Thursday, 27 November 2014

Why art matters - Lily Hyde

They can’t put on plays in the evening in Donetsk, because of the curfew. They have had to hang a sign on the theatre entrance saying ‘Please don’t bring weapons with you’ – but not everyone obeys. The stage is not just their calling anymore; it is literally home. The actors are living in the playhouse, because their houses have been destroyed by shelling or are on the frontline. 

One recent Sunday afternoon they performed Chekhov. The sound of shelling roared from the suburbs, but inside the theatre a string quartet played Bach to the pre-performance crowd. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me down to lie in green pastures A frock-coated actor shepherded his flock into the darkened auditorium, leaving behind all the troubles and dread for two brief hours, two magical hours made of lighting and costume and make-believe – and words, words, Chekhov’s wry, witty, warmly humane war of words. That, to set against the real war outside.

Afterwards in the dressing rooms, where actors live now with their children in a world of mirrors and make-up, where jars of home-made gherkins jostle with tubes of facepaint, we drank to peace. And to art, to theatre and literature and music, all those hopelessly fragile, endlessly enduring things. 



Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Writing non-human characters - by Cavan Scott

Last month, I attended the world's friendliest convention, AKA Bristolcon. It's one of my favourite events of the year, full of good-natured, liked-minded people all coming together because they like stories. What could be better?

This year, I took part in a fascinating panel entitled 'Writing Non-Human Characters', which is always an interesting subject and linked to most things I write. 

To prepare, I jotted down my top five hints and tips, which I thought I'd share with you in case you ever have the need to write a believable, and hopefully, relatable monster / alien / cybernetic dolphin. 

1. Think about their values.
The first point is a simple one - get world-building.

Think about your non-humans' life and existence. What are their intrinsic values? How do they view the big things in life? And yes, I am talking stuff as basic as sex and death. 

For example, if you have a mayfly-like alien race made up of beings who only live for one day. How will that affect their relationships or the way their society works? How would they approach tasks? In fact, how developed would they even be as a race? Could a race of mayfly aliens develop space-flight for instance? How would they do it? Would they be more concerned with reproducing than developing a faster-than-light drive? Or have they developed a science that handles reproduction for them so they can focus on other things for the good of their race? And what about knowledge? How would it be passed from one 'generation' to another?

Other values would surely be different as well. If an individual lives only for one day, then funerals would probably not be a big thing. And how would the mayfly characters relate to those whose lifespan stretches into years rather than hours?

A little world-building will bring all manner of story ideas, as well as giving you interesting non-human characters.  

2. Make them individuals.
I've just written for the Daleks. This makes me happy. But, of course, you know what you're going to get with Daleks. Most of the time they are completely identical to each other; each infernal pepper pot a scheming ball of hate. There are, of course, exceptions, but usually its because they've been affected by some exterior influence - see the recent Inside the Dalek for a good example. That's nothing against the Daleks. Being nasty is literally in their DNA. And that's why we love them. Well, it's why I love them anyway. 

However, it's not the norm. Let's face it, not all humans are the same. There are kind humans, there are cruel humans; there are funny humans, there are humourless humans. There are humans who mention cybernetic dolphins far too much. 

Non-human characters should be the same (except for maybe the dolphin thing). A race of non-humans should never have the same characteristics, unless perhaps if they are a true hive mind. Similar traits maybe, but there should be individuality there. Look at the Klingons, to mix my science fiction franchises. They became far more interesting when we started to see bump-heads of all moral types and motivations. 

3. Give the reader a Han Solo.
Good old Chewbacca. He's a giant walking rug who makes great noises. And most Star Wars fans love him. Why? Largely because Han loves him. Han is our window to Chewie. The old rogue understands everyone's favourite wookie and literally translates him for us. Without Han is it doubtful that Chewie, wonderful though he is, would have been such a sympathetic character.

And the same can go the other way. Want to make your non-human characters completely and utterly uncanny? Then, give us a viewpoint character who can vocalise the differences and react to their absolute alienness. 

4. Remember human doesn't always mean better.
Poor old Spock. He spends most of the time being berated by Bones for being a green-blooded, cold hearted son of a... 

Well, you get the idea. 

However, it's all to easy to play all non-human characters as inferior in some or all ways to humans. They are somehow limited or stilted and don't quite understand the way the universe, just because they're not human, the poor things. 

What about a non-human character who is a more rounded-person than your humans, who is wiser or shows more compassion? 

Basically, don't be a Bones. Human doesn't always mean better.

