Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Hopefully not

On Halloween evening I took part in a Reading Agency panel event at Swiss Cottage library with Susan Cooper, Sally Gardner and Geraldine McCaughrean, chaired by Clive Barnes of IBBY UK. I had been looking forward to this event for a long time as I am a great admirer of all three writers and Susan Cooper rarely visits the UK. All three turned out to be very good company.

I read Susan Cooper's THE DARK IS RISING to my son years ago. I hadn't read it until then, but had had it recommended to me by a friend and fellow writer. It is wonderful, magical book – beautifully written and dreamlike in the way it moves between the various worlds of her story. My son loved it and I was full of awe whilst reading it.

Susan's new book is GHOST HAWK, a handsomely packaged book, that tells the story of the Mayflower landing in America, but from the point of view of a native American.  The early passages of the boy going hunting are beautifully observed and I have a fascination with the woodland tribes, going back to THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.

Geraldine McCaughrean has also featured strongly in my son's childhood reading because he owns several of her retellings of myths. In fact, she was in many ways the first and main point of contact for him, particularly when it came to Greek myths. Retelling is difficult – particularly when you are retelling complex material for a younger audience. Geraldine makes it look easy.

I recently read Sally Gardner's MAGGOT MOON.

(and here I am giving up on Nuance DragonDictate for Mac because it has decided to take off the last letter of the last word when I type a new word.  Very, very annoying....)

MAGGOT MOON unnerved me a little because it was a little like a thing I'd been working on, although it became less and less so as the story moved on.  I was seeing it as Kafkaesque but I realised quite quickly that this wasn't so.  Sally's points of reference are very different.  The great thing about reading it was that despite winning the Costa and the Carnegie I had somehow managed to come to it without the faintest notion of what the book was about - or more to the point, what it was like.  It is a really beautifully written, strange and thought-provoking book and I can see why it won the Carnegie.

It is always a pleasure to meet other writers and with the rise in popularity of panel events, it is becoming more common.  I like panel events - there is less preparation needed and less pressure.  The responsibility is shared and they tend to throw up genuinely surprising angles on things.

Having said all that, I'm not sure we quite rose to the occasion on this occasion.  I think it should - given the quality of the panel - been better.  I'm not sure why that was.  It was OK and I think the audience enjoyed it, but it just did not seem to ever really take off in the way it hoped.  Geraldine carried us a bit.  I particularly liked her rants about the BBC's ATLANTIS and the editorial censoring when it came to retelling folk tales.  She has a very dry delivery.  Very funny.

One thing that came up was the issue of responsibility when it came to writing for children.  Did we feel a sense of obligation to provide a happy ending - or at least, as Geraldine put it - a hopeful ending. It's an interesting question…

I've heard it said on more than one occasion, by people connected to children's publishing, that books for children should have a happy ending. As Geraldine was setting out the case for providing hope at the end of the story I found myself nodding in agreement, and yet I'm all too aware that this is hardly a feature of much of my work. So why do I write stories that don't have a happy or hopeful ending?

Partly I think this has to do with the age of the reader. I think I agree with Geraldine when it comes to younger readers – particularly very young readers. But I don't write for very young readers. In the main, I am writing for 10+ and often my readers are in their teens.  So do I have a duty of care towards my teenage readers?

I think the important thing with all writing – with all art – is that it should be honest. It should feel true to the writer and to the reader. As children grow older they see that the world is not a place where good always triumphs or where everything is neatly resolved. It is a function of fiction to look into the dark as well as the light. It always has been, even in folk tales and myths.

This is not to say that I think teenagers have no need for books with happy endings, or books that inspire hope. Far from it. I think there are far too few genuinely funny books for teenage boys, for instance. Teenagers have as much need for happiness and hope as anyone else – maybe more so. But, they also need choice.

