Friday, 28 November 2008
Please ignore the picture. Me and Tom are off for an I Capture The Castle weekend in this Landmark Trust property in about two hours, and I'm too excited not to mention it. The brochure even recommends sitting in the kitchen sink to watch the deer.
Way back in October, the awfully patient Jon M asked:
I know there are as many ways to write as there are authors probably but I was curious about something you mention on your website about writing key scenes and then 'filling in the gaps.' Is this a particularly useful approach?
One of the most valuable things I learnt from my MA is that there really are as many different ways of writing as there are people, and perhaps books. Some of my coursemates would plan everything meticulously, others never planned at all. Some wrote three times as many words as they needed and then edited ruthlessly at the end, others worked over each chapter until it was perfect before moving onto the next.
I tend to have a very simple, overarching plot. Then I start thinking of scenes that should go within that. Sometimes these are the key scenes, sometimes I just wake up and think 'There should be snow in this book!' and write that. Often I'll know where in the book these scenes fit, but sometimes it's as vague as 'somewhere near the end' and sometimes I'll have no idea.
I started writing like this because Ways to Live Forever is full of lists and pictures and stories, most of which are important to the plot, but most of which I couldn't place in a larger narrative until I'd ... er ... written one. I found it a wonderfully liberating way to write. There's nothing worse than getting your character home from their battle and realising you have no idea what they do next. Or worse, you end up describing all the dull bits - them taking off their shoes, washing the blood out, eating toast.
Just writing the fun scenes means that I enjoy writing more - if I want to write something sad, or something funny today, I write it. It means that often when I come to piece the scenes together, I realise I don't need the connecting chapters - which makes for a much more interesting, more tightly paced novel. It means that when I come up with a subplot six months in, I can write all those chapters without too much worry. Often I'll write the ending first, so I know where I'm heading. I can discover what I want to write as I go along - and I can avoid writing the difficult sex scenes, for example, until I'm comfortable enough with my characters to be able to do them well.
This approach does lead to a certain type of novel, which I like, but you may not. It means that I write a lot of chapters which don't make it into the final book (although again, I like this, as it gives me permission to be experimental and also, I think, makes it easier to edit the book. I can simply delete the whole chapter, or delete it and rewrite it from the start). It also makes sewing all the pieces together at the end an absolute nightmare. I put them all in an approximate order, read them, weep and wail, delete several thousand words, rearrange them, read it again, weep and wail again, realise I've forgotten to put in a scene introducing Granny, introduce Granny, rearrange again ... I have to spend a long time at the end making sure the thing is paced right, that all the important information is given and that the shifts in tone all work. Sometimes I do end up writing filler scenes - one example of this is the chapter 'Alone in the Night' in Ways to Live Forever, which I wrote to cope with a jump from one difficult scene to another, the next day, with a completely different emotional tone. In Season of Secrets, I ended up writing a lot of chapters with titles like 'November' to cope with the passing of time. It does finally come together, though - I got my bound proof of Season of Secrets through yesterday (hurrah! hurrah!), and was surprised to discover how much I liked the finished product.
This way of writing suits the way I tell and find stories. It works for me. It may not work for you. Why don't you try it and see what happens?
Thursday, 27 November 2008
Small gremlins keep nudging up, demanding my attention. Is that a miniature blip in the plot? Or a chasm nobody has noticed yet? Is that description almost the same as the last? And the one before? Are there too many "candles glimmering"? Too many "justs", and "sighs", and "grins"? Does this day have two afternoons? Is that name really the right one for the character, or just one I’ve got used to using? Behind the plodding task beats that awful thought: isn’t this all just utter rubbish anyhow?
Usually I enjoy revision. I like the editing, cutting and balancing of the language, the Sherlockian relief when you spot something that is just plain wrong, and know it can still be corrected. But this trek had taken me to a point of being blind to the writing.
So, having reached a useful midway stage, I did the magic thing, the trick you can’t use too often. I changed the manuscript’s entire font, from Arial to Palatino, if you must know. Suddenly, phrases and lines have shifted in relation to one another, and hidden patterns have become clear. Yes, I may actually be back in control again.
I spot two “ups” really sitting close together – and there on the first worked over page! The shame! How come I didn’t even notice them before? But now I have, and somehow my spirits are lifted. On I go . . .
Wednesday, 26 November 2008
I may have lost the plot. It makes me laugh when people say women are good at multi tasking because if that were the chief qualification – put me down for one of those extension thingies they are always offering me online because I am obviously a bloke.
I have been teaching this term – two courses I’ve never taught before which I’ve had to write. Neither on their own should have posed too much of a problem, but then I’ve been writing a new book and I’m supposed to be proof reading another and I can only do one thing at once. No really. I can keep one book in my head at a time and when I read another one I lose the one that was in my head and have to read that again. There is a certain amount of tail chasing going on. I am quite efficient just as long as I don’t have to do two things at once and then I flit between tasks like a demented butterfly - with ADHD and achieve nothing.
