Showing posts with label Rosalie Warren. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rosalie Warren. Show all posts

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Life as a writer - why (oh why) do we do it?

Disappointed writer

 I put this question to myself once every three months or so - usually when things aren't going too well. Why, why, why do I do it? Write, I mean - and all the stuff that goes with it.

I guess it has to be for love or something similar. It's certainly not for money. I've no wish to be a millionaire, though something in the way of royalties and PLR is always welcome. I suppose there's habit in there too. I write because it's what I do. To be honest, I think it's a kind of addiction. If I don't write for more than a few days, I feel dissatisfied and grumpy (just ask my family... though they might claim that I'm sometimes like that when I'm writing, too).

What part of writing, then, am I addicted to? I suppose it's those rare 'first draft' moments when everything goes well - when your characters take hold and run away with the plot and you're left struggling to keep up. For me, it's particuklarly those times when I feel fully tuned in to the thoughts and words (especially the words) of my characters, and I'm evaesdopping on their conversation, racing to get down every word they say. I think that's why I need silence when I write - I can't even stand good music in the background - because anything else distracts me from the voices in my head.

And that joy when you wake in a morning and realise that your brain has solved a knotty plot problem while you slept (though I realise this phenomenon isn't confined to writers). It's always a thrill, to be reminded that your conscious mind play a relatively minor part in what you create, and to realise that the brain has its own concerns you never even dreamt of.

Jumping ahead a few months (or years) - another wonderful thing is those times when your readers, especially children and young adults, tell you that they have read and enjoyed your books. And perhaps even better, when they ask you searching questions that make you realise that they have truly engaged with your characters and themes, perhaps in ways you never anticipated.

But there are also times when the whole process is so discouraging that you wonder why you go on. I'm in one now, in some respects. A project for young readers that I'm involved in is... not so much in peril as changing course, and my role in it may end up being rather different from what I expected. It's disappointing and frustrating, especially as I have no idea when the project will come to fruition. And I feel somewhat flattened - maybe I shouldn't, but I do. It's so easy, as writer, to lose confidence in your abilities. A bad review can run over you like a steamroller, in a way that you would never have expected. Being told by an editor: 'No, that's not what I want...' can take you back to being an eight-year-old at school, being sent away to do your homework all over again.

And, of course, in the early stages of a writer's career (and sometimes in the later stages, too), there are the inevitable knockbacks from agents, publishers, etc. There's the agent who gets all excited by your work and leads you to think she's about to take you on, but then changes her mind.  Even once you're published, there are (or can be, unless you're very lucky), those miserable afternoons sitting at a table in a bookshop, while no one stops to buy. There are the publishers who sign you up and then go out of business - or who decide that your books are not selling in Harry Potter quantities so they are going to pull the plug on you. It's all too depressing to think about.

Etc, etc, etc. Yes, I know that life itself can be a depressing business. And I know that there are (there really are) much more important things in life than publishing contracts. I really do know that! But it doesn't always help as much as perhaps it should.

What I will say, though, is that if you can keep writing when all around you is disappointment and despair, then you may just have it in you to be a writer. Whatever the 'it' is - I'm not quite sure. I suspect it's a kind of madness, but I wouldn't be without it. What's more, I'm very thankful to all those writers of wonderful books who have kept going in the face of discouragement and produced work, maybe, that would never have surfaced otherwise.

So let's take heart and struggle on in our communal craziness. Knowing you are not alone always helps - and I must say that reading this blog is one of the main things that assures me I am not alone and helps me to keep going.

I recently wrote a travesty of Rudyard Kipling's 'If' along these lines, if you'd care to take a peep here.

Best wishes - and don't let anything (or anyone) stop you writing.

Author of Coping with Chloe (age 11+ approx).
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Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Bipolar Characters in Children's and YA Fiction

It's World Mental Health Day today - so what better time to address the subject of mental health in children's and YA books? I'm going to focus on bipolar disorder, because it's a particular interest of mine. But much of what I say can be applied to depression and other mental health conditions.

First of all, let me announce that I'm a sufferer myself from chronic/recurrent depression. Although I've never been diagnosed as bipolar, I do have mood swings and have some idea, at least, of what the highs as well as the lows can be like (the highs in my case may possibly be the result of not getting the levels of medication right - who knows?)

I now believe that my depression started when I was in my teens, though I had no idea what to call it at the time. It was all put down to PMT, though I'm not sure that the term had been invented in the late sixties. The fact that I suffered from it at other times of the month - well, that's easily got around - there's always another period on the horizon somewhere!

