Wednesday, 30 November 2011
I'll start with a confession: I wanted to be published as E. L. Renner, but my then agent convinced me to use my first name. I'm still uncertain that was the right decision.
Why? Partly because initials are more anonymous. My books are about my characters, not me. I want my stories and characters to stand alone, with as little 'author-as-brand' hype as possible. As a child and teen reader I didn't want to know anything about the author of books I loved except when their next book was coming out. I wanted to experience the magic of transformation into another person, another world, another experience. Author photos were a definite turn-off: I wanted magic performed by some unknown alchemist, not a real person. Terry Prachett has the wisdom to wear a magician’s hat for his publicity stills.
Then there’s the delicate question of the critical glass ceiling. It's a perennial topic in adult fiction and it would be naive to believe that children’s books are exempt. It would also take a large dollop of willful obtuseness not to notice that male authors attract more critical attention per capita than their female counterparts. It's not a conspiracy; critics don't exercise their bias consciously any more than did the editors of the publications who recently voted for Sports Personality of the Year and neglected to put a single woman on the list.
I believe that almost all of us, however pro-female we believe ourselves to be, are so conditioned by the constant bombardment of overt and subtle messages in every aspect of our society about the relative value of the male versus the female that we subconsciously take a story written by a man more seriously than we would the same story written by a woman.
I don't think J.K. Rowling's books would have been as successful had she published them as Joanne. I doubt George Eliot would have garnered such a strong place in the canon if she had written as Mary Ann Evans. If Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the greatest stylists and most original writers of the twentieth century, had been a man, I am convinced that her books would be much better known today. Arguably, Virginia Woolf made it into the public eye not because she had a room of her own, but because she had a publishing house of her own.
Is it, therefore, a cop-out for a woman to write under her initials, in an attempt, however feeble, to combat the anti-female bias that pervades every aspect of our culture? Possibly. It’s a difficult question and one I’ll continue to ask myself. But I also know I'll use whatever tools I can fashion to give my books and my characters, both male and female, every chance I can.
Because the larger point is that, although gender shouldn't matter in life, it does. And the only way I can see to address this issue as a writer is to attempt to be as genderless as possible – a writing androgyne. I enjoy writing both male and female characters. I don't set out to write about a girl or a boy; I choose the gender which seems to fit the story best. And the reason I write at all is because I want imaginative experience. While it's true that I can’t experience what it’s like to be a boy or man in real life, I can imagine it as a writer, and I have never felt closer to any character than I did when writing Tobias Petch in City of Thieves.
‘Only connect.’ E. M. Forster knew that books teach empathy. Between the pages of a book a reader can become another person. Boys can become girls, and girls boys. Men can see the world, however briefly, through the eyes and emotions of a woman. And understanding may result. And then, perhaps, the word ‘girly’ will no longer be a term of disdain. When that happens, this entire discussion will be irrelevant.
Earlier this year I attended a conference where a speaker advised writers to ensure their main characters were boys, trotting forth that insidious mantra of marketing, ‘boys won’t read about girl characters’.
Please don’t tell that to the countless boys who read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The BFG and The Magic Finger. Or the boys, like my son, who devour Prachett’s Tiffany Aching books (which gently poke fun at gender stereotypes through the dealings between Tiffany and the Wee Free Men). Don't tell the generations of boys who have loved Charlotte's Web and The Borrowers or those who, like my husband, read E. (!) Nesbit’s The Railway Children and fell in love with Roberta.
If boys hear the message that a book is good, they'll read it whether or not it has a girl as a main character. Who gives them that message? We do. Parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, marketing and sales departments with gender specific covers. If boys are refusing to read books where the main character is a girl, it’s because we’re telling them that they shouldn’t. We give them permission to exclude girls from their imaginative world, and that view of the female as 'other' will simply carry on into adulthood. That’s where writers need to draw the battle lines: not how gender specific an author’s name is, but the banishing of girls from the centre stage of life itself. It’s an appalling message to give to children of either sex: that girls cannot be heroes, cannot be the main characters in story or in life.
I happen to be female. That accident of genetics has shaped and coloured who I am, but it is not my primary definition as a person or as a writer. Despite my qualms that Keren may be right, and that I’m somehow betraying my ideals by using my initials, I am considering publishing my next book as E. L. Renner. It’s an older, darker book and I want to distinguish it from my younger fiction. That’s the obvious reason for switching to initials, but I know the issues I listed above will inevitably influence my decision.
