Showing posts with label Susan Price. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Susan Price. Show all posts

Monday, 20 June 2016

Well. Hello... by Susan Price and Andrew Price

Oh - ha-ha! Nice talking to you guys!
      The croc and the tiger, ladies and gentlemen, from The Runaway Chapati.


The Runaway Chapatti

                                       Words by Carnegie Medal winner Susan Price                                                                  Illustrations by Adam Price. 


                                     UK                                                     US



 Art work for this blog by Andrew Price 


Interview With The Troll - Susan Price and Andrew Price



(Conforms to American spelling.)

Goodbye! - Susan Price and Andrew Price

It's been wonderful having you all join me here, folks - but there's been so much happening, it's been hard to keep up.
        Let's join our roaming camera for a round-up...

Inside the janitor's broom cupboard...

 At The Front Entrance...

Inside, At The Party...

Speeches - The Troll Thanks Everyone...

The Goats' 45 minute speech on why everyone should vote Green...

Back Outside, At The Door

Back Inside, On The Dance-Floor...

As the music ends...

That's all, folks!

           Goodbye!      Bye-bye, darlings!   Goodbye!    Bye-eeee!

Goodbye Everyone!

 Thank You For Joining Us! 


(Conforms to American spelling.)

The Runaway Chapatti

Tinku Tries To Help

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A WRITING TUTOR IN MY LAPTOP: Susan Price interviewed by Penny Dolan

For some months, my current writing project's been in a cold empty place. Then, explaining the plot in a pub to a play-writing friend, I suddenly saw how to re-imagine the setting of that last blocked third.  The wretched WIP may be coming to life again. 

Why did it take so long for me to see it? Mostly because it is quite hard to find both a good listener and good advice. A novel is bigger and longer than a chapter book, a picture book text or a folio of poems. I had no constant writing buddy or critique group on hand and even the courses at Arvon or Ty Newyydd seemed too general for what I needed.

During this time, I’d mulled about professional writing advice - the kind of services offered by Nicola Morgan, Emma Darwin and others - but felt way too wary. What was involved for the writer and the tutor? How did the process look from the other side? 

This post is an answer to such questions and. I’m really pleased to be interviewing author Susan Price, who is an award-winning writer and an experienced writing tutor. 
Susan Price signed her first professional contract with Faber at 16, and has earned her living as a writer ever since. 

Her best known books are The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize, and The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal. 

She has taught creative writing in schools and colleges, and recently spent three very successful years at a university, as Royal Literary Fund Fellow, helping anyone who wanted to consult her, students or staff, to improve their writing skills.

You have helped students with essays and writers with novels, Sue. So I’m wondering if you find any similarity between the needs of the essay writer and the fiction writer? And how does this relate to the RLF?

Susan Price:
There’s far more similarity than I would have guessed when I started at De Montfort as a RLF Fellow. I soon saw that students struggling to write an essay or thesis face almost exactly the same problems as a writer struggling with a novel or play.

I think this is largely why the RLF Fellowship scheme is so successful. Writers have spent their lives struggling with these problems but – because it’s all part of the creative drive for them, and not just a chore – they’ve tackled them inventively and with verve.

Every writer comes up with their own solution but – as writers discover when they meet – they’ve often found solutions that are broadly similar, and have tested them to destruction on book after book. So when struggling students come to RLF Fellows, who are all professional writers, they come to someone who loves writing, who is practiced and fluent in writing, and has often already faced down any problem the student brings them.

The RLF sounds a very worthwhile service.  Are there any particular problems that both students and writers struggle with?

Susan Price:
From my own experience, and from seeing students, I’d say ‘writer’s block’ is a big one. Wanting to write, needing to write, but just not able to force yourself to do it. Fretting and pacing, chewing nails and pens and keyboards, feeling sick but still not getting a word written. I think every writer knows that feeling. It’s a huge waste of energy – and yet, if you can just break through that block, the words often pour out.

The second big problem, and one I saw often at university, was managing masses of material. It might be organising huge amounts of research so you can find the part you want – or the daunting task of pulling out the few relevant bits you need to answer the question, and shaping them into a lucid piece of writing.

Writers may be working on a novel rather than an essay or thesis, but they face exactly the same problems – for instance, this factoid I’ve discovered is fascinating but is it in any way relevant to my story?

Both writers and students often throw themselves on the rug in despair while struggling to turn research into a coherent work.

The third, and probably the biggest, is Structure, Structure, Structure – or, rather, the lack of it. I encountered this lack again and again in student’s work.
Everything else about your work can be outstanding, but if you don’t structure it well, you ruin it. It’s like hanging a beautiful painting in a dark corner, where no one can see it properly..

I saw many students who had managed to bypass writer’s block, and had hacked their way through the research and notes. They’d written their essay, and were despairing and exhausted when it was still marked low. It was nearly always because they’d structured it badly, making it hard to follow. They jumped from point to point, confusing the reader, or made an undiscriminating heap of points instead of structuring them to build a clear argument.

Can you give an example of this?

Susan Price:
Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at a novice writer’s work and finding much the same problems, even though she’s writing a novel. Her book had great characterisation, excellent dialogue with instantly recognisable voices for each character, brilliant and atmospheric scene-setting.

I enjoyed reading it, and often wished I’d written passages – but . . 

Penny: But what? (This isn’t my novel in disguise, by the way!)

Susan Price:
Her structure was faulty. She muffled the impact of many scenes by not preparing for them, and ruined others by telling us too much, too soon. She had scenes where characters wandered about aimlessly with nothing to do, because she hadn’t planned her story-line carefully enough.

How to explain structure? It’s like telling a joke. You don’t tell the punch-line first. And often a joke depends on very careful ordering of words, in order to plant a certain idea before the punch-line disrupts it. This is structure, and a story is much the same.

Once you’ve subdued your mass of research and ideas into more or less the right order, you then have to very carefully fine-tune the opening and ending of every scene, consider every line of dialogue, every hint you give the reader…What information do you give them up-front, what do you hold back? What do you cut, because you don’t want to insult your reader’s intelligence – what do you expand because you haven’t given their imaginations enough?

It’s very hard, and it nips your head! After a few hours of it, you can feel punch-drunk. But this is why writing is an art – it takes time, trouble, thought and the willingness to rewrite something more times than you ever thought you would spend on anything.

