Friday 11 April 2014

Grasshopper Jungle: Review(ish)

I haven't reviewed any books here, or been on for a while, since my day job has taken all the time I would like to use for writing and reading. Meaning I had hardly read anything or written anything or had any time to write about the things I had written, never mind written any new things of my own.

It's not been a huge amount of fun.

Casting around for a recommendation, and carefully avoiding my TBR pile, my agent Molly suggested Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. And I would suggest everyone should read it, because it really is extremely good.

It's stunningly odd in places, but I can't represent this in good conscience by quoting because although there are lines that- out of context and to a reader uninitiated in Austin's super-strong voice- would be thrillingly weird and exciting, I really feel it's best to leave the stranger elements unspoken and unhinted at. When the oddity is normalised by the intense internal logic of Smith's world and the gripping authenticity of Austin's voice, it will give greater delight than merely ogling from outside.

This a novel that really chimes with the way I like my stories; real life, but having taken a step into the shadows, into the surreal. It captures a teenage boy's mind with quite alarming sharpness, is howlingly funny, is original and builds the story in satisfying layers. Teenage sexuality is represented with humour and sensitivity in a manner that is truly enviable.

This is just the book I needed to read after a bit of a lay-off and when I'm trying to find my way back into writing book two. It's given me a real shake and reminded me of the freedoms and possibilities that exist in writing for children and young adults.

For anyone interested in writing YA fiction, this book is an essential read; it is bold and confident and has a powerful voice.

For anyone interested in reading YA fiction, this book is an essential read; I wish I'd read it when I was 14- it would have blown my mind.

Monday 3 February 2014

Editing Editing Editing

Over the past couple of months, as I recover from surgery and step back into a world of work and writing, I've been trying to edit my novel. I've edited it before, of course, hugely, dramatically, adding and cutting and turning out something of which I could feel proud, and- as it turned out- something that was good enough to get the attention of my agent, Molly Ker Hawn.

This time, though, I'm editing not simply to satisfy myself, and having that thing of wondering whether the ideas and thoughts in my head are actually what is on the page. I'm editing at the behest of my agent, who has read my book with forensic expertise, held into the light elements of it I had believed set in stone, or at least functionally sound, and said:

"Do you really need this?"

"Yes," I think. "I mean, I must do, right?"

So then I look and think... "No, I don't. Actually, something else would work so much better I can't believe I let it out the house like this. Yikes."

It's been incredibly invigorating and rewarding going through this process. As a result, all future edits I undergo myself will involve a fairly clinical use of tables and charts and other things that help track and organise. I say clinical, because as an amateur writer I think there's something fanciful and spiritual about my process, if it could be called that, like these ideas exist somewhere in my soul and the book- the twisting golden thread of it- exists somewhere in the ether as a perfect thing, waiting to be discovered by patience and by me alone. When I thought of my book I thought of it in terms of the feeling I wanted people to have when they read it. Which is great, and very lovely; but it's a bit ethereal, a bit unpindownable.

Writing stuff in charts helped me begin to understand what I had written, rather than what I hoped was there. And all the stuff I was slightly fearful of- cutting/merging characters, examining my work, having someone else examine my work, asking rigorous questions of my characters and my plot- has been great.

A brutal and honest edit will probably always hurt a wee bit, but will always leave my work so, so much better- and I'm convinced it's impossible to achieve this alone. I am delighted to have the support of my agent now, and for anyone who's querying I'd say that critique groups and writer's circles are brilliant things- I wish I'd taken that kind of leap a long time ago, rather than mouldering, Havisham-like in my attic, wearing my lonely sweatpants and having my ideas and reflections bouncing around in only my head.

