Kindling Magic

This Week’s Bit of String: Phoenixes and falcons

Last weekend we took my son and his girlfriend, wearing Hogwarts t-shirts, on the Harry Potter tour at Warner Bros’ Leavesden studio. Several younger kids in the queue sported head-to-toe Gryffindor robes, one boy of maybe seven years old wearing Harry-style glasses as well, and humming John Williams’ Hedwig’s Theme on repeat.

Among fans, then. I was tickled too by a couple in their fifties, scampering around the outdoor sets and giggling while they waited their turn for photo ops. ‘Look at that,’ marvelled the man, peering through the back door of the Knight Bus. ‘You can see the beds, and all!’

Inside the creature workshop, the woman squealed and pointed at the display case where Fawkes stands regally. ‘It’s that falcon! From the headteacher’s office.’Fawkes the phoenix in his display case

So I got the impression these two fans hadn’t read the books. But they were no less enchanted by the story, perhaps enticed by the added celebrity sparkle of the film studio.

What’s the precise magic of a franchise that enlivens so many people, whether encountered on page, on screen, or in a bright-plumed animatronic bird? Different factors might appeal more to one fan than the next, but I believe even we non-fantasy writers can replicate some of this alchemy.

Harry Potter and the Approval of Twitter

I checked in with Twitter about the boy wizard’s appeal. Susan Macdonald cites the series’ ‘good characters.’ Definitely; they’re vivid, varied, and complete with fully-drawn, engaging background.

I posed with the trolley going through the wall at Platform 9 and 3/4.
‘Best take it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous.’

Lia, who tweets as @LiaTheBookBat, loves the parallel universe JK Rowling illustrates, and the possibility of ‘impossible things fuelled by magic.’ I agree the juxtaposition is intriguing: relatable characters and specific, just slightly altered details make the wizarding world seem ever so close.

Thriller writer LV Matthews (@LV_Matthews) notes that the ‘good overcoming evil story’ is especially relevant ‘in this crazy world.’ Certainly, Rowling pulls off this epic theme very well, examining different reasons people are attracted to good or evil, confronting friction between different members of the ‘good’ side, and even forcing the protagonist to question whether he himself might have evil tendencies.

Harry Potter and the Recipe for Enchantment

Personally, I was struck by how walking around the full model of Hogwarts felt like coming home. The first view of those turrets and spires, and I might have been Harry or Hagrid or even Tom Riddle, recognising a beloved place.

Hogwarts model
My son reckons this model is about 1/8 the size of the ‘real’ Hogwarts. It was truly stunning.

Strong emotion passed on from characters to readers: that’s the real magic here. Such deep empathy, whether for fictional or nonfictional people—that’s magic, and a mighty, unifying force.

Anyone following this blog since its launch in the wake of the USA’s 2016 presidential election will know creating that kind of magic is my favourite part of writing and reading. But there’s a lot involved in achieving this. All the factors above were instrumental in JK Rowling’s success with it, plus one more overarching element.

Even more than Hogwarts, the part of the tour that moved me most was Platform 9 and 3/4. Toward the back of the train, a car was open to show two different scenes. One end depicted Harry’s first ride on the Hogwarts Express, while the other showed the series’ final scene, ‘Nineteen Years Later.’

At its roots the Harry Potter series is a Cinderella story, Hagrid showing up on Harry’s eleventh birthday like a Hairy Godmother. (Or something.) Watching Harry’s journey, painful though it is at times, gives us hope, as referenced by my Twitter acquaintances.Dummies of Harry and Ron in the Hogwarts Express with various goodies from the trolley.Dummies of Ginny, Harry, Hermione, and Ron, 19 years later.His story lets us believe that however ordinary-looking, however put down we may be even by the very people meant to care for us, it’s not out of the question that in some alternate realm we are renowned, and we may prove ourselves worthy. Hope liberates our empathy—right or wrong, it’s easier to feel for someone who has an inkling of a chance.

(Side note: JK Rowling didn’t achieve the same heights with The Casual Vacancy, maybe because this essential ingredient was omitted. The characters were wide-ranging and believably flawed, but offered very little hope.)

So we are drawn in, enticed by clever touches like owls and wands, encouraged by The Boy Who Lived until we’ve fallen as hard as if we’ve eaten a box of Romilda Vane’s chocolates. In our own writing, it’s worth remembering the mixture of minor detail, promise of redemption, and characters that inspire deep, true feeling. What would you add to the potion?Quote from the Marauders Map on the walls of the studio entryway.


Playing God

This Week’s Bit of String: Tidying up the building materials

Once when my son was about six years old, I looked in on him during his evening tidy-up to see him gloomily tossing his Lego into their bucket, punctuating their impact with sighs. ‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’m just…angry at God.’

He explained his grievance to me: ‘While we were eating dinner, I asked God really nicely if he would please tidy up my room for me.’ Another sigh. ‘But He didn’t.’

I’d seen him in a similar predicament with the magic wand he’d received for his birthday. And when he was a toddler, just learning his manners, there were those agonised epiphanies that saying please—‘the magic word’—won’t get you extra sweets or a later bedtime.

So it didn’t seem the time to put God’s existence under review, anymore than I would tell him there’s no such thing as magic. ‘Sorry, mate. I don’t think He works that way; He likes to make sure we know how to do things for ourselves.’

Losing My (Bias Against) Religion

Religion—and, well, not relying too exclusively on it—has enmeshed itself into a few of my stories. In Artefacts, the first novel I wrote, talking about God embarrasses the protagonist, ‘like talking about someone and suddenly realising they stood behind you.’

I feel that way, a bit, penning scenes with God in my current novel. As it’s Eve’s story, though, and her family’s, He plays a prominent role. I guess it’s the first time I’ve written about a recognisable figure, an entity Who might (who knows?) actually exist. That changes things, doesn’t it?

