

And it's currently bent in three 3 different directions: remembering what I wrote in Exodus for a US interview, doing events on the new paperback of Zenith (the 2nd book), and writing Aurora.

Today, as Exodus starts a new journey, I decided to do something special. I'm writing the ending of AURORA, the last book in the trilogy. (Though there's a gaping big bit in the middle still to be written...) Writing with goosebumps, a racing heart. And a big box of tissues.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

And from Edith to Simone (a much easier leap)

Edith Wharton and Simone de Beauvoir: New Yorker and Parisian, yet definitely two of a kind. Both were huge inspirations to me, as a fledgling writer in my twenties, when I felt stuck and angry with myself for lacking courage and taking the wrong, easy path in life and ending up thoroughly lost in the woods. I'd just spent four years at university studying books mostly written by men - and I'd loved it. But in a kind of desperate instinct to find my way back to myself, I began a journey into books written by women. I read everything by Edith and Simone and many other ground-breaking women writers. The most important thing I learned was that the 'easy' road is always the hardest in the end. But there is always a way back to yourself.

And, if you want to write, you pick up a pen.

So when I read this about Simone de Beauvoir in today's Guardian by Zoe Williams, it made me laugh:

"Ollivier includes small pull-out sections on French Girls We Love and has the brass neck, ladies, to include Simone de Beauvoir, who is apparently "known as one of the 20th-century's most interesting and important women. Her memoirs reveal an independent, self-defined woman who made conscious (if existentialist!) choices regarding love and work ..."

I don't even know where to start with that, but at random, let's start here: can you imagine what De Beauvoir would have said about being called a girl? About being included in a book whose next chapter explains why it's important to buy your walking shoes in Prada, because you can never be too well dressed? About being name-checked by a person who doesn't just not know the meaning of the word existentialist, but can't even be arsed to look it up before committing it to a paperback? Can you imagine? She would have had a cow.

... surely there's more to being a French woman than not eating a whole portion of anything and knowing who Simone de Beauvoir is, even if you do not, strictly speaking, know anything she ever said."

Wonderful, Zoe.

A bit about that ('existentialist!') girl Simone here.

PS - problems with the comments section here and my website email. Things are not getting through. Apologies if you think you are being ignored. Will be sorted asap!

Friday, March 21, 2008

From Slash to Edith

Yes, quite a leap there. From demented rock god to Edith Wharton. But Ms Wharton was far more the rebellious spirit of the cartoon, above, than the prim lady of her portrait. So maybe they would get along.

I'm staggeringly late in putting this up, but better late than never (as I always say to my publishers).

I was honoured when one of my favourite 'online coffeestops', the wonderful Normblog, invited me to join his illustrious list of writers. I had to write about my favourite book for Norm's Writer's Choice series. An enjoyable task which proved almost impossible. So, in the end, after ransacking my bookshelves and ending up with a pile on the floor almost as tall as myself, I settled for one of my most favourite books (the one I'd re-read most recently): Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.

You can read my Writer's Choice here and there are lots more.
Here's the Amazon link if you would like to read it yourself.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

That Doesn't Mean It Didn't Happen

It's rare, as I said in a previous post, that I get to impress the teenage Rebel. I take whatever fleeting moment I can. So when I was told that ZENITH was No.2 in the bebo fiction charts, I couldn't wait for Rebel and friends to come in from school, and for the Almost Legendary Guitar Hero to come in from work, so that I could announce that I was higher in the charts than Slash, the Actual Legendary Guitar Hero from Guns n Roses and latterly Velvet Revolver (we saw VR last autumn and my ears buzzed for a week).

Of course by the time you read this the moment might have passed. I might have crashed and Slash might be rising again. But in the words of the man himself, That Doesn't Mean It Didn't Happen.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Happy New Year

A very happy New Year!

CLICK onto my EARTHSPACE blog ( to see how to win £100 of iTunes. It's a bebo competition to celebrate the launch of the paperback release of my eco-epic ZENITH. Or go straight to to post your green resolution for 2008 and see if you win. Good luck!

