December 9th, 2013

We are pleased to announce that Spinebreaker Yana is the winner of our Wendy & Peter Pan competition!

Entrants were asked to submit a 250 word re-writing of the end of JM Barrie’s classic tale of Peter Pan for a chance to win tickets for a family of four to a matinee performance of Wendy & Peter Pan at the famous Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, plus family accommodation at The Arden Hotel.

Playwright Ella Hickson, author of the RSC’s Wendy & Peter Pan, chose Yana’s entry “because it had the best combination of imaginative flair and a clear writing talent. The prose was concise and yet lyrical and the idea was wonderful. I’d rather like to see this version!”

You can check out her full entry below. Congratulations, Yana!


“Wendy!” “Hmm?” Wendy turned over in a state of half-consciousness. She felt sure that she’d heard something. “Wendy!” “Huh?” Wendy propped herself up on one elbow. A small silhouette was perched on her windowsill. Wendy slipped out from under the covers and padded over to the window. “Tiger Lily!” Wendy whispered joyfully. Tiger Lily sat there in all her glory, her hair long and silky, the feathers from her headband resting on her brow. “Wendy!” she greeted. “What are you doing here?” Wendyasked, confused. “I have come to ask you something,” Tiger Lily said, her face becoming serious. “Would you join my tribe?” Wendy stopped short. “What?” Tiger Lily explained everything quickly. The Indians had crowned a young male as their leader after he saved the tribe from a dangerous animal, and the male had tried to make Tiger Lily his wife. Tiger Lily had fought back, which made the leader angry. He had exiled her, and Tiger Lily had formed her own tribe – the Found Girls, the title the opposite of the Lost Boys. They had their own little hideaway in Neverland, in a far-off jungle. Tiger Lily travelled around, seeking out girls who had been ‘abandoned’ by boys. Wendy had been abandoned by Peter Pan – and so she was the top of the list. Wendy cast an eye back at her brothers and the adopted Lost Boys, all sleeping soundly. “They have each other,” she decided. And she took off with Tiger Lily into the night.


December 6th, 2013

Our Spinebreakers team interviews the punctuation pundit himself! “I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions,” he tells us. Check out his answers below!


 - What made you want to write this book?

A few years ago, I wanted to redesign a couple of websites. A colleague of mine recommended a book called The Elements of Typographic Style, which describes the basics of selecting and using fonts, and separately, a friend told me I should read a book called An Essay on Typography, written in the 1930s by an English sculptor (now dead) called Eric Gill.

Gill’s book was peppered with a mark (¶) that I recognised but couldn’t place. I checked the glossary at the back of The Elements of Typographic Style to find that it was called the “pilcrow” and that it was a paragraph mark, but there was very little else to go on. Some internet research and more reading convinced me that there was a story to be told about the life of the pilcrow – not only the pilcrow, though, but also the many other unusual marks of punctuation that have been created, lived, and died over the centuries.

- Where do you write?

I live in Edinburgh, and I try to work at the National Library of Scotland as often as I can. It’s a legal deposit library, which means that it can request copies of all books published in the UK, and so its collection is incredible. Just the other day I checked out a book about papyrus, the ancient Egyptian writing material (it turns out that the book was one of only 495 copies ever printed), to find a leaf of papyrus glued into the book itself. It was little a little reminder of how important physical books are – I learned more about papyrus from that one sheet than I would have from any number of e-books – and of how important libraries are in granting us access to them.

If I don’t make it to the library, I work from home. You know that idea you have of a writer shivering away in their garret, wrapped up in a scarf and too many layers of clothing? That’s me in the winter months in Scotland.

- What inspired you to write Shady Characters?

It was the life of the pilcrow, or paragraph mark: ¶. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word paragraphos, which meant a break or a change in topic in a text, and its shape comes from the C at the beginning of the Latin word capitulum, or “chapter”. The concept of the paragraph turns out to be older than punctuation itself, and the pilcrow has been around in one form or another for over two thousand years; empires have quite literally risen and fallen while this little mark soldiered on.

