Sunday 19 June 2016

On giving up and giving in

Hard at work with Zola and coffee
Yesterday, at the tea after a memorial service for a talented woman who had packed much into too short a life, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I had gone away to write for a week and during the first few days had given up on a book I'd been working on for a few years and decided to write something different. My co-conversationalist considered this a very brave and decisive action, which surprised me rather as it seemed to me to be an entirely pragmatic and sensible one. There is also the knowledge that giving up on a book is far from irreversible. Unless I were actually to delete all the files and throw away all the books and notes, I can go back to it later.  Leaving a book project is not like leaving a partner or a house. No one else will move into my space while I'm gone, even if I leave it for a few years (as I have done in the past with this particular project).

Spot the fish: some things take
time to identify
It is, of course, hard to give up on something you have been working on for a long time, especially if you still think it is basically a good idea. And to be honest I have not given up hope of one day wanting to get back to it - but it will be a day when I can devote the time to it that it needs, in unbroken chunks, rather than a few hours here and there separated by weeks or months of more urgent work and domestic responsibilities. The week in Sardinia I thought would be enough only showed me one thing - I was restless, less excited by it than I had remembered being, and found it hard to get into. Now, I could throw good time after bad, or cut my losses. If I had been at home, I might have done the first but with only one week to write on something uncommissioned that would have been rash. Being unwilling to write off a substantial investment is one of the worst things we do to ourselves in all areas of life. I remember bemoaning to a wise writer friend (Louise Berridge) that a remark she had made led me to feel that I had wasted ten years of my life on something, and she said that it was better to have wasted the last ten years than the next forty. Which is entirely true.

Finding things in rockpools,
including books and sea urchins
But giving up is not giving in - it is moving on. I'm not going to sit moping about the half-formed novel. Indeed, there is a certain irony that this particular book might never come into being as it's about things that don't come into being. I did not set it aside because I don't like it any more, though I have lived with it for too long. Nor, I think, because it's hard - though perhaps because it's too hard for current circumstances. I set it aside because I realised it's not what I should be doing right now.

This is an exciting time in publishing, particularly in the world children's non-fiction which is my original territory. There will always be fiction publishing. It makes no difference to the world whether I write that novel this year, next year, in 2025 or never. It's not as though the world is short of children's fiction. But there are projects I want to do whose time is ripe. I will regret it if I let that time pass while fiddling with a book that's not going right. Better to have wasted the last three years on a book than the next ten.

Back to work
As soon as I decided I wasn't going to work on it that week, a weight lifted from my shoulders. I found a new pattern to the days - working franctically in the morning on the book I did want to write, then spending the afternoon lying reading in the sun and poking around in rockpools on the beach. And that spawned another book idea. I know what I'm doing now. I have lots of ideas, and I can even prioritise them. All I had to do was give up.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Retreating: running away from the battle to write

Have you ever been tempted by the adverts for writers' retreats? Do they really help you write more?

I've been on one official retreat, which was a bit of a disaster: after a single day of writing I got labyrinthitis and spent the rest of the time feeling sick as the world swayed like a ship beneath me. It should have worked. I went with three other lovely writers - all more famous and successful than me, and all better at not having labyrinthitis. It was a proper writers' retreat, with all our food provided, lovely countryside to walk in, a fire to write by, prosecco delivered to our desks at 6pm, and so on.

This year I'm doing it a bit differently. I'm at the Hilton in Olbia, Sardinia, with no one else. The hotel is in a cultural and aesthetic desert so there should be nothing to lure me away from the desk. There is no one to chat to. If I don't write I'll get bored.

Which brings me to pondering the word. Is a writer's retreat a sort of running away, like a retreating army? Or is it re-treat, as in have a nice time again? This place is definitely a batten-down-the-hatches-and-get-stuff-done kind of place. My only stipulation to myself is that I don't use the time to work on the commissioned work I would be doing if I'd stayed at home, but that I use it to do the projects that get shuffled aside: one that my agent has been waiting for for quite a long time and one that is brand new and she doesn't know is coming.

I started with the first, with reading and thinking and trying to find the holes and restructure where necessary. But I'm not excited by it here. I can't get into cold London fog when it's bright Italian sunshine outside. Also, I write best in cafes but it's been too windy the last couple of days to do that (I mean, to sit outside in a cafe). So I turned to the other one which is still fresh and exciting. I know, finish the old one first - but they are very different and the second is easier to do here. It's a bit like retreating from the retreat, though. Tackling the first project required a retreat from life to get the thing done and this is a re-treat - a chance to enjoy it all again. Perhaps that's what it should really be about: reinvigorating that love of the job that got us all here in the first place.

I'm starting to think a week won't be long enough, though. Maybe I need to become one of those people who lives in a hotel, probably Simpsons on the Strand, writing in pyjamas and having lunch and cocktails. But perhaps a permanent retreat doesn't work and I'd have to start borrowing houses and families from people so I had some responsibilities to re(-)treat from.

