Showing posts with label Nick Green. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nick Green. Show all posts

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


Ooops! I'm dashing on to today's ABBA page, half out of breath! 

A rare and unexpected holiday has shoved the Things That Need Doing Right Now into a complex squidge of pages, people to contact and panic. 

So this post - sorry! - is just about my computer's current post-it note.
Maybe a month ago,Nick Green - thank you, Nick! - mentioned a second book by Dorothea Brande. As I have always been curious about how artists and writers work, I investigated.

Brande, an American editor, was the author of "Becoming A Writer". Originally published in 1934, her first book gained extra popularity when the novelist John Braine claimed in his foreword to the 1983 edition that Brande's advice cured his writer's block. Maybe that was the moment when the whole modern genre of "writing about writing" toddled to its feet and started walking and talking?

What is the essence of this second book? Basically - in "Wake Up and Live"  - Brande suggests that whenever we think and act in negative ways, we use up too much of the energy we could be putting into our art, our writing and living. Whenever we feel low or lack confidence, we slide into a constant cycle of giving time and attention to all those things that we can't do, all the failures and frets and fears.

We worry about all we haven't done or all that others seem to be succeeding at - and this was way before Facebook and Twitter! - and end up sapping the energy that we should be spending on the work itself. The book as a whole isn't one I'd recommend, but this particular point made sense to me. 

Brande also went on to say that before going into an important interview, an awkward meeting or a scary party, people are advised to pause, present their best self and enter the room acting as if they have confidence. Yes, ACTING as they can do it.
So that's what you, the writer or artist, do. You go to your work acting as if you were the person you'd like to be, imagining you are your best version of yourself, giving your energy to the positive side of yourself.

Each morning, now the holiday laundry is done, I'm going to approach my work in progress, take a moment to push away all that sad energy-draining stuff and try imagining myself as the writer I might be.

This is how Brande puts it:  

Eight words that might help. Eight words that inspire me more than the usual daily litany of self-doubt. The words are perfect for my desk right now.

Penny Dolan

Monday, 5 August 2013

In the beginning... by Savita Kalhan

The opening few lines of a book are probably the most important the writer writes. They represent the key to the door, the invitation for the reader to step through and enter the story. Openings are the hook. Obviously the rest of the story must live up to the opening, but without the hook of the beginning, the rest of the story might not get a look in.

Opening lines may set the scene, the tone, the style, the action; they are a unique hook individual to the author, and running through them will be the voice that defines the author – and if you like that author’s voice you come back for more, for more stories by that author. As a reader, if I love one book by a particular writer, I’ll want to read everything else by that writer. “...there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” Stephen King

I have an odd habit of writing opening lines, opening paragraphs, and occasionally opening chapters. I’ll work on them when I’m in between books and projects, rewriting them, refining them; I’ll add to the collection too if I’m feeling inspired. I’ve got a whole file of them, full of ideas for stories in a variety of genres, full of characters and a world of voices. I’ll use some of them in creative writing workshops, allowing the pupils to choose an opening paragraph to continue a story. Often I’ll use them myself. I’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the way I find my next book, the next voice. Having them on the back burner feels very much like having a safety blanket. I don’t really plot a book, I’m not a plotter but a panster, who lets the opening paragraph take me on a journey. The back burner simmers away until one of the openings reaches out and grabs me, ripe and ready to become something more. I used to think that this habit was peculiar to me, until I talked to a few other writers, and recently I read that Stephen King agonises over his opening lines. So maybe I’m not that odd after all! I bet many other writers share the agony over the opening lines... 

Here are a couple of mine: “It’s tough being the new kid, but when you’re not the only one it’s not so bad. The problem was Sam was always the new kid and always the only one...” The Long Weekend 
“I sat staring into space. It was empty, the way space should be, vast, endless, and empty. Except it wasn’t vast and endless. There were four walls and a small window. I was lucky to have a cell with a window...” The Poet, A short story. 

 Here are just a few of my favourite opening lines:
 “Once upon a time...” 
 “Kidnapping children is never a good idea; all the same, sometimes it has to be done...” Island of the Aunts by Eva Ibbotson 
 “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 
 “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Charlotte’s Web by E B White 
 “If you’re interested in stories with happy endings, you’d be better off reading some other book.” The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket. 
 “Against the white cliffs, the girl in the red dress was as vivid as a drop of blood.” Cruel Summer by James Dawson. 
 “They come to kill me early in the morning. At 6 am when the sky is pink and misty grey, the seagulls are crying overhead and the beach is empty.” Almost True by Keren David 
 “When Ben got home from school, he found something good, something bad and something worse...” The Catkin by Nick Green 
 “My life might have been so different had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded...” The Vanishing of Katherina Linden by Helen Grant 

Here’s a link to a fun first lines quiz from The Guardian to mull over while you’re having a break:

 What are your favourite first lines? Twitter @savitakalhan

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Holiday reading, by Sue Purkiss

This week I've been staying with my son and his family in Brussels, One of the very many nice things about doing this is that I get the opportunity to read lots of new books. It starts on the journey over there. I travel from Bristol to London by train or bus, and then usually on the Eurostar, so there's plenty of time to read, and my Kindle allows me to take a good supply of books along with me. This time I finished the second book of The Flaxfield Quartet by Toby Forward, which is a fantasy about wizards (but not at all like Harry Potter). It's very good, and I'll be reviewing it soon over on Abba Reviews. Then I began The Storm Bottle, an unusual adventure story set in Bermuda, by fellow SAS author Nick Green, who knows so much about dolphins that I suspect he may have been one in another life. I'll finish that later today on the journey back.

