The Brittas Empire Reunion

Brittas Empire Stars Meet for Reunion

Huge thanks are owed to  Dannii Cohen, the greatest Brittas Fan of all, without whom the Reunion would not have happened.

Writers and Cast of Brittas Empire 2017

There are links at the end to various articles in the press but these are my impressions of the reunion of the cast and writers of The Brittas Empire which took place on Monday October 2nd at Ringwood Health and Leisure Centre. The reunion marked the completion of a major refurbishment of the centre run by New Forest District Council. It started when New Forest DC business & fitness manager Toby White wrote to Dannii Cohen who runs Chris Barrie Fans website and what started as a simple idea grew and grew as all the cast were absolutely delighted at the chance of meeting up again after all these years.

Dannii worked so hard at contacting everyone and coordinating with the Leisure Centre before handing over to Sarah Buckle the Group Marketing Manager for the detailed management of the event. She organised everything brilliantly (herding cats sprang to mind on occasion!). Thanks too to Sara Hamilton looked after us so well all evening. The various other staff I spoke to were absolutely delighted with the new refurbishment and were looking forward to proper reopening the next day. It was a great achievement to successfully combine centre staff and members, building workers, councillors, actors and fans as reflected in the video of the ribbon cutting and press report with many photos.

Memories for cast and writers came flooding back as they walked along the drive to be greeted by a crowd of Leisure Centre staff, fans and press.  Richard Latto of BBC Solent (also knowledgeable  sitcom fan) and his cameraman recorded short interviews with everyone which I shall post when the editing is completed. Fans and press took photos and got autographs. It was lovely to watch writers and actors greeting each other with great affection – a reflection of the enjoyable time and closeness they had had when working on Brittas. The only notable absentee was director Mike Stephens who was on holiday in San Diego and sorry to miss the fun.

Chris Barrie (Gordon Brittas) was kindness itself when talking to Andrew Norriss about his writing and also when giving all the fans autographs and photo opportunities. I talked to Julia St John (Laura) about her recent role in I Capture the Castle. Jill Greenacre (Linda) is just as lovely as she comes across ons screen and we are hoping to see her again when she stars as the good fairy in Jack and the Beanstalk  in Horsham. Andrew Norriss (writer) was so pleased to see Mike Burns and tell him how much he appreciated his comic genius. It is such a rare talent to be able to pull off a role like that and he was brilliant. I enjoyed talking to Tim Marriott (Gavin) who spent three years  touring after Brittas doing lots of panto before returning to teaching, producing and directing many plays and musicals. He is now back touring with his own play Mengele  which he will be taking to Australia. It was most interesting to hear Russell Deathridge (Tim) talking about his work as a leadership consultant which clearly gives him great satisfaction. Andree Bernard (Angie in series 1) was only sorry that she was unable to continue beyond Series 1 as she was contracted for work on Emmerdale. Judy Flynn (Julie) is good and busy and very happy in her life and we agreed that solitary walks in nature are most enjoyable. I was so pleased to have the chance to tell Pippa Hayward how much I enjoy her radio and she enjoys the freedom and variety of recording for radio. Harriet Thorpe who has been on stage in Witches and Mamma Mia was instantly back in her role as Carole as can be seen in the photos and videos. John Carrigan was accompanied by Anne (Anne and I had similar roles as chauffeurs, coat carriers, photographers!). Andrew told me that Patrick became a cast regular not just for being a good actor  but also because he made a point of talking to the writers. As usual when the writers Andrew Norriss and Richard Fegen get together they fall about laugh laughing recalling all their favourite scenes. Andrew and others were whisked away individually for live interviews on Radio New Forest FM.

Fans

We were pleased to meet the delightful Christopher Lewis who wrote a fan letter to Andrew in 2015 and whose progress as harpsichordist, PhD and university lecturer I have followed on Twitter and Facebook ever since. Just the nicest person you could hope to meet and the fact that everyone was pleased to talk with him and have photos taken is testament to this. I listened in to the conversation between Andrew Norriss, Christopher and fellow sitcom aficionado Alex as they discussed a wide range of sitcoms, the attempted remakes and why and how they work.

