Category Archives: Writing

Embracing the Darkness

At one point last week I got so desperate for blogging assistance that I rounded a few likely people up. I’d like to say that Danny Weston volunteered his services, but in actual fact it was a ‘pal’ of his who made him ‘speak up.’ If he hadn’t, I’d have forced him. I mean, if he’d been anywhere near. I hope he isn’t – wasn’t – but since I don’t know this Weston chap, I can’t be sure. As long as he keeps that creepy Mr Sparks away from me!

“They say the devil has all the best tunes. That may be the single thought that fuelled my debut novel, The Piper.

Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly where the idea came from. I know I wanted to write a good old-fashioned ghost story and at the back of my mind, I was thinking about The Pied Piper of Hamelin; that much misunderstood tale that had the greedy burghers of a German town paying the ultimate price for double-crossing its eponymous hero.

And I thought about an old saying that I’d heard many times, but rarely paused to consider fully.

‘Who pays the piper calls the tune.’

So, I decided, my story would involve music. It would involve water. And it would feature a supernatural presence that has returned over the centuries to seek its revenge. Scaring people with mere words on paper is a real challenge. I knew that I needed to find a suitable landscape in which to set my story and I found it in Romney Marsh, that bleak almost treeless wilderness down on the South coast, replete with streams, lakes and canals. After some research, I found out about a church, St Leonard’s in Hythe, one of only two in the UK that house an ossuary – a place where bones are stored. As soon as I read about what was stored down in ‘the crypt,’ I knew it would feature in my story.

I decided early on that I also wanted to set the book in the past, merely because it seemed easier to convince an audience of ghostly happenings back in the day, rather than the perfectly lit interiors of the present. I focused on two time periods – the early 1800s and the eve of World War Two. My lead characters, I decided, would be evacuees, a fourteen-year-old boy, Peter and his seven-year-old sister, Daisy, exiled from their home in Dagenham and sent out into the countryside to face a terror that is centuries old. When I learned that this mass exodus, which involved 3.5 million children, was actually called ‘Operation Pied Piper,’ I realised that I had just been handed something that felt very much like a perfectly-wrapped gift. I had to use it.

In early October my new book, Mr Sparks will be released. The eponymous character is not human. He is a ventriloquist’s doll. He’s been around for a long time… a very long time. He tells everyone he meets that he used to be a real boy and quite frankly, his talents exceed those of the various ‘operators’ he’s picked up along the way. His latest sidekick is a young Welsh boy called Owen, who finds himself going to places he doesn’t really want to visit. The same places where I intend to take my readers.

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Once again, I’m riffing on a classic fairy tale here; in this case Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And once again, my aim with these particular words on paper is to make the reader feel uneasy… unsettled… and dare I say it? Scared.

Have I succeeded? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Danny Weston

Eek.

 

Go Sell a First Draft

It’s one thing to be rescued by people you know, and another for a complete stranger to write a perfect and well timed blog post for a witch, just like that. Here is CJ Daugherty* on the book that everyone is talking about right now:

‘Let me start by saying, like so many writers, I love To Kill a Mockingbird. And I adore the film adaptation, which I consider to be one of the truly perfect book-to-film adaptations of all time.

TKAMB poster

When I was a child, I watched the film and cried during the courtroom scene. I was terrified of Boo Radley, whom I envisioned as a kind of ghost; an unknowable terror. But Scout saw through his frightening facade. Her belief in him, and her sympathy towards his plight, changed me.

I can honestly say that I am a kinder person because of To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot think of many other books that affected me in this way.

So when I learned there was a sequel, at first I was thrilled. How exciting and marvellous that such a thing should be found! How wonderful for book lovers.

As more was revealed, though, my views began to change. What we know now is Go Set A Watchman isn’t a sequel. It’s an early draft.

We know that Harper Lee worked closely with her editor to revise that draft, rewriting the book over and over and over, across many years, polishing the rough stone down to the perfect faceted gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might still have been fine with the release of this early draft, if Lee hadn’t tried so hard for so long to keep it hidden away. If those who loved her and spoke for her – because she is, Boo Radley-like, afraid of the world; too frightened to leave her flat in New York when she was young, afraid to leave her home in Alabama when she grew older – if they hadn’t maintained until their deaths that there was no other Harper Lee book.

Sadly, elderly people are vulnerable, and there is money to be made. Unimaginable sums of money.

Obviously, there is simply no way for us to know if, in a nursing home in her nineties, Ms Lee did not just, at long last, change her own mind. Or if her mind was changed for her by younger, stronger people with Manhattan mortgages to pay.

Does that make you uncomfortable? I makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, I grew up surrounded by elderly southern women. This was the world of my childhood. I think of Harper Lee now and I see my grandmother, a fragile, white-haired southern lady trapped in the modern age, and bewildered by it. As a child, I watched her retreat from the real world to her garden in small-town Texas, where she spent her days taking care of her roses and listening to ancient sermons on a reel-to-reel tape player.

