Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Instead, you’ve got a bloke who’s excited about his new shed.
Well, I say ‘shed’; actually, it’s more like an extra room at the bottom of the garden (which, I suppose, is why the firm that supplied it is called Extra Rooms Ltd. A little plug there; but they deserve it). Really, it’s my new writing room, which I’ve been promising myself for ages - I first mentioned it on these pages back in August. And now it’s finally here! The long-awaited much-dreamed-of writing room is made flesh (well, wood actually. A shed made of flesh would be pretty yukky, don’t you think? Rather over-extended the metaphor there. Sorry).
Anyway, the point is that now I finally have my retreat, my little place all of my own where I can give my imagination free rein, uninterrupted by postmen and double-glazing cold callers, unable to distract myself with emails and the internet. Which means that this is where it gets scary.
You see, I’ve been telling myself that I’ll be a better writer when I have my writing room; that, free from distraction and able to truly concentrate, I’ll find the words pouring out and the ideas flowing. And, of course, when I’m in the house and sighing with exasperation at yet another phone call, or trudging down to the local library in search of that elusive corner of peace and quiet, it’s easy to tell myself that. But what if it isn’t true? What if the problem is actually me, and not my environment at all? What if I’ve just spent more than I earn from writing in the average year on something that will make no difference at all to my output? What if I am really just a very slow and lazy writer???
Pshaw! (Is that really how you spell that? It looks odd written down. Ah, well; no matter). Pshaw! I say again. Away with such negative and defeatist thoughts. Tomorrow dawns a new year and with it, for me, a new way of writing - or, at least, one with fewer excuses for not getting any writing done. I’ll let you know how it works out; but actually I’m quite hopeful. And excited. Which is just how it should be at the turn of the year.
Happy New Year, everyone; and to all the writers among us, old and young, rich and poor, published and unpublished: in 2009 may your imagination rise towards new horizons like the balloon of Oz, may your ideas multiply like the kin of Hazel, and may the words flow like the rivers of Narnia after the thaw.
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
What is it about watching a New Year’s sun pop over the horizon that is any different to watching the sun come up on a normal day? The wide horisons of sea and sky seem to mute the moment while at the same time the sea's energy is tangible. We convince ourselves it’s different. Fresh starts. New potentials. In a way like the unwritten page or screen staring back blankly waiting for you to make the first mark every morning. Anything is possible if you can only make the right mark. There’s a certain fragility to the moment… try too hard and you might fail. But at the same time there’s an energy to start fresh. To capture something magical. It's a moment on the cusp, when you move from the old to the new.
Saturday, 27 December 2008
Part of me feels a little queasy when I think about that, but I wonder why? I suppose I’d rather imagine the author right there, watching Will and taking notes. For some books it might not matter, but for that one – so firmly rooted in its territory of Buckinghamshire and Windsor Great Park, and so snowed in with winteriness – it does. (I’ll be forever grateful that my first winter at college, in 1981, was a snowy one, for I lived at Runnymede of Magna Carta fame, just a short walk from the Thames and its islets, and a slightly longer one from the site of Herne’s Oak.)
I know I’m being unreasonable. It’s one of the glories of writing that it can transport readers far from their own time and place: it’s only fair that it should do the same for writers. Yet still I feel uneasy. Maybe it stems from having watched too many Christmas Specials on television as a child. They were mostly recorded in summer, and were replete with fake snow and mufflers. Thinking of Val Doonican in a Santa beard, glistening with unseasonable jollity under the studio lights, makes me feel anything but festive.
Then there’s me, right now. I know this post is due to be published on December 27th, but on that date I’ll be enjoying a short break with my family – far, far away from an internet connection. Luckily, the wonders of Blogger allow me to set things up so that the post will appear at the right time (fingers crossed). In actual fact, though, I’m writing it in June. Wimbledon’s on the telly, and this time I just KNOW that Andy Murray’s going to go all the way. (Right? Don’t tell me if I was wrong – I don’t want to know.)
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
The ABBA bloggers will be away till 27th December. Meanwhile, a very Happy Christmas to all our blog readers, and here is a Christmas story to keep you going till we return.
The room was very quiet. She could hear the hushed bustle of the night nurses in the corridor outside, but she knew they wouldn’t come in. She’d had her cocoa, had her pills. They’d leave her to sleep—or not—till early morning. There was nothing else they could do for her, after all. She looked out of the window where she could just see the cross on the rounded dome of St Paul’s, outlined against the festive glow of the London sky. She found it comforting. It had been there a long time, seen every kind of suffering, survived intact. She sighed. She was not going to survive, it seemed. But she’d bloody well fight anyway.
She remembered the morning, two weeks before, when she had walked into the oncologist’s office. The children and Daniel had been outside, waiting; a solid bulwark of love. But she’d wanted to hear this news on her own.
“I’m sorry, Glorianna,” he’d said. “It’s not good. It’s spread to your lungs and liver very fast.” She wasn’t surprised, and had said so. Her breathing hadn’t felt right for a while now, and even the kids had noticed the yellow eyes. She’d joked about eating too much custard, but they weren’t stupid. Not her kids. Then he’d dropped the bombshell of hope.
“There is a new treatment. It’s very experimental—from Canada. We don’t know if it will work. But it’s your only chance. It would mean being in Bart’s over Christmas though….”
Hope is a funny thing, she thought. Without it, you have no choices, everything is grey, and you just have to get through to the inevitable end as best you can. But with it—with even a tiny drop of it—the world of possibility wakes in full colour, and you can start to dream again in a way that makes your heart beat faster with maybes. She’d discussed it briefly with Daniel and the kids, not wanting to spoil what they all knew was probably the last Christmas they’d ever have together. But Daniel had been adamant.
