Reflections of a Fantasist (Part 2)

This is the second of my series reflecting on this book I was bought…

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In my previous post, two weeks ago, I focused on the value reading Fantasy has for children’s development and for their understanding of the world around them. You can read that post here if you missed it.

This week, I’m going to reflect more on the writing of children’s Fantasy fiction and how what I read in Diana Wynne Jone’s book has influenced my thinking on my own novel.

Part 2:

The Structure of Writing a Fantasy Novel.

Let me start by saying that when  started writing my novel, Prophecy of Innocence, I had no idea how to write a novel, let alone one in a specific genre. One, which I have since learnt, is a much loved genre, a genre which readers and writers can be very precious about. There are purists and then there are progressionists and I have discovered no writer of Fantasy will please both factions.

Dianna Wynne Jones seems to my mind (having read none of her novels, yet having read Reflections) to be very much a progressionist with a touch of the classical about her. In Reflections there is a whole chapter entitled ‘The Shape of the Narrative in The Lord of the Rings’, (a wonderfully inspiring read). In it she reflects deeply on the clever and classical narrative shape Tolkien’s book takes. She writes about ‘movements’ and ‘codas’, things I know absolutely nothing about when it comes to writing. I’ve never studied writing as she did, and she had the great fortune to attend lectures by the great Tolkien himself (even if he did stand mumbling at the board for the most part…apparently).

Later on in Reflections she talks about the ‘Value of Learning Anglo Saxon’ and she speaks with an authority on texts (original texts that is) of such greats as Beowulf and how it taught her about how to orchestrate and shape a narrative more than anything else she’s ever read. This from the original poem, not, as she say,s from any translations. From this and other chapters in Reflections you discover an extremely intelligent well read woman to be admired and listened to. A woman who knows how to weave a narrative in the correct way.

Me? Well it seems I’ve just been going on pot luck. I knew my story and most importantly its end point first of all. (The end is always in mind first.) However, I do not, and never have, consciously think about how, for example, the weather in the first ‘movement’ might foreshadow an event in the third, (as it seems Tolkien did.) I wonder if, in this modern age of writing, anyone does? (Waits for droves of writers to set me straight and tell me they do.)

Both chapters in Reflections which I refer to above could probably explain why I love both of those stories (despite my never having read the original Anglo Saxon version of Beowulf) and why they have had so much influence on why I write the type of Fantasy I do. In fact, is was Beowulf and other quest stories of a similar ilk which  led me down the writing of hero quest Fantasy for children in the first place.

During the winter of 2009/2010, I was teaching writing quest stories to a class of 10 year olds. We had studied a translated version of Beowulf. (I remember a particularly fun drama lesson where tables were turned upside down to create still image scenes of when Beowulf first appears at the Great Mead Hall at Heorot and chaos ensues.)  Anyway, once we got to the writing process, I had to model writing an opening to a quest type story, as is the normal process in teaching writing at primary level. I found a title prompt on a teaching website entitled ‘Land of the Forgotten.’ I ended up, with the help of the children through various modelled and shared writing sessions, writing a whole short story rather than just the beginning. It was very Anglo -Saxon/Celtic /Medieval in its feel. (I blame my obsession with Robin Hood for my tendencies towards the medieval.)

In the story I had a giant half-fish, half-snake like monster called a Flotsaith which had hollowed out eyes. If a person looked into these eyes then the person would lose all memories.

The said Flotsaith (or at least its head)

Of course our hero, Balathar, has been sent, with his companions, to a remote island, (a version of the tiny Isle of Staffa off the West Coast of Scotland) where the beast dwells, on orders to slay it. The beast has caused the Princess Pathadtch (with a silent d) to lose her memory, and, as the hero loves the princess, he risks all on the quest to save her. Yes, it’s full of every Fantasy trope and cliche you can think of, and the characters are completely two dimensional, but the point of the exercise was to help children build a narrative and a plot. (I may still take the story and build it into a full blown novel, now I know what I’m doing more. I’ll see. It wouldn’t be original enough to sell, but I wonder whether children might just enjoy stories of monsters, whatever the cliches involved!)

Anyway, six months later, having enjoyed the process of writing ‘Land of The Forgotten‘ so much, I reached into the depths of my psyche and started writing Prophecy of Innocence from the glimmer of an idea I’d had when I was twelve.

Now, I know my novel and ideas are heavily influenced by the likes of reading The Lord Of the Rings and Beowulf and the Narnia stories and so forth, although the story itself is quite different and unique in premise. Some may think the fact I have characters who are two inches tall is borrowed from The Borrowers. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never read it and couldn’t tell you what it was about other than there are little people in it. If the idea of small creatures living under the ground came from anywhere it came from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock, so there! (I used to imagine we had Fraggles living through the split in the wood between the skirting board and door frame of our lounge when I was growing up.)

Reflections however, made me question everything I’ve written in Prophecy as being almost fraudulent, because it seems, completely unwittingly, I have committed cardinal cliched sin after cardinal cliched sin. Oh dear.

