The child in her eyes

With apologies to Kate Bush

close up of Kate Bush's eyes

On Sunday 6th July, I had the pleasure of boating along the Avon with many members of the Golden Egg Academy. It was a lovely day, sprinkled with vintage frocks and floral china. There were ducklings and VERY low bridges to be negotiated too. Unsurprisingly there was lots of chat – but also talks from Barry-The-Hat-Cunningham, Ben-Kill-the-Granny-and-we’ll-talk-Illis, Imogen-Beaded-Bag-Cooper and Kirsty-aka-Stormboy- McLachlan. Fun was had as can be seen by the monikers, – but I would like to take a more serious theme from Literary Agent Kirsty’s question-and-answer session.

Indeed, this theme came up in our impassioned discussions atop the barge. We debated The Bunker Diary, The Carnegie and what it is we are trying to do. everything came back to focus on our readership. Barry Cunningham picked up on this in his address, speaking with the same wonder and optimism and joy in young people as David Almond.

Lovely inspiring stuff.

a pool in a cave

But what gave me pause for thought, plonked into my mind like a drip from a stalactite and spread ripples from then till now, was something Kirsty said:

Write for one reader – one reader who is not you, not even you as a child, but one contemporary child.

[I believe I have quoted her accurately - please correct me if you know better.]

The first suggestion is clearly wise advice. It’s no good trying to please hypothetical swathes of readers – there are far too many tribes out there. You might as well try writing for a focus group or draw a Venn diagram of sub-cultures and aim for the intersection.

Secondly, we need to have that reader in our sights with every revision – and so it just can’t be to please ourselves. That way lies self-indulgence. We’re not the audience – we have to be the director, set designer, lighting technician and all the rest. It’s the last idea that causes me to consider deeply.

…not even you as a child…

Now I absolutely see the dangers of nostalgia. The lure of painting a Hovis ad of the past and photoshopping your characters in there. Some of my earlier work has had the taint of that, I admit. My world as a child is not their world now – fairly obviously.

I can’t help being older.

BUT I have thought hard about this . There are two points I want to make in response.

First of all, I have to sink down inside myself to write. I have to become the child-I-was to create honestly. When it all goes well, I revisit all those emotions and passions. Thank goodness there is no webcam in The Garret. No-one needs to see me weeping or giggling or cavorting as I enact part of the story. I create through the child-I-was – and I write to console and delight that odd, lonely child.

At least that way, I please one reader.

Jessie Willcox Smith ‘Picture-Books in Winter’ (1905) from “A Child’s Garden of Verses”

Secondly – and this may seal my fate – I cannot write as if I were a child-of-now. This is a skill some of my friends who write realistic fiction have. I admire it enormously. From me, it would be patronising fakery. There are few things more embarrassing than an adult straining to be ‘down with the kids.’

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Kahlil Gibran The Prophet

What I can do is share interests and enthusiasms and passions – the same as I would with any other human being. I don’t talk down about sharks and ghosts and gargoyles: I swap notes and chat and engage. [I hope] When adult-me reads and reviews contemporary children’s books, watches films and TV, or visits intriguing places, I also respond with my child-like self. What would thrill the child-I-was now?

a sandcastle

Where I live, I often see children on the beach jumping the waves and squealing. They construct major sandworks, fall out of boats deliberately and throw things for dogs. The way they talk is different but what I see at West Wittering would not look so out-of-place on Scarborough North Beach forty years ago. Just change the clothes.

Is my readership so very estranged from the child-I-was? I have to believe it is not.

image of a child at the beach

I would be genuinely interested in comments on this topic. Should I be more up-to-date with mainstream culture? I wasn’t then, and it seems bogus to start now. Or is that an absolute given for a children’s writer – even for one of the fantastical persuasion?

Honesty is the best policy?

Honesty_(Lunaria_annua)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_635791

I don’t like the word ‘policy’ in there. It reeks of stratagems and pre-consideration and artifice. Any reader who knows me in 3D will probably acknowledge that’s not very me. I am on some spectrum somewhere that means I haven’t got the intelligence to lie much. The only-opens-mouth-to-change-feet sliding scale seems particularly appropriate.

