The Gilead Game

In my restless Brexit-induced waking hours I’ve come up with a fun new game for a rainy day. Or an endless, sleepless night. It can be played in a group. Or on your own during those endless, sleepless nights.

All you need is a dice, some imagination, and a basic grasp of Margaret Atwood’s nightmare, dystopian vision of our future (or an appreciation that Brexit, Boris Johnson and Steve Bannon amount to much the same thing).

Are you ready?

It’s called The Gilead Game. (I’ve chosen Atwood’s fictional setting, but feel free to come up with any similar theonomy/ethnostate…simply base it on your own country, but with added far-right, hysteria. These days, it’s easier to picture than ever).

Let’s play!

First you make a list, 1-6, of your favourite Handmaid’s Tale parts.

You might, for example, have chosen the following:

1: Handmaid. 2: Commander. 3: Martha. 4: Eye. 5: Aunt. 6: Gender Traitor.

Then you roll the dice and imagine how your life would be in the Gilead of your making. Simple.

Actually, you don’t even need a dice. You could just place yourself in one of the categories. For example, my husband and I would both have to pick “Gender Traitor”. Our lives in Gilead would then involve a period of running from the authorities; hiding out in cold, dark places; before being rounded up and publicly executed. Such fun!

By the way, if you’re a writer, thinker, journalist, liberal, socialist, feminist, etc…you might as well just choose “Gender Traitor” too. The end result is the same.

An alternative, but no less fun, game occurred to me the other night. During dinner at my in-laws, my niece (15) picked up on one of my regular rants. She interrupted me and asked what I’d meant by “the rapid rise of the far right”. I thought for a moment, then did what any self-respecting uncle would do: explain exactly what the far right is, and the danger it poses. This then led to a discussion on Brexit. All conversations end this way these days.

We talked about the possible (likely?) food shortages and that we might all have to rely on local food sources to survive. In Scotland, we decided, this would result in a diet based solely on rhubarb and turnips (or swedes or rutabaga, if you must). This, assuming Scots are willing to go into the fields and collect the food themselves. Remember folks, there’ll be no migrant labour this time next year!

And thus my other diverting game was devised. I’m calling it, quite simply, “Live or Die?”. In this game you split into two teams to come up with as many tasty, nutritious meals as you can made solely from these two ingredients. Give your teams names why don’t you? Turnip Tops and Rhubarb Fools, perhaps?

I can promise you that this game is easily as much fun as my Gilead game. Although the end result is basically the same, because if a diet based on mashed turnip and boiled rhubarb isn’t a dystopian nightmare, then I don’t know what is.

Sweet dreams everyone. (Not that there’ll me any sugar to sweeten that rhubarb, mind).

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Conference concentrated

Having just arrived home from the annual SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I thought I’d break my almost pathological blog silence with a post-conference piece. Unfortunately writing and flying commitments are currently syphoning off almost all my free time, so I am left with a one hour window whilst sitting on a flight between Edinburgh and London to share my thoughts. 

A distilled 60 minutes means I’m going to distill my thoughts…. and so, in no particular (read: undrafted, unorganised, probably unreadable) order, things I learned/discovered/didn’t expect to learn or discover from my weekend in Winchester….

*SCBWI conferences are great.

*It’s always worth getting up early to make the keynote sessions. And to take Instagram worthy photos of early morning cemeteries.

*Alex T Smith partly based his wonderful comic dog creation, Claude, on Larry Grayson. The joy of knowing this could keep me happy forever.

*When you’re dressed as your favourite cartoon dog at the Saturday night conference party, people are more likely to talk to you. Or pull your tail. Or both.

*A children’s writers and illustrators conference isn’t the best place to try and keep a top secret publishing deal to yourself. These people can smell good news a mile off.

*The lunch queue is as good a place as any to chat to award winning YA writers and whisper that you’re joining the same publisher as them. (See what I mean…just couldn’t help myself).

*There’s always time to discuss the calamity of Brexit…even 1.30am after a bucket of wine.  Especially at 1.30am after a bucket of wine.

*Marauding drunks are as noisy at 1.30am in well-heeled Hampshire as they are anywhere. (The last two points are not entirely unconnected).

