Thursday, 30 September 2010

Writing tips or DON'T PANIC

Yes, I am writing, kind of you to ask. How's it going? Almost done, but, boy, did it take so much longer than I expected. Why? Here's why.
1. LOADS of amateur mistakes, mostly to do with showing off. There's a strange dynamic with being a writer. First, is ego. Afterall, you must have ego in abundance to think 'hey, read my thoughts, they're important'. You are expecting people to put aside all other activities to spend their passing hours, days, months even, dwelling on what you have to say. You may not have anything worthwhile to say, but at least, you think you do. Ego. It is important.
2. Invisibility. The writer should not be seen in the story. The complete opposite of ego. The story is paramount, this is not an excuse for you to vent your fustrations at the world. This is usually spotted at submissions stage, so if you want to write a story about, I don't know, someone a lot like you who does a job a lot like yours (never appreciated enough, of course) and wakes up one morning in their messy bedroom and decides to CHANGE THEIR LIVES, then stop right now. Now I'm not saying you shouldn't take aspects of your life (in fact, it's crucial that you should) but give it that glamour, illusionary twist. Twilight is a perfect example. Bella is the wish fufillment fantasy of Stephenie Meyer, and that is why she's been so successful, but her honesty she's tapped the wish-fulfillmet fantasys of millions. She's not updated Romeo and Juliet, she's updated Cinderella. But with glamourous vampires, centuries old wars, werewolves and sacrifice.
Do not underestimate this. Whatever else is said of Meyer, she writes honestly. In writing there's no higher ambition. Lies are for advertising. Be honest. Be invisible.
Where was I?
3. Research. Oh Lord, this is a nightmare. You really can overdo it. I think it's my biggest fault. I've spent years researching my latest project (1995 I think was when the idea first came to me) and the problem is I feel the need to put everything down into the manuscript. Mistake. Instead of making it clearer, you only make it more confusing, plus, you're showing off how clever you are (another big fault of mine, it's common amongst eldest children). But thankfully that's what agents are for. To tell you to CLARIFY/SIMPLIFY/CLARIFY/SIMPLIFY and repeat until finished.
4. And procrastination. Instead of writing I'm busy on things like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Death defying ACTS!

On Saturday 23rd October we'll be celebrating the SECOND Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival and it'll have a strong Halloween slant.
The Chainsaw Gang will be there in our hordes, that's to say there'll be seven of us (rather magnificent, don't you think?) so you'll have Alex Milway, Alex Bell, Alexander Gordon Smith, Sam Enthoven, Jon Mayhew, Steve Feasey and myself. So if you're interested in anything from yetis to werewolves, from demonic prisons to er, more werewolves, then Crystal Palace is the place to be!
Those outside of London, fret not!
The Chainsaw will be in sunny Norwich and even more sunny Richmond soon enough!
In the next couple of weeks there'll be a lot of activity and a BIG competition being run across the members of the gang. We'll be discussing the market value of souls during a recession, how best to cook fellow authors and the baddest of the bad.
But it all kicks off at Crystal Palace. Check out the website and do make sure you book your (free) ticket to the Chainsaw Chit-Chat at the library in the afternoon. And make doubly sure you visit Bookseller Crow, the ultra-cool and moody bookshop that's the heart of the day's events. Tell Jonathan I sent you.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

I am a Geek, hear me SQUEAK!

Oh you mock, but we rule the world now.
Well, just look at what's on at the movies. Scott Pilgrim v. the World (geek defeats Superman AND Captain America!), Kick Ass (geek gets to, er, KICK ASS and gets the high-school hottie while everyone thinks he's gay, double result, even TRIPLE!!!), then we've got the new movie about Facebook and a whole, whole load of superhero movies which are written, produced and directed by geeks. And absolutely RULING the box-office.
This is a geek world. You just live in it.
Alas, geekness wasn't such a valuable and subversively cool commodity when I was at my most geek, or geek-peak as I like to call it. I collected comics. I stayed indoors playing Dungeons and Dragons when the cool kids were behind the bike-sheds doing whatever happened behind the bike sheds. Fixing bikes, maybe, I don't know. My first girlfriend was an uber-geek (she got a first at Imperial in Mechanical Engineering, there is nothing more geek) and frankly, we were so geek that we just hung out at the library and did, like, tutorials (until she dumped me for dragging her grades down). I did that clumsy side-ways two-set dance of the truly uncoordinated. You know the one, sort of head-banging while stepping to the left then back to the right, arms ridgedly stuck to my sides.
So, I would like to take this moment to celebrate the geeks of the world.
1. Clark Kent. Yes, geek wish-fufillment at its purest.
2. Billi Gates. Is a geek. Rules the world. Nuff said.
3. Scott Pilgrim. I loved this film so much I got a guitar. Oh how I wish I was that scrawny now!
4. Sherlock Holmes (obviously not the Robert Downey Junior version, who is very un-geek to his core).He prefers doing cross-words to getting the girl. That's geek.
5. Gary Gygax. The inventor of the Dungeons and Dragons game and the roleplaying industry in general. He has inspired the entire generation of writers of fantasy, YA lit, the whole she-bang. His influence cannot be measured. We'd still be living in huts probably, if it wasn't for him.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The greatest children's book EVAH!!