Monday, 28 November 2011
|The barn occupied by my werewolf|
I've just spent two and a half days shut in a room with a werewolf.
|Hot chocolate in the forest|
Lots of activities and workshops were planned, but I'm afraid I can't give any details of those as I was a bit of a boring recluse and locked myself away to work for the whole time. Well, I did venture out for the many and large meals, and the evenings of book-related jollity.
|Lucy Coates and Miriam Moss|
Why do writers need to go away? And why do writers, who work best in solitude, like to get together for a week?
|Cindy Jeffries and Mary Hoffman|
|Fungi in the forest|
|Fun guy (Tim Collins) in the forest|
|Pencils? No, there are no pictures of |
|A house of sticks, waiting for a big,|
bad (were)wolf to come along
Sunday, 27 November 2011
BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: On selling more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling – Katie Clapham at Storytellers, Inc.
Imagine a place where giant power authors, you know - the ones with their own signature font, are pushed aside for lesser known authors. A place where hand-written signs and friendly recommendations overshadow expensively produced online trailers and bestseller lists. It is your local independent bookshop – a magical enclosure where the bookselling playing field is somewhat smoothed (it will never be absolutely level, but that’s a good thing too).
At Storytellers, Inc. we generally stock single copies of everything. This was a decision we made during the initial stock of the shop nearly one year ago. Range was more important to me than filling shelves with multiple copies of the most popular titles - we’ve got a WHSmith in town for that. Of course this means we’re taking more responsibility for the stock but that’s a power I’m glad to wield. I delight in finding hidden gems and sharing them with customers who are excited to take the risk. Of course there is no getting away from the fact we get more requests for Julia Donaldson and Jacqueline Wilson than Kazuno Kohara and Reinhardt Jung but it’s also true that our bestsellers include Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen (we’ve got generations of recommendations and personal ties to the story’s location), the beautiful Madame Pamplemousse series which have dazzled lots of little girls, who’ve then come back to buy copies for friends, and Chris Ridell’s stunning Ottoline series, which a local school picked up as a class book.
We can’t afford to pay authors and illustrators to visit us in the shop yet so we’re gratefully accepting tour dates from publishers and booking school visits for the authors. They’ve paid off; we’ve sold more Mary Hooper than Stephanie Meyer and more Penny Dolan than J.K. Rowling. The children who heard Penny talk about her book were coming into the shop for weeks after, desperately asking for their MOUSE books with worn-out parents telling us how they’ve heard of nothing else since the talk. Having an author come to the school is a real treat and as the personal investment in the book and its author is sealed, the financial is guaranteed to follow.
As a business we’re trying to find ways of drawing this mass attention to new titles on a more regular basis. I’ve recently written a new scheme for schools that takes a brand new title and develops a term-length feature on it for local schools. The Cool Books in School campaign was launched in September with four local schools taking part. I have selected two new books (one for primary years 3 and 4 and another for years 5 and 6) to work with. The term started with a visit from me to introduce the book and read the beginning as a class storytime (repeated in as many classes as I could until my tongue dried out). Later this term I will return with a creative writing session loosely based on the text (theme or form etc.) and we will finish the term with a schools-wide writing competition. For the duration of the term the chosen books are offered at a promotional price to the schools and pupils taking part. I also wrote to the publishers of the chosen books demanding to know what they were going to do in return for my relentless promotion of their books.
I am planning to repeat this campaign three times a year, getting new releases into schools, raising awareness of current authors and sneaking some creative writing into classrooms. My personal goal is that with each term I will win another school over (some are proving very stubborn!) Author visits within the term’s campaign would increase the appeal even further and I’m really hoping this will form a part of the future model. Should my own children’s novel ever find a publisher, school visits would be top priority on my agenda. I truly believe they are the most useful and exciting way to get children to try new authors.
On the smaller scale we blog, we tweet, we facebook and do everything we can to get on first name bases with authors and publishers. Promotional material can really make a difference – a few extra Department 19 POS packs meant I could chop up some posters and make a window display around the new title; we sold more HB copies of Will Hill’s debut than any other teen novel.
