Saturday, 30 August 2008

Poetry in Peril? - Lucy Coats



How many children now read printed poetry for pleasure? Did they ever? Or is it just one of those things that has to be got through at school and then forgotten forever? I don’t think so. Poetry is part of all our lives. We start off as babies being sung to—not all of us, but most. Lullabies, nursery rhymes—all poetry. All of us can remember some of those, and we probably pass them on to our own children. They are part of the fabric of our family lives. But what happens later on? Certainly there are many excellent teachers who inspire and encourage children to write poetry, and it is taught to GCSE and A level (though the curriculum collections are not terribly exciting according to my son). However, most children I talk to find conventional written poetry totally irrelevant to their daily existence, even though they’ll listen to songs (poetry and music) all day on their i-pods—and maybe even learn the lyrics. They would read a book for pleasure—but a book of poetry? Forget it! That’s, like, homework or something. As a poet myself, writing for both children and adults, I find this deeply discouraging, and yet I will not stop writing poetry because of it.

For me, writing a poem is the most sublime of literary experiences in miniature. Every word—where it goes, what it is next to—every comma and full stop and colon or the lack of them, matters to me, whether it is ‘fun’ poetry such as limericks and modern nursery rhymes, or something more serious and deep. But—and this is important—what matters to me as a poet is not necessarily what matters to my readers. When I was doing my MA at Edinburgh, we did something called ‘deconstruction’ as a form of literary criticism. This was supposed somehow to give students an insight into the mind of the poet and his or her meaning. Deconstructing John Donne ruined his poems for me for years (and I think that Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction, should be consigned to Purgatory, but that is another discussion!). In my opinion (and please feel free to disagree), the essence of a poem will be experienced differently by each and every reader. However the one thing that will be held in common if it is a good poem is that the heart or mind have been touched by some sort of recognition, some sort of ‘oh yes—I have felt/seen/done (or whatever) that’ moment. My own adult poetry writing is triggered by all sorts of things—a walk, emotions high and low, a heard word, the colour of grass, the lines on my mother’s hand to name but a few. I write it for me, because I simply have to get that particular part of me down on paper. I fiddle and wrestle and reformat and layer meanings one on the other until I feel it is perfect of its kind—whether triolet or sonnet or free form. I no longer have to make it rhyme—though I do sometimes. What matters is the baring of my soul, and very often these poems are private and never shown to anyone. They don’t necessarily need any audience except me. My children’s poetry is different. That’s what I have fun with, play with, and hopefully sell. But it’s just as important to me to get it as perfect as I can. This applies to all my writing of course—but because a poem is shorter by its nature, every word is weighed and balanced, every syllable must count or out it goes.


In my own small way I do my best to get a very ancient form of poetry over to the next generation with my bardic poetry workshops—and I am eternally delighted with the incredible creativity shown by the many children I work with in schools. I know that Michael Rosen, Benjamin Zephaniah and a myriad other poets both sung and unsung do a fantastic job on the road, and that poetry is manifested in many other ways—listen to rap lyrics for some very good modern examples of ‘non-conventional’ poetry. But I do despair that our children are not reading, discovering and enjoying some of the older stuff—or even the more modern—for themselves outside school. I don’t want to sound like a Grumpy Old Writer (though I fear I do), but I’d love it if the next book of poetry published could cause as much noise, gossip and fanfare and receive as much coverage as Byron’s ‘Don Juan’ did when it appeared in 1819. It’s ‘a thousand pities’ that it probably won’t.

Friday, 29 August 2008

On Researching Another Culture - Katherine Langrish


A couple of years ago when I was preparing to write ‘Troll Blood’, I spent months in the Bodleian Library (I live near Oxford) happily burrowing through 16th century accounts of Jesuit missionaries in early Canada, and 19th century volumes of ‘The American Anthropologist’ and ‘The Journal of American Folklore’.
For the new book I’d decided to send my two main characters, a Viking age boy and girl called Peer and Hilde, over to Vinland (North America) on a Viking ship. In the two earlier books, ‘Troll Fell’ and ‘Troll Mill’, rather than using myths and legends about Norse gods, I’d drawn on Scandinavian folklore concerning trolls and nixies and other such creatures. Peer and Hilde and the other characters are ordinary people who live in what to them is an ordinary world. It just so happens that, as well as wolves and bears and storms and other natural dangers, there are also trolls and water spirits and ghosts – all things that people of that age firmly believed to exist.
It seemed to me that it would be fascinating if, on the characters’ arrival in Vinland, they were to meet not only Native Americans – whom I based, for reasons too complicated to go into here, on the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – but also some of the creatures which we in the Old World would term supernatural, which may have been part of the belief systems of the Native Americans of that time (the early 11th century).
Note my careful language. I realised from the beginning that it might be a ticklish business to approach a culture so distinct from my own. I can claim Scandinavian roots; and in any case European legends and mythologies are so diffuse, so interpenetrative, and so widely-used already that no one of European stock need feel shy about incorporating one myth or another in a modern story. It was a different matter when I considered trespassing upon the sacred ground of Native American cultural stories, many of which have been lost, misappropriated, or misrepresented by early missionaries, amateur anthropologists and modern writers alike.
And in trying to research these stories – I use ‘story’ here in preference to ‘legend’ or ‘myth’ which are words carrying a freight of possible meanings including ‘untruth’ – I soon discovered the frustration of coming across vaguely attributed ‘Indian Legends’ without any sources or any indication of where and when – if anywhere, ever – the stories belonged.
One online site, for example, calling itself ‘Algonkian Legends’ mentioned a creature called an ‘Oonig’. It was, according to the site’s author, a water spirit: half red and half grey, with one eye. Wonderful! I could well imagine incorporating such a creature into my book. But – the site gave no reference. Could I find a source for the story? Could I hell. For all I know, the author made it up. And yet it’s sitting there online, claiming to be a part of ‘Algonkian’ folklore.
I decided from the outset that any creature I mentioned in ‘Troll Blood’; any custom, any belief I attributed to my Native American characters would have to be referenced. In the US edition – unfortunately not in the UK edition – there’s a long appendix in which anyone interested can see exactly where I got the information, and, if they wish, go and check it out for themselves. And I preferentially used 19th and early 20th century accounts of interviews with named Mi’kmaq people. In that way I could be fairly sure that the accounts were trustworthy.
Even so, there were pitfalls, some obvious, some less so. One 19th century collector of Mi’kmaq folktales used them to attempt to justify his theory that they had been influenced by Norse mythology brought over by the Vikings. In his eyes the stories were ‘superior’ to other Native American stories, and ‘therefore’ must have been affected by European influences.
But even after all efforts to sieve out the worst offenders, mistakes were easy to make, as I found out when I had the manuscript vetted by a prominent scholar in the field. I had frequently used the word ‘spirits’ in describing the Native American ‘supernatural creatures.’ She explained to me that the word was inappropriate, that the spirit/body dichotomy was not a Mi’kmaq concept, and neither was the concept of the supernatural. Instead, stones and trees, plants, animals, people and what we would think of as supernatural entities are all seen as natural. I couldn’t use the word ‘spirits’. I had to use the word ‘persons’ instead.
I was glad to comply. I found the whole experience of learning about the Mi’kmaq culture profoundly interesting. It wasn’t a matter of political correctness. It was more like taking off my shoes when entering a mosque. It wasn’t my culture: nobody asked me in: the least I could do was to try my utmost not to misrepresent it.
Did I succeed? I hope so. Should I have tried? I think so, although others will disagree. I wanted to write about the interaction of the Vikings with the Native Americans – which we know occurred – and to do so, I had to try and understand both cultures. Should I have written a historical fiction without any ‘fantasy’ elements? Again, perhaps – but ‘history’ without any suggestion of the belief systems of the protagonists is hardly history at all. Like writing a book set in the Middle Ages without any references to Catholicism, saints, elves, devils etc.
Watch this space.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Five Go To Therapy Together - by John Dougherty


