Saturday, 29 August 2009

What happens when authors become cool online personalities

Not that YA author John Green (Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) is a cool online personality only because he's trying to sell his books ... but look at what he got from his social network on his birthday -

And here was John's response:
If you can't be arsed to view the entire video, here's the most important thing John said:
People didn't make those songs or artwork or pictures and video clips in order to become famous or rich. They did it, to quote William Faulkner, "not for glory and least of all for profit but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before."
Mmmm. Human spirit.
He also said:
Every single day I get emails from aspiring writers asking my advice about how to become a writer. And here is the only advice I can give: Don't make stuff because you want to make money; it will never make you enough money. And don't make stuff because you wanna feel famous because you will never feel famous enough. Make GIFTS for people. And work hard on making those gifts so that people will notice the gift and like the gift. Maybe they will notice how hard you worked and maybe they won't. And if they don't, I know it's frustrating. But ultimately that doesn't matter because your responsibility is not to the people who notice but to the gift itself.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Where is the hope in children's books?

Someone mischievous organised the Compelling Novels, Vulnerable Children panel for the Edinburgh Festival.

On the panel were children's authors Melvin Burgess and Anne Fine.

Melvin Burgess Anne Fine
Fine, who was children's laureate from 2001 to 2003, famously lambasted Burgess in 2003 when his book Doing It was published, denouncing his publishers for -
... peddling this grubby book, which demeans both young women and young men? It will prove as effective a form of sexual bullying as any hardcore porno mag passed round. Read Anne Fine's 2003 Review of Doing It
I remember the review created a vociferous debate in the then nascent children's book blogosphere, with bloggers divided between supporting and resisting Fine's points of issue.
At the Edinburgh event, Anne Fine (Madame Doubtfire, Eating Things on Sticks) is reported to have deplored the gritty realism of modern children's books. I wasn't there so I can only point you to the reports in the Times, the Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday. And here is a discussion amongst a small group of authors on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure, after a post by Anne Cassidy (Looking for JJ).
This is what Anne Fine is quoted as saying:
Books for children became much more concerned with realism, or what we see as realism. But where is the hope? How do we offer them hope within that? It may be that realism has gone too far in literature for children ...
Update (29 August 2009): there was a lot of vehement reaction to this quote - Anne Fine sent out the following correction via some writer's message boards (emphasis mine):
Contrary to press headlines, I neither 'deplored' the lack of happy endings, nor asked for a return to Blytonish books. In a wide-ranging discussion with social workers and carers in a session about Fiction for Children in Care that was chaired by Children in Scotland, I simply wondered aloud what the effect of the new wave of grimly realistic books without those old-fashioned happy endings might be on those of our children whose lives they often mirror so closely, and asked the very experienced audience what they thought - and indeed whether their clients ever read the books. As someone who has myself written some quite tough books I would not ever do anything so simplistic as 'call for happy endings'. I recognise as well as anyone what a broad church children's literature is and must be.
Many thanks to Teri Terry who passed this on. And many thanks too to Anne for the clarification. I hope she's happy to have sparked a lively conversation amongst people who care about children's book. It certainly is a conversation worth having and I will always, always as a result ask myself when I'm writing - where is the hope?

To be fair, I have read a number of children's books, especially for teens, that made me wonder at the bleak, hopeless vision of the author. There are some books I would not recommend to my teenage friends. So I can see where Fine is coming from.
But I have read far more books that, while set in the grit and pebbledash of realism, radiate with a shining something that resists the generalisation.

The fact is, thanks to the New Media revolution, our child readers are far more aware of the darker side of life than their predecessors in Enid Blyton-reading times. And while there are still plenty of us who write the fantasy and adventure that can remove them from reality, we are still beholden to create stories that tap into our readers' experience and world view.

But it's a tough world out there. And I agree with Anne Fine: for children, books must be a haven, a place where there is hope.