“Any chance is better than nothing. You’ve got to go for it. We’ll just bring our Christmas to the hospital, that’s all.”
So here she was. Christmas Eve. She didn’t think the experiment was working, and the new drugs had made the tiny bit of hair she had left fall out, which was a bummer, because baldness was not in fashion this year. But she had to go on trying and hoping. It was the only weapon she had. The quarter bells of St Paul’s tolled out the time. Bingbong, bingbong, bingbong. Only fifteen minutes to go, and it would be Christmas Day.
The door opened softly, and closed behind the person who had come in. She couldn’t see him properly. The room was lit only by the light from outside, and the green glow of the monitors. But it appeared to be a man, dressed in white scrubs. His name badge hung down from the breast pocket, obscured.
“Hello, Glorianna,” he said. “I thought you might like some company.” His voice was very soft, gentle, accented slightly. Middle East somewhere, she thought. He came over to the bed and sat down on the end, careful not to joggle her battered, tender body. He had longish brown hair, tied tidily into a ponytail under his theatre hat, and a short, neat beard.
“Haven’t seen you before,” she croaked. Her bloody voice was going too, then. She cleared her throat, impatient with it suddenly. “You just on for the Christmas shift?”
“Yes, just for Christmas,” he said. “I like the peace on the wards. Is there anything I can do for you while I’m here?”
“What, apart from a Christmas miracle cure?” she asked. “That would be good.” She was proud of keeping her sense of humour. She found it helped other people feel better about what was happening to her.
He laughed. It was a nice laugh, made her feel more cheerful all of a sudden.
“It’s snowing,” he said. “That’s a miracle if you like. It never snows in London at Christmas. The bookies will be furious.” She squinted over at the window and gasped with pleasure. He was right. Big, fat flakes of proper snow were falling, fluffy and white against the glass.
“Take me over there,” she said. “Let me look properly. Please.” Manners were important, even if you were dying, she thought. He got up and fetched the wheelchair from the corner. Gently, he helped her sit up, swing her legs over the edge, moved the drip so she could drop into the chair without getting tangled up. “Ooh,” she said as his hands swam past her blurry vision. “What have you done to yourself?” The backs and fronts of both were covered in square, white gauze dressings.
“Just a little accident with some nails,” he said. “Doesn’t hurt anymore, just a bit messy to look at.”
He wheeled her over to the long window. It was a first floor room with a little balcony outside. They’d let her have a room to herself—it was a lonely luxury. The snow was falling faster now, and the ground below was already nearly covered with a white rug She looked and looked. It was beautiful.
“Did you know that each flake is different?” she asked him. “God must be pretty amazing to have thought that one up, don’t you think.”
“I do,” he said. “And He is.”
Suddenly a pigeon landed on the rail, then another, then another. Fast and furious they came, wings whirling in the snowstorm, until the rail was heaving with swaying bird shapes. Glorianna opened her mouth to speak, but then shut it again. The sparrows had started to arrive now, squeezing between the pigeons, chirping and squabbling, fighting like the warriors they were. Her visitor laid his hurt hands on her shoulders. She felt their warmth, like healing honey dripping into her bones. She closed her eyes, drinking it in. Then she opened them again, as she heard a muffled miaow.
Now it was the cats’ turn. Slinking and squirming, they lined up in rows, unblinking slanted eyes trained on the man behind her. Grey ones, tabby ones, tattered ears, scars, stripes, orange, white, black, and everything in between.
“Whatever…?” she stammered. But the pressure of those warm honey hands sent her back into silence, just as the mice and rats appeared. Bootbutton eyes, twitching whiskers, a sea of intertwined tails and noses, and sharp, yellow teeth sat on the windowsill. The cats didn’t move a muscle. Glorianna strained her eyes to look at the ground below. It was now covered with fur and a general wagging which sent the snow into joyous flurries of white. A puppy let out a single high yelp, but was cuffed by its neighbour immediately into silence.
BONG! BONG! Great Tom started to sound the hour of midnight from the south-west tower of St Paul’s. As the last chime echoed into stillness, the animals bowed their heads, knelt, worshipped. Glorianna too slipped forward onto her knees. It was physically impossible for her to do so now, in her weakened state, so she must be dreaming, she thought. But it was a good dream, a dream she didn’t want to end.
“Please,” she prayed fiercely. “Oh God, please.” It was a formless entreaty, made many times before, but this time, with those hands on her shoulders, she knew she was being listened to. She offered up her great love for every bit of her life on this wonderful, flawed, generous earth. The long journey from Jamaica with Mam and Pop. The first cold winter, school, her marriage to Daniel, the births of Jasmyn, Dillan and Joel. She offered her cancer, her anger, her fear. She offered everything and hoped it would be enough. Because now it was Christmas Day, and she’d already seen two miracles. Surely a third wasn’t too much to ask.
When she opened her eyes again, it was nearly daylight, she was back in bed, and her friend of the night had gone. A new nurse was standing there, replacing the drip bag.
“Happy Christmas,” she said. “Look, it’s snowed!” When she’d done what needed doing and left, Glorianna cautiously eased herself out of bed. The window seemed a long way to go on her own, but she made it by leaning on the dripstand. The balcony outside was empty now, but by peering hard, she could see a few feathers and tufts of fur in the snow. The whiteness was also pocked and marked with small prints and lines where tails might have whisked through it. Glorianna pinched herself. It hurt. She was awake. It had been real. And she was going to live. She knew that as certainly as if it was written on the glass in front of her.
“Thank you,” she whispered to the cross on the dome. A man in the courtyard below stopped walking and looked up at her. He had long brown hair and a neat beard. He raised a hand to her in greeting. The palm and back of it were covered in square white dressings. Then he walked around the corner and was lost to sight.
