Showing posts with label Josh Lacey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Josh Lacey. Show all posts

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Here be dragons - Josh Lacey

It's seven o'clock in the morning and I'm just about to leave the house to catch a train to Essex, where I'll be visiting schools, talking to kids about my new book. 

But today will be slightly different to my usual school visits, because I won't be alone. I'll be working with Garry Parsons, the illustrator. 

While I'm talking and reading from the book, he'll be drawing dragons, gorillas, iguanas, ice creams, ballerinas and more dragons, plus whatever else emerges from his imagination and the imaginations of the children watching us. 

Garry illustrated The Dragonsitter, which was published a year ago, and The Dragonsitter Takes Off, which came out last week, and we've done a few events together. 

That's a picture that Garry drew on the wall at Kingham Primary School during the Chipping Norton Festival. We've also done a couple of events at the Roald Dahl Museum together, and today and tomorrow we're going to be in Essex, on a mini-tour organised by the Just Imagine Story Centre in Chelmsford.

We've gradually evolving a nice routine. He talks and draws; I talk and read. 

Writing is lonely, solitary and terribly slow. You have an idea. You think about it for a long time. Then you spend even longer sitting at your desk, spinning words. Of course I think it's worth explaining this curious process; but any explanation is necessarily a bit detached, and requires a leap of the imagination which can sometimes be difficult for a twitchy kid sitting on the floor of the hall, looking at the sun flooding through the big windows and smelling the lunch bubbling away in the kitchens. 

An illustrator's work is far more immediate. Here's a blank piece of paper. Here's a pen. And here - scribble, scribble, scribble - is a gorilla riding a unicycle. Or a grumpy ballerina. Or a big hungry dragon flying through the air. 

Talking about writing is like asking someone to believe in magic; whereas drawing a picture is like doing the magic right there in front of them. 

I'm not sure what Garry and I were expecting when we decided to do these events together. Slightly to my surprise - and, I suspect, to his too - we've discovered that working together like this, author and illustrator standing side by side, reading and drawing, is the perfect way to introduce children to a book.

Josh Lacey

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Re-reading Roald Dahl - Josh Lacey

A survey was reported this week which proclaimed Roald Dahl as the favourite author not only of children, but their parents too. According to the Guardian, half of kids voted for Dahl; about a third for JK Rowling; and the rest for Beatrix Potter. Their parents voted Dahl first, Enid Blyton second and Rowling third.

I wouldn't take the survey too seriously; it was conducted by some PR company to promote something or other, and surely wasn't in the least bit scientific. But there's no doubt that Roald Dahl is enormously popular among children at the moment; perhaps more popular than he ever has been.

Was he so loved and respected when he was alive? He certainly didn't win any of the major children's book prizes. Was that simply because he was loved more by readers than "gatekeepers"? Or has his status grown in the years since his death in 1990?

I've been thinking a lot about Dahl recently. I'm working as Writer-in-Residence at the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, a wonderful little museum packed with his possessions and full of displays about his characters and books.

I visited Dahl's grave the other day; it's a short stroll up the hill from the museum.

I was very surprised to see who inhabits the plot next door to Dahl's: it belongs to someone who shares my surname. As far as I know, we're not related.

I'd like to know more about Dahl himself. A few years ago, I read Jeremy Treglown's biography, which was a clear case of a biographer growing to dislike his subject more and more as he learnt more about him. I'm going to read Donald Sturridge's more recent Storyteller: the Life of Roald Dahl, which was authorised by the family and is apparently much more sympathetic, perhaps too much so; and Michael Rosen's Fantastic Mr Dahl, which was published last year.

Before reading either of those, I've been re-reading Dahl's own books. I've also been reading The BFG to my daughter. She loves it so much, she takes it to bed.

The other night, I tiptoed into her room before going to bed myself and found the book nestling on the pillow beside her, the pages crinkling under her cheek.

She's only four, and on her first reading of Roald Dahl's books, but he has already taken his place in her affections and imagination.

Josh Lacey

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Loser - Josh Lacey

One of the best things about writing children's books is not winning prizes.