- What’s your favourite word and why?

“Interrobang” and “pilcrow” are definitely up there, purely because they’re inextricably associated with Shady Characters. I’ve been told, however, that I say “interesting” far too often. It isn’t my favourite word, but apparently I can’t do without it.

- Do you think book covers are important or should you never judge a book by its cover?

I’ve read some brilliant books whose covers are incredibly dreary, and some dreadful books with great covers. As such, I’ll always give a book a chance, regardless of its cover; maybe we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we can certainly judge a cover by its book once we’ve read it.

- Physical books or e-books?

Both have their place. When I’m travelling, it’s great to be able to take as many e-books with me as I want. Novels, especially, make sense as e-books because the layout of each page is so simple, and I don’t often miss having a paper copy of a work of fiction.

On the other hand, if I’m at home or at the library then it’s far nicer to leaf through a physical book, particularly if it’s heavily illustrated or its design is a little more intricate. There’s some research that says we’re better at finding information in a physical book – we subconsciously respond to its weight, how easily it falls open at a certain page, that sort of thing – which suggests to me that we’re just more compatible with physical books than e-books.

- Why do you think the interrobang did not become a regular punctuation mark that you would find in writing or on keyboards, like things such as a dash or and ampersand?

I think that technology had a lot to do with it. There wasn’t an interrobang key on the typewriter keyboard for years after the mark had been invented, and when it did appear it was only as an optional extra. In the 1960s, when almost every office in the world depended on the typewriter, this was a big problem. Not only that, but for a long time there was only one font that contained an interrobang, and it was meant mostly for headlines and other large text. If you were a writer and you used an interrobang, it was very difficult to see that interrobang all the way through to print.

The reason that the ampersand and dash have survived all this time is that they were in common use when typewriters were first invented; new marks that come along have a difficult task in displacing an older one from our keyboards.

- What would you say are the most useful and not useful punctuation marks and why?

Commas, colons and semi-colons are very, very useful. Without these, we’d be stuck with very simple sentences, and though that isn’t necessarily bad, it would quickly become boring. Speaking of sentences, the full stop, exclamation mark and question mark tell us a lot about the tone and intention behind a sentence. These six, I think, are essential.

On the other hand, we could live happily ever after without curly braces {}. They’re most often used when you’ve used parentheses to mark an aside in your text (like this [and you want to add another aside {like this}]). If you have brackets within brackets within brackets, your sentence is too complicated for its own good!


- If you had the opportunity to re-introduce one ‘lost’ or ‘obscure’ punctuation mark, which would it be and why?

This is a tough question. I imagine it’s like having to choose between your children. I’d say the interrobang (‽), which is used to mark a surprised or rhetorical question (“Who threw that brick through my window‽”), or perhaps the ironieteken, a Dutch mark used to punctuate an ironic statement, where you write one thing but mean something else. It never really took off, but I think it’s a lovely design.

- Why do you think many punctuation marks date back from the times of the ancient Greeks and the Romans?

When the Greek alphabet was still relatively new, it was written with no punctuation of any kind (including spaces between words!). Readers tended to read aloud, whether to themselves or to others, and one scholar suggested that readers might want to insert dots, or points, to signal where to pause when reading. These points were the komma, signalling a short pause (·), the kolon, for a medium pause (.), and the periodos (˙) for a long, or “final” pause. This was the beginning of punctuation, and many of our modern marks come from these three dots.

- Do you think that newly-discovered punctuation marks should be taught in schools and available throughout technology?

Another good question! I think we should concentrate on teaching marks that are in common use, though it would certainly have been fun to have learned about the interrobang and pilcrow at school.

As for technology, the good news is that lots of these marks are already available if you know how to get at them. Normally this involves entering a numerical code corresponding to a particular mark, or copying and pasting it from another document, but neither of these methods is ideal. The problem, really, is the hundred-and-thirty-year-old typewriter keyboard, which changes only very slowly over time. Smartphones and tablets, however, have virtual keyboards which could very easily be customised to show new marks, and if you have very deep pockets you can even buy a customisable PC/Mac keyboard with a tiny screen under each key so that you can type an interrobang, pilcrow or any other mark with a single keystroke. At £1,500, though, better start saving!

