Saturday, 30 April 2016

A Compelling Idea? Lari Don

I am driven to write by questions – most of my books start with What If? and are powered by a constant stream of What Happens Next? So I carry bits of paper or notebooks with me all the time, everywhere, just in case a question pops into my head.

I usually welcome these questions, even when they arrive at inconvenient times and especially when they send stories in unexpected and challenging directions.

However, very occasionally, I resist these questions. The What If? that prompted my teen thriller Mind Blind arrived unexpectedly and inconveniently. So I scribbled it down, then pushed it to the back of my mind because I didn’t think I had the time, the skills or the desire to do it justice. But it kept pushing forward and demanding to be written, bringing a longer and more enticing line of What Happens Next? questions every time it reappeared. Eventually I gave in and started writing, and I’m really glad I did.

But I had an odd experience earlier this week. I was eating my breakfast and reading a wildlife magazine (I’m writing about hares, crows and toads at the moment, but my eyes sometimes slide off the domestic wildlife articles onto the bigger beasts like lions and tigers and bears...) And while I was reading an article about giraffes, I had a sudden What If?’ idea.

I considered the question for a moment. Then I realised that the story it was leading to was dystopian, sci fi, YA and dark. I don’t mind dark, I’m keen to write more YA, and I suppose you could class Mind Blind as sci fi, but I really really don’t want to write a dystopian book. We’ve already given every possible future world quite enough of those...

So I shrugged, turned the page in the magazine and took another spoonful of muesli. But the question, the thought, the idea, the story, wouldn’t go away. I could feel it. Rattling about in my head. Itching in my fingers. I couldn’t eat any more. I couldn’t concentrate on the next page. I had to write the idea down. I didn’t want to write the book but I felt compelled to scribble down the idea. I had to acknowledge the existence of the question, even if I never intended to answer it.

So I got my ideas notebook and I scribbled the question down. And suddenly all was well with the world. The question had moved from my head to my notebook, and even though I am 99% sure I will never follow it up, I had at least written it down.

But that felt a bit weird. As if I was being compelled, by an idea I didn’t even like, to write it down. To give it houseroom in my creative space.

My notebook is filled with questions and ideas for more books (books I do want to write!) than I will ever have time to write, so I suppose there is no harm in a book I don’t want to write sitting quietly in there.

But it was extremely odd sensation, that compulsion to give this question, this idea, this potential story, its moment. Even though I know I would never follow it through, I nevertheless had to write it down, just as I would with an idea I was excited about.

What was going on there?

Was it a worry that if I didn’t give this What If? question respect, I might block the flow of other (more useful) questions? I’m not a superstitious person, so I don’t think so.

Or was it a process thing, instead? This is what always happens: I have an idea, I write it down. So, when I have an idea, that’s just what I automatically need to do with it. Hmm. I don’t like admitting that I’m such a creature of habit.

But it’s probably better than believing that ideas have an independent and autonomous life of their own! Which could of course, lead to a potentially dark and dystopian future... (I’d better go and scribble that down...)


Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Friday, 29 April 2016

Guilt and Inspiration - John Dougherty

Guilt, it's inbuilt, and I'm in it right up to the hilt
If I'm working day and night, then I pay the bills all right
But I don't have time to write the things I want to write
Which is never what I'm working on right now
-from The Writer's Anthem by Jo Cotterill


I spend a lot of time feeling guilty. 

There are all kinds of reasons for this, not least that when I was a kid my family was dysfunctional and my school wasn't much better; and it's always easier to tell a four-year old that he's wrong or stupid or naughty than to admit your own mistakes and try to correct them. And one of the things I feel guilty about is that, whatever I'm doing, I should be doing something else. If I'm answering emails or doing other admin, I should be spending time with the kids. If I'm spending time with the kids, I should be doing housework. If I'm doing housework, I should be writing. If I'm writing, I should be answering emails...

You get the picture. And as my lovely friend Jo's wonderful Writer's Anthem - one of the songs, incidentally, that we perform together, along with Helen and Paul Stickland, in our author band First Draft - makes clear, guilt is very bad for the writer. Not least, it's very unhelpful when you're seeking inspiration. The more I feel I ought to be starting on a new idea, the less likely I am to find one  - however much I wrack my brains.

And then something happens that makes you want to write, or inspires you in a quite unexpected way. Something like that happened this week. I've been wrestling with a few ideas for a new story, unable to settle on one, and feeling like a bit of a fraud - after all, what is a writer who isn't writing?

