A Moving (Re)Discovery

Manuscript Status: On Submission

Writer Status: Impatient, nervous and a little bit stressed. Pretending not to be all of the above.

So, being on submission doesn’t mean the writing stops. Of course not. I’m ploughing on with a first draft of a new (if by ‘new’ I mean nearly a year old already…I had edits to work on for my agent, plus, like, loads of other things…) project. The aim is to get the whole draft completed as soon as I can. I’m hoping to get the call saying “drop whatever you’re working on, you have more edits to do!”. And I’d quite like to have punched in the final full stop on draft one by then; you know…for the sake of tidiness.

But of course, this writer still needs a break from the… er… stress of writing. I’m always on the lookout for a break (and I heard that, whoever just shouted “procrastinator”!). Yesterday’s procrastination, I mean break, came in the most unexpected and delightful form.

My husband is currently assisting his parents with a house move from the family home of thirty-five years. Naturally, this means some artefacts from the dig have found their way into our house, and how we’ve laughed at his year six story-writing workbook, (be warned, husband, there’s material there for a whole new blog).

Along with his childhood scribblings and doodlings have come some gems of children’s literature that he read as a child, including this wonderful book:

IMG_20170719_180906525This charming – and somewhat defiant – story (a Philippe Fix creation, with story for pictures by Janine Ast and Alain Grée…I assume it to be French) features three characters: the eponymous Beebo, a chap in his later years; Mop, his friend; and Hector, a hamster. I haven’t worked out who Mop is in relation to Beebo; he seems to live in Beebo’s flat whilst Beebo works on the Paris Metro, walking through the towering streets of Paris every day.

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In our era, I doubt we’d see a story about an older man and a young boy being friends make its way to the book shop shelves. And Mop’s origin is never explained. Nor is the reason why Beebo inherits a run-down old mansion (which they turn into every child’s dream fantasy house). There are inconsistencies aplenty, none of which would jar with a young reader.

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I like to think that Mop is nothing more or less than Beebo’s younger self, or perhaps the childhood friend Beebo never had…because as charming as Hector is, a hamster is a poor substitute for a pal.

But if we fail to work out who Mop really is, there is no mistaking what the story wants to say – at least, not to my adult eyes, (is it even possible for an adult to read a children’s book with a child’s eye? We know too much. We’re tainted by the horrors of life. We can only lament the loss of innocence).

This is a story about friendship – real, or imagined.

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This is a story about the evils of unconstrained capitalism and supposed progress. Yes, even a picture book can deal with the heavy-weight subjects. In this respect The House That Beebo Built is a story for all time; especially poignant right now.

This is also a story about the triumph of hope when all seems lost. And if that’s not a message we want kids to read about, I don’t know what is.

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It is a story about escape. From those that would destroy that which you have worked for. Escape from a world gone mad and bad. Escape from the disappointments and strain of life. Actually, it might be about escaping from life itself.

I think it might be a story about death.

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Our friends end by building an ingenious stairway to the sky, which can only be a metaphor for the final journey. And they don’t forget little Hector: he gets to play in the vast hamster wheel in the clouds. At least, in my mind he does.

Naturally, we can make of this story whatever we will. And it doesn’t really matter, because what charms the most, what grabs the attention, what makes us smile – and it’s what my husband cherishes so much – are the beautiful, joyous illustrations. And it’s those that I really wanted to share.

I hope you enjoy them too.

PS. Amazon have a copy for £185. And no, husband, it’s not yours! Because your House That Beebo Built is now our House That Beebo Built.

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Second-hand books; first class words.

Being, as I am, fortunate to travel all over the world in my job-that-pays (writing, as yet, not providing much in the way of financial nourishment), I try to grab opportunities when they come my way. And an opportunity to duck into a second-hand bookshop is never to be missed.

In Boston, this means a pilgrimage to Brattle Book Shop. Despite the cold, visitors are still drawn to the bargain carts of books which sit in the vacant lot next door. Arranged in ascending – or descending, depending on your inclination – price, the carts offer books at $1, $3, or a heady $5. It was on a $5 cart that I found my first scoop of the day:

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At only five dollars, this US first edition seems like a bargain. Just as well Vita isn’t looking down from the writer’s mural on the wall. To be available so cheaply….

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Still, I feel that I have found myself something special. And a quick check on Amazon suggests that ‘The Dark Island’ isn’t in print. A copy in French is available; but even for this francophone, that’s a bit de trop.

Escaping from the biting chill whipping through the carts, I headed directly for the children’s section. (I didn’t dare head to the vintage and rare books floor; last time I did that I found myself shelling out for a Christopher Isherwood first edition). It didn’t take long to bag a couple of gems here. First up is this joyous volume:

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There’s something comforting about knowing kids have been learning the same alphabet for hundreds of years. The examples might have changed, but the letters haven’t.

