Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The 'What Happens Next?' Factor - a recipe for success?

It's what every writer seeks, isn't it? That magic ingredient which will make a book into something people don't just want to read, they have to. They can't put it down, they wish it would go on for ever.

I keep asking myself what the secret is. All the time I'm writing, I'm partly aiming at the end product (and having fun) and partly hoping that by doing it I will learn how to do it.

And I read, and read, and read, books other people have made popular. Harry Potter. So many critical readers have picked holes in JK Rowlings's writing, but I devoured every word. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson is full of weaknesses my writers' workshop wouldn't have let out the door - if he were capable of submitting an extract sufficiently succinct to qualify for critiquing - but I couldn't put the books down until I'd finished the trilogy.

Good writing alone is not enough: what you need is character. That was the first thing I learned. The protagonist has to be quirky enough to intrigue, vulnerable enough to attract sympathy and sufficiently risk-prone for us to fear for their safety - all of which apply to Lisbeth Salander. But that wasn't what kept the pages turning. As I've said before, I believe story is what really matters. For what it's worth, my vote for character, plot and skilful writing in a blockbuster goes to Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games.

All very nice and analytical, but it still hasn't given me my answer.

Oddly enough, the most useful insight came from my own writing - not, I hasten to add, that I'm holding myself up as an example of someone who's achieved success: just that I've found a way of articulating what I'm trying to do which I find helpful, and maybe you will too.

I've been stuck for a long time trying to decide which of a small number ideas will be the starting point for my next book, and for all my doubts about it, I keep coming back to one of them. It could be because the lead character is beginning to get a hold on me (check), but the real revelation came to me when I realised I couldn't let that embryonic story go because ...

I wanted to know what happened next.

That's it. So simple, and so crucial. What drove me through seven volumes of Harry and 2,000+ pages of Larsson. What's sucking me into my own work in progress. I'm trying to express a formula for what makes a book un-put-downable. And that's it. The ability to keep the WHN (What Happens Next) question always in the reader's mind

Next time I edit an MS, I shall be checking for typos, plot holes and the WHN Factor.

Monday, 30 July 2012

What's Your Classic?

I'm really grateful to CarlyB at Writing from the Tub for drawing my attention to this.

Next week, Vintage will republish a selection of children's classics. See Carly's blog above for a schedule of interesting reflections on the event - but what intrigues me is the choice of books to be released. I'm sure it has been shaped by all sorts of restraints of copyright etc rather than being an absolute free choice, but it made me wonder what I would bring back from the past.

My own quirky choice - apart from CS Lewis - would be E Nesbit. I see The Railway Children is on the list, but I grew up with an almost complete set of vintage (with a small 'v') copies of her work, and when I was a child her most famous book was actually my least favourite. My taste was for the more off-the-wall imaginative works, such as The Amulet, Harding's Luck, Nine Unlikely Tales ... I could go on. Yes the writing style and social contexts were unfamiliar, but that was part of their charm: like the fantastical line drawings from another age under their sheets of tissue.

On the other hand, tastes change. At the charity bookshop where I volunteer there's still a market for the Little Grey Rabbit series with its pre-feminist household of the hardworking female rabbit and the feckless male hare, but it's mostly the grandmothers who buy it.

What would you bring back for your own children/grandchildren - of the present or future?

Thursday, 14 June 2012

So, ebooks are bad for young children ...?

Or rather, as Imogen Russell Williams says in this article in the Guardian,

as with most technological leaps, we now need to strike a balance between the tried and tested and the sparkly new.
Thank goodness for a common sense overview of the subject, which looks at how children are reading, and aknowledges the value of both enhanced/electronic and traditional forms. According to Williams,
 the books themselves are still the main course.
It has to be. Story, story, every time, whatever form it appears in.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

After a long dramatic pause ...

... I'm back.

And there I hope the similarity to a couple of famous movie appearances comes to an end: though the fact that both the Terminator and the pilot in Independence Day are male does have a certain relevance.