I think this is a very bad character trait for an author and I am hugely envious of writers with more processing capacity. If only I could upgrade, download that extra bit of programming that would allow me to leave windows open in my brain. Sadly, I leave a window open in my brain and everything escapes out of it: ideas, to do lists, plots, the whereabouts of my glasses, all find some virtual sheets to tie together and escape into the wild waste land of my subconscious where they will probably live quite happily, undisturbed for the rest of my natural life.
I haven’t mentioned what all this has done to the state of my office and desk. I can’t find anything. There are books heaped everywhere, papers piled high, an extensive range of grubby coffee cups and at least two broken mobile phones all adding to my growing guilt at my appalling housekeeping. I just found a pair of earrings, a board rubber and an oyster card while searching for a functioning pen.
I am hoping to get organised – ooh very soon. If I treat my desk as some kind of archaeological dig maybe I will uncover the long lost plot. I can only hope a little bit of judicious dusting will unearth hidden treasures, restore order and decency. I am getting a tad desperate because Christmas is coming and, as we all know, that’s a whole new story...
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
I'm tempted to write in and suggest someone like my mate Adam, or maybe Jeff who lives in my road. Why not? They're both poets, and either would bring a distinct approach to the job. But as one vote for either of them isn't going to sway the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, there's probably not much point.
But what if the UK children's writing community decided to put forward a candidate that all - or at least most - of us agreed on, and agitated for that candidate? We've never before had a Poet Laureate who writes primarily for children, but wouldn't it be fun if we did?
So - who do you think we should choose? Michael Rosen will be stepping down as Children's Laureate next year; he might have got a taste for laureating. Or, can you imagine Paul Cookson presenting a new poem in honour of the Queen's birthday and getting the audience to join in with the sound effects? How about a Performance Poet Laureate - Benjamin Zephaniah would be an interesting choice, wouldn't he?
I'm afraid I don't seem able to add comments since Blogger changed how it's done - is it 'cos I is Mac? - but if you can, why not put forward your own suggestions. You never know - you could start a grassroots movement...
Friday, 21 November 2008
I love reading the New Scientist. It makes me feel as if I understand all sorts of fascinating things. A while back, for example, I really thought I'd figured out String Theory, based on one of its articles. It was a heady five minutes. If only I hadn't tried to then explain it to someone else (who actually did sort of understand it) I could have held on to the feeling even longer. (I wonder if I will remember that another time? Probably not.)
And then, sometimes, the magazine carries articles that tell me things I positively, absolutely, no doubts, not one, know already. For example, that daydreaming is not a waste of time. I know that. When asked "Where do you get the ideas for your books?" I always answer that I get them by staring out of windows. I do good work while in a dwam. So I greeted the article by Douglas Fox titled "Private Life of the Brain" (New Scientist 8 Nov. 2008) like an old friend. It says (among other things) that when we are not actively focusing on a specific task, our brains are nevertheless extremely busy. Researchers called the areas of the brain involved "the default network."
"The brain areas in the network ... chattered non-stop to one another when the person was unoccupied but quietened down as soon as a task requiring focused attention came along. Measurements of metabolic activity showed that some parts of this network devoured 30 percent more calories, gram for gram, than nearly any other area of the brain."
We have things like the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate and the lateral parietal cortex (why do body bits get all the great names?) up and running whenever we let our brains slide into neutral. Because this is science, there are as many answers to what the bits are busy doing as there are scientists, but daydreaming is right up there with memory organising and "inner rehearsal" for what the future might hold. (And if you look at it just right, that's pretty much fiction writing to a T.) Thank you, New Scientist, for saying what I always thought to be true - daydreaming is work, a legitimate writerly activity!
At least, that's what I think it's saying ...
Thursday, 20 November 2008
Going to bed for an occasional nap in the middle of the afternoon is something I have done for years—ever since I had M.E.. I refuse to feel guilty about this, even in the face of disapproving looks and mutterings about laziness and the cushiness of being an author who works at home. It’s simply the way I keep going when I need to recharge my very-prone-to-going-flat physical batteries. I have also discovered that I can use afternoon napping to my creative advantage. I am currently writing a sequel to my first novel, Hootcat Hill. This one is bigger, for a slightly older age group, and a good deal more complicated, since I have to keep track of several other worlds and two parallel plots (which will eventually merge). Although I know where I am going with the whole book—in a very broadly brushed sense of the word ‘know’—I quite often come to a point (and it’s always in that dead, middle part of the afternoon) where I can’t see further ahead than the next full stop. I have learnt that staring at the screen intently does no good at all when I am in this stuck frame of mind. Nor does grinding of the teeth, nor shouting at the characters to ‘just come on and tell me what you’re doing next’. They simply carry on being obstinate, obdurate, silent—at least they do in the awake world. In the dreaming world they are active, alive and vocal. It is usually at this point that I sigh, surrender gracefully and enact a small ritual—if housework, food shopping, general life management and the myriad siren calls of the outside world allow me to.