I have heard about conventions but never been to one so it was interesting to watch this mini version. So many fans happy to see, talk to and have photos with the actors who have brought them great pleasure. We met Ruth Wheeler one of several in their leisure center ‘costume’. She kindly provided some Brittas group photos for fans to have signed and we look forward to reading her sci-fi book. Jake has just finished his first screen play and had his Brittas book and the DVD cover of Chance in a Million to be signed. Two other fans look great in in a photo with Andrew. Such nice people.

There are many blogs and write ups in the press with a range of photos. Here are links to a few…

The Gay UK have a great interview about Tim and Gavin’s relationship. Gavin AndTim web

More photos to follow…

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A Writer’s Wife’s Guide to Frugal Living.

‘Yes, my wife is very frugal.’ Inspector  Clouseau: Pink Panther

I recently read that some children’s authors thought they should be able to live off their book royalties. I don’t know where this idea came from but we never have and never expected to. Our income has come from contracts, school visits and talks, employment in ‘proper jobs’, TV royalties, book royalties and  PLR. None of these has been large but when combined with my ability to be frugal with the housekeeping we have managed. So this is my Writer’s Wife’s Survival Guide based on my experience of over 30 years as the wife of a writer. The best thing for a writer is to have a partner with a proper job… I however wanted to stay at home…

My personal vows as #thewriterswife (married 42 years so far…)

For better for worse                      
For richer, for poorer                    
In sickness and in health

Whether you like it or not you can expect all of those, and also that life will be more unpredictable than for those with a ‘proper job’. Do not expect Best Sellers or that you will earn enough money from writing to live off. You will never know how much money you will have from one year to the next. There will be many ups and downs. It will never be dull.

Having grown up in the 50s at a time or real austerity with parents with little money I have experience of and no trouble with living frugally which has helped a lot. You might find what I have written below really dull but we much preferred living frugally within our means than the stress of bills to pay and not enough money to pay them (see Tax below)

Frugal living.

Writing v. A ‘Proper Job’
Writing is a choice and publication, sales or an income sufficient to live off is a not a given or a right.  If people like your writing enough to spend their hard earned cash on it well done! But it might not happen. Over the years the writer and I have never expected a good income from writing. . Our main income came from book contracts – not huge and not often. We have both had ‘proper jobs’ when money was short, there have been some royalties from TV writing (don’t get too excited it was never huge) and also money earned from school visits. We have never had much from book royalties because sales have never been large. There are a lot of battered copies of my writer’s  books in schools that have been read many times which is wonderful but not financially rewarding!  Foreign Editions and PLR are a wonderful bonus.

Cars
 For many years we had one but two cars makes life easier because we live in the country. Toyotas have served us well. I had my favourite green one for 20 years until it got too rusty. Current cars : Toyota Yaris 10 years old; Toyota Corolla R reg 20+ years old. Both bought secondhand.

Clothes
Fortunately I am not interested in fashion. We buy clothes for comfort (warm ones save on heating costs) and durability. My jeans and skirts are well over 10 years old. This year I have bought 2 t-shirts for £24 and a pair of shoes for £18 and that will probably be it. Clothes last until they fall apart which can be a very long time. New clothes are a luxury. The writer’s shirts are frayed at the cuffs and collars but he has a couple of good ones for going out! My first son’s clothes and toys all  came from Jumble Sales – it was before the days of charity shops.

Phones
 I suspect the young and modern would not cope well with this! We have 2 old Nokias that do phone calls and texts. They cost about £14 each many many years ago. I buy less than £20 a year in Pay As You Go top ups. We have Broadband at home which is our greatest expense but essential.

Tax
Keep your own accounts and receipts as you go along. Fill in your annual tax return with a partner or friend. It is really easy and an accountant is not necessary. If you earn so much that you are registered for VAT you don’t need my advice as you are wealthy! BUT REMEMBER! In the good years put money into a separate tax account so that when the bill comes you can pay it. When my man was writing for television we had a tremendous year followed by a year of NOTHING! … and then came the tremendous tax bill. We had to move house to release money to pay the bill. A little drastic and we have been more careful since as we don’t want to move again. Since then my writer has only written children’s books and tax if any has been minimal. For several years we had Tax Credits or paid no tax at all.

