Tummies, helicopters, and why I’m a proud dad

tummy     helicopter

The other day my six-year-old son William proved he’s a real chip of the old block, by spontaneously coming up with a flash fiction piece. May I proudly present (spell-checked by me but otherwise all his own work), The Super Tummy:

The Super Tummy

Once upon a time, there was a super tummy. It could fly and scare things off. It was like the Tardis. People went in it to save their lives so it was good and it made many people happy.

He did it for years and years, and one day the King went in him and he was happy. They had fun together and a dalek came but the tummy saved them and they lived happily ever after.

Kind of surreal, right? I reckon there’s some deep metaphysical meaning in this piece, though superficially it might read like an especially deranged example of Doctor Who fan fiction.

But then, a couple of days later, he got together in with his ten-year-old brother George and produced the following collaboration, The Weird Helicopter. From this piece I learnt three things: first, George has been learning about adjectives and adverbs at school and encouraged to include as many as possible; second, William’s creative influence remains evident (he loves helicopters); and third, George was still mad at me after an earlier conversation (see if you can guess what that was about):

The Weird Helicopter

There once was a light helicopter that liked buzzing around rapidly. Then he would lovingly play with his friends (Ben, Leon & Sophie). However, one day when he was flying through the interesting forest to meet his wonderful friends, his annoying dad stopped him and he did his homework.

So my kids are writers! Well apart from my twelve-year-old daughter, who’s convinced that everything I do is embarrassing. Still, two out of three’s not bad.

 

PD James: an inspirational writer

PD James

British novelist Phyllis Dorothy James died in Oxford today – 27th November – aged 94. Many tributes have already been paid to the ‘Queen of crime fiction’; for my part, I find many aspects of her writing journey extraordinarily inspiring. Let me share why.

For one thing, her fame as a writer arrived late in her life. Very late actually.

From her school days she knew she wanted to be a writer. But her family’s financial troubles forced her to leave school at 16 and find a job as a filing clerk. Also, her mother was committed to an asylum when James was 14, leaving her to look after the house and her siblings. All in all, not the easiest of early lives, and one that forced her to put her writing dream on hold.

In fact it wasn’t until the mid-1950s, while in her mid-thirties, that she really began writing, composing parts of her first novel while on her work commute. But she didn’t make a serious start on that first novel until she was 40, while continuing to work full time and bring up a family. That novel was eventually published in 1962. There then followed a series of others (the second published just one year later) and so developed a modestly successful writing career with a small but loyal following.

And then, in 1980, with the publication of her eighth book she began to experience best-selling international success and acclaim:

‘Monday, I was ticking along as usual, and by Friday I was a millionaire.’

So, to re-cap:

  • She had to put her writing dream on hold for many years – about twenty in fact.
  • When she finally started, she was in her thirties and facing the time pressures of work and family.
  • Her first novel took several years to complete. (I would guess she went through all the false starts, setbacks, and the steep learning curve of all rookie writers.)
  • She was in her early forties before she was published.
  • And she was sixty before she achieved significant commercial success – so probably forty or fifty years after she’d first thought about writing, more than twenty years after she finally started, and nearly twenty years after first being published. A success for sure, but not what you’d call an overnight one.

Now if that’s not an object lesson in persistence and patience, I don’t know what is. But there’s more. Her husband, traumatised by his experiences in the Second World War, was eventually placed in an institution, leaving James to bring up their two daughters alone. Then In 1964 he died following an overdose of drugs and alcohol. So no sooner had she finally achieved her dream of being a published writer than life lobbed another grenade in her direction. But she carried on working and writing.

Of course, the publishing world has changed massively since James first ventured into it, and is changing still. No doubt some things about her career would have been different had she been born fifty, sixty or seventy years later. Perhaps also she was fortunate in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, she did achieve success in the end. Yet I feel sure that would have happened anyway, even if she started out today, even if by a different route – her talent and dedication would have all but assured it. Maybe it would have happened more quickly, maybe not.

Her second stroke of luck was her long life. Hitting the big time in your sixties isn’t so bad if your still have three more decades to enjoy it, and enough time to pen more than twenty books. She acknowledged as much herself, once saying:

‘I am lucky to have written as many books as I have. It has been a joy.’

