Shadowmaker – the beginning

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Image : Pixabay

Here, just for fun, is the opening of my YA novel Shadowmaker, a time travel yarn that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. It’s had a little notice – a shortlsting in a magazine competition and it made it to second reads in a Hodderscape open house – but no takers as yet. As I’m considering putting it back out there, any creative criticism – especially from you YA readers and writers – would be gratefully received.


 

The Gift

Edie looked around the kitchen, at food-splashed walls the colour of cowpats and woodlice moored to the floor by lakes of cooking oil. Shouldn’t August sunshine make a place look less like a squat?

‘It’s disgusting.’ She was tired of  carrying boxes and being sticky with dirt. And although they still hadn’t unpacked yet, she was already tired of living in a basement.

‘It’s fine,’ Mum said, dragging the bucket closer to her. ‘Just needs a bit of love. More importantly, it’s cheap. My new job doesn’t pay enough to be fussy.’

Edie groaned. ‘It doesn’t need love, it needs a blowtorch. The carpet looks like a defrosting woolly mammoth.’

Mum giggled. ‘Funny.’

Edie wasn’t trying to be funny. She’d left her friends and her home behind for a flat that smelt like a fish and chip shop run by rats. The thought made her want to punch the wall.

Mum hadn’t listened when Edie begged to stay in Manchester. So one Saturday, after an hour of swearing and door slamming, Edie stormed from the house to the nearest salon, where she’d had every inch of her shoulder-length copper hair shaved from her head. Mum hadn’t said a word when Edie returned home, but her eyes had spoken for her. She’d loved Edie’s hair – and Edie had been sure to keep it cropped ever since.

‘Make yourself useful,’ said Mum, emerging from the cupboard to flick her with a rubber glove the colour of phlegm. ‘Could you fetch me some fresh water, please?’

Edie twitched her arm away. ‘Well, that’s assault, for a start.’

Mum fixed her with cool green eyes and her ‘you’re pushing your luck’ face. ‘How about you mope less and help more. And after you’ve fetched the water, can you nip upstairs and ask Flora for the back door key.’

Edie sagged. ‘Can’t you go? The house stinks of poodles and pee.’

‘Don’t be mean, love. She’s an old lady living alone. She’d appreciate the company.’

‘She’d have more company if she didn’t smell of poodles and pee.’

‘Edie!’

‘All right, for goodness sake!’

      ***

If only she had a Taser.

As her finger touched the bell, there was an explosion of yapping from the other side of the door. Before today, Great Aunt Flora had just been spidery writing in birthday cards and a five pound note every Christmas.  Now they were living in her basement. Would Edie have to call her Aunty? Well, she could get stuffed. Mum and her Nan had been her only relatives for sixteen years. Now Nan had died, she didn’t want or need a replacement.

‘Bluey!’ Flora’s voice was the same pitch as the dogs’ yapping and was so loud, she could’ve been standing on the step beside Edie. ‘Leave Poppet alone or it’s the naughty step for you. Sammy, move your bum. Budge, you lot. Mummy’s got to open the door. Where’s that key?’

A couple of minutes and a torrent of swearing later and the key was found, two chains swung free and four bolts were loose. Despite the hot sun on the back of her neck, Edie thought of crypts as the door creaked open and through a narrow crack, she glimpsed a walnut face and two raisin eyes.

‘Hi, Flora. Mum asked me…’

‘Quick.’

She gripped Edie’s arm, pulling her inside as the front door slammed shut. Edie blinked in the gloomy hallway. There was a smell like public lavatories and soft, snuffling noises coming from somewhere by her ankles. She jumped as something rough and wet brushed the back of her hand.

‘They’re just curious, lovey.’ Flora’s voice receded along the hall. ‘Sorry if I was a bit rough, but Bluey’s a little sod. Nearly escaped yesterday when the postman delivered the nightie I’d ordered. A cracker it is, all pink and flowery. You can’t hardly see the bra cups for lace.’

Edie tried not to imagine Flora wearing a nightie, but failed.