Food
We rarely have Takeways and only occasionally have Ready Meals. Eating out is a rare treat for very special occasions. Meal planning and a shopping list are essential. Mince, tinned tomatoes, oats and eggs are all cheap staples. You can work out food for yourself but the most important thing is to only buy what you need, cook just enough and waste nothing.

Books
Ironically as a writer’s wife who partly relies on money from book sales I don’t buy books. Over the years I have borrowed hundreds, probably thousands of books from libraries. Wonderful and free, unless I pay 70p for a book to be brought in from another library in Hampshire.

PLR
It’s free. Be sure to sign up and add new books. They pay out money!

TV
No Netflix or Amazon Prime or Sky or any other contract. 

Holidays
We had years without holidays. They are a luxury.

Heating
Wear more clothes especially thermal vests and thick socks. And if it’s really chilly add a scarf, blanket and fingerless gloves.

Pension
 Look at The Society of Authors for advice and also pay into a private pension.  We paid in as much as we could which meant we had even less to live off, but come the age of 65 it is wonderful and really worth scrimping and saving when you are young. The more National Insurance contributions you make the larger your State Pension too.

That’s all that springs to mind just now but I’m sure there is more so do comment if you would like to. Good luck with your writing and if you earn money from it then well done you! I’m off to read a library book…

Writing Tips for Redrafting and Editing.

andrew at deskThis piece was written at the request of Book Trust some years ago and is as true to how he writes now as it was then…

Everybody Writes

Redrafting and learning to edit your own work at Key Stage 4 and A Level – Andrew Norriss

Screenwriter and novelist Andrew Norriss offers teachers and A-level students a professional’s insight into the process of redrafting an extended piece of writing.

Introduction

In over twenty five years of earning my living as a writer, I have never submitted a book, a TV script or even a piece like this, without re-writing it at least seven or eight times.

I used to think this meant I wasn’t very good – after all, Trollope or Dickens didn’t need to do that many drafts – but then I read that one of my heroes, Terry Pratchett, reckoned he usually stopped revising his books after the sixteenth draft, and I’ve since discovered that most writers are like me. There are a few who only write their novel once or twice, but most of us have to go over it again and again before it looks anything like the way we wanted.

So when I finish the first draft of whatever I’m working on, I usually reckon that means the job is about half done. I’ll need to spend at least the same amount of time again doing… well, doing all the things I’ve listed below.

But a word of warning before I start. Writing is a very personal game. On the odd occasions when I meet up with other writers and we discuss the process, I find we have an extraordinary range of habits and idiosyncrasies. I offer these suggestions for altering and improving your work simply as that – suggestions. They work for me and, if any of them work for you, good luck!

  1. Achieving balance

There’s a man running a creative writing course in America who calls his opening lesson ‘Finishing that Awful First Draft.’ My first draft invariably qualifies as awful, but experience has taught me to resist the urge to throw the whole thing away and instead to go through it looking first at the overall balance of my story. Does it have a proper beginning, an even development through the middle, and a satisfying end? If not, where does it seem to go off the rails?

I will have planned my story before I started, with a couple of sides of A4 detailing what will be in each chapter, but always find that big chunks of the story don’t work as I’d expected. And it’s only when you read through the thing at one sweep that you notice which sections need beefing up and how others want slimming down.

Some sections may need a complete rethink. However carefully I’ve planned, I inevitably find parts of the story that ‘feel’ wrong. In the book I’m working on at the moment I’ve just removed an entire sub-plot because it didn’t ‘fit’, and the smooth flow of the story is my first priority. Making sure that it moves from one event to the next, building to a climax, with proper surprises along the way… all the things I’d like to find in a good book myself.