Then I have a treat in store - Mary Hoffman's David, which is about the model for Michelangelo's famous statue. Mary Hoffman is another SAS person, and I first heard about this book when she talked about it at an SAS conference, just before it was published a few years ago. I've been meaning to read it ever since, and now the right moment has arrived: yesterday, I went to an exhibition in Brussels about Leonardo da Vinci, with my son and eldest grandson, Oskar. There were models of many of Leonardo's inventions - here's Oskar trying one out - and a film about his life and about the re-creation of some of his designs: notably an early parachute which an English adventurer with a gleam in his eye decided to try out - and survived to tell the tale! Anyway, there were hints of a not-very-friendly rivalry between Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo, so I'm hoping Mary might have something to say about that. Even if she doesn't, I just want a pass into the world of fifteenth century Italy, and I know her book will give me that. 

Richard and Joanna are great readers, so there are usually lots unfamiliar books for me to read here - though nowadays Richard mostly uses his Kindle: apart from the convenience, it's much cheaper to buy English books in Belgium that way. Still, I was able to read Ian Rankin's latest, Standing In Another Man's Grave, in which crotchety detective Rebus makes a welcome return from retirement, and also a book called Train Dreamsby an American writer called Denis Johnson. I'd never come across this author before. The book, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, is very short (only 116 small pages), but it packs quite a punch without wasting a word. It's about an ordinary man, Robert Grainier, living in rural America in the first half of the 20th century, and it reveals how the extraordinary can be found inside the apparently ordinary: Robert is an unassuming, kindly man who endures some terrible things, and just keeps on. Despite being so short, it somehow manages to have an epic sweep.

Joanna is Polish, and she lent me a book of poetry by a poet called Wislawa Szymborska, called Tutaj/Here. The poet was 85 when this book was published, but her quiet, ironic, amused voice is ageless. I particularly liked a poem called Thoughts That Visit Me on a Busy Street, which ponders the possibility that Nature recycles faces: 

These passersby might be Archimedes in jeans
Catherine the Great draped in resale,
some pharoah with briefcase and glasses.

Then there are the books I read with my grandchildren. Oskar has been 'doing' Julia Donaldson at school, so we read several of hers, and also a book I'd taken over for him - Vivian French's Hedgehogs Don't Eat Hamburgers, which is a rhythmic, funny delight. Casper is only sixteen months old, but he already has his favourites: Rod Campbell's flap book, Dear Zoo, an Usborne nursery rhyme book which plays the tunes, and two French board books which he knows will play sounds if he presses a finger in the right spot. I took him a book by Jack Tickle called The Very Silly Sheep, which has brilliantly engineered pop-up animals. Casper loves it, as you can see, but I'm not sure how long it will survive intact!

This is my last post for the time being; I decided it was time to stand aside for a while. You'll see some exciting new blogsters joining us over the next month, namely Damian Harvey, Lari Don, Saviour Pirotta and Anna Wilson. I'll continue to review over on ABBA Reviews, and to post on The History Girls. Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you over there!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Get my new book FREE - Nick Green

Okay – here’s a deal for you. Pop over to my website and you can follow a link to download an e-book of my brand new novel absolutely free.
THE STORM BOTTLE is a fantastical adventure crammed with dolphins, boats, bottles, whales, ancient myths and mysterious messages. Check it out, it’s fun.
‘Why are you giving this book away for nothing?’ you may ask. Well, so far, no publisher has been keen enough to take it, but my readers have waited long enough for my next book, and I don’t want you to think I’ve been sitting idly eating fig rolls.
I wonder if I should really be using this blog for such direct promotional purposes, but as this offer is free, I hope my fellow authors won’t mind. In some ways it’s just a practical illustration of a blog-worthy topic: how hard it is to get a book published, even if you are already a published author.
With even a smidgen of luck, there will be a ‘proper’ edition of THE STORM BOTTLE in the shops in due course, but ‘due course’ in publishing usually means two to three years. Which is a long time, IMHO. So, in the meantime, anyone who wants to can download and read the e-book free of charge. I know that reading novels from a screen isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sure some people don’t mind it, especially if you have a handheld reader. If you like the book, please visit my Message Board and tell me so.
And that’s it! A brand new, exclusive Nick Green book, absolutely free. Beat that, WHSmith.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Origins and lemmings - Nick Green

Here’s a thought. Is originality the biggest red herring in publishing? By which I mean: is being original really the key to success that we all assume it is? Are publishers really yearning for that brilliantly original book? Or is originality, in fact, the element most likely to kill a submission or a pitch stone dead?

