Thursday, November 26, 2015

Creating a sense of place

Several years ago I attended an SCBWI-BI conference at which Marcus Sedgwick was a keynote speaker.  In one of his talks he spoke about creating a sense of place, and using place as character, saying that where a book is set can generate so many other aspects of a story. He has been quoted as saying, “a sense of place tends to come before anything else” in his stories.  The potential power of place as a fundamental shaper of story, fascinated me. I went home and read several of Sedgwick’s books, which revealed just how powerfully place can work for a story.   As an example, Sharon Jones, in a review of Sedgwick’s Dark Horse, described his creation of place in the following way: “It is a tale that smells of the raw fish and animal skins of pre-history and yet is timeless in the telling; a tale that evokes barren landscapes, crashing waves, and the cruelty of winter. The cold seeps through every page, held at bay only by the light of the campfire and the skill of the storyteller.

The idea of creating a story with a strong sense of place has drawn me ever since - and aside from the inspiration gained from the talk, it probably also owes much to my passion for photography.  Looking through the lens of a camera, one sees the world differently.  Not only that, one can take a moment in time and preserve it. Or one can take that moment and edit it to reflect a particular mood or emotion, a train of thought or flight of imagination.  Place, caught on camera and viewed later, takes on a new meaning – melding the real with the imaginary – to create something uniquely evocative.

My early writing reflected either made-up places (fantasy), places which I’d visited only briefly, or places that I’d researched intensely online (Google Earth and Google Images are so very much a writer’s friend).  But the novel I’ve recently finished and the one I’m currently working on are both set in places in which I’ve spent time, allowing myself the opportunity to absorb their essence, or their essence as I chose to see, feel and depict it. Photography has helped enormously in the process – allowing me to return to the place again and again, to relive – and reimagine - it. Focusing on place in this way helped to create an extra dimension to the story. It helped to drive the plot and to influence character creation, impacting on those who lived there and those who visited there. Both stories became bound by place to grow into what they are.  As the stories unfolded, place went beyond just a setting; it became character.  The multiple aspects of the South African landscape, weather and history helped to personify place, bringing it to life in very specific ways.   The sense of place infiltrated the stories with moods, threats, dreams and hopes, evoking the particular appeal required by the stories. 

Pat Walsh, one of my beloved critique partners, in reading a pre-submission draft of one novel, said, “I LOVED the SA setting - I've never read anything set there before. You know it so deeply, and clearly love it, and that comes across in your writing. I think this is a huge strength of this book.”

Having created fantasy worlds, having used the internet for research of real places, having had fleeting visits - or memories of visits - to a particular place, I can safely say that there is no match for soaking up a place over a period of time to make it truly come alive in a story. Place as it appears in a story will likely not be represented exactly as it is; it will – and should– be enlivened by the imagination of the writer, and may be a combination of several places brought together for the purpose of the story. But the essence of the real place(s) will always be there. Setting my stories in my home country - a first for me - and using a personally experienced sense of place, has added a depth and dimension to my writing I’ve not been able to achieve before.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"How can you write for children if you don't have any?!" Actually, it's easy.

The Catchpole Agency (@peachjamcloset) recently tweeted Maile Meloy’s article in the New York Times, entitled, “Whose Side Are You On?”.  Meloy’s article discusses writing for children and teens as a non-parent, and it set me to thinking about my own writing, and what it would be like if I had children.

Like Meloy, I get the same surprised looks when I say I write for children – or Young Adults in my case – but don’t have children.  There’s this shocked, “Well, how can you possibly write for children if you don’t have any?” response, as though writing for children is the exclusive preserve of parents. (Note:  lots of great children’s authors didn’t/don't have children!)

But here’s the thing, as Meloy recognises, I may not have children, but I have a lot of experience of being a child and a teenager – and I still have the notebooks, full of reams of depressing, angsty – and thoroughly ghastly - poetry to prove my struggles as a teen trying to find myself, my way and place in the world.

I was unquestionably not one of the in-crowd.  In fact, I was the teen who spent my lunch breaks in the school library, sitting in the window seat that overlooked the tennis courts and courtyard, my nose in a book, one eye occasionally observing my peers.  I remember my teenage years well, and it’s that perspective that informs what and how I write, and the creation of my characters.