After reading through the first draft, I determinedly shake off my depression, go through the notes I’ve made on what needs to be changed in each chapter, make a new plan, and then sit down and 1start writing the whole thing again…

  1. Developing your style

At the same time as reading through for balance, I have an eye open for style. It happens much less now than it used to, but in the early days particularly I would find my style could be heavily influenced by whatever I was reading at the time. If I was reading a Terry Pratchett, the chapter I was working on could read very differently from the next one, written when I was deep in Jane Austen. So I keep an eye out, while I’m going through that first draft, for the bits that sound truly authentic, that sound like me.

Because the style I’m really looking for is the one that is my own authentic voice. It may not be as funny as Terry Pratchett or as literary as Jane Austen but… it’s me. There is no guarantee, of course, that anyone will like your authentic voice but, ultimately, it’s going to be the only voice that will truly express whatever you have to say.

There’s a story of a man asking Rudyard Kipling to look over a short story he had written. Kipling, always generous with advice and support, sat down then and there and went over it line by line. He changed things, crossed out whole sentences, put in new ones… and the result, the man agreed, was a great improvement. The only trouble was that it wasn’t his story anymore. It was a Kipling story.

  1. Consistency and logic

Some time after the second or third draft, when the narrative has shaken down to something that is no longer likely to change too dramatically, I take a careful look at consistency and logic.

Firstly, I’m looking for the obvious things – like making sure the characters have the same names throughout, that the distance they walk from one place to another is the same each time they do it, and that if one thing happens on a Wednesday, the day after is not the weekend – because these are the little inconsistencies that have the power to destroy the credibility of my story.

But there’s another sort of inconsistency, which Anne Fine once characterised as the, ‘Why don’t they call the police?’ question. My characters have to behave logically. If they are normal, sensible people, they need to do normal, sensible things. I may want my heroine to wind up on her own, in the home of the suspected serial killer… but is she really stupid enough to have gone there alone? As Anne Fine says, wouldn’t she have had the brains to pick up a phone first and call the police?

I need to find a reason why she didn’t, and it has to be a convincing reason. It needs to be something better than the heroine taking out her mobile and finding there’s no signal. If I want her in the madman’s house so that I can have my dramatic confrontation, then I have to think of something better than that. Usually it means planting something earlier in the story, and it always means working out not only what your main characters do, but the things they could have done and why they didn’t.

  1. Cutting it down

You might want to ignore this one. I just know it’s something I always do. In the first draft, I shove in everything. I don’t try and decide whether it’s useful or relevant – if it seems fun at the time, I put it in. In all the later drafts, however, I’m usually taking stuff out, and my final draft is always at least a third shorter than the first. I take out things that seem irrelevant to the story, are too long winded, repetitive, or too elaborate. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing stories for children, but I try very hard to make the story telling as clear, simple and direct as I can.

There are writers, however, who don’t do this at all. I don’t think J K Rowling found that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a third shorter in the final draft. Or that Dickens hacked out sections of Great Expectations. You could go through both of those with an editing pen and have a more concise and very powerful story, but not many would thank you for doing it.

And yet… it’s as well to bear in mind that you are taking up someone else’s time when you expect them to read something and I do my best to make sure that each sentence counts and every paragraph has a purpose.

  1. Spicing it up

Some of the best lines in a book or a script don’t get added until the end. When I’ve been through four or five drafts, got the balance right, shortened it, know I’ve got a good story – then I read it through looking for the areas where it maybe drags a little and could do with… spicing up.

If I have a conversation which I know is fine and necessary to the story but a little… ordinary, I might add in what the characters are doing at the same time, to flesh out the picture. It can add another dimension. The silver haired granny who absent-mindedly scoops up a spider as she speaks, for instance, and gently places it out of the window, is clearly a different sort of person from the one who sprays it with a cloud of insecticide.

Spicing up works particularly well with comedy. A decent gag can take anything from ten minutes to an hour of thought and you don’t put in that much time on a line until you’re absolutely sure it’s not going to be cut out of drafts two or three. This is the technique that P G Wodehouse famously used. He planned the content, not only of each chapter in his book, but of each paragraph, pinning the pages up on the wall around his office. Then, when he was satisfied with the story, he went back and ‘wrote’ it properly. In this line from The Inimitable Jeeves, the base line is the information that Aunt Agatha looks surprised, but what he finally comes up with is…

‘…Aunt Agatha’s demeanour was now rather like one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back.