Monday 4 November 2013

Vampires: The Greatest Monsters in All Fiction

Vampires might be big business at the moment, but the very mention of the word is sure to start eyes rolling. They have been everywhere for too long. But given that recent output has put the vampires’ ball firmly in the court of teenage girls, are we done with them? All that drippy, angsty sex-play; all that teenage heartbreak?
Do not fear. Or rather, do, because they're still dead scary.
We have not had enough of the vampire, and we never will- our thirst for vampires is, like the monster’s fabled bloodlust, a thirst that can never be slaked.
The reason is simple: vampires are future-proof.
If, as monster scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states, “…a monster’s body is a cultural body… the embodiment of a cultural moment”, then a monster has to symbolise something that “rises above the common and singular fear of death” to become something more all-encompassing; something that goes to the heart of who we are and how we live.
If this is what we require of our monsters, vampires will rise from the ashes of our broken society at every turn of our twisting future, for they are the perfect foil upon which to mould our anxieties, fears and collective loathing.
Vampires have always been sexual, way before True Blood and Edward Cullen; think Carmilla and Christabel, written in 1872 and 1792. There is no escaping their sexual connotation: their act is at once oral and penetrative, involving blood-letting suggestive of both sexual maturity and the act of defloration. Our collective psyche will be forever branded with the image of the tuxedo leaning suggestively over a pale maiden, her lace whirling in the night’s wind as the twin phalluses of a gaping maw reach for her exposed flesh... But this reductive anachronism is not all, not nearly all; it is merely the foundation stone of an extraordinary and ever-evolving dynasty.
Some choice examples of twentieth century cinema: Near Dark, Lost Boys, Interview with the Vampire, Blade. To suggest that these films portray the same villain- or embody the same fear- is to miss the richness at the heart of the vampire’s fluid cultural threat.
Arguably the finest vampire film of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark explores a specific aspect of vampirism; it’s blood-borne nature. In 1987, diseases of the blood were a common anxiety as the threat of AIDS swept across the world. Bigelow’s vampires are not pale, slicked aristocrats, they are urban nihilists; forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society, hiding fearfully from retribution and judgement. And just to make sure that the poisoning of innocent farm-hand Caleb’s blood is a clear enough subtext, his father cures him by performing a transfusion in his garage. Curing his blood disease! Could anything more accurately reflect the fears and hopes of a world under of AIDS’ looming threat?
Now a question: could this have been achieved with the zombie’s mindlessness? From the moment Bill Paxton’s Severen starts a bar brawl during Near Dark’s breathless opening, the answer is no. For this, we need the vampire’s sentience, will, self-loathing and drive.
Interview with the Vampire and The Lost Boys are outstanding examples of vampire tales that make use of vampires’ fabled abilities for their own dual ends: secondly to represent their cultural targets- but firstly to mess with their audience.
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, how vampires roll. So when events take a turn and the vampires start to move, we- the audience, the reader- think we know what we’re going to do: They can’t cross water, ok, let’s get over this stream and into this barn… they can’t go past mirrors, or see their own reflection, or something... Don’t you have to scatter seeds? Or steal a sock? Cos vampires are like, pernickety, right? They have to count the seeds, and they’ll spend forever looking for the sock… And garlic! Loads of garlic… or is it just anything that smells? I don’t know, but shit- holy water, right? Let’s hit the church, man! I’ll drive!
So, as in The Lost Boys, when the vampire walks in (uninvited, don’t they have to be invited? Jesus Christ, what are the rules here?) smiles at you and says “Garlic don’t work, boys…” what do you do? You thought you knew. You had a plan.
But the rules change. Vampire writers have a huge, dripping bag of rules they can play with, choosing with care which wet, stinking morsel to throw at their audience, misdirecting, falsely-securing…
There are no rules.
Can werewolves call on that arsenal of trickery?
Interview with the Vampire and The Lost Boys make an interesting comparison- near contemporaries that each make use of the vampire’s ability to fly. But while Interview’s vampires soar upwards, arms outstretched in a grand celebration of their power, The Lost Boys plunge headlong off a pier into choking smoke, fatherless boys throwing themselves with reckless abandon in an act of suicide; a rejection of their powers and their society.
Same power, different application, another twist of the cultural foil; hedonism vs. the absent patriarchy of the post-Reagan years. And for Near Dark’s blood poisoning, see Blade’s injections of serum; fighting off the call of his rotten blood, as the drug-user keeps his own wolves from the door.
Fluid cultural threat.
For current, drip-free vampire tales we can turn to graphic fiction; Jonathan Ross’ Turf and Stephen King’s American Vampire. These are razor sharp, gripping stories in which American vampires eviscerate their leeching European overlords. So here, the vampire tells the story of the birth of America, and in King’s Skinner Sweet (a candy-cane-chewing-cowboy-outlaw dragged into Hollywood’s roaring twenties) we have a stunning anti-hero who, all by himself, banishes the limp heartache of Edward Cullen into the crypt of shame.
The birth of a nation explored through vampirism. And these are the same monsters that deal so cleanly with hard drug use, with AIDS, with post-patriarchy, with aesthetic celebration?
With our current financial malaise, our victimhood at the hands of greedy bankers, gluttonous energy giants and heartless politicians who scoff at austerity as they slice up their suppers of baked swan, surely somebody, somewhere, is currently dragging cracked knuckles across a story featuring a Patrick Bateman-esque ruthless power broker, embodying this cultural moment, this shared loathing, feasting on our current misfortune?
And whatever happens next- whichever cultural anxiety plagues us in ten years, in twenty- the vampire will shift slightly in the shadows and return in a new form, a new shape, to scare us once again.
Don’t worry, they’re not dead, they haven’t faded into lovelorn retirement to lick the wounds on their broken hearts.

They’ll never die. That’s one of the rules. 

Friday 1 November 2013


Today I signed up for NaNoWriMo, with the intention of getting another rough-as-a-brush draft as something finished and placed carefully in a drawer for cold-eyed editing in the future. Although I should be doing my agent's edits on book one (The Marionette, additional info at top of page etc...) I just don't feel I've got my post-surgery wits about me quite yet, and I'm really not in the headspace to be going back over that book with any clarity. I don't trust my judgement yet, which is fine for blasting ideas (good ones, I think, and definitely ones that have been bugging at me for a while) onto paper with little reflection or hand-wringing, it's not ideal for carefully sculpting phrases and ideas I've already worked on so much and so often.

