Monday, 28 December 2009
Snow covered trees on the fells
I spent a week in northern Finland, a part of Lapland, just before Christmas. We experienced temperatures as low as -30C and could only cope outside in special thermal suits and boots. I needed a balaclava to keep the tip of my nose from freezing over! The only part of our bodies exposed to the air was around the eyes. Remarkably, with the correct equipment, we were outside for hours in both daylight and at night. Our hope was to see something of the Northern Lights. To do that we had to stand out on a frozen lake between from 11.00pm - midnight and stare at the northern sky. We were extremely lucky to see the so called 'quiet' lights, on one night only.
But the Lights were not the main event of this holiday. To me, as a writer, it was the extraordinary silence and beauty of the Arctic and I felt that the extreme cold was part of that beauty. This was a landscape unlike any other I had ever experienced. In my notebook I recalled all the accounts I have read about the great polar explorers."How did they endure the wastes of the Beardmore Glacier? 9,000 feet high and Scott writes, ..huge drifts collected, and the sledges were quickly buried. It was the strongest wind I have known here this summer. Their endurance comes home to me just trying to cope outside even without blizzards and snow drifts.Our week is truly Arctic. Last week there was fog and temperatures hovered around -4C. How disappointing that would have been. Thank Heavens we are having a true Arctic experience. But the cold is really hard work!"
Miriam and cousin Val in full thermal gear.
Standing in the doorway of an igloo. Its only -17C and so I can manage without my balaclava and gloves. Feels almost warm!!
Our guide for the week was an experienced outdoors Lappi guide, Antti, who often quoted his grandfather. Dress up warm, he urged us. My grandfather says, "Warm doesn't break the bones." Antti led us through the forest, showed us all the different animal tracks from reindeer to mice, taught us how to make kindling from logs, made sure we could always tell north - ants build their hills on the south side of trees - moss grows on the south side of the trees, facing the light. And what should we do if we get lost in the forest? "My grandfather says, If you are lost, walk back home."
Pages from my notebook
Our guide, Antti, heating berry juice over the fire in a wooden Teepee. There are reindeer skins on the benches and the berry juice has traditional cloudberries, picked in the Lapland forest. It kept us going all week.
The morning is as dark as night and we had to set out alarms to know which way was up.Daylight is rationed to less than four hours by late December and the sun never appears. But gradually the sky changes from deep midnight black to Stephenson blue by 9.00am.; the colour of the ink in my old school fountain pen. By ten on a clear winter's day the sky is powder blue and the clouds are tinged with rosebud pink. It is a beautiful invigorating light and gives you the energy to set off and explore before the dark sets in by three o'clock. We don't realise how lucky we are in a London winter having 8 hours of daylight and the wonderful sun blazing sometimes in the sky. I didn't realise how much I had missed the actual sight of the sun until I arrived home and saw it blazing over Hampstead Heath.
I always collect found objects from the ground when I travel. In the picture below are two stones from the amethyst mine we visited. They contain glimmers of the purple amethyst and also quartz. There is also a piece of bark and cone from a conifer tree. I found them in a cluster lying on the snow and when I returned nothing had moved, been blown around or covered up. The forest floor remains as motionless as the trees. It is almost eerie.
To live without the sun would be to die, piece by piece, a little every day. But spending time in the great, pure silence of the Arctic was a gift and a privilege and will inspire my writing for a long time to come. Andreas Alarieston, a wonderful artist who recorded the life of the traditional Sami people says, "The reindeer are excellent predictors of the weather." In the paintings below you can see a reindeer with his Sami herder and also a painting of the old post office in the trunk of a tree. The life of the Sami people is changing but we were given a peek into how to survive in the Arctic forest no matter how harsh the weather. My notebook and pen were my survival tools.
The Reindeer Driver Rests and The Post Office at Hankankama. Paintings by A.Alriesto.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Tennis Masters, O2 Centre, London, 2009
I have been a fan of tennis and the British tennis players in particular for the last ten years. My son, who is an excellent player, got me interested and now he says I'm a better commentator than the professionals! I have really enjoyed the careers of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and also followed less well know British players such as Arvind Parmar. In the last two years I have watched the rise of Andy Murray with great pleasure. But we also have some interesting teenage British girls to look out for, such as Laura Robson. And of course the great players keep on astonishing us, such as the one and only Roger Federer.
