Thursday, 29 November 2007


I have just finished reading Eva Ibbotson’s book ‘Journey to the River Sea’ for the first time. I am of course now reading it again (it seems to me ridiculous that many people are happy to listen to a piece of music over and over, but generally read novels only once). It is her most famous book and the most acclaimed, and I have been saving it up for more than a year. One reason for doing this was that I didn’t want to read it while trying to write my own book, because it would have been like attempting to make up a tune while listening to a Bach cantata.

I won’t write an actual review of JTTRS (though you’ve probably worked out by now that I liked it). It’s probably enough to say that it’s as close to a perfect children’s novel as you’re ever likely to read. The writing itself is a joy to behold. Ibbotson doesn’t go in for grandstanding purple prose or epic descriptions – she simply tells, in simple language, and the characters and places take on lives of their own. Lesser, more insecure writers (mentioning no names) lack this confidence and often hide behind hyperbole and visual fireworks. There’s no dodgy CGI in Eva Ibbotson.

One thing I noticed were some classic ‘Ibbotson riffs’ (that makes her sound like Jimmy Page, I know, but bear with me). I spotted certain parallels with some of her other books, especially ‘The Star of Kazan’, which I have also read multiple times. She definitely has favourite themes and motifs that she returns to. She has a thing for near-flawless heroines, the sweet, kind, innocent girl alone in the world; the enigmatic male stranger, perhaps gypsy or mixed-race; the penny-pinching, mealy-mouthed manipulating villains. These elements, which are often the mainstay of the airport novel or Mills & Boon romance, stop being clichés when she touches them and turn instead into gold. It’s almost as if she’s showing off – like an artist painting the Mona Lisa using cans of spray paint.

Of course, the familiar elements (which in any case are given new life) are outweighed by those that you will find nowhere else. But it is the execution that takes my breath away. The reader is transported to the Amazon rainforest with such speed and ease that I had to read it over and over to check – yes, it’s true, we get from a girls’ school in London to the city of Manaus in the first 27 pages. Not only that, but we know who everyone is and care about them deeply, AND about four different subplots have been subtly set up and the same number of mysteries are stirring. It’s a conjuring trick. And you don’t even notice it being performed because you’re enjoying yourself too much.

The language… I’m in awe of it. Some of the lines are so good I want to eat them. Right near the start, when the heroine (Maia) is setting off on her journey, and her classmates are terrified about what she might encounter in the Amazon, the sombre mood is captured with the line: ‘Piranhas and alligators were in the air.’ And then there is Maia’s stern black-clad governess, who looks ‘more like a nutcracker than a human being.’

Reading back it seems that I have started writing a review after all. Oh well, it was hard not to. This post was supposed to be about how envious I am of Eva Ibbotson, but sometimes a writer is so good that the only emotion I can feel is gratitude. Besides, there’s another good reason why I’m not envious of Eva Ibbotson. Because I’ve just read ‘Journey to the River Sea’ for the first time, while she, as the author, will never truly know what that’s like.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Laying the tracks

At the climax of the second Wallace & Gromit film, ‘The Wrong Trousers’, there’s a sublime scene in which the dog Gromit is riding the toy train and laying down the tracks in front of it just fast enough to keep it speeding along, in pursuit of sinister penguin Feathers McGraw. Boo, hiss. It’s not the first time this visual gag has been used – I think there’s a Buster Keaton film in which he does the same thing, only with real railway sleepers and steam train. In fact, the image of laying down the tracks as the train bears down on you is quite well-used. Usually it’s meant to mean staying just one step ahead of disaster. But in a slightly adapted form, it serves as another of my tips for myself to aid with the writing process.

The most daunting thing about writing is the blank white space below the last line of text. It can swallow you up like a snow hole. Writing does sometimes feel as hard as trudging through deep snow. Your mind is trying to do two things: work out what happens next, and write it down in a way that’s not awful.

Now, I’m a planner. I write out my whole plot in advance before I even start. It may change a lot along the way, but I need to know that I have a version that works, to fall back on if necessary. A lot of people don’t do this, can’t stand the thought of it, and I respect that (more than that, I envy them). But I think everyone, planner or not, can benefit from ‘laying down the tracks’.

This is planning, but on the small scale. On the scale of a single scene as opposed to a whole story. What I do if I get stuck is write down, in the roughest way, the basic events that are happening here. Just describe the scene, using scraps and half-sentences if I wish. I may even spell ‘their’ as ‘there’. Shudder. And I play tricks on myself. I tend to use a different font from the main text font, perhaps in a tiny size (8pt!) so that my brain can never mistake it, even for a moment, as actual writing. I am cheating myself; telling the stuck-up perfectionist that it is okay to write absolute rubbish, so long as the facts are here.

