Creating our own worlds

It’s been ages since I did a writing course. I wasn’t sure anything could top the last one I did – I persuaded my employer to take one Wednesday afternoon a month off to attend a course at the ICA. I really did not think it would happen, but working an extra week of overtime a month was the norm there for all us bright young things, and developing writing skills was considered staff development, so it worked out well as a way for me to be out of the office and still doing something useful as well as enjoyable.

The course was led by creative writing teacher Greg Mosse, husband of author Kate Mosse, and used as a point of reference a book she was writing at that time. It turned out to be Labyrinth, book one of her now famous Languedoc series. It was fascinating to see how the ideas around research, character development and world building that we explored played out in her novel – and how different that book was from the book I thought she was writing.

Ten years on, I have lived abroad, married and had children, but I still haven’t had a novel published. I have one complete one, which I’m starting to talk about with agents and publishers. I have one that’s nearly there, but I couldn’t decide if my lead character deserved a happy ending and it rather paralysed me. I have one written in partnership with a friend that has a climax at the Beijing Olympics, so its time has passed – or it needs a substantial rewrite. There’s a time travel novel aimed at the Percy Jackson/ Harry Potter market. There’s also a promising series, again for younger readers, on which my son is my main consultant…

So to encourage me, and get back on the developing and editing track, I’m doing the FutureLearn online introduction to creative writing course.  I’m relieved and pleased to find that I have kept up the basics – my writer’s notebook is still beside my bed, my phone full of thoughts and observations, my Facebook status a mess of little notes I know I will one day pull out and use again. I can still respond to a writing prompt, pull meaning from a paragraph of someone else’s text, play the word games prescribed as homework.
I may not “need” a creative writing course after completing such a superior one before, but FutureLearn is free, easy to access online and each module is reminding me how to think about what I am trying to convey.

Of course, the best way to write a book is to write it. Style, technique, creating worlds… these things matter, but – as Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat”. Or Kingsley Amis: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.” Or Mark Twain. Or Mary Heaton Vorse. If you haven’t written it down, you haven’t written a book. It’s that simple.
So I probably better get on…

New for 2012…

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world.  If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…

So what’s new for 2012:
– I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics.  It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;

– My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!

– We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;

– I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.

– I’m TIRED!

So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.

And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!

Pondering Harry Potter

Last week I saw the eighth and final Harry Potter film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2“.  I strongly recommend you go and see it – this is one of the many official posters…

Having now seen all of them – and read all of the books, yes, despite being an adult – I wanted to stop for a minute and think about what makes Harry Potter so appealing.

1) Language
No matter the language you read Harry Potter in, the love of language is evident.
From the character names which so neatly fit the personalities to the place names, the background research into meaning is evident (witness the straight forward Madame Sprout the herbology teacher, or the more complex traitorous Malfoys – meaning bad faith in Norman French). Hogwarts itself sounds unpleasant and is beautifully translated in the French version to “Poulards” – a “poule” being both a chicken and a spot, and the “lard” element retaining the hoggish flavour of bacon.
The film vocabulary is beautiful too – from the bright simplicity and dodgy CGI of the first two films, the lights of Christmas and the darkness, mists and pounding music of the later films, Harry’s journey of growing up and his rites of passage are also articulated in a clear but entertaining way.
For me, it is the beauty of the words that draw the reader in. But what keeps them there?

2) A fantastical world
There are very few children these days who board a train and disappear to a school world without returning to their parents at the end of the day – boarding school itself is fantastical to the majority.
Throw in brooms, spells, a castle, and fantastical devices (mirror of Erised, time turners), animals (grindylows, boggarts, hippogriffs, not to mention the more mundane pet owls that deliver the post…) and you have an amazingly attractive world. Enid Blyton with magic and less racism.
It’ll be interesting to see if a love of Harry Potter moves into a love of wider sci fi and fantasy in Harry’s generation kids.

3) Love
The brilliant Mark Greene at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has blogged on the enduring theme of self-sacrificial love in the Harry Potter books, citing not just Lily Potter’s sacrifice for Harry (making him “the boy who lived”) but also Ron sacrificing himself during the chess game in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Snape’s journey,  as well as Harry’s own game changing action in the last film/ book.
He mentions too Dumbledore in the context of the father figure raising his son for death (rather like God in the bible).  But he doesn’t mention Dumbledore’s own self-sacrifice – saving Draco Malfoy from becoming a murderer by instructing Snape to take control at the critical moment, even though it speeds his own death.