Or perhaps it began even earlier, when I was five and my dad disappeared off to Singapore with the RAF and I was terrified for months afterwards that my mum would vanish too. I'm sure my parents did their best, but knowing me, a book would probably have helped, and there weren't books for kids about that sort of thing in those days.

Perhaps I became depressed when bullied at my new school at seven, when I was ostracised because of my 'posh accent'. The memory still brings tears to my eyes and the teachers didn't help.

My depressive episodes, never diagnosed or treated, recurred at intervals of a few years until eventually, in my late twenties and living in Edinburgh with two small children, I took myself off to the GP with stomachache and she had the sense to see that there was something more going on. I was prescribed anti-depressants (which I refused to take on that first occasion) and told to get a part-time job. The part-time job helped. But the depression came back after a couple of years. This time it was worse and I took the medication. I also had counselling and the combination of the two brought joy and colour into my life that I'd forgotten could exist. Just waking up in the morning feeling at peace with myself... free from the self-condemnation, guilt, shame, worry, and all those other horrible things depressed people suffer.

Since then, I've had further episodes, often but not always associated with times of difficulty and stress in my life. I still fear my depression and try to make sure I don't get too busy or stressed out - but it hits me from time to time. I'm adept these days at recognising the early warning symptoms. I have medication on hand and don't delay in visiting my GP. In fact my depression these days is like my bad back in some ways - I know that if I'm sensible I have less of a chance of setting it off - but there's always the possibility that something (or nothing) will trigger it. And I have to accept that I'll have down times when I can't do very much.

I'm very lucky in one respect, though. I have never been too depressed to read. I have several favourite books I turn to when I feel bad. William Styron's memoir Darkness Visible is one of them - where the great American author describes his own experience of depression. I'm not sure why it helps me, but it does. Perhaps it's just the putting into words of some of my own dreadful thoughts. The 'I'm not the only one' feeling. Whatever it is, I am so grateful to William Styron for writing it.

Anyway - children's books. I decided a few days ago to compile a list of characters in fiction who have bipolar disorder. Of course, it's difficult to be sure, if you go back very far, because the condition wasn't sufficiently understood. I asked for suggestions from various friends, contacts and writers' groups, as well as trying to come up with some of my own. I was partly interested in which books came to people's minds - i.e. the ones that had made a lasting impression. Thanks to all who contributed, I now have a list - and for the purposes of this blog I will restrict it to novels for children and YA.

This is my list, in no particular order (further suggestions most welcome).

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
A Note of Madness by Tabitha Suzuma
A Voice in the Distance by Tabitha Suzuma
My Mum's from Planet Pluto by Gwyneth Rees.
Red Shift by Alan Garner 
Boneland by Alan Garner (though I'm told this is not strictly a children's/YA book)
***Mental by Sherry Ashworth
Girl, Aloud by Emily Gale

*** Mental is actually about schizophrenia, I realise now I've read it, but I'm leaving it on the list as it's a very good book.

Remember, these are for children/YA and I've restricted the condition to bipolar (except for Sherry Ashworth's Mental - see above). And I certainly don't claim that the list is complete. Nor have I read them all (yet). I'm currently enjoying Gwyneth Rees's My Mum's from Planet Pluto, which I'd strongly recommend. But I can't help noticing how few titles there are...

It concerns me that there aren't more. I said earlier that it would have helped me, as a child, if I'd been able to read about someone like me. I'm pleased to say that books for children featuring other kinds of conditions and disabilities are growing in number (though we still need more). We need, in my opinion, both issue-tackling books and books that treat the condition as a background thing - not the focus of the book but something one of the characters just happens to have.

It's the same with mental health. We need children's/YA books that delve deep into the condition (in a way appropriate for the target age-group, of course). But we need characters in books who just happen to have bipolar disorder (or depression or schizophrenia, etc) too. We need books that treat these conditions with gentle humour - combined, of course, with respect. I can laugh at my depression, at least some of the time. Often humour is part of the way we come to terms with things. We need books with 'heroic' endings (character overcomes all the challenges) and ones that are more true to life, while always offering hope. And in order to get this variety - we need LOTS MORE BOOKS. Sorry to shout, but we do.

So come on, children's authors... and publishers. By the time World Mental Health Day comes round next year, let's see a lot more books for children, YA (and adults) on the subject of bipolar disorder and, more generally, on mental health.

I believe there's a role for many of us in helping to remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions that, almost unbelievably, is still present in our society today.

We all have minds, after all, just as we all have backs.

Happy reading

Note: My own contribution to the bipolar list has just come out. It's for adults and it's called Alexa's Song. You can see it on Amazon UK and download it for Amazon Kindle for £2.54.

