Thursday, 26 November 2015

What does your book taste of? Finding your writer's voice

I’m waiting for my medlar to blet. Medlars are best eaten when they have started to rot. But only half of it is bletted. Will it be over-bletted by the time the other half has caught up?

Why am I doing this? Well, my inner reference library has a gap under medlar.

Good writing tastes of things. Shakespeare and Donne taste of medlars, quinces and sack. Quinces I have tasted. Sack is a near relation of sherry. Medlars I have yet to try. I imagine they taste of scrumpy and cloves, but I may be wrong and therefore I can’t fully step into Elizabethan literature, which is why I’m circling a medlar and considering its state of blettedness with a linen napkin tucked into my jumper.

Children’s books are tasty. Mary Poppins tastes of cough medicine and blancmange, the Famous Five books of bread and butter and a new laid egg (brown with a feather stuck to it). Oliver Twist is thin gruel.  The Borrowers tastes of cores and crumbs, Harry Potter of popping candy, Alice in Wonderland of tarts and toadstools, 101 Dalmatians of puppy steaks.

All of those classics have a distinctive taste that goes beyond food. Good writing has an inimitable flavour that pervades every sentence. It is prized by agents and publishers. They call it voice. It is part of, but not the same as, style. Literary agent, Donald Maass, describes it as ‘a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world.’ He says that agents ‘want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.’

So how to make your book like the medlar: a taste without substitute, essential reading, genre-extending? Many articles have been written on finding your voice. Most of them focus on accessing the subconscious by free writing, or finding your natural rhythm by writing as you speak.
To continue with the food-related metaphor here are some exercises to get you thinking about your personality, preferences and world view. The point is to recognise your creative drivers and allow your personality to dictate your expression, to give your books a taste that is entirely your own.

Write your own menus

Go mad with this. Write the menu you would have chosen as a child, the one you would choose on a beach in Bali, or after a long winter hike. Different menus suit different contexts, but give yourself permission to indulge your own specific tastes. Be a diva. If you want stilton and black pepper in your porridge go ahead (yes I do sometimes, and no I cannot possibly be pregnant). Do the same with your writing. Let it reflect your unique preferences.

(For me, much of the fun of writing Oy Yew was crazily food-related.)

Choose your eating style

Are you drawn to messy fingerfoods or the precision and ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony? Write as you eat, with control or plate-smashing abandon.

 Enhance your most interesting ingredients

Balsamic and black pepper bring out the flavour of strawberries. Exaggerated characteristics can work well in children’s books, but subtlety will add depth. Don’t smother your best ingredients with blandness such as ‘he got up and put on a checked shirt and black jeans.’ Who cares?

Experiment Fail Refine

Great chefs and Glaswegian chip fryers work this way. Be prepared to play with your ingredients. Put your own stamp on them. Someone has to be the first to deep fry a Mars bar.


As above, but with a dash of panache. Toss your crepe ceiling-ward then close your eyes, spin around twice and catch it with a flourish. Be unpredictable. Make the commonplace arresting with your own unique perspective.

 Light candles

Create an ambience. Any old candles will not do. Any old table setting will not do. The mood must match the meal. Give your book its own special atmosphere. The atmosphere of a restaurant is as important as the food. Locations can match or clash with the meal. I think a  full English should be eaten in a back street cafe with formica tables, crusty sauce bottles and condensation on the windows, but it might be interesting to eat it outside a Himalayan monastery.

Some of the best books have a sense of place so strong that it’s said to be like another character.  Lewis Grassic Gibbon has the most distinctive voice and every sentence drips with the atmosphere of the Grampians. I hang out in the pages just to experience the sweet wildness of it.

Don’t follow recipes too closely

If following an old formula don’t let it show. Improvise and add your own combination of spices. The magic is destroyed if the sauce spattered recipe book is left on the worktop.

Be inspired by the great stylists but don’t imitate. Be aware of tradition but not constrained by it.