Writers work themselves to the bone in the struggle to be original. They tear out their hair over the limitations of plot, tie themselves in knots to avoid repeating other authors, and suffer panic attacks if another recent book or film bears passing similarity to their own work. I must be original, we whisper, like a mantra. But must we? Maybe if we want to be artists, but if we want to make a living? Look at the evidence.

Harry Potter became an international phenomenon. Almost at once, the copycats started to appear. At one point, anything with a hint of a witch in it got hyped into bestsellerdom regardless of quality (believe me, I had to market the wretched things). Ironically, some of the better Rowling-alikes were actually Rowling forerunners, like Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson, newly marketed as being ‘like Harry Potter’ to cash in on the phenomenon. As original authors they’d already been very popular. But rebranded unfairly as being ‘just like that book you just read’, they sold more than ever.

If one book becomes a super-bestseller, then publishers charge like lemmings to copy its success with whatever they have to hand. Take The Da Vinci Code (please). But seriously: how many books in the top 20 were suddenly about codes, grails, holy plots and Knights Templar*? Kate Mosse’s book Labyrinth, which surely took longer to write than The Da Vinci Code, was even accused of copying Dan Brown’s book, as if she had dashed it off in an afternoon after noticing it in WH Smiths. It gets even more ludicrous: Sam Bourne appears to be marketed on the strength of the similarity of his name to Dan Brown.

Do readers want cosy predictability or do they want something they can’t get anywhere else? It’s not a rhetorical question – I really would like to know.

* How about a shiftwork recruitment agency called Temps Knightly? Anyone? No?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Fantasy land – Nick Green

I read an article some time ago about ‘Warcraft widows’, the partners of those who are addicted to online games, most notably ‘World of Warcraft’. One can only feel sorry for these individuals, for it made grim reading. The addicts themselves are not kids or adolescents – many are in their mid thirties, like me. Wives and girlfriends complain of up to forty hours a week lost to this obsession, as their partners retreat to an imaginary world full of make-believe people, surfacing only for food and the loo. Often the players only reluctantly engage with real life, forget to do basic chores, become uncommunicative, and generally act as if the people in the imaginary world are more real than their own friends and family.
Sound familiar?
I read it, and my ears were burning. Then I moved away from the fireplace and carried on reading, but uncomfortably. And this in spite of the fact that I haven’t played a computer game for ten years.
One might protest that writing novels is a job, not a silly game. It’s art, right? And you get paid for it, right? (Well, in theory.) But money or not (and sometimes it really is hard to tell) the fact is that, for much of the time, there is no visible external difference between the writer and the poor guy who lives most of his life as Bjorn Bloodaxe, 15th-level warrior berserker mage. Those around him simply have to trust that he is doing something more worthwhile than lopping the heads off a bevy of goblins. Even if he is, in fact, lopping the heads off a bevy of goblins, via the more capable hands of his fictional hero.
Because it’s a freelance profession, and often carried on as a second job (as in my case) it’s easy to stray outside ordinary working hours, writing until your brain is fried and you’re incapable of carrying on a conversation. We talk about how hard it is to sit down and write – it’s harder, sometimes, to call it a day. Stephen King said that writing should be a support system for life – not the reverse. It’s good advice. No matter how important the story is to you, no matter how urgent the need to get it down, it should never reach the point where it replaces your life. After all, if we didn’t have a life, what would we write about?

Monday, 13 April 2009

Get a better metaphor – Nick Green

Metaphors are a subject close to my heart. I binge on them, both in writing and speaking, and many is the time when my friends haven’t the faintest what I’m on about.

But metaphors can be pure gold dust in a story, so long as you rein yourself in. ‘Metaphor’ is made up of two ancient Greek words that mean, respectively, ‘Over/across’ and ‘carry/bear’. One can understand from that that they are things that can carry something across. And, perhaps, can also be overbearing!
To push this image further, metaphors are a kind of machinery – I’ve come to think of them as gears – that can carry loads that are too heavy for literal language. Voila, metaphor right there. Since much of what I write is a form of fantasy, I need to use these higher gears rather a lot. How do you describe, for example, what it’s like to have invisible whiskers? How do you imagine having reflexes like a cat’s? How do you convey the experience of being a dolphin and seeing the world with sound? (Little teaser there…). You use metaphors.
Sometimes I think I go over the top. But used with restraint, metaphors can serve the same function as music on a film soundtrack. I can’t arrange for day-of-wrath choirs to sing over the climax of my action adventure, but with a few choice startling images I can jolly well have a go. It costs less, too.
And consider this. In the end, ALL words are metaphors. No word is literally the thing it represents. All are just vehicles that ‘carry across’. I think that the difference between ‘ordinary’ words and the ones we choose to call metaphors, is that metaphors are the experiments, the seedlings, the daringly floated possibilities. And sometimes, further down the line, they take root, so that we no longer think of them as metaphors, but part of the language.
Isn’t language magical? It literally is.

Friday, 20 March 2009

The musical muse - Nick Green

I’m a music geek. Until I got married I was that character from ‘High Fidelity’, endlessly scouring Crouch End record shops for the most obscure stuff I could find. And for as long as I can remember, music has played a major part in my writing.