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Shame they couldn’t think of anything for ‘Q’ or ‘X’.

A topical modern version might begin: ” A’s for America that’s been led astray; B is for Brexit that won’t go away”.

And talking of satire…

My final delight of the day is this intriguing book. It is, of course, a parody of Alice in Wonderland from the late 1920’s. In it, the author satirizes immigration restrictions, censorship and prohibition, amongst other topics.

As Trump takes office later today, I imagine we should expect a tsunami of satire to pour forth from America. As it must.

Heading back to the hotel along Boston’s mall, Commonwealth Avenue, I stopped at one of the many statues which proudly watch over the joggers, lunchers, dog-walkers and book-buyers. William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, suffragist and social reformer. The kind of person I’d gladly sit next to on a plane. His world view – an expansive, anti-isolationist one – that we are all the same, is on the defensive in many parts of the world right now. But it is one I identify with, and on a day which feels like a massively retrograde step for decency and democracy, I’m sharing it with you.

“My country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.” William Lloyd Garrison.

A morning which began with second-hand books, ended with a first class sentiment.

And an unexpected feeling of hope.

One tale; many stories.

There are many ways to tell one story.

This is something we, as writers, know. It’s something readers are aware of too. A story can be scary, or funny, or touching. It can be entertaining, or moralistic.

A story can be brilliant, or, and this is something I hope to avoid, terrible.

I’m currently working on the first draft of a new story, and as I write, it is taking unexpected turns. My characters decide to react differently to how I’d expected them to, and they’re meeting people I didn’t know existed until we met them for the first time.

My plot expands and contracts like a slowly beating heart and my setting morphs and moulds before my eyes.

In short, my story isn’t quite as I imagined it to be. And that’s ok. It’s bound to look entirely different by the end of the process. But the story I want to tell, the reason I embarked on this project, will still be there. The essence, or kernel, of my idea will be intact. It’s the anchor that keeps me swimming too far away as those new twists turn up and as unfamiliar turns force my characters to twist their words. It will keep me from drifting off into a too-strong current when a sub plot appears, threatening to drown out the important action. Like a salmon returning to a spawning river, the central thrust of my idea will bring me back to where I started; it will stop me from becoming lost in the deep blue sea.

The ability of a story to take unexpected, new and delightful twists and turns, without losing its way to the end game, was made clear to me last night at the ballet, (and if that last phrase doesn’t make me sound all high fallutin’, nothing will).

We went, the husband and I, to see Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel.

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image: edtheatres.com

A festive feast of fancy footwork; a seasonal splendour of sassy steps and jaunty jumps. Tutus as wide as elephants thighs and thighs as wide as… er…elephants thighs?

The pre-performance blurb hinted that this telling of the classic fairy tale was indeed a RE-telling. The wicked step mother was replaced by materialistic parents, more keen on watching tv than watching the kids. The witch was a glamorous beauty, luring the children away with her lollipops.

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A very un-witch like witch. Image: Scottish Ballet

Too late, the parents discover their loss, and they go in search of their little ones, now imprisoned in the familiar house made of sweets. Here, the ballet stuck to a familiar script of Hansel being fattened up for the pot, and Gretel handing him thin bones to convince the now-uglified witch that his time hadn’t yet come.

Dancing chefs, enchanted rag dolls and a decapitated teddy didn’t feature in Grimm’s original version, but they added to the fun rather than taking away from the tale.

Same story; different journey.

Years ago, I went to Glyndebourne (there he goes again, thinking he’s a cut above…) to see an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel. Same basic story, same music in fact (Humperdink’s score), but another interpretation.

If I remember, Glyndebourne offered up a drag version of the witch, whose house ressembled a supermarket, and where Hansel’s cage was a supermarket trolly.

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photo: telegraph.com

That’ll have got them talking in the long interval.

Again, same story; different journey.

As I continue with my novel, I’ll keep in mind these two wildly different versions of Hansel and Gretel, and, of course, Grimm’s original tale. They all entertain and thrill and satisfy. In all, the witch gets her comeuppance and the children learn a salutary lesson about greed and trust. In all, good wins out over evil. That is the kernel of this story, and it doesn’t change in the different tellings.

As long as I keep my kernel in mind, I can take my story wherever it wants to go. Although, just to safe, I might lay a trail of breadcrumbs in case I become lost.

Just yell if you see any hungry birds looking for a snack. Look what happened to Hansel and Gretel.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

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Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

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Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.

 

If shoes could talk…

Shoes. They tell stories.

To listen to some of these tales you could do worse than take a trip to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

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Here, shoes from around the world and through the ages recount their histories: who wore them and why they were worn.

Out of many intriguing tales, these three piqued my imagination. All worn by very different people for very different purposes.