The press coverage of the poll that last week named Enid Blyton as Britain’s favourite author couldn’t avoid mentioning the many criticisms of her work as “sexist, racist and simplistic”. But I’m surprised that so far no-one has (to my knowledge) seen fit to point out that the Famous Five, those four determinedly upper-middle-class kids with their equally upper-middle-class dog, are members of what is probably the most dysfunctional family in children’s literature.

‘Nonsense!’ I hear you scoff. [Oh, wasn’t it you? I’m sure somebody just scoffed ‘Nonsense!’ Well, whoever it was, let’s hear how the rest of the scoff goes:] ‘The most dysfunctional family in children’s literature surely has to be one created by, oooh, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, at a guess. Or perhaps Melvin Burgess. But surely not the Kirrin clan? Okay, George has gender-identity issues and Julian’s a bit bossy and superior, but as a family there’s nothing really wrong with them.’

I beg to differ. Take a look at the opening chapters of Five on a Treasure Island and you’ll see what I mean.

The story begins with Anne, Dick and Julian being told by their parents, ‘You’re not coming on holiday with us. We’re off to Scotland and you’re going to stay with your Uncle Quentin (Daddy’s brother) and his family.’

To me, even this seems a little strange. It’s not as if Scotland won’t let children in, after all. But it gets much weirder. You see, although the eldest of these three kids is eleven, they have never met Uncle Quentin before.

Let me just repeat that with a bit of unnecessary capitalisation: They Have Never Met Their Father’s Brother Before. Over a period of eleven years, and despite the fact that they live within driving distance of one another, these two brothers have never made the effort to get their families together. But more than that, until the holiday plans are made, the children don’t even know they’ve got a ten-year-old cousin. The family with whom the children are to spend their summer are clearly Never Spoken About.

It gets worse. A mere few days after the children are told the news that they’re being abandoned for the summer and sent to stay with people who, though blood-relatives, are complete strangers, it all happens. Off they go to Kirrin Bay, where Mummy and Daddy drop them off, scarper without so much as stopping for a cup of tea, and are Never Seen Again.

Actually, I can’t be certain that it’s absolutely never. They may, over the course of the next 21 books, pop up for half a page at some point. But effectively they are from this moment forward written out of their children’s lives. At the end of the summer Julian, Dick and Anne return to boarding school; every holiday from then on is spent either at Kirrin Cottage, or fending for themselves and dependent for survival on the kindness of rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives. They are effectively cast adrift from their nuclear family, cut off apart from the odd letter telling them they still can’t come home.

But what’s really strange is that, as a child who lapped up the Five’s adventures, I never noticed how bizarre this family set-up was. In fact, I think it was one of the things I loved about them - they got to do things without Mummy and Daddy telling them they couldn’t.

Thinking about it, much of my favourite reading as a child took place in a parent-free world. The Pevenseys disappeared off to Narnia without their Responsible Adults, for instance. James Henry Trotter lost his parents to a ravenous rhinoceros, while Mr and Mrs Bucket couldn’t take Charlie to the Chocolate Factory themselves and sent him with his Grandpa instead. And now that I’m a writer of children’s books myself, I seem to have a need to get rid of the parents as quickly as possible. In none of my own books do the parents figure hugely. Even when - as in my latest book, Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy - they are crucial to the plot, they’re offstage for most of the action.

The thing is, parents get in the way. They stop children having adventures. And what would be horribly damaging for a child in real life can be wonderfully liberating in the world of the imagination.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? - Sally N icholls


