Monthly Archives: August 2012

One Horn or Two?

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I saw something rather marvellous a few weeks ago, which I now feel ready to share with you. I have been guarding it for a little while in case there are rules about revealing stuff like this to the general public and I get kidnapped by angry gnomes. But you, dear readers, are anything but general. So I will say it out loud, just for you. I hope you appreciate the risk I am taking.

The 1000-year old church in said leafy village

I was driving through my parents’ leafy village, whistling along to Jefferson Starship (how cool am I?) when I glanced to my right. It was a brief sort of glance, because I was on a ROAD with my CHILDREN in the back of the car, and I am generally quite aware of driving etiquette, particularly when my husband is in the car with me and shouting stuff like “Keep your EYES ON THE ROAD because if you don’t we are all going to DIE!” and useful driving tips like that. It was, as I have said, a brief glance. And the object of my glancing was a white horse in a field.

Which happened to be a unicorn.

Eyes on the ROAD please

Pause while you digest this. Take your time. Have a biscuit. Biscuits help. Back with me yet? I can wait.

*drums fingers, checks watch*

It may just be me. I admit this. I am a children’s writer after all, and prone to noticing faces in tree trunks and fairies in flowers (see previous blog) without the use of artificial stimulants.

But who cares? For one glorious moment, as the unicorn lifted its head, its horn glimmered at me in a slanting ray of sunshine. It did! And now I’ve told you, so come and get me, gnomes! But you have to catch me first!

*thundering sound of angry gnome feet*

*sound dies away ominously*

*silence descends*

Rules for Writing (3)

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For my last trick, I would like to assess a former Poet Laureate and his suitability for life as a children’s entertainer – for that, minus the squirty flower, is what we children’s writers are.

Poetry in Motion

Sir Andrew Motion: economical with words and with a surname that makes me want to move along in a perambulatory fashion. We are spoiled for children’s poets, though they aren’t as celebrated as they deserve to be: Benjamin Zephaniah, Roger McGough, Michael Rosen, Giles Andreae, Shel Silverstein to name but a scraping from beneath my little fingernail. Would Sir Andrew suit this life, or is he too airy-fairy? Here are his 10 rules for a productive writing career.

1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.

How many times have I sat bolt upright in bed and thought to myself: “3am! I must get to my writing implements at once!” Er, never. Daytime writer, me.

2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.

This is like seeing with your eyes closed, shopping without spending, singing in your head and other sundry every-day experiences. Fine advice.

“Seriously. The human was big.”

3. Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.

NAUGHTY FAIRIES legitimised my love of scrutinising the small things and then rushing inside to write about them. The bloom on a wet pebble. The smell of a beetle’s wings. How furry a bumblebee actually is. Writers don’t need mass world events to produce good material. Here’s a challenge for you. Sit in front of a flower for five minutes and look. Note colours, smells, textures, insect activity. Observe the fairy thumbing its nose at you from the tiny leaf near the base of the plant. Thumb your nose back. Write it down. Ta-da. A book.

4. Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.

There is something pleasingly totalitarian about this. “Just TALK to each other! How hard can it be? You went to Hogwarts, he went to Hogwarts…”

5. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense.

Bionic hamsters notwithstanding.

6. Bear in mind Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “only mediocrities develop” – and ­challenge it.

I can’t decide if this means the Poet Laureate feels mediocre himself, or if he thinks we can all be geniuses if we work at it, or both. A bit obfuscatory I feel.

7. Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.

I like the implication that my books are, in fact, a case of fine wine. Another glass of silly jokes and peculiar metaphors, Vicar?

8. Think big and stay particular.

This sounds terrifically guru-ish, if a bit smug. I have no idea how to put it into practice but I’d like to try.

9. Write for tomorrow, not for today.

I believe one has to be rich in order to think like this. There’s no shame in approaching your writing commercially if you have bills to pay, not to mention men in dark suits standing at lonely crossroads with weaponry, receipts and long memories. The perfect approach is a mixture of both. Write for 11.59pm – 12.01am. Bingo.

10. Work hard.

You’re meant to be a poet, man! I am sure this dull little truism was SUPPOSED to read: “Chase those words around like sheep, with hours to go before you sleep.”

Which brings Sir Andrew Motion’s total to an arbitrary 6/10. Don’t ask me how I reach these figures, people. Call it artistic licence. All together now: There once was a poet called Motion…

When approached for this 10 rules thing, Philip Pullman wisely declared: “My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.” So it’s back to penguins for me tomorrow.

Rules for Writing (2)

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A big rule in children’s books is: no stand-alones. It’s important to think in trilogies, sets of six, that kind of thing. So let’s do three of these ‘Rules for Writing’ riffs and take it from there. You never know. I might sell translation rights and get a licensing deal. It’s important to be open-ended.