When she went to the supermarket in 1985, she still put on white cotton gloves and a straw hat and drove her enormous ancient Buick like a captain guiding a ship through rough seas. If the manager of the supermarket spoke to her kindly, as he often did, it flummoxed her utterly. She did not want to speak to modern men.

All the way home she would complain about it.

‘I do not understand why that man must always speak to me,’ she would say in tones of vexation.

Sometimes I would venture a defence of the kindly supermarket manager. ‘I thought he was nice.’

‘He was nice,’ she would explain as if this were perfectly obvious. ‘But I do not know him.’

When she was older, my grandmother would sign anything you wanted her to sign. Anything to make you stop asking and let her get back to her memories and her roses.

According to Harper Lee’s now-dead family, she was much the same. I think it is the way of southern ladies of that generation.

So I worry.

Then there is the fact that I am a writer. And as a writer, I know what first drafts look like. Any writer can talk with horror of ‘ugly first drafts’. Writing a novel is a process of evolution. We come to our stories gradually. Painfully. And when we get there, after much, much work, everything that came before seems disastrous to us.

The first draft of my book, Night School, contains vampires and witches. The final book is about Bullingdon Club style secret societies. I worked a long, long time to get to where I ended up.

I wouldn’t want anyone to sell the evidence of my journey.

So here, for all to see, allow me to make the following statement:

Someday, if I’m lucky, I will be 90 years old. If I am still a writer then, it is entirely possible that young lawyers in expensive suits and thrusting publishers with more ambition than morality will come to you and tell you that CJ Daugherty wants the first draft of Night School published.

If that day should ever come, remember what I am telling you now: It is a lie.’
C.J. Daugherty

(*Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and are number one bestsellers in multiple countries. She is now co-writing a new series, The Secret Fire, with French author Carina Rozenfeld. Find out more at www.cjdaugherty.com)

Old books

When Mother-of-witch died, Offspring were young and needed looking after when I went off to be with her. There was a complete lack of available relatives at the time, so anyone who happened to be standing near when the Resident IT Consultant asked for assistance was roped in for after-school care. For six weeks! I can never thank them enough.

Yesterday morning Helen Grant took one look at this blog – or what tried to pass itself off as Bookwitch – and told me she would write it herself, if I’d let her. It feels particularly appropriate to accept her kind offer, since she is just about the only author who did meet the Grandmother, and about whom the Grandmother always asked questions, once they had met. And seeing as the Grandmother not only dealt in Oxfam books, but was known to have culled her own books rather enthusiastically, this post about old books fits right in:

‘Our household has finally obtained its first eReader. It’s not mine; whenever anyone asks me whether I have one, I always reply (truthfully) that since I do most of my reading in the bath, it probably isn’t a good idea. A paperback may survive an unexpected plunge into the water (as the crinkled pages of a number of my books will testify) but I don’t think an electronic gadget would cope.

I can imagine, however, that the day will come when I will cave in and buy one of these things for myself. At present we live in a family home whose walls are lined with bookshelves, but when I look into the distant future and imagine myself as an empty nester, I’d like to think I shall be travelling the world – and travelling light. When I went overlanding from London to Kathmandu in 1992, I took all six of Trollope’s Barchester novels with me; nowdays I could take along ten or a hundred times as many books in digital format. I suppose, too, that when we downsize from our family house I shall have to cull some of my books. (Writing this, I went to take a critical look at my bookshelves and could not see a single one I was prepared to part with. Hmmmm.)

There are some books, however, that I could never replace with a digital version. I have quite a few old books, the oldest dating to the eighteenth century, many more to the nineteenth. I have three children’s anthologies which appeared in the 1940s and belonged to my mother when she was a child. When I was a teenager, my mother had her own book cull and took those to the local charity shop; outraged, I marched down there and bought them back. They are still on my bookshelves. One of them includes one of the best fairy tales in existence, Melisande by E.Nesbit, in which the wicked fairy excluded from the christening wishes that the baby princess shall be bald.

Other treasures include The Silver Fairy Book, which I also remember from my childhood (I have failed to extract my parents’ copy from their clutches so I ordered my own from Abebooks), The Lady Ivie’s Trial by Sir John Fox, some beautiful Victorian translations of Homer, and an extensive collection of old editions of H.Rider Haggard’s adventure novels.

Leighton Library

All of these are old books, some of them centenarians, with yellowing pages and the dusty scent of age lingering about them. To replace them with eBooks would be a minor act of barbarism.