I switch off the computer (and the phone and the mobile). I make myself a hot water bottle (the central heating is broken and my bedroom is cold). I undress and dress again in my snuggly ‘inspiration’ pyjamas. I get into bed, lying on my back (not my nighttime sleeping position), and close my eyes. It’s just me and the characters and the plot now. Nothing else is allowed to intrude. ‘So what is going on?’ I ask in a relaxed sort of way inside my head. ‘Where do we need to go next?’ I fix the problem in my mind—really think about its shape and form, and about why exactly it is that it has appeared. I allow myself to drift into it, quite casually (and yes, I do use meditation techniques here to block out the irrelevant mindchatter). Sleep comes—but it is a conscious sort of sleep—a focussed sleep. I may wake an hour later, sometimes less, sometimes more. The important thing is that when I do wake up, I usually know where I am going next with the book—the mechanics of my particular mind have allowed my characters to wander around in my unconcious and sort things out for themselves—and they are kind enough to let me know this so that I can carry on mapping their lives. So for me, napping is working (daydreaming is working too, in my opinion—but that’s a whole other story). I do, however, find it terribly difficult to get this message across to other people—and I wonder why my acts of dreaming make everyone outside my immediate family so cross and snarly when I mention them? I am simply using the writing tools that work best for me. The tools that get creative results and help me to write books that I can sell—for money. Is that so hard to understand?
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
My PhD supervisor, Derek Brewer, died last month. He was a man for whom I had great respect and affection, though I had not seen him in recent years. He collected nice pottery things and they didn’t go well with my small, exuberant daughters. My last visit was fraught with the expectation of breakages; despite his impeccable manners I could see he was mentally clutching the edge of his seat as small child number 1 careered around his sitting room. I vowed to return when they were bigger and less dangerous. Sadly, I never did, and now it’s too late.
Derek went to a state school and then Oxford. It was an Oxford of earlier days, and he was conscious of people sometimes looking down on him for his humble origins. (Perhaps for this reason, he was particularly sympathetic to his half-educated, Latinless state school pupils later in life.) C.S. Lewis took him under his wing and nurtured his obvious talent; they became firm friends. Derek liked to point out that this made me C.S.Lewis’s grandchild in all but DNA.
Derek’s intellect was formidable, but he wore it lightly. Whenever I asked him what he was writing, he would reply ‘my usual Chaucer book’. The Middle Ages inspired him and he brought the period to life like no-one else, sharing his passion for it with a wide audience outside academe. Under his tutelage, the purity of the poetry and narrative shone through, any difficulties with the language falling away like autumn leaves. He showed me that all people, through all time, share the same emotions, concerns, dreams and humanity, and that it is the job of stories to build bridges between people and between ages. He passed on his conviction, shared with Lewis, that story is vitally important, the lifeblood of a culture, and immensely powerful.
Derek considered his PhD students his intellectual children, and he lavished the care and attention of a parent on many of us. He took delight in being the intermediary between C.S. Lewis and his 'grandchildren'. He had no time for elitism or the trappings of success. My meetings with him took place in the Master’s Lodge of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, often downstairs, in the family rooms, among the aforementioned precious pottery things. Once he bemoaned the fact that no-one came to talk to him at parties because they thought him too important and were intimidated. The recollection of that wistful regret has led me to seek out at social gatherings those people who might be excluded just because, through no fault of their own, they have a Nobel prize, a knighthood or a university to run. He showed me how to treat everyone and everything as equally valuable, though I fall far short of his high standards of courtesy.
Derek made me a medievalist, a writer and a populist in turn. I spent this morning in the University Library, transcribing chunks of a 17th century treatise on amputation to include in a popular history of medicine. It’s an endeavour he would approve of – bringing lost texts and nuggets of knowledge to light after centuries of obscurity. His reminder that you need to have plenty of ideas as only one in ten will be good has given me the courage to have lots of stupid ideas. I don’t know how much of this is pure Derek and how much is Lewis’s legacy. But we’ve come full circle, as I, like Lewis write for children – and like Derek write for the average person. I can’t match either of them for intellectual rigour - and only yesterday scuttled from the library tea rooms rather than confront the professor who ridiculed my medieval Latin thirty years ago. I’ll stick with the children and the general reader – they don’t care that I don’t know my ars from my elbow. But Derek and Lewis are both there, at my elbow, promoting the ars to the still stumbling grandchild, never laughing at the stupid ideas, but just helping me up to try again.
Monday, 17 November 2008
Don’t you hate it when you think of something when you are half asleep and it's crystal clear in every detail but when you come to note it down later, or in the morning, it's but a shadow of its former self. This happened to me recently. This is what I remember, but the original seemed so much more... I don’t know what... just more!
