Friday, 28 March 2014

Reading Too Fast? by Savita Kalhan

There’s a new app just launched on the market. It helps you read faster. It even claims that "you can finish a book in under 90 minutes". Spritz changes the ORP, optimal recognition point, which is the middle letter of every word, to red so you process the word faster. The eye does not move at all as the word is flashed on the screen. On their website you can try reading at 250 words per minute, 350 words per minute and 500 words per minute. Apparently the app has already been downloaded more than a million times already.

I checked it out, just to see, and found that I was reading faster. I’m not sure whether I would end up getting a headache or eye strain if I sustained the fast reading for a prolonged period, but I suspect it would.

That kind of speed reading might be fine if you’re trawling through documents, or you are a law student with reams of reading matter, or for anyone with lengthy reading matter and no time. Then it might be a useful tool. But I would question whether it has a place in reading literature, particularly if you want to enjoy what you are reading. When I read a book I want to enjoy it, so it’s definitely not for me.

Here’s the link to it if you’re interested in checking it out:
Twitter: @savitakalhan

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Right and Wrong of Reading

EDGE Author Sara Grant Snubs the Literary Snob

Sara's bookcase
I’ve seen more than one writer sniff at series such as Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest. I’ve heard literary snobs heckle Harry Potter and Twilight. But these books get kids reading. (And, if you’re a writer, these success stories fund publishers and allow them to publish debut authors, take risks on genre-busting titles and support literary masterpieces.)

I applaud any story that helps young readers discover the magic of books. So what if the stories aren’t perfect? (As if there is such a thing.) If kids develop a habit of reading, then maybe their tastes will evolve. I started reading teen romance novels and ended up loving To Kill A Mocking Bird. Even now commercial and literary fiction mix easily on my bookshelves.

Sara's parents
Growing up I had great role models. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and read to my sister and me from day one. My dad always had a passion for books and found no greater joy than reading. But school almost drained any interest I had in books. I was a slow reader, and I’m pretty sure my school’s reading list was devised by searching for the most archaic, boring books ever created. And then there was the insistence that every person find the same themes and messages in a book. Reading became more like solving a math problem with one right and many wrong answers.

The beauty of books is that you can find and lose yourself in stories. Books are personal. No two people read exactly the same story. I’m amazed and delighted by what readers find in my stories – some things I intended and others that my book inspired in their psyches. Books should serve as sparks for readers’ imaginations.

Lovely Children's Laureate
Malorie Blackman
I was lucky enough to hear Malorie Blackman give her first comments as Children’s Laureate. She recalled that as a young reader she had a teacher snatch a comic book out of her hands and tell her that wasn’t proper reading. One of Malorie’s goals as Children’s Laureate is to ‘get more children reading more’. Not more children reading what others deem proper, but more children reading – full stop. To that I say, HURRAH!

I’ve met some amazing librarians, booksellers and teachers who serve as literary matchmakers connecting kids with books to excite them– be it Gossip Girl or War and Peace. They get to know the reader and then find books that tap into their interests and reading levels. I’ve been at schools that have programs like ‘drop everything and read’. They make no judgement on content, only encourage the act of reading.
I abhor censorship of any kind – especially those literary bullies who try to make readers feel bad for enjoying an entertaining story. I find something to admire and inspire in every book I read. I don’t believe in right/wrong or good/bad when it comes to reading. I believe in the joy that comes from finding books that make you laugh, cry, think and feel less alone.

About Sara Grant

Sara writes books for both children and teens. Dark Parties, her first young adult novel, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Her second novel for teens – Half Lives – is a story told in two voices from a pre- and post-apocalyptic time. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – Magic Trix. Find out more about Sara at or follow her@AuthorSaraGrant.

Friday, 14 March 2014


Blood Tracks author, Paula Rawsthorne asks how can writers keep fit when they have one of the most sedentary jobs on the planet?

