Friday, November 04, 2011
Wednesday, June 01, 2011
On the lovely bank holiday, I was confined to the house on a writing mission, doing edits on my second complete chapter (a topic for another post: how my ideas about ‘process’ may be completely wrong) and I made a minor change that felt major. I took Nessa out of her jeans and put her in a lacy dress and leggings instead.
Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a change. I had to remove a good bit, I thought, because Nessa wakes from a bewitched sleep, still clothed, and I had a moment where she notices the reddened crease at her waist and the imprint of the button on her stomach. Anyone who has lain down for a moment and woken up hours later knows what I’m talking about – and lovely elasticated leggings do not have the same effect. In the end, I gave her a belt too, so I could have the crease and the dig, the moment was worth saving for the effect.
But it got me thinking because of why I made the change. Suddenly, having changed Nessa’s clothes, I changed her and she came clear in my head in a way she hadn’t before. I had automatically put her in jeans – all teenagers wear jeans, I thought, it’s the default – but when I thought about it that wasn’t true, at least not in England these days. Waiting daily on the train platform with a crowd of teenagers on their way to college (Americans: translate to senior high) in town told me that. So that was part of why I changed her, the sort of girl that I thought Nessa was wouldn’t necessarily have gone for the easy, comfortable, practical option to wear to college. She hadn't woken up intending to go adventuring.
I came of age in an era when YA fantasy authors writing about girls that did things were really coming into their own. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown were among the first (and already well-established when I was an adolescent). In her blog and on her website, McKinley often talks about her frustration with all the books she read as a child where boys got to go out and have adventures. She wanted those adventures too and there was no female equivalent to live vicariously through. So she had to make them up.
The same I think applies to Tamora Pierce, whose Alanna books were for me, and a whole generation of girls my age, the first ‘YA’ fantasy books about girls that do things that we read. I use the ‘YA’ term advisedly – there was a frisson of sexuality in the Alanna books that made them something different to the ‘children’s’ books we’d read before. Alanna was the ultimate girl who does things: she wants to be a knight so disguises herself as a boy, and becomes one.
I loved these books. The thing is, though, I didn’t want to be these girls. I didn’t want to be Harry in The Blue Sword or Alanna. I wanted to be their friend definitely, I wanted to be the girl who lived next door in the dormitory, the quieter softer one. I still wanted the romance, I even wanted the adventure, but I didn’t really see the great appeal of being a warrior. A strong empowered woman, yes, but I didn’t fancy riding off into the sunset with a sword strapped at my hip.
I wasn’t in any sense a tomboy – McKinley says some interesting things about this on her blog – and I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t envy boys their freedom, perhaps because I genuinely felt that my 80’s and 90’s childhood was free of many of the constraints that had plagued my mother’s generation which includes writers like Pierce and McKinley. And it was people like my mum, and these writers, that made it that way.
This is not to say that Pierce and McKinley don’t write girly girls too – Pierce’s Sandry in The Circle of Magic series is an excellent case in point. Magic needlework is totally up my street. I don’t want to see a return to the passive heroines of the past – and I have concerns with some of the recent YA paranormal fantasy/romance trend that we’re slipping that way, into a frightening world of controlling tortured boyfriends and passive helpless girls. Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ last night looked at a recent and disturbing study of violence in teenage relationships, picking out in particular the way in which mobile phones and social networks mean controlling (often older – though not centurhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifies older) boyfriends can expect to keep tabs on their girlfriends wherever they are. And these girls think that this is what it’s meant to be like – it’s this disturbing equation of love with obsession, and helplessness.
Anyway, my point is that we don’t want a return to or development into this. But, girly things are fun! I love making things, knitting, sewing, creating something beautiful out of nothing. Beautiful clothes, beautiful things, flowers and music and romance. There's something magic about all of this and girls who aren't physically strong (and don't yearn to be) are okay too.