I was asked to write this story for Cancer Research. It was published in the concert programme for their 2008 fundraising carol service at St Paul's Cathedral. It is dedicated to the memory of my sister, who died of cancer in December 2001.
Sunday, 21 December 2008
...Is one pleasure I'd almost forgotten, so I've one thing to thank the credit crunch for.
I'd grown used to buying books, mostly on-line, but now that I really have to find ways of saving money – apologies to fellow authors, but I really do – I'm back to the library again. At least I'm adding to your PLR (Public Lending Rights).
I first joined the library when I was fourteen. Dudley Library, in the West Midlands. A stately Victorian Goddess sat above the door, reading a book. Come to think of it, she's still there, still reading, and good for Her.
It was a different sort of library then. There was a lot of emphasis on silence. And it was no use looking for anything except books, newspapers, and the occasional magazine. I wasn't complaining. I was a book-lover, and I'd never seen so many books in my life. Adult and children's fiction downstairs – and cooking and gardening. Oh, and biography and history, national, international and local.
Upstairs – well. The heavy stuff. Psychology, criminology, sociology. Literary criticism. The reference library. The archives. Ecology. Mathematics. Science. And I had an adult ticket. I could take any book from any of those shelves. It was dizzying.
But hard to make a choice, when I could only take five books. I spent hours in there. In the first years I would walk through the door and look round for the red and yellow books. Because they were science-fiction, weren't they? And I was into sci-fi at the time. Except they weren't science-fiction. They were Victor Gollancz – a firm that happened to publish a lot of science-fiction. I remember being very puzzled the first time I grabbed a red and yellow book that wasn't sci-fi.
What a forcing house for a writer, though. I read every kind of fiction – crime, romance, thriller, kitchen-sink, historical, humourous, shed-loads of fantasy, ghost and sci-fi. Curiosity led me to read a lot of classics: Jacobean tragedies, most of Shakespeare, and, in translation, Classical Greek plays, Tolstoy, Balzac, Sagas, Moliere, Medieval Romances, Beowulf... All for the price of a bus-ride. If I'd had to buy the books, I could never have afforded it.
I read widely in psychology, because I wanted to know how – or why – people tick. Forty-odd years later, I'm none the wiser, but, with the help of these books, I have given it a lot of thought. For the same reason, I read criminology and sociology – with much the same result.
I read books on popular science, and there's nothing like astronomy and quantum physics for making you feel that you must urgently hold your skull together with both hands.
And if any mention of anything caught my interest – well, the library was sure to have books on it.
It was in Dudley library, I well remember, where the man Pratchett first came into my life. I was looking at the shelf of 'recently returned books', as I always did, and there was this book called MORT by someone I'd never heard of. I didn't like the picture on the cover, but read the blurb, then almost put it back because I am naturally suspicious of 'humorous fantasy'. Then I leaned on the shelf and read a few pages – hardly got as far as page 96 – and decided to borrow it.
Well, since then I think I've read everything the man's written, including such titles as STRATA and DARK SIDE OF THE SUN. Something else to thank both Dudley Library and Pratchett for, is that I passed MORT on to my Dad, and he loved it too. For years I bought him the latest Pratchett for Christmas, reading it myself before wrapping it (buying books as presents and then reading them yourself before wrapping them is a strong Christmas tradition in my family). For years me and my Dad discussed the Disk-world, made jokes about it, reminded each other of 'best bits', tried to pinpoint our favourite characters. (Death was always a strong contender, and I hope He came to collect my Dad. They would have got on: they both loved cats).
The library I go to now is very different. It's a small branch library, but it still has ranks of computers; and it loans dvds and computer games as well as books – and sells greetings cards. But there are still, thank whatever gods there be, shelves and shelves and shelves of books, which is really all I'm interested in. (I can get all the internet's sex and violence at home).
I'd forgotten the thrill of scuttling back into my house with a stack of thick, heavy library books, but I'm realising anew how much I love the feeling. It's a bit like having a big box of chocolates to open – all those wonderful flavours and textures, and which one to go for first? The fluffy, light-hearted confection of romance or fantasy? The hard-centred, gritty realism of Rankin's wonderful Rebus, or something by Minette Walters? That rather cloying self-help book with its interesting 'case histories'? The serious book on Iron Age brochs, which fascinate me strangely? Or the one on bog-bodies, some of which are real nightmares. (I don't recommend anyone to look at photos of Grauballe man). I can spend a day or more dipping into the different books, and looking at their illustrations (if any), before deciding which one to start reading.
And when I finish them, there's still a library-full waiting for me!
In fact, I feel a bit of a fool for ever giving up the library. What a truly wonderful, altruistic institution. And what a lot I owe it.
Saturday, 20 December 2008
My book group were reading 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'.
"I wondered if Gordon was bi-polar," said one member, about Orwell's frustrated bookseller-poet. "Half the time he seems to think he's writing a masterpiece; the rest he seems about to give up writing altogether. That's not normal."
I glanced at the other writer in the group.
"Er ... actually I thought that was one of the most realistic parts of the book."
The other writer nodded. "Yes. That's just what it's like."
Being schizophrenic about your writing isn't something to be worried about. In fact, I doubt I could write a book without it.
Writing a novel is bloody hard. It takes months - it can take years. Months of sitting in front of a computer screen, months of angst and worry and tears and stress and refused invitations and guilt and strain. If you didn't believe you were writing something worthwhile, that you were saying something interesting or original or funny or entertaining, why would you bother?
I'm currently stuck in the middle of a difficult writing period. New words aren't coming and the words that I have seem dull and prosaic. Yet I keep writing. Why? It's not just howl of the rent check, it's because there's a small but insistent part of my brain which insists on answering interview questions ("Where did you come up with such an original idea?") writing my own reviews ("A powerful and important wrk") and planning the acceptance speech for the Noble Prize for Literature which this novel will surely win for me.
