Sunday, 14 December 2014

Feeling wobbly

Here's an image I never thought I'd have to compose - a pile of marshmallows on a merry-go-round. 

(Please note: No marshmallows were mistreated during this photo-session, except for the two I ate!)
It's a line in Princess Petunia's Dragon, where Petunia is feeling all kind of wobbly when she realises the problems she will face trying to smuggle her new pet dragon into the Castle. (And avoiding the thirty three soldiers, twenty two maids, twelve bowmen, ten buglers, five cooks, two jesters, a jailer, and the King and Queen of course.)

My dear friend, Sophia, who lives in New York, recently told her Mum that she was feeling out of sorts - 'just like a pile of marshmallows on a merry-go-round, in fact'. 

Thank you, Sophia! I do hope the feeling disappeared quickly.

And feeling wobbly is familiar to me even now, especially when I get up after a long session of typing, my head still in the clouds of my character's story.

Finally, here's an article that I read out in my weekly news-reading session at the SAVH (for the Visually Handicapped). More wobbly fun....

Monday, 27 October 2014

Story Hat

Trying on a heavy Chinese Opera Hat may not be that comfortable, but two visits in one weekend to see Susanna Goho Quek has got to be one of the best weekend treats I've had.  

Her antique shop in Lot 10, in the Golden Triangle area of Kuala Lumpur, is a real haven, cushioned from the big city by stunning antique furniture from China, and her own vibrant paintings. 

I could have spent all day listening to tales of her family who performed Chinese Opera. Or of her trips to China to buy all manner of antiques, such as tiger rugs, beds, window shutters and cabinets. Or of her collection of embroidered slippers for bound feet, a passion that dates back to seeing her own Grandmother's slippers. 

But Susanna is much more than an antique dealer. She is an artist and children's writer and illustrator. Her third picture book, 'Fun at the Opera', was published earlier this year. The story tells of the children's growing excitement as their older brother prepares for his new Opera show. First they help by scrubbing the car clean for the big occasion; then once they arrive at the Opera Theatre, they can't contain themselves, and sneak off backstage to try on the costumes and make-up. Finally back in their seats, they watch Ah Kor make his grand, dramatic entrance to the clamour of drums and cymbals. Back home, tired and happy, Por Por (Granny) sings them a soft lullaby. 

The text is printed in English and Mandarin, and translations are available in Malay and French, while I'm currently making a Spanish version. 

To quote David Seow, writer and children's picture book author:
"Fun at the Opera is like a song in itself. The delicious illustrations enhance the perfect prose of this magical story. Goho-Quek brings the enchanted world of Chinese Opera alive and leaves you wanting more."

Along with writing and illustrating picture books and a collection of poetry for children, Susanna gives art classes, and has run her impART courses, training teenage refugees in Kuala Lumpur to become art teachers, thus giving them an invaluable skill. 

Susanna is constantly innovating - using vibrant acrylics and appliqué, and even making jewellery. I was thrilled to find she had some arm bands and necklaces for sale, using beaded cloth from a baby-carrier and her own choice of beads sewn on top. 

Her shop is House of Suzie Wong
HOUSE OF SUZIE WONG  P9, Fourth Floor, Lot 10 Shopping Centre, 50 Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50250 Kuala Lumpur. Tel : 03 - 2141 0482

Below are some fabulous, zinging examples of Susanna's work

Thursday, 11 September 2014

When a man loves a woman...

... and a woman loves writing, well, things start to happen!

It all started at 3am on Wednesday morning. 
"Em, love, my face is swollen."
I sat bolt upright.

The swelling was painful to see.  Minutes later we were in Tan Tock Seng hospital being administered to. My poor husband looked like an alien. His speech was slurred. His cheeks and lips so extended that even to call him trout-lips was a compliment.

What had happened?

The duty doctor and the ENT specialist both tried. But neither had a clue. The nurse joked  and offered to swap passports. (What? Work in the NHS instead of this fabulous Singapore hospital?)  They jabbed and prodded and poked. Thank goodness his tongue and throat were ok. 

I wandered between the observation room, where a dozen bedded patients were lined up, and the waiting room, with its free-biscuits-and-hot-and-cold-running-water-dispenser.  This wasn't devotion. This was payback. How many times had Jim come with me to hospital? I can't even do the sum. 