Sometimes it can feel like a hard-sell. We email our regulars with newsletters and offers and I write to the head teachers and telephone their exasperated receptionists but it’s all worth while when a delighted parent comes to the shop telling us that this was the book that created an interest in reading that wasn’t there before, or a child who previously restricted their reading to one genre (or author!) decides to explore the literary landscape. We’ve made an effort to make our shop a place that encourages these discoveries, there is seating and storytimes, coffee and baby changing facility (no, you keep your own baby). We’ve got our child-sized secret reading den and creative writing workshops in the school holidays.
We can’t compete with the prices online and in chain shops so like everyone else we’re trying to stand out in all other areas. It’ll be our first birthday on the 1st of December and we’ll be celebrating the fact that there is a market for the independent bookshop, particularly for children who want to see and touch and smell and maybe chew the book before they buy it. They also want to hear how great it is and for you to look excited and congratulate them on the book they have chosen, they want to come back and tell you about it when they’ve read it. As adults we are so fond of our booky memories, it is such a charming privilege to be part of these new memories in the making.
Caption: photograph of Katie Clapham with her homemade dump bin.
Storytellers, Inc website
Saturday, 26 November 2011
|Heathcliff, in the new film of Wuthering Heights|
|JK Rowling giving evidence this week|
Friday, 25 November 2011
'Now then,' he said pleasantly. 'I know the rules. Wizards aren't allowed to use magic against civilians except in genuine lifethreatening situa-'
There was a burst of octarine light.
'Actually, it's not a rule,' said Ridcully. 'It's more a guideline.'
How familiar was that? It's almost exactly what Captain Barbarossa declared in Pirates of the Caribbean, when Keira Knightley called on him to stick to the terms of the Pirates' Charter. I think that bit was used in a trailer; it was certainly quoted in reviews as one of the funniest lines in the film. But here it was: Lords and Ladies was published in 1992. Terry Pratchett wrote it first.
I'd be willing to bet that whoever wrote the script didn't realise the line was second-hand. For some reason, it resonated, as it did with me: it lodged in the scriptwriter's mind, and out it popped when it was needed. He probably had no idea he'd first seen the line in the book.
It made me think about why it is that some combinations of words are persistent, echoing in the memory long after what surrounded them has been forgotten. I haven't come up with any answers so far, but I have come up with some examples. Here are my first ten. They're in no particular order, and they're not necessarily accurate - they're as I remember them. Incidentally, I don't have a good memory for quotes - or for jokes - so if I remember something, it must have very considerable staying power!
'Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams...'
(W B Yeats - the whole poem is gorgeous. It's lovely as a song, too.)
'Christ if my love were in my arms'
And I in my bed again!
Anon (but very old!)
'Today was bad, but tomorrow will be beyond all imagining...'
Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
'Je crains notre victoire, autant que notre perte.'
This is from a French A-level text, Horace, by Corneille. It means 'I fear our victory as much as our defeat'. I think the speaker had a lover on one side of the battle and a brother on the other. Beyond that, I remember nothing about the play, and I've no idea why this phrase has stuck. Mind you, now I come to think about it, there are all sorts of situations to which it could apply.
'The drunkenness of things being various.'
(From Snow, by Louis MacNeice)
'We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.'
(The Sunlight on the Garden, also MacNeice)
'I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams...'
'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine...'
(Casablanca - like Shakespeare, the source of so many resonant quotes.)
'I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not like this. Not on the cess of war.'
(Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting)
'Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.'
(From T S Eliot's Burnt Norton - as is the quote I used for the title of this post. And here's a picture of a rose garden, just to remind us of summer. It's at Hestercombe, in Somerset)
Do you have any similarly sticky quotes? Or, to borrow from Eliot - footfalls which echo in the memory, as these do in mine?
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
As writers how much attention should we pay to the emotional journey we taking our readers on? Do we have a moral obligation to care about our reader's feelings? Or is the telling of the story paramount and hang the consequences.
I was brought up knowing the story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill fated journey to the South Pole. He was one of the star turns in my Grandpa’s book of heroes and heroines. On TV I watched the 1948 black and white movie ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ starring John Mills.Years later it was the adventures of another explorer, Ernest Shackleton that stirred my imagination as I watched the silent film 'South' accompanied by Neil Brand’s haunting music.
At the moment at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, there is an exhibition of Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic photography. I find this collection of black and white photographs taken in the first part of the 20th century incredibly moving and inspiring but will 21st century children feel the same?
Fellow author Bridget Crowley and I are currently leading creative writing sessions in the gallery for children between the ages of 7-11years. The children respond to selected photographs and we set them a series of writing tasks.
