Peaks, troughs and keeping the faith

peak districtAt events, festivals and book signings there are always writers who want to talk about what to do with their own unpublished book or story idea. Members of writers’ groups I address with Leslie are often preoccupied with how to get published. Long as that story is, I’ve learned over nearly seven years as a full-time author that it’s just the preface. I certainly never imagined how the real life post-publication plot would develop and only now do I know its theme: survival. When a novel makes it into print, the author is really taking a seat on some ride that – unless she is lucky enough to have a rich publisher prioritising her title – will take her up and down and up a little, and way, way down, and just possibly up again at times… So, speaking as a novelist with five publishers, all very different but none of them with the resources for full-scale promotion on an Underground wall or the side of a bus, I’d like to offer an insight into those professional peaks and troughs. Continue reading

This reader’s needs: key features of a great novel

George EliotCarol ShieldsGeorge Eliot at 30 by François D’Albert Durade, and Carol Shields

As a reader what do I look for in a novel? Naturally this analysis is personal, a result of my attitudes and emotional needs and my experience of life, novels and writing. The writers in the brackets are simply those who spring to mind, in some cases (Zusak, Michaels, Lee, Ondaatje, Levy, Butler) on the strength of a single but deeply memorable novel once read.

Four features are key, emotionally and analytically:

1. Extraordinary sentences that demand rereading for music, wit, insight or structural perfection. (Carol Shields, George Eliot, Marilynne Robinson, Dickens, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan)

2. Imaginative, daring word choices and combinations that may include imagery. (Siobhan Dowd, Dickens, Geraldine McCaugrean, Toni Morrison, D.H. Lawrence, Susan Fletcher, Anne Michaels, Markus Zusak) Continue reading

Alopecia and the teenager

Ambassadors AUK

Ambassadors, Alopecia UK: Heather Fisher (England rugby), Joanna Rowsell (cyclist, Olympic gold), Sue Hampton, John Altman (composer, saxophonist, conductor) and Joelle (singer).

As an Ambassador for Alopecia UK I’ve heard hundreds of stories of hair loss and they’re all different. Some have lived with it since birth while others kept a full head of hair right up to their fifties, sixties or beyond. There’s no best time for Alopecia to strike, but no doubt that during the teenage years it brings particular challenges. Through this small but active charity I’ve met lots of teenagers affected by the condition in one form or another. But sometimes I meet their mums first, or even instead, because the young ‘sufferers’ they love can’t face such a community and don’t want to belong to it. They just want hair. And hair, not support, is what they think they need. Continue reading

The purpose of fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird_posterThe BBC’s charter identifies its purpose: to inform, educate and entertain. This blog is not concerned whether it now achieves these goals (although I am concerned about that) but debates the purpose of the author in writing a novel. It might sometimes appear that authors write for money, fame or self-promotion – but if that’s the case, a VERY tiny minority succeed. But some – Alan Gibbons, Malorie Blackman and Michael Morpurgo, to name three I respect – write from conviction, to explore real issues important to them. Do writers have a purpose or role in society and if so, do these three verbs fit? Continue reading

Where do I begin?

So it begins...Where to begin? Of course, of all pages the first is the most thoroughly worked and reworked to the verge of insanity. In fact, it’s the most likely to fall victim to highlight and delete, or strangulation by tweaking. After all, with that blank screen there are so many options. But once it’s filled, so much is already determined. From the start, voice sets the tone and provides the perameters of plot and register. I’ve only used a first person narrative three times in over twenty novels, but I think that’s another blog post… So, the next question: character or setting? Because my characters drive the story, I usually start with whoever is at the helm – unless there’s a pressing reason to do otherwise: to establish time and place first and then zoom in on this figure in the midst of the scene, or to create an atmosphere defining genre. Continue reading

Ghosts

Mum and Dad with author as ghost
Mum, Dad, and the author as ghost

Perhaps they were always there, the ghosts. That’s the way I began TRACES. More than any other it’s my novel for my dad and although he’s dead he inhabits it. Or rather, what underpins it is his spirit in me. I don’t believe in ghosts but I do recognise the enduring power of the dead over the living. It’s called love, without which there is no pain. My early novels were written in the years after my father died, which led to a lot of dead parents.  But it was a while before I considered exploring the life of a dead character.