Penny: I agree. The writing and re-writing can take such ages and usually has to be struggled through alone..

Susan Price:
It’s very hard – as you know, Penny – to see for yourself exactly what restructuring and rewriting is needed. You get too exhausted with it. You become desensitised to your own writing, and so you pile on detail because you can no longer see that a hint was enough. Or, because you know your own story so well, you can’t see that the reader needs a little more explanation.

Then there are other things to consider, such as word rhythms, dialogue, description, but I’d say that writers’ block, rough-shaping large, daunting amounts of material, and the fine structuring are the three biggest bogie-beasts faced by novice-writers.

And I can help people overcome them all. I have done!

Penny: A satisfying feeling. But not everyone is able to travel long distances to meet a writing tutor. How effective do you think distance tutoring can be?

Susan Price:
Well, the Open University (OU) has been doing it very effectively since the 1960s! And I think most universities these days have distance learning courses.

Certainly, as an RLF, I saw foreign students who made appointments to see me as part of a short trip to the UK. They were living and working abroad, but taking a distance learning course. My cousin, for instance, did an MA with the OU in the UK, while living and working in Switzerland. He attended ‘virtual lectures’ on-line.

Penny:  I like the sound of virtual lectures, especially with the shorter days and how much frost there was on the car this morning. Online does have the advantage of being time-efficient for the busy student.. How exactly does the online process work with you?

Susan Price:
After our initial contact, writing students email me their texts, without any postage costs or using up expensive printer ink. As the tutor, I add notes and comments in Word, and email it back, again without any costs in postage or ink.

Additionally, using Skype, I can talk to students, using computer to computer software, so they only have to pay for my time and experience. Student and tutor can even talk face to face using Skype and web-cam, if they don’t mind looking ropey! This isn’t a beauty-contest, after all.

Also, it’s even possible, with a little fiddling, to use a shared Dropbox file, for both student and tutor to look at the same piece of writing at the same time. A high-speed broadband connection would be needed for this, and you need to log-off and log-on again to see any changes made in the shared folder – but it takes seconds.

Penny: And the tutoring is there, set up, ready for whenever a student or writer needs help, without any term-time boundaries? That’s a definite point in favour of online tutoring and mentoring as well as the way it can be shaped to the needs of the writer and the writing.

Thank you, Sue, for sharing your experiences on Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

You can find more about the writing critique service Susan Price offers at

 Penny Dolan

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Kindles and Kids' Books - Susan Price and Katherine Roberts

KATH:  You were the first person to sign up with Amazon for Kindle, weren't you? So maybe you should start...

SUE:  I think it’s arguable which of us became interested in Kindling first.  I remember talking with you years ago about writers being pushed into self-publishing by the way things were going in the publishing industry.  We’d both seen what had happened in the music industry, and it seemed plain – to us anyway – that the publishing industry would go the same way.
            I remember suggestions that the Scattered Authors’ Society become a co-operative publisher, and people saying, ‘We should write and let publishers publish!’ – things like that.  But publishers weren’t publishing many of us.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Susan Price: Weaving

Desperate for a subject on which to blog, I ventured to offer hints and tips on how to write. After all, after 35 years of earning my living doing it, I thought I might know a bit about it.

Well, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Just call me a fool.

Thinking about what writers do when they write and rewrite a book has left me even more awe-struck with admiration for the books I love than I was to begin with, and astounded at my own audacity in even attempting it.

Just consider even some of the elements that go to make up a book.


All the time you're writing a book, you're dealing with one or more of these things, balancing them, weaving them together... Because although you can consider them singly, none of them really exist singly. They are, all and each, influenced by all and each.

It's often said that 'characters take over' a book, but that's not entirely true. If the characters really take over, then your plot pin-wheels off in all kinds of directions and breaks apart. The characters have to be characters necessary for the story being told – so plot influences character. It works the other way, of course – the characters have to seem alive and spontaneous, and following a character rather than your carefully planned plot-line can often improve a book. But they work together – characters drive plot, and plot shapes characters.

There are books written on Dialogue, and classes taught on it, as if it's something that exists by itself. Dialogue should always be natural and spontaneous – except, of course, when it's deliberately heightened and theatrical, for effect. The language of a particular character might be affected by their personality, age, background, job, nationality – and, of course, by their current situation and the other characters in a scene. You don't use the same words or manner to your boss as you do to your pet or a close relative.

Having taken all this into account, it may still be that the page of excellent dialogue you've written has no place in your book. It's natural and spontaneous. It reveals character – but does it, at the same time, further the plot? Do we need to know more about the characters at this point? Has this page of dialogue a strong enough reason for existing in your book?

Ditto description and atmosphere. Why have you chosen this setting, and why are you bothering us with these several paragraphs describing it? Does it serve a purpose in the book as a whole, or are you just enjoying the adjectives?

As a practiced driver uses pedals and gear-stick and wheel and indicators without having to think about it, I imagine that most practiced writers don't stop every moment of their working day to agonise about how the plot is shaping character while the characters is driving plot, and dialogue is revealing character and furthering plot, and the descriptions are aiding the theme... They just get on with the writing and then, later, cut out every passage that isn't multi-functional.

The more I consider it, the more I feel like the centipede which, when asked, 'Which leg goes after which?' lay distracted in a ditch, considering how to run.

So, distracted, I sign off, and go to learn again how to run. This is my last blog for a while..

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting Part II


As promised, I have cudgelled the brains over my student's question: How do you know what parts to rewrite? How do you know what words to change?

There are, I've concluded, two levels to rewriting: the big and the small.

The big takes in the whole of the book or story – never mind this or that word, does the whole thing work?

The small concentrates on words, sentences, paragraphs at most.

So, to begin small...

One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever came across was: Read your work aloud. It's a good idea to train yourself to hear a voice speaking the words in your head, even if you're reading or writing silently. This helps you to 'hear' the rhythms and stresses even as you invent the words - but it doesn't replace reading aloud.

Feeling your lips, tongue and throat shaping the words you've written, and hearing them, forces you to concentrate on every syllable, on rhythms, and on the sense. Reading by eye alone, you can skim through sentences, and even whole paragraphs if you're a very fluent reader (as writers tend to be). You can miss the small details of sound.