However I do have enough nous – or possibly self-deception to think that anyone notices – to reckon that being anything other than relentlessly cheery in the children’s book is likely to get a smudge by your name. You know the sort – where you try to erase it but the mistake only becomes ingrained, dark and tinged with pink rubber.

Still. I want to say how I feel at the moment – and perhaps someone else might feel a little cheered to know they are not alone. So here we go:

I can’t be doing with praise.

 

a person looks shocked

I know – what an odd statement. But the truth is, receiving approval about my work recently from people who know what they are talking about has floored me. I don’t know how to deal with it. I find it difficult to write creatively or even edit right now.

Both alarm and you-can’t-mean-my-stuff slosh round inside me like storm-driven breakers in a fjord. I’m rationalising if I say it’s disbelief or even fishing for compliments – the panicky sensation is far too incoherent. I wanted this feedback so much – and now I’ve got a taste, it’s all grit and bitter herbs in my sandwiches.

the word grim spray-painted on a bridge

Now it may be my miserablist Unlucky Alf northern genes, but I won’t be doing any chicken-counting. I seem to have been here before with ‘Selkies’ – and I cannot allow myself to tempt Fate. Fine words butter no parsnips and all that.

On the other hand, it may even be fear of success. What if I did have a book to promote and another to write, and also deal with contracts and  tax returns and sundry other forms of  jollity?  Could I cope?

[Calm down dear - it's only your imagination.]

Finally, the only thing that matters is whether I understand what I am doing better. That I grasp those tiny spangles of improvement and stash them in my storytelling chest. I have to pick through any feedback like my Nana at a jumble sale, and find the silks and satins I can adapt.

Then shut the door of The Garret – and carry on writing.

an ancient door

 

 

 

All fuss and fairytales

There has been quite a bit of uproar about Richard Dawkins supposed opinions on Fairy tales and their effect on children.

Do listen to https://audioboo.fm/boos/2226602-richard-dawkins-fairy-tales-can-be-beneficial-for-children to hear what Richard Dawkins actually said on Radio 4 and if you want some silly fun, follow  on Twitter.

I don’t intend to comment on over-simplified reporting or whether Mr Dawkins stirred up controversy for the sake of notoriety – whilst these are interesting topics, this is a blog about writing after all.

What I do want to do is to celebrate the love for fairy tales and fantasy I share with thousands of others – and to think about why this is a good thing.

First of all, stories must entertain – and stories with magic of one sort or another can absolutely enthrall both children and adults. The glorious inventiveness of, say Catherynne  M.Valente or Frances Hardinge, uses enchantment to engage. We delight in sheer ingenuity  - and that I think has much to do with Einstein’s point of view.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” EINSTEIN

Secondly, all stories that last act as settings for things we hold precious. They let us experience the results of hope and courage, love and steadfastness for example. They teach, more or less obviously through fable, and the wonder of the fairytale world helps us remember what we learned all the more.

Of course, realistic fiction can do this too – but for those with a taste for the extra-ordinary, characters like Iorek Byrnisson or Eowyn thrill us more. There’s more connection with these invented characters, their largeness and other-worldliness gives us space to explore ideas and emotions.

fairy-tales-are-more-than-true-not-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-exist-but-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-can-be-beaten-GKChesterton

My third and final point is more contentious. The first two could be agreed with by the most ardent rationalist – unless they regard all fiction as irresponsible lies.

However, I do hold with ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. It is the storyteller’s role to leave room for the numinous. My experience is that the deepest, most treasured parts of human life cannot be measured, weighed, dissected or rationalised  - and the wisest stories allow for this.

It should remain for the reader to explore how much is metaphor or magic – and how much is ‘real’.

I leave the last word to Joanne Harris via Katherine Langrish’s excellent blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

A story can bring down a government; or steal away a child’s heart; or build a religion; or just make us see the world differently. Storytellers come and go, but stories never die. And if that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.

 

Black & white engraving of a beautiful enchantress

The Enchantress by Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Seven days, seven feelings

Tracking some of this week’s emotions and their causes.

