Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Writer's block

I was up at the Sheffield Book Award yesterday where Mister Creecher was awarded Highly Commended in the YA section that was won by Martyn Bedford with his book Flip.  Afterwards, at the book signing, one of my visitors - a thirteen year old girl called Ida - said that she was a writer but was suffering from writer's block.

Ida left a comment on this blog, but I didn't publish it because she also gave the name of her school and I was a bit concerned she might not have intended to give so much information.  Anyway, I thought I'd carry on the conversation I was having with her in this post.

Some people don't think there is any such thing as writer's block, and that it is just the over-dramatisation of a perfectly normal problems writers encounter all the time.  It does feel like a bit of a curse, and that even talking about it can't be a good thing.  But the fact is that whether we believe that it exists or not, sometimes it is harder to write than it is at other times.

Sometimes we run out of ideas.  Or we run out of ideas we want to use, which isn't exactly the same thing.  The ideas we have may no longer seem right for the kind of writer we want to be.  Because that can change over time.

Sometimes we have the ideas - lots of them - but we don't seem satisfied with what we write in answer to those ideas.  We lose confidence in our ability to deliver those great ideas we have.

Perhaps we have things going on in our lives that are a distraction.  They might be things that will later inspire a really great piece of writing, but we haven't had time to digest them yet.  Maybe where we work has changed somehow and it has disrupted our routine or is breaking our concentration.  Maybe we are too miserable.  Or too happy.

Worst of all, maybe we have that terrible demon on our shoulder saying that we just aren't good enough.

Well, I'm going to work on the assumption that this isn't true.  So what can we do, if we don't seem able to write?  What can Ida do?  Well, I think there are a few things she can try.

If you get stuck in a piece of writing for too long that it is stopping you from working, then put it in a drawer and don't look at it for as long as you can.  When you next look at it, you will have a better idea about whether it was as bad as you thought or is actually a lot better than that.  Either way it will be clearer what needs to be done to save it, or whether - as we have to do sometimes - it is better to accept that it isn't worth any more of your precious time.

But more importantly, with that piece put away in the drawer you can write something else.  I would suggest writing something short - a short story, a blog post, a book review - anything really.  Just write something.  And try and write something every day, or as often as you can.  Maybe you could keep a diary.

If your block has happened before you even start a project and even these short pieces seem to be painful, then I would suggest reading a book.  Read something you really like - either something you have read before and loved or something by a favourite author - someone you admire.  Remind yourself of how exciting writing is and why you wanted to write stuff in the first place.

But get back to writing as soon as possible.  Don't weigh yourself down with your own expectations.  Play to your strengths and write something you would like to read yourself.

Now as Ida is 13 I will also say here that sometimes - not always, but sometimes - the problem with young writers is one of planning.  I have no set rule about planning.  Sometimes I plan very rigidly and sometimes not.  It depends on the book, and even when I plan rigidly, the book goes its own way once I start writing.

But sometimes a plan can be very liberating because you know where the story is going and you have these stepping stones as a route.  It means that you are filling the gaps rather than trying to fill the whole book every time you sit down to write.  If you are having problems getting your ideas written, try planning the story before you start.  There are lots of ways to do this.  Here is one:

On a sheet of A4 lined paper, write the number 1 to 10 in the margin, leaving several lines between (obviously you can do this on a computer if you'd prefer, but I find that for the first plan I still pick up a pen).  If you imagine 1 to be the first scene and 10 to be the last, then put a paragraph next to each number giving yourself some idea of what happens in that part of the story.

This will give you a written framework to refer back to each time you write and will help you to make decisions that may block your writing.  If you get all of the 'When does this character die?', 'When do these characters first meet?' stuff out of the way, all you have to do is write.  Don't allow details to stop you.  Can't think of character's name?  Steal a name from the phone book or an index or a magazine.

This is perhaps most useful for a short story, but you could do the same for chapters in a book - list the chapters as numbers and give yourself a little note about what you want to happen in each.  But maybe a short story is the very thing you need to write.  Maybe a novel is going to be too much.

Even if you never use this method again, have a try and see if it works to get you started.  Because getting started is the key thing.  When I don't write for a while it takes me a long time to get myself back in the zone I need to be in.  The longer you go without writing, the more likely it is that you will be disappointed with what you write.

