|The scene from my hotel window!|
|The scene from my hotel window!|
It’s going to be an unashamedly political post today, folks; but before I begin here are a few pictures from my recent visit to Delhi for the Bookaroo festival:
Big thanks to Jo Williams and the Bookaroo team for inviting me and for organising such a great festival, and to the British School in Delhi for sponsoring my events!
But while I was having such a terrific time in India, hanging out with the 2 Steves and making some lovely new international author friends, events were moving on apace with the campaigns to save our libraries.
|Campaigners on Judgement Day|
|Fabulously serious logo by Sarah McIntyre|
|Nicola Davies, unfazed by being |
elbowed by a giant ghost - all in a
day's work for us
|Only our invisible friends were|
|I don't have permission to use any photos of the Opening Ceremony. So here instead is a picture of some cake, courtesy of Michael at www.foodimaging.co.uk|
Please forgive me if this posting takes you longer to read than usual. That'll be because I'm typing it very slowly.
The reason for that is that I'm only using one hand.
Ask some people to define the perfect job, and they’ll start by describing the salary. Ask others, and they’ll begin with working conditions, or colleagues, or sense of purpose, or flexibility. There are as many perfect jobs as there are types of people; and there are as many types of people as there are... well, people, probably.
So to anyone who’s just dropped by for some careers advice: sorry. Can’t help. Whatever your skill-set, you’d be better going and asking a careers advisor. No, what I’m musing about today is why writing is my perfect job - or, at least, the perfect job for someone with my particular well-defined and carefully honed flaw-set.
For a start, I’m a procrastinator; and I’d imagine there are very few jobs which suit the procrastinator quite so well as writing. When you’re a writer, you see, you start work on a story long before you actually realise you’ve started work on a story. By the time you get round to thinking it might be time to procrastinate, it’s too late. You’ve started work.
Procrastinators - assuming I’m typical of the breed, of course - are daydreamers; and there’s no telling which bits of your daydreams may end up sparking off a story, or changing its course, or providing a resolution, without your having the slightest intention of doing any work. The characters form, the plot builds up, the dialogue begins to whisper, all inside your head and long before you ever consider putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard. It happens while you thought you were avoiding making a shopping list, or doing the washing-up, or paying the bills. And once the story has firmly taken root in your imagination, and is expanding by the day, well, you might as well sit down and tap out a few ideas. It’s not as if you’re actually going to do the whole thing. Not at once, anyway.
And then: well, disappearing down to your shed and writing the next bit is a great way to avoid all those other tasks you’d otherwise have to be doing, isn’t it?
So much for procrastination. But I also suffer from its equal and opposite flaw: a fear of finishing. A dreadful drawback in most spheres of work, I’m sure you’ll agree; but the thing about writing is, you never really finish. Not properly.
You get to the bit where you write the closing sentence, of course; but you never know if that really is the closing sentence. No, you send the MS off to your editor safe in the knowledge that it really isn’t finished yet; that she’ll get back to you sooner or later (later if you have a procrastinating editor who should really have been a writer but never quite got round to it) with lots of helpful suggestions about how to improve it. Finishing the first draft really isn’t finishing the story at all, because there’ll be lots more to do.
Even when you’ve finished the rewrites, in all probability there’ll be more rewrites, and maybe even more. At no point do you send back the re-re-re-re-redrafted work knowing that that’s it, and it’s al
I like series fiction. Or, at least, I like the series fiction I like: Discworld; Jeeves and Wooster; Narnia; The Church Mice; The Sandman... It’s a lovely feeling when, browsing the shelves in the library, I come across an unfamiliar volume of a well-loved series.
And I like writing sequels. Zeus on the Loose and Zeus to the Rescue will next year be joined by Zeus Sorts It Out, and I’m currently working on a couple more ideas about the egocentric deity and his long-suffering high priest. Jack Slater, Monster Investigator returned last year in Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom. Bansi O’Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy is soon to be followed by Bansi O’Hara and the Edges of Hallowe’en.
I would, however, hate it if someone decreed that from now on series fiction was the only legitimate form and no-one was allowed to read, write or publish anything else. Just imagine a world in which such a law had always existed: a world in which Hardy’s The Return of the Native came between The Native and The Native Returns Again; in which Watership Down was followed by Watership Up and Watership Left A Bit; in which Treasure Island was but one book in the Treasure Archipelago series. A world, in other words, which had no room for the stand-alone novel.
Of course, that would be ridiculous.