“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question writers get asked so often it’s become cliché. I’ve been asked it twice this weekend already. And it’s not clear what exactly is being asked. Where did you get that initial spark, that ‘I want to write a book about Tibet’ idea? Where did the story come from? And what about the subplots? How did you decide the butler did it?
Earlier this year, I was asked to write a 366-word story for an anthology published by Scholastic. ‘Great,’ I thought. Here was an opportunity to do something with all those idea-seeds that sit at the back of my head waiting to sprout. And as I wandered around town for the next couple of days, more ideas arrived. Perhaps I could write about the twelve dancing princesses, my favourite fairy tale. Or do something with a child playing hide and seek, counting to twenty. Or ...
The problem, as I discovered when I came to write the story, is that an idea-seed needs roots. What exactly were the dancing princesses going to do? What was so interesting about a child counting? By the end of the day, I had four boring files of half-stories, none of which were going anywhere.
To get inspiration, I did what I always advise children who ask me this question to do, and went back to the books I love. Two of my favourite authors are Anne Fine and Hilary McKay - both of whom write stories about a whole class of children. My story, therefore, would be about a class with some problem (not too hard) which they could solve by the end of 366-words. Not something their teacher could solve. Something that came from them. A child with a problem?
Other bloggers here have already mentioned CS Lewis, who said the idea for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came from pictures in his head: a witch on a sleigh, a faun with an umbrella, a lamppost in a forest. The picture in my head was a girl with long dark hair - Asian perhaps - perhaps English isn’t her first language - perhaps she’s very quiet and shy, so the class look after her. Perhaps she has a problem they need to solve.
So, what problem? The idea that arrived now comes from real life - a friend of my mother’s who took her mouse to school in a pencil-case. This girl - call her Narinder - takes her mouse to school. There’s a problem with the mouse!
The next idea comes from an adult novel: Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, which features a little girl with a mouse and an angry and aggressive older brother. Perhaps Narinder has a brother who’s threatening her mouse? The class find a new home for the mouse (could it become a class pet?) and the problem is solved.
Except ... this problem’s too easy. There are no twists, no excitement in a problem so easily solved. And what happens to the brother? Does he get his comeuppance, or is he still threatening Narinder? We need a twist. Perhaps Narinder isn’t as mouse-like as she appears. Perhaps her problem isn’t what we think it is. Perhaps ... ahhh.
And there’s the story. If you want to know what happens, you’ll have to buy the book. There are lots of great stories in there, and all profits go to ChildLine. And if you do read it, you might notice that my idea-seed - the class solving a problem - has disappeared. When I wrote the story, I discovered I didn’t need a whole class, so I took them out. It’s no big deal. They can stay in the back of my head and inspire the next story.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Convex and Concave Books - Charlie Butler


As all maths geeks know, the world is divided into 10 kinds of people... those who understand binary code, and those who don’t. As a matter of fact, human beings love dividing things into groups. We’re a classifying species: homo taxonomicus – all librarians at heart. When it comes to books, there are of course many ways to divvy them up beyond the Dewey Decimal System, and sometimes it’s fun to see where one’s own preferences lie. Happy endings versus sad? Realism versus fantasy? Contemporary versus historical? Long versus short? First versus third person narration?
Now, what about convex versus concave books? Not come across that distinction? That’s because I just made it up - but I'd love to know what you think. The way I see it, a concave book is one that reflects light onto itself. It’s a book that takes a particular setting, containing a limited number of people, and explores them thoroughly. It may choose to disrupt this group, perhaps by the device of a Stranger Coming to Town, but the book is all about looking deeper, finding out more, seeing how surface appearances may be deceptive. Concave books thrive in almost all genres. Emma is a concave book. So are Shane, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, The Midwich Cuckoos and Murder on the Orient Express. Villages, islands, ships, and other isolated locales are the classic concave settings, and once the plot arrives there it tends not to leave. Concave plots also lend themselves to metaphorical or even allegorical meanings (as with Golding and Orwell). The village is the world writ small.
Convex books, by contrast, reach beyond themselves, reflecting light outwards. Books involving journeys, quests, world-shaking historical events, books conveying a sense of the bustling, multi-faceted nature of life, books that scintillate off to the horizon, are convex books. Great Expectations; War and Peace; The Odyssey; Bonfire of the Vanities; Tom Jones all qualify. They imply the world metonymically (if you like figures of speech).
Some of my favourite books appear in both lists. Thinking it over, however, I realise that all my own books have been concave, to a greater or lesser degree. Perhaps that’s just the way my mind works – although I’d love to think I could write a good convex book too, if I really tried. Can I train myself to do it? I’ve had a book in my head and in notebooks for years now – a convex book, too – which just hasn’t managed to get written, and I’m worried it's because of my ingrained concavity. As to where that comes from, my partner has suggested that a writer’s own life experience may be a factor. If you grow up in a city, you catch glimpses of a hundred new faces every time you walk down the street, and (if you’re that kind of writer) you may wonder about all the stories those faces suggest, stories that weave in and out of each other and off to the edge of the page. If, like me, you grow up in a small town, you see the same faces over and over again – and you wonder what’s going on behind the apparent sameness. The city impresses with its razzle and dazzle; but for us concavers inspiration is more likely to come from a twitching curtain suddenly let fall.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Beanz Meanz Heinz Anne Cassidy

I was listening to Kate Atkinson talking on Woman's Hour a few days ago about her new book 'When Will There Be Good News'. She said that she often gets her titles first and can't start until she's got a title. With a writer of Atkinson's standing the title isn't important. I buy her books because of who she is. With less well known writers the the title might be everything, might make or break the book. A great example is the Ukranian Tractors book which seemed like the dullest title in the world but caught the attention of the book world and turned out to be a bitter sweet book and a good read.
I write for teenagers and even though I'm reasonably well known in the trade I can't assume that teenagers (or those who buy books for teenagers) will know who I am and associate my name with gritty crime fiction.
Writing for teenagers means that your target audience moves on every couple of years and you have to win over a whole new wave as they come into secondary school.
So although my book LOOKING FOR JJ was read widely in the last couple of years it doesn't mean that the new wave of teens will automatically know about me or my work.
Every book I write has to have an eye catching title. I've realised this in the last couple of years and even though I have working titles I think very hard about what goes on my front cover. Essentially I want the title to say something of what the book is about.
This year I've written a book about jealousy. It's a kind of modern Othello(!!!). A love triangle in which jealousy causes a tragic act. When I was writing it I called it INVISIBLE ME. Then I started thinking about a teen picking up this book with this enigmatic title. The meaning of the title would certainly be clear once the reader had read the book but I had to get them to BUY the book first. So the title had to be more eye catching and say what the book was essentially about. It had to be like a tin of beans. I came up with JEALOUS and my editor suggested JUST JEALOUS which I think is spot on.
Will it work when it's in the shops? I'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Visible Writer by Penny Dolan

The imminent Bank Holiday is usually followed by requests for various school and library visits. I really enjoy going out and about, but there’s a big difference between (ta-daaa!) the public face of The Writer and (grumble-mumble!) the Person who Does The Writing. By that I don’t mean someone ghost writing a sleb’s move into "Children’s Author", but the ordinary, everyday double life. Moving from invisible to visible can be a jolt.

For me – and don’t back away here! - the writer is quite introverted, mumbling, hesitant, unaware of people or things around them when they are busy at the page. Sometimes noisy, sometimes quiet, not bothered too much by eating as long as it can be eaten quickly, happy to sit in ancient clothes because it’s the story that matters, forgetting the time, forgetting the . . what? I’ve forgotten . . . and anyway, I’m almost invisible, aren’t I? . . . If you’re not my cat, and aren’t bringing me a cup of tea, or chocolate, just go away! This total absorption is why I didn’t start writing till my dear children could look after themselves.

