Category Archives: Writing

Slurp

You might remember that Meg Rosoff left me in the corridor on Thursday afternoon. I was still there when she woke up on Friday morning. Or so I tried to claim. I had returned to the same spot, sorting out my plans for the day, when Meg came up and asked if I’d come for coffee with her.

On the understanding I’d not actually have to have any coffee, I agreed, and that’s how I ended up slurping my own pink blueberry yoghurt drink after all. Meg had one as well, and also coffee (Swedish coffee, where you don’t get to choose what kind) to set her up for the day.

(It must be tough to find that the only person ‘in town’ you know is your long time ‘stalker.’ A bit like when friends of ours moved to a new town and the only person they knew there was the bishop. Talking of whom, the bishop was the only famous person I encountered in the corridors during my two days at the fair. Except I refer to him as the former archbishop. Same difference.)

We talked about amusement parks, and nearly falling off carousels, and I recommended Liseberg [across the road] if she wanted a walk. Anyway, it turned out Meg had even more mini-events to appear at than I’d been told about, so I attempted to steer us towards the Brombergs stall, except in the end Meg did better than me. Oh well.

Meg Rosoff

It’s amazing how at a fair this size, with thousands and thousands of visitors you ever accidentally find people you know. As I was making my way to see Chris Haughton, my attention was caught – with some difficulty – by the New Librarian, who was standing there eating lunch with Pizzabella and School Friend. So we chatted over their Thai food, until it was time for me to eat my own lunch during Chris’s event.

My next event was 45 minutes on horror with Jonathan Stroud and Mats Strandberg talking to Lotta Olsson. And from there I ran to the stage where Meg was appearing, again, and where I’d arranged to meet both School Friend and Pippi. Failed to see School Friend, even with the help of the New Librarian and Pizzabella, who both passed by individually, and who both failed to find their mother. Pippi turned up and we chatted until it was time for me to force a couple of signed books from Meg. At this point School Friend materialised, but when offered the opportunity of meeting Meg she vanished, claiming she had another event to queue for, so in the end Meg only got to say hello to Pippi, who then insisted on buying me tea. And a kanelbulle.

Meg Rosoff

I just might have noticed Sven Nordqvist, of Findus fame, walk past. But on the whole I don’t recognise Swedish celebrities. I decided that gossiping was more important than a third Jonathan Stroud event, and when we were done I sent Pippi on her way to look at books and things, while I chased Jonathan for a signature, but missed him.

And that was that.

I went to pick up my suitcase from Miss Vet’s, called in at a bookshop on the way to the station (because I’d not had enough, and because the fair didn’t have the book I was after), and caught a train to go and spend the weekend with School Friend. And that is where I am now.

Halving your equations

It was really very interesting. I may not know too much about maths and physics, but that doesn’t mean an event where people who do know about these things and talk about them, can’t be fascinating.

Christophe Galfard and Ulf Danielsson spoke to Karin Bojs about the universe, last thing on Thursday at the book fair. Christophe is famous for having done his PhD with Stephen Hawking, but they were at pains to point out that Ulf had studied with David Gross of Nobel fame, and he is now Professor at the University of Uppsala. Words like theoretical physics and string theory always have entertainment value.

Christophe Galfard, Ulf Danielsson and Karin Bojs

Apparently it was ‘quite easy’ to become a disciple of Stephen Hawking. You just turn up as sober as possible, the day after the May Ball in Cambridge, and you talk to the people there and decide who you like best. It was hard work once he got in, though, but also good because in such illustrious company you get to meet the greatest names in the business. You have to ‘think the unthinkable’ to get ahead.

Karin made Christophe explain the rather famous E = mc2, which seemed to surprise him, and this led to the wisdom of avoiding equations when you write for us normal people, as you halve the number of readers for each equation used. (That strikes me as an equation on its own.)

Ulf also worked hard, and he once carried Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair. It was heavy. During his time working for his PhD he also became a father, while Christophe said he didn’t, or at least not that he knows of. A bit risqué, perhaps.

David Gross insisted Ulf had to learn how to keep his papers in order, and Christophe remembered the time Stephen’s computer voice broke as he was about to talk to his peers, and first year Christophe had to do the talking in his place.

Christophe Galfard

The first book for Christophe was George’s Secret Key to the Universe, which he wrote with Stephen and Lucy Hawking. He said the name helps sales. It’s a story everyone can understand. He is interested in what we don’t know, but also what we don’t know we don’t know. Christophe no longer works with research, but writes full time. He explained why we can’t fly, as well as why we don’t sink through the chairs we sit on. Something to do with quantum physics. And there’s some string theory at the end of his new book, The Universe in Your Hand.