Jones says in Reflections that she wrote a book called The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land because she was “exasperated with the way too many fantasy books, deriving ultimately from Tolkien, were so much the same.” She says her book “pretends to be a tourist guide and starts with a map – like all the conventional fantasies do.” (Oh dear, strike one Joanne! Oh and George R.R. Martin, but we’ll skim over his huge success.) Jones’ book is laid out very much like a dictionary or encyclopedia, and is based on highlighting, in a satirical manner, the tropes and cliches that some Fantasy writers put into their books. From the excerpts I read in the two essays ‘Inventing the Middle Ages’ and ‘Freedom to Write‘,  it seems to me quite scathing in places, rather than simply “poking fun” as she says.  Her vitriol (for this is how it came across to me) seems to have come about from stereotypes writers were making in adult fantasy novels about the Middle Ages. However, maybe stereotypes about fields been burnt by armies and monasteries with thick walls set high on hills aren’t stereotypes at all but used in adult Fantasy books because traditionally Fantasy books (Tolkien’s included) have leaned towards Medieval setting and culture. Those things did happen and were there in the Middle Ages.

So I have another problem as some of my novel leans towards this time culturally (albeit with completely made up characters, i.e the elflings. Probably not entirely made up as you know there are elves in traditional Fantasy stories, so there would be something else to slate me for. Ho hum.)

Anyway, this leads me to my disappointment in reading about her derisive attitude towards adult Fantasy writers who write in this purist, “conventional” form. First of all she mocks books written in trilogies. “Aren’t they always trilogies?” – oh damn, another ‘rule’ broken by yours truly.

I then read more and realised I’d followed quite a lot of the same cliches she so berates these other writers of adult fantasy.

Here are just a few:

1) Clothing: “Apart from robes, no garment thicker than a shirt has sleeves”. (Guilt flooded me as I wrote about my character’s robes and tunics and braise. Oh goodness, did they wear such things in Medieval times? Am I allowed to dress them in such or am I being too cliched?)

2) Colour Coding: section 3: eyes. There is a whole section, too long to write in here, about how colour of eyes means something, but the one which stuck out was: “Black eyes are invariably evil.” Oh well darn, darn, darny darn. My antagonist has onyx eyes. I did not do this on purpose. It suited him to have small, dark, mysterious eyes. He has a lot of stuff to hide!

Also eye colour and eyes as a physicality are important in my book. My characters are two inch high elflings. They live under the ground. Their eyesight is, as such, adapted to the darkness of the underground and to reflect this fact I used gemstones to describe eye colour. I did this also as gemstones are an important part of the magic in the novel and so there is that element. I’ve not gone on about it and repeated the eye colour stuff continually in heavy description. (I did, but I’ve culled a lot…one lives and learns. ) Nevertheless, their eyes are important. They do shimmer and sparkle like gemstones because if they didn’t then the elfings wouldn’t be able to see.

3) Crystals: Oh crap, I have crystonal which is a  made up compound of various crushed gemstones which give longevity of life to the elflings and is central to part of the plot.

4) Missing heirs: “blah blah blah de blah”….Oh ooops. Now mine’s not missing strictly speaking. They (for there are two of them) just don’t know they are heirs. (Oh dear, now I’ve strayed into Star Wars territory.)

5) Slaves. Oh I give up! Damn it!  I do have some of my characters end up becoming sort of slaves in Book 3. (Not yet written, so could change.)

Despite all this use of tropes she berates, I do hope I’ve not overdone any of them. They are afterall just stuff from my subconscious. So much of that background stuff is. Subconscious from my own cultural references. (Maybe that’s the problem, perhaps I need to work harder as a writer to take out any cultural references and be completely original. Though I’m not sure true originality exists anymore.)

One chapter in Reflections goes into great detail about a time when Jones was judging for an International book award. She talks about one particular Fantasy book, using words such as “absurdities” and “worrying”, as though her type of fantasy writing holds more merit than any other and this really got my back up. I’m not excusing sloppy writing, not at all but, as she says herself though this didn’t seem to be the main issue for her. It was more to do with the use of cliches of the genre. This despite conceding that “many readers of Fantasy would expect them [the same cliches] and be highly dismayed not to have them. The fashion for so called heroic fantasy, derived ultimately from Tolkien, has been going so long  it seems quite unalterable.” As though this is a bad thing? She goes on to say: “The unalterable convention is now getting incorporated into books for children and young adults.”  Oh no! Whatever shall we do? Bring back some tradition to children who may never have read this type of book? (Let’s face it The Lord of the Rings may be heavy going for your average ten year old these days!) “Oh dear”, she says. I say why shouldn’t it spread to children’s books?

Finally and more importantly for my writing, Jones speaks about why she doesn’t write historical fiction for children, and this includes this medieval conventional type of fantasy. Oh no, I thought. My book is set at the time of the Industrial Revolution and the underground world of my elflings is almost medieval in feel as they are a more ancient species. I’m about to break another sacred rule of Fantasy writing by actually following the rules of fantasy writing. Jones argues that, as children are forward thinking they are “not going to be interested in anything other than the here and now and moving forward to what will be.”  (I can see the point as a valid one, yes. But do all children not like history, even if they don’t fully have a sense of it as she suggests?) I, for one,  loved books set in the past when I was a child, so I don’t think her argument holds too much weight. Anyhow, this is why she wrote Fantasy as she did, without the conventions of adult fantasy or a historical slant (despite, it seems, many of her cultural references coming from Greek mythology, Chaucer,  and Anglo Saxon legends such as Beowulf amongst others….Hmmmm. ) In “the guide” she says:

“History [in medieval fantasy] is generally patchy and unreliable. Any real information about the past is either lost…” (oh here we go again; I’ve done that in my book too, for good reason related to plot..) “or in a scroll… jealously guarded…” (uh oh…). “All that can be ascertained is…that there was once an Empire” (monarchy in my case, damn!)  “…that ruled the continent…” (Trelflande) “and…that there was once a wizards… (tribal) “…war that occurred earlier still.”

