Saturday, 20 January 2018

Front and Back Burners - Joan Lennon

This time last year I was in the throes of wussiness.  The book (we'll call it Book A) I was writing demanded a character I really liked dying, and another character I really liked grieving.  The setting was bleak, and though the ending was positive, the road to get there was hard.  I was committed and eager to do this difficult story justice.  Twelve months later, is it told?  

Well, yes and no. 

Book A exists in Frankendraft form (the roughly-sewn-together version of a novel that - in my practice any way - exists before a full first draft).  And I'm still committed.  

Me and Book A (Wikipedia)

But over the last few months the eagerness has waned.  And the writing has slowed ... and slowed ... and stopped.  Okay, there was also Christmas and New Year and stuff, but those are done.  So, am I leaping back into this relationship?

Not so much.

I've started a new book - Book B - which is pacey and adventurous and nobody dies prematurely.  Am I unforgivably fickle?  Is this some kind of authorly serial monogamy?  Not even that.  I'm committed to BOTH books.  

This isn't goodbye, Book A.  I've shifted you to the back burner and the gas is on low, but I won't let you boil dry.  I will be back.  And then you will be back to the front ...

Meantime, Book B - let's turn up the heat!

Do any of the other authors out there have occasional lapses in fidelity too?  Tell all.  I, for one, won't judge.  


Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Claire McFall: An Unusual Success -- Lucy Coats

Way back in early 2013, I was sent a proof copy of Ferryman, a debut novel by an author called Claire McFall. It's a YA romantic retelling of the story of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, so perfect for me as a lover of all things Greek myth. Once I'd read it, I raved about it to all sorts of people, urging them to read it too, because I'd really loved it. That's how I get half my own book recommendations -- from people I know and trust. After that, I looked eagerly for McFall's next book, which was a dystopian thriller called Bombmaker.

In these pages, I wrote about that book that it was 'almost literally heart-stopping'. Even all these years later, I can recall that feeling of adrenaline as I read it, hardly able to turn the pages fast enough. Today, I am delighted to learn that McFall has just signed a film deal for Ferryman with Legendary Entertainment (Inception/Jurassic World/Batman Begins). This is where the unusual bit come in. Because the book is going to be made into not one film, but two, one for an English language audience, and a second for a Chinese language one. McFall has sold over a million copies of Ferryman in China since 2015, and her agent, Ben Illis, of The BIA, described visiting China with her as experiencing a kind of Beatlemania, complete with massive queues and even a fainting teenager. This is an extraordinary coup for a writer who is probably not as well known as she should be here in the UK. In fact, of all you readers and book lovers who read this blog, I wonder how many of you had heard of McFall before today? I hope it's a lot, but I wouldn't put money on it!

Book success is such a strange business, made up in part of luck as well as brilliant writing -- so what exactly is it about Ferryman that has entranced all those Chinese teenagers? Well, it definitely entranced me -- and I guess the territory it covers, the no man's land between life and death is fertile ground for any imagination, and any culture, somewhere where no normal rules apply, and where anything can happen, even love. I got distracted, and lost track of McFall's writing for a couple of years, but now I see that Ferryman has a sequel, Trespassers, published last year, and I'm looking forward to reading it greatly, as well as her Scottish Teenage Book Award-winning novel, Black Cairn Point.

I do love it when a success story happens after a lot of hard graft, and one of the things I hope happens here is that a lot more people are led to McFall's books. Trust me on this one, if you haven't read them yet, I urge you to, and her range is so wide (from romance to dystopian via spooky) that there should be something to suit most tastes. In many many cases, a film starts with a book, and authors often don't get enough credit. So let's hear it for the writers who start it all off! And let's applaud Claire McFall for reaching an audience most of us only dream of.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman

Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram

Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Liminal Spaces - by Lu Hersey

The end of January feels like a liminal time. Liminal literally means threshold – leaving one place and not yet through to another.

The days are getting lighter since the winter solstice, but we’re not really through to spring, and I’ve been thinking a lot about liminal spaces. Between times, between places. In folklore and shamanic traditions, dusk and dawn are liminal times, between night and day. The seashore, hedgerows, the edge of the forest, are all liminal places. These times and places are where worlds meet, and have a strong association with magic. Places you’re most likely to encounter faeries and elementals – at times of betwixt and between.

As it happens, I’m about to move house. I’ve already packed (mostly) and I’m waiting, trying not to panic about bills, legal forms and forwarding address. I have nowhere definite to move to. I’ve also chosen this time to leave job security behind and become self-employed as a writer. In this sense I’m currently in a liminal space. 

