Crossing the line.

treesLast night we went to an outdoor performance of The Tempest.  It was in gardens surrounded by fields and trees, a kind of parkland.

Being cheapskates, we had booked “groundling” tickets.  A snip at £5 – but no seat, and no cover if it rains.  We sat in front of the stand, coats and cushions under our bums, a couple of feet from the actors and with a 180 degree view of the action.  The best, but the most uncomfortable seats in the house.

We watched the first half, totally absorbed. Catching every nuance, every raised eyebrow.  Fully aware of the lighting that gradually changed the giant oak, centre stage, from green to pink.  It was thrilling. Caliban addressed us. Ariel’s skirts brushed us. We could see the goosepimples and hear the sighs.

But at the interval, our daughter said that we should sit in the empty seats at the top of the stand. She felt too vulnerable at the front. We agreed, our bums ached, it was getting chilly, and surely it would be just as good.

Well it was, but it wasn’t.

We couldn’t see so much, we couldn’t hear so much, and we weren’t part of it.

It occurred to me, as I sat at the back of the stand, that it was the difference between a book that is “close up” to its characters, and a book that isn’t.  I realise that I both choose to write, and choose to read books in which the characters are speaking to ME. And probably only me. So that some bridge of intimacy is formed in the first few pages and which I am loathe to break.

It’s the whole Point of View thing.  I remember learning about it at Bath Spa and I’d never even thought about it before, but I’m beginning to think it’s the most important part of starting any new story – who is going to tell it, and how?

As I have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to plots, all I can ever remember about a book that I’ve read is the sound of the character in my ear.  Where I’ve been sitting inside the action, rather than lying back, away, ever so slightly removed from the story.

So here’s a short list of books where for me the voice has sucked me in:

Liar and Spy – Rebecca Stead

Sky Hawk   – Gill Lewis

Artichoke Hearts – Sita Bramachari

A Greyhound of a Girl.   Roddy Doyle

The Year of the Rat – Clare Furniss

The Last Leaves Falling –  Fox Sarah Benwell

The Book Thief  – Marcus Zusak

I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith

Restoration – Rose Tremain

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

 

And next time I go to outdoor theatre, I’ll take a thicker cushion and stay on the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a writer is fun…

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Being a writer is fun.

Being a writer is spending all day in your imagination,

Flying over mountains,

Swimming deep in oceans,

Foiling criminals,

Demonizing someone,

Making someone a saint,

Falling in love, again, again, again,

Sometimes a wedding,

Sometimes a funeral,

Building dens,

Saving wild animals,

Seeing it from everyone’s point of view, and no-one’s.

All of the above.

And of course it’s fun – that’s why we do it. But it’s also very hard work.

A desk job that you can do at almost any desk or sofa.  That leaves you elated and exhausted in equal turns.

Full of doubts.

And that’s the dreamy creative, focussed outpouring bit.

But a massive part of it is editing, editing, editing.

And that’s really hard work. When it’s going well, it can be like stepping stones, wonderful paths that suddenly make sense and lead you on with silver promises of a story resolved. Other times it’s a dreadful slog. Sometimes boring, and sometimes challenging, and sometimes very nearly impossible.

It requires a totally different part of the brain.  The one that changes all the “ to ‘ except when it’s a ‘.

The part of the mind that spends half an hour thinking up an alternative phrase, trying every combination of words to keep the rhythm but improve the meaning.

The one that works out, to its horror, that the basic premise of the story is, in fact,  too far fetched. That the central character is unappealing.

And after rewriting and rewriting and rewriting,   (seven years of it)

The one that compares a manuscript to to its original, and finds that of 52,000 words, only 2500 remain.

That is being a writer.

 

 

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.