Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The King and I

I wrote nothing over Christmas. Maybe I needed the break, but it didn't feel good, writing nothing. It's hard to work with holidays on, families in and piles of gift paper rising all around. I suppose I could have pulled a 'leave me – I'm a genius!' moment but thankfully I've got nowhere near enough confidence for that. So no writing for a whole week, but I have read a book, and that's the next best thing, especially if that book is On Writing by Stephen King.

I've never been part of a writer's group or had any tuition or guidance on the craft, except for some editorial feedback and what I've picked up from blog reading over the last six months. I tend to think that if you're any good at something you can mostly find your own way, until, that is, you've reached the point where you need concrete feedback on an actual piece of work. When it comes to novel writing I'm still just a beginner, and beginners need to get stuck right in and not worry about technique until they have something they can apply it to.

So On Writing has come to me at just the right time: revision time, right at the moment when I need someone to guide me through a maze of my own making and point out that readers don't actually want a maze, they want a journey, with clear signs and maybe a coffee shop or two on the way. On Writing is itself so clear and honest, and the author so close, that it almost feels like Stephen King was one of my Christmas guests this year! And I feel bad, because while he gave me the gift of his priceless experience and advice, all I gave him in return was a few percent of £8.99.

Next year I'll let him carve the turkey. I might not watch though.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Happy Christmas!

Joyeux Noël from Rouen, from its lights and its ice and its mediaeval streets, from the irritable shoppers and the hot spiced cider that will make it all okay again.

Joyeux Noël from the Christmas market, le village Quebecois and its tee-pee, from the steam-pipe carousel and the gingerbread smiles of the children, from the antique shops, the music, and the cut stones of the place, both old and new.

Joyeux Noël from the skaters, from the spotlit bats that swarm at the towers of the cathedral, and Joyeux Noël from the coldest clown I've ever seen.

Joyeux Noël from my little son's first snowman...

...and joyeux Noël from me.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Is My Novel Too Long?

The first draft of The Ghost Effect is now complete at just a little over 74,000 words. Is this too much? Of course, I know there's no easy answer to this. Except, wait! My agent did once tell me that a story is only too long if it feels too long. So there's my answer. The problem is, the last person to judge that is the author himself.

All first drafts need several edits to get them into shape, and my novel is no different. The very first revision will of course include the rampant removal of rogue elements, maybe even whole scenes, and this could bring the text below the magic 70k threshold. But why have I even imposed such an arbitrary limit on myself? Philip Pullman doesn't seem concerned (not that I'd have the brass neck to pursue such a comparison).

The fact is, I'm baffled by this subject, and even my imaginary eleven-year-old is too precocious to help me. Authors should write with a clear idea of their readership, but while those who write for fellow adults can use themselves as ideal readers, children's writers have to peer into the fog of otherness for a glimpse of theirs. My own memories of being eleventyteen are too faint to go much beyond abstract unhappiness and apprehension about homework. My own two children won't be able to help me do better than this for at least another six years yet, so I'm reduced to picking up what I can, where I can get it – mostly from other books targeted at a similar age. This is what makes people like this so important to someone like me.

For those who don't know, children's books are roughly age-banded into four main groups: picture books for the under fives, first reader/chapter books for 5 to 8, first novels for 9 to 12 (termed 'middle grade' in the US) and then 'teen fiction' or 'young adult', which usually trails off at about 16 because readers older than this can and do wade out into the deeper currents of mainstream literature.

So step one for a children's writer is to consciously aim at some place on this spectrum, whilst hoping that the book will also appeal to others outside it, especially in a world where adults are increasingly turning to kid-lit for their kicks. The Ghost Effect was written straight at the upper end of 9 to 12, with a little overlap beyond. This sub-band is sometimes termed 'upper middle grade' or 'tween' fiction. So, how long should a book for this age group ideally be? I really don't know, and frankly I don't think anyone does, but editors I submit my text to will all have an opinion.

Some on-line sources say that fiction for 9 to 12-year-olds should rarely exceed 50k words, but others (perhaps more recent) note that 9-year-olds are tackling longer and longer texts. This is encouraging but it doesn't really answer my question.

I recently discovered that you can find a word count for selected books on Amazon by hunting for the 'Text stats' link in the 'Inside This Book' sub-menu (about half way down a given book's page). It's a shame this isn't available for all books, but it does help deepen my unholy obsession with quantity.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this moveable feast, whether you're writing for children/young adults or not. I know the answer is 'it depends', but still...

Monday, 14 December 2009

It's a First Draft Hair Day

As it's been, frankly, for some time. But it's not just sticky-up hair and an increased tolerance for odd socks -- preoccupation with the fates of people who don't exist (to the exclusion of those who do) hasn't made me an easy person to be around lately. I know I'm not the only one whose eyes look in as much as they look out, but that's no more an excuse for grumpiness than it is for not using a comb. Mind you, I don't think I've ever used of those.