FRIDAY- OUTRAGE

I  cannot grasp the callous disregard  for the girls abducted in Nigeria. What mentality sees educated girls as a threat – sees books as harmful – and why so little effort to rescue them.

 

SATURDAY- DELIGHT -

Chika Unigwe posted a picture on Twitter of dolls which are glamorous  and not scary. I have often, like so many people, found many dolls disquieting. Not these beauties.

a slection of black and brown skinned dolls

 

SUNDAY – PLEASURE -

Surprised and pleased by how much my guests enjoyed their breakfast. [One Joanne Harris - pictured -and one Margaret Atwood Special - pancakes with maple syrup and blueberries]

huevos rancheros

MONDAY- IRRITATION -

Still not quite sure why the baguette on The Angel of the North annoyed me so much. Interesting debate with Philip Reeve about it. For me, it was a symbol that I loved being spoiled by something I loathe.

 

TUESDAY- AMUSEMENT

This was tinged with a little bafflement and pride that we now have proper gay heraldry. I agree with Frances Hardinge in enjoying  ‘new law being woven properly into the nation’s archaic fabric’ . I love living traditions.

WEDNESDAY – HOPE -

I’ve sent the first rewritten section of Stonespeaker to Nicki Marshall at The Golden Egg Academy. Optimism – and some trepidation- about what she will think of it.

THURSDAY – SMUGNESS -

 I got to show-and-tell about yWriter5 – a free piece of writing software I find very useful – to my Chi-SCBWI friends. They loved it. [Do contact me through the comments box if you want a cheat sheet]

FRIDAY – ANTICIPATION -

I’m supposed to be packing for the SCBWI Retreat as I write. Iam looking forward to seeing my writing pals – including some MA bods. There is still the business of being an old lag and having to say,’ No, no agent yet nor any publishers,’ but once I’ve got over myself, it’ll be grand.

Must dash – may add more images later.

 

What you should read – if you fancy it

A shameless variation on Janet Potter’s great idea found here.

WRITERS! 

Are you stuck for an idea?

Do your settings lack oomph?

Could your characters do with a fillip?
Still using the same old phrases?
LOOK NO FURTHER-

the solution is at hand…

Semmelweis - as a boy in 1830.

The best answer I know is in reading:

  • Read the books from the charity shop that have been scribbled in.
  • Read the artists’ statements beside weird stuff you love and don’t know why. Some are voiced with pretentious twaddle – others with magic.
  • Read old guide books to places you can never go.
  • Read tacky tourist maps – especially the badly translated. Follow trails and Blue Plaques. Those noticeboards that pigeons crap on.
  • Read ghost advertisements on the sides of brick walls. The nicknames of old streets. Half torn down posters. House names and pub signs.ghost-sign
  • Read biographies and newspaper announcements – hatches, matches and dispatches. Gravestones and alabaster monuments. Church leaflets and the lists of vicars, bellringers and flower rotas. Notices outside synagogues, mosques, and temples. Amazing names throng places of worship.
  • Read entries in historical directories for your town. Two Yeast Importers and three Tripe Dressers in Scarborough 1890 – who knew?
  • Read the handwritten ads on the shoe-shop window. Enjoy the rAnDom capital’s and folk punctuation.
  • Read pulp fiction and poetry, textbooks and travel writing. Steal unashamedly. Not just fragments of people, and glimpses of places but turns of phrase. And with novels – nick dirty great chunks of plot. If JMW Turner chose to copy Claude and many others to learn – why shouldn’t you?
  • Read magazines about interests that aren’t yours. Enquire within
  • Read vintage catalogues and recipe books, Shell Guides,  Enquire Within and tatty old National Geographics.
  • Read without shame – comics and battered Readers Digests, lurid trashy paperbacks that predate you, high-minded difficult stuff you ‘ought’ to have read before, things your friends hate.
  • Read again collections of fairy stories and folktales. Seek out urban myths and ‘true’ ghost stories.
  • Read Old Bailey trial reports and yellowy newspaper cuttings found as bookmarks.
  • Read anything and everything. Question it all.A girl reads a newspaper painted by Georgios Jakobides c.1882What would you add to my list?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Thank you Larisa Villar Hauser for asking me  to join the Writing Process Blog Tour - and apologies for being a day late .[ I blame the Easter Hare]

a leveret

1. What am I working on?

I’m editing a middle grade historical fantasy provisionally called Stonespeaker - with help from the lovely Nicki Marshall of the Golden Egg Academy.