To explain: a week or two ago I was playing roles in three different productions. Two of them are now finished, and I've got time to blog again. It was only when I referred to the movies that I got the link to the fact that two of the roles I was playing were males, gender-swaps for me. Perhaps I should go with the flow and blog about writing from the point of view of the opposite gender, etc. ...

*No. You sat down to write about shifting between creative media. Stick to the point. You can do the other one next*.

It may appear from the little internal debate above that I'm a bit confused, unsettled. Maybe I am, but none the worse for that I think. A common writer complaint is the feeling that you're getting in a creative rut, can't see the story for the paper. Something that shakes you up can be the best thing for getting things moving again. And there's such a thing as trying too hard.

All my life I've been torn between two impulses: to make theatre (i.e. to act and direct), and to write stories. They can seem to be separate, even conflicting, although I don't think it was always so. A dramatist in Shakespeare's day would have been referred to as a poet, and people talked about going to "hear" a play. Recently the two forms have seemed to converge for me, even to support each other.

Since I decided writing was going to be my main focus, the opportunity to be in a number of plays has come my way, and when I'm in a performance (except when it's really busy, as recently) the writing seems to flow. My earlier post Where Do All the Stories Come From? may have something to say about this.

But the biggest surprise for me has been how, now that I've actually sat down and written a couple of books, the techniques I've studied in drama have helped me to do it. Exercises to stimulate creativity and build character are obvious crossovers, but the huge revelation is how much writing a novel is like directing a play. You have to pay the same attention to pace, timing, balance ... and never forget your audience.

So here I am, refreshed, inspired (?) and ready for lots of writing. Expect to see me around again.

Just one play left to keep my mind spinning, until we perform next month at least. And yes, I am playing a bloke.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Please don't read my books!

... says Terry Deary, according to the Telegraph. And, do you know what? I agree with him - not that children shouldn't read his books, but that being read in schools is a risky business for a writer.

I've caused shock and horror before now amongst fellow unpublished authors when I've said that I would never want a novel of mine to be a set book. Surely any reader is a good reader?

No. As an ex-teacher of sixth formers, I've seen too many students arrive with a dislike of an author I love in place because of  the experience they've already had of them in the classroom. Of course, they loved every text they studied with me ... *ahem*

Therein lies the dilemma, and I don't know what the answer is - or rather, maybe Deary is on the right lines. Yes, children should be introduced to knowledge of history, experience of literature, etc., in as accessible a way as possible, but at the same time we should leave something for them to discover and enjoy independently.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Where do all the stories come from?

Ever wondered? I started thinking about this - again - after reading an article in last week's Sunday Times. Part article, part review of Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Stephen Armstrong considers the brain science of creativity, and how to stimulate it. As the title The answer is blowing in my alpha waves suggests, the story of how Bob Dylan wrote an iconic number - actually Like a Rolling Stone - is used as an example.
... the singer decided to quit the music industry after a harrowing European tour, and set off to write a novel [*taking the easy option then!*] in a cabin in the middle of nowhere ... [He] wanted to do nothing much apart from avoid writing another song, but soon after arriving he ... grabbed a pencil and started scribbling.
The rest is history.

It's all to do with something called alpha waves. This isn't the place for a detailed examination of the theory - and if it were I'm not the person to do it. It's controversial of course, but seems to be backed up by some scientific research.

As Armstrong says,
In a process that has yet to be understood, these [waves] suddenly flood the right brain roughly eight seconds before an idea pops into the mind ... It is alpha waves that fire up when jazz pianists are playing [*I find that amazing*]. ... According to Lehrer, Dylan's frustration and isolation combined to trigger the right hemisphere of his brain, which drew all his disparate influences into one catchy song.
As I said, I'm not going to attempt to take on the science of this, but it does chime with my own experiences as a writer, and as a practitioner and teacher in theatre. In fact, although I'm primarily a writer now, I find I'm constantly going back to what I learned in acting - obviously about role building, but more fundamentally about creativity itself.
Armstrong's thesis is that the capacity for creativity is there in all of us, waiting to be triggered by the right conditions. Stanislavsky understood that. He said that an actor should believe in the life of their character, as a child believes in the life of her doll. We are all born with the ability and desire to role play, to make marks and sounds and to move experimentally and joyfully, and to tell stories. These abilities get locked in by society's expectations and judgement: you are are weird if you continue to do these things, unless you have unusual ability.