And yet... it would appear that something not a million miles away from this is happening in children’s books, or at least in books aimed at the newly-confident reader. It seems as if, no matter what I submit at the moment, the question comes back: “But does it have series potential?” A quick glance at my ‘recent rejections’ file comes up with this sort of thing:
“We all enjoyed reading this... The writing is really good... pitched at the right age range... very much like Roald Dahl... the main problem was that we can't see this working well over a series”
“utterly charming... truly very funny... loved the concept...What we’ve had a little difficulty seeing past is how to truly make this into a series.”
This can’t be right. I know there are economic imperatives to consider, but surely there are also cultural imperatives? Should we be teaching newly confident readers that all good things come ready-branded; that no story is self-contained; that one is never enough? Can’t we make children into readers without also turning them into consumers?
Worse, I suspect that for certain publishers the ideal is a series which can be pitched in a maximum of three words, and which combines two concepts from a limited and familiar range. Superhero Pirates! Football-playing Dinosaurs! Vampire Fairies! Ponies in Space! Better yet, slap some vapid c
Imagine pitching the following story, aimed at the pre-teen market, to a publisher:
A girl and her two brothers, left alone while their parents are at a party, are enticed from their home and taken to a faraway island by an amoral and egocentric stranger. No sooner do they arrive than the stranger’s accomplice attempts to have the girl murdered by enticing another child to shoot her.
The girl survives, and she and her brothers join the community there - a community entirely made up of abandoned children (of whom the stranger is the leader), surviving without adult assistance. After many adventures the girl and her brothers decide to return home, but before they can do so the entire community is captured by a band of criminals.
The criminals attempt to murder the children, but the tables are turned, and the children slaughter the entire gang, stabbing most of them to death one by one. The girl and her brothers return home.
If all this isn’t enough to put the publisher off, add in the descriptions of the parents at home, lamenting the loss of their children, and follow it with the eventual death of the kind and beautiful mother. And, just to confuse them, throw in a fairy or two.
Now: is any publishing house in their right mind, in the present day and age, going to publish such a story?
As you might have gathered, I’ve just finished reading Peter Pan to my kids. My goodness, but it’s dark.
Not unremittingly - far from it. There’s a lot of humour: some of it poignant, some of it merely well-observed. But there are enough threads of darkness running through it to terrify any modern editor looking for a potential best-seller for the young reader.
Not only that, but the language is not always easy. On a single page (263, if you’re interested) we encounter a bountiful selection of words including: industrious, essence, commonplace, pathetic, infinitely, fount, unconscious, bulwarks, miasma, prone, mechanically, unfathomable, tabernacle, bellied, elation, gait, sombre, profoundly, dejected.
What’s my point? I’m not entirely sure; except perhaps to say that it’s easy to set rules for what will and will not do in children’s fiction - and that in doing so, you may miss out on a classic.
Some people do find children difficult, don’t they?
And just as there are those who find children hard to relate to in real life, there are those who find them hard to relate to in fiction, and who therefore assume that any book with a child protagonist must ipso facto have been written with a readership of children in mind. This attitude generally goes hand-in-hand with the sort of assumptions about the merits of children’s fiction that makes those of us who write it rather cross.
Thankfully, there are also authors on the other side of the Great Fictional Divide who understand that childhood (in which, for the purposes of this piece, I include teenagehood as well) isn’t just a period of waiting to turn into a real person. So, as my contribution to the Awfully Big Second Anniversary Celebrations, here - in no particular order - are five of my favourite depictions of children and childhood in novels written for proper grown-ups:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
When I was a small child, I was told by my classmates that the house at the school gates was The Witch’s House. I remember going fearfully but excitedly up to it, one day after school, with one of my friends; and seeing, just as we reached it, an old woman’s face at the window.
We screamed and ran. We were afraid; but it was a safe fear - a fear of something we had created in our minds and fixed to someone else’s home. I don’t know why children do this - perhaps in order to practice dealing with genuinely scary things when we’re older - but in the Radley house, Harper Lee captures this sort of childhood totem perfectly; and in Scout, Jem and Dill, she creates three very real children, who play and negotiate and slowly learn about justice and injustice and the complexities of the adult world entirely convincingly.
To Kill a Mockingbird is fifty this year, and hasn’t aged a bit.
2. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby
We all knew a Marcus at school, didn’t we? Except, of course, for those of us who were Marcuses - bright in some ways and yet so naive in others; misfits who desperately needed to be taken under someone else’s wing.
It’s Hornby’s masterstroke, of course, that the wing in this case belongs to someone who bridges the gap between the child and adult states - a grown-up who’s never actually had to grow up.
About a Boy is a wonderful comedy of embarrassment, with a lot of unsentimental warmth and down-to-earth wisdom about families and growing up; and with two very real boys of vastly different ages at
This summer, we had visitors. Two girls from Belarus came to stay with us, courtesy of the Chernobyl Children’s Project.