Last week I was almost asleep when I started thinking of a journey, not your average trip by car, plane or on foot and it wasn’t even my story…
You see there is this little squat horn-toed creature with sharp ears and a rather long chin. He is on his way along a winding path through what is obviously a fairytale land, you can tell that by the lane that meanders through unbelievably perfect countryside with undulating hills, all the optimum size for ‘pleasantness’. He is muttering and mumbling to himself as he approaches a small house with happily drooping roof, which might just look like it had been knitted if you looked at it in the right light. He has several packages under his arm that all look similar in shape and size. They are each wrapped in brown paper and tied with a piece of old knotted string.
He knocks at the door and when a young wench in a low cut blouse opens the door he gingerly hands over one of the rectangular packages. She frowns when she sees who is at the door but she takes the package. The creature looks pained as she is patently uninterested and quickly shuts the door before he has even finished speaking. He stands for a moment staring at the closed door, almost as if he wants to knock again.
Eventually he trots off along the road to the next building, which looms high above him, an imposing structure. This time he pulls a bell that rings sonorously, echoing through the valley. A tall, thin man opens the door. The horn-toed creature offers him one of the packages giving detailed instructions. The tall, thin man takes it and although he promises to deliver the package the creature shakes his head knowing that his precious package is unlikely to be opened at all, far less by the person it is intended for.
(yes, I can hear the large penny dropping as some of you read this!!)
Setting off once more he finally arrives at a shabby looking hut and on knocking at the door he is welcomed in by a scruffy old man and offered a mug of steaming ale. They sit together and the creature begins to talk at length as he offers the package, pushing it into the old man’s hands. The scruffy old man takes the sheaf of papers from the wrapping and starts to read the first few lines. In moments he is engrossed paying no attention to his guest.
Delighted, the creature sinks back into his chair and waits, unwilling to disturb the shabby old man’s obvious enjoyment of his manuscript. After a few pages the old man looks up and grins. They shake hands and the creature sets off with a spring in his step.
As he walks home he sees a familiar package at the top of the pile of rubbish outside the tall imposing building, wrapped in brown paper and string but slightly torn at the corner. A little further on he notices that one of the windows of the first house is open, unsurprising on this hot day, but he cans see that it is his manuscript that has been rolled up and used to stop the window closing.
With a shrug of his slightly bent shoulders he continues on his way home, still wearing a smile as he remembers the look on the old man’s face as he read, the delight and enthusiasm in his voice. The creature knows the old man may still decide not to take it but he is still happy because he is sure his precious words are being read and at least considered, not discarded……
I'm in North Wales again. I don't know how Jacqueline Wilson does it, writing on a train that is, my brain goes to mush, especially now they go so fast between London and Crewe that you can't even look out of the window. Anyway North Wales, where the animal rescue charity shops sell grubby paperbacks for under 50p each which means I cannot resist them (St Kentigern's Hospice shop is even cheaper). I pop out for some Welsh cakes (delicious warm) and come back with The Eagle Has Landed or Heart of Darkness or The Boys From Brazil or The Historian.
I then sit up in bed and read the thing until it is finished happy in the knowledge that there will be a new one tomorrow. I know it is not good to read like this. For one thing. I know second hand book shops are the bain of a writer's life (is there no where so sad as Hay?) and we should all try and buy new just so as our brothers and sisters will eat. And for another, is it right to gobble down these works, all of which, pulp fiction or not, will have taken their authors years or months of toil and rewrites.
Then I come along and wolf them down in one.
I have only just arrived and my Mum (I am here nursing her through a hip op) will send me out very soon. Should I try and wean myself off cheap novels? Only buy in independants and good local bookshops at full price like a good reader?
Or should I go in and see what waits for me today?
Saturday, 15 November 2008
Friday, 14 November 2008
But what if you have to spend those last five days locked in a prison cell measuring just six feet by ten feet? On one of the days your sister and son whom you haven’t seen for eleven years will visit. On two of the days your friend and pastor will be allowed in for eight hours and four hours. On your last day you will be allowed to make a few calls to people in the USA and a couple of people in Europe will be allowed to phone you. You will eat your last meal.
This, as you may know, is the situation of my penfriend Eric Cathey. Several of you have very generously supported my Facebook campaign to save his life. As it stands, the prospect looks bleak. News in only this afternoon is that the Texas Defenders’ Service, a group of anti-death penalty lawyers, is making a last minute Harbison Claim (whatever that is!) which may make a difference. There is still time. Last minute stays of execution are very rare but do sometimes happen. A stay is only a temporary reprieve but as there is evidence that Eric is innocent (as he has always stated), our brightest hope is that his name, in the end will be cleared.
Meanwhile, how will Eric spend the rest of his time?
I think he will spend much of it writing. In the last few weeks, his letters to me have increased in number and in length. And let’s face it – if you are dependent on friends to send in books, you have nothing but a radio for entertainment and you are only allowed out for an hour’s exercise once a day and not at weekends, what else is there to do?
