Tuesday 25 December 2012

Another thing children need...

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends, Julie, lived in a rambling, slightly dishevelled house on the edge of the heath, hidden by trees. It could be a scary walk in the dark, tripping over roots and bushes and stumbling along the half mile or so of pot-holed, muddy track to the house. Julie had an older sister and parents, and a dog. Both parents have recently died, and I've been thinking about them as Christmas approaches. Christmas makes us think about families, but children need more people supporting them than just their families. They need people who supply what families don't, or can't, give.

The best, most secure moments of my teenage years were spent in a cigarette-fogged kitchen, warmed by an Aga-type stove - not in the uber-middle-class, Joanna-Trollope way, but because cutting wood from the garden and sticking it in the ancient stove was the way to keep the house warm and get the food cooked. We had long sessions of debate or emotional-outpouring fuelled by endless black coffee and an unstintingly generous supply of advice, sympathy or just listening from Anne Hughes who sat, cigarette in hand, presiding over our traumas.

She was an artist. Her fingers were often stained with paint or ink, and when they weren't, they were stained with dirt and leaf-green from the garden, and nicotine. She was slim and beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes, and reminded me rather of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. She never, ever belittled any teen problem brought to that kitchen. She never complained about smoking, drinking, immoderate sexual behaviour or even some of the downright stupid things we did and then suffered for. There was never a suggestion that we had brought our miseries on ourselves - or at least, not until we after we were suitably recovered.

It wasn't just a place for miseries. We talked about poetry and books and art. We planned trips to the Tate, we cooked (probably horrid) meals and 'treats', and we even dabbled in witchcraft. (I remember one spell to bring a desired boy to one at midnight. Curiously, it worked. The boy was found by my dad wandering around our garden, three miles from his home, unable to say why he was there. That put us off witching.) People pierced each other's ears, dyed their hair, painted each other/themselves with henna and made various kinds of music, usually involving a number of guitars and anything else that was lying around. We wrote maudlin poems and sweet songs. The door was always open, no one was ever turned away, the biscuit tin was never empty and the coffee flowed like 2012-floodwater. Mrs Hughes frequently entertained both partners in a floundering romance, and her discretion was beyond doubt so that was fine.

My own parents preferred a clean, tidy house, not cluttered with teens who didn't belong there and hadn't been specifically invited. They didn't like music, they didn't drink or smoke or do any drugs, or tolerate any of those things. They had little in the way of aesthetic sense and very little inclination for emotional intimacy with anyone else (except the next-door neighbour). There were, in fact, quite good reasons for all this, but I didn't know them at the time, so they didn't count. In effect, Anne and Tom Hughes were the parents I would have had if I could have chosen my own. But it would have been the wrong choice. They were brilliant, and an essential part of my young life precisely because they weren't my own parents. Because they had no investment in my existential angst or silly mistakes, their kindness was freely given; it was not part of the parenting bargain and it could not be clouded later by resentment or reproof. They gave me kindness I was not 'entitled' to - and so gave me an even more valuable gift: acceptance, which every teen needs.

And, beyond that, a model of the best way to be. I haven't lived up to Anne Hughes' standard. But I have tried to be like her to my daughters' friends. I am the go-to person for pregnancy tests, for looking after those too drunk to go home, for advice about embarrassing medical issues or drug problems, or lifts to A&E, or a large glass of wine and a pile of tissues. And I think many of us who passed through her kitchen have done the same - taken a tiny bit of what she was and tried to live it. Inadequately, perhaps, but it's better than nothing. That's how she lives on. Thank you, Anne Hughes, for everything. Rest in peace.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Had we but world enough and time....

This coyness, story, were no crime.

But we don't have world enough and time. We have deadlines. And a story that slips in and out of view, dragging its characters into dark corners and throwing out an enticing distraction, is apt to get abandoned for another commission.

Stories take time. And they don't just take time to write, they take time to stalk and to understand. The time spent actually writing a picture book might be only a day or even less (though sometimes it's much longer), but the total time it takes can be months or even years. For longer books, it's much more complicated. There are stages to even the simplest book:

  1. inspiration - that moment when the idea comes to you. It might come as a story, a character, a plot idea, a situation, even a snatch of dialogue or the first line. That's just the seed, though. (Which is why it's so frustrating when non-writers say 'I've got a great idea for a book... perhaps you'd like to write it and we can share the money?' Yeah, I've got a bag of lawn seed. Perhaps you'd like to plant it, grow and nurture the lawn, and then we can play croquet on it.
  2. working it into a proper idea - people do varying amounts of planning, but even if you don't write a plan the idea needs to compost into something you can work with
  3. writing the damn thing - putting the ideas into words is always the point where the instance varies from the ideal form - where your perfectly conceived book becomes an inadequate pile of words that doesn't quite capture it. Fun and frustrating in varying measures
  4. realising it's crap and despairing - just wait
  5. rewriting/editing to make it a bit less crap. Repeat until relatively uncrappy.
The bit that is easy to forget comes at 2/3. For some people, the detail that makes the plot hold together comes at the planning stage; for others, it emerges during writing. I usually fall into the second camp. I'm not really a planner. I thrive on adrenaline. If I know where I'm going, it feels like writing-by-numbers and I get bored. But still that time needs to spent, composting the idea into something rich. I have two books at the moment that I thought I understood. Both have a good premise. Both are proving really wayward and elusive. I want to take them by the throat and shake them. They are worse than children. Perhaps I should swap some of the characters around - how would my bewitched walrus do in nineteenth-century London? No, that wouldn't help...

