Writing Crumbs

EIBF Saturday: Kate Atkinson [KA] and Salman Rushdie [SR]

KA

speaking on Life After Life as part of the ‘Memory and Imagination’ theme

Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
Kate Atkinson (c.) EIBF
  • rarely has the ending planned out
  • writes a ‘symphonic crescendo of endings’ until it emerges
  • Life After Life isn’t about living over and over to get it right
  • doesn’t think the narrator is unreliable
  • Life After Life doesn’t have psychic moments but some things ‘leak through’ into another time
  • felt a responsibility when writing about wartime experiences to get it right
  • different novels have different shapes: – Life After Life is a wave, written sequentially whereas the Jackson Brodie crime novels are carefully plotted pyramids
  • KA doesn’t think of the Jackson Brodie novels as crime novels so much as novels
  • enjoyed the freedom from thinking about plot when writing Life After Life

SR

speaking as part of the ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ theme & interviewed by John Freeman [formerly of Granta]

Salman Rushdie at EIBF 2013

  • wrote Joseph Anton in third person because a) gave a different dimension b) it felt right c) he is a different person now d) it’s about ‘making the self’
  • the novel is a vulgar medium, by which he takes the Latin to mean ‘of the people’
  • enjoyed writing a novel set in 16C as readers/critics tend to ignore the incorrect facts; amused that things he made up were taken as reliable
  • writers need to be ‘fully engaged in life’ to write; ‘go there’
  • prose needs to match the context of the time – read the books your characters would be reading to situate tone and style of prose [syntax and sentient]
  • when asked ‘how new writers develop a voice’ – ‘should they read?’ – he said, ‘real writers have an interesting relationship to language’. SR was reading Zadie Smith’s NW before he came on and used it as an example of how her life experience seeps into the text; from life to page

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Quilt, by Nicholas Royle

Quilt by Nicholas Royle (Myriad Editions)

[ – an open letter of appreciation -]

Dear Professor Royle

I’d like to apologise for not paying attention in class. Had I done so, I would be able to appreciate your debut novel, Quilt. It’s a story about death and grief and ghosts and Socrates and stingrays – I think. I find myself unable to review it or talk about it coherently, knowledgeably. I know I really enjoyed reading it – I love the playfulness and energy and above all, the serious purposefulness of the prose. The imagery made me laugh out loud and to nod in agreement at the connections you made. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you why, I don’t have the language to properly express what is so good about this book or why I tell everyone I know that they must read it – it will change their view of literature, of story-telling, of writing.

You won’t remember me – one of eight that dwindled to six in your Wallace Stevens seminar in the spring (or was it autumn?) of 1995 (or was it 1994?) at Stirling. Ten weeks of intensive study of one American poet – what luxury now!; spoilt we were but we didn’t know it. We began in earnest we eight. After week one we started to loiter in the café for longer than the allotted ten minute break. It seemed to make sense to extend the time  – to draw breath – for relief after the tortuous first hour. ‘What is this poem about – do you think?’ you asked – dropped it into the seminar where we looked at each other, the desk, out at the solitary tree in the courtyard, which now I can’t recall whether it was bare or in full leaf, anywhere; we looked, but at the page, at you. We worked together, we eight become six, to ‘get through’ our Wallace ‘bloody’ Stevens Honours course.

I can’t get back time once it’s gone, can I? Once glimpsed, once I recognised the peacock/poem [for he was a peacock, not a stingray] sliding around the corner – he came into full view, there, concrete and real – just that one time. The peacock/poem in full focus – bare, literal. And then the devastating truth – this reality was a lie! A trick of the individual imagination. There is no single meaning, you helped us to understand. We see the peacock/poem, but in our own image. That same moment re-run won’t bring the same peacock/poem back into focus. He is a ghost – or the past calling the future. Did he telephone ahead to tell us he was coming?

Uncanny, is poetry – as all language. I think.