So good luck Ida, and good luck anyone else out there having problems.  Hope this helps.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Un grande romanzo gotico

The Italian edition of Mister Creecher - La Creatura - is now out, published by Newton Compton.  I'm still waiting for that book tour of Italy. . .

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Do you believe in ghosts?

I walked around Halifax last Sunday morning.  It was a beautiful, bright sunny autumn day, crisp and chill.  I wandered aimlessly taking photos here and there, before heading back up to Dean Clough for the day's events.  I went to the viaduct cafe and bumped into a couple I had met the day before.  We got to talking and very early on I was asked if I believe in ghosts.

My heart always sinks slightly when I hear this question, because people who don't believe in ghosts tend to make an assumption of disbelief.  Usually - not always, but usually - that question is asked by someone who does believe, as was the case here.

I do not believe in ghosts and told them so.

Sometimes - after an uncomfortable moment - this will nip such a tale in the bud, but not always.  I am generally fairly indifferent as to which way it goes.  I don't mind hearing ghost stories, but having said I don't believe in ghosts, it has to be on the understanding that I'm not going to believe in the ghosts I am now being told about.

In this case the tale continued, and as we were at the venue of a ghost story festival, it seemed churlish to protest and I allowed the story to run its course.  But the telling of a ghost story as true is quite a powerful position to adopt in a conversation.  The speaker is asking the listener to accept, on trust, things that would be difficult to accept had they actually been witnessed by the listener themselves.

The listener - a listener who does not believe in the supernatural - is, in effect, being asked to change their entire world view based on hearsay - often the hearsay of strangers.  I have had stories related to me by friends and family and, the subtext is always the same: call me a liar, if you dare.  I have strong suspicion that Jonathan Miller would have been far more vocal in his defence of rationality.  I think it is part of the job of a writer to listen.  But it is also the job of the writer to interpret what he or she hears.  We should be listening to the story and to the telling.  Often the telling is more interesting than the story.

Of course I don't think that every person who has seen or heard or sensed, or claimed to have seen, heard or sensed, a ghost is a liar.  But neither do I think that none are.  People do lie.  Unlike the existence of ghosts, I am certain of that.  I have experienced lying.  I have told lies myself.  We all have.  But the teller knows we can't know for sure if a lie has been told and that most people will be placed in such an awkward situation that politeness will mean that rational arguments will go unvoiced.

And the reason we can't be sure that a lie has been told is that people can simply be mistaken.  They can give the wrong interpretation to something.  They can add things together that are not in any way connected.  They can exaggerate.  They can over-dramatise.  They can rework and refine.  I've done that too.  We all have.  I do it for a living.  To believe otherwise is to believe that we are always reliable witnesses.  We all know we aren't.  Not always.  Not all the time.

Of course this is true of every story we hear from friends or strangers.  Unless we were there, we can't be sure of the details of an event being described.  But usually there is nothing within the confines of the story that means we cannot believe it.  But with stories of supernatural events it is different.  Suddenly the listener is being asked to accept things that would, if proved, change the laws of physics and make front page news across the globe.

People who tell you ghost stories will ask you for an explanation to events or phenomena you yourself have not seen or experienced.  It is the equivalent of saying, 'Yesterday my head fell off and rolled across the kitchen table.  I picked it up and put it back on and there isn't even a mark.  Explain that if you can!'

People who tell ghost stories will often tell you that they or the people involved are especially 'receptive', that they have always been able to sense things that others can't.  They are often telepathic or clairvoyant or both.  The inference here is that your doubt keeps ghosts at bay.  They won't come where they aren't wanted.  Except for the ones that leap out at you, of course.

Because there are different kinds of ghosts aren't there?  There are The Woman in Black malevolent ghosts who want to scare the bejabbers out of us and there are The Sixth Sense ones who want to tell us something.  They have unfinished business.  Like most of the dead there has ever been I would imagine.

This story - and it would be unfair to go into details - fell into the latter category.  It was a good story.  I feel slightly bad about not being able to accept it because it seems almost rude or unfriendly.  It was fascinating and disturbing and introduced me to a factual story I knew nothing about and which is even more interesting.  It - or rather the telling of it - made me come up with a couple of new ideas for stories of my own.  But to actually believe it I would have to believe in ghosts.

