Thursday, 30 October 2008
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Monday, 27 October 2008
Sunday, 26 October 2008
The Times may think the book has wit, even if its glum, but The Observer decided that the book had 'no black humour to lighten the gloom and fear'. After three reads, I couldn't quite decide whether the reviewer liked the book or not, but I will be very happy to put 'Guaranteed to give you nightmares.' on the paperback!
Both reviewers placed me in the 8-12 category even though 12 seems a very early cut-off for my stories and 8 seems very young. Interestingly I am in the 12-14 category for the Lincolnshire Young People's Book Award. This is why age-banding of any kind is so tricky: it is very subjective, and may seem prescriptive.
Wednesday, 22 October 2008
The trick is to be flexible enough to be open to the possibility that you may not have written the perfect story, whilst not losing confidence and letting the substance of the story slip through your fingers. The right change can make a story. The wrong one can unpick the fabric.
Helen Szirtes has worked on all the Tales of Terror books and I value her opinion highly. She sent a list of queries about the stories and most were easily sorted out with minor additions or alterations. She also suggested a reordering of the stories, though - and that proved more problematic.
The stories always have a connecting narrative and this can be very difficult to rearrange. The relationship between the narrator and the storyteller (the narrator being the person listening to the stories, if you see what I mean) develops as the book goes on and this narrative can be hard to unpick from the stories themselves.
It may have something to do with the way I write the books. I do not - as might seem likely (and possibly easier) write the stories and then put them in order and write the bits in between. I write quite a lot of the story, its true, but I put them into the mix before they are finished. I don't want it to become just a short story collection with a narrator tacked on. I want the whole book to hang together. The stories become like chapters to me. Once they are in a certain order it is very hard for me to see them in a different one.
Anyway - because I think Helen talks a lot of sense - and because I am racked by self doubt - I did change the order. A bit.
And now I'm itching to get back to Ghosts. I must think of another name for this book! Ghosts? What was I thinking?
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
One of the questions was about Clive Barker. In the early 1980s I designed posters for Clive's Dog Company theatre group. This was before he was a superstar writer and director living in Beverly Hills - we were both living in slightly less glamorous north London.
I'm sad to say that I lost touch with Clive. I am, and always have been, quite useless at keeping in regular contact with people - even people like Clive, who I like very much.
And of course the trouble with losing touch with someone who subsequently becomes rich and famous, is that any effort to get back in touch simply looks like you are after something. Which is really not in my mind at all. The fact that I never got paid for any of those posters is really not important. . .
I'm hoping we'll meet at some publishers thing. There are people I know I will meet again. Clive is definitely one of them. But in the meantime, Clive - should you see this - a nice review wouldn't kill you, would it? For old times sake. . .
Clive's life changed with the publication of his Books of Blood short story collections and the licence-to-print-money-quote they garnered from Stephen King - 'I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker'
Stephen - if you are reading this - any chance of me getting something similar? I'm not expecting anything quite so monumental. How about a simple 'I've seen the future of fairly creepy stories for older children and young adults and his name is - or at least could be - Chris Priestley.'
Monday, 20 October 2008
The website for Tales of Terror from the Black Ship went live today. If 'live' is quite the right word, given that Adrian has devised a game called 'Corpse Fishing' for the site. Go and have a look and while away a few moments hooking the undead.
You know you want to.
Sunday, 19 October 2008
Now this may not be surprising. There is a strong link with my latest writing here. The story concerns a Cambridge scholar talking to an old student - and Hill must have had M R James in mind. The story itself - involving a creepy painting of a carnival scene in Venice - is very much in M R James territory.
But the appeal lies in the quality of the writing. Susan Hill does this kind of thing brilliantly. It is short - almost an extended short story - and I haven't finished it yet, but what a lovely thing it is so far.
Friday, 17 October 2008
I went to London today to do a turn at a Youth Libraries Group event next to Euston Station. Emma Bradshaw was my contact from Bloomsbury and once we had met and been badged up, we sat and listened to a very good talk by Julia Eccleshare from the Guardian. Julia's enthusiasm for children's books is evident in everything she says and she has been a great champion of them in her newspaper.