*British provincial hotels are every bit as disappointing as they always were. A selection of tea bags, a creased city guide, and a wall-mounted fan heater, do not a luxury hotel experience make.

*Writers are the best people on earth to rely on for: support, words of wisdom, congratulation, consolation, encouragement, sharing a joke, advice….helping you attach a dog tail…anything.

*Friends made at conference are for life, not just for conference.

*There’s always time, even at a writer’s conference, to discuss vegetarian haggis recipes.

*You can never have enough conference badges and pens.

And now my top 5 things I learned from Scbwicon17:

1. Never travel without my pillow. A breeze block in linen is not a substitute, are you hearing me Mercure hotels?

2. Children’s writers and illustrators are the best people. 

3. A day without tea and cake, is a day not worth living.

4. Get in the queue early for tea and cake.

5. Finding the funny and giving kids something to laugh at is more important now than ever. It’s also what I love to do more than almost anything.

That’s it. One hour of flying combined with an hour writing. I don’t call myself the flyingscribbler for nothing.

Not-So-Secret Agent (anymore)

I have news. Good news. The sort of news unagented and unpublished writers dream of receiving. (And I’ve been sitting on this for ages, like a penguin desperate to get off his egg).

I am now longer without an agent.

Along with writing the next Harry Potter series, having a book optioned by a Hollywood studio, and being part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club, having an agent make an offer of representation is, for most writers, part of the Holy Grail. The shiniest treasure; that which gleams like a glorious, golden geegaw, is, of course, a publishing deal. But here’s the thing about the publishing industry: it’s really hard to get your book onto the shelves without first having an agent to help you get it there. An agent acts like a conduit – a well-connected, deal-making conduit – between the starry-eyed (or bleary-eyed, depending on how long they’ve been hammering away at the keyboard) writer and the publishing houses. It’s possible to make it without an agent looking out for you, but not easy.

I’m insanely happy to have found my agent. Here’s how it happened.

In a previous blog I wrote about my experience at the Society of Children’s Bookwriters & Illustrators UK conference. I’d entered a “pitch-your-book-to-a-panel-of-agents” competition. Having made it to the final, I had to live pitch my book, on stage, in front of the massed conference, with the judges (agents) sitting behind me!

I won the event, and my prize was to pick one of the agents to have a 1-1 with at some time.

I had spent some time researching the five agents, just in case I should be lucky enough to win. Therefore, when I was put on the spot, and asked to pick the agent I wanted to get some feedback from, I was ready. This task was made easier because I’d felt some connection with her during my ten minutes on stage.

And wow! How pleased am I to have chosen the fantastic Thérèse Coen?

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Agent & Writer!

Fast forward two months…

Thérèse had already asked for my full manuscript (a leap forward in itself – only two other agents ever asked for THAT before), and we arranged for the 1-1 to take place in London. Thérèse picked an interesting venue: the House of St Barnabas in Soho.

 

It’s a not-for-profit private members club, whose staff have experienced life challenges in the past, but who have been offered a chance (and employment with training) by the club. It’s members appeared to be predominantly hipsters with beards tapping away on their Macbook Airs. The unmistakable scent of Penhalligan’s beard oil lay at chin level like an alternative-scene aether.

Thérèse had pre-warned me about the location’s pro-trendy tendencies, and I did my best, honest. I think my slim-fit jeans, Uniqlo sweater and air of quiet desperation did the job.

Fast forward two hours…

Having received feedback on my manuscript, Thérèse said the magic words and offered to be my agent. I think I was so shocked that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly. She very politely suggested that if I had any other agents in mind, she would understand. Notwithstanding the thirty plus rejection emails in my inbox, I accepted her offer without too much delay.

Fast forward two weeks…

With my contract at Hardman & Swainson Literary Agents signed, I am now at liberty to share my good fortune.

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Signing the contract!

And share it I have. A friend of mine from SCBWI-BI said that good news such as mine is like oxygen for writers. It is. We thirstily lap up positive stories about publications, prize wins, and yes, agents obtained. They smell better than the rejections we bury out in the garden.

Right now I’m embarking on edits and word-culls to get my book into shape for the publishers my agent might approach. And I’m doing so with a smile on my face. Writing has always been worth it; I love telling stories and bringing characters to life. I like giving them problems to solve and danger to survive. I enjoy forcing them to take risks and aim high. Higher still. As high as they can reach.