It’s fashionable to cut through flashback to another, earlier history. Siobhan Dowd did it brilliantly in Bog Child, literally fleshing out the earth beneath the feet of the twentieth century characters. It can be effective to alternate the past and present, with a secret connection between the two that may not emerge until the end. It’s a convention the reader has come to accept as long as the pay-off feels authentic, and it enables the writer to adopt two distinct styles and tones. But I’m thinking about how to bring a dead figure into a narrative in a way that illuminates the contemporary storyline, acknowledging the enduring presence of the loved and lost in all of us.

Continue reading

Talking about dialogue

activistsWe were talking about dialogue in novels.

Leslie said: “Apparently, if you begin with the speaker rather than the speech, and the speech is longer than a line, you should precede the speech with a colon rather than a comma.”

I took a while to compute that, before I asked, “Really?” and could see the logic in following Jesus said with a colon to cue in a whole parable. Even though I don’t do a lot of that myself.

“The modern way is to leave speech unattributed.”

“That’s annoying, though.”

“The novel as cinema.”

“It’s laziness and it’s demanding.”

“Or, almost equally minimalist, to use only said,” he said (when he might have added, concluded, cried, whispered, gasped, opined, interjected or even ejaculated.) Continue reading

What’s it all about?

treesThe church isn’t always very Christian. Rowan Williams led a march to say sorry for slavery because churchmen were once so blind to equal rights under God that they profited from the blood, humiliation and misery of other human beings (who happened not to be quite like them). Sorry isn’t enough but sometimes it’s all we have. It means we accept our wrongdoing and want to do better. The trouble with being human is that we’re capable of recognising the importance of love – i.e. of other people – while putting ourselves and our little spheres first. And we’re very good at judging others for doing the same. Jesus understood us. He knew Peter’s passionate loyalty would make him raise a sword (which he had to be told to put away) and that the same loyalty would be overwhelmed by self-interest before he learned better. Most of us have heard the cock crow. The ideals of love are impossible for human beings to live. But without them we’re sunk. And it’s never been more important to recognise them because they’ve never been so deeply submerged. Continue reading

Why I luv Bruv

Dave  and Jon PorrittThis is a General Election blog on behalf of … well, I make no secret of my Green Party membership, but this is personal. My brother Dave is GP parliamentary candidate for Beaconsfield and he’s been my hero for a long time. Jonathon Porritt has endorsed him already so he hardly needs me to sing his praises, but I love and admire him very much and I want to! As our friend Steve Press says, he’s “a great good man”, a man of conviction and principle, courage and absolute commitment – to a better way than this, for the sake of people and planet. Continue reading

What’s the idea?

Painted in 1914, this vivid painting is described in THE JUDAS DEER: "The rainbow deer had no reason to be afraid."I’m often asked where my ideas come from and whether they’ll ever run out. Of course my experience of Alopecia fed into THE WATERHOUSE GIRL and its forthcoming sequel, CRAZY DAISE, but both are adaptations from life. The plots are pure invention but the stories are underpinned by emotional authenticity. The seed that became THINNER THAN WATER was a news item, a couple of sentences long. Instead of playing the journalist heading off to Russia to investigate for a documentary, I allowed empathy to lead me on my own journey – through the creation of two girls who came to me, in imagination, just as whole and vivid as anyone I know. I couldn’t love them more if I were their blood mother – and I do know that’s weird! Continue reading

Mums in the mix and why they matter

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Mum and the poorly author

As a child in the Sixties I found Enid Blyton stories just as bizarrely divorced from my own life as an ancient myth with a monster in a labyrinth. What seemed to me even stranger and less plausible than the sleuthing and crime-thwarting exploits of the Famous Five or Secret Seven was the role of their parents. Absent both from the plot and the psyches of the children, they existed only to be absent – thus leaving the children to their own heroic devices. I was horrified by the idea of being separated from my own parents, and couldn’t understand why these children didn’t cry themselves to sleep. My mum and dad were such huge people in my life that a world without them seemed unimaginable.  So writing THINNER THAN WATER, I felt deeply for Fizzy and Kim – whose parents are not in fact theirs – hoping readers will empathise with their psychological turmoil. Continue reading

Red Nose stories: writing something funny for money

In Mary Casserley's illustration from GORILLA DREAMS, Gilbert irons his dad's very large, spotty underpants.I’m always uneasy about school bookings that fall on Red Nose Day – and not just because my customary red look loses its impact. I feel under an obligation to be funny and read exclusively humorous extracts from books like FRANK, GORILLA DREAMS, HEADCASES, THE LINCOLN IMP and ONGALONGING. Yes, I have quite a few funny stories and it’s great as a writer to make myself laugh as I tap away at the keyboard, but he truth is, I’d really rather cry! Continue reading

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