The Guardian's redesigned Saturday Review carries much less coverage of children's books than it used to, which is a great shame - particularly as it devotes a huge amount of space to items of questionable value (that means you, Audrey Niffenegger and your Night Badlydrawnmobile)
It was a chance to say hello again to Celia Rees whom I had met in Edinburgh. She gave an interesting talk about her new book Sovay, talking about the book and about her working method, which seemed very similar to mine when I write historical fiction.
In fact it was a very interesting experience to see other authors speak. Everyone has a different technique and people obviously vary a huge amount in confidence. Some have a very prepared speech and others - myself included - hoof it a little. The latter technique can backfire, of course, and I am beginning to wonder if I ought to write myself a script. The thing that stops me is the dread of sounding like some after dinner speaker with pre-prepared anecdotes and scripted ad-libs. But perhaps that's better than sounding like a babbling old twit.
We were all limited to twenty minutes, which is pretty tight when people want to have the chance to ask questions. I felt sorry for Debi Gliori and Marcia Williams who both needed more time really to get the concepts of their picture books across. It was nice to see Debi's rough work - it is always fascinating to see how another illustrator works. I didn't get a chance to see Sophie Mackenzie as we were on at the same time, though I did meet her briefly as we sat together at the book signing session.
Of the talks I saw, only Craig Simpson shared my lack of a PowerPoint demonstration. Although I can see the benefit of PowerPoint - Celia made the very good point that it provided a focus both for your talk and for the listener - I have always resisted its lure (for similar reasons to those mentioned above). But I think its time to drag myself into the 21st Century.
That said - I'm not sure authors were getting the most out of it. It is obviously useful for an illustrator to be able to show their work, but I think it has the potential to be more than simply a slide show. I think I would be more tempted to use it to provide a kind of ongoing illustration to my words. I would want to explore the possibilities of animation and sound. A well placed flicker of activity or high pitched scream might be fun. But only if it works of course.
I had hoped to Chris Riddell at the Observer, but after hours of talking and listening to librarians and writers - albeit very friendly ones - I needed some non-speaking time and so I wandered into town to potter around bookshops and remind myself again how I can't really justify buying anything in Paul Smith in the current economic climate.
Thursday, 16 October 2008
I spoke to my old friend Chris Riddell today. The last time I spoke to him he was just getting back from the Us where he's been on tour with Paul Stewart, and I was about to set off to Brazil. Gosh - what jet setters we've become.
We had our usual catch up. Chris was asking what I was up to and how things were going - to which I answered that I was tweaking Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth and writing Ghosts. We had a brief chat about Payne's Grey going fortnightly (booo!) and strips in general. I have been telling Chris - truthfully - that I have been looking at new strip ideas for about two years now. Somehow I never take them to a finished state.
Chris - as usual - seemed to be up to half a dozen things at once. He has his very successful partnership with Paul to maintain, bringing their Edge Chronicles cycle to a close (and working on whatever is to follow), as well as getting on with the Barnaby Grimes books.
But of course Chris has a very successful solo career as both writer and illustrator with his Ottaline books and his award-winning illustrated books with Walker. And that's not to mention his weekly cartoons on The Observer. I often wonder whether there is more than one of him.
Anyway - I might pop in and see him (and Dave Simonds) at the Observer tomorrow
Wednesday, 15 October 2008
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
It is about running and about writing about running and probably many other things besides, as blogs inevitably are.
Speaking of blogs, I should also make a point of saying that Peter Kirkham has also started one. Peter has been sending me random emails for months and I never know what the hell I'm going to find when I open them up. His blog is likewise a kind of scrapbook of anything and everything Peter finds interesting. It's like having a good old root about inside his head.
And I mean that in a good way.
Tuesday, 14 October 2008
A couple of boxes of books arrived from Doodled Books today. I haven' opened them yet, but they are copies of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. I will try and remember to scan a few of them in before I send the doodled copies back to Claire.