By 5am selfish thoughts began to creep in. How was I going to perform later that morning? I had to entertain a class of 11-year-olds who had chosen to spend their holidays being creatively inspired by writers like me! I had never done this before.  My lovely friend, Denise Tan of Closetful of Books, had helped me compile a booklet for them to use. But was it acceptable to fall asleep at the desk after telling them to "get on with it"? Possibly not. Then....



I grinned. I hummed. I even helped myself to some more hot-and-cold-running-water to celebrate.

Forget the introductions. Forget trying to be inventive and creative.  It's all here, right in front of you.  Truth stranger than fiction? You bet. 

I mimed telling the young students about our night of horror. Our speculations of how Jim had been targeted by some alien, invisible beast, who'd attacked him, leaving no trace. An alien who'd discovered... what? That we weren't exactly what we said we were? No, wait, the students would do the rest.

I grinned for the next hour.

"I'm so grateful, Em," he kept saying.
"No problem," I said magnanimously. "Alien attacks always go down well with eleven year olds. You've made life much easier for me."

(NB, photo of me wearing the heart-monitor stickers and the blue visitors' bracelet to prove to the students I wasn't making this up)

Now what shall I do next time?

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Weaving a Story at the Story Museum

Last week I went with Anita Loughrey and three eleven year-olds to the Story Museum in Oxford. I had heard about it at the London Book Fair a couple of years ago. Then I saw an article in the Sunday papers. My holiday in England was half-way through, so I grabbed the chance to go.  

I could spend hours telling you about everything in there: the helpful staff, the "26 Characters" whose names we had to guess and stamps we had to collect, the laughter and the "Oh this is sooo cool!"s of our three young friends.  But I don't want to spoil it if you are going there yourself.

So here's a round-up of our tour. And I should say it's equally fun for adults as for kids. No need to feel odd if you're not accompanied by young'uns. Though having Joe, Jack and Tanaka there made it even more fun.

1 The Changing Room.  Dress up in any way you choose, create your name, and sit on a throne while a voice magically announces you.  
-  Love the fur coat. Anyone for a sausage?

2  Check out the amazing Story Loom, invented by an imaginative Victorian, or not?  

[The boys were too busy dressing up. I was entranced by this contraption, though.]

3  Wander, wonder and explore... each room houses one or more stories.
Can you guess what they are?  And what sort of door we came through? 
Fake snow was a hit! 

4  Create your own story on the Story Spinner - a character, a place and a theme - then write and draw your picture.  Or just keep spinning for the fun of it.

5  Now for a portrait. Put yourself in the frame.  And check out all the real portraits. 

6  Choose your favourite place. Needless to say, Narnia was a real hit. 
For me it's hard to decide, but I did love Just William's Shed, and The Borrowers' drawer.

7 And finally ... once we'd filled up on panini, we climbed St Mary's Tower to gaze at the city.  Goodbye, and thank you so much, Oxford Story Museum. We had a fantastic morning.  

And a quick postscript - I loved the atmosphere inside the building, and the fact that it was in the back half of the Post Office. Not hard to imagine the telephone exchange and the canteen. The whole place gave me a sense of being 'back stage' so many different stories. 

The Story Museum: Home

Monday, 4 August 2014

WWW without the dot

Little Red Jot isn't on the Little Red Dot. She's travelling in the UK. And she's conscious that she hasn't blogged for ages.... so here goes!

Who can recognize the fuzzy feeling in the brain when everything seems to be shaking around like an old fashioned ‘snow scene’ toy?

I’m not talking about jetlag. Or hangover. Or too many coffees. I’m talking about WWW without the dot.

I thought of it after remembering some advice from my writing tutor, Josh Lacey, at City Lit.  A fellow writer was explaining that she’d reached the stage with her children’s novel where she knew she had to start her story all over again. She shook her head and rolled her eyes. Some of us sighed with her. But Josh nodded and said, “Welcome to the wonderful world of writing.” More nods rolled around the room. A few writers looked bewildered. But the unspoken words hung in the air – “You’ll reach that point too, don’t worry!”