What I hope to have at the end of the month is a manuscript of around 40-50k words. I know the target is 50k, but I'm not sure the book will even be as long as that... I might be surprised, and I hate to start off sounding quittish. But really, if- instead of steadily gaining weight while watching Jeremy Kyle- I have a decent piece of work as a starting point for another finished, credible novel by the time December rolls in, that would be an incredibly good result. 

By then, I hope, I'll have exorcised the demons- the other characters and ideas- enough to get back to Fin and his confrontation with Marco Van pepe... and my mind will be no longer addled by drugs (prescription) and lack of sleep.

Today I wrote 1000 words. A decent start and it gets a tricky opening sequence I've oft-puzzled about out the way. More tomorrow. Definitely. More tomorrow...

Thursday 31 October 2013

Scaring Kids Nowadays

Once angelic, docile; a respectful silence lingering beneath tousled ringlets and disciplined bonnets.
Now thuggish, malevolent; smearing pensioner’s blood across fast-food-stained hoodies, grunting slack-eyed in the pale luminance of electronic displays.
Wildly different images; both of which are, of course, bollocks.
Speaking from the perspective of the teacher (that is to say, through the prism of an upturned wine glass) children today are bright, engaging, funny, caring, mature, interesting and interested, witty and warm. The tapestry of their personalities is woven with as many diverse threads as that of the adults who spawned them. It is the fate of each generation to be horrified by that which comes after; many parents who baulk at current teen interests and predilections are those same young people who scoffed at their own parents’ disapproval of Ozzy Osbourne or The Exorcist. Modern children are just as wonderful and exasperating as they have ever been… but I would concede one difference, one evolution.
Kids today are harder to scare.
I have no doubt this is true. The kids in my own classroom discuss horror films casually, dismissively- even sounding bored- referencing films for which the trailers scared the very bejesus out of me.
So what scares kids now? For writers of YA fiction, this is a pressing concern. Charlie Higson’s excellent zombie-survival series The Enemy has lurched menacingly into a fourth volume. Kids absolutely love them. But were the books to be filmed, a 15 certificate would surely be the very least they could expect- these are scary, violent stories. Higson has talked of using his son as a guinea pig, turning the terror-screw until his son finally reached the point of nightmares. The point, for the writer of scary stories, of success.
There has been, without question, a desensitisation of young people. Immersion in the innocence-destroying world of the internet and its myriad perversions; the gleeful viscera of torture-porn such as Saw and Hostel (not to mention The Human Centipede); and ever more real video games- still sanitised by their form so that certificates are ignored by parents.
And if kids are becoming ever more shock-proof, ever more hardened to the digital world’s daily sloshings of gore, where do we, writers of YA fiction, turn in search of that elusive scare?
Never fear. In every hardened, battle scarred child, spooning saturated fat into their granite shell, there lies a soft core of vulnerability.
And that is where we strike.
Eventually, all our anxieties come back to those explored by the Victorians: the power of science, sexuality, madness, guilt, isolation, death. And it doesn’t matter how many nubile co-eds are fastened anus-to-mouth to form human insects, we will fear these things all the way into the shiny future.
We fear the power of our own minds: The Yellow Wallpaper, Jekyll and Hyde.
We fear where science will lead us: The Island of Dr Moreau, Frankenstein… Jekyll and Hyde.
We fear our own sexuality, the creeping rot of our own guilt, a descent into loneliness: Dracula, The Tell-Tale Heart… Jekyll and Hyde (for me, all roads lead to Jekyll and Hyde…).
In my work I explore a combination of the fantastic and the real. This, I feel, is the best way- maybe the only way- to spark the fear in modern young readers. Real-life terrors develop extra spice when combined with supernatural elements; otherworldly horrors are given relevance and shape by earthly concerns. My debut novel, The Marionette, is concerned with the loss of a grandparent- set against the backdrop of a supernatural horror that seems to connect with the grandparent’s past. It matters not how gore-hardened a young reader may be, we all fear loss; and if otherworldly elements beyond our control are involved, then that real, grounded fear is given an extra kick.

That’s the theory anyway. 

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Hello, and short fiction

Hello, wide world. 

I'll be using this page as a way of collecting my ideas and connecting with like-minded writerly people. It's an exciting new venture, and this first post coincides with the first stages of editing my debut novel- provisionally titled The Marionette and shortlisted for Pan Macmillan's Write Now Prize- in collaboration with my agent, the fabulous Molly Ker Hawn. More information about The Marionette can be found on its dedicated page using the tabs at the top of the screen. 

In the meantime, I'd like to direct you to a piece of short fiction I wrote for my stable-mate Simon P. Clark's blog (which you can find here). Simon is a US-based British-bred writer whose debut novel, EREN, will be published in 2014 by Constable & Robinson; he is followable on Twitter (@sipclark) and in person. His jolly good wheeze was to celebrate Hallowe'en by getting a load of writers to produce a short story of 1031 words- the date of Hallowe'en in the US. 

My piece, titled '1,031', can be found here. I hope you read and enjoy it. If you like it, thanks- I'm quite pleased with it. If you don't, forgive me- I wrote this whilst teaching and edited it immediately after major orthopaedic surgery...