I also received an email from James Fraser at Random House asking me if I'd be interested in illustrating the follow-up to Joe Rat by Mark Barrett - a book I illustrated at about this time last year under the effects of a hideous cold. And in principle I would. I have been on an extended sabbatical from the world of illustration, and I quite like the idea of getting back into it.
And I spoke to Ian Lamb at Bloomsbury about the Young Librarians Group event I'm doing on Friday.
Monday, 13 October 2008
I was getting down to the alterations to Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth today. This part of a book is arguably the most important. This fine tuning is the chance to iron out any problems and to make the book read as well as it possibly can. That is why this stage is also arguably the most difficult.
I have said before that I try and write one or two thousand words in a day, but that all goes out of the window when you are in the latter stages of a book. Then it doesn't matter if you only write one word in a day, so long as it is the right one.
Actually - it probably does matter if it's only one word. I do have other things to be getting on with!
Friday, 10 October 2008
Well - I am recovering from having a tooth out on Tuesday afternoon. I was still jet-lagged when I went to the dentist. The place was modern and high-tech, but that did not stop the dentist getting medieval on my jaw with something that was basically a small monkey-wrench. Lots of cracking and crunching ensued.
I heard from Tony Bradman whilst I was in Brazil and he sent me a proposal to have a look at. I had hoped to work with Tony on a historical fiction project for Usborne, but it fell through. Maybe this one will work out.
Claire Main from Doodled Books got in touch and said she was going to send me some copies of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship to doodle in and I came back to find a couple of copies of the Colombian edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, published by Norma.
I am carrying on working my way through Helen Szirtes notes and queries on the manuscript of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Isabel Ford is now my editor at Bloomsbury, but Helen is working on the book as a freelancer. I am very happy as always to have her input.
And yesterday I got an email from John Pilger - yes, THAT John Pilger. He wrote to tell me that he liked Payne's Grey, my strip in the New Statesman. I don't get a lot of fan mail to be honest - but the quality!
Wednesday, 8 October 2008
A: Yes I will. Setting is a very important part of writing a story for me. I often think 'I would like to set a story here' without having any specific idea of what that story will be. A good setting - real or imaginary - brings a story alive. You have to believe in the location, both as reader and writer, as it is the stage on which all the action takes place. I like to set my creepy stories in places I have actually visited because it helps me to visual and therefore describe it. These places do not have to be creepy in themselves - or not in an obvious, spooky old graveyard kind of a way. Some places just inspire me to write. Rio is such a place. When you have a story to write, try setting it in a familiar location one time. You will be surprised at how easy much of the writing will be once you have the setting sorted out in your mind.
Q: Where do you get you ideas from?
A: From every book I've read, movie I've seen, place I've been, dream I've had, event I've witnessed, experience I've had or heard about from other people. But though ideas are important they are often ideas for scenes or themes, rather than ideas for the story. An idea might be something like 'A boy who goes to a school where they train wizards', but the resulting story might by Harry Potter or the very different A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. Don't get too hung up on ideas. Often it is better to think about the type of story you want to write, the kind of characters you would like to write about, the location or even the theme - then ideas might start suggesting themselves. Write a story that excites you and then the chances are it will excite the reader. Bore yourself and you will bore your poor reader. If a teacher sets a story, try and pull it towards something you find exciting or interesting. It will be easier to write and it will be more fun to read.
Q: How long does it take to write a book?
A: Not surprisingly it depends on the length of the book. There may be three or four months of writing, but that might come after two or three years of kicking ideas around in my head. Some of the stories in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror have been in notebooks for nearly thirty years. Historical fiction takes longer because of the research. And after it is written, there is then the equally important editing process. You need to get into the habit of doing this yourself. School children have a reluctance to change things - but that is a vital part of writing. All writers make changes. Don't see it as correcting mistakes - see it as fine-tuning an engine to make it work better or weeding a garden to make it look more beautiful.
Q: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
A: I wrote a short story called 'Journey to the Moon' when I was about 8 or 9 and entered it in a newspaper competition and won a medal (which I still have). It was then that I told my teacher that I wanted to write and illustrate my own book when I grew up. It took me another 30 years or so to actually achieve this! I did do it though. If you have a dream - to be a writer or a footballer or a ballet dancer - then try not to give up on it.