As a professor Ulf has other work to do, but gets his writing in at night on the principle that a little will eventually become a book. He used words like dark matter, dark energy and a Star Wars-y title (Mörkret vid tidens ände), but also has thoughts on geography. His new book, Vårt klot så ömkligt litet, is about Earth and how we are no different from stone age people. And he’s flying back to Uppsala.

The bad news from Christophe is that the Sun will die. And if only the dinosaurs had had a university, they might have learned about theoretical physics and done something about becoming extinct. Not sure if this had any bearing on his trilogy on climate for children. He feels it’s important.

As I said, this was really very interesting.

Afterwards I hung around at the signing, just so I could walk up to Christophe and say hello and tell him we’d met before, and that I wasn’t buying his book. And ‘does he really speak Swedish?’ A little, it seems. Who’d have thought?

At last! Meg at Bokmässan!

A mere eleven years after I told people in no uncertain terms that they must invite Meg Rosoff to the Gothenburg book fair, she’s finally here. She only had to go and win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for it to happen, but at least she got here in the end. And it’s not just me who’s happy. A great many people have gone all star struck over meeting Meg, so I reckon this is a good thing. I’d like to think I helped, but I probably didn’t.

Gothenburg book fair

And I actually didn’t run up to her when I first saw her yesterday, feeling she might need the respite. Five minutes later I knocked on her back, however, as she was waiting to go on for her first of four events, one of the many free floor events they put on in Gothenburg, meaning you can see your stars without forking out a fortune. Or being a librarian. I was introduced to Helen Sigeland from ALMA, who remembered meeting Son a few months ago. (There’s no stopping this family.) I also accidentally saw Meg’s iPhone password when she needed to show me a photo from Tasmania… As you do.

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Talking to Boel Westin, she covered everything from getting the news of the award (good news can be as much of a shock as bad news), believing they’d made a mistake, past the prairie of silence when you need to start a new book (generally early January), the sexy horse book, her mother’s dog who is not allowed on the couch, and possibly basing her male and female characters on her husband and their daughter. A little.

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One hour later it was the turn of magazine Vi Läser to host Meg at their stall, and the seats were long gone (so I borrowed one from the University of Lund). The conversation was slightly different, and Meg talked about the beginnings of her adult novel Jonathan Unleashed, and leaving Penguin over it. At the signing afterwards I tried to buy a couple of copies of Jonathan in Swedish, but as my faithful readers know, you can’t always buy things with cash in this country.

Meg Rosoff at Vi Läser in Gothenburg

Jonathan-less I made my way round the corner to Piratförlaget and their little stage, grabbing a comfy seat early on. Which is where Meg found me, slurping something rather pink. Her slurping; not me. She showed me a photo of her with Patti Smith, so I said they were on at the same time. Meg told me to go and see Patti instead of her, again. Meg also offered to buy me my own pink blueberry yoghurt drink.

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Her lovely interviewer asked Meg about coming to Gothenburg, and she mentioned she’d been hinting for years with no luck, and talked again of the strain of surprise on hearing about the award and how they must have had the wrong number. Many Swedes seem to like What I Was best of Meg’s books, which she – probably accurately – explained by saying how she’d based it on her own ‘feral existence’ in Suffolk, and this is pretty much a Swede’s dream life. Meg told us about her very responsible daughter (she has to be, with a writer and an artist for parents), and how her own mother had confused her early on by saying she was bound to meet Mr Right one day, and how Meg feared she’d be in the wrong place at the crucial time.

It was a good thing I rejected Patti Smith, as the queue for her event was worse even than for Desmond Tutu last time I was here. I and all the librarians managed to sneak past the hordes to get to Meg’s ‘big’ Thursday event, with Boel Westin. I was joined at the last minute by the New Librarian, as well as others made late by the ‘Patti effect.’

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Life after ALMA is fine, with everyone wanting to see her, and travelling like crazy. She’s not writing anything at the moment, and Meg probably wants to remember to pay her car insurance this time, as she finishes her to-do pile. Skirting past the sexy horse book, she told us how she acquired her agent, relishing being told to write ‘as fiercely as you can’ after having grown up being told the opposite. When How I Live Now meant Meg could give up her job, she had to ask how to do this, more used to being fired.

Meg talked about finding one’s voice, (apparently it can be a bit like a horse and its rider), telling us that her husband brings her coffee in bed, and she reckons that for this she will hang on to him. Not being good at remembering things, she suspects that what she does remember will be important. Boel said she feels Meg is good at coming up with great book titles, so we learned about Googling ideas for titles to see if you’re original or not.

She doesn’t know what logarithms are, and sometimes she and her husband wake up to the sudden awareness that they actually live with animals. And art is important, as is thinking about death all the time (Meg not being the type of person who thinks about what car to get). She finished by reading from the Swedish favourite, What I Was.