Carvings of God on His throne
Above the door at Notre Dame Cathedral. Can omnipotence and love really go hand in hand?

Last week I wrote about reimagining the first humans in the Bible, as well as the angels, trying to de-stigmatise as far as possible. These days, at least in our fast-paced, ‘enlightened’ society, it seems God too has become somewhat stigmatised, the focus of blame and skepticism rather than adoration. I don’t want to get caught up in that, even while sympathising with Eve and other characters He punished.

One has to wonder, if God does exist, and is by definition omnipotent and eternal, do all our pleas and tirades sound to Him like a child not wanting to pick up his own toys? I’m trying not to be restricted by pro-human bias in my view.

He’s Got the Look

So far I’ve not gone into great detail about God’s appearance. That’s not the done thing, is it? In our art we tend to come at physical description obliquely, if at all. Likewise with my re-invented angels, apart from the odd mention of their scales, wings, and fire. The humans in the story accept these beings and have no reason to overtly describe them.

Flaming orange sunrise over a hilltop
Like this, maybe. I’m just throwing around ideas here.

There’s mention of God’s immense size, and lack of clear outline. I mean, He’s God. We can be justified in thinking he has humanoid aspects (or commonly manifests them), because He does say He’s made people in His image. But I don’t think He’s just a muscly older man with a flowing white beard, the way Michelangelo depicted Him.

For one thing, He’s not going to have a corporeal body. He’s energy, and why He would choose to generally have a human form, I don’t know. I suppose it has its uses, a certain organisation and compactness. But in my work there’s a glow to Him and a deep, shifting substance that defies boundary. His eyes can turn into oceans, His smile into sunrise.

The King (of King)’s Speech

What I have God say in the book is far more important than how He looks. And I haven’t a whole lot of source material to base it on. I’m not on board with the whole divine scriptures idea. Sorry, I’m a writer myself. I know how easy it is to make stuff up and then it feels like canon in my mind. That doesn’t mean it is. That’s possibly my human bias talking, but for the purposes of this project, I’m going with it.

I’m drawing the line at accepting God’s actual words as relayed in Genesis—but weeding out ideas that are merely imputed to Him.

For example, when He punishes Cain for killing Abel, He says Cain is exiled and will lose his knack for growing crops. He never says Cain is banished from His presence (that would be admitting some limitation to His power). It’s Cain who moans that he’ll be out of God’s sight, and then the narrative picks it up.

Granted, He issues curses at key moments, but He doesn’t just pronounce judgment. He questions those involved, giving them a chance to explain themselves or at least ‘fess up—all the while opening Himself to even more disappointment as they flounder around pretending they didn’t do that thing they really weren’t supposed to do.

He strikes me as part Albus Dumbledore, part Atticus Finch, giving people space and a bit of prodding to see if they’ll figure things out for themselves. Here, Eve’s daughter Ana recounts to Cain how God encouraged her to start her own family, while admitting she too would carry her mother’s curse.

So I told Him: “I think You are a brutal Master.”’
Cain gave me one of his rare, full-on looks, allowing me to see the Mark. ‘Then what?’
‘He said, “Well, at least you believe I’m your Master.”
“What choice do I have?” I asked. ‘You gave my parents life out of dust and bone.’
“You have every choice, Ana. You and all your future children and grandchildren, you have a choice.” And His glow seemed to dim slightly. I almost felt sorry for him.

After all, I feel a certain sympathy with Him, too. Creating people, letting them bumble off on their way doing what they like, forcing You to spring up obstacles in their path to slow them down and get them to look about themselves for once…Ahem. Yes. Perhaps God and us writers have a thing or two in common. What do you think?


Getting the Picture

This Week’s Bit of String: Racial bias in a dancing competition?

In December 2016, Ore Oduba won the glitter ball on Strictly Come Dancing. My son was quite excited about this, and admittedly I was too, enchanted by Ore and Joanne’s jive in Week 4.

But my son had been anxious as the final drew near. Historically, celebrities of colour get fewer votes from the audience, judging by the frequency they are in the bottom two. Often they dance perfectly well. They just don’t get the audience votes, and have to be ‘saved’ by the judges.

So every year there are concerned murmurs about whether the dancing show itself is racist, and then the requisite backlash from white people offended by the very suggestion.

Here’s the thing: there are more white people than not in this country, and there are probably more white people than not watching Strictly Come Dancing. Humans gravitate toward the familiar, the reflective, so the many white viewers may well vote for a white celebrity. Amongst very talented candidates, that tiny blip of recognition on the subconscious radars of thousands wields some influence.

It’s not overt racism, I think (I hope), but innate bias. We need to be aware of it. To probe our decisions a little, rather than huffily dismiss concerns others have about it.

I notice our gravitation toward the recognisable in other areas. My name, for example. People glance at it and assume it’s Natasha, although they’re neglecting an s and slapping an h in willy-nilly. People see what they’ve seen before.

Studies also show that babies are drawn to certain types of faces—after a few months. There’s an interesting article on that in Slate, here. As we develop (or supposedly develop), we suffer from ‘perceptual narrowing,’ as if our senses get stuck in a rut. If we’re not exposed to a broad range of sights, we will stop looking for them.

Re-Visualising History

With these biases and predilections in mind, I’ve been trying to get the right mental image for the protagonists in my novel about Eve.

Usually when we write a story, it plays vividly in our imaginations, a cinema multiplex in our brains open 24/7. The same is true for me now, but because this story has its basis in something other than my imagination, I have a distinct unease that the imagery is not my own.

Recall every classical painting or children’s Bible illustration you might have happened upon that depicts Adam and Eve. Flowing gold locks—maybe sometimes brown hair, but always porcelain skin, right? God would have been cruel to form such pasty creatures and pop them down under the Middle Eastern sun.