Q: How do you think of names for a character?
A: Naming characters is a tricky thing. People in real life just have the names they were given, but in a story names seem to become part of their character. Writers like Dickens exploit this by giving their characters names that seem to be descriptive - Scrooge for instance. An easy way to save time and find believable names is by grabbing the nearest telephone directory or turning to the index of a non-fiction book. You can simply use a name as it is or mix two names. The characters in my strip cartoon (Payne's Grey) are all named after small towns and villages in England - Brampton Bryan, Lownie Moor, Much Dewhurst, Gradely Green etc.
Q: I have an idea for a story but I don't seem to be able to get started. Do you have any tips?
A: Writers have different views on planning a story, but I think when you are learning to write it is a good idea to have some structure before you set off, even if you discard it as you go. The longer the piece, the more this helps. The shorter a piece, the more tightly plotted it tends to be. Ask yourself - What are the stand-out scenes in my story? How will it start? Where will it end? Who is in my cast of characters? How will the character or characters be changed by the events in my story? Does my story have a theme - is it about bullying or friendship, say - and is that going to come through? If you still can't get started, try writing something else - a different kind of story - and see if that helps. The more you write the easier it will become. Don't get too attached to ideas - maybe the reason you can't get started is because your idea is not a good one. It is better to accept that before you write your huge novel!
Q: How do you make a scary scene work?
A: The rules for making a scary scene are similar to making any scene work - the preparation has to be in place. A common technique in horror is to crank up the tension, then relax the reader, then - bang - you hit them with the scary scene. But just like a joke is not just about the punchline, but about how we get to the punchline, don't make the mistake of thinking it is enough to have a gory scene. If you haven't prepared the reader it will not work. Besides, gory can just be revolting rather than scary. Sometimes it is more scary to lead the reader into a dark room and let them hear something scuffling about, or let them see something out of the corner of their eye than to show them a headless body (though that can be scary too, of course).
Q: How do you write action?
A: To carry on with the answer from the last question, a lot about how a scene reads is in the way it is written. Fast action is going to read that way if the sentences and paragraphs are short, for instance. Think about the sound of the words too. But just as with scary scenes, a story that is all action with no rests will be exhausting. Read your story out loud. Do this whatever you write. Does it sound right? If it sounds wrong, the chances are it will read wrong. Is that sentence too long to say comfortably. Is it slowing the action down? Is the dialogue believable? Is it clear what's going on? Don't use more words than you need to, but make sure they are the right ones for the job.
Q: Do you think of the beginning to a story first and work through?
A: Rarely. Often with creepy stories, it is the ending that comes first and the story is all about how we get there. But the start of a story is massively important. You need to grab the reader's attention and make them want to read on. The quicker you can establish your character/s and what kind of story it is, the better. Dickens' opening line in A Christmas Carol is a good example:
Marley was dead: to begin with.
He has introduced a character, set the mood and grabbed our attention - all with six words.
Q: Lots of books I read seem to get bogged down with detail. How do you stop this happening?
A: I'm not sure I always get that balance right myself. Detail is a problem when writing historical fiction. Not enough and the period you are writing about will not seem convincing; too much and you will bore the reader and make them feel you are giving them a history lesson. Clearly if a book has too much detail it will get tiring to read, but usually stories by school children do not have enough. There is a reluctance to write more than is absolutely necessary, despite the fact that it is detail that often makes a story convincing. Try not to 'tell' the reader what is happening or what a character is feeling, try to 'show' this in the story. Obviously make sure your detail is contributing to the story and not detracting from it. But don't assume that we are going to know that Mary is tall and thin, or the house has arched windows, if you don't tell us. The more important something is to the story, the more precise you have to be with the detail. The more fantastic the world you create, the more help we will need as a reader.
