Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Richard and Judy

The other night I was watching the electric television (a box in my drawing room that supplies occasionally interesting moving pictures at fantastical expense. Good for DVDs though). Anyway, the entertainment that caught my notice was one entitled Richard & Judy’s Children’s Book Club. The gentleman and his goodwife were perusing (okay, I’ll stop with the archaic voice). Basically Richard and Judy are now doing children’s books. And THE CAT KIN was their number one recommended read!! No, hang on, that was just a dream. Fiddlesticks. Anyway, it was interesting, and fun, and not before time. It seems the nation is undergoing something of a children’s literacy crisis, with one in four unable to read (can that be right??) so kids needs Richard and Judy’s books just like they need Jamie Oliver’s meals in the dining room. Perhaps even more so.

It was a well-made programme, with the notable presences of Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and Zeus (I mean, er, Philip Pullman). However, the show irritated and bothered me in a number of small but niggling ways. Firstly, the tone. The presenters talked about children’s reading as if it was some radical new theory (“We’ve got a woman here who reads books with her children!”) rather than something fundamental like shoes or sunlight. Maybe it was an acknowledgement of the mountain they had to climb, but if so, it was starting from a much lower point that the original Book Club for adults. The way they were talking, you’d think books were the new generation of iPhones. (Maybe if they were we wouldn’t be in this situation at all…)

Another gripe frustrated me further. The three super-authors they had on the show were invited to read extracts of their most famous works. No, wait a moment, actually they weren’t. Rather, all three authors’ most famous works were shown by using examples from the FILM VERSIONS (in Jacqueline Wilson’s case, the television adaptation of Tracy Beaker). Now, consider… are we sending out mixed messages or what? On a programme pleading on its bended knee for children to pick up a book and read, to discover the ecstasy of the printed word, we try to exemplify this by showing film clips? To quote the Classics, well DUH.

Now, I’m as slavering as the next fan when it comes to seeing the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass. That’s not the point. The point is, kids know what films are. And in a 10-second clip there’s nothing to choose between The Golden Compass and any spectacular fantasy film. In the case of the clip of Horowitz’s Alex Rider movie, there wasn’t even any dialogue, it was just Alex involved in a high-speed chase that looked like Bond on a budget. Been there, done that.

Can’t programme makers have the courage of their convictions? What would be more daring, more innovative, than having the authors stand up, the lights dimming around them, to read their favourite passages. Would people turn off, turn over? I don’t think so. Merely when Anthony Horowitz was talking and fielding questions, the faces of the kids in the audience were rapt. Their eyes were shining. But it wasn’t the gormless, unreacting TV-watching look. This was something alive, interacting. You could feel the buzz. If those authors had been asked to read, and if the cameras had alternated between them and the spellbound young audience, the effect would have been electrifying. Bookshops the next morning would have resembled Northern Rock as parents stormed the shelves.

But then I suppose people would stop watching television, and the BBC don’t want that, do they?

Wednesday, 24 October 2007


‘The patience of a writer, surely? Saints have nothing on us.’

For the quote above I have to thank a writer friend of mine, Carolyn Braby. If there is one quality or trait that I think all writers should have, it is not word power or wisdom or soul or wit. It is patience. Patience in abundance. Oceans of it. Great galactic nebula-spanning clouds of patience.

Michael Caine once said, ‘I get paid to wait around. Acting I do for free.’ A similar life awaits novelists. It’s enough of an effort to get to the end of a book, and no-one who writes the words THE END isn’t exhausted. Unfortunately, that isn’t end. It’s not even the end of the beginning, as Churchill might say. It’s merely the prelude to something that might, in fact, never begin.

Working is tiring. But how much more tiring is waiting, and doing no work as you wait because you no longer have the motivation. The submission process alone could grind a sandstone pyramid into a small packet of custard power. With my book The Cat Kin I was lucky, as regards getting an agent. Submitting the book to about half a dozen agents from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, I had an offer of representation within four months. In fact I had two, but that’s another story. I was walking on air, confident that a publishing deal was mere weeks away. I went home and waited.