November 28th, 2013

Strategically minded Spinebreaker Gesbeen breaks down the steps necessary to get your name in the papers… for the right reasons!

As a third year journalism student at City University London, it has become apparent that self-educating before entering higher education is crucial for aspiring journalists.

With the birth of the Internet, writers and journalists have come upon a realisation; never has it been so easy to be a writer and yet never has it been so hard to become a professional writer. Anyone can blog, but there is a major difference between blogging to advance your career and blogging for fun. That is the writing style or narrative, if you like.

Blogging with the aim of writing to journalistic standards, will make you stand out of the massive blogosphere and possibly get you on the career ladder. Remember, excellent articles, short stories, and information are published online for free non-stop. The publishing industry is running out of money, no longer does interning for half a year at a paper guarantee you a salary.

The Web provides great platforms for young writers and journalists, such as Spinebreakers for 11 to 19 year olds, allowing creatives to get content published before even entering higher education or work. For those who wish to make writing a career one day, you’ll struggle much less with a portfolio to show the scary interviewer.

If you want to see bylines with your name in publications, here is some advice regarding how to start improving your writing style now!

1. Objectivity

One of journalism’s cores lays in objectivity, meaning the journalist often is an observer as events take place. The simplest thing a young journalist can do at this stage, already, is remove the I’s from the copy. Why? Generally, less so in blogs, as a journalist, the writing should be a reflection of the event;  the news. Unless, you are writing a column or post about your experiences and journey, it is far-more interesting (but more challenging for the writer) without the I’s. Harshly, as one of the lecturers put it; ‘’ We don’t want to see any I’s, you are not interesting.’’

2. Read, Read, Read

Always remember to read, whether it’s newspapers or fiction. If your bookshelf is stacked with Hemingway, Orwell and Woolf, you can apply the literary styles used to feature writing. More importantly,  reading expands and activates the mind, eventually creating new ideas.

3.  Be descriptive in feature writing

‘’Show, don’t tell,’’ the most eye-opening advice one can give. Imagine reading a novel, written like, ‘’ The scenery was beautiful. It smelled nice. I was going to see my wife.  But there was a car accident.’’ What made the scenery beautiful? How did it smell nice for the protagonist? How did the car accident make his journey home troublesome, how did it ruin his day? Allow the reader to see what you saw. Provide imagery, whether it is fiction or journalistic writing.

4. The Big No-No

Repetition, often a sign of a lack of confidence in writing, is a narrative-killer. Avoid at all times. Make a point in a paragraph and move on, don’t try and hammer the same idea into the reader’s head.

Once you’ve started the process of improving, the to-do-list extends.  Intern at organisations, where you see yourself having a career one day; you’ll learn an awful lot and by the time you’ve graduated from university, you’ll be equipped with skills that university alone can’t give. With relevant experience and a perfected writing style, the bylines will be yours!

November 20th, 2013

Spinebreakers work experiencer, Allister, offers a thoughtful meditation on the impact of technology on our reading habits

Every now and then we hear in the news that young people don’t read as much as they use to do, due to all the technology that is propelled in their faces as they grow up. The only time for some young people when they read a book is when its compulsory for their English lessons. Even then when they are told to read a chapter at home they ‘forget’ to do so and would rather play on their games console instead.

If we look at those born in the 90’s and onwards and compare them to those born before the mid 80’s, we can see a huge gap in what was available for young people to be entertained by. Technology advanced rapidly in the 20th century, with each decade getting more and more techie. By the late 90’s, homes were welcoming desktop PC’s to their living rooms for casual use and the variety of TV shows and channels was on the increase. New and exciting cartoons were being made to capture young people’s minds, thanks to the improvements in animation and visual effects. Young people had no desire to stare at ink blots on paper but rather see a multitude of colours, environments and characters come to life through the TV or even computer screen. Stories that could once only be visualised in ones own mind could now be perceived with the eye through the use of new animation techniques.