‘Little bugger’s got an adventurous soul, see,’ said Flora.

‘Is that the dog or  the postman?’

Silhouetted against a rectangle of light from the kitchen doorway, Flora tossed a sluggish miniature poodle  to one side with a flick of her slipper. The dog shivered from nose to rump then trotted towards Edie, joining a circle of eager, weepy-eyed faces.

‘Don’t let’em bother you,’ called Flora. ‘Suckers for tickles, that’s all. Come to the kitchen. Got some squash somewhere .’

As her eyes grew accustomed to the light, Edie glimpsed walls crowded with photographs and portraits, surrounded by chocolate brown wallpaper and pale green paintwork – it was like an art gallery inside a mint Aero. Keen to escape all the eyes, she headed for the kitchen, dogs parting before her. She was pretty sure a grave would feel less claustrophobic.

The kitchen resembled a junk shop,  cluttered with stacks of yellowing newspapers, food packets, tins and dismantled electrical appliances. Edie picked up something that looked like a food mixer with a propeller on the top.

Flora blushed. ‘Great fun taking ‘em apart, bloody nightmare putting ‘em back together again. Now where’s that squash? Ah, pantry.’ Flora ducked through a bead curtain with a clatter of plastic.

Edie was reluctant to trust even mucky jeans to Flora’s chairs, which had the same greasy sheen as the basement’s kitchen counters. There were more photos hung by the cooker, so for lack of anything else to do, she wandered over, careful to avoid an Everest of mouldy tea bags heaped by the gas ring. The first picture she looked at was of a young woman in a long dress, hair scraped back from her face. Behind the woman hung a painted backdrop of broken stone columns and tumbling roses. On the cardboard mount in gold lettering, an inscription read Albert Dee esq 1881.

‘There you go. Found ‘e under a load of old fairy lights.’ Flora reappeared from the pantry draped in cobwebs, a sprinkling of dust in her hair. ‘Why’s it what you want’s always at the back?’ She brandished a mug filled with something luminous.

The liquid had a chemical smell, a mixture of fruit and plastic chairs. Edie forced a smile, carefully resting the mug on the draining board.

‘You found my pics, then,’ said Flora. ‘Gorgeous, wasn’t I?’

Edie looked between the graceful figure in the photograph and the gnome-woman beside her. ‘That’s you?’ The words were out of her mouth before she could think of something polite to say.

Flora just smiled. ‘Oh, yeah. ‘Bout 21 there.’ She pointed to the next picture along, which had crinkled from the heat of the oven. ‘Bit younger there. Too skinny, but that was mostly corset. Good one of the ghost, though.’

‘Ghost?’ Edie had seen the smudge of grey but assumed it was dirt. Now, as she peered closer, the mark resolved into a translucent figure, dark blotches marking the eyes and mouth.

‘I was so young when I met Albert,’ sighed Flora. ‘He was a snapper in town and I was a girl who saw dead folk. Being a medium was fashionable then, see.’ She traced the name with her fingertip. ‘So handsome ‒ moustache like a floor brush. All fake, o’ course.’

‘The moustache?’ Conversations with Flora mangled her brain.

Flora laughed, showing a mouthful of unnaturally white teeth. ‘Not the ‘tache, Muppet. The pics. You can’t photograph real ghosts.’ She dabbed at her nose with her cardigan sleeve. ‘Now, what do you want?’ Flora was soon scuffing back to the pantry.

Edie looked up at the gold lettering: 1881

 

K. Rawson : Hitlist

 

 

Anyone who spends time exploring the wide open plains, narrow gorges, warm shallows and chilly depths of WordPress will be aware of what a wonderfully creative slew of people there are out there.

Every time you discover one of these people it’s as if you’ve stumbled across a nugget of gold, a precious stone you can hold in your palm. And because of the intimate nature of reading, you can feel that discovery is all you’re own, a wonderful secret few others have seen.

