Doing it

The other day I was asked for my do’s and don’ts when writing for children. I resisted, with difficulty, the obvious reply – don’t write for children (or at least not if you seek an easy, lucrative living) and attempted to say something sensible. It was more difficult than I thought. So off the top of my head:

Don’t patronise your readers – children are demanding readers and hate being patronised as much as I do. They will notice if a plot doesn’t make sense, and being cute is no substitute for being entertaining.

Do think about the age of your would be readers and their interests.

Don’t make your sentences too long, your language too complex and don’t try to show off. Delete any beautiful sentences that stand out – chances are they belong to another book.

Do write vividly and clearly.

Don’t summarise events too much and get lost in your characters’ heads.

Do dramatise as much as you can ( ie show don’t tell, but I hate that phrase.)

Don’t write stereotypyes

Do write compelling characters (though that one is a bit hard to define.)

Don’t expect to be the next JK Rowling/Stephanie Meyer/ random multimillionaire writer.

Do enjoy what you do because if you don’t there is very little point

What would yours be?

Plumbing the Depths

I teach creative writing. There, I’ve said it. I feel as if I have confessed to something best kept secret because sometimes I feel that there all together too many books out there and we don’t need any more. Specifically I feel that there are all together too many books out there that aren’t mine and I’m not sure why I am working to increase the competition.

At the moment I am teaching creative writing quite a lot. I use ‘teach’ advisedly because it rather suggests I know things that my students don’t know and if you were to ask me what I know about creative writing I would probably demur, hop awkwardly from one foot to the other, come over all faint, or more likely suggest we go for a drink or a coffee and hope we can talk about something else.

Of course I do know loads of things my student’s don’t know – where I put my daughter’s homework in my last crazy tidying session, how to jump start an ancient Fiat, just how awful seventies fashion really were in their original incarnation. What I know about writing is much harder to determine. Sometimes I wonder if that makes me a fraud. Most of the time it makes me focus not on what I know, but on what I know how to do.

It is easy to underestimate how much we all gain just through experience: I wouldn’t call it knowledge, which to me suggests something intellectual and rarified, more know-how – a practical – oh love, you’ve got a crack in your plot, and your characters need an oil change. kind of thing. What I offer is the writer’s equivalent of a plumber’s quick intake of breath. I rub my chin and offer a diagnosis. ‘You see ( insert student’s name) what you’ve got here is the old overloaded sentence problem.’ Pause while I look reassuring, scratch and seem to consider a tea break. ‘Not a big job to fix. Take you an hour or two tops. You need to turn down your melodrama thermostat to ‘cool’ and bleed your radiators – lose a few of those adjectives. Your kind of plot will run smoother without them.’ And of course the same problems crop up again and again. There’s the pilot light problem when the story never fires up, the blocked pipe problem when every time the story gets going the student throws a a lump of description or exposition into the works and messes up the flow. There’s the dodgy connection problem where the story set-up defies logic or starts in the wrong place and so on. When I look at it this way I see myself less as the fount of all wisdom – more of a woman with a story-spanner: not so much a teacher as word-plumber. I can live with that.

I could be barking up the wrong tree

From the window of my study I can see the top of a chestnut tree. (Actually that’s a lie because to my shame I don’t know what type of tree it is, but I know that in writing it is always better to be specific.) I spend all together too much time looking at this tree and yet I never spot the moment when the last leaf falls, or the day when spring arrives and it is finally, gloriously verdant green again.

I mention the tree for two reasons: it marks the passage of time, and it is a great metaphor for writing.

First things first. As a kid I remember watching the film of the ‘Time Machine’ in which time was indicated by the changing fashions in the window of a shop, hems rising and lowering, styles evolving until eventually there is no shop at all. The tree for me is like that shop. I look out and it is green and then one day I look up and it is red and then on a day like today I look up and it is starkly naked. And all the time I am at my desk, in my own private time machine putting words on a page. I live in this insulated world, outside of time, in the eternal present of story. It is always a shock to realise that I can be several seasons adrift, that my time and real time don’t always run together. And then I get to the metaphor part. Just as I never notice the moment of transition from Spring to Summer, Autumn to Winter, I never notice the exact moment a fleeting thought becomes a plot idea, a name on a page becomes a real person, a bare branch of a story buds and thickens into full leaf and suddenly there it is fully formed on the page. I work on it every day, just as I look at the tree every day and yet the moment of transformation from one stage to another always passes me by.

I don’t know what that means, if indeed it means anything, unless that maybe when we are working we don’t see the wood or the tree until suddenly we do and we are finally, gloriously done.