And I still don't.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

More things in heaven and earth

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Jonathan Miller at the Halifax Ghost Story Festival and hear him launch forth into several very funny anecdotes and monologues from his past days as part of Beyond the Fringe.  We all had a photographs taken in the underground theatre at Dean Clough and he was on top form.  I was also in the audience for a fascinating interview, with Tony Earnshaw standing in brilliantly for Christopher Frayling, who sadly couldn't make it.  And it was another chance to see the  1968 Omnibus film Whistle and I'll Come to You.

It was clear listening to Miller and re-watching the film, that Miller really does not have much interest in ghosts or ghost stories.  Or rather his interest was a purely philosophical or possibly anthropological one.  This M R James story seemed to give him the opportunity to explore his interest in notions of the rational and irrational mind.

In the film, Michael Horden's Professor Parkin has a conversation with another guest - Ambrose Goghill as the Colonel - at breakfast who asks him if the professor believes in ghosts.  When Parkin dismisses the notion, the Colonel quotes from Hamlet, saying 'There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in your philosophy.'  To which Parkin responds by saying, much to his own amusement, 'There is more in philosophy than is dreamt of in heaven and earth.'

Horden and Miller had a lot of fun with the notion of this smug and eccentric academic, brilliantly portrayed by Horden and based on Miller's own experience of philosophy tutors at Oxford.  But this is a curious thing about M R James.

M R James was the very Cambridge academic who features in so many of his stories.  He was the very antiquarian who so often comes to a sticky end, skewered on the point of their own scepticism.  And yet James was a sceptic just like Miller.  And Lawrence Gordon Clark.  And me.

So what is going on here?  Why is M R James punishing these fictional versions of himself for being rational when he himself was a highly thought of scholar?

I asked Miller if madness was of particular interest to him as he seemed to be drawn to work where madness or irrationality held sway - he had done a very famous version of Alice in Wonderland for instance, and mentioned his direction of Hamlet.

He didn't altogether answer the question but he did give a fascinating response which stated his view of the rational which seemed identical to the 'more in philosophy' jibe of Parkin's.  He does not believe that a person can survive their own death and so whatever is being called a ghost has another explanation - one that has been missed or one that has not yet been discovered.

And to be fair, I think that is my position too.  Ghosts make no sense to me.  Why are they not everywhere?  If they are the spirits of those who have unfinished business then there ought to be millions of ghosts because surely every victim of war, plague, famine, murder had unfinished business. If they can appear on photographs then why are they not on every photograph.  Every inch of this country is built upon the dead.

I think M R James was imagining his worst fears when he wrote those stories.  You have to scare yourself when you write a ghost story.  You have to try at least.  Not only that, he was writing for an audience of academics ( at least some of the time) as these stories were read to friends and students.  What is the intellectuals greatest fear?  It is the fear of the loss of his intellectual faculties. If a person who believes in ghosts sees a ghost, then it would be frightening, but at least they could accomodate it into their word view.  If you are sure that ghosts do not exist and yet still see one, then you would have to believe that you were insane.  A lack of belief in ghosts is only a protection against them until you actually encounter one.

M R James was creating bogeymen to unsettle the rational.   And he did a good job.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Ghosts of the 1970s

I'm back in Cambridge after a rather tortuous journey back from Halifax involving a taxi, three trains, a bus and, oh, another taxi.

I feel like I ought to say thank you to a few people.

Firstly to Dee Grijak for organising the Halifax Ghost Story Festival , for asking me back, and for being so tirelessly enthusiastic and supportive.  I always feel sorry for the organisers of festivals and events because they put so much effort into these things and then never seem to have the chance to enjoy them through the stress and exhaustion.  I asked Dee at one point if it was enjoyable for her at all.  'There are moments,' she said.  I hope there were a few this year.

I should thanks Dee's husband Vic Allen too.  I hardly saw him this time, but again, he is so helpful and supportive and I could see that he was constantly looking after people.

Thanks to Tony Earnshaw for buying me several drinks and even feeding me.  He was also great company and did a superb job on the interviewing front, often knowing more about the work of those he interviewed than they themselves remembered.