Then we move on to Captain Scott and The British Antarctic Expedition 1910 -1913. Most of the children have not heard about him and there is an awful moment as they gaze at the final photograph and they realise that this group of weary men ‘were destined never to return from the heart of the great alone’
Some children are upset.We move back into the education room and ask them to express their feelings in a letter to Captain Scott. Some children go back in time and rewrite history rescuing him. Others tell him about what is happening in the Antarctic now and thank him for the scientific samples that he sent back. Some just tell him they feel sad.
It just doesn’t feel right to end the session at this point so we tell them about the fate of one of the dogs that was washed overboard and then immediately washed back again!
( Spoiler Alert – if you a bringing a school group PLEASE don’t give any of this away)
These sessions have been a stark reminder to me to pay attention to the emotional journey in my own writing and that strong emotions need to be handled with care and discharged appropriately before the story ends.
The book covers for the Hunger Games Trilogy do not figure a beautifully elegant dead girl. Yet the books are best sellers and they have captured the imaginations of girls and boys alike.
Tuesday, 22 November 2011
It's easy for the time required for the craft of writing to be squeezed, and this has led me to consider the nature of 'discipline'. See where I'm coming from?
When I grew up, "discipline" was kind of a dirty word. It's also a frequent topic of questions in interviews, as in that awful one: "It must take a lot of self-discipline to write a novel/be a writer".
Well, no, we tend to answer patiently... self-discipline is not an issue. If you have the Calling to be a writer, actually you can't help it. In fact, you go crazy if you DON'T get the time to write.
For example, when unable to write for prolonged periods, I am prone to the feeling that I will start scraping the wallpaper off with my fingernails or yelling something deeply regrettable at my loved one if I can't get back to it very soon.
Yes, others might call it a form of mental illness, but, as anyone will know who has read biographies of many top entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), scientists or artists, this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour is a pre-requisite for success in many fields.
However nice a person you are, you have to demand the time to write, and this is not to be considered weird. Other people have no choice but to clock in nine to five, 46 weeks of the year. You have to claim that time for yourself.
What's almost pathological is the frustration I feel at having to spend hours doing all the self-marketing, twittering, email-answering, bill-paying, phone-call returning, website-updating, meeting-attending, computer-fixing, filing, tidying and a hundred-and-one other things – and it seems to be getting worse - before I can get a tiny window of time to do the one thing which I, however strangely, feel I was put on this planet to do.
Now, I'm one of the lucky people who make most of their living from writing. Lucky, but underpaid. I have to do several different kinds of writing to survive rather than just write fiction (my favourite form), and I feel that I've worked hard to be in this place.
For the past year, my work pattern has changed, involving a new discipline, and this has had an interesting effect on my writing.
Every weekday morning, I have to write an article, as soon as possible and usually within two hours, of about 700-1000 words, and post it on a web site.
This is an enforced discipline, but one that pays off well in terms of developing the discipline of the craft.
Typically, I have no idea before I start what the subject will be, and have to research it as I write it.
This type of journalism, for a specialist, largely business, audience, demands many qualities apart from accuracy and readability.
In particular, there is an instinct for what people want to read that no one else is providing, which can only come from knowing the field intimately.
There is also the kind of fluency that comes from being able to trust oneself that the process of writing at speed will result in something that isn't completely unintelligible and is of great interest to my readers.
This is a very different process from writing a novel, partly because it operates on a totally different timescale. It is topical, and so consumed, like a meal, within hours of preparation, after which it is likely to be forgotten; although one hopes that it will have greater influence, just as a top chef's creation may be talked about for long after it has disappeared.
The self-editing process is therefore different. When writing a novel, one can leave a draft for a few weeks so that, when re-reading it, one may see it afresh and notice errors and omissions that were obscured by the afterglow of creation.
Since adopting this new work pattern, and because I cannot expect my editor to spot my errors, I have developed new techniques to force myself to both edit as I write and to see my work freshly as if I had left it for weeks, even though it was only minutes. These techniques have fed into the novel-writing process.
I continually edit as I write, checking that I've said what I meant to say. I write in a text editor, not a word processor, so I can concentrate on the words alone, not be distracted by how they look.
I re-read and correct it, then copy and paste it into OpenOffice. I do the same there. Then I copy and paste that into TextEdit (I use a Mac) and repeat the process. Both of these have spell-checks that notice different words (OpenOffice doesn't check American spellings).