Many Brits grumble that our home grown tennis players are useless because they don't win Grandslams,especially Wimbledon. But our tennis players have shown true grit, determination and perseverance in the face of an onslaught of criticism. What does this have to do with authors who are writing novels?
Taking a break : end of chapter?
As a novelist who has been through the ups and downs in the last three years of trying to get my novels published, I have often been inspired by the tennis players. Young people in their teens and early twenties show an ability and inner strength to bounce back from deep disappointment and failure often not seen in adults twice their age. In the middle of the long hot grandslam season, I have watched Andy Murray crash out in the quarter finals when he was expected to be a finalist, face the cameras for a gut grinding interview within minutes of huge disappointment and humiliation and then come back in the next Slam, more determined than ever.
Slouched on my sofa, with the latest rejection in my hand, or worse, total silence after waiting for weeks or months for an offer from an agent or a publisher, I have found myself taking heart as Rafa, Murray, Federer and Dojkovitch pull themselves up by their Adidas laces, shut their ears and eyes to the taunts and humiliations and get back on the court.
The singles tennis court is one of the loneliest places on earth. No team mates to support you, a crowd that may well be baying for your blood and all you have between triumph and failure is the tension on your racket and your determination to persevere and win.
So it is with the writer's attic, wherever that may be. Ultimately all of the support falls away - Facebook, critique group, trusted writing partner, tutor and the family. In order to progress along the marathon of writing a novel, the end of which may be months or even years away, with no sure promise of reward, the writer has to be able to sit alone and motivate herself to write and write and write. Just as the singles player must stand alone for the long hours of the grandslam match with only his lonely thoughts to sustain him, so must the long distance writer be able to maintain their pace and their wordcount, alone and inside their own head, hour after hour, after week, after month, after year. Little wonder that so many fall by the wayside, unable to sustain the merciless self belief.
Is it all worth it? Ask Rafa and Andy. But I think that the reward for all the hard work is worth the journey and the journey alone is worth the setting out. Happy Writing.
The launch of my first novel, 'Secret Territory,' a novel for adults which took three years to write.
Wednesday, 18 November 2009
But a new storm was due in November 2007 and on the news the talk was all about global warming and the rise in sea levels. We would have to expect more threats from the sea and much worse flooding than in 1953. Bangladesh which is only one metre above sea level could be submerged in the future.
I decided to write my story about climate change to explore this growing threat.
I felt very strongly it was important that my story helped children to feel empowered. I wanted to show them that they could take action to help prevent climate change, rather than just sit around worrying about it.
In 2009 my story, 'Tommo and the Bike Train' was published in the anthology, 'Under the Weather' stories about climate change, edited by Tony Bradman (Francis Lincoln)
My story about Tommo is highlighted on the back page.
Tommo is a typical 12 year old growing up in Camden, playing football in the streets with his best friend,Deep,whose family come from Bangladesh. Tommo is happy with his life, around the flats and at school. He can't imagine living anywhere else.
Tommo's flats in Camden
Then his parents announce they are moving to the east coast of England. Tommo finds himself at the end of a lane near the sea, with no other kids around and his Dad has to drive him to school everyday. He hates it. Its November and dark by four. The sea sounds like a wild beast outside his window.
In Geography they are doing global warming and floods in Bangladesh. As the world heats up the sea levels will rise and flooding will become worse. Deep tells Tommo that his grandma died in Bangladesh last time there were floods. "Drowned?" says Tommo. "Snake bite," says Deep. When there are floods in Bangldesh dozens of people die from snakebites. Losing their habitats the snakes climb onto roofs with the humans and end up in their bedding with terrible consequences.
I learnt about the danger from snakes when teaching Geography in Camden classrooms. I remember being horrified at this ultimate cruelty after everything that the flood victims have gone through.
Flood victims and the snakes
Tommo worries about saving all the grannies of the world as the sea levels rise and floods get worse. Then one morning in school the Head informs them that a storm surge is predicted down the North Sea and they will all be evacuated to the school buildings. Tommo and his family leave their home during the storm and camp out overnight in the school hall. Then Tommo gets his brilliant idea. He decides he is personally going to stop global warming over his town by persuading the other kids to bike to school, instead of driving. They meet up and form a Bike Train for safety.