Books for teenagers need to reflect the huge diversity of teenagers. No two teenagers are alike, and yet in discussions about teenagers, adults do have a tendency to talk as though they were specific templates for a teenage boy and a teenage girl. Teenagers vary hugely – not just from each other, but from hour to hour.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there weren't really books for teenagers as such. Once we had exhausted the libraries supply of books for older children, we moved onto short adult fiction, led by the exploration of adult fiction (with child protagonists) at school. We dived into the world of adult fiction pretty much without guidance or restraint. Mostly, we were reading genre fiction – crime, sci-fi, fantasy. I read John Wyndham, Robert E Howard, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and others. I read a lot of short stories in compilations like the Pan Book of Horror. I read a lot of comics too - and non-fiction.

Because these books were not intended for my age group, there was no concession made to it – neither in terms of content, nor of language level. Nor for that matter, in concept level. The writers took the stories where the stories needed to go. And so should we.  Within limits of course - but it's the publisher, and to some extent the reader, who decides those.

Does 1984 have a happy ending? Does FRANKENSTEIN? Does LORD OF THE FLIES have a hopeful ending? I'm sure we would be happy to see any teenager reading any of these books, so why worry about the supposedly dark content of teen fiction today?

I think hope comes in many forms; not just in the resolution of the story, but in the act of reading itself. Reading is an essentially hopeful activity, I think. And sometimes – I think this was true for me when I was a teenager – it is the discovery that those strange notions and weird ideas you've been having are not yours alone, but have been dreamed before, by others. That crushing sense of estrangement and isolation that many teenagers feel can be eased by finding a kindred spirit in the pages of a book, or a feeling part of a community of other readers of a particular book, series or genre.

After all, isn't that the most hopeful message of all – to realise that you are not alone?

Monday, 4 November 2013


 this is just a quick test to see how blogger copes with DragonDictate. As you can see, it decided to begin the sentence without a capital letter for reasons best known to itself. This ought to be very easy to put right, but in fact, it can result in the unravelling of the entire passage.

The software's ability to accurately transcribe what I'm saying is astonishing. It gets quite obscure words absolutely perfect first time – even the names of towns and foreign words. But of course, it can never be perfect all the time. Editing will always be necessary. This is where the problem lies.

The software will behave itself for quite long periods of time, but then will start to behave very strangely. The most common glitch that I have encountered so far, is the random insertion of a rogue letter after any punctuation. So when you say comma or full stop a letter A or O or D will suddenly appear after it.

But not always.

But far more disconcerting than this, is when you ask it to do some seemingly simple piece editing, and it goes crazy – the cursor suddenly whizzing about drunkenly through the text until it alights on some word or part of the word which it then deletes or replaces with seemingly random letters. O

 I'm leaving that O where it is, to show what I mean. That is just appeared as I typed. In fact there is another O moving one space ahead of the cursor as I continue. How Nuance can release this in such a state and – as it did with me during a telephone conversation – deny that this problem exists, despite many references to it in forums, I just don't know. O

May be Nuance would try to persuade me that I am doing something to cause this. But I don't see what I'm doing that anyway veers from their prescribed commands. In fact, on the subject of commands – although I can summon up their recognition window, which lists possible alternative spellings – I can't make it go away. They say that the command is "hide recognition window". I know that the software is understanding what I say, because it writes it out accurately – and yet it will not obey that command.

I thought long and hard before buying the software. I have used Dragon before on a PC and became frustrated with it. The software has improved enormously in terms of recognition, but the general opinion seems to be that it works much better in Windows than it does on a Mac. Although their representative tried very hard to persuade me otherwise, I think that's probably the case.

However, having said all that, it is amazing to be able to simply speak and have your speech instantly converted into type. I have been suffering with RSI for some time and I think this will be enormous help in that regard. I type quickly, but not properly, and although I don't think that typing is the cause of my RSI, it certainly doesn't help.

My problems have been caused by mouse clicking and so it is important to me that the editing process works because otherwise I will be clicking away during the training process, which will be a bit counter-productive.