At first glance, I am sure that the advancement in technology would have dragged anybody away from their most prised books but after a few years, maybe a bit more, all this new tech that continuously comes out year on year becomes normal to everyone. It’s fair to say that there wasn’t much out there for readers in terms of technology that is until recently when tablets and Kindles become the new talk of the town. Devices that could access a wide range of book titles and store them on one device without having to go out and buy individual books and then find a place for them to stay within your home. It was a brilliant idea. Even smart phones have the ability to access libraries of books and read them. Many people who would turn down reading because of trivial reasons such as not wanting to carry a book with them, not having the space for them or probably one of the worst of them all “I always forget the page I was on and it puts me of from continuing to read,” can not longer use these as excuses.

Tablets and Kindles have led to a lot more people reading or reading even more, both young and old, due to how easy they are to use and carry with you in comparison to traditional books, traditional books are still favoured by many, however. Film adaptations of best selling books for young people have also helped in getting fans of the film to pick up the original story and get a true feel of what the story should be and this can usually lead young people to go on and read different books by the same author or from the same genre.

Personally, I believe the advancement in technology has helped, or at least sustained, the amount of young people that read books. However, there are still many, many young people who would prefer to play a video game or watch TV than read a book but this doesn’t mean that all young people like this don’t also read.

November 11th, 2013

In a stunning imaginary conversation with poet Carol Anne Duffy, Spinebreaker Kate ponders whether there is any value in dissecting literature or whether teachers are simply overcomplicating everything…

There’s an adage that says, ‘English teachers put more thought into the novel than the author did.’ It is a saying that is undoubtedly true.

In English literature lessons, the point is to read a set book and then study it for an exam or piece of coursework. I get that, and I used to think (considering how much I love reading) it would be a fantastic way to spend an hour at school.

Well, I was wrong. I was lulled into a false sense of security with the word ‘book’.

So what is it that I don’t like? I think it’s the way the book gets picked apart, and every tiny detail that would normally hardly get picked up on is analysed to within an inch of its young (or, usually, old) life.

For instance, for my English literature GCSE I had to read Of Mice and Men. I thought it was a good book that had a very clever ending. Now, I hate it, think it in no way deserves to be called a classic and wish no other student ever had to be subjected to the misfortune of reading it. Ever.

My dislike could also be applied to poetry. Say you come across a deep, thought-provoking line of poetry—like I did with “Havisham” by Carol Anne Duffy – the line being “Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks”—and it even randomly pops into your head throughout the day, such is its impact on you. Then you turn up to English the next day. “We’re going to be analysing ‘Havisham,’” the teacher says.

Yay, you think?

Unfortunately, nay.

By the end of the lesson it is no longer a beautiful line in what you thought to be a beautifully crafted poem. Now you know that “Havisham” is talking about the soul of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations being broken, because it’s like a metaphor for the fragility of the human spirit, and that the fact she is weak and out of control because she did not move on from her jilting means she has technically brought the suffering on herself blah blah blah…

I can so easily imagine walking up to Duffy at an event and discussing her poetry.

“So Carol,” I say, because at this point I am on a first name basis with the poet laureate. “When you wrote the very last line in your poem Havisham, were you trying to conceal the concept of human insecurities in it?”

“Um no,” replies Carol. “I just thought ‘b-b-b-breaks’ was a funny word.”

“Right.” I splutter, now trying to consolidate everything I have ever been taught with this new idea. “And what about ‘ropes on the backs of my hands I could strangle with? Is that to do with murder, at all?

“Not exactly…”

Can’t you just see it?

What do you think? Do you enjoy all that analysis (or ‘analysation’ as I christened it one very boring lesson)? Do you think there is any way English literature could be taught differently in schools? Or do you have any questions you’d like to ask an author or poet about their literary prose, just to see whether, as you’d suspected all along, those lessons were utter garbage?