Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Joy of Sequels by Michelle Lovric

This is the first in an occasional series of guest posts from other children's writers. I'm delighted that my first guest is Michelle Lovric, whose anthology Venice, Tales of the City, I read years ago. Since she has been writing children's books, we have become friends, drawn together by a love of Italy and and a passion for words and colours.

I wrote about The Undrowned Child last year and have just read The Mourning Emporium, both published by Orion, which features some of the same characters. I thought it would be the ideal opportunity to ask this prolific and talented writer to muse a little on producing a sequel. It's something I have wrestled with myself, as the author of a "sequence" (currently five books with a sixth waiting to be written). How much do you recap and where? How many new characters do you introduce and how many carry forward? So I was fascinated to read this. Thank you, Michelle!

You’d think writing a sequel would be as comfortable as sliding into as a pair of pre-loved slippers, wouldn’t you?

You’d think – Characters created? TICK. Background established? TICK. The rules of this particular world? SORTED.

In fact, however, a sequel kicks a whole new team of problems into the writing game.

The first issue is the one that makes publishers worry about sequels. They are afraid that people will not buy the second book if they think they must also invest in the first. So you have to write a certain amount of back story in, just to make the new book comprehensible to your virgin reader.

But how much can you safely tuck in, without patronising your established fans? Where exactly do you insert it? Early on, in a lump, to get it out of the way? An indigestion of factlets threatens. Or do you drip-feed droplets of information on a need-to-know-now basis? This can sound very stagey, and could interrupt a crucial scene just when the page needs to be turned urgently.

Then you must decide which characters shall re-occur – including those you apparently destroyed – and which can be allowed to lapse.

One of the hardest things about a sequel is that you have to write its bones before you even put its predecessor to bed. So, in The Undrowned, I had to make sure that when Bajamonte Tiepolo, the Traitor, is swept away in a whirlpool, no-one actually sees him die. Nor do we know if every last Vampire Eel has perished. I planted a burden of guilt in my heroine Teo, because she cannot force herself to finish him off with a curse, despite his reign of murder and destruction in Venice. And nor has she the courage to tell anyone about her lapse.

So The Mourning Emporium starts with Teo encountering a Vampire Eel, who winks at her from under the ice that has started to strangle Venice. Instantly, she knows that Bajamonte and all his evil henchcreatures are back – and that this dreadful fact is no-one else’s fault but her own.

I raised Bajamonte from the apparently dead, but regretfully left The Grey Lady buried in the garden of the Venetian archives that this redoubtable cat used to run. But The Grey Lady’s mortality left me free to create a new feline for The Mourning Emporium. This is the equally impudent Sofonisba, the ship’s cat aboard the Scilla, a floating orphanage that will carry my characters from Venice to London and back again. I also ‘disappeared’ The Key to the Secret City, a magical book that delivers Teo into a different world in the first volume. In the sequel, she has to rely on her own wits much more, as becomes a developing character who is nearly 18 months older than she was in book one. I did not, however, get rid of my foulmouthed curry-swilling mermaids. They were the ‘hit’ of the first book, but, even more than that, I simply could not bear to be without them myself.

In planning a sequel, I’d also had to embed the potential for rendering Teo parentless yet again, thus freeing her to disguise herself as boy and join the crew of the Scilla. So, at the end of The Undrowned Child, Teo’s adopted parents are appointed the directors of a new museum of lagoon life. This means that at the beginning of The Mourning Emporium it is easy to stage their kidnapping from the island where they work all hours studying obscure ocean arthropods and their means of locomotion … all of which might make them very useful to a foreign power trying to create a new form of submarine.

It’s vital to avoid a sense of ‘more of the same’ in a sequel. So it can be very useful to move book two on geographically. So half The Mourning Emporium takes place in London – much of it in the street where I live. The change of location also gifted the story with terrifying sea journey, involving mutiny, sorcery, a Colossal Squid and near starvation. (In fact, even within my adult books I actually prefer to take two-city breaks: The Remedy takes a Venetian to London, and a Londoner to Venice. The Book of Human Skin girates between Peru and Venice.)