My first book, A Dog Called Grk, was nominated for the Branford Boase, which is given to debut writers and their editors. I went to the ceremony practically dribbling with anticipation and terror.

The chair of the judges was Meg Rosoff, and up until the moment that her lips spoke someone else's name, I thought I had a pretty good chance of winning.

I left the ceremony disappointed and very drunk.

Since then, my books are been nominated for a few more prizes, and I've learnt that the best thing about them is not winning - because only one person wins, and it's invariably not me - but being there, and meeting the other writers, and talking to a bunch of excited kids who have come to the ceremony, and all the other bits and pieces generated by the fact of the prize.

I've just come back from the Salford Children's Book Award, which was held in the lovely Lowry Centre on Salford Quays. My novel The Island of Thieves was on the shortlist. I didn't win, but I went out to supper the night before with renowned blogger, the Bookwitch, and two of the other shortlisted authors, Gill Lewis, author of Sky Hawk, and Jamie Thomson, scribe and minion of the Dark Lord, Dirk Lloyd.

I'd already been shorlisted alongside Jamie for another prize, The Roald Dahl Funny Prize, which he had won, and with an evil-dark-lord-cackle, he told me how much he was looking forward to repeating the triumph. 

In the end, he didn't; but Gill did, taking the award for Sky Hawk

The ceremony was hosted with great wit and energy by Alan Gibbons. He kept a couple of hundred kids very entertained, and gave a passionate speech denouncing library closures.  

Here's one of the less serious moments: 

 I came home with the best runner-up prize that I've ever been given: something which is not merely useful, but also rather beautiful. It's with me right now:

Monday, 7 January 2013

Writing with pictures - Josh Lacey

I read three wonderful picture books over Christmas.

Only one of them is what you'd usually call a picture book - the others would ordinarily be classed as comics or graphic novels - but all three of them are magnificent examples of mingling pictures and prose, words and images, and they've made me think a lot about telling stories visually.

Of the three, the only ordinary picture book was Bark, George by Jules Feiffer, a beautifully crisp, concise and witty tale of a dog who can't bark.

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes is an autobiography and a biography mingled together; the life of the author, Mary Talbot, a British academic and the daughter of a Joycean scholar, told alongside the tragic life of Joyce's daughter Lucia.

Are You My Mother? also tells the life of two women, the author, Alison Bechdel, and her mother. Packed with references to psycho-analysis, using insights from Virginia Woolf and Donald Winnicot, among others, it's a profound, complex, clever, illuminating and fascinating dissection of a difficult relationship between a mother and a daughter.

What do these three books have in common? Not very much, apart from the way that they marry words and images so brilliantly, so perfectly. Reading them, you can't imagine the words without the pictures, or the pictures without the words; they slot together so smoothly that separating them would be barbaric. They're perfect picture books.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Freedom - Josh Lacey

Last week, Lily Hyde wrote beautifully here about the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow, which led her swiftly to a discussion of the infinite diversions offered by the internet.

Of course the internet is fabulously valuable for writers. If you want to write a novel about the Fourth Crusade, you can discover apt details about weaponry and costumes within moments. If you want to send your character to Tasmania, there's no need to fork out for a plane ticket; you can just spend a few minutes on Youtube and you'll pick up enough local information to fill a chapter.

Then there are emails to answer, blogs to write, facebook pages to update, newspapers to read, movies to watch - not to mention the constant stream of observations and witticisms demanded by twitter.

But there is an alternative.

It's called Freedom. It costs 10 dollars, but you can download it and use it for free for 90 days.

Freedom is a little program which does one simple thing: it turns off your internet.

You give it a time. Twenty minutes, perhaps, if you want to do a short burst of concentrated writing and then look up the weather forecast. Or eight hours if you're determined to cut yourself off for the entire day.

Then you're divorced from the internet.

It's just you and your computer.

Perhaps you use Freedom already. Many writers do. I saw it thanked in the acknowledgements of Zadie Smith's new novel, for instance.

Or perhaps you don't need it.

Perhaps you write in a hut on a mountantop.

Perhaps you write with a typewriter. Or a pen and paper.

Perhaps you have willpower of steel and never feel a twinge of distractability.