Yes, the Hobbit. I cannot emphasise it's awesomeness enough. One measure of a great book is how many times you've re-read it. The Hobbit has been a major influence in my life and, I suspect, is the reason I write fantasy.
It was read to me at primary school and at first I thought it was really REAL, and if I crept quietly and kept careful watch, I might find or see a hobbit, since the entire book has that depth, ranging from Bilbo's family history and the detailed geography (which goes well and beyond the call of duty and makes me marvel how deep Tolkien's imagination was, to build a world where every river was mapped and every part of the terrain planned. What did he see through his mind's eye? Wow.)
I can remember the teacher reading that opening chapter and we're talking about 35 years ago, give or take.
I don't know how many times I've read it since. I read it to my wife during those mid-night and before dawn feeds of our first baby and now, that baby is a nine year old girl and there's nothing I look forward to more than reading her a chapter a night and seeing her eyes become light and distant as she walks the road to the Lonely Mountain with Bilbo and the dwarves.
The book has impact, I can see it. There's few things I remember from 35 years ago with such profound clarity. No tune. No telly programme or picture. Just a book about a hobbit.
I wonder about the hobbit in all of us. I strongly believe that's why we love it so much. We're not the Gandalfs and Aragons or Legolas's of our tales (much as we'd like to be Legolas, elves are just plain cool). We know we're the heroes of our own tales but we're heroes reluctantly. Our heroism is of small scale. Deep down we know we're not going to change the world. Look at those real life 'heroes' who do set out to change the world.
For the better? Be happy you don't make it worse.
We're Bilbo, dreaming of a warm breakfast in our comfortable hobbit-hole (Oh God, how much I want to live in a hobbit hole just like Bilbo's!) while we deal with fear, uncertainty and a vast, unknown future. This is what we are as children and what we are as adults(even more so, as we no longer have Gandalf to guide us). En-route to our Lonely Mountain.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Farewell, sweet Lindsey!

Here's the second editor in my career to bail out on me in as many weeks.
Is there something I should know?
So, Lindsey is the scholarly guru at Puffin who guided Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess through the quagmire of rewrites with her fellow editor in arms, Ari (who you read about last week, right?).
Lins was one of the judges of the 2008 SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition and basically liked the early draft of Devil's Kiss (then called God's Killer and involving a big werewolf fight that didn't survive DK but sort of moved into DG, at least the joke about 'chasing cats' did anyway where was I?). Basically it was Lins who first 'found' me.
So, Lins is about to go on maternity leave with her first baby. Like is that reason enough to leave ME? All alone, editorless, wandering the self-help shelves and grammar sections of my local Waterstones, forelorn and lonely? Some people. Anyway, if I haven't said it already, congrats to Lins and Sam! A very handsome couple even if I say so and certainly prime movers around the dancefloor if their performance at the reception is anything to go by.
Gosh, my grammar. I still have nightmares working out why it's not witches's (the possesive noun of many witches). You have Charles's, don't you?
Lins, what will I do without you?
Just back from a big meeting with the Crystal Palace posse to discuss how to make this year's festival even more tremendous that last year's. And tremendous it will be!
Follow this link to entertainments galore. I'm in the workshop section with the rest of the Chainsaw Gang (more about that very soon! New posters! New members with added DRAGONS!).

