Friday, December 21, 2007

Shamanism for English kids

A clever thing about writing children's literature is that many things can slip by - kids are easy about switching genres, and not ashamed to let their imaginations go rampant.
I've just read a great book for the longest day of the year (a climactic scene takes place on December 21st), David Almond's Kit's Wilderness. It's a shamanic tale slotted into a northern English town, complete with journeys to reclaim the dead and underground ceremonies. Marketing managers for adults would run startled from it. More fool them. It's a spellbinding read.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

When you know a book is finished

I thought this was going to take longer than it did ...
Back in 1997, in our house in the French Pyrenees, I typed the last words of In Search of the Divine Mother. That writing process left me with such momentum I couldn't just stop. The following morning, from seemingly nowhere, a novel started writing itself.
Two days later, I took a break. That start, much revised, turned out to be Chapter 2. Through the following years I wrote and polished Chapter 1. Then this summer, on a longed for visit back home to Santa Fe, the novel kicked in again. An agent loved the early stuff, which was encouraging enough.
This novel is for kids and is called Badger Boy, the first in a trilogy. I've just been on a two day visit back to the Pyrenees, where it all began. Two nights ago, lying in bed but awake, the three main child characters from the novel (they are each to have their own book as part of the trilogy) started talking inside my head, all at once so I could not make out what they were saying but just appreciate the tender timbre of their voices. Last night, in sleep, I chatted to Hilary Clinton about the book. She wondered where I had got the details from about its White House setting. I told here they came from her own book about the place, and we laughed because she had no memory of writing it. So the book was cooking. I finished the first draft this afternoon. Remarkably I'm now back in London, but somehow it needed that desk with its view down the valley to bring the book to a close.
How do you know when a book's finished? This one's still in handwritten manuscript so it has some months to go before anyone reads it, but I do have a way of knowing when a book is finished beyond the natural sense of rightness.
Some years ago, as I finished a novel in Glencoe, I looked up. A stag and two does were looking up at me from the bottom of the garden, and a pine marten was leaning its paws against the french window. An eagle swirled above the French valley at another closing moment. Whatever happens in publishing terms, I appreciate this accord shown by nature with the sense of a book completing itself.
Now it's December and the eagles have flown south. I looked up from my closing paragraph though, and a still larger bird was flying outside my window. I have a sense of herons as my 'lucky birds' in any case, and Badger Boy is all about affinities with the animal world. This grey heron was not only flying above the river, just above the height of my window, but it flew a very tight circle then rose up the hillside to perch on a treetop. I've never known any bird fly such a tight circle before. I marvelled, and felt blessed.

Picture credit: Taunton Wildlife

Sunday, December 16, 2007


On the way up to Derby a couple of months back, I read through the three winning stories and six honourable mentions that rose from among the competition's 500 entries. I was struck how so many of those fine stories were about ... well, about stories.
Maria Goodin's 'Nutmeg', the overall winner, is a bright young medical student's tale about her mother. It starts, as a number of entries for the competition did, in fairytale mode. Then the voice switches. We learn that this fairytale mode is the mother's default position, one that exasperates our narrator. What she really wants is the truth about the past, the lost narrative of her early years. This truth is duly delivered - and she comes to understand the bravery and goodness of her mother's fabulous version of events. When the world is bruising, creating a personal narrative that restores value to our lives can be a brave thing to do.
In 'Buy Ma Biscuit or Kiss Ma Fish' the second prizewinner, Joel Willans, delivers a central character who's bought into the therapist's story of his life. His own subconscious tells this young man what a failure he is, and how he stands no chance with the girl that attracts him along the beach. With the aid of a biscuit seller, he has to learn to reject the negative story of his life and live the more fabulous one.
In 'Too Late', Garry Pope takes on a Mephistopholean voice, addressing the story's protagonist as 'you'. This story comes with a fine twist in its tale ... a classic case of cause and effect, the man's selection of passages in his life bringing their own denouement.
I graded the final pile of stories, each one coming up with a percentage which was amassed from points out of ten in ten sections. I thought it fair to be as clinical as possible, so as not to let my own personality be the judge. Each of these three winners gave me that added factor, a real thrill down the spine at each time of reading. Curiously, I would have judged them the same way had I been marking according to the intensity of that thrill. They are three lovely stories from three very fine writers, each of which deserved winners.
And they are available online ... Click here to go to the prose winners page on the Derby website.

You have time to read them all ... and even to write your own submission for this year's competition. Term here at Plymouth University ended on Friday. I've written for two days on my novel since then, but have just totted up the number of writing slots I've managed during this last thirteen weeks of teaching. It amounts to a miserly nine, some of them just five lines long. However my new novel is nearing its close. I mean to stick with it now till this current draft is done. I'll be back at my desk, at my screen, and with my latest piles of marking, in the New Year. See you then. Have a wondrous meantime.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Wind in the Willows

Writer friends have two books they tell me they return to, often for an annual read - Anna Karenina and Wind in the Willows.
It's an odd match, like opposites attracting. I've just read Wind in the Willows on the train up to London from Plymouth, some of England's finest countryside a suitable backdrop. It's wonderfully genial, Toad truly one of the finest characters in literature, utterly irrepressible as he puffs himself up into conceit all the time. The book is a homage to friendship. Most thrilling to me was the electric current that passed through Mole when he scented his small home after a long time away. It is a sublime passage of longing. The book has a splendid evocation of Pan too (I wonder if Kenneth Grahame had read E. M. Forster's 'A Story of a Panic', featuring Pan, from 1905, 3 years before his own book).
Grahame goes on to pin down the curative powers of writing. Rat has been dragged back from a dream in which he was set to voyage around the world. Mole seeks to restore him:

'It's quite a long time since you did any poetry,' he remarked, 'You might have a try at it this evening,instead of--well, brooding over things so much. I've an idea that you'll feel a lot better when you've got something jotted down--if it's only just rhymes.'
The Rat pushed the paper away from him wearily, but the discreet Mole took occasion to leave the room, and when he peeped in again some time later, the Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pen. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.

I can quite see joining those friends and coming back to Wind in the Willows on a regular basis. Who knows, I might even give Anna Karenina another whirl soon.

A critical eye

It's coming - the week before Christmas. I'm devoting it to writing. My new novel sniffs its conclusion. That's exciting enough, but beyond that I could do with the creative balance of writing for a while.
Teaching has swamped me of late, but at least it's kept my critical eye in good nick. I've been focusing on the structural elements of students' work. One general habit I'm trying to break in others is a tendency to string several sentences together. Another common one is the heavy usage of the 'I' word in first person narratives. We know whose point of view we're in, so there's no need to keep repeating it. I ask students to be alert to any usage of the past perfect tense, to challenge any such use of 'had' ... it's reporting on an event that has happened, and so the reader is excluded from the drama of the unfolding process.
All such stuff, and much more. Cluttered pages become fine prose just by removing words that aren't doing any keen job.
Then I come to today, when I'm typing up some early pages of my novel. Suddenly my editorial eye is slashing away more vigorously than on any student's work. Paragraphs that lead us nowhere are dumped. What a slack sentence. Out with it! How did that word get in here? It's pathetic. Slash. It's gone.
This is one real bonus of teaching creative writing. Looking at others' work all the time, casting a critical eye on what works as well as what doesn't, you gain a perspective that stems from an emotional distance. Turning back to your own work, that perspective sticks for a while. You're no longer an insider, seeing your writing how you want it to be. You see it the way it is.