Thursday, 29 October 2009

Off to Denmark... meet my newest nephew and become his Godfather (in an agnostic and slightly pagan way, but don't tell his mum). If you happen to be sailing in the Western Baltic in the next week and spot a solitary figure pacing the shore in search of raw amber, it might just be me.

Well, you never know.

Monday, 26 October 2009

SilverFin by Charlie Higson

When I started this blog I decided that I wouldn't do book reviews. But since I'm reading so much 9-12 (Middle Grade) fiction, and some teen stuff too, It seems a shame not to talk about it here, especially as I'm considering these books and their genre from a writer's point of view.

Here, then, is my review for SilverFin, the first in the 'Young Bond' series by Charlie Higson.

On a recent trip to the UK I bought a small armful of books from The Bumper Bookshop, an independent children's bookshop (and therefore a precious thing) in Hastings. The books I chose were mostly those flagged up as popular by the assistant, rather than titles I would have chosen myself. I need to read for information as much as for pleasure. Anyway, having recently given up on one of these books (it's hard to concentrate when there's blood trickling out of your ears), I decided to try this James Bond prequel next. I'm glad that I did.

I'm not a great fan of James Bond, much preferring John le Carré's approach to spy fiction. I have only read one of Ian Fleming's books, but I've seen plenty of the films, and so even my inner eleven-year-old wasn't really looking forward to SilverFin. I was expecting something much cheesier and gaudier than the rather restrained and considered schoolboy adventure that I actually found.

Since these books were deliberately commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications to extend the Bond canon back into the spy's childhood, Higson probably had little choice but to follow the famous 007 formula that we all know and, er recognise. And it's all here, believe me. But at the same time, the author has still managed to give us something fresher than might have been the case.

So yes, there's a dastardly foreign baddie with a plan to take over the world, but the author doesn't insult us with the usual German or oriental, or a shameful traduction of a Jew. An unwholesome American lunatic is far more interesting. And yes, the main female interest, Wilder Lawless, has a silly name and flowing blond hair, but thankfully she doesn't get the full Bond-girl treatment. No bulletproof bikini for her, though she does thunder around on a black horse called Martini.

There's a dash of formal intelligence gathering in the person of dying uncle Max, who also provides an Aston Martin for James to drive (this is the 1930s so it's okay), but we're spared the daft gadgets and empty patriotism. Teen Bond and his pals have to save the world with nothing more than pluck, penknives and schoolboy guile, and hurrah for that!

Perhaps the biggest surprise was just how likeable I found Higson's Bond. 007 has always seemed a suave, selfish blank to me, too smooth to ever have any purchase on a reader's/viewer's affections. But the bullied orphan we discover in SilverFin, capable and privileged but also vulnerable and unsure, is a hero anyone could get behind.

In terms of structure and plot, there are one or two slight weakness in my opinion. After an intriguing start we have to watch Bond find his feet at Eton, which slowed down the pace far too much for me. But I suppose, this being the very first official Bond story, there was a lot of background and character development to get out of the way first. The real adventure only starts half way through the book, and I can't help thinking there could have been more done to develop it in the first half. Also, Wilder Lawless gets too small a part, being little more than a token girl in the end, but I suspect she got edited into the background, since the author seems to like her.

These things aside though, I'm surprised at just how much my inner eleven-year-old enjoyed SilverFin, and I would recommend this book to anyone over ten in search of a well-written adventure story, Bond fan or not. Thank you, Charlie Higson.

SilverFin is published by Puffin Books in the UK and Miramax Books in the US.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

If Anyone Can...

Yesterday morning I took my son Max to watch pelicans being introduced to their new home at the zoological park at Clères. It was a very rainy day, which was no doubt perfect for pelicans. Less so for sketchbooks.

They were enormous! Max had been expecting something duck-sized I think. He was very impressed by them, and the first thing he did when he got home was draw one. And so, since I never did post another colour-bottom ant, here's Max's sketch of a pelican, standing triumphantly over a very exotic fish.

I'm especially intrigued by the way he's drawn feathers. I think he was influenced by a stylised depiction of a peacock that was pinned up round the zoo.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Lashed to the Keyboard

There's an acronym buzzing about writer's blogs: WIP. For those who don't know, it means Work In Progress and generally refers to a half-written novel. However, If you did already know that, the chances are you've long since noticed that there's a silent H in WIP. I was certainly aware of it today – six hours at the keyboard wrestling with an over-complex plot, or six of the best? What's the difference?

But at least I'm writing again, at least I'm back in the saddle. But isn't it supposed to be me with the whip?

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Special Agents and the Mission Possible

It seems I don't blog enough about writing. This is true, but it shouldn't be a surprise – I've been a visual artist for a great deal longer, and when it comes to writing I don't feel I know how to write about it yet, if you see what I mean.

As I've mentioned before, I was unable to find a publisher for my first completed novel. This has set a certain tone in my writing efforts this year. At the time I was quite shocked by this -- I think it's a good story, well(ish?) told, though there are certainly some kinks to be ironed out. And I'd turned down paid work to get it finished too. But also at the time (just six short months ago) I hadn't really explored the more authorly corners of the blogosphere, and had no idea how many aspiring novelists there are or just how stiff the competition is. Yes, I'm a published writer already, but moving from one publishing subset (picture books) to another makes me a beginner all over again.