But if you're feeling a terrible addiction to the internet - if you're reading this, for instance, when you should be writing - then I can recommend Freedom.

Josh Lacey 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to write an adventure story - Josh Lacey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Cheltenham for the book festival. On a clear stretch of track between Stroud and Gloucester, brakes squealed and the train shuddered to a halt. The door of our carriage swung open and a man appeared, carrying a pistol in one hand, a rope in the other. He pointed his pistol at my forehead and said,

Actually, that's not true. I did go to the Cheltenham Literary Festival, but the most dramatic thing that happened was getting slightly lost on the way from my hotel to a restaurant. I did, however, spend a whole day talking and thinking about adventure stories.

In the morning, I ran a creative writing workshop with fifteen talented and imaginative young writers. I advised them on how to write a great adventure story; we talked about creating fascinating characters and putting them in dramatic situations; and then they hunched over their desks and started inventing their own adventures.

In the afternoon, I took part in a panel discussion with two fellow writers of adventure stories, Andy Briggs and Anthony McGowan.

Both of them have taken classic adventure stories and revitalised them for a new generation. Andy has written a series of novels about a contemporary Tarzan, while Anthony has found a very clever way of reviving Williard Price's novels, which I loved as a child. Price's heroes were Hal and Roger Hunt, teenage brothers who travelled the world hunting down animals; in Leopard Adventure, Anthony picks up the story of Hal and Roger's children, Amazon and Frazer, who are eco-warriors, intent on saving endangered animals who are under threat in exotic, dangerous locations around the world.

I was talking about my own Grk books and my new novel, The Sultan's Tigers, the story of a boy and his uncle tracking down a lost treasure in India.

The event was chaired by Daniel Hahn, who began by asking us: What makes a good adventure story? What are the ingredients of a great adventure novel?

I was about to list all the obvious ingredients of a great adventure story - an appealing hero, a dastardly villain, a plot that holds you with its twists and turns, a series of exotic locations, and perhaps some love interest too - when I thought of one of my favourite adventure stories, a novel which lacks almost all of the above ingredients. And yet Robinson Crusoe is undoubtedly one of the best adventure stories ever written.

So what is the perfect definition of an adventure story? Sitting with Daniel, Anthony and Andy, I didn't have access to Wikipedia, but if I had, I would have found a short entry on adventure which includes this lovely quote from Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Ah, yes. Of course. How I wish I could have answered Daniel's question with a one-liner like that. It expresses the heart of the matter so perfectly. An adventure needn't involve brutal baddies, poisonous snakes, foaming rapids, vertiginous mountain trails or any other such perils; we can be adventurous simply in the way that we approach life.

It's not the plot or the situation that matters; it's the attitude of the person at the heart of them.

Those fictional adventurers whose characters and exploits I love best - Robinson Crusoe, Jim Hawkins, Richard Hannay, Rudolf Rassendyll, etc, etc - are united by their love of adventure, their eagerness to cast aside caution and throw themselves into the world.

My own Tom Trelawney, hero of The Sultan's Tigers, is no different. For him, "life is either a daring adventure or nothing."

Josh Lacey

Josh's new novel, The Sultan's Tigers, is published by Andersen.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Indie bookshops - Josh Lacey

There was a piece recently on the New Yorker’s book blog about independent bookshops, asking if we should fight to save them. Why do we worry when they shut down? And, if we do care about them, why don’t we spend more of our money in them?

The article made me think about the independent bookshops that I’ve visited recently, doing events, talking about my books, and how each of them has its own flavour, its own way of presenting books, its own voice in which it addresses customers, browsers, book-lovers. Each of them is embedded in its community, giving locals what they want, and, just as importantly, each of them had a very secure identity of its own.

I went to the Wood Green Bookshop in North London, where alongside new and secondhand books, they sell jewellery and other bits and pieces made by locals. The owner gave me a cup of tea; our conversation was constantly interrupted by locals coming in to chat or ask whether a book had arrived; then a group of mothers and babies arrived for storytime, and I headed off.

