Wednesday 30 November 2011

Have You Read… THE IRON JACKAL by Chris Wooding

It was seven feet tall to the shoulder… part human, part animal, part machine. Its short fur was wet and greasy, like something newly born. Its arms were thin and disproportionately long, ending in outsize hands with double-bladed bayonets in place of fingers…

Darian Frey, Captain of the Ketty Jay, is more than familiar with danger. But now his ship is fixed up, he and his crew are celebrities and for once, everything seems to be going their way.

Then they’re offered a job. Frey’s former fiancee Trinica Dracken wants him and his crew to retrieve a relic from Samarla, a desert land where old enemies of Frey still lie in wait for him. But getting the relic to Dracken turns out to be the least of Frey’s problems. Soon, he’s in a race against time, fighting to save his own life as he’s stalked by the terrifying Iron Jackal…

I’ve been a fan of Chris Wooding for a long time. I love his young adult novels, particularly THE STORM THIEF and the BROKEN SKY trilogy, and his adult novels are every bit as good. In fact, THE IRON JACKAL, the third in the Ketty Jay series, has to be one of the most exciting books I’ve read all year.

Starting with a shoot-out in the opening pages, the action never lets up, and the aircraft race scene is absolutely breathtaking. Chris Wooding is also a master at black humour, and there were many moments in the book which made me laugh out loud. The IRON JACKAL’s characters and the relationships and conflicts between them are expertly drawn, the world of the story involved and intricate, yet you never feel like you’re getting bogged down in description or details. I absolutely loved this book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

For the first two tales of the Ketty Jay, check out the equally excellent RETRIBUTION FALLS and BLACK LUNG CAPTAIN. And you can find out more about all of Chris Wooding’s books on his website here.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Gotcha Day

It was a chilly November day, and as we drove over to the Crossing Cottage Retired Greyhound Trust kennels in Nottinghamshire, fog hung over the fields and blanketed the dips in the roads. The trees were wet and black and leafless. But we were paying little attention to the wintery landscape outside. We were going to choose a dog – our first dog – and could talk of nothing else.

We arrived, met the kennel manager and had a walk around. I didn’t really notice him the first time. While the other dogs flung themselves against the wire fronts of their kennels, barking and wagging their tails, he stood there quietly, patiently, not making a sound. I think I glanced at him, but then my gaze slid away to his more boisterous kennel-mate.

We started meeting some of the dogs. The first had been returned from another home a few days earlier. He was so bouncy and energetic his owner couldn’t cope with making him the fourth addition to her pack. He hauled me up the path and back again, me clutching the lead in both hands. D and I glanced at each other and subtly shook our heads. He was lovely, but not for us. Our first dog needed to be one that wasn’t going to drag one of us under a bus if he saw a cat on the other side of the road.

The second dog was calmer, but there was no spark, no connection between us. He was aloof, and didn’t respond to my touch or my voice. Despite this, he was clearly a steady, sweet-natured animal, so we marked him down as a maybe, and moved onto the third dog.

She was tiny, and so nervous she had never raced. So nervous she wouldn’t even walk with us. I tugged gently on her lead, trying to get her to move, but she’d put on the brakes. I knew we didn’t have the experience to deal with a dog who was so frightened of everything, so sadly, we handed her back to the kennel manager.

“Wait,” she said as we began to wonder if we’d ever find the right dog. “There’s one more I want you to meet. He’s big – really big – but don’t be put off by his size. He’s a real teddy bear.”

And collar and leash in hand, she went to fetch…

The Hound.

She was right about his size. Somehow, when I’d glanced at him before – probably because he was being so quiet – I hadn’t really noticed it. But he came to mid-thigh on her. He had a great square head – much bigger than the other dogs’ – and a back as broad as a table. I started to worry again. Could we really cope with a dog as large as that?

And then he walked up to me. He wagged his tail. He leaned on me, and he looked into my eyes.

I felt something, somewhere, go click.

“Look at him,” D marvelled. “He’s like a tiger.” And he was. His coat was fawn and red, overlaid with black and charcoal stripes and flecks. His muzzle, paws and chest were splashed with cream, and there was a narrow white stripe, like a chalk line, it on, all the way from his forehead to the end of his nose. And his eyes were gold-brown and ringed with black, the flicks at the edges making him look as if he was wearing eyeliner.

“Here.” The kennel manager handed me the lead. It stayed slack. Only when I moved did he start to walk too, stuck to my side as if by velcro. When I stopped, he stopped, freezing with one paw lifted mid-stride. The only time he broke away from me was to water a tuft of grass at the side of the road, and then he came straight back. The cars thundering past didn’t seem to faze him. Neither did the boxer that threw itself at its garden gate, barking hoarsely at him. By the time we’d returned to the kennels, we knew we’d be coming back the following week to take him home.

