Showing posts with label David Thorpe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Thorpe. Show all posts

Friday, 4 May 2018

When children's writers write about neglect and drugs – David Thorpe

Last weekend my nearby town Llandeilo hosted a LitFest and, as part of it, I went to see Wendy White, a fellow member of the Welsh branch of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Is this Wendy White - or Sara Gethin?

Wendy has had a few children's books published, but she wasn't there to talk about one of those. Instead she has had a book for adults published – but under the pseudonym.

She won't mind if I tell you that her identity in this guise is Sara Gethin (who has a completely different website from Wendy). Her publisher, Honno, decided to take this move to prevent children who follow her work from picking this book up and reading something they might find upsetting.

This is because the book, Not Thomas, is written from the point of view – and therefore in the simple language – of a five year-old child and consequently could seem like it is written for young children.

If you haven't yet read it, I do recommend it, but it makes uncomfortable reading, as you quite quickly realise that the boy is neglected by his single parent mother who is a drug addict.

The boy himself, of course, doesn't yet know this.

It got me wondering how common it is that children's writers who also write for adults take steps to protect their young readers in this way. I don't know of any others, do you?

Roald Dahl, for example, wrote some pretty scary stories for grown-ups under the same name.

Perhaps it is because Wendy writes for especially young children rather than the middle grade or older children who form most of Dahl's young audience.

Wendy took over 10 years to write this book, often writing huge chunks of it in her head and keeping it there for weeks before writing them down. She was a primary school teacher in deprived areas of south Wales, and that's where she found her material and her inspiration.

At her session, whose topic was writing about dysfunctional families, Wendy divulged that she is frequently invited to do work in prisons around Not Thomas, where she was initially afraid of what inmates would think about her book.

She discovered that many of them found it highly affecting, forcing them to recollect their own childhoods, which had been not dissimilar from poor Thomas'.

She recounted that one of the prisoners said he had a child on the outside who was being raised by a single mother, and she asked him what this child's life was like. The man replied, pretty much like in the book. It's heartbreaking.

Children of addicts and alcoholics often grow up to have real problems of their own and frequently do end up in prison. Unfortunately we are in the middle of an epidemic of drug addiction, with gangs of children often being used to supply the drugs and getting involved in turf wars.

Perhaps writers who care about these things need to get out more into these communities to use their particular communication skills to help these kids, just like Wendy.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Mining my life with the but equation – David Thorpe

I know the title of this blog appears to make no sense but bear with me...!

I've invented a thing called 'the but equation'. It helps me to write a book and even a scene (but I have to be careful how I spell the word 'but' because Americans might misunderstand).

It goes like this. It is usually of the form:

"X wants (or needs) to do Y but Z."

X is the name of your character.
Y Is what they want to do.
Z Is what is stopping them... in the scene or even the whole book.

So on the left-hand side of the 'but' is the thing that needs to be achieved and on the right hand side are the things that are in the way of that achievement.

Think of it like a seesaw. The 'but' is the pivot:

Your character and his need is sitting on the plank on the left hand side and pushing it down.

Whatever it is that is stopping them from getting what they need is on the right hand side and pushing up from underneath the plank:

The more you can pile on the problems on the left-hand side and the more you can push up the resistance on the right-hand side, the steeper the plank becomes and the harder the task will be and the more dramatic it will be.

 The guy with the ice cream is never going to get what he wants.

(I'm sorry, these pictures are rubbish and really not explaining what I mean. Bear with me even more while I explain...)

So I thought of this in relation to an episode in my own life. I was going to school with my bag and got picked on by some bullies who went to a different school, and they took my bag. I had to get it back but I was scared of them. They were rough kids (I thought they were anyway – since I went to a public school).

I wanted to turn this story into a scene in a book. So the formula became:

 The boy needs to get his bag back but the bullies have it and he is scared.

I thought, I need to make this stronger, more dramatic, so readers will care more. So inside the bag I put some precious medicine that the boy must get within the hour to his mother's bedside in order to save her life. That's two lots of extra weight on the left hand side – the medicine and the time limit – to make it more dramatic.

On the right hand side, not only is he afraid of the bullies, but I'll give them weapons. Knives. And there are more of them. Ten!

This pushes up the other side of the see-saw to almost vertical. How's the boy going to get out of that?


I'm sure you can think of a few more things that you could pile on either side.  The boy could be blind, or injured.  The bullies could be holding his brother hostage. The police think he stole the medicine, or the drugs are illegal. Etc. etc.

And then I had to figure out how the boy gets the medicine to his mother (of course, he does).

(In real life the bullies gave me my own bag back by the way, after five minutes and they'd got fed up with taunting me.)

Maybe this will come in useful when you've got a scene that needs a bit of livening up to make it more suspenseful.

Unless your past really is a lot more interesting than mine and furnishes you with unedited material!