I don’t write about my own experiences, but I write from the place of being a Young Adult – with all the questions and tumultuous emotions that entails.  I remember vividly pushing the boundaries, rebelling against imposed restrictions, doing things I clearly wasn’t supposed to – and dealing with the consequences.  My characters, I suppose, are all made up of bits of teenage me and the teenager I wanted to be.  They are not informed by parental mores and responsibilities, and a bunch of should or shouldn’ts. Though I hasten to add, that having been a part-time step-parent, I’m also deeply conscious of being a responsible adult writer.  And to that end, while my stories are usually without parents – they’re there, in the background - writing about orphans is not my bag – I inevitably seem to have a “wise elder”.  A wise one, note, not a stuffy, finger-wagging one.  Can’t be doing with that.

I’m the sort of writer – and adult – who retains, courtesy of not being a parent, a huge chunk of childhood and childhood memories.  There are ways in which I’ve never had to grow up, ways in which my perspective hasn’t had to change, as it inevitably does with having children.  It’s the part of me which my friends’ kids seem to think is “so cool” – and which annoys my friends no end.  I relate to my friends’ children as people, not as children or teenagers.  I engage with them as I would with any adult (and occasionally manage to mind my language!). I’m not bound by having to be the responsible one, I get away with being a little outrageous, I take their side, I understand the need for secrecy and to push the boundaries, and I feel, along with them, the indignation and frustration at parental infringements.  I remember what it was like to be a teen.

I retweeted the Catchpole Agency tweet saying I totally related to Meloy’s article, and Catriona Gunn of @catdownunder instantly replied, “So do I! You also need to be rid of the parents! :)”

I responded to Cat, “Can’t imagine how I’d write if I was a parent.  Probably all uptight!”

In fact, I’d hazard a guess that if I was a parent, I’d probably be writing adult fiction, and not having half as much fun as I do!

I leave you with one of my favourite songs - all about teenage rebellion - from my early tweens. (Yep, I know, I'm dating myself horribly, but I still love it.)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mea extremely culpa

I know, I know, you thought I’d died and gone to join the choir invisible.  I don’t blame you.  Even I can’t believe it has been that long since I last posted.  In my defence, I have been blogging but in a different way - doing a series of Debut Author Interviews over at SCBWI’s Words & Pictures blogzine.  It has been enormous fun and fascinating to see how the same questions all result in such different stories even though the journey is by and large the same,  It’s the same curve, the desire to write, the fear of rejection, the conviction that the writer will never get it right, the OMG! moment when he/she does – and lands a contract, and the learning curve that comes with going from writer to author – a different ball game entirely.  And while it is always the passion for words and storytelling that stands out, every journey is personal and every author interviewed offers a completely different set of insights – from which every aspiring author can learn.  If you’ve not been following the Debut Author Interview series, I suggest you do – because there is a lot to be learned.

As for my other excuses *cough* I have in fact been writing, in fact I think I may have been birthing a whale.  I have never experienced such a protracted gestation period for anything I’ve written.  Perhaps it’s no small surprise that the WIP features whales…

In the past I’ve managed to rattle off a first draft in a month and then spent another year honing the manuscript.  But this story (which I first blogged about a year and a half ago), oh no, it has brewed, composted, cogitated, fought back, snarled, caused me to lose the will to live (and a rather marvellous secret group of writers have to be thanked for maintaining encouragement while their imaginary St Bernards fed me virtual gin).  And while the WIP behaved monstrously it nevertheless made sure it held me by the throat, refusing to let go.  Darlings have been murdered, paragraphs have been slashed.  Characters - who have consistently started arguing in my head at 3am - have been developed and redeveloped, scenes have been “slowed down” courtesy of the input of my wonderful critique partners and clarity has been developed.

I would like to think it is finished  - Dog knows, I wrote “The End” for the seventy-eleventh time months ago.  But I also know that it will never be “good enough” because the one thing I’ve learned is that when you think it is “good enough” it probably isn’t.  What it needs at this stage is the eyes of a professional.  So once it’s had another dusting and polishing it will go out into the world – and while it does that, I will attend to the “new thing” which has reared its head and demanded urgent attention.  The “other thing”, which is also stirring, has been shoved into the compost heap where it can do whatever it is that ideas do in compost heaps – you know ferment, bubble, gurgle and start to grow - or, if I'm really lucky, turn into gin...

Too many ideas.  Not enough time.  And probably a reasonable excuse for being such a rubbish blogger. My apologies - sort of.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Somewhere between the rainbow… Is there a “Third Way” of publishing?