It’s a strange experience, being unable to communicate verbally with children who are, for a fortnight, almost entirely dependent on you, but neither of our visitors spoke any English and my Russian is non-existent, so we had to make do; and by and large we did very well. Our guests learned to ask “Mehgeddown” before leaving the table, and to say “pleeeeease” in the proper way beloved of generations of British children (stretching the vowels out to improbable lengths, with a beseeching rise and fall in pitch in the middle). We learned the Russian for “orange”, “video” and “prawns”. And we got very good at miming and drawing explanatory stick-people pictures.
What was strangest about the language barrier, though - and I say this as someone to whom smalltalk doesn’t come naturally - was the consequent inability to find out anything significant about these children who were, for two weeks, part of our family. We learned - we think - that one lives at home with mother, two grandmothers, and another adult female whom we assume to be an aunt; the other lives with mother, father, and one grandmother. And that was it.
Perhaps it was because I felt I ought to have learned more that, when I took them to the airport and bid them a genuinely tearful goodbye, I found myself making up the next bit. One of the girls, I reckoned, was going home to a family who had missed her desperately and who would, as far as they were able, spoil her over the next couple of days. They would listen to everything she had to tell them about her holiday, pore over the photos we had given her, and create in their own imaginations details about us and our life in Gloucestershire.
The other, I thought, would probably be welcomed warmly enough, but without the same level of fuss and attention. By the time she got home, talk would have turned to other things, and she would be expected to be quiet - would perhaps even be almost forgotten, except as a series of tasks to be attended to. She was, I imagined, returning to a life comprising a certain level of neglect. Having watched her open up over her stay, turning from a child who stood quietly on the edge of things to one who threw herself loudly towards the centre, I felt, at the airport, that in a matter of minutes I saw precisely the reverse happen. I worried about her; and, if I'm honest, I'm still worrying.
Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this is true. Effectively, I’ve made it up, and for all I know, I’ve got it completely wrong. But it does occur to me that, to a greater or lesser extent, we all fictionalise other people. We make assumptions about them and about their lives based on very little evidence. Sometimes we’re aware that we’re doing it; sometimes we’re not.
It’s a useful attribute for a writer, of course. When a new character suddenly appears on the page before us, we have to make their acquaintance immediately; we have to know who they are so that we can tell what they’re going to do next. Is this character good, bad, morally ambiguous? Brave or cowardly? We need to make assumptions about their background, take shortcuts in getting to know them. The difference, of course, is that whatever we decide about our own characters, we know we’re right. When we make up stories about real people, we're only guessing.
Just for the benefit of anyone who hasn't seen this yet:
Well said, that man.
I must have been mad. Gloriously, bonkersly, wonderfully mad. Whatever possessed me to suggest I mark Save Our Libraries Day by becoming a Flying Author?
Not literally flying, I hasten to add, despite the misleadingly Bigglesish publicity picture. No, the idea was that I dash around the county, doing quick 20-minute sessions at each of the libraries that are endangered by the, let's be frank, utterly irresponsible and ridiculously short-termist cuts proposed by Gloucestershire County Council.
Unfortunately, it's a big county. And there are a lot of endangered libraries. Under the present plans, 29 of the county's 38 libraries are likely to suffer huge reductions in service, with up to 17 of those likely to close altogether. Not to mention the mobile libraries, which soon no one will be able to mention except in the past tense. Yes, they're getting rid of the entire mobile library service.
Anyway, it soon became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to do more than 9 in a day. And that was without stopping for lunch.
Thank goodness, then, for Cindy Jefferies, who quickly donned her own metaphorical goggles and flight jacket to become Flying Author number two. The marvellous, hardworking and very lovely people at Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries began to get very excited - and it didn't end there. As the days rolled by, more authors, poets, illustrators and storytellers joined the squadron. Not all of them were technically Flying Authors - some stayed at a single library for a day; some could only give an hour or two of their time - but all of them helped to make it a huge success. They were, in no particular order:
I love doing school visits.
I love writing, too, but it would drive me mad if I spent all my waking, or at least working, hours alone in my shed. I like - no, I need - to get out there and perform, too.
I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. I suspect it’s proximity to both World Book Day and the end of the financial year that leads to the annual rash of bookings throughout late February and much of March; but whatever the reason, it’s been great to get out of the confines of my admittedly lovely shed and meet both children and staff at a real variety of schools, from Gloucester to Bedford and from Leicester to Exeter.