Which is why I'm so lucky to already have an agent.

It's been a difficult summer for me and my writing. When, in the wake of all that rejection, my agent sent my second novel back for a major rethink, I was left pretty demoralised and confused. What was the best course of action? Run back to my illustration? Start a third novel (I have several ideas) or tackle that major re-think and find a solution?

It can be very tough to have that 'end of the line' phone call but at least with an agent the whole process of submission -- from hopeful optimism to bitter disappointment -- can be all over in a couple of months. No lingering 'maybes' for me – just one big terminal NO. But this was different -- with the second novel my agent was stopping me from using up another chance with real live editors (they're very busy people). In her words, 'we won't throw you to the lions.' And those lions are choosier than ever.

Writers are solitary creatures and need friends, but there are times when the best friend you can have is a no-nonsense industry professional with a big red pen. And an assistant. My agent's assistant has a sharp editorial eye and she produced detailed critical reports on both my novels. With the first, I was reluctant to make big changes based on such a report, naively saying that I would rather work on such things with an editor. That's a mistake I won't make again. So when she suggested that I spend time writing around the subjects and themes of my second novel in order to develop them and then present the (hopefully) more highly evolved result to her for a new assessment, I knew what I'd be doing over the following months.

And it did take months to do this. The lowest point of the whole exercise was deciding to embark on a detailed, blow-by-blow chapter plan of the story and then getting bogged down in that! It felt like having a puncture, but finding that the jack was broken and so going to fix that, but finding the spanner missing, so going to buy a new one, but the shop was shut, so...

that really was Mission Impossible, and dropping that approach marked a change for the better.

Ten days ago I finally clicked 'send' on a 5k word proposal/synopsis, complete with a list of characters and their motivations. And last Friday I heard back that the whole idea was 'much, much stronger'. So I'm writing again. And I mean, really writing, not faffing about with arcs and chapter plans (never do that! It's pure muse-icide! Like dismantling a butterfly to find out how it works, only in reverse.)

I've read a lot of 'why you need an agent' blog posts recently, but one advantage that I haven't seen mentioned is the dousing effect they can have on an author's flaming self-delusion. Left on your own with your head full of story, it's all too easy to end up wallowing in a sticky mire of self-indulgence, chasing your own shadow. A good agent will soon put a stop to that. That's what makes them so special.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Man in the Moon

Just a quick dive into my sketchbooks today, this time right down to my graduation year. After four years of art school, the habit of always carrying something to draw with and on was new but firmly established. No pocket Moleskines back then, and I clearly thought nothing of taking an A4 sketchbook to the pub. Click for a closer look.

The Pub in question was The Man in the Moon in Cambridge, known at the time for its live folk music. I wasn't into folk particularly, but I'd fallen in with the hurdy-gurdy crowd and was happy, as ever, for the chance to draw musicians.

I don't recall much detail of the evening (not for the reason you think – I just have a bad memory) but it's always a delight to be briefly transported back to a lost moment in time, no matter how sketchy. That reminds me, I must get on with some writing...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Une Ménagerie for Max and an Ant Fourmi

I'm sure it's the height of egotism to post my own son's drawings and expect others to be interested in them. But I'm doing it anyway.

Here is Max's drawing of a zoo. What an elephant! There's also a friendly tiger, a giraffe, a butterfly and an 'orange-bottom ant'.

Max is five-years-old, and until about a month or so ago he showed very little inclination to draw anything. And I struggled to hide my disappointment. Not that I pressured him or anything, but our shared time with crayons and paper amounted to me drawing whatever he wanted on demand, and him sobbing 'Daddy, I can't!' if I suggested he do a little picture for me. Now he draws all the time. Imagine how I feel! Imagine how he feels!

I won't pretend that he's showing any great talent. All children draw like this at his age, without fear of error or of empty space. But natural aptitude or not, he will develop his new habit now, and my job is to encourage it as far as it will go and try to prevent it from being trampled on by some misguided teacher with an eraser and marks-out-of-ten.

Some say that we all have a talent for something. Others that there's no such thing. I don't know the truth of it, but I do know that everyone can aspire to draw to a certain extent. Not, it's true, as well as Rembrandt (or this exceptional young man), but anyone who can make a mark can probably make another, better one next time. So if you're reading this and have come through school with the idea that you can't, I say this to you: pick up pen and paper, think back to your fearless, five-year-old self, and then draw an orange-bottom ant.

I bet you can.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Have You Found Your Inner Smile?

From my sketchbooks, here's a drawing of my good friend Julian seeking a sense of metaphysical contentment. Or something. I doubt he'll find it in that glass though.

Julian -- screenwiter, artist and the founder of Moosetours® (sunny holidays for the discerning sketchbook keeper) -- has recently had some bookish frustration. Julian, if you're reading this, here's a virtual boost on the back from someone who knows all too well what that's like. Keep looking – it's in there somewhere.

And now I should get back to looking for mine (I think I left it pressed between the pages of an old book).

Have you found yours?