But words are, ultimately, meant to be spoken, not read. Poetry, as a poet once told me, is rhythm, not rhyme – and rhythm is sound.

But, when I rewrite, what am I listening for? How do I know which words to change?

Well, I consider if my words are easy to say, and pleasing to hear. The twelfth Leith Policeman dismisseth us. Beware of such jaw-breakers. What the eye reads easily may be a clog to the tongue – and I want that talking-book deal. So if I catch myself writing a tongue-twister, I rewrite it.

I'm on the listen-out for repeated sounds that jar. 'My keel coursed cruel care-halls - ' The Anglo-Saxons were keen on alliteration, and if consciously done for effect, it can be wonderful. But if I've repeated sounds through carelessness, and it's spoiling the rhythmn or sound, I change the wording

Are the words I've chosen the best ones for the job I wanted them to do? English is crammed with words that are close in meaning, but have their own nuances, weights, textures and colours. 'Amble' has a clumsier and more endearing sound than 'stroll'. 'Lope' is quite different from either. 'Smirk' has very different connotations from 'smile' or 'giggle'. Is there another word that's a closer fit for my meaning? That means the same, but has a better sound or stress for that sentence? Or has a sound that better fits the sense?

Do the sentences have a good natural rhythm? Reading them aloud makes this obvious. Am I running out of breath before reaching the end of the sentence, or the next natural pause? Does the sentence have the natural swing of speech's rise and fall? When I read it aloud, does the stress fall on the most important words – the words I really want people to hear? If the answers are 'no', then shorten the sentence, or divide it into two; change the word order, or find other words.

But having said all this about making a sentence easy to read, sometimes I want to make a sentence clumsy or difficult. If I'm describing drudgery, then I want the words I use to be slow, awkward, clumsy, tired. I might want the sound and rhythmn of my words to reflect the sleek quickness, the harshness or the cold of their sense. If what I've written doesn't do that, I try to find words that do.

A frequent consideration is whether the phrase I've used is a cliché – a phrase too over-used and stale to make the reader stop and think about the sense. It isn't easy to avoid cliches, and I am certainly guilty of using them often. For one thing, they're often true – as white as snow, as cold as ice. But I am honour bound to try. So I give the brains another pummel, and see if I can come up with something fresher.

Finally, I check if I mean what I've said. Words can get away from you. A friend of mine, a teacher, once read in a pupil's exercise book: 'I was lying on the settee watching the telly eating peanuts.' She wrote in the margin: 'My telly prefers chocolate.' But it's all too easy, in a moment of carelessness, to mangle your grammar, and say something you never meant to say. So I watch out for this kind of slip and – rewrite it.

Enough for one posting. I don't imagine for a moment that I've said all there is to say on this subject, but something like this goes through my head when I'm rewriting. I'd welcome any additions and expansions – even corrections.

But I hope I've gone some way towards answering my student's question: 'When you rewrite, how do you know what words to change?'

In my next post, you lucky people, I'll consider the book or story as a whole. Unless someone else wants to do it?

Friday, 6 February 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Rewriting

When I was a child, our house was littered with drawings, on used, opened-out envelopes, or old wallpaper, and even drawing-pads. My brother drew dinosaurs or battles (and battling dinosaurs), my sister drew swimming seals or people, and my father's drawings were usually of aeroplanes or birds.

They all had one thing in common: there would be repeated attempts at the drawings. My Dad, for instance, would do a sketch of the whole plane, and then, underneath, another drawing of its undercarriage, and another of its wings. He hadn't been happy with the first drawing, so he practiced the bits he felt needed improving. Turn the paper over, and there would be another, larger, better drawing of the whole plane.

These sketches taught me something without my ever realising I'd learned anything at all - 'You won't get things right the first time, so repeat them until you do'.

My own drawings were usually of people. As a child, I drew far more than I wrote; in my early teens, I drew and wrote about equally. After my first book was accepted, when I was sixteen, writing took over from drawing (and I haven't seriously drawn anything for about thirty years now). But the lesson that I never knew I'd learned moved with me from drawing to writing. If I wasn't happy with something I'd written, I rewrote it – and if I still wasn't happy, I rewrote it again, and again, many times if need be, until I thought I couldn't improve it any more.

I didn't think I was doing anything noteworthy. Rewriting was part and parcel of writing. It was just what you did; as much a part of writing as using a pen.

Years passed, and, in the way of impoverished writers, I started teaching Creative Writing. But between you and me, gentle reader, I was puzzled as to what 'Creative Writing' was exactly. And even more puzzled as to what I could teach my students. If I had ever stopped to think about what I did when I wrote a book, I couldn't remember doing it.

I consulted a few 'How to Write' books, to find out what those authors told their students, and it was enlightening. “Oh, I do that! Who'd have thought it?” I resolved only to steal those 'creative writing' tips that I could honestly say I used myself. (So you'll hear only a perfunctory mention in my classes about keeping notebooks, or meditating, or doing ten minutes of 'automatic writing' every morning.) My classes were about setting scenes, writing dialogue, building plots. It never occurred to me to tell anyone to rewrite, because to me rewriting was writing. I didn't think anyone would need to be told that.

Slowly, over weeks, it became apparent to me that the idea of rewriting had never, ever occurred to many – not just a few, but many – of my students. A lot of them seemed to think it was cheating. A real writer, they seemed to think – Thomas Hardy, let's say – just sat down and wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles straight off, from beginning to end, never blotting a word; and then he packed it off to his publishers who printed it without asking for a single change. That's the kind of genius he was. That's the way a real writer works.

If my students wrote a story, and found themselves dissatisfied with it, they concluded that it was another failure, put it away, and tried to forget about it. The next thing they wrote, that might be perfect.

“Couldn't you,” I suggested nervously, not at all sure I was on firm ground here, “couldn't you rewrite it?”

They were astonished. But they'd finished it! And it wasn't any good. What was the point of wasting more time on it?

“But nothing I've ever written,” I said, “was much good in its first draft. But if I like the idea – if there are bits that are good – I rewrite it, and improve it. I've rewritten some things dozens of times over. I rewrote the whole of GHOST DRUM six or seven times, and I rewrote the ending many more times than that.”