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Now, more than ever, young children need to be read to – David Thorpe

Penny Dolan wrote here on 1 March, World Book Day, that she was in a library reading to children. How ironic then that on the same day Northampton County Council announced it was closing 21 libraries and only opening another 21 just one day a week, because of spending cuts.

What a short-sighted decision. Every time a library closes, part of a community dies. Literacy and libraries are part of the glue that binds the members of communities, they provide intellectual and emotional nourishment which, in the case of children, may later help them become more mature members of whatever community they come to live in, and grow into more rounded social beings.

Last month saw the publication of yet another report showing a decline in the number of parents reading to children, saying that less than half of pre-school parents now do this.

There was also another report, that paediatric doctors are finding that children are starting at primary school unable to hold a pencil properly because, rather than being encouraged by their parents to draw or write, they are given iPads or e-notebooks, resulting in diminished digital (in the original sense to do with fingers) dexterity. This impairs their ability to write.

All of these trends bode ill for the future. Reading and writing go together like milk and cereal. Both together nourish the mind and promote healthy intellectual growth. Kids need the added cognitive nutrients that books serve up by stimulating their imaginations and feeding their ability to form critical attitudes.

As Dianne Hofmeyr wrote here a couple of days ago, writers and illustrators – and publishers – are nowadays unafraid to produce books tackling difficult (some say 'dark') subjects. This is not darkness for the sake of darkness, but darkness because without it we – children included – do not fully appreciate the light – and vice versa: without the light we do not appreciate darkness.

We all experience darkness at times, so difficult subjects should be addressed – but with care, to promote understanding and empathy and help stimulate discussions by children. Only by coming to terms with these unpleasant experiences can we become fully rounded adults.

If children's books can help just a little to achieve this then they have done a great job - part of the reason that we have literature.

And part of the reason why we need libraries and need to read to children to get them into the reading habit.

Why do we have to keep repeating this demand? I feel I've been saying this for years. Isn't it obvious? Or is it just that too many other pressures are crowding books out despite it being obvious?

A weekly journey to the library was a staple of my own childhood, and opened my otherwise narrow world to a universe of possibilities. I would not be a writer – with the motto on my website "With imagination we can change the world" – without that library.

When my kids were smaller I looked forward so much to reading to them every night, and so did they – it was a terrific bonding experience. I miss it. I miss reading all the brilliant new books for kids, too, that have come out since – often borrowed from our local library – as well as the old favourites.

If I didn't read to them I made up my own stories – or we would do it together. They might give me an idea to start with and off we'd go, conjuring a new tale out of the air, a collective act of magic. Often I would draw pictures at the same time, illustrating the story while telling it, and we'd end up with a sheet of paper like a scribbled comic book page.

I'd catch my own kids using the box of coloured pens and pencils and stack of paper we always left on the low coffee table for them, scribbling away at drawings while chattering away happily to themselves – making up scenarios and illustrating them, explaining to themselves what they were drawing while drawing it – complete with sound effects (explosions, fights)!

It taught me that drawing is never just drawing but part of a narrative-making process, or perhaps a ritual, and I gained the idea that perhaps cave drawings made by long-ago humans (and Neanderthals, we now know, as well) could have been made the same way – as a collective activity that included the recital of a story or the chanting of songs or the acting-out of a scene. The original multi-media happening.

For culture is what sets us apart from all other animals. This ability to use language, pictures and story-telling is what constructs us as uniquely human, it helps fashion our social sophistication, it is the evolving skeleton of our world-view-making.

Parents must read to children. Libraries must be in every community – they are palaces of wonder. These two things should be laws and breaking them punishable by being made to learn George Orwell's 1984 off by heart. They would be if I were PM.

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Sunday, 4 February 2018

A weekend retreat on writing about climate change – by David Thorpe

Incredible as it may seem it's still possible for children to go through school and come out the other end and hardly be aware of the existence of climate change, because it is barely touched upon in the curriculum.

It seems like a pretty vital topic, then, for writers to choose to include in their stories – to bring the reality of this topic into a children's imaginations!

That's why, this March, I'm running a weekend retreat for writers at the Welsh writing centre Ty Newydd, set in the stunningly beautiful Lleyn Peninsula.

Helping me to do this will be the poet, dramatist, climate change campaigner and performer Emily Hinshelwood.

We will be challenging writers to think about ways to expose and write about the often hidden connection between our profligate use of fossil fuels and the loss of habitat, life and lifestyle – that many in the world are already experiencing.

In our everyday lives we often don't have the opportunity or space to consider the emotions that arise in us as a response to such a nebulous and all encompassing threat as catastrophic climate change.

This threat seems both remote and near, far away in time, and yet touching the every day weather and the behaviour of plants and wildlife around us even now – as if they are early warning sensors.

We don't know how to interpret these portents and the very uncertainty around climate change and the sheer size of the fact makes us feel powerless and afraid.

Some of us go into denial, some of us are paralysed with shock and some of us are galvanised into action.

