Of Muppets and Men

I tweet a little ( @lockwoodwriter) and read a lot on Twitter. Recently I followed  with horrified interest Jeremy Duns‘ continuing expose of Stephen Leather’s tactics. I knew more than I wanted about the man’s political views and obnoxious ways of self-promotion. Other than tainting the whole concept of writer, I didn’t see how it could affect me.

That was until I read about R. J. Ellory. I was so disappointed that I cried.

I had read Roger’s work as part of my MA and met him in that context as well. I liked him – and truth told, I still do. He was unstinting of his time & encouragement- and we’ve had a few laughs and discussions on Facebook too. I find it so hard to put him in the subset of ‘sock-puppeteer’ and make that intersect with the bloke I know. You can probably imagine my relief when he apologised – and this was accepted by Mark Billingham, one of the writers whose work he had trashed.

It was perhaps naive of me not to realise that this stuff goes on in the Wild, Wild West which is modern publishing. And it would be foolish to assert that it certainly doesn’t go on in the pure innocent realms of writing for children. I honestly just don’t know.

‘It’s not easy being green…’

All I can be sure of is what I do. All my reviews are written as myself. I welcome feedback and debate.

I read books for Serendipity Reviews. I have had my moments of anxiety with this. I’ve had friends’ books to review that didn’t quite do it for me, and genres which are definitely not my thing. I try to take a compassionate and professional standpoint by asking myself the following:

  1. How would I feel to receive a review like this?
  2. What were their intentions – does it suit the readership it’s meant for?

On the whole, I err on the side of kindness. There are times I wish I had the all-guns-blazing self-assurance and spleen of an Anthony McGowan – and I do wonder if I have elected for cowardice. Perhaps my judgement is weak. But my motto in this context is ‘first do no harm’.

Likewise in my role as Graduate Editorial Assistant at West Dean, my primary goal is to develop what the MA students are trying to do. Doing them down to make me look or feel superior won’t achieve much. I need to suggest more they could do, not shut down their options.

The green-ey’d monster which doth mock…

Now before I sound far too goody-goody, I had better point out this took a while to learn. And I should also make it clear I acknowledge several motives for sockpuppetry in myself:

  • envy of sales – 50 Shades of **** for example
  • jealousy of talent – Patrick Ness, Philip Pullman, Kath Langrish, Sally Prue et alia
  • sheer desperation

That last is a killer.

Oh to be superstar like Miss Piggy

Let the one without sin cast the first stone…

Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?


Sea glass

Sea Glass by Alibee

Have you ever wondered at those TV archaeologists who pick up a tiny fragment of coarse pottery and declare that it’s a Bronze Age grog-tempered sherd – with absolute certainty? Now it maybe that these pieces have been planted to make them look clever for the camera – but I’ve seen it in the field so-to-speak at the Coppergate dig in York ( now the Jorvik Centre) . They are certain.

It’s down to ‘getting your eye in’ – recognising those tiny clues which convey exactly the right information. The same applies to sea glass hunting:

  • the minute differences between areas of shingle which will be productive and those which won’t
  • knowing  that beyond a brief poke with your toe, digging is a waste of time
  • learning the sound of the tides which will throw up more treasures

All this comes with acquiring  knowledge,  making comparisons and putting in lots of practice. Just like writing.


what about those disappointing days? The wading through treacle, can’t remember another word for ‘twist’, six hours to write six hundred word days? No apparent reason behind them – a failure of the scientific method with having no control over the variables. I sometimes wonder if it is phase of the moon.

Well, the point is to keep searching. To go down every day and look. Sometimes I get only a splinter or two – bits of characters’ speech or a glimpse of a scene. Other days  I might find  a bit of gorgeous Bristol Blue – rare but gorgeous – like when a sub-plot all falls into place. or  it might be a slab of soft green – like a good solid chapter.

Who knows? I won’t find it if I don’t look.