Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects

It is now just over four years since I started this blog, also four years since I joined Twitter and I can't remember the date when I set up my Facebook page. All of which is NO EXCUSE whatsoever for revisiting some of the more popular blog posts. But then, when have I ever needed an excuse.
Remember this one?

A vexing week at Hedges Towers. I think I am developing Copenhagen Syndrome. Every time something goes wrong, I find myself putting on a different jumper and thinking: 'What would Sara Lund do?' The new mobile phone is a case in point. I decided to upgrade to a new phone when the B H  E and U keys died on my ancient one, and the predictive text stuck on 'I am in the bar' rather than 'I am in the car'. Wrong impressions were being conveyed, I was having to think sideways every time I sent a text and my street cred was rapidly descending into the clown zone.

What I had failed to grasp however, was that mobile phone technology has moved on considerably since I bought my little silver 'mum-phone' many moons ago, which means that currently, if you chose for so many reasons, most of them associated with sheer terror and no money, to lurk down the shallow end of the technology pool, your choices are few. Basically it was either the black Nokia one that looked almost but not exactly the same as my previous mobile, or the Hello Kitty phone with free pencil set. I chose the Nokia; I chose wrong.

Getting it out of the box was, in hindsight, the easy part. It then took me ages to unlock the keypad - simply couldn't get the 'Press *' key to align with the 'Press Unlock' key. By the time I'd mastered that, my faith in the ability to absorb new skills had melted away like snow in summer. Two days later tentative progress has been made, despite the instruction booklet not being aimed at someone with technological skills so low you couldn't limbo under them. I still haven't worked out how to switch it off, though. (Am I the only person on the planet who turns off their mobile phone to save the battery? Apparently so.)

It's all part of what I see as the Conspiracy of Inanimate Objects, something I've observed is becoming worse as I grow older. Although the truth of that sentence could lie in the reverse premise. Whatever. Everything just seems to be getting proactively more annoying. For example, I'm fully expecting Sainsburys to post a notice any day banning me from the store, because I always end up rowing with the invisible purple gremlin inside the self-checkout till in a 'That's not an unidentified object in the bagging area - it's my SHOPPING, you stupid woman!' sort of way. I've noticed that assistants now seem to hover apprehensively whenever I approach.

In the same category is the Orange phone lady who tops up my pay-as-you-go account, and will not allow me to deviate from answering either 'yes' or 'no' to her questions. But my life is full of uncertainty, I wail, how can I possibly commit myself to only two possibilities? Is there no room for 'maybe'? At which point, she cuts me off and I have to restart the whole process from scratch. See what I mean?

 Before writing this post, I had to restore and reload Chrome, as it had decided to stroll off somewhere and commune with itself. Oh ~ and the printer is currently not working, despite kicking it, feeding it with paper and pressing all the buttons. Stuff that is supposed to make my life easier is by default managing to make it far more complicated. I am careening towards a farcical cliff.
Time to break out another jumper?

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Are you A Serial Offender?

As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but was listed for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and scored 110 + reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, Death & Dominion which came out in October 2015. Rack & Ruin (Sept 2016) was the fourth outing for Stride & Cully, Wonders & Wickedness (Sept 2017) was the fifth, and I am currently putting the final touches to a sixth book: Fear & Phantoms, which should be ready to read this September **.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

By the time you reach book 5, you can say with confidence that you have planted your flag upon the summit of Series Mountain. Whether your trajectory goes up or down is now up for debate. I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat read-alike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst, (bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought!)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ... and here I am already tentatively starting a seventh ....

So what's your experience: Do you prefer a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts ....

** sneaky preview of cover c/o Gina Dickerson (Rosewolf Design)

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Remembrance Day

'No shelter from the kniving wind
No solace from the driving snow.
No warmth, no comfort or bright cheer
In heav'n above or earth below'
from 'Trench Winter. November 1916' by Noel Clark 

If you read my stuff, you'll know that lines from this poem feature in Jigsaw Pieces , my YA ebook . Noel Clark is a character from the book and his short life as a soldier poet in the first world war makes up one of the story strands. In a few days, we will mark the anniversary of the end of  that so called 'War to End all Wars', and there must be very few UK people who don't have some link back to the 1914-18 conflict. My link comes via my late father-in-law, the wonderfully named Herbert Inkerman Hedges.

My father-in-law was the youngest of twelve brothers. The eleven older ones joined the East Riding of Yorkshire Regiment and marched away to fight the Hun. They were all killed at the Battle of the Somme. He recalls his parents telling him how the telegraph lad kept cycling up to their house day after day, until the news of the last son's death was delivered.

I'm always intrigued by the way wars throw up poets. It's not just World War One, though that cohort are probably the best known. Poetry was also being written during World War Two, on both sides, in the Iraq War and is still being produced in Afghanistan today. I think the proliferation of soldier poets during times of conflict is directly related to the situation they find themselves in.

