Thursday, 31 July 2008
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
I studied the Icelandic sagas at university and had always longed to go to the sites – the spot where Njal and his family lived and Gunnar’s farm. They are all real places that can be visited. Even Eirik the Red’s farm has been found and a reconstruction built nearby. There, with the help of a couple of burly Icelanders dressed as Vikings, you can go back in time too.
There is a wonderfully atmospheric museum in Reykjavik where the foundations of a farmhouse from around the year 870 have been excavated. And in the Culture House early extant manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas are preserved in dimly-lit glass cases.
Outside Akueyri, a medieval market is held every July, where blacksmiths and fortune tellers ply their trade and visitors can watch cloth dyes being prepared from plants and whistles being whittled from bones.
And then there were the quieter moments that were just as significant. The broad daylight that lasts all night and the sight of the sun setting at 11.30 at night. The ice that formed on our tents at night when the temperature dropped from a benign 18 degrees during the day to bone-chilling below zero at night. The sparkle of the snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the summer sunshine. The lucky sighting of a gyrfalcon guarding her nest high up a rocky larva formation. Not to mention whales, dolphins, penguins and… well, you’d have to spend six weeks there yourself to really experience the wonders. Perhaps you can find as good an excuse as I did.
Tuesday, 29 July 2008
Monday, 28 July 2008
Added to this, normally I am like any sensible woman. I hate rats. In my former middle-aged existence, anyone who owned a rat was slightly odd, bordering on insane. They bite (don’t they?), they like eating disgusting stuff and are dirty—I mean, look at most of the rat population in Ratatouille. But Shazzam has a white rat called Pocket (that’s where the rat lives, see?). So now I’m forced to admit, having done some research, that rats are clean, intelligent, loving and really rather nice. My 8 year-old boy self really really really wants to own one. And secretly, I wouldn’t mind either, apart from that long pink tail which looks like a worm. I’m still iffy on worms, I’m afraid. Although that may have to change.
Yesterday I did a nose-picking experiment. My 47/48 year-old self was horrified and disgusted and wanted a tissue and a lot of soap right away. My inner 8 year-old giggled and chanted, ‘Pick it, lick it, roll it and flick it!” I think this is what actors call ‘method’, and I have to tell you that so far I am enjoying being a grubby delinquent more than I can say. I have no doubt that I shall be snortling at the ‘s’ word soon. (For those without kids, that’s What Parents Never Do because they’re too old and it’s revolting!) How my husband takes this remains to be seen. Perhaps his inner 8 year-old will emerge too, and we can chortly evilly together as we make mud pies to throw over the wall at passing cars. Then the children would almost certainly leave home in disgust. This will save a lot on food and fuel, great in this new world of credit crunchery, however much I would miss their lofty teenage pronouncements.
I may have second novelitis (see previous post), but this new departure into younger fiction is giving me a new lease of writing life. Long live ye bogies! Hooray for poo!
Saturday, 26 July 2008
I don’t honestly believe anyone chooses a genre because they decide in advance that it’s the best art form for something they wish to say. (Unless they’re in advertising.) Rather, you get grabbed by an idea. Often, for me, a picture of something happening. Lewis himself said that ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ started with a picture in his head of a faun with an umbrella walking through a snowy forest.
No: the material imposes the form. Fauns with umbrellas will insist on you writing a children’s fantasy for them. Other things may then find their way into that story; your moral outlook, world picture, concerns, loves and hates. No author is free of these, and one can only hope to find sympathetic readers who understand or at least make allowances. But throw away that umbrella, and you’ve thrown away the book.
Or to put it another way, writing is like this: you let downyour shimmering little hook into the deep pool where stories come from, and something bites. You pull it up (if you're lucky). But look what happens! The fish talks! It opens its whiskery, blubbery mouth and speaks to you! And to me it says:
Friday, 25 July 2008
A little while ago I saw this video on the excellent BoingBoing website, about a New York artist who creates sculptures out of bin bags. He tapes them to the subway gratings that are a feature of the city’s sidewalks, and when a subway train passes beneath, the rising air inflates his creations, so that passers-by are startled to see a horned monster, a Nessie, a giraffe - anything – rise eerily before them, then settle just as mysteriously into inanimate rubbish once again.
If we are in Eldorado and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it’s a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancashire, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possibly the reader will, too.