Anyway, I was thinking about this as I walked into town early one morning this week, wrapped up in thought and feeling slightly anxious about everything. I came to the big roundabout leading to the main shopping centre in Bristol, known as the Bear Pit. It’s a place I generally avoid at night if I’m on my own – it's a place of fights and muggings down there, and I’m not a fan of underpasses at the best of times.

It was still half light, as the sun takes so long to come up in winter –  but I decided to take a risk, as it’s much quicker to go down through the Bear Pit than walk all round it. Also, it was freezing cold and I was already running late for an appointment.

As I hurried through, I suddenly came across something really extraordinary. A young woman in her nightclothes (admittedly very warm, thick nightclothes and probably with jeans underneath) was sitting up in her bed - down in the underpass. Maybe the bed was made up of pallettes, but it really looked like a proper bed, with sheets, quilts and everything. The woman was drinking a takeaway coffee and surrounded by a group of three homeless men, sitting on crates around her bed, listening to her talking animatedly about her plans for the future. She had an aura of a faerie queen surrounded by her seelie court, and seemed so full of life and enthusiasm, she was practically glowing.

I couldn’t stop, and it seemed rude to stare, so I just smiled and dropped some coins on her bedside table (seriously – she had a bedside table. Okay, maybe just another crate with a cloth on...) and walked on, thinking about liminal spaces. After all, underpasses are liminal spaces, thresholds to other places you want to get to.

I did half wonder if she was real – making her bed in the urban equivalent of a hedgerow, or a seashore – and she did look a bit like Titania (probably just the hair). But it made me think about living in a society where thousands of people, not just young women like her, end up sleeping in doorways and underpasses. In liminal places.

I’d been worrying about moving from one comfortable home and finding another – when here was someone who lived in a freezing, drafty underpass in the middle of a roundabout. Yet she was filled with life and laughter, and I was in danger of becoming a moaning minnie.

As we get closer to Imbolc (the Celtic fire festival at the beginning of February, which marks the spark of new life and creativity), I can't stop thinking about the plight of all those stuck in liminal places. I don't have any answers to the massive problem of homelessness, but am left wondering what change we can bring about, and how we can do it. Very few homeless people look as happy as that faerie queen and her seelie court.

And surely everyone deserves the basic right to cross the threshold, if they wish?

Lu Hersey

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Thunderstorms and Me by Chitra Soundar

The rain is raining all around,

It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
And on the ships at sea. 

-       Robert Louis Stevenson

As I sit at my table in Singapore and look through the window, what I see mirrors exactly the words of Stevenson. I was excited to leave the biting cold of England to fly across continents to enjoy the sunshine and I’ve been blamed for bringing the grey skies and relentless rain to this hot island.

Thunderstorms in Singapore - A view from the 23rd floor
 My relationship with rain and thunderstorms is as fundamental as my roots. I’ve been woken up as a child often to gathering dark clouds and cracking thunder. The stormy winds, the warnings to fishermen and the flooding of our streets are deeply etched in my memory.

Rain has fallen all the day. 

O come among the laden trees: 
The leaves lie thick upon the way 
Of memories.

-       James Joyce

The crack of thunder and the flash of lightning fascinated me as a child. I’ve never feared the ferocious winds that howl and growl. I remember sitting by  my window, listening to the wind, reading a book. I remember making hot pakoras for snacks and hot tea with cardamom and ginger for everyone at home.

Those rains were warm even though they soaked from head to toe in a few seconds. Those rains were welcome on the parched soil, even though they fell in big drops filling the potholes on the street.

Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami and Jamel Akib
But I’ve feared them occasionally. I was perhaps ten and it was one of those monsoon storms and my father hadn’t returned home. The buses had stopped, the roads were flooded and I was worried for him to return. It had taken him four hours to journey the ten kilometres hitching a lift with strangers and walking part of the way.

Another time, I would have been eight, and it was a brutal monsoon. The rains hadn’t stopped in days and a stray dog had given birth to six puppies. She had taken shelter under the roof of our backyard. She was shivering in the cold and her puppies were hungry. Normally dogs were not allowed inside our compound. So I had to fight the elders for permission, to let her stay. We filled a bowl full of milk and put out rice on an old plate. And one of the new-born puppies couldn’t survive the dampness of its surroundings. I cried for days, for a stray puppy, whose life I couldn’t help save.
Photo: C Coxon
These incidents in the rain always find themselves lodged in my memory and turn up in stories. Almost 14 years ago, I wrote a story called Afraid of Dogs – about a little girl who has to overcome her fear of dogs to save the stray puppies. Although I should say the little girl in me is still afraid of dogs generally. It takes me enormous effort to stay calm and friendly even with familiar pets in friends’ homes.

