Friday, 25 May 2012

Arvon Lady calling

Isn't this a heavenly Secret Garden sort of image? I took it on my iPhone on Thursday morning, just before leaving Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.

I'd been up the night before to give the midweek talk on an Arvon Foundation course on Writing for Children. The tutors for the week were Julia Golding and Marcus Sedgwick, so the twelve participants had already had three days of first-rate advice and teaching from experienced and much published writers.

The Arvon Foundation has other centres, in Totleigh Barton in Devon, Moniack Mhor in Scotland, and the Hurst in Shropshire, all running courses on a similar pattern.

Lumb Bank used to belong to Poet Laureate Ted Hughes and in the 18th century was the home of a mill-owner. It still stands in 20 acres of woodland in countryside that falls and rises steeply. The house itself is sternly granite and made me think of Elizabeth's Gaskell's North and South.

But the tutors and midweek guest were housed in the "cottage" (itself a substantial three-bedroom building) on the hither side of this magical gate. Participants did their writing exercises on the vast dining table, which accommodated 15-16 people for dinner on Wednesday night with perfect ease.

Everything seemed on a gargantuan scale - fittingly for the home of the author of The Iron Man. My talk was on the upper floor of a separate barn, where I was facing a possibly eight-seater sofa!

I'd been asked to read from some of my books, answer questions and give an overview of my career. I had an hour to an hour and a half, about half of it set aside for questions. And I have written 96 books so it was a hard task to condense that down.

As I read a passage from Stravaganza: City of Masks in which the magician Rodolfo (he would describe himself as a scientist) sits hunched in a chair 'like a hawk roosting" I thought I felt the spirit of Ted Hughes just lightly pass.

Have you ever been on a creative writing course? And if so, how did you find it?

Idyllic scene from tutors' cottage, Lumb Bank

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Reading others' writing

Not published books; that goes without saying. Any writer without tottering heaps by their bedside, a serious shortage of shelf space and a library card, is one I wouldn't trust.

No, this time I'm talking about the practice, increasingly common of belonging to a writers' group and/or being (and having) Beta-readers.

In recent months, I have read and commented on books by at least four writer-friends ranging from an 8,000-word series book for juniors to a 150,000-word novel for adults. The writers have all been much published and some have won prizes but for some reason or another needed a second eye or more on their typescripts.

And last week I helped a writer-friend re-write a synopsis for a publisher.

But the traffic doesn't all go one way. If you are a Beta-reader, you may also need one or more. This is Wikipedia's definition:

"A beta reader ... is a person who reads a written work, generally fiction, with what has been described as "a critical eye, with the aim of improving grammar, spelling, characterization, and general style of a story prior to its release to the general public."

The author or writer, who can be referred to as the alpha reader, may use several "betas" prior to publication. The term "beta" is an appropriation from the software industry which uses the terms "alpha" and "beta" for software that are internal works in progress and publicly released tests, respectively (though a "beta" version may still be tested internally). While the use of the concept and the term is most common among fan fiction writers, it is growing in popularity with novelists, to the point where some have thanked their beta readers (sometimes even referring to them as such) in their acknowledgments. A beta reader, who may or may not be known to the author, can serve as proofreader of spelling and grammar errors or as a traditional editor, working on the "flow" of prose. In fiction, the beta might highlight plot holes or problems with continuity, characterisation or believability; in fiction and non-fiction, the beta might also assist the author with fact-checking."

It's hard for someone who prides herself on her grammar, punctuation and vocabulary to take 'editing' from anyone else. This is difficult enough when it comes from a Commissioning or Copy editor, especially if their suggestions result in something the writer considers to be introduced errors. But from friends! And about crucial issues of plot!

I belong to a book group and to many writers' organisations, ranging in degrees of formality. But I don't have a writers' group as such, where we exchange passages of Works in Progress for comment.  I know people who do this regularly and admire their courage.

What I have is lots of writer friends. They ask me for comments and recently I have been brave enough to ask them for theirs.

It was because I had written an adult novel. The main character was thirty, which I have been in my time but not in 2008, when her thirtieth birthday very specifically occurred. Did 29-year-old women in 2008 still wear pashminas? How would they book a trip to Italy? What would they drink and how would they view one-night-stands?

So I asked a group of members of the Scattered Authors Society (the "other SAS"), of the right age, to be Beta-readers for me. Their comments have been so helpful I'm encouraged to try it again. To a woman, they were clear that my heroine would not go to Thomas Cook (maybe that's why the company is floundering?) even if it were on her way home.

I was a bit surprised that one of them had never heard of Campari but have left that in, since my character goes into a bar in Florence and orders one. It's going to be a drink, right?