Long before I ever finished anything as long as a novel, I conceived of a grand concept: a novel with its own soundtrack, perhaps contained in an attached CD. My dream is still unrealised (because I can’t compose) but even now, when I write, I find myself constructing a soundtrack to the story out of songs and tracks that I happen to be listening to at the time.

It all began when I was writing a (terrible) fantasy novel as a teenager, when for some reason or other I was heavily into The Eagles. I was listening to one of their tracks ‘Journey Of The Sorcerer’ (better known as the theme tune from ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’) when suddenly the plot came to me, crystal clear, in one blinding flash. The fact that it was a bad plot hardly matters now. I’d discovered that music could lead me places I might never find on my own. Even now, when I play that Eagles instrumental, I think not of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect but of that unpublished fantasy novel.

These days I do it deliberately. When I have a new idea, I start hunting around in my CD racks for ‘that song’ which might capture its mood. When I have it, I might look for other tracks to orchestrate other key scenes. These imaginary soundtracks are inevitably cheesy – subtlety doesn’t work in this context. Until recently, I couldn’t stand the band Coldplay. Suddenly, heaven help me, I found an entire album of theirs (X&Y) which seemed to reflect the atmosphere of my book-in-progress. As a result, I had to play it constantly. At the same time, by way of contrast, a track by the progressive heavy metal band Dream Theater got straight to the heart of the book’s climactic scenes (if anyone is curious, that track is ‘The Ministry of Lost Souls’ from the album ‘Systematic Chaos’. And no, it sounds nothing like Coldplay).

It’s bizarre, this hard-wired link between my musical ear and my writing hand. But it has its uses. I know that a cure to writer’s block lies only as far away as the nearest record shop.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

‘And all that is gone…’ – Nick Green

Endings, eh? Following on from Marie-Louise’s post below, I’ve been thinking about endings myself...

We authors of the SAS were having a chat the other day (we meet for a lazy lunch several times a week at a nice little club in Portland Place, where we relax on leather sofas, sip flutes of champagne and pass idle remarks about the size of our latest advances, in between cracking the lobster claws. Actually I fib, we use email. Don’t tell anyone.)

Oh yes – we were having this chat. And one author mentioned that, when reading books, she often reads the first third, then reads the last few chapters, and then reads the middle. This is in order to try and guess at the ending early on, and then see how the author builds up to that climax. Essentially, it’s a professional approach: the writer’s mind always keen to examine how other work is put together. I’m sure it’s not uncommon, either – I know several people, both authors and casual readers, who also skip ahead to the ending before reading the middle.

As someone who won’t even tolerate the tracks of Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ being played out of order, I was slightly shocked to hear this. I struggle to get my head around the idea of doing such a thing. For me, Chapter 11 follows from Chapter 10 as surely as ‘Money’ segues into ‘Us And Them’. If you put the CD on shuffle play, I’m not sure you’re getting what you paid for. To read a book out of order seems even odder. Am I being terribly consreavtvie?

A friend of mine recently read my new book in manuscript, and did this very thing – skipped to the end, and then went back to read the middle bit. I must confess, I twitched. That middle bit isn’t just filler, I wanted to grumble. I didn’t put it in to make the covers a bit farther apart. If anything, I care more about middles than I do endings. That’s where the real book is, in my view. The ending just ties it all off. My endings are usually crammed full of stuff blowing up and all hell breaking loose, but that’s really just me going on a bender after a year of sitting at my desk. It’s not really the story so much as final punctuation.

Do people care mostly about endings? I sometimes wish I could avoid them. Let’s face it, they made a film called The Neverending Story, holding that up to be a good thing. These days I read so slowly, if I love the book, that I might read the same paragraph three times before reluctantly moving on to the next. It makes me look like a remedial pupil to anyone who might be watching, but I don’t mind. So long as it prolongs the experience.
Of course, the ending doesn’t have to be the end. If the book’s good, you can always read it again.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Nursery tale - Nick Green

With my son being of nursery school age, I often find myself listening to CDs that I wouldn’t normally choose to play. While this can sometimes be a rare form of torture, it does occasionally turn up delights. The other day I happened to hear a very pleasant arrangement of an old nursery rhyme. And it struck me: what a great little piece of storytelling.
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.

Promising start. Begin with a question. Something is wrong, but we don’t know what. We want to know what’s the matter. Already we’re wondering: who’s this Johnny character, why is he gone so long, and who is this person missing him?
He promised to buy me
A trinket to please me
And then for a smile,
Oh, he vowed he would tease me
He promised to buy me
A bunch of blue ribbons
To tie up my bonnie brown hair.