However, the Writer who does the public gigs is another being altogether. As I put on my metaphorical “Writer Coat”, the adrenaline starts to rise. I work my way through the certain rituals. I ease volume into my voice in the shower. I prod the face into something recognisable, and choose my clothes with care. I pack and re-pack my “talk-bags”, mark up the trusty A-Z with post-it notes, write down precise times and schedules, and pretend to have a slightly thicker skin. In my head rings the double-edged phrase from Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz, delivered with an enormous smile: “It’s showtime!”

School visits mean alarms at six, then driving off muttering Uncle Big Bad’s important injunction from Little Wolf’s Book of Badness: “Do Charming!” And through the day, I Do Charming, at least as much as I can. I really want the children to enjoy themselves, to have fun, to think there’s something good about this writing lark. I want the teachers to be happy for a while, to remember that writing isn’t punctuation, but a kind of making, an art form.

Is this Visible Writer a deception? Not really. The bright, energetic visitor is the twin of the invisible writer. You see, when - after a long dull trudge – when an idea sparks, or a story does start making one’s words move into place, it is that bright and wonderful feeling. “Showtime!” indeed.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Planning by Clockwork - N M Browne


How do you picture a year? A week? I’m very conventional in my imaging I think a week goes up hill, the hardest part being the steep scarp slope of Sunday night when homework has to be done and clothes prepared for the week ahead. Monday morning is pretty steep and then from midday Wednesday it is downhill all the way to the lush valley of the weekend which is delightfully flat. OK. Maybe I am barking, but I have always visualised time as terrain which I suppose makes it natural enough to visualise the terrain of a story as time or more particularly as a clock face.

A story is a circle where the end answers the questions asked by the beginning. Picture an old fashioned school clock – the kind that marks the minutes of exams and that interminable last period on a Friday afternoon. Divide the clock into quarters and you have the outline of a novel. First quarter is set up. The second quarter is the further development of key plot points with the half hour as the mid-point, the moment of deepest crisis, when all hope is lost. By the third quarter you may have begun attempts at resolution, usually foiled, which give rise to further problems but, however bad it is, by quarter to the hour (or soon after) you have to begin to move towards the resolution which occurs at the o’clock, the top of the hour, home.

This way of looking at a book is deeply ingrained in my head, even when I don’t actually plan a novel this pulse is ticking away at the back of my mind - time to complicate, time to simplify and finally time to take the story home. Barking. But I find it helps.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Never say DIY – Nick Green


I love DIY. Well, actually, I hate DIY with a passion, and cannot paint a simple kitchen without mixing matt and gloss paint. But the piece of DIY that I’m currently about, I rather like.
I had a spot of bovva with my debut novel The Cat Kin, in that I wanted to bring out a sequel and Faber, my beloved publishers, didn’t. Looking at my last royalty statement I can sort of see their point – 4000 copies sold won’t buy many publishing lunches – but thankfully I’m not alone in believing this attitude a bit short-sighted. Encouraged by a variety of lovely people, I’m taking steps to ensure that the sequel Cat’s Paw is finally published independently, so my readers, few as they may be, can at least share some of the fun I had writing it.
Technically, this will not be the first appearance of Cat’s Paw. It was briefly available through the print-on-demand service Lulu, but after various recommendations from other authors I am issuing the final (promise!) published edition through Back To Front, an imprint which specialises in out-of-print children’s books. Cat’s Paw doesn’t quite fit this description, but happily they’re taking it anyway.
And I must say I’m rather enjoying the process. I’ve been able to commission the cover art myself and have been involved at every stage, from typesetting to pricing. I’ve never objected to editorial input to my writing – in fact I’ve rather missed it this time around – but I do have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that it’s all my own work.
It’s still a little frustrating that my book was the victim of a common sense failure. Many publishers now pursue a strategy of series books, since standalone novels are said not to make enough return. This is clearly what has happened with The Cat Kin, yet the sequel was turned down – in defiance of this very logic. Still, the best way to cope with a setback is with positive action, and it feels very good to know that my sequel will finally reach a few readers who would have been denied it. I wrote that cats ‘heed no words nor walls’, and I think that’s good advice right now.
Anyway, The Cat Kin: Cat’s Paw should be up and running, with luck, in the next few weeks. I don’t expect to make a noticeable income from publishing this way, nor do I expect many actual bookshops to stock it (though Amazon will) – but at least I will be laying to rest a mortal fear: that I was to remain a one-book author. Now I must get back to laying to rest my new mortal fear: being a two-book author.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors - Katherine Langrish




I shouldn’t be writing this.
I’m about four chapters (I think – I hope) from the end of a book that I actually began writing nearly two years ago. For various family reasons it then got put on hold for at least ten months – and I have nearly 26 different versions of the first four pages: I know, because I labelled them by the letters of the alphabet.
This is a long gestation, even for me. I’m not a writer who plans the book chapter by chapter, then does a first draft of the whole thing. I’m a writer who proceeds by a sort of instinctive groping, like someone following a path through thick mist. There’ll be landmarks on the way – things I come to with relief, because I’ve known from the beginning that they’ll be there. But how to get from one landmark to another – that’s a journey of discovery done step by step.
In my last book, ‘Troll Blood’, for example, I saw from the beginning that at some point the hero, Peer Ulfsson, would find a broken dragonhead from a wrecked longship, lying half submerged in a tide-pool. (This is a good example of a faun-with-an-umbrella: see my last posting!) But it wasn’t for months, when I finally came to write the scene, that I realised the dragonhead symbolised his dead father, and the dragonhead itself took on a spooky, malevolent life I’d never expected. These are things you find upon the way.
And the reason it took months to reach that point is that I write and rewrite every page over and over as I go. Till they feel perfect. This is frustrating for my editor, who has to take the book on trust – there’s never a point where she can ask to see an early draft – because there isn’t one. When I come to the last full stop on the final page, that’s when book is done, finished, complete at last. It’s an emotional moment, like when they finally hand you the baby you’ve been struggling to birth. I sometimes cry.
Fairy tales and folktales are full of stock phrases, repeated over and over with incantatory effect, not just, I think, to aid re-telling and memory but because like snatches of poetry they send a shiver down the spine and are recognised as emotional truth. Here’s one that’s works for me just now: in a Scottish folktale the hero has to travel ‘over seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors’ to accomplish his task. Here I am, several mountain moors still to go, but the seven bens and the seven glens are certainly behind me, and it no longer seems totally impossible that I shall, eventually, finish this book!