Regency tomboy Georgiana has to deal with an over-ambitious mother, a twin brother who wants to run away to sea – and gargoyles that speak to her. There are shipwrecks and a greedy Mayor, not to mention The Myrmidons.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t think there are many Jane Austen era stories involving living stone. I could be wrong.

3. Why do I write what I do?

 

I love history – and I relish the freedom that fantasy gives me to play with ideas. I can get close to the emotional bone and yet shields myself from certain triggers. It’s a way of getting a  necessary protective distance from the underlying themes – sometimes quite serious beneath all the adventure and escapades.

Besides, I could no more write realistic contemporary drama than knit my own sandals from lentils.

4. How does my writing process work?

On a good day, it means rolling out of bed with new ideas champing at the bit to be off. They sidle and yearn to gallop off in the shower. I hold them back just long enough to open my yWriter5 project – and then they’re off. I have to type like a mad thing to keep up – over the course I have already drawn up.

There are hurdles and water features and ditches ready for me and my characters to tackle. We fly over them all and I have no idea what time it is. Some of the best moments come from unexpected detours – and my poor husband and house are neglected.

On a bad day, I have a swaybacked old nag of an imagination which won’t go anywhere. Stupidly, I look round  - on Twitter and so forth. Everyone else is cantering to the finish line before I’ve got one hoof lifted from the turf. I sulk, convinced that I am too old/too weird/ too boring/too cliched – whichever is my maunge of choice.

I still try to get some sentences down, though – even if it takes a crack or two of the whip. You can edit rubbish. You can’t edit a blank screen.

heads of carousel horses

EMPTY SPACE ALERT

Insert neat head shots and short appealing bios of other writers here.

Bother, I haven’t got any – everyone else seems to have done it/been nabbed already – unless YOU  know otherwise!

BTW do read the other blog tour pieces like Nicky Schmidt’s here ,and  Kathryn Evan’s here – it’s fascinating how different we all are.

 

 

Fraud!

Well, not really.

WoMenTitle

I put forward my name to support other women writers as part of the splendid Womentoring Project - but not without a certain amount of tummy-jiggling anxiety. As soon as I saw the call, I definitely wanted to help. I know how much a few kind and honest words can mean – yet I felt something of an imposter.

This is how my mind rumbled on:

OK, I am a woman. And I do have a smidge of experience. But I am one of The Great Unpublished [barring a few short stories and poems]. So far,  I’m an also-ran, a runner-up, a we-really-like-your-work-but-it’s-not-for-us writer. I bet they want someone better – a real, proper author.

It made me hesitate.

WoMentoringIllo3Web

But then I remembered the whiteboards. You see, I was a primary school teacher way back when interactive whiteboards first came in. I didn’t have much idea – and in the way of these things, it was fitted at the end of of August as the class came in early September. I hadn’t the chance to get one toenail ahead of the children, never mind a step.

It worked out fine. Being pretty much ‘equal’ with the pupils really worked. They helped me, I helped them. There could be no ‘this is the only way to do it’ rigidity – we experimented together. I call that a good result.

Two young share hot drinks over a laptop. One is black, one wears a headscarf.

I wish I was as young as these two!

The same with my brief but oh-so-rewarding stint as a Graduate Editorial Assistant at West Dean College. I had just completed my MA IN Creative Writing – and I got the chance to work with the next ‘batch’, so-to-speak. There are few better ways of interrogating and consolidating your hard-won knowledge than explaining it to someone else. Especially if they are smart and motivated and questioning.

WoMentoringIlloWeb

So I have offered my services. I’ve left it open-ended – I am happy to negotiate with any mentee I get to suit her needs. It turns out that I do have some things to share – I review books for two sites, I volunteer with British SCBWI,  and I am a writer, after all.