4) Gender Equality -yes, even here
The Don’t Conform Transform blog has produced a neat overview of why the characters, and particularly the female characters in Harry Potter are different from the classical supporting role character roles allocated to women in other books and films.
Given JK Rowling was basically told to hide the fact that she was a woman in order not to alienate readers when the first book was published, this is a massive achievement, and another thing to love the series for.

5) Growing up
I read the first Harry Potter book quite late, in 1999.  I loved it so much, I bought a limited edition version for my then boyfriend and was one of the sad people up at midnight buying the Goblet of Fire (although in my defence, as a twenty-something it was at a station WH Smith at the end of a night out in London!).
Throughout the books, I’ve been Harry’s generation (more specifically I’ve been Hermione, as I imagine most girls are, particularly those that were a bit too clever and not the prettiest, though I’d hope for a bit better than to end up with Ron).
But in the last couple of films, I’ve felt a change in myself.  It is probably a facet of having a baby, you sort of take on a universal sense of motherhood.
In any case, I found that I was watching Harry, Hermione and Ron and worrying about them rather than cheering them on as they faced more and more dangerous situations.
And when a Weasley died (and I’m shocked that I can’t remember which – I had to use my outsourced-to-Google remote internet brain to check that it was Fred), I didn’t feel it as the loss of a friend as I felt it was in the book, but the loss of a child and the horror for the parents of having to carry on anyway.
Just as in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found that I cried at what felt like inappropriate moments. For me, it is not the battle that triggers it, but the sure and certain knowledge in the preparations that there will be death to follow.  The scenes preparing for the defence of Hogwarts,  Professor McGonagall’s tiny moment of joy when she finally gets to do the “Piertotum Locomotor”  spell bringing the Hogwarts’ statues to life, those moments made me cry.  I hadn’t realised how much until I had to wash the mascara off afterwards!
And there was a moment in the slightly comical 19 years later coda when sensible-haircut Ginny and the others appeared, I turned to my friend and said “you do realise that’s us”.  Because like it or not, in a couple of years or so, it is.

So it’s not just those that were 10 or 11 when Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone came up that have grown up with Harry Potter.  While some of the books are a bit long, and as Mark Kermode pointed out in his review it did sometimes seem like Bloomsbury were afraid the magic would be lost if an editor were to prune a little, JK Rowling’s novels have been part of life – little islands of escapism, by turns enchanting and disturbing, encouraging reading and inspiring writing.

If you’re having withdrawal symptoms, I recommend Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson series – don’t be put off by the name similarity, the USA setting or the truly dreadful film adaptation of the first book “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief”, if you want to learn your Greek mythology and be thoroughly thrilled and entertained this is a great place to go next.  There’s a 5-book series already complete and the second of the next series is due out this October.
And don’t forget, in September, there’s too…

Today in a Haiku

(image, bizarrely from California State University Long Beach!)

While English haiku tend to be 10-14 syllables, the classic Japanese haiku is 17 syllables.
On Twitter earlier, I took up @MyWordWizard‘s haiku challenge:
“Got haiku? We’d love to read it. Submit @MyWordWizard at #poettalk #poems #poetry #poet #writer #haiku”

I may submit it to their site, but then it occured to me – can you better this?  Can you sum up your day today in a haiku?

Here’s mine:
“Sitting at home with toddler, /toys on floor, food in hair,/
what bliss./And mess”…

Guilty Pleasures – a good read

Part 1 of an occasional series.

This post was inspired by @Dotterel‘s creative writing course.

Just occasionally it is good to go somewhere else, get away from the work pressure, the toddler demands, the housework, the feeling that you ought to be doing something worthwhile with your time.

Reading gives me somewhere else to be, a place to escape to when things are tough, a place to relax in when I need to calm down before bed, a place to find inspiration, to set my mind racing through new ideas, to gain new learning, understanding and new ways of looking at the world, or to make me laugh. 
I can’t imagine not being able to read.  I dread losing my sight and having to rely on audio books where the pictures in my head would always be affected by the voice of the narrator.
Reading is a source of pleasure, a luxury, some time that is just for me in a world that makes so many demands on me.  I’d rather read than watch TV. But often I do both at the same time.