I'm exaggerating a little, but you get my point. Yet have I actually written the next Carnegie winner? No, I haven't. And this is where the other part of my brain comes in. Editing is just as long and difficult a process as writing, and if I lived in smug writer land all the time, I simply wouldn't bother. It's only because half of my brain hates everything I've written, thinks that it's dull, flat, boring, repetative, is sure that my editor will reject it and my readers hate it, can't understand why I even thought I could do this writing lark in the first place, only because this dismal and depressive side of my psyche exists that I can put in the hours of editing I need to turn my pile of words into something publishable.
Bi-polarism? Schizophrenia? Nonsense. It's all part of being a writer.
Friday, 19 December 2008
At the start, there was the “will this work?” feeling, as I really wanted the story to offer immediacy and involvement. Having begun to accept that the suggested change might work, then came the middle section, or the long, long, long trudge. Scene after scene appeared, each needing the same intense listening – yes, that’s exactly the word! – the focused listening to the “new” words, then adjusting the rhythm of the phrases or sentences. Micro rather than macro writing.
Finally, hope started to rise. I would get the damn thing done before the Christmas holiday (a deadline I’d imposed, but which had more than a hint of “suppose the editor asks for it by then?). I became cheerful again, started contacting friends about future coffees and outings, and started sleeping at night, as the last 30 . . . 20 . . 10 and then the final pages arrived. Then it was done! Calloo callay and all that!
Except for a small problem, she sighed. While groaning over the text, I’d stared hard at the words too many times, and – while crying out loud, clenching my fists, pacing around the room, lowering my head, being unable to breathe, and such similar activities – had suddenly – yes, suddenly! – seen that I needed to go through the whole thing all over again.
Though this time it’s easier. At least I can set “edit” for groaning, can’t I?
Season's greetings to you all!
Thursday, 18 December 2008
December is always a busy month for me. I was badly organised enough to give birth twice in December. My babies are about to turn thirteen and sixteen respectively and for a couple of months I will be the proud but harassed mother of four teenagers. As if that were not distraction enough, I have to host a couple of parties, cook lunch for twenty people on Christmas day, and clear enough space for my sister and her family who are coming to stay for five weeks. OK I know that’s not such a big deal but it challenges my limited domestic skills.
I always leave everything till the last minute, so this year I made a concerted effort to submit my new novel in November and finish the proofs of next years’ book in early December just so I could shop till I dropped, do battle with the twin demons of Chaos and Grime, sort out my ongoing drain problem and do all those jobs I only ever do when I’ve got guests coming. I’m not going to tell you what they all are because then you’ll know what a slob I am, but one of the easier ones involves degreasing my cooker...
So, I have a head full of to-do lists, cupboards filled to bursting with stuff yet to be decluttered and the panicky sensation that I have forgotten something vital, then yesterday I went and had an IDEA. This was a bit of a shock as I’m not much prone to these. It arrived unbidden in those murky moments between sleeping and waking and immediately drove everything else out of my feeble mind. I had a bath, came downstairs in my dressing gown and started typing. At some point I remembered I had to go to a drinks party and must not allow myself to be entirely seduced by this shiny, sparkling definitely-bestselling- quality IDEA that I did not need to have in December. I ran back upstairs, swearing quietly to myself, ran a bath, got into the bath, and only then realised that I’d done all that washing business already...
I think this proves that I am losing ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ is and that the best way to have a new story idea is to have no time for one, no interest in writing it and about a million other urgent things to do...
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
But it’s quite hard to get back into the story when meanwhile you’ve started work on something new, and that’s where your mind is now. And then there’s the unravelling. You solve one problem in the text and it throws up three more problems. So you think and think and work out how to solve the next issues and lo and behold another series of events are going to need adjusting. And so it goes on, all the way through the story.
There are lots of analogies I could use to describe how I feel at this stage of writing a novel. Like trying to hold water or sand in your hands, or like dropping stitches when you’re knitting. But what it feels most like, as I try to hold the threads of the story in my mind as I cut and change is the feeling that I’m juggling. I’m trying to hold four or five balls in the air when I’m actually only competent at juggling two, and if I look away for even a second, they’ll all come crashing down around me.
Not that I’ve ever tried juggling. But that’s what it feels like nonetheless.
But I do know that I’ll get to a point, somewhere near the end of the story, where it all starts to come together. And then I know it will feel just great.
It’s so easy to forget that the story lives on like that. So easy to forget why I’ve always wanted to do this.
Saturday, 13 December 2008
I've heard authors speaking about their
For me, it's not so mystical. Even though my books are full of time travel, shape shifting, kelpies and talking ferrets, I try to tell people that I write documentaries, because that's the way it feels. The story is already there, waiting to be told. It's already real. And my job is to let other people know about it. Hand me a chisel and watch the chips fly, sort of thing. (Though the writer has the advantage over the sculptor - we can glue bits back on again if we chop too much.)
Okay, it's not an perfect analogy, but you catch my drift. I hope. It would be interesting to know if other fiction writers are as basically convinced, or perhaps taken-in, by their own creations as I am.
And while on the subject of delusions - do I think my books are as perfect as the statue in the picture? I wish!