Thanks to Chris Mould for picking me up from the station at Leeds and driving me to Halifax.  He also came along to support my reading, along with mutual friend, Nina Wadcock.  It was great to look up from my reading and see Dee, Tony, Lawrence, Chris and Nina looking back.

Thanks too to Mark Davis for taking some great photos of the event.

The Halifax Ghost Story Festival was very enjoyable, both as a performer and as a member of the audience.  I had the chance to meet Jonathan Miller and hear him talk before watching his 1968 M R James adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You.  I got to hear Reggie Oliver read Pieces of Elsewhere from his Mrs Midnight short story collection.  I read The Demon Bench End from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and introduced the 1971 BBC Ghost Story For Christmas - The Stalls of Barchester - by saying a few words about the effect those films had on the teenage me.

And as if that wasn't enough, I had the director, Lawrence Gordon Clarke right there in the audience to hear me say that I think those films shaped me as a writer and maybe even as a person.

I have no idea what it is that makes a person stop being simply an audience for such things and actually consider producing their own response.  Most people go to a music concert and are content to listen.  Most movie-goers are perfectly happy to be lost in the enjoyment of watching the movie.  Why do some readers feel they need to write?

All I know is that even whilst caught up in the chills that Lawrence was expertly creating, somewhere in my mind I was learning from him and storing what I'd learnt.  I think Lawrence - like all good filmmakers - helped to broaden the scope of my imagination when I read.  The world he evoked seemed pitch perfect for the kind of stories I enjoyed reading.  I was living in a dour council estate, a world away from the college libraries and quads of M R James.

In fact it was Lawrence who introduced me to M R James, a writer I had never heard of before.  He also introduced me to that wonderful Dickens story, The Signalman.  But revisiting his films now, I realise he also introduced me to a very different aesthetic.

Lawrence's films were just that - they were shot on film, not video, as most things were in those days and this allowed for much more subtle lighting.  There is a painterly feel to many of the shots and to the way they are lit and framed.  It was a perfect match for James' prose and very different from either the home grown television of the time, or from the imported television from America, which had far higher production values, but emulated American movies.

Lawrence's films seem to have much more in common with European cinema of the time, in their pacing and intelligence.  Most especially, they are not filmed in a self-consciously horror movie style.   I never get the impression that Lawrence has any particular interest in horror as a genre.  I think that is possibly part of their success as films.

I first met Lawrence two years ago and was delighted to find that he is an extraordinarily friendly and generous man, quick to smile and laugh and very easy to talk to.  It was a real treat to be able to stand up and make him squirm a little by singing his praises.  But I meet people all the time who remember these films with great fondness and excitement, but who don't know Lawrence's name.

They should.

Friday, 16 November 2012

On the radio

Another iPhone shot of my sketchbook.  Three characters in search of a story. . .

I have just sent a story off to Ian Lamb to go on Bloomsbury's 247tales website.  The idea is that authors write a story in 247 words (or less) and readers are then invited to write their own story in that genre.  Mine is suitably chilly and is on the website in December.

And talking of short stories, I also have two stories featured in a BBC Radio 2 celebration of stories by the Brothers Grimm.  We were asked to submit modern versions set in an identifiable northern location.  I have an update of Hansel and Gretel set in Newcastle and one of a story called Death's Messengers set in Manchester.

I'll give you a broadcast date when I have one.


I'm off to Halifax this weekend - or, more properly, Dean Clough - for the Halifax Ghost Story Festival.

A bit of a tortuous journey from cambridge but I'm looking forward to it.  It is mainly a celebration of M R James this time, and I am looking forward to hearing Jonathan Miller talk about his famous 1968 film for the BBC, Whistle and I'll Come to You.

I'm also looking forward to seeing Lawrence Gordon Clark again.  Several of his films for the BBC Ghost Story for Christmas strand are being shown and I will be introducing The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral on Sunday.

Added to which I am reading my own The Demon Bench End, happily acknowledging my own debt to M R James and to Lawrence Gordon Clark whose lovely, creepy films were my first encounter with those fantastic stories.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Stealing trees

I was drawing in my studio this afternoon.  I was looking at the trees that appear in the backgrounds of Thomas Bewick engravings.  These are iphone shots of my sketchbook.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Christmas creeps

I should remind you that Christmas Tales of Terror is now out.  A lot of people have been asking me whether it is going to be available as a 'real' book, rather than as an ebook.

