Sunday, 31 January 2010


Although I quietly decided I wouldn't do any more book reviews, I'm going to make an exception for The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh. But first I'm going to admit to a prejudice: I don't much like fantasy books.

By which I mean what is sometimes referred to as 'High Fantasy'. For example, give me the tale of Headnod the Earnest and his perilous quest to save the Glens of La-di-da from the return of Nameless Evil, and I'll have to give it back because I'm pretty sure I read this book when I was sixteen and don't need to read it again. I mean no disrespect to Tolkien – his writing is timeless – but much that has come in his wake leaves me cold. So no elves and dwarves please, no pointy-hatted wizards, and above all, no wands or spells or anything else that reduces magic to some kind of mechanistic other-science. Like I said, it's a prejudice.

The Crowfield Curse is in many ways a fantasy tale, so if it had been promoted as such, my prejudice may have stopped me from buying it. Instead, it presents as historical fiction with an intriguing supernatural twist. I couldn't get it to the till fast enough. And it is a historical novel -- the author is an archaeologist and has conjured a convincing picture of life in a fourteenth century monastery. There's even a glossary of terms in the back. But the amazing thing about this book is the way Pat Walsh has managed to combine history and fantasy so seamlessly -- a glittering blend of stark medieval Christianity and ancient pagan forces. By the time I realised I was in pointy hat territory, I didn't care at all.

I believe that suspension of disbelief is a compliment paid by the reader in exchange for good writing, not something a writer should take for granted from the outset. This is no doubt my problem with Headnod and co – I want to be drawn into magical realms, not flung straight in. Pat Walsh, with her charming tale of a poor serving boy who befriends a fay being and is pulled into a struggle over the grave of something that cannot die, certainly deserves that compliment from me.

And this is the kind of writing I aspire to -- seemingly simple, yet closely controlled and vivid. The kind of writing that wastes nothing, that can ignore genres and side-step prejudice. The kind of writing that makes you forget you're reading at all. That's real magic.

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh was published in 2010 by The Chicken House, and is recommended for anyone over about ten years old. And just look at that lovely cover!

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Morale Well and Truly Boosted!

As I mentioned at the beginning of the year, I sent The Ghost Effect – my less-than-polished-but-still-readable novel -- to my agent for feedback. I think I also hinted at the confused nature and general rubbishness of an earlier version of this story that I sent to her last April. Since her rejection of that previous effort, I have been to the very edge of misery and back over this book, so I hope you'll forgive me if much of this post comes across as rather smug. My agent really likes my book!

In fact, two agents (same agency) read The Ghost Effect, and they have both responded very positively. Having struggled so hard for almost a year -- somehow finding the will to go on despite writing for weeks without a glimpse of Natasha, hounded continually by Boris -- I can't tell you how relieved I am that someone experienced thinks that my novel is 'clever and exciting, which is a tough combination!' and that the '...beginning chapters (are) quite brilliant – exciting and original and promising the kind of novel you just can't put down.'

Light that up and smoke it, Boris!

Best of all is the fact that they don't think I need to make any substantial changes before TGE goes out on submission. However, there are a great many typos, clichés and baggy bits to sort out, and one or two areas that might need a little more explanation. Also, there's a feeling that it's a little long (perhaps up to 5,000 words) but at least there's no obvious place to make a cut. No stray or pointless scenes, and no wandering off down side alleys like last time.

Very interestingly, my agent thinks my main character should be a year or so older (he's thirteen right now), an idea that has occurred to me again and again. She refers to the text as 'teen fiction' (YA in the US), and I find it such a relief to have this pointed out by someone else. I don't want to deny 9 or 10-year-olds, but writing for them is very difficult, and it doesn't come naturally to me. So I was writing for teens after all!

Agents aren't the only ones reading my novel. Fellow novelist and blogger Simon Kewin has also been feeding remarks back to me as he has the time to read, and he has been very positive too. Simon's point of view is especially interesting as he has a writer's perspective. I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong, but Simon is a more experienced writer than I am, with a firm grasp of the crafting aspects of storytelling, as well as an unforgiving approach to clichés and muddled phrases. Simon's input is of great value as I head toward the next step: a final revision, and then out to a real editor or two.

