22 November, 2014

Archive Day - Letter to my Son

Today it is #archiveday on Twitter - a day when people re-post an old blog post. I thought a little bit about which post I should go for. I played with the idea of re-posting That Would Be Myself  - a rant about grammar and language hang-ups - as this was one of my posts that got the biggest response. But I decided instead to re-post the letter I wrote to my son when he was abot six weeks old. It's nothing to do with writing, but it's everything to do with storytelling and... well... it makes me happy. So here it is:

Our Dear Digory,

You are a story waiting to be told. You are the clean blank page in the fresh notebook; the hopeful, frightening words ‘Chapter One’ written large on the top line. You are a tale more fantastic than fiction and more magical than the myths told round campfires. 

How can it be that you – so tiny – have taken over my story so entirely? In my life,  every chapter from now until The End can never be the same because of you. Daddy and I, our own books bound together inextricably, now find ourselves captivated by the opening lines of your story. And I wish I could write it for you. I wish I could abandon my book mid-sentence; break off and leave it to write yours – to make sure the structure and shape, the characters and twists are perfect. But I can’t. You must write it yourself.

If I wrote your life, I would create a fantasy world for you. I would set your story in a land where the sun never set on sadness, and where the moon watched over you at night. There would be no enchanted forest of thorns, nor wicked witches to place you under a curse. Evil stepmothers would be banished, dragons would lie down with lambs. There would be no Black Moment, no All-is-Lost. It would be a story with many heroes and no villains. And nobody would want to hear the tale, because it wouldn’t be a true story. It would be a prison. 

In these early chapters of yours, Daddy and I are the vocabulary that underlies every sentence. We are the heroes who can fight away fears. I know it can’t last. That is a parent’s curse. We must give you the words and the grammar, the inspiration and the imagination, and then we must let you write your story your way. We must love you more fiercely with each passing chapter, while gradually retreating from the tale. For a few pages we may be the villains: the keepers of keys, the setters of curfews, the curtailers of freedom. Then, all too soon, we will not even be that. We must retreat to be minor characters among your cast of friends and rivals, popping up every few pages to remind you how much we love you, knowing we’ll never really be able to make you understand. Before long you won’t look to me for comfort when you come across something new; you won’t need Daddy to rock you to sleep in his arms. And we will be sad, and we will be excited. And you will not even mark these passing moments. You will be too busy writing your tale.

You learned to smile last week, Digory. Soon you will learn so many other things – more important than walking, or reading, or tying your shoelaces. You will learn how to face rejection and how to be disappointed. You will learn that you are fallible. You will discover how marvellous it is to laugh until you can’t breathe and how to sit in silence with someone who fits into your story perfectly, as Daddy fits mine. You will learn how to be gracious in victory and how to get over defeat. You will know you are as self-centred and confused as the rest of mankind. You will know you are as beautiful as any human ever was.

So I don’t wish for your life to be free from dragons and witches, curses and thorns. I only pray that you know how to meet them. When they appear in your tale, meet them with courage and gentleness and, when the page turns, leave them behind. I feel as if I should have words of wisdom to impart to you as you start out. But I find there’s only one thing I have to tell you. There’s one secret that I hope will help you to enjoy life. It’s this: nobody really knows what they’re doing; we’re all just making up our stories as we go along. Isn’t that marvellous? Doesn’t that make you free? I hope so.

As I write this you are lying in your basket just a few feet away, gurgling at the monkeys decorating the wall and gradually falling asleep. And there’s so much I want to tell you when I look at you. I want to teach you every lesson from every mistake I’ve ever made to save you from making them yourself. But until you write your story I won’t know which lessons you need to learn. I must let you lead the way. So instead I should end on a quotation from a great piece of literature for you to carry with you through life. And however hard I think, I can’t think of a better one than this passage from Happy Birthday To You! by Dr. Seuss – “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” 

That’s why you need to write your own story: you are the only you there is. Be kind. Be gentle. Be compassionate. But don’t let anybody else write your story for you, or try to write anybody else’s. For if you don’t write your tale, it will never be told. And there is no greater tragedy than an untold story. Write your story, Digory. Write it well. Be free.

20 November, 2014

Meeting Your Heroes

Does meeting a writer you admire (or even one you don't), change the way you feel about their books?

We might meet authors at festivals, book-signings or other literary events, but we now also have the opportunity to connect with them instantly online via their blogs or social media. Twitter in particular has opened up a whole new world of interaction. Neil Gaiman, for example, has 2.9 million followers on Twitter and has tweeted to those followers over 75 000 times - mixing author news with personal snapshots of his life. By all accounts he is as friendly, generous and gracious in the real world as he is online, but being a writer isn't a synonym for being a person everybody loves. What happens if you don't like what an author says on Twitter or in an interview? Does it ruin the magic of their books?