Oh deary deary me. My book is doomed it seems. However, my view is this: It was exactly like that for historical records  in Medieval times or before. It was patchy, of course it was, by very nature of not having much of it recorded. I can’t see her issue here at all. Also those of us who write about times set in the past do so because it allows us to play around more. As science fiction writers or dystopian/ futuristic Fantasy writers do. There are things which historical culture and settings allow us to do as writers as is the case with other forms of writing. Take detective fiction written by Agatha Christie. Very different to modern detective fiction as there were no computers, mobile phones, ways of tracing DNA. Not even finger printing it seems in the 1930’s, so what you get is a very different feel to the same genre. And anyway, when writing fantasy who says history has to be completely accurate? Especially when simply referencing fields, castles, shacks, clothing etc.. You are writing fantasy! The reader knows this.

But of course all this made me feel as though my novel is doomed.

First because of the fact I have written in this ‘conventional’ style FOR CHILDREN! For children who must be protected from medieval fantasy tropes as all cost!

Furthermore, I have written in some actual history, which of course Jones says children “are not going to be interested in books that are not about the here and now or what is to come.” (I’d argue sometimes you have to understand exactly what’s been before to understand what’s happening now and what will come, er…surely this is how The Lord of the Rings works, but then I’m a historian and believe in the power of history, so I would say that wouldn’t I?)

Thirdly of course I go and write every medieval Fantasy trope going into the story. Jones would rip my book apart if she was still alive and it’d been entered for an International book award as the one she slates was.

She seems to basically be saying that: anyone who writes fantasy for adults is trying to write Lord of the Rings and that it is a travesty if we do this for children too. Now I’ve never written a fantasy like LOTR intentionally, but I like the fantasy hero quest genre. For me it has a neat, familiar structure and I don’t think authors can help being influenced by what they’ve read. She was, but she seems to damn other writers for the same. She took names of characters from Dante, I take mine from UK motorway service stations. Does this make me any less of a writer? Okay perhaps it does. Perhaps Jones was just an incredibly skilled author at taking what she read and what she learnt from her Oxford University Education in English and being able to mould them into progressionalist, original Fantasy works for children.

And I’m not. But that’s perhaps because I can only take what I can from my readings and from my bog- standard Secondary State Education and very small University of Birmingham Bachelor of Education degree with honours in History. Perhaps I’m only capable of  writing tropey Medieval traditional fantasy as that’s what I enjoy.

Hopefully some children will enjoy it too.

Thanks, as ever for reading. Phew, that was a long one!

 

 

 

 

 

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Leaving the Stable

It was never going to be part of my writing journey that I send my manuscript direct to a publisher (the few who will actually take unsolicited manuscripts of novels these days) and they offer me an advance and gush about how much they need to publish my wonderful novel.

No, that’s not quite how my life story has ever gone, or indeed probably not how the vast majority of dreams are achieved. And I never really expected it to be, though one can always hope of course!

So, now for two months I, and some of you, have been waiting to hear on a decision from the marketing and production people at the publishing house who read my manuscript.

If you recall, there were some positive things said, (you can read for yourself here) though there were weaknesses, they were confident a good editor could iron those out.

Then yesterday, finally I had this email. It was a mixed bag, as you’ll see:

Dear Joanne
 
I have now received responses from my colleagues in marketing and production. Marketing have expressed some concerns as to you, the author, being unknown and untried. It is always difficult to market such a book and its author to the reading public as compared to someone who is known and in the public domain. However they do believe that the theme of your book is saleable. They also suggest that a paperback edition would perhaps be more marketable than a hardback edition.
 
On the other hand our production department are suggesting that if well proofread and edited that this book would have potential.
 [I have had preliminary discussions with our publishing executives who are reluctant to take this book on with our full financial commitment. They have suggested that if some of the costs can be shared with the author they would be prepared to give it a shot and bring it into our stable.]
 
I did not want to prepare contracts before I had written to you to explain our thinking. If you are agreeable to this suggestion I will arrange for a contract to be prepared. I will endeavour to keep working with you to support your work, but my hands are tied. I do feel that your book is quite unique.
 