I’m trying to encourage my son to love reading – he already loves Doctor Who and reading is the closest he’ll get to being able to travel to other worlds. It might also buy me some more uninterrupted nights and a bit longer in bed at the weekend, if he can be persuaded to read in his own bed if he wakes up.

But what to read? 
There’s a box on Facebook asking for your favourite books.  Mine lists Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Philip Yancey, Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, political fiction and non-fiction stuff.  I really must update it. 
Now I’d add Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Neil Gaiman, Alistair McGrath, Seth GodinLibby Purves, JK Rowling, Maureen Lipman, social anthropology such Watching the English, Andrew Rawnsley… 
Basically, it’s a bit of a mixture of faith, sci-fi, fantasy, classic crime fiction and politics. 
There’s a bit of chick lit too, but old school.  I hate the way that chick lit is marketed to us with the same pastel coloured books and sexy woman covers, Mills and Boons for the divorce and singleton generation. 

I read pretty widely.  But I like faith, politics, anything that allows escapism, comedy.  I like the fairytale and romance, but I like to feel that I’m learning something too – hence why I prefer the Jilly Cooper “Polo” or “Score!” where I learn the rules of polo and about the opera Don Carlos to Jill Mansell, Cecilia Ahern, Sophie Kinsella etc. etc. 
I don’t like in-your-face social realism but real issues wrapped up inside writing I’m enjoying on another level (the Captain Vimes boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness occurs in the middle of a story about dragons…).
I prefer a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one, but I hate deus ex machina… I want to have had the chance to work out if it is going to happen the way it turns out.  That’s where Agatha Christie is such an inspriation.  It’s always there, from the start, woven throughout the story, not just dropped in at the end.

I don’t want to feel pressured to take on the author’s worldview, or to feel manipulated by the author – Ian McEwan is a particular bugbear of mine, I hated the end of Atonement, and I resented the way Enduring Love equated religion faith with mental illness. 
I want believable characters, or at least characters that react believably to the situations in which their authors place them.  
I have a Christian worldview and as a result I think I tend to want to offer my characters redemption.  I want someone reading it to think about a situation in a slightly different way as a result, even if it’s only to find a pun dropping into their heads…

In fact, literature is to change the world, in the head of one reader at a time. 
It doesn’t matter whether it is for a mind altering two hours on an emotional journey or setting your mind fizzing with a new way of looking at the world.  Literature takes people on a journey and they come back a slightly different person. 
That’s why so many people want to share their reading with others, from reading out paragraphs to an increasingly annoyed husband, to joining a book group, to writing their very own book blogs (like Norfolk Bookworm).

Getting creative…

It’s been a few years, but I want to start writing again.

I’ve finished the qualification I’ve been doing (Assoc CIPD with merit, thanks) and that gives me time on my hands. Well, ok, time that doesn’t involve potty training, new Ministers or a hoover (those three are almost never at the same time, I should point out).

I’ve had a story or two on the go for a while – the Day of the Lemming, a comedy spy novel I was writing jointly with a friend, and Oren and the Art of Onanism, which I’ve posted over at Authonomy.  The latter had some interesting reviews, and just for a little while it was number 2 in the religious books category.

Writing is part of who I am.  I wouldn’t blog otherwise.
A few years back I did a creative writing course – it was a few hours on a few Friday afternoons at the ICA in London.  The tutor was Greg Mosse and we talked about the book his wife Kate was writing set in Carcassonne.  That book was Labyrinth, the post-Da Vinci Code boom novel which was adopted by Richard and Judy’s book club and sold millions.  I guess it’s unlikely they’re still running those courses now…

Plus I work part-time and have a toddler, so getting the free time to attend is just not easy to come by.  So when I discovered Tim, the excellent @dotterel on Twitter and author of the Bringing Up Charlie blog was running an online creative writing course, I figured this might be a good way of getting back into the habit of fiction writing.  

I’m looking forward to critiquing and getting critiques from my writing partners, and hope that I can be fair and honest and that they will be too.

So let’s get writing!

Onanism – or books, popularity and self-esteem

Last week I was at number 2 in the charts. 