My blog, Rosalie Reviews
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Friday, 7 September 2012

A Grimy Literary Heritage and a Small Pink Potty

Last week, my longsuffering partner Paul and I got stuck into the backbreaking and heartrending task of clearing my parents' loft, after the sad death of my dad in June.

I was staggered to discover that my parents appear to have kept everything they ever owned and everything that belonged to me as a child - toys, books, clothes, schoolwork, exam papers, posters... All the stuff I thought had disappeared long ago and now resided only in my memory was suddenly spread out before me in all its dusty, grimy (lack of) glory... evoking a range of emotions I can't begin, just yet, to describe.

Some of it, I would far rather not have seen. My memories had been clear and colourful, but these remnants were old and decaying, bringing it home to me just how many years it is since I played with that toy dog with the now-crumbling head.

The books, though... It was good to be reminded of the things I read as a child. Although some of them I would now regard as rubbish, they all helped me develop a love of reading and a desire to write. I'd kept a selection of my favourites anyway, but here were more... dozens of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School Books reprinted by Armada Press (half a crown a each from W.H. Smith's - that's where my pocket money went every week). Pony books by the dozen, my favourites being the Jill series by Ruby Ferguson. These had the advantage of being funny as well as stuffed with horses. She was a witty writer and I think they will bear reading again. The school stories - Malory Towers and St Clare's - of Enid Blyton, which I see are now in print again, with several new ones to fill in the missing years (what happened in the third year at St Clare's that Enid Blyton could never bring herself to write about? I always wondered, and now, it seems, I have the chance to find out...)

My all-time favourites were, and still are, the William books by Richmal Crompton. I discovered my first one, William the Conquerer, in a musty box of old books in the store cupboard of my classroom at school. This was for the kids who finished their classwork early. 'Go and find yourself a book to read.' It was a depressing-looking collection. None had jackets, all were ancient hardbacks dating back, as likely as not, to the 1930s - the depths of pre-history when my parents were at school. I thought William The Conquerer was a boring old history book and I don't know what made me look inside and start reading. Perhaps the Thomas Henry illustrations caught my attention. Whatever it was, I never looked back, and was delighted to discover how many William books there were. And Richmal Crompton very thoughtfully continued to bring out a new one for me every year, right up to 1969, when I believe she died. Now that's commitment to one's readership...

Not long after this, I discovered Frank Richards and his Billy Bunter books, set in Greyfriars School where the boys only ever seemed to study Latin, lucky things. These tales were funny, too. They were set in a world of tuck shops, prep and dorms almost unimaginably different from my own, but they were about 'real people' nonetheless, as opposed to goblins, fairies and trolls. I always preferred my fiction to be realistic and, in the main, still do, though I was willing to make an exception for Tove Jansson's Moomins (who are real people, after all).

Anyway, what has come out of the this trip down memory lane (or up memory loft) for me is a reminder of where my intense love of books began. I lived in a house full of them, which was a great help, and spent hours of my life, as an only child, immersed in made-up worlds. Very few of those worlds were anything like my own. I never went to boarding school and (much to my regret) never had a pony. Nor did I have brothers, sisters and cousins who took me off on holidays to have adventures. Today I still like books that take me into unfamiliar worlds, as long as the characters are recognisably people like myself. And the books I love best are the ones where you can tell that the author absolutely loved writing them. And you can tell. Kids can tell, grown-ups can tell. A novel can be about anything at all as long as the writer loved his or her subject and wrote because they desperately wanted to. That's worth remembering, when I write my own.

Finally, in case you're wondering about the title - one of the last things we unearthed from 50-odd years of stuff in my parents' loft was a small pink plastic potty. Somewhat worryingly, I can just about remember using it. Let's say I have very early memories, as opposed to being tardy on the toilet-training front...

It was good to laugh, anyway, in among the sadness, as well as to be reminded of the little girl who loved books and still does.

Best wishes,

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Thursday, 2 August 2012

Swimming the Daily Mile - Ambition at 57?

I don't want you to think I really swim a mile - or even half a mile - every day, as I did for a time when I was at school (well, every weekday, pretty much). I still enjoy swimming but my Olympic ambitions did not last long. I got as far as swimming for my (smallish) town, was beaten by the girl from Castleford, and that was pretty much it. Even if I'd had the talent, I don't think I'd ever have had the resolve and determination to do all that training day after day.

Like many others, I'm currently enjoying the Olympic Games and especially the swimming - marvelling at the performances, the dedication, the sportsmanship and the articulate interview responses of these inspirational youngsters.