Selection of National Geographic magazines
I’ve been trawling through my best sources for portraits resembling early peoples of Southern Iraq/ North of the Persian Gulf.

Anthropology traces the first humans back to Africa. At some point we probably all had dark skin as a clever, preferable adaptation. One day that feature may well win out evolutionally again. For my work-in-progress I’m using a less scientific source, but even the Bible says Adam was created of the earth’s dust, and then Eve was formed of Adam— probably not lily white, then.

It might be unfair to say racism is behind all the whitewashing that Adam and Eve underwent over the centuries. But plenty of people have twisted passages from early Genesis to support racist ideologies.

For example, after Eve’s son Cain (also a major character in the book I’m working on, and quite fascinating to me) is ‘marked’ by God for committing fratricide, certain factions have said that mark was black skin. A curse justifying slavery and other cruel practices against millions of people. However, God marked Cain not as a curse, but a sign of guardianship, to show He would wreak vengeance upon anyone who, in turn, harmed Cain. In my book I’ve put it on Cain’s upper cheek, figuring it would have to be quite visible:

Against his dark skin it was blanched white as if God had seared through to his very bones.

It’s still hard to conjure up the right image in my head. Not just because I’ve had years of the wrong images, but also because I’ve never known many people of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve unwittingly had my own perceptual narrowing of sorts.

I guess, though, that I don’t always see my characters when I’m writing a story. Most often I see scenes through the protagonists’ eyes: their surroundings, their loved ones and interests.

And I hear the voices. Dialogue—external and internal—scrolls constantly through my head, with or without a precise picture of who’s speaking the lines.

Here Be Dragons
Stitched emblem of a Chinese-style red and black dragon
Oh hey, Gabriel.

It’s been less challenging to picture Eden, the punishing land around it, and the angels charged with keeping the two separate. I decided a while back that our ideas of angels suffered a major perceptual narrowing.

Why are they always portrayed as looking human? There’s no indication they’d resemble us at all. The creation story says God made people ‘in His own image,’ which to me implies the angels weren’t made that way. Besides, if Lucifer, himself an angel, was the tempter in the Garden, he’s also described as a serpent. A serpent with arms and legs, that is, which in his case were struck off as punishment for that fruit episode.

So angels are serpents with arms and legs…how about they breathe fire, too? Yeah, I decided dragons are actually angels. Handy critters to know when outside the Garden Adam and Eve have to keep warm and cook food.

I’ve had Gabriel describe it thus:

‘The man and woman went forth and multiplied. That was the Boss’s only command they followed unerringly, although their kind bred division over the years, too. Their descendants assumed we, the Boss’s messengers, should be shaped like men, often slaying us when we appeared.’

So this book idea evolves to challenge old perceptions: white ancestors, humanoid angels…What will it take on next? Well, there’s God, obviously. Tune in next week to find out how He’ll look and sound.

What steps do you take to fight perceptual narrowing in your creative endeavours?

Love and Other Questions

This Week’s Bit of String: Saying good night at Grandma’s house

During a visit when I was eight, my Grandma came to tuck my sister and me in. She was a pre-school teacher, and as a matter of strict policy, she made a great deal of time for us and never got cross.

Granddad was different. He blustered rather than spoke, worked long past retirement rather than played. We were a bit scared of him. I’d watched Grandma sweetly placate him for my whole life, and it stumped me.

‘Grandma,’ I whispered as she kissed me goodnight, ‘Do you really love Granddad?’

How much choice do we have over who we open our hearts to?

She just laughed and left the room. Minutes later, Granddad himself appeared, giving his version of a chuckle, which still sounded blustery. ‘So you think your grandmother doesn’t love me?’

Like any of us, over the years I learned much more about the inexplicable, often unwelcome persistence of love. I watched Granddad lose Grandma to lung cancer a month before their golden wedding anniversary, and there was no mistaking she was loved in return. I’ve seen that reciprocation is often enough; that we can make ourselves settle when we choose to.

But I still wonder about it. Why do we love who we love? How is love sustained and and to what extent can it be manipulated or cajoled or banished entirely? Again, I suspect I’m not alone in wondering these things.

Opening Questions

When we start planning a novel, we’re told to start with a question, a predicament. That’s handy, as I’m writing about Eve and there’s a lot to question in the Biblical story of creation, of Eden and the fall and the alleged first generations of humanity.

Example: Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and gets exiled. At this point the Bible has named only 3 still-living humans on the entire planet.

Then it says Cain’s wife got pregnant (presumably a sister too lowly to be named) and has a son called Enoch. So now we have five people on the planet. Maybe a few other girls who the Author couldn’t be bothered to bring up.

THEN it says, when speaking of Enoch’s birth, ‘Cain was building a city at this time, and named the city for Enoch.’

Wait, what? Building a city for whom? Angels? Demons? Animals? Aliens?

Plenty of scope for the imagination, then. More questions in last week’s post about believing what we read. More questions, many questions.

The Overarching Question

But the one that interests me most of all in this story is love. Did Adam and Eve love each other? Can you truly love someone when there’s no other person in existence, so you haven’t chosen them as such? How can you keep loving each other after together, you brought curses down on all future generations?

I guess to me, these are the questions that matter most—more, as I discussed last week, than whether any of it is true or not. I suppose it’s because these are the questions that pop into my head in real life, and they’re the ones that led me to my first line of this story, and it spiralled from there:

‘You must understand, I was made to love your father. For that reason, I sometimes hate him.’

At the moment, I’m writing in first/second person point of view, as Eve addresses her lost favourite daughter—exiled with Cain. If we work with the scenario that Adam and Eve were the first and only humans, they’d have had to have quite a few kids, and to play matchmaker, convincing them to breed.