On the other side of London, and closer to where I live, is the Kew Bookshop, a lovely little place in a row of shops between the train station and Kew Gardens. In the summer, I spent a couple of hours there, signing books and watching customers come and go. Every writer should do that, to see how people buy books, how bookshops work. My favourite thing about this particular bookshop is the taste of the owner, Mark; unlike in some bookshops, I absolutely trust the little handwritten notes that he puts under books on the shelves.

Last weekend, I went to Woolfson and Tay in Bermondsey, which opened just over a year ago. It’s part of a modern development near the chic delis and galleries of Bermondsey Street, and feels like the model of a modern independent bookshop, where the books compete for space with a gallery and a cafe. As I left, one of the owners thrust a little book into my hands, a collection of essays written by locals, who have been coming to a workshop in the bookshop.

Thinking about these bookshops, it struck that their importance isn’t simply the difference between the small and the vast, the individual and the mass, the local and global; it’s not just the difference in taste between a loaf of bread made by hand in a village bakery and a plastic-wrapped packet of sliced white from a factory; but there’s a deeper difference too, to do with the love of books, our reverence for the printed word, and our passion for particular kinds of books, the slippery ones, the difficult ones, the ones which sit uneasily on a supermarket’s shelves, the ones that don’t jump out of the screen as a recommendation from an enormous database. These are the books that you’ll only stumble across unexpectedly, and pick up, and read the back, and flick through the first few pages, because you’re browsing along some bookshelves that have been carefully selected by someone with impeccable taste.

Josh Lacey

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kindling - Josh Lacey

I'm sure there's a good joke to be made about Kindles and kindling and book burning and the fact that Waterstones wasn't looted in the riots, but I can't think of it. Can you? If so, please make it on my behalf.

Anyway, in the absence of that elusive gag, I'll simply confess that I've finally got my hands on a Kindle and, to my surprise, and perhaps disappointment too, I rather like it.

I wouldn't say I love it, though. It's certainly nowhere near the electronic book that I've always been hoping for, the lissom screen that could be pulled out and extended to the appropriate size, then rolled up and stuffed in my pocket, a device so small that I won't even notice its presence until I want to use it, and so hardy that it could be dropped in the bath without suffering any damage.

Even if I wasn't really expecting such ebookish fabulousness for another decade or two, I did imagine, after years of using macs, that the interface would be intuitive and cunning and beautiful, which the Kindle's really isn't. It works, yes, but it's clunky and quite annoying. And very grey.

As for reading on it; well, it feels more convenient than pleasurable, more efficient than transcendental.

What the Kindle does really well is encourage you to buy books. The whole process is magnificently smooth and straightforward.

Only one of my own books, Bearkeeper, is currently available for the Kindle, and I'll be intrigued to see how the children's book world adapts to the brave new world of ebooks.

Josh Lacey

Monday, 18 July 2011

Meeting your heroes - Josh Lacey

A few weeks ago, I went to Devon and met one of my heroes.

He was standing in the middle of the road, staring at the traffic with a haughty expression - the same stern gaze which terrified his opponents and stirred the hearts of his compatriots, the men who followed him to the other side of the world.

I knew he wouldn't talk to me, so I didn't bother saying anything.

I just stood and stared.

Francis Drake stared back at me.

I was in Tavistock, the small town where he was born. It's a lovely place, just on the edge of Dartmoor. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the market and looking at the river, before meeting Simon, the proprietor of the local independent bookshop, the Book Stop, and going to talk in a local school.

That was the first time that I had ever been to Tavistock, but I’d met Drake before. Not once, but many times. In history books. In biographies. On the deck of the replica of the Golden Hind that is moored in London. And in my own book, The Island of Thieves, where he is a marginal but crucial character.

I've been fascinated by Drake for most of my life, but I’ve never particularly wanted to meet him in person. I doubt I would have liked him much; he was fierce, grumpy, greedy and single-minded to the point of madness.

Of course, you probably had to be all those things if you were going to sail around the world in 1587, taking a route that no one had ever previously sailed, battling the weather, the sea, hunger, thirst, the Spanish and even your own crew, who might mutiny at any moment.