Each time I paste it into different software, it looks different, and my eye is forced to notice different things.
So I'll have read and re-read, continually correcting, this blog copy several times this way before posting it. Even so, I won't be surprised if someone spots a mistake!
There we have it: two types of discipline. One, that is about finding the time to write; the other, that is about the development of the craft.
Monday, 21 November 2011
Once upon a time, there were two poets. For the sake of anonymity, we will call one Emily and the other Sylvia. They were both extremely good writers - modern yet accessible, challenging yet mellifluous, edgy yet musical. They each kept a wary professional eye on the other’s successes and failures. Because they were decent human beings, they tried to rejoice at the former and not to rejoice at the latter. Sometimes they managed this better than other times, but still, they tried.
For many years their areas of special interest did not overlap, so they did not tend to be up for the same awards or invited to the same festivals. Emily focussed largely on urban subjects; Sylvia’s work was strictly metaphysical. But then – an example of convergent evolution – both Sylvia and Emily became interested in birds. Perhaps they both received literature from the RSPB during the same mailing campaign. Perhaps they both were given bird feeders as Christmas presents by totally unrelated relatives. Whatever the reason, both writers began to produce reams of poems about our feathered friends …
… until the inevitable happened. They were both short-listed for the RSPB Bird Poet of the Year Award.
On learning that one has been short-listed for anything, a writer’s invariable first thought is, What shall I wear? This is because they are not normally dressy people. Pyjamas, baggy track tops, elderly jeans – these make up the usual uniform of work-from-home writers. The two poets hadn’t a thing in their wardrobes appropriate for such an occasion.
So, after thinking, What shall I wear? Emily went out in search of an outfit that would be as beautiful as the subjects of her poems. Something feathery, colourful, suggestive of wings and flight.
After thinking, What shall I wear? Sylvia also went out in search of an outfit that would be as beautiful as the subjects of her poems. Something suggestive of flight and wings, colourful, feathery ...
On the fateful evening, they arrived at the award ceremony, both a little late, just in time to go onto the stage and be introduced to the audience.
They were dressed identically.
Sylvia turned to Emily. “Nice dress,” she said.
“Thank you,” Emily replied. “So’s yours.”
“Symbolic?” asked Sylvia.
“Absolutely,” said Emily with a cautious smile. “The old form and content thing.”
“Where would we be without metaphor, eh?”
There was a short pause. Then Emily crooked her arm, inviting Sylvia to link up with her.
“The grand entrance?” she murmured. “As if we’d planned it?”
Sylvia grinned. “For the cause!”
And so the two poets, in their identical dresses, walked on stage. And in the RSPB magazine the next month, over the article describing the event, this headline was proudly displayed:
BARDS OF THE FEATHER FROCK TOGETHER
Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.
Saturday, 19 November 2011
- Positive ending. Protagonist gets what he wants.
- Negative ending. Protagonist doesn’t get what he wants.
- Ambiguous ending. We don’t know if the protagonist will get what he wants.
- feels right for this type of story
- is not predictable and still has an element of surprise (hard one that)
- maintains tension until the last
- has some flourish
- calls not just for physical courage but moral courage as well
- has emotional appeal
- ties up most but not necessarily all loose ends in as little space as possible (the reader wants to reach the end)
- has a last sentence/ paragraph that leaves you feeling wow! like that moment of silence at the end of listening to a great piece of music.
Friday, 18 November 2011
Do you want to be understood? As an author, I mean, though possibly as a person, too.
I imagine you probably do - as an author, at least, in the sense of wanting to write clearly and cogently and to bring your fictional world alive to your readers. And I think most of us want to feel understood as individuals, at least by our loved ones, at least some of the time.
But on what level do I want my books to be understood? Given all the above... I would still hate it if someone - child or adult - finished one of my books and thought: 'Oh, I see. I get it now. I've sussed her out. I understand what that story was about, what I was supposed to get from it, what the author was trying to say...'
Urrrggghhh. That is not what I want at all.
All this was prompted by an email exchange I had yesterday with a longstanding writer friend - someone who, if anyone does, appreciates my work and has given me lots of good advice and help. She admitted that she had never 'really understood' my first novel, Charity's Child. Good, I said - you weren't meant to. Enjoy it, yes. I hope you found my story interesting and that it perhaps raised a few questions in your mind. But 'understand' it - please God, no!