Some of the class were quite excited by this revolutionary idea. Others were as plainly horrified, reminding me of a little girl in Year 4 of a school I once visited. Her story was so good, I told her, that she should rewrite it. The look she gave me would have reduced a lesser writer to a pair of smouldering boots.

But having belatedly realised that rewriting was actually a tool of the writer's trade that I'd never before suspected I was using, I became evangelistic about it. “Rewrite!” I cried to each new intake of students. “You must rewrite!”

And then one of my students stopped me in my tracks by asking, “But how do I know what parts I have to rewrite? How do I know which words I should change?”

Well – er – quite. Obviously, these are the technical complexities Jordan was referring to when she spoke of her ghost writer 'putting it into book words'. When a writer, like wot I am, takes the raw first draft and puts it into book words, what exactly is it I are doing?

I hadn't a clue. Look, I only write the stuff – I don't waste my time thinking about it, any more than a ditch-digger thinks much about ditch-digging. She just heaves another shovel-ful of mud.

But there were my students, waiting for an answer. So I gave thinking about it a try. And boy, did my brain hurt...

To be continued....

Thursday, 15 January 2009

SUSAN PRICE: Short Stories

I was on the cross-trainer at the gym, listening to music on my little zen-stone, when a song prompted a short story to drop into my head.

I find it's like that with short stories. Putting a novel together takes an age. You research the background, come up with characters, name them (always difficult), invent histories for them, thrash out a plot, change the plot, change the characters, start again... A novel, for me anyway, is constructed over months, even years – bashed together from odd bits and pieces. I always think of a full length book as being 'under construction' or 'up on the stocks'.

A short story tends to arrive almost complete. I suppose that's because it's short. Often there's no need even to name the characters. I may not know the exact words I'm going to frame it in, but I have the whole span of the story, its mood, its imagery, sometimes even the way it's going to be told – in the first person, say, or in a series of short, disconnected scenes.

I'm usually aware of a novel putting itself together. I remember the initial idea, I know when I decided to include this character, and that incident. I remember deciding to drop that whole section, and the reasons why. But a short story often seems to have come from nowhere. One moment I'm sweating on the cross-trainer, thinking of nothing in particular – the next second, there's a story. And it does seem as if some inner light-bulb has illuminated the inside of my head.

When I sit down to write the story, there's a lot of hard concentration and revision – this isn't automatic writing I'm talking about – but the work focusses on the arrangement of words in a sentence, or to what degree I can pare the narrative down before it becomes incomprehensible. With a novel the work covers a far wider range – research, say, or the sheer logistics of getting character B to a particular place, at a particular time, so s/he can encounter character D.

I suppose I'm saying that, for me, a novel is about plotting and a short story is about language. (I keep saying 'for me' because I'm very aware that it might be different for another writer).

I can clearly remember the arrival of some stories. I was watching the film 'Silent Tongue', in which a simpleton boy, played by River Phoenix, is mourning his dead wife, an Indian squaw. Her body, wrapped in a blanket, has been lodged in a tree, for the birds to pick clean. The boy, unable to understand that she is dead, sits under the tree, on guard, driving the birds away with shots from his rifle. The woman's ghost appears to him, haranguing him for keeping her tied to her body – she can't travel on to the other world until her body has disappeared.

My head is so stuffed with old stories and songs that they leak out of my ears. As I watched this part of the film, the words of the old ballad leaped into my head: 'Who lies weeping on my grave and will not let me sleep?' I was seized with the idea of writing my own version of this old song. I pared it down to almost nothing but dialogue, and then realised that I could make the title work as well. I called it 'Overheard In A Graveyard', and so was able to cut all description or even mention of the setting. The finished story is told entirely in dialogue. The two voices aren't even given genders – they could be male and female, or both male, or both female. You decide.

'What is Longing made of, that it never wears out?
Bone breaks. Rock wears away to sand. In this dark rain, hard iron falls to rust.
Razors blunt. But Longing's edge still cuts deep... '

Published by Hodder in my book, 'NightComers'
The whole story can be read on my website at

I used a similar title for 'Overheard In A Museum', (unpublished as yet) which came when I fulfilled a childhood ambition to visit the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and stood beside the Gokstad ship. The museum is within sight and sound of the Oslo Fjord, where the ship must once have sailed:

'When the doors of the hall open, I smell the sea. I hear it. The pulse of the long-felled oak runs through me, and I feel the sea rush past and under me, and I surge forward to climb the wave. But I never move. I shall never more move...

The most surprising arrival of a story was during the SAS conference last year. My colleague Katherine Roberts (author of I AM THE GREAT HORSE), headed a collage workshop. Under Katherine's instruction, we first had to fix in our minds the kind of story we wanted to write, or the writing problem we wanted to solve. Then we whiffled quickly, at random, through a pile of magazines and, without thinking, ripped out any image or words that caught our attention. After a few minutes of this, we had to look through our bits of paper, and arrange them on a larger sheet to form a collage.

There were about ten professional writers in that room, with glue and paper, and tongues sticking out between teeth. It was, for an SAS conference, a rare few minutes of intense, absorbed silence.

Collages finished, we each had to speak about our own for a few minutes. I had known from the outset that I wanted to write a ghost story. I had chosen a large photograph of a wild moorland area. Over it I had glued a headline that had grabbed my eye: 'Buried in an Unmarked Grave'. There was a photo of a street of old terraced houses, and a dark, dirty flight of steps. But when I had to talk about the collage, I couldn't say much. I said I felt that the flight of steps led down into the underworld, and that someone was buried 'in an unmarked grave' on the moorland, and 'nane shall ken whaur they have gane'. Another colleague, Celia Rees (author of SOVAY), said that it reminded her of a famous murder case.

And then we went for lunch. My room was near where we'd been working, and I tossed the collage on my bed, and sped off to the refectory, for an hour or so of the usual lively SAS chat. I forgot all about the collage, but when I came back to my room at the end of the afternoon, there it was on the bed. The instant I looked at it, Celia's comment and my own thoughts came together and the story 'Carla' was in my head – the characters, the incidents, the mood, the way I would tell it.

I wrote the story about four months ago, and am still tinkering with it, but on the whole, it pleases me well enough. It's unpublished, but I've added it to a collection of new stories that I'm slowly building up, and which may be published one day. (I met my agent today and she told me to send her my stories, as she has a possible sale in mind).