How not to be popular

Unless you’ve been doing a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ for the last ten years you probably know that the web is awash with writing advice. Some of it is brilliant and some of it will make you want to murder the writer as energetically as I destroy my inner critic. One of the perennials is ‘your characters ought to be likeable.’ I really wonder about this one, but I fear it is becoming true as more editors pick up this kind of nonsense along with other prescriptive notions of what a book should be. I don’t think it is true but it leaves me in a bit of a quandry – how do you write likeable characters?

Like many writers I was not the most popular girl in the school, the one with the perfect teeth, the flicky hair and the knack of somehow setting the social agenda. I despised David Cassidy and Donny Osmand and had a healthy dislike of The Bay City Rollers, I could go on, but let’s just say I didn’t get it and was too stupid to refrain from saying so. Not wise. I’ll skim over my other social faux pas and summarise: I possess none of the attributes of the popular girl. Time has taught me to keep my mouth shut, but it is not a lesson I have fully absorbed even now. This is relevant to writing because I find it very hard to construct credible ‘popular girls.’ I am comfortable with loners, weirdos, girls who become foxes or boys, boys who become wolves or bears, but a straight forward popular girl has thus far eluded me. I can’t cheat either. I can’t make a character seem popular by obliging everyone else in the book to like her: characters who wander into my books tend to have borrowed some of my more undesirable traits and are often judgmental and outspoken. I can’t shut them up, only write them out of the story which limits my cast options. I am really interested in how other writers do this.

For most personality traits it is easy enough to find something in yourself and magnify it or produce the desired effect by observation, but likability is tough. I loathed Bella of ‘Twilight’ fame and look how popular she turned out to be ( David Cassidy didn’t do badly back in the day either) and of course my favourite Harry Potter character is Hermione because she’s an annoying goody good swot with whom I feel some distant affinity. I did try to write a likeable young woman in my last book. My daughter, who though she has escaped my worst characteristics has not escaped my tendency towards inconvenient honesty, pointed out that my heroine just wasn’t that nice or likeable or indeed worth spending a whole book with. (Thanks, love!) I have put this book on hold for a time and decided to write one about monsters instead as I have more of a handle on them. If you have any compassion, you nice people out there, please drop me a few hints!

Your Point of View

She began the book with her characteristic rush of early enthusiasm, which as usual barely lasted beyond the second chapter. She wrote at speed, spurred on by the inspiration of the Olympics and the testosterone-fuelled enthusiasm for ‘personal bests.’ Within the month she had surpassed her own ‘pb’ and completed a piece of writing so turgid and dull that she despaired of ever editing it to her satisfaction.

She attempts a change in tense. She sits at her laptop and tries to inject life into the story of her poor protagonist. It is hard, harder than it should be. She thinks about all the other books that she has written and changes her heroine’s name. When that doesn’t work she writes a short story. The short story is quite good, at least compared with the novel, which is still terrible. She walks to the shop and buys more coffee. She cleans the house. She discovers that the laundry basket is not actually bottomless. The book is duller than ever and as the summer fades to autumn she finds her spirits sinking lower than the barometer.

I make a decision and change my point of view. Not that radically, I still hate my book though at least my prose perks up. I am still drinking a lot of coffee, but I am less morose and I have stopped whinging about my inability to work. I begin to see what might be done, how the blasted thing could be beaten – violently so that it is light as a meringue. Books are trickier than meringues and the lighter they are the more effort they take to get off the ground.

I was perhaps too optimistic too early. It was the tense. I was tense – obviously – not working always makes me tense, but the present tense was a little too tricksy for a romantic, frothy tale. It was too earnest and literary. I needed to find an easy natural voice, and I thought this first person past tense would work. Of course I underestimated the effort involved: simple is always hard. I was very tempted to cut my losses but you know how it is.

You start something and you want to finish it. You pride yourself on being a professional, on doing what you set out to do. You consider turning your fluffy romance into a crime novel as it better fits your mood.

You knew that the plot was never that strong and your protagonist never that likeable. You brewed more coffee and drank the whole six cup cafetiere’s worth. You wished you smoked, perhaps that would have worked: nothing else had. You considered locking yourself in a small room without internet access. Maybe past tense was better after all and just maybe, you speculated, your protagonist was more believable in third person?

It all depends on your point of view…

As I sit here wearing full combat gear, chewing on a cuban cigar and fiddling with my moustache I am obliged to wonder if we give too much prominence to the character of the author these days. Do readers care and, if they do, should they?