And then, a couple of evenings ago, I was helping my son with his GCSE revision and we read together a poem called 3AM Feed, by Steven Blyth. It's a lovely piece about a father feeding his baby in the night. We read it a couple of times, and discussed it, and, well, I found myself getting quite emotional. This almost-man, this 15-year old pointing out the cyclical structure of the poem and analysing the poet's use of imagery, had been my baby once. I'd warmed his milk, held him in the crook of my arm, listened to him sucking, just as the poem describes. And those times are gone forever; I'll never have them back.

I think I was still feeling emotional the next morning when, before settling down to work, I started browsing the web. Of course, I felt guilty about it - I should have been writing - but, still, I browsed. And that morning, link after link pointed me towards articles about the Hillsborough case.

One particular article, by David Conn in The Guardian, grabbed me and wouldn't let me go.  It takes apart the lies that were told, tells how the innocent were blamed by the guilty for the deaths and how the powerful protected one another. And suddenly, for the first time in several days - if not weeks - I found myself with something to say. I wanted to write. It wasn't what I "should" have been working on, but I didn't care. 

By the time I sat down at my desk, a poem had begun to form in my head, and with very little teasing out it took shape on the page. And then I wanted to share it with other people; so I created a new page on my website for grown-up writing, videoed me reading it, and posted it there.

It wasn't what I "should" have been writing, but it was what I needed to write. And sometimes, that's more important.
______________________________________________________________________________________________












 The latest in John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Great Big Story Nickers, published May 5th.


His other new books in 2016 will include the sixth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face title, his first poetry collection - Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones and published by Otter-Barry Books  - and several readers for schools.

First Draft will next be performing at the Wychwood Festival in early June.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Writing a gender-neutral character - Clémentine Beauvais

Here's the story of how I wrote a gender-neutral character that everyone now calls 'he'.

(in other words, here's a story about how I failed to create a gender-neutral character.)

The character in question is called Nel, and s/he's the angel driving this flying car, onto which a (nominally dead) grandma called Mamie Paulette is currently attempting to fight off some demons:

the amazing illustrator who drew this is Eglantine Ceulemans

I didn't set out to write the most radical of MG stories, nor to rewrite The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler in the clouds, but it was important to me that Nel and other young angels were neither male nor female. It's a relatively popular vision of angels in France, whether or not scripture agrees (which is something that French people care little about anyway).

But let me tell you that gender-neutrality or genderlessness is a very difficult thing to achieve in French. Firstly, and unfortunately for my purposes, the word 'ange' is masculine in French. Secondly, you wouldn't believe the number of words that need to be in the feminine or masculine form when referring even very vaguely to a character mentioned eighteen pages ago. I got to the stage where I started to suspect that even adverbs, which, as I dutifully recited at the age of six, are in-va-ria-ble-in-gen-der-and-num-ber, might be secretly gendered in spite of all.

Such writing is pretty much impossible in the 3rd-person pronoun, for grammatical reasons too boring to explain here, so Nel is the first-person narrator. But whenever s/he talked about other angels (in the third person), life became extremely difficult for me. I avoided those situations like the plague. As a result, Nel has very few angel friends. Poor Nel.

I had to carefully sidestep the verbs that give away the subject's gender, which is extremely convenient because they are all verbs of the first group, which, being the first group, is not illogically the biggest group of verbs. I also had to avoid most verbs of the second and third groups, and eventually developed advanced strategies of writing without verbs, or conjugating only in specific tenses that don't give away the gender of the subject (i.e. not in the passé composé, the recent past tense, which is perhaps the most-used in children's fiction).

But there's a lot you can do with verbless sentences, even though, as I dutifully recited at the age of six, a sentence begins with a capital letter, ends with a full stop and contains at least one conjugated verb. (This book would make my primary-school teachers cry.)

Of course, four out of nine pronouns were out of the question (he/she/he plural/ she plural). Miraculously, possessive pronouns in French work differently than in English - they give away the gender of the possessed rather than the possessor (so 'Linda's brother' would be 'his brother'). This is pretty great as I could refer to Nel's things without any problems. It was more difficult when Mamie Paulette needed to address Nel as 'my' something. So I created a whole battery of things that Nel could be in the eyes of Mamie Paulette, and expressions such as 'my little chou with hazelnut cream filling' proliferated to adequately conceal any evidence.

she's the kind to say that kind of thing, anyway

Trickiest of all were the collective adjectives to refer to Nel and Mamie. In French, the masculine always wins, because history, magic potion, reasons, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the Académie; so if you say 'Mamie Paulette, all the women in the world, and Nel are nice', 'nice' will be in the masculine even if only one of those 3 billion characters is male. This was exceedingly difficult to manage in sentences when Nel talks about the two of them. I mined for so-called epicene adjectives, namely adjectives that are spelled the same in the feminine and masculine. There are as many of these in France as there are varieties of cheddar that I would pick over even the chalkiest wheel of supermarket camembert, which means not very many at all. Nel and Mamie could be 'tristes' (sad), 'stupides' or 'difficiles', but they couldn't be happy. As a result, they are nearly always sad, stupid or difficult. It's a great book.