But there are some discoveries that should be shouted from the rooftops …

Those of you who take part in the writing prompt What pegman saw will have already discovered the talented writer and fellow Friday Fictioneer K. Rawson‘s stunning short fiction, but did you also know that she’s written a novel for young adults with a great premise and the most timely of subjects?

K herself describes the book as

‘a YA Novel about a teenage girl who writes a computer virus to get revenge on cyberbullies’.

Do take a read of the preview above.

 

Welcome to the ‘beautiful jungle’ of kids’ fiction

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Image: Pixabay

You wait for one blog post about the merits of children’s fiction, and then two come along at once ...

The other day, I was whining on about how underrated kid’s literature was. How the adult reading public tend to see the classification YA or childrens’ and flee like kittens on a hot griddle.

I was pontificating about how serious the themes in YA often are, how high the quality of writing is in books such as Booker Longlister Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. How not all fiction for young people drips with vampires and werewolves and soppy, sparkly love triangles.

People just don’t read the stuff, I whined. Why won’t anyone listen to me? I prattled. Seriously, if you want to read a writer in full whinge mode, then here is a good place to start.

And then do you know what happened?

The next day – the very next day – after that blog was blogged, the Costa Book of the Year was announced. Formerly the Whitbread Book Awards, they’re a pretty deal. Previous winners include Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Ted Hughes, Hilary Mantell – some of the biggest of the big hitters in literary terms.

There are categories for first novel, novel, biography, poetry and children’s books and then an overall winner is chosen.

And that winner this year was …

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge – a novel written for children featuring a 14-year-old heroine.

Now, I’m not saying tha Costa judges allowed the contents of this blog to sway their final decision. I would never suggest I have the ear of such a prestigious group of people, though it seems a hell of a coincidence, doesn’t it?

And, though I haven’t yet read The Lie Tree I will definitely search it out in the future – it’s a Victorian murder mystery which involves science, gender politics and a tree that grows when you whisper lies to it. What’s not to love about that presmise?

It’s only the second time the Costa Book of the Year has been won by a children’s book, the first one being … The Amber Spyglass

Now, I’m sure the total of £35,000 in prize money Hardinge won will be very much appreciated.

But even better in my view, will be the increase in attention and sales, which will perhaps spill over to other kid’s writers.

As Hardinge said when accepting the award,

For those people who might be hearing this who think that children’s and YA fiction is not their thing please do come and explore – there’s a beautiful jungle out there.

***

There were some other, very fine nominees for the award, my particualr favourite being Kate Atkinson –  if you haven’t read any of her books, you could do worse than start with her debut Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

 

How fundamentalism has helped a children’s classic to the screen

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Image:Pixabay

Why is children’s and YA fiction so underrated?

It still seems to me that the general populace are under the delusion that writing for young people is somehow easier than writing for adults.

I guess I can see why to some extent.

Often in the past, the word counts have been shorter than adult books, which translates to many as less effort from the author (though this has changed over time – Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books are chunky enough to hammer plasterboard into place). And some of the subject matter hasn’t helped as much is genre – fantasy, sci-fi, horror etc. And as we all know, ‘genre’ – whether in books or on the screen – often translates with reviewers as populist-not-really-serious-just-aiming-for-the-big-bucks rather than writing something-worthy-where-nothing-happens-apart-from-the-protagonists-growing-slightly-older-literary-fiction.

This preconception is not altogether true, of course.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of sparkly vampire nonsense out there and who could fail to notice the number of black-covered, fang-themed knock-offs cramming the bookshop shelves after the huge success of Twilight? As you also must have seen the grey simulacrums that stuffed the same shelves when E. L James was at her mucky masochistic height.

(On a side note, how quickly must publishers churn this stuff out when they spot a mega hit? It takes big publishers up to two years to get a book out in normal circumstances, yet Ninety Shades of Grey, Seventy Shades of Off-White and 101 Unhygienic Things To Do With a Handwhisk were chugging through the tills before most of us had agreed on a ‘safe word’.)*

Anyway, I digress.

A lot of serious subjects are tackled in the world of kids’ fiction. Apart from approaching heavyweight subjects such as mental illness, sexuality, suicide, the individual’s fight against totalitarianism, many are at least as well written as most ‘adult’ fiction.