All this has forced me to reflect on how precious and liberating it is to be able to write. Eric comes from a very deprived and challenging background. Right now his freedom has been completely curtailed. And yet, through his writing, his spirit can fly free. In an almost completely isolated yet public environment, he can still create intimacy and community, he can still enjoy companionship and, indeed, love.
In these, possibly his last days, when it is almost too late for any more letters to arrive, his pastor is still taking in e-mailed messages and he can still send letters out.
What an invaluable skill – or is it an art – we practise! How should we use it? It is too precious to be degraded – and that can happen so easily! I am sure we all have our own opinions about how!
‘Texas Death Row’ is a publication by Penguin which appears to be updated regularly. It is simply page after page of photos of those executed in Texas with details of their crimes and last meals. Who would want to read such a book? I ask myself. And perhaps more significantly to writers of this blog, who wants to write it and why? To me, it seems an obscene degradation of a priceless art. But then I am biased. If the worst comes to the worst, my friend Eric will appear in the next edition. Maybe the writer is busy researching it now. I find that idea almost as chilling as state execution itself.
Thursday, 13 November 2008
No, I don’t mean ‘central heating’, I mean ‘centralised heating’. The school’s heating system is remotely controlled from local authority headquarters.
I’m sure this seemed like a great idea to whichever idiot thought of it. Give the heating controls to the people who are responsible for the heating budget, and they can make sure nobody wastes precious energy or sets the radiators to an unauthorised temperature.
Of course, the actual result is that when the building is so warm that the people who work there are physically uncomfortable, there’s not a thing they can do about it.
“Hello? Local authority? Could you turn our heating down, please? It’s too hot.”
“Not according to the thermostat reading. It’s well within the limits of acceptable temperature as specified by council guidelines.”
“But it’s too hot! I mean, it feels too hot!”
“Hmmm... no, it’s definitely okay. If it gets too hot we’ll turn it down.”
“But it’s too hot now!”
“No, not according to the readout...”
Sadly, this sort of madness has been standard in the world of education for years. Although it’s rarely affected the physical environment in quite this way, it has had a potentially devastating effect on the reading environment. Whitehall bean-counters centrally control the teaching of literacy, prescribing from afar approaches that may make sense from the safety of an office in the Department for Ridiculous Ideas but seem completely crazy to those trying to apply them to the education of real children in real schools.
On Sunday evening, for instance, I met a trainee teacher who told me that she has to teach seven-year-olds to talk about ‘temporal connectives’. Seven-year-olds! Why on earth should any child of that age need to know what temporal connectives are (and for those of you who, like me, might have imagined them to be eerily glowing things used by the Doctor to repair his Tardis: it means words like ‘before’ and ‘when’)? Like most sensible professionals working with children of that age, she’d rather be giving them opportunities to play imaginatively and extend their capacity for creativity, not to mention reading them stories that will make them stare in wonder or giggle with surprise. Someone who has never met them, however, has decided what they need; and what they need, apparently, is to be taught to parrot useless phrases in some grotesque parody of premature linguistic analysis.
Where once teachers would reward their classes by reading them stories, now children must reward their teacher for reading them stories or even just fragments of stories: by analysing the texts, by counting the fullstops or replacing the describing words or any one of dozens of other exercises which might be of some use when a child is developmentally ready for this sort of intellectual dissection but which are worse than useless to young children who need first and foremost to develop their imaginations and their love of reading. And if, every time a child - especially one from a background where stories and books are not loved and valued for their own sakes - is read a story, he is then expected to produce a piece of work which is beyond him or for which he can’t see the point, he will quickly learn to see stories not as sources of pleasure but as instruments of torture.
Like centralised heating, centralised reading strategies are a lousy idea. Our children don’t need a primary education system which places the controls in the hands of nameless strangers who have never met them and have no idea of who they are. They need an education in which the development of the love of reading is placed at the centre - and in which the people working in the classroom are the ones with their hands on the controls.
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
- to work jointly esp. in a literary or artistic production.
- to cooperate traitorously with the enemy.
Jude Daly and I have collaborated for many years. I claim her as one claims my agent and my publisher - mine even though she works for others. Since we both grew up next to the sea on opposite sides of the same bay, I like to think there were currents flowing between us, long before we met. The same sea washed up on her beach that washed up on mine and I like to imagine when the South-Easter blew my beach ball out to sea, it landed up safely in her hands on the other side of the bay!
The great plus of a partnership is that you give your illustrator the unthinkably impossible - you sprinkle words lightly, mix them all together and hand over the dough to rise in someone else’s kitchen, because you’re confidant they’ll know what’s inside your head. The sweep of the Persian desert, the void at the beginning of creation, the overwhelming loneliness of the Atlantic Ocean, are handed over without qualms. Not only does she succeed but she expands these concepts so that the scorching desert lives on beyond the double page spread of the book’s borders and the mists of the ocean curl up around the end pages. Baking at its best!
Another plus of collaboration is that as the images emerge, your words can be edited. (Eventually all the words could be redundant but it’s hard to convince your friends and family that you’re a writer when you show them your wordless book!)