In writing for children, they mustn't be made to feel frightened or scared into shock and powerlessness, they must be helped to feel that the future does contain hope and that it is possible to do something. But there is so much to know. Where can writers start?

There is already no shortage of novels for children with the theme of climate change. Three years ago I took part in a session at the Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival where, with the author of the Carbon Diaries, Saci Lloyd, we touched on some of them.

For our pains we were accused of poisoning children's minds by the right-wing press and online trolls!

I've written something about the history of writing and climate change here.

In another project I've been involved with, Weatherfronts, an anthology of writing about climate change, some writers have addressed the question with a story set at a domestic scale rather than apocalyptic science-fiction.

Darragh Martin wrote a hilarious story for young children about fighting off a nasty polluter called 'Thumbelina Jellyfizz and the Elephant in the Bathroom'.

And what about picturing a bright future where we have solved the problems of climate change but maybe we have other problems instead?

To build a bright future we first have to envision it. Children, with their unfettered imaginations, unconstrained by preconceptions, are well able to contribute their own ideas. Writers can stimulate them to do this.

So our weekend course will discuss the many facets of climate change and the ways in which its impact is felt both by participants on the course and people throughout the world.

We will experiment with a variety of different approaches and investigate ways of tapping our emotional reactions, of using research, imagining possible scenarios, and generating meaningful stories.

We will also be using the cycle of recovery from shock and grief because we think it is directly relevant here.

We have seen people move through these psychological stages:

  1. shock & denial when they first hear about climate change; 
  2. pain & guilt about the suffering that humanity has caused and is causing by the use of fossil fuels; 
  3. anger and blame-laying
  4. depression, powerlessness, reflection
  5. an upward turn as one realises that life could still continue; 
  6. reconstruction of one's life in a new way that is more sustainable, perhaps making connections with like-minded people; 
  7. and finally acceptance and hope as they learn to deal with the new situation.

This almost sounds like a 'voyage and return' scenario or perhaps a 'conquering the monster' type of story, doesn't it?

It's going to be exciting to see what people come up with. Emily and I can't wait to see you there!

Find out more here:

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Starting a new book in 2018 – David Thorpe

Other ABBA writers are starting off the New Year by blogging about resolutions. Why should I be any different?

I find myself in a very unusual position at the beginning of 2018. For as long as I can remember I have been working on the same three projects that I actually dreamt up a long time ago. I have been writing and rewriting, editing and re-editing, struggling to get them to be as good as I possibly think they can be.

prisoners smashing rocks

I always hesitate to say that a piece of writing is finished. It seems like arrogance or over-confidence to say that I can't make it any better.

Too many times I've come back to things I have written in the past and thought were done and dusted only to find only to find all kinds of mistakes.

How about you?

Even when you think it is finished and have sent it away it still turns out there is more work to be done.  Like painting the Forth Bridge.

Even when one of my books is published and I pick it up I still cringe at times at the howlers. I suppose one should not admit this in public.

Anyway, at the end of 2017 I declared an end (at least until I get feedback from editors etc) to work on these 3 projects. I've had enough. I've got them as far as I can. I think they are as good as I can make them. I would stand by them in a court of writerly law and bear testimony. There, I said it.

So for 2018 I'm going to start something new for the first time in ages, and I don't know what it is. It's a delicious feeling.

I feel like for so long I have been writing according to a pre-prepared script. Working on existing stories to bring out the best in them.

Because I believe that within every story idea, the perfect story is somehow contained, and the job of the writer is to keep scraping away until they have brought to light, like a gem long buried underground.

from rock to polished gem

A writer is like a miner and a jeweller combined.

So I'm going off mining again. I will take the advice all of my fellow bloggers at the beginning of 2018. I will use whatever it takes: blank slates, pictures, walks, dreaming, interrogation of imaginary beings. I will not try to impose any preconceived ideas.

miners going off to work

From past experience I know this expedition that I am embarking upon can take years, depending upon what is found, quite frequently ending up nowhere with nothing. So it goes.

As the old Taoist phase goes, it's not the arriving but the journey that counts. Well, up to a point. It's nice to get there sometimes.

Hi ho! Happy mining everyone!

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels HybridsDoc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. My writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Monday, 4 December 2017

"I want to learn how to write stories. Can you tell me how?" – David Thorpe

"Excuse me. I want to learn how to write stories. Can you tell me how?"

"You must first have a terrific character – or three – to make a story about."

"Must I? But why?"

"All stories are about people."

"What if they're about animals? Or things?"

"They're characters too, for the purposes of the story. So, okay, all stories are about characters."

"Not about ideas?"

"Sometimes they are idea-led. But really, people read stories because they like to care about the characters in them, so you can't have a story without characters doing things. And so you need believable characters."

"I see. Hang on. How do you make a believable character?"

"Let me tell you a story, and perhaps at the end of it you might have a clue...

"Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to be a writer. But whenever he sat down to write a story he was struck by the artificiality of what he was doing.