These facts now lie in front of the proper story text like sleepers and rails before the slowly advancing train. They bridge the way over the howling white ravine. A lot of them simply get pushed aside by the train, proving useless or irrelevant, but that doesn’t matter. Properly supported, the story rolls on, until I get to a bit of firmer ground and can write without so much bridging work in front of me.

If you don’t know which way to go, lay the tracks.

Friday, 23 November 2007


Yes, these really are actual tenterhooks. Those innocent-looking Ls are to blame for much of the world’s misery, or at least the tiny amount of it that occurs inside my head.

Apparently tenterhooks were used to dry wool after all the grit, grease and general sheepishness had been rinsed out of it. As any washerwoman kno, wool has a tendency to shrink as it dries, hence the need to hang it up stretched like a prisoner on the rack so that it keeps its shape meanwhile. It’s a wonderful image that brings the modern usage of the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’ vividly to life. When you are on tenterhooks, you are not only in suspense, immobile, tense, taut (and probably being a bit of a drip about it)… you are also in a state of unreadiness, of waiting to be finished, and of being currently no use to anybody.

From the above whinge, you can probably deduce that I am still waiting for my publisher to come back with a verdict on my new book, the sequel to The Cat Kin. There have been encouraging murmurs, but since I’m not on commission anything is possible. This time next week I could have a book with no home, and not even the first-time author’s consolation of being able to try somewhere else. For an unwanted sequel there is nowhere else.

So it’s back on the tenterhooks. Eh-up. Moaning aside, it’s fascinating to research the origins of popular phrases. You appreciate how perfect some of them are, and how smug must have been the author who originally described a feeling as being ‘on tenterhooks’. I do hope that particular writer’s wait ended happily.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

One to remember (2)

The time seems right to do something on what I call my ‘third rule of writing’ (see this post). My third rule was more a revelation, and the revelation was this: Fiction is memory.

One day it occurred to me. Fiction writing isn’t trying to be a simulation of life. It’s attempting to be a simulation of memory. This distinction is crucial.

Looking over my first attempts at fiction, I see it attempting to be the former: an imitation of real life. Details crowd in whether or not they are important. No-one can go anywhere without turning off the light, putting away his keys, scuffing his feet down the long grimy flight of stone steps. The story drowns in irrelevance.

Fiction is the ultimate case of false memory syndrome. Look at what our memories contain. No-one remembers a single ordinary day at work, but everyone remembers the day they got fired. But we may have in our memory a ‘typical day at work’, which is likely to be a fudge of lots of different days. Only when something extraordinary happens does your mind bother to write you an actual scene, complete with dialogue, vivid scenery, and the clammy warmth of the hotel bath towel you were wearing when you heard the shout, ‘Oh my god, Nick, two planes have just crashed into the World Trade Centre.’

In a way it’s blindingly obvious. A story should speak of remarkable things. But to say fiction is memory helps to clarify matters. Fiction and memory obey the same rules. They share the same topography. They have the same broad, hazy plains, the sharp peaks and deep valleys. Or, to be less precious about it, they have the stuff you notice and the stuff you are merely aware of. The stuff you really notice is what makes you smile, laugh, cry or rage, or the things that really hurt.

So now, if I’m planning to write a scene, what I often do is write down a bland summary of the basic events that will be happening here. Then I look at the character whom it’s happening to, and wonder what they would make of it all. And then I write the scene – writing it how I think this character would remember it.

Sometimes it works.

I’m sure that one of the things I found so compelling about Lee Weatherly’s book Kat Got Your Tongue (see below) was that it served as a supreme example of this ‘rule’ – fiction being memory. A girl without her lifetime of memories becomes literally a different character, and occupies her own distinct narrative separate from her old self. Reading it I began to ask the question: Is the person we think we are just a story we tell ourselves? Aren’t we all, in the end, merely storytellers?

Thursday, 8 November 2007

One to remember

One of my favourite films is MEMENTO, in which the main character played by Guy Pearce suffers catastrophic amnesia and some pretty dramatic consequences. It’s a gripping thriller, even if it is utterly preposterous. A far more credible picture of amnesia emerges from Lee Weatherly’s young adult book KAT GOT YOUR TONGUE, and it’s just as riveting without having to resort to violence and skulduggery to make its points. The blurb on Amazon says it’s about ‘how amnesia can affect a family’, but thankfully this isn’t the case; memory loss of this kind is so rare that it couldn’t really serve as the basis of a teen novel. No, what this book does is use amnesia as a dazzlingly inventive way of painting an extraordinary character and her deeply moving story.