So what is this shining something that can lift us authors out of the temptation to mirror the world in all its relentless hopelessness?

Funnily enough, it was something Fine's old adversary Melvin Burgess said that gave me an answer.

As you may know I recently attended a writing for teenagers week with Arvon, with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman as tutors.
One of the most resonant pieces of advice I came away with was actually given to a colleague who had written a gritty novel about a deprived, self-harming teenager. I think my colleague had a conversation with Melvin about how you couldn't just dish out a relentlessly grim story. You had to temper it with something.

Melvin told her (and I paraphrase here inaccurately) that the important thing in such a piece of writing is to make sure the human spirit shines through.

Human Spirit.

Driving back from the course for three and a half hours on the M1, we were so inspired by the idea, we couldn't stop discussing it. What is human spirit? Does our writing have it? Where does it come from? How do we make sure it shines through in our stories?

Human Spirit. That's where the hope is.

Update: the third author on the panel was Rachel Ward (Numbers). She has since commented about the event on Keren David's blog post about the event. See her comment here. I just found out that Melvin Burgess has a new blog. Here is his bird's eye view.
Some "realistic" books I have read that for me strongly evoke the human spirit (in no particular order).

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
A Swift Pure Cry by Siobhan Dowd
Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine
Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd
Ways To Live Forever by Sally Nicholls

... do add your own books in comments - i can think of more but I'd love to hear yours.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Learning from Toy Story 2's Audio Commentary

Buzz and Woody in Toy Story2
I am thinking of turning a fantasy novel that I have written into a trilogy.

And whenever I’m in need of something to freshen up my writing, I turn to the audio commentaries of my favourite movies. It’s like reading a familiar book with the voice of the author in your head discussing how he worked it all out.

One of the best I've heard is the audio commentary for Toy Story 2 - featuring director John Lasseter, co-directors Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon, and writer Andrew Stanton.

Listening to the Toy Story 2 team discuss how they plotted and schemed, how they played the audience, planting all the set ups, how they tightened the screws and tightened the scenes, the scenes that were shed pretty much evokes what it's like to write a novel.

The fact that Toy Story 2 is a sequel throws up interesting dillemas which might fascinate folks working on their own sequels or trilogies or series.

Like, how do you surprise an audience that knows your characters so well?

How do you remind the reader or audience (in the most economical way) what the key characters care about?

How does a character go forward when he has already completed his arc in the previous episode?

How do you bring back characters from the previous episode without boring exposition, how do you (again, economically) bring these characters in actions and scenes instead of endless boring paragraphs?

Andew Stanton described making a sequel as ‘overwhelming’ because of the seemingly ‘insurmountable goals’ – not least of which was the high expectation that came from having had a successful first episode.

The team had to find ways to reprise what was wonderful in the first story without compromising story in the sequel. For example, how does one bring back the fun of the first Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear, who thought he was a real spaceman and not a toy?

"Half the reason it was so much fun to watch Buzz was that he was deluded," Stanton says. In Toy Story 2, Buzz meets another Buzz Lightyear in a toy store, who is even more deluded than he was in the first Toy Story. The fun begins when the other Buzz swaps places with him and Buzz's friends don't realise they are not with the real Buzz

How do you make an idea fresher, faster, better, more surprising, more exciting, more unexpected?

The humour, the staging, the action and the great visuals ... we knew they would come. But it was that emotion that was so important because what we value is a story in which characters change, in which characters grow. In Toy Story we were very proud of the way Woody and Buzz both grew. And we couldn’t make them go back and get amnesia and grow in the same way again. They had to grow in a different way and that was extremely challenging.

Once a book/film is out, the author/filmmaker gives up ownership of his or her characters. Suddenly, the stakes are higher, because, as John Lassiter says, "These characters don’t belong to us anymore they belong to the world ... We had to do it right. We had to do it great."

It does make you think.