My swimming ambitions fizzled out long ago but I do still have ambition of a kind, at least where my writing is concerned. In these last few weeks - a time of reflection following the sad and sudden death of my father - I've been trying to work out what ambition means, if anything, when you reach the age of 57. What exactly do I hope to achieve by all this writing I do every day? Is it really just a hobby, like going for an early morning swim or dabbling my feet (when I get the chance) in the sea? No, I think I'm fuelled by something more powerful than that - but what am I pointing myself towards?

I thought I was aiming to earn enough from my books (some hope?) to buy myself a little seaside retreat. But, as it turns out, my wonderful father, who never earned a high salary in his life but never spent much either and invested wisely, has left me enough to make this dream come true. So, all being well, I will have my seaside hideaway, which I hope to share with family and friends. But where does that leave my writing ambitions? Intact, I'm sure of that, but the question remains - why I am working so hard?

It's not for fame, I know that much. I'm old enough to know that fame is not what Rosalies like best (not this one, anyway). Not that I've ever experienced it, but you know what I mean. I hate attention, being stared at, having my photo taken, being expected to behave in certain ways and having things to live up to. Nor is it for money, since I'm also old enough to know that fortunes bring troubles of their own.

I suppose it all boils down to wanting to write the best books I can - and wanting people to read them. I think my deepest ambition is to go on being active, both mentally and physically, for as long as I possibly can. And never to stop trying something new, especially where my writing is concerned.

Alongside that is a wish to be part of something wonderful - something that involves inspiring young people both to read and write. When I hear youngsters enthusing over books - and when I see them having a go at writing for themselves - it makes me happier than just about anything else. Yes, of course it's extra special if they like my books and engage with my characters, but, leaving ego aside, to be part of the tradition (beautifully enacted in that Olympic opening ceremony) of writing for children and YA - is a wonderful privilege. So I guess my ambition has to be to try to find better ways to connect with my readers through my books, and maybe to get some children reading who might not otherwise have thought of it. And to try to support, as well as be supported by, other writers, teachers, librarians, publishers, etc, who are doing the same. Not very original, perhaps, but enough to keep me going for as many years as I have left!

So I will continue to write my daily mile, and try to keep up the swimming too.

Happy reading, writing, swimming, whatever you enjoy!

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My YA novel - 'Coping with Chloe'
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Monday, 21 May 2012

When Writers Play - by Rosalie Warren

How often do you play? In your work, I mean? In your writing, if that's what you do?

Most writers start out, I think, by 'playing' at writing - however young or old we may be at the time. In those early days, writing is probably a hobby - perhaps an escape from real life in the form of a dull or demanding job and/or a challenging home life. At the beginning, we are often bursting with enthusiasm and ideas, and what we lack is the space, time and (perhaps) expertise to get them into shape.

If we persevere and have a hefty dose of luck, we may end up earning something for our efforts. In the past, if not so much so today, some writers could make a part-time or even a full-time career out of it. If they were very lucky, they might even become rich, though of course most never did, however good they were.

The danger is that as our writing careers progress, it's so easy to lose that intial sense of fun and play. Writing becomes the thing we have to do - either to please a publisher or even just ourselves. I'm all in favour of self-discipline - the 'sit down at your desk at 9am (if only!) so the muse knows where to find you' and the 'minimum word count per day' frame of mind. Mostly, these things work for me. But it's when I lose that sense of play that trouble looms.

I've experienced this before, way back in another life, when I studied for a PhD and then became a researcher and, eventually, a university lecturer. As a student, my research was mostly fun. OK, I was lucky - I know that PhDs can sometimes be a terrible slog. But I happened upon a topic that fascinated me, had a good supervisor and made encouraging progress from the start. My main problem was combining this with caring for two young children. Not easy, but still, on the whole, satisfying and fun.

The fun continued when I gained an EPSRC research fellowhip for three years to do postdoctoral research. In fact that was eaiser, as it was actually a 2-year fellowship spread out over three years, which suited me fine.

The trouble started after that. My marriage broke up, which didn't help. I spent a year looking for a job in the city where my ex worked so my children could see us both. After months of struggling to get by, doing tutoring and gardening and PhD supervision, often all at the same time (well, in the same morning, anyway), I managed to get a lectureship at a unviersity. Perfect - except that I was now so busy, with several hours' commuting each day, a high teaching load, masses of admin, supervising students, giving pastoral advice, etc etc etc - my research slid into the back seat. It was no longer fun - and all my creativity dried up. It became something I had to do - in order to keep my job - and something I had to do well. In the odd hour or so between other commitments, I had to come up with earth-shaking new projects and theories. Hmmm....