 Invite clashing guests

Who would you love to put in a room together and why? Who would you like to see arguing the toss and over what? This should throw light on your own preoccupations. You will be spending a lot of time with these characters so you must find them interesting. Observe. Try to understand everyone’s point of view but feel free to be subtly or blatantly partisan. Whose cause will you promote? Whose demise will you engineer? Intervene and nudge. Introduce mischief and watch the sparks fly.

And for your third Michelin star:

All you need is genius and fairy dust.
There you are: go forth and indulge.

3 days later

My medlar is fully bletted so I’m about to eat it.

What does it taste of? Well, bruised apple and bland fig. The aftertaste is, as I had hoped, teeming: I’m getting pointed beards, ruffles, theatres, the rattle of bits, blacksmiths, hayfields, the unwashed, wood smoke, damp tapestry, thatch, Falstaff’s breath, iambic rhythms, and porcelain inkwells.

And that to me is a good description of voice: it teems and it lingers.

Friday, 9 October 2015

God, Eve and Snow White would reject supermarket apples: What makes an object magical?

Delight is my favourite word. It's a skipping through meadows word, a child’s word, a word of sprung limbs, juvenating, absorbing; a word of imagination unbound.
In adult books delight is in the artistry of the language, the subtlety of ideas, a poetic unfolding. In children’s books delight is (breaking into song) ‘a whole new world, a whole enchanting point of view’, an inner smile, unfurled magic. Open the book, receive the hookah from Carroll’s psyche-delighting caterpillar. Inhale.

Exhale and what spills out? Streams of magical motifs.

Such motifs abound in children’s literature: teapots, umbrellas, acorns, brooms, ladybirds, bees, butterflies, bells, hives, humming birds, harps, seahorses, eggs, wells, archetypal seasons and their symbols, angels, gifts, seashells, frogs, bats, hats, cats, stars, moons, whiskers and wings.

Chimneys are on my list of magical things. They inspired one of the plot threads in Oy Yew. In my talks I ask what makes a teapot magical and a coffee pot not? Why are owls magical and pigeons less so? What are the qualities of the intrinsically magical?

Here's my take. Objects of delight are:


Asymmetric, irregular. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: All things counter, original, spare, strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled... The geometric tiling of mosques is deliberately flawed since only Allah is perfect. Created things are flawed. God, Eve and Snow White would reject supermarket apples.


It's hard to mistake the silhouette of a teapot or a giraffe, not so a blade of grass. A magical object often makes an unambiguous hieroglyph of itself. Spots, stripes, lustre and texture are magical.


There are formal similarities in objects of delight. Scales, scallops, webs and spirals recur. Bats, umbrellas, holly, frogs, fans and wings have webs in their design. Spiralling horns and shells are wondrous; right angles - never.


Hidden potential is magical. Eggs and seeds are like wrapped gifts. Magical things excite curiosity; they have the capacity to surprise. Dahl would never have written Tales of the Expected.


Caterpillars and chameleons are magical shape changers. Water is all change. It moves, it reflects, it freezes and melts. Butter is intrinsically magical for its colour, its unique taste, its foamy melting, its mystery as metamorphosed grass. Lard is somewhat static. Vegetable oil is the lipid equivalent of a right angle.

Magical children's books draw out and explore distinctions, characteristics and idiosyncrasies, in objects and people. Like eggs full of knockings, they excite curiosity and give birth to the fickle, freckled, strange.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Submissions Rollercoaster

View my guest post on the highs and lows of the submissions round, here

Monday, 29 June 2015

Becoming a Public Author

On the way to my book launch I read How to be a Public Author by Paul Ewen. It’s comic gold. As preparation for an event - well it prepares you for any eventuality.

Francis Plug attends a string of stellar author events. Here he is at a Salman Rushdie talk:

‘My £8 ticket is equivalent to two and a half well-filled glasses of wine. So far I’ve had seven glasses, so I’m up. The wine table is unattended, so I help myself to another bottle before heading back into the theatre. Salman Rushdie looks over to me as I scuttle towards my seat. It must be distracting to have someone moving about like a frilled lizard while you’re trying to talk.’

Later he writes:

'Perhaps we’re currently experiencing the golden age of author/reader interaction, but I suspect, for most contemporary authors, it’s nothing but a friggin’ nightmare.’