Kind regards

Janette

The Art of Fiction – Iris Murdoch

For Iris Murdoch Day – an interview from The Paris Review on how she writes, why she writes, the process of thinking it up and what she thinks is the purpose of literature – fascinating to learn how she carefully plans the outline of the whole book before the actual writing begins. Pity her poor publisher’s nerves! She wrote long hand and only ever had one copy of her manuscript.

Here’s where IM talks about beginning to write a novel:

INTERVIEWER [Jeffrey Meyers]

Could you tell me a little bit about your own method of composition and how you go about writing a novel?

MURDOCH

Well, I think it is important to make a detailed plan before you write the first sentence. Some people think one should write, George woke up and knew that something terrible had happened yesterday, and then see what happens. I plan the whole thing in detail before I begin. I have a general scheme and lots of notes. Every chapter is planned. Every conversation is planned. This is, of course, a primary stage, and very frightening because you’ve committed yourself at this point. I mean, a novel is a long job, and if you get it wrong at the start you’re going to be very unhappy later on. The second stage is that one should sit quietly and let the thing invent itself. One piece of imagination leads to another. You think about a certain situation and then some quite extraordinary aspect of it suddenly appears. The deep things that the work is about declare themselves and connect. Somehow things fly together and generate other things, and characters invent other characters, as if they were all doing it themselves. One should be patient and extend this period as far as possible. Of course, actually writing it involves a different kind of imagination and work.

Asked about her ‘ideal reader’, Murdoch say

MURDOCH

Those who like a jolly good yarn are welcome and worthy readers. I suppose the idealreader is someone who likes a jolly good yarn and enjoys thinking about the book as well, thinking about the moral issues.

See – Iris Murdoch: The Art of Fiction, no. 117 in The Paris Review, Summer 1990, Issue 115

*See also the Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University, London

* BBC Interview – Murdoch discussing character and form, with superb close reading of An Unofficial Rose (1962)

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 [pt. 2]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Part 2

Bloomsbury’s best selling Christmas book of 2011 was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegetarian cookbook titled River Cottage Veg Every Day which sold over 10000 copies. Impressive. Kerry Wilkinson – self-published author of the hugely popular Jessica Daniel police crime series, sold over 300000 copies of his books, including his debut, Locked In, over the final quarter of 2011, without the benefit or need for a large publicity department, print reviews, agent, or connections across the publishing world.

How did he do it? Does this mean writers don’t need an agent or a publisher?

Kerry took us through the process of uploading his book to Amazon and shared details of how he maximised sales so that readers read his books and come back for more.

When he’d completed his first novel, Locked In, he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ going through the hoops of the traditional route to publication. He self-edited it. He researched how books are sold and worked out where and when to sell it to maximise sales. Knowing that over the Christmas period new Kindle owners would be looking for books, he chose this time to upload and to promote his books. More than that – he sought out readers and reading groups. He joined reader forums to talk about books – to talk about his books. He knows how to cross-promote and he promoted his upcoming book along with his current title.

Here are Kerry’s Tips for selling books:

Write what you want to write. Kerry writes for himself but he writes what people like to read. He tapped into a ready market with the crime genre.

Don’t bother about other writers – connecting with your reader is the single most important thing that a writer can do.

Pay attention to forward advertising – Kerry promoted his next book in each new book – this is something he thinks traditional publishers should do.

Contrary to ‘received opinion’ on ‘platform building’ and online presence, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of his time blogging and talking about writing. He does interact with readers on reader forums.

Start your ebook immediately with page one – don’t copy traditionally published books which aren’t designed for ebook reading.  A more exciting opening will create a more exciting taster or ‘sample’ that readers can click through on Amazon before buying and lead to more sales.

Get the pricing right. Kerry’s first book sold for £1. His third book sells for £3.

Make a simple cover for your book. Photoshop is easy and makes an effective cover. Don’t overload it with a fussy image or too many words.

Create a simple website that’s uncluttered. Include key information in bold – when the next book is coming out, what it’s about, how much it costs and where to buy it. Include a link to Amazon.