Monday, 6 October 2008
I did a series of readings, talks and workshops spread over five days, all of which took place in the libraries at the various sites as part of the school's Book Week. In the main I found the students at all my sessions eager and bright and well-behaved. And I only say 'in the main' because once you have groups of over twenty children, it would be a miracle if they all sat still and did not fidget or whisper (though whispering is the arch-enemy of the storyteller!). Many of the children are listening and speaking in a second language and this fact made the quality of the comments and questions all the more impressive.
I went to the Urca site on Monday and Thursday and had class 6 and 7 students (in England they would be Year 8 and 9) - students ranging in age from 11-14. I had four sessions of about 50 minutes with groups ranging in size from 15 to 35. Monday was my earliest start with an 8.10 am start to the first session. Mostly, my working day lasted until 2.30.
I was at Barra on Tuesday and Wednesday - three sessions on Tuesday with Class 1 (Year 3 in the UK) 7-8 year-old students, four on Wednesday of Class 2, 3, 4 and 5 (aged 8 to 12). Most groups were around 20 students, but one on Wednesday had 40.
Friday was my only day at Botafogo - the oldest part of the British School. Here I had four sessions, each with large groups of Class 4 and 5 (Year 7 & 8) students aged between 10 and 12.
The sessions were all different. I had asked if there was anything the staff wanted me to highlight in particular when I visited, and so I tended to address particular genres or areas when I was at Barra for instance. We talked about fantasy writing, historical fiction and mystery writing, relating these subjects to specific books I had written. I read extracts and talked about research, planning, character development and so on.
Urca had not specified anything and so I was very happy to follow the lead of the English teacher, Ilma Lima, who wanted the sessions to be more interactive. In those sessions I gave the students a prompt to begin their own story and let them run with it. We created a number of very workable ideas revolving around one idea of a computer in the school library that does something weird (sends you to another world or parallel world, say) when an odd combination of keys is used and another about a portal in the school - the best idea being the trapdoor the the stage that takes the characters into the world of the play they are acting in. I hope we showed how quickly the bare bones of a story can be put together.
At Botafogo, the students had looked at my blog and done their research and wanted to ask questions. Again I was very happy to drop what I had intended to do and spend the time answering questions. In my next posting I am going to go through the questions that came up during these and other sessions, from both staff and students, and give my answers to them.
Sunday, 5 October 2008
Saturday, 4 October 2008
So my time in Rio is over. I am sitting writing this in Merche's house on a sunny Saturday morning. It is 8 am here, but my laptop still shows the UK time of 12. I fly back this evening at 7 pm and will arrive in the UK early tomorrow afternoon.
The sessions went really well at Botafogo, I thought. Raquel had done a huge amount of preparation and the children had all been looking at my blog and preparing a huge list of questions to ask. Some time soon I will try and put a lot of the questions on the blog with my replies, to share all that as a kind of Q&A.
Going into schools, as I have said in a previous blog, is always a little bit of a gamble. Sometimes, for instance, the teachers view an author visit as a chance to do something else. Not only does this leave the author to police the children (something that we are not really in a position to do) but it does not really get the most out of the author. A teacher can prompt the children and ask questions themselves. The sessions I did at the British School where the teachers took an active part were definitely the most successful, and that was the case here in Botafogo.
I had another excellent school dinner here and bumped into Priscilla Howe who was about to go for lunch with her South American agent who is whisking her off to Sao Paolo for three weeks. I told her I had arranged to meet Mimi later at Urca and we were going up to Sugar Loaf. She said she would come along too.
So that's what we did. The climb is by cable car in two stages. I am not fantastic with heights but I coped pretty well. It is worth it for the incredible views from the top. It had clouded over by the time we got there, but what an amazing place to have a cold beer (ice cold, as always in Brazil). Black vultures swooped about effortlessly and there were tiny marmosets looking for food under benches.
Priscilla and I said farewell to Mimi at the base of Sugar Loaf. I owe Mimi a lot as she has put a lot of time into sorting out my trip and has been very supportive while I have been here. Book Week is obviously a hectic time for all of the librarians and they have all taken a lot of time to make me feel very welcome and I'm sure Priscilla feels the same. It has been hard work, but it has rarely felt like it because of the friendliness of Mimi, all the librarians and staff and, of course, the children.