Ah! It grows clear. It’s his sweetheart, left behind. There’s some reason why she can’t go to the fair too. In my head she’s a servant. I’m seeing milk urns, laundry laid on stones. Is Johnny another servant, or a local lad from the village? At any rate, he’s got the day off. I get the impression that he’s a bit of a charmer.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised to bring me
A basket of posies
A garland of lilies,
A wreath of red rosies –

More promises! Really, that’s quite a shopping list. Now I’m picturing a long exchange between this couple, on the back doorstep, before Johnny set off. Doesn’t it sound like he had to do some persuading, before she was happy to let him go to the fair? No doubt she hoped to go with him, but her mistress made her work. Still, why was she reluctant to let her handsome boyfriend go alone? What is she worried about?
But wait, she’s not finished:
A little straw hat to
Set off the blue ribbons
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Ooh. See what she did there? She’s getting a hat to complement something (the ribbons) that she doesn’t even have yet. She’s building one fantasy upon another. Our heroine is on shaky ground.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised he'd buy me
A beautiful fairing,
A gay bit of lace that
the lassies are wearing –
(Johnny is remarkably well informed about female fashions, isn’t he?)
To set off the hat that
Sets off the blue ribbons,
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Now she’s going a bit far. Yet another fantasised accessory to add to her imaginary outfit. And now the story is poignant. She’s not just singing about clothes and trinkets here. She’s thinking of all Johnny’s promises, one piled upon another. The heroine’s dreams are reaching upwards, surely towards the idea that one day she and Johnny will marry – but it’s all castles in the air, because her boyfriend’s not even back yet.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.
What Johnny is actually doing at the fair, history does not record. But I have a sneaky suspicion that she’s blonde.
See? Great storytelling.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Sisyphus - Nick Green

Right now, I hope, my agent is looking at a draft of my latest book. This may lead on to more exciting things, or then again, it may not. The Road to Publication can be a long and rocky one, as well I know from my single successful journey down it (and from many unsuccessful ones). When my book The Cat Kin was going through the arduous submissions process, I kept a log of its progress. Be warned: if I had read this post four years ago, I would probably have chosen a different career.

Part 1: Finding an agent
After more than a year of hard work, in November 2004 I decide my book ‘Cat Kin’ (initially it lacks a ‘The’) is ready for submission. Between November and December I send extracts to six separate agents, one of whom has already shown cautious interest. Come the New Year, already impatient for a reply, I target three more agents.
Part 1a: Result!
It turns out I don’t have to wait long at all. By February 2005 not one but two of the agents are interested in ‘Cat Kin’. For a couple of weeks I work through the manuscript diligently with one of them… and then sign a contract with the other one, Curtis Brown. I’m not especially proud of that, but given the second agency’s reputation it seemed like the right decision. It depends on whether or not you believe in karma.
Part 2: Looking for a publisher
So it’s February, only four months after I finished the book, and already I have an agent. This is going to be easy. My agent gets to work, submitting ‘Cat Kin’ to a long list of publishers. In June, twiddling my thumbs, I ask for an update. No, there are no offers yet (as if they would forget to mention it). August arrives, and I can’t resist another query by email. Any news?
By October I’m getting really twitchy. I want to write another book – I have a barnstorming idea for a sequel to ‘Cat Kin’ – but I can’t bring myself to write it if the first one isn’t published. I contact my agent again. They’ve tried 16 children’s publishers, and not one has expressed any interest at all.
Part 3: Desperate measures
So I give up. I decide that ‘Cat Kin’ will never find a ‘real’ publisher. I search the web for self-publishing options and find the print-on-demand company Lulu. With nothing to lose now, I put together my own edition and publish it in January 2006.
I don’t hope for big sales. Neither do I get them. I sell about 50 copies of that edition, most to friends and family. But I do send one to the Times’s children’s book reviewer, Amanda Craig. And – wonder of wonders – she likes it. She reviews it in the Saturday paper.
Part 4: Finally…
I tell my agent about the review. Barely a month after it appears, Faber make me an offer. It is now March 2006 – more than a year since I signed with my agent, and 17 months since I first began submitting the book.
Another year is to pass before ‘The Cat Kin’ appears in the shops, and the whole sorry saga of the sequel is yet to unfold… but that’s another story. Just to get to this point has been a long, hard slog, consisting mostly of agonising waiting. Yet this experience is hardly unusual, and is by no means confined to first novels.

So, yeah – fingers crossed that the next book has an easier time of it.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Cat shadows – Nick Green

Okay, I’ve had some fan fiction. Never mind that it was obtained under less-than-spontaneous conditions (my stepmother, a teacher, set it as a homework assignment, bless her). Yes, forget that for a moment. Whether or not they were delivered under duress, the fact remains: I have more than twenty ‘first chapters’ of my second book, Cat’s Paw, at home… written by other people.
Needless to say, this is weird.
Reading them through in something of a daze, I realised something. These young writers clearly had as much fun with their versions as I had with mine. The handwritten notes to me on the back of each assignment suggest that they saw it as much more than just a piece of homework. One pupil wrote a chapter of a length that would have taken me a week of hard work. Many introduced startling new ideas and wove them into the existing Cat Kin ‘mythology’. The best of these young writers, all of whom were under 13, managed snatches of dialogue that made me laugh, they were so convincing, while nailing certain characters dead-on. Writers talk about their characters taking over, and doing unexpected things; but how much stranger when they start doing expected things that nevertheless take you by surprise, because you didn't actually write them yourself.
Spookiest of all were those stories by children who had considered where a sequel might go. Those who had homed in on the loose threads dangling from the first book, and used them to weave their own story openings. They all knew I would introduce a new character in Book 2, a new teacher for the Cat Kin children; many of them guessed that he’d get a mixed reception, that the class would pine for their old, familiar tutor. I was treated to a half-dozen incarnations of this character, Geoff White: ‘he was tall, tall as a pine tree’… ‘he was old and wrinkled, with long white hair’… ‘he had bright eyes as blue as the ocean’. He appears as Ben’s long-lost uncle, as Mrs Powell’s other son, as a sinister stranger, as a welcome friend. Everyone saw him in their own way.
If there ever was a reason for writing, this is it. To see others pick up your ideas and run with them, and send them spinning back at you from new and fascinating angles, is too wonderful for words. It’s also a reminder that the story is bigger than its author – that once it’s out of your hands, it’s public property, and readers can do with it as they will. This is true of every reader, not just the minority who write fan fictions. Everyone will see each character and scene differently. The story is created in each reader’s imagination, the writer only providing the raw material. It’s almost literally magic.