Please let me know your decision.
I can’t even begin to comment on the “bring it into our stable” line, so I won’t!
Anyway, though there are some positives, (theme of the book is saleable, has potential, your book is quite unique…)  my gut reaction upon reading the email was a deflation rather than elation and one which screamed ‘no, this will not be the path to take.’ Although it is their own personal company practice to have a mix of authors they pay an advance to and others who share costs which I knew this from the outset, it is not even so much the idea of paying out money which bothers me. (Though subsequently discovering this would be in the region of £1800-£2000 has of course put a lid on the whole thing anyway.)
No, my reasons for not wanting to go ahead are as follows:
1) I want a publisher to be wholeheartedly behind my book. I want them to have a least some of the passion I have for it, otherwise who’s championing it? I do realise this is an industry, a business like any other and their primary aim is to make money, I am not naive, but I can’t help but wonder how much effort they are going to put into marketing something they only half believe in and haven’t invested much money in. My answer is they probably won’t.
2) I want the best look for this book. I have visions for it and yes, I might be a snob wanting it in hardback, but that is what I want. If I ever do end up self publishing, this will be one of the options. When they say paperback is more saleable, they mean it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper to make, it’s cheaper to the consumer and it’s less risky if they don’t sell. However, I believe this book deserves more and the children who finally get to read it, deserve more.
3) A publisher’s job surely entails some form of risk? It irks me that new authors are not given much consideration, simply because they are unknown. (No wonder the indie publishing business has taken off.)  The line on “being unknown and not in the public domain” grates on me a lot in this email After all what are we selling? A book or a person? Seemingly not a book any more. I find this sad because I don’t think children are bothered about who writes the book. Children want a good story. It’s tough writing for children in a business where all the decisions are actually made by adults. The only reason I myself decided not to go down the self publishing route is because I envisage the book to have a certain stylistic look and feel, which I could not achieve as an indie publisher. Particularly not in relation to the art work. There needs to be maps and family trees. Not necessarily illustrations but certainly a bespoke front cover.
4) Bearing all that in mind, if this publisher is wanting me to invest £2000, then I may as well hire an artist and editor and self publish. The fact is though, I don’t have that kind of money. Writer’s generally aren’t rich folk. (You’d think they would have realised this from the covering bio letter I had sent them: Part time teacher should give a clue to how much money I don’t have!)
So there it is. I will now go to plan B. I have exhausted the list of publishers for children’s fiction who accept unsolicited manuscripts. Now it’s time to bombard agents. (Lucky people!) Thankfully I am already armed with my Writers and Artists’ Handbook complete with pink post-it notes already earmarked on likely targets candidates. ;)
However, first I will work further on the manuscript, as it is evident from comments received that I need to do this. Of course doing so, will take me away from completing the draft of Book 2, as soon as I liked (now 54,000 words in). However, this is what needs to be done.
So, as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” “Good things come to those who wait” etc, etc….
The journey…now in it’s fourth year, continues. Thanks for keeping on with me, through the highs, lows and plateaus! :)
(Also, if you’ve read this and wondered why there are no spaces between paragraphs and points after the copied email section, please ask WordPress as I can’t fathom what’s happened!)
 
 

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Reflections of a Fantasist (Part 1)

I’ve just finished reading this book:

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Reflections by the (predominantly) children’s fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones.

Reflections is a collection of… well, her reflections on writing and, in particular, writing fantasy fiction and writing it for children.

The book was a wonderful surprise gift from a Twitter friend from across the pond who chose perfectly. Thank you again, Siofra Alexander! :)

Now before you groan and shut down the blog thinking ‘this is going to be a book review’, please allow me to assure you it is not.

I wanted to blog about this book because, having read it, it has become a great big missing part of the jigsaw puzzle of this journey I’ve embarked on of writing a children’s fantasy novel.

Reading this book made me fall in love with Jones and then despise her all within the turn of a page! Reading this book made me fall in love with my writing, gave me inspiration and hope and then, in the next breath, snatched it away, making me doubt virtually everything I’ve put down in the last 132,000 words. Quite a powerful book, wouldn’t you say?

Now, I have never, much to my chagrin, read any of  Jones’ novels. I  will confess I am not widely read in general compared to most people I know who enjoy reading, not by any stretch of the imagination. Reading Reflections made me realise just how little I have actually ever read. In terms of ‘pure’ children’s fantasy I’ve read the most obvious as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia (and then only three of them as I got bored half way through Prince Caspian. ) The Harry Potter series and of course The Lord of the Rings. Oh, and I used to read those Choose Your Own Adventure books which were around in the 1980s. Other than that, my fantasy reading is pretty much limited to the above. Shocking considering what I am writing now. I did, however, gorge on fairy tales as a child. I owned a large number of Ladybird books which I cherished and read over and over and over, delighting in the beautiful illustrations. Cinderella, Chicken Licken, Snow White… the list goes on. How I loved those books! I also was the lucky recipent (I bought it with some birthday money one year if I remember correctly) a huge volume of The Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales which I also loved to pieces. It was a brick of a book and I have no idea  what happened to it. However, five years ago I was staying in a B&B in Loch Lomond and in the guest lounge was an exact same copy of the volume I had. It was like coming home. I sat and read as many as I could that evening. I wish I’d asked the owner now if I could have bought it from her. But oh, well never mind. I think that demonstrates the power and magic of the early reading of fantasy stories before I even get much into this post.  Anyway, I intend to read some of  Jones’ books as, I feel as though I ought, given she’s a bit of an authority on the subject.

So the main reason for this post is because I wanted to highlight some of the points Jones made in relation to writing Fantasy and how that relates to what I’ve written so far. Also to comment on what she has to say about writing for children specifically and how that relates not only to writing but also to teaching children. There were many places in the book I was shouting “YES! YES! This woman talks sense; she knows children; she knows writing! I love her!” At other points I found myself shaking my head at the condescending attitude she appeared to have towards teachers and actually towards other writers of Fantasy. (More on this in another post.) She came across as quite narrow minded in some respects. She also came across as extremely intelligent and well read, but narrow minded in some instances, nevertheless.

Anyway, I’m going to break this post into a few posts as I have quite a lot of thoughts and reflections of my own, so here goes with Part 1:

On Children, and the Value of Fantasy

In the first essay in Reflections, ‘The Children in the Wood,’ Jones writes about overlooking the woods near her home and watching the local children play there. She says they always played some version of ‘Let’s Pretend’, i.e the children were being knights or princesses, or soldiers or what have you. She says she noted how often they played that type of game: “it seems to be something they need to do. You can see they need to because they are all so happy.”   She writes about how these games always involves the children splitting off into groups to be the ones dying or killing or just ambling though the action, taking little notice. (though she acknowledges that children play Let’s Pretend games on their own in their heads all the time too.) She notes how, when engaged in this type of play, there are no quarrels. “quarrels happen when….the children are trying to play a game like hide and seek or building a tree house, which does not involve make-believe.” She surmises that they need Let’s Pretend to make them combine together as a group.