Yet some might say that, by modern standards, twenty-ish books in a thirty-year-plus writing career is an unexceptional output. These days there is pressure to write almost with a production-line mentality: keep publishing, get your work out there, get noticed. The trade-off is that quality can easily suffer.

But James saw her writing as a craft. She wanted to get it right. Her books were known for being well-researched and well-written. She rejected the notion that crime novels were not ‘proper literature’. Perhaps if more writers were so fixated on quality, they would make more progress in the long run. In our fast-moving digital age, where we can all too easily be panicked into believing that tomorrow is too late (and even today might be), too much is thrown out into the world too quickly. The world needs better books, not just more of them. (Arguably it doesn’t need more of them at all …)

Speaking of research, here again is another way that James turned what might have been a negative into a positive. For many years her writing and her day job had to co-exist, as it still does for most writers. But she used her experience in hospitals, in psychiatric clinics, and in the criminal policy section of the Home Office in her books. In one memorable quote, she described seeing someone being fed through a tube during her time as a nurse:

‘I remember thinking, ‘that would be an easy way to kill someone.’’

That duly became the method she used to dispatch a character in a later book.

I admit I’m not into crime fiction especially, but James did range beyond that at times, for example in the dystopian novel The Children of Men, and the recent Austen tribute / Pride and Prejudice sequel / murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley.

Finally, a few more pearls of wisdom and inspiration from the great lady …

Talking of her regret about waiting until she was 40 before writing her first novel:

‘I realized that there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel … If I didn’t make time, find the motivation, I would be a failed writer and that would be absolutely appalling for me.’

Her characters often died brutal deaths. But she admitted it could be hard to get under the skin of a killer:

‘When I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. I am in his mind, which is probably why I don’t have sadistic mass murderers as characters.’

She wrote all her novels by hand and then dictated the words onto tape for a secretary to produce the first draft – but she found that approach had certain advantages:

‘Dictating is quite useful … because you can hear the dialogue, hear the structure of the sentences, the very subtle and peculiar usage that is English prose.’

While she loved writing, she admitted it didn’t always come easily to her:

‘There are moments when I’m rather reluctant to get started; the sort of day when even cleaning the stove seems an agreeable thing to be doing rather than start writing. But on the whole it is a labour of love.’

… and just to prove it, she said last year she was working on another book. Which just goes to show you’re never too old to start writing – or to stop!

Now for the scary bit …

The scream detail

Last week I finished the second draft of my children’s book Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve previously written how I went about whipping the unkempt mess of the first draft into the slightly less unkempt mess of the second. Now that’s done, it’s time for … the scary bit. (Cue diabolical laugher.)

Up until now, the book has been my secret, inside my head and on a screen that only I’ve seen. All of it – good, bad and indifferent – has been my own special baby. I’ve tried to make it as good as I can, and in reviewing the first draft I genuinely attempted to be as objective and dispassionate as I could about identifying its flaws and areas for improvement, and implementing them. And over the course of writing two novels and absorbing the advice, wisdom and experience of many others (including some of you good people), I believe I know quite a bit about what to look out for and how to make writing better.

My baby has grown and matured. It’s now a teenager – which means (and with apologies to any teenagers reading this, because this obviously doesn’t apply to you) it’s got spots, is frequently confused, has highs and lows; and is generally at that awkward stage of being halfway grown up and knowing a lot more than before, but not as much as it thinks it does …

So I’ve now taken this project just about as far as I can by working completely on my own. Now I need someone else’s input. The second draft is surely better than the first, and (unlike the first) it’s something I feel I can show to someone else without them laughing in my face and then slapping me around the face with it. (Which, let’s be clear, I don’t want when it’s on a laptop.)

But it still has a way to go. There are still things wrong with it, big and small, things that I can’t see because I’ve looked at them too hard and too long. There are still ways it can be improved, things that haven’t occurred to me because I’ve been thinking about it too long and can’t easily step back and look at it as a whole.

I need fresh eyes; and they need to be the eyes of someone I can trust. Someone that will have a completely new and fresh angle on the book, who has expertise and insight. Ideally a market expert. So, for DCFS at this point, that means two things.