The first draft itself isn't actually finished yet, though I expect to round off the last scene this week. The achievement is less momentous than it might have been because I've crossed this finishing line once before, and with the same characters too. This time however I know those characters much better, and I've given them some interesting new scenery and a richer story. Of course, the big unknown is whether or not these are people that someone other than their creator will be the slightest bit interested in. There's only one way to find out. But first there's that brain-frazzling first revision to do. Oh, and Christmas of course.

The Ghost Effect is a 70k word upper-Middle Grade paranormal adventure about time, loss and the secret power of dreams. Let's hope that one day it'll be an actual book too.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Festival du Livre de Jeunesse

I've been neglecting my blog a bit lately. I always told myself that I would post at least twice a week, but I'm struggling to reach even half that. Thanks to all those who follow my blog and who haven't got bored and wandered off yet. Please stay! I will try harder, but only once my novel is finished. More about that soon, but as I'm only a few thousand words off a first draft, my mind is very much elsewhere.

Talking of elsewhere, I visited Rouen's annual children's book festival this weekend – how could I not? – and felt briefly energised by the sight of so many books and bookish types. I say briefly because I met friends for dinner afterwards and lost my creative drive somewhere between the duck and the whisky trifle.

It would normally be a huge event for me, a children's book festival in my home town, but as I've mentioned before none of my picture books are published in France, and so I feel oddly detached around the French publishing industry. The first year I was in Rouen I did sit at a table at the festival, at the stand of the ABC Bookshop (Rouen's first source of books in English) but this only seemed to emphasise my sense of not belonging. There were piles of my Clovis books, and even a 'learn English!' worksheet I'd cobbled together in French to make the books more appealing. A few were sold, I signed some of those and drew for the children, but...

Six years later, I still have nothing published in France, but last year a Belgian publisher brought out my second Clovis book, The Biggest Splash as Le Grand Plouf! and that made me happy. My author copies vanished in a moment, though I still have a stack of De Grootste Plons through want of Flemish-speaking acquaintances.

In a previous post, I mentioned that I don't like reading in French. I also said that I'm tired of seeing all these vampires. Well, despite both these things remaining true, I'm now struggling through Les Vampires de Londres by Fabrice Colin, banging my head against the edge of my vocabulary but enjoying the book nonetheless.

Rouen is so beautiful at the moment, so ancient and Christmas light-charming. Expect photos shortly, but in the meantime, with 'beautiful' and 'charming' still in the air, here's a book promotion video to make any aspiring novelist dream:

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Looking-Glass Window

Be careful when you look in the mirror. You never know who might be looking back.

The woman who used to own our house must have been very paranoid. There's only one window in the building that gives out onto the street, and she had it filled with a sheet of unbreakable reflective glass, flush with the wall and fixed forever shut. A looking-glass for the people.

And the people do look in. We live in a quartier populaire, which means that our end of town is chock-full of all sorts (though it can also be polite code for 'dodgy district'). Walk five minutes one way and there's a college and a vast music school. Walk the other way and you'll soon pass the homeless shelter, and -- once the sun's gone down -- some very friendly young ladies. Moving quickly on, you can't miss the enormous hospital with its busy helipad, a multi-ethnic shopping street, a swimming pool, the biggest crèche in France and a dojo, all within a short walk of our house and its public mirror. So when I say people look in, I really do mean a great many people.

But when they stop to pick their teeth, refresh their make-up or explore their noses, doesn't it occur to them that they might have an audience? My two small boys are sometimes just the other side, laughing hysterically as madame vainly tries to eliminate swimming-pool hair, or as monsieur delves in his beard for a lost piece of Brie. And some people love to just stop and linger there, giving themselves alluring looks and sweeping back their manes. And that's just the men!

You can tell the looking-glass window is well known, because people walk past it with their eyes fixed on their reflections the whole way, as if they had assumed the narcissistic, three-quarter profile position several steps before, anxious not miss not a moment of self adulation.

I wanted to take photos of this vanity fair, to make a comedy montage souvenir for the future, but I have better things to do than lying in wait in my sitting room with the camera on standby. Instead, my family and I just treat it as a source of spontaneous entertainment, our very own Punch and Judy stand. That, or draw the curtains.

Of course, there's some glib metaphor value in all this. As writers we reflect ourselves in our writing, no matter how much we try to disguise it with lurid characterisation and exotic settings. The page is our mirror, and we like to see ourselves there, do we not? But as with the looking-glass window, there'll usually be someone else watching back, someone we must never forget as we write. Though we may never spot them, our readers see everything -- warts, self-indulgence and all.