(Or maybe there would have been little persuasion required. Humans aren’t always fussy about that sort of thing, but let’s not go there for now.)

Given Eve’s own background—unnamed for the first 3 chapters of Genesis, so often referred to as simply ‘the woman’ or ‘Adam’s wife,’ how might she have felt about these pairings, and her role in orchestrating them?
So my novel’s overarching question is incorporated with the first line and the point of view.

Cosmic Questions

Beyond being reflected in the relationships of her children and other descendants, Eve’s feelings for Adam also, I think, are tangled up with spiritual questions.

Pondering the purposes of humans and angels

After everything, could Eve and God love each other? I’ve just written my first scene in which God appears—quite a challenge, playing God, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. There’s the guilt over letting Him down in Eden—but also the struggle to understand why He allowed her to in the first place.

And she must have wondered, before any of us came along to wonder the same exact thing for centuries: What the hell are we for? For Eve, who knew God as her creator and as an actual physical presence, she must have wondered why He made her and Adam. Just to serve Him, like the angels did? Were they given free will so they could choose to love Him and therefore make their elective devotion more meaningful? I think she’d have mixed feelings on that theory, given everything she went through and all she lost.

Have you come to any conclusions on these matters? How do you set up characters to love each other, without making it look like a setup?

Believing What We Read

This Week’s Bit of String: Dinner with the minister

Quite a few years ago we had dinner at a Southern Baptist pastor’s house. I’d met his family at a New England playground when our son was little, and as they’d recently arrived from South Carolina attempting to reform us heathen Yankees, they were very friendly and keen to get our kids together.

‘He’s a pastor,’ I informed my British husband before introducing him. ‘Just bear that in mind.’

During the meal, the two men chatted merrily. The minister asked my husband about his physics studies, and eventually followed up with, ‘So do you believe in evolution?’

My husband laughed, leaning back in his chair. ‘Well, I don’t know anyone who believes in creation!’

‘Ah do,’ drawled the pastor calmly.

‘Do you?’ my husband asked me, visibly shaken to his core.

I shrugged. I was raised to, certainly, but in the midst of all the other issues and debates raging through life, I’d never found that one to be a battle worth fighting.

Old Premise, New Ideas

Is it so very important where we come from? I mean, to an extent it is. There’s a lot to learn about more recent history (post-Big Bang or Creation or what have you) that better informs our view of the world and of humanity. But I bumble along in my explorations happily resigned to uncertainty regarding the world’s origin story.

On a mental level, I see the logic of the Big Bang Theory. But the creation story still fascinates me.

Sculpture of a woman embracing a globe
Mother of all…

I’m working on a new novel, starring and told by Eve—‘mother of all the living.’ What would it be like, acting as the prototype for 50% of an entire species? How would she learn to be a woman when no other women were around (and not many men either)?

I’m scribbling the early chapters, as well as researching at the moment. I haven’t read a lot around this issue. I’m planning to read Paradise Lost, and look at the Apocrypha as well. So far, I just keep reading the first chapters of Genesis. And honestly, it’s intriguing.

I’m sure to many, the Biblical idea of Intelligent Design sounds overbearing and rigid. But each verse poses huge questions and leaves much to the imagination.

For example, after Eve and Adam took the forbidden fruit, God clothed them in animal skins. How? Was this the first animal slaughter? Could it, further, have been an animal they’d loved in that place of peace?

Eve is never named in that account until after being cursed by God and exiled from Eden. She’s called ‘the woman,’ or ‘Adam’s wife’ up till then. That’s cold. Why?

Then again, considering Adam’s name simply means man, and according to the story there were no other men or women around, I guess they wouldn’t have needed to call each other anything else.

Factual Truth Versus Character Truth

So I’m researching, and questioning, and daydreaming. Not because I intend to find out exactly what happened in the first days of earth, but because it’s fun to imagine.

Isn’t it, in a way, more exciting not to know or worry about whether a book’s premise is true? Hogwarts probably doesn’t exist, and when you think about it, a ring holding dominion over all Middle Earth is somewhat bizarre. But we love finding out how characters—people rather like us—might react in such inventive scenarios.

Bristol Cathedral interior
And we can marvel at the beauty of something without sharing in the faith it represents.

It’s not exactly difficult to imagine a woman breaking a rule—she’s sure she’s only bending it a little—in order to gain some equal footing. So what if it takes place in a garden paradise that’s just appeared out of nowhere, with angels strolling and demons lurking? I feel I can still inject plausibility into her plight.

I think there’s a vital difference between believing a book and believing in a book. It’s the difference between veracity and value; the hierarchical inferiority of situation to character. Aren’t we capable of savouring a protagonist’s authenticity without completely swallowing their circumstances?

I keep going back to this quote from Yann Martel’s eponymous character in Life of Pi: ‘If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?’

I’m not putting my trust in the words of Genesis. But it draws me in and I accept its story, the same way I accept a John Irving story or a Joanne Harris one. Fiction writers tell the truth of their characters, and I’m prepared to believe them. Tell me a character, Biblical or otherwise, did such-and-such: fine, I’ll play along. I’ll ponder why, and to what effect.

Do you find it necessary to establish the complete veracity of a book in order to get involved? What makes a story more or less believable—how happy are you to fill in the gaps?

How’s Your Habit?

This Week’s Bit of String: Three sets of cutlery

When my son was six, I decided it was time he did a bit more around the house.

We started with laying the table. Three forks and three knives, maybe some help pouring drinks, that was all he had to do. It didn’t go over well.

‘If you EVER,’ a fork slams onto my place, ‘make me do this again,’ the knife slams onto the other side of the placemat, ‘I’m running away!’