It's early days though and I hope that as the software learns about my speech patterns and sloppy diction, the whole experience will improve. I'll let you know how I get on.

Any mistakes in this blog post I'm going to blame on DragonDictate.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Eastern open opening

I went to King's Lynn with my studio-mate John Clark today.  It was the opening of the Eastern Open exhibition at the Arts Centre and we both had paintings chosen.

In fact - to my amazement I had all three of the paintings I entered accepted.  It was fitting in a way, because all three paintings were created from old drawing in sketchbooks, done when we lived in Norfolk.  The two trees against a dark background were from drawings I made of trees in a field next to the track that ran up to our house and along which I would walk with my son every day on the way to school.  The one of the tree next to a road is from a drawing I made in our early days in Norfolk of a road not far from where we lived.  All three are acrylic on a smooth gesso ground on canvas.

Neither of us won any of the prizes on offer, the largest of which was a not inconsiderable £2000, given to a photograph of what I think was Orford Ness in Suffolk - the work the selectors chose as being the best in the show.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Prague again....

Here I am with Ríchard Klíčník from Argo at the Park Lane International School opening last week.

Here I am doing my bit - a very short speech as guest of the school.  This photograph shows off my ears to great effect I feel.

Here I am with the school administrator, Maya Kopecká, who was my point of contact with the school and who took care of all the arrangements concerning my visit to Prague.

And here I am afterwards, signing books in the school.  I look very smug here - but then we did sell a lot of books.  I loved the fact that so many of the parents were buying books for children who were far too young, with the notion of holding on to them until they grew old enough to be exposed to my stories.  Little ticking time bombs of terror....

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Dickens at last

I lived in London for over ten years and knew the area I walked through last Sunday very well.  I had a studio in Shoreditch and would frequently travel through it by bike or bus, or simply wander through taking photographs.

I have no idea how many times I walked or cycled along Doughty Street and past the Charles Dickens Museum.  But when we live in a place, we always think we will be able to come back tomorrow.  Well on Sunday I found myself once again outside Charles Dickens' house and this time I decided to go in.

I'm really pleased I did.  It was a beautiful day, as I have already said, and so it was tempting to stay outside.  But the house is lovely and is fascinating as much for the glimpse it gives of the vanished interiors of the many Georgian terraced houses that line the streets in Bloomsbury as it was for the Dickens memorabilia.  Though of course, it is very special to stand beside the great man's writing desk.

I am very glad to have finally visited and especially now as I have just written a novel tied to A Christmas Carol.  Maybe it was the right time....

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Dracula's guest

I returned from Prague via British Airways to Heathrow and had one day at home in Cambridge before heading back to London for the autumn meeting of the Dracula Society at which I was to speak.

I was honoured to receive the Dracula Society's annual Children of the Night Award in 2009 for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth and have kept in touch with some of the members ever since.  I was asked to contribute to His Red Eyes Again - a small anthology of short stories the Society published to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, and I was delighted when Tracy Lee asked if I might speak at the meeting this year.

The meeting took place in a suitably Dickensian pub in a little lane off the Strand near the Law Courts. A rather strange buffet was produced, with a seemingly random and never-ending selection of food and then, once the furniture was rearranged, it was my turn.

I talked a bit about my writing life and read from The Dead Men Stood Together.  I also read the story I added to the rejacketed edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Skating.  It seemed to go down well.  As always, I probably talked too much.  But there were lots of questions and we sold a few books afterwards, which I signed.

It was a very pleasant evening and nice to meet everyone - and particularly good to see Tracy Lee and Tony Lee again.

I stayed overnight in a hotel in Charterhouse Square near the Barbican and after a leisurely breakfast I walked through Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury on a beautifully sunny and quiet London Sunday morning.

Monday, 7 October 2013

From Reading to Prague....

I know many authors who are on a perpetual Bob Dylan-ish world tour.  I don't do that much touring, but I have had - for me - an active couple of weeks.