"Surely," he said to himself, "if I set out to construct a character, it would be obvious to any reader that the character has really been created by a writer to seem convincing, and therefore the reader will see right through any of my paltry attempts to make a character realistic. How can any self-respecting, intelligent reader bring themselves to care for a character that has been made up? For they will tell themselves at every point – like when I make something bad happen to that character – 'Pah! He's not real anyway. What does it matter what happens to him? I've enough on my plate worrying about my sick mother – who is real.' I'm doomed before I even start."

"This writer had a point. For him, the apogee of good writing was represented by novels such as 'At Swim Two Birds' by Flann O'Brien or 'Breakfast of Champions' by Kurt Vonnegut, wherein the authors openly acknowledge that their characters are mere artifices and satirically play with this joke.

"Needless to say, this writer's early attempts at writing a successful novel came to nothing. The only thing he seemed to be good for was writing comics, which, as everyone knows, are not literature, and contain only two-dimensional caricatures for characters."

"Hang on–"

"But then a funny thing happened to this writer. You see, all his life he had suffered from cerebral palsy, but only in a minor way. Nothing dramatic needing a wheelchair or anything. In fact, people often would not think there was anything physically wrong with him beyond a certain awkwardness, a jerkiness, a lack of coordination.

"But when he was a child this had led other children, who can be very cruel, to pick on him, to call him names – or perhaps worse. This had made him defensive, even aggressive, to others, and unable to trust them not to hurt him, and this shell he had made around himself made it hard to make friends. He could never admit anything was wrong for fear of being hurt.

"He did not understand what made people tick. He could not be open and honest. He even forgot the words 'cerebral palsy'."

"Poor man."

"What, are you saying you care for him?"

"Well, of course! He must have been lonely."

"Hmm. Let me continue my story.

"One day his condition worsened. He developed a limp. A limp was something he could not hide. So he found people he knew stopping him in the street and saying things like, "You are limping. What's the matter?"

"Now he could no longer pretend there was nothing wrong with him. He had to answer honestly. And, to his surprise, his friends did not turn on him. They did not laugh or insult him or walk away. No. Instead, they began to tell him about their own health issues. They began to open up to him. And in return he began to open up to them. It was difficult at first but after a while he found that it transformed his relationships with people. He developed deeper friendships and was no longer lonely.

"He was amazed."

"What's this got to do with his writing?"

"Patience. I'm coming to that.

"A few months later he heard about a competition being run by a big publisher to find a Major New British Children's Writer. They gave a whole year to write the novel so he thought, "Why not? I'll have a go."

"This time he wouldn't write what he thought a publisher might want. This time he would write for himself. And he would put into the main character all of his feelings about his body (but disguised, of course – it's fiction after all).

"He wrote about loss and love and pain and longing and reconciliation and fear and confusion.

"He forgot that this was a fictional creation because it wasn't (for him, although it appeared to be). And so it did not feel artificial or forced. It felt real.

"He sent the novel off to the competition and forgot about it, because he was convinced this would not be the type of writing they were looking for. 

"So no one was more surprised than he to get a phone call a few months later from the publisher's Head of Children's Fiction saying he was in the top three. And then a week later that he had won.

"The novel was published and received fabulous reviews from both children and adults.

"And they loved the characters.

"Do you see what I mean now?"

"I think so. You mean I have to walk with a limp."

"Whatever it takes, bro."

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. My writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

How does reading books influence children? – David Thorpe

How much do children's books influence children? And in what way?

It's a big question. Especially if you write books with a particular social purpose in mind.

I asked myself what influence my own reading as a child had on my thinking and behaviour and came up with my own top ten list of influences:
  1. Fundamentally, reading made me want to write. And become a writer.

  2. It opened my horizons to worlds outside my own narrow one, and fertilised my imagination.

  3. Reading science fiction made me ask 'what if' about all sorts of other things.

  4. Reading Swallows and Amazons – the scene about the charcoal maker and detailed information about how he made charcoal – made me spend days trying to make charcoal myself in the garden.

  5. Reading Robin Hood stories made me practise archery.

  6. Reading Robinson Crusoe made me practise building dens.

  7. Reading Thor – Stan Lee's Marvel Comic – made me read the original Norse myths.

  8. Reading Cheaper By The Dozen (actually this was read to our class by a teacher) made me especially time conscious, trying to be as efficient as possible.

  9. Science fiction also made me interested in astronomy. I joined the local Astronomy Society and at one point considered it as a career.

  10. I think my interest in the environment was definitely kindled by reading many stories about children and adults surviving and having adventures in the natural world (although I may of course also have been reading such stories because I was already interested in that).
This made me conclude that each different child might be influenced by things we write in ways beyond what we could predict.

I wonder what books influenced you in what way?

David's  writing course can be found here. He is the author of Hybrids, Stormteller and Marvel's Captain Britain amongst others. His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell.  Hybrids and Stormteller can be found and bought here.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Will the real Robin Hood please stand up? – David Thorpe

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen...

