Thursday, 6 December 2012

A fear of books

Another question that came up at the Sheffield Children's Book Awards was, 'Is it important to read books if you want to write books?'

The quick answer is yes - yes it is.

Having said that, I actually find it hard to read whilst I am writing and I am either writing or I am planning or editing an awful lot of the time.  I do have spare time, of course, but reading can feel like a distraction - another voice competing with my own.

I used to finish every book I started.  I was always committed to the author for as long as it took me to read the book, but I have become more and more intolerant of writing I do not like or admire.

But if I read a book I really admire, that can be even more of an issue.  A really good book can throw me completely.  It can make me feel dissatisfied with my own writing.  I tend not to read other authors writing for teens.  I do read some, and I read enough to know there is a lot of great writing out there, but I don't want to read too much.  I don't want to gain an idea of what kind of writing is expected.

I read a lot less now than before I was a writer and that is something I regret.  I used put this solely down to this problem of the intrusive outside voice, but I have come to suspect there is a darker reason. I think I may be developing a fear of books.

Actually, it is more a fear of writers. . .

One of the panel  said that they did not think it was important to read books to be a writer - a slightly awkward point of view to proclaim at a book award to an audience of schoolchildren, teachers and librarians - but it seems to me incontestable that you must once have read books.  How else would you know how a book worked?  Why else would it occur to you to become a writer?

That may sound trite, but it's true.  Delivering a story via a book is a very contrived thing.  You don't stumble into it by accident.  You don't wake up one morning and start writing, without having read any books.  Writers don't invent writing.  They re-invent it.

Like many writers of my generation the book as an object played a big part in my dreams of becoming a writer.  I wanted to see my words in print.  I wanted a cover with a dust jacket.  I wanted to see my name on the front.

But I don't think I ever thought of writing books for children.

I wrote at school.  We expect all children to be able to write fiction, just as we expect them to draw and paint (or rather we did when I was young).  But I trace my life as a writer back to when I was a teenager and actually started to hammer the keys of my dad's portable Brother typewriter, alone, in my bedroom.

This was unnecessary writing.  Unasked for.

I don't have much of what I wrote then, but I remember starting to write a long fantasy novel that owed a lot to Robert E Howard and the myth of Theseus.  I wrote some parable-like short stories in the mould of Ray Bradbury or John Wyndham.

In my late teens and twenties I realised that I had read very little that wasn't genre fiction of one kind or another and began working my way through a library of great writers from around the world.  I couldn't say how many books I read.  I have some of them still, but nowhere near all.  I can't remember many of them, though the best of them still shine brightly:  Kafka's The Trial, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, William Golding's The Spire, Primo Levi's If This is a Man, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.  As I got older, I discovered new authors of course, but it was the books I read in my twenties that gave me a template for what I thought was great writing.  I attempted an existentialist novel on the back of reading Satre.  After Kafka, my short stories became more Kafkaesque.

Perhaps the reason I no longer seek out great writing is because it would remind me that it was this writing to which I once aspired.  Perhaps they would make me feel inadequate where they once made me feel more alive.  I do not write literary fiction - I write genre fiction.  For children and teenagers.  I consider that to be a very fine way to earn a living, incidentally.  And I also think that genre fiction in the right hands - in the hands of Raymond Chandler or M R James - can be enough; more than enough.  The fact remains, though, that the great sweeping novel I saw myself writing is probably never going to be written.  Or not by me anyway.

But I still believe in the power of the novel to change lives as well as to entertain.  I do mean that literally.  Novels certainly shaped me.  Perhaps, in the end, they shaped me more as a person than as a writer.

But of course I write the way I do because of the person I am, and one of the reason's I am the person I am is because I read the books I did, when I did.  As much as the people I met or the jobs I have done or the places I have been or the things I have seen, books shaped me.  They made sense of things that hadn't made sense before and they introduced doubt where there had been youthful certainty.

So yes, it is important to read if you want to be a writer.  But I think it's also important to read if you just want to be.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Do you set yourself writing goals?

There was an interesting session at the Sheffield Childrens Book Award where all the authors in the YA and Quick Read sections sat along the stage and answered some very good questions from the young audience.  One of the said questions was: 'Do you set yourself writing goals?'

I was the first to answer, simply by dint of me being sat at one end and I made the classic mistake of trying to make a general statement about writing.  There is no one kind of writer any more than there is one kind of writing.  But my answer went pretty much as follows...

I said that I am - and always have been - a bit suspicious of writers who say they work every day except Christmas Day and write 2000 or 3000 or whatever, every day.  Personally I can't see how that works.  It certainly wouldn't work for me.  I can't promise myself that I will write a certain number of words on a given day, neither would I want to force myself to write that number simple because it was my 'goal'.

When I say I am suspicious of this, it isn't that I don't think a writer can write 2000 or 3000 good words in a day.  It is perfectly possible to write 6000 good words in a day.  It's not even that I doubt that this could be done every day - which I do doubt - it is that writing large amounts of words is only part of the job of a writer.

Writing lots of words is a big part, don't get me wrong, and when you have publishing deadlines you need to keep that word count up or you quickly get into trouble.  When I am writing a book I set myself deadlines and usually hit them, but I don't set myself a daily target.

But I don't see where editing fits in.  Or planning?  Or dreaming.  Or living?  On one hand I have the undisciplined's admiration for the disciplined, but on the other I simply don't understand it.  One writer said they wrote 5000 words every day.  Every day?  That's 1,300,000 words a year on a five day week.  Really?  That's a lot of words for a writer of children's books, even allowing for over-writing.

The writing of fiction - for me anyway - is a messy pulling together of persistent imaginings - things that refuse to go away and demand to be put into words.  I am not talking about waiting for these things to come unbidden - I have a mortgage to pay and don't have the luxury of waiting passively for my characters and plots to turn up.

I was looking through my computer once looking for any ideas I might have forgotten.  I say a document headed 'Head floating up through clouded water.'  Intrigued, I opened it up to find that it simply said, 'Head floating up through clouded water.'  That is how most of my ideas come to me.  They emerge out of the fog.  They demand my attention.  They follow me about.  They nag me.

I write like I draw and paint.  I do a little bit.  I pace around for a while.  I pounce on it again and do some more.  I pace around a bit more.  I rarely have a rigid framework to work within.  It is normally a set of unconnected images and scenes that I have to find a home for.  When I am caught up in a book I can write for hours, but when I am trying to make sense of a book I can write next to nothing.

But I am guilty of thinking that this makes objective sense - rather than that it makes sense for me. I can't present this as a technique.  It is just the way I am.  Books are different because writers are different.  The books have been prepared and cooked in different ways, even if they appear superficially to be using very similar ingredients.

As in so much with writing, there is no 'right' and 'wrong'.  It is all about the result and finding a way that suits your temperament and the books you wish to write.

When asked about their working day, writers tend to fall into two camps - as we did here - between those who have an amount of time they set aside to write and hope they will write a reasonable amount, and those who have a specific word count in mind.  Often it is a mix between the two - Anthony McGowan said that he feels bad if he doesn't write at least 1000 words and I'm the same.

But I would be lying if I said that I don't feel bad regularly.  If not often.

The important thing for me is to write something - even if it is just a few lines in my notebook - and to keep alive that fragile sense that I might actually write something really good. . .