5. Cheat.
No-one wants to read a truly non-human character. That's a bold statement, but it's true. Why would you? A reader needs something to relate to, so they can invest in the character. So make sure, no-matter how alien your non-human there are some recognisable traits in there, something that chimes with us all, whether they're fae, extra-terrestrial or cybernetic dolphin.

Have any tips of your own? Then share them below, especially if you are a cybernetic dolphin. 

(Can you tell I've been writing about cybernetic dolphins recently?)


Cavan Scott is the author of over 70 books and audio dramas including the Sunday Times Bestseller, Who-ology: The Official Doctor Who Miscellany, co-written with Mark Wright.

He's written for Doctor WhoSkylandersJudge Dredd, Angry Birds, Adventure Time and Warhammer 40,000 among others. He also writes Roger the Dodger and Bananaman for The Beano as well as books for reluctant readers of all ages.

Cavan's website
Cavan's facebook fanpage
Cavan's twitterings

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Introverts R Us - Tamsyn Murray

My name is Tamsyn and I am an introvert.

It took me a long time to realise this, mostly because I am also (for want of a better phrase) a bit of a show-off. I used to put my hand up when I knew the answer at school. I do am-dram, which involves singing and dancing and acting, sometimes in lead roles, in front of hundreds of people. Since I became a writer, the performer in me has been even busier, because what are school visits if not extended performances? I can do interviews for TV, and smile and chat to people I've only just met in social situations, make small talk without any apparent paroxysms of terror. How can I do all of that and not be an extrovert?

It took one of those lists you see popping up on Facebook every now and then to teach me the truth about my nature. Things You Should Know About Introverts*, it said. And I thought that as a writer, I knew plenty of introverted people so maybe it was worth a read.

Point 1 made me pause: We need to recharge alone. I do, I thought. In fact, there's nothing I cherish more than a bit of alone time (although alone time = working time for me because alone time is a rare commodity) and I constantly feel I don't have enough of it. And certainly after an event of some kind, what I yearn for most is to be on my own. Hmmm.

Point 2: We don’t hate being around people, but we probably hate crowds. I thought about this for a while because I wouldn't say I hate crowds but I don't love them either. Unless it's a festival crowd, in which case I love them all. But I do quite often feel overwhelmed by crowds - the urge to go and find a quiet place to sit is strong (or sometimes even to go home) and I get around this by starting random conversations with people. This is a trick I have learned and I almost always enjoy the conversation.

Number 3: We don’t mind silence.This one depends on the silence. I had a boss once who used to come and sit in my office and say nothing. Those were not good silences and I would say anything to fill them (which resulted in more silences because I had said something stupid.) But there's nothing wrong with a companionable silence.

And point 4: Just because we are introverted doesn’t mean we are shy. Very few people would describe me as shy. But by the time I read this one I was starting to realise that there was a good possibility I was an introvert.

Number 5: We can turn on an extroverted personality when necessary, but it is especially draining. This was a clincher for me - I know I do this. When I'm in a crowd and I want to talk to people because I feel uncomfortable (point 2) I switch on. Or for a performance. Actually, being extroverted is a lot like acting, except that I'm just being a much brighter version of myself instead of playing another character. And afterwards I am invariably exhausted.

Point 6 was: We aren’t judging you. And again, this depends on the situation. If you are supporting UKIP then I am judging you pretty hard.

7 made me cringe in shame because I know I do this: We secretly love it when you cancel plans. It doesn't mean I don't like you, it just means I don't have to be switched on.

Number 8: We can get very wrapped up in our own thoughts. AKA Daydreaming. Thinking time. Plotting. So I'm not ignoring you, honestly. I might just have forgotten you are there.

At number 9 we had: We can be pretty bad at connecting. And I wondered about this because I think I am good at connecting. Then I realised it's because I am good at listening - I like hearing other people's stories. And as luck would have it, listening means I have to talk less.

In at number 10 was: We don’t like to hang around. I decided this one depended on the situation. If I'm comfortable somewhere then it can be hard to get rid of me. But in a crowd situation when I've been switched on for a while, an unguarded exit can be too difficult to resist.

The last point was: We have strong opinions. And I decided this wasn't an introvert or an extrovert thing, because almost everyone I know has strong opinions about some things. Writers in particular have strong opinions - why else would we write?

So on balance, I decided that I'm an introvert. And it's nice to know finally that it's OK to want to be alone, to enjoy being on my own. Many of my writer friends are great to be around because they know how that feels, because they are introverts too. But ultimately, I'm not sure it really matters what you are, except that it feels good to know even when I'm alone, I'm not really.