The whole process becomes a playful one. Here are a few excerpts from Jude's emails while she was working on The Faraway Island…
‘I am painting pomegranates on Ferdinand's pomegranate tree while his pineapples and bananas dry. Callas is serenading him, and me. As fast as I paint though, the sailors are picking the fruit!’
And… ‘A sparkling day in CT. (Cape Town) Our gardener and seamstress are about to set foot on his island. And, as you wrote, "on the long journey, she busied herself mending the ship's sails" - in full flight, which just goes to show her incorrigible nature.’
Finally… ‘I don't think I have been as enchanted by the characters I'm illustrating as I am with these… they have really got to me.'
So don’t be put off by publishers who say ‘we like to keep our authors and illustrators separate’. A collaboration is the best kind of picture book where ideas flow freely between you and your illustrator but at the same time you’re still breathless with awe when you see the illustrations in full colour for the first time.
Tuesday, 11 November 2008
For me, deadlines started at school. After double English on Tuesday afternoon our teacher would set the homework which was due to be handed in first thing the following Monday – this was a generous deadline as it gave us the rest of the week, and the weekend, to get it done.
Knowing I had so long to get the work done was not necessarily a good thing though. My English homework would get buried beneath other homework and would generally stay buried until the weekend. This wasn’t a problem as I knew I still had two full days left. It didn’t get done on Saturday morning as that was the family shopping day. I Didn’t want to do it in the afternoon as I’d spent the morning shopping and there were much more interesting things to do outside. By Saturday night all thoughts of homework were forgotten and it didn’t usually get remembered again until Sunday night when Mum would ask if I had everything ready for school. Sunday nights were spent madly trying to get work done that should have been completed over the course of a full week.
I thought that leaving school would bring an end to homework – but of course I was wrong. College and University brought even more.
As everyone knows, the sensible thing is to do a little bit of homework each day/night so that you don’t get overloaded. It helps balance your workload and reduce stress. As an adult I’ve tried to pass this wisdom on to my own children but despite this I’ve still witnessed their blind panic as a weeks worth of forgotten maths homework is dragged out of their school bags on Sunday nights. I can’t get cross with them though as I know that I did exactly the same thing.
Now, as a writer, I find that almost all of my work is homework and I still have deadlines. Instead of teachers and lecturers setting my homework I have lots of lovely editors doing it for me. Things are a little different now though… I love my homework - and even the deadlines are useful. They can be frustratingly short at times but having a deadline set too far in the future can be even worse. Knowing I’ve got months to do a piece of work can lead me to move on to other projects until I find myself getting ready for bed one night and realising I haven’t even started a piece of work that’s due in the following week. I think deadlines also make me work. Without them I worry that I would waste a lot of time and get very little done. So all in all, I find deadlines to be a good thing. I’m getting better at them too – I really am.
As Douglas Adams famously said "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
Monday, 10 November 2008
I’m sure you get the idea by now. Personally I can’t bear to expose my inner torment further. In fact, I wonder whether anybody is ever inspired in any detailed way by their own dreams. My guess is that we only get to hear about it after the dream’s been buffed up and made shiny, with a lot of gaps filled in and jaggedy corners rubbed smooth. It’s not that writers are dishonest about this, exactly. It’s just that that’s what writers do.
The great example is Coleridge, of course, who claimed to have dreamed the whole of “Kubla Khan” and then been interrupted by a person from Porlock before he could finish writing it down. That pleasant Somerset village has never recovered from the disgrace, but I share Stevie Smith’s suspicion that Coleridge let the Porlock person take the rap for his own failure of inspiration:
Coleridge received the Person from PorlockAnd ever after called him a curseThen why did he hurry to let him in?He might have hid in the house.It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong(But often we all do wrong)As the truth is I think, he was already stuckWith Kubla Khan.He was weeping and crying, I am finished, finishedI shall never write another word of it,When along comes the Person from PorlockAnd takes the blame for it.
Friday, 7 November 2008
A bright school student asked me a question a couple of weeks ago.
If you could change any of your books would you do it?
It was a surprisingly fresh and challenging question. I had to think. I gave an honest answer, YES. Since that day I’ve been thinking about many of my books. What if I had the chance to change bits that I didn’t like?
Take my book FORGET ME NOT. It’s about two small children being abducted twenty years apart. The mysteries of both these abductions are slowly revealed in this book. In narrative terms I am satisfied with the strength of both stories and how they have a thematic link. But when I read over the ending of FORGET ME NOT I can see that it ends abruptly. It was as if I’d got tired of it and drawn a line with ruler and a pencil. That’s that! it seemed to say, I’m not interested in these people any more.
If I’m honest a lot of my books end this way. I tell a pretty full on story and then guillotine it when I think it’s over. I suppose I would say that I want the reader to think about what happens next.