If Francis Drake hadn’t been so uncompromising, so single-minded, so fierce and brutal and aggressive, he’d never have left Plymouth; he would have spent his life pottering about the coast of Devon in a little dinghy, fishing for mackerel, rather than sailing around the world.

Meeting your heroes in the flesh is probably never a good idea. How can they be anything but a disappointment? But meeting them in fiction - reading about them or writing about them yourself - is much safer. They can continue being as heroic as you’ve always imagined them.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

WIN: The Island of Thieves - Josh Lacey

The Island of Thieves is my new book, published in July. I'm offering a signed copy of the book as a prize to anyone attending the SAS Online Festival.

The Island of Thieves is the story of Tom Trelawney, a boy who goes to stay with his uncle in London, but ends up on a wild adventure in Peru.

They're on the trail of a magnificent treasure, but they only have one clue, a single page from a manuscript. To find the treasure, they'll have to track down the rest of the manuscript - and escape the ruthless criminal who is also on the treasure's trail.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

How long is a piece of string? - Josh Lacey

Someone recently asked me how long it takes to write a book.

I wasn’t sure how to answer: I could have said a few months, a year, seven years or ten years.

All those answers would have been true for the same book.

I’ve got a new book coming out in July: The Island of Thieves, an adventure story about a boy and his uncle on the trail of a hidden treasure.

The book itself is out of my hands, but not yet in my hands. Every word has been tweaked, every sentence has been polished, and I can’t touch them again, but I haven’t yet seen a copy of the physical object, the book itself.

I started writing this book seven years ago. When I say writing, I mean sitting down at my computer and typing a few hundred words every day.

I can’t remember when I had the original idea for this book - the initial spark that set the whole story into motion - but it must have been three or four years before that.

Let’s say a decade from inspiration to completion. A decade from the moment that an idea first arrived in my head to the moment that I can hold an actual book in my hands.

Of course, I haven’t really been writing this book for ten years. The book itself lay dormant for much of that time, gathering dust in the darkest regions of my imagination. But not just dust. All sorts of ideas float in the goo at the back of my mind, neglected and almost forgotten, but some of them refuse to sink. A few insist of bobbing up again and again, demanding to be remembered. They’re the good ones.

I had an idea about ten years ago. Three years later, I tried to turn it into a book. I wrote a few thousand words. I threw them away. I wrote another few thousand words. I threw them away too.

Over the past seven years, I’ve returned to the book again and again, writing a bit, reading around the subject, thinking about the characters.

Last year, I finally sat down and tried to write it again. This time, for some reason, I found the story that I wanted to tell. A few months later, the first draft was done. After a year and much rewriting, the final draft was on its way to my editor.

A few months, a year, seven years or ten years: how long did it take me to write The Island of Thieves?

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Glass Slipper

On a day like today, there’s only one possible subject for a blog about children’s literature, and that’s the fairytale about the handsome prince who sweeps an ordinary girl off her feet and takes her to the palace . On the day of their marriage, he’s in a swashbuckling uniform, she’s in a long white dress, and they ride a carriage through the city’s street, cheered by the crowds.

It was a very well-managed fairytale, of course, with security guards and armed police and protocol and seating plans and a carefully choreographed procession carrying the happy couple and their guests through London, and full of thoroughly modern details too, with the Beckhams and Elton John in the congregation, but the basic elements of the fairytale could have been written centuries ago.

That, I think, must be the pleasure of it for all of us, the rapt audience, sitting at our TV sets, waiting for our first glimpse of the dress or watching the Queen nod off during the sermon. The details are fun, but the basic shape of the storyline is what grips us, the narrative of the handsome prince and the girl plucked from nothing to be turned into a princess.

Monday, 21 March 2011

A perfect picture book - Josh Lacey

What makes a great picture book? It should have wonderful pictures, of course. And an immaculate fusion of images and text. A memorable narrative, an interesting theme and some good jokes all help too. But the real sign of a great picture book is that you can read it again and again (and again and again) without going nuts.

I don't know how many times I've read The Tiger Who Came to Tea - certainly hundreds, maybe even thousands, as a child, a sibling and a parent - but I still haven't tired of it. I'll usually try to steer my daughter in its direction when she's choosing a book. Are you sure you want that? I’ll say. Wouldn't you rather have this one?