Since writing a series of blog posts on self-publishing in 2011, I have followed the debate with interest.  Three years later, self-publishing remains a hot topic - driven by a publishing industry in a state of flux and focused on shareholder profit.  The reduction in royalties and advances and lower offerings on new books also factor into the debate.  While it is true that publishers are still very much on the lookout for new talent, it is equally true to say that nurturing an author’s career is increasingly a thing of the past. Authors have a small window of opportunity in which to prove their financial worth and should they fail, they are cut adrift.

So what can writers and published authors who have lost follow-on deals do?   Is there an alternative to traditional publishing and the still somewhat tarnished option of self-publishing?  With this question in mind, I posted an article “Between Traditional and Self-Publishing, a ‘Third Way’” to the SCBWI-BI Facebook page.  The writer described the offering as being “author-subsidized” and said there the similarity to self-publishing ended. “In every other way,” she wrote, “ we’re modeled on a traditional press, with a strict vetting process… traditional distribution… and authors who bring strong marketing plans to the table (which authors now need to do regardless of how they publish).”  She described her offering as qualifying “as both a traditional publisher and a self-publisher, and we are redefining the middle ground as part of an ever-growing landscape of hybrid publishers.”
The article generated significant discussion.  While comments indicated that this particular “third way” was nothing more than a vanity press, both published and unpublished writers expressed a desire for a genuine “third way”.

It has always been the case that many beautifully written books do not make it into the marketplace, but the sheer volume of writers currently vying for publishers’ attention makes it much more noticeable.  Constant rejections and cancelled contracts are frustrating and demoralising for any writer, especially when they are deemed to be ‘not commercial enough’, despite positive feedback.  At present, to succeed in publishing a writer must be seen to be instantly commercial.  Those who are not, irrespective of whether they are traditionally or self-published will have a hard time earning a living.  Faced with ongoing rejections for work that is seen as uncommercial, more and more writers are exploring self-publishing options.

Self-publishing, however, despite gradual improvement, continues to have a tainted reputation – primarily due to lack of quality.  Librarian and writer Tracy Hager remarked that self-published books she is asked to promote are, “…rarely very well edited and the 'published books' are usually cheap and riddled with typos.”

Self-publishing is also no guarantee of success.  While there are success stories they are rare and many have not helped the tainted reputation.  Amanda Hocking and E L James’s novels are hardly great literary fiction, yet they were read by enough readers to make publishers offer substantial contracts.  What this does indicate is that many readers are willing to read a badly-written, easy and rollicking story.  As Will Self said in his recent lament about the death of the serious novel, “The kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health.”
To this end, a writer must consider her personal integrity and weigh up it up with career aspirations.

To self-publish well, writers should pay for professional editorial and illustration costs and invest much of their valuable time in marketing and PR.  But this doesn’t necessarily guarantee financial success.  Besides, many are unwilling to use professionals, some don’t realise they should, others can’t afford the cost.  And even books which have been professionally edited may not make the grade.  While an entire industry has grown up to support aspiring authors looking to self-publish or get their manuscripts in publishable shape, there remains a concern that while many provide a valuable service, others are just looking to line their own pockets. Spotting the cowboys can be hard, and decent options may be unaffordable.

One hopes that as more established authors self-publish both new and out of print work, and as debut authors self-publish having made the investment in professionals, the quality of, and attitude towards self-publishing will change.  Agent Jenny Bent summed up the benefits of self-publishing, saying: “What I love about self-publishing is that it's opened up the industry so much, and there is no one hard and fast route to success anymore. Self-publishing means that there are now many different ways for an author to be successful.” And as both E L James and Amanda Hocking have shown, dreams of traditional publishing don't have to fade because an author decides to put their work out on their own.

On the flip side and despite the challenges, many writers cling to the dream of being traditionally published where the cost of editing, production, distribution and marketing are borne by the publisher.  Nick Cross observed that as tough as it is to get a publishing deal with a big house, one of the greatest advantages of going the traditional route is shared risk.  “A commissioning editor takes a professional risk by championing and acquiring your book, and that is part of what drives them to make the book the best it can be. An independent editor, no matter how well-motivated, is never going to feel that sense of ownership. And a publisher who pays to acquire a book is motivated to get it out there and get it selling.”

While Nick’s view is correct, it doesn’t help the writer who wants the peer recognition of traditional publishing but has a writing shed wallpapered with rejection letters and isn’t willing to accept the perceived stigma of self-publishing. 