Somehow, I promise you, I managed to make that novel sound normally-written, with the genderlessness of Nel a constitutive but not forced aspect of the story. I liked the fact that such a story would exist in a very gender-divided slice of the market, and that it was not a gimmick, but a logical part of that universe.

We worked a lot on getting that haircut just right 

But as I soon discovered, everyone who's read it, touched it or looked at it immediately refers to Nel as male. Of course, in French, we don't have a singular 'they' - so we do need to pick a pronoun. But never have I heard anyone utter the word 'she', or even 'he or she' to refer to Nel. My editor says 'he', the reviews say 'he', the children say 'he'.

Now, even I say 'he' without even realising.

I don't know if it's because s/he drives a flying car, but I suspect so. I don't know if it's because s/he lives tons of adventures, but I suspect so. And the story appeals to boys much more, so Nel is obviously a he. 

Well, if that's that, then that's that. In spite of all the Alpha Male driving, Nel's main characteristics are, in fact, that s/he is extremely sensitive (sensible, another epicene, yay!), and sincere (another one) and tender (another), and even a little cowardly (another). If the readers have made him a he, that means they take it as self-evident that those attributes are fine for a young male character to have. Silver linings.

_____________________________________

Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Importance of Self-Support by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

Hmm...that title makes it sound as though I am going to be writing about Spanx, or something that 'lifts and separates' - and at fifty-one, I truly understand what my mother meant about the importance of supportive undergarments. However, I meant writing support.

I have recently instituted a new rule. I set my alarm two hours early, have a quick cuddle with my sleepy husband, then make a huge pot of tea. I sit at my desk and write until I have at least a thousand words of my latest manuscript. I know that isn't a huge daily word count; I see many writer friends talking on Facebook about their five thousand or more words produced, but I am really happy with it.

The thing is, previously I had been writing every day, but that has been commissioned educational work, or non fiction, or teaching and mentoring notes and critiques. Thousands of words every day, but none of them words for my novel. By the time it got to evening, I was too tired to write any more. So the novel - seen by two agents who were interested in seeing more - languished and made no real progress. Even that interest was not enough to make me write!

I had been through a period of great stress and anxiety; loss and bereavement, and huge changes in my life had knocked the stuffing out of me, I think. You'd think a bereavement counselor would be a little better at recognising the signs, but strangely, no. My writing took a back seat, and my self confidence was low. I was in my very own slough of despond.



I don't know what changed. Possibly just the knowledge that I kept sinking, and that every time I stopped writing, it just reinforced my sense of uselessness. Something, as they say, had to give.

Getting up earlier is a pain, but it is working for me. I 'expect' to write every morning, and have given myself permission to write 'on spec.' That's been a real breakthrough for me, as for several years now I have written very little in this way, and I am loving it. I have had fantastic support from my writing groups both online and in person, and that has made a huge difference to the 'keeping going' factor. Yet until I truly committed myself to the project, the work didn't happen.

I currently have forty six thousand words, and some of them are even good ones. The important thing is, though, that I am writing this novel daily. That is keeping my head in its world, so the ideas are composting even when I am working on something else.

I finally feel like a writer again.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

How to be a Writer in Residence. Erm? - Eloise Williams


I took up my post as Writer in Residence at Oriel y Parc in St. Davids, West Wales a week ago.

Hurray!

Erm…

Hurray again!

*Cue tumbleweed*

 


 

So I know what a WiR is (WiR is how it’s written by people who know stuff about stuff btw) sort of… erm…

 

I turn up at a vast and empty room with my laptop in my sweaty hand, smiling inanely at anyone within a twenty mile radius and showing willing by introducing myself to EVERYONE whether they wanted to be introduced to me or not.

 

I have never been cool or at ease with myself in any capacity so sitting in a room - where they usually have Artists in Residence filling the space with beautiful paintings or innovative art - by myself with a computer, half a packet of polos and an effort-at-a-diet bag of fruit and nuts would have been more than a bit mortifying for me. What if someone came in to chat? EEK. What if someone came in to ask me what a WiR does exactly? Double EEK.