I'll add this latest story to it, when I've written it, if it's any good at all. The song I was listening to on the cross-trainer? 'Cruel Mother' by June Tabor -

She leaned her back against a thorn
All alone and so lonely
And there she has her babies borne
All in the green woods of ivy

She took a knife both long and sharp
All alone and so lonely
And pierced it through each tender heart...
All in the green woods of ivy...

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Susan Price: The Pleasure of Library Visiting...

...Is one pleasure I'd almost forgotten, so I've one thing to thank the credit crunch for.

I'd grown used to buying books, mostly on-line, but now that I really have to find ways of saving money – apologies to fellow authors, but I really do – I'm back to the library again. At least I'm adding to your PLR (Public Lending Rights).

I first joined the library when I was fourteen. Dudley Library, in the West Midlands. A stately Victorian Goddess sat above the door, reading a book. Come to think of it, she's still there, still reading, and good for Her.

It was a different sort of library then. There was a lot of emphasis on silence. And it was no use looking for anything except books, newspapers, and the occasional magazine. I wasn't complaining. I was a book-lover, and I'd never seen so many books in my life. Adult and children's fiction downstairs – and cooking and gardening. Oh, and biography and history, national, international and local.

Upstairs – well. The heavy stuff. Psychology, criminology, sociology. Literary criticism. The reference library. The archives. Ecology. Mathematics. Science. And I had an adult ticket. I could take any book from any of those shelves. It was dizzying.

But hard to make a choice, when I could only take five books. I spent hours in there. In the first years I would walk through the door and look round for the red and yellow books. Because they were science-fiction, weren't they? And I was into sci-fi at the time. Except they weren't science-fiction. They were Victor Gollancz – a firm that happened to publish a lot of science-fiction. I remember being very puzzled the first time I grabbed a red and yellow book that wasn't sci-fi.

What a forcing house for a writer, though. I read every kind of fiction – crime, romance, thriller, kitchen-sink, historical, humourous, shed-loads of fantasy, ghost and sci-fi. Curiosity led me to read a lot of classics: Jacobean tragedies, most of Shakespeare, and, in translation, Classical Greek plays, Tolstoy, Balzac, Sagas, Moliere, Medieval Romances, Beowulf... All for the price of a bus-ride. If I'd had to buy the books, I could never have afforded it.

I read widely in psychology, because I wanted to know how – or why – people tick. Forty-odd years later, I'm none the wiser, but, with the help of these books, I have given it a lot of thought. For the same reason, I read criminology and sociology – with much the same result.

I read books on popular science, and there's nothing like astronomy and quantum physics for making you feel that you must urgently hold your skull together with both hands.

And if any mention of anything caught my interest – well, the library was sure to have books on it.

It was in Dudley library, I well remember, where the man Pratchett first came into my life. I was looking at the shelf of 'recently returned books', as I always did, and there was this book called MORT by someone I'd never heard of. I didn't like the picture on the cover, but read the blurb, then almost put it back because I am naturally suspicious of 'humorous fantasy'. Then I leaned on the shelf and read a few pages – hardly got as far as page 96 – and decided to borrow it.

Well, since then I think I've read everything the man's written, including such titles as STRATA and DARK SIDE OF THE SUN. Something else to thank both Dudley Library and Pratchett for, is that I passed MORT on to my Dad, and he loved it too. For years I bought him the latest Pratchett for Christmas, reading it myself before wrapping it (buying books as presents and then reading them yourself before wrapping them is a strong Christmas tradition in my family). For years me and my Dad discussed the Disk-world, made jokes about it, reminded each other of 'best bits', tried to pinpoint our favourite characters. (Death was always a strong contender, and I hope He came to collect my Dad. They would have got on: they both loved cats).

The library I go to now is very different. It's a small branch library, but it still has ranks of computers; and it loans dvds and computer games as well as books – and sells greetings cards. But there are still, thank whatever gods there be, shelves and shelves and shelves of books, which is really all I'm interested in. (I can get all the internet's sex and violence at home).

I'd forgotten the thrill of scuttling back into my house with a stack of thick, heavy library books, but I'm realising anew how much I love the feeling. It's a bit like having a big box of chocolates to open – all those wonderful flavours and textures, and which one to go for first? The fluffy, light-hearted confection of romance or fantasy? The hard-centred, gritty realism of Rankin's wonderful Rebus, or something by Minette Walters? That rather cloying self-help book with its interesting 'case histories'? The serious book on Iron Age brochs, which fascinate me strangely? Or the one on bog-bodies, some of which are real nightmares. (I don't recommend anyone to look at photos of Grauballe man). I can spend a day or more dipping into the different books, and looking at their illustrations (if any), before deciding which one to start reading.

And when I finish them, there's still a library-full waiting for me!

In fact, I feel a bit of a fool for ever giving up the library. What a truly wonderful, altruistic institution. And what a lot I owe it.

Friday, 28 November 2008

A SECRET(ISH) LOVE - Susan Price

Have you ever, gentle blog-reader, found yourself in one of those giant stores that caters for offices? Have you wandered into the aisle that's lined with paperclips of every hue, size and kind – striped, plastic-covered, metal, circular... Little pots for holding pens. Bulldog clips that would clip bulldogs together. Transparent folders. Box folders. Folders with clips. Folders – sorry, I have to wipe drool away – with a metallic sheen, in silver, green, purple, blue.
There are those little round paper rings for reinforcing the hole in the paper that fits into folders with ring-clips. Somewhere there must be a dynasty, grown rich on the manufacture and sale of little sticky paper rings.
Other aisles are stuffed with envelopes of every colour and size, plain and decorated, padded and unpadded, self-sealing and ones you have to lick. Pens! Oh, the pens. I hardly ever write with a pen anymore, but oh, the allure of the pens. Roller-ball, felt, glitter, calligraphy... With special nibs!
I know it's not just me, or even just writers. My partner has never written anything except his thesis and that was so 'head-nipping' (his term) that it turned him off writing for life. Not long after I met him, I asked him for a lift to a big stationary store, so I could use his car to bring home some heavy boxes of printer paper. In the store a sort of rapture came over him and he drifted from aisle to aisle, examining paper and card of different weights, storage boxes of every kind for storing every kind of thing, rulers, compasses, calculators, coloured inks, ledgers, portfolios (with and without inner pockets)... In a dreamy, wondering voice, he said “I didn't know places like this existed...!” Yet another benefit to him of meeting me. And soon he was returning reguarly, alone, to look at the big set-squares, the highlighter pens and the wall charts.
I have other friends, quite unconnected to writing, to whom I've said, “I just need to nip into the stationary store...” and they've been visibly thrilled. “Oh, I'll come in with you,” they've said, a little too quickly and eagerly. And once through the doors, they've slipped away to finger the mouse-mats and the desk-tidies, perhaps bought themselves a new pencil or a block of post-it notes in that hard-to-come-by shade of chartreuse, which will make them the envy of their work-colleagues.
Why do office supplies have this appeal? Where's the evolutionary basis? In all essentials we are still, we're told, the hunter-gatherers of the Ice Age. It makes sense, then, that the sight of three red deer stags picking their way past me to reach a river should rivet me to the spot. That's food, clothing and tools, on the hoof. But why does a fixture full of envelopes, with or without windows, in buff, cream or white, have the same effect? Where would Ice-Age man ever have come across them?