These characters we have been living with and whose lives we’ve been creating all this time? Ultimately, they are not ours to keep.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Titian: the Last Days by Mark Hudson -- a book trailer made by his daughter (hee hee)

Should we get our kids to help promote our books?

Love the part where she says: "I think it's boring but my mum read it and she thought it was really ... interesting."

Late add: This video is testament to the hoops authors have to jump through to sell their books. I just read Nathan Bransford's recent blog post in which he asks:
Can you be "just an author" these days, pecking away at a typewriter in a basement somewhere but otherwise completely eschewing publicity and remaining out of the public eye, Salinger- and Pynchon-style, writing in a bubble-like Platonic ideal of authordom?
His conclusion is that an established author could probably pull off a hermit-profile. But really, what with the economy in dire straits, publishers want bang for their buck ...
And one of the best ways to get bang for the buck is to start with an author who is doing everything they can to help out with publicity, thus multiplying the publisher's efforts
We have to live with the realities of our time and sometimes that means making the most of YouTube.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Digging Deep and Finding Your Heart Elsewhere

corazon aquino as Time Magazine's Woman of the YearI often write about digging deep — about scrounging around deep down to find you know, that essence of who you are, the thing that will make your writing really ring true, really sing.

Well, this week I dug deep and found that my heart was elsewhere.

In my native Philippines, it's been a traumatic week.

Corazon Aquino, the former president, died and there has been a great outpouring of grief and a mass recollection of the tumultuous revolution that catapulted this housewife (who looked remarkably like my mother) to power. She was a woman forced into a role she did not choose, inheritor of the shambles left by a 20 year dictatorship, a president of many imperfections. Her enforced leadership was no gift to this shy, unassuming woman.

My beloved former editor, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, sent out a message to all us former staff writers now scattered across the world to send in our recollections of Aquino.

Living here in London as I do, I found it difficult to summon memories of that period. Was it the passage of time? Or had my brain grown fat in this country where freedoms are taken for granted, hunger is a concept, and people speak in complete sentences? It's all very well to talk about digging deep to my fellow writers. I had not kept a diary. What if I dug deep and found nothing?

My journalist friend Elizabeth recently wrote a piece for Granta on the conflict between memory and reality in her experience of the Tiananmen Square massacre
We take fragments of memory and weave them together into patterns as best we can. We darn or embroider any holes with threads of things that happened in our readings, in our conversations with others who really were there, in our dreams.Those then become part of the fabric of our storytelling, so that soon enough it is impossible to say what was remembered and what was embroidered. Read her essay here
I searched my photo albums and mementoes of the days leading up to and after the revolution of 1986. One thing is for sure, I took no photos. I had no film. I experienced history with an empty camera. And none of my photographer friends could risk their supplies and spare me a roll.

In the many photos, of the crowds, the journalists chasing the personalities of the day, I know where I am. I was standing on the other side of that tank as the nuns cowered under its tracks. I was on a balcony watching the helicopters descend on the military camp. I was sitting on the bridge as the people stormed the palace. But no, I cannot find myself in any of the pictures. It's as if I was never there.

I did keep the front cover of this magazine, not because of any historical significance but because smiling in the crowd was the face of my future.

Cover of Asia Magazine featuring People Power revolution, 1986

But of myself and of my role, I have kept no mementos.

Except ...

The events of 1986 were a coming of age for me and though I forget so many of the details, I only have to reread the stories I have written, revisit the characters I have drawn, to realise that the story of Cory and the 1986 revolution are all there. In my writing.

The girl who yearns for her mother. The boy who realises that what he wants has been there all along. The burden of a wish come true. The blessing that turns out to be a curse. Love, loss, the struggle to understand what is right and what is wrong - the memories I thought I had forgotten are imprinted in my soul — and manifest in my storytelling.

This is what I find when I dig deep, and it all comes from the growing up I had to do in the era of Corazon Aquino.