2008 has begun with a very nice bundle of mail. It's fantastic to read it all - but quite hard to reply to everyone quickly as I'm trying to write the next book. So I've come up with a few solutions. One is that in the new paperback of ZENITH, out on 1st February, there is an extra feature at the end of the book. It's an interview made up of all the questions that readers mail to me most often. They are really good questions and I enjoyed you 'interviewing' me!

The other solution is to post some of your emails (anonymously) and reply here as best I can.....

"I'm 12yrs old and I've only read Exodus and Zenith. I think they're both really really good books!! Once I started reading I couldn't stop, I was in a totally different world! But your books have also made me think. About the world and global warming. i think it's really cool that you wrote two really good books and still had that important message of global warming. I've learnt so much from reading those two books and i can't wait to read more of your books!
I myself would like to be an author when i am older, and you have really inspired me as a role model. I read through your whole website and learnt a lot! I love to write stories and I'm quite a bookworm. My biggest ambition is to actually write a proper children's book and have it published. But i can never actually finish one story. How do you keep going, do you ever get boerd, halfway throught?
How do you make your characters come to life, so that they are basically real people?
Do you already know how your stpry is going to end once you start writing?
What is the best top tip for you for story writing?
I look forward to reading more of your books!!!!!!
love, a huge fan!
P.S, what's the best thing about being an author?
P.P.S, please, please write back??!!!!!"

My reply:

Thanks for such a lovely message and such good questions. Let's see if I can answer them!

I know exactly what you mean about being in a different world. That's how I feel when the writing is going well and my biggest hope is that people reading the books feel that too. I also wanted you to think - I didn't want to tell you what to think though; that's up to you. Stories are spoiled when the writer tries to put a stark message across to the reader. But if you closed the book and it left you thinking - that's wonderful.

You are already doing some of the very best things you can do if you want to be an author - being a bookworm and imagining up stories. It's the best apprenticeship there is! Read lots and dream lots. Read books you might not normally try, try to work out what makes a book good - or bad. Everything grows and sparks your imagination. And really live your life - then you'll have more to write about.

It can be very hard to keep going with a story. Every author finds this. We get stuck, get bored, want to give up, do anything else....just like you. Sometimes, it's best to move onto a new story. Not every story works. But don't give up too easily. Put the story away for a while - a few weeks or even months - but keep reading and dreaming and living with your eyes and mind open. It's amazing how, when you come back to something with fresh eyes and ideas, the next part of the story pops up out of your imagination. Or you think of a new character, or a new and better way to write it.

Have you ever tried putting the ideas in two unfinished stories together to see if you can make a completely different new one? The trick is to keep playing around, keep making it interesting for yourself, keep having fun with writing, make it a challenge, a game. That's harder than it sounds, as you are finding out, but it's a big part of being a writer. You have to find your own inspiration.

MY characters seem to grow out of a place. I keep finding out things about them as the story grows so it's only by the end of a book that I feel I really know them inside out -it can take half a book for me to 'see' them in my mind, because I'm seeing them from the inside. You don't have to know everything at once. Keep a small notebook or computer page on them and add notes to 'grow' your character a bit at a time - their friends, memories, likes and dislikes, traits. Steal faces from people you see on the street or people that you know - or parts of people that you know - and use them in a story. Soon, they will stop being the real people and will grow, in your imagination, into 3-D characters in your story.

All my stories are journeys of discovery and I hardly ever know exactly what's going to happen - which is very scary. So I get stuck a lot. But there comes a point, usually half way through, when I have a very clear vision of the ending - as clear as a dream (sometimes I really do dream it). That's when I let out the breath that I seem to have been holding for months, my shoulders relax (a bit) and I stop finding every excuse I can think of to leave my desk. Because now I see the end of the journey and I know I can make it.

I just have to work out how to get there....(but that's what keeps me writing. I have to find out).

Exercise your imagination like an athlete exercises their body. Let your imagination go exploring and see where it takes you. Learn to trust it and it will take you on all kinds of journeys. (I think this is the best thing about being an author.)