This reminds me of when I was about eleven or twelve. I didn’t do a lot of reading when I was a teen but we were given Lord of the Flies for a class reader. We were half way through and actually I was dying of boredom every lesson. One day the teacher gave us a chapter to read for homework.
I started reading it after my tea and became sucked into the book. The gang wars, the violence and the murders appalled and excited me at the same time. Long after my mum and dad had gone to bed I was reading, breathlessly to the end. Ralph had sharpened a stick at both ends and was chasing Jack across the island. I felt sick and fearful and thrilled and turned each page waiting to see what would happen to Jack. Just at the point where Ralph was going to catch Jack he got to the beach and fell at the feet of a navy officer. An adult. Someone who would save him. Someone who punish Ralph and all the others. Someone who would sort everything out.
I turned the page for the next chapter and found nothing. That was it . The end of the book. No more details. No more scenes. No more of Jack and Ralph. I couldn’t believe it. Still, all these years later, I can’t believe he ended it there.
I can’t change my book FORGET ME NOT. Will I change the way I write in future? Slow down my endings? Put flesh on to the aftermath of the drama? Will I?
Thursday, 6 November 2008
Once the publisher says OK, and you do your happy author dance, what then? Do you always agree with the publisher over how the book is going to go out to readers? Or could you cheerfully throttle them some days? Oh, and do you manage your publicy (school visits, readings in shops etc) or do they?
OK. When the publisher has said OK, the first thing that happens is edits. You'll go in and meet your editor (if you haven't already done this) and she will tell you everything she thinks needs changing about the book, from big structural changes to smaller line edits.
The amount of editing required varies - with my first book, it was just line edits and a few extra chapters. With my second it was much larger edits which took several months, in two separate drafts.
The editor can't force you to make any change you don't want to make, although she can refuse to publish you. My editor is very good at making the sort of suggestions it's hard to disagree with. "I think the adults need more character." (What are you supposed to say? "Er, no, I like them character-less.") She's also very good at saying thing like, "I think there's a problem here. How can we solve it?" and letting me come up with solutions myself. With line edits, I tend to agree with about three quarters of the things she flags up, and she's happy to let the others slide.
After edits come copyedits, which are spelling and grammar mistakes, consistency errors, repetition and making sure that everything fits Scholastic's style guide (ie changing all my okays to OKs and my alrights to all rights).
At some point in this journey, you should get your contract to sign and then your money, but this can take several months to come through. Don't panic. They will appear.
The cover and the blurb come next. All of the covers I've had have gone through several radically different versions, and it's probably best to let them get on with this. You don't get much say in your cover, although you can set your agent on your publisher if you really hate it, and I have had friends who've managed to change theirs. I've liked two of mine, and disliked one.
Next comes the bound proof, which looks and smells like a book - it's been typeset, it may (or may not) have illustrations and it has a cover which may look like the book's final cover or may be much more simple. Scholastic do very plain, very similar-looking proofs. These are sent out to booksellers, librarians, reviewers, enterprising bloggers, book scouts, prize committees, foreign publishers and anyone else who might help the book sell more copies. You also get one to stroke, take photos of in your bookcase and generally feel like you're a real author at last.
Foreign sales will hopefully be happening at this time as well - either through your agent or your publisher's rights department, depending on whether your publisher bought foreign rights or just English rights. A lot of these come through at Bologna and Frankfurt, the two big international book fairs, but they will also trickle through throughout the year.
Your book will feature in the publisher's catalogue, which is also sent out to booksellers etc. Sales reps will go round individual bookshops trying to persuade the children's buyers to stock it. You may be asked to do some publicity work before the book comes out - I had to come and talk to sales reps and booksellers, for example. Your book will appear on Amazon with your name under 'Author'.
At last, (and for me this was a year after I got the offer, although for some people it's even longer) you get that box through the post with the real, live author copy of a book with your name on it.
In answer to your other questions ... no, I don't always agree with my publisher, but I usually do. I've been very lucky in that Scholastic have worked really hard to promote my books, which has been fab. I know it's not always that easy, though!
Publicity ... there's some publicity (like putting you in their catalogue, sending copies to reviewers, pitching for festivals, paying for you to be in 3-for-2 promotions and submitting you for prizes) that only publishers can do. They've also arranged other things, like talking to librarians' conferences, arranging interviews and printing a lovely sample booklet with the first couple of chapters.
Some publicity I've done myself - I arrange most of my own school visits through www.contactanauthor.co.uk, also through my website (Scholastic made me a beautiful website to promote the book - www.waystoliveforever.co.uk, and I made myself a beautiful website to promote me - www.sallynicholls.com.) I also arranged my own book launch, mainly because I wanted to invite all my friends, and I didn't think Scholastic would pay for everyone I know to drink champagne. Scholastic turned up and helped sell books, though. And I did interviews on quite a few friend's blogs etc, which was nice.