Some have suggested the alternative lies in approaching small independent publishers.  Anne Rooney believes that, “If there is a 'third way' it is provided by the small independent publishers who are not charging authors, but are offering a larger (or flexible) royalty deal but no advance. They are taking a risk on the book and need it to succeed so will market it, they just don't have the cash-flow for an advance. Some will be perfectly fine publishers - some are start-ups with no significant editorial or market experience, so you have to do your research.”

But even submitting a manuscript to an independent publisher doesn’t guarantee a deal, and writers may still face rejection. This is when the concept of hybrid publishing holds appeal.
Hybrid publishing is rapidly growing middle ground and stems from aspiring authors realising that in order to publish well, they need to have a team knowledgeable about books and navigating the industry.  Team or co-operative publishing and crowd-funded publishing are key to hybrid publishing. 

Team or co-op publishing involves a group of writers getting together to edit, produce and promote a book (usually an e-book).  Alternatively, it exists when a writer uses a critique group or fellow writers as beta readers and promoters, and employs a professional editor, proof-reader and illustrator. With crowd-funded publishing a writer invites people to fund their book.  The funding may take several forms from straightforward donations to equity-based funding – the writer may carry no financial risk or may be obliged to split the profits. (For more info see the Wiki article, and also look at the top ten crowd-funding sites.)

Ensuring the critical elements of editorial and marketing expertise, costs. For a writer unable or unwilling to provide the necessary finance, crowd-funding may be the answer - though again, there’s no certainty that funds can be raised.  While a “third way” of publishing could involve both a team and crowd-funding approach, the writer would have to, as Nick Cross observed, engage readers from day one.  For children’s writers, particularly those without an established market, this could be extremely difficult and may be seen as exploitative. And, as already mentioned, even if the team publishing a book consists of published authors or professional editors, there is no guarantee that a book will be good or well-written, or that it will sell.  All team publishing - like self-publishing – ensures is that the book gets into the world.  While a novel’s success is never assured, it is the fundamental role of gatekeeping, together with the associated question of risk that remains the biggest stumbling block to any genuine third way of publishing.

As much as the need exists, at present there appears to be no clear-cut “third way” for children’s writers which involves shared risk, some kind of income guarantee and a quality product.  It may be that a third way cannot exist while the issue of financing remains the primary stumbling block.  But while a genuine third way may not exist, what writers have, however, are a lot more options to get their stories into the world and find potential success. As Kristyn Keene of ICM Partners has said, “Independent publishing has become an important space full of emerging talent, where a writer’s success often leads to a strong relationship with a major publisher.”  If you’ve written a good book as well as you can, going out there on your own may well lead to the dream of being successfully traditionally published.  It may also lead to an income you might not otherwise have had.  The publishing world is no longer an either/or place and writers need to carefully assess their options and be willing to think laterally about their careers. Above all, they need to see them as businesses in which they should be willing to invest not only time but also venture capital.

I’d like to thank all those who participated in the discussion and made it possible to write this article.
To read the full discussion thread please go to the SCBWI- BI Facebook page.  
To read one self-published author’s journey with what she calls her A-Team of beta-readers, editors and designers.
Take a look at Nathan Bransford’s excellent post on how he believes the publishing industry needs to change to accommodate authors in the e-book era.

This article originally appeared in two parts on the SCBWI-British Isles Words & Pictures blogzine.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour - Gut Bugs and Evolution by Chocolate

Several weeks ago I was approached by Chitra Soundar, asking me if I’d like to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour – at the time I said “no” as I was suffering the embuggerment of a nasty gut bug.  I was sorry I’d missed the experience, but I really wasn’t up to it – and then, good fortune being what it is, (and the exceptionally persistent bug notwithstanding) Vanessa Harbour asked me if I’d do it. A big thank you to both Chitra and Vanessa for including me.

Vanessa Harbour and I have never actually met, but we email and skype regularly and have become close friends.  I have tremendous admiration for Vanessa’s tenacity, her passion, her caring and her dedication to story and writing. 

Vanessa has a PhD in creative writing and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Winchester where she lectures on creative writing at both undergraduate and post graduate level. She is also part of the amazing Golden Egg Academy. Vanessa is currently working with Imogen Cooper on her new YAF and is writing a book for Palgrave Macmillan on how to write young adult fiction. You can read Vanessa’s post on the Tour about Writing Cold, Editing Hot here.

The Writing Process Blog Tour, for those who don’t yet know, involves answering four questions and then passing on the baton to three others. So, here goes:

1. What am I working on?

I’m currently working on a YA novel in the magical realism genre.  It is the first novel which I’ve set almost entirely in my home country, South Africa, and is informed by things which have fascinated me since childhood and a brutal attack which took place last year in a village about 2 hours from Cape Town.