Robin Hood has a personal appeal to me, since I'm from Nottingham and my childhood was spent visiting Sherwood Forest, the Major Oak, the castle, and admiring the statue of Robin in front of its walls, while enjoying one of the tv series that happened to be aired at the time.

It's a simple, romantic, adventurous legend, and one enveloped in a love of nature.

The forest is emblematic of a haven. It represents freedom from oppressive authority, rather than terror (as in northern European folk stories where forests are populated by wolves, giants, elves and evil stepmothers), and it is a source of sustenance – both food and riches to be plundered from rich barons haplessly passing through.

Robin is popular amongst his peers, and will typically be protected by the peasantry to whom he donates such riches. There are no consequences to their having received stolen goods!

The legend of Robin Hood – around 800 years old – continues to excite both children and adults around the world.

Robin Hood

Yet another movie is coming out next year, and there have been at least three tv series.

Disney brought out what's probably the worst ever version for children in 1973 where, bizarrely, Robin is anthropomorphised as a fox:

The most appealing aspect of the legend nowadays is that of social justice (perhaps it was always so): hence his name is given to a proposed tax on banking transactions, and he is a hero of the Occupy movement, while the myth has inspired a fictional character in a modern setting seeking justice in the novel Sherwood Nation.

For a while now I've been working on a reinvention of the legend which has involved some interesting research, and this month I returned to the forest, which has its own educational visitor centre, exploring the myth and catering for the half a million visitors it gets every year.

Chief exhibit is the Major Oak, where Robin and his merrie men were supposed to have hidden from the Sheriff's men:

First celebrated in 1803, it is now supported and protected by a team of specialists, and is both stupendously huge and fulsomely thriving.

It's estimated to be around 800 years old, although it's impossible to be sure without cutting it down and counting the rings, which would be like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. If it is that old, it couldn't possibly have hidden the outlaws in its copious hollow – it might have been an acorn twinkling in its parent's metaphorical eye.

When I was a kid, the public could still enter the hollow of the oak. It smelt rather unromantically of urine. Perhaps it was really Robin Hood's toilet.

The forest is chiefly birch and oak and quite beautiful. Nowadays there are no wolves, boar or deer to keep the brambles and bracken down. There's a good case to be made for rewilding at least parts of Sherwood Forest.

Encountering a wild boar would add to the atmosphere – and sense of adventure!

But you can still think yourself back to the old days, if you wander off the beaten track and sit alone for a while, quietly, just listening and looking.

I've also visited the caves. Nottingham is riddled with them, like a giant piece of Gorgonzola, the town being built mostly on a seam of (getting geological here) Bunter Sandstone, which is soft and easy to carve out.

In Brythonic times it was known as the Place of Caves, and, since before records began, it's said that the caves were populated. Many buildings in the old town are built into the rock, with back rooms or cellars that are caves.

Most famous of these is what is probably the oldest Inn in the world, the Trip to Jerusalem (first port of call on a Chaucerian type pilgrimage), built into the foot of the castle rock. This is the best picture I could get looking from the upper bar up the old chimney that wound its way to the top, where the old castle was:

The passage is blocked off now, but I remember when it wasn't.

The caves that I explored (with permission from the council) are situated behind a cemetery close to my old school. There's evidence they are still lived in – nowadays by the  otherwise homeless.

There are several succinct cave networks, and some of them still haven't been fully explored. There's a visitor centre for the caves too.

At risk that this post is beginning to sound like it's sponsored by Nottingham Council's tourism department (it isn't, but donations gratefully received), let's move on to a little bit of other history, namely, what was it like to be a child in 1190?

Children were free until the age of 7 or 8, when they would begin schooling. This lasted until the age of 11 or 12. 

After that boys had to either work or be apprenticed to a trade, and non-peasant girls would begin learning etiquette and the skills to be a noble wife. 

The sons of nobleman had to learn how to be vicious in combat in order to be successful knights. I mean REALLY vicious. 

If a boy could not afford to be a knight (it cost a lot to buy chain mail, armour, swords and horses), then they lost their right to land.

Many of these boys had no choice but to live in the forest amongst the other outlaws, stealing and butchering to survive.

For the most part the common people were otherwise left to fend for themselves, as long as they gave their tithes to the manor and respected the church and Norman law. Otherwise they were steeped in beliefs in magic, the Green Man and fayries...

A tough life – but you knew your place. 27 generations ago.  I quite like to think one of my ancestors might have been an outlaw and lived with Robin Hood. A bit of him or her lives on in me....

David's  writing course can be found here. He is the author of Hybrids, Stormteller and Marvel's Captain Britain amongst others. His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell.  Hybrids and Stormteller can be found and bought here.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Going public together – David Thorpe

Last month my writing class launched a collection of their work. For many of them it was the first time they'd seen their writing in print and the first time they had to read in public. In other words – quite terrifying, a rite of passage and a source of personal pride!