*Things You Should Know About Introverts taken from

Monday, 24 November 2014

Bring Me The Teenagers - Liz Kessler

I guess this blog might be continuing that theme in a way. It’s about social networking. Only, this time, I want to pick your brains.

Next May, I make my YA debut with my novel Read Me Like A Book (which, incidentally, I just received the bound proofs for, and I am completely IN LOVE with this cover, designed and painted by my very talented artist friend Joe Greenaway.

This book is HUGELY important to me and I want to do everything I can to give it a good send off into the world. Because this is a brand new tack for me, I’ll be doing a lot of things differently. I’m already fairly active on Twitter and Facebook – and I do my monthly blog here – but there are all sorts on online hangouts that I know almost nothing about – and I think it’s time to get educated.

Currently, I use my author page on Facebook to write about my books, post lots of photos of sunrises and my dog and the sea, and have lovely chitchat about mermaids and faires and time travel, mainly with my readers, their parents, a few librarians and a bunch of supportive friends. On Twitter, it feels much more about chatting with my writing peers – other writers, bloggers, bookshop people etc. Think publishing party, only without getting drunk on free champagne and making a fool of yourself in front of the MD.

So that’s all well and good, and I enjoy it. But I want to spread my writerly wings. In particular, I want to talk to teenagers – and I don’t know where to find them!

So this is a question aimed mainly at teenagers, parents of teenagers, writers of books for teenagers who interact online…

Where are you? Where do you hang out? Which are your favourite online haunts? And what do look for or expect from in the different places you frequent?

I take a LOT of photos, and should probably be on Instagram. (In fact, I kind of am but I don’t really use it.) I have been told I should get onto Tumblr – and would love to go for it, but every time I glance at it, I feel overwhelmed and bewildered. I’m also kind of half-heartedly on Pinterest, but only so I can look for desks for my new office. And I have got a few videos on Youtube.

The thing is, though, when we try to keep up to date with ALL the places, there’s no time left to, well, you know, write the books. Which I kind of need to keep doing. So I don’t want to join them all. But I’d like to pick the best one (or at most, two) new social networking sites and give them a good go.

So, help me out here. What should I pick? What do you use? Where are my potential new teenage audience most likely to look for me? Any and all opinions on these questions will be gratefully received.

Thank you! :)

Follow Liz on Twitter
Join Liz's Facebook page

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Verne in Vigo - Maeve Friel

I love coming across literary sculptures, whether they are the slew of Paddington Bears which recently appeared in London, a dapper James Joyce leaning on his cane on Earl Street in Dublin or Don Quijote and Sancho Panza trotting through the Plaza España in Madrid.

This curious monument of a man sitting amid the tentacles of a giant octopus is also a literary monument. It is in Vigo, in Galicia in North-Western Spain - but what is it?

It is a homage to the French novelist Jules Verne, often described as the inventor of the genre of science fiction, and to the Galician references in his much-loved adventure Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. 

First of all, the sculpture reminds us of the terrifying chapter in which Captain Nemo and the crew of the submarine Nautilus are attacked by giant squid, as in the English translation, or more correctly by giant octopus (les poulpes, in French). Galicia, renowned for spectacular seafood, is particularly in thrall to the octopus and Pulpo a feira, octopus in the style of the fair,  is its signature dish - boiled in huge cauldrons by the pulpeiras, specialist octopus cooks, the tentacles snipped up with massive scissors and sprinkled with olive oil and pimentón.

But there is another chapter of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which takes place right in the Ría de Vigo, the Bay of Vigo. This was the real life location of a major naval disaster in 1702 when English ships burnt and scuttled the French and Spanish fleets which were returning from the Caribbean laden with treasure from the New World. In the novel, Captain Nemo comes to Vigo to loot the ships´treasure.

Around the Nautilus for a half-mile radius, the waters seemed saturated with electric light. The sandy bottom was clear and bright. Dressed in diving suits, crewmen were busy clearing away half-rotted barrels and disemboweled trunks in the midst of the dingy hulks of ships. Out of these trunks and kegs spilled ingots of gold and silver, cascades of jewels, pieces of eight. The sand was heaped with them. Then, laden with these valuable spoils, the men returned to the Nautilus, dropped off their burdens inside, and went to resume this inexhaustible fishing for silver and gold.
I understood. This was the setting of that battle on October 22, 1702. Here, in this very place, those galleons carrying treasure to the Spanish government had gone to the bottom. Here, whenever he needed, Captain Nemo came to withdraw these millions to ballast his Nautilus. It was for him, for him alone, that America had yielded up its precious metals. He was the direct, sole heir to these treasures wrested from the Incas and those peoples conquered by Hernando Cortez!