I also found this:

image of mad woman singing Bayan Ko on the steps of the Post Office, 1985. Philippines. Photo by Candy Gourlay.
I took this photo of a woman sitting on the steps of the Post Office in downtown Manila, after one of the frequent anti-government rallies of that time had dispersed.

She was quite mad, holding a plastic rose in one hand and singing in a strong alto Bayan Ko, the song that was to become the rallying anthem of that period.

She was somebody's mother, lost and unnoticed by the crowds.

In 2005, I did a radio programme about the migration phenomenon in the Philippines that has left so many families without a mother. The programme was called Motherless Nation.

I think the photo captures how many of us Filipinos feel now, after the death of Aquino, after all the things that have come to pass these last 22 years.

A nation, motherless.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Too much craft ... not enough story?

I was fascinated by blogging literary agent Rachelle Gardner's observation that lately, there have been some rather fine examples of writing craft on her slushpile. Sadly, story doesn't quite live up to technique.
In fact, just this week I read some sample chapters from a newbie writer, and I was impressed with the technical excellence. Nice dialogue, perfect POVs, showing not telling... But the story itself involved a hackneyed plot, a totally uninteresting protagonist, and major predictability. It felt like it was written by a computer program, and it made me sad. I want to teach writers to not only learn the craft, but to also write from their heart. Write with authenticity, write from the depths of personal experience. Read more
Interestingly, this is echoed by author Kathleen Duey (I just read her book Skin Hunger ... oola la, what a fabulous read!) in an interview on the CWIM blog --
Competent novels are harder and harder to sell, in large part because of SCBWI’s wonderful resources, more and more people can write pretty well. But I think too many of us learn the rules—which are far more “teachable”—and lose the spark—which is more “discoverable”. Read more
This past week I attended a residential writing course with authors Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess. M&M put us through three or four (THREE OR FOUR!) timed writing exercises everyday - at first giving us five minutes to write but eventually cutting back to just three minutes.
They wanted us to shoot from the hip - no time to think, no time to compose, no time to even contemplate failure. Just write with your guts.
I didn't think I could do it the first time they announced how it was going to be. But I was pleasantly surprised at how it seemed to shock the rust out of my writing gears. Boy, how we wrote! It really helped that Malorie could not resist calling out "one more minute!" just seconds into an exercise.
The exercises all had to do with character, plot, dialogue - approaching each item from every angle you can think of.
I can't share everything I wrote because the thing about not having time to think is you put down stuff that is personal at the very least and at its most dangerous, probably libellous. So rather than get sued by my close friends and relatives here arethree of my least offensive attempts:
Describe navy blue to someone who cannot see ...
You know navy blue, you know it. It sort of swishes underneath everything, dark and wet but warm. It makes other colours look better. Yellow, yellower. Red, redder. It’s not shy but it doesn’t try to step forward either. It’s like an old husband, there, in the background, outside the lamplight, and yet a perfect fit.
Describe rock music to someone who cannot hear ...
It gets behindyour eyeballs, rock music. Like one of those headaches that start at the base of your skull, throbbing behind your eyes. Except that it’s pleasurable. Most of the time anyway. It seizes you by the heart and squeezes, squeezes and it’s like your blood is pumping harder and harder and your brain is going to explode. It’s so hot and yet its so cool.
... And this next one probably set up a few of us for a life-time of therapy, when we were finished, we were all emotionally exhausted from exploring our regrets:
Write up an argument between yourself today and your younger self ...
(In which Now me blames Young me for wasting so much time)

Now me: Why didn’t you start earlier? Why didn’t you do the writing courses, read the books, actually WRITE for goodness sake? Why is it down to me to play catch up, to spend sleepless nights studying and reading and writing – being rejected, suffering the slings and arrows ---

Young me: You don’t remember do you? You don’t remember how hard it was?

Now me: You could have done some writing. There was time. It’s not as if you had to get that A in trigonometry. I can inform you now that I have never had to do cosines and sines and those equations of never letting go ... not once in my lifetime.