Saturday, 16 August 2008

My Secret Life - Lynn Huggins - Cooper


I have a secret life. There – it’s out. Now, I don’t mean I am actually a man (although if you have ever arm wrestled with me you may question that); I don’t mean that I am a closet libertine or a have a covert taste for leather and chains. But I do have another life, outside my usual description as ‘prolific writer of books for children’ (I think they mean ‘Her again? Ho hum...’): I write books for adults.
I have had several non-fiction ‘self-help’ books published including subjects as diverse as self-sufficiency and organic living, pregnancy and parenting teenagers. I enjoyed writing them; they were quite lucrative. The weird thing is, many people seem to think these books are somehow worthier or more valid than my writing for children. Mind you, these people are the type who sidle up to you at drinks parties and say either a. (in jokey voice) ‘Are you that JK Rowling, then?’ Or b. ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book...’ Personally, I get the urge to stab them with a cocktail stick at that point.
Guess what? It’s much easier to write for adults. You don’t have to worry about word levels, or references to rude things, and it’s a good job – my new organics book includes a section on phthalate-free erotic toys. That was great fun to research! I love writing for adults; I am currently writing (slowly) an adult horror story. But I love writing for kids more. I think writing for children is more challenging than any other writing I have done, including my forays into journalism. I suppose the reason for that can be found in my farts, bogies and poo blog earlier – my inner child has a very big gob and shouts incessantly about the stories I should write. I’d better go - think I hear her calling...and she’s a bad tempered beast if I don’t just give in and write.

Friday, 15 August 2008

How To Commit Murder And Get Away With It - Lucy Coats

Today I have been sitting on a fast boat in the middle of Falmouth Bay in deepest Cornwall, terrified out of my wits by huge waves, moaning with fear, and wishing very much that I could murder the person who got me into this sea-nightmare of speed and spray and sheer gut-churning panic . I’d never do it for real, of course—I’m far too much of a law-abiding citizen, but it got me musing on my very first paper murder. Back I go in time, to another sea, another bay, in Donegal on a dark and stormy January morning…. (At least it wasn’t night, or I’d have to commit self-murder for using dreadful clichés.)

What do I do to prepare for this premeditated crime? First I put on my writer’s hat. Very important, that hat. It’s protection, get-out clause and freedom-from-prison all in one invisible piece of headwear. I sit down. Flex fingers. Close eyes. Engage brain. This is the fatal weapon. But it’s the first time I’ve done this violence thing. I’m nervous. Will I have the courage? She’s such a nice girl, Magret from Hootcat Hill. She’s had a horrid life—cruel father, family all dead apart from the boring old cousins. And now I have to kill her just when it’s all looking rosier. Is that fair? Is it honourable? I pause on the keyboard…. But then my tapping fingers are taken over by the film scene unfolding frame by frame in my head. The dragon rises inexorably behind the innocent girl in the moonlight, talons stretching to spear her through the torso. My heart is beating overtime, and my fingers are flying, creating the pitter-patter of the red blood drops on the still black water. She’s dead. I’ve killed her, and it feels horribly satisfying.

Oh dear. I’ve committed my first deliberate murder with violence, and I’m going to get away with it.

Magret wasn’t meant to die in the first draft. It was all a bit unexpected, really. But then she got into my head, talking to me, and I saw that her death was inevitable if the plot was going to move forward. I’d already killed her brother, right at the beginning. Somehow, that didn’t seem so bad, he brought it on himself really, by meddling with forces best left unmeddled with. I suppose I killed the rest of her family too, in a few brief written asides. But Magret Bickerspike was different. I knew her, heard her voice, felt sorry for her, liked her.

And now she’s dead.

I’ll kill more people in other books and get away with it. But she’s my first true premeditated paper murder—the one I’ll always remember. Sorry, Magret. R.I.P.

PS: For those who are interested, I currently intend my next paper murder to be a gruesome and horrific drowning. I’m plotting it in my head already. I think it will involve unleashing death by ancient marine monster on any person who makes me go out to sea on a rough day again. Satisfying, but legal. Ahh! The power of the pen!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

We could have told them that! - by Linda Strachan


My favourite place to be in August is Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. For just over two weeks it is the home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a gathering of authors of all kinds speaking on just about every subject you could imagine.

One particular delight is going along to events that make me look at the bigger picture and this morning I had the chance to listen to an astronomer talking about astrophysics - dark matter and the Big Bang, among other things. At times the ideas and wonderful pictures presented on slides made me feel like my head was having to expand to take in some awesome ideas and concepts.
The presentation was fascinating and very accessible but one particular comment made me smile. He talked about how he had come to realise that he wanted to present his subject without seeming to be trying to educate. That way he wouldn't switch people off and they could still learn along the way.

Later today a rather famous writer of adult books explained how he had written a book for people who were reluctant readers (adults I assume) and how he'd had to write a story in a short number of words and still tell the whole story, also writing in simpler language.

It occurred to me that these are the things that most children's writers do all the time; presenting facts and a view of life to children in a way that will not suggest that we are trying to educate them, just telling them a story and letting them take from it what they will and writing to a short word count with appropriate language.

I was amused to hear both these adult writers sounding so delighted with themselves for having discovered how to do these things all by themselves. If they had just asked any children's writer.....

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Creative Writing Courses – what can they teach you? By Marie-Louise Jensen


Without doubt, there are things writers can learn on a course and things they can’t. The main thing you can’t learn is how to write. That is not to say that you can’t hone your writing skills. Certainly a course which encourages workshopping and critical feedback can lift the standard of your writing. This works mainly by picking up on the things you do well and encouraging them, and also picking up on the things you do less well, so that you can improve or avoid them in future. It’s a harsh process to undergo, but for many students, very beneficial.
Writing for young people is a very particular field and there are things a course can teach you about the marketplace you want to enter. Age targeting, for example, and about how the agent and publisher process works. Students are encouraged to read contemporary fiction, to get a feeling for what’s around. Which leads to obvious conclusions such as don’t have your characters fall down a hole/walk through a wardrobe into another world, because, um, hello, that’s been done to death.
This all sounds terribly simple, but when you look at submissions to agents and publishers, it becomes clear that most aspiring writers know little or nothing about these things. And how many people are aware that approximately 80% of such submissions are fantasy?
If you are serious about writing a book, and think you have the grit to see a manuscript through to completion, my advice would certainly be to get yourself on a course. If nothing else, you are likely to have lots of fun.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Shed in my Head - John Dougherty

Reading Damian's entry from earlier today, I felt a familiar twinge. For several months now, you see, I have been suffering from Shed Envy: a pernicious condition which afflicts many writers and whose sole benefit is the opportunity it provides to use internal rhymes like 'pernicious condition'.