Take the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Yep, they’re classed as kids books, but if you haven’t read them, please don’t let this put you off. They are well written, layered, dealing with more complex issues than 90% of the ‘2 for 1’ paperbacks in your local Tesco.

The Amber Spyglass was the first children’s book nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize – that’s how well written this stuff is.

Problem is, movie makers in their wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to take this knotty, beautiful trilogy and turn it into popcorn-multiplex fodder, as you may have witnessed in 2007’s The Golden Compass, reducing the subtle etchings of the first book into a one-note plot-driven piece (complete with new-Bond Daniel Craig) and skewing the public’s perception of the works in the process.

After lobbying from Christian fundamentalists in the States, the film had a disappointing box office and the sequels went unmade.

However, thanks to our beloved BBC, all is not lost – at least for those of us living in good old Blighty. For Auntie Beeb has commissioned a series based on the trilogy. So over several hours, we can hope to see something closer to Pullman’s original idea realised.

So, hurray for Pullman! Hurray for the Beeb! And hurray for intolerance!

For if there had been no anti-Golden Compass lobby, all three books may have been made into less than adequate films, thus making another adaptation redundant.

Do watch the BBC adaptation if you can – but read the books first, as a reminder of how great some children’s literature can be. 

***

 

*Don’t search Goodporn for these titles – I made them up. As I made up Goodporn. Or, at least, I hope I did.

Why I gave myself ‘permission to be crap’

 

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Image: Pixabay

 

When is a novel like an old jumper?  

Well, let’s start off by getting this straight – I’m a rubbish knitter. I know the theory of combining lengths of wool, needles and fingers, but have got no further than small strips of uneven textile, with even my best examples resembling something a box of frenzied kittens have been let loose on.

Anyway, in my experience, a novel resembles my attempts at knitting a jumper.

Both can be big, baggy – out of shape and slightly out of control. And full of holes. Where I want my text to be neat and controlled, where I want to create fantastic patterns and spin wonderful colours, there is instead a saggy, loose ‘something’ that resembles a novel as closely as a jumper does.

Well, alright, novels are not made from wool. They have chapters instead of rows and words instead of stitches … In fact, let’s drop the jumper simile now as I’m actually starting to feel like one of those aforementioned kittens – all tangled up and irritated enough to eat a nest full of sparrow chicks.

You get my point, I hope.

Writing a novel of 80,000 words or so is tough. Not only do you have to have an idea that will sustain you through what could be a year – several years? – of writing, you have to ‘juggle’ so many things.

There’s a ‘ball’ for character, one for plot, setting, sub-plot, theme, pace That’s six ‘balls’ on top of juggling the skills a writer hopefuly already possesses- the ability to write clear, interesting, cliche free prose. Surely, too many ‘balls’ and not enough hands.

You can see how easy it would be to find yourself empty-handed, surrounded by balls.

Now, I’ve written three of these unwieldy creations, all unpublished, of course and varying greatly in quality. At least two are unpublishable at the moment. The most ‘finished’ one is the YA fantasy novel. I’ve spent so long with this book, these characters – writing and re-writing – that I’ve written nothing else ‘big’ in the past two or three years.

But now I’m at the stage where I want professionals to consider the book, it’s time to crack on with the sequel, right? I have a reasonably coherent plot . I’ve given my characters plenty of opportunities to do some interesting, upsetting, dangerous, thrilling things. No one’s gonna come out of this one unscathed and in fiction, that’s a good thing. So far so great.

Thing is, the more I developed the plot, the more confident I felt in which direction my beloved Edie and her pals would go – the more unable I felt to write.

You see, the first book just spilled out. I plunged into the story like  a poodle BASE jumping off Niagara Falls – unaware I was doing anything wrong. I did it without a thought and with enough enthusiasm to power a rocket. And that helped me to just write.

Eight years after I started the first book, I’ve learned a lot – I’m better at this writing lark than I was back then. Problem is, I now know how hard it is to get it right.

