Category Archives: writing

Trying on the new coat

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In my former life in retail – I loved this time of year. New shiny things arrived in boxes, new boots were put on sandalled summer feet, the shop windows of Bath took on a serious gloss, and every now and again, I would search for a new coat.

I would try them on. Wearing my sunny brown face I would stand in front of mirrors trying to imagine myself midwinter pale, hunched from the cold.  They smelled new and different and of other people, other shops. I wanted to fit them, but they needed to fit me.

Well now I just wear the same old rubbish day after day and some of those coats look at me from the wardrobe as if to ask what they did wrong? Why don’t I love them any more?

The answer is that I have new coats now.  Ones that come out of my head. It’s not just a coat, it’s a whole person I try on.  Just as I would walk back and forth over the shop floor getting myself into the right jacket – now I flex my shoulders into a voice.

Does it fit me? Can I keep it going?

Does it fit the story? Will it be the right way to tell the story?

I’m trying a new voice just now.  We’re still in the changing room. I might try her in a different colour.

She might not make it.

But then again.

She might.

 

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Literary prizes or page turners?

jan12-006.jpgThere’s been some chat on #UKMGchat about prizes and genre and whether people would rather win a prize with a “literary” novel, or get books into the hands of children because the book has mass appeal.

You can find the thread, here.

By coincidence I went to a CILIP unconference (read all about it here)  on Saturday in Keynsham, where the criteria behind the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals were discussed.

Something that emerged from that is that Middle Grade (oh how I hate that expression) despite driving much of the children’s book market, often doesn’t make it on to the short lists, because much of it doesn’t have the quality of writing that YA has.

I have to confess, I bridled a little at that.

It was suggested that younger children can’t always access more difficult vocabulary, or abstract concepts, but a one time judge of the Carnegie replied that past winners had included Middle Grade – Alan Garner for the Owl Service, Frank Cottrell Boyce for Millions and  Philip Reeve for Here Lies Arthur, so it was possible to create quality fiction for younger readers.

Another thing that was said by the two Carnegie judges present was that the aim of the prize was to bring books of great merit, that wouldn’t necessarily make it onto the WH Smith’s top ten, to the attention of parents, teachers, librarians and of course, children.

I don’t think this is exclusive to the Carnegie. It is, I think, is the aim of many of the children’s book prizes that are run across the country. I don’t know about them all, but often they are chosen by librarians and then ultimately judged by children.  Sometimes they contain the same books that are in heaps on the tables of Waterstones, but often there are quieter books. Books we haven’t seen all over twitter and that aren’t suggested by Amazon algorithms.  This way, children get to read a more diverse selection, that isn’t just David Walliams or Roald Dahl.

I would suggest, that it is possible to write a book that is both popular, and prize winning.  So it appeals to the gatekeepers, and the children.  I think Millions probably did that.

This I think should really be the aim of all writers for children.  A page turner isn’t enough, we should all aspire to write something of literary merit.  But a prize winner that no-one wants to read isn’t enough either.

The books we write should try to do both.

In Real Time.

Just before Christmas I was aware that I was living through the days that take place in MURDER IN MIDWINTER. There was no snow though. And no murder and no actual thrill. Life was the adult whirl of Christmas preparation with just a hint of Christmas magic but rather too much shopping.

Now we’re on the other side, and I’m about to live through the real time of Bus Stop Baby, and this time, the weather’s obliging with frosty nights, too cold to leave a baby in a bus shelter and the promise of spring and days getting longer to follow.

I’m hoping, that given time, I can fill the whole year with stories.  DEAR SCARLETT, soon to be re-issued, is end of summer term.  THE YOGHURT PLOT is late spring. SAVING SOPHIA is the summer holidays, SHRUNK is Halloween.

Perhaps I need to think about September next.

Happy New Year.

Stuff that holds you up.

Now I’m not doing Nanowrimo – which for those who have never heard of it is a group of people who all try to write a novel in a month.  It leads to massive word counts and finished novels and is probably a thoroughly good thing, but personally, not for me.

I am though, trying to write a novel in a month. Or at least, finish one that I started a while back – I’m motoring through, huge word counts, massive chunks of plot down on virtual paper and the end is in sight.

But then I get stuck.

And its the silliest thing.

Two girls get into a boat and look for some food.

Olivia reached out for Grandpa’s lunch package.  Oh no. Innuendo.

Olivia rummaged around under the seat and found Grandpa’s sandwiches. Now I can’t stop the innuendo.

Chloe handed Olivia Grandpa’s packed lunch.  Even worse.

Reaching into a bag Chloe took out the lunch that Grandpa had given them.  Too  long.

“Time for lunch” said Chloe, digging out Grandpa’s package.  Arghghgh!

At which point, I go and have lunch and spend all afternoon looking for an old photograph.

 

As you were….

Thinking about Agatha…

Today I took my mum and her best friend, Vicky to to visit Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, on the banks of the river Dart.

It was overly hot and overly full and Mum struggled with the stairs, but it was stuffed with stuff, much of it collected by Agatha and her children, some by her various husbands.  It was all fascinating and little fragments of Poirot or Miss Marple sprang to mind as we wandered around the various rooms gazing at objects that showed insight into Agatha Christie’s thinking- kind of like an author’s slideshow, but in 3d.

In one room, they had this:

Agatha Christie

I stared from the window, recognising exactly what she meant, and applying it to my own writing – just downstairs I had seen a typewriter and written it into a plot – I know it wasn’t Agatha Christie’s, but it might have been.  The house was beautiful, the trees falling away to the river breathtaking, the distant glimmer of water stunning.

All of it was marvellous, inspirational,

She wrote so much,

So many stories, so many hours bent over that typewriter.

I really needed to be more disciplined, use every scrap of the day.

Then it occurred to me, she never had to do the washing up.

 

 

 

 

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.