I wouldn’t enjoy writing for children – just as I couldn’t write for adults – unless the story gave me an issue or a theory to explore. In The Undrowned Child, the twin themes are identity and self-sacrifice. You are, I suggest, what you are prepared to die for. Teo doesn’t know at first that she’s a Venetian, but soon she’s risking her life to save the city. But then, for The Mourning Emporium, I needed a new idea for the old characters, something to test them further, something that would exploit their flaws and their talents to make a dynamic, individual storyline, one that could be lived only by them.

For me, the central idea of The Mourning Emporium is the care and feeding of children – in both the emotional and culinary senses. The book contains two characters who represent the extremes of evil and good in this department. The first is Miss Uish, a sociopathic female who seizes control of the fates of a dozen Venetian orphans, without caring if they live or die. Her counterpart is a London bulldog called Turtledove, who cherishes, adores and spoils his ‘childer’. The whole book, in a sense, builds up to the final and violent encounter between these two characters.

So will there be a sequel to the sequel? Well, there is a third book commissioned but it doesn’t follow directly on The Mourning Emporium. In fact, now I am going fifty years into the past, before some – though not all – of my original cast were born. And herein lies more joy … but that’s another story, and another blog.

Does anyone else have sequel joys or tribulations to share?

Michelle Lovric lives in Venice and London. She’s the author of four adult novels set Venice and an anthology, Venice, Tales of the City. Her third novel, The Remedy, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her fourth adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, came out with Bloomsbury in April 2010. Her first novel for 9-12-year-olds, The Undrowned Child, tells what happens when science meets baddened magic in Venice in 1899. Two brave and clever children must save the city from the vengeful spirit of the Traitor, Bajamonte Tiepolo, returned from the dead after 700 years. The Mourning Emporium, the sequel, was published on October 28 and transports us from a frozen Venice to a grieving London, where Queen Victoria lies dying, and a massacre of innocent mourners is the object of a dreadful conspiracy between Bajamonte and an unscrupulous Pretender to the British throne. All that stands between the forces of evil and their success are two Venetian children, a hundred mermaids, a talking bulldog, some pumpkin-sellers and a devastatingly handsome circus master

Michelle Lovric and over fifty other writers appear in City-pick Venice, £8.99 paperback, published by Oxygen Books on 4 November 2010.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

We will remember them

I have been wanting to blog about this for some time and today, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, seems right . I should warn you that this is a more personal post than usual. My daughter is one of the producers of the play based on Sebastian Faulks' best-selling novel. Consequently I have been hearing a lot about this production over a long period of time.

That doesn't mean my critical faculties have been disabled but it does mean that the following account is my own specific take on the venture rather than an outsider view.

The book has many fans and, as I found out when I first told friends about the play, equally vociferous non-fans. I made a point of reading it before going to the première. So I knew what to expect. But somehow that did not protect me from the full force of the depiction of that "hell within a hell" that was the little-known World War One setting of the sappers in the tunnels in acts two and three.

At the end of the play, when the audience spontaneously rose to its feet, I couldn't join them. Not because I didn't agree with their assessment but because I was too distraught. I don't think I have ever shed tears in the theatre before, although I have, being a huge Shakespeare fan living within an hour's drive of Stratford, seen many tragedies.

But it was many minutes before I could recover my composure. What really got to me, in the scene where Stephen is rescued at the last minute by the German soldier and told the war is over, is that the two men embrace and say "Never again." (The soldier is a Jew). I just kept thinking, "Will no-one ever learn? Not only did it happen again, it's happening right now."

Some reviewers have liked the play better than others. Several made allusions to a television series that reminded me of the definition of a cultured person as "someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger." I would now change that to "someone who can see depictions of British soldiers going 'over the top" and a field of poppies without referencing Blackadder Goes Forth"!

I still don't know whether what I saw was a play. I wouldn't for example tell someone to read Rachel Wagstaff's playscript, good as it was, in preference to the novel. But I will say it was one of the most powerful theatrical experiences I have ever had. And I thought of it again during the two-minute silence this morning. Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace and all the others are fictional characters but they helped me to remember men I never knew. And I shall not forget them.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Book Trust Teenage Prize

The culmination of, for me, eight months reading, arguing, advocating - in a word, judging - came this week when the winner of the Booktrust Teenage  Prize was announced. This was Gregory Hughes' début novel Unhooking the Moon (Quercus).

