Monday, 29 March 2010

Reading: Speedy or Creepy?

I'm a creepy reader. By which I mean that I'm slow. In fact, I was so slow even to learn to read in the first place, that I needed special help at school to keep up with my comrades. My eye crawls across the page at a very sedate pace, caterpillaring from one word to the next while my mind booms them out loud between my ears, and I often wonder if I should be worried about this. Not that there's much I could do about it.

I have tried to develop the knack of speed-reading, but I can't. If I try to switch off the voice of my inner-reader and take in the meaning of the words direct -- or parcels of words as I'm told speed-readers do -- I lose the sense of the writing very quickly. My mind wanders and I usually end up at the bottom of one of those white channels that open up in text bodies like well shafts in cross-section. Some of you might not even know what I'm talking about when I refer to these. I mean the snaking white spaces that form at random across the page, joining the spaces between words in one line with those of the next and the next, and so on. They are the first thing I see when I open a book, and I take this as a sign of being visually-minded.

Speed-reading, I'm told, involves taking in a sentence at a time, registering its complete meaning, and then moving on to absorb the next. So not a caterpillar nibbling each leaf, but a goat demolishing the whole bush, one twig at a time. It's very impressive -- I know people who read incredibly quickly and I've always envied them. My own mother, apart from being amazing in a general sense and nothing like a goat specifically, is a natural speed-reader and can read a novel a day. Typically, it would take me a week to get through the same book. My mother could read a stack of stuff in that time, but I often wonder who gets the best experience of the writing.

I'm very preoccupied with the sound of words when I read and write, and some part of my brain can't help but 'count' the stressed and unstressed notes that characterise English. This is the music of our language. Can speed-readers appreciate this as they stride through the text? I really don't see how they can, but perhaps it doesn't matter, especially since the meaning of the words has nothing to do with the sounds and shapes they make. Or has it? Perhaps Dylan Thomas meant more than we might suppose when he chose the words of his musical lines. Could poetry be speed-reader proof? I'm asking these questions because I don't know.

I'm not trying to criticise speedy readers (put the phone down, Mum), I am, I suppose, just trying to reassure myself that it's okay to read as I do. And perhaps, for a writer, it's preferable. Can a novelist be complete without being a stylist to some extent? Or would writers be better off concentrating on meaning alone, leaving off the curly bits? I would love to hear your views on this, especially if you are a speed-reader who doesn't slow up for poetry. Can you read a novel a day? And are there any other creeps out there?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Sketchbook Sabretooths...

...because, hey, why not? Click for toothy close-ups.

And if, like me, you write for the young and sometimes need a galvanising kick up the backside, this post on Candy Gourlay's blog (about Richard Peck's Bologna speech) should set you up for the day. And hopefully beyond.

I shall be feeding all my adverbs to Smiley from now on.

Monday, 22 March 2010

My novel – des nouvelles

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a YA novel out on submission at the moment. This process started about 6 weeks ago, with a request for a response from publishers within a month. That deadline (which was never more than a guide time) has obviously passed, and as I write this the only response so far has been a handful of rejections. Most potential publishers have yet to respond (though there have been some hints of interest and requests for more time), and with the Bologna Book Fair about to kick-off, I can expect the waiting game to continue for a while yet.

Rejections -- though inevitable -- are always disappointing, but at least mine so far have been of the brief 'thanks, but not for us right now' kind. However, each one has also offered a critical observation, as well as a positive. Multiple rejections, even ones as brief as these, can be very useful for objectively highlighting a problem in the text, and I'm reassured that so far I haven't had a string of people making the same criticism.

So much that I've read lately suggests that 2009/10 is a bad time to submit a début novel, but I try not to think about this too much. After all, the idea of sitting on my hands and waiting for better times is intolerable, as well as ridiculous. So those hands are out and busy (when my fingers aren't crossed that is) and I'm still hopeful that The Ghost Effect will find the right home. I'll post more about all this when the time comes.