Margaret Atwood: showing how it’s done

After the disappointment of Elmore Leonard (see Rules of Writing (1)), who better to analyse next than Margaret Atwood? Her book THE HANDMAID’S TALE totally out-dystopes THE HUNGER GAMES and boots it into a cocked cornucopia. How would Ms Atwood fare in the cut-throat world of ponies, bottom jokes and amusing chapter-head puns inhabited by phraseandfable? Here are her ten rules.

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

This is not just advice about writing, friends. It’s advice about life.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

This woman really thinks things through. You could give her a dragon rampaging through an enchanted forest, no problem. No randomly burned villages. No continuity issues with the heroine’s hair or ill thought-out knight scenarios.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

You have an idea and you desperately need to write it down because your brain is like a teabag and just the tiniest amount of hot water will wash all your thoughts into the chipped mug of forgetfulness. And YOU HAVE NO PAPER! It’s a disaster! A… what was I talking about again?

4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.

Yes. Unless you really REALLY enjoyed that extremely complex exposition about your future world / alien planet / superpower accident and fancy doing it all over again in exactly the same way.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

Comfy writing chair: check. Well-positioned keyboard: check. That’s your lot. Be grateful.

6. Hold the reader’s attention. But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

Children’s writers have a small advantage of writing for age bands / genders here. As a rule of thumb, boys hate ballet, girl heroes and kissing. Girls like everything. Editors and sales folk believe this to be true. I can’t speak for the writers or the actual children themselves.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.

Lose the grip on reality, Mags. It’s a hindrance.

How did I get here again?

8. You can never judge your own book because you’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. 

I’m deeply interested in those rabbits. Were they up your sleeve? Inside your shirt? Whipped up from a parallel universe with an incantation whose precise origins are lost in a sea of time and wizards?

9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. 

THE GRUFFALO is a good example of what can happen if you sit down in the middle of the woods without having first checked everything out. Even if your nut is Fairtrade.

*NEWSFLASH* Gruffalo loses the plot

10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Also prawn cocktail crisps and Mah Jong online.
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A whopping 8/10 for Margaret Atwood there, people. But we shouldn’t be surprised. She’s done children’s books already and the titles are fabulous. WANDERING WENDA AND WIDOW WALLOP’S WUNDERGROUND WASHERY, for goodness sake! Genius!

Rules for Writing (1)

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I found a great article in The Guardian some time ago, where famous writers gave their ten rules about writing. Should we children’s authors follow the same rules? Isn’t there’s too much else going on inside the crazy place that we call, for the sake of argument, our heads?

Elmore Leonard:
King of fart jokes

The first sage and important grown-up author on the list: Elmore Leonard, American king of westerns and thrillers. Kids love both. Bodes well. So how will he score in the face of the merciless forensic analysis that is phraseandfable?

1. Never open a book with weather.

Personally, I love it when a book cracks you right into a custard rainstorm, or a howling wind so cold that the nearest iceberg is reaching for a bobble hat and a warming mug of Horlicks.

2. Avoid prologues.

Try breaking this to the prologues. What have they ever done to you? Children’s writing is about inclusivity, man! Prologues all the way in this house!

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

When I write young fiction, I think about this question a great deal. Shouldn’t I be introducing a few more exciting words to enhance my young readers’ vocabulary? Joked, groaned, bellowed? Prognosticated? Please, can I use prognosticated?

“And… FIRE”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

I admit to a fear of adverbs, especially the hairy ones with too many legs. I should take heart from JK Rowling. There’s a writer who wasn’t scared. Armies of adverbs advance through her books, left, right and hopefully. As with most things, moderation is the key.

5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control.

Good lord, Leonard, you fool! These are children we’re talking about! CHILDREN!! They LOVE ‘EM!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.

… except when hell suddenly breaks loose, which happens a lot around Darren Shan and David Gatward. Just saying.

“Wha gwaan?”

7. Use regional dialect – patois – sparingly.

To which I shall merely reply: Rastamouse.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

What about when the character has six heads and green teeth? Or is a witch in fabulous stripy socks? When it’s VERY IMPORTANT INDEED that you know the character you’re reading about is a weird vegetarian vampire about to bite your neck and turn you into a beetroot? Please.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Crikey, Len. First people, now places. Don’t you describe anything at all? Description can be GOOD. Pirate ships with window boxes and pants drying in the rigging. Cute koala cubs with ears like cheerleaders’ pompoms. Odd planets where everything’s just deliciously wrong. The precise squidginess of chocolate cake.

SCARLET SILVER: swimming with description

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

At last! Totally with you on this one. If you’ve got stuff readers tend to skip, then you’ve got no business being a children’s writer. Or indeed, any sort of writer at all.

And finally:

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Best advice of the lot. Read over what you’ve written. Then read it again. Then fix it. But leave the bit about the dinosaur drooling on the teacher’s handbag. I love that bit.

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So there you go, all those friends and weirdos still hanging in there as I ramble away. Elmore Leonard scores 2½ out of 11 as a children’s writer. Disappointing. No Working Partners commissions for him any time soon.