Friday 13 May 2016

SATs 'n' all that

Those of you in the UK will be aware that there has been a lot of fuss this week and last about SATs, the tests that primary school children in England (that's grade school, or first school) are obliged to take. In particular, the fuss is about the way that writing - or grammar - is taught and tested. Young children are being obliged to learn not only grammatical terms but completely invented ones, such as 'fronted adverbial', and identify them in a sentence. Their own writing has to observe ridiculous practices, such as only using an exclamation mark after a sentence starting 'How' or 'What'. And filling their work with 'wow-words' - unusual words, usually adjectives, intended to give their writing a bit of oomph. (This latter is a widespread teaching practice rather than something the curriculum spells out as a requirement.)

This approach to writing runs a high risk of wrecking any child's nascent enjoyment of language. Nicola Morgan and I have, with the committees of our respective groups in the Society of Authors, have put together a statement against the government's practice in this regard; it's on the Society of Authors website. I have blogged about wow-words (this will also be published in The Author this month) and exclamation marks on ABBA, and Nicola has blogged about teaching grammar on her own blog. The statement has been taken up by The Guardian, who reproduced a chunk of it straight after it was issued. And now it's gone global, being taken up by the Daily Times in Pakistan. It's obviously something people feel strongly about.

None of us is against the teaching of grammar. And it's not an argument about testing per se. The people who object to this particular testing regime include some who approve of testing in primary schools and some who don't - but this particular testing regime is iniquitous. Essentially, the curriculum authority has come up with a whole lot of rules about language, supported with terminology, which it insists children as young as 6 learn. Some of this terminology and these rules are pure invention - they are not supported either by traditional grammar or by current and past usage by real authors. So children will see 'rules' they have to follow which the books they read don't follow - confusing in itself. These rules and terminology are very complex and so, correspondingly, are the tests. Adult professional writers, some with degrees in linguistics and English can't answer the questions. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, couldn't answer questions [video] about these grammatical entities when asked in the House of Commons. Consequently, a great deal of time in school is spent teaching to the test - training children to pass an insane test that does nothing to improve their use or understanding of language and a lot to destroy their burgeoning enjoyment of it. Many teachers are close to breaking point.

The test and work for it are demoralising and destructive. Children are set up to fail. Many parents kept their children away from school so that they would not be subjected to the test. The minister for education condemned them for it. But countless schools reported children in tears, even the brightest children unable to answer the questions. What useful purpose can this possibly serve?

It's not hard to frame teaching of writing and how it works in a way that increases rather than reduces children's enjoyment and understanding. Here is the bad way:

1. Which sentence contains a fronted adverbial?
a) 'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman)
b) 'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley)

Here is a better way:

1. Which sentence tells us how a person did something before telling us what they did?
a) 'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman)
b) 'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley)

And here is an even better way:

'Thrilled to be trusted with such complicated instructions, Roger took the crowbar from Billy.' (I Was a Rat, Philip Pullman) - do you see how putting the descrption first makes us eager to read on to the end of the sentence, to find out what Roger is thrilled about?

'I stood in the morning room with Hodges, not knowing what to do.' (The Dead of Winter, Chris Priestley) - this sentence creates a feeling of expectation and impatience. The standing is stretched out as the character and we, the readers, don't know what is he will do next.

Oops, no test there. Damn it. The kids might just see how the technique works instead of being able to name it. That's no good, is it? And if the explanation is considered too hard for young readers (Year 4 is the time fronted adverbials are introduced), then they are too young to need the term as it's useless to them. If you want to know which terms children have to learn - and/or what they mean - there is a list on The School Run's website.

How about we bolster #readingforpleasure with #writingforpleasure? Let our children enjoy language. If we don't, we'll lost a whole generation of writers - and not just writers of fiction, poetry, screenplays, and so on, but writers of biography, science books (and articles), journalism, history, philosophy...

Thursday 10 March 2016

Wow words - or not

Oh dear, I should have been here - but I'm over at ABBA again writing about what a terrible thing the 'wow word' phenomenon is: De-WOWing word words. It's got a lot of attention - obviously an issue people are concerned about.

Tuesday 9 February 2016


Over on ABBA today, with a truffle-hunting pig and Evernote. If you don't use Evernote, you should!

Saturday 6 February 2016

Grim and gruel

I have pleurisy. Doesn't that sound Victorian? Not quite as good as consumption in that regard, perhaps, but also not fatal, so it has its advantages. I feel I should be chopping up the furniture for firewood, but (a) the axe is somewhere at the top of the garden and (b) not much of the furniture is actually flammable, most of it being, according to the labels, treated with flame-resistant substances so that it can legally be sold. Clearly whoever regulates the flammability of furniture is not aware of the needs of starving, consumptive writers in garrets.