Given all things “nightmare build” related, which regular readers of this blog will know about, it has taken me an inordinately long time to get the first draft down.  Getting stuck into the rewrite does not seem to be going any faster…

Meanwhile, I’m also, somewhere in the recesses of the compost heap that is my mind, fermenting the rewrite of another YA novel, initially written about three years ago.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My current WIP is set in South Africa, and that is probably the thing that sets it apart and makes it different from other gritty contemporary YA.  South Africa being what it is, it is impossible to write local fiction that doesn’t take into account the dramatic juxtaposition of violence and dysfunctionality with the astounding natural beauty and warmth of people.  Then weave in the magic of ancient mythology of the First People, and the differentness becomes pretty clear.  In writing this story, I’m deeply conscious of weaving a complex tapestry, one in which different people will see and feel different things.

3. Why do I write what I do?

When I was in my 20s I read, for the first time, The Chronicles of Narnia.  I fell in love with children’s literature, and, having written in some shape or form all my life, decided this was what I wanted to do.  As my writing progressed, I realised my voice was more attuned to YA fiction than
children’s fiction.  The one constant in all my writing is that my stories start with the germ of an idea that resonates at a deeply personal level.  I write about things that move me, things that feel like they need to be told. I often, rather romantically or esoterically, feel as though I’m merely a channel through which specific stories want to be told.

4. How does my writing process work?

It’s been fascinating to read the various responses to this particular question and one thing is clear:  there is no right or wrong way in which to write – there is only your way.  In answering this final question, Vanessa’s Writing Process post – “write cold, edit hot” really struck me.  As a general rule I’m a pantster.  I sit down with a germ of an idea and not a clue where I’m going.  In a mad, rollercoaster fashion, I furiously scribble a first draft in a month or two.  And then the very hard work of making sense of it all begins – and because the first draft is such a hodge-podge, the rewriting inevitably takes considerably longer and involves multiple, evolving drafts, huge frustration, growing impatience – and devilish determination. (And a lot of chocolate.)

In the instance of this novel, in a first ever, I decided to try plotting. I hoped it might make the rewrites easier, and given the circumstances - I knew it was going to take a long time to write - I hoped some kind of plot might give me focus. It wasn’t a detailed chapter by chapter plot but it had a start point, a trajectory and an end point.  I worked with a traditional plot method, picking out my high points, the setbacks and obstacles, moving forwards to the ultimate climax of the novel and denouement.  I had a general idea of the supporting characters.  I created a road map, and I found it tremendously useful.  It was good to know more or less where I was going and what I might expect.  When I got lost, I referred to my notes and got back on track.  Curiously, the story seemed willing to stay the course and do pretty much what I hoped it might do. Obviously, unexpected things happened and unexpected characters appeared.  Some of these will stay, others will, in time-honoured fashion, be “murdered”.

Now, with the first draft complete, the next stage begins.  First, I’m letting the story brew and compost, taking notes as and when flashes of inspiration or new ideas appear. I’m using the “resting time” to do further research so that I can deepen the story. I’m rereading writing-craft books to keep the focus.  I’m getting to know my characters better.  When I feel I have all the pieces together in mymind and on various bits of paper, I’ll start the rewrite.  I say rewrite rather than edit because for me editing feels too much like tinkering and I inevitably know that from first draft to final draft some big changes have to happen – and editing doesn’t seem to cover the enormity of some of those changes!  Editing happens at a later point when I eyeball individual sentences, looking to create the perfect metaphor, trying to finding the ideal word. 

In the past, I would share my first draft with my wonderful critique group while the writing was in progress.  I’ve subsequently learned this doesn’t work for me.  It’s better to get the first draft written and to begin work on the second draft before showing the work to anyone.  Criticism, while a lifeline for writers, needs to be given at the right time.  Given too soon, no matter how constructive, it can be both off-putting and destructive.  Most of us writers are Princess and Pea types, deeply sensitive about our work.  We need to be ready to show it to our peers at a time when we our “babies” are sufficiently mature enough to be seen by the world. And let’s face it, no one wants their baby novel to be struck down by a gut bug – the resultant literary diarrhoea or constipation could be fatal!

When peer feedback has been received another draft will be written/edited and slowly but surely I will edge towards something submittable. Ultimately, the entire writing process is an evolution, from germ of an idea to finished work – and fuelled by large quantities of chocolate!