Kerry’s mantra is – Think like a reader.

Kerry told us he writes every day. Interestingly, he still has a day job and more interestingly, he’s signed a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher: see his very frank Q&A with Sam Missingham in FutureBook [29/12/11] where he describes how he was contacted by agents after he’d sold thousands of books and where he also explains why he’s gone down the traditional route.

The final session of the day was an agent panel. Rachel Calder was joined by Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh and Lucy Luck of Lucy Luck Associates.

All agreed it was difficult to get published with an agent, that it was difficult to land an agent but that it was equally difficult to be published without an agent.

Confused?

Here’s the statistics they shared:

Sayle Literary Agency receives around 60-80 unsolicited submissions a week, from these they will sign up 3 or 4 new writers per year

Lucy Luck receives around 50 unsolicited submissions a week, from these she might sign up ten writers, and from these, 3 or 4 a year will sign a publishing contract

Conville and Walsh receive around 4000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, around 100 are ‘treated’ or developed, and from these, around 7 are sold on to publishers

They talked about how the acquisition process has changed in recent years so that the editorial decisions now include the whole company, including, marketing, publicity and sales departments. Publishers pay less than previous years and the editorial balance has moved to agents who now spend a lot of time developing manuscripts before taking them to market.

Often, a conversation around the edges of a book result in exciting things. All of the agents agreed they will work to develop a manuscript with a writer whose voice they consider has potential. Lucy Luck gave the example of her client, Catherine  O’Flynn, with whom she worked to bring out her prize-winning first book, What Was Lost. A willingness to take criticism is a key attribute in an unpublished writer.

– Patrick Walsh is convinced that ‘cream always rises to the top’.

A lively closing Q&A ensued where delegates queried the different agents on the best way of maximising success with their submissions. While they repeated most of what Cressida Downing said in the morning session on how to submit ‘properly’ by following the guidelines on their websites, there were also smaller points worth highlighting:

Don’t call or write in advance of sending a manuscript to query whether they’ll accept it – just submit

Research agents carefully so that your manuscript ‘fits’ their current titles and author list

Your covering letter should be short and to the point and personal to the agent

Never use the term ‘peruse’ and never call your book a ‘fiction novel’

A ‘platform’ or blog can help an agent to decide but on its own it won’t make an agent sign up and is more useful for non-fiction writers and projects

FSG is ‘fantastic for the whole publishing industry’ and shows the disconnect between what people want to read and what agents & publishers want to publish. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation and while writers and literary editors are ‘snotty’  it doesn’t diminish the benefit it has brought to publishing. It’s a ‘black swan’ event.

The main thing all of the agents look for in a manuscript is a strong writing voice.

So there you have it – write what you want to read, take time over your submission package,  or self-publish. It’s up to you.

I approached the ‘How to Get Published’ conference with scepticism – was it a way of making money from writers who haven’t yet landed a publishing contract or agent? Will I learn anything useful I can pass on to writers and that I can use when submitting my own writing? Is there any point in listening to a different writer’s journey to publication which will probably not replicate mine? On balance, yes, it was really useful and worth the round-trip from Scotland to London. There are countless self-help books on creative writing and how to submit your manuscript – you’ve read them all and so have I, but nothing quite matches hearing it first hand combined with the opportunity of speaking directly to experts and those who work in the industry – especially when that advice is realistic and backed by evidence.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for conference hosting and organising.

– link back to Pt.1

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 – [pt. 1]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Setting a serious, workmanlike tone, was Richard Charkin, Exec. Director of Bloomsbury Publishing, who gave a frighteningly realistic insight into the current state of publishing. So you want to be published? Well, here’s the facts, was how he kicked off the conference. Using statistics and graph charts, Richard showed how the market in adult fiction had declined -11% in the last year, how independent bookshops sold just 5% of books [UK], supermarkets 10%, and book chains and online combined sold over 60%; how FSG was good for trade, selling 95000 copies in Asda on one Thursday alone compared to 7000 copies of the ‘100th’ best seller; how sales of digital books are up and good for author back lists; and how children’s books is ‘the best performing category’.