(My wife has also read TGE, but I'm planning a future post about close family as readers, and I'll embarrass her with compliments then.)

My agent's last e-mail ends appropriately with a reminder that 'the market is very tough at the moment'. And so having crowed a bit, I'll now go back to drinking too much coffee and biting my nails over the whole thing, very aware that The Ghost Effect is far from out of the woods yet, and may, as with my first novel, end up with no offers at all. But in the meantime, as Natasha opens the door and lets Boris back in, I hope you won't begrudge me my small moment of celebration.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Sissy Is Not a Name

Author and Illustrator James Mayhew recently posted a frustrating story about a ridiculous, but nonetheless harmful, review of one of his picture books. It reminded me that there are some people who seem to believe that all books for children should be educational in some way, even to the point of prioritising facts over fiction. Such literal-minded people probably aren't the best judges of story books.

James was unfortunate because the whole cavemen and dinosaurs thing is a particular bugbear for some. But why wasn't the fact that the dinosaur in question can talk not a clue that the reviewer wasn't dealing with a palaeontology textbook?

I wrote a series of picture books about a tiger who mixes with hippos and wildebeest, and my geo-zoological error is still pointed out to me. The argument seems to go like this: children soak up information like sponges so adults have a responsibility to make sure they are getting true facts. Therefore dinosaurs don't chat to cavemen, tigers don't befriend wildebeest, and Kenneth Graham is a dangerous subversive who has confused generations with his disregard for riverside facts. And as for that J. M. Barrie...

Surely it's clear that once children have reached the age when facts are important they have already discovered for themselves what fiction is. In the meantime, why deny them the tooth-fairy or the chance to daydream?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


It's been a while since I posted something from my sketchbooks. I mentioned before that I like drawing musicians, so here's another accordionist, this time a French one. Click for a closer look.

This pocket sketchbook page dates from last summer, when I spent some time on the west coast of Normandy. This goaty chap was part of a band that set up one evening in the town square. They had a great Django Reinhardt sound, but their lyrics were pretty shocking, and as we had an inquisitive five-year-old with us we didn't stay long. But at least I managed to get something down on paper.

It's odd how the accordion appears different in the two main sketches. It almost looks like there were two instruments. Sketching is always selective, but it's interesting to note that the eye is so busy with essentials that the details differ. Interesting for me that is -- I have an idea for a novel where the clues to some mystery have been accidentally captured in a series of quick sketches. But how far can a drawing be trusted? And how much do we really see when we look?

This was drawn with a Faber-Castell PITT artist pen, for those who care about these things.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

What Muse?

A few months ago, Matt left a link to a talk given by author Elizabeth Gilbert on the subject of creative genius, and I find it has stuck with me. Thanks Matt! I've always liked the idea of treating my muse as a real being, but as that's also a bit daft I usually talk myself out of it. But now it feels like Elizabeth Gilbert has given me permission, and after all, what better explanation is there for the source of creativity?

My muse is a woman. Most of the time. Let's say she's called Natasha and today she looks a bit like Rachel Weisz. I'd like to say she stands behind me in her underwear and whispers the secrets of creation in my ear as I type, but sadly it rarely works like that. Mostly she wears a sensible trouser suit and pins her hair back, and she taps her watch as she administers inspiration: 'chop, chop, Taylor – I'll be back in an hour to see how you're getting on.' And sometimes she doesn't turn up at all. But I'm not complaining. After all, if she sat on my lap I wouldn't be able to concentrate, and like many writers I struggle to work with someone else in the room anyway.

But much as I long for Natasha's visits, she can be infuriating. Her favourite trick – and I think this is standard behaviour with Muses – is turning up when I have an armful of family life and telling me something wonderful that just has to be acted on straight away. Most writers are breezy about how they keep notebooks about the place for just such moments, but we all know that's easier said than done. So inevitably some of those flashes of brilliance get accidentally folded into a dirty nappy and lost. Well, that's my excuse anyway.