I'm handing on the Writing Process baton to other writers now. I've chosen three writers who I think you'll find interesting. All will be sharing their writing processes on their blogs on Monday 14th April. Be sure to check them out!

Sue Hyams grew up in Hertfordshire with countryside, horses, and books. She's swapped all that for South East London, a postage stamp garden, and cats, but still the books keep coming. She loves nothing more than traipsing about the city looking for story ideas and this has, so far, taken her to a Victorian mortuary, an old operating theatre, and some very dark alleys. She can often be seen leaning perilously over Hungerford Bridge with her trusty Lomography camera, trying to get that perfect shot of her favourite place; the South Bank. She is currently working on a middle grade novel set in London's Victorian docks. You can learn more about Sue on her blog:

Larisa Villar Hauser is a translator and children's book writer. She is currently working on a Middle Grade novel that has been a work in progress and obsession for longer than most people can remember. Determined to finish the manuscript some time this decade, Larisa is exploring the indie route as a viable option for publication. She shares her thoughts and findings on the self-publishing and writing process in her blog

Kathy Evans is an old hand at the rejection game. Now happily with an agent’s roof over her writerly head she offers what scant wisdom she’s gleaned from her many years climbing up the rickety publishing ladder on her blog Her blog is mentioned in Bekki Hill’s NLP for Writers, a fact of which Kathy is immensely proud. Kathy writes for the Funeverse, is a staunch supporter of SCBWI and collects odd hobbies that she fantasizes might one day earn her a living. If there’s ever a need for a belly dancer with her nose in a book and a sword in her hand, Kathy Evans is your woman.  Learn more about Kathy on her blog, Mrs Bung:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Funny how things sometimes converge and you have that “EUREKA!” moment.  Happened to me this morning – but through a slow process of bits slowly drifting together before spiralling into the vortex and - KABOOM!

You know how it is always said that a writer must find his/her “voice” and that agents and editors are looking for voices that are unique.  A lot of that uniqueness, that finding of voice, comes from being true and writing true to yourself.  That doesn’t mean being autobiographical, but rather writing about things for which you feel deeply.

But there’s another element - and that's what struck me this morning.  In writing true to yourself you also have to find your metier, your genre.  For some it may be gritty contemporary realism, for others sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal. It may be thrillers or crime or romance - or even a hybrid of particular styles.  For others it may lie in non-fiction.  We each have a preferred way of placing the stories we have to tell, and a unique way of writing those stories.  And each of those stories belongs to a particular literary style or genre.

When I wrote my first manuscript – which I hasten to assure you will never see the light of day – it was in the fantasy genre and partially autobiographical.  I recall the rejection letter I had from Bloomsbury (which arrived a year and a half after I’d submitted the manuscript).  The reader said while “it wasn’t what they were looking for right now,” she loved the voice and the lyricism inherent in it and hoped I'd continue writing.  I should have taken greater note at that point.  Of course, I didn’t.  I went on to write a mid-grade fantasy trilogy, which, while nearly picked up by local publisher, bombed out at the sales and acquisition meeting because a local bookseller said South African fantasy writers could never compete with US or UK writers.  Given it was the era of Harry Potter, no big surprise there, I guess.

So I sat down and wrote a teen contemporary fantasy which I set locally and in an entirely other world.  I showed the first three chapters to Beverley Birch at the first SCBWI-BI conference I attended and while she was incredibly encouraging she felt the story lacked voice.  Again, I should have sat up and taken further note.

I was, however, reaching the realisation that fantasy wasn’t entirely my thing.  So I wrote a paranormal novel.  Of course that tanked because I missed the “trend” by a nanosecond - but I was deeply conscious that my writing had moved to another level – primarily because I was blending worlds and because I had professional input.  Again, however, there remained the issue of that elusive “voice”.  So I sat down and tried something completely different.  Urban sci-fi.  Yes, well, definitely not my genre.  The first draft is still sitting in a file rather aptly named Annihilation. 

You’ll gather that, long periods of illness and deep forays into local activism aside, I was getting through a fair bit of writing and not getting very far.  The illness, involving a near death experience, prompted my next manuscript – the plot was all over the place and surprise, surprise, the story lacked… yep, you’ve guessed it, voice.  And I know why.  I was afraid to go too deep, afraid to set the story where I should have set it in the first place, my own country.  I just didn’t believe I could pull off a story set locally given all the political and social overlays which make up South Africa.  I simply didn’t have the guts to do it and I was convinced all those overlays would mess with “my” story.