When I first joined Twitter I started following an author of a book I'd read that week. It was a good book and his name was fresh in my mind and so I thought I'd start my life on Twitter with him. Within a week I'd stopped following him and I've been reluctant to follow other authors ever since. Why? Because he expressed political views that were, to me, repugnant. I tried not to let this cloud my opinion of the book I'd just read, but I haven't made any effort to read another of his. His [very conservative, right-wing, pro-gun] views are now associated in my mind with his name.

There was a mini-news storm earlier this year when Jeanette Winterson tweeted "Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit". Rabbit-lovers everywhere were outraged, vowing never to read her books again. I found that absurd, but was it really more absurd than me being turned-off a writer for his political views that were nothing to do with his writing?

It's the same with our own media presence, of course. I usually avoid expressing political or religious views publically, not only because they are private and I hate conflict, but also because I am aware that I can and will be judged by readers, editors and publishers by what I put in the public domain. And so I should be. If we choose to make things public, we can't protest when people form an opinion of us based on those things.

Have you ever met an author or followed them on social media only to be disappointed by their attitude or what they say? Have you ever met or written to a writer who has been gracious and charming? I'd love to know who the good authors to follow on Twitter are!

12 November, 2014

Book Group

Last night I attended my first book group. I was not there just as a participant, however. I was there as the author of the book! One of the local book groups decided to read my novel The Art of Letting Go and invited me along to their meeting (after they'd had an hour to discuss it without having to be polite!) to tell them more about it.

It was such an enjoyable thing to do, although bizarre and unnerving at the same time. I guessed everyone would be polite about it (which they were), but I was dreading the awkwardness that would occur if they were only polite about it! Luckily, they were positively enthusiastic. I'm sure some people enjoyed The Art of Letting Go more than others, but they all had interesting insights into how the characters made them feel. I even felt as if I learned something about my book by listening to a group of intelligent people discuss the motivations and desires behind my character's actions. It was certainly interesting to listen to people disagree about why Ben wanted to paint God, or what Rosemary was really looking for. My characters appear just as complicated and messy to me as they do to other readers, and it was amazing and encouraging to hear how other people had engaged with them, believed in them, given them a life of their own.

On the whole, I don't think I was a particularly insightful guest author. My comments along the lines of "don't know, I just thought it was kind of cool to put that in", or "my friend said something to me about thunderstorms, so I thought I'd write about a thunderstorm", weren't perhaps the stuff TED talks are made of, but I was honest at least! And if I'm even more honest with myself, I have to say that I still feel a bit of a fraud talking to people as an author. I don't feel as if I've earned the right yet, to call myself by the A-word. I don't have an interesting creative process, or some fascinating insights into the mind of a writer. I just make up stories and write them down.

The most enjoyable part of the evening for me, was hearing how my novel moved people. Different people were moved - even, perhaps, tearful - at different points in the book. I don't think I could get a bigger compliment than that if I were to win the Man Booker. To have made people stop and think - no - to have made them stop and feel, is all I wanted to do. I hope this won't be the last time I speak about my book as an author, but for a first time, I had fun!

07 November, 2014

Quotable Friday (38)

Whenever I do interviews (and I'm making that sound like it's often and not that I've done about three in my entire life) I get a question along the lines of "Why does fiction matter?" I tend to ramble on about fiction reflecting the real world and/or providing escapism from the real world. Luckily, there are more eloquent writers than me out there. This week on Buzzfeed, there was a list of quotations from writers on the importance of reading. You can read the full list here. This one was my favourite, from Madeleine L'Engle:



"A book too, can be a star, explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe."

And just a re-cap of my favourite quotation about the importance of books, from CS Lewis, that wasn't on the list and I've almost certainly shared before, but that I can't get enough of:

"Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter, but darker."


Clearly lighting the darkness is something that resonate with me. What do you think are the most important reasons for writing or reading?

04 November, 2014

Mere Literary Festival

Last week I received a certificate of distinction for my entry into the Mere Literary Festival timed flash fiction competition. I was one of six shortlisted entries in this quirky competition. I'm not yet sure how many entries there were, but last year they had over 130 so I'm pleased!

It's exciting for me to have done well in this competition because my story was the first complete bit of fiction I've managed to write since my baby was born in March. I've been working on a novel for the last couple of months but feeling a bit disheartened about how long it's going to take me even to write a first draft during Digory's morning nap! I needed a very short challenge to inspire me but not distract me for too long.

When I heard about Mere's flash competition I knew I wanted to enter. I love to enter themed competitions as I enjoy knowing that we are all trying to think of a unique interpretation of the same thing. Mere was not only themed but it was timed - something much more unusual. The phrase we all had to include in our work ("the end of the line") was revealed on Thursday 25th September and entries had to arrive by post no later than Friday 3rd October - giving everybody one week to write their 350-word piece. As it happened, I was away on a long weekend that week and Mondays are always frantic, so I didn't find out what the phrase was until Monday evening. This meant I wrote my draft on Tuesday, edited on Wednesday morning and posted on Wednesday afternoon! Not ideal for a competition entry but I was so elated to have finished a bit of fiction at last, I didn't care!

You can find out whot he winners were here. The winning stories and judges report will be available soon.