I had a few weeks between other books in the autumn and tried to bully these into shape. But they just hadn't had their composting time. If you get all the old potato peelings out of your compost bin and spread them on the garden, it's not going to do any good. Patience. It takes time for the subconscious to work, like worms, on the idea-mulch. It's too frustrating. I want to play with them NOW.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Who pays the piper?

This post will make me unpopular. I await the brickbats.

Before we start, though, I would say that this post is in NO WAY critical of the friend whose remark sparked it. This has been my view for years, she just reminded me of it, and how it is a more important issue now with such massive public spending cuts.

I don't approve of Arts Council grants to writers. There. I've said it. The public purse should not - as a rule - fund the personal ambition of people who want to write fiction, poetry, or non-fiction.

I'm not against public funding of the arts - I see no problem in funding projects where the intended beneficiary is the public - but I don't see a grant to finish a novel as benefiting the public. The public doesn't need another novel, there are already plenty. A community might need a theatre, or an art gallery, or subsidised tickets to performances, but arts funding should be targeted at the general good and not at individual authors in need of money. Notice I say 'as a rule' - there will always be a few exceptions. But this is about the majority of cases.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having coffee with a very good friend, an award-winning writer in an area that generates virtually no income, who is now writing in a different genre. Let's call her Kate. She had been advised to apply for an Arts Council grant and we were talking about whether or not she should do so. She asked if I'd ever applied and if I ever would, and I'd said 'no' to both questions.

'But it's different for you,' she said. 'You get paid for what you write.' I accepted that and we moved on.

But that came back to me later. I do get paid for what I write. Or, rather, I write what I get paid for. I talk to publishers and my agent about what publishers want. I take almost any commission that comes my way (these days - in the past there were often too many and I turned away those I liked less). When there is not enough writing to be paid for I build websites, make book trailer videos, teach creative writing... do other things that pay.

I will write on subjects I'm not hugely attracted to and for markets I'm not keen on, because I have to put food on the table and writing is my job. If I were a doctor who specialised in fractures, I couldn't say 'I won't do broken arms, they're boring. Bring me only broken legs.' If you have a job, you have to do the less interesting bits as well as the exciting bits. That's how you earn enough to live on. If you want to be precious about your writing, that's fine, but don't expect the rest of us to pay to keep you pure.

Why, at a time when there are people without enough to live on, should the public purse fund someone who wants to write a book? It's not as though there is a world shortage of books. This is not a case of people who can't find a job asking for unemployment benefit. It's a case of people who will probably write a book anyway, though possibly more slowly without the funding, asking for public money to write it now.

I know Kate's book will take a lot of research. I know it will probably win awards when it is published. That's not the case for all books funded by Arts Council grants - some won't even find a publisher.  I don't see why my friend working in Waitrose and doing a degree while building his band in his free time, or his friend in Waitrose who is establishing himself as an illustrator, should subsidise people who want to short-circuit the struggle and be paid from the public purse to write.

This year, I've been writing a couple of books for which I have no contract. I write them when I have time, and they would go a lot better and more quickly if I didn't have to keep earning money at the same time. That's why it's a good idea to get a contract and advance. These are in short supply - I know, that's why I haven't got one. (Or maybe because the books aren't good enough, or because I haven't approached any publishers yet with these half-baked ideas.)

If a writer produces books that sell, the publishing industry should work in such a way that the writer is adequately paid for their work. That's not always the case - but that's a problem we have to tackle within the industry. In times of plenty, society can perhaps afford to subsidise writers - but not now. Not when benefits are being cut to the bone, when more than 100,000 people in the UK rely on food banks, libraries are closing and schools can't afford books or teachers. Yes, if we collected the taxes we are rightly owed, we wouldn't need cuts. But now - right NOW - the money isn't there. So let's spend what there is on things that really matter. And that isn't one more untried novel.

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For the record, I have no problem with charities supporting writers (the people who give to or endow those charities have chosen to spend their money in that way). And I don't think my view automatically extends to all forms of art. A cellist, for example, needs to keep practising at a high level to secure their skill for the future. A writer can take a break or work slowly with no real detriment. And anyone - really, anyone - can find some time to write if they really want to. But time and writers is another rant, for another day.

STOP PRESS: catdownunder has carried the debate to Australia on her own blog so please do take a look at her points and commenters.