And waited.

Bear in mind, this isn’t ordinary waiting. It’s not like waiting for a late train, or for the gas fitter to come. This is waiting in the peak of anticipation, being as sure as you can be that your lifelong dream could come true tomorrow. And so I waited. Weeks passed. Months. Then more months. My agent never emailed, unless I emailed first. Publisher after publisher was crossed off the list. Soon there would be no publisher left who had not yet seen the book and rejected it.

Imagine a year made entirely of Christmas mornings; mornings on which you wake up to no presents. A Groundhog Day of disappointment. It’s not the kind of disappointment you get used to or resigned to, either. Because each new day refreshes it, like Prometheus’s magical healing liver™. You awake with the same maddening optimism, the same blind conviction that maybe the past six months have been worth it, because THIS IS THE DAY. And then, every day, the hope evaporates sometime between four o’clock and five, leaving a sour residue that is soon coating your whole life and turning you into a moody beast. You live on tenterhooks, stretched between two opposing forces: ‘Any day now’ and ‘Give it up’.

Patience, resilience. The ability to suffer in silence for months, years, or decades. Every writer needs it. And, sometimes, at long long last, it pays off. And it’s also good practice because, as I can now attest, it seems that published writers have to wait almost as long.

*Twiddles thumbs*

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Not just a clowder...

A murder of crows,
A cast of hawks,
A charm of finches,
A fleet of ships,
A pride of lions,
A leap of leopards,
A parliament of owls,
A rhyme of poets…

An enigma of cats.

Collective nouns for groups of cats. Sometimes my cats are a siren of cats, howling from the shed roof or singing a mouse’s requiem. Sometimes they are a pester of cats, one fatly pleading for food – he is famished – the other for cuddles, psychotically loving. But sometimes they have been an absence of cats, and that’s the only kind I don’t like.

I was tagged for this meme by The Ginger Darlings. I tag Kelly Herold of Big A little a, to date the only American reviewer to have read The Cat Kin.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

A poem


If you can keep your head when all around you

Are losing theirs and tripping over you

If you can find a home when none has found you

And claim their garden, house and bedroom too

If you can wash a mile from any water

And roam without recourse to any map

Unwind from cold and calculating slaughter

By curling on a warm and cosy lap:

If you can fall, and find your feet by falling

If you can sleep, yet keep a watchful brain

If you can wake the dead with caterwauling

Or die yourself, and live to die again

If you can stare for minutes without blinking

And wear for hours on end a dreamy smile

And seem to think – quite undisturbed by thinking –

Through narrowed eyes aglow with secret guile:

If you can make one heap of shredded paper

From books they thought were safely out of reach

And sigh, and sulk, and claw and madly caper

At all attempts to reprimand or teach

If you can force your bleary-headed owner

To let you in and out the door at dawn

And oscillate from socialite to loner

And stare back in again with face forlorn:

If you can walk on shelves and spare the china

Ignore commands but answer to your name

If you can hog the whole of a recliner

Designed to hold the largest human frame

If you can turn to stone for half a minute

And climb a tree in fifteen seconds flat

Yours is the blackbird, nightingale and linnet,

For – after all – you are a cat. My cat.

(with apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Desktop meme

This is my computer desktop - not at my home writing desk but at my office where I do non-fictional work. The fellow in the picture is my cat Red, who loved books but couldn't eat a whole one. He met with an untimely end after picking one fight too many (with a car) and is sorely missed. The damn fool just wasn't into running away. Anyway, he is now buried in my garden and commemorated on my work machine, so that his funny face is the first thing I see when I log onto my machine on a Monday morning.

I was tagged with this meme by Jackie Morris, owner of ginger cats galore, painter of pictures and nature poetry machine. She's not bad with a camera either. I tag no-one though as my strain of the meme was non-contagious. (i.e. I don't have enough blogging friends...)

Monday, 8 October 2007

Cliché rehabilitation programme

“His/her blood ran cold.”