I took a risk entering the pitching competition. And I’ve been aiming high for ages trying to get an agent. Now I’m aiming higher still. But now I’m not aiming alone; with my agent behind, beside and out in front, we’re aiming as high as can be. Write a book? Check. Find an agent? Check. Get published? Not yet, but I’m reaching for that star right now.

 

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.

Capitalism:1; Creativity:0

Buildings tell stories.

At least, the people inside them have stories to tell, or stories to be told.

I was considering this in New York last week. If there was ever a city whose buildings can spin a yarn, it’s this one. Think, The Hotel Chelsea, with its cast list of famous and creative residents; The Empire State whose viewing level has played host to countless stories of love and loss – not to mention an infamous skirmish with an oversized gorilla; massive department stores – Barneys, Bloomindales, Bergdorf Goodman – where staff sell hopes and dreams and too-tight jeans to harried and hurried customers; the ghosts of the Twin Towers with their thousands – too many thousands – of tales of loss and mourning and grief; glamorous apartments house even more glamerous ageing widows…think Iris Apfel; nondescript buildings in the East Village whisper the secrets of beatnik poets.

For me, it is the apartment buildings that have the most to say, simply because they contain the most people. I love to stand and look up; look skywards and gaze at the hundreds of windows, behind which who-knows-what is happening. Someone laughing here on the phone…they’ve just been told some gossip, but shhh!…it’s a secret. Someone there in tears…they’ve been dumped by text. Up top there’s a couple taking the morning off…loudly. In the lift, a man wonders if he can still pay the rent now that he’s been made redundant. At the entrance, an elderly woman with a small dog on a leash whispers in the doorman’s ear and presses a twenty into his hand: for his daughter’s education, you understand. How else can he send her to college?

Every storey tells a story.

Cycling in Central Park, the tops of hundreds of apartment buildings loom over trees. Just because these Upper East and West side addresses house mostly the wealthy and privileged, doesn’t mean they can’t tell their own stories. Even the rich have secrets: they laugh and cry; they love and hate; they live and die.

But there is a building in Manhattan which will buck the trend. It’s freshly glazed windows won’t blink to reveal. It’s heavy doors poised to shut like sealed lips. It is a building with few tales to tell because despite its size, it is mostly void of humanity and will most likely stay that way.

432 Park Avenue is a new breed of building.

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Conceived solely for a new class: the Ultra High Net Worth class (UHNW). These are folk with assets of at least $30 million. We’re not talking the 1%…we’re talking smaller percentages. This is a building which reflects the rise of the global super-rich. Even its architect, Rafael Viñoly, has said that “there are only two markets, ultra luxury and subsidised housing”. And this place is ultra.

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Ultra-high. Ultra-expensive ($95 million for the pent house anyone?). Ultra-inaccessible.

Ultra-empty.

And here’s where a building’s ability to tell stories has been stifled, silenced, starved of material.  For this is a building which will never be fully occupied. It’s a building designed to be less than half occupied. Some reports suggest it will never be more than a quarter occupied. 432 Park Avenue is where the UHNW club come to park their cash. If they come at all. It’s mostly just where they park their cash. Too much wealth Sir? Don’t like the look of that domestic tax bill Madam? Why not allow your money the luxury of a multi-million dollar residence? There it can bask in the summer sun or revel in the winter snow. Allow it the space to breathe, to flex and to grow (in value).

This is a building destined to remain silent. Silent of laughs. Silent of tears. Silent of the stuff of life. And whilst The Chelsea and those run-down East Village apartments no longer resound to the creative beats of writers’ and artists’ drums (the creative class of New York having long ago been forced into an economic retreat), at least their history can testify to something human. Something emotional. Something we can all relate to.

432 Park Avenue isn’t alone in being built for the ultra-wealthy. New York is going to be littered with sky-high, tax-free bolt-holes for lonely dollars. And Europe’s not immune to this spreading canker: In London, The Tower, St George’s Wharf is 432 Park Avenue’s Special Relationship cousin, destined to house the currencies of the world’s super-elite.