Genius. Pure genius. But put in near the end, not the beginning.

  1. Reading it aloud

At some point near the end, I will always read my piece aloud. To myself. Nothing reveals more clearly which bits simply don’t flow, which phrases clunk, and which bits just… don’t sound right. So I print off a copy, sit down at my desk, and read it to myself – making notes as I go of which bits will need changing, and going back to the computer and tapping them in.

More recently, I’ve started doing the reading out loud to other people. It took a while to screw up the courage but since I write entirely for children now and do school visits to promote my books, trying out ideas on a captive audience seemed logical. And children are gloriously honest. You can sense without a word whether what you have written has caught their imagination or not and it can be a sharp reminder that your first job is to absorb the reader into your story and that if you don’t…

Some people find reading their work to other adults in a writing group can be helpful. I’m sure it can, but it can be dangerous as well. I was recently with a group of writers where a woman read out the opening pages of her latest story and, in the discussion that followed, several people told her that she needed more tension, jeopardy and excitement in her story… I’m not sure she did, but what I do know is that they pretty much killed off her story. It’s worth remembering that even skilled and experienced editors can get it wrong. If it’s my story, I need to tell it my way, and there are definite limits to how far I can change it without losing its life and its heart.

  1. Spelling and punctuation

And the last thing I do is go through the spelling, grammar and punctuation. I’ll have been paying it some attention through all the previous drafts of course but this is where I go through it as carefully as I can because a misspelt word or a missing question mark can stop a reader in his tracks and break the spell quicker than anything – quite apart from making it look as I haven’t bothered.

As an ex teacher, and someone who has earned his living from writing for more than twenty years, I regard myself as above average literate, but when one of my books comes back from the copy editor I always find they have spotted an alarming number of mistakes. I’ve never quite established whether you walk round a room or around it, and I’m a little hazy still on the semi-colon, but I have learnt to accept this. And that some rules are made to be broken. Like beginning a sentence with a conjunction. Or some sentences not having a verb. Rules matter, but the most important thing is whether the words have the effect I intended.

Conclusion

So there they are. The seven things I do when I’m revising a piece of writing. It’s a very different process from the heady shambles of composing the first draft when your imagination has free rein and anything can happen. It uses a different part of the brain, I think, but is in its own way every bit as much fun.

For me there is something deeply satisfying in reading through a piece that has been through eight drafts, and noticing how different it is from the first. Seeing how the story now builds sequentially to its climax, how the plot grows in a logical step by step development, how the jokes are delivered at the end of the line… just so!

And as I read through this piece for the umpteenth time, I note that in an ideal world I would probably cut out a sentence or two from section 3, that I’ve used the word ‘story’ twice in one line in section 2, and that the phrase ‘above average literate’ in section 7 is grammatically dubious…

But that leads me to the last rule of making revisions. You can nit-pick endlessly but the fact is that, once you’ve said what you wanted to say with a reasonable clarity and cogency…

 

BBC School News Report Interview

About 10 years ago I was for a short time the Librarian at The Henry Beaufort School in Winchester. Andrew was recently invited back as his books, especially Jessica’s Ghost are popular, to be interviewed by three students for the BBC School News Report project. See the video here.

‘Sounds a bit serious’ by Andrew Norriss

A fascinating, and moving, exploration of what is, and should be, deemed suitable in children’s fiction by children’s author Andrew Norriss.

Posted on Waterstones’ Blog 11th April 2016 by Andrew Norriss

A couple of weeks back I found myself in the main hall of a large secondary school watching two hundred Year 7’s file in to listen to me talk. One cheery student broke away from his mates to come over to say hello (I always admire the ones that can do that) and then asked what I was going to talk about. I told him I would be talking about how I came to write my latest book, Jessica’s Ghost, and a bit about its themes of depression and suicide. ‘Oh,’ he said, as his smile faded. ‘Sounds a bit serious.’