Don´t miss the monument to M. Verne if you are visiting this less well known corner of Spain, a place redolent with stories of shipwrecks, smugglers, fishermen´s tales and foot-weary pilgrims, the furious music of bagpipes and an all-pervading smell of octopus and sizzling sardines.  And of course, I recommend that you read the book too!

Saturday, 22 November 2014


(This post appeared first on a blog called The Great British Bookshop. I'm very grateful to them for permission to publish it here again. Adele Geras)

It's been nearly eight years since I published a novel for adults. This is not because I've been lying around on sofas, eating peeled grapes, but because things have got in the way of my writing. These are both personal (moving from Manchester to Cambridge after living in the former for 46 years, my husband's last illness and death and so forth) and professional.
I haven't been idle.  Children's books have appeared during this time, but since A Hidden Life, I haven't published a novel for adults. And that's mainly because this particular novel, Cover your Eyes, has given me more trouble in the writing than any other of my books.  On the face of it, there's no obvious reason for this. I had the germ of the story right from the beginning, but in the first and second drafts and the subsequent fiddlings and fossickings that went on once the novel had actually been written, there were many different things to get right.
The first was that I needed to create convincing voices and stories for each of my heroines.  I like having more than one heroine in my books, and I enjoy going from one point of view to the other. Perhaps this is to stop myself from becoming tired of the single vision throughout, but it's also I think, (and hope!) a way of appealing to readers of different ages. The first thing you have to get right is the language. I made the decision early on to have Megan's sections in the first person, and that meant that the words had to be ones that were suitable for a young woman of 29. Eva's part of the story is in the third person, (a sort of modified form, which is really her point of view).
Also, I enjoy writing about the past. I blog on a site called The History Girls, which is for writers of historical fiction, and I count myself as one of those.  I like going back in time and to this end, I have always put a character who is about 75 or 80 years old in my novels to provide a view of the past. In my first adult novel, Facing the Light, (now only available as an e book from Quercus) the whole action of the novel takes place during the 75th birthday celebrations of my heroine, Leonora. Her memories of childhood, and of being young and middle-aged were layered into the narrative, and I wrote all seven of these 'past' bits first, before writing the rest of the book. I then slotted them into their appropriate positions at the end.
In Cover your Eyes, my elderly heroine is Eva, and she came to England in 1938 on the Kindertransport.  She has a secret that she has revealed to no one, and she is haunted, quite literally, by a ghost about whom she has never said a word.  She used to be a famous dress designer and she meets the other heroine of the novel, who's a journalist, when the latter (Megan), comes to interview her for a fashion magazine.  Eva's narrative is intercut with memories of times from her past, in the manner that I used in Facing the Light, but in this novel, I wrote the sections in the past as I went along.  Megan is recovering from being dumped by her married lover. Eva is sad because her beautiful home, Salix House, is going to be sold.  Stuff happens, and Megan ends up living in Eva's house, where she becomes aware of a certain strangeness - she sees and hears things that she can't explain.
I won't say more; I don't like spoiling the plot, but I hope that everyone who reads the book enjoys it. It went through several incarnations because it's very hard to weave a supernatural element into a typical 'women's fiction' story. I hope that there are things in this book which resonate with lovers of historical fiction* too. Even though only small sections of the actual story take place in the past, I like to think that what happened to Eva when she was four and came to England for the first time, tinges the book and gives it its flavour, rather like the Angostura in a drink of gin and bitters.
 * I have also written a children's book about the Kindertransport, called A Candle in the Dark, published by A&C Black, which is suitable for readers of seven and upwards.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Wilde Wisdom - Joan Lennon

I admit it - until now, I'd never read The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Oh, I knew, more or less, the plot.  But when I needed to read Oscar Wilde's horror story for a novel I'm just starting to write, there wasn't a handy copy in the house, so I got it (for free) as part of a kindle Penny Dreadful multi-pack - including The Horrors of Zindorf Castle AND Jack Harkaway and His Son's Adventures in Australia, which, co-incidentally, I also didn't own.

But did you know The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in this magazine in 1890?  

In full.  Plus a Preface.  Plus a whole bunch of other fiction and articles and biography and - I'd love to read this bit - 8 pages With the Wits (illustrated by leading artists).  How's that for 25 cents?  

But here's what I want to post about.  What Oscar Wilde said, in his Preface, about critics and criticism, because it is both a witticism and a balm.  He said:

"... the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.  Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

Is it merely an elegant way of saying, "Aw, poop, they're just jealous"?  I don't care.  Next bad review any of us gets, I recommend this as our mantra.  All together now ...

This is a fault.  

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.