Washing the Elephant

When you start a novel – where do you begin? Assuming you’ve done all your research and your thinking, how do you set about it?

I think there are two main approaches: Character-Led and Plot-Driven

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

This mysterious process is how the Character-Led writer works it seems to me. They know who’s inside their imagination, set them free and follow their adventures.These authors see action and hear dialogue – and then record what occurs. Marvellous stuff.(Meg Rossoff, I mean you.)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

But what if you make a mistake? If the chisel slips? If you find what the protagonist does on page 136 means you have to change pages 97, 43 & 25 and that means Chapter 3 is a bit dodgy too. Rather like sorting out a Sudoku when you write the wrong answer and only realise three entries further on. My puny little brain can’t hold all that in, but clearly some writers can.

Now for the other sort: Plot-Driven.

This seems to me like creating an armature when sculpting. You focus on getting the underlying structure to work first.

One day I will be a pussy-cat.

It might not much look much to start with but it gives shape to the finished work. You add more and more layers to create the final piece. And these are relatively easy to change. A small adjustment can make a big difference in characterisation – think of manipulating millimetres of Plasticine in Gromit’s face.

Of course, you can make your own frameworks. You don’t have to follow some pre-made thing like a Paint-Your-Own-Gnome set. It was fascinating  to see how Marcus Sedgwick devised the structures for his novels on the SCBWI-BI retreat at Dunford House.  He said he found that though some decisions seemed arbitrary at the time,  the finished book showed them to be entirely right.

Not everyone feels confident about creating their own from scratch: there’s nothing wrong with using a tried & tested form and adapting it to your own needs. ‘Cinderella’ becomes ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ becomes ‘West Side Story’. It’s a long and honourable tradition.

I think you can tell which I go for.

I made it!

One final thought: my perception is that many women writers can do the character-led thing, indeed prefer it, whereas male writers tend to favour the plot-driven approach ( and ex-tomboys like me). Is this imagined or real?

All that is gold does not glitter

This week I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post by Meg Rossoff  and the reply from Kathryn Evans here. Both wrote fascinating and well-constructed accounts of their intriguing lives. I feel honoured to have such brilliant people among my friends and acquaintances – and I know very many of you reading this could come up with equally extraordinary autobiographies.(Please do – I’d love to read them.)

But I also felt very humble. I haven’t done anything half so interesting – I’ve had a rather dull little life. How can I possibly account myself a writer in amongst these wondrous folk?

Well, I do have that essential quality for a writer – imagination.

My CV may not include the distillation of noxious herbs and their application to vile old women ( you’ll be glad to read), I may not be qualified to mount the most spectacular fireworks display in a ruined priory – nor am I actually able to shape-shift and explore the depths of the North Sea – but I can dream these things up.

And I am something of a pirate – I raid books and magazines and TV programmes and films and other people’s conversations. I sneak off with the shiny bits and clothe myself in their finery. I can nab a bit of someone else’s life and try it on for size: the more magnificent, the better.

Sometimes I even dress that way.

So my friends, if you are like me, a bit commonplace, it’s fine. The source of your writing may not be obvious.

Even a little grey pigeon can be a peacock on the inside.


Reading matters

Reading brings delight.

  • Reading matters because it opens the doors of imagination. You can escape into another world with the most amazing views and adventures – then return whenever you want. Michael Morpurgo can bring you pets to keep without any complaints.
  • Reading matters because it stretches your brain. You can learn new words, new concepts, new methods – and then baffle your friends.
  • Reading matters because it deepens your compassion. You are able to walk in another person’s shoes, you can share their hopes and dreams, understands their fears and sorrows – think of Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story and Meg Rossof’s What I Was.
  • Reading matters because it connects you to writers past and present, near and far. Laugh with Wodehouse and Philip Ardagh, shudder with Bram Stoker, Sarwat Chadda  and Jon Mayhew, wonder with Kathryn Langrish and Sitoshi Kitamura.
  • Reading matters because it takes you to new places and cultures. You could climb Everest in a wheelchair; then dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench; learn about Dunbi the Owl from the Worora people or celebrate The Day of the Dead in Mexico.
  • Reading matters because it takes you to ancient realms and possible futures. Fancy meeting Queen Hapshetsut and her beard, attending the Court of The First Emperor of China, designing your own vehicles ?
  • Reading maters because it’s funhow else can you enjoy the cracker jokes!

If  you feel as strongly about this as I do you might  want to blog and tweet about the decision, using #bookgifting and @booktrust and @savebookstart.

Please support Booktrust . Perhaps you might email Booktrust on bookgifting@booktrust.org.uk  offering support. You could write to Mr Gove and to your local MP. Michael Gove changed his mind about school sport funding.

Read Keren David’s blog for an impassionerd article on this subject too.

Decisions, decisions.

Books in a mess

Beyond a joke

My books have reached a critical mass. They’re spilling over the carpet, lent on each other like the lintels  of Stonehenge and hiding in the spider space under the bookshelves. Some have even mounted a break- away movement, stacked like a siege engines beside the bed.

 Something has to be done.

 Him-in-the-Office has moved out into his glorified shed behind the garage. The old office was empty, abandoned, unloved. Bless him, he paints it, he varnishes the computer-chair-scuffed floor and best of all, installs three whopping great big bookshelves.

The Library

So inviting!

Utter delight.

 Simply move my books in and Bob’s your uncle, (or Charley’s your aunt or whatever). Ah. Which books to move?

Now the sitting room shelves largely consist of the sea collection. Hundreds of them: diving guides, sailing yarns,whales, shark-spotting guides, mermaids. Oh and Venice and the arty outsize jobbies. So I move Venice out to the new shelves and move some children’s books about the sea down from my study. Fine. Though I might need them.

 Still too many books upstairs.

 I move the loose canons, the stacked sets, the-slotted-in-sideways-on-top-ones. Good.

How to organise? By author – no chance. I’ve got a blog to write!

 Subject matter then. Promising:  plenty of genres – gothic spooky horror things, folklore and fantasy, maps and pub walks. Should I move ‘Mortlock’ into its section – or leave it on top of the bedside radio? Where does ‘Tall Story’ go? Odd bits. Hang on, I haven’t read all of these.

Mustn’t start reading – mustn’t look at Philip Ardagh’s Book of Absolutely Useless Lists – it’s a time machine. Discipline – stick to your brief, woman. And what was that exactly? Reorganise the  so-and-so books.

M. A. stuff, that needs to be in the study. Easy. And all the how-tos, and the other reference books I might just need. Oh – I put the folklore downstairs. Clump, clump, clump. Right – kids’ upstairs, adults down. Seems reasonable.  Not enough room – or rather the wrong sort of room. Some are outsize and won’t fit in the new shelves anyway.

 Read and unread? Possibly – but I’m not sure which ones Him-in-the-Office has read. And I am not having all his Sharpes downstairs. Bad enough seeing my Tolkien addiction revealed in all its Numenorean glory.

Odd Books

Jolly Mixtures

 I try grabbing random books and shoving them on the shelves any old how.

There aren’t many places you’ll see Meg Rossoff next to Stephenie Meyer.

 Aaargh. I give up.

I go down into the village. I buy some fresh bread, some little cork feet to stop the book ends scratching my shiny new shelves and pop in the charity shops.. and buy more books.