I suppose, in fact, that’s why I write fantasies set in this world, rather than in some other land that wears its magicality on its sleeve. Magic in our own world is less easy to spot; but one my jobs as a writer is to show that it’s there nevertheless, woven into every fibre of the universe.
*But then I have so many favourite DWJ books! Drowned Ammet, for example. The way she does gods in that one is... well, perhaps the subject for another post.
Thursday, 24 July 2008
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
Monday, 21 July 2008
When I was fifteen I wanted to be like the seventeen year olds in the sixth form who got picked up outside school by boys in cars. These girls had secret smiles that suggested knowledge that I didn't have. Knowledge of the opposite sex, gained in the back seats of those very cars. I watched them in the dining room or walking across the playground. Their very walk was sensual and suggestive and I felt sore to my throat at the life they were having that I had to wait for.
When I was seventeen I envied the older girl who was in work, who was 'courting' her boyfriend or possibly engaged. She had stepped out of the back of a car and into the arms of a wage earner, a boy in a sheepskin jacket or suit. She was allowed to stay over at his house. She had her own money, a wage slip, a P45, a tube season ticket and luncheon vouchers. She could afford a wash and set each Saturday and a drawer full of unopened packets of tights. I wanted to be that girl.
When I write books for teenagers it doesn't take long for me to pull up those emotions from my memory. That craving to be something that you are not. Isn't that often a theme in much of the adult fiction that we read? People often talk about teens as though they are a different species. They are not though. They are just experiencing the big Themes of Life. They are just becoming adults.
Saturday, 19 July 2008
Why, you may ask, am I so consumed with having had a fascinating life?It’s not that I want to do anything other than write, I love it, but I am trying to write a short biography for my upcoming, first teenage novel, Spider, and I am suddenly overcome with a sense of my own boringness!
My previous attempts to make my past life sound interesting might have been fun and jolly for the young cuddly readers of my Hamish McHaggis stories, but I really want something with a little more street cred for this book and most of my previous life seems just too ordinary.
Now if I’d had a few exciting or weird jobs it would be so much easier to write a pithy and amusing little biography- like the ones I read in other writer’s books! They all seem to have done such interesting things
A friend said - 'you’re a writer, make it up!'
So I sit and scribble and score out and try again, but for some reason I can think of all sorts of exciting things for my characters to do but none of them seem right for me. I keep worrying that someone will ask me technical details about how to catch a fire-eating dragon, or extract a marble from an angry camel’s nose.
So, if you see me doing something really bizarre it may not be because I am tremendously brave or quirky… just looking to do something that I can put in my bio!
Friday, 18 July 2008
However, I can’t help worrying, during writing workshops, about many children’s relationship with writing, especially stories. Here’s two examples that happen when I’m talking to a class about writing in a general low-key way. We've already chatted about cats, or the strange noises the school boiler makes, and suchlike. Ready?
Me: “I wonder…. What was the last story you wrote? Can you remember the last thing you enjoyed writing?”
Helpful Child. “ I think we did one once about . . about . . about . . .”
Butter-inners: “A magic key.” “No, we didn’t!” “Yes, we did!” etcetera
Scornful mutters about how that was in Mrs Smith’s class. Mrs Smith’s class was at least two years ago. Nothing since.
Me, a bit later. “ I wonder what you think is important when you’re doing writing?
Sweet eager child, swiftly. “Knowing where to put the full stops.”
Helpful child. “And capital letters. And those – erm erm – exclamation marks.”
Others: “Speech marks.” “Doing Planning.” “Handwriting.”
Enjoyment? The sense of making something? A good read? Low down on the list, if at all.
Now I am aware (remember, this is primary school!) they “do” persuasive writing, the adapt-a-traditional tale, the rewrite-a-myth, the account, the recount, the report, the letter, the diary, the extended story writing, the poetry models, writing-in-role as a character met during the study of a short extract from a book not fully read, and the rest. Plus, in the brief pause, before we move on, at least one adult has re-assured me about the range of writing their children do, quite firmly.
However, I can’t help worrying what this easily-markable writing diet is like for the children - though not quite so easily markable this very week, it seems. Why do primary children have this haziness about when they last enjoyed writing? Why doesn’t the experience matter to them? Where do they find their own voice in their writing, learn that writing is a kind of speaking, a kind of thinking?
Of course, lots of good teachers do encourage children. There’s Roz Wilson & Co promoting “The Big Write”, plus candle and music. There’s Pie Corbett promoting traditional tale-telling as a precursor to writing. There’s plenty of enthusiasts and encouragers, struggling to find space and time for writing. But, but, but . . . (sigh!)
