Episodic story telling.

 

Like many other people across the country, and even across the world, I’m an Archers listener.

Recently I’ve become an addict, embroiled in the voyeuristic process of watching the loathsome Rob Titchener erode Helen Archer’s confidence – and everything else.

I’ve hung over the radio, listening to every second of the twelve minute episodes, craving more detail, more information, more time.  But the scriptwriters give us tiny jewels and we go away and tweet and wonder and read articles about it in the Guardian, coming back night after night to glean a little more of this awful story.

Now I’m not here to comment on the content, lots of people who know far more have said wiser things than I ever could, but I’m interested in the form.

What intrigues me is that we know these stories can have no end – they’re soap operas – like real life. Unless all the characters die in a freak accident their stories will go on into potential old age, so what’s in it for us?

Some might say, suspense.

I’d say, it was anxiety.

If the episodes were longer – and we had the whole thing in say, two and half hours, I suspect we might lose interest.  But the format builds anxiety.  It’s like cliffhanger chapters every twelve minutes. This way, we get hooked.  It’s a kind of worried buzz.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who failed to breathe throughout Sunday’s episode.

If, like me you’re a fan of crime drama, you may have spent this spring carrying episodes of Shetland, Luther, Hinterland, Happy Valley, Marcella, The Night Manager, Trapped and Undercover – all in your head.  You might even have tried to catch up on previous series at the same time, new Shetland, old Shetland overlapping.

It’s all very tense.  For an hour you’re caught up in it and then left clawing the TV for the next episode.  If, like me, you watch enough of it, and the Danish sea captain is the same as the victim’s father from a previous series, you can get quite muddled – which adds to the anxiety.

Curiously, these stories don’t have to follow the conventions of story arcs or resolutions, or character development.  They can actually be full of plot holes too.  But they leave you desperate for more and completely unable to satisfy it except by waiting or watching in binges. (Preferred method in this house)

And I’d argue that it may get ratings, but it’s not a natural or a robust way to tell a story.

I’d argue, that when we first gathered around fires in the dark and told stories – we were held in the storyteller’s circle for the whole narrative.   We sat absorbed, learning every scrap there was to know.  We probably asked questions, we probably heard the story more than once.  And it satisfied us.

That pattern has been followed by most of our literature over the centuries.  Our love of books comes from the ability  to read at your own pace, overnight if you have to, until you get to the finale.  A child’s reading can often take off when the story  or the character grabs them and they HAVE to get to the conclusion.  When we enter into a book, we seek something that heightens our anxiety, thrills us,  but lets it fall again at the end.  Something that explores and potentially resolves our fears.

Which is why I’ll be sticking to crime fiction from the stacks rather than the iplayer from now on –

Except – is it nearly 7 o clock – shall I just find out what’s happened to that loathsome Rob Titchener?

 

 

Messing about with the Secret Garden.

secretgardencover

At the beginning of January, this book came out. Yes, the “Secret Garden” – and it is, indeed, The Secret Garden – but not as you know it.  The brief was to retell, in 5,000 words, Frances Hodgson- Burnett’s original book, in a way that would be accessible to a child who might struggle with the classic text.   “Yes,” I said, wondering if I could really do it. “Sounds like a great challenge”, which indeed it was.  I started by re-reading it on kindle, which is always unkind to a manuscript – then I re-read my battered childhood copy:

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And drank a lot of cups of tea and decided that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

But I took some notes – and I took some more, and realised that if I wrote the skeleton of the story, like a synopsis, stripped off the parts that I couldn’t work in, and fleshed out the pieces that were essential,  it was perfectly possible. It could even be fun.   I’m not a methodical person, my thoughts aren’t very organized but I’m good at finding the essence of something and I decided that the essence of “sour faced Mary” was where I would start.   It also seemed that Dickon, and Martha were essential, and of course, Colin.

I wrote something that I quite liked, that was about 8,000 words, and then began to pare and to cut and by the end it felt like thin sheep, shorn, racing over the pages where once something quite fluffy had stood.