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Susan Price: Cuts and Capers

"Well done! You've saved the day! Let me reward you with these tickets to the circus and a slap-up feed at the Hotel De Posh!"

The Hotel De Posh's signature dish: a great mound of mashed potato, with sausages sticking out horizontally all round it, and a bottle of fizzy lemonade (or, more likely, Irn Brue). Desperate Dan's favourite, his Aunt Aggie's speciality, is far too famous for it to be worth my mentioning it here.

Oh, the roll-call of the heroes: Lord Snooty and his Pals, Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx, Dennis the Menace. (My brother's first word was not 'Mommy' but 'Nennis' as he called for his Dennis the Menace annual). Little Plum and the Three Bears. And Pansy Potter, who let slip her Dundee origins because her title didn't rhyme unless pronounced with a Scots accent. She was the strong man's dotter.

A subtle Scottish cadence ran through all the speech bubbles. People were sent to 'do messages', whereas in the Black Country, we ran errands. Dan's being called 'desperate' too - he was desperate in the sense of being wild and a handful rather than being at the end of his tether.

When I was a child, our house had lots of books - shelved floor to ceiling in most rooms, piled on the stairs and window-sills - but we were rarely bought comics. My parents had nothing against comics - far from it - but didn't think them worth spending their scarce income on, when they could buy us a second-hand book from Dudley market for little more.

Next door lived a brother and sister who were obviously filthy rich, because they each had several comics every week. On Friday evenings it was my regular chore to carry next door a lump of bloody meat wrapped in newspapers (the Sunday joint, delivered by a mobile butcher and taken in by my mother for her neighbour, who worked). Every month or so my reward was to have my arms piled with a stack of old comics and magazines. I'd scuttle home, clutching the pile, and burst in through the back door with a cry of, "Comics!"

"Bags me the Beano," my Dad would say.

There was The Bunty, The Judy, June, Jackie and, later, The Romeo and Valentine. Even, occasionally, The Red Letter, which my mother remembered from her own young days. Looking at the cover she said, with satisfaction, "They've still got the nasty neighbour spying round the curtains - she was always there, every week."

But the girls' comics were quickly skimmed through and thrown aside, with their tales of butch (female) car mechanics being made over to win beauty contests, and champion hockey-teams kidnapped to play for aliens. They were appetisers, something to read while other people had the comics you really wanted. While, for instance, my Dad had the Beano.

It was the boys' comics we really loved: The Beano, The Dandy, The Topper. The Valiant, the Hotspur, The Buster, the Victor. After we'd finished with them, my Dad took them to work, and his workmates read them during their tea-break, feet up on the stove, laughing at The Bash Street Kids. It takes a real man, I think, to admit that he finds the Beano a good read.

My Dad, my brothers, sister and I, all drew. The house was littered with pencil ends and opened-out envelopes, covered in sketches. We studied the comic's drawings, as much as the words, and could never understand why friends never seemed to notice, or care, when a favourite strip was drawn by a different artist. The comic art was often of a high order, and taught us a lot. We much admired the drawings for 'The Steel Claw' in the Valiant, a sort of comic-strip noir. And the Bash Street Kids, careering along in a massed group, all feet off the ground at once, were a joy, full of liveliness and movement.

The artist who drew the thick, woodcut like strips for 'Faceache' and 'Jonah' was a master, his strips not only grotesquely beautiful, but laugh-out-loud funny. I remember one in particular, where Faceache resolved to be good. This turning over a new leaf was a regular motif in the strips of the 'naughty' characters, such as Dennis, Roger and Minnie.

Anyway, Faceache vowed that, for that day at least, he would cease from twisting his face into terrifying gurns, causing dismay and panic among the locals. Instead he would be good and help the baker. Cue a series of wonderfully managed panels where Faceache burning his hand coincides with an innocent delivery man looking in through the window just as pain convulses Faceache's already unlovely features into an especially novel shape. Panic and unrest ensues. It was filmic. I remember my Dad took that particular strip to read in the bathroom. He said it nearly gave him a rupture.

My siblings and I used to discuss and dissect the comics in a sort of junior book club. We scoffed at Captain Hurricane, his 'raging furies' and exclamations of 'Cowardly Cabbage Crunchers' and 'Suffering Sausages!" My mother told us that, as a child during the Second World War, she'd seriously believed that Germans only ever said, 'Achtung, Pig-dog!' Well, apart from 'Heil Hitler!' obviously.

We discussed whether it was sensible of Fish Boy (who'd been abandoned in the wild and raised by fishes) to take a wounded fish from the ocean and lay it on a rock to 'bathe its wounds'. And which was better - Galaxo, the giant robot ape, or the boy who controlled an army of little robots via his metal armband? We were cutting our critical teeth.

At the same time I was reading The Norse Myths, Hans Andersen, Kipling - but that was literature. I could enjoy it, but hands off.

Comics were on our level. Often well-drawn, funny, inventive, but emphatically not literature. We could kick them around, and say and think what we liked about them. We learned discernment for ourselves. Once learned - and not least of the lessons was that it was enjoyable - we could carry it with us into other fields.