I once watched a young actor perform. He was academically bright and took an analytical approach to his work, which was often sadly a bit wooden. This time he was just helping out a friend by playing against her for her assessment, and so not trying too hard. The result was one of the most moving pieces of theatre I've ever seen in the classroom. Freed of over-intellectualising, he produced something with real truth.

So what are the right conditions to produce that kind of magic? If only I knew, then I'd be able to bottle it. Armstrong quotes a number of different suggestions, some conflicting, some illegal. I'm with him totally on one: there's nothing like going for a walk to get the wheels in my head turning.

One thing I'm sorry the article doesn't address is what happens after the moment of inspiration. Novels take a long time to write. If you're constantly waiting for something from outside (actually inside) yourself to provide the impetus, progress is going to be slow. The gift needs to be nurtured.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Reading Delights (and how to sell them)

Last week I was playing shop amidst a feast of reading delights. Or, to put it more clearly, I did a few shifts on a bookstall at the Bath Literature Festival (sadly finished now for this year).

And not just any bookstall. I was working - oh, all right, volunteering - for the lovely Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights. (Seriously, check out the link to see just how therapeutic a bookstore can be.)

I hoped I was going to enjoy myself, but I never realised how much. People who like books are easy to be around. And I was surprised how swiftly I became interested in what was often not what I would expect to be my kind of book, when I saw it through the eyes of someone who could appreciate it. But mostly it was amazing to be surrounded by so many of them.

I don't think I've ever really thought before what nice things books are. They're more than visually attractive, they're tactile, designed to be picked up, opened and explored. And they have a life. I was quite upset recently to visit a craft fair where one of the products was books mutilated into becoming CD racks and suchlike. But I digress. Whole and healthy, they're nice things to sell.

This might sound a bit odd coming from someone whose last post announced her conversion to e-books - but don't get me wrong:  I never meant to give up the hard stuff. Why does there always have to be a choice? Dogs or cats. The Beatles or the Stones. Shakespeare or Beckett. Why can't I have them both? I think our lives are enhanced by enjoying things in as many ways as we can.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the e-Book

"I'm not much of a reader, but since we've had one of these ..."

This is not me talking, you will have guessed. It's the lady from the couple I got talking to while looking at the demo e-readers.

I'd reached a tipping point. As always with these things, it was an accumulation of forces which led me there. Recently, I heard from two friends who are going to be published electronically later this year (ec newman, and Kim Donovan's St Viper's School for Super Villains) and I need to be able to read them. I also remember a respected YA author answering a question at the Kids' Lit Fest last year. Of course he liked e-books: his house was full of paper ones, and the overspill in the garage was getting damp.

I don't have that impressive a library - each time I've moved on in my life I've taken only the books that meant most to me, leaving the rest behind - but our house is small and when the piles start growing on the landing you realise you have to do something. That something could of course be giving some away, and I weed fairly frequently, but I went through them a couple of weeks ago and managed to find two I was prepared to part with. I use my local library extensively, but some of the books I want are not available without expensive inter-library loan fees. If I got an e-reader I could buy more without adding to the piles; I could even make space by replacing some battered classics with free downloads.

Enough worthy reasons to give myself permission to start browsing scrummy on-line bookstores full of inviting titles, and playing with tablets and e-readers... it's a toy! I want one!

Back to the lady in the shop. The really interesting thing about that couple - besides the fact that they had been turned from non-readers into readers - was that they already had an e-reader, but one was not enough. They were shopping for another, fancier one so they could both read at the same time and stop fighting over the one they already had.

Video didn't stop people going to the cinema. I have no statistics to prove this, but my sense is that it gave the film industry a boost, allowing people to develop their taste for movies. I've had my first personal experience of how e-publishing may do the same for our appetite for reading.

      Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,
      Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not ...

Sorry. Could never resist a bit of Caliban.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Time for a Change of Portal

The snow gives me an excuse to put a new image at the head of my blog. It's cheating a bit because it was taken last year, but there is snow here on the street outside. It was taken in Somerset, near Priddy, and if you look closely you can see sleigh tracks on the path.

I collect what I call "portal pictures": images which seem to lead from one world to another. It's a bit hard to get away from wardrobes and lamp posts with ones like the snow picture, but here's another. Where do you imagine it might lead?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Commercial or Literary?

This one's been known to get my unmentionables in a twist before now. I end up getting all hot and bothered about 'Why can't a book be popular and well written?'; and 'If literary means valued, how can you judge your own work as such?' Or for that matter 'Why would anyone set out to write something that isn't literary?' But calm down - an excellent post here from bigglasscases puts the argument in a useful practical frame.

i.e., for every person like me protesting (again) that Shakespeare was commercial and literary, there's a hardworking agent out there trying to place books who finds it helpful to have a handle on where they might fit.

Sarah LaPolla also has a better shot at defining the difference between literary and commercial fiction than any I've come across before, with a nice analogy to catwalk vs high street fashion; and some advice for debut authors pitching their books.

So the question is, where do you see your work?

For my own part, Timehikers is (I hope) definitely commercial. Not so sure about Better than Stars or Water: a suggestion that it's a problem I need to sort out, maybe?

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Future's Here, and It's Electrik!

Electrikinc, to be precise. And it's sparked off with a bang, drawing attention from the Bookseller and across the Channel  [apologies for the fact that you have to be a subscriber to read the first article and to speak French to understand the second: who said publicity was easy to get? And at least on the second link you can see the cover for Kim Donovan's St Viper's School for Super Villains].

Yes, Electrikinc is a publication venture, but one with a difference. A small group of Bath Spa graduate children's authors, with some impressive editorial skills between them, have got together as a co-operative to publish their own work. It looks to me like a promising alternative to the pitfalls of self-publication; and crucially one which embraces the advantages of new technology. Kim's book will be first to hit the market - I would say shelves, but of course the name is a bit of a giveaway. Electrikinc will focus on e-publishing and print on demand ... which has led me once again to think about electronic vs. paper books.

What do you think?

I try not to make judgements about things where I have no personal experience, and I have yet to read a book on-screen. I'm bombarded by other people's opinions, and the observation I've made is:

People who don't have an e-reader don't like them. People who do, do. But they would, wouldn't they, in both cases? No-one's going to buy one unless they like the idea in the first place.

Maybe that's a clue to the truth: for the time being at least, there are going to be those who prefer one or the other; I've even heard people say they like both, but for different purposes: e.g. paper for books to treasure, and electronic for books to take on holiday.

I can't help noticing Electrikinc will be offering print on demand. Perhaps what we're witnessing is not so much the death of the physical book, more the end of its primacy, and of the long print run.

One thing's for certain: I'm going to have to get that e-reader.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

A Monster of a Book: 'Beast' by Ally Kennen

You will want to read Beast. The reptilian eye staring at you from the cover will make sure of that. In fact, if you like good YA fiction you will probably have read it already. I don't know why I hadn't til now. After all, I saw that cover first of all in a prospectus for the writing MA I was about to take, where Ally is a well remembered past graduate. Like I said, the eye's been watching me. I suppose I knew it had the patience of a crocodile lurking in the shallows. It could wait, because we both knew it was going to get me in the end.

On the face of it, Stephen is everyone's worst kind of disaffected teenager, with a history of crime and antisocial behaviour: twocking, arson, substance abuse. But judgement is impossible, because you are forced to see life from his point of view.You know all about his hopeless background, and the way in which his damaged life has forced him to wall up any capacity to believe in himself or to trust those who try to offer him care.

But this novel is no bleeding heart criticism of social conditions. Whatever your views about young people who kick against society, you have to admit that the dominant problem in Stephen's life is a real one. It's twelve foot long and he's been feeding it a pig a month.