After coming back from the Beyond Twilight Gothic YA event in Lancaster, I had a few days at home, before heading off to Reading for a Booktrust librarians event.  It was a really nice opportunity to talk about what I do - particularly in relation to Mister Creecher which is (rather fabulously) part of the Booktrust Future Classics Library Pack for schools.

I think it went OK.  I enjoyed it anyway.  I was trying to speak up for teenage boys as being a bit more complex than we are often led to believe, and not necessarily only interested in fast-paced thrillers full of sex and/or violence.  Some want that, sure.  But by no means all.  There is no template for teenager - boy or girl - and we need to make sure there is the range of books out there to keep them all reading.

After the event I got a cab with Ian Lamb, the publicist at Bloomsbury, and we headed for the train - his back to London, mine to Heathrow where I stayed at the rather noisy Yotel so that I would be ready for my morning flight to Prague.

The Park Lane International School had invited me to Prague as a guest for the grand opening of their new campus in the old Indian Embassy at the foot of the Castle.  And very grand it was too, with dancers and music and speeches (including a very short one from yours truly) and very delicious finger food.  Afterwards I signed books (we pretty much sold out) and chatted to children and their parents.  It was all very nice.

It was a lovely school with very confident children and very friendly staff, many of whom were English.  One of them asked me if I knew who had written the creepy story about a woman who turns people to apple trees and then prunes them.  'Me,' I said.  'The story is called Winter Pruning.'  I had Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror in my hand at the time.  He had read the story out loud some time in the past and had loved it.

I had been picked up from the airport by the school administrator Maya Kopecká who took me to the school where I looked around, met the Principal, Paul Ingarfield, and spoke to the children, reading Climb Not for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terrors.  The youngest of the children was eight (the oldest eleven) and English is a second language for many, so it was probably a bit hard for them, but despite sitting on the floor, they were very attentive and asked really good questions at the end.

I had a few hours to myself after checking in to the very nice hotel the school had arranged for me and spent them wandering through the sunny streets of Prague taking photographs.  I decided to risk my fear of heights on climbing the tower of the Old Town Hall and was pleased I had, despite the terrifying spiral staircase and the traffic jam of tourists at the top.  The views were incredible.

My friend Richard Kličník from Argo was at the evening event, taking photographs and helping to sort out the books, and afterwards we went for a drink or two at Mlynská Kavérna on Kampa where we talked about publishing and politics.  Richard tells me that my books are doing well in the Czech Republic, which is great.  I feel very relaxed in the mill cafe, exercising my internal Czech intellectual.  Added to which, Karel, Prince of Swarzenberg, Czech Presidential candidate came in while I was there.

The following morning I met Petra Jíšová, my guide from the last time I came to Prague, and we walked along the river, crossing at the rickety rail bridge, and doubling back on ourselves.  It was good to catch up on what Petra was up to and to hear about Lucie Radimerská and Divadlo Puls, the theatre company that I came to see in January, about the floods earlier this year and about the trials and tribulations of being young in an evolving Czech Republic.  Petra was very good company as always, and endlessly patient at listening to me blather on in a foreign language.  We walked a big circle and came back to where we started and where she had to leave me to go work.

I wish I could have stayed longer.  Lucie was having a birthday party later that evening and Divadlo Puls were doing another performance of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror a couple of days later.  Ah well - I'll just have to come back...

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Beyond beyond twilight

I drove back from Lancaster yesterday morning.  I enjoy a long drive through the British landscape providing there are no major hold-ups and the weather is not too hideous.  This particular journey was very smooth and the sun was shining most of the time.