But I have completely restructured the novel to reflect what my Beta-readers thought was the point where it took off and it begins there now. I'm not quite there yet. There is now too much flashback. But it will soon be ready to send out to a new agent (with the blessing of my children's agent).

And if it gets accepted there and by a publisher, I'll be naming those Beta-readers in the Acknowledgments. And maybe some Gamma-readers too ...

Sunday, 13 May 2012

King John the Musical

King John is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays and hardly ever performed. So, being big WS fans here and going to lots of the plays at Stratford, which is an hour's drive from where we live, we booked tickets ages ago.

Is it a History, a Tragedy? Well, according to the RSC's latest production at the Swan theatre, it is a Musical Comedy. (This is the Coronation scene that opens the second half - to the left. Indeed it is John's second coronation, showing how shaky he knew his claim to the throne was).

The play is a great piece of Tudor propaganda, with a scene in which John defies the Papal legate and is very rude about the Pope, declaring himself head of England's church. Pretty anachronistic for around 1200, don't you think? But Henry the Eighth's daughter was on the throne at time and the play was apparently more popular in its time than now, precisely because it showed the King of England standing up to the Pope in Rome.

Another echo can be found in John's (a Bad King, if you remember your Sellars and Yeatman) plan to murder the son of his older brother, which can't help but recall Richard the Third and his alleged murder of his nephews, the young Princes in the Tower - that last monstrous straw which made the reign of Richard Crookback unacceptable and encouraged the young Earl of Richmond to make his push and kill the King at Bosworth Field. The victorious Richmond became Henry the Seventh, Queen Elizabeth's grandfather.

It's not a great play and I doubt very much the new dating of it to 1596, which would make it fall between Richard the Second and The Merchant of Venice. The part of Constance, little Prince Arthur's mother seems an obvious dry run for Margaret of Anjou in the Henry the Sixth plays. (Constance was admirably played by Susie Trayling at Stratford).

And then we come to The Bastard. "He" is the older son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge (deceased) who comes before the king to have the question of inheritance settled, since "his" younger brother is claiming their father's lands, through the terms of the father's Will. But the Bastard (clue is in the name) is well-known to be the illegitimate "son" of Richard the Lionheart, the king's older brother. And shows it in his features, as the shock of of the magnificent Siobhan Redmond, playing Elinor, the king's mother (Eleanor of Aquitaine), at seeing "him" is supposed to underline.

Why all the inverted commas?

Because this (on the right) is how the RSC has chosen to cast the Bastard, the older son remember. Pippa Nixon. She opens the production, in her mini-dress and patterned tights, with this tiny guitar, plucking out the notes of Land and Hope and Glory and encouraging the audience to join in, saying she "didn't know the words."

"Kill me now," were the words on my mind. I don't blame Pippa Nixon, who made the best fist of the job she had been so inappropriately given. The Director, Maria Aberg, is responsible for this decision, which makes total nonsense of the inheritance scene. If the Bastard had been female, she would of course have had no claim to her father's lands even if she had been legitimate, at the beginning of the thirteenth century.

It also introduces an entirely spurious quasi-romance between the king and the Bastard (his nephew or even his niece, if you must), when she decides to forgo the disputed lands and throw in her lot as the enthusiastic follower of John.

Now, I'm sorry to harp on about history - and indeed Shakespeare allows himself plenty of anachronism in this play - but King John got his own crown by the Will of Richard the First, his brother, which leapfrogged the claims of young Arthur. In the play, King John finds in favour of the Bastard, flouting the terms of the older Faulconbridge's Will, while wearing the crown King Richard's Will had given him.

These subtleties are quite lost when the Bastard is played by a woman.

But this is not the only bright Directorial idea to cast its blighted shadow over the play. The Papal Legate (who really did excommunicate John in 1209) is played by Paola Dionisotti. She looks wonderful (sadly the RSC website offers only a tiny low-res picture) and acts most of the rest of the cast off the stage. But she is supposed to be a Cardinal, ffs. This is what the "dramaturg" Jeanie O'Hare says about casting a woman as a cardinal of the Church in Rome at the beginning of the thirteenth century: "Again we are bringing the spirit of the Church rather than the dry truth of the role onto [sic] the stage. This is not a political statement about women priests. This is a formidable intervention from someone who can destabilise this world of warring monarchs - and what better way to heighten the sense of Catholic impudence than by having a woman order these two kings around?"
(Essay in the programme).

This is worth quoting at length so that you can see how mind-boggling ignorant are the "ideas" behind this production. There was no "Catholic Church" in 1209. How can you "destabilise" two kings already at war? etc. etc. But this is presents itself as a lively modern interpretation of the play where to do what Shakespeare wrote becomes "dry truth." I really hope the new RSC supremo, Greg Doran, will stop this nonsense.