Feminine girls can be incredibly emotionally strong and can be heroes. My heroine Nessa is an ordinary teenager – she is semi-popular, she tries to fit in, she wears pretty clothes and used to dream of being a ballet dancer. She is deeply vulnerable – and I do think that this is part of a certain feminine psyche, and it is an important part of her. If she didn’t have the life experience she does, she could have turned into one of those trapped teenage girls in the Radio 4 programme. But part of what makes her a hero and an emotionally strong one, is her deep bond with her physically disabled mother and the way in which she deals with her mother’s injury, has helped create a ‘normal’ life for her out of chaos and fear. She stands up for what she believes in, and she fights for it, she single-handedly – young, a little shy, small – holds everything together, without a sword. Of course, she beats the monsters too, and bravely.
(Just a note: one of the real great heroines of Spenser’s Faerie Queene is Britomart, a lady knight of the Alanna school, so I’ll get my female warrior fix in all its glory a few books on…)
On another but related note, I found this round table of agent advice for thriller writers (not my area of course, but interesting) quite upsetting and odd because of agent Debbie Carter's recommendations. She specifically recommends that writers avoid writing stories 'where the hero or heroine is in a job we don't associate with their gender, like a man working as a stylist in the fashion industry or a female drummer in a rock band.' I am tempted to keep quoting from the article but I suggest you read it for yourself - let me know what you think.
Monday, May 30, 2011
I did not mean to desert you, my dear friends who still faithfully check in, in the hopes that I might have something to say to you.
Here, I have returned! I shall tell you of my adventures – such as they are. I am returned for good partly because I am writing away at what my educational establishment would call my ‘Masters dissertation’ and what I would call ‘my greatly enjoyable YA fantasy novel filled with lots of fun and exciting things’. I wish to tell you about it, and I hope that someday it will become a real book and you will love it and me already and so buy it immediately, with great joy.
My current work-in-progress will be herein referred to as FQ because that’s what I call it, unoriginally, as it is a modern YA fantasy reimagining of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an epic Arthurian-styled Elizabethan poem. Note, if you are not familiar with Spenser, that I really do mean epic – my FQ is based on just one of the ‘books’ of The Faerie Queene and is intended to be the first in a 6-7 book series. My story is set in modern-day Devon, England and it stars teenagers Nessa Goldsmith and Christopher Crosse who set out on a quest to rescue Nessa’s disabled mother who has disappeared. But it is also about loyalty and betrayal, trust, deception and delusion, all of which are vital themes in Book 1 of Spenser’s original.
It also has monsters in the living room, ogres on the moor, human villains and ordinary people in conflict. I have drawn much on Spenser’s original, purposefully, and I hope that the story will reflect enough of this to show my debt. At the same time, I have twisted, updated and refashioned the characters and plot points of the original until they are entirely my own, and I have very much my own story to tell.
I’m not going to tell you an awful lot about it now as it is in early stages – only two chapters written but they’re long ones. You will hear more, I promise!
Over the next few months, this blog will meander through the following areas:
- Writing posts: Writing this book (and the dilemmas and struggles which go with it – and may be just me, or may be universal)
- Reading posts: Yes, reading Holly Black and Robin McKinley is research in Creative Writing MA-land, and excellent research it is too. I shall give you reviews and musings.
- Research posts: This might be bits of my exciting research into Spenser, allegory, and the great tome that is The Faerie Queene, it might also be more general writing posts, or about genre and the current world of YA fantasy
- Other things!: Because I cannot write all the time. I must go to work (we shall avoid this topic where possible), I must knit (we shall not avoid this topic), I must watch television. I must even know about the news and current affairs. I reserve the right to discuss these things unreservedly.
I expect the above to continue, wide-ranging and all-encompassing as it is, but most excitingly it looks likely that I shall be commencing an even more enticing project this October. Still semi-secret but think: Regency romance meets the Arabian Nights meets lots and lots of magic! Stay tuned.
This is an explaining sort of post – next ones will be more interesting, and more fun. To end:
FQ Word Count:
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
This is a picture of Scotland – how I spent my summer holidays in other words. Rain and grey skies and long walks by the lochs as the sun peeked (or not) through the clouds (and one long walk/climb/soul-destroy-and-repair-maneuver up a tall tall mountain in full sunlight). Also an eerie half-light that seemed to linger all night so that you could look up from your computer (writing/Plants vs. Zombies is the best reward) at one in the morning and a timelessness had set in, a Tom’s Midnight Garden sort of moment.
Anyway, I also wrote 17,000 words of new novel which is not about Scotland but came out of a feeling in Scotland and a rather dull dream that I had just before we went but a couple of images stuck with me: an awkward but sublimely confident everyday girl in a shift dress, perched on the edge of a table in an anachronistic aristocratic household, a young man, a bit older, in evening dress, chairs tipped over but a sense of calm.
I write often from atmosphere, I think – I want to write a book that feels like this I often say to myself, the visceral is awfully important to me – I’ll close my eyes and try and sense the scene with all senses. Atmosphere, however, does not a story make, certainly not a YA novel. Characters come naturally to me but plot, oh plot my greatest enemy… But this book has a plot! It is more than characters perched on the edge of tables and chairs, it is buried treasure and political intrigue and fraud and great family secrets and a dash of romance and a dash of the sea. The plot is written!
On return from my two week July jaunt to the Highlands and Islands, I resolved to finish my novel, uninspiredly titled Shena and Robbie, now rather pompously titled Grandings (to change, I’m sure) by the end of the summer. It is now the beginning of November, and my grand total stands at 26,000 words. Not the record I might have hoped for. 9,000 words in three months is not something to be proud of.
But I shall be proud! For from now on, I have a goal of 500 words a day. There was this goal last week too and perhaps the week before, and it ended in failure. But not this time! For it has been proclaimed into Blogland and must be so.
I was going to tell you my ten tips for procrastinating when you have carefully set aside a day for writing and it is now 14:29 and not a word has been written. These included ‘Computer battery has run down. Computer charger is plugged in behind the sofa. The sofa is not the place to be for writing this afternoon’ and ‘Reading other writers’ blogs is almost as good as writing’ or even ‘my husband asked me to load the dishwasher and put the washing on the line – if I’ve done this, maybe I won’t get told off for having done no writing on my writing day…’
But I shall not do this! For writing blog posts must make the list of great procrastinations… I will, however, update you to confirm my measly 500 words, and you, I hope, will applaud loudly.
Monday, September 06, 2010
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Rain has returned to England after that unusually glorious June. Although there was sunshine in the afternoon yesterday, it felt very much a temporary reprieve.
It was therefore time for a comforting homemade soup. I am not an experienced gardener but Simon and I have gone a bit wild with growing vegetables in pots on our small patio and we had home-grown courgette (zucchini), purple French beans (were they meant to be purple?), tiny mutated carrots that looked like curled-up shellfish, and young ruby chard that could all be chopped and simmered with store-bought onion, garlic, tinned tomatoes, basil and oregano. Near the end, I added a tin of cannellini beans and a big scoop of (gluten-free) macaroni.
Serve with a dollop of pesto, lots and lots of grated parmesan, bread (real or not) and a glass of white wine. I dressed for dinner and Simon wore a suit as he'd just come in from his first day in his new job.
Pasta and bean soup has always been one of my favourites since I used to beg my mom to buy Progresso Macaroni and Bean at the one shop that carried it. I used to sit at the kitchen table with my book, a big bowl of steaming soup, and potato chips (crisps to the Brits.)
When I was a young teenager, I saw Rachael Ray make her own version on 30-Minute Meals and it was one of the first dishes I cooked (successfully) for my family. My current recipe is still based on hers.
I loved it so much that I wrote a story called Sapphire Skies Over Milan with 'Pasta e Fagioli' as it's called by the Italians as a central theme. This story got me a first place win at A.R.T.S. and $3000. Until recently, you could still find it on the NFAA website, but I can't find it now. (As a side note, in searching for it, I was slightly concerned by this newsletter which lists a student winning a short story contest the year after with a story of exactly the same name! Am I paranoid to find this a little suspicious?)
Anyway, a taste of the summer harvest and a comfort in the rain. Could you get any better?