I once read an article in which a critic declared that it was impossible to appreciate Mickey Mouse and Tolstoy equally. In order to be refined enough to enjoy Tolstoy, apparently, you had to leave Mickey far behind.

Rubbish. You can enjoy and appreciate Mickey - and Dennis and the Bash Street Kids - and Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Yosemite Sam - for the skill, verve and wit that they have. And then you can shift gears and appreciate Tolstoy or Austen or Dickens, on their level, as artists who had entirely different aims. Just as you can appreciate both Hardy and Beatrix Potter. The ability to move from one to the other demonstrates a flexible mind - which is probably necessary for creativity.

George Orwell got a lot from smutty seaside postcards.

It takes a real critic to appreciate both Mickey and Natasha.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Susan Price: Amstrad and Beyond

At nineteen, using some of the vast profits from my second book, 'Twopence A Tub', I replaced my old cast-iron typewriter with a new, plastic one. It was baby-blue, I remember, and I could carry it in one hand. In truth it was a toy, intended for children, and I used to be asked how I could work on such a tiny thing. I never had problem with it (apart from the enraging task of changing ribbons, but that went with the territory in those days). It was an enormous relief not to have to practice weight-lifting every time I had to put it away.

I used the baby-blue for several years, but then decided to splash out on something for grown-ups. I bought a big, electric brute, but we never got on. Whenever I paused to think, it buzzed at me impatiently. I resented the buzzing. And I still had to change its ribbons.

It was about this time that a friend said to me, "Come upstairs and see my Amstrad..."

The Amstrad was an unlovely thing, but I was smitten as soon as saw how fast it printed off a page. At that time I wrote my books by hand, or pounded them out on a typewriter. The result was a heap of loose pages, full of crossings-out, rewrites, mistakes, notes to self. There would be mysterious signs - stars, arrows and loops - reminding me to hunt down the inserts written on yet other bits of paper. Before I could submit a book I had to turn this heap of jottings into a 'good copy'. It used to take me months.

I repeat, months. Just to copy out what I'd already written. Every single day, the first page I typed was so full of mistakes that it had to be redone. I would muddle the sequence of page-numbers and have to retype them. I had to estimate the word-number, which I hated almost as much as changing ribbons.

When I saw how you could skip about on the Amstrad's screen, changing words, shifting paragraphs, altering names, I was astounded. Find and replace! Spell-check! Word-count! A printer that didn't need a ribbon! I was ecstatic. And when I saw that it could print out a lengthy document in a morning, I had to have one.

But disillusionment always sets in. The first Amstrads never reminded you to save. Many a time I spent all day working on something, then switched off the machine and lost it all. I soon learned to save compulsively, every few words, a habit that's still with me.

The Amstrad printer could also be a trial. If you forgot to put the bale bar down (the bar that held the paper against the cylinder), the printer wouldn't work. It was easy to miss this small detail, and spend hours trouble-shooting, cajoling, phoning friends for help... Unlike modern computers, the Amstrad didn't tell you what was wrong, it didn't offer any hints or suggestions. The printer just sat there smugly, refusing to do the one thing it was made to do. It several times induced in me the kind of rage the early Plantagenet kings were famous for, when they rolled on the floor, foamed at the mouth and bit the rushes. If I'd had rushes, I would have bitten them.

You were also supposed to be able to leave the printer to do its thing, while you went and did something else, but in fact, you dared not leave it for a moment, because it used tractor-feed paper, and it always jammed. Even when you stood over it, watching, it frequently got out of sync and printed over the page perforations. Then there was nothing to do but stop the printer and start again.

Despite all this, I never, ever hankered to return to the typewriter, or pen and ink. I get quite irritated with writers who claim they could never sully their inspired creativity with vulgar technology, and that computers encourage sloppy writing. I think that's quite wrong. I think they encourage fierce editing rewriting and cutting, because they make it so easy. You don't have to retype and renumber pages because you decided to cut one out.

The solution to the Amstrad's drawbacks was to get a better computer, which I did, as soon as I could afford it. I'm writing this post on a laptop (much to my cat's indignation. He's sitting by me, glaring at the laptop, which is in his place. Occasionally he tries to climb on top of it). This light little laptop will check spelling, count words, print in different fonts and sizes, allow me to consult a thesaurus, and point out grammatical mistakes (though I never take any notice).

It connects to the internet, so if I need to check some fact, I log-on and Google. I can plug it into a printer which not only prints much faster than the Amstrad ever did, and never jams, but also faxes, scans and photo-copies. I don't even need to print very often, as I can submit my work by e-mail.

I can play music from the laptop's memory and load up my zen-stone for the gym. I can upload photographs from my digital camera and, minutes later, edit them on screen, and upload them to this blog. I can update my Tom-Tom, which guides me to schools on visits, and brings me home again.

I have more equipment and computer power on my lap than NASA used to put men on the moon. And I shall never have to change a typewriter ribbon again.

I remember my first, cast-iron typewriter with affection, but go back to it? You couldn't pay me enough.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Susan Price: Writing in the Olden Days

On the day I was born, my parents told me, a neighbour gave them an old, upright, cast iron typewriter. Not seeing it for the omen it was, they chose to leave it behind when they moved to their new council house. So, for my twelfth Christmas present, they had to go out and search junk shops until they found another old typewriter. A good present: I was still using it seven years later. I started my career on it, even though I could hardly lift it and was constantly having to move it (to make way for meals). Just bashing the keys down was a work-out.

For those who've never seen or used such a thing:- bashing a key levered up a long metal stem, on the end of which was a metal stamp forged in the shape of a letter. This slammed an inked ribbon against the sheet of paper rolled into the machine, thus transferring an image of the letter to the paper. There was a whole nest of these metal stamps on stems - one for every letter, plus punctuation marks. When you typed fast and raised more than one stem at a time, they'd mesh together, and you had to stop and dislodge them.

If you wanted a copy of your work, you had to layer a sheet of carbon paper between your two sheets of plain paper, and roll this flimsy sandwich into the machine. If you needed two copies, then you had to add another sheet of carbon, and another sheet of plain to your sandwich. Then you had to align all these flimsy, floppy sheets, and persuade them to be rolled into the typewriter without becoming creased or misaligned. This seldom happened.