I recall Anne Fine, talking at a long ago conference, saying she learned to write at school, during the first hour of Monday morning. The class teacher, faced with children, register, dinner money to collect, count & total in old money (plus the effects of a weekend’s liquid consolation, perhaps) would chalk a weekly writing task up on the blackboard – and the young Anne knew she had the freedom of an hour in which to muse, daydream and write her new story. Each week. Each month. Each term.
Not just once, long ago, back in Mrs Smith’s class. Not ideal. But something to ponder. End of rant.
Thursday, 17 July 2008
A year ago my husband got me to listen to Back to Black by Amy Winehouse. Ever since then it's been my record of choice whenever I'm alone and in need of some emotional Viagra.
It's raw and quite brilliant. As I listen to it I experience a range of feelings. I felt sensuous, moody, angry, frustrated, exalted, busted. I feel the passion in Winehouse's voice and the power of her lyrics about how messy and sad and avaricious love can be. I sing along to her racy words and become involved with the lovers in the songs. Never mind about real life and what has happened to those people. I hook onto the fiction and the feel the hair on the back of my neck stir when I swoon along to Love is a Losing Game. Yes it is. Or it can be.
It reminds me of when I wrote my first teen novel in the late eighties. Then I really was writing about my own teenage years and I deliberately bought records from that period (late sixties) to listen to. Perhaps the main ones were Smokey Robinson and Miracles and also The Four Tops. I even named my main character 'Brenda' after a Four Tops song. That music brought back my teens and all the longing and disappointment of teen love affairs. That first book is forever associated with that music for me.
When the Amy Winehouse CD is finished I am bolstered up and back to my computer. I need my emotions fired up to write well about my teens for whom love and life is often a difficult road. This music will be associated with the book I wrote during 2007/8 while listening to it. A book about jealousy and violence in a relationship. It's called Just Jealous.
I have a confession to make: I am a procrastinator and a time waster and there is no twelve step programme to help me.
I waste a lot of time reading blogs and I mean a lot of time. I love the clever ones with multiple links,the erudite ones and the guilt inducing ones that demand I lend support to obscure causes. I adore the witty ones and the bitchy ones, but most of all I like the ones that read like a private diary, that let you in to a secret life.
In these every day blogs the personality and circumstances of the blogger leak out like smoothie from a dodgy carton in my fridge, ( messy but tasty) I take particular delight in the ones by famous writers who don't talk at all about their intriguing work, but how many times they've made it to the gym, what they are having for supper and whether the bin men came on time. Oh, and word counts I love those word count thingies -especially when they don't move for weeks.
At first I was disappointed that really creative people lived such ordinary,lives. Where are the adventures? Then it occurred to me that they didn't have any. Those who live in their imaginations don't need to actually climb mountains, sail single handedly round the world, become experts at martial arts or learn the secrets of the genome - they can just pretend - which, while it is a whole lot cheaper and less exhausting, also makes less interesting copy.
Now although I don't claim the towering imagination of my literary heroes and heroines, I do at least lead an ordinary life and am really very boring. I'm beginning to think that's OK. It may even be a good sign. Take note all would-be writers:it is not necessary to be personally very interesting in order to write.It is not even necessary to do anything very interesting at all, ever, you can make it all up.
To all the other writers out there (who ought to be working right now) I just want to say. It is OK. You read my mindless blatherings and I'll read yours - a kind of mutually supportive timewasting. (You know it makes sense)
However, for readers I have a different and much sterner message and that is - 'Forget the blogs! Read the books! They are much more interesting - full of adventure, passion and stuff!' I'll do you a deal: you read a book and I'll get off the net and write one.
Wednesday, 16 July 2008
My favourite scene in the film JAWS doesn’t involve the shark at all. It’s the scene in which Brody, Hooper and Quint are talking in the boat’s cabin. The highlight of their drunken chat is when the macho Quint and the nerdy Hooper are comparing their scars. The irony is that they are surprisingly evenly matched. At first it looks as if Brody can’t join in (Brody with his water phobia is unlikely to have many shark bites to date). But then he tentatively exposes a scar on his torso, only to change his mind and hide it. This fleeting gesture tells a whole story in itself. The scar is (we presume) a gunshot wound from his former life as a city cop, which is what sent him out here to Amity in the first place, in search of a quiet life (oh, the irony). It reminds us that there are sharks on land too, and that Brody is at least equal to his shipmates – in fact he probably outdoes them as a survivor (an important plot point). But crucially, unlike them, he won’t brag about his scar, because he is also a family man and thus values his life more. For him, life and death are a serious business. In short, that single two-second gesture confirms him finally as the hero of the whole piece, the valiant everyman who will slay the monster in the end. The others just don’t have the gravitas.