What do I love about it? The simplicity of the story; its warmth; the sweet domestic details; and the mixture of gentility and terror in the character of the tiger. In what little he says - he speaks only twice in the book - he is terrifically polite. "Excuse me," he says at he pokes his head around the front door, "but I'm very hungry. Do you think I could have tea with you?" As he leaves, he waves and says, "Thank you for my nice tea. I think I'd better go now." What a perfect guest! And yet he's a wild destructive force who rages through the home, draining the taps of water, eating every scrap of food, leaving a scene of chaos.

Why doesn't he eat Sophie and her mother? When we're reading, aren't we waiting for him to turn on them and open his wide jaws? A lesser story might have expressed these fears, but Judith Kerr leaves them unsaid; Sophie and her mother calmly let the tiger fill himself up and leave.
...and he drank all the milk,
and all the orange juice,
and all Daddy's beer,
and all the water in the tap.
Is there a more perfect picture book?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Scrivener 2 - Josh Lacey

A month ago, I wrote here about jettisoning my trusty old word processor - Microsoft Word, if you must know - which I’ve been using since I first bought a computer, many years ago, and trying out a new piece of software instead, Scrivener, which is specifically aimed at writers. Novelists, screenwriters, journalists, academics - all of them, the publicity promises, will benefit.

I downloaded Scrivener and took advantage of the free trial, which allowed me to use the software for a month without paying a penny. If I wanted to keep using it, I’d have to pay 45 dollars. (Although Scrivener is based in Truro, it’s priced in dollars. I’d actually have to pay just over 30 quid.)

After about a week, I was enjoying using Scrivener - it looked nice and felt like a more pleasant working environment than Word - but but I couldn’t quite see the point. Then I came across this article written by Antony Johnston on his own use of Scrivener in which he says:
I enthuse about Scrivener to all of my friends. Some of them even listen to me, and download it. This is often swiftly followed by an email complaining that it's all very confusing and they'll stick to Microsoft Word, thanks.
Yes. I could understand that. Why did I need all these fiddly menus? Do I really have to read the manual? Isn’t Word easier and more straightforward?

Johnston provides a lengthy, detailed and mostly bewildering tutorial on using Scrivener, which I read several times. It’s a fascinating description of the way that a particular writer uses and adapts the tools of his trade. It made me see how Scrivener can be used; not as a revolutionary new advance which will change the way that you write, but as a neat, clever and well-designed tool that will allow you to work in the way that you already work, but rather more efficiently.

Some writers simply sit down at a piece of paper, write the first sentence of their novel and continue until they reach the end. They won’t have much use for Scrivener. But if your working habits are more chaotic, filled with scribbled notes, discarded ideas, half-forgotten thoughts, unused bits of research and all kinds of bits and pieces which you’ll consider, ponder, reject and forget while writing your actual book, Scrivener offers a very useful place to hold and order them all.

My favourite feature is one that probably exists in all kinds of other word processors too (although, if it’s in Word, I’ve never managed to find it). Press a couple of keys and everything disappears apart from the page that you’re writing.

I’ve spent a month playing with Scrivener, trying out different settings, slowly progressing with some notes and jottings towards a draft of the book that I was writing, and finally decided to buy it. I’m still not convinced that I’ll end up using it all the time, but I was sufficiently impressed to want to carry on exploring and experimenting.

Josh Lacey

Friday, 7 January 2011

Scrivener - Josh Lacey

At the beginning of this new year, newly resolute, I'm working on a new book, and I've decided to use a new piece of software too. I heard of Scrivener several years ago, and thought about trying it, but never did. I suppose I'm very conservative: when something works - and my current word processor, with its quirks and annoyances, does work reasonably well - then I don't see much point changing it. Learning new software wastes a lot of time; and, although I'm a master of procrastination, if I’m going to waste an hour or two, I'd rather do the washing-up or go for a walk then stare at my computer’s screen.

But this year, for some reason, I feel the need for Scrivener. Perhaps my procrastination has just reached a deeper level. Or perhaps it really will make writing easier. Because Scrivener is, in the words of its website, "a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents."