The weight of this knowledge has been paralysing. I’ve stared at the screen, genuinely wondering how on earth I’d written a book before. I couldn’t imagine how any of my characters think or speak, what they would do in any given circumstance. I read and reread the opening chapters of the first book, trying to absorb the tone, the voice. I even started writing a few, faltering paragraphs. But still – I didn’t feel right.

And then I did something idiotic. I renamed the file I was working on. It’s now called

PERMISSION TO BE CRAP.

And the first line? The line that greets me everytime I open that file?

PERMISSION TO BE CRAP, SUH? PERMISSION GRANTED.

It’s worked. Instead of being hung up on creating something wonderful from the start, I’ve allowed myself to just write. I’m officially allowed to be rubbish.

Not everything I’ve written is good. The opening chapter at least will be deleted. But there’s a section or two where my characters have emerged, recognisable, with the same voices and speech patterns, the same attitudes.

So, next time you stare at a laptop screen, and the pressure is too much – give yourself permission to write execrable nonsense.

It might just help.

 

 

 

Books in the Blood # 6 The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

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Is it me, or has the world gone Superhero crazy? 

They’ve been around a long time, of course. Marvel and D.C Comics – the two publications most famous for their superheroic activities – have both been publishing since the thirties. In fact, pretty much all of the Superheroes you can think of – Batman, Superman, the X Men, all of the Avengers – have been around for fifty, sixty, seventy years plus.

I’m going to meander now, but bear with me and I’ll wander back to my point in a mo.

Do you think it might just be possible those early illustrators had deals with DuPont, the manufacturers of elastane, the rubbery stuff known as Lycra. Think of all of those all-in-one, figure-hugging, yes-the-caped-crusader-is-definitely-a-boy body suits ‒ all of the tights.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but this sort of thing was NOT every day wear for the dapper gent around town in the thirties, was it? Was Bogart wearing a pair of budgy smugglers under his Zoot suit? Did Cagney exclaim ‘Top of the world, Ma,’ clad in a rubbery onesy? If they did, I’ve – thankfully ‒ erased it from my memory.

There was clearly something about a chap wearing his underwear outside his brightly-coloured leotard in the thirties that spoke of manliness, mystery identities and a can-do attitude to an emergency situation that it perhaps wouldn’t if the characters were invented today.

Anyhow, I digress (and lord knows any regular followers out there will know that my posts are pretty much all digression).

The point I was trying to make before I was so rudely distracted by Spandex, is that although Superheroes have been popular all of our lives, they seem to have grown and grown, until you can’t go near a multiplex  cinema during the summer months without being bombarded by crashy, bashy, smashy big-men-and-busty-women-hitting-each-other movies.

It used to be that boys wanted to be train drivers or pilots or rock stars. My son wants to be Tony Stark (Iron Man to the uninitiated).

I guess I don’t blame the film companies. If the budget for one film is big enough to fund a small war, then to stay afloat they need to make a profit big enough to end the same war by buying off the enemy with Ferraris and holiday homes in the Hamptons.

It was different when I was a girl.

Yes, we had the animated Spider-Man (who can forget that theme tune? Even my son knows it and he’s never seen the programme!) and we had Adam West and Burt Ward as the deliciously camp crusader and his feathery sidekick in Batman and Robin (now those boys really knew how to wear Lycra). But none of them made it huge at the cinema.

And even though they had a delightful array of gorgeous girls playing Catwoman, I had no aspiration to be her. The reasons for this were threefold. One, I got out of breath trying to high kick. Two, I could never have been that flirty and seductive – I would’ve turned beetroot red and hidden in the Batcave if asked to be alluring. And three, PVC is unforgiving over dubious curves, a pot belly and knock knees.

What I wanted when I was a girl was to be Laura Chant from The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.

Laura starts the book as a normal girl whose younger brother Jacko is possessed by the brilliantly named Carmody Braque, an ancient, parasitical being who preys on humans, sucking out their life force until they die and he moves on to his next victim.