Friday, 12 December 2008
So where do I, as a writer, start to create this state of Nirvana, this paradise where my readers are held in thrall to my every utterance? Why, with the very first paragraph, of course. There are, apparently (or so I have been told by no less a writer than a Costa Book Award winner), six criteria for a first paragraph, which are, in brief: snare, style, imagination, pace, narrative voice and theme. Personally I reckon that if you can get all these in, you are well on your way to perfection. I’ve never achieved it yet, but hey, whoever said reaching Nirvana was easy? I try to make a first paragraph the place where I set hooks (otherwise known as the aforementioned snares) to rouse interest and anticipation and expectation in my reader’s mind. ‘Why?’ they must ask, and ‘Who?’ and ‘What?’. It is the place where I endeavour to create a style signature which says ‘This is me. If you stay, I will take you on a journey of deep feeling and imagination during which your mind can be drop kicked into a different world. You will like it, I promise.’ (Here I imagine a hypnotic chant--'you willll, you willl!'. This may not be terribly realistic of me. I know this.) I always think of that first paragraph as a moving train, taking my reader to amazing places they really want to be, and travelling at a pace which makes them want to jump on and join in till the end of the journey, with interesting people for them to meet and get to know at the stops along the way. It’s the thing I work hardest on—my shop window, if you like—where I set out my wares in an effort to tempt and entice with hints of what is inside.
The problem is though, that I quite often change my mind as to where I want to start the book—or my Dear Editor changes it for me in a tactful and considering sort of way which, annoyingly, almost always makes sense. When I am working on a novel, I tend to see it as a huge and complicated jigsaw, spread out all over my mind. I try to get all those outside edges done first, to make a neat box within which I can place the pieces of my story. But sometimes a piece, or several pieces, won’t or don’t fit right, and I have to move them around, effing and blinding, till they slot in correctly. If a first paragraph I have worked very hard on does that, it is a nightmare akin to dropping the whole jigsaw on the floor and having to pick it all up and start again. That’s how important I think it is to get it right. The novel I am currently writing starts like this (or at least it does for now):
She heard the tree first. Its slow song seeped into her bones, telling a long tale of tiny white rootlets reaching into darkness, of branches stretching past uncountable stars. It was singing, and she was aware that that was odd, somehow, as she drifted in a place that both was and was not. Trees didn’t sing where she came from. That was one of the things she remembered, and that was odd too, because Magret Bickerspike knew she was dead; knew it with a certainty that was absolute. She’d been kneeling by the river, watching her ripple reflection in the light of a full moon. And then it had happened. A dragon had reared up behind her and speared her—yes, speared her right through the torso—on its curved talon. She felt her heart beat faster in remembered fear and shock and anger and pain at the knowledge that this was it. This was the end of her life. A fleeting thought floated, feather light, through her mind, brushing it gently. That’s all wrong. Dead hearts don’t beat. Dead bodies don’t feel. Dead brains don’t think. Then the tree song took her over again and a healing sort of humming filled her head murmuring to her of fairytales and endings, blocking out everything else. All she had time for was one last burst of inspiration before she faded back into nothingness. I’m alive. I’M ALIVE! she thought. And that surprised her very much indeed.
The question is; will my readers want to read on? Answers on a postcard (or comment form), please!
Thursday, 11 December 2008
‘E-book reader’ is a naff name. Surely I am the reader? Never mind. I opened Anna Karenin. Within the first page (=screen) the straight quotation marks, dull font, US spelling and poor tracking were making it a teeth-gritting experience. The standard text size is about 7 point to squeeze most of a page onto the screen. Zooming in, the text reflows and the page count at the bottom of the screen updates. The e-book reader now says it’s showing page 45 of 4,502. That’s rather daunting. You can’t see at a glance how far through you’ve got – 45 of 4502 is 1%, so that would be about page 5 of the ‘real’, 500-page book. If I was on page 683 of 4502, the maths would be harder.
I miss the satisfying wodge of completed, crinkled, warm pages in my left hand and the pristine pile on the right, tightly packed and full of promise. Instead, there’s just the orphaned current page. It isn’t even a page – it’s a fragment, a disembodied, lost messenger from the rest of the book which is – where? Nowhere; stolen. The book has been dismembered and thrown to the winds, like Osiris. An e-book doesn’t feel as if it exists – every ‘page’ you’re not looking at winks out of existence, like some elusive quantum particle. You can’t flick through the pages, which I hated. Without flickability, it’s impossible to check which character with a long Russian name (or three) is which.
Perhaps Anna Karenin wasn’t a fair trial as I know it already, so I switched to The Book Thief, which I haven’t read (I know, shame on me). I was immediately lost. There are none of the clues and cues that a printed book gives. How long is this book? What’s it about? What’s it like? In a real book, the cover, the weight and colour of the paper, and the layout (font, size of margins, position and content of header, position of page number, twiddles and decoration) all convey messages and set up expectations. I had never been as aware of page design as when there wasn’t any. After a chapter or two, I’d had enough and turned to the paper copy, languishing on the ‘books to read’ shelf. It felt like coming home. While the e-book uses a mundane, blocky type for the title, the paper book is exquisitely designed, with carefully chosen fonts that communicate the character of the tale. The grey, backlit screen of the e-book (the much-vaunted E-Ink technology) has a deadly pallor that drains the text of life – which I suppose might be appropriate in this particular case. The hardback’s creamy paper is easy on the eye and gives a sense of antiquity and seriousness. On paper, The Book Thief uses the real estate of the page creatively; it also has large pages. It’s a strange choice for e-bookising as the specialness and solemnity bestowed by the extravagant use of white (not grey!) space contribute hugely to the character of the book.
I missed a lot reading the e-book. When I re-read on paper what I’d just read on screen I found I’d missed some of the elegance of the style, felicitous use of language, even points of plot. And it wasn’t just because I was re-reading: I read the next chapter on paper first and then in the e-book, and still noticed more on paper. On the screen I saw the grammar – not even style, just grammar – and picked out grammatical ‘errors’ that were allowable elements of style. I wonder if this is because with my own writing I correct grammar on screen, but style and other elements on paper. It would be interesting to know if other writer/readers find the same.