I shared a cab with Priscilla, dropping her off in Copacabana before heading off to meet Merche in a bar on Ipanema Beach. But there was a confusion over which bar it was and I lacked the confidence to get out at a bar with a different name and so ended up getting the cab to Merche's house (via another bar in Barra).
This caused an international incident as my mobile would not let me call Merche and Merche did not have my mobile number with her and so called Judith Weik in the UK to find it and Judith called my wife and told her that I was lost on Sugar Loaf! She had half an hour of wondering what that meant. Merche eventually called as I was approaching the condominium. All was well. The cab driver came in for much abuse for this by the Clark family, but he was OK. He was genuinely trying to sort out a confusion.
Or that's what I choose to believe anyway.
Friday, 3 October 2008
Last night I went to Merche's bookshop - the Jamer Bookshop - and signed the stock of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Then we went to see Kiss Me Kate, the school production at Urca. I have to say I was not overly enthusiastic about going to a school production, but it was incredibly well done. The singing in particular was fantastic. I was really impressed.
I came in with Merche today. She has been fantastic, driving me all over Rio and looking after me. We got back late though, so it was a bit of a shock to the sytem to wake up this morning after not quite enough sleep. But it was worth it just to see sunshine. There had been a rosy sunset last night and I was glad to see that the old 'red sky at night, shepherd's delight' thing applied in the suthern hemisphere. It is a lovely morning.
It is my last day here in Rio, so I plan to meet Mimi at Urca later and go up Sugar Loaf as I missed it yesterday.
Thursday, 2 October 2008
The last time I was here the weather was glorious but I did not have a camera. Today I have the camera but it somehow does not look quite so spectacular. Something tells me my trip up Sugar Loaf this afternoon is not going to happen.
I was sorry to leave Barra yesterday. I thought it was a really lovely school with a fantastic atmosphere. And Viviane Silva is such a great librarian. She really cares about that library and about the children who go there. She was so enthusiastic.
Having said that, this is a great library too. It is very modern and seems very well used. I am being looked after by Celia Breder and Jaqueline Silva (no relation to Viviane or President Silva - it is just the most common name here, apparently) as before. I'm not sure whether I'll see Mimi today. Celia and Jacqueline are great. They have made me feel so welcome here. They are so friendly, and have a good sense of humour.
Yesterday I was doing specific talks about specific writing issues. Today I am giving more general writing talks centred around Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. I have another three groups to see today, one of which, again, is very large. Tomorrow at the Botofolgo site where I have four groups of 40+!
I may get to Merche's bookshop - the Jamer bookshop - today and sign some of the stock of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and I think Merche has asked for Livraria de Travessa's stock of Contos de Terror do Tio Montague to sign as well.
And speaking of which - Frini's newspaper article is pinned on the notice board. That was very exciting. Thanks again Frini.
Wednesday, 1 October 2008
Today I am back at the Barra site. I am seeing another four groups (one of which seems to have 40 children in it - so that ought to be interesting!). I am talking about historical fiction, mystery writing and horror writing, using The White Rider, Redwulf's Curse and Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror respectively). It is a lovely sunny morning, though Viviane tells me it may rain later.
Tomorrow I am back at the Urca site at the base of Sugar Loaf, and Mimi Liang is going to take me up to the top. You get there in two stages, by cable car. I have a fear of heights, so it is going to be an interesting trip in more than one way, as I may disgrace myself by collapsing into a foetal position and gibbering.
I forgot to mention that they are doing a really great activity here for book week. It is called DEAR - standing for Drop Everything And Read. At break time, Viviane wanders round the school with a whistle and when she blows it, the children have to drop what they are doing, pick up a book and read. It is such a brilliant idea and not one I have ever knowingly come across before.
I also forgot to mention that the other person who turned up at the Livraria de Travesso launch of Contos de Terror do Tio Montague, was Frini Georgakopoulos, the journalist who sent me the Q&A I mentioned several posts back. It was great to meet her and she was so enthusiastic.