Tuesday, 31 August 2010

It Only Hurts When I Laugh

When did you first know you were going to be a writer? It's a question that gets asked a lot and one I'm still a little uneasy about answering. It finally crept out in my SCBWI Words and Pictures magazine interview last month:
My first notable creation was a satirical pamphlet entitled "The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers." That pretty much set the tone for all of my future work.
I say uneasy, because I started to worry that this sounded glib or in especially poor taste - I edited the reference out of my agency biography for that very reason. True, Sylvia Plath died a long time ago, but can a woman gassing herself and leaving two small children ever be considered fertile ground for comedy?

What was quite unexpected for me was that I've started to realise how that cheap bit of teenage humour was actual a pivotal step in my development as a writer. I'd just started A Level English Literature and found myself attracted by the honesty of Plath's work while simultaneously repelled by her self-pity. I think it was probably a case of disliking in others what we hate in ourselves, but I wasn't self-aware enough to see that. In particular, the circumstances of her death loomed large over everything, the pages of Ariel seeming to reek of martyrdom.

So, I wrote my riposte - four pages in biro with bad drawings and Madame Plath recommending easy-clean hobs and gas safety features from beyond the grave. I showed my friend, we laughed about it and it went in a bag somewhere and got lost. It didn't seem that important. But it was, because this was the first time I had used humour to try to make sense of my own situation - a technique that is still the cornerstone of my writing today. My mother tried to commit suicide several times during my childhood and it's now so clear to me that that was what I was reacting to. It seems bizarre (and a little repressive) that it's taken me twenty years to see that.

Writing is a key form of therapy for me, as I'm sure it was for Plath - even if I hope I'll continue to have a firmer grip on the world. What's ironic is that Plath's work itself is full of humour if you go looking for it, albeit humour of blackest kind. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a book and never even realise...


Thursday, 26 August 2010

Exploding the Nuclear Family

For me, family is the basic building block of children's writing. It's a resonant concept for children and adults alike and it's no surprise that so many debut writers are inspired by having a family of their own. I, in turn, was inspired by this comment on KM Lockwood's blog, bemoaning the lack of "normal families" in contemporary children's books. What's so wrong with the nuclear family anyway?

Well, I guess it's boring - and deliberately so. Unless we're very unlucky, the way we live our day-to-day lives is not the stuff of high drama. We all need a certain amount of stability as people and writers in order to reach our full potential. Being a child of divorce myself, I'm aware of a self-imposed pressure to work harder at my own marriage and keep my family together. My ten-year-old daughter is petrified at the idea of us separating - I'm sure she'd view something like Kramer vs. Kramer as a horror film!

When we get rid of a parent in a story - through divorce/death/madness/prison - we instantly introduce two dramatic elements for the child character. One of these is conflict, as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and the shifting relationships with their remaining family members. The second is freedom - a child with a single parent will inevitably be freer to get into trouble, which of course is exactly what we need to drive a good plot. Plus, there's one less adult character to get in the way :-)

Parents can be fun, and useful, characters to have around, but everything they do should be considered in terms of their impact on the children ("No, Mum, you may not have your own life!") I know many writers will bemoan the fact that it's very hard nowadays to write a book for children with an adult as the lead character, and that it used to be easier in the past. Well, those books are still out there and you can read them or give them to your kids. Maybe it's indicative of our highly (overly?) child-focused society that the young characters always need to take centre stage.

It's become clear to me recently just how many highly successful people have family trauma or tragedy in their past. Is this because children brought up in a secure environment have nothing to prove? Whatever, it doesn't bode well for the hero of my book - both of his parents are zombies who try to kill him at various points in the story!


Monday, 23 August 2010

Hitting the Buffers

We’ve all had days when we’ve considered giving up writing. The days when the words don’t flow, or the rejections come thick and fast. The days when life seems short and meaningless, and writing about that fact feels like shouting into a hurricane. But we don’t stop, because serious writers are illogically, inhumanly persistent. Like the common cold, we mutate and diversify, dipping a toe into poetry or a tentative elbow into the world of short stories. Some of this is about finding a voice, or at least the genre that best fits our mode of expression. Some of it occupies the “throw a lot of shit and see what sticks” category. Much like the common cold, we fervently hope that one of our strains of experimentation will find a willing host – someone with influence in the publishing industry.