These buildings are not conceived to nurture lives, loves and lines of poetry. They have only one story to tell; and it’s an ugly one. An empty, heart-sapping tale of selfishness, greed, and complicity in both.

It’s a story no-one wants to read. It’s a story I wish I didn’t have to tell.

 

Towers of Words.

Flying Scribbler eschewed flying last week and took to the waves for a trip to Arran.received_641117452708841.jpeg

In years to come, memories of this holiday will, like all memories, fade away. Traces will remain of the walks, the cheese, the whisky; even the hare which sat for a second outside our rental cottage, before leaping away into the long grass. But one memory will linger, persisting in my mind far loner than any other.

Pebbles.

I adore pebbles.

I would always prefer to spend time on a pebble beach than on sand. img_20160518_210818128_hdr.jpg

Pebbles have so much to offer: they are things of beauty; they are tactile; they can be skimmed on the surface of a sunset-drenched sea; and they can be balanced, one-by-one, to create centre-of-gravity-defying, teetering towers.received_641117662708820.jpeg Sedimentary upon metamorphic upon igneous constructions,  growing from the beach, playing chicken with the evening breeze.

The attraction for me is in creating something so temporary out of something as permanent as the rock of the earth. These towers can’t last: even those built away from the reach of the highest tides won’t survive a storm, or the flap of an oyster catcher’s wing. Whilst those built as the waves lap at their very bases will be re-consigned to their horizontal plane in mere moments.

I wonder if by writing, I am constructing something as temporary as the pebble towers, or as permanent as the pebbles themselves?

The paper my words are printed on will, in time, degrade and decay to dust.  If I become published, even the copies of my book held in the permanent collections where all books are destined to be stored, even these will disappear given enough time. The memory of the words I write can only ever be as permanent as the memory of the last person to have read them.

Stories have a finite life. It may be a long life in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, the Norse myths or the Bible. But even these will fade from memory in the millenia to come.

And although those pebbles rolling and frolicking in the surf on Arran, will themselves be reduced by friction and attrition to tiny particles, they will endure far longer than words. They will endure until Earth’s final moment.

So in writing my stories I am creating my own, temporary, pebble towers.

The trick is to build them on solid, even ground, away from the elements, to give them the best chance of standing tall for as long as possible.

As I write, word upon word, line upon line, page upon page, I’ll keep in mind those towers on a beach in Arran, and build the best stories I can.

Second-hand Perks

One of the perks of my job, (besides the obvious: nights out of bed, permanent jet-lag, cleaning up vomit), is the chance to visit some truly wonderful bookshops around the world.

I’ve not taken the opportunity to blog about them before, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, but this being no reason at all not to, let me tell you about Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

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Tucked down a sunless side street just off Boston Common, Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the oldest and largest used book shops in America.
There are three stories of books inside, including a rare and antiquated section (where I once found a first edition of Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood), but outside is where the most fun is to be had.
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Here, along shelves attached to the brick, or on wooden trollies, are the cheaper books…$5, $3 or $1 will bag you a bargain to send you home with a bibliophile smile, and a couple of kilo’s extra baggage.

There is little order to arrangement outside…Dewey decimal does not deliver here. Instead, fiction squeezes alongside non fiction. Poetry tickles prose. History nuzzles German cookery.
On one trolly I witnessed ‘Advanced Mathematics’ for Christians’ bivouacked with a biography of Lincoln.
So, the keen book-hunter must keep their wits at the ready and scan the shelves with an open mind (which I imagine you would need for that tome on mathematics).
Otherwise, how to explain these three gems which will accompany me home to Scotland?
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Eclectic? Perhaps.
There’s the ‘worthy’ read…Bede’s History of the English Church and People.
There’s the one to add to my other Isherwoods.
And there’s the joker in the pack. How could I refuse the cries (or was it whale song?) of Frances Diane Robotti’s book? This was written in a time before whales were regarded as in any way vital to the planet. To quote from the dust jacket..whaling was early America’s “most romantic and picturesque industry”. I chose it mainly because you never know….inspiration can come from anything.
And indeed, a story immediately presents itself when the book is opened…this was hiding inside:
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Come on, be honest… don’t you want to know what these two discussed either before 11pm or over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows.
Like I said, inspiration and stories everywhere….