Moments like this can make up for all the dodgy special effects in the world. It’s something that film directors – and all writers – would do well to remember.
Well, possibly because the kids don’t understand the concept of ‘historical fiction’ without a few examples. Certainly if you mention Michelle Paver, you’ll get more hands. (“Oh, is that historical fiction?”) But more likely, I think, because they think historical books will be boring or difficult. My theory is that in a child’s mind there is a direct and logical link: historical = history = school subject. The logical assumption (perhaps not on a conscious level) is that if you don’t enjoy history as it’s taught in schools, or if you find it hard, you won’t enjoy historical books. Or even if you don’t mind history, why would you do a school subject in your free time?
And yet what is historical fiction really? It’s a story, like any other, just set in the past. Yes, of course there are all sorts of definitions. I’ve written essays on the subject on more than one occasion. But they aren’t really important. What’s important is getting young readers enthusiastic about reading stories of all kinds – to get them to see it as an advantage that authors have all of the past ages of the world to roam through as settings for those stories. So let’s throw away the word ‘historical’ and call them adventures, thrillers, romances, mysteries, or whatever else seems appropriate.
Romantic adventure, anyone?
Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Hurrah! My first foreign translation! No longer am I a single-language author; now Italian children too can read Jack Slater, Monster Investigator - or as they'll know it, Jack l'Acchiappamostri.
Monday, 14 July 2008
Then it happened. Exactly two weeks after I’d finished Hootcat Hill and put myself out to grass for a nice long rest (ie catching up on the very neglected housework, garden, mending and more of the massively mundane but practical things writers forget about while writing), the Next Big Idea struck, totally unexpectedly. Marvellous! I thought, a little surprised, but grateful to the Muse anyway. Scribble, scribble, tap tap etc. I even told people—family, editor, agent—that I was writing something. Oh tempting of hubris! Oh bad mistake! About 10,000 words in, second novelitis came crashing down on me.
Never before have I come to a complete full stop. I sort of know where I’m going, but not how to get there or indeed if I ever will, and it’s terrifying. Maybe it’s because I decided to be organised this time (an alien concept to me), make lists, write down research sources so I wouldn’t have to spend hours tracking down a vital piece of information like I did last time. I even went on an Arvon writer’s course to try and get going again. It worked for a bit—but I destroyed half the novel, and now have a large, scary file marked ‘Bits to be Used Later (If There Is a Later)’.
It’s not that I’m not writing other stuff. I am. But the unadorned and horrible truth is that the voices for this second novel have disappeared—for now. I hope they come back, because I miss them, need them, am less without them. But until they do, I have a secret fear that I may have joined the ranks of the dreaded ‘one novel wonders’. Perhaps I should threaten them with Charlie Butler's Naughty Drawer, that might work…I’ll keep you posted.
Does this sound at all familiar?
“I feel we may be teetering on the very edge of a mystery,” said Jack.
“Me too,” agreed Jimmy.
“About to fall in, given the merest breath of wind.”
"Exactly. That’s just how I feel about it.”
“The locked cupboard, the one-eyed Frenchman, that passage from the violin concerto, the glow-in-the-dark yo-yo – they point to only one thing."
Jimmy studied a piece of chewing gum on the ground by his foot. It was the same colour as his laces.
“What’s that, then?”
Thursday, 10 July 2008
And I would have a nice day because in this beautiful library there would be a choice of book groups running that I could dip in and out of according to the book chosen. There would be a coffee bar where I would see fellow bibliophiles and chat while eating home made cakes. Big leather sofas on which I could sit and read books. There would be visual stuff too, a theatre group performing scenes from a book; wide screen TVs where I could watch biographies of writers and films of the books; Real Writers giving readings or surgeries on writing. Illustrators giving masterclasses on their work.
The librarians would choose a WRITER OF THE DAY to promote and it could never be the same one twice in a period of five years. That writer would have his/her books laid out flat on the table and there would be pics and info about them dotted round.
There might even be a small bookshop for people to buy the books. In short it would be an Eldorado of all things bookish. Anyway, sigh, I'm off to change my library books...