We hear a lot about the people who never gave up, and their stories perpetuate the romantic myths about publishing. We all know that lots of publishers rejected J.K. Rowling, although, interestingly, everyone who tries to console me with that fact quotes a different number (it was actually only 12, so I'm well ahead of her there)

But what about the people who did give up? Because there must be tens of thousands who hit the buffers of publishing with their first attempt and never went back. Some of them later self-published, I'm sure, but many more just shoved their manuscript back in that figurative dusty drawer. What is it like to be one of those people?

As luck would have it, I'm married to someone who wrote prolifically and then abandoned it entirely. When she was commuting from London to Brighton by train in the early 90s, my wife Claire averaged 1000 words a day. She produced 11 children's novels in first draft, one of which made it all of the way through the editing process (on an electric typewriter) and went out for submission. There being only one manuscript, the whole thing went to Puffin and then returned with a form rejection.

This was ten years before I got into children's writing (and I've only managed 2 novels myself since then), so we were both unaware of the market and what was required to crack it. Shortly afterwards, we moved house much closer to London and Claire's need to write dropped away. Looking back, it's clear that she views it as just another phase in her life, the writing replaced in her affections by ever more reading, painting and the blitzkrieg invasion of children. I think she was able to see the writing as simply a way of pleasurably filling time - when that timeslot disappeared, so did her urge to write. It may even be that she did find her voice, but it was in pursuits other than putting words on the page.

I'm approaching a crossroads in terms of career choice, feeling the pull of both publishing and my day job, and not entirely sure how to reconcile that. I'm also a little haunted by my wife's story. I've clearly achieved more than her so far in the realms of children's publishing, but is that due to talent or persistence? Could she have got to the same level given the same will to succeed?

Fortunately for our domestic harmony, she doesn't feel the need to find out.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Playing the Market

Excuse me for my lack of postings - I've been on holiday and trying to deliver a whole set of revised chapters. I finally caught up yesterday with Nicola Morgan's superb blog post about the realities of getting published in the current climate. To quote her:

I've always known that if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, rather than a critically acclaimed one, I would have two choices:
  1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.

  2. Hope for the Unpredictable Fairy to bless my book.
Now, however, there is something so rotten in the state of book-buying that the same applies even if you don't want to write a best-selling novel but just one that earns enough to stay in print for a reasonable amount of time and keep your publisher happy.

Now frankly, this floored me. Not just because I fit into category 1, but because this is the kind of stuff I want to write. How can this have happened? Is it simply a case of being in the right place at the right time, or have I unconsciously altered my style to fit the market? I mean, I hate Dan Brown's writing style as much as the next writer, so it isn't as if I'm trying to chase his "magic."

I felt the need to delve further into my own writing style to find the answers:
  • Pace - I'm bored by slow things. Sorry, but there you go. Give me a screwball comedy and I'm overjoyed, show me a Bela Tarr film and I'll be trying to kill you before the end of the first ten-minute camera shot.

  • Description - This is something that exists to get in the way of dialogue. I'll accept that some description is important to anchor the characters in the scene or when describing action. But no more than that. I am aided in my mistrust for over-description by the fact that I am a man, which means I never notice anything!

  • Brevity - Those who have met me will know that I talk. A lot. But writing has always provided me the ability to edit the verbal diarrhoea down to its barest essentials. I think there's a purity to that, trying to tell a story in as few words as possible and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps.

  • High Concept - Ok, I will admit to being guilty here. I did choose a concept that I thought would sell before I started the book. But on the other hand, a lot of other people have chosen to write about zombies as well, so my book has to work harder to get noticed.

  • Other media - I've said it before and I'll say it again, I learned much of what I know about writing from films and TV. While this initially hamstrung me in terms of constructing a novel, I think it now becomes a big advantage. Modern (i.e. young) readers are incredibly cross-media literate and they want books that reflect that.

Beyond this, I have to disagree that you can't include meaningful ideas in a fast-paced, stripped-back book. You just have to be prepared to wind those ideas much more tightly into the actions and motivations of your characters. Isn't that what story is all about? And as for description, sometimes the most powerful descriptions are the shortest. Let us never forget the enduring impact of "Jesus wept."