Although the news on sales and bookshops was gloomy there was also a positive side to all the facts and figures. For example, there are over 10000 publishers in the UK – more choice = more opportunities for writers to find the right publisher for their book. Good publishers look after their writers and help them to develop their career. And digital books and self-publishing have opened up new avenues for writers who can’t wait or don’t want to go through the lengthy process of bringing their book to market.

Taking a traditional route to publication means traversing the land of gatekeepers (agents/publishers/editors). Cressida Downing regaled us with funny examples of some very bad submission letters and synopses she’d received over the years from writers seeking publication. Apparently, between 70% and 80% of all submissions were wrong, badly written and didn’t follow the correct guidelines. Why are writers so bad at selling their writing or book idea or even themselves? Why do they rush at the end after spending such care and attention on their manuscripts?

Getting the covering letter right, according to CD, was the single most important thing for a writer to pay attention to when they were seeking an agent. Get it right and the chances of attracting an agent’s attention were raised. Get it wrong and it headed into the bin – even if the book and synopsis were wonderful – a bad covering letter would probably turn an agent off reading the rest of the submission. CD’s main advice was:

  • don’t rush to submit
  • use an editor to make sure your manuscript is the best it can be
  • take time to research agents to find the right ‘fit’
  • follow submission guidelines precisely
  • spend a long time on your covering letter and make sure it’s perfect before sending it off

Suzanne Joinson’s début novel, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar caused a stir when her agent, Rachel Calder of Sayle Literary Agency, took it to the publishing marketplace and it was really interesting to learn from both the journey of getting it there.

In a wide-ranging and informative discussion, Suzy talked about how she was approached by agents after winning a short story competition while she was reading for a creative writing MA. They approached her – which seems like a very good place to be in. She then worked to bring the partially completed book to submission standard, working with a mentor and with her agent. Over the process from signing with RC and RC selling the book to a publisher, the manuscript went through around 15 FULL DRAFTS and took around seven years to ‘get it right’.

Suzy Joinson and Rachel Calder [with Eela Devani]
Even with a publishing contract, the manuscript was further refined to get the pacing and narrative tension just right before it was ready for publication.

Rachel told us she’d approached Suzy because of her writing voice and style and admitted she was happy to work with writers to develop their writing.
Suzy’s advice to writers was – ‘keep writing’, write, even when you don’t feel like writing, write something. Add to the word count and then refine and self-edit and it will eventually take shape. And enter writing competitions as a way of stretching yourself and working towards a deadline and of fine-tuning your writing.

Writers who don’t or can’t wait for an agent or publisher to decide when the manuscript is ready for publication can choose to self-publish.

Kerry Wilkinson and Phillip Jones of the Bookseller and FutureBook, discussed the digital revolution in bookselling, and Kerry talked about his publication journey from self-published writer to signing a publishing contract with a traditional publisher.

Phillip talked about how traditional gatekeepers, such as agents and publishers, were now taking on the role of curators and of the long trajectory of publishing innovation that led from Dickens’ weekly numbers to ebooks.

While we think about a split between traditional and digital publishing – publishing is publishing. Publishers are risk takers, he said, and he didn’t diminish their important and continuing role in the crucial areas of exploiting, promoting and distributing books.

The publishing landscape has changed dramatically and quickly, though, and writers don’t need publishers – or do they?

In part two, I’ll report on Kerry Wilkinson’s talk on how he self-published and sold over 300,000 copies of his books via Amazon, with 98% of sales on Kindle and give a summary of the final agent panel discussion on the ‘perfect submission’ and more [ depressing/realistic] statistics on how many new authors they sign from their stack of unsolicited manuscripts.

to be continued…. 