Cover of book Life: 10 tales from the cutting edge

Over forty people came to the launch party, which surprised all the authors. The room was packed. It made some of them excited and some even more nervous! If you've never read your work out to an unsuspecting public, doing it for the first time can feel extremely daunting.

I made the process of producing the collection a collective enterprise as there is much that students can learn from it. Each writer was invited to submit either a complete short story or an extract from a novel they're working on – no more than 2000 words.

Everyone then read each piece and offered feedback. We would sit around the table and read each one out loud, commenting line by line and word by word, to seek to remove cliches, improve flow, spot howlers, sprinkle or destroy commas, and all the other things you do when close editing to sculpt the work into shape.

Sometimes we'd spend ten minutes on one paragraph, wrestling with the choice of words, the implied meaning, what should remain hidden and what revealed. But it was worth it. I don't think it had really hit many of them before what hard work editing can be.

Each writer benefitted not only from the feedback they received from others, but also from experiencing this close editing, so they could go away and apply it to the rest of their work. (I recommend collective editing groups, if you can find fellow writers willing to share their time! It certainly makes editing more sociable and fun.)

The title was also developed between us from several candidates.

Life: Ten Slices from the Cutting Edge contains three stories for children: Jacquie Hyde's Trials follows the path of a boy from a Welsh hill farm wanting to be a footballer and is an extract from her middle-grade novel in progress which already has interest from agents.

If you've ever wondered what diarist Samuel Pepys might have got up to in the English Civil War as a child, then you might get a clue from Julian Dutton's amusing extract from The Secret Diary of Samuel Pepys aged 10 3/4. Julian is a very successful scriptwriter and comedian, and this is his first attempt at writing a novel – again, it's aimed at middle-grade and it already has an agent interested.

Finally Primrose by Stella Starnes gets inside the head of a young teenager growing up in a local village under the thumb of her mother and is quite harrowing.
You can download it for free here! More info here.

David Thorpe is the writer of the young adult novels Hybrids and Stormteller.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

How do you react to feedback on your writing? – by David Thorpe

How do you take feedback on your writing? Are you the kind of person who thinks everything you write is brilliant and readers who disagree just don't get it? Or do you never think what you write is good enough and fear even showing it to anyone?

I suppose I'm somewhere in the middle. I go out of my way to solicit feedback, and quite often pay for it. When I get it I take it very seriously.

Sometimes feedback comes in the form of a rejection letter. Unless it is a standard, unhelpful rejection letter, this is always valuable.

I received one last week, which said, amongst other things: "We would have liked to see more depth in the characters and character relationships".

This is both incredibly useful and problematic. Useful, because often rejection letters are standard and contain nothing that is helpful. Problematic, because it raises more questions than it answers.

On the face of it, what could be the harm in including more depth in character? But if this need has to be balanced by the need for brevity in what is essentially a children's adventure story of limited length, it will mean somehow both condensing the action and combining the character relationships and psychology with action, in a highly economical way.

This requires great skill. I have already spent more hours than I care to count, over two years, on this, plus I have paid for other mentoring on the way here.

I could be downhearted – as I initially was upon receiving the email, to which I had optimistically been looking forward.

But in today's highly competitive market, a work has to be perfect before it can have a hope of being accepted. The only proper response to this kindly offered advice is to buckle down again.

I see my task now is to tease out the depth I have obviously not yet made sufficiently apparent. I did put it in there but I then sacrificed it on the assumption that keeping the action moving was of a higher priority than emotional engagement. Yet editors seem to want emotional engagement above everything these days.

Some of you may know that I also teach creative writing and mentor some writers. I notice a range of reactions to feedback particularly from novice writers.

I have had from one person, who had written 300,000 words of slow-moving fantasy set in her own back garden (laboriously typed up by her husband), "My friend says it is fantastic and I really can't change a word".

By contrast, I was terribly flattered to get this the other day from someone for whom I had critiqued the first 10,000 words of their middle grade novel: "I'm not proud of the fact that I did an M.A. in creative writing, but I want to say I have learned more from you than I ever learned from a year with those self serving people".

Well that was nice, but all I give to students and clients is the kind of feedback I wish I were given myself. In every manuscript is a wonderful story wanting to get out. The job of giving feedback is to find it and to respect both the story and the story-teller.

The job of the story-teller is to accept all feedback without defensiveness, if they really want to get the best out of their work.

I no longer feel that story-telling in any medium is a lone job. Although you, the writer, are the ultimate arbiter of the final draft's contents, if it is published it is as a result of a team effort. The team will include the publisher's editor, your agent if you have one, and anyone you show the manuscript to.

Given that your book's ultimate success once published in this incredibly competitive market depends upon the reactions of a wide range of readers, don't you think it behoves you to test your drafts out on a range of readers first, and to listen carefully to everything they say – and do not say?