I've downloaded the trial version. Thirty days for free. Which should be enough time to decide whether to keep using it (and pay the thirty quid fee).

First impressions. (After an hour.) I read the website and discovered that Scrivener is based in Cornwall, which immediately made me like it more. I downloaded it, started it up and began working my way through the tutorial. I hate tutorials, but this one isn’t too annoying. So far, Scrivener seems neat, cute and quite confusing.

Second impressions. (After a day.) I’ve started writing in Scrivener and still feel confused. I’m tempted to give up. Over the years, I’ve evolved ways of working with my computer, and feel uncomfortable jettisoning them to fit a new format. But I’m going to persevere for a little longer.

Third impressions. (After two days.) I’m beginning to appreciate how this might work. I wouldn’t say I’m a convert. Yet. But I’m enjoying writing with a piece of software which is specifically designed for writers. There are lots of nice touches. Ways of organising chapters, drafts, notes and bits of research. I do have reservations and I still can’t decide whether all these nice little innovations are rather useful or entirely pointless, but I’m going to carry on.

In a month's time, I'm going to write another blog here, and I'll let you know if I've decided to pay the fee for Scrivener or gone back to my old, familiar word processor. Or jettisoned them both and started using a pencil and a piece of paper.

Does anyone else use Scrivener? Any tips?

Josh Lacey

Monday, 29 November 2010

Browsing - Josh Lacey

About a month ago, I visited a couple of schools in Basingstoke as part of the Wessex Book Festival and had lunch with some librarians from the Hampshire School Library Service. Over our sandwiches, we were talking about the future of books, reading and libraries, and one of the librarians made a fascinating observation which has lingered in my mind since.

Children aren't being taught to browse, she said. If they can't browse, then they can't use libraries and bookshops properly. They can't discover books for themselves.

Of course, children know how to browse on the internet. They can use search engines; they can hunt down information; they can leap from page to page. These skills are taught to them at school.

But no one teaches them to browse the shelves of a library or a bookshop, hunting for new books, new authors, new connections.

I'd never thought about browsing before. To me, it's an almost instinctive activity and feels so everyday, so ordinary, that I could hardly even imagine it as a teachable skill. I wander into a bookshop, glance at the array of covers spread out on tables or stacked on shelves, pick up a book, skim the blurb, read the first line or two, and, usually, put it back and look for something more interesting.

I'm always hoping that something will snag my attention: a cover, an author, the distant memory of a review or a recommendation. But, even more, I hope I'll find something by accident, a new writer, a book that I've never heard of. I'll open the book. The first few sentences will suck me in. I'll have to hurry away and find a quiet place and read it to the end.

According to those librarians in Hampshire, most of the children who walk into their libraries don't have this skill. Unable to browse, they're bewildered by the array of books on offer. They don't know where to start or how to progress from one author to another. So they are very conservative. They pick the next in a series. A book by an author that they know or have been ordered to read at school. Rather than discovering new authors, new books. Rather than exploring.

Josh Lacey

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Reichenbach Falls - Josh Lacey

I'm about to start writing the eighth book in the Grk series and my thoughts have turned to the Reichenbach Falls.

The Reichenbach Falls drop a hundred metres down a Swiss slope. On 4 May 1891, this is where Sherlock Holmes fought his arch enemy Professor Moriaty. Both of them fell to their deaths in the water. And that was the end of the world's most famous detective.

Except it wasn't. On his way down, Holmes managed to grab a tuft of grass and pulled himself back to safety. Or so Conan Doyle wrote a decade later when his public demanded that he bring Holmes back from the abyss.

Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes - or tried to kill him, anyway - because he was exhausted by his own fictional creation. He couldn't imagine how to continue writing about him. So he threw him over a Swiss waterfall.

I'm not going to do that to Tim and Grk, the heroes of my series that started five years ago with A Dog Called Grk. But, as I always do before I start a new book about them, I wonder how I can make this one different enough to be interesting.

Each of the Grk books is self-contained; you don't need to have read the first in order to read the fourth or the seventh.