 A book I have written – “Oren and the Art of Onanism” – was at number 2 in the Harper Collins Authonomy website chart.  Of religious books. 

Authonomy is the latest wheeze for publishers to find new talent and road test it on the way.  Aspiring authors can upload their books – whether complete or not – as long as there is at least 10,000 words. 
From there, it is up to you to publicise, draw in readers via your participation in the forums and commenting on the books of others etc.  Your ranking goes up depending on the number of people that “shelf” your book (put it on their top 5 list of books they are reading online) or add you to their “watchlist”. 
If you are lucky you get comments from people who read your book, some suggesting grammatical or spelling changes, others commenting on the story arc, some praising it and increasing your ranking. 
Once a month, the top 5 books on the site are considered by Harper Collins editors.  After all, books that have made it into the top 5 have already demonstrated that there’s a substantial number of people that would considered reading and buying them. Ok, the chances of getting into that top 5 are miniscule.  But it beats the slushpile and the soul destroying search for an agent.  
A friend of mine who posts occasional comments here (Spinster of this Parish) has a fabulous book on the site (“Looking for Buttons” – a bittersweet chick lit romp) which reached number two in the chick lit chart and is getting stonking reviews from everyone that reads it.  Seeing this encouraged me to put my own far more esoteric effort onto the site. 
“Oren and the Art of Onanism” is the story of a rather privileged upper middle-class man drifting through life, when everything gets turned upside down by him witnessing the death of a motorcyclist.  Affected by this, by the actions and reactions of his friends and family and other changes in his life, he feels the need to find out if there really is more to life than this. 
And the title?  Well obviously there are some scenes of a sexual nature.  But people get it wrong about the story of Onan in the Bible. 
Onan’s sin is not actually the “spilling of his seed upon the ground”, the act of self-gratification for which his name has become a byword.  It’s going against God’s word  in marrying his brother’s wife, the disobedience to God who had spoken to him that is Onan’s sin – and also Oren’s. 

My friend who read it critically for me felt it was well-written and a very subtle way of telling someone that I once knew that I thought he was a w**ker…  you can judge for yourself.    If you want to read the first 5 chapters of Oren, they are available for free online here

You can choose the categories under which your book can be found.  As my book is “fiction”, “literary fiction” to be more precise, and has a “religious” theme, I put it under those three categories.
So after a week, it reached number 2 in the religious books chart.  It reached about 300 in the literary fiction chart, the one that for me would “really count”.  but no matter.  I was feeling pretty good.  Very gratifying.  1200th most popular book in the whole of the Authonomy, so again, not too bad given that it’s not exactly a mass market publication.  If you loved the Da Vinci Code then this book is not for you. 

But this weekend the chart was updated again.  Loads of new religious-themed books have been added to the chart this week and I’ve fallen 28 places!  Not just out of the top 2 but out of the top 30!   

The lesson in all this is that you can’t set yourself up to depend on other people for your self-esteem.  While I’m immensely pleased that I achieved a top 2 ranking, I’m also sensible enough to realise that it was only going to be until something better, or at any rate more popular came along. 
But it really brings home to me that the reason that popstars appear to have either depression, egos the size of Jupiter, or both, and why politicians often seem to be paranoid, or teflon-coated, or both. 
I’m grounded by my “real life” – I’ve got things in my life other than my attempts to be a novelist (whether my family, my faith or my paid work) that are not solely reliant on selling the concept of “me”.  So a drop in the chart position that my book holds is not the be all and end all – it’s not losing an election and therefore not having a job and it doesn’t directly affect my income (other than furthering me from the dream of one day being published and living in a big house writing for a living…).

But if you have nothing else – if you are completely dependent on the applause and the positive reinforcement… then hanging onto it would become an obsession.  To lose it would either leave you slightly unhinged or deeply depressed.  And if you stayed at the top and became used to that feeling, if you kept getting that public confirmation that you were right, or that what you had to offer then you’d do everything you could to keep it – popstars giving more and more personal, revealing interviews, politicians going for more and more populist policies…  

So it’s ok.  It’s still a damn good book that deserves a wider audience.
And I can choose either to promote it further, or I can switch my focus to the Wuthering-Heights-if-Jilly-Cooper-had-written-it-as-a-bonkbuster comedy chick lit thing that I’ve got underway…