It’s so easy to forget that the story lives on like that. So easy to forget why I’ve always wanted to do this.
So here is an open thank-you to class 8M, for reminding me, and so well. Homework or not, you surely didn’t have to do as good a job as you did.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Snowfalls and snowballs - Nick Green

I see my posts have taken on a festive theme. It’s quite accidental, though I must say I do enjoy Christmas. I even make my own cake. But I digress. Really, this post is about snow.
I keep a notebook. A green notebook. It’s where I record all my passing ideas: future books, work in progress, work in revision. I have to carry it everywhere because I literally have no free time. Sometimes I will scribble one line at desperate speed in between frantic bouts of housework, commuting, or childcare, or the very last thing at night. Often they are tiny things, barely there: a change of name for a minor character, a rewrite of one line that’s been bothering me. Once I wrote: ‘A martial art that gives you cat-like powers?’ on a page otherwise filled with junk, and a reminder to buy some perfume for my wife (and even that turned out to be the wrong brand).
Sometimes, making a jotting, I despair. There’s no way these bits and pieces could ever amount to anything. But it’s like snowfall. A snowflake hits the ground, melts, is gone. Watching snow, you feel it could never settle, never cover a whole country in white. But it does, because it keeps falling. My notebook, I see, supplies a steady fall of snow. A snowfall that may eventually become a crisp white inch of book.
Metaphor not quite wrung dry. Bear with me. I remember one snow day from early childhood. I was five-ish. My elder brother Simon headed to the front garden to have a snowball fight with a friend. I preferred the safety of the back garden. I started to roll a tiny lump of snow. It grew as I rolled it along, but not noticeably. Simon’s last words before he left me were, ‘Huh! What a silly little snowball.’
Those words stayed with me all that afternoon. Evidently, they have stayed with me all my life. Because when Simon finally returned from his snowball fight, I was pushing a snowball as big as myself.

Monday, 3 November 2008

I believe in Father Christmas - Nick Green

Snow in October, and already it’s time to make the Christmas cake (the recipe I like requires months to mature). My son is now just old enough to be aware of Christmas approaching, and like all parents I face a decision: as he grows older, do I continue to pretend that Father Christmas is real? Do I go through the ritual of the mince pie and sherry near the hearth? Do I, in short, lie to him?

Some parents are quite adamant about this. Lying, especially to children, is wrong, no matter what the reason. Believers in Santa Claus face inevitable disappointment, possible ridicule at school. It’s a breach of trust, however well intended. Is it really?

My own parents lied to me on this matter. I don’t remember being traumatised when I found out. In fact I don’t think there was one moment when I found out. It was more of a dawning realisation, a gradual letting go. And I’m sure there was a long period of overlap where I had a foot in both camps: where I knew it was Mum and Dad who brought the presents, but continued to leave the empty pillow case at the foot of the bed, because it was so good to reach down with a foot at 6am and feel it heavy with chemistry sets and whatnot (yes, I was that sort of child). There’s a term for this, which I found out a few years later. It’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Father Christmas isn’t a lie. He’s a fiction. There’s a crucial difference. Parents who tell their children he exists aren’t deceiving them. There are simply telling them a story, a long, interactive story – one which will end someday, certainly, but then all stories do. And I believe stories are worth the sadness of the ending for the joy they bring while they last.

Terry Pratchett speaks to this in his Christmas-themed Discworld novel ‘Hogfather’. In the story, Death explains why belief in the Hogfather (a Claus analogue) is so important. ‘Human beings have to start out believing in the little lies, so you can learn to believe the big ones. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.’

Fiction flows in our veins. Without it, Pratchett suggests, we’d barely be human. We’re not computers; we don’t have to function according to the binary code of true/not true. We’re quite capable of seeing beauty in something that is manifestly not real, or of creating our own worlds when the real one lets us down. Fiction isn’t a false reality, nor is it reality’s poor relation. It’s a fundamental part of it – part of who we are. That’s why, this Christmas, my son will run to his bulging Christmas stocking wide-eyed in delight, and wonder who could possibly have drunk that sherry.