Firstly, a shoe with only one aim in life: to crush, smash and pulverise. Seen out of context, this beast of a shoe is the stuff of nightmares; an instrument of torture conceived by a twisted mind.

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It’s actual raison d’être is more prosaic: this is a worker’s clog, worn, yes, to crush, smash and pulverise… the humble chestnut.
If you were born into a nineteenth century chestnut farming family in the Haute Ardeche of France, this would be your footwear of  choice come harvest time. These shoes tell a story of unmechanised hard labouring. As fun as it might be to try them on and wobble around, I’m guessing that chestnut farmer couldn’t wait to get them off their feet at the end of a long day.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shoe created for quite such a specific purpose.

From another corner of the planet comes example number two. This is a nineteenth century paduka from India.

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Worn by placing the toe knob between your big toe and the next, much like a flip flop, these particular examples had a rather more elaborate function.
The small button on the heel, when pressed, would send a spray of lotus-infused water over the wearer’s foot, thereby cleansing and purifying on-the-go.
Originally, these paduka would have been decorated with a lotus flower             (important in both Hindu and Buddhist religions) on the toe knob; a fancy stepping out indeed for the devout. These shoes tell a tale of the search for enlightenment, the quest for reincarnation.
I wonder if that chestnut farmer had similar thoughts in mind as they stepped out of a morning?

Finally, a story of rank, privilege and power.

Here, in all his splendour and finery is Louis XIV.

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Of note here are his dandyish shoes, and more specifically, those daring, red heels. In the Versailles of this Louis, only the most valued and most important courtier had the right of sporting scarlet heels bestowed on them. One wonders how hard you had to work to reach that point; how low you had to bow. The grovelling, the flattering, the scheming: all for the right to totter along the hall of mirrors in a pair of heels! You couldn’t exactly wear them to pick up your baguette for lunch; which, I suppose, was the point. Still, what fun to have been a mouche on a wall in Versailles…those shoes were made for talking.

Three pairs of shoes; three stories; three very different lives.

If your shoes could talk, what story would they tell.

Bridging the Gaps

I’m in the mood for a gratuitous metaphor….

We walked to South Queensferry the other day which, for us here in North Queensferry, invloves crossing the Forth Road Bridge. It’s a familiar route: driven over (often), cycled over (rarely), and run over fairly regularly. Walking it though, offers a different perspective. There’s time to watch the waves, birds and boats do their things. Time too, to stop and survey the progress being made with the new Forth bridge: The Queensferry Crossing.

The view across from the current bridge offers a zoomed-in peek at the process; it’s like every playmobil fan’s biggest fantasy. At night, these towers, with their arm-like roads growing sideways, take on the appearance of oil rigs or Thunderbirds-style International Rescue HQ’s.

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From further off, down in South Queensferry itself, a wide-screen view is available. The entire scene of construction becomes visible. Finally, you can see how this is going to work. This is how to build a bridge. Or, at least, how to build this particular bridge.

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Taking in the sight of these three looming towers, with their harp-string tendons fanning gracefully down to the road sections, is awe-inspiring. Then it occured to me that the method chosen to build this bridge is rather like that I chose to write my current story. The Queensferry Crossing isn’t being constructed from one side to the other; nor have they started at either end to join somewhere in the middle…always a risky endeavor as they speculated widely with the building of the Channel Tunnel. I think the general view back then was, “what if the French aren’t in the right place when we get to them?” Like they’d been digging towards Denmark by mistake, or something.

With this build, they began at multiple points. The towers rose slowly from the water. Simultaneously, the road began to reach out to meet them from either side of the firth.

Likewise, with my curent work-in-progress, I had my starting point. I also knew exactly where I wanted the story to end. More vitally, I also knew the main turning points my main character was going to go through along the way. If you like, I had the main pillars of my story. They were fairly solid in my mind – I even had some sketched out ready. My work has been to join them up coherently, and, I hope, entertainingly (this is middle grade comedy adventure!), so that each section joins up with the next.

Now, I’m happy to report that I am way ahead of the bridge construction. My road sections are all bolted together, I think in alignement. I’m sure once the bridge is whole, there will be weeks, if not months, of safety checks. Rivets will be checked for their integrity. Nuts will be triple stress-tested. Those beautiful radiating supports will be analysed. In much the same way, I’ll be drafting and re-drafting. My crit group will be critiquing. My beta readers will be reading to help me make it better. I’ll be stress-testing and  probably just stressing.

Finally, as the bridge is given a pre-opening sweep, I will be polishing the final draft until it shines.

The Queensferry Crossing is due to open later in the year. I might as well give myself the same deadline.

Bridge building and book writing: they’ve more in common than you might think.

Vernicious Knids rule! Or, the value of re-reading a book.