Unfortunately for us, Gregory was in Canada at the time of the announcement but his prize was collected for him by Roisin Heycock, the editor of this unusual book. Apparently he wrote it in Iceland in eight months in "a room so small he could touch both ends ... while standing in the middle."

Hughes is English but has spent a lot of time in Canada, where the book begins. It's a "road movie" of a novel in which reliable older brother Bob, accompanies his little sister, "The Rat," on a quest to New York to find their uncle, after their father's sudden death.

They get caught up in petty crime, a virtual kidnap, a paedophile ring and the life of a successful rapper. The book stands or falls through the character of the Rat (real name Marie-Claire) and here Hughes treads a fine line very delicately. Is she an annoying brat or a brilliant, unusual, credible eccentric? Definitely the latter but it's a close thing.

It was a fresh voice on a very varied shortlist encompassing quasi-zombies, centaurs, brutal racism, a pacifist's dilemma and a "girly" book that wasn't remotely pink. And that was just the shortlist. Our longlist also featured some wonderful books, like Marie-Louise Jensen's Daughter of Fire and Ice, Keren David's When I was Joe, Tamsyn Murray's My So-called Afterlife and Mary Hooper's Fallen Grace.

The judging process was fascinating. Five of us: myself, Tony Bradman (Chair), librarian Barbara Band, journalist Barbara Ellen and impressive teenager Claudia Freemantle, faced up to the challenge of reading 120 books submitted by their publishers. At our shortlisting meeting (which was in my opinion far and away the hardest one), we sorted this monumental quantity of YA reading into three piles: Yes, No and Maybe.

The No pile was for unanimous negative response from all five judges. If one of us loved it, it was put in Maybes. It is not breaking any confidences to say that Unhooking the Moon went straight into the Yes pile from the beginning.

Once we had our shortlist - agonising for me because I should have liked our longlist to be our shortlist, if you see what I mean, but we HAD to stop at six - we had to re-read them and were joined in this by four more teenagers, whose ideas I certainly had not predicted. But I must say, if these are our future, the country is in very safe hands. Here's a photo of them with the shortlisted authors who could be present, taken by the official Booktrust photographer:

Claudia is one the far right and the teenager third from left is not a judge but a writer: Isabel Adomakoh Young is half of Zizou Corder, whose Halo was on the shortlist.

As well as lacking the winner, we also missed Marcus Sedgwick, who was on a plane to Switzerland. His Revolver was a shortlisted title. Charlie Higson (The Enemy) is 4th from right, next to Sarra Manning (Nobody's Girl) and Louisa Young (the other half of Zizou Corder). Between Isabel and Louisa is Jason Wallace, another début author with Out of Shadows.

It was a day of celebration but now I have a word of rebuke and it is for the editors of a large proportion of the 120 books we read. This was remarked on by our teenage judges in particular so is not the embittered rant of an older generation stickler! Here, at random, are some of the things I found in published, not proof, copies:

"clashing symbols;" an address printed on the cover different from the one inside the book, "slithers of ice;" a country's Latin motto incorrectly translated; "sight" for "site;" "I sunk into a chair;" "pour over their relationship;" "the baby laid in her buggy" and a definition of "déjà vu" so bizarre that one can only assume neither the writer nor editor knew what it means.

Too numerous to mention were the instances of the "lay" for "lie" confusion and the use of "I" as an object as in, for example "He looked at X and I." And that was just the grammar and vocabulary!

Claire Armitstead, the Literary Editor of the Guardian, had some harsh words for editors recently when judging their First Novel Award and she was talking about content rather than syntax or word-use. Sadly, that was also evident in the books I read. I can honestly say there were some, including by very well-known names, that should not have been published, let alone submitted for an award.

No names, no pack drill but why is this happening? And why does no-one understand that "Wherefore art thou Romeo?' does NOT mean "where are you, Romeo?" but "WHY are you Romeo?" (If Shakespeare had meant "where" he would have said it and added another syllable in the line so as not to bitch the rhythm. That is the speech that contains "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" after all).

Is it that editors don't go on courses any more? Or that proof readers are less capable than they used to be? I can't believe that. Answers, please, in Comments.