Because I treasure old books, I love antiquarian libraries. The corner of Scotland shared by the Bookwitch and myself is fortunate to have two: Innerpeffray Library near Crieff, and the Leighton Library in Dunblane. Both seventeenth century libraries created by local noblemen, each of these is very well worth a visit. One of the truly marvellous things about these libraries is that you are allowed to handle the books (respectfully, of course). I recently spent a happy half hour in the Leighton Library leafing through the pages of Buffon’s Natural History and marvelling at the engravings of animals. At Innerpeffray my pet book is The Treatise of Specters, which is crammed with spine tingling material, lovingly collected and printed in 1658. A visit to Innerpeffray also offers the opportunity to look at the chapel adjoining the library, which has, amongst other attractions, a leper squint – a small window allowing lepers (who were excluded from church) to watch the services from outside.

Library of Innerpeffray

There is, I think, a kind of magic in very old volumes. Bookwitchery, you might say…’

Jeanne Willis, butter and how to draw a cow

While we’re in a farmyard mood, I was quite pleased to find the two page advert for butter in the Guardian Weekend the other weekend. Surprised, but pleased, because it featured a large photo of Bookwitch favourite Jeanne Willis.

Jeanne Willis

It left me slightly confused at first, but I gather Jeanne has written a buttery sort of children’s book about some Friesian dairy cows, called The Tale of City Sue, which most likely isn’t going to pop up in ordinary bookshops, and I don’t actually know how or where you get hold of a copy, but I do hope it ends up in the hands of many children.

Perhaps if their parents buy the right kind of butter.

It’s been illustrated by Dermot Flynn, and he offers a short lesson on how to draw a cow. I feel even I could now draw a passable cow if I needed to.

The question I am left with is whether it’s all right to write a book for advertising purposes. I think it probably is. Just the other day I was reminded of the Weetabix atlas (simply because there is still a copy of it in Mother-of-witch’s bookcase), which was pretty good. Offspring must have been at the right atlasy stage when it was available to people who ate plenty of Weetabix. We had so many tokens to use (we saved them when there was nothing we wanted, and then used them all when there was something good to order) that we got a pile of atlases for school as well.

I think what I’m saying here is that Offspring did ‘read’ that atlas a lot, and that any book that comes to a reader and is appreciated is good, even if you do have to eat Weetabix, or butter. In our case it’s not even as though we didn’t buy books, but we felt it was a good offer.

So if I could just lay my hands on The Tale of City Sue, to read about this close-knit sisterhood of dairy cows…

Is it like running?

Overwhelmed as I am by all the new and excellent books I see, I can’t help wondering how they happen. Are written. Get published.

Is it like running faster? I’ve never understood how come people run faster with each generation. Once there was a fuss when someone could run a mile in under four minutes. I suppose there must be a limit to how fast a human being can run a mile? But then Stone Age runners might have thought so too, and their limit was probably far from four minutes. If they knew about minutes.

So do authors today write better books because they know they have to to stand a chance of getting published, or do they write good books because evolution makes it happen? (I’m on very shaky ground here, as you can tell.)

Although, unlike the runners who can’t arrive before they’ve started, I suppose writers could – in theory – write better and better books. Cleverer use of words and better sentences about really exciting new people in new style plots. (Unless schools prevent any sensible written language from evolving.)

Anyway, they say there are only so many plots. And I despair a bit about the state of editing. If I can see it, it must be bad. So I suppose it’s back to the running. And as I was reminded when I looked it up, there is a difference between the normally competent runner, and the really successful athlete.

Or could it be the Björn Borg factor? Sweden was over-run by especially good young tennis players in the years after Björn’s Wimbledon triumphs. Players wanted to be the new Borg, and there were plenty of people able to help train them.

Or were the tennis results simply contagious? Like J K Rowling started us on wizards and Stephenie Meyer gave us romantic vampires. I think tennis-wise that things calmed down after a while. Will books?

Full circle

Five years on, Candy Gourlay and I were back where we started. No, not on Facebook. At Carluccio’s St Pancras. When thinking about what we might do – briefly – before I got on my northbound broomstick, I realised that we could finally have some more of the coffee ice cream we have reminisced about over the years. We both like it, and we both eat it sometimes, but never together.

I got there early, and was sitting reading, completely engrossed in Lucy Coats’s Cleo, when I realised someone was standing there, staring at me. But I suppose it’s fairly suitable to be found nose down in a book when you have a brunch date with an author.

And over my poached eggs we discussed lots of publishing stuff and books and writers. None of which I’ll tell you about. Children. Interior decorating. How to stay warm in our old age. Yes, really. Actually Candy believes she’s already too old, which doesn’t leave much hope for me. But we agreed that you need to have lived before you can write worthwhile stuff.

After the eggs, and the coffee ice cream, Candy accompanied me across the road to the other station, the one with a perennial queue for platform 9 3/4, but I said there was no reason for her to wait with me. I promised to leave town even if not escorted, and I did so by following the sudden stampede towards platform 4, once the Aberdeen train had been announced.