And indeed it is.

If I had known, when I started writing Jessica’s Ghost, that depression and suicide were going to be two of its themes, I would almost certainly have abandoned it. I had set out to write a light-hearted ghost story about someone who was dead, and was trying to sort out what she was supposed to do next. I presumed it was going to be a comedy, because that’s what I do. I write comedy. Light comedy. With a lot of nice people and happy endings.

The nice people and the happy endings are still there, but the suicide and the depression sort of muscled their way in with a determination that would not be denied. I worried, of course, whether these were themes that were suitable in a story for young people, and I’m still not a hundred per cent sure that they are, but it’s a good book and… at what age does one start talking safely about these things?

The Head Teacher of a girls’ secondary school laughed out loud when I asked her if the twelve year old audience for my talk would even know what depression was. Far too many, she assured me, would know exactly what I was talking about – and the government statistics support that. Apparently one in ten of 12-17 year olds will suffer from clinical depression (that means a depression lasting longer than a month) and if you include the people whose depression is just as real but less severe, the proportion is considerably higher. Maybe, like sex education, it’s better for children to be armed with a bit of knowledge on the subject before they’re hit by its problems rather than after.

I suffered from bouts of depression from the age of about 10 until comparatively recently, and one of the weird things about it, as I told my audience of twelve year olds that day, is that although you think it has a rational, external cause, it really doesn’t. At the time my depressions were particularly bad, I had no health problems, was happily married, with two wonderful children, and a hugely enjoyable career and yet… the bouts of gloom kept getting worse. The medical term for this is ‘endogenous depression’. It literally means ‘depression without a cause’.

There’s a brilliant description by Alan Garner (author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) of how, at the height of his fame and success, he came home one day from working on a film, and fell into a depression so deep that he wound up lying on the kitchen settle, face to the wall, almost too miserable even to speak, for two years. I’ll say that again. For two years. I remember, when I read that, how enormously helpful it was to know that what I was experiencing (fortunately on a much less debilitating scale) could happen to someone as intelligent and talented as Alan Garner. And, I discovered, to a good many others.

In fact, one of the most useful things to know about depression is simply that there is a lot of it about, and a story is not a bad way to get this across. It was C S Lewis who noted that the most powerful thing a piece of writing can do is cause the reader to say ‘Oh, I thought that was just me!’ and to help them realise that what they feel is part of a more general condition. To discover that you are not alone, and that others have been through this particular valley and made it out the other side is, apart from anything else, deeply comforting.

So, although this is a topic that, particularly when talking to twelve year olds, needs to be raised with the greatest caution, and although one needs to tread lightly and warily… I think, on the whole, that the subject is worth raising, despite the risks. One of the things I did during my talk, was to ask, very much on the spur of the moment, if any of the two hundred students I was addressing had any personal experience of depression – either in themselves or with someone they knew. If they had, I said, could they raise a hand? Nothing too public. Just a little gesture…

Over half of them, put a hand up.

So, yes, it is a bit serious But it’s important, too.

 

Top 10 guardian angels in children’s books

Andrew Norriss writes about favourite ‘Guardian Angels’ in children’s books.
First published in the Guardian online 21 April 2016

From PG Wodehouse and CS Lewis to Anne Fine and Ali Sparkes, authors have always had a soft spot for characters that offer a helping hand to their heroes. Andrew Norriss picks his favourites

Aslan: a guardian angel? Here shown in a scene from The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I’ve always been a fan of stories with guardian angels in them. I don’t mean angels with wings, like Clarence in This Wonderful Life – although I like those as well – I mean stories where the hero is helped on his or her journey by someone who turns up, frequently out of the blue, with just the right resources and knowledge to help them sort out whatever problem they are facing. They are, in literary terms, the Helping Hand of a benevolent universe.

It’s a device which has become less fashionable in our more secular times. Fewer people still believe in a benevolent universe – there is, after all, so much alarming evidence to the contrary – and we prefer our heroes to prove they can win through on their own resources. Child heroes these days need to be independent and self-empowered.