I love writing to a brief and this is the second short story I have had published in an anthology. The first story, 'Samir Hakkim's Healthy Eating Diary' was published in 'Give me Shelter' stories of child asylum seekers, edited by Tony Bradman, Francis Lincoln, 2007. The anthology was short-listed for the UKLA award.
The character of Samir, an unaccompanied child asylum seeker from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, appeared again in my new novel, HIDDEN, to be published in Oct 2010, Meadowside Books.
Writing short fiction, working to briefs, focuses the mind beautifully and you never know where it may lead.
Perhaps I will go on to write more about Tommo in the future.
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Writing in a lonely attic ( or in my case, on the kitchen table after the kids had gone to bed) did not really take me towards my goal of becoming a published writer. Nor did it help much to read to family and friends. Ultimately the work needs the rigour of other writers, either in a committed critique group or in a tutor-lead setting.
Running a workshop in North Finchley.
I have lead workshops and been a member of critique groups for over fifteen years. Most people need the cool objective eye of another and the support to move their writing towards their goals. Very few people remain in the attic and achieve that goal.
These days there are so many options to choose from and if all else fails, start your own group. That's what I did on more than one occasion and my novels are proof of how important that has been for me.
This month the writer and blogger, Tracy Ann Baines, has posted two articles I have written on critique groups and tutor lead workshops. Here are the links :
Don't battle on alone wondering if you are going in the right direction. Join a class, find a critique group, meet with other committed writers, go to writers' events, find out about the industry and you'll be plunged into a new and exciting world which will support your journey to becoming a published writer.
Sunday, 25 October 2009
I try to leave out the parts other people skip. Elmore Leonard.
Writing anything can involve such a huge effort that many people feel they can't face the redraft. And yet without the redraft, have we really written anything at all? Professional writers talk a great deal about the number of drafts they have gone through. But this doesn't mean they have started all over again.(Although of course it might, as I did with a novel last year. More of that later.)
Without the intention and committment to redrafting, a writer is unlikely to move their writing to a more complete and professional footing, where it will attract the attention of the industry. So how should we engage with the rewriting process without feeling that we will never finish the work?
SHARE YOUR WORK
I thought the best way to answer this would be by outlining the process I went through with my forthcoming novel, HIDDEN. I wrote the first draft of the novel in six months, quite quickly really. But along the way I was part of a critique group who were giving me feedback on themes, chapters, character development, etc. I didn't write alone.
Once the first draft was completed I happened to meet an editor, Gill Evans, from Walker Books and also I was taken on by an agent. However, the novel was rejected by the editor, who gave me a page of suggestions for rewrites. But I had moved on to a second novel, my agent continued to submit HIDDEN and I didn't do the rewrites. At the end of the year the agent dropped out of the business. So I had no agent and no publisher. I felt lost. I also felt that my manuscript needed a thorough rewrite.
I spent the Christmas holidays struggling with the comments from Walker books, other critique feedback and re-reading books which I felt underpinned the voice I was looking for with my main character.
BACK ON TRACK
At the beginning of 2008 I started HIDDEN again, with a whole new, exciting voice which had emerged from all my thinking and reading and struggling. It was worth it. By the end of 2008 I had a new agent who had made very useful suggestions for rewrites and had begun submitting. The journey was not yet over but I felt I was on a more certain path.
In September 2009 I was signed by my new publisher, Meadowside Children's Books. So that's it you might think, no more rewriting. But no, the industry doesn't work like that. My new editor,Lucy Cuthew, had an excellent range of suggestions to improve the book and this is my work for the rest of this year.
How do I feel about yet more rewrites? I'm loving it.
So what am I doing? Correcting grammar and spelling? No, that's the job of the copy editor.
Rewriting involves a new engagement with the text, new inspiration, taking your mind on a walk down a new path, to see the chapters, passages, themes, in a new light. Rewriting is your chance to enrich your text or remove the unnecessary parts and create an even better book than the earlier draft.