How to get Published Conference – London

 

Publishing is in flux – this we know. So how do we navigate this new, post-apocalyptic, grey-shaded landscape? Fifty-Shades of naughtiness has smashed the idea that fanfiction is a sub of a sub-genre and only for the select few and has destroyed any notion that only ‘‘good writing’ sells.  It’s bad. It’s not even so bad it’s good; it’s just bad writing. All previous advice now seems like empty air. So what is a writer to do with their new-born typescript now ?

  • Does this mean writers ought to shun the traditional route to publication?
  • Does this mean writers ought to forget editing, polishing and fine tuning and go straight from first draft to e-book?

And what of literary consultants? Me?

  • How do I advise writers who are looking for guidance on the best route to publication?
  • Has the publishing landscape changed completely?
  • Or has the ground shifted ever so slightly to allow for light relief? In which case, will things return to normality soon?

With perfect timing, the team behind the writer’s bible – The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – have put together a one-day conference that seeks to address all these questions and many more I haven’t thought of yet.

The line-up of ‘those in the know’ includes respected agents, leading publishers, and self-published self-taught experts.

The conference takes place in an ideal central London location – easily accessible from Euston/KingsX in the Wellcome Centre, which is why I’m heading down there on Friday night.

I’ve copied in the programme below – I’ll be there. Will you?

I’ll post a full report on Monday.

Date & Time -7th July 2012: 9.30am-4.30pm

Place: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE

Programme:

The How to Get Published conference provides an invaluable opportunity to gather tips and advice from some of the most respected and reputable names in the industry, meet and exchange ideas with other writers and put your publishing questions to a panel of literary agents.

The How to Get Published conference will provide expert advice on:

  • Choosing which publishing route
  • Knowing when your manuscript is ready
  • Getting your submission package in shape
  • Targeting agents or publishers
  • Understanding what agents are looking for in a submission
  • Handling rejection
  • The next step- working with your agent or publisher

With a stunning line-up of speakers, the How to Get Published conference offers an indispensable insight to the publishing industry.

Speakers include; Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, offering an introduction to the current book market and publishing trends.

Suzanne Joinson, author of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, and her agent Rachel Calder, of The Sayle Literary Agency, who will be discussing the relationship between author and agent.

Editorial Consultant Cressida Downing, on the practical dos and don’ts of submitting a manuscript.

Kerry Wilkinson, the self-published author who was ranked as one of Amazon’s top 10UK authors within 5 months of releasing his book. With over 250,000 e-book sales, Kerry is uniquely positioned to discuss the self-publishing experience.

Finally, we have a panel of top literary agents, including Patrick Walsh, of Conville and Walsh, and Madeleine Milburn from the recently opened The Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.

See the Writers’ & Arists’ Year Book website for full details – hope to see you there!

BookRambler’s Q&A with Children’s Author, Lari Don

Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year.

Maze Running and other Magical Missions,  published by Floris Books this month, is the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children.

Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.

 

Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:

 One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…

[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]

Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.

Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you do work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?

LDI’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens!  However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through.  I hope that’s why it’s pacy!

Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?

LDI don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.

I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!

When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.

But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.

And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…

Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?

 LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!

Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?

LDGetting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it!  I don’t much like arguing with him…

And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.

Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?

LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…

I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.

Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?

LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.

And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!

 

Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?

LDGood question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first.  But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.

When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.

However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!

Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?

LDOh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !

 

Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?

LDInitially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it!  But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.

Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?

LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy.  Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.

Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions – 

…And finally….  what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?

LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!  

SoAiS Conference 2011

I’m still buzzing with ideas and flush with the excitement of making new friends, catching up with fellow tweeters and sharing fruitful connections at the 2011 Society of Authors in Scotland Conference. Anna Ganley and Rachel O’Malley hosted an imaginative and well-planned day of talks and seminars, not to mention a very splendid evening drinks reception.

The setting was the richly historical Royal College of Surgeons building in Edinburgh. But the conference was themed around how authors can take advantage of new technology so it was highly appropriate that the first sessions were held in the modern extension.