Now, Laura is, of course not normal at all. She’s a witch-in-waiting, a fact recognised by a boy at her school, the gorgeously dreamy, and if I remember slightly brooding, Sorenson ‘Sorry’ Carlisle – also a witch.

There follow trials, danger, lots of sinister witchy behaviour and a race to save Jacko. In the end, Laura has to sacrifice her normal life and ‘changeover’ to being that of a fully-fledged, pointy-hat wearing, dancing-naked-in-the-moonlight-for-Satan witch to save the wee one (except not the last bit).

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. I wanted to be Laura so much it was physically painful.

There’s a scene near the end where she creates a miniature zoo on her rug – elephants, giraffes, the lot – just with the wave of her hand.

I wanted to be a witch – I wanted ‘Sorry’ Carlisle – I wanted a miniature elephant.

Hmm. Replace incantations with superpowers, pointy hats and cloaks with Lycra, killer boots and capes…

Maybe I can see why my son is so besotted with Tony after all.

Time Travel and what to do with it

silhouette-391653_1280I’m writing a novel, one of three that are at a not-a-bad-effort-but-not-quite-there-yet-stage. Two of the books are good ideas, they have ‘legs’ and I know one day I’ll return to them, jiggle them into some kind of readable format and have them published.

But there’s one, my true love, my first…

It’s YA and features Edie*, a ginger headed, arsy teenage girl as the main protagonist. She finds time travel, an old lady with a dozen miniature poodles, a two-thousand-year old psychopath who decides the best thing is just to kill her as nastily as he can… You know how these things go.

Edie’s the teenage me I wanted to be. Mouthy and self-confident when I was painfully shy and reserved, brave and headstrong when I was chicken and biddable (Okay, maybe my Mum would disagree with the biddable bit…)

Edie’s a great girl, if a bit of a handful, but she does have one talent I would **skin a badger for – she can travel through time. Well, to be precise she can travel BACK in time, and there are restrictions on where and when she can visit, but I ain’t publishing a synopsis here, so let’s just say she’s a Time Traveller.

Time travel is a popular subject in fiction, recurring and reinventing itself since Mark Twain and H.G Wells and is it any wonder? Who can seriously say there isn’t at least one period or event they’d like to visit? Roman, Elizabethan, Victorian… there’s some time, Somewhen, we’d all like to see. I’ve included these eras in Edie’s travels (or will include in sequels- yes, planning sequels before I even snare an agent!) I just need to set a whole book in World War II and I’ll have the secondary school history curriculum covered!

What would I do if I could time travel like Edie?

Well, I reckon my research would be a lot more through. I can imagine what a Tudor privy smelt like, how it felt to wear armour in the Roman arena, but if I could go back in time… Of course, I’d need to live long enough to return to the present and with my running/fighting/thinking on my feet that could be a big ask.

Would I go back in time and tell myself to start writing earlier, go back to the teenage me and tell her I needed to stick at my studies or I’d spend the next decades in low paid retail work?

I dunno. I reckon living in grotty bedsits and lodging houses with fungus growing out of the walls, living with arsonists, bipolar sufferers, drug addicts and folk in witness protection has all added to my knowledge of people and filtered into my writing.

Maybe I’m better for being a late starter.

N.B One thing I won’t be doing if I time travel is killing my own Grandad. And why is it always Grandfathers and not Grandmothers (we’ve all known some awful old ladies, let’s be honest) and why do scientists think the first thing we’ll do if we discover time travel is go back and murder a family member?

Scientists are weirdos.

*And for those interested in reading my Edie novel… You’ll have to wait a little longer. An agent submission package is about ready to send out. If only I could see into the future and discover who’s more likely to pick it up, I could save myself a lot of hassle!

**No badgers were skinned in the writing of this post.


Writing 101 Day Nineteen. Today is a free writing day. Write at least four-hundred words, and once you start typing, don’t stop. No self-editing, no trash-talking, and no second guessing: just go. Bonus points if you tackle an idea you’ve been playing with but think is too silly to post about.