To be fair, I'm not starving. I can drive to Waitrose to buy gruel or, if things get really bad, have gruel delivered by Ocado. Though I am lying in bed in an unheated garret, so I'm halfway there. The unheated garret is my normal bedroom at the moment, as I've sub-let more sumptuous and comfortable parts of the house to people who seem to be strangely unafflcted by pleurisy. Perhaps next year I should sub-let the garret instead.

What's all this got to do with writing, I hear you grumble, while locating your axe and gruel-supply just in case. Well, it has a bit to do with it. I have deadlines - of course - and deadlines don't go with death or gruel. Usually, I don't tell editors I'm ill or inconvenienced unless the problem will definitely have an impact on their work, or I know them very well and trust they know that I won't let the problems have an impact on their work. It can go wrong otherwise, I've found. Warn an editor you might be a bit late delivering because of a health/family problem and they panic and take your decisions for you. 'I thought it would be helpful...' No, it's not. I will suggest what is helpful, thank you. You just deal with your end of things and trust me to deal with my end of things and decide what I can - and want - to do.  

You can see their point. They have a book to deliver to a schedule. (A schedule which is usually screwed up by people other than the author, but we'll leave that for now.) If you are going to miss the deadline, or might miss the deadline, it's professional to give them good warning so that they can put things in place to limit the damage. But it's important for editors to realise, too, that if we are acting professionally and doing that, they have to trust our continued professionalism and not panic. So I have told the editor who is expecting 60,000 words on 16th February that the book is likely to be a week late, and why. I have told him what else might happen - I might get worse, and the book will be later; I might get better quickly and it will be only a few days late. I trust him. He will tell the copy editor not to leave time immediately to deal with this book, so the slip won't mess up another person's work schedule. And we will, between us, win the time back on the schedule later because I'll turn the editorial queries around quickly. We will meet the print deadline. All will be well.

That's how a professional relationship works. Trust and openness and discussion. Editors sacrifice the right to be kept informed if they panic and act unilaterally when given early notification of possible difficulties. If they do that, next time they won't learn anything until the project is definitely in some trouble. If I ask an editor to work with me to avoid a problem, and they see that problem as already existing and needing their immediate action, without consultation, they won't get the same opportunity next time.

Authors might be mavericks in that they work in their pyjamas all day and don't see the need to attend meetings. And they might look like mavericks to editors if they turn down the chance to work on boring books with one-week deadlines for a paltry fee. But they are, mostly, proper professionals who want to deliver a good book on time and work with their editors again. So, editors, if we have pleurisy or sick relatives or our house has flooded, please listen to our suggestions for solving or avoiding problems before cancelling the project or fleeing to Cuba. And please tell us before doing it, too.

Of course, if I cut my arm off with an axe while hacking up non-flammable furniture, the schedule will not be so easily fixed. But I probably won't care then about remaining professional. At least not until I have sourced a decent prosthetic arm. So - off to the Ocado page for gruel and axes. And I'll bookmark the prosthetic arms page.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

A view from the bridge

Lava in Lake Nyiragong 
You could be forgiven for assuming I'd died or gone over to the dark side - maybe become a banker or something else that dare not lift its head in the booky corner of the web. But no. I've been that iconic squeezed middle that is pressed as thin as air by the needs of generations above and below. But enough of that. I miss being here. It's all too easy for the years to slip by that way. They will still all have my support. But somehow the days and minutes must be prised apart for other things, too.

The things I do all day matter and I have freely chosen to do them. But other things matter, too, and it's time to find a way to do some of them. So Stroppy is open for business again. Writing matters to me, and the fate of writers matters to me, and that children have access to books - good books. And these books don't write themselves, you know.

This year I am Chair of the Educational Writers' Group in the Society of Authors. There will be events (for EWG, I mean - I rarely do events-as-writer since the carbon dioxide of publicity chokes me). This year I will write all the books I'm contracted to write and I might even make real progress on one or two non-contracted projects. Because if I don't do it now, I will regret and resent that I didn't.

It's difficult to draw a line around what to do for others, and how far to let short-term demands compromise long-term aims or needs. I would rather have loved and cared for people dear to me than have written 250 books instead of 200 books. No one will miss those 50 books; even I will only miss two or three of them. I am a firm believer in sorting out what matters to you and prioritising it, regardless of what other people think should matter or what they want you to do. I would rather spend a day looking after MicroBint than doing a school visit, so that's what I'll do. But there must be balance, too. It's important to seek out those two or three books I'd miss and make sure I write them. And, of course, write enough books to pay for sticks to keep the wolf from the door. It would be nice if they could be the same books, but that's asking a lot.

Legend tells that Empedocles threw himself into the volcanic crater of Mount Etna, keen to prove his immortality (or to be turned into a god). I'm not going that far. But  I feel it's time to do a bit of prising apart of those dark wodges of time and let the red-hot ooze come out, fiery and enthusiastic to run downhill. Move aside, dark wodges....