Maybe I should have blogged about an aspect of writing or a current hot topic such as the ‘Let Books Be Books’ campaign, but instead I decided to post about trying to keep fit when you’re writing.  If this doesn’t seem relevant to the creative process I’d argue that it is in fact crucial.  I’ve decided to blog on this subject as much for myself as any readers, as I need reminding daily how important it is.

 So many people’s jobs involve sitting in front of a computer screen all day.  However, for most writers this problem is compounded by not having set working hours.  We often find ourselves sitting in dark, airless rooms throughout the night, transfixed by a glowing computer screen.  We hunch over our keyboards with terrible posture, blurry eyes and stiff necks. Occasionally a family member may take pity on us and demand that we stop, but usually they’ve all gone to bed and forgotten about us.

At numerous stages when I was writing my second novel, Blood Tracks, I’d spend hours on end working on the laptop.  At times my brain felt like it was being cooked.  My eyes became sore and dry and I subsequently had to get my first ever pair of glasses.  My legs frequently went numb and by the time I’d extracted myself from the computer and rolled into bed, my mind was so full of work that it wouldn’t switch off.

Of course, the solution to all this is obvious- don’t work through the night, don’t work right up until you go to bed and, most importantly, take breaks!  The ‘taking breaks’ part may seem like the easiest aspect to achieve but many of us find it difficult to put into practice.  Whether during the day or night time, it’s hard to drag yourself away from the screen when you have a deadline or are engrossed in your writing.

Some writers may be saying that they have the opposite problem; that they find it hard to drag themselves to the screen to get down to writing.  After all, we’re all notoriously good at procrastination. However, from my market- research, it appears that many writers spend their procrastination time sitting in front of the screen, participating in various forms of social media.  The facts are, if we don’t want to develop DVT or eventually need a hoist to get out of the chair, we need to regularly stand up and get away from the screen.  

As most of us work from home we have the advantage of deciding when to take breaks.  Also, as we’re not in an office environment, we can get off our chair and do whatever form of exercise we want (you might wish to close the curtains first).  If you want to try a ‘downward facing dog’ go ahead!  If you fancy blasting out your favourite track and dancing round the room, be my guest.  Why not try a few press-ups (there’s no one to see you collapse after four)?  What about skipping?  It’s an excellent form of aerobic exercise and you can pretend you’re Rocky Balboa. If you’re really desperate, you could do a bout of housework.  Whatever it is, it’s all good as long as we’re getting our circulation going.  Of course, we all know that exercise increases blood flow, releases endorphins and oxygenates our brains so that when we return to our desks we should feel energised and the words should come toppling out faster than we can type them.

My family say that the only exercise I get is walking to the local cafĂ© to get a takeaway coffee and cake, but I’m getting better. Short bursts of exercise suit me.  I’ve got a 10 minute exercise DVD!  It’s probably 5 minutes too long for my liking but it’s certainly helpful (when I remember to use it).  I never walk up and down the stairs, instead I run.  Sometimes, if I see sunshine, I’ll jump on my bike and go for a half hour ride.  When we spend so much time inside it’s great to have a blast of fresh air and Vitamin D.

Of course not all of us writers need coaxing to get off our backsides; some are hard core when it comes to exercise. I know that distance running is popular with many writers (e.g. Kerry Drewery (A Dream of Lights), Patrick Ness).  Not only do they reap the benefits of aerobic exercise but they often say that, whilst running, they achieve a meditative state where story ideas start flowing.  I tried running once- I did it for charity to make sure it would be too embarrassing to back out.  Whilst I completed the route, I was too busy staggering and panting to reach a Zen-like state.  It didn’t work for me, but it might work for you- converts are the most zealous!

Acid author Emma Pass believes that dogs make great writer’s assistants.  She says that doing daily walks with her lovely dog ensures that she gets exercise and helps story ideas to form.  Other writers swear by a spot of gardening to break up their chair time.

I also know writers who get up at the crack of dawn each morning and hit the gym.  I admire their discipline but not enough to do it myself.