I’m not sure when or how I came to believe that the universe is, despite all appearances, friendly. But I do. And it’s why, in my own stories, the solution to a problem is often provided by some source beyond the ingenuity and clever thinking of the hero. He or she will certainly do their best, but the solution to the trickiest bit of the puzzle will come from a chance remark, or a bit of help and advice from an unlikely guardian angel type character. As if a benevolent universe knew exactly what was needed, and was offering a Helping Hand.

In my most recent book, Jessica’s Ghost, it is Jessica herself who, despite being dead and barely a teenager, unwittingly turns out to be a guardian angel for the other characters in the story. She is the force from beyond the purely causal, rational world, who, with the occasional quiet suggestion of an alternative possible course of action, changes the lives of everyone around.

You may not agree that that is how things work in real life, but it is certainly how they ought to work…

1. The Railway Children by E Nesbit

The Old Gentleman in this wonderful story is the archetypal example of a guardian angel at work. The children start by merely waving at him, as he passes in the train each morning, but he is the character they later call on to help with the stranded Russian writer, who provides money in hard times and, in the end, obtains their father’s release from prison. The children all play their part but the decisive help comes from outside…

2. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett always knew there was more going on in the world than we could see with the purely physical eye. His books are stuffed with an awareness of the deep forces at work in our world (along with a healthy distrust of the lunacies of organised religion) and Granny Weatherwax is probably my favourite of his many guardian angels. You know, when she turns up with her heavy boots and ferocious glare to lend a hand to Tiffany Aching, that things are going to get properly sorted…

3. The Amazing Mr Blunden by Antonia Barber

Mr Blunden follows all the best traditions of a guardian angel. Clearly human, but somehow not fully from the physical realm, he knows things. He knows what’s going to happen and knows what our hero children should do as each step of the story unfolds. Not that he ever forces anyone to do anything, of course. He just asks that they do as he suggests, and when they do… One of my favourite books.

4. Right Ho, Jeeves! by PG Wodehouse

One of the joys of reading the Jeeves and Wooster stories, is that whatever terrible mess Bertie Wooster might have landed in, you know that his butler, Jeeves, will, without any apparent effort, quietly sort the whole thing out before the end of the story. It’s that trust – that all will, in the end, be well – that makes stories with guardian angels such a comforting read.

5. A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

The shelves of recent publications are not exactly filled with stories where problems are resolved by mysterious outside forces, which was one reason why reading this book was such a surprise. Cally, in this story, has plenty of problems but it was the idea that she is still protected and watched over by the mother who recently died that qualifies it for a place on the list of books with guardian angels. That, and the fact that it is an utterly delightful read.

6. The Angel of Nitshill Road by Anne Fine

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. The guardian angel – the heroine of the story, the one who changes life for everyone around her in the primary school at Nitshill Road – is Celeste who is somehow imbued with the ability to know exactly the best and most powerful thing to do in any circumstance. She is also one of the funniest, cleverest and somehow most believable characters ever. Utterly brilliant.

7. The Sword in the Stone by TH White

This is the first volume of the quartet written by TH White on the Arthurian legend and incomparably funnier and deeper than the amiable Disney movie. If you’re going to have a guardian angel watching over your early years and growing up, Merlin the magician is not a bad choice.

8. The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis

Does Aslan really count as a guardian angel? Or is he rather more senior than that? Either way, he’s a pretty reliable guide to navigating through life, and I absolutely couldn’t leave the first of the Narnia books off the list. Aslan can show you how best to cope with any problem – even stuff like accidentally dragging a cruel queen from a different universe into Narnia.

9. Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

One of the many wonderful things about this book is that it’s not a simple matter of Mister Tom acting as the guardian angel for poor, downtrodden Willie Beech. You could equally argue that it is the old man who is “saved” by the arrival of young Willie. Ultimately, all guardian angel stories are about healing, and this is one of the best.