The short answer is that there are no plans for that at the moment, but it is certainly a possibility at a future date.  It would need some additional material because at the moment it differs from the other Tales of Terror books in being a collection of stand alone stories without a linking story or a narrator.

Christmas Tales of Terror is a collection of seven seasonal chillers, featuring lots of jolly Christmas themes - snowmen, holly and ivy, carol singing, stockings by the chimney and presents under the tree - but all with all with a festive sprinkling of creepiness.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


I caught the end of a documentary about Ian Fleming the other night in which a talking head spoke in hushed tones of how at any one time, Fleming would be promoting one book, writing another, editing another whilst trying to come up with new ideas for future books.

I was less impressed with this concept than I was supposed to be, as this seems pretty similar to the life of every writer I know.  Added to which I had just listened to a programme on Radio 4 in which George Simenon told us that he wrote his books in 'no more than eleven days' with a day per chapter.

Writers are fond of saying how many words they write a day, and I think this plays into the idea that writers just sit in their studies and write all day.  But there is no general pattern to the way writers work - and never has been.

At the moment, I am making some alterations to the first draft of my book linked to Coleridge's The Rime of Ancient Mariner - I have called it We Pass Like Night, but that is going to change - and have just arranged to do the last edit on the proofs of Through Dead Eyes.  The proofs arrived by post today.

I have just written a very short story for Bloomsbury's 247tales website and I am working on several ideas for new books.  I am also doing quite a bit of drawing, as one or more of those books will, I hope, be in large parts, visual.

I have been doing events and I shall be doing some more.  I'm up in Halifax in a couple of weeks time for the Halifax Ghost Story Festival and I up in Sheffield after that for the Sheffield Book Award.  

I have been doing my accounts.

Very late.

But I have also been doing a lot of the stuff that fills up the lives of everyone.  We are still trying to get our little house in order and I've been trying to make my rented studio space less of a dump.  My son is being buried alive under an avalanche of revision and exams and we are all trying to get as much done before Christmas arrives and we all flop in front of the TV, stuffed full of turkey.  November is the fastest month of the calendar.

Added to all that we writers are now supposed to throw ourselves at the web - we must have a web presence.  So I have to attend to my Facebook page, reply to comments and messages on my author page and keep an eye on my Twitter feed.

And, of course, my blog.  

Monday, 5 November 2012

Carnegie longlister

I am very pleased to announce that Mister Creecher has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal.  It is a fantastic list and it's an honour to be on it.  This is the third of my Bloomsbury published books to receive a nomination for the longlist, but so far I have never made it through to the shortlist.  Hopefully it will be a case of third time lucky.

The shortlist will be announced in March of next year and the winner in June.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

School libraries

Last Monday I went to London on a march and lobby of Parliament in support of school libraries and librarians and in support of the notion that they should a statutory requirement, which at present they are not.  Here is a photograph of Philip Ardagh holding a placard and wearing a very appropriate tie.

But why are they important in this day and age.  Does a school need a library to be a good school?  Clearly many school believe they don't have to have one.  There are many schools who have done away with them already and have 'study areas' or 'learning zones' instead.  If these schools are getting good results out of their children, does it matter?

Yes.  Yes it does.

I don't want to give schools a hard time.  They are pulled and pushed by changing educational trends and governmental directives and, yes, the desires of the parents of the children in their care.  But because of all that - because they are under such pressure to get results, they need to leave a bubble of air in their schools.  They need to give children and teenagers a chance to make discoveries of their own and they need a good, friendly, trained and knowledgable librarian to guide those exploring souls when they need guidance.

I discovered Rosemary Sutcliffe in the school library.  I discovered Biggles.  I discovered Henry Treece and Dr Seuss.  I discovered a wonderful book of African folk tales, the name of which escapes me, but the illustrations it contained are still vivid in my imagination.  I read anything I could find on Greek myths.  I looked at expensive art books I could not afford but which shaped my desire to be an artist.

These were not books I had to read for English or books I read as research for an essay.  They were books I read for the sheer love of reading.  Reading for pleasure it's called.

School libraries won't change every child's life, but they will, definitely, change the lives of some children.

The school library certainly changed mine.