Turning the page in a real book is an event. In a picture book, particularly, the action of turning the page is often integral to the story – it’s a moment of suspense, then discovery, of changing scene or surprise. Turning the page of an e-book means pressing a button; the screen goes momentarily blank before the new page appears. I found its blinking into oblivion distracting and distressing. Brief panic – where’s the story gone? It breaks that meta-suspension of disbelief that lets us believe the story is all there is and the outside world has vanished, and reminds you every time that this is not really real. People say they stop noticing the screen’s blank stare of bewilderment after a while. I’m a master of the blank stare of bewilderment, and I don’t need books or electronic devices doing it back to me. If I became immune to it, I’d be disappointed in myself. Interestingly, I did on one occasion lift my hand to turn the page in the usual way – and was frustrated to have to lower it and press the button.
One of the selling points of the e-book reader is that it’s light, so you can take lots of books on holiday. It always weighs the same, whatever you’re reading, however many books it holds. But the weight of a book tells us something about what the pages contain. We value things that are heavy – a weighty argument, gold … Light is lite is superficial. All e-books weigh the same (nothing) and all look the same. It makes a difference whether we read a book in hardback or paperback, in an old Penguin with an orange cover or a shiny new edition. The e-book reader robs books of their individuality. It is, indeed, a book thief. It does not deal in ‘books’ at all, but in texts that it tries to persuade us are the same thing (which, of course, they are not).
All e-books look the same to everyone else, too. I will talk to someone on the train who’s reading something interesting, but not an anonymous e-book. (It will make a good disguise for pornography.) And how will we judge new potential friends if we can’t scan their bookshelves? It will be hard to open their e-book reader and scan its contents discreetly.
The e-book reader is pretty unsatisfactory if you want to read a literary novel. But literary novels account for few of the books published each year. Some non-fiction and reference books could be usefully bought and used as e-books, particularly if the interface of the reader were improved to make moving around simpler. And there are plenty of fiction not read in nicely designed editions. My father is in his seventies, and reads a lot, usually science fiction. I gave him the e-book reader and he read the script of A Clockwork Orange, all the way through – or to within six pages of the end, when the battery ran out. He is not bothered about the page layout and said he would use it if there were books he wanted to read available (there are), if it were cheaper, and if the books were cheap.
This last point is significant. An e-book has no physical substance – it’s just a downloaded file. The cost to the publisher is similar to producing a paper book until the files are shipped to Far-Off Lands for printing; thereafter, it is zero. No paper, no binding, no shipping, no warehousing, no stock movement, no returns. They should be much cheaper than paper books, but they are not. Why? Surely if publishers gave away e-books with printed copies for now (which will cost them next to nothing) that would encourage customers to get e-book readers? They could read the real book at home, but carry the e-book to read elsewhere. When enough people have readers, e-books could be 99p. This is not ridiculous. I asked a publisher for some figures and it would be possible for an unillustrated, mono book (there’s no colour e-book reader yet anyway).
That’s fine if we really want e-books. But even if e-books are cheap, the reader is expensive. Is a family supposed to share one, and take it in turns to read? Or pay £200 for each of four or five? Do we give one to each child, and replace it as regularly as we replace lost/stolen/dropped/washing-machined/trodden-on iPods and phones? (Incidentally, neither of my daughters was remotely interested in the e-book reader, despite being complete technojunkies.) And when some books are produced only as e-books, what will there be for people who can’t afford an e-book reader? I have a horrible feeling that e-books could undo all the good work for literacy rates that Gutenberg started: if only the rich can afford to read, aren’t we back where we started?
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
SCENE 1. INTERIOR DAY
In the north facing room of a tiny house in Hackney a scruffy woman sits typing. The desk isn't a desk, more a table piled high with books, bits of paper, and a horrible plant. She pauses occasionally, thinking, before typing some more. There is a fan heater blowing warm air up her skirt, but she is hunched over the keyboard, she looks cold.
I can't keep that up, I was going to write my blog as a treatment, but I've got (thank goodness) work to do. I don't know about you but if someone offers me money to write something - unless it's completely and utterly off my radar involving sailing or space travel or something (and actually I am willing to make it up about the space travel) - I will do it. I will do it all smiles and say 'yes of course you can have that by the end of the week, no problem' and then spend the week knitting, attending award ceremonies where I know I haven't won anything, and having lunch with friends. Then when you email me and ask me if I need more time I will shake my head no, no. no, I say, why it's practically done already, I just want to leave it to mature over the weekend, I say, secure that no one can actually see how white you've gone thinking that you haven't even started their 800 words and hoping that whatever you come up with it will be at least all right.
If I was a proper writer I'd be a perfectionist, crafting each and every word by hand instead of hammering them roughly into shape with what feels like a wooden mallet. I'm doing it now! Where I should be musing on my week as not the Catherine Johnson who wrote Mama Mia and turning down tea in The Ritz with Americans and being offered various appearances on Radio 4, and laughing at my own amusing anecdotes, I'm actually dribbling on about work again.
What I mean is I love my job. I know how lucky I am that I don't have to teach a class of thirty intransigent Tottenham school students like my mother did, or dig up roads and fields like my grandfather did.
I can sit at home with the blow heater up my frock and moan about having to make up 800 words about something that doesn't even exist.
And (fingers crossed) get paid.
Happy Christmas and New Year and a virtual drink and mince pie to everyone.
On further reflection I struggled to recall her face, the memories seemed to keep slipping and changing. The harder I tried the more difficult it became. Which image of her was the one I remembered? Perhaps all of them - and that was what made it so difficult. People change continuously, their faces, their hair, what they wear, how they stand.
Bizarrely, I have no problems in recalling what our pet Labrador looked like, but then aside from growing a little grey and getting stiffer in his joints, he really didn’t change much for many years.