Then came the illustrations, which were not at all as I imagined, but for all that, brought the story alive. Mary had a face, Colin too – and the house and moor, and garden.

When the finished book arrived, and I found myself reading it  I decided that it had worked.  That the Secret Garden, that precious book, part of the childhood of so many people, now had a new version that could be accessed by thousands of children who would not otherwise go near it.  And when they’ve read the Secret Garden, they can move on to Wuthering Heights, rewritten by Emma Carroll  , and Frankenstein by Beverly Birch or the Railway Children, or Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, or Jane Eyre or…  Masses of them, actually, masses of sacred texts made accessible for modern children.

 

 

 

Algorithms? Are they really a replacement?

Today, S.F.Said, the author of PHOENIX, (if you haven’t read it, you should) has written this article which contains shocking statistics of the pathetic state of newspaper coverage for Children’s literature.  It turns out that all children’s literature, from Young Adult to the picture book is bundled together and gets the tiniest slice of space –  3.1% of column inches.  Read the article for the rest of the information.

This is poor indeed.  It’s lousy for writers & illustrators, but its lousier for children themselves.  As I see it, it means that all the people who were out there to help a child or parent choose a book are gone or on the edge of extinction. Economics has shaved away professional librarians/libraries and proper bookshops are being bullied out of the road by online selling.  And because of the parlous state of children’s books years ago, pre Harry Potter and Philip Pullman, the column inches in the newspapers withered, and they’ve not been re kindled. (To mix metaphors)

Tragically, this leaves parents and children with algorithms as guides.

So – where once my mother would pin a sheaf of newspaper cuttings on the kitchen notice board, now, she’d wander into a bookshop (If she could find one) or faff about online with no idea what lay within the covers and choose something unguided.  My childhood was dominated by those books with good reviews, and they were good books. Someone, an adult, had read them, thought about them and given them the thumbs up.  If I had worked on the same principle with my children,  they would have had a very few books per year suitable for their age range.

You may respond that Amazon and Goodreads are littered with reviews.  Yes, they are, but you have to find the book to find the review and even then some of them aren’t much good:

Was a bit long coming in the post but very good quality book almost new”

or written by parents who HAVEN’T ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK

“My 9 year old daughter loved this book. She couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended”

It’s not as if there aren’t lots of terrific reviewers out there, dying to get some proper column inches.  It’s not as if there aren’t thousands of parents and grandparents reading the review sections.  I volunteer for the Summer Reading Challenge in the library, and parents wander in and say: “She’s read all of Roald Dahl’s books – where do we go next?”  If the librarians are busy, I will help them find books (I love this bit) and they will go away having explored a new branch of the children’s book tree, but without that person, me, the librarian, the bookseller or the reviewer – they’re a bit stuffed, frankly.

So, Mr or Mrs Newspaper Editor – it’s time you woke up – there are lots and lots of people out there who NEED professional reviewers.  It’s time we had them back in the pages on a regular basis. Not just Summer round ups, and Christmas choices, we need them week in week out.

There’s this new campaign out there #coverkidsbooks – join it to add your voice.

You never know, it might help the librarians and the booksellers. If they’re still out there.

You mean it has to have chapters?

 

 

 

chapter

When you ‘re a child, and someone’s reading to you,  there’s always that hope that they might read you another chapter; and as an adult, you ponder, as you approach the end of that chapter, whether you can stand reading another one, or will your own voice send you to sleep.

At this point, the chapter seems relevant, useful, essential.

They’re often about 1000 words apart and they help to regulate the story, like a heartbeat, or a pendulum.

But as the readership gets older and the story perhaps more about inner dialogue and less about action, so the placing of the chapter break becomes more difficult.

I’ve just finished the almost final draft of Bus Stop Baby, a book about Amy, a twelve year old who finds an abandoned baby in a cardboard box in the village bus shelter.  I wrote the book in a single splurge in sixteen days last summer.  It had been boiling up for a while and came out like a geyser, faster and faster until I abandoned the spelling, the punctuation, the names, all of it in favour of getting it out before I forgot the initial intensity of Amy and her character.

