Thursday, 23 April 2009

All the fun of the fair

The London Book Fair wasn't entirely what I'd been expecting. Most of the exhibition space seemed to be full of people having meetings; the books themselves made up an attractive backdrop. Were they agents brokering deals? Authors pitching to publishers? It felt as though we'd wandered into a members only club; at any moment, someone might come along and kindly ask us to leave.

But the seminar sessions were what we'd really come from. With this year's focus on children's/teen writing, I was hoping I'd pick up a few tips from people at the heart of the industry.

Highlights of the Fair included meeting Patrick Ness and Meg Rosoff, two of my favourite writers of teenage fiction. I managed to get hold of a signed pre-release copy of Ness's much anticipated follow up to The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer. The temptation to find a quiet corner where I could curl up and start reading was difficult.

Interestingly, Ness said he never intended to write for teens - that was just how it turned out. He believes that you have to listen to the story and write the story 'as it's being told,' rather than setting out to write something for a specific market. Once he found the voice, he found the story, and to his surprise, it turned out to be a novel for teenagers.

We've spent a lot of time looking at plot and structure of the novel as part of the MA course. While the theory is fascinating - you can pinpoint why something works, or doesn't - almost all the authors we've met so far have said you just need to write what you want to write.

Meg Rosoff described the process of writing a novel as 'A voyage of discovery for the writer.' She doesn't plan her novels, but starts off with an idea and writes a 'sketchy' first draft, during which her ideas develop.

On one hand, this is appealing. It feels creative, authentic just to write whatever you feel compelled to write. But does this mean the work will suffer as a result?

To plot, or not to plot, that is the question...

Perhaps it's just that the most sucessful writers simply have an instinctive sense of structure. They may not consciously or specifically plan out their novels, but nevertheless, the structure is there.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Black Swan Green

Intially I was sceptical.  I'd read David Mitchell's much-celebrated Cloud Atlas some time ago, and I didn't think much of it.  Perhaps I would look at if differently now.  But I'd been given Black Swan Green  - with a glowing recommendation - so I thought I'd give it a try.  I loved it.

It's the narrative voice that makes this novel.     It's 1982, and Mitchell's narrator, Jason Taylor is thirteen.  Jason's voice is authentic and engaging.  The everyday details of his life become something more than the sum of their parts due to the strength of the narrative voice.  You're immediately drawn into his world all the issues surrounding growing up: making friends, discovering who you are - and trying to uncover the mysteries of the opposite sex.  The novel also deals with more difficult issues such as bullying, divorce, racism and the effects of the Falklands War upon a small community.

Mitchell's liberal use of italics for emphasis helps to bring Jason's voice to life.   The contrast between what Jason says and what he thinks is revealing, amusing and sometimes painfully poignant.  Jason has a secret - he writes poetry - and a stammer, both of which he's keen to keep under wraps.  Any weakness would be mercilessly exploited by the in-crowd.  Black Swan Green depicts the tyranny of the adolescent society in detail so vivid you feel it. 

It's the sign of a good novel that when you reach the last page you feel a certain sense of loss that here's no more.  It's like any other enjoyable, finite experience.  You want it to continue, although at the same time, there's a part of you that knows if you did carry on, it wouldn't be quite as pleasurable.

I turned the last page of Black Swan Green reluctantly.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Writer's Apprentice

I've just got back from my first two-week stint of my apprenticeship with language consultancy firm The Writer.

They took me out for coffee and let me ask lots of questions. They also asked me lots in return. After all, fair's fair.

I loved the buzz in the office. Oh, and the cake. They're all rather fond of cake. Which can only be a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I met clients, sat in on a tone of voice workshop and participated in a couple of naming brainstorms.

And then they put me to work.

Time to put theory into practice. I worked with several people in the team, helping out with projects for major clients. This gave me an insight into the type of work they do and the process from initial brief to finished copy.

I enjoyed having my own briefs to work on. It's quite a different experience working on a live brief, rather than an assignment. For one thing, you don't have the luxury of time. No procrastination. (I might have made tea a couple of times, but that's just fulfilling the requirements of any work experience assignment).

Then came the feedback. Seeing my creative efforts covered with red pen was a new experience. At school, generally I just got a tick at the bottom of my work. But the last few months of critiquing have shown me that you need to use whatever you can to help improve what you write. You can't be precious about your writing.

Everyone gets someone else to look at their copy. Often, there are things you can't see yourself because you're too close to it. Another pair of eyes always helps. Sometimes I was called on to be that extra pair of eyes - and they were interested in what I had to say. Perhaps for the first time, I felt like a writer, not a student.