I only dimly remember my grandmother, who died when I was quite young, until a photograph of her suddenly brought a familiar face and voice to mind. I was so young that I probably didn’t know her long enough for her to change very much.
My children, who are now adults, looked so different when they were very young and yet I can see something of the adults they became in the photographs of them as toddlers. The photographs jog my memory of them at a specific age.
Photographs are a slice of time, stopped but giving clues if you care to look.
Research into my ancestors meant looking carefully at photographs to absorb any tiny clues to their personality and situation in life through their expression, their stance and even their clothes. I love to try and guess what was going on in their minds at that moment, what was happening off camera, or in their lives – their cares, fears and joys.
Of course I could be making assumptions that are way off mark - but the possibilities for a story are endless!
Monday, 8 December 2008
It’s easy to react badly to all this. (Well, it is for me: other writers may be far more reasonable, experienced, level-headed, calm and wise.) Even though I’ve done it before, even though my editor is lovely, sympathetic and perceptive, I take my first glance at the scrawled blue loops, crossings-out and comments with indignation positively foaming through my veins. I lose my cool. My inner teenager runs riot. I phone a friend. I pour out my woes. I am bitter, furious, misunderstood. Doesn’t my editor understand the effort that went into crafting that perfect cadence in the opening paragraph? Doesn’t she realise that if I sacrifice that, I sacrifice my artistic integrity?
Editors, I once said elsewhere, are like your mother. Writing a book is like packing a suitcase. I have a tendency to cram in everything I think I can possibly need. What will the weather be like? Will I go out in the evenings? How can I possibly bring too many shoes? Ooh, and there’s that glittery off-the-shoulder thing I got in the sales – I’ve never found a use for it yet, but maybe this time I can put it on and really strut my stuff.
Then, just as I’m bouncing on the suitcase, trying to get it fastened, along comes my editor. “I’m packed,” I say, beaming. “Just help me zip it up!”
And she says, “You don’t need all that stuff!”
And do you know what?
Saturday, 6 December 2008
Ho, ho, ho! A ‘proper’ author, hey, John? I’ve just got in from work – that’s ‘proper’ (!) work (with predictable pay) at the arts centre where I run the youth theatre and where I’ve just spent an hour, not sitting in the sink writing, dammit, (see Sally Nicholls’ post) but up to my elbows in the sink because it’s Christmas, they’re short-staffed and I couldn’t leave the bar staff fast disappearing behind a mound of washing up and a queue of stressy-looking Joe Publics. The dance director and the director of the senior youth theatre have both hand run-ins with the technician in the last couple of days, he’s not best-pleased with me either and this is only the start of the week with the end of term performances by all the theatre and dance groups. Will I still be here on Thursday morning? Or will I have been a) duffed up by the technician? b) thrown into the canal by angry parents? c) closeted in a nice, quiet padded cell – hmmm….maybe they’ll let me have some paper and a pencil in there?
This week has also included a day in college training to be a counsellor and a morning in a comprehensive school being a counsellor, quite a lot more time at the arts centre, a fair amount of time still attempting to save the life of Eric Cathey – he’s not off the hook yet, though readers of my last post will, I hope be pleased to hear that he was granted a stay of execution with only four and a half hours left to live – and all the usual cooking, washing, ironing and general to-ing and fro-ing that life with too many teenagers involves. (This week we had a fall off a moped and a 1am ‘Can you check my UCAS entry?’ stunt to add to our flagging interest in their manic existences.)
So you can see why I was gleefully announcing on Monday to my Facebook friends that I had written a chapter! And on Tuesday, I’d written two! Hallelujah! The only reason I managed that was because I ring-fenced December to write! Ho, ho, ho! (again) So what will next week hold? Well – Monday and Tuesday morning I’d booked for writing – but unfortunately, the lovely woman who was going to arrange the publication of stories that my creative writing group wrote in the summer has been ill ever since – so I’m going to make my first venture into Lulu publishing and do it myself. Hey ho – maybe another chapter the following week then….
Proper author, John? Well, if that’s fullish-time and getting invited to publisher’s parties (wot are they?) then maybe not. But if seizing any fair-sized block of time to get on with it counts, in a passionate, frantic kind of way (and then falling asleep over the keyboard because life is too interesting to go to bed when I should!) then yes, certainly! I’m not really moaning – I’d be useless at sitting at my desk everyday – I’m just having a mildly frustrated episode. At least I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I never have time for it!
I say all this to convince myself, of course. I have difficulty being a ‘proper’ wife and a ‘proper’ mother too - and I certainly haven’t got a ‘proper’ job! That’s nine to five, isn’t it?!
Friday, 5 December 2008
Everyone's experience is probably different, but for me there was never one defining moment when I actually began to feel 'proper'. The process of going from teacher who occasionally sent off hopeful manuscripts, to full(ish)-time writer of books for children, appears - as I look back - to have been a long and winding path with no clearly-marked boundaries or borders.
This is on my mind this morning because yesterday was the day of my publisher's annual Christmas party, and I was interested to realise how much I felt a part of things, in a way that I haven't quite in previous years. At my first party, five years ago, I shuffled in feeling slightly fraudulent - my first book wasn't even in print yet, for goodness sake! - and, not knowing anyone except my editor and the director of fiction, had to be shepherded round by patient press officers and junior editors to be introduced to people. This year, by the time I'd left my coat in the cloakroom I'd greeted half a dozen people - fellow authors, Random House members of staff, librarians and so on - like old friends. There was none of this standing around wondering who to talk to next; in fact, there were a number of people with whom I didn't get to exchange more than a couple of sentences, when I'd have loved the chance of a bit more of a proper natter. I'm not sure when I became so much and so comfortably a part of this world, but it was a nice feeling.