I saw her again as I was enjoying a well earned armchair rest in a corridor. Meg stopped to say she needed to go and lie down, and she was heading for her hotel room, except she wasn’t entirely sure where it was. I realised belatedly that she was walking in the wrong direction…

Write your own

Deborah Patterson has two new books, full of pictures, just waiting for the words.

Deborah Patterson, Write your own myths

Well, there are words, of course. My Book of Stories; write your own myths, and write your own fairy tales explain many of the traditional stories, have illustrations to inspire, and then masses of pages where you can just write. Lined pages, speech bubbles, the lot.

I have said before how tempting it is to write in books. I reckon I would have found these very inviting as a child. Unless you have a contrary one who won’t write when it’s actually allowed. But that’s your problem.

You could always steal the book and write your own bedtime tales to read from.

This is a nice way of both educating and entertaining a child, while encouraging any creative vein they might harbour.

In fact, I suspect I could do with educating a wee bit. Now that I think of it.

The Doctor and his companions

I have just begun reading the fanthology A Target for Tommy, written by friends of Tommy Donbavand’s as a way of raising funds for him, edited by Paul Magrs and Stuart Douglas. It is quite interesting, since fan fiction is often written badly – if enthusiastically – by non-writer fans. Here we have professional writers who are also fans, writing their own fan fiction, and that is a completely different kettle of fish.

What I hadn’t done before grabbing the book, though, was to consider how much I don’t know. Barry Hutchison has a fun story early on, featuring Donna and, I presume, David Tennant. So that was fine, and I could picture them in my mind.

A Target for Tommy

And then I moved on to older Doctors and their companions, and whereas many of them have been mentioned over the years, I don’t know them. Sarah Jane, obviously, but not really the others. This will be a long learning process. I am missing something like forty years of Doctor Who and his companions, and Wikipedia wasn’t as immediately forthcoming as I had hoped.

At least this way I get to see what went on inside the minds of companions, and you realise how different one Doctor is from another, despite being mostly the same. Luckily K-9 is pretty much K-9.

Highly recommended for fans of the Doctor. Or should I say for fans of the companions?

I’m guessing a lot of writers have been dying to have a go at this kind of fan fiction writing, and it’s not as if it’s all that strange either, what with there having been so many different writers involved over the years. It was never just one; either Doctor or companion or writer.

Don’t Waste It

Kicking off a blog tour to celebrate his new book, Malcolm McNeill is here today to warn us about wasting ideas. As if we would!

Beginning Woods blog tour

“When I was at university, I knew a peculiar fellow called Rahul Gupta who could recite Milton by heart and quote Anglo-Saxon poetry. He was fantastically intelligent, an oddity, an anachronism. He told me the story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—it took him an hour. How could someone so young, I wondered, be so old?

In poor return I told him an idea I had for a story, about a forest where all myths and legends came from.

‘That’s a good idea,’ he told me. ‘Don’t waste it.’

I never wrote those words down, but I remembered them. The sentiment behind them—that ideas were important, that they had value, that they could be cheapened—became part of my ‘core’ irreducibles, my six-pack against whatever sucker-punch life had in store.

So did I waste it? Well, I’ve been taking stock.

Looking back at old saved copies of The Beginning Woods is like performing an archaeological dig. The earliest full version I have on record bears the stupendously naive title FINAL WORKING DRAFT. (There are over fifty more versions after it, each a redraft of the last.)

Looking at the document properties tells me it was last modified 16/01/2005. This means there’s a prehistory, a dark time before records began. To delve into that, I have to open another Word document called Part One Bits, created 16/06/2003, in which I stored passages I cut but wanted to keep just in case. These total 133,842 words. There are two more documents of cuttings containing 100,045, and 99,842 words, but some of them overlap.

Most of it I have no memory of writing at all. It’s all just broken pottery and arrowheads.

I actually started developing the story after university, in about 1999. An Excel document entitled PLOT (last modified 12/12/2006—I haven’t plotted things out since) lists events that bear only a passing resemblance to the story in its current form. What’s obvious is that I had big plans for the project. It was to be a series of five books. Five long books.

This first was called The Alexandrian Society. Its length fluctuated between about 120-150,000 words. I spent an inconceivable amount of time working on it. In their twenties, most people transform whatever potential they’ve generated in their school years into the foundations of their professional lives. They do this by socialising, building relationships, and developing a career. It takes time and hard work.

I did none of that. I was serving an apprenticeship that brought me rich, otherworldly rewards, but at a price; it exerted a downward pressure on everything else. I built no career, developed no relationships, and transformed the considerable potential of my education into nothing. I just wrote a book that was never published.

It came close. But, not unreasonably, publishers were wary. I was unknown. It wasn’t a conventional fantasy book. Worse, it wasn’t a stand-alone book—it was clear more books came after it. To tell the truth, these thoughts had always been in the back of my head; I didn’t lack self-awareness. I was stubbornly iconoclastic. Write from enjoyment, from pleasure, from intellectual or sensual abandonment, but whatever you do, do not write to get published. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, tough.