Here is the review I posted on Amazon UK:

Who are you if the person you were has disappeared? KAT GOT YOUR TONGUE is guaranteed to grip anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and wondered who exactly is staring back.

This tale begins with the main character being run over, and then gets more nail-biting. Although the heroine’s amnesia is what creates the mystery and drives the plot forward, the story is really about more universal things: friends and family, love and hate, discovery and loss and redemption. It’s also about the awful gulf of communication between parents and their kids, or between friends, and how neither seems able to understand the other, and how much better it could be if only we talked.

Don’t expect a typical teens-with-problems yarn. It’s effortlessly page-turning, yet you may have your brain tied in knots by some pretty deep questions. Even as the twin narratives race head-on towards each other, you are forced to ponder what ‘me’ really means. At the heart of this book lurks a maddening mystery: Is the person we think we are just a story we tell ourselves?

The narrator – who is really two narrators – is great company throughout, even when she’s at her most unpleasant. At times she’s more of an anti-hero, by no means a ‘nice person’ in the usual sense. The fact that she remains sympathetic even when she (in her own words) ‘totally loses it’ is part of what makes this book so special. Her bad behaviour is shown to come more from sadness and fear than from malice. Kathy and her alter-ego Kat pass the main character test with flying colours: you desperately hope she’s going to be all right.

Teenage girls will devour this book. Anyone who isn’t one (and I never was) should check it out too. It’s great fun, a perfect balance of darkness and humour, and a powerful tale about what it means to be the most extraordinary thing in the world: a person.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Unknown unknowns

I’ve just finished reading a Helen Dunmore book. It’s set mostly before the Great War, but that’s no problem, for Helen owns a time machine, and has gone back to live herself as people lived then. I would estimate that her stay in the past lasted at least a year, to fit in all the experiences and details she picked up. Her narrator goes so far as to describe the particular difficulties of ploughing a field with a horse-drawn plough, or the way lighting a fire in one grate might be easier than in another. I once attempted to write a story set in another time (about the same period, give or take a decade or two) and found it a complete nightmare. With every sentence you risk putting your foot in it, mentioning an object that doesn’t yet exist, or revealing ignorance of some everyday thing like drugget, carbolic or bombazine.

The kind of research needed for such writing, what you might call immersion research, is a world away from the lazy internet-driven research that I resort to more than I would care to admit. It’s one thing to know what you need to know, type it into a search engine, and get the answer. But, if I can quote perhaps the only truly wise thing than Donald Rumsfeld ever said (though I’m sure it wasn’t original): “There are things we know we know. There are things we know we don’t know. But there are also things that we don’t know we don’t know.” Those last, the Unknown Unknowns, make up perhaps 80% of an unwritten book. Make that 90% or more if you’re writing fiction set in the past or in another country/culture.

What questions do you ask? How can you know what you need to know? How do you know, for example, that there’s a tricky knack to walking behind a horse-drawn plough? All right, I’m sure there are places still where you can try out this traditional farming technique. But how do you know you need to try it out? Wouldn’t most people assume it was fairly easy? Or assume the reader doesn’t care how easy or hard it is? What kind of person takes the trouble to wonder, to go and find out, just for the sake of a single short paragraph? Only an artist.

A proper novelist, I think, needs to immerse herself so thoroughly in her subject matter that she absorbs all those details like a sponge, and slowly acquires so many ‘Known Knowns’ that she can also see the gaps, the Known Unknowns, leaving as few Unknown Unknowns as possible. And this is what scares the hell out of me. Because that commitment, in terms of time and resources, is vast. And there may not even be a book at the end of it. This leads me to another point. There are two kinds of research and they are intertwined. There’s factual research, where you want to know (for example) what kind of car might be driven in 1926. But then there’s what you might term creative research, where you just have an urge to write a story with a particular setting, so you research that setting exhaustively and hope that, at some point down the line, an idea may emerge from all that you learn and experience. There are writers who do this. And if I had five times as much money and ten times as much time, I would start doing that tomorrow.

So how do writers like Helen Dunmore manage it? There are only 24 hours in her days, same as mine. I think the answer’s simple: such authors either have much, much more commitment… or they have time machines.