I re-read my favourite novel last week. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume has been my top read for years; I’ve read it once each decade since the 80s, which makes my most recent read my fourth. I wondered if it would retain its ranking after I’d finished….it did. My copy is now battered, creased and dotted with damp/fungus/something organic, but I think it will survive a few more reads yet. This time, I found the story to be even darker; more sinister. wp-1448985729763.jpegGrenouille, the orphan with superhuman olfactory powers, intent on capturing the essence of beauty in scent form, at all costs, seemed to have more intensity about him. If anything, I had more sympathy for him this time round, this solitary, misunderstood, much-abused creature. And of course, this is the wonderful thing about returning to a novel after many years: I brought a decade’s worth of extra emotional baggage to this reading, along with a decade of experiences, a decade of reading, a decade of relationships. I probably don’t need to buy any more books now; I can simply re-read my whole library for ever more.

The interesting thing about re-reading Perfume was that it felt like reading the book for the first time again. I hadn’t forgotten the basic plot of course, but there was much that had slipped my memory. This isn’t a great revelation to me: lots of things slip from my memory all the time. And ten years is, well, ten years. Details fade away like the colour from sun-bleached book spines. Rediscovering them feels a bit like coming home.

Having returned Perfume to its place on the shelf, where it is now free once more to culture its spores and mouldy patches (which down here by the sea could possibly occur like a speeded-up, time-lapse film), I began thinking about which other novels I’ve re-read over the years. Not a lot, as it happens. Which surprised me. Tales of the City and Harry Potter I have returned to multiple times. They are quick and comforting and I’ll often turn to them when I’m struck down with a cold. Apart from them though, I realised that I don’t go back to novels very often. I’m not sure why; I’ve watched some movies over and over. Part of the reason could be that I’m so keen to read as much as I can as quickly as I can. Time is, of course, running out! And writers are supposed to read as widely as they possibly can. Isn’t returning to the same novels time after time a waste of time? Shouldn’t I just get as many under my belt whilst I can?

And then I began thinking about my childhood reading. Until I began buying middle grade books in my adult years (research, naturally. Not at all because so many of them are so much better than adult fiction. Not in the slightest), I didn’t own many at all. If any. For many years as a child, the library was my sole source of books, until I had money enough to buy my own. I did have a fine range of younger titles – Blyton, Dahl, and my Dad’s 1950s editions of the Jennings stories. But nothing for older children actually lived on my book shelf. There is a reason for this: the lack of middle grade books correlates exactly with my parents’ divorce. Hence, the library becoming so important to my reading after the age of eight (I don’t suppose the Tory Philistines are reading this, but if they are…oh, why bother? They’re not interested in the importance of culture for the masses). This, then, explains why I didn’t re-read anything after becoming part of a single-parent family: when you’ve only got four library tokens a week, they can’t be wasted on something you’ve already read.

However, those few books I did own when I was much younger….those, I did go back to time after time after time. So many times in fact, that, like my favourite movies which I can almost quote from, they are imprinted on my mind, (clearly, I need a LOT more re-reads of Perfume to get to this level). They are not great works of literature; they might not even be close. But they were my books, and therefore formed part of my world.

And now I’m going to be terribly daring. I’m going to reveal – and this feels like an admission of sorts – that the books I returned to most often as a young child were indeed Enid Blyton books. I must have read the entire Famous Five series umpteen times; the Adventure books almost as many. The stories which really stuck with me though were the Faraway Tree tales.wp-1448985780854.jpeg Pure nonsense they might be, but the images Blyton conjured of weird characters (Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mister Watsisname), and strange, ever-changing lands at the top of tree (Upside-down Land, Take-what-you-want Land), these never left me. They’re still up there. And they still make me smile. It’s interesting – to me at least – that I don’t recall the names of the children who had the adventures; I only seem to remember the surreal and slightly anarchic details. For instance: I only owned one Roald Dahl book. Not for me Danny; or James and his peach; or the wonderful Witches. No. My only Dahl is the one no-one else had; the least favourite; the least well-known: It was Charlie; but not the factory. I was a proud owner of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. wp-1448985854044.jpegI must have read this book a hundred times and have never once lost sight of the Vermicious Knids spelling out their sinister message with their bendy alien bodies: wp-1448985937857.jpegwp-1448985945139.jpegSurreal and anarchic, I think you’d agree. Of all the images from my childhood reading that I have retained, I think Dahl’s Knids are the most prominent in my mind.

Having spent a significant amount of time considering the value and joy to be had from re-reading books, I came to a realisation: one day I hope to see my own books published and read by children. And re-read if they liked them enough. And if I want kids to re-read my books, they are going to have to be memorable enough to qualify for a re-read. Which means I should spend less time ruminating about my historical reading habits, and rather more time writing something to read.

I’m off to see if I’ve come up with anything half as joyous as a Vernicious Knid……