Regard all of your writing as rewriting, right from the start. Don't be afraid of rewrites. Redrafting should be an enjoyable and exciting experience which takes you deeper into the world you have created. Your imagination gets another chance to take off and follow themes which perhaps got lost in earlier drafts.
Writing a novel is the marathon of the writing profession. We cannot expect to get it all down in even two or three goes. The more practice we have in rewriting, the easier it gets.
Sunday, 18 October 2009
In the last three years my notebooks have been full of notes, thoughts, character studies, landscape descriptions, relating to my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island.
Here is an extract from one of my notebooks. It is written on the beach on Hayling Island during a visit to work on my novels and most of the material in this extract has found its way into the finished texts.
On the small narrow beach I always think of as Mum's beach, a long finger reaching out eastwards across the Solent and ending in the yacht club. Winter, but warm in a strong blue sunlight. I clamber down the grassy dune and suddenly I am here again and completely alone. No-one comes here in winter. The dog walkers stay on the other side, the sailors drive on the rough road to the club.
Here the sand is pure, soft and white beneath the low cliff, hard packed and fringed with green along the tidal line. I love tide in or tide out. At tide out the beach flattens out and my footprints sink satisfylingly deep. Brent geese from Canada, in winter migration, bob on the mirrored ripples. I collect driftwood, shells and pebbles.
At the head of Sandy Point the sand stretches out beyond the yacht club, beyond the boats tethered on the beach. Here the sand is white and gold, deep soft and luxurious, hardly ever used. Bathers never come here in summer. The sea holds hidden dangers, secret whirlpools to suck you down. This is a forgotten hideaway, a beach I used to come to with Mum when she was alive and we walked the dogs and later I ran with my kids.
Further west before the tourist beaches, covered with pebbles now to prevent the Island washing into the sea, there is the Lifeboat Station. Generations of men have launched from here into the waters that can rise twenty feet at the neap tide. On weekend afternoons you can wander in and volunteers sell RNLI souvenirs to raise money. I always buy something, usually a notebook and a pen......
Keep all your notes, scraps of paper with interesting words, sentences, paragraphs, all your notebooks and your drafts. Read back through them sometimes and discover the hidden nuggets for new inspiration.
Monday, 12 October 2009
Jumping around, in and out of many character's heads, makes it almost impossible for the reader to settle down and enter the 'fictional dream' of the story. Put more simply, Tish Farrell,says, "Find the right narrative point of view (POV) and your story's voice will ring clear and true. But mix up your viewpoints and you risk losing both reader and plot."
So what should the writer do?
When writing any piece of fiction - short story or novel, it is important to decide
from the outset whose story you are telling. You may decide on one voice for your story or two or three. But once you have made this decision, these are the only POVs the reader should have to commit to. Switching viewpoints from paragraph to paragraph, simply because you cannot work out how to show something from the single POV,won't work. The reader will not trust your voice and will put the book down.
Almost anything a writer wants to show can be achieved by the single POV. It is not necessary to be inside a character's head to find out about them. After all, in real life, we are only inside out own heads. Yet we successfully interact with a huge range of people. This is because we weigh up others by their actions and their words.
Action and dialogue are two of the most important tools for the writer. These are the tools by which we 'show' our character, rather than 'tell' in long, boring info-dumps, all the details of their lives and characteristics.
Commit to a POV for your novel, step into your character's shoes and revel in the challenge of holding your POV for the next 50,000 words. Its a wonderful place to be.
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
"The human spirit," says Melvin, "shows how people keep on trying and living and making relationships in the most dreadful of circumstances." In his latest novel, Nicholas Dane, he evokes the character of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist, a man who seems to be pure evil. But Melvin contends that Sykes was an abused child.
In Nicholas Dane, Melvin explores the experiences of abused children. The Sykes character is Jonesey, a violent criminal who abuses his girlfriend. Yet in a memorable scene, Melvin depicts another more mellow side to Jonesey and shows us his 'human spirit.' For Melvin, the human spirit lies in the bonds between people. "I think of the human spirit," writes Melvin. "as always moving towards the light. You don't always get there - but never stop moving!"
On the Arvon course and in our blog since, many of us have debated further this idea. It seems to me that everyone has something of the human spirit in them but sometimes we forget to show it in our characters.
Remember to show your characters as complex and multi-layered,just as we all are in real life. Even the most awful characters should have a moment when they offer a glimpse of another side, the possibility of the human spirit. The writer should be able to show such a moment with any character at some point in the text.
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
You can read more about my short fiction on my website, as well as my other publications, such as my first novel 'Secret Territory'.
But I have been working for over two years on a cycle of three novels for teenagers set on beautiful Hayling Island, opposite the Isle of Wight. The first novel has been under submission for over a year and it has been a roller coaster of a ride. I had an agent, who dropped out on me and then I had to search for another agent and survive several rejections. Then I had to survive all the ups and downs of editors wanting/not wanting/ not sure/ sure/ saying no/ in all the many forms such things take. To me the whole process felt like going through the eye of a needle and all the time the blue water and sky of Hayling beckoned me forward.
This week I have secured a three book offer for my novels with the wonderful Meadowside Books and the rollercoaster ride has all been worth it. I have gone through the eye of the needle. My books will be read.
If this is really what you want, then it is worth all the work, the writing, the re-writing, the doubts and the fears. if you 'Believe' in your work and you are prepared to settle in for the long haul, then you will go through the eye of the needle and your work will be read.
River encouraged us to visualise our critic and mine is a Tiger.
I wrote a piece imagining my tiger prowling the edge of my garden, while I sit in my study trying to write. It is dark and there is only the pool of light from my table lamp. Outside I can see the tiger padding up and down, jaws drooling,until suddenly he is in the room and my pen is frozen on my pad.
But is the Inner Critic only there stop us from writing with freedom and the wind in our hair? Or does my tiger have a useful role to play?
The answer is, Yes of course. I can dismiss my tiger when he is blocking my way forward. But I can also invite him in when I need his sensible thoughts on my work.
The important thing is to keep control. The tiger remains outside my garden fence until I decide to let him in, until I am ready. And not before.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
In my second novel, ILLEGAL, Lindy and Karl need to get away from the adults for a while.It is evening and they go to the Kench, a beautiful, very quiet spot on the south-east end of the Island. Karl breaks into a houseboat.
Monday, 21 September 2009
Sometimes when I sit down to write it feels like an impossible mountain to climb. I have a problem, I can't find my way through, I start to go down the distraction route, make coffee, fill the washing machine. Anything to run away from the mountain. But I know that the problem won't go away. I have to resolve it to restart the flow of writing. What can I do?
Friday, 18 September 2009
I have written journals all my life. Writing a journal can be part of the daily practice of keeping ourselves limbered up as writers. The journal is the place where we can explore our innermost thoughts and so it can be our most private of places. But I also find that my journal is a safe and comfortable place to write a stream of consciousness about a character or a problem in my story. Allowing my pen to stream words across the page can help to get my writing back on track.
Orkney water changes by the hour
Orkney water changes by the hour
rough swell to glassy green,
rough swell to glassy green,
beyond Noup Head
where two oceans meet,
Rossi dolphins rise and fall
like markers in the sea.
I could live here put down roots
rest my back on Brodgar’s Ring,
watch the red throat diver chicks
bobbing on the loch,
as the cargo boat leaves Hoy
and spring struggles out of winter.
I want to read by the midnight sun
bend my head to the Orkney wind.
But my skin dark in this Viking lair
lays down a different marker
my story strange
my home so far away.
Thursday, 17 September 2009
Write everyday to keep yourself limbered up and in practice as a writer. The more you write the easier it will become. Even if you only write one sentence.What about your shopping list?Choose half a dozen items and turn them into poetry.
Wholemeal bread, deodorant
mouthwash out those crumpets
drown the lot in pasta sauce,
2.5 potatoes, another bag of spuds
Man, I've got the bluegel blues
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
This is a whole new beginning. I am starting my first proper blog and I am very excited because this will be a whole new area of writing for me. I have added to other people's blogs but now its time for me to start my own new thread weaving its way across the Internet.
MIRIAM'S WRITING TIP : Decide to write for half an hour. Sit down at your writing space, write for 30 minutes exactly. Put your pen down and walk away. You will feel happy for the rest of the day because you will have done your writing.