The two years since then haven’t always been easy. A few weeks after he came home he developed serious health problems, and the fight to get him well again took almost eleven months. It was terrifying. But somehow, he pulled round.

Our routine has changed drastically, too – I’ve had to adjust to getting up every morning at a time that, previously, I barely knew existed, and both D and I have had to get used to going out for walks in horizontal rain and feet of snow. Our once-lush lawn has turned into a balding sea of mud. Our carpets have a permanent coating of hair.

And you know what? We wouldn’t change a thing.

The Hound, Asleep
A liquorice nose.
Long legs tangled, ears and paws
Flickering with dreams.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Liebster Blog Award

The lovely Laura E James, a singer and fellow writer who has a blog and website here, has awarded me the Liebster blog award! 

Liebster is a German word meaning dearest, and the award is given to up-and-coming bloggers with less than 200 followers.

If you receive the award, you should:

1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you. 
2. Reveal your top five picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog. 
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
4. Hope that the people you've sent the award to forward it to their five favourite bloggers and keep it going!

So without further ado, here are my picks (although it's VERY hard to choose - there's a lot of awesome blogs out there!):

Abi Burlingham - a really interesting, intelligent blog. Abi – who's the author of the fabulous RUBY AND GRUB books and the forthcoming BUTTERCUP MAGIC: A MYSTERY FOR MEGAN – posts every Friday about all sorts of different things, and I always look forward to reading what she has to say.

Julia Monroe Martin at - writing, life on the Maine coast, squirrels and more, and the Great Crow Experiment has me hooked!

Martin Shone at Like the Sun Shone - a shiny new site - glad to see you up and running again, Martin.

Mel Rogerson at lifebeyond - Mel is a SCWBI longlisted writer and fellow YA fanatic, and I really hope I'll be seeing one of her books on the shelves soon!

Nettie Thomson at Words and Pictures - not only is she a talented photographer, but her stories about her mum and posts like 'Writing Roolz' always give me a giggle, and her flash fiction is wonderful. 

Thank you, Laura!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

First Draft Doubt

As some of my Twitter friends know (because they told me about it - thank you!) ACID was announced in the Bookseller yesterday, along with three other dystopian YA novels by Sangu MandannaLissa Price and Jennifer Bosworth which will be coming out from Random House Children's Books in 2012 and 2013. Their books – THE LOST GIRL, STARTERS and STRUCK – sound amazing and I can't wait to read them! You can see the announcement here:

And now (ahem), on with today's post…

When I first start a new story, I’m always excited. It’s a shiny new idea, one I’ve thought about for months, even years, and I can’t wait to plunge in and start start that mysterious process of alchemy which brings my plot and characters to life. But as I continue – usually when I get to the end of the first third – uncertainty sets in. And then all my insecurities come flooding in. This is the worst idea ever. I didn’t plan it enough. My characters suck. My writing sucks. I suck.

…You get the idea.

It used to paralyse me. I couldn’t keep going with anything. I’d rip every story up and start over, again and again, until I had to give up on them because I’d completely lost sight of what I was trying to write about in the first place.

Something had to change.

One day, I happened upon a quote from Jacqueline Wilson, where she said that with each book she writes, about halfway in, she starts to doubt whether it’s ever going to work, and that she ‘never write[s] with great confidence.”

Yes, you read that right – Jacqueline Wilson. Former children’s laureate and bestselling, multi-award-winning author of around 90 books. Books which fill almost half a shelf in the library where I work – when they’re there, that is, which isn’t often because they get borrowed so often (she’s one of the top ten borrowed authors in the UK).

I was astonished. Because back then, if you’d asked me who I thought was least likely to have confidence crises in the middle of writing something, I’d have said Jacqueline Wilson.

And it made me think. Apparently, other writers suffered from First Draft Doubt too. Writers who were published, and published many times. So how did they deal with it? How did they get their books finished? Was there a top secret formula which, when applied to wavering plotlines or flagging characters, would bring them round as effectively as a sharp smack in the face (or smelling salts, if violence wasn’t your thing)?

Of course not.

Because there is no secret.

Only this: it’s normal to doubt your first draft. You should doubt your first draft (because that’s what drives you to make it better). And you shouldn’t let that get in the way of you writing it.