Friday, 10 October 2008

The parable of the pebbles – Nick Green

Wandering on the beach, I pick pebbles off the sea shore. They looked like colourful jewels, all glistening, so I give them to Mum to put in her pocket. Later I turn them out on the floor of our hotel room. Oh no – what happened? My sparkling stones are now lumps of drab rock.
A few days later we meet the man on the promenade. He is selling string bags of pebbles that look as bright as my own stones used to be. Yet they’re dry. How did he do that? I polished them, the stallholder explains. I put them in a tumbler with sand and gravel and grit, for hours and hours, until they wore totally smooth. And now they look as fresh as when I first picked them up.

Perhaps I’ve merged two separate holidays in this childhood memory, and perhaps the actual dialogue wasn’t quite so loaded. But I did collect pebbles, and I did meet the man with the polished stones, and I still remember.
Pieces of writing are like those pebbles. Pulled fresh from the sea of your mind, they’re all shiny and enchanting. Time passes, and they look like rubble. Polishing is what’s needed – not to change what you’ve created, but to put it back the way it’s meant to be.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Not the end of the world - Nick Green

“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he wept salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer.”
The quote is from Sid Waddell, legendary darts commentator (he’s actually making a point about champion Eric Bristow, but that’s by the by). Every few years I have an inkling of how Alexander (and indeed Eric) might have felt. This is in no way to compare our achievements (for one thing, I have killed far fewer people than Alexander the Great). But the feeling must be very common: on approaching the end of a long creative project, we fear it will be our last. It’s all downhill from here.
I wrote my first ‘novel’ at the age of 18. When I say novel, I mean it was a novel-length piece of writing; it wasn’t anything you’d waste time actually reading. Obviously at the time I thought it was a masterpiece. Yet as I caressed its single-spaced pages I was wracked by sadness. I knew I’d never, ever, create anything so good again. My career as a writer had peaked too soon.
A year later, the first dreadful novel now under lock and key and armed guard, I wrote another. This one was a considerable improvement (it could hardly fail to be) and at the time I thought it perfect, flawless, my ‘magnificent octopus’ as Baldrick might say. And me only 20! My joy at writing the closing words could not help but be laced with a keening note of melancholy. I’d done it, but now I had nothing left to give. There were no more good ideas in the world, no characters so alive, no plots worth getting out of bed for.
Bafflingly, this novel too failed to get published. Eventually I realised why and locked it up with the first. (The only reason both typescripts remain unburned is to remind me how deluded it’s possible to be.) But youthful hubris, amusing though it is in hindsight, isn’t the point of this post. My point is that feeling, which is real enough. That feeling of finishing, and of being finished, and fearing this is the end of it all. Really, it’s just tiredness putting on airs. But it takes distance to realise that.
And I still suffer that feeling, regular as clockwork. It came when I wrote my fourth novel, which was my first for children, ‘The Century Spies’ (never published): ‘That’s the best thing I’ll ever do.’ It came when I took a detour into screenwriting with an appalling, unfilmable script. It came after The Cat Kin (published, finally!); it came after the sequel, Cat’s Paw: ‘I’ve had my last good idea.’ Now I’m learning to get used to it.
When I finish the first draft of my latest book – which I will do, I hope, before the year turns – I know what to expect. But this time I will just have some tea, find a good book to read, and wait patiently for the next good idea to come along.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Colourful characters – Nick Green

When writing early drafts of books, I frequently end up with whole scenes that never make the final cut, or which simply don’t belong in the story. But these orphaned scenes are not wasted; far from it.
When talking about writing I tend to use metaphors a lot. Even though I can’t paint at all, I sometimes think of characters as different coloured paints. Not in a literal way (I’m not that freaky) but in the sense of them all being there, lined up on your palette. To write in a particular character’s voice, to paint them into a scene, you have to get into their head. But you can’t do this unless you already know them well.
Just as an artist has to mix their colours in order to paint a picture, so a writer needs to mix their characters. Much of this I do along the way, with every scene in which each character appears. After you’ve written with a character a few times, you have a fairly good idea of how they will react in certain situations, how they sound, what they say, and what they’d never say. After a while, you don’t have to think about it… you just dip your brush into the appropriate character’s colour and they appear on the page, with even the smallest brushstroke containing something of them. You even know when they’ll fade into the background.
I tend to ‘mix my colours’ as I go, learning about the characters during the messy first draft. But I’m sure it can be done deliberately too. It must be a good idea to pick random dramatic scenes from life, and write your character taking part in them. By the end of the process, you ought to have a good quantity of their ‘colour’ on your writer’s palette, there to use freely when you start writing the book for real.
The story I’m writing at the moment is an extreme example of this. I had planned an entire book, getting so far as to do a chapter-by-chapter outline, but then the story went splat (as they do). But when I cleared up the mess, one supporting character was left behind. She became the main character of my new book. And, although virtually every detail of her life is different now (even her accent), her essential character and voice remain the same. The colour is ready-mixed. If only that happened more often.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Never say DIY – Nick Green