I had driven up to Lancaster on Thursday and gone straight to Lancaster Grammar to talk to a hall filled with two or three hundred boys.  I had not slept a wink the night before and was at the end of a wretched cold so who knows if I made any sense, but they were incredibly attentive and asked very good questions at the end.  They bought quite a few books too - and that's never a bad thing.  Thanks to all of them, to the staff at the school and to SilverDell Books for providing the books and moral support.  It was my first school visit with The Dead Men Stood Together and that is always a little nerve-jangling.  Thank you to Lancaster Grammar for making it such a good start.

From there it was off to the Holiday Inn. I tried to catch a quick nap, but a fire alarm put an end to that.  I staggered about blearily until I met up with Marcus Sedgwick and Celia Rees and her husband.  I've met Celia many times and its always a pleasure.  Marcus I hadn't met before, but he is very good company.  It is endlessly fascinating to meet writers and see the different ways people get started and the variety of impulses and inspirations that move them.

At 9am the following morning we went to Lancaster University for the Beyond Twilight event - along with Sarah Singleton whom we had met at breakfast and the last of our gang, Paula Morris.  Some went in a taxi whilst Celia and I got a lift with Marcus, who was going to have to leave straight after the proceedings had come to a close.

I had been to Lancaster the year before - with Celia - for the inaugural YA Gothic event, but this was a much larger affair, incredibly well organised by Dr Catherine Spooner and Chloe Buckley of the Department of English, Creative Writing.  Chloe did a wonderful PowerPoint presentation of Mister Creecher and Celia's Blood Sinister.  As Celia said afterwards, it is really satisfying and touching to have your work taken so seriously.

Celia talked mainly about Blood Sinister and Witch Child, Marcus about White Crow and My Swordhand is Singing, Paula about Dark Souls and Ruined and Sarah about Century and The Poison Garden.  But we all talked more generally about our relationship to the Gothic, how we got into writing and so on.  Terry Lee, Bloomsbury's Area Manager for the North of England and Scotland was also on hand for the round table discussion at the end to answer questions relating to branding and marketing.  Marcus has a background in publishing and also spoke a little about the process of getting a book into print.

The audience were mainly students and sixth formers, and so it allowed for a level of detail in the analysis that made the discussions really interesting.  I think that just occasionally - too much would be distracting - it is useful to take stock like this and really think about what it is that you are trying to do in your work, over and above simply trying to entertain your reader and earn a living.

I like doing events with other authors.  It takes the pressure off me a bit, and I get to meet some very nice people.  I'm always interested to see what other people do in their author spot - as I am always very critical of what I come up with myself.  Some used PowerPoint (or Prezi in Marcus's case) to illustrate their talks. I didn't and neither did Paula.

I came away still not convinced of either route being perfect.  There is a lot to be said for having something up there on a screen - I just need to come up with some solution that works for me.  Celia made the point to me ages ago that it provides a framework and a set of visual bullet points to keep your talk on track, and I think that is undeniably true.

Also some books seem to demand images.  I did an illustrated talk for Mister Creecher because it felt like it needed it.  I had packed a lot of stuff into that book - much of it visual - and I wanted to try and get as much of it across as possible.  I'm less sure about The Dead Men Stood Together, although it would be nice to introduce kids to the illustration work of Gustave Doré and Mervyn Peake.

Being a visual artists, it may seem odd not to employ visuals, but I think it is because I'm of this that I endlessly dither about it.  In the end I usually just go back to me and a book.  Even with the images on show in Lancaster, the best thing for me about the author talks were the readings.  It was a reminder to me, never to forget to include a reading in my own talks.

What came across very strongly, however it was framed, was the enthusiasm we all had for what we were doing - an enthusiasm that had been fired by our reading (as well as film and TV watching) when we were children and teenagers.  We may not all have decided we wanted to be writers that early, but our idea of what a book can do and what it should read like, was being forged then, whether we knew it or not.  Certainly our tastes - especially, in this case, a taste for the Gothic, was being nurtured very young.

A really enjoyable event.  Thanks to Catherine and Chloe for looking after us so well and to all the students who came along and made the day so interesting and enjoyable.  I for one am hoping for another invitation....