But what I dreaded about the typewriter was changing the ribbon. The inky ribbon, black above and red below, wound backwards and forwards between two reels on top of the machine. At the middle, it passed through a clip, which held it in place for the keys to strike. It was a simple, uncomplicated system, and worked very well, except that, eventually, the ink in the ribbon ran out. So much did I hate changing the ribbon that I would keep using the old one until people thought I was using some kind of MI5 designed machine for spies, with special invisible-ink ribbons.

Removing the old ribbon was easy and clean - there was no ink left on it to make a mess. You opened the spools, took out the ribbon, and threw it away.

But as soon as you opened the new ribbon's packet, you were smothered in ink. You still had to unwind it, tether one end to a spool, thread it through the little clip, and fasten it to the other spool. A fiddly business, all of it. By the end, you needed a change of clothes and a bath.

I'll draw a veil over the rug-biting rage that came on me when I discovered I'd put the ribbon in upsidedown, and would have to type everything in red unless I took it out and started again.

And then, one day, a friend showed me his Amstrad computer...

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Susan Price: A Boy's Adventure Story...

I'm away with the Vikings again...

My recent book, 'Feasting The Wolf' was set against the background of the Great Danish Army's invasion of England in the 9th Century. I'd hardly finished it before a publisher who shall be nameless (until the contract's signed) asked if I'd write for them 'a book for boys, set in the Dark Ages, full of adventure and violence.'

I need the money, so at once set about constructing a book. Colleagues have blogged recently about the joys of beginning a new book. By contrast, this is about the graft of working up a commissioned book to a brief.

'The Dark Ages' could mean anything from the 6th Century and King Arthur to the 8th and the Vikings, but it was always going to be Vikings, because I already know a lot about them.

I needed an idea, so I dredged up the plot of a book I'd written years ago and which had never been published. And I used my partner as a sounding board because he was once a boy, and so might have a better idea than me about what boys enjoy. How about, I suggested, a Viking trying to win enough gold to persuade the father of his sweetheart to let him marry her?

Yuck! Anything to do with weddings or kissing or girls was not on!

Okay, so how about our hero sees a beautiful sword for sale, but the swordsmith won't sell it, so he steals it, and -

"That makes him a thief!" said my partner, shocked.

Yes, and? Vikings were known, occasionally, to take without permission.

But no, no, no, I didn't understand. Heroes of boys' adventures cannot be thieves. They must be honourable and clean-living and right-thinking. This hero sounded less like a Viking every second. I wasn't getting anywhere.

In the end it was my brother (also once a boy) who said during one of our pub conversations, "Base it around the Battle of Stamford Bridge."

Well, that battle was right at the end of the Viking Age - literally, as the Viking Age can be defined as 'from early 8th Century to 1066'. Also, I usually avoid pinning any of my historicals to a definite date as arguing with historians can be so tiresome, I find. And Stamford Bridge, like the Battle of Hastings, has 'the one memorable date in English history'.

Still, I thought it was worth looking into, and started researching the battle. Before long I was fascinated and committed. Stamford Bridge it was going to be.

It was the battle fought in Yorkshire about twenty days before the Battle of Hastings, and for a story-teller, it has lots to offer. An invading Viking army numbering thousands. Impossible, heroic forced marches. Five thousand Vikings fighting to the death under the hot Yorkshire sun (really) without armour. Hardship, courage, heartache. Thank you, bro.

I invented and named my heroes, sketched out the story, and e-mailed it to my agent, so she could flog it. Instead, she flung it back. Too much history, she said, and not enough story. And expunge all mention of the Saxon hero wanting to be a monk! Christianity was the biggest turn-off! And there was I, thinking I was reflecting the way of that age, when Christianity was still fresh and vital.

But the main thing, with a commissioned book, is to sell it - so back to the laptop. History and Christianity out, story in. And my agent was, as usual, right. The story is coming to life as I get closer to the characters and ruthlessly cut the history. Can't wait to get to those five thousand hot, sweaty, doomed Vikings...

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Books To Keep - Susan Price

I took a load of books to a charity shop recently, and that started me thinking about the books I'd never, ever part with.

Rudyard Kipling's First and Second Jungle Books, and The Just-So Stories. My father read these when he was a boy, and loved them, so he bought them for my seventh Christmas. I loved them too, and came to know them almost by heart. Kipling taught me such new words as 'insatiable' and 'replied' - and his love of chanting, rhythmic language appeared later in my own books, The Ghost Drum, for instance.

Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales. 'Far out in the sea the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest of cornflowers, and as clear as the clearest glass; but it is very deep, deeper than any anchor chain can reach...' (M. R. James' translation). I was about nine when I found this on our bookshelves, and it had me at 'Far'. The Dauntless Tin Soldier, The Tinder Box, The Nightingale - I loved them all. Later, as a teenager, I realised that many of Andersen's tales were his re-tellings of traditional stories - The Seven Swans is one. As I was becoming fascinated by folklore, the book took on a new interest for me.

Scandinavian Mythology by H. R. Ellis-Davidson. My mother promised to buy me, for my fifteenth birthday, whatever I wanted, and I chose this. (I was a strange child). Mum had the vapours when she saw the price: One pound and fifteen shillings (1-75p). And this for a large format, hard-backed book with photographs on almost every page, many coloured.

But she kept her word, as she always did, and I still use this book for reference. I didn't know, when I chose it, that Ellis-Davidson was an acknowledged expert on her subject. The book outraged my aunt with its photo of 'Windeby Girl' - a partially preserved, naked bog-body. How could my parents allow me to look at such things? 'Windeby Girl' has since been discovered to be a boy. My aunt would have had conniptions.

It was a story from this book, King Olaf's Warnings, which became the germ and inspiration of my first collection of traditional stories, The Carpenter.

K. M. Briggs' Dictionary of British Folk-Tales. I found these paperbacks in a Birmingham bookshop, priced at thirty quid each. I couldn't afford them, but asked myself, was I ever likely to find them again? (This was in the olden days, before the internet). I rushed with them to the pay-desk, where the assistant exclaimed, "Oh thank goodness! We ordered those by mistake and thought we'd never get rid of them!"

Those books have more than paid me back, not only in material, but in entertainment. I've lost track of the number of stories I've retold from them, and the number of ideas they've given me. They were worth every penny - as books generally are!