There’s always the occasional niggle in school visit season. Inevitably, at some point, somebody at some school somewhere will do something to cause offence. When this happens, it’s important to keep things in perspective. What was said may not have been exactly what was meant; that omission was probably a genuine oversight; teachers are busy people who should be forgiven for not always being able to keep every single plate spinning. Yes, I’ve just driven for two hours to get here; but she may have spent the last forty-five minutes trying to control an uncontrollable Year 5. And, of course, while the best school visits - the ones where the children have been prepared for my visit and are excited about meeting a Real Live Author - are also usually those on which I get treated like a celebrity, it’s important not to let that go to my head and expect the red carpet treatment everywhere.
There was, however, one niggle from this round which has stayed with me, and I really don’t think this one is down to me being a diva (or whatever the masculine form of diva is. Div, probably).
You see, I always finish my school visits with a book signing. Yes, it’s good to earn a little extra income from selling books - most of us aren’t terribly well-off - but that’s not why I do it. Nor is it to soak up a little more adoration - very often it’s when they meet you one-to-one that they say something that brings you back down to earth. No, the book signing is much more important than that.
More than anything else, the reason I do school visits is to promote reading for pleasure. I’m passionate about it. I believe that a school - especially a primary school - that doesn’t at least try to get its pupils reading for pleasure is failing in one of its most important duties. And in my sessions, I do my utmost to link reading and fun.
For me, the signing session is an important way to do that. If a child has been inspired by the day, and is bursting with fresh enthusiasm about reading, it’s good to provide the option of a focus for that enthusiasm; and a book signed by The Author can be just the thing. It can become a treasured, even a totemic, item, invested with significance.
Obviously, not every child will need such a focus - many of them will have books at home that already have particular significance, and for many some all books will be equally special, signed or not. But the signing session means that children are at least offered the option of buying a book which, for some, will be their first Special Book - and, for some, might even be their first book of any sort.
So what’s my niggle? It’s that one o
This is a story about a little boy, and his favourite author, and the difference a few moments of kindness can make.
Sam has just turned nine, and he asked for a birthday cake shaped like a platypus, for two reasons: he’d seen platypuses on his recent Australian holiday, and he’d read in Mr Gum & the Goblins that Andy Stanton’s favourite word is ‘platypus’. It’s a bit of a running joke; in every book the favourite word changes. Sam knows that, but still…
Anyway, this is where I come in. Sam is a friend of mine - he and his family live across the road from me - and so is Andy Stanton. I was lucky enough to find myself on a discussion panel with Andy a few years ago, on which occasion I prostrated myself before his comedy genius and he was kind enough to offer effusive words of praise about my Zeus books, and, well, I like to feel we bonded.
So I texted Andy with a brief explanation, asking if he’d mind sending me a text that said Happy birthday, Sam and something about platypuses. It would, I thought, be quite special to show it to Sam round about candle-blowing-out-and-cake-cutting time.
Andy, bless him, texted back immediately with the generous message: Give me a ring from the party and put him on the line and i’ll say hi.
Sam, of course, was awestruck. He was a touch monosyllabic at first; and Andy had to loosen him up a bit:
Sam (shyly): Hi.
Andy: Is that Sam?
Sam (lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Do you know who this is?
Sam (still lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Yes, that’s right; it’s Jacqueline Wilson.
Sam (little smile appearing like sunshine through the clouds): No you’re not! You’re Andy Stanton!
And they chatted for a minute or two - with Andy doing most of the chatting - before Sam returned to the party, and to the envy of his friends (including one who muttered, “I bet it’s not the real Andy Stanton, it’s just someone pretending to be him!”).
So - what’s the big deal? Successful author does nice thing for kid. So what?
Well, the ‘so what’ is that Sam can be painfully shy - and up until a year or so back, he was selectively mute. He often finds conversations with adults difficult, and he’s never - I’ll repeat that: he’s never - managed a phone call of that length before except with his mum or dad. Phone calls and conversations with adults are, by and large, things of stress rather than joy for him.
Yet this was special. Sam’s been upset about not getting tickets for Andy’s event in Cheltenham this year; but that night, when they were talking about the party, and the games, and
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be thoroughly alarmed by the late Diana Wynne Jones.
I went to see her at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In response to the inevitable question about her next book, she said that it would be published in February and was about a child who goes to visit relatives in Ireland only to find that strange things connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen.
"Eeek!" I thought; and at the end of the session I approached her with a question of my own.
"How do I tell my publisher," I asked her, "that my next book, about a child who goes to visit a relative in Ireland only to find that strange events connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen, is going to bomb because Diana Wynne Jones's book about the same thing comes out a month earlier?"
Well, she was absolutely lovely. She told me that this sort of thing was always happening, and that she was sure my book would be completely different from hers. Which, as it turned out, was completely accurate: I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Game, and my Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy was - thankfully! - nothing like it.