It started when I realised that even when I'm alone in the house, I'm the unhappy victim of all manner of interruptions.

Firstly, there are the phone calls. I can guarantee that these won't come as I settle down to work; no, the first incoming call of the morning will coincide exactly with the moment when I've finally managed to set aside all distractions, re-read the chapter that I wrote the day before, and arrive in the Zone, all creative juices flowing to order.

What can I do? If I leave the phone to ring, I'll spend the next hour or so wondering if it was an important call. Maybe it was the Readers' Digest phoning to tell me I've finally won that huge amount of money they've been writing to me about for years; perhaps even now they're crossing me off the list and moving on to the next name. Or could it be the hospital? Have I just, by callously and unfeelingly failing to answer the phone, left one of my loved ones to perish in the arms of strangers?

So I answer the phone, and of course the more I need to write the more trivial the call will be - and the harder it will be to get the caller off the phone and me back into the Zone.

And just as I get back there, the postman will knock on the door with something that could easily have fitted through the letterbox if he'd only thought to chop it up into little bits. Or perhaps it'll be the cleaner who my wife took on to save me from fretting about the housework I wasn't getting done because I was writing (only I kept getting distracted by the fact that no-one had done the housework). So the cleaner comes once a week to do housework so I can get on with writing, only while she's here I keep getting distracted by her arriving, and then by her wanting to clean the room I'm working in, and then just by the general noises of cleaning...

So I'm frightfully envious and jealous of all those writers who have got a shed; and, like Damian, I shall be getting one of my own. Eventually. But the strange thing is that while all these things distract me when I'm supposed to be writing, very often when I'm supposed to be concentrating on the Bits Of My Life That Are Not Writing it's quite easy for me to escape into the Shed in my Head.

This is the place where my imagination goes when it's working on something, and it's not at all unusual for me to drift off down to the bottom of my mental garden and shut myself in it when I should be doing other things. My wife is by now used to having conversations with me during which I give apparently sensible answers but about which I can remember nothing five minutes later. My long-suffering children, likewise, are used to my simply not hearing them, or grunting vaguely when I should in fact be saying, "Really? That's great/terrible/interesting/strange/not yours [delete as appropriate]." I'm terrified that any moment now they're going to learn to use this to their advantage and I'll suddenly discover I've granted them permission to do all kinds of dangerous and unsuitable things while the major part of my consciousness has been otherwise preoccupied.

Perhaps when I get a real shed I won't need the one in my head any more, and then perhaps I can be a Normal Person. Perhaps I'll be able to leave the Writing Me in the shed as I lock it up at the end of the working day, and not be bothered by him till the next day. Perhaps my family will get my full attention when they deserve it.

And perhaps pigs with typewriters will win the Booker.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Landscaping the Infodump - Charlie Butler


When a landfill site comes to the end of its life, the developers are normally obliged to top it off as best they can with grass, trees, and flowers, turning it from ugly blot to beauty spot. Within a few years, dog-walker and picnicker alike are able to enjoy themselves there, oblivious of the fact that they are sitting on a small mountain of dirty nappies, VCRs and pulped copies of Calypso Dreaming.
What has that to do with writing? The sharp-eared amongst you will already have heard the deep rumble of an Analogy being trundled into place. For, yes, it seems to me that this landscaping is something we also do as writers .
Let me explain. It’s a truism that a book needs to grab its reader from the first page, and that one of the easiest ways to do this is with some kind of in-media-res action. This approach gives your story quite a bit of momentum, but there comes a point (usually around Chapter 4) when the reader may become tired of attempting to piece together what’s going on by way of fragmented observation and oblique allusions alone. Especially (but not only) if the story is set in a secondary world, readers may require a more connected explanation. Who are the Magmaloids? Why is it so important for our heroes to reach the Folic City before the Festival of Pyridoxine? How did Riboflavin the Usurper come to usurp in the first place? Why are so many people around here named after vitamins?
When the number of unanswered questions reaches a critical point – or indeed if there are any other odd facts that the author needs the reader to know but lacks any alternative way of shoehorning into the narrative - the likely result is an Infodump.
The simplest form of Infodump is delivered directly by the narrator. This can work quite well if done in a storytelling voice: “Now, the reason the ogre had appeared in the fashion boutique – although of course the children didn’t know this yet – was that, three months before, he had won first prize in a design competition. The way it came about was this...
Most writers, however, try to find ways to landscape their Infodump. They try to disguise it, in other words, so that the reader hardly recognizes it as an Infodump at all. Sometimes this attempt is rather perfunctory. It may involve simply getting a character to take the author’s place in explaining what has been happening. Wizards, curators, librarians, teachers, camp-fire companions and elderly family members can all be very obliging in such matters. In default of a human being, the protagonists may make a trip to the library, or (these days) Google, for a useful titbit of information. Trying to decipher the cryptic words of a prophecy can also occasion much profitable filling-in of history along the way, as can “happening upon” a sheaf of letters, an old diary, or a map.
The ways of the Infodump are many. But I suspect that most writers feel a little ashamed at having to use Infodumps at all. It suggests a failure of planning or design. It makes the mechanics of the story protrude too far. It all feels rather obviously like a device. It doesn’t seem very ecological either. (On the other hand, most writers are very good at recycling.)
As for landscaping – well, it’s a matter of taste, perhaps. If there must be an Infodump at all, I think I prefer an honest one, that doesn’t go out of its way to pretend to be something it’s not. But then, I enjoyed the Council of Elrond.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Susan Price: A Boy's Adventure Story...

I'm away with the Vikings again...

My recent book, 'Feasting The Wolf' was set against the background of the Great Danish Army's invasion of England in the 9th Century. I'd hardly finished it before a publisher who shall be nameless (until the contract's signed) asked if I'd write for them 'a book for boys, set in the Dark Ages, full of adventure and violence.'

I need the money, so at once set about constructing a book. Colleagues have blogged recently about the joys of beginning a new book. By contrast, this is about the graft of working up a commissioned book to a brief.