That’s not to say if it’s not working that you shouldn’t find out why. These days, I do this by writing letters to myself, starting them “What needs to happen next?” Then I keep writing, trying to switching off my conscious, logical brain and allowing my characters and plot to lead me from my unconscious brain, where the answers have usually been brewing all along.

I also turn to my favourite book about writing and storytelling - STORY: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Although it’s not an easy read – I had to take notes the first two times I read it! – I’ve learnt so much from this book. If I’m having a serious plot problem, a combination of dipping into this book and a What Happens Next letter get it back on track.

The most important thing I’ve learnt, though, is that the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. It can’t be perfect. It’s a sketch, a roughing-out, a shuffling-together of ideas, and if you try to make it perfect, it won’t get done.

Instead, ignore those doubts, accept and note your story’s flaws, and get the damn thing down anyway. Because then you’ve got something to work with. Something to make better. Material for a second draft. And that’s where the real fun begins!

What about you? Is there a particular point in your writing you always lose confidence at? And how do you deal with it when you get there?

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Finding Narnia

I'm multi-blogging today - you can also find me over the Lucky 13s, talking about the film that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, here.

Like millions of people the world over, I read C.S. Lewis’s THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE when I was a kid, and afterwards, dreamed of finding Narnia at the back of my own wardrobe, even though it was barely big enough to hold all my clothes, never mind the secret entrance to a whole other world.

It seemed I was doomed to disappointment. But if I’d only stopped to think about it, I’d’ve realised that portals to parallel worlds existed all around me, and that I’d already been through them many times.

The first was a gigantic weeping beech tree which grew at the edge of the grounds of the environmental studies centre where I grew up. In winter, the branches which cascaded from its crown were bare skeletons, the ground beneath them muddy and wet, but in summer, it underwent a transformation. The branches became leafy umbrellas, with a circle of bare, dusty earth beneath each. For my sister and I, this was our ‘house’, with each branch-umbrella forming a separate room – and there were enough of them for a grand mansion. The leaves became walls, the trunk a spiral staircase (although we never tried to climb it), the ground richly-patterned carpets, and the sunlight filtering through the canopy around us the light from glittering chandeliers. We took tea, ordered the maids about (and each other), and generally had a splendid time. At least until we got called in for dinner.

My second Narnia was on the other side of the centre grounds where, just before they gave way to fields, there was a tiny wood of horse chestnut trees. They had grown up around an ice house which dated from the days when the centre was a private home, and the family who lived there needed somewhere to store ice to keep food cold. As well as being my very own conker supply depot, each summer the wood would be transformed into a lush green paradise as a carpet of cow parsley sprung up beneath the trees. I remember my mum helping my sister and I to cook dinner over a campfire there one year, listening to episodes of THE HOBBIT on the radio while we ate, and being surrounded by a frothing sea of scented white flowers. We each had a horse, too (two long branches that grew beside the domed roof of the ice-house, which we’d climb onto to reach them), and would travel many miles to distant and exotic lands.

Finally, next to a little pond in our garden, there was a small box hedge. It was hollow inside, so my sister and I claimed it as a den. There was just room in there to sit upright, using an old plank of wood as a bench, but in my mind it was vast, a giant’s cavern with a ceiling hung with stalagtites and glittering crystals studding the walls. Once, I found a ring in there – silver, with a small blue rabbit on it – that I’d lost several years before. I hadn’t lost it in there, though, so how it ended up there, I was never sure. Perhaps it really was a portal to another world – one where lost things wait to be found…

I left my Narnias behind eventually – like the way in to the real Narnia disappears for the older characters in the series, their doors quietly closed behind me while I was busy getting older – but being a writer means that even as an adult I get to live in other worlds all the time: the worlds I create on the page. Each new story I write is a doorway into another reality, and when the time comes to move on, it’s always a wrench.

But not for long, because there’s always another story forming somewhere. Another world waiting for me to notice it.

All I have to do is start writing…

Wednesday 2 November 2011

How YA Saved My (Writing) Life

When I was a kid, I read every book in the children’s section of my local library I could get my hands on – Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys… I loved authors like Anne Pilling and Robert Swindells, too, I was a Point Horror junkie, and I devoured the Sweet Valley High books (well, they had a certain glamour!). I also read each and every one of the Chalet School books, lent to me by a relative. Basically, there wasn’t much I didn’t read. I loved it.

Then I hit my teens. Back then (and it wasn’t that long ago) YA didn’t really exist as a genre – at least, not in the sense it does now. And I don’t remember there being a designated section in our library for books for teens like we have in the library I work in today.