I love DIY. Well, actually, I hate DIY with a passion, and cannot paint a simple kitchen without mixing matt and gloss paint. But the piece of DIY that I’m currently about, I rather like.
I had a spot of bovva with my debut novel The Cat Kin, in that I wanted to bring out a sequel and Faber, my beloved publishers, didn’t. Looking at my last royalty statement I can sort of see their point – 4000 copies sold won’t buy many publishing lunches – but thankfully I’m not alone in believing this attitude a bit short-sighted. Encouraged by a variety of lovely people, I’m taking steps to ensure that the sequel Cat’s Paw is finally published independently, so my readers, few as they may be, can at least share some of the fun I had writing it.
Technically, this will not be the first appearance of Cat’s Paw. It was briefly available through the print-on-demand service Lulu, but after various recommendations from other authors I am issuing the final (promise!) published edition through Back To Front, an imprint which specialises in out-of-print children’s books. Cat’s Paw doesn’t quite fit this description, but happily they’re taking it anyway.
And I must say I’m rather enjoying the process. I’ve been able to commission the cover art myself and have been involved at every stage, from typesetting to pricing. I’ve never objected to editorial input to my writing – in fact I’ve rather missed it this time around – but I do have the dubious satisfaction of knowing that it’s all my own work.
It’s still a little frustrating that my book was the victim of a common sense failure. Many publishers now pursue a strategy of series books, since standalone novels are said not to make enough return. This is clearly what has happened with The Cat Kin, yet the sequel was turned down – in defiance of this very logic. Still, the best way to cope with a setback is with positive action, and it feels very good to know that my sequel will finally reach a few readers who would have been denied it. I wrote that cats ‘heed no words nor walls’, and I think that’s good advice right now.
Anyway, The Cat Kin: Cat’s Paw should be up and running, with luck, in the next few weeks. I don’t expect to make a noticeable income from publishing this way, nor do I expect many actual bookshops to stock it (though Amazon will) – but at least I will be laying to rest a mortal fear: that I was to remain a one-book author. Now I must get back to laying to rest my new mortal fear: being a two-book author.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Bathtime parable – Nick Green

Mr E. Blackadder Esq. once described saving French aristocrats from the guillotine as being ‘about as difficult as putting on a hat.’ I can now say with confidence that being a writer is about as difficult as taking off a t-shirt.
Last night I was getting my three-year-old son Oscar ready for his bath. Lately he’s got it into his head that he will do everything, thank you very much, and does not need any help taking off his shirt. All attempts to assist, even the most surreptitious, blind-sided fingertip grip on the seam of his sleeve, to make it easier for him to extricate his arm, is met with screams of apoplectic fury. The only thing to do is stand back and offer the occasion word of advice, and even these don’t go down well. It’s best if you’re not in a hurry, and don’t have, say, broad beans boiling dry on the stove (but that’s another story).
Poor Oscar. He just could not get that t-shirt off. He’d hoist it over his head, dragging it across his face as it changed from pink to crimson, only for it to slip back again. He’d yank on one arm till the stitches popped, but he but couldn’t achieve that crucial elbow-past-the-seam watershed, beyond which, as we smug grown-ups know, t-shirt removal is a formality. At times, both of the above were happening at once, and he was straitjacketed, blundering around the bathroom as if he could somehow outrun his shirt, bashing into things like Winnie the Pooh in the heffalump trap. All the while raging, screaming, sobbing and wailing like a soul in purgatory, while I, his father, stood by and watched.
Oh, it might sound funny now. But let me tell you I was near to tears. Desperate to intervene, I knew that if I did I would simply spark off World War Three-year-old. Oscar, meanwhile, just would not admit defeat. I have never seen such determination. I thought of a bear, in a trap, resolved to gnaw its own limbs off before it gives up. In another minute, he might have bared his milk teeth and done it. But then, finally, he got the t-shirt over his head. Squealing, he twisted it behind his back. One last epic effort, and he shook the short sleeves off his arms, and he was out. Then he slumped down on the bathroom floor and cried.
Oh dear, I thought, swallowing the lump in my throat. It looks as if he’s going to be a writer.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Writing with bite – Nick Green

My favourite scene in the film JAWS doesn’t involve the shark at all. It’s the scene in which Brody, Hooper and Quint are talking in the boat’s cabin. The highlight of their drunken chat is when the macho Quint and the nerdy Hooper are comparing their scars. The irony is that they are surprisingly evenly matched. At first it looks as if Brody can’t join in (Brody with his water phobia is unlikely to have many shark bites to date). But then he tentatively exposes a scar on his torso, only to change his mind and hide it. This fleeting gesture tells a whole story in itself. The scar is (we presume) a gunshot wound from his former life as a city cop, which is what sent him out here to Amity in the first place, in search of a quiet life (oh, the irony). It reminds us that there are sharks on land too, and that Brody is at least equal to his shipmates – in fact he probably outdoes them as a survivor (an important plot point). But crucially, unlike them, he won’t brag about his scar, because he is also a family man and thus values his life more. For him, life and death are a serious business. In short, that single two-second gesture confirms him finally as the hero of the whole piece, the valiant everyman who will slay the monster in the end. The others just don’t have the gravitas.

Moments like this can make up for all the dodgy special effects in the world. It’s something that film directors – and all writers – would do well to remember.