Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Yay! I won an award!

May 5, 2017

Oh God, is he boasting about that award? You’d think he’d won the Nobel Prize.

No, not the Nobel Prize, but the Awesome Book Award, voted for by children in 46 schools across England’s southeast, and I couldn’t be happier that Time Travelling With A Hamster won.

Apart from anything else, it was a fun evening.  Each of the five nominees (me, Horatio Clare, M.G Leonard, Katherine Woodfine and Martyn Ford) were given seven minutes to address the packed hall.  It meant that each of us did the best bit from our usual presentations, and it worked brilliantly.  And Lauren Child (below), who presented the award, was mordantly hilarious about the hard work that is writing.

It’s easy to be cynical about book awards.  They’re often dismissed as either blunt marketing tools, or meaningless baubles to buff the egos of insecure writers, but here’s the thing: I don’t care.

A marketing tool, blunt or otherwise, is a means of selling books and if they are my books, then hurrah!  And as a confessed insecure writer, I’m happy for my ego to be buffed occasionally.

I don’t think, however, that the Awesome Book Award is either.  It’s one of a handful of awards that are voted for by the children.  There’s no obvious commercial benefit to the award’s hosts (Cranleigh School in Surrey).

Its aim is simply to foster a love of reading in young people, to encourage them to read widely, critically and enthusiastically – and who could complain about that?

Certainly not me, and I’d say that even if I hadn’t won!

Leo Baxendale, and how I nearly became a cartoonist

April 27, 2017

When I do school visits, the Q&A often includes the question: “If you had not been a writer, what would you have been”

The answer, usually, is “a cartoonist”.  (More accurately, I suppose, a cartoonist is what I would have liked to have been, rather than what I would  have been.)  The inspiration for this is Leo Baxendale, the Beano comic artist who died this week, aged 86.

baxI possess a modest talent at drawing.  Had I pursued it, practised it, honed it, I daresay I could have made more of that talent than I ended up with, but I didn’t.

I got Baxendale’s joyously illustrated memoir, A Very Funny Business when I was about 16.  It’s a great book, crammed with stories about his time with the Scottish publisher, D C Thomson, and very generous assessments of his fellow-cartoonists.  At about the same time, I conceived and drew a series of short (3-4 panels) cartoon strips demonstrating simple magic tricks.  I sent samples to the editors of local newspapers around the country and quite a few accepted them for £2 or £3 each.  It was a small syndication business, and good pocket money in 1980.  I though – briefly – that I could make a living from it.

M drawing style was (and is), however, stiff and forced compared with the brilliantly daft freedom of Leo Baxendale’s pen.  It was he who came up with The Bash Street Kids as well as Little Plum, The Three Bears and loads of others.

bearsBaxendale had already moved on from The Beano by the time I was born, but I still knew his work from the old board-covered annuals at home.  He also drew for two comics that I enjoyed as a child: Whizzer & Chips, and Shiver & Shake.  Of course, I had no idea who he was but I remember two of his strips especially: Grimly Fiendish and Sweeney Toddler.  The latter, in particular, had a dark streak that was characteristic of Baxendale’s middle period.

The Beano doesn’t really exist any more.  They bring out a Christmas annual, I think, and there’s a website, natch.  But it doesn’t compare to the comic’s heyday in the 50s and 60s when Baxendale and a small army of other comic artists would be producing multiple pages of incredibly detailed cartoon strips every week.

There is one publication, still, where very funny drawings combine with very funny scripts, and that’s Viz.  Entirely unsuitable for children, of course, but Viz is a knowing pastiche of golden-era comics like The Beano and The Dandy and occasionally the drawings are as good as Leo Baxendale’s.

World Book Day and the nicest school I have ever visited

March 5, 2017

 

I have now done two World Book Days as an author, and I always think back to the ones when my own two children (now 14)  would dress up for school as a favourite book character.