The marriage of traditional with new continued throughout the day in the range and depth of talks on everything from managing your online presence, using traditional methods to get the message out, the benefits of ebooks to how to make useful connections with your independent bookseller and … when not to call her!

The focus of the day was very much on embracing the new with the added proviso of not forgetting that traditional ways of selling books, marketing books and authors and publishing still have value.

The first panel discussion involved Caitrin Armstrong ( SBT), Colin Fraser (Anon), Peggy Hughes (SPL) and Vanessa Robertson (Fidra Books/Edinburgh Bookshop) who talked about a range of topics on author self-promotion. I was particularly chuffed that Colin mentioned #elevensestime as a go to place for authors. Those who follow me on twitter will be familiar with the hashtag and the chocolate cake that often accompanies it!

Allan Guthrie shared his experiences of turning books into ebooks – and how he built an online presence, Andrew Dixon (Creative Scotland) talked about new funding structures and how they opened new avenues for authors to explore and exploit and the afternoon panel, including Jenny Brown (Jenny Brown Associates) looked at the current position and ways of harnessing traditional publishing methods in the fluid digital era.

Despite the uncertainties and flux in publishing, the whole day was refreshingly positive in atmosphere and tone [as you can see from all the very smiley faces!] with many of the speakers discussing how authors can embrace the new and adapt the best traditional methods and make the most of the new opportunities available.

The evening rounded off with a drinks reception in the magnificent Playfair Hall where much merriment and networking was had to the accompanying swoosh of red wine.

Over the day I blethered to many lovely authors – pictured and not pictured here – including, Bryony Stocker, Harriet Smart, Alison Baverstock, Sara Sheridan, Joanna Hickson, Lin Anderson, Caroline Dunford, Victoria Finnigan, David Manderson, Dr Vee Freir, Colin Duriez, Simon Mawer, Elizabeth Reeder, Aimee Chalmers, and Maggie Craig. I urge you to seek them all out – follow their tweets, friend on Facebook and G+ subscribe to their websites and blogs – get involved, be engaged and show your support for their writing.

If you’ve ever thought of going along to one of the SoA conferences don’t hesitate – I’d highly recommend it. After all, if such an event can convince SoAiS Chair, Angus Konstam the value of twitter, think what it can do for you! Follow @Anguskonstam

This post gives just a flavour of the day which fairly flew along – for more details about the discussions hop over to an ingenious post on  12Booksin12Months where Ali George has used magic or wizardry to gather all the live tweets together.

Keep Calm and Carry On… Writing

From Michelle Kerns of Examiner.com, in two parts, a compilation of

The 50 Best Author v Author Put-Downs of all Time

Particular favourites are no. 24

Mary McCarthy on J. D. Salinger

I don’t like Salinger, not at all. That last thing isn’t a novel anyway, whatever it is. I don’t like it. Not at all. It suffers from this terrible sort of metropolitan sentimentality and it’s so narcissistic. And to me, also, it seemed so false, so calculated. Combining the plain man with an absolutely megalomaniac egotism. I simply can’t stand it.

and nos. 43 and 47  [in part two]

 John Irving on Tom Wolfe

He doesn’t know how to write fiction, he can’t create a character, he can’t create a situation…You see people reading him on airplanes, the same people who are reading John Grisham, for Ch****’s sake….I’m using the argument against him that he can’t write, that his sentences are bad, that it makes you wince. It’s like reading a bad newspaper or a bad piece in a magazine….You know, if you were a good skater, could you watch someone just fall down all the time? Could you do that? I can’t do that.

Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper

Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in ‘Deerslayer,’ and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.

It makes me wonder why anyone would want to lay their hearts open to ridicule and criticism – why write?

 ” Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life?”

A good literary spat is always entertaining, but I like to think that behind the vitriol is great passion – for writing, for ideas, for art. As Per Petterson said

“literature should open wounds instead of healing them” [August 2011]