Things were coming to a head for me:  I was seriously starting to question why I was still writing, and I was embroiled in the Nightmare Build from Hell and what rapidly devolved into The Year From Hell.  Nevertheless, amidst the emotional turmoil I sat down and, over what, for me, was an excruciatingly long period, churned out another manuscript. (You can read about that journey here.)  It is my current work in progress.

Having completed the first draft just over a week ago, yesterday I sat down to start pondering the rewrite.  The story is unlike anything I’ve ever written before.  For one, it is set almost entirely in my home province. Secondly, while my previous manuscript had elements of it, this story is firmly rooted in magical realism. 

Now here’s where the eureka moment starts. 

I remembered a South African novel I’d read several years ago, set in the magical realism genre.  I couldn’t remember the author or the title.  So I googled several key words – and came across a review article by South African author and academic Andre Brink.

In the article Brink says: “the critic Fredric Jameson may not have been so far wrong when he put forward that magic realism has become the literary language of the emergent post-colonial world… a burgeoning new kind of writing which has begun to displace the novel of realism and commitment that marked the dark years of political oppression in South Africa.”  Talking of the development of magical realism in South American literature he says, “magic realism became the hallmark of literature built on the conviction that a nation needed stories in order to define its identity. No political, or social, or economic programmes aimed at constructing a new society could hope to succeed, these literatures show us, unless they were inspired by that leap of the imagination which expresses itself in the telling and inventing of stories.  He goes on to add that magical realism is a “genre characteristic of a young society in a stage of transition and in search of a new identity.

My brain started to race. 

In the transformation from the apartheid to democracy, I suspect it is no small coincidence that South Africans have clung to what is termed “Madiba Magic” or Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation.”  In a country in difficult transition, this “magic” gives us hope, helps us leap over some of the lingering atrocities of apartheid and current governmental inadequacies, to find new ways forward.  If one thinks about it from another angle, it should be no small surprise that magical realism is such a “natural” genre.  Most of us live our lives with feet in two worlds – the gritty, hectic 24/7 contemporary world, and a more spiritual world - the world of our faith, of the mythology that underpins our cultures - a world, you might say, of magic.

I never set out to write in the magical realism genre but it’s working for me.  It allows me to write to a voice that is entirely mine. It is more real for me than fantasy or paranormal or sci-fi. It allows me to write about the things I feel passionately, it allows me to express myself with both lyricism and humour.   And it provides me with a vehicle in which to tell stories set in a country fraught with a variety of socio-economic problems, a society that is trying to rediscover and redefine itself.  It allows me to take all that is “horrible” and all that is special, and mix it with something magical in order to create a new hope, a new beginning.

As my thinking progressed, bells started ringing in my head.  I renewed my search for the elusive novel and hurtled downstairs to look for Etienne van Heerden’s The Long Silence of Mario Salviati.  I didn’t find it; presumably, along with the Life of Pi, it was lost or nicked in the move.  What I did find, however, were shelves overflowing with magical realism.  Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Isabelle Allende, Laura Esquivel, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Paulo Coehlo,  Arturo Perez-Reverte, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris...  I don’t need to list them all, you get the idea.

You’d have thought the stuff I’ve been reading since my teens and through to adulthood might have given me some clue, wouldn’t you? 

The eureka moment having dawned, I finally feel like I’ve found my writing purpose, my natural metier, like I’ve come home.  It's as if all the years of pieces and bits of puzzle have finally started to flow together to reveal who I am as a writer.  Me?  Excited?  You bet!

Needless to say, the WIP needs extensive rework but all the bones are there, including the magic, and the elements that Brink says “transform time and space into magical and elastic concepts… that restore a sense of wholeness to the world, covering breathtaking tracts of history in one leap, embracing genesis and apocalypse in a single gesture, charging the here and now with the fiery breath of symbol and allegory, discovering the universe in a grain of sand…”

Right, I’m going in, I may be some time.  If you see a praying mantis, a wandering eland or a surging whale, be sure to offer it tea and cake.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Once upon a story...

Spending time with other writers is always a huge thrill for me especially given I live far too far away from most to meet up regularly.  (Yes, I know, thank goodness for social media!)  Last year was good for writer pals visiting these far flung shores – starting at the beginning of the year with a visit from Claire Atherstone and Jackie Marchant, and ending the year with a visit from Nicola Morgan and Morag Caunt.