Now, as a primary school teacher who has stood on countless playgrounds over the last seventeen plus years and watched children, I can absolutely vouch for this. The times I have had to settle disputes are when the games with rules are played. Like football. Oh, football! How I despair. But never have I had to speak to a child (other than to say ‘get up off the wet floor or else your mother will be cross with you having dirty trousers‘ [it’s always boys rolling around on the damp tarmac, never girls I’ve found!]) when they have been “killed” by another whilst they are involved in ‘make believe’ games.

So what does this mean? Why do children need to play these games and why don’t they fall out over them like in other, more structured, games?

Well, I believe, as does Jones, that fantasy and make believe is the one way children learn to understand the confusion of the world around them. So many adults worry that children cannot separate reality from fantasy. Many adults belittle or make fun of their children for indulging in make believe games beyond a certain age. Many adults are keen for their children to grow up and get a grip on the real world and real life far too soon. Some even actively discourage reading or watching of Fantasy saying it will confuse their minds as to what is real and what is not. Well what a load of hogwash that is.

This idea that Fantasy feeds into reality and becomes a blurred boundary becomes evident these days in the headlines where the effect of computer games and violent films is discussed widely. “Oh that boy/girl committed those awful crimes because they couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.” True, they couldn’t. However, I would suggest, strongly argue, that this may be because these children can’t separate the two simply because they didn’t partake in make believe or Let’s Pretend games at an early age. Their first dalliance with fantasy most likely was to be dumped in front of a computer or TV screen, in front of age inappropriate material, with no adult interaction or explanation to guide them through the confusion. To tell them those graphics in Grand Theft Auto are not real.

However, to have read fairy stories from a young age, with an adult, a child knows it is a story. They know it is make believe. They know that it is safe. Then they are able to go and act it all out in play and explore the ideas safely with their peers. That is why I believe they need it and partake in Let’s Pretend play: to test the world out, to unravel its rules and confusions. As for the argument that this sort of indulgence in Fantasy will lead to a muddle of what is real and what is not, I say this: Do all young children who swish a wooden or plastic sword around as a knight, or aim a plastic blaster gun at a friend in play, go on to kill and maim all across the land? I don’t think so. I haven’t. Jones makes the point more eloquently than I ever could about this aspect to the value of fantasy reading:

“Your story [as a writer] can be violent, serious and funny, all at once….Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children playing in the wood are doing. You make it clear it is make believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone.”

Later on in Reflections, Jones goes on to talk about the influx of ‘Real Books’ for children which flooded the market on the back of new trends in children’s literature. ‘Real Books’ being those where the protagonist (a child of target age group) is real, lives in the real world and has had some social problem to deal with, for example, the divorce of parents, racism or bullying at school. In these ‘Real Books’ she says the rules stated: “you wrote about this Problem in stark, distressing terms. Then – this is the rule – you gave it to the child with that problem to read. The child was supposed to delight in the insight.”

Put like that it does seem ludicrous anyone would want to publish books for children which are like that. “Here you go. This is your distressing problem and here’s a fictional tale about it to tell you how to deal with it.” Quite preposterous really, when you think about it. What fairy tales and Fantasy fiction do is allow children to explore all these confusions of the world at a distance. Through a character or characters who are not them. They begin to understand the world as it is, a multifaceted place where there is good and there is evil and they then try to work out how to deal with that. In fact, isn’t this what we as adults do when reading fiction, really, truly, honestly? We often say we read to ‘escape’, but I often find I  solve problems from reading fiction. Not necessarily consciously, but I  truly don’t think we are looking to escape by reading, I think we are always searching for answers, trying to learn more about ourselves and the confusing mess of the world. Otherwise why would novels have common themes running through them?

Now, the sad fact is, many, mainly adults it must be said, still sneer at Fantasy as a genre and at writers who choose to write Fantasy novels, as though it is somehow a lesser craft than writing about “real” things.

To that I have to say: but we all start with Fantasy really, don’t we? The first stories we are introduced to are traditional fairy or folk tales, even if we don’t stick with them. Fantasy, as I’ve said above, which allows us to see that the world does indeed have bad present in it. (In stories bad is disguised as wolves or foxes, or witches or giants or similar.)  These portrayed ‘bad’ characters  which children know, or learn fairly quickly, don’t exist or are not actually ‘evil’. However, they learn that those evils are overcome and that the hero, whether that be prince, princess, wizard, ie, the children themselves (as that is who they identify with) are good and they are able overcome those bad things. Children don’t need the real version of anything they might be going through given to them in a story to work it through. Fantasy stories allow children to do just that at a distance as I’ve already said.

Furthermore (and I don’t know if any research has ever been done on this) but I’d reiterate my argument from before and say that perhaps it is the children who are devoid of Fantasy stories and Fairy Tales or this Let’s Pretend and make believe play using the innocent characters an early age, who may be the ones more likely to drift down into the darker alleyways of life. They may become the ones who cannot work through traumatic childhood issues such as parents divorcing if they arise, and they are more likely (to my mind at least) become the ones unable to separate fact and fiction and work out those confusions in much darker, sinister ways. Who knows? It’s just a theory. Perhaps there are studies. Perhaps I shall conduct one of my own.

However, for my part I know it was the stories I could escape into, the ones so far removed from my own childhood which are the ones which have stayed with me. The ones whereby I learned to imagine and play and pretend.  The ones where I learned most about the world and how to cope with it. Those are the same stories which have allowed me to write.