Please visit The Womentoring Project to learn more  about being a mentee – or a mentor.

Illustrations copyright Sally Jane Thompson

Of Books and Babies

Extrapolating a cliche till it makes sense to me.

After a fun full-on day at the GEA social organised by the hot-pant wearing eco-heroine that is Emma Greenwood, I took refuge with Tracey Mathias Potter an Arvon friend in Camden. In her calm and choral-music-filled kitchen, we discussed children. We both have had three in a row.

Inevitably, we got round to a shared truism – of books as our new babies. I’m going to develop that theme, courtesy of our discussion.

We all have story conceptions that come to nothing. A quick spurt of an idea but no gametes fuse. Some tales get further. We miscarry, abort – sometimes an almost full text ends in stillbirth. In an echo of the maternal reality, I doubt many are lost and not regretted. Perhaps that’s why some writers resist talking about their work until the first draft is done: like naming a baby in some cultures, it may bring ill luck.

So it’s not surprising that we celebrate our achievement when we put down the least full stop. Balloons and chocolates, flowers and partying are entirely reasonable for what may have been a similar nine months or so of gestation.

the end

Oh no it isn’t…

But just like a flesh-and-blood baby, the hard work comes after her first emergence in the world. Walking, talking, the potty-training of punctuation – we do our best to make them relate to the outside world.  Finding out who they really are. Each one has a different personality – parents and writers both experience that shock of recognition.

Then there’s the School of Editing. Handing over your darling to a professional or a group of critique pals to develop their particular strengths. Now that’s an important relationship we fret about – will they see what’s at her heart? Will she even get in?

Home Ed is possible – but with it comes the difficulty of being objective. Of course, your child is completely lovely, just as she is. Won’t she get hurt out there?

a toddler clambering

And what of the Agent, that marriage broker?

The analogy got in a bit of a muddle there – but the point is, we do our best on our own or with help, to bring our stories to maturity. When they are ready to go out in the world with their readership, we have to step back. We can never forget them, but what others think, how they get along together is not our problem – just like our grown-up children.

a model bride drags her groom  across the cake

After all, we have others to tend to. Well, that’s my theory, anyway. My printed offspring are still in the Nursery.

baby-with-book-b&w-CC

What do you think?

What! You too?

From the words of C.S.Lewis

‘Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”‘

This afternoon I had a visit I had been both looking forward to – and dreading. For some while I knew a fellow writer was going to call. Someone who set out about the same time as I did, who is talented and committed, and who wanted to talk about writing.

Creative-_Commons-_Attribution-Noncommercial-No-Derivative-Works-3.0-License..jpg

By Guaderel Guitarist Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial No Derivative Works 3.0-License.

The gap of time allowed my maungy, sad little twin demons of envy and fear to whisper at me. They blew sleet-cold worries down my neck.

I bet he’ll have been published already.

You’ll have to admit you’ve got nowhere yet.

How will you feel when he gets out a book with his name on?

What exactly have you got to show for over four years’ effort?

It didn’t help that it’s close to my least favourite time of year – Mothering Sunday – when I always feel insecure and vulnerable. Nor that I am waiting to hear if any agents are interested in my Selkie novel. It took some arm twisting from my Chi-SCBWI friends to put it out there again.

My unarmoured head feels so exposed above the ramparts.Close up a battered ancient helmet

He came. And over time and coffee, his honesty dissolved my mask, just as surely as his daughter’s marshmallows disappeared from her little cup in the cafe. I could see the same kind-ness of hard-won understanding in his face. The empathy of time served and mutual frustration.

No need for me to hide. We’re more siblings than rivals.

That broke me open, let the old warmth out and sent the two stony nasties back into their cave. And what rolled the boulder across their threshold was his absolute need to write. The imperative, regardless of sense and logic and all the will-it-make-a-living questions to get the stories down. How the breath of his ideas filled his canvas, blew him onwards.

I hope my friend reads this.

It’s not ‘you will get there‘ I want to engrave on maps of the future, surrounded by mermen and whales. There is no need when you have already left land and certainty.

But we already have successes to share – and there will be more.GoldLaurelWreath_CC

We are both writers.