But the fear of the big thunderstorms was washed away long ago when my dad explained to me about parched land, the water under the ground and the well in our back garden. We understood the cycle of rain and the price of crops when my grandmother’s sister visited us from the village. I also valued the rain after many weeks of harsh summers.

The gathering of dark clouds, the rain-bearing breeze and the fragrance of the earth when the first drops of the thunderstorm falls on it will always remind me of home. Scientists call this fragrance petrichor and I agree that it is the fragrance of the fluid that runs inside the veins of gods.

Monsoon Afternoon by Kashmira Sheth & Yoshiko Jaeggi
These thundery rainy days in Singapore, remind me of growing up in India, listening to the crash of the clouds, the unusually grey days and coolness of the air. I remember the croaking of the frogs in the puddles, the flash of lightning and the noise of rain falling on the terrace.

I feel calmer when I hear the thunder and the warm rain doesn’t scare me, it soothes my senses and the dark clouds envelop me in a warm cosy blanket. I would welcome the sunshine for sure. But this thunderstorm doesn’t get me down.

Chitra Soundar writes picture books and junior fiction when she’s not watching the rain through her window. Her next book You’re Safe With Me (illustrated by Poonam Mistry) with Lantana Publishing tells the story of the thunderstorm in an Indian jungle. Follow her on Twitter: @csoundar

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Writing and the Fear of Failure

This is my first post as a regular contributor to this blog and I’m hesitant to start. What if I write something stupid? What if I get it all wrong and everyone laughs?

The fear of failure is a common thing amoung writers – and not just writers. 

When I visit schools, I’ve taken to showing the children a story I wrote when I was seven. 

I get the kids to tear it apart, point out all the mistakes, from spelling mistakes to the fact it’s weird and creepy and has no proper beginning, middle or end. Then I ask them, “How many of you have ever wanted to try something but you worry you you won’t be any good at it and so you don’t bother?”

Inevitably, hands go up. Always from the teachers but even from the six and seven year-olds.

One of the most challenging things is to convince children that it’s ok to write a bad story, that it’s ok to start something then abandon it. That the only time you fail is when you give up. And then I go home and stare at my latest draft in despair and wonder if I’ll ever write anything worth reading.

So, how do we as writers overcome that fear of failure, and how do we inspire young people to tell their stories, freely and joyfully, simply having fun with words? I wish I knew. In the meantime, I’ve stolen a few ideas from my friends.

 Getting it Wrong is Fun!

January is a time for resolutions and here’s a blog post from Stephanie Burgis who has resolved to do things she enjoys but is not good at.

New Year, New Discoveries

I’ve found that taking away the pressure to produce good work is a  fantastic boost to creativity. I can’t draw. I couldn’t at school and I can’t now. I’ve never learn how to translate the image in my head into lines on a page. But at the Scattered Authors’ Folly Farm retreat last December I nervously joined in a comic drawing workshop and I was soon having terrific fun making terrible stick figures.I haven’t tried drawing anything since but I think I’ll have another go soon.

 Milk Your Mistakes!

My piano teacher talks about juicy mistakes. When you play a wrong note, don’t just mutter and correct it. Pause and think about it. Why did I hit a C instead of a D? Then play about – hit lots of wrong notes as well as the right one and spot the difference in arm movement. (Warning: the neighbours might not like this!)

The same technique can apply to writing. Has my draft run aground? What’s gone wrong with it? Do I need more conflict, higher stakes, another giant octopus?  Turn ‘mistakes’ into a chance to learn.

Vacate Your Comfort Zone

If I could have a superpower, it’d be invisibility. I like to make my mistakes in secret. I’m quite happy trying new things as long as no one can see me.

And then I learned to ski. I haven’t yet been able to persuade everyone to vacate a mountain while I practise. Add to this the fact that I’m not naturally good at skiing and I had the perfect recipe for giving up and going home.

Fortunately, my stubborn streak kicked in and I stuck at it. I might not be the most graceful skier on the mountain but who cares? I don’t need to be the best at it, I just need to be good enough to get to where I’m going.

(If you look closely, you'll see a tiny dinosaur in my left pocket. This is Sir Doris, my confidence dinosaur, who travels with me. Because you can achieve anything if you have a dinosaur in your pocket.)

The comparison to writing is obvious. I’m never going to be the best author in the world, but I don’t have to be. I just need to get the draft finished.

This year, I’m going to write new things, to try new things, to learn from my mistakes. And I’m going to risk making some mistakes in public – starting with this blog. I'm looking forward to it. And, if anyone of you have any tips for overcoming the fear of failure, please do share them with me.