So I skipped straight from kid’s books to adult books – Stephen King, Ben Bova, Michael Crichton. About the same time, I started writing, and as a result, my early ‘novels’ (which I still have, stacked in the top of a wardrobe), have a distinctly hard-boiled flavour as I tried to imitate these authors, both in content and in style. I was thrilled, at fourteen, when my grandmother inadvertently paid me one of the biggest compliments anyone’s ever made about my writing – that I wrote like a forty-year-old man.

Then came the GCSE years, and reading for study, rather than pleasure. And as we analysed the meaning of Scout and Jem’s every word in To Kill a Mockingbird*, and dutifully wrote essays about Macbeth, I began to wonder whether, because, secretly, I still preferred Sci-fi to Shakespeare – despite being told that THIS was great literature! – I was lacking in some way.

So I turned my back on the books I liked to read in favour of the ones I thought I should be reading. Stopped writing the stories I wanted to write in favour of the sort I thought I was supposed to. And pretty quickly, I stopped having fun with them. Just stopped.

Often, I had to force myself to read. The few times I cracked and bought, say, the latest Stephen King, it was a guilty pleasure, one I’d only allow myself every now and then. One strange pattern did emerge, though – the ‘literary’ books I was making myself read nearly always had a young or teenage protagonist. But the significance of this didn’t occur to me then; I knew I felt more of a sense of kinship with these sorts of characters than any other, but I didn’t stop to think about why, or what that might mean for my own writing. In a desperate attempt to revive my fading enthusiasm, I had a go at a story for children, but because I didn’t read children’s books – I didn’t think I was allowed to, somehow (a crazy notion; I realise that now) – it failed, and ended up in the bin.

At the same time, I started to realise that I had no idea how to write a plot that actually worked. I’m not one of those lucky people born with an innate sense for storytelling – I simply couldn’t figure out why the plots in everything I wrote flatlined, or went in circles, or simply went nowhere at-all. Maybe it’s time to give up, a little voice in my head started telling me. Maybe you’re not a writer. Maybe it’s time to try something else.

Then two things happened. I saw a review of a book, STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING by Robert McKee, in a magazine. It sounded interesting – the article talked about it as if it could be applied to novel-writing, too – and the library had a copy in, so I borrowed it and found out it does exactly what it says on the tin. I’ll warn you, though, it’s not a book for the fainthearted. I had to read it through twice, taking detailed notes, before I even started to understand what it was trying to tell me. But then it started to click. I started to get it. And started to realise where I’d been going wrong.

At almost exactly the same time, I got the opportunity to go on a weekend course run by the award-winning YA & children’s author Linda Newbery. Better read one of her books, I thought (as shockingly, I never had). So I got myself a copy of THE SHELL HOUSE, which at the time was her latest novel, about two teenage boys separated by almost eight decades but linked by a crumbling mansion, and who are both struggling with issues of identity, faith and sexuality.

It was a revelation. I enjoyed it so much I read it in less than two days. And after the course, which was interesting and fun, I went back to the bookshop and the library for more YA books by other authors. I couldn’t get enough of them.

But still, my brain was slow to catch up. It wasn’t until several months later that something suddenly occurred to me: why not try writing the literary coming-of-age novel I’d been struggling with, on and off, for two years, as a young adult novel?

I remember that moment so clearly. It was an autumn evening, and I was sitting on the sofa in the little rented flat my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and I were living in at the time. I’d been working on another story all day which I was bored to death with. I hated the storyline. I hated the characters. I was constructing it according to McKee’s principles in STORY and it still didn’t work. But I was ploughing on relentlessly with it because I felt I ought to.

The moment the thought of writing YA exploded into my brain (it really was that dramatic) I put the boring story to one side, grabbed a notebook and started scribbling as ideas for this new novel literally tumbled into my head. Everything I’d learnt from STORY (which I’m still learning from – I don’t think I’ll ever stop) collided with the characters and story I’d been trying to piece together, and by that night I had an outline and a first chapter written out.

For the first time ever, I fell in love with my characters, becoming so obsessed with them I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them get on the bus when I was on my way to work. I found myself listening to music that sounded like the story. I was totally and utterly immersed in the world of the story – the first time it had ever happened. It was incredible.

That book was also the first one I ever sent out to agents and publishers, although – quite rightly, because it was terrible – it quickly collected a stack of rejections, and it would take several more novels before ACID was born. But from that moment on, I knew: I was going to write YA. I was going to read YA. And I was going to love it – every single minute of it.

What about you? How did you find your genre? Or are you still searching for it? Whatever stage you’re at, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

*Ironically, I recently picked up my battered, much doodled-in copy of TKAM and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Go figure!