I don't understand it myself. And I don't think that novels are written to be understood any more than people are born to be understood. Glimpses of comprehension, yes. Sudden insights, and those wonderful moments when a reader points out something about one of your characters that you hadn't seen yourself, or finds a 'theme' in your book that you certainly never intended putting there. That's OK. What's not OK is someone feeling that they've successfully and thoroughly deconstructed you, your work, the whole caboodle. If it were true, it would be somehow demeaning. And I don't believe it ever is true, anyway. If a novel can be deconstructed in that way - if that's all there is to it - then it's not a novel at all but something else.
As a reader, my favourite works of fiction are the ones that leave me satisfied in one sense but, in another, not quite sure. What exactly was going on there? Yes, the plot was tight and well-constructed, the characters were alive and real, the story plausible (if it was meant to be) - the whole thing worked... and yet... I think that's one reason I hated the stuff we did at school. 'What were Hamlet's motives for a, b, c...?' Did Shakespeare know? Are we really meant to know? I'm pretty bad at working out my own motives, let alone anyone else's.
I think, ideally, I would like to be one of those disappearing authors like J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee, who wrote their books and then ducked out of sight. No explanations, and certainly no apologies, if any were needed. I don't like the idea of trying to explain myself as a writer, or of trying to explain my work. (So why am I blogging? Good question, I suppose...)
Answer: I'm a realist, who knows that readers like authors who talk about themselves and their work. And I need company. I need to know there are others out there not too different from me. And I do want to be understood, at least partly, at least some of the time. I need to be told I'm OK; not too different from the rest of the herd, or not to the extent that I'll be cast out...
So I wrote a longish piece to try to explain why I wrote Charity's Child and how the religious stuff in it relates to the slow, uncertain retreat of my personal faith. I also wrote to explain why I made my narrator a young lesbian, when I am straight. These explanations were there as a response to some reviews and comments I had when the book came out - why, as a straight person, had I chosen to write about a gay Christian, and why had I attacked the Christian church? My answer to the latter was, I didn't. Or I didn't set out to, anyway - anything but.
Anyway, with the piece written, what do I do with it now? Post it on my blog, or hide it away in a drawer and let the book (which is to be reissued as an eBook soon) speak for itself? Perhaps I flatter myself that anyone would want to read my explanations, anyway. I'd much rather they read the book! So I think I'll wait a while and see (though if anyone would like to read it, please let me know and I can send it to you).
To broaden the discussion again - do you think authors should explain themselves, or not?
Thursday, 17 November 2011
Wednesday, 16 November 2011
Where once had raged a sea that raged no more (‘Drive-In Saturday’)
Tuesday, 15 November 2011
Obstructions are the limits that other people set on what we can do. I first came across this idea a good few years ago when I watched Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions in which von Trier challenged his friend and mentor, Jorgen Leth to remake the same short film five times, each time with an arbitrarily imposed obstruction. Lars chose the obstructions, naturally, and they ranged from technical (one short could only be made up of sections that were 12 frames long) to the emotional (another short had to be filmed in the worst place in the world). It should have been a disaster, but Leth rose to the challenge and, for the most part, the short films he produces are sublime. In each case, it is the obstructions that inspire Leth to try harder, to think bigger, to be bold.
Freedoms, on the other hand, are what you have when no-one is looking over your shoulder. When an idea comes, characters take shape, words spring and there are no deadlines and contracts and editors. Freedom is what you have when writing is done simply for pleasure. It is often the thing that self-publishers will guard jealously.
This week I attended a meeting for a writing project that comes laden with obstructions - it is for the educational market. There will be no violence, no dangerous activities, no pigs, no swearing. There will be a phonics list. I might have felt the weight of a depressing constraint. But I didn't. Instead, I felt challenged - how do you make a story exciting if it also has to be safe? How can I keep readers asking for 'just one more chapter' if it all has to be written in phoneme-decodable language?
Actually, I found myself bristling with ideas. By setting up obstructions, the publishers are forcing me to think harder, to be ingenious.
Next week, I'm attending a writer's retreat. That will be all freedom (even the freedom to lie around in bed eating biscuits all day, if I want). I won't be doing any contracted writing. I hope that it will be invigorating and luxurious. It is just this kind of freedom that keeps writing fresh for me.
And just to illustrate how good things can be with a bit of obstruction, here's Jorgen Leth's 'cartoon perfect human':
Elen's Facebook Page