And if I have one wish as a teacher and as a parent it would be that all parents and teachers see the value in promoting Fantasy stories for children at an early age. I believe they hold more value and worth than many people realise. It’s why Jones says she wrote Fantasy for children, she utterly believed in its power. I know I write it for similar reasons. I understood the power and pleasure it gave me as a child. I understand the power and the pleasure it still gives children now.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rules for writing Fantasy and writing for children and how many I’ve broken or not broken!

Thanks, as ever, for reading and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.

 

*disclaimer: The  ‘Fantasist’ in the post’s title is in reference to me, not of Diana Wynne Jones. Just to clarify! :)

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The Long and the Short of It.

As you will know, if you are a regular visitor to the blog, I spent a fair part of 2014 writing short stories and pieces of flash fiction which included a high rate of participation in the Twitter flash writing game, Friday Phrases (FP). You can even find some of the short stories here and here if you so wish to torture yourself with a variety of pieces of fiction  which I don’t hold in particularly high regard.

Now, at the time, I enjoyed writing in this form. I guess, as I was pretty depressed for the first half of last year, writing flash fiction and shorts gave me an opportunity to carry on writing when I didn’t much feel like it. Also I needed feedback as to how my writing was developing and it felt the quickest way to achieve that.

You see, for me writing a short story is a little like the practice for the big event, the novel. Now I say ‘for me’ with good reason as I know this is not the case for a huge number of writers. Many I know in fact only write short stories or novellas and like it and are very good at it. It’s their thing.  However, it is not my thing I have discovered. This is because, when I write a short it’s usually from a ghost of an idea that flits about my mind (which does not happen nearly as frequently as perhaps it should) and then I just write it. I don’t outline, I don’t plan characters, I don’t  worry about it or have sleepless nights about it. I draft it, then I edit it and it’s done. It can feel like an accomplishment of sorts when I’ve not worked properly on my novel, but it does not satisfy me fully. Possibly because I do see them as an exercise in writing rather than something I’d aim to have published.

Now, the trouble was last year I became a little distracted by writing these short stories and flash fiction, as well as this blog and  all of those things combined only served to take me away from what I actually love working on which is my novel(s).

I have a theory as to why I became distracted. The main one being that I don’t consider to myself to be a true writer in the pure sense of the word. Simply I don’t feel a deep seated need to bleed ideas onto the page lest I die, as other writers speak of. Unless I am in a state of heart break. Which I very much was until I bled all that out in this blog post. Seems writing really does have the power to heal.

No,  the only thing I feel a need to tell is the story in my novel, and in truth, it’s the only story I have to tell. Really. All those other ideas which found their way here last year could have quite happily remained in the recesses of my mind and no one would have suffered the worst for it. Me least of all.

So whilst I was writing shorts, and blog posts, and participating in FP, my novel sat without moving off the 18,000 word count it’d been on for months and months. This bothered me of course but I justified it and comforted myself with the idea that at least I was writing. Something, anything. No matter what came out. Oh dear.

Then, without my conscious knowledge my participation  in FP began to dribble off in the final quarter of the year until, in December, it became none existent. I pondered on why this was the other day and realised it is mainly because I have no ideas.  They’ve dried up and this I put down to my not being utterly depressed and heartbroken. In February, March, April time when I was perhaps at my lowest I look through my notebook and there were perhaps six or seven Flash Fiction FPs a week. It seems, as I’ve alluded to before in another post, I need heartbreak for my emotions to really surface so that I can have the ideas to then develop further maybe when I’m not so down. My emotions are heightened and so apparently is my creativity.  (An ongoing debate which many have written about before.) This in turn meant my well for short story ideas dried up, and in all honesty I lost interest in writing shorts altogether. I have two sitting half finished in draft form, but I doubt I’ll be finishing them in a hurry.

Anyway,  with news from the publisher in mid November that they were interested in my novel and passing it onto marketing and production to make a decision, I figured I desperately needed to get back to the second book which leads on from Book One. The word count now stands at just over 53,000 which has grown from those 18,000 in early November and which had been sat at 18,000 for a good nine months previously. Not my most productive writing phase.

Getting back to the novel, really getting back into it, has made me realise this much: I much prefer writing a novel to short stories. The process that is. Despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, much harder. It is for me at least so much more enjoyable.

This then got me thinking about different writers and how they view the long and short form.

I know many people in the writing world who very much enjoy writing short stories, even prefer it to novel writing. They submit continuously to websites and magazines for publications and are sometimes successful  at being published, at other times they are not. Nevertheless, they write and write and write and seem to do little else with their spare time from their day job.

They seem to be able to write story after story after story, having so many ideas flowing from them they don’t know what to write next.

I don’t. I just don’t have that many ideas floating around in my brain. I did back in February/March/April time but generally I don’t.  Hence why I can never really consider myself a proper writer. What I do is a hobby as I have too many other things I love to do in my spare time too. My novel is, nevertheless, a hobby I hope one day to have published and be able to share with the children of the world. I have other writers being kind enough to recommend places to submit short stories and poems to or competitions to enter, but truth is, I have no real interest in this. Maybe that’s cutting my nose off to spite my face.  All these other writers who write and submit, write and submit will one day get their break. The law of probability is on their side. I’m not making it easy for myself by not doing those things too, this I know. However, I wouldn’t submit my shorts as I know they are simply not good enough. Also, maybe I just like the thought of a long hard slog on one project which I can eventually feel proud of. I’ve never felt especially proud of my short stories, (probably because they are not that great, or original) but I feel very proud of the 130,000 odd words I’ve written so far over the two novels.