In 2007, I submitted to a single publisher in the States, a golf shot from Western Siberia that sailed over Europe and the Atlantic and landed on the putting green, an inch from the hole. I ended up with a lovely editor who got me going on a rewrite (‘let’s see how it turns out’ was the deal). I moved to Berlin to work on it, but it was not to be: a couple of weeks before I finished the rewrite, she left the publishing house, and the whole thing collapsed.

This was a bit disheartening. But at least I was in Berlin. Then the entire world economy imploded. My teaching work dried up, and I moved to Saudi Arabia. The perversity of this decision pleased me, that it was in Saudi Arabia of all places, that I would regather myself.

Within a year I had the draft of a stand-alone book. By the time I got back to London, in 2011, I was ready to submit to publishers again; nobody wanted it. One agent said she would consider it if I cut 30,000 words. I declined.

This all brought me rather low, and I gave up. I’d wasted an entire decade of my life. I’d made the mistake of putting all my eggs in one basket. I’d then used the eggs to make a giant omelette nobody wanted to eat. So I had no eggs.

I heard about Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing platform, bought one of their packages, and prepared the manuscript for upload to their system. I was too exhausted to care what happened to it afterwards. If anyone read it, that was a bonus. I’d been working on the story too long, and the reduction of all that material into one book was a dispiriting compromise I bitterly resented making. The main thing was to shove it all away from me and do something new.

Then I got an email from Gregor.

I knew Gregor because I stuck up my hand in assembly when I was in sixth form. My boarding school had a sister school in Japan. Every year, a Japanese scholar would arrive and study with us for a year. In 1993, our school decided to reciprocate the exchange, and I volunteered to be the first exchange student. So off I went to Tokyo.

Also in the Japanese high school was a Brazilian exchange student called Juan Carlos. He was with Rotary, so he had a network of fellow exchange students. I fell into their company, and a group formed; Joe, from the USA, Vanessa, from Brazil, Marwan, from France, Bager, from Turkey, Eiji, from Japan, my girlfriend Kaori, Raphael, from Germany, and me.

Afterwards we kept in touch for a few years, but gradually our relationships loosened as we disappeared into our adult lives. Then, in 2001 I think, Raphael got back in touch. A friend of his was visiting London, could he sleep on the sofa?

Sure!

A few years later, Raphael himself showed up, working as a translator for a group of German musicians, and the Japanese production company of Issey Ogata. I spent a few days with this group of actors and musicians, and my friendship with Raphael was cemented. A couple of years later, fed up with the actor’s life in London, I moved to Berlin for a time. I didn’t stay long, but I visited him regularly over the years.

In 2007 I was in Berlin again, smashing eggs, making an omelette the Americans would decide not to eat. By now Raphael was a hard-working and resourceful lawyer, living in Mitte. I met his neighbour, an anglophile called Gregor. We became friends. I told him about a forest where all myths and stories come from.

Gregor worked in publishing. He got me a job designing a coursebook for German learners of English.

Four years later, he found out I was about to upload The Beginning Woods onto Amazon. Had I sent it to any publishers in Germany? It had never occurred to me. I emailed him the manuscript, and he passed it to someone he knew.

In 2012, I went to Berlin to meet the editors. ‘We hardly want to change it at all,’ they said. And they didn’t. It was published in translation in 2014. I’d worked on it in the UK, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, and Saudi Arabia, so it seemed appropriate it was first published abroad.

In 2015 I had to add Vietnam to the list. I was in Hanoi in 2014 when I heard Pushkin Press were interested in acquiring the English language rights. Great! But was I prepared to work on the book again?

When I heard this I felt very odd, like there was no escape. Was I doomed to work on the book forever? But it was too good an opportunity. ‘Just agree,’ I snarled at myself. ‘They want to eat the omelette.’

In actual fact, after the initial shock, I relished the chance to have a go at it again. The editor was fantastic. Worked with a light touch. Made excellent points. I rolled up my sleeves.

I felt like a boxer coming out of retirement to do battle with an old adversary who had always defeated me. This time I was merciless and out for blood. It was brutal. Better than that—it was revenge. They had to drag me off it.

Reading the story now is like wandering through a city. Some buildings are new. Some are extremely old, from another time in my life altogether. There are passages I wrote when I was twenty-one. There are passages I wrote this year, at the age of forty.

I’m glad it’s over.

What have I learned? Plant a flag, by all means. But be prepared to bleed.

And, Rahul, if you’re reading this, old chap—I didn’t waste it.”

Malcolm McNeill

Special thanks to Rahul and Gregor. And I must mention that I like omelettes. Keep smashing those eggs!

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.