Here lie the reasons for the book's success. For all his apparent faults, Stephen is a totally convincing and thoroughly engaging character. You can't help empathising with him. Having a terrible secret which you feel sets you apart and that can be told to no-one is a normal condition of adolescence, although in most people's experience it's something less alarming than a predatory pet big enough to eat your own father. It's impossible not to admire Stephen's determination and resourcefulness, and the clues are there right from the beginning to his good heart: from his affection for his little brother, through his care for his foster sister's paralytically drunk boy friend, to the fact that he never considered leaving the young crocodile to die when it would have been so much easier to do so.

In a feat of skilful plotting, the book torments alternately with the hope of a better life for Stephen, and the threat of a terrible destiny. As the pressure builds, occasional flashes of desperate humour will make you want to laugh out loud.

In the end, we are convinced that Stephen deserves a a happy ending, but he has to rid himself of the monster first.

Have I stumbled on a metaphor? But that's what's so good about this book. It's as gripping as any young person could wish for, whilst at the same time offering the very best in writing.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Working Through the Block

Well, not exactly a block. I've been stuck for days - *blushes* more like weeks - on the same sequence I'm trying to add into the rewrite of Stars. I thought I was finding it difficult because I lacked the excitement of creating new work - or maybe I was missing the pressure of a deadline (see How Do You Keep Going When Nobody Cares? below) - or possibly just being lazy.

All those things are probably true, but what I've now realised is that I was mostly finding it tough because the passage was wrong from the start. It wasn't working, and I needed to approach it completely differently. Somewhere inside I knew that all along.

As soon as I saw that, I was able to rewrite most of it at a sitting. Now I'm poised to move on. Yay!

The question is, was it a waste of time crawling more and more slowly up that blind alley, or did I need to do it in order to see the right path? Far from being redundant, was it actually necessary?

One thing I'm sure of: if you stick at it, you never stop learning.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Hunger Games vs Twilight

Well? I know which I prefer ... In fact, the one is so much better than the other in my opinion, I never even thought to compare them until I saw this article in the Metro.

I first heard about the Twilight novels from an American friend of mine, before they'd reached the UK. Her passion for the series was a foretaste of what was about to hit us, and when they were published here I read the first book.

I could see why it was popular, and I'm all for books being popular. Twilight has done for YA publishing what Harry Potter did for books for younger readers - even stolen one of its stars - what is it about Patso that links him cinematically to death? I also thought it was profoundly silly. I mean, a brooding, sexy but chaste vampire who is all but unattainable and glitters, for goodness sake ... I could almost forget we're reading about the undead, and think instead it's a teenage girl's dream of a rock star. But like I said, don't knock it. Clever stuff.

Hunger Games, on the other hand, is seriously good. Like all the best dystopian fantasy, it grows out of the development of aspects of our own society, in this case - amongst other things - social division, screen violence and the reality show. It engages completely, with skilful writing, believable characters and a tense plot.

As a reader, no contest between the books; nor as a writer: I know which I would like to emulate. And I also know which I would prefer a daughter of mine to read. The society Suzanne Collins writes about may be sick, but her heroine Katniss is feisty, resourceful and honest; and her book makes you think, rather than wallow in sentiment.

But hold on a minute ... I'm not the target audience here. Teenage years are a time for many things, including being silly. I seem to remember it was rather fun.

Perhaps I should remember my age and shut up ... and also be grateful that at least two authors are doing their bit for the popularity of the book.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Hooray for Quentin Blake stamps!

I was chuffed to send out a sample stamped with one of these brilliant Roald Dahl designs. I can't help feeling my submission will do so much better with sympathetic franking.

I am right, aren't I? I'm not being pathetic?

What are your submission superstitions? I never re-send returned samples, however recent or pristine. I just know they will have absorbed the negativity, and the next person will be able to tell. Of course it's a terrible waste, but I recycle them by printing rough drafts on the other side ... Hang on.

What if the bad vibes seep through?

So much to worry about ...