David's  writing course can be found here. He is the author of Hybrids, Stormteller and Marvel's Captain Britain amongst others. His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell.  Hybrids and Stormteller can be found and bought here.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Tale of The Magic Money Tree – David Thorpe

I've been retelling old fables I read as a child. For some reason I've been thinking recently about the one about The Magic Money Tree and thought the time might be right to retell it here...

Once upon a time, a little girl called Layla was crying in the street.

After a while, up came a man with snow-white hair and a snow-white beard. "Hello, my name is Jerry. Why are you crying?" he asked her.

"I wish that my mother had some money so she could buy food for me to eat," she said in between snuffles.

"Never mind, little girl," said Jerry. "I can tell you how to find a magic money tree, and you can pick some money and give it to your mother so she can buy food for you to eat."

"Really?" Layla was happy upon hearing this and stopped crying.

But suddenly up popped an iron-grey-haired woman who said, "Don't believe this man, Layla, there's no such thing as a magic money tree. He just wants to lure you away and bad things will happen."

"Who are you?" asked Layla.

"I am Terry, and I am in charge and I know everything," said the woman. "So you have to trust me."

But Jerry insisted he was right and what's more he told Layla where to go to find the magic money tree.

"Who shall I trust, Jerry or Terry?" Layla thought to herself. "Well, there's only one way to find out."

So Layla packed a bag with some jam tomorrow sandwiches, which Terry gave her, and some milk of human kindness, which Jerry gave her, and set off walking.

She followed a river upstream and along the way she met a boy her own age. "Excuse me but can you tell me the name of this river?" she asked.

"Certainly. This is the River of the Tears of the Low Waged."

"Thank you," said Layla. "That's what I thought. I'm on the right track. But can you tell me now how far it is until I get to the Bank That's Too Big to Fail?"

"Not far, just keep walking up the river for about an hour and you can't miss it."

It was indeed impossible not to notice this bank because it towered above the left side of the river, just as Jerry had said.  Jerry had told her that she had to climb to the top of this bank but she thought she had better sleep first because it looked like a long, hard, climb. She lay down and went to sleep.

In the morning she woke up refreshed, and for breakfast drank some of the milk of human kindness, which was very nice, and tried to eat some of the jam tomorrow sandwiches, but they seemed to melt into nothingness as soon as she put them in her mouth.

Anyway, she washed her face in the river and started climbing. By midday she was halfway up. The river looked very small far below.

By half past four she had got to the top. She was so high up that she was above the clouds and could no longer see the River of the Tears of the Low Waged.

She was met by a man who was only one metre tall in a green hat. "How do you do." The man held out his hand. "I am Peter the Gnome, who are you?"

"I am Layla," said the girl, who was surprised that the man was the same height as herself. "And I am looking for a magic money tree."

"Then you have come to the right place," said Peter. "Follow me."

She followed the gnome into a forest in which every tree was different. There were big trees and little trees and trees of every conceivable colour.

"Some people say that the magic money tree does not exist," said Layla to Peter. "So I am very much looking forward to seeing it."

"The people who say that it does not exist wish to keep it a secret so that they can keep the money for themselves," said Peter.

"That's not very nice," said Layla.

"The truth is that the tree nearly died a few years ago," said Peter. "It was all we could do to keep it alive. We have looked after it very carefully. It is now much better and it has started producing money again. Look–"

The magic money tree was not well for a while.
The magic money tree was not well for a while.

They had come to a clearing. In the middle a shaft of sunlight came down from above and shone onto a beautiful tree. Its branches fanned out from the trunk, which was a golden brown, and its leaves fanned out from the branches, and were bright green. It was covered in big golden flowers and their smell was like the most fragrant perfume Layla had ever smelt.

"It's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "But where is the money?"

"Look carefully at the flowers," said Peter.

Layla approached the magic money tree. The flowers were twice as big as the palms of her hands. Each petal was the size of her ear and upon each petal was a pattern and writing. She gasped. "It says these are million pounds notes! Is that real?"

Peter nodded. "Yes, each of these petals is a million pound note."

The tree was adorned with thousands of flowers and each flower was made of very many petals. Layla thought that there must be billions, if not trillions of pounds on this tree.

Peter plucked one of the petals and gave it to Layla. "Here you are."

"Is this for me?"

Peter smiled. "You can take it away with you when you leave."

"And this is not a dream? And I will be able to spend it when I get home?"

"Yes. For you see this money was originally yours, or perhaps your mother's. Or perhaps it belonged to many of the people who now live at the source of the River of the Tears of the Low Waged. They paid it in their taxes to the government. But when the bank that we are standing on–"

"-You mean the Bank That's Too Big To Fail?"

"Yes, when it looked like it was going to fail and the tree was going to die, the government used trillions of pounds of that money to prop up the bank so that it wouldn't collapse into the river and the tree would live. Now it is all right again but they haven't given the money back."

"I'm not sure that I understand that," said Layla, "but thank you anyway."

She put the million pound note carefully in her bag and started climbing back the way she had come. On the way down she thought to herself, "Funny, but this story is awfully like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, except that I didn't have to kill a giant, and I didn't have to plant a bean. Well, I suppose it isn't really like the story of Jack and the Beanstalk at all in that case."