'The Dark Ages' could mean anything from the 6th Century and King Arthur to the 8th and the Vikings, but it was always going to be Vikings, because I already know a lot about them.

I needed an idea, so I dredged up the plot of a book I'd written years ago and which had never been published. And I used my partner as a sounding board because he was once a boy, and so might have a better idea than me about what boys enjoy. How about, I suggested, a Viking trying to win enough gold to persuade the father of his sweetheart to let him marry her?

Yuck! Anything to do with weddings or kissing or girls was not on!

Okay, so how about our hero sees a beautiful sword for sale, but the swordsmith won't sell it, so he steals it, and -

"That makes him a thief!" said my partner, shocked.

Yes, and? Vikings were known, occasionally, to take without permission.

But no, no, no, I didn't understand. Heroes of boys' adventures cannot be thieves. They must be honourable and clean-living and right-thinking. This hero sounded less like a Viking every second. I wasn't getting anywhere.

In the end it was my brother (also once a boy) who said during one of our pub conversations, "Base it around the Battle of Stamford Bridge."

Well, that battle was right at the end of the Viking Age - literally, as the Viking Age can be defined as 'from early 8th Century to 1066'. Also, I usually avoid pinning any of my historicals to a definite date as arguing with historians can be so tiresome, I find. And Stamford Bridge, like the Battle of Hastings, has 'the one memorable date in English history'.

Still, I thought it was worth looking into, and started researching the battle. Before long I was fascinated and committed. Stamford Bridge it was going to be.

It was the battle fought in Yorkshire about twenty days before the Battle of Hastings, and for a story-teller, it has lots to offer. An invading Viking army numbering thousands. Impossible, heroic forced marches. Five thousand Vikings fighting to the death under the hot Yorkshire sun (really) without armour. Hardship, courage, heartache. Thank you, bro.

I invented and named my heroes, sketched out the story, and e-mailed it to my agent, so she could flog it. Instead, she flung it back. Too much history, she said, and not enough story. And expunge all mention of the Saxon hero wanting to be a monk! Christianity was the biggest turn-off! And there was I, thinking I was reflecting the way of that age, when Christianity was still fresh and vital.

But the main thing, with a commissioned book, is to sell it - so back to the laptop. History and Christianity out, story in. And my agent was, as usual, right. The story is coming to life as I get closer to the characters and ruthlessly cut the history. Can't wait to get to those five thousand hot, sweaty, doomed Vikings...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Hurrah for Typesetters - Sally Nicholls


Hurrah for typesetters! Or, more specifically, hurrah for my boyfriend Tom, who has just finished typesetting my latest submission - a twenty-page sample of what I hope will be Book Three. I suspect the actual difference typography makes to a manuscript is small, but I can’t help the feeling that no editor could possibly reject anything that looks as beautiful as my books do when Tom has finished with them.
What exactly is typography? Traditionally it meant laying out – and sometimes designing – the blocks of type which go towards making a book or other printed work. In my case, it means choosing a font for the manuscript, setting the margins, designing chapter headings and page numbers and dealing with things like em-dashes (a dash the length of an m and a useful Scrabble word) and manuscript headers.
My novels are also complicated by things like lists, extracts, one-line-long chapters and, in this particular case, quotes from all my friends on Facebook. (Quick plug: if you would like to feature in the next book, the Facebook group Help Sally With Book Three is looking for new members. Preferably unshockable ones.)
The typesetter Eric Gill, of Gill Sans Serif fame, and also responsible for war memorials up and down the country, said that as long as a type was good, you could set any book in it. This was fine for Gill, who had one printing press and limited type, but my fella has a whole CD of fonts and very little opportunity to use them. After much deliberation, we’ve gone with something called Straight, which apparently makes the submission look clean, youthful and modern. Sounds good to me.
Is typesetting something you should try at home? Probably not. A poorly typeset manuscript is worse than a merely ordinary one – Tom tends to go purple and start muttering when encountering anything set in Comic Sans Serif, for example. If you’re really interested, try The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurt. If you’d rather not plough through its beautifully set three hundred and fifty pages, however, I’d recommend simply widening your page’s margins and buying some good paper. It’s tax deductable, and it makes your manuscript feel – and smell – that little bit more book-like already.
Now I just have to hope that my publishers like the sample enough to pay me to write the whole thing ...

The Beginning of a Love Affair Anne Cassidy

The easiest part of writing a book is starting it. It's like the beginning of a new relationship. I get an idea and for weeks I play around with it in my head, imagining all the possibilities, the various directions it could go in. I make a few brief notes. I invent characters. I give them names. I decide on a starting place. I place my main character in a room, a street, a car. I give them thoughts and opinions and memories with which I start to build up the beginning of a story which I intend to slowly unwind.
Then I start. The first few pages are delicious. I can hint at any future plot, I can excite, I can promise the earth.
The next chapters are enjoyable. I'm building things slowly, getting to know my story, filling in bits of background, finding out stuff about my characters that I didn't know. It's good, it's fulfilling.
Then the low period starts. I know these characters and I know their story and I'm growing a bit bored with the whole situation. The passion is waning and I'm on the brink of arguing with every twist and turn. At one point, about two thirds of the way through the book I want out. I want a separation, maybe even a divorce. It's too complicated, it's unconvincing, it's dreary.
New ideas for other books tempt me. They call me away from this tome. Start something else they say but I stick with it for better or for worse.
Then it's finished and I have this sadness. But hey! There's another new book round the corner. The thrill of the chase, the delight at the commission, the beginning of another love affair.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Following The Rainbow - Linda Strachan

‘Where do you get your ideas?’

It is probably the one question most people ask when you say you are a writer. There are times when I have to resist the temptation to reply with that old quip… ‘There is a little shop, just down the road, called IDEAS R US….’

But in reality I truly believe that it is not the right question. Perhaps we are writers because we have ideas that make us want to write? But I am not sure writing has as much to do with the ideas themselves as what you do with them. I personally have no problem with ideas except that I sometimes think I have too many chasing about in my head.

I see ideas for stories in everything around me. It could be something someone says, or the way they say it - possibilities in the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘whys’ of things that happen everyday.

Sometimes the ideas are just crazy flights of fantasy; ideas that take wings, or sometimes fangs and scary warts; little scraps of delight that could grow into a tale with only a little encouragement. What I find the most troublesome is deciding which idea is the rainbow I should be following – not necessarily because I am expecting it to lead to a pot of gold (although it would be good if it did) - but which idea is going to be the one that I should spend time developing into a story?