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The Bad Boys of Children's Literature

Yesterday was Roald Dahl Day. It marks what would have been the old boy's 90th birthday. There have been blogs and celebrations aplenty regarding the World's No.1 Storyteller.
Apparently Dahl was, not to put too fine a point on it, a fairly unpleaseant b**tard in real life. A new book by Donald Sturrock recounts a life of more than mischief making, bullying, philandering and monumental egotism.
For Heaven's sake, look at the photo! I'd be scared.
Have you read the Fantastic Mr.Fox? I listened to it, narrated by Dahl himself, over the holidays. I've never suffered an anxiety attack before but that probably was the closest. I was more disturbed by that than when I read 'Silence of the Lambs.' Mutilations, brutality and in one scene, Mr. Fox's children fear they will have dogs set on them.
What modern author could get away with that? What modern author would even think of it?
Maybe he was a bad boy, so what? Maybe that's what made his stories malicious, despairing and cruel. And brilliant. If there was any quote that first intrigued me with Harry Potter it was a very early one which compared Philisopher's Stone to Dahl. I agree, Rowlings' first few Potters were my favourites and do have a strong Dahlesque flavour. The later books got too caught up in the setting than the plot, IMHO, but to be compared to Dahl is a great compliment indeed. Perhaps the greatest.
Next up is Phillip Pullman. Now if you're a regular reader you know I love his Northern Lights trilogy. Those books CHANGED MY LIFE. I would not be a children's writer if it hadn't been for Pullman's work, his is a major inspiration. DEVIL'S KISS would not exist if not for him. And boy, do I agree with him on things like age banding, that shambles last year about security checks for authors visiting schools and the dogma that dominates religion.
He's become a bit of a grumpy old man, hasn't he? Sort of 'rent-a-rant' author. I don't mind him venting but where are the books? I haven't read his Jesus one (lack of armoured bears put me off) but it's a bit disappointing when he says he doesn't write fantasy, even though he's written the best fantasy trilogy since Tolkien and seems to be distancing himself from what he did best, write children's stories.
Still, his immortality is assured. He, like Dahl, has written tales that look at the dark heart of children's tales and do so without sentiment and with honesty. For that I can only admire them as two of the greatest children's writers ever.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Sometimes, an axe just isn't enough...

Vegan vampires. Cute'n cuddly werewolves. Romantic zombies.
Romantic zombies?!?
As far as I'm concerened the only good zombie is the one eating the living brain out of someone's skull.
Since when did all our favourite monsters go so 'PG rated'?
I say, ENOUGH!
You say, "Sarwat, get to the point, already!"
So I shall.
A group of writers have decided that it's time that monsters got back to doing what they do best, being MONSTROUS. And heroes got back to bagging and tagging them in the most bloody and violent way possible.
Hence the Chainsaw Gang.
We've decided to spread the word that in amongst the shelves of angsty, pale and love-lorn undead and eco-friendly lycanthropes there is blood, there is dread, there is fear.
The new wave of writers delivering old school horror.
But who are these mysterious masters of the macabre? (See? That's me being all writerly and stuff). And not only who, but where can you find them?
Let's start with Alex Bell. Now when the Chainsaw Gang was first mooted, it was clear that it was going to be 'BOYS ONLY'. We didn't think girls would cut the grade. You know, they'd get all sqeamish and cringy and write tons and tons of soppy scenes set in meadows and what not and basically be all 'girly'. Then Alex came on the scene.
Boy, were we wrong about the girl thing.
Author of The Ninth Circle and Jasmyn she delivers real, blood-chilling grown up horror. You'll be begging for your mummy.
Sam Enthoven. He ticks all the neccessary boxes, the '3 D's' I call it. Demons, death and destruction. Actually he ticks four, with dinosaurs. If you think school trips are dreary, try his latest book, Crawlers. Innocent people turned into mind-controlled psycho-killers, like the good Lord intended.
Steve Feasey. You can never, ever, ever, have enough werewolves. Throw in djinns, vampires and sorcerors and frankly I'm amazed you're not reading his Changeling series right now. In fact, what are you doing on this blog? A love of werewolves is a pre-requisite!
William Hussey. Young, Talented. An exceptional ball-room dancer too. Way, way too keen on the old Hammer House of Horror to be healthy, but good mental health is not required in the Chainsaw Gang. Infact, it's the last thing we want from our members. He's just written the stupendous Witchfinder: Rise of the Demontide. Check it out. Modern science mixed up with the most ancient of horrors. You'll never want to visit the sea-side ever again.
Jon Mayhew. Half-man half-whippet. They said he was a legend, but we sadly now know the truth. He lives and walks among us! Irritatingly talented he's written the completely awesome Mortlock. Spooks. Demons. Knive-throwing heroines (we really like those, more please). Enter dark, fog-bound Victorian London and the scariest circus since Cirque du Freak.
Alex Milway. You don't have to be called Alex to be part of the Chainsaw, but it helps. Alex is a writer, and illustrator, designer (the logo up top is his idea) and all round decent human being. I don't know why he wants to hang out with us but he writes about yetis and that's good enough for me.
Alexander Gordon Smith. No half as scary as he looks in his author photo. He's written the Furnace series which is about a prison built miles underground and run by demons. I really, really wish I'd thought of it first. Nail-biting tension from the first page and cliff-hangers to die for, and many do. A master of the 3 D's.
Now you know us, time to meet us.
The Chainsaw Gang will be blitzing the UK over the Halloween period. This is our 'beta-testing' phase, so we're going to go nice and easy on you. We'll crack it up later. The website will be up later this month and there'll be additional stuff galore, but I wanted to give you a heads up NOW, so you can get your diaries out and mark these dates in RED.