Phew! I think I'll have to answer the other question in another post. Do continue to ask things, though. And other people - please chip in if I've left something out, or if your experience was different. Everyone's is.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Kath Langrish’s last & excellent post about her writing childhood intrigued me, because mine was definitely not like that. It was clear, from a young age, that writing was not a totally good thing to do. It was “good” in the sense that my English marks redeemed appalling maths results, but it was “not good” in the sense that writing time was not time well spent. One should be doing useful things instead. Writing, and writing stories at that – rather like the Queen’s reading of fiction in Alan Bennett’s “Uncommon Reader” – was undoubtedly selfish, and also secretive, which was also a suspect trait.
Writing fitted uncomfortably into a mix of military duty, puritanical work ethics, and an avoidance of complicated thought, no doubt to quieten the family complications boiling silently away. Writing was a too-indulgent dwelling on things, and telling stories was only one step away from lying. Only much later, buoyed by the encouragement of a generous children’s author, could I deal with some of these tensions.
Heavens, it was not Angela’s Ashes territory. There were pencils and paper. I did not have to scrawl on the backyard wall. Nevertheless, that subtle condemnation still sits there. Even now, I find myself leaving the door of my workroom open, just so no one can burst in on me.
But - good news - the dreaded revision has at last begun, and is going very well . . .
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
While the world holds its breath and the citizens of the US vote, it seems hard to avoid some of the issues raised by the interminable campaigning. In real life it is rare for individuals to be seen as an embodiment of their race or class or gender – except perhaps in US presidential elections. In novels it happens all the time.
I am a simple-ish soul. I usually write stories with a male audience in mind. I grew up reading ‘Biggles’, ‘Just William’ and SF which, back in the day, was pretty well all about men. I went to a male dominated college at a male dominated university and worked in the oil industry. I have three sons and a daughter and spend much of my life on touch lines, in the rain, watching blokes slam into each other at speed. (I am a regular at our local A and E department.) Much of my life is conducted in a reeking smog of male sweat, testosterone and ‘Deep Heat’ (and that is just my living room) My default writing voice is male. I write a lot of battles and even my non historical settings tend to be patriarchal and extremely hostile to women. Am I a gender traitor?
I hope I’m not. Until recently it wasn’t a question I considered over much. The women and girls in my books tend to be pretty kick-ass, often more so than the men. While I am no feminist pioneer, Lancashire in the seventies was no haven of pc attitudes and I come from a long line of stroppy women. It never occurred to me that my books could be read as reinforcing stereotypes. A couple of recent critiques have shown me that they can and that has really got me thinking. Is it OK to say: ‘this is just a story’? Is it OK to point out that stories are about characters and not gender representatives? It is surely OK to note that Palin is a nightmare not because she is a woman but because – well because of everything she believes in? Yet, at least to begin with, the fact that she is a woman trumped all else. The Obama v Clinton battle was presented as a race and gender one. This great US political drama has illustrated the human tendency to extrapolate the general from the particular in stark and often crude terms.
So how much should gender and race politics influence what we write or its interpretation? I don’t have an answer; it is a question I am still pondering. No doubt we all come up with different answers and I’d be interested in hearing some of them. Isn’t it fun to be writing in such interesting times!
Monday, 3 November 2008
Some parents are quite adamant about this. Lying, especially to children, is wrong, no matter what the reason. Believers in Santa Claus face inevitable disappointment, possible ridicule at school. It’s a breach of trust, however well intended. Is it really?
My own parents lied to me on this matter. I don’t remember being traumatised when I found out. In fact I don’t think there was one moment when I found out. It was more of a dawning realisation, a gradual letting go. And I’m sure there was a long period of overlap where I had a foot in both camps: where I knew it was Mum and Dad who brought the presents, but continued to leave the empty pillow case at the foot of the bed, because it was so good to reach down with a foot at 6am and feel it heavy with chemistry sets and whatnot (yes, I was that sort of child). There’s a term for this, which I found out a few years later. It’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’.
Father Christmas isn’t a lie. He’s a fiction. There’s a crucial difference. Parents who tell their children he exists aren’t deceiving them. There are simply telling them a story, a long, interactive story – one which will end someday, certainly, but then all stories do. And I believe stories are worth the sadness of the ending for the joy they bring while they last.
Terry Pratchett speaks to this in his Christmas-themed Discworld novel ‘Hogfather’. In the story, Death explains why belief in the Hogfather (a Claus analogue) is so important. ‘Human beings have to start out believing in the little lies, so you can learn to believe the big ones. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.’
Fiction flows in our veins. Without it, Pratchett suggests, we’d barely be human. We’re not computers; we don’t have to function according to the binary code of true/not true. We’re quite capable of seeing beauty in something that is manifestly not real, or of creating our own worlds when the real one lets us down. Fiction isn’t a false reality, nor is it reality’s poor relation. It’s a fundamental part of it – part of who we are. That’s why, this Christmas, my son will run to his bulging Christmas stocking wide-eyed in delight, and wonder who could possibly have drunk that sherry.