Another problem is deciding what kind of a story any particular idea might belong to. I think it is akin to a sculptor who says that they are just freeing the shape that is lurking in a piece of wood or stone. The idea is the seed the story will grow from, but is it a picture book, a novel or perhaps a poem.

Someone once told me they jot down any stray ideas on a note of paper and keep them in a shoebox, so that when they needed to write something new they could rummage about in the box which was a treasure trove of ideas. I think it is an excellent idea - with only one proviso. Make sure the idea you note down makes sense!

I have recently discovered an odd sentence scribbled in a notebook because I thought it was the germ of an exciting idea which I didn’t have time to consider properly at the time. Re reading this gem, this unpolished sparkling star that was so enticing that I felt the need to record it for later consideration, I discover that the sentence means absolutely nothing to me now. Far from causing the frisson of excitement that the original thought obviously provoked, it sits there mundane, boring and ultimately perplexing.

But it is probably just as well because even writing this I am beginning to think of an idea for a story about a stray sentence in a notebook……

Monday, 4 August 2008

Sad Books Should Make You Laugh - Sally Nicholls


I’m wary of promoting creative writing ‘rules’. I’m wary of telling you how to write your book (if you’re writing one). I’m sure there are many wonderful sad books out there which aren’t funny. But if you are writing a sad book for children, please at least think about what I’m about to say.
Sad books should make you laugh.
Sad books should make you laugh. Macbeth and Hamlet have comedy scenes. Lolita is heartbreakingly bleak and incredibly funny. Even Michael Rosen’s Sad Book has jokes about his cat. Real life is generally hilarious. Why should fiction – realistic fiction – be any different?
People in bad fiction respond to tragedy by wailing and crying. People in real life respond by laughing at it. You have to. You’d go mad otherwise. Laughing at something reduces the terrifying into something containable. It says to fear and death, ‘You aren’t so hard. I can beat you.’
Reading Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis with a book group, we all agreed that the humour made the book – if anything – more moving. We felt as though we were reading about real people, living in a real world. People like our parents and grandparents, who were just trying to live an ordinary life in the middle of unimaginable suffering. We cared for these sparky, quirky people in a way that it’s hard to do for someone with a VICTIM sign pinned to their head. And when sad things happened to them, we minded.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

To Write or Not to Write by Penny Dolan

When is it right to write? When’s it right not to? I’ve just spent a few days on a writing retreat.

It was in a fine setting: an old stone house with gardens worthy of the National Trust and meals plentiful and delicious. I’ve just completed a batch of smaller work projects, and was looking forward to sharing this sweetly familiar place with writing friends, and Being Busy with Writing.

However - unlike some of truly busy people there - my hours didn’t burst with real writing on the page. Why? Because it’s too soon! I’m starting to dream up a new story, and am at that magical stage where you can almost glimpse the plot and characters, but they are still revealing themselves. It’s a time to be open to ideas and possibilities, and this week felt way too soon to be nailing several scenes down with a mass of chosen words.

But I did find a "firm foothold" - an imagined sighting of a dropped object, a sense of a person left behind. Maybe the moment I need to grow my plot around, like the thread in the crystal and jam-jar experiment. I came away with just over 400 imperfect words, but they feel like the first baby steps forward.

I’ve also come away carrying a “precious”, a wonderful idea from a friend that feels powerful enough to link a couple of my own ideas and move the story into another dimension. If I’d spent the day writing loads of words instead of lsitening, maybe my plot would already be too hardened to welcome this new idea? This waiting stage is just so exciting!

Also exciting, in a writing process way, was the walk along the Ridgeway, towards the ancient earthwork of Wayland Smithy. This time it was under bright blue skies. A few years earlier, the walk had brought us to the same site in a torrent of rain. We stood there with the wind lashing the circle of trees, and the sky cracking with thunder and lightning. Standing there this week, I suddenly saw a subconscious link between that stormy trudge and a scene I’d put into in my current “tome-with-the-publishers.” The memory of that real-life storm had waited inside my head until it was needed, until it was tome for it to be written down.

On the other hand, too much idle waiting can be just that. The trick is to know when to write & when to let the ideas and words brew.

Friday, 1 August 2008

World building for beginners - N M Browne

In the beginning there was Tolkein and he really did world building: language, geography, history, the lot. I think he is probably the model for the kind of writer who devises a complete world before putting pen to paper, the kind of writer who has notebooks full of background material. I get the impression that JK Rowling did much the same thing with her class lists and drawings. I know many people for whom the pleasure of building a world certainly equals that of writing the story.
Well, I can’t do it. I just can’t. I open a notebook and the most I can come up with is a bad drawing/doodle and a shopping list. Even if my brain would let me, I suspect that trying to build a world from scratch would set off my (long dormant) perfectionist streak and I would be immobilised by ignorance. What happens to tides if you have two moons? How would plants photosynthesise when the sun grew dim?
There is another way. It isn’t a better way, but it is an alternate way. It is called making it up as you go along.
I don’t know much about how this word works but I know what it feels like to be here, so in writing about other worlds I focus on what it feels like to be there. Then I work out why things are as they are. In my mind’s eye I see a woman in a painted wooden mask by a dung fire, a glowing silver boy in a ditch watching a baby-faced bird, a soaring golden dragon in a blue sky. Why? What? How? I write the story to find out.
Everything should connect: everything has to have a credible explanation. If someone wears silk in a climate that wouldn’t support silk worms they have to belong to some kind of trading culture. If a woman burns dung on her fire and lives by a forest there has to be a reason why she doesn’t burn the trees. Each new world building detail sets into motion a domino effect; repercussions crash through the fabric of the story. It is quite fun.
I still get immobilised by ignorance, but at least I don’t have to know everything up front, only those things that affect my story directly.
World building in this ad hoc way is a bit like a developing a picture. Everything in the foreground has to be in sharp focus; the further away it is the less well defined it appears. My characters leaving the city of Lunnzia, the known world of my imagining, walk into a landscape that does not yet have form. I don’t know what lies beyond the borders of the Island of the Gifted and unless my characters escape them I’ll never find out.
Like I said, this isn’t the only way of world building, but it is a way, one that allows the words to keep flowing and the ideas to keep developing as the story and the world take shape together.