And now, being a proper author, I suppose I ought to go and do a bit of proper work...
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Armed with cameras we went to find prospective ‘clients/actors’ amongst the exhibitions. Many of my co-workshoppers were researchers with special interests and chose serious subjects like statues, tiles, pottery and fabric designs. But I suppose a little bit of laziness in me chose the first gallery up from the Sackler Design Centre where we were working – the 20th Century Gallery, where I found objects that already seemed to be people – a few chairs, an Alessi cork-screw, and down below in the Fashion Gallery some shoes. And they immediately began talking to each other in my head.
The joy of working on a Mac in iMovie is that you can take these very inanimate objects and imbue them with life. Make them not only speak but move! I was the ultimate puppeteer. What power! So armed with scissors, crayons, card, paper and glue (the comments on Susan Price's Secret(ish) Love blog proved how beguiling all these objects can be!) I gave life to the Drum Armchair designed by Cecil Beaton in 1935.
With 18th century red-tasselled, silk boots kicking and arms taking up the drumstick motive on the back of the chair, he became the alter-ego of Punch forever imprisoned without legs, in his blue-striped, canvas stage on the beach. For a moment my newly animated chair with a fanfare of bugles and drums (no tiaras and ermine though – this wasn’t yesterday’s Queen’s Speech), and with animated arms creeping up his legs like caterpillars to the sound of marching feet, seemed more vital and vibrant and real than any character I’d written about in a book. (And if I wasn't too worried about crashing the bigblogadventure site, might have added the entire animation with much leg kicking, drumming and fanfare as well, to this blog.)
Hmmm? A new career? Should I take up animation instead of writing? A very amateurish film of 1 minute took I don’t know how many hours and hours of work and a total of 720 stop-frames to come alive. So now I’m trying to do the maths… how many hours and words does it take to make a character more or less alive in a book?
(Great to meet a fellow-blogger Lucy, at the Soc of Authors AGM with your new book, Hoot-cat Hill. And Nicky Browne, yes, agreed, I’m also losing the plot. Through this Animation Course I’ve now added another few layers to a desk that like yours, remains permanently something of an archaeological dig! I'm also spending an inordinate amount of time for someone who should be writing, playing animation not just with Punch's alter-ego but my own... pure escapism!)
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
What’s that, dear reader? You want to go to Stonehenge and try the hammer trick out for yourself? Do let me know how you get on.
- The Magnifying Glass. In this view, Stonehenge (or whatever monument is involved) becomes a focus for cosmic, magical, or other forces, making it a place of tremendous power.
- The Time Squisher. Because of this concentration of power, the very concept of time itself takes on a curious wibbliness, allowing easy access from one period to another, or even to a mysterious place where "all times coexist." (Very handy when you’re late with a deadline.)
- The Space Squasher. Alternatively it is space rather than time that undergoes the wibbling, allowing your protagonist to step lightly between countries or even universes. Ever noticed how much those trilithons look like airport security scanners?
- The Alien Engine. Just possibly all that concentrated power is being used neither to squish not yet to wibble, but rather to run a machine, designed by intelligences far beyond our puny ken, for purposes we wot not of. (No insult to puny Ken intended.)
- The Petrified Folk. Here we take a leaf out of the folklorists’ book, and see in these mysterious megaliths hapless people who have been turned to stone. The fields of Britain are scattered with Sunday revellers, witch insulters, devil wagerers and name-in-vain takers. Will they never learn? No one, as far as I know, has attached a legend of this kind to Stonehenge itself, mind* – and it would be difficult to do so, given the trilithons. What on earth were they up to when they got stonified? Was the 2000 B.C. British gymnastic squad punished for training on the Sabbath? As ever, Stonehenge keeps its secrets.
Monday, 1 December 2008
Writing for teens is like walking an eggshell laden tightrope. I write first and foremost for my readers; twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year olds. However I always have to have an eye on the adults involved; the editors, the librarians, teachers, the parents of those who I write for. If they don’t think my books are good then the teens who I’m trying to reach will never get to know about them.
This is why the characters in my books are seventeen.
I’ve never written a book about the sex life of a teen. Memories of my own teenage years tell me that a book of that sort would be very short and scrappy and infused with embarrassment. Apart from that it would be dull. Where’s the suspense, the mystery, the intrigue?
The books that I write are primarily crime stories. The teenagers in them have lives apart from these crime plots and these lives involve friendships and family relationships and love. Sex finds its way into my books. I wouldn’t be portraying realistic characters if it didn’t. My teens struggle with sex just as I struggled with it as a teen.
Is it all right to have sex? Will my parents find out? What will it be like? How will I protect myself? Will he still love me afterwards? Will everyone think I’m easy? Will I get pregnant? Will he still love me afterwards? Will it be painful? Will it be messy?
Most of all will he still love me afterwards?My new book JUST JEALOUS has a girl who loves a boy. He loves someone else though. She longs for this boy and tries to break up his relationship. It ends badly.
Her name is Elly. She is hungry for him but she can’t have him. When I was writing it I planned to make her unavailable, keeping herself for him. But as I wrote it the character seemed to emerge as someone with a sexual appetite. If she can’t have him then she’ll have others and also – she’ll enjoy having them.
As I wrote it I wondered how this would sit with the adult readers. Will it offend them? I heard the sound of cracking eggshells. Would my sexually hungry teen book be tucked behind the librarian’s desk? Only for certain readers? Only for year nine upwards?
Or might it be reviewed on a USA website with a warning; Some touching on top of clothes (as was my book Looking for JJ )
In the end I had to go for what worked for the story. Elly is hungry for Carl. She fulfils that hunger with other lads. This is what the story is about, her hunger and the tragedy that comes out of it.