It’s good to have gone to London, but better still to get home again. I’m too old for all this big city life, seeing lots of people in crowds. I’ll have to set up meetings with people one at a time in future. If anyone ever wants to see me…

(The recipe for the coffee cheesecake will, possibly, turn up some time if I don’t forget.)

‘Extraordinary tellers of stories’

Daniel Hahn had trouble getting his tongue round the above words, but as he said, it might have been worth the wait. It was.

The witch travelled yesterday. Remind me not to do that again. Ever. There was a major IT hitch on almost all fronts on arrival in London, but if you are reading this, then it ‘solved itself.’ You know, sort of putting petrol in your mobile phone kind of thing.

OK, so you’re at Waterstones piccalilli (I thought Anne Rooney was being funny, but it seems she just suffered predictive texting) and you’re there to hear Penelope Lively and Philip Pullman tell Daniel Hahn anything he asks. Who – apart from your good self – will be in the audience? Anne Rooney was there, and so was Celia Rees, without whom I wouldn’t have known this was even on. Thank you! And then there was the lady in the row in front of me (i.e. second from the back), Judith Kerr. That’s what I call class.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

(And before I forget, please let me mention how friendly and helpful the organisers were. They were friendly and helpful. I was trying to do really weird things with tickets and then it turned out to be dead easy, and they were pleased that my friend was Anne Rooney.)

I very nearly sat down on the chairs where Penelope and Philip went to sit before going ‘on stage’ so it was lucky I didn’t. I’ve not seen Philip for almost three years. I’d hazard a guess that he hasn’t seen his barber since then either. Very cool.

In his introduction Daniel Hahn reflected that when he grows up he will become Penelope Lively. I think this was based on the fact that all three of them either are or have been something great in the Society of Authors. And he listed their books, making a wild guess that if we wanted to buy any, then Waterstones probably had them somewhere in their shop.

Philip Pullman, Penelope Lively and Daniel Hahn

Penelope seems to be proof that home education works, since that’s what she got as a child in Egypt. She read a lot. By WWII, Arthur Ransome’s books had arrived in Cairo, and all those lakes and all that rain seemed like fantasy. Later on she was sent to boarding school, where punishment for bad behaviour was an hour’s reading in the library. Both she and Philip are of the opinion that the kind of reading you do as a child is something you’ll never get back.

Philip learned how big the world is on his many trips round the globe by boat. He read the Just So stories, Noddy and comics (they were allowed in Australia, apparently), and he read Moomin in Battersea library. He needs the rythm of words, and when he’s writing he can’t tolerate music. Penelope agreed about rythm, and often reads her writing out loud to see if it works.

Penelope Lively

Her writing career came from her obsessive reading. She writes less these days, but always writes something. Philip compared the early days when he worked as a teacher all day, and still was able to write at night. Now he manages his three pages per day, but that’s it. (And no, no one asked about the Book of Dust.)

While Penelope generally knows what is going to happen in a book, Philip writes ‘in the dark’ and is quite opposed to planning. Daniel wanted to know if they are optimists, despite last week’s [political] results, and they are. Both agreed that stories are a human necessity and always will be. Both prefer paper books, and Philip pointed out it’s so difficult to dry your Kindle if you drop it in the bath, with thousands of books on it.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Philip reckons that the good thing about the very large publishing companies we have today, is that their sheer size means there is room for smaller publishers in the holes between them. And that’s good.

Philip Pullman

Book festivals and book groups are new concepts for authors, and Philip likened author events to a roadshow, but without the possibility of filling large arenas or selling any merchandising. Although Daniel tried to suggest we could buy some HDM hats afterwards…

A book that really affected them when they were young, was a version of Robin Hood where Robin dies, for Philip, and Nicholas Nickleby for Penelope. The reason Philip introduced daemons in HDM was to make it easier to write; it was his version of Raymond Chandler’s idea of introducing a man with a gun whenever necessary.

Diversity is obviously important; it’s what you seek in books. Both to find yourself in the book, as well as learning about others. Neither of them writes a last page or chapter to use as a goal for their writing. Penelope might have an important scene, whereas Philip writes in the order you read, and he knows when he gets to the end.

He is superstitious and prefers to write at his own table, with all his ‘lucky’ things around him, although he has written in many different places too. Except in a concert hall. Penelope can write anywhere and often has done, including in airports. She quite likes to write in the garden.

Philip Pullman and Penelope Lively

Daniel Hahn

And on that note Daniel brought things to a close, which meant that the audience got wine and an opportunity to chat with the two Ps and to have books signed. And Daniel also had his book there (which I should have thought of!) to be bought and signed.

Before returning to my temporary home to face my IT woes, I had a nice chat with Celia Rees, thanking her for her part in this evening, and saying how this is the way we like our events.