10. Car-Jacked by Ali Sparkes

I may be cheating a bit with this one, but I didn’t want all the books on the list to come from the previous century, and it’s a very good story. Jack Mattingly, plunged into an unexpected crisis, is guided by a voice in his head called SAS Guy. And that’s where some of the best guardian angels are to be found, of course. Deep in our own minds.

#vomitscript

Written for and first published by Books for Keeps December 2015

 #vomitscript!

Andrew Norriss

I heard someone use the phrase ‘a vomit script’ recently. She was a television writer and, when asked how her new project was going, replied that she’d only got as far as ‘a vomit script’ but was pleased with what had come up. What she meant, I gathered, was that she had sat down, with only the vaguest idea of what she was going to write, and let whatever came into her head spew out onto the page. Later, of course, she would go back and write it properly, but she reckoned that all sorts of stuff came up spontaneously in that way, that would emerge in no other.

It is not how I write myself. Or how most writers work. In my days as an A level history teacher, I told my students (as I had been told myself) that before you launched into an essay, it was essential to have a plan. I assumed this applied to all forms of writing. Even a novel needs a plan. Trollope might only take a day or two to plan one of his tomes, while P G Wodehouse might take several months, but we all have to have a plan.

It came as quite a surprise when I first met a writer who didn’t. Astonishingly, he really did just sit down and start writing, trusting that something in his unconscious would map things out and lead his story to a satisfactory resolution. Even more astonishing, it seemed to work, and I was intrigued enough to want to try it myself.

I’d had an idea for a ghost story. I thought it might be a nice twist to start from the ghost’s point of view instead of the person who sees one, and the picture I had in my head was of a girl (I called her Jessica), who discovers that she’s dead (she has no idea how she died and nor did I) wandering around in a world where no one can see her. That’s all I knew when I sat down and started writing. I had no other characters, no story arc, no plan… I was going to write just whatever came up.

The first thing that came up was that she met a boy about her own age who was able to see her. The boy was Jessica's Ghostmostly interested in fashion and dress making (goodness knows where that came from) but he seemed a decent enough lad and he got on rather well with Jessica… For a while, my story explored how it might be fun to have a friend who was a ghost, and then a second character turned up who could see Jessica and, a few chapters later, a third. I still had no idea where all this might be going when – and I can remember the exact moment – like a bomb going off in my head, I suddenly knew how Jessica had died.

She had committed suicide.

And in the same instant I knew that, I also knew what was going to happen in the rest of the story, including how it was going to end, and – and this was the really weird bit – it suddenly made sense of all the stuff that had come before. It fitted. Almost like I had had a story arc planned out beforehand. There was also, for some reason, no choice. That was how Jessica had died. There was no debate, no exploring of other avenues or looking at other possibilities… because there weren’t any. Jessica had killed herself and I could either go with that or abandon the story.

For several weeks, abandoning it was my preferred option. I’m a writer for children for goodness sake and most of my books have ‘Andrew Norriss has a wonderfully light comic touch’ emblazoned on the front. A quote from a particularly nice review I got some time in the last century. What on earth was I doing with a story about suicide? Who would want to give a story like this to their innocent off spring? What young person would want to read it? Was there any point in pressing on?

I did press on, but it was only when the vomit draft was finally finished that I was able to see that suicide is not really what Jessica’s Ghost is about. It acknowledges something we all know – that life can sometimes be an unbearably painful business – but the real emphasis is on the things that, despite this, make the game of life worth playing. Friendship, kindness, laughter, love, healing… Precisely the things, I was delighted to see, that were picked up in the review the book was given in Books for Keeps. I’d like to think that Jessica’s story is a reminder that, however dark life gets, you never really know what’s around the corner, what can change, or who will appear with a light to help you tread safely into the unknown.

The sort of things, in fact, that I’m always trying to remember myself.

Mind you, next book I write, I’m not typing a word without a definite plan.

The winner of the 2015 Costa Children’s Book Award will be announced on Monday 4th January 2016.

Jessica’s Ghost, David Fickling Books, 978-1910200339, £10.99 hbk

Aquila, Puffin, 978-0141308951, £5.99 pbk

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