It was a hardship, those six pieces of cutlery. But I persisted, explaining to him how much else Mummy had to do all the time, and he learned to live with it. Ten years later he still shows up, with minimal summoning and zero slamming, and he lays the table.

I also taught him to fold his own clothes then. We used to get compliments from the other mums at dance class: ‘How do you get him to fold his clothes so nicely?’

The answer to that was Top Trumps. He was enamoured with his Top Gear supercar Top Trumps cards assigning speed, coolness, and various other ratings to different cars.

Every night, he would fold his clothes, and I’d give him a rating. The more decimal places the better; he lived for numbers.

And so habits are formed, sometimes under duress, sometimes with bribery, always with a nod to the bigger picture and to one’s underlying interests.

I’ve just been doing a course from Writers HQ called 14 Days to a Solid Writing Habit. It was fun and invigorating, and also made me see that I hadn’t been doing too badly anyway.

Here’s a sum-up of how it enhances habits:

Focus on honest goals and motivations. This is where those underlying interests come in. You’re not going to stick with something if the fit isn’t right; if the goal is too far off or not worthwhile enough, or if you’re not secure in your reasons. Be honest about what you want from your writing, and cling to it.

The course creates a culture of encouragement rather than fear. If you miss a day, you haven’t thrown away your whole habit. Just keep going when you can. Slamming the silverware down is fine, as long as the table gets set in the end.

'Do you have the COURAGE to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.' --Brene Brown
Inspiring poster my sister made for my writing corner.

Great tips for optimising that sometimes-elusive writing time. Because of these, I could sit down to the required 15, then 20, then 30, then 35 minutes of daily writing time and churn out a fantastic number of words. In those relatively small windows of time, I was accomplishing a lot. So even when I’m busy or tired, I’ve got proof right there that investing time is worth it.

Do you have habit-forming strategies to add? How do you stay motivated?

Here’s how the course made me realise I’m pretty lucky.

I already do have very clear goals, with multiple submission deadlines, and a healthy smattering of ideas to develop.

The course suggests we put non-writing time to use thinking through plot snags and daydreaming about characters. Believe me, I’ve got that covered. I often skip hours of sleep because I’d rather be blocking scenes in my head. (Who wouldn’t?)

Also, I can usually squeeze in writing time. I get a whole hour for lunch. I don’t drive, and relying on buses has disadvantages, but it does free me to read or scribble. My son is very independent (what with his longstanding table-setting skills and all), and even my husband is somewhat independent, so I can get away with the odd at-home writing session.

Finally, I am fortunate not to suffer from imposter syndrome. I know I’m a writer; I’ve been working at it since I was three years old. I luckily had one of the first stories I ever submitted published, and I’ve had just enough good fortune to sustain me since then. No, not only to sustain my own motivation, but also to justify to those around me the time and effort I spend on this.

Maybe I was naive not to realise how many writers struggle just to recognise themselves as writers. If that’s you (and even if it isn’t), go on and write anyway, every day if you can. Prove yourself and any other naysayers wrong. Once you’ve made a habit of writing, no one can stop you even if they try. Courage! Bring forth!

2017 Reading Round-Up

I read fifty books this year. I had to, because it was the target I set on Goodreads, and we mustn’t fail targets. I’m setting a lower target for next year, though, for reasons I shall elaborate on in a later post.

Among those fifty, there were quite a few to which I awarded five stars. More than ten, certainly. So to distinguish between a great (5-star) book and one that’s nudged onto this list, I’ve used here the ones that absolutely thrilled me.

I don’t mean in terms of suspense (well, not just that). I mean the emotion and linguistic skill and plotting electrified me with every page. Read on, enjoy my very favourite quotes, and take note for future reading lists!

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: Shiver-worthy dystopian read of my year

I chose the final book from the Oryx and Crake trilogy for its exploration of the storyteller’s role in a culture. Each sentence reveals volumes about Atwood’s imagined dystopia, a world controlled by corpocracies. For example, this was published in 2013 but references a border wall keeping refugees from climate-ravaged Texas out of the other states. Oh, the irony.

‘Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?’

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers: Wince-for-the-protagonist book of my year

Our hero, Alan flounders in his foreign setting, but he knows some good jokes, and loves his daughter so much, I rooted desperately for him. Presented in short, snappy segments, it’s almost as if the whole book is an attempted letter from Alan to his daughter, with bits of story interrupting. Perhaps that’s how Alan sees life, and it’s causing him to come undone.

‘It becomes a process of choosing the one or two people you try hardest not to disappoint. The person in my life I am determined not to disappoint is you.’

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson: Laugh-aloud book of my year

I first encountered Lawson’s fantastic sense of humour and (mis)adventure a few years ago through her blog post about the Bear’s Head. I especially admire her for the joy she derives from her quirky family, talking dead squirrels and all.

‘This must be what love is. When you want to make it less difficult for someone to murder you.’

A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Edifying nonfiction read of my year

Riverbank by a waterfall
A new job in 2018 meant finding new places–and time slots–to read and write. My favourite, here, on the River Frome (also known as Stroudwater).

Goodwin’s research makes the already-known sad ending all the more poignant by including the grief of those closest to Lincoln (even the ones there reluctantly) and also by offering evidence that Reconstruction and civil rights issues could have been less painful under his continued guidance.

‘A government had better to go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardise in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.’ —Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Goodwin’s book. (The founder of the Republican party, ladies and gentlemen.)

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Most redemptive characters read this year

Some found this hard to finish because they found the characters unappealing. But they resonated with me because no matter what mad, reckless things they did, they were just seeking approval. The central family moves from feeling that obligation is a symptom of attachment, to understanding that freedom is a required preexisting condition for genuine love.