Now there’s a cliché. How many bad or lazy writers have written that to describe their hero or heroine getting spooked? Awful, isn’t it? If I opened a book and read a cliché like that, I’d drop it [like a hot potato].

But wait a moment. Read it again.

His blood ran cold.

Here’s a familiar scene. You’re in the shower, enjoying the lovely hot drubbing from the water, breathing in the steam, working shampoo into your hair. Possibly singing. It’s hard to imagine being more content. Then, disaster. No, not Norman Bates with his knife, but perhaps the next worst thing. Some clown elsewhere in the house decides to do the washing up. They turn on the hot water tap. And up in the bathroom, your lovely bounteous cascade of warmth and comfort turns stone cold. In the space of a second you’re covered in goosebumps, your happiness turns to horror, your singing tails off in a yelp. And there’s shampoo in your eyes, which you now can’t wash out. It’s hard to imagine being more miserable. And all because your shower has run cold.


Imagine if that was your blood.

You can see why ‘His blood ran cold’ was first used. Properly imagined, it is a monstrously effective image. The danger with clichés is that they are just parachuted in, without proper thought. But the best ones still have power, so long as you really take the time to consider the spirit in which they are meant. Who do you think first invented the (now clichéd) ‘Cool as a cucumber’? None other than P. G. Wodehouse.

Perhaps there should be a united effort to rehabilitate those clichés that still have something to say. They have become blunt through over-use, but, as ‘His blood ran cold’ shows, many were once razor sharp tools of emotional surgery.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Take a pebble

Pieces of writing are pebbles pulled from the sea of your mind. They look like jewels, all fresh and glistening. Then you return to them a little while later. Oh, horror. What has happened? My sparkling stones are now lumps of drab rock. What evil alchemy is this?

But wait. Over there, on the promenade, a man is selling little string bags of pebbles that look just as bright and twinkling as my own pebbles once were. Yet they are dry. How did he do that? I polished them, the stallholder explains. I tumbled them with sand and gravel and grit, for hours and hours, until they wore totally smooth. And now they look as fresh as when they were first picked from the sea.

That must be hard work.

Oh yes, it is.

But aren’t you changing them by polishing them? I ask.

No, he says. I’m putting them back the way they’re meant to be.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Who dares, reads

At the weekend I attended a conference of the Scattered Authors Society (SAS), which I recently joined on the recommendation of Jo Kenrick. Most of the members seem to have a dozen or more books under their belts, so it was initially as nerve-wracking as much as anything… I made nervous small talk at first and felt like an imposter, but they were all too friendly even for an introvert like me to keep that up for very long.

Anyway, the discussion of the day was fascinating: the role of writer visits to schools. A terrifying picture of modern education emerged over the course of the day. No time for children to read books in class; no time for the teacher to read them; grammar and spelling taught in isolation with no real grounding in creativity); teachers forced to ‘steal time’ to read to their classes; a teacher quoted as saying he read to a class twice a week because ‘I think I can get away with that’. The idea of reading reduced to a guerrilla activity forced to take place in secret, away from the watchful eyes of the National Curriculum, has more than a hint of the Taliban about it.

At the same time, the same National Curriculum encourages the visiting of schools by authors, to meet the kids and instruct and inspire them. In other words, while giving with one hand they are throttling with the other. Visits, yes, fine, great; but are things then going to return to the old soul-destroying ways, as soon as the author is gone? Probably.

For myself, I learning to write and spell and use punctuation not from grammar lessons, which I loathed and continue to loathe. I learned the technical aspects by sheer habit of reading. If you read enough books, you know how commas and semicolons and whatnot work. You just do. In the same way that anyone who loves listening to music can usually carry a tune. Some people even learn instruments to virtuoso level just by listening to other players. The same is true of writing. As babies we learn to talk purely by listening and copying. Why can the same not be true of writing and good grammar?

Let our kids be taught not by lessons but by love. Love of books and reading. If children can’t see what the tools are for, why should they be bothered to try and master them? I’m not saying every child should be trained to be a novelist (we’d be out of a job); but everyone deserves to be allowed to listen to the music.