I ducked out into the storm which had just blown in from the Irish Sea on a previously crystal clear day and walked the town searching for Writing Inspiration and trying to look like a Writer. Or anywhere near someone who wasn’t a complete out and out cowering Non-Writer of the worst and weirdest sort.


The bookshop, my haven, my sanctuary, my place of cheer and comfort in a cruel, cruel world, was closed. The library was closed (please see the government for more information). The Cathedral in all its gloriously hailstone lashed beauty was open but the knelling bell made me sway away from the cavernous mouth beneath the devilishly smiling gargoyles. I half expected lightning to strike me down and a coven of witches to turn up, convince me to walk into a big wicker man to keep dry and strike a match…

I am ashamed to say I was more than a bit of a wimp and having bought two scarves in the local charity shop (to give myself more of a writerly air) I came home and whimpered to my husband, who empathised and cwtched, and my dog who told me to grow the hell up and stop being a complete blouse. Or barks to that effect.

 

Being a writer is a constant test for me. I thought I’d be ensconced in a lighthouse making an absolute fortune whilst occasionally taking trips to London to do some shopping, not a person who is always having to put myself out there, talk to people, be myself, answer questions, be myself, actually really talk to real people and really be myself.

I gave myself a good talking to (having bored my husband into the shed, accompanied by the dog and any sense of self-worth I had left) and scoffed a couple of bars of chocolate washed down with a glass of something bubbly (ish) left over from a forgotten occasion and with dubious credentials.

‘For crying out loud Eloise! You are afraid of an empty room! What is it going to do? Eat you with its emptiness? Do you think people will walk through the door and point and laugh at you sitting there in the emptiness? In they’ll come, pointing their fingers and laughing their really loud laughs! She’s supposed to be a WiR! They’ll say. HAHAHAHAHA. WiR my foot.’

Now there are two ways of looking at this. 

I am a completely pathetic nerve-bag of an idiotic screwball nut-job.
I am a professional artist who is offended by an expanse of white unpainted by my beauteous words.

 

I’d go with A.

 

It was time to woman up! I had to take a leap for once.

Jump and then think while I was floating / falling, so in the end and after much frail and disappointing-the-dog quaking, I did this….







 

 

My very own 60 Minute makeover!

And I thought about what I actually want to do with the residency. What I want to get out of it and also what I want to give. And then it just suddenly wasn’t scary any more.

The staff there (who all looked more than a bit nervous when they first met me – probably due to my incessant laughter and hysterical babbling) are lovely.
The town is lovely and dark and mysterious and beautiful.
I’ve been given such a gift with my residency there and I’m going to grab it however much people point and laugh.

Of course once its finished I’ll be buying a lighthouse and throwing banana skins at paparazzi from my balcony but until then I’m creating my St. Davids story.
 

Wish me luck!

And also wish the people who have to put up with me even more luck!
 

Monday, 25 April 2016

Writer Friend Benefits by Tamsyn Murray

**Before I write this blog post, I need to disclose that I've just come back from a visit to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, which was so wonderful and so stuffed full of lovely writing friends that I fear I may not be entirely impartial...**

Anyway, I wanted to write a post in celebration of writer buddies. When I first started writing properly in 2008, I had no idea how close and generous the UK writing community was. I don't suppose I really thought about it much - I was too busy trying to write something worth reading. But somehow I stumbled across other writers. Some were published, others (like me) were just starting out but they all had something in common: they were warm and kind.

Fast forward eight years (EIGHT!?!) and I am constantly being amazed by the loveliness of other writers. I met Katie Dale for the first time this month, after a couple of years of knowing each other online, and not only did she collect me from the station before my event in Cambridge but stayed with me for the duration of the signing to keep me company. We talked about how much nicer it was to have a friend there and wondered whether it was an idea for other writers to 'buddy up' for events - after all, who hasn't felt the soul-destroying loneliness of a big pile of books and no one to sign them for?

Bali Rai, Adam Guillain, Charlotte Guillain, Candy Gourlay, John Dougherty, Phoebe the blogger, SF Said
Jo Cotterill, me, Cas Lester and Milly Weaver at ChipLit Fest last Thursday. So many LOVELY writers and friends!

I also recently announced a new middle grade series with Usborne, to be published this July, and I was delighted by the number of retweets and kind mentions on Twitter. It's worth pointing out that a large number of these came from other writers. And at the end of a day, when you want to vent a little about a paragraph that won't go right, or a character who stubbornly refuses to do what you want, who better to listen to you than another writer? They get exactly what you mean.