Young me: I didn’t have time. Remember M? She needed me ...

Now me: She didn’t. Look at how she’s turned out. She was always going to need you. She was never going to be satisfied all those if only you could do this for me, and if only you could do that for me. She never had any intention of making anything happen. Is she happy now?

Young me: Are you saying it didn’t matter? Looking after the boys, cooking and cleaning and spending al that time at home helping out . None of it mattered? I should have just let all that go and started writing?

Now me: Well, you could have given me a bit of a headstart.

Young me: I did. What are you writing about now? Are you writing about how you started writing earlier? No, all this stuff about belonging ... about loving ... about ... that’s all me. It’s not about YOU. It’s about ME.
Having said that, one of the most memorable lines from this exercise came from my colleague who was just 17 in which her Now Self chided her Young self: "You're just a child!" To which her Young Self replied: "So are you!"

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Arvon's Writing for Teenagers Course with Malorie and Melvin

Painting of Lumb Bank
This painting of Lumb Bank was hanging in my room

Just got back from Ted Hughes' house on Lumb Bank five days with 16 other writers interested in writing for teenagers - 16 rather GOOD writers, I hasten to add. One of my fellow students was 17 years old, still a teenager herself, possibly the next Zadie Smith if she decides this is her thing.

I thought Lumb Bank was in the Yorkshire Dales but it turned out it was just East of Manchester, up the M1 and turn left, through Halifax and up some hilly bits. Miriam drove (thanks Miri!).

Benches, Lumb Bank
We were told to look out for these benches at the top of a little lane
Candy Gourlay. Lumb Bank.
We stopped for pictures before winding our way down the hill.
Ted Hughes Centre. Lumb Bank.
This was the bit of the house looking down a hill at a magnificent view, with disused mills, woods, and a river.
Ted Hughes Centre. Lumb Bank.
I had room number one at the top of the stairs.
Our tutors for the teenage writing week were Melvin Burgess (Junk, Nicholas Dane) and Malorie Blackman (Noughts and Crosses, Double Cross)
Melvin Burgess. Lumb Bank. Malorie Blackman. Lumb Bank.
Malorie and Melvin.
Melvin and Malorie alternated mornings teaching us about plot, character, dialogue with writing exercises that started out at 10 minutes each and by the last day was reduced to three minutes each ... they didn't want to give us the chance to think, to resist, to give up. We submitted samples of our writing to M&M and had one-on-one meetings with each of them in the afternoon to discuss our work and prospects in publishing.
Lumb Bank class.
We sat around a massive table
Lumb Bank.
View outside door as we worked on a rare sunny day.

Malorie made ALL of us read, recalling one tutor's sage words in the early days when she was reluctant to share her work :
Tutor: Malorie do you want to be a writer?

Malorie: More than anything else in the world.

Tutor: Well You’ve got to shit or get off the pot.

The sunshine on the day we arrived turned out to be a red herring. The heavens poured throughout the week. On the few hours when there was no rain, some of us managed to go for walks and visit the nearby village of Heptonstall where Sylvia Plath is buried in a sad, untended plot adorned with tacky souvenirs from her fans.
Lumb Bank.
A rare sunny day.
Heptonstall Village.
The Village of Heptonstall.
Ancient tombstones in Heptonstall's churchyard.
Ancient tombstones laid out in the churchyard.
Sylvia Plath's headstone
Sylvia Plath's headstone. (my camera mysteriously switched to monochrome)

It was a heady week for me. I'd been deep in the mangle of making a living and writing had not been coming easily. Melvin and Malorie opened my rusty tap and allowed the words to flow.
It poured again on the way home.
Welcome home.
Never mind the rain, my homecoming with all the children tumbling all over the bed was fantastic.
My suitcase was several books heavier after the trip. And I take heart from these words of encouragement from Melvin.
For Candy: Nearly there? Keep on writing, Melvin.

Slushpilers go to Arvon!

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