Of course lots of the audience enjoyed bopping to The Time of my Life and I say a Little Prayer for You, along with the cast. In another context, I might have enjoyed it myself.

Blanche, King John's niece by one of his sisters (another Eleanor) is married off to Louis, the Dauphin of France. And thus the king deflects the French king's support for Arthur's claim to the throne. The wedding of Blanche and Louis is given a full-blown "Hold it, Flash-Bang Wallop, What a Picture!" treatment, with balloons, cowboy hats, stripping, partyhats - the works. Blanche herself (Natalie Klamar) was played very much as Portia and Nerissa were in the "Las Vegas" production of The Merchant of Venice, as a peroxide blonde bimbo in a sticky-out Barbie dress.

But the Merchant of Venice is a popular play, frequently performed. One dud, redeemed by splendid performances by Patrick Stewart and Scott Handy, hardly matters. Who knows when there will be another King John?

I think one of the reasons it hasn't remained as a star of the Shakespeare repertoire is that it isn't really a full-blown tragedy. John has no apparent redeeming features and we don't care when he dies after being poisoned. Prince Arthur's death, which is shown as a suicide leap from castle walls, makes no sense. The Bastard's devotion to the venal king is inexplicable and there is no really great verse to carry it over these defects.

But, just because it's not on a par with Richard the Second - or even Henry the Sixth - is no reason to treat it in this charlatan fashion. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A new dawn for Vampires

Anne Rooney + vampires at London Book Fair
I am not a big fan of vampire literature, especially for teenagers. What is now semi-affectionately known as Twiglet casts a long shadow. So it was more in friendship than in preference that I have spent the last two days reading SEVEN YA Vampire books.

And I loved them! Let me count the ways. I am not a reluctant reader, which is the target audience; I am an avid reader! Then I am hardly a teenager. And as for vampires, I never even read Anne Rice.

But these books are SO skilfully written! I know Anne is a good friend but since I am absolutely not the target audience, I hoped I would count as dispassionate. And I was totally hooked.

There are six short novels and a manual, Bloodsucking for Beginners, all written with much wit and clearly lots of research. The first book, Die Now or Live Forever, should be read first as an introduction to the linked stories of six teens; after that the books can be read in any order. Five teens are camping in a forest in Hungary - have they not SEEN any horror movies? - when  they stumble on a young man staked through the chest to the forest floor.

Then they find his murderer, who is not what they expect. Nor is the victim. They then meet the mysterious Ignace, who turns out to be someone we know from history. Actually, quite a few historical figures from the past, some of it quite recent, turn out to be vampires but I won't spoil some of the surprises.

Did you know that after the French Revolution some people sympathetic to the murdered aristocrats wore red bow ties tattooed around their necks? Or that vampires have to stop and count small objects which is why they must avoid weddings and why people throw rice or confetti on those occasions? Neither did I.

Juliette's story, Drop Dead, Gorgeous, is one of the scariest, involving a very nasty scene with a guillotine. But in a way I found Alistair's story, Dead on Arrival, even more palm-sweatingly tense, since he has a hard enough time understanding the world as a teen with Asperger's,  let alone being able to cope when he wakes up in a hospital morgue.

Here they all are:

Juliette's story of modelling in Paris, with two stalkers, attempted murder and "that" scene. Why does Juliette never eat? Is it just because she is trying to stay thin for her career? And is it really a good idea for her to fall for Ignace?

Finn's story, involving a very unexpected vampire, living in a very unexpected place! (In which I am writing this very blogpost. I do NOT go out after dark). Why can't he be as famous and successful a rock star as he seems destined to be?

Omar's story, which takes place mainly in Russia. And where the science of vampirism is explained. There are some very unexpected vampires working in the laboratory. And a prisoner you definitely don't want to know about!

Alistair's story - in many ways my favourite. But very scary! Alistair is Ruby's brother and they share this story. And, since that incident in the Hungarian forest, they share the same destiny too.

Ava's story, in which another unexpected - and utterly terrifying - vampire shows up. Ava was not one of the original teenagers camping together in Hungary and now she finds herself abandoned in Kosovo, without knowing why.

In the manual, you find all sorts of useful advice for the newly-vampirised: ProVamp capsules to stop you lusting after human blood; iVamp, the communication network used by web-savvy vampires; Arithmomania, the counting compulsion you have to get used to; steak - eat it VERY rare!

And so on.

Books for reluctant readers have a limited vocabulary but you feel no sense of that with Vampire Dawn (which has its own website). And writers of such books don't usually see them reviewed in the national press or on prize shortlists.

But remember what Blaise Pascal said: "I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short." It takes time and care to produce something so short that is grippingly readable.

The Vampire Dawn series is published by Ransom Publishing.