The human brain just doesn't work that way. Or mine doesn't. A move south (the children older now) and a new job helped a bit at first, but the pattern was soon reestablished and the commute even longer. What's more, I now had an invalid mother-in-law waiting for me with all her demands when I got home - and two teenage step-children. Then my mother died and my father (110 miles away) became very ill. Something had to give and it was my health. I had a breakdown and was very lucky to be offered early retirement on a small pension, which put me in a position (just) of being able to fulfil my lifelong dream and spend my time writing.

That was wonderful - and still is. But just recently, six years on, writing has begun to feel like work. Like something other people expect of me, rather than a game I play because it's fun. And yes, there's bound to be some of this. I have obligations to my publisher and I want to help and encorage other writers as much as I can. And anything worthwhile is sometimes sheer hard slog. But I'm very wary of losing that sense of play.

Last week, after a month or so of hard work, I decided to give myself a few days off. Just a couple of days' messing about at home, not trying to do any writing at all. I even gave myself permission to stay in bed all day (bliss!) Catching up on reading, listening to Radio 4, dozing on and off...

Heaven. And then, after an hour or so of this, a little idea popped up, which I hastily scribbled down. After half an hour's scribbling I got out of bed and transferred it to my computer.

I kept writing until 11.30pm and at the end of the day I'd done 6500 words (very unusual for me! Possibly an all-time record. Usually 2K a day is my maximum for new work).

It all goes to show - take the pressure off and the ideas will bubble up. Maybe not always, but often.

Of course, finding time to play is not easy, for many people. But if we can - and if we can give ourselves, even occasionally, whole mornings or whole days just to mess around, with permission not to produce anything - who knows what might happen?

Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.
— Heraclitus 500 BCE, philosopher

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.
—Carl Jung

Happy playing!
Best wishes

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Saturday, 14 April 2012

When in Doubt, Rave About the Moomins

I think it's quite a good piece of guidance for life in general, but it's certainly useful for those times when you suddenly notice that you're supposed to be writing a blog post for Saturday and you forgot to start thinking of possible topics in plenty of time.

So I will rave about the Moomins. Just in case you don't know them, they are a family of cuddly and intriguing trolls, created by the Finnish author Tove Jansson back in the 1940s and still delighting children and adults all over the world (including me) today.

Many of the books I loved as a child disappoint me when I go back to read them now. That's not necessarily a fault of the books; it can simply be a matter of intended audience. It always surprises and delights me when books do stand the test of time; especially the test of growing up. 

I often tell myself I read for entertainment and escapism, to alleviate boredom, supply companionship and enjoy language. All those things are true. But I think the main reason I read (and always did) is to discover the magic formula for living. I still haven't found it, I know that much. It's what some people call an instruction manual, a kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to Life, but it's far more than that. Or it would be, should it exist. It would assure me of my place in things. Not too big a place - crushed by responsibility - but not too small, either. The bed and the bowl of porridge that are 'just right'.

So at times when I'm despairing of ever finding a way to accept myself, or when I doubt that the mush I call myself is even worth accepting, it's very important to have the right book - or series - to hand. The Moomins fit that bill. There's a central family: Moominpappa, Moominmamma and their son Moomintroll. They are smooth and round and covered in white, velvety fur. On a bad-weight day, that's exactly how I'd like to look. Tummies are fine in Moomin Valley. In fact, any size or shape or colour or hair/fur-type or personality is fine. You can disappear for months on end like Moomintroll's pal Snufkin, and turn up on the first day of spring to a wondrously warm welcome. You can hibernate all winter, presumably missing Christmas (hurray!) You can be brash and noisy like the Hemulen, a thoughtful philospher or a mischievous child  like Little My.

Life can be dangerous in Moomin Valley and beyond: this is not happy-ever-after land. There are always threats lurking - earthquakes, comets, tidal waves, floods, volcanoes and avalanches. The Hattifatteners, despite their name, are seriously scary electrically-charged beasties thtat grow from the ground in thunderstorms. There's a most unpleasant Groke, who sits on everyone and everything to try to warm herself, squashing the life out of you in the process.

Tove Jansson's love of nature, the sea, boats, landfalls and the offshore islands of her native land permeate these books. That's one of the reasons they work for grown-ups, too. But the main reason they work for me, I think, is that I just know that if I were to turn up in Moomin Valley one sunny April day, Moominmamma would put another leaf-plate on the table and tell me to sit down. I could find my own place in that extended family, which might include spending whole days or weeks alone but knowing there'd be a big velvety cuddle waiting for me when I needed it.

That's my definition of heaven, I think...

These books are inspired and if you, you children and your grand-children haven't discovered them yet, then you have a lifetime of treats in store, so dive in.