The result, a rope of a manuscript with no regulation. No formal breaks. No chapters. I put in the punctuation. The spelling was done by my computer – but the chapters…

Well, I’m still struggling with those.

 

BUS STOP BABY will be published in July of this year.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s to sleep –

This year, my hopefully attainable, New Year’s resolution is to get more sleep.

Not to work more, or to eat less, or to exercise more, but to sleep more. And I don’t just want to lie in bed, I want to sleep properly. Deep sleep, the kind that  knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.  The sort of sleep that means you go to bed with a knotty problem but wake up with it somehow solved.  The sort where strange and inexplicable dreams wander off with your worries and leave a soft rabbit’s ear of comfort in their place. The sort of incredible sleep that actually leaves you refreshed.

So – to this end, I have ordered the Empress of mattresses. One, according to the sales woman, that will transform my sleeping habits.

Hopefully, more sleep will make me a nicer person a more disciplined person, a clearer minded person.

Hopefully, more sleep will transform my  writing habits, eating habits and exercise habits too.

Ask me again in a year.

 

 

Waiting

We all hate waiting.  Only yesterday I had a conversation with another children’s author about waiting.  About being a mother and hanging around.  Waiting for someone to need something. Needs that come at irregular intervals, just close enough together to stop you getting on with something.

It’s about not knowing.  Uncertainty. Start stop.  It stops you focussing.

I remember that one of the worst things before I had both agent and contract, was waiting.  Waiting with hope, daring to hope, deciding not to hope.  Getting an email, not getting an email. It was all agony. Every time I sent something off, I hoped, told myself not to hope. Pretended I didn’t care when I did, deeply.

You might assume that after publication this doesn’t happen anymore. It’s like taking exams, something you do at the beginning but not later on. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

I have two fantastic editors, and a brilliantly lovely agent, and they are never rude. And they don’t take longer than they need to and I know that they will get back to me in the end. It’s not the same as wondering if your manuscript has ended up in a lost pile in a sorting office, or slipped unseen into the junk box of some agent’s email.

That’s much worse.

And generally, I’m pretty good at making sure these things overlap, so that I’m busy doing something else, not just waiting. And I’d rather they took their time over it than rushed to get back to me. And I’m sure that sometimes they’re waiting for me. 

But today. I’m waiting.

Indecision V Prevarication

For me, and I’m really talking personally here, these two are my worst enemies.

Indecision, is the thing that stops me writing – really.   Because in my experience the hard part of writing, and in some ways the exciting part of writing is  making millions of tiny decisions.  From tiny, to massive.  What word? Where? How?  What voice?  What character?  What should I do here?  What shouldn’t I do here?  What would happen if I took that section out and scrapped this character?  I have to think it through.  All the way through, but often my tiny mind isn’t really up to it, so instead, I get about half way and then…

I prevaricate.

I do a multitude of pointless things, like Twitter and Facebook and checking my sales figures on Amazon – Oh yes, I hate Amazon but I want to sell my books on it.  My son says “we’re human, we have a right to hypocrisy.”

trees

I clean the fridge, I empty the dishwasher, I paint windows, I pick up fallen apples and prepare them so that they add to the already enormous quantities of stewed apple stowed in the freezer, ready and waiting for the zombie apocalypse.  I dig the allotment so that the weeds have a better time in the freshly tilled soil.  I walk. I stare at the sky. I write blog posts.  I try to play Moonlight Sonata on the out of tune piano.

And so, after several days, when I’ve prevaricated enough, I go back to make myself make that decision. The idea is that time will have done the work for me.  Like sleep and that ravelled sleeve that Shakespeare invented.

If I’m really lucky, time has, and some higher wind takes me through it really fast and the little fragments of grey matter that have been so absorbed in packing apple into the freezer know exactly what to do.  Within minutes a whole mass of decisions have been made and acted upon.

But if I’m not lucky, as if tramping through mud on a slope, the whole thing becomes messy and backwards and I wish I was still painting windows.

Or peeling apples.