All this focus on the person rather than the work priviliges the charismatic, the beautiful the promotable and detracts from the only important thing, the writing. I know it’s all very well for people like me – as I toss my long blonde hair over my shoulder, cross my endless legs and readjust my generous assets so that I don’t show too much perfectly tanned cleavage as I type, but what about you ordinary authors out there? you middle aged women who’ll never see thirty again or all you men you don’t wear hats like Terry Pratchett, who lack beards like Philip Ardagh or teeth like Martin Amis – how will you fare in PR campaigns?

Who do you think you are?

It is fair to say that even the relative anonymity of tweeting and blogging still promote the person above the work. I blame Enid Blyton and her children’s tea parties – her fantasy of what a children’s writer should be.

For myself I don’t really care who wrote Shakespeare’s work – all I need to know about the writer lies in what is written.

I’d rather know nothing than be forced to engage with the notion of the writer. I was very upset to discover that Richmal Crompton was a woman, that PG Wodehouse broadcast for the nazis, and that Orson Scott Card espouses dubious political views. Suddenly the work became something other than itself; I could not unknow its provenance. Frankly, I prefer ignorance and that has made me chary about finding out about the authors of books I have loved. I don’t want to know – the books are what matters and some writers really do more harm than good by revealing their true selves.

As I fold back my wings and clean my claws between words, I wonder if I should pretend to be someone else, someone human and if that might help me sell more books. Or if I should eschew disguises, expose my tail and neatly cloven feet and say to hell with it all.

Read the book, damn you and leave the writer out of it!

Mangling the Language

Today I’ve been thinking about sentences and how to mangle them.

In my experience the majority of sentence mangling occurs when writers aren’t sure about what they are doing. I teach from time to time and come across quite a lot of mangling one way or another. Sometimes a student might write a fight scene but hasn’t visualised it properly so tries to describe several actions in the one sentence or a writer might want to explain some element of a character’s personality but aren’t entirely sure of what they want to say. Sometimes mangling occurs when someone wants to appear more erudite than their knowledge actually justifies, or when they have been told that they shouldn’t repeat the same word too often and raid the thesaurus for synonyms… always risky. Mangled sentences tend to accompany mangled thinking or maybe, for those of us who only think when we’re writing, mangled writing produces mangled thinking.

I’ve been speculating about the issue because I had to write an English essay for the first time in well over thirty years and my God, were my sentences mangled. Everything I’ve learned through writing fiction was forgotten in an instant and I was once more an intense, swotty teenager, constructing sentences of labyrinthine complexity, laying sub-clause on sub-clause, periphrasis on qualification, until the whole inelegant edifice collapsed under its own weight.

In the intervening years I have written business reports, reviews, young children’s stories and novels. I’ve written simple stories with limited vocabulary. I love short punchy sentences. I can’t explain why when faced with the prospect of writing an essay I panicked. I would like to say I reverted to type- only back in the day I did everything long hand and I think I actually thought in those dense, complex sentences because it was always easier to add a rider or another clause rather than start again, rethink and redraft. It is so easy to edit these days – so why did I forget how? It was as if like some character in one of my own novels I was actually magically transported back to 1979 and my days of wild hair, ink pens and overweening intellectual pretension. I swear I could hear the juke box strains of Santana’s ‘Samba pa ti’ weave their way through the sixth form common room of my memory. No wonder the essay was rubbish.

Still one should always learn from one’s mistakes and I suppose I learned several things from this humiliating endeavour: transferable skills aren’t always transferred, the past exerts a powerful pull on the present, I need to be more tolerant of students prolixity and I need to practise essay writing…

I’ve just flicked back to read my earlier posts on this blog and have discovered just how cyclical my life is. It may not be governed by the moon, by seasons or by school terms, at least not entirely, but my emotions are as predictable as all three. The New Year always brings determination to work harder, smarter and more lucratively with grand schemes for impossible daily word counts, Carthusian discipline and focused commercialism.

This lasts until my first encounter with a new idea…

The first encounter with a new idea. Well this is obviously the One I’ve been waiting for, the one to put my name on the map, on shortlists and best seller lists and in the review section of all significant magazines, newspapers and blogs. It doesn’t matter that it looks on the surface like an uncommercial idea because no one knows what sells and publishers are always chasing the last big thing: they don’t really know anything. We writers are the innovators and we have to follow our guts.This lasts until chapter seven…

Chapter seven is like wading through a blocked sewer, the rats are gnawing at my confidence and I am beginning to believe my whole story stinks. The concept is rubbish, the writing uninvolving, the end too far away to contemplate. I start looking for jobs in the paper and online. I’m sure I’d be a really good communication director of a FTSE one hundred company, brain surgery can’t be that hard can it? Or, failing that, Waitrose pays double on Sundays. This gloom lasts pretty well until the end of the book…

The end of the book. Well, it needs a bit of fixing but it isn’t all bad. I mean it probably won’t win any prizes, but my kids like it and I almost enjoyed reading it through apart from the typos obviously and the slightly dodgy bit in the middle I’ll fix in edit. Actually I’m not bad at this. No, not half bad.This confidence lasts until publication….