At the other extreme, I know of authors who write in bed for hours on end.  Whilst it seems to work creatively for them, I fear for their circulation and worry that they’ll end up as the subject of a Channel 5 documentary.

If the problem was just sitting for too long then ‘standing desks’ might be the solution, but then we’d end up with varicose veins instead of DVT.  There’s always ‘treadmills with workstations’ but these are expensive and might encourage us to stare at the screen for even longer periods of time.

It would seem that the simplest way to keep fit whilst writing is to force yourself to take regular breaks away from your chair and screen and make sure you hop, skip and jump (or whatever works for you) so that when you return to your desk your fit for action.

I’d love to know what you do to try to keep active during long periods of writing?

Friday, 7 March 2014

In the Crimea today.... by Miriam Halahmy

My thoughts have been far from home in the past few weeks, in Kiev and the Crimea, thinking of all the places I have visited and the people I have met. In the past five years I have visited Kiev twice, stayed at a hotel on Independence Square, visited cafes and the ballet and then flown to Simferopol, capital of the Crimea.

I have visited Yalta, the most beautiful resort on the Black Sea and the Livadya Palace where Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt famously met in 1944. I also visited Chekov's house and his beautiful garden which inspired his play The Cherry Orchard.

Why did I visit the Crimea? Our synagogue community is twinned with the emerging Jewish community in Kerch, a bone-shaking four hour drive away on the far eastern tip of the Crimea. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, religious communities have emerged all over the FSU and many Jewish communities have appeared in the Ukraine, supported by and twinned with Jewish communities all over the world.

The Ark and Eternal Light in Kerch synagogue
After two trips to the community in Kerch, I have forged a strong bond and feel very concerned about how the people I have come to know and admire are coping in the current crisis.
Over the winter of 1941 -42 the Nazis killed 40,000 Jews across the Crimea, shooting them in dry wells and anti-tank ditches. Very few survived. In Kerch 7,000 Jews were shot over three days at Bagerov Ravine, an anti-tank ditch outside the town.

The young people of the Kerch Jewish community are very aware of their history and on one of our visits, they acted out a scene to show the fate of their grandparents generation.

Kerch monument as a Hero City
But they are also very proud of being citizens of Kerch. Little Kerch was designated a Hero City by Stalin at the end of WW2, one of only thirteen Hero cities in the Soviet Union, alongside Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev. The Nazis came twice to Kerch and each time the people fought back. It is said that the Straits ran red with blood such was the horrific slaughter. So you can understand the pride in their city.

I have lead creative writing workshops with the youth on each visit and one exercise asked them to think about both London, Kerch and Israel. This was the group poem which emerged.

The Queen, pancakes and the Wailing Wall  by Kerch Youth Club

When I think of London
I think of
                        Big Ben
                        big houses
                        the Tower of London
                        fish and chips
                        green parks
I think of
                        Alyth Gardens
                        the rush hour
                        and the Queen

When I think of Kerch
I think of
                        the Black Sea
                        the Azov Sea
                        burial mounds
                        an ancient city
                        red cars
I think of
                        traditions in our synagogue
                        Kerch fish
                        the Griffon, our symbol,
                        Bagerov Ravine
                        and the Hero City

When I think of Israel
I think of
                        the Wailing Wall
                        the Tower of David
I think of
                        and the sun shining all day.     
As I write this blog the news is that two Russian divisions are now mobilised on the Kerch Straits, over on the Russian side, facing little Kerch. The Straits are only 4 km wide. 
The Jewish communities of the Crimea are feeling rightly concerned about the current political situation, as are all the peoples of their peninsula. My hope is that the situation is resolved quickly, everyone stays safe and the communities can return to a peaceful way of life. My thoughts are with everyone, but especially our twin community in Kerch who have worked against the odds to revive Judaism after it was all but wiped from their city.
Entrance to underground tunnels where people hid from the Nazis and many died.
Indoor market in Kerch
The beautiful Black Sea.