On the up side though, writing shorts has helped me develop such technical skills as: showing not telling or playing around with viewpoint and structure. For me this feeds directly into my novel -the big project, the one I am passionate about. I don’t have that same passion for writing short stories. Maybe, if I’m really honest, my passion is not even for writing itself ; it is for the process of creating. I’ve created a whole world with characters and a plot and a history and timelines and maps and family trees. Writing is just the form this has taken. If I was any good at art it could have been a mural or a comic strip. I don’t know. But to perfect that form I’ve had to pay attention to the technical stuff and writing shorts and flash has indeed helped me to focus on the actual art of writing.

To my mind, and perhaps this may be controversial in writerly circles, (as I generally have no clue what I’m talking about having never attended a writer’s club, forum, support group or workshop) the process of writing a short compared to writing a novel is completely different.

When writing a novel, for example, there is more opportunity to develop characters, get to know them, play around with them, shake them up when need be. In a novel the characters drive the story, where for me in short stories it seems the plot drives the characters.  (Maybe because I’m doing it all wrong!) The characters in short stories don’t seem to do unexpected things because there is a ‘punchline’ to reach and it needs to be reached in a specific word count.

Writing a novel also means weaving multiple different threads together. So much so it can feel almost like solving a murder mystery and really gets the brain thinking. It can make it ache too, but in a good way. Weaving multiple narrative and making them meet is  a form of problem solving and it feels great when it all comes together. (Especially if you’re a bit of a pantser like me!) This feeling of accomplishment is something I have never found I gain with writing in the short form. As I say, with a short the ending presents itself like a flash of inspiration and then you run with it until you reach it. The biggest problem solving you have when writing a short story or Flash Fiction is to convey what you want to say in as few words as possible. We all know I’m verbose to the extreme, so perhaps this is why I prefer novel writing!

Now, on a personal level I do actually like reading short stories very much. I loved all Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected and other short stories when I was a teenager. He, to me, is a master in the art of short story telling, and the novella “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is one of my all time favourites. However, as a writer, they simply do not give me the same pleasure (and perhaps the same pain!) that writing a novel does.

Those light-bulb, Eureka! moments in the shower when you work out, almost subconsciously, how to fix that plot hole that’s been bugging you for months or maybe that you didn’t even know was there until a couple of characters started a conversation in your head whilst you were washing up! That is a complete thrill and once you get it written down, utterly satisfying.

Writing a novel is a marathon over the sprint of a short. It’s harder, certainly; it’s more gruelling, but the feeling when you finish it is far more exhilarating.

These are just my thoughts of course.

What do you writers think? Do you prefer the marathon or the sprint? Which process do you enjoy more?

What do you readers think? Do you prefer to read short stories, what with the busy lives we now all seem to lead, or do you prefer something you can get your teeth into?

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts in the comments box below. :)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

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An Anniversary

Three years a go to the day my life changed completely from what it had once been.

Three years ago to the day, I took on kinship care of my nephew, who was then three and a half years old.

I won’t go into the whys and wherefores of why this had to happen as it is personal to my family, but it did.

As anyone who goes into parenting via any route knows, it’s a tough gig. If anyone had to fill out the amount of forms I had to or go through the scrutiny I had to, or had any inkling of just how tough bringing up a child, any child, is, I guarantee so many less people would do it.

Three years ago I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Before my nephew came to live here, I’d written lists and lists of pros and cons of what it would mean to take on his care until he reached adulthood (not for me so much as for him). The idea behind them being that I would find it easier to make a decision which would be best for him and my family.

The fact is I never used those pros and cons to make the decision. The decision had been made long before I drew up those lists as I knew it was what needed to be done. So many people said I had to make the decision based on what was right for me; on cold hard facts not emotion.

Unfortunately emotions are not something I can easily ignore and turn off. Or fortunately, as it turns out. And if I had done what was right for me, I would never have done it as I have never wanted to have children of my own. It was never on my agenda. However, when faced with a crisis in your own family, one often has to look at the greater good. Not that it was ever an easy decision. I spent so much time worrying about it all that I made myself quite ill, mentally, for some months prior to the 29th December 2011.

Many people told me how hard it would be and how long it would be difficult for, i.e all his and my life.

There were numerous stumbling blocks and scenarios I listed on those con pages as to why this would never be the best thing for him.

And if I had listened to any of those and not let my emotions take over he may not be with us in our family today. I can’t say that categorically, for who knows where the path may have led otherwise. All I know is I made a decision three years ago which has made a difference to the lives of all the people I love most.

And then he arrived. The 29th December 2011 and even now I wonder at that surreal moment. More for him than for me. How odd it must have been to move house at three and a half years old to live with another new person. This time forever, but how was he to know that?

I look back often and wonder how I got through those first few months particularly. I went from being a single, thirty something with an active social life to a mum with a three month stretch of not one single night out, like so many new parents. And yet nothing or no-one can prepare you for how your life changes so dramatically.

And I found it very, very hard at first, because as Anton Chekhov said: “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s day to day living that wears you out.” No truer is this than when you have children!

I thought the hard parts would be the dramas and the crises that may hit. Don’t get me wrong, they are not a walk in the park, but any parent will tell you that when their four year old is projectile vomiting over you, the carpets and the bed at 3am, repeatedly, you deal with it. And in a strangely surreal, odd out of body experience kind of way. (Possibly due to the fact you’re still half asleep!)