Spending time with other writers always fires up the creative and thinking juices and so it was in early December, talking to Scottish writer, Morag Caunt.  Morag told me about the short stories she writes for troubled teens, and how she’s using her stories with teens at the First Floor Tuesday Night Drama at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It set me to thinking about a writer’s job and a point that I’ve made repeatedly over the years that writing is first and foremost about story.  For me, stories are alive, they’re filled with their own life force and they want to be told. I don’t believe stories really mind how they’re presented to the world so long as they get out there.  It’s the telling, rather than the means of telling that ultimately matters. 

Stories can be told entirely in pictures (photography, fine art, illustration etc) or they can be told orally, as they originally were, or in written words.  Or they can be blended together.  I’ve long been struck how so many writers are intent on focusing solely on books, when there are so many other ways of telling stories – song, dance, opera/operatetta, plays, TV, film, games, apps. Every creative person tells a story in one way or another because story lies at the heart of every creative endeavour.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm not for a minute knocking writing - and I appreciate that each form of storytelling holds unique merit, that we each have a preferred way of storytelling, and likewise that the role of literature in our culture is an important one.  However, in the bigger picture, reading by the masses, in terms of our overall evolution, is a very new thing - and mass produced books a relatively recent invention.

Yet, for all its newness, it has been suggested that reading is increasingly becoming an alien and specialist pastime. Should we be surprised? Probably not.  And let’s face it, it might equally be said that in places with low literacy levels reading has always been an alien pastime (I’m not saying this is “right”, just how it is). What we do have to do is accept that as technology progresses, so audiences will be distracted not only by their 24/7 lives, but a multitude of other things, including other storytelling platforms. Let’s not kid ourselves, however, that the possible passing of the book, of literature, will automatically mean the demise of culture.

 Rachel Cooke in a recent article in the Guardian lamented, “How are we to make sense of ourselves and the world that holds us if not by reading stories? For isn't this how we've talked to ourselves – soothed, stimulated and improved ourselves – for thousands of years?”  Well, no, not for thousands of years and not by reading stories.  For thousands of years, for the vast majority, stories were told or acted out.  And then they evolved - from the oral form to a variety of other forms - and there’s no reason to think they won’t continue to do so. 

Who knows, maybe books will become obsolete (yes, I know, shock-horror-and all that), and if so what will writers do?  Become an extinct breed?  I would hope not.  I would hope that writers would evolve along with other means of relaying story - because it is our duty as storytellers to fulfil the life and full potential of the stories that come to us.  Consider, for example, the way Julian McCrae has chosen to go with his iPad thriller, The Craftsman, which is part book, part film, part game. And he's not the only one experimenting with new media.

I started my professional career as a scriptwriter and director, working in multimedia where we told stories using a variety of media.  This undoubtedly influenced the way I think about story.  And it has always struck me that with so many platforms available, stories could be made as rich as one wanted, either in one medium, or across a range of media.

So it was in talking with Morag Caunt that I was so struck by what she is doing – she’s taking her stories to the drama group where they are being acted out by the teens and produced as mini movies on You Tube.  How incredibly cool is that?  From words typed on a page, to acting and plays to “movie”.  The story evolves from the written word to touch the lives of these young people in multiple ways, thereby reinforcing itself and its message.

There has been a lot of talk over the past year, especially as the publishing industry evolves and shifts in the face of both economic pressures and digitisation, about writers taking hold of greater opportunities, that is, of learning to write beyond the book – to stretch themselves to think to film and games etc.  What surprises me is that it has taken this long for writers to realise how much they limit themselves by thinking only in terms of books when there are so many ways of telling a story.  It’s a thrilling and exciting time, and a wonderful opportunity to stretch ourselves.

We may not always realise it, but we are in fact far more than writers, we are entertainers and edutainers. What we do, like every other artist, is to make sense of ourselves and our world through our work – for ourselves and for others. We may be passionate about books and writing, but let’s not become myopic dinosaurs.

I will be interviewing Morag Caunt in February on SCBWI-BI’s Words & Pictures blog, and I will also be exploring the concept of story later in the year in Words & Pictures.

Meanwhile, take a look at these for some alternate, less obvious ways of telling stories:

Gorgeous light painting animations from Darren Pearson

Surreal portraits of people having an out-of-body experience by Berlin-based artist Deenesh Ghyczy

Tiny people’s adventures in the world of food by Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle

There’s a story in every one of these images of abandoned places

Painted brush strokes by Jukka Korhonen

Wheat paste characters that interact with their surrounding environments by street artist Charles Leval, aka Levalet