At publication. Um has it actually been published? Ah yes. Well at least one reviewer likes it. I knew it was never going to be a huge commercial success didn’t I? It’s a pity because it is much better than X which just topped the best seller charts and Y which won everything this year or is it?

Maybe I should have rewritten it? Maybe I should have picked a better subject/written a different book/ turned it into a script/ a picture book/ a cookery compendium? I’m in the wrong job. Why do I bother? This gloom lasts until the New Year when…

The really sad part is that I can’t help it. I don’t think I can get off this particular not-always-so-merry-go- round. I’m like some creature in a fairy tale doomed to endlessly repeat the same mistakes, but then aren’t we all?

Creative Thinking

I am fascinated by the creative process, particularly when I’m not engaged in it. The more I think about it and try to pin it down the weirder it seems.

Do you picture a scene before you write it and then describe what you see or do you bring the scene into being by the act of writing, the words themselves populating your brain with images? Do you hear the voices and try to cpature them or do characters only speak as the words tumble onto the page?

I think for me the words precede thought, or at least that’s what it feels like. I never know what is going to happen until it emerges somehow or other from my incompetent careless fingers. But words definitely make pictures in my head so that in editing I can take a closer look, re examine a shadowy figure and discover that he has black hair, that his shirt is crimson, that he holds a damascene blade in his left hand and that his nails are painted the colour of ripe plums. I always thought that this process of writing was the same for all writers, but of course it isn’t. I am intrigued to discover that many people know what they are going to write before they start, that some people don’t picture what they write at all and others are haunted by the disemboided voices of characters they have never met, though they may just be the mad ones.

It isn’t much discussed, this actual business of envisaging or creating perhaps because it is so hard to describe; the moments of making things up are fleeting, the ideas, intangible. At times writing comes close to lucid dreaming at others it is more like constructing a flat pack wardrobe from IKEA – one of the ones with the key piece missing – and doing it blindfold.

And another thing… is this imagining universal or is it only writers or painters who work this way? When people ask where we get our ideas from is it because they don’t have any and are baffled by the process? Doesn’t everyone sit and extrude images, places and people, pulling them like rabbits from a hat of our imagining or gathering them like candy floss on a stick. Are we writers particularly strange or is it just that we, spending long hours staring into space, are more inclined to notice? Any ideas?

Every Day in Every Way I’m getting Better and better

As anyone who knows me will testify, I love a good argument – the four minute or the ten minute variety. I don’t go in for rancour or nastiness but a fair and frank exchange of views sharpens my brain, not to mention my tongue, and adds a certain spice to life.

Lately I’ve been arguing online – surely the biggest and most pointless time sink yet discovered – about progress. No, not evolution or anything contentious like that, but the view, firmly held by many people, that the more we write the better we get.

It is partly the fault of those of us who teach creative writing; we suggest that students will improve with practise, with redrafting and rethinking, with time. This is true enough of very inexperienced writers, but I’m not sure it is true of the rest of us. Will our next book be better than our last? Well, it kind of depends what you mean by better doesn’t it?

I always want to do something different. Each book is a new departure, an experiment and by virtue of the fact that I have not written this particular book before – I am always a newbie, making new mistakes, screwing up in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

I was surprised that this view was not universally acknowledged as a self evident truth- as even well known writers don’t always produce their greatest work at the end of their lives, and how many brilliant first novels are never followed up?

Yet the response to this view was horror: ‘ I could not go on if I felt like that’,‘ Unlike you, I will keep striving to improve my craft,’ or words to that effect.

It struck me that as a society we want to believe in progress, economic, social and personal and are inclined to ignore evidence that does not fit this thesis: the idea of continuous self improvement has moved on from being a nineteenth century religious aspiration to a twenty-first century fact of secular faith.

I don’t think it is true and it doesn’t bother me in the least. I am about to publish my tenth novel and have written a couple of others that may never see the light of day, I am completely comfortable with the idea that each one is not ‘better’ than the last. I don’t feel I have yet produced my ‘ best’ (though I might have) that isn’t really for me to judge. I just keep bashing away, taking each idea as it comes, trying to shape a good book, meet the challenges I’ve set myself and get it out there. What about you? Are you getting better?