Probably the worst thing about Natasha's absences is her locum. I'm going to call him Boris, and he looks like Jean Reno, only without the humour. Boris wears a grubby raincoat and smokes Gauloises. When Natasha's not there, it's Boris who keeps me hard at it, muttering about word count and plot holes while he helps himself to my whisky. I'm not sure Boris really believes in me. He's the one who reminds me of the credibility gap that exists between published novelists and 'pretenders' like me. He also delights in pointing out that not one of my ideas is original and that Natasha is probably seeing someone else. I don't like Boris, but I think I need him, partly to make Natasha's company all the more desirable, but also to keep me from vanishing up my own ego.

Natasha's here as I write this, though sadly she's not wearing her pearls today. Boris is here too, telling me that blogging is a waste of time, but for once he's changed his shirt. And look – I wrote something!

So how about you? Is there anything you'd like to share about your muse? Or do you get your ideas from a box under the bed?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Somewhat Bereft

That's how I'm feeling now that I have finally sent my novel to my agent and all sleepless nights, daylight heartburn, and round-the-clock time-travel-paradox head-banging is at an end, at least for now. Actually, my small children will see that the sleepless nights continue, but at least they can be dealt with by nothing more onerous than a hug.

It sounds like three people will read my story at the agency, so I should brace myself for a pretty comprehensive critical response. I'm a bit wary because – and I've probably played this down on my blog – I sent a truly awful version of this book to my agent last April, and I'm really grateful that they're being so good about giving it another try. That previous version was rushed, half-baked, confused, and didn't even read like a children's book for the most part. I can't tell you how much I hope they can forget I ever sent it at all, and read my novel with fresh eyes. Thank goodness they're professionals.

My wife will also read The Ghost Effect – partly to proofread it, but also because she questions me very closely about my writing and won't let me get away with being baggy and ridiculous (sadly I was born that way). And because it's always good to have an opinion from another writer, I'm lucky that fellow-blogger Simon Kewin has also agreed to read it. All of which means that the next revision – and there's always another revision to make, isn't there? -- should be a very well informed one.

So what do I write now? I have a picture book idea, but that won't take long. I have an exciting central premise for a new novel, but I'm not nearly ready to start it – the story's not there. So what fat chunk of writing can I sink my inky teeth into now? Don't worry, I won't over-blog on you, and I don't expect an answer.

Maybe I just need a hug.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Short Hair Mean, Long Hair Kind

To what extent do you use physical attributes to communicate your characters' personalities to the reader? As I polish away, it occurs to me that there's a whole world of cliché just waiting to be drawn on as I give my villain a scar and a sharp suit, and my heroes spectacles and a limp.

Reading Stephen King's On Writing recently, I was pleased to find that I'm not alone in disliking exhaustive descriptions of main characters, especially when it comes to what they are wearing/driving/scrubbing with in the shower. I have deliberately kept such details to a minimum, but I know that many writer's feel differently.

If there's one thing that always make me want to close a book and go and do something interesting instead, it's being given precise details of a character's height and weight. Why on earth would I be interested to know that Guy is 170lb and 6 foot 2 in his socks? If he isn't a boxer or a reject astronaut, such dry statistics give me nothing. If the writer is trying to let me know that Guy is a big, healthy chap, then surely there's a more interesting way. And as for the calibre of weapons or a car's horsepower – please spare me. The most important thing about a gun is that it frightens or kills people. The rest is distraction.

In my writing, for now at least, I describe my characters only by dropping rare details into the text as and when they seem relevant, and the result is a great deal of freedom for the reader's imagination. It might be my background as an illustrator that makes me do this, as (ironically for someone who is used to depicting fiction characters) I've come to see that readers would much rather do the illustrating themselves, in their heads, without being spoon fed.

How do you approach this? Do you let the reader know about every mole on your hero's neck? And would you ever use a decimal number as a synonym for a pistol? Or would you ever not? And are you brave enough to let your heroine roam through an entire novel without ever revealing the colour of her hair?