It’s all about your characters.  There they are, down on the page. You’ve reached the end of the -nth draft. And now they’re in rebellion.  They want out. They want a new voice. They aren’t happy with the tone. Oh, for goodness sake! Yes, you’re in the Wonderful World of Writing. And you’re well on the way to convincing any future reader that this book is unputdownable. If only you can calm your characters down....  Welcome to this world.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Writing Process - Bali Coffee for Starters!

The Writing Process Blog Tour

 - Bali Coffee for Starters!

These days I don’t have much time to ponder the whys and wherefores of my writing, but thanks to dear Anita Loughrey from the British SCBWI and her charming email of a month ago, this is what I’m about to do! 

What I'm working on

For the past two and a half years I’ve been mainly based in Singapore. This where my husband works which is really rather handy given that it's an expensive place.  I've made my own writing life here, helped by my wonderful Scooby friends.  It's a very hands-on, can-do society and as a result I'm working on several things right now. Here goes:  drafting the second chapter book for 6+, ‘Princess Petunia's Dragon’, published here by Bonnie Books; writing and editing a series of readers for 8-12s, based in Singapore;  contributing to a series of picture books, and finally, drafting a mystery adventure for 10-13 year olds based in the rainforest. Phew!

How it differs from others in the genre
I'll talk just about ‘Princess Petunia’s Dragon’ for the time being.  My voice is, I hope, what distinguishes it from other books for this age group - ie newly independent readers aged 6-9.  Petunia is a feisty child and won't take no for an answer.  She lives in a world where everyone eats together in the castle dining hall, onion soup is served every night, and small dragons live in a dragons’ home and eat blue gobstoppers to keep their scales shiny.
There's no magic in the story - leaving aside the fact that dragons are the main feature - so Petunia finds her way through sheer imagination and perseverance. 
I don't use fancy typefaces and I try to use illustrations judiciously to reach as wide an audience as possible. Bonnie Books published this book, but I commissioned the artwork and worked with my lovely illustrator, Charlotte Micklewright, to make the characters come alive. I suppose it’s because I'm a visual person who remembers pictures long after the plot has vanished from my memory.

Why I write what I do

There’s a very simple answer to that: I have no other strings to my bow.
        I've been a book editor and I occasionally write for magazines. Nothing will stop me writing. My stories are often higgledy piggledy, rather like my life, but they eventually come out straight (ish), and I've learned not to give up hope! I love talking to kids about my stories and seeing their jaws drop open.  Since publishing ‘Petunia’ I've made several school visits and hosted a bookstore launch.  The local market requires authors to be generous and proactive, to juggle a story-telling activity/craft event with handing out stickers, calendars, bookmarks...and cookies.  

How the writing process works
I write fiction, so I beg you, nothing I write now should be taken down and used against me in a court of law. 
"Every morning I wake at six.  The sun rises at 6.55, but the mynah birds are noisy before then.  I make a cup of Bali coffee (nothing fancy, but it comes from Bali and tastes sublime).  I turn on the balcony light, sit at the table and write.  By seven my husband is watching the BBC news, and at eight, I walk with him to the nearest train station in a huge shopping hub.  
             Spinelli's café has some seats that remain shaded until about ten thirty, giving me and my iPad plenty of time to garner more ideas.  My hands get a little sticky from the humidity, but when I'm "away with my characters" -- be it in the jungle or in 1920s Singapore -- I don't notice anything. The resof the day is for thinking, reworking my morning scribbles, and applying calamine lotion to the patches on my arms that caught the sun outside the café."
Before coming to Singapore I spent many years at City Lit critique groups learning the ropes and writing for many age groups. Much of what I write is based on these stories, or on characters that took refuge somewhere in my mind.
I also read and reread my favourite books.  If you’re curious, here are a few of them: Hideous Kinky (Esther Freud), The Outsiders (Hinton), Catcher in the Rye.  Editing other writing friends’ work for middle-grade readers has been useful in helping me over hurdles with the dreaded first chapter, or resisting the delete button in early drafts. 
              Now I have a confession to make. I'm meant to pass the baton onto three other writers, but I've been slow in finding friends who haven't already done this. Or who have enough time to blog. Sorry, folks, I'll post my three friends' details later.  And thanks very much, Anita, for persuading me to share this with you.