Poetry demands an inner ordering, a precise selection of vocabulary and structure - it's the verbal equivalent of piecing together a complex jigsaw - the picture only emerges when all the pieces are correctly placed. The control needed to make a poem is in direct contrast to the chaos that soldiers live in daily. Poetry is a way of containing their world and making sense of the senseless. It is therefore both therapy, and a psychological outlet for feelings and emotions too horrific to be dealt with in 'normal' prose.

Those who have read Jigsaw Pieces know the story of Noel Clark an imaginary World War One poet who died tragically at the age of nineteen, is closely linked to another soldier from that time: Billy Donne. What you do not know is that Billy was an actual person. I came across him quite by accident in a small article in the Times in 1997. It was headlined 'A happy 100th for man with mysterious past'. I used his story almost to the letter: Billy Dunne (the correct spelling of his surname) couldn't speak, and drew pictures of battlefields, just like his fictional counterpart. He was placed in a mental hospital in 1923 for unknown reasons, and no family had ever claimed him. His story touched me so much that I felt I had to write about him. The link with Noel Clark is where fact and fiction elide.

During the upcoming commemorations for the anniversary of World War One, we shall no doubt re-read many times the 'big' soldier poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. But actually I find just as much pity and pathos in the work of the women poets of that time, who did not share in the fighting at the Front, but shared in the suffering, and the changed lives. It is their sense of loss, their attempt to learn to survive survival, that makes their verse so poignant. One of the best is Margaret Postgate Cole. This is her poem Praematuri:
When men are old, and their friends die 
They are not sad,
Because their love is running slow, 
And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;
And they are happy with many memories,
And only a little while to be alone.
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
- But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Stolen Childhoods

William Blake published his 'Songs of Experience' in 1794. Holy Thursday is one of the most poignant. The reference is to Ascension Day, when a service was regularly held at St Paul's Cathedral for the poor children of London's Charity Schools. Blake's verses are a bitter outcry against the hypocrisy of church and state (then closely linked), that doled out charity with 'a cold and usurous hand' and then paraded the recipients through the streets in a humiliating public spectacle.

These 'Babes', he says, do not enjoy 'sun' nor 'fields', instead their young lives are marked by 'misery', 'poverty' and 'eternal Winter'. The lexical polarity is quite deliberate. It is a bleak picture of a cruel and harsh time. Not that the Babes' lives got any better in the 19th century. Poor children were expected to contribute in some way to the family earnings from birth onwards. Small girls sold watercresses, strawberries or sulphur matches, depending upon the season. Boys risked life and limb sweeping the muck off the streets for people to cross. Babies were frequently 'lent' to elderly beggar women to make them look even more pathetic. Others sold flowers or matches on street corners, standing in the open in all weathers. Still more risked life and limb darting between carriages to sweep a path. Some children spent long lonely hours minding smaller siblings. Few could read or write.

Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of London life recorded in his London Labour & the London Poor (1852-4), the words of  a coster-lad. His father died when he was 3 years old, leaving his mother to cope. He told Mayhew:

''Mother used to be up and out very early washing in families ~ anything for a living. We was left at home with some bread and butter for dinner. Afore she got into work, we was shocking hard up. Sometimes when we had no grub at all our stomachs used to ache with the hunger, and we would cry when we was werry far gone. She used to be at work from six in the morning till ten at night which was a long time for a child's belly to hold out again, and when it was dark we would go and lie down on the bed and try to sleep until she came home with the food. I was eight years old then.''

1889 poverty map of London's East End . The blackest streets mark areas of complete destitution

Sadly over two hundred years later, we still see the lives and life-chances of poor 'Babes' being trampled in the dust as their parents are treated with scorn and contempt by a government that regards them as idle wastrels. We see benefits cut, sanctions applied, help denied,

Daily there are stories of parents denying themselves food so that their kids can eat. Children arrive at school too hungry to concentrate; sometimes they don't arrive at all because they have no shoes, or uniform, or a warm coat. We see the rise of foodbanks: an utter disgrace in a 'rich & fruitful land' like ours. We read tragic reports of families being made homeless because private landlords raise their rent, and greedy profit-focused developers are reluctant to build 'social' housing. The 'free school lunches' are on the verge of being abandoned in favour of cheap breakfasts.
The cap on housing benefit and the rise of rents potentially throws numerous families onto the streets, depriving their 'Babes' of the right to stability, education and a decent family life. Thousands of children are, even as you read this, having their hopes and dreams of a happy future kicked into the nearest gutter though no fault of their own.

Someone on Twitter recently asked: How can any Government do this to innocent children? My reply: Because they aren't their children so they don't care. Blake cared. His poems, of which only seven copies were printed, were radical critiques of the rich landed fat cats in Parliament and the Church who lorded it over society and inflicted terrible damage to the lives of ordinary human beings by their selfish, greedy policies and attitudes.

The Songs of Experience were considered deeply 'seditious' and could have led to Blake's imprisonment if they'd ever been read by government officials. Nowadays, I guess he'd just be roundly mocked in the rightwing tabloid press and trolled on social media.