‘Compliments were like a beverage she was unconsciously smart enough to deny herself even one drop of, because her thirst for them was infinite.’

Human Acts by Han King: Shock and awe book of my year

Did you know there was a terrible massacre in the Gwangju Province of South Korea in 1980, perpetrated by the government? Neither did I, until I read this. A book so engrossing I didn’t want to put it down, so sad I had to pause my reading while on holiday, yet so haunting I couldn’t cheat on it with any other story.

‘Conscience, the most terrifying thing in the world…I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of one hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…I dared to feel a part of it.’

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: Dread-the-ending book of my year

Reading this, I was almost physically sick with fear that things wouldn’t work out for Waters’ heroines falling in love with each other in the early ‘20s. But as with Fingersmith, she didn’t let me down. She recreates the ravages of a love affair as vividly as she does the tragedies and minutiae of history.

‘Would it be all right, wondered Frances, if they were to allow themselves to be happy? Wouldn’t it be a sort of insult to all those others who had been harmed? Or oughtn’t they to do all they could—didn’t they almost have a duty—to make one small brave thing happen at last?’

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: Sweeping epic read of my year

Epic? Should I really be comparing tales of a relatively privileged American family in NYC to something like Lord of the Rings? Well, I find the daily struggles for meaning and validation to be quite stirring, especially against an imagined (for how long?) backdrop of all-out war in Israel and the Middle East. Foer plays these parallels off each other expertly.

Mural of the countryside, inspired by Cider With Rosie
Mural in the Stroud Library in honour of local author Laurie Lee. Another recently discovered reading spot.

‘And the inexplicable, unreasonable, illogical emotions and behaviour of parents can be explained, by having had to believe for the better part of a year [leading up to the birth]. Parents don’t have the luxury of being reasonable, not any more than a religious person does. What can make religious people and parents so utterly insufferable is also what makes religion and parenthood so utterly beautiful: the all-or-nothing wager. The faith.’

The Help by Kathryn Stockett: Top inspirational read of my year

We all need the occasional reminder that courage and unity are powerful, that women from all skin colours and walks of life can initiate change when we come together, and that telling your story, or writing someone else’s down on their behalf if needed, can make a difference. This was a perfect reminder of that for my 2018.

‘And then she say it, just like I need her to. “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”’

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving: Evangelistic read of my year

The one I HAVE to tell everyone about.
From the title of the first chapter (‘A Bear Called State o’ Maine’) I was hopelessly in love. Irving’s imagination is wild, shoving the quirkiest characters in the most unexpected directions. But somehow, it all comes together as every little detail, no matter how goofy it once seemed, becomes wholly relevant by the end.

‘”Being a star is easier,” Fanny would say. “You just be relaxed and hope that the you in you comes across.” For a writer, I guess, the you in you needs more nourishment to emerge.’

What were your favourite reads from the past year?

2017 Writing Round-Up

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster…

Above anything else we are curators of people’s responses to us. I have a fine collection of reactions British people make when they learn I’m American. Students I worked with focused on food: ‘Do you like peanut butter then, Miss? Did you eat MacDonalds every day? Do you always have pancakes for breakfast?’

Adults generally look for the story: ‘What brings you here, then?’ It’s similar to the question I sometimes get asked at work when people find I’m a writer, as if there are certain boxes Americans and writers must fit in, and somehow I’m not in them.

But for writers, people most want to know if we’re successful. Have you found that? As with the kids asking about food, adults ask about the money. ‘So have you been published? Going to be as rich as JK Rowling?’

They’re not interested in what a story’s about, so long as they have a tangible way to compare our successes.

Nothing wrong with that; we totally do that to ourselves, especially at the end of another year. What have we got to show for it? How are we measuring up?

Before such introspection runs amok, I’m trying to tether my self-assessment to specific criteria (you can tell I’ve survived a few OFSTED inspections). Here they are, as reminders that it’s not all about money and publication:

Did we start new projects?
I ran with a few different ideas this year, from a Dissatisfied Relatively Privileged Middle Aged Person story (one could argue that pretty much defines contemporary literature), to a dystopian short story about detention camps for anyone foreign-born. I have two novel concepts to plot and write, and other unfinished bits and bobs, mostly in the literary genre but some historical and even science fiction. I’ll move further with these in the new year, but I’m glad I haven’t finished everything; it’s nice to start afresh with a few already-begun stories kicking around.

Noticeboard with assorted images for inspiration.
One of the Noticeboards of Wonder in my Room Where It Happens


Did we maintain (or, let’s be honest, start) good habits?
After getting some fantastic Twitter motivation a few weeks ago in a discussion about keeping the imagination fresh, I started getting up even earlier in the morning so I could scribble for fifteen minutes before my daily hike. By the end of the second week, branches of a new novel shot through my brain. Fifteen or even ten minutes without stopping can yield two or three notebook pages. If, like me, your will to write has dwindled while life is busy, try writing a little every day. Before you know it, you’ll be hooked again and you will find more time, because you’ll be hungry for it.

Did we explore new sources of motivation?
I discovered Writers HQ this year, and went to one of their workshops. This fabulous organisation, while never glossing over how hard writing can be, encourages participants relentlessly and ensures you keep going. I definitely will be using their services more in 2018, and I recommend checking out their website, if just for a giggle at their cheekiness.

Every year I seem to discover a new anthem to get me psyched to create. In 2017 it was pretty much the whole soundtrack of Hamilton. ‘I wrote my way out of Hell…I was louder than the crack in the bell.’ The crannies where we write are The Room Where It Happens, people.