The night before the launch I take a sustaining draught of solitude. I like people, but I burn out on sociability. I revel in the singleness of my hotel room, the mini kettle with one cup, and the narrow bed. On the telly Florence (and the Machine) leans out from the Pyramid stage and touches drifts of hands. I don’t think I will need to be hoisted by security guards. What if no one turns up?  

It’s June in England and it’s hot. English villages and fairs are made for each other. Girls have bows in their hair and stop mid run for two turns of a hula hoop. Chair legs sink into hot grass. Organisers look at their watches and move things. Tea and cake is served on mismatched pastel and flowered crocks. Winter feet are aired. Ants tickle. I have to make an effort to be nervous in such an atmosphere but I manage it. 

I check the venue. It’s a small marquee. I recognise my publisher from her picture on line. She has very sweetly brought flowers (from her own garden) chocolates and a card. She gives me piles of books to sign. People enter the humid tent, sit down and wait.

 Oy Yew is a middle grade/crossover book, in other words it appeals to all ages. We pitched the talk at both children and adults. The tent fills with adults. I'm told it’s difficult to attract MG readers to an event unless the writer is already a big name. It's a shame. Like Francis Plug I have an anarchic inner child. I relate to children.

Thankfully the adults find enough content to smile, respond, take notes and buy books. No one darts between the seats like a frilled lizard. Perhaps if I offered wine...

What I learned and some advice for first time public authors.

Read Francis Plug as preparation.

Support indie publishers. They are very nice. 

Don't carry your flowers around all day. They will wilt.

If you do a presentation with a dog, people will look at the dog and not you. (The cartoonist, Brick, secured his dog to the altar of the chapel where he was speaking).

Only thought makes things into ‘friggin’ nightmares’.

Eleven-year olds don’t decide to go to book talks. When taken by parents to culture, they trail. Eights and nines are more open. Children in schools are captive and will happily receive you as light relief.

Buy food before you get on the train else you will be forced to spend a large part of your advance on a packet of quavers.

I am now a public author. That means I am available for any event, anywhere. Lakes and mountains preferred.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Going indie: constraints of the publisher's list

Earlier this year I visited the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean. I thought it diminished Blake with its nerdy focus on technique. It was like studying Van Gogh’s brushes with his paintings as an aside. I skimmed the technical details and looked at the pictures.

William Blake was a copyist till he had learned his craft. Then he opened his cranium. He used the spiritus mundi as ink. He had his own vision and he made something new. There were influences from Raphael and Michelangelo, but Blake’s figures have a peculiar contained enormity which is singularly Blakish. The burden of kingliness drags striated arms, crouches with sinewed thighs, resounds with the yawning of bergs, the grinding of planets. His pins are the scale and holy terror of beyond. The infinite is seen; there can be no return to limitation.

Image result for william blake images
The artist could have played safe and pandered to prevailing tastes. No publisher or gallery was calling for Blakesque submissions. Instead he scrawled scathing notes in the margins of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses and did what he pleased. Others were pleased by it. The market came to him.

Writers take the same risks. The major publishers are conservative. They have a list which the writer must fit, a confining mould. Its parameters are, ‘things which have previously been shown to make money’. Innovation is acceptable from a ‘name’. Otherwise change proceeds in cautious baby steps. In general bankability trumps ability. It is rare to see something genuinely fresh, an Alice in Wonderland, an On the Road, from a large press. This leaves the small presses, webzines and literary journals as the forward edge of publishing.

My book, Oy Yew, though praised by the big publishing houses, didn’t quite fit their lists. One editor asked to see it twice and emailed over a year later to say of all the mss she had seen in that period it was the one that had stuck in her mind. Though she loved it, she was manacled by her list.

Oy Yew is a difficult book to characterise. It is a middle grade children’s novel, it is an escapist adult read, it is a search for identity, a tale of separated soul-mates, and a mystery of disappearing servants. It is both dark and comical, and its voice is more classic than is fashionable. It was written out of inspiration and not with one eye on the market. With so many list-bound editors I thought self-publishing would be the only route. Then along came Mother's Milk.