First: well, who better to get feedback from than the real experts on children’s books – children? My eldest son is ten, putting him slap-bang in the middle of the target age range. His reading ability is average for his age, and he’s a somewhat reluctant reader. Which makes him a pretty much perfect guinea pig. My youngest is six, meaning he’d struggle to read the book on his own, but I’ll read it to both of them.

Reading out loud is an excellent way of checking how well the prose flows. I did read out some chunks to myself when writing, but to be honest I feel like a bit of a nutcase if I talk to myself too much. Reading the whole thing out loud again to a (hopefully) listening audience will be a good thing.

But just as important – if not more so – is whether the story really engages them. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s excellent Coraline to the two of them, and they hung on every word. When I stopped at the end of each chapter, they begged me to read one more page from the next before finishing. (And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t only to delay going to bed …) If I can get anything like the same reaction from DCFS, I’ll know I’ve got something good.

I’m not expecting a great deal of feedback from them, but any that I can get will be gold dust. The best feedback will be how much it holds their attention. However, I fear my kids are unlikely to deliver a full, detailed critique of concept, plot structure, characterisation or the over-use or otherwise of adverbs. They will know if they like it or not, but not precisely why.

So for a more forensic analysis, I’m paying for a manuscript critique. Next time I’ll talk more about that, and why I’m taking that route instead of asking for beta readers. But for now, it’s goodbye to blogging and hello to the bedtime story … good night!

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 7 of 7

Here it is … the final chapter of my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story: Falling Girl – part 7 . (Also includes some background information on castles.)

The previous six instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this book, whether you’ve managed to read all of it or only part. As all writers know, constructive feedback (along with practice, practice, practice) is the best way to improve. So thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 6 of 7

I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. These two chapters form the penultimate instalment: Falling Girl – part 6

Next week, part 7, will be the very last chapter.

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Are men idiots?

A rhetorical question, you might say! Today I came across this article in a UK newspaper, and it got me thinking. (I usually blog about books or writing, but there is a connection – bear with me.)

The article contends that in modern, Western popular culture – in this case, television specifically – it has become commonplace for men to be portrayed in less than flattering ways. Certainly this can be seen in some advertising, where the male of the species are often seen to be shallow, simple and/or sex-obsessed, and frequently outwitted with ease by sassy, self-confident women.

Perhaps it’s the case that, quite rightly shy of overt sexism or racism, and possibly over-compensating for the overt gender stereotyping of the past (see below), mainstream advertisers have started to regard men as the easiest target.

Roles

For myself, as a man, I can see the article’s point, and I do think that some advertising is guilty of this. TV programmes, probably less so. (I don’t, for example, especially agree with his view about Outnumbered – yes, the dad in that show can be a bit wet, but so can the mum.) But equally I’m well aware that I live in a society where men still have it pretty good. Most top politicians, business executives and high earners still tend to be male – that’s changing, but slower than it ought to be. And it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves – and let’s face it, most stereotypes have at least some basis in reality …

Anyway – how does this link to writing? Just the thought that it’s important to avoid lazy stereotypes when creating characters – because it’s very easy to do. Specifically, as we strive to draw strong, compelling and authentic female characters in our stories, we should beware of the temptation to short-change the males. Especially the older ones. This may be especially a risk in teen / YA fiction, in which the younger characters are centre-stage and the older ones tend to be in the background and therefore in danger of being merely one-dimensional and under-developed – and if they’re also men, the risk may be higher.

One adult male character, Rob Black, appears in both my novels Falling Girl and BASIC Boy (though in the latter he’s a teenager half the time too). He’s middle-aged and male – the kind of character who, in YA fiction, might not come across in a very positive way. I’ve tried to avoid that, and I hope I’ve succeeded. He’s certainly flawed, and many of this shortcomings are brought into sharp focus as the stories unfold, but so is a deep courage and determination. In the end it’s the kids who really save the day of course, but he helps and he’s clearly there to support them. He’s certainly not an idiot – not entirely anyway. Or at least I hope not.

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 4 of 7

Over the next few weeks I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. Here’s the next two chapters: Falling Girl – part 4

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …