Monthly Archives: September 2013

Home Keys

I’ve been sitting here for over two hours trying to write this morning’s blog post. The reason I’ve been finding it so hard is not that I have nothing to say or that I’ve forgotten how to use my words all of a sudden – it’s because my brain is flipping from one topic to another, zooming around faster than a speeding burrito (which is, of course, the fastest thing in the known universe), and finding it very difficult to settle.

Shall I write about the wonderful online writing workshop I watched at the weekend, I ask myself? Perhaps I should tackle the annoying fact that I can no longer watch a movie without anticipating the storyline and ruining it for myself and anyone who watches with me? Or maybe I should unpick some of my inner demons – the ongoing and ever-present fear of rejection; the difficulty of accepting (at times) the subjectivity of this business, and the fact that not everyone is going to like your work as much as you do; the almost superhuman challenge it is to just… keep… going – or perhaps I should just go back to bed and forget I started any of this.

Image: themumblog.com

Image: themumblog.com

I think this phenomenon – the zippy, flippy brain – is a common feature of Monday mornings, particularly Monday mornings which come after a weekend spent away from your WiP. My brain is like a particularly active toddler finally let loose in the playroom after a weekend spent wrapped up in a suit and bow tie and being warned, repeatedly and through gritted teeth, to be on his best behaviour. Right now, it’s running from one corner of the room to the other, screaming all the way.

Having said that, I had a wonderful weekend, spent with family; it feels really unfair of me to describe those happy days as being akin to being locked out of the toy box. I don’t mean to say that I’d rather have been working than having lunch with my parents, or helping my friend to bake a cake for her father’s birthday party, or watching a film with my husband, but when you’re working on something like a book, it feels a lot like your brain isn’t fully ‘there’, at any given moment. Inspiration, ideas, solutions to plot problems, bursts of clarity about your characters, realisations that one of your imaginary people is acting in an unnatural or ‘forced’ way, and the ever-present corrosion of doubt have a habit of exploding into your mind at the most unwelcome and unexpected moments. I’m pretty sure they wait until you’re at your most relaxed before they mount their attack, just to make a larger and more distinct impression upon you. Trying to keep these ‘attacks’ under control is a lot like trying to avoid the ministrations of a particularly energetic and affectionate puppy – you’re fighting off something you’re not sure you should be fighting off, and trying to quieten a voice you’re afraid will one day fall silent forever if you don’t pay it enough attention.

Throw the ball! Go on, throw it! Throw the ball! Throw the ball! Throw... *squirrel!* Image: squidoo.com

Throw the ball! Go on, throw it! Throw the ball! Throw the ball! Throw… *squirrel!*
Image: squidoo.com

Sometimes, though, it would be nice to take a rest and actually feel like you were taking a rest, to go home feeling, when you put the key in the door, like you were really going home, to a place where nothing can follow you. Even reading, these days, feels a lot like work (that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop, though, of course.)

When you’re learning to type (or, at least, when I was learning to type, over twenty years ago now), you’re taught about the ‘home keys’, where you’re supposed to rest your fingers between words. I still do this, and I find I do my best thinking while my fingers are sitting on ‘ASDF’ and ‘JKL;.’ I spend a lot of time with my fingers on those keys; it looks like wasted time, but it’s the furthest thing from it. Sitting my fingers into those familiar grooves sends my brain into a spin of plotting and planning, almost like flicking a switch; it’s like there’s a direct correlation between ‘at rest’ and ‘thinking’. Perhaps, then, whenever I’m away from the computer and my brain tries to settle into ‘rest’, my writing brain thinks of it as another form of ‘settling onto the home keys’, and starts to rev up the plotting engines.

The main problem with that scenario is, of course, that I’m miles away from my keyboard when this happens, and can’t do anything with all this effort. I wish, in some ways, that I could just turn it off. I guess once you stoke up those fires, though, it’s a dangerous and difficult thing to dampen them again.

Over the weekend, whenever I had a moment where I wasn’t actively engaged in doing something else, my mind was on ‘Tider’. I was thinking about it, picking it apart, pulling its plot threads to see if they held, dissecting its characters, their actions and reactions, their relationships and motivations, and trying to think about ways to edit the word-count while adding layers of subplot and interest. The book is almost where I want it, but there’s still something not quite right. I’m hopeful draft 5, set to begin today, will help me polish this story until it gleams, and root out anything that’s pulling the book back from being as good as it can be.

I hope, when this draft is finished, that I can use my home keys to let myself into a place where my brain can have a rest, instead of where it does its most intense work. Here’s hoping, right?

Happy Monday – I hope you’re holding steady.

Book Review Saturday – Days of Blood and Starlight

I debated for a long time whether to even tackle a book like ‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ in my weekly book review; I feared it was too much for me. After much deliberation, though, I’ve (un)wisely decided to go ahead with it, and all I can do is hope I don’t get swept away in a torrent of emotion.

If I do get swept away in a torrent of emotion, by the way, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Image: lainitaylor.com

Image: lainitaylor.com

‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ is the second part of a trilogy – the first book in this series was ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone,’ and the third part, ‘Dreams of Gods and Monsters’ will be published next year. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel so packed full of imagination as ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone,’ and I’ve been eagerly awaiting its sequel for months on end. When I eventually managed to get my hands on ‘Days of Blood and Starlight,’ I devoured it – so much so, in fact, that I think I’ll have to go back to the beginning and read both books again, just to savour the utter miracle that is Laini Taylor’s mind.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ introduced us to Karou, a character who also takes centre stage in ‘Days of Blood and Starlight.’ A seventeen-year-old with bright blue hair who lives in Prague and studies art alongside her best friend Zuzana, Karou is an independent, talented and intelligent young woman. She does have the irritating habit of disappearing without warning whenever she is summoned, however; Zuzana wonders what Karou does every time she runs off, but Karou can never tell her. The only hint to Karou’s secret life is the fantastical drawings she makes of half-human, half-animal hybrid creatures, all of whom have names and whose adventures Karou uses to entertain Zuzana. But what Karou has never made clear to Zuzana is that these drawings are far more than just works of art. They are portraits taken from life, and the individuals they depict are far from imaginary. To Zuzana, they are merely characters in Karou’s imagination, but in truth they are Brimstone, and Issa, and the other members of Karou’s ‘family’, who have raised her since infancy. Karou is their ‘eyes and ears’ in the human world, and they need her to carry out various tasks for them – hence, her need to disappear whenever they call her.

For Karou’s family are monsters – monsters who love, and who care for one another, and who fight bravely for their place in the world. Their strange and frightening appearance is not their whole story, however. They are ancient and powerful beings, among whose terrifying powers is the ability, when conditions are right, to raise the dead.

‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ takes us through the standoff between Karou’s family (who are known as ‘chimaera’) and the seraphim, who are far from being the angels a reader might expect. These seraphim are militant, savage warriors who keep track of the amount of ‘beasts’ (chimaera) they’ve killed by the amount of tattoos on their fingers, and they are determined to wipe the ‘stain’ of the chimaera from the face of their realm, Eretz. Unfortunately for Karou, she meets an angel, a seraph named Akiva, and they discover they have a connection that goes far deeper, and much further back in time, than either of them expected.

‘Days of Blood and Starlight’ picks up after a massive showdown between the seraphim and the chimaera that took place on earth – in Prague, specifically – which finished ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone.’ Karou is reeling with grief having suffered a massive bereavement, and she and Akiva have been separated – seemingly forever. As well as her grief, Karou is struggling to deal with the truth about herself, and what she is; she has also begun to realise that the work of raising the dead which was begun by her foster-father Brimstone has now fallen to her. She has been training for it all her life, sometimes without even realising it, but she still finds it an incredibly onerous burden. She is kept on a tight leash by Thiago, the White Wolf, an extremely powerful chimaera who has set his sights on destroying the seraphim; the angels, of course, are not going to take this lying down, and are fighting back with increased savagery against the chimaera. Over the backdrop of this supernatural war, Akiva is searching for a way to find Karou and try to heal the rift he has caused between them, and she is fighting to keep her people alive.

With the help of three people from her past who she feared were lost forever, Karou keeps struggling to survive – but in a world where angels are the enemy, and not all the monsters are good, how can she know what she’s risking her life to accomplish is right?

If this summary sounds confusing, that’s because the books are so intricately plotted that trying to make a synopsis of the story is well-nigh impossible in this short space. We are thrown into a world of resurrectionists, hybrid creatures, tattooed angels, thuribles containing the souls of the dead, hamsas with the power to repel the seraphim, multiple worlds, massive battles, brutal savagery and tender affection. It is a huge canvas, and every inch of it is covered. Laini Taylor’s writing is beautiful and poetic, and in her hands a 500+ page novel with small type and a massively complicated storyline just zips past. However, we have a romantic melodrama which (I have to be honest) got a bit much for me in places – I had this problem with ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’, too, but that’s just because I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, to begin with – and there were points in the book which I felt were a little ‘wordy’ just for the sake of it. Having said that, when the words are as beautiful as the ones Laini Taylor uses, that’s not always a bad thing. The world/s Taylor creates seem real enough to live in, and her characters spring off the page – especially the non-human ones – and I adore the way she’s flipped the angels vs. demons thing on its head by making her seraphim the furthest thing from heavenly that you could imagine.

In short, if you’re in the mood to get lost in a rich and vibrant other world, and you’re able to follow a complex plot, and you have a strong stomach (some of the battle scenes are graphic in these books), you really can’t go wrong with ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’ followed by ‘Days of Blood and Starlight.’ You just might look a bit like this once you’ve finished reading them, particularly back to back:

Image: mischiefmonster.deviantart.com

Image: mischiefmonster.deviantart.com

Happy weekend, y’all. Hope you’re tickling your eyeballs with something good!

Friday Fun

If my life is going to plan, as you read this post I should either be in my mother’s kitchen drinking tea, or in my friend’s kitchen drinking tea and watching her flock of ducklings pootle around her front yard. Either of these scenarios will do just fine.

You lookin' at me? You lookin' at me? I don' see no other duck aroun' here... Image: polkaperson.tripod.com

You lookin’ at me? You lookin’ at me? I don’ see no other duck aroun’ here…
Image: polkaperson.tripod.com

Where I won’t be is at my desk tapping away at a keyboard wondering when I’m ever going to finish Draft 4 of ‘Tider’; this is, of course, because I have finished Draft 4 of ‘Tider’.

In two-and-a-half months, I have managed to rewrite this beast of a book and bring it to its fourth draft. I think that’s the work of a derange… I mean, brilliant mind. I think I have spotted all the major plot gaps and loopholes, and I think I’ve worked through most of the complications inherent in working with a story that involves a sort of time travel (word to the wise: do not write about time travel, ever); I think my protagonist shows the expected growth and development in her character between page 1 and page 263, and as far as I know, justice and righteousness prevail, and all is good with the world, tra-la.

Note the use of the word I think, or some derivative thereof.

Image: myenglishclub.com

Image: myenglishclub.com

I think I’ve done all this, but it may yet turn out that I am flawed in my thinking. I’m sure there are things I’ve missed, and I hope when I print the book and start doing a hard-copy edit, that these things will become evident. I hope that I won’t uncover a major error with far-reaching consequences, which will rend the delicate fabric of my carefully constructed world in twain. All I can say is: if it happens, it happens. Worrying about it now won’t change anything.

So, this brings us back to the tea and the ducks. I’m going home (i.e. to The Place of my Illustrious Birth) for the weekend, mostly to spend time with family, attend a wedding celebration and forget entirely about the world of ‘Tider’ and the travails of Maraika, my plucky heroine; I shall, all going well, be back at the coalface come Monday morning, bright and early.

I hope you all have wonderful weekends, and that they involve tea, relaxation, and herding small, waddling feathered creatures.

Or, at least, tea and relaxation.

Image: pbh2.com

Image: pbh2.com

Wordsmithery

I read a great blog post yesterday guest-written on Lorrie Porter’s blog by Marcus Sedgwick, who is an author I admire. I find his books are punchy and action-driven, intelligent and ‘wordsmithy’, dark and thrilling, and – more than anything else – short. He says as much himself in the blog post,  where he writes about something he believes is vital to a good story – judicious and sparing use of description in order to bring a scene alive.

Marcus Sedgwick Image: cam.ac.uk

Marcus Sedgwick
Image: cam.ac.uk

This is contrary to most people’s expectations: surely, a scene cannot come alive in the mind of a reader unless every tiny thing is described minutely?

Well.

Consider this paragraph:

Jeremy ran, full pelt, hearing the thundering boom of the dragon’s footprints crashing down behind him. It felt so close – close enough to breathe right down the back of his neck, or to step down – splat! – on his head. He had never been so terrified in his life, and he knew he had to run fast, or he was done for. He looked around, but there was no clear line of escape. The far-away sky above was hazily blue, looking down on him disinterestedly, the occasional cloud streaking over it like a veil. The walls to his right and left were crumbling red-brick, with ivy scattered through them like icing on a cake, and the ground beneath his feet was studded with small rocks, like tiny grey eggs made of stone. Then, finally, he saw a corner up ahead; he turned it at speed, without looking, and found himself smacking right up against something – something that said ‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ followed by a splutter. Jeremy bounced back, and saw that he’d almost knocked someone over – an older man, with hair like silver yarn that tangled up, almost exactly like a messily-made bird’s nest on top of his shiny pink head. Right beneath the hairline were dotted small constellations of freckles, and a thick bulging vein rain down his temple where it was lost in the bushiest white beard Jeremy had ever seen. The man’s face was red, tending to purple in spots, and his moustache was so big Jeremy wondered why it didn’t need scaffolding to hold it up. His nostrils were huge, and flaring, so wide and deep and dark that Jeremy wondered if another dragon lived up each of them. He shuddered as he looked at them. Tiny hairs waved inside each one as the man’s breath burst in and out, in and out. Then his teeth, square and white and strong, appeared in the centre of his beard as the man started growling his anger at Jeremy. ‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at this minute, child!’ he said, his voice like someone heavy walking across a gravel pathway.

So, clearly this is something I’ve just made up, and it doesn’t hold a candle to a properly polished and edited section from a published book; I hope, though, that it makes a point. I have read paragraphs like this, at action-packed junctures like this, in books, and it drives me mad. Surely everyone would agree that the point of this paragraph is that Jeremy is running from a dragon. Does the reader need to know about the crumbling red-brick walls and the distant hazy sky and the number of waving nose-hairs displayed by the man into whom he crashes in his haste to get away?

Count the nostril hairs, now... Image: medicalobserver.com.au

Count the nostril hairs, now…
Image: medicalobserver.com.au

I don’t think so.

Jeremy’s heart thundered in his chest as he ran. His legs burned with effort. Risking a glance back, he saw there was no sign of the dragon yet; all he could see behind him was this endless brick-lined corridor, this weird place he’d somehow woken up in. He almost turned his foot on a rock, then; they were dotted all over the ground like cobblestones, slippery and treacherous.

‘It’s coming,’ he thought. ‘It’s coming!’ Just then, a roar from behind made the skin all over his body shrink, and terror pumped through him. Gritting his teeth against the pain in his ankle, he ran faster, desperate to find a place to hide.

Then – a turning! A break in the brick wall. He flung himself to the right, taking the turn without looking.

‘Ouch! What’re ye doin’, ye great…’ Jeremy skidded to a halt, realising he’d crashed right into someone – someone big, and white-haired, and strong, if the grip he suddenly felt around his upper arm was anything to go by. He looked up into a pair of runny blue eyes, scrunched up in suspicion. White teeth flashed at the heart of the bushiest grey beard he’d ever seen as the man spoke again, his voice raspy and rough.

‘Tell me what ye’re playin’ at, this minute, child!’ Jeremy didn’t think he had the breath, or the courage, to reply.

I think this second paragraph – which says much the same thing – is a lot stronger. It does a better job of keeping the action going, and keeping Jeremy’s momentum alive. We get the same sense of place and character, I would argue, and enough description is given for a reader to imagine where Jeremy is, and who he meets. Interestingly, paragraph 1 is 359 words long; paragraph 2 is 231.

I know that time passes differently in books, in a sense. In reality, if you or I crashed into an elderly white-haired man, we would take in a lot of physical description instantly, through our senses; it takes a lot longer to write all that information out. I just wonder, sometimes, whether any of that description is needed. A scene shouldn’t carry too much extra weight, I think: the description should serve a narrative purpose, as well as a scene-setting one.

And yet – description is vital to writing, of course. Without description, all a writer would do is recount endless reams of dialogue between characters who exist only as words on a page, and not fully fleshed, rounded ‘people’ we can see in our mind’s eye. Having said that, if your protagonist is running for his life from a dragon, we don’t need to know how many liver spots are on the forehead of the man he runs into, or how many stones are in the ground at his feet. Give the reader enough to put the puzzle together themselves, and always allow them space to use their own imagination.

And go and read that blog post by Marcus Sedgwick. He says all this much more briefly and in a far more interesting way than I’ve done here.

Happy Thursday. Happy writing. May all the dragons pursuing you be slow and clumsy ones.

Wednesday Write-In #58

birthday party  ::  notebook  ::  squash  ::  fresh meat  ::  light

Image: thebeauty411.com

Image: thebeauty411.com

 

Meat

‘For God’s sake,’ Sadie snapped. ‘Look at the state of this place.’

Tara’s room lay before her looking like the Battle of the Somme. Piles of clothing, which Sadie had washed and tumble-dried and folded with mathematical precision now lay in snowdrifts on the floor; the dressing table groaned beneath the weight of the bottles and jars, full of goodness knew what, scattered all over it. The mirror was smeared with makeup and dust, and books lay helplessly where they’d been flung, their spines bent precariously, their pages cruelly folded.

‘Oh, please let me go to Katie’s birthday party, Mum,’ Sadie muttered, in a nasal, high-pitched impression of her daughter’s voice. ‘I promise I’ll clean my room before I go, Mum.’

Rolling her eyes, Sadie stepped inside.

She found the notebook shoved beneath the mattress. Its light pink cover caught her eye as she stripped and remade the bed, but her eyes flicked away from it immediately. She’d once promised Tara she would never read her diary, or snoop through her phone, or even look at her Facebook page, and she did her best to keep her word; but something about this small, secret thing caught her mind like a hook catches a fish, and she found herself looking back. Straight away, she saw what had drawn her eye.

One word, scribbled in angry black biro, all over the cover. Over and over it was written, the letters getting wilder as they went. The nib had been dug in, gouging lumps of cardboard out of the cover like Tara had wanted to wound it. One word.

Meat.

Sadie’s hand trembled as she reached to pick the notebook up. ‘I have to look,’ she rationalised. ‘I’m her mother. I’ll just read enough to give me an idea what’s happening, and then I’ll stop.’

Blinking, she opened it to the last entry, so recently written that the ink was barely dry.

Remember when they used to call me ‘fresh meat’ at school? Her daughter’s handwriting was gently sloped, neat, clear. Sadie could hear her voice in her head as she read, and she felt her heart fluttering in her chest at her words. That was until ‘that night’. Now, it’s all ‘Oooh, lads, d’you smell something off? Like, something rotten?’ and they hold their noses when I walk past, like I stink or something. No matter how many showers I have or how much body spray I use it’s always the same – ‘rotten’. ‘Skank.’ ‘Slut.’ They laugh right into my face, and they ask me things like ‘how much per pound?’

I know they’re not talking about meat. I know it’s all my fault. But all I did was kiss him.

Sadie held her breath. Her eyes were already on the next sentence before she could stop herself.

It’s been nearly a month now but they just will not leave me alone. I don’t know what to do. Nobody cares. Not even Katie.

Sadie felt sick, suddenly. She hadn’t said a word to indicate that she and Katie weren’t getting on. And wasn’t she supposed to be at Katie’s, right now?

Sometimes when I’m coming down the science corridor they all squash themselves into the corner between Lab 3 and the lockers. ‘Get away from the rotting meat!’ ‘God, can you smell it?’ All this hysterical laughter, ha ha ha. And I know for a fact that was Katie’s idea. ‘We’re just having a laugh,’ she told me yesterday. ‘Lighten up.’

Well, I wonder if she’ll be laughing tomorrow.

Gasping for breath, Sadie flicked through the rest of the notebook, but every other page was blank.

Squeezing her eyes shut against her panic, Sadie scrambled in her pocket for her mobile phone. She dialled Tara’s number from memory as she sat on the half-made bed, digging her nails into the notebook’s cover as she waited for the call to connect.

It just rang, and rang, and rang, every trill searing through Sadie’s heart like a hot knife.

Katie’s mother… Katie’s mother’s number… Sadie’s fingers felt like icicles as she flicked through her contacts. Eventually, she found their house number, and hoped it was still current.

Click.

Crrrring crrring… crrrring crrringgg…

‘Hello?’ It was a child’s voice, a little boy. Edward? Edmund? Sadie couldn’t remember. She realised, with a pang, how little she had listened to Tara’s prattle about Katie and her family, and her brother and her parents and their lovely designer house…

‘Hello, love! Is your mum at home?’ She tried to speak clearly through her chattering teeth.

‘She’s washing my sister,’ replied the child. ‘In the bath.’

‘She’s what?’ Sadie’s brain skidded to a halt.

‘A girl came and throwed loads of horrible stuff at Katie,’ the boy explained. ‘Like blood, and stuff. It got all over our carpet, and things, and went all up the walls.’

‘Oh, my God…’

‘Who is this?’ the little boy asked, in a suspicious voice.

Just then, Sadie heard the front door slam shut. She disconnected the call and ran to the top of the stairs.

Tara stood on the mat in the hallway, her face streaked with tears and her hands and clothes spattered with gore. She looked up and saw her mother standing, pale-faced, clutching her phone like she wanted to crush it into atoms.

‘Look, I can explain…’ she said, holding up her crimson hands, but all she could do was watch, dumbfounded, as her mother threw her head back and laughed, before running down the stairs to wrap her up in a hug.

 

 

 

Walking on Thin Ice Short Story Contest

Today’s blog post is about something wonderful.

Today, I want to tell you about an opportunity for those who write, and a promise of future goodies for those who read. I want to talk about a writer brave enough to take a stand against a culture of oppression which she found to be distasteful, unbearable and wrong, and about her attempt to shine a light into the darkness.

That writer is Susan Lanigan, and her statement against the dark is the Walking on Thin Ice Short Story Contest.

The talented and lovely Susan Lanigan. Image: twitter.com

The talented and lovely Susan Lanigan.
Image: twitter.com

Susan’s debut novel is set to be published next year, but she is a long-established blogger and writer. She’s been long- and short-listed for pretty much every big writing prize you can think of and boasts a list of publications that make neophytes like me swoon with admiration. She has also been a generous and supportive guide to me in my first faltering steps towards making a life in words, and has offered her help, encouragement and advice more often than I can remember over the past year.

However, as well as being a successful and talented writer and a professional IT analyst, Susan is a mental health advocate and a person who feels strongly about the societal imbalances which affect those who suffer with mental ill-health. She has set up the Walking on Thin Ice Short Story Contest in an attempt to get people thinking and writing about these issues and – hopefully – to start changing the prevailing mindset, and upset the power structures that keep people crushed, and which keep them voiceless. She has poured a huge amount of personal effort and love into getting this contest off the ground, and every aspect of it is a labour of devotion for her.

But here’s how we can all help, too.

The contest is almost ready to roll. Susan has secured a judge, and she has procured funding for prizes. She has a website which contains all the information you could need about the Walking on Thin Ice Short Story Contest.

The only thing she needs now is… entries.

Image: washingtonpost.com

Image: washingtonpost.com

If you think you’d like to contribute a story between 500 and 4,000 words based around any aspect of mental health – the struggles of those with mental health issues to be treated with respect, dignity and equality; the societal structures which are directed towards stigmatising and disrespecting those who live with mental illness; the powers-that-be which disenfranchise and dehumanise them and make them into ‘problems’, or ‘statistics’ – then I reckon I can safely say Susan wants to hear from you.

In her own words (taken from Susan’s website, http://www.walkingonthinice.org):

The Walking on Thin Ice short story competition has one aim: to produce powerful, new, high-quality short fiction (500 – 4000 words) on the topic of mental health, stigma and power by means of an open blind-submission short story contest… The last of that triple theme – power – is particularly important, as the question of power – who wields it, who creates the bar for sanity, who enforces social norms from macro to micro – often gets quietly dropped in these discussions.

I really hope that those of you who can submit work to this competition will consider doing so. The closing date for entries has been extended until November 15th, so I heartily encourage everyone who can to put their pens to paper, or their fingers to keyboard, and get writing.

Mental health is something I feel strongly about, too; I’ve made no secret of my own struggles with depression, anxiety and obsessive thinking here on my blog. It’s something I’m not ashamed of, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who feel like failures because they live with similar issues. I wish we existed in a society where those who battle with a heavy mind could feel that help was at hand whenever they needed it. Instead, people are slotted into ‘boxes’, made to believe they are faulty when the box into which they’re put is unequal to the task of containing them, and forced to conform, under threat of shame.

Walking on  Thin Ice aims to start the process of correcting that. I’ll be doing my bit to help, and I hope you will, too.

Now, go on. Check out the website, have a look at the competition themes, and get writing!

Bookish Bamboozlement

So, I spent most of the weekend reading.

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it... Image: lifedev.net

Even though this looks extremely uncomfortable, I still want to do it…
Image: lifedev.net

No surprise there, really. What was surprising, though, was the effect the books I chose to read this weekend had on me. You might expect euphoria; you might expect joy. You might also expect something like total absorption and utter devotion, because – of course – this is normally how I describe my reading life. There’s very little I like doing more. Reading, for me, comes a close second to breathing.

But, this weekend, I was irritated. I was annoyed. I was left disappointed and somewhat disillusioned at the end of my long and weary struggle to finish reading the books I’d chosen. I don’t like giving up on a book, so I kept going till the bitter end, but I’m being honest when I say that both these reads were a challenge (and not in a good way.) I’m not going to name the books, because I don’t believe in doing that – plenty of other readers have, clearly, loved these books, so who am I to criticise their taste? – but let me just say that the books I read were ones written for children, and they had received great reviews. They were both written by authors with long and successful careers (though not as children’s authors – one writes for adults, usually, and the other is more involved in the film industry.) They’d been given excellent cover ‘blurbs’ from established authors I admire, and both of them promised wonderful things, if their back covers were anything to go by. They were enticing enough for me to pick them up and buy them, at least.

Reading them, however, made me feel like this:

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Image: teachingchildrenmanners.com

Both these books were long – in the region of 500 pages. Both were epic, sweeping stories, the first (apparently) in their respective future series. One was slightly better than the other in terms of being in touch with how real children speak and think and act, and featured a group of siblings fighting for survival in a fantasy world that seems to change and twist at random (even though it’s plainly obvious what’s happening to any reader with a speck of intelligence); the other was written in language which no child since Shakespearean times has used, and it was filled with long monologues of exposition, in which characters explain things to one another. This doesn’t just happen once or twice, in which case it’s excusable – it happens all the time.

The following paragraph isn’t, of course, taken from the book. It’s taken from the pit of my imagination. But it may give you some sense of what the book was like:

‘Humphrey, as you’re aware, when the moon and Venus, planet of beauty and love, reach a particular alignment in the heavens, the Gods of the West Wind will be so enraged by their intimacy that they will unleash a storm of fearsome and unprecedented force upon us poor weaklings here below.’
‘Why, yes, Gerald! Every child, from their earliest sparks of understanding, is taught the story of the Jealous West Wind at their mother’s knee
. But surely you don’t mean…’
‘Yes, Humphrey! Yes. We must face it. Look upon the sky and tell me what you see.’
‘Why, a raging red mist, spreading from edge to edge along the horizon. What can it portend?’
‘The storm, Humphrey. The storm! It is coming!’
*cue alarms, distress, swords clanking, etc.*

Oh, really? Image: jannawqe.com

Oh, really?
Image: jannawqe.com

Very little irritates me more than the Huge Monologue, where characters get up on their soapboxes – much like I’m doing here, funnily enough – and rant on about something or tell one another things which could have been uncovered through adventure and storytelling instead. Another thing which annoys me in children’s books is the use of coincidence – oh, look, we’re being chased by the bad guys with swords, so let’s race for our lives down to the docks and hop on the first boat we come across which of course happens to be the one which contains the magical cargo we need to get to our destination (sorry, I’m running out of breath); or – wow, how cool is this – the one person we come across in the course of our adventuring is the only person in the world who knows exactly what we’re looking for, how to find it, and is willing to bring us for a reasonable fee.

Don’t worry about that sound you’re hearing – it’s just me, grinding my teeth.

This book – the one I’m not going to name, with the ridiculously complicated and old-fashioned and tension-free monologues in it – was also packed full of coincidences. The protagonist (I hesitate to call him a hero, because he doesn’t actually do very much. For example – by the time he comes back from his quest, the reason for which had nothing to do with the conclusion of the book, the people of his home city had – in his absence – arranged to overthrow their despotic leader. Yet, somehow, when it comes time to give credit for their victory in battle, our protagonist is responsible for all of it) was continually running into people who were falling over themselves to help him, or finding things to give him a hand along the way.

I needed to take a few deep breaths by the time I was finished reading this book. It was either that, or fling it against a wall.

The book read like it was written by someone who doesn’t read children’s books. In fact, both of them did. They were both too long – the book about the siblings felt, to me, like someone had taken every single thing they thought would be cool to include, and flung them all, regardless of sense or interest or plausibility, into the plot just for laughs, and don’t get me started on the other one – and could have been edited to make them far more crisp and exciting. I found my attention wandering, my eyes sliding off the page, and my brain being strangled by the sheer tedium of sentence after sentence after sentence.

I am a person who reads. I am used to it. I am a person who loves and adores and lives and breathes children’s books. I didn’t find the books hard to read because they were written for kids. Reading them, however, has made me want to read something totally different for my next book, in order to try to re-set my brain, and I think that’s sad.

But the thing that upset me the most about this weekend’s reading?

Both these books are published, have been successful, and – to my mind – break every ‘rule’ that children’s books are supposed to have.

It’s almost enough to smash one’s tiny, tiny heart.

Image: colourbox.com

Image: colourbox.com

Happy Monday! Onwards and upwards from here, chums.