MM is an indie press with heart. Heart and head can have equal influence on the small publisher who is in it for love as much as a living. Signing with MM is the beginning of a journey. The press is personal and supportive. If you've ever received the standard rejection, 'Sorry, it doesn't quite fit our list', consider replying, 'Don't worry, I'll find a more interesting list'. Then research the small presses. We’re now at the stage of final edits and building up to launch on Jun 27th. I'll be writing more posts on the rest of the journey.

Oy Yew is available for pre-order with a £2 discount here
We are launching with a talk at Lowdham Book Festival near Nottingham on Sat, Jun 27th 11a.m. Unusually, I will be joined by my publisher, Teika Bellamy and award-winning illustrator, Emma Howitt to discuss all aspects of book production plus readings.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real

Welcome to ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ Carnival This post was written especially for inclusion in ‘The Forgotten and the Fantastical’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of their latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience: The Forgotten and the Fantastical. Today our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘Fairy tales’. Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants. ***

I believe in fairies because:

You know how the quantum world is like a soup of potentials. It’s only when we look at the soup that a dead cat bobs to the surface, or a carrot. Between the soup out there and the observer in your head the material world arises.
   But what if the mind fixes potentials inside itself? Is that imagination and is the result any less real? The difference seems to be that imaginary carrots can't be seen by everyone till they are fixed in speech or art or writing.
   There is evidence that fairy tales straddle the worlds of ‘reality’ and imagination. The weasel seen hitching a ride on a passing woodpecker is a fairy tale interruptus.  
   When my daughter wrote to the tooth fairy: ‘Are you rill?’ TF replied at length on a scroll of birch bark tied with grass. When Grace found it, there was a hush; reality crept away, leaving the stage to star-robed imagination.

Too cutesie? Cast off the sugared pink tutu and come to the dark side. Remember The Owl Service?Our Bertie has owl patterns on his high chair. He flicks his head from side to side and regards them with deep mistrust. He keeps a rice cake in the pocket of his dungarees as a protective mandala.

Now owls are appearing at secret locations all over my house. Rice cakes will not shield him.

What causes these tears in the quantum fabric? You do, hopefully. Imagination sometimes needs helpers. They help the fairies of Crewkerne woods to carpenter tiny doors. They teach tooth fairies to write, and paint owls hiding under bath towels. They dress as BFGs, climb ladders and peer into nurseries.
   There are forces ranked against the helpers. They wear corporate lanyards and organise life into terms and conditions and bulleted criteria, in a jargon that makes every sentence seem like a rearrangement of the same dead words. Dickens called it Gradgrindery. I call it NVQs. First it makes the imagination frantic with boredom and constriction. Then it stitches the quantum weave tighter and tighter imprisoning fairies, owls and giants.
   For children the inner and outer worlds are permeable. The weave is still wide enough to let the fairies through. Helpers might move on from airy fairies to Yeats's host and Rosetti's Goblin Market, but they stay child-hearted. And here’s another powerful thing they do. They read to children.

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2015 book cover
The Forgotten and the Fantastical is now available to buy from The Mother’s Milk Bookshop (as a paperback and PDF) and as a paperback from Amazon.
It can also be ordered via your local bookshop.
Any comments on the following fab posts would be much appreciated:
In ‘Imagination is quantum ergo fairies are real’, Ana, at Colouring Outside the Lines, explains why we should all believe in fairies and encourage our children to do the same. ‘Wings’ — Rebecca at Growing a Girl Against the Grain shares a poem about her daughter and explains the fairy tale-esque way in which her name was chosen. In ‘Red Riding Hood Reimagined’ author Rebecca Ann Smith shares her poem ‘Grandma’. Writer Clare Cooper explores the messages the hit movie Frozen offers to our daughters about women’s experiences of love and power in her Beautiful Beginnings blog post ‘Frozen: Princesses, power and exploring the sacred feminine.’ ‘Changing Fairy Tales’ — Helen at Young Middle Age explains how having young children has given her a new caution about fairy tales. In ‘The Art of Faerie’ Marija Smits waxes lyrical about fairy tale illustrations. ‘The Origins of The Forgotten and the Fantastical — Teika Bellamy shares her introduction from the latest collection of fairy tales for an adult audience published by Mother’s Milk Books. -- For the latest news, please subscribe to our email newsletter via our website.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Don't dot shop - flash theatre in the High Street.