An editor once said to me that they didn't want to ask another writer for a cover quote because they felt there was an element of competition between the titles - I was amazed at this, because it's usually been my experience that writers are keen to give a leg up to another writer. And I do wonder whether the rest of the publishing industry understands this special relationship writers have with each other: this recognition of a kindred spirit even if you've never met before. It isn't true of every single writer, of course, but it's been the case for me so far.

So before I get even more mushy, why not show a little recognition for your writer friends today? Give them a compliment, or a retweet, or even a hug? Pay it forward and support an event they're doing. With a bit of luck, they'll return the favour and we all win.

I blummin' love you lot. Yes, even you...

Sunday, 24 April 2016

On Becoming That Person - Liz Kessler

Here’s a story. It’s set in early 1985. A girl is in her first year at university. Lots of things are changing around her. Politically, times are volatile. Margaret Thatcher is barely halfway through her time as Prime Minister. The miners’ strike is going strong. Clause 28 and the Poll Tax are only a few years away.

Inwardly, things are just as volatile for our protagonist. She’s been feeling confused about herself recently. Feeling things that she can’t quite put into words – or maybe she can, but she’s scared to.

She’s tried dropping hints to a couple of her friends about what she’s going through – but where to start? And does she dare? Sharing her theories about herself feels like a big risk to take on such new friendships.

And then she meets someone new, and the theory becomes reality. She meets a girl, and falls in love. Nothing has ever felt so right – but nothing has ever felt so scary either. The girls sneak around as secretly as they can, hiding their kisses, whispering their feelings, hoping that no one will guess. Of course, people do. Some are understanding. Others – like the girlfriend’s housemate who pours a pint over the girl’s head in the student bar and calls her disgusting – not so much.

The girl feels alone. Who can she turn to? She’s not ready to publicly walk through a door with a big ‘GAYSOC’ label on it yet. So she turns to books. It’s pre-internet, though, remember, so this isn’t an easy task, and involves building up the courage to go to the ‘Lesbian and Gay’ section of the women’s bookshop she’s heard about in London. But she does it. And there, she finds Rubyfruit Jungle, The Well of Loneliness, Patience and Sarah and a few others.



These books might be dated. They might be worlds away from what she’s going through. But at last, she is reading the words of someone who has trodden the path she is trying to navigate. Finally, she is not on her own.

You might have guessed by now, or you might not. (Which, incidentally, is a line from my first book, The Tail of Emily Windsnap, which my brother has always maintained is an allegory for coming out as gay, but which – well, if it is, it was purely accidental on my part.) The girl is me. Was me. The ‘was’ is important because of how different those times were. At least, in many ways they were different, and thank goodness for that.

If you spend a lot of time in certain circles, mixing with crowds who are cool, up-to-date, politically aware, cosmopolitan, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve advanced to a point where sexuality is no longer an issue. But that’s not the whole story.

In these advanced times, ‘That’s so gay’ is still commonly used as a derogatory term. In these advanced times, LGBT students and young adults still have one of the highest rates of suicide attempts. In these advanced times, a leading Cardinal in the Vatican feels able to go on record advising parents not to let their children have anything to do with ‘wrong’‘evil’ and ‘intrinsically disordered’ gay people.

So no, we are not there yet. But we're on our way. And I might be biased but I happen to believe that literature - and particularly Young Adult literature - is leading the way. 

Think back to the girl in her hall of residence, hoping no one had seen her come out of her friend’s room late at night, secretly reading books with lesbian characters and hiding them at the back of a drawer, hoping no one shouted insults as she drank in the union bar. Think about what she got from the books she found. The worlds they opened, the strength they gave her. The knowledge passed down from the generation that went before her.

And now think about this. I am that person. I’m not just the girl being called ‘disgusting’ by her girlfriend’s roommate. I am the person ahead of her too, the one further down the path, helping to light the way for the next generation. Because society has changed as much as it has, because my publisher wanted to be part of that change, not just watch it take place outside - my YA novel Read Me Like A Book was published. This month it came out in paperback.




I can hardly even put into words how much it means to that student back in the 1980s. In fact, I can, because I am her. It means the world. And I use that word on purpose. Because I am proud to be part of the world that has made these changes. And I hope to be part of the world that strives to make more, until a girl struggling to come to terms with her sexuality is such a non-issue that the idea of writing a book about it doesn't even make sense.

Buy Read Me Like A Book
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