Like Sherlock Holmes - or Just William or Jack Reacher or James Bond or hundreds of other fictional characters who appear in a series of novels - Tim and Grk hardly develop from one book to another.

And so the series could continue for ever.

In theory, I could write 192 of them. (Each of the books is set in a different country and there are currently 192 countries in the United Nations.) That is, if I could find enough ways to make them interesting to readers - and, more importantly, to myself.

I'd be intrigued to know how other people reinvigorate their long-running characters - and if they've ever been tempted to toss them over the Reichenbach Falls.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Also Known As - Josh Lacey

Do you recognise these names?

Carlo Lorenzini
Theodore Geisel
Charles Dodgson
Georges Remi
Daniel Handler
Darren O'Shaughnessy

If not, I'm sure you recognise these ones:

Carlo Collodi
Dr Seuss
Lewis Carroll
Lemony Snicket
Darren Shan

They're the same people, of course. They wrote children's books under one name and went about their lives under another.

Writers have always used pseudonyms. Jack Higgins, John le Carre, Lee Child - many of the names that crop up constantly in the bestseller list aren't the names by which these writers are known to their families.

When I started writing for children, I decided to use a pseudonym too. It seemed sensible at the time, as most decisions do. I was working as a journalist and I'd just written a book for adults, so I thought it would be a good idea to keep my identities separate.

I've now changed my mind. I still write one series, the Grk books, under my assumed name, Joshua Doder, but I write everything else, for whatever audience, under my real name, Josh Lacey. But I can still see the advantages of using a pseudonym. With a name that isn't your own, you're free to be someone else.

One of my great whitely heroes is Daniel Defoe, who used various names for his books. His novels weren't actually published as novels at all; they were supposedly the autobiographies of Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack and other rakish adventurers. I envy the way that he could conceal his own identity so completely behind the voice of his narrator, hiding himself as entirely as the modern ghost-writers who give voice to pop stars and footballers, letting readers imagine that they're reading an honest autobiography.

If Defoe was writing today, would he be blogging and twittering and delivering regular self-revelatory snippets on his website?


More likely, he'd set up an online journal, the diary of a man wrecked on a desert island. Daily updates would describe how he hunts for food and builds himself a shelter. One afternoon, he's walking along the beach when he finds a footprint in the sand...

If you read, you'd think that you were privy to the private thoughts of a lonely sailor trapped on a tiny island. You'd never know that every word was actually written by a man sitting at his desk in his comfortable house in Stoke Newington, hiding behind the screen of a pseudonym, which allows him to be whoever he wants.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Sydney Opera House - Josh Lacey

I read a story once about John Buchan. I can't remember where or when. If I could, I'd look it up and reprint it here rather than telling it in my own words.

Maybe someone knows where to find it and can point me in the right direction. If so, I'd be very grateful.

Anyway, the story went something like this.

John Buchan was planning to write a novel about Canada. He had never been there and wouldn't have a chance to go before starting work. Luckily, his son-in-law was Canadian and so Buchan decided to ask him for some help.

When they next met, Buchan asked his son-in-law for ten facts about Canada. The son-in-law came up with one fact, then another and a third - at which point Buchan stopped him.

Thank you very much, he said. Now I know enough about Canada to set a novel there.

I thought about this story when I wrote my most recent book, Grk Down Under, which is published this month.

This is the seventh Grk book. Each of them is set in a different country. I've visited most of the countries, but not Australia, and I knew I wouldn't have time to go there.

I thought about imitating Buchan: collaring an Australian and asking them for ten facts about their country. But I don't have his insouciance.

Instead, I read books about Australia. I watched movies. I talked to people who had been there. I imagined the trip that I would have made. And once all that research was almost forgotten, the images fading into the black depths of my memory, I could start writing.

Now, if people ask whether I've ever been to Australia, I hesitate for a moment before replying. Because I almost have. I've imagined myself there. I've stood on the steps of the Syndey Opera House and watched the audience arrive for that night's performance. I've flown over the endless empty miles of the outback and sheltered under the shade of a eucalyptus tree. And, as far as my memory is concerned, that's pretty much the same as actually having been there.