When you take on a child, or have a baby, people warn you about the sleepless nights and the vile bodily functions.They warn you about all sorts of other horrendous things and when you take on someone else’s child, a child who may well end up with all sorts of emotional problems, well you can imagine the horror stories then. You don’t have the cute baby part (though personally I’d have wanted to skip that part anyway). You have a three and half year old, prone to temper tantrums and used to doing things someone else’s way. It’s not easy or as exciting as you try to tell yourself it will be.

However, all that awful stuff you have to deal with is fleeting and happens rarely. It is draining, but only on a temporary level.

No, it was for the first year at least, the day to day stuff which knocked me sideways. The loneliness, the frustrations, the worry about the little things no one told you about. Like how he wouldn’t be able to go to sleep for 3 months without you sitting holding his hand. Or how you’d have to tell him every time you went to the loo or to put the rubbish out as he couldn’t be sure you’d not leave.

Of course though, time healed these things.

However, time hasn’t completely healed the loneliness I feel, not yet at least. I have had to sacrifice much over the past 3 years, particularly in terms of friendships, visitors, relationships of any kind. That’s the tough part and may well continue to be. That is also the very selfish part of all this. When I took my nephew on, I didn’t realise how hard that would hit me. However, I made a decision and knew there would be many sacrifices, so it is hardly fair to moan about them.

But you know what? Three years on, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s no longer as tough as it was. No where near. There are moments (though there are less of them than there were) when I yearn for the previous freedom I enjoyed between the ages of 18 and 36. (More selfishness.) But then don’t all parents? I’m no different. There are days when the stress of social services involvement gets to me and I have to follow other peoples rules and I want to scream and shout! (Not all parents have to deal with that I guess.)

However, there is not a day when day when I don’t smile, laugh and get to be six again. Everyday when the relationship between me and my nephew becomes stronger and I watch him learn to trust and to love and to grow as a human being. And that is amazing and priceless and makes any sacrifices worth it.

I don’t know what I was worrying about back then.

It is true. Time fixes most things.

And life? Well it deals you  tough times, tough decisions,whatever your circumstances. Sometimes you wonder where you’ll find the courage to face it. However, we have to remember that:

courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying “I will try again tomorrow”‘ (Mary Anne Radmacher)

And then tomorrow turns into three years later and you’ve done it!  You’ve done tomorrow 1095 times. And each tomorrow gets easier.

So when I feel that things are tough and I can’t face it, I think back to December 2011 and early 2012 and remember: “You did that Joanne; you can do pretty much anything.”

I’m not sure how much sense any of that made, but I felt compelled today to write about this personal part of my life. Because I feel very blessed.

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Oh and a Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2015 brings many good times. :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wherever you find Love…

Last year I posted the poem below to the blog with far more of a preamble than I will this year.

I’m posting it again for three reasons:

1) It’s Christmas and as the poem is about that, and I won’t be posting anything else over Christmas, I’d like you to see it as a little Christmas present to you all who still bother to come over and read my stuff. A massive thanks for that. Really.

2) I need to give myself a kick up the backside as I’m not sure I have done what I said I’d do in the poem this year. So maybe another reminder will help me be a better human being this coming one.

3) Folks who read it last year liked it. So, perhaps you will too.

And so I wish you all a Merry Christmas. Thanks for all the support over the past year on this ‘ere blog. It means a lot so many of you read my ramblings. Hopefully I’ll catch you back here in the New Year. Blimey. 2015 already. We’re way in the future! Happy Christmas all. Hope yours is a good one. :)

2014-12-07 20.44.36

A Christmas Promise

It’s Christmas again 

For one and all

A time for cheer;

To have a ball.

But above all else

This festive season,

Remember this truth

Love is its reason.

Give gifts with full heart

And never have fear

To show friends and family,

Or those you hold dear,

How much they mean to you

For when all’s said and done

I hope they’ll be there

When the presents are gone.

So Happy Christmas to all

The people I know

I may not often say it,

Or take time to show

How much you all mean

All the year through

Perhaps next year I’ll try harder

In all that I do.

To not take you for granted

For maybe next year

Those with me right now

Won’t be so near.

They may move away

In spirit or mind

In geographical location

Or themselves to find.

So don’t be complacent

Think back to the start

How things are always different

In December’s heart

Can I carry the love

All the year long?

I think I should try

For to not would be wrong.

Merry Christmas to you all

Each and every one

I hope this coming year 

Is both peaceful and fun.

I hope it’s filled with love

Not just in taking, but giving

For love is the one thing

That makes life worth living.

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THE PACT (PART TWO): A SHORT STORY COLLABORATION

Joanne:

Recently I was asked to take part in this story hop which is based on the parlour game Exquisite Corpse. The story is made up of 300 words each from 15 different writers who only knew what the story was when it got to their part. It’s then been posted on Nillu’s blog in three parts. This is part two from writer’s 6-10. Part three comes next week and if you follow the links on this post you can find part one. A fun experiment to be part of! :)

Originally posted on Nillu Nasser Stelter:

Here it is, part two of our short story collaboration, based on the Surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse. If you haven’t had a chance to read part one yet, you’ll find it here. Thanks once again to Madame Editors Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who are also part of this week’s writing team. You can find bios and links to individual author websites at the end of the piece. Happy reading and hope you’ll be back for the third and final part next week.

Linda Huber

The police car wound through town, Will trembling in the back and Todd tense beside him. To Will’s surprise they didn’t turn up the High Street towards the police station.

“Hey, where are you going?” The policeman in the passenger seat was astounded. The driver made no answer, but Will knew. They were going home.

Granny was waiting at the door, the papers he had…

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