We did, among others,

  • Angelina Ballerina (a fairly easy costume, that one, largely achieved with face-paint and a tutu),
  • Tom from Tom’s Midnight Garden (pyjamas and a large grandfather clock made of cardboard),
  • a Mallory Towers schoolgirl (easy if you can borrow a grey pinafore dress),
  • Karlsson from Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson On The Roof (involving a box with a moving propellor strapped to the back and a willingness to explain to everyone who Karlsson was and why the books are brilliant)
  • Scamper the dog from The Secret Seven (an existing teddy-bear costume with a collar saying “Scamper”)
  • John Thornton, the gold prospector in Jack London’s The Call Of The Wild (checked shirt, stick-on beard, bag of “gold”)

 Above left: Tom’s Midnight Garden – a book.  Above right: “The Vicar Dibley” – not a book               

I was – and remain – privately scornful of those who dress up as film or cartoon characters.  I’m not keen on Superman costumes, either. Do comics count?  I don’t think so.  And I retain an especial sniff of disapproval for the teacher who turned up dressed as Dawn French from the Vicar Of Dibley.  This is not, and has never been, a book.  It’s a television sitcom, and surely the WHOLE POINT of World Book Day is celebrating and promoting BOOKS over other forms of storytelling.  The clue is in the title.  Sheesh.

Anyway, there I was last week, surrounded by ten year-olds in their costumes and I was the guest author for the day!

Tower Hamlets is one of London’s very poorest – and most ethnically diverse – areas, where children of a white, English heritage must be a pretty small minority.  It includes much of the old “traditional” east end of Pearly Kings and jellied eels and the Kray Twins, right next to the shiny towers of money in Canary Wharf.

Hanging onto the edge of the Isle of Dogs is Cubbit Town, its primary school set among low-rise social housing and boarded-up pubs.  It turned out to be probably the nicest school I have ever visited.

Two prefects had been assigned to greet me.  They called me “sir” and shook my hand, and showed me around the school and delivered me to the first classroom, where the year 6 children (10-11 years old) were lively, funny, engaged, polite and a complete joy.

And so it went on for the remaining sessions.  They listened, they contributed, they asked interesting questions.

Many of them, I found out later, had not had the best start in life.  Broken families, homelessness, addiction, learning disabilities, language differences and more – some of these kids were quite significantly disadvantaged.  And yet here they were: happily engaging with the whole idea of learning, guided by hard-working and caring school staff.

I was moved, and struck by the profound wish that, when these children move out of this school next year and onto secondary education, they do not lose the lively spark that made my World Book Day such a joy.

 

Lost ‘Two Ronnies’ sketch

January 25, 2017

Well, by “lost” I mean “not on Youtube” which, I realise, is a different thing altogether, but I’d love to see it again.

It’s one of their wonderful songs: they are street sweepers and that’s about all I can remember, other than it was hilarious.  Every now and then I check to see if someone has posted it, and it never comes up.

Instead, check this out.  It struck me that in this performance, it’s Ronnie Corbett that gets nearly all of the tricky wordplay to do.  Those of us of a certain vintage and origin will recall that Ronnie Barker was renowned for his facility with tongue-tripping scripts; here it’s Ronnie C who does it, and brilliantly, and in tune!

(The writing in this is superb, too.  Everything scanning and rhyming just as it should, with double entendres galore.)

 

Book number 2: thank God for that!

October 12, 2016

I’ll be honest – there were times when I thought, fleetingly, that perhaps I was destined to write only one book.  That Time Travelling With A Hamster would have its brief moment in the limelight and then gracefully move along the bookshelf to make room for books by other, more prolific and successful authors.

invisible-coverI would tell myself that Harper Lee  wrote only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird.  (Then I’d remember Go Set A Watchman  and feel a little sad.)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was also a one-off, written in 1936, that still sells 75,000 copies a year.

(Incidentally, Mockingbird and GWTW both one-offs, both set in the US deep south, both won the Pullitzer Prize.)

Anyway, the doubts were necessarily momentary as I had a contract to fulfill with HarperCollins and – in hindsight – the problem was not that I couldn’t think of a story to write, but that the initial, enthusiastic reception to Hamster had somewhat intimidated me.  And if I felt that with the modest success of Hamster imagine what poor Harper Lee felt when her first ever book won the world’s most-coveted literary prize and was set by exam boards the world over.