Wells Trading Local Festival was like molten blobs of creativity dropping on a small cathedral city and bursting in random places. Where they fell, Saturday shopping world was suspended. A dozen shops became flash theatres. In the corner of a practical commercial space: a supermarket, a school uniform shop, art bloomed. Something happens when a group of people suspend reality together. The audience, crammed between aisles and islands of folded jumpers or kitchenware, hushed rapidly. There was breath-holding and laughter, and at two of the shows, sniffing and eye-dabbing.

The monologue is a great form for immediate intimacy. It is like opening a door in the forehead of a stranger and peering in. There is confiding, vulnerability and revelation. It is an encouragement to wider empathy and greater attention to others in life as well as art.

As one of the writers and a member of the audience I won't see the city and its shops in the same way again. It's now a map of little theatres in my head. The empty stage holds an imprint of magic even when the players have gone.

Move your body not your finger. Don't dot shop. Use your local shops, have conversations, meet real people. You can't do it on Amazon.

Sod got into my phone and drained my battery just as I was about to film my piece, so picture this: Actor David Reakes (like Benedict Cumberbatch but more talented) opened his jacket to reveal a satin ruffled shirt and in the back of a clothes shop he became Prince Steve. You can read the script here.

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                    For more about the fabulous Show of Strength Theatre


Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Creativity v Domesticity: you won't find an orchid in a roller-striped lawn.

Families, like fairy tale bears, have their habitual seats. Mine is at one end of a 1930s sofa. Nicotine-yellowed, it soaked up the smoke that my grandma’s lungs did not. This sofa is actually my desk. One end is confettied with notes and stuff.
  In the surrounding room objects are not privileged or displayed, they are beached: old greetings cards, papery flowers on the mantel, the drift of ashes in the hearth; a dead bonsai’s wintry charm. Their outlines mingle like flotsam and seaweed. Webs thicken and droop like vines, and the dust, as Quentin Crisp said, gets no worse after three years. Things wait to be put away: a pop-up festival tent, the African-snail-that-didn’t-thrive’s plastic tank, a frisbee left by a visiting dog. Fortunately things are infinitely patient because they do not die. It’s just as well because given the choice of a pen or a duster I seize the pen. I don't do tidy - small, vinegar-mouthed word.
I am messy and I have no guilt. (Reminds me of the Patti Smith song: ‘my knees are open to the sun, I seek pleasure' etc. I doubt she straightened the antimacassars before she wrote it.)
If you do have guilt you must be female. Drop it. If you need convincing there are plenty of studies which show that messiness provokes creativity. Disorder can trigger creative solutions. Order is associated with rigid thinking. A disordered environment has depth and history, archaeological layers and surprises. Clutter is interesting. Dirt is a maligned character. It is as beneficial as it is pathological. It nourishes a strong immune system and a diverse biome. Air fresheners and cleaning chemicals lodge in the body with a half-life somewhere between plutonium-244 and a seaborne carrier bag.
I have visited homes as bland and minimal as the local Nationwide. Banks with their clear, clean surfaces don’t taste of anything. You could lick the glass, the wall, the carpet. The only difference would be the texture. I don’t want to live in a bank. I don’t think I could write in one. Einstein famously said: ‘If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?’
Of course there’s clutter and clutter. There’s the chaos of a Mumbai rubbish tip and there’s the ordered disorder of a non-linear mind; a sophisticated, highly individual filing system that cannot be reduced to algorithms. It nourishes the random, the providential, the serendipitous, the inspired.
Organic and organised have the same root. Ordered disorder is nature’s way. Ordered order is topiary, borders, selective planting. Ordered disorder is a meadow where everything finds its symphonic niche and somewhere in the grass is a single wild orchid. You won’t find an orchid in a roller-striped lawn.

Some of my ordered disorder, enhanced by a broken horn in the log basket and a part-lobotomised Gandalf on the hearth.