Did we cultivate wonder?
We writers often find ourselves serving as essential conduits for the

Cam Peak in bluebell season.
Or, if you don’t live near mountains as such, climbing a bluebell-robed hill at sunset should do the trick.

suffering of the world. Sometimes it’s up to us to draw attention to it, and we risk getting cynical (even the Relatively Privileged Middle Aged among us). We can’t let negativity taint our writing. Whether it’s climbing a mountain, absorbing the camaraderie that develops among strangers on a bus commute, or revelling in a fellow writer’s impromptu recitation of Tennyson, we must remind ourselves of the beauty in the world.

Did we take in lots of voices?
This year I loved broadening my reading list following Women’s Writer School discussions on Women in Translation month and LGBTQ writers. Listening to panels on diversity at various literature festivals introduced me to the work of Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jess Hiles, as well as sign language poetry. I look forward to learning more, and supporting more diverse writers by purchasing their work in 2018. For anyone else interested, this reading challenge checklist from the Reading Women discussion group on Goodreads looks amazing.

Did we gulp our pride down and send our work into the world?
This might be the hardest part. I had a few successes this year—winning the Gloucestershire Writers Network prose prize and reading my story at the Cheltenham Literature Festival was a highlight—but with it have come a number of rejections as well.

And I’m proud of those rejections. I’m proud of the courage they represent. Rejections test us, tempt us to give up—but I’m certainly not going to, and I hope none of you will either.

How many people can do what we do? How many can haul an entire novel out of a brain already taxed by work, family, chores, life—and then ceaselessly chisel and gouge that vast, beloved creative work  into something even better? How many can bravely place their art before the world, pace through weeks or months awaiting the results, only to meet with utter disappointment? And how many, after all that, will do the whole thing again—and again?

We are amazing.

You may recognise the quote in this post’s subtitle, from the end of The Great Gatsby. ‘It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning– So we beat on, boats against the current…’

I’m using it because of a passage in another book which quotes it, The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. The young writer character in this book says, ‘There’s no point in writing a book if you don’t think it can be as good as The Great Gatsby. I mean, it’s all right if you fail—if the finished book just isn’t, somehow, very good—but you have to believe it can be very good before you start.’

Writing, and any artistic pursuit, demand we surround ourselves with a supportive network that fortifies our hearts to believe, while feeding our minds to expand so our self-belief will not be unfounded. This checklist is designed to maintain that balance. Have you got anything to add?

Picture Book Lessons

This Week’s Bit of String: The D-Word

Once upon a time, my brother and sisters and I loved visiting my grandparents in their house of forty years. The AM radio constantly played vintage hits, and yummy smells wafted from the kitchen. There was always a bowl of popcorn in the lounge, between two puffy armchairs, and there was an extra rocking chair, quite small, for us children to take turns in. And while we did, Grammy read to us.

Apparently November was Picture Book Month, which caused me to reflect on my personal favourite, a tiny paperback at Grammy’s called Noisy Nora (Scholastic Book Services edition, 1973). It’s written by Rosemary Wells, who also created Max and Ruby, later making a mint off them, I expect.

Noisy Nora featured cute pictures of an anthropomorphised mouse family, amongst whom Nora was the [seemingly] neglected middle child. The story unfolds in rhyme. Nora attempts to entertain herself while her parents are busy with her siblings, but everything she tries [perhaps intentionally] attracts this refrain of not-so-positive attention:

‘Quiet!’ said her father.
‘Hush!’ said her mum.
‘Nora,’ said her sister, ‘why are you so dumb?’

Now, at this last line, my grandmother would hesitate as if she didn’t want to say the word dumb. So I would shout it in a rare act of rebellion—back then dumb was like a swear to us.

Pages from Noisy Nora
The repeated rebukes of Noisy Nora

Looking back now, I’m sure Grammy didn’t really have a problem with that word.

Evidence A: She once marched off to find a dictionary and read the official definition of contraception when my youngest sister asked.

Evidence B: Grammy told me when I was sixteen and my father (the youngest of her six children) had lost his temper and made me cry, ‘You know, we made some mistakes as parents. He acts this way sometimes because we didn’t help him do what you’re doing now. So go on and let it out.’

I suspect she gave me the job of shouting, ‘DUMB!’ because she knew I needed to let that out. The same way she taught us to make faces and say, ‘Blech!’ when our mother had to give us Robitussin. I asked my mother, more recently, if that had bothered her.

‘Not at all,’ she said, ‘because it made taking medicine more fun for you. That’s why she did it.’

A spoonful of self-expression makes the medicine go down.

Another page from Noisy Nora, as she says: 'I'm Leaving! And I'm never coming back!'
The climactic moment when Nora will make them all sorry.

My Grammy had also been one of ten children herself, in a farming family that had to split up during the Depression to ensure everyone got fed. She loved her brothers and sisters dearly, but maybe she understood about sibling rivalry. I wish I knew whether she thought about her own childhood at all when reading Noisy Nora to me.

Noisy Nora showed me the powerful release just one word can bring. A little story, even populated by mice, could reflect my reality, and it didn’t need to have dragons or princes to be exciting and fun.

What other lessons have we learned from picture books that impact us as writers?

Building Imagination: The book that got me reading (because I was so desperate, at the age of 3, not to wait until someone was available to read it to me) was a picture book version of The Wizard of Oz. Books like that transport characters to extraordinary worlds—even though they’re perfectly ordinary kids. They step into wardrobes, or try playing a board game found in the park, and suddenly anything can happen. Stepping into these worlds is the exact reason we perfectly ordinary writers pick up a pencil and begin a story.

Provoking Sympathy: Picture books make obstacles look exciting, encouraging children to consider new situations they haven’t personally faced. For kids, it doesn’t matter whether a character is a princess or an orphan, black like the ukulele-wielding boy who takes down Abiyoyo or Chinese like the woman who pursues her dumpling into the underworld, an elephant like Babar or a mouse like Nora. They still care what happens, and as writers—and, well, as human beings—that’s nice to revisit.

Fostering Rebellion: Many popular children’s book characters get vindicated, no matter what mistakes they make. Max returns from Where The Wild Things Are to find his dinner ready for him, after all. Curious George and Amelia Bedelia always find ways to save the day after nearly ruining it. These teach us that it’s okay for characters to be flawed; they can still be heroes. I’m pretty sure a lot of us writers find those types of characters even more appealing now that we’re grown up.

The conclusion of Noisy Nora
Nora’s absence teaches her family a lesson, and she is welcomed heartily back from the wilds of the broom closet, despite her awful noise.

Recognising Patterns: Our very earliest picture books—Goodnight Moon, the work of Dr Seuss—introduce to us a sense of rhythm and rhyme, making reading beautiful and musical. Those are important qualities to maintain even when writing prose as an adult. Consider also series such as Madeline and Curious George, in which each book starts the same to reintroduce the protagonist: (‘Twelve little girls in two straight lines…’) These help us develop an understanding of backstory and appreciation for consistency.

Encouraging Expression: Books like Noisy Nora showed me it was okay to have occasional misgivings about sharing attention with my brother and sisters. I would never have used the word dumb at that age, but I could say it through a character. Perhaps that act of ventriloquism helped instigate my love of writing, but I suspect it sprung also from what sheer fun this and other picture books were, and are.

What were your favourite picture books? How do you think they influenced you later in life?

Keeping the Daydream Alive

This Week’s Bit of String: Tiny pencil people

When I began writing my first ever novel at the age of eleven, I enacted it with an entire town’s worth of pencils.

Tall ones were adults, and smaller ones were kids. Yellow ones were men; coloured ones were women. You can see the sense in this, right?

I’d divided every shelf in my bedroom, one third of my drawers and the floor of my closet into little cubbies representing each building in the town, decorated with unique postage stamp pictures on the walls. The pencils had furniture—stub pencil babies slept in milkweed-pod cradles—and in some cases, even scraps of clothing sellotaped on.

An array of pencils
Who doesn’t love a bouquet of pencils?

For years pencils had been speaking their personalities to me. The chewed, battle-scarred ones and the prissy, fine-tipped ones and the fluorescent, too-trendy ones. Some of the citizens in my story-ville were carefully nursed survivors of first grade, when my little rural town sent us to a tottering two-room schoolhouse. We sat at ancient desks with ink pot holes in them, and the boy in front of me used to twist round and drop my beloved pencils through the hole. I sometimes wonder what happened to that boy. With the surname Dyke, he must have had an awful time in his later school years.

Even as adults, when we get swept up in a story idea, everything around us reflects aspects of it back at our infatuated brains. Have you ever noticed that? But I’ve been so busy lately, it’s been a while since I succumbed to such flights of fancy. I miss it. How do we ensure kid-high levels of imaginative activity when we’re getting a tonne of adulting done, too?


I turned to Twitter (which I’ve also been neglecting due to time constraints) for suggestions on maintaining good creative habits and keeping the dreams alive.

Some of these ideas overlap with the tips I gave back when I was adjusting to full-time work. Adjusting implies a process with an end, but I’m not sure I’ve completely figured out the balance. Does anybody? So reminders are all good.

Firstly, don’t stop writing. Even if we are taking a break between projects, we should keep scribbling observations and thoughts (bits of string…). Writer and editor Emma Cummins reminded me to make a habit of writing little and often. Because we all know what happens when we have a cool  idea, and try to stash it in a corner of our ever-churning minds while we rush off to do the next thing.

You can find Emma’s website here–she particularly focuses on reviews of art and cinema, which is perfect because taking in aspects of culture outside our own creations helps us develop new ideas, too.

Gravestone reading: 1859 M.A.N. 1831.
Another intriguing gravestone, from Painswick. Who was MAN? And was he (or she), in fact, born more than twenty years after dying?

Where else can we find things to write down? Creative writing teacher Stephen Tuffin suggests hanging out in graveyards, or accompanying someone to the shops without shopping yourself. (For some of his other, uniquely flavourful thoughts on writing, check out his blog here.) I remember seeing a 19th century gravestone for a child, with the verse ‘God’s will be done’ carved on it. And I wondered, did the parents agree on that resigned sentiment? Was it someone else’s idea entirely? Did they argue over what their faith meant in the face of such terrible loss? Given that I encountered that ‘bit of string’ over a decade ago, I guess cemeteries can make quite a lasting impression on the imagination.

Or follow Stephanie Hutton’s lead and snap up some vintage postcards from eBay or even a charity shop. Not only do you have the pictures to prompt you with story ideas, but each postcard message opens worlds of possibilities, in what’s said and perhaps what’s not said. Stephanie is part of The Writing Kiln, which aims to inspire confidence in budding writers. Have a look at their website here.

Vlada Poladyan advises putting sleep to use, to mesmerise and spur the imagination. She cites Stephen King’s nonfiction book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft for teaching her a routine for creative sleep. It’s been several years since I read On Writing, and it’s clearly time to check it out again.

Finally, Shannon Ferretti points out, ‘Daydreaming is important and a good use of time, [so] I bury my worries way down and play in make-believe lands instead.’ Part of getting back our imaginations is giving ourselves permission to daydream. We must remember that as writers it’s kind of our job to fantasise and create.

But we also must avoid feeling that every daydream should serve a marketable storyline. That’s been my problem. Being short on time, I get to thinking every idea has to count toward some ultimate writerly goal. I need to remember that every bit of string has value, even if it doesn’t lead to a beginning, middle, and end.

Every random exchange witnessed, every anecdote passed on, better informs our sense of the world and humanity. And every silly idea can lift us beyond that. So that’s worthwhile, isn’t it?