Anyway, it’s done and I’m thrilled with it.  I say “done”: it’s in the final editing stage, where metaphors are unmixed, characterisations sharpened with a word here and there, plot holes that have survived so far are identified and filled in (or disguised), and the copy-editor says things like, “she can’t put it in her jeans pocket because you said five pages ago that she was wearing a skirt.”  I owe an awed debt to my brilliant editors.

The cover, once again, is by the wonderful Tom Clohosy Cole.  It really matches Hamster.

In fact, it looks just like a collection of books by an author should look.  Which means I’d better get cracking on book three…

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is available to pre-order from Amazon.  It will be published on December 29.

 

 

 

 

 

“Let’s talk about adverbs,” he said, swiftly

April 21, 2016

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Stephen King’s splendid book On Writing, and referenced his personal ban – which I think he’d like extended – on adverbs.

“The adverb is not your friend” he said, adding, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”  Loudly, no doubt.

swiftI’ve since discovered (because I have never been aware of it) that my own writing does include adverbs.  Not that many, I don’t think, but too many to please Stephen King (for whom I have, lest it be doubted, the utmost respect).

King’s dislike of adverbs comes down to his dislike of sloppy writing; he thinks there is nearly always a better way of indicating how an action is being carried out, which is all that adverbs do.
But I’m not sure, now, that King isn’t overreacting somewhat.  Earlier today, I wrote, “He waved his fist limply.”  Realising I had transgressed the King’s Law, I reconsidered the sentence and realised that “limply” was exactly how the character had waved his fist and that the adverb would stand.  There are others that I found.  None offended me.

To further illustrate his point, King makes reference to the favourite old game of creating “Tom Swifties”, named after the adventure books by Victor Appleton.  Appleton was probably over-fond  of using adverbs to describe how someone said something, apparently terrified of using the word “said” on its own.

“Come here,” said Tom, gruffly.

That sort of thing.  It has given rise to endless joke variations.  There’s about a million on the web, but I’ll give you a handful of my favourites.

“It’s pretty windy today,” said Tom, breezily.

“I think someone’s turned the heating up,” said Tom, hotly.

“My bicycle wheel has broken,” Tom spoke out.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily.

Years ago I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald asked readers for suggestions.  I was thrilled when mine was printed.  Obviously I still remember it and relish the opportunity to boast about it at every chance:

“There’s just no atmosphere up here,” said Major Tom with an explanatory air.

 

 

 

A gem on every page

April 4, 2016

Fifteen years ago I was holiday with my then-girlfriend (now wife) in Zahara de los Atunes in southern Spain.  Three things are especially memorable.  Mrs W told me she was pregnant; Islamist psychos flew aeroplanes into the Twin Towers in New York (the horror of which we watched unfold on a television in a village bar); and I read Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

kingThe copy that I read then has long been lost.  Perhaps I threw it out: I remember finding its presence a little intimidating. There is so much good advice and encouragement included in it that it seemed to be reproaching me for not following it.  How could I have read this book yet still be slogging away as a producer of largely crap TV, instead of actually, you know, writing?

Then someone last week tweeted me one of its countless bon mots.  Perhaps it was:

Fiction is the truth within the lie.  Or

Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s.

I can’t remember.  Stephen King quotes are pretty common on Twitter.  Anyway, I bought it again and stayed up till 1.00 a.m. last night, rediscovering the wisdom and fun in its pages.  I laughed at this one:

We are writers; we don’t ask one another where we get our ideas from.  We know we don’t know.

Not only is it true (however unsatisfying, “I don’t know,” is the only answer to the question “Where do your ideas come from?”) it revealed something to me that had till now only been on the edge of my realisation.

And that is: I am a writer.  The way that I smiled in recognition at that quote means that I am a member of a club that includes Stephen King!  A lowly, just-published, starting-out, probationary member perhaps, but still…

Whether or not you like Stephen King books (and I think everyone should read at least one or two just so that you know something of one of the world’s most popular novelists) he’s pretty illustrious company.

He’s bossy too.

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. 

I have  just picked up Time Travelling With A Hamster and opened it at random.  One one double page I found two adverbs, “expectantly”and”warily”.

Sorry, Stephen!