Somehow, when she got back to the river, she found herself in a different place from where she had started. "I must have taken a wrong turning," she thought to herself.

For there in front of her was a huge city of poor houses with holes in their rooves. She passed a hospital with broken windows and a school that was boarded up.

She came upon another little girl just like herself who was sitting sadly by the side of the road. "Excuse me, could you tell me where I am please?" Layla asked her.

"You are in the City of the Low Waged," replied the little girl. "We all work very hard but we never have enough to eat because we are not paid enough."

"But haven't you heard about the Magic Money Tree?" said Layla, giving her a drink from the bottle containing the milk of human kindness. She thought it strange that no matter how much she drank from it, it never seemed to run out.

The little girl shook her head.

"It is on top of the Bank That's Too Big to Fail." Layla took off her bag and got out her million pound note. "Look. I've just been up there and got this from the tree. There are plenty more where that came from."

"But we have been told by a woman called Terry that it doesn't exist!"

"That's what she told me too, but a man called Jerry told me how to find it."

"You mean I should trust Jerry and not Terry?" said the little girl.

"That's exactly right," said Layla, and went off to look for a food market.

David Thorpe's script for The Young Robin Hood tv series is currently being read by CBBC and he's busy on a novel of the same title. He grew up in Nottingham and Robin Hood was (and still is) his hero, so he definitely approves of a Robin Hood Tax. 

His new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts: The Stories We Tell. His novels for teens – Hybrids and Stormteller – can be found and bought here.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

In praise of Leo Baxendale! – David Thorpe

This month I want to celebrate the life of one of the greatest children's writers of the last century who tragically died towards the end of last month: Leo Baxendale.

Leo Baxendale in 1991
Leo Baxendale in 1991

There have already been plenty of obituaries commemorating this creator of The Bash Street Kids,  Minnie the Minx, The Three Bears and other well-loved strips from The Beano. I just want to add my little bit with some lesser-known anecdotes.

I knew him in the early 'nineties. He was in the midst of his legal battle with publishers DC Thompson over the rights to his characters.

Basically, he had no rights and they were making money hand-over-fist out of all the spin-offs from his characters, while he got nothing – it was all work-for-hire.

This was a time when other comics writers also tried to wrest from their publishers the rights to their own creations. For example, Alan Moore left DC Comics to set up his own publishing company Mad Love, as part of his determination to own what he produced.

Unfortunately for Leo, his wife (or mother, I can't remember which) was ill at the time and needed medical treatment so he was forced to settle out of court, but he did win recognition that he was the creator.

He struck me as a charming and erudite of men. Gentle, and with firm views about justice and fairness.

It was this conviction that lay behind his creations: a distrust of authority which he felt always tended to corruption, and so one must always be wary of it, ask questions, and hold it to account.

Although he did not create Dennis the Menace (that was Beano editor George Moonie), you can see from the picture above (which is taken from the back cover of The Encroachment), that, when younger, he may have looked a little like this anarchistic role model for children, with his shaggy mop-top.

It's really amazing that he managed to get away with so much what you think about it. In every single one of his strips it is adults and particularly figures of authority such as policemen and teachers who come off worst.

By contrast, the children, working class through and through, always win out and have a lot of fun in the process. Does that remind you of Roald Dahl's and Enid Blyton's protagonists? It should do – it's a winning formula for kids' writers.

The Encroachment (Part 1), which I have signed copy of, was published at around the time I knew him, and is a polemical tract which reads as a history of Great Britain from the point of view of property law.

Cover of The Encroachment
Cover of The Encroachment Part 1
Dedication inside my copy of The Encroachment
Dedication inside my copy.

While this sounds terribly dry and not at all what you would expect from a cartoonist, it basically documents how what was once common to all of us, such as land, air and water, has been progressively taken from us into private ownership.

He called the process of this happening 'encroachment'. In other words an encroachment upon our birthrights.

Leo believed it was a mistake for us to give away our innate democratic powers and our rights. It was something we did too willingly and easily, often without even realising it.

This message is even more pertinent today, when 'the encroachment' has reached well into the virtual and digital realm, than it was 25 years ago.

He was a communist, in the original sense of collective ownership – he stood in solidarity with the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution.

The other little-known book he published which I have a signed copy of, is the short lived strip that he did for the Guardian newspaper, We Love You Baby Basil! which encapsulate perfectly his sense of the ridiculous, love of the juvenile perspective and his affection for wordplay.

Cover of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Cover of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Dedication inside my copy of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection
Dedication inside my copy of the We Love You Baby Basil! collection

Leo was a very rare human being: creative, dedicated, passionate and committed to human rights. We will miss him.

David Thorpe's new short story imagining a future Britain – For The Greater Good – is featured in this free ebook: Weatherfronts. His books for teens – Hybrids and Stormteller – can be found and bought here