Thursday, 24 May 2012

Marcus Sedgwick and the Giant Killer Cats

by Addy Farmer
Marcus in workshop mode
Alongside a 16 year career in publishing Marcus Sedgwick established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Branford-Boase Award for a debut novel Floodland, and the Booktrust Teenage Prize for My Swordhand is Singing. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (four times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times). His latest title in the UK is Midwinterblood.

Where do the stories come from? Well, it's all been done before said Marcus quoting the rather depressing words of Milan Kundera,
"But hasn't the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic? Hasn't it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms? I've heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted. But isn't it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?"
And with all due respect to Mr Kundera, Marcus advises...

FORGET THAT!
You can write anything!

To do that you should...
- develop a magpie mind which means consider every idea even Giant Killer Cats before dismissing most of those ideas including Giant Killer Cats, although...

wish I'd thought of that
- write everything down - Marcus has used up 8 rather smart notebooks so far. You may not necessarily use everything but at least you're sure not to forget that utterly brilliant-surefire-award winning story idea you had when you were half asleep (see putting yourself in the right place to write).
- put yourself in the right place - walking, driving, coffee shop, comfy sofa (hem hem), wherever and whenever works for you

Marcus prefers not to listen to Radio 4 whilst working - bit distracting
 - give it time. Get it written, leave it to stew, come back and see if it's still working for you.

Those initial ideas can come from anywhere. And the good ones stay - like being infected with a disease. Hmm, a charming notion which Marcus overnight changed to, 'like falling in love'. One of the ideas which stuck with Marcus was a dream of a witch coming over the hill towards the remote cottage he was staying in, getting nearer and nearer... 

What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster?
A painting was another source of love for Marcus. Midvinterblot is a painting created for the hall of the central staircase in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson in 1915. In itself it tells a story of love and sacrifice.
Midvinterblot - guess the book title
Once you have an idea you can play with it and see what happens.
'I count as my main asset the combination of a magpie's mind that sees, finds or makes connections and patterns...the ability to doodle mentally and to play.' Alan Garner
This ability to make connections is essential to a writer. It enables you to conceive a story or characters, to weave an entire world from a single idea. This playing becomes the test of an idea - holiday romance or soul mate? So, how does Marcus start a novel? Take the example of Revolver.


He told us how he found a shell casing lying on a pavement in Russia (as you do) and an idea sparked - shell casing, gun, revolver and what would be the consequences of losing such a weapon? There followed research - online, in books, at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Marcus then travelled to Estonia where he could fire a real gun without being arrested. Marcus pointed out that while research is fun it's not always necessary. What it can do is anchor a story in reality, lending credence to the telling. All this and questions too: Is firing a gun easy? Is it scary? What sort of person might want to fire a gun? Who would most certainly not want to fire a gun? The puzzle pieces of the story began to form a picture. He could take all his gathered stuff and thoughts and make them something more than the sum of their parts.
'There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.' Ernest Hemingway
 Marcus is a planner and for him, characters can sometimes start at a rather 2D level. When the first draft is sorted then he can go back and add in characterisation. Characterisation comes in the first five pages, if you don't have a sense of who's in this story by then, you're not going to care about them.
do not bore your reader!
He says: 'I would be quite happy to abolish the very idea of roundedness in characters'. Character is revealed through subtle details, 'He was tall with black hair' is less interesting than, 'he was gawky.' Marcus suggests that you let your reader be a writer too and give just enough detail to let them do the writing for you.

But don't fret over the details when you start off. Don't get it right, get it written. Often quoted but true. Let the ideas flow, enjoy the research, plan a little and the story is yours.
 

So thanks to Marcus for letting me play fast and loose with his two inspirational workshops and let the last words be the last words of Charles Dickens. 
'Be natural, my children.'

25 comments :

  1. I loved this post Addy but it did make me realise exactly how much I missed at the retreat. You included some really useful tips from Marcus - thank you for taking the time to do it.

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    1. Thanks,Ness - didn't mean to rub it in!

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  2. Thanks for this Addy - I'm thinking of a story about a cake eating sleep monster - I imagine it's going to take a lot of research so I'm off to apply myself....

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    1. Drat! Why have other people already had
      the great ideas of literary genius??? WHY!

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  3. Oh what a totally brilliant post, Addy - thanks for sharing! This is definitely one of those posts to be tagged and kept for continual reference!

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    1. Why thanks, Nicky! Although of course, Marcus was the one with the ideas!

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  4. It's good to be reminded that we should be open to everything happening around us, and use it, not just regurgitate the event. Very useful post. Thank you :)

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  5. I was there! Well done on distilling this from Marcus's words.
    I so loved his phrase about 'the tyranny of well-rounded characters'- I could have hugged him for that.

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    1. Yes, I liked that as well, Philippa. Just three details should set the tone and the character - brilliant!

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  6. Gosh I'm buzzed after reading this!! Thanks for sharing Marcus's writerly tips and sage advice too - most inspiring! Now I want to go out and read his books!! Yay!!! Take care
    x

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  7. My biggest question of course is : what did Marcus do to his lovely hair?

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    1. He'd actually scraped it all back into a cool and trendy pony tail

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  8. Great post. Thanks so much for sharing. From an inveterate planner and magpie.

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    1. A magpie and a planner - you have it all!

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  9. Thanks Addy - Marcus is always an inspiring speaker and I was sad to miss this, but you've made it all right with this super summary!

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    1. Thanks, Carmel. It would have been good to see you there but I hope you'll be at Winchester this year?

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  10. I read My Sword Hand is Singing while back, very dark and atmospheric. Just my kind of thing. It's interesting to hear how Marcus comes up with his ideas.

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    1. MSiS is one of my favourites and definitely the best title ever thought of, ever.

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  11. Really enjoyed reading this - thanks. He has such a range, hasn't he? From 'Midwinterblood' to 'Fright Forest', and a whole ton of others in between - amazing writer!

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    1. Thanks! I think Marcus'work is thoughtful and readable, a great combination.

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  12. This is a great post, Addy, always great to tap into words of wisdom from such a great writer and therefore becoming Magpies ourselves, thanks for sharing this, much appreciated.

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    1. My pleasure, Tom. He's a great writer and a fascinating speaker - makes it all the easier to write about!

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