Monday, 15 March 2010

On s'amuse au musée

My son wanted to see some real swords and shields, so we went to the Musée des Antiquités in Rouen to look at the things the Gauls, Romans and Vikings left behind. We took sketchbooks, making this the first drawing trip we've ever been on together. He asked me afterwards if I was going to put our pictures on the internet. How could I say no?

You've got to love the ancients for their interest in animals, and the curious things they did with clay and bronze as a result. When you're only five and also interested in beasts, finding whole troupes of gibbons, lions and mythological creatures at eye-level is enough to put even swords and shields out of mind. Despite only being allowed a few lumpen wax crayons (not every exhibit is behind glass), Max heaved a security guard's chair over and started to draw.

Sketching an object is a bit like crawling all over it with your mind. There's no better way to really understand how it is, and what it's like. With observation alone, the eye tends to slip from one feature to another, registering everything but rarely fixing much in the memory. Drawing forces you to look again, to see all those features as part of something complete. This always provokes a proprietorial feeling in me -- a sense that in some way I own that object once I've drawn it. And with something hand-made, it's also a moment of contact between my mind and the mind of the person who made it, irrespective of language, culture or the passage of time.

Max was delighted by a little Roman monkey jug made of clay, and wanted me to draw it with him. It was only through the sketching process that I noticed it had a surprisingly human anatomical feature that made the responsible Dad in me wonder if I should steer Max to something else. I'm glad I resisted such a prudish impulse. Max, free of prejudice, drew everything he saw in grown-up silence.

On the way to the museum, we met a friend who was impressed that I was going to teach my son to draw. I made one of my 'just-so/perhaps not' grunts (I'm good at those, especially in French) and changed the subject. There's no question of teaching anything – all Max needs is to feel that it's okay to look closely and okay to draw in public.

Max's patience lasted for an hour and a half, and he's already forgotten most of the things he saw in the museum, but I'm sure we'll both remember his brazen little monkey for many years to come.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Tyger, tyger...

I was delighted to see my picture book The Loudest Roar mentioned in a moving article in the Times this weekend. Simon Barnes' son has done me the great honour of liking (and growling along with) my tiger, Clovis. And I don't even mind playing second fiddle to Judith Kerr after such a compliment. Good luck to you, Eddie, and...


Friday, 5 March 2010

Hurrah for...

Looking back over my blog, I'm dismayed to see that it's all me, me, me! I should do more to acknowledge the achievements of my many creative friends and acquaintances, and what better way to do this than by sending out fine and throaty Edwardian-style 'Hurrahs'?

Let's start with two.

Hurrah for Illustrator Cassia Thomas, whose first picture book was published last week. Cassia is a fellow graduate of Cambridge Art School (under its various changing designations). Lively Elisabeth shows her great talent to the full and makes it clear we'll be seeing lots more from her in the future. And indeed, her second book, George and Ghost, will be out in September. Congratulations, Cass!

And secondly (though far from leastly) illustrator, writer, and graphic novel artist Dave Shelton's new book, Good Dog, Bad Dog, was published yesterday (World Book Day!). Dave is an old life-drawing-and-down-the-pub-afterwards chum and a prolific sketchbook filler. Follow his blog for a regular procession of characters and quirky animals, and for dazzling displays of penmanship.

Good Dog, Bad Dog is the first in a stable of titles rising from the ashes of the DFC, a brave but ill-starred attempt to launch a weekly children's comic in the UK. I came close to contributing to it myself, and it's especially nice to see the venture resulting in something good and lasting. Congratulations, and hurrah for Dave!

I would like to make this a regular feature on my blog, so come on everyone – get busy!

Monday, 1 March 2010


I'm still hoping to do a graphic novel one day. How can I not after seven years surrounded by les bandes dessinées?

In contrast to the last image, I gave the pen free rein in this sample and kept Photoshop in its place. It's dark, but I like it that way. Looking at this again, I think I might have stolen something from Cézanne, but there are worse people to steal from.

Click for a closer view, but don't cheat at cards.