Sunday, 17 April 2011

Dan and the Dead

For a long time now I have been quietly working on a comic-Gothic novella for A&C Black (part of the Bloomsbury Group) and as the contract has recently been signed, I can finally announce the good news on my blog. This is a big deal for me, not only because it means I have a second fiction title coming out in 2012 (hurray!), but also because it will be lightly illustrated, and therefore the first time I have been able to combine my own illustrations with my writing for older readers. Double hurray! (The picture above is just a sample, but click for a closer look anyway.)

This project began life as a proposed contribution to a new series of very slim chapter books aimed at reluctant teen readers, but A&C Black felt the idea could be taken further than that, launching me on a very protracted (but ultimately very fruitful) journey. And there was even a brief of sorts: imagine a boy of between 10 and 14 years who has almost given up on reading, but who might yet be tempted to open a book if it looked exciting enough. You have this one chance to get him hooked. Now write! 
It turns out that was precisely the challenge I needed, and the stripped down, revved-up 22,000 word text that resulted was a sheer delight to write. I'm not saying it was easy – it certainly wasn't – but I learnt so much that I was able to go back to my novel afterwards and rip many thousands of pointless words right out of it.

So what's it about? Well, it's about a boy called Dan who can see dead people. Yup, like in the film, only I've added a twist that should hopefully freshen things up a bit. The basic set-up owes something to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and sees Dan team up with the ghost of an Eighteenth Century gentleman called Simon, and go into business solving the troubles of the 'Desperate Dead'. For a rather extraordinary fee. Dan's the talent, Si thinks he's the brains of the outfit, and between them they're pretty damn awesome. In a skin-of-Dan's-teeth kind of way. There are dead Victorian magicians to contend with, the feisty ghost of murdered teen Emmeline, sleazy nightclub owners, gold polyester fluffy dice, scary lady vicars and more North Sea than is good for a boy whose hands are tied behind his back. Oh, and there are guns and car chases. And a severed finger. And something very, very grisly that Dan has to carry around all the time. There was even a Quiet Moment for a while, but I decided to delete it.

Anyway, it's something to put in the diary for next Spring:)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

In Search of a Lost Reader

The recent death of Diana Wynne Jones has got me thinking. A great many tributes have been posted on-line recently, not just by those who actually knew her, but also by many who trace their own development as writers back to reading her magical books as children. And it's that that's got me thinking, because no matter how far I delve into the crumb-filled cardboard spaceship of my own childhood memories, I can't find Diana Wynne Jones in there anywhere.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. I mean, I have read some her books as a grown up, and seeing as how I have a professional interest in keeping my inner eleven-year-old alive and dreaming, maybe that's enough. But I can't shake off the obvious question: what was I reading then?

Well, the earliest memory I have of being signed up for permanent membership of the Great Book Club of Life was reading The Hobbit at about age 13. Yes, I know that's probably the most uninteresting piece of autobiographical information I have ever posted here (what boy didn't read The Hobbit at age 13?), but for all it's banality, it was still a key event for me. It was the first time I remember feeling bereft at the finishing of a book, and also the moment I understood fully that a story doesn't disappear just because it's over. I even remember exactly where I was standing when I realised I could turn the book over and start it again if I wanted to. The best thing about book covers is everything they contain.

Anyway,The Hobbit led to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I discovered Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, John Wyndham, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, Real Life, and eventually Girls. But how did I get to Tolkein in the first place? What steps did I take to become a committed reader? And how can I – as a writer for children -- help make sure that other young people get switched on too?

Well, I can reveal that I did read Enid Blyton, though only because I borrowed my little sister's Magic faraway Tree books. I was about 11, and already aware that they were too young for me. I have also -- with the help of Facebook friends -- uncovered the fact that I read The Three Investigators, and this might push my reading back to the age of ten. There were comics of course, and much further back I know my father read Beatrix Potter to me, and my mother was definitely there when the tiger came to tea, but no matter how I look at it there's definitely a big round hole in my memory, and it's at exactly the point where Diana Wynne Jones would have fitted in nicely.

Oh, well. I can't exactly complain about having lots of great books still to read, now can I? But I am sorry to have missed her first time round, back when I wasn't bristling with critical faculties, prejudice and ugly ambition – back when all I needed was a torch and a duvet and a heap of books under my pillow.

So how did you become a reader? And what do you do to help the young people in your life find out where the stories are? In fact, should you do anything?

(I lifted this photo from a fansite. I have no idea if I need permission to use it or not -- feel free to tell me if you know better)