Alex Gordon Smith is a busy boy (he lives in Norwich so needs to get out and about as much as possible).
13th October, 4.00, Thornton Heath Library, Croydon
14th October, 4.00, Coulsdon Library, Croydon
19th November, 4.00, Worksop Library

Jon Mayhew will be ruling the north.
21st Oct: Crosby Civic Hall: Scarefest
26th: GobbledeBook Festival Chester: Teen Panel AM, Full Event PM
27th: Newport Big Read, Riverfront Theatre Newport
29th: Booka Bookshop Oswestry: A Hallowe'en Party
30th: Lancaster Castle

Steve Feasey will be at the Cheltenham Festival on Oct 10th.

I'll be at GobbledeBook Festival, Chester on Monday 25th, 2.30pm to 4.30pm.

Then, there are the BIG THREE events. True and pure Chainsaw.

Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival on Sat 23rd October with Jon Mayhew, Alex Bell, Alex Gordon Smith, Sam Enthoven, Steve Feasey and Alex Milway and me. Honestly, be there or be forever disappointed that you weren't at THE author gathering of the week, so far! This event is ticketed (tickets are free) so BOOK NOW!

Norwich Millenium Library on Friday 29th October, 2.30pm with Alexander Gordon Smith, William Hussey, Sam Enthoven and me.

Foyles, Charing Cross Road. Their big Halloween Angels and Demons extravaganza running Saturday and Sunday, 30-31st October. Guess which side we're representing on Saturday? It'll be the experts in all things demonic: William Hussey, Sam Enthoven and myself. There will be others, prepare to be surprised! Contact the store and book your place now.

Like I said, this is just the beginning...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

An ode to Editors

This is a photo of me with Ari Lewin, my editor from Disney-Hyperion, who, alas, is my editor no more!
I cannot emphasise enough how important she's been to me and take this opportunity to explain just what the best editors (like Ari), actually do.
Firstly, they spot the story amongst the pages and pages of aimless drivel we writers churn out. They see where the magic is amongst the malformed chapters, insane (and inane) plot devices, cliches and cardboard characters that inhabit first drafts (or in my case, all the way into drafts four and five). Plus they have the patience to read drafts four and five with a freshness I find amazing, especially when I can't bear to look at the manuscript myself by then.
In short, editors are the ones who transform a pile of pages with black ink on them into a real book, something with life, passion and heart.
But they are also tyrants.
Elegant turn of phrase you've spent hours tailoring? If it doesn't help the story, they'll slice it out.
Deadlines looming? Well they've spent all their weekends trying to fix your story so you'd better spend your nights doing the same.
Characters behaving out of character? Number One sin. They can spot a plot device from the other building. You will not get away with it. You can almost hear the whip cracking across the phone.
So, goodbye Ari and thank you for everything. It's no small truth that I owe my career to you.
Next week I'll blog about my other editor and career-saver, Lindsey at Puffin, who has also decided to leave after having edited Dark Goddess.
What?!? Both my editors quitting? Was it something I said?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Did you miss me terribly?

What do you mean you hadn't noticed?
I'm back from two weeks in sunny France and had the first break from writing in three or four years. Wow. Weird how addicted I've got to writing that I found the last two weeks so hard.
Well, I say hard but it's decidedly relative. Not hard as in "Oh, I'm on a six-month tour around Afghanistan and my combat outfit is flourescent pink with a great big target painted on the chest" more hard in being given the keys to the sweet shop and wondering which of the delights to scoff first then glutting yourself until you're sick.
You can have too much of a good thing (more on this at the end, it's really embarrassing).
So, here we are in the south of France, mountains, lonely mountains castles high up on the rocky outcrops, windy roads and more mountains and our little cottage is at the end of a windy, cliff-hunging windy road that's seriously not wide enough for two bikes to pass without risking one over the edge, let along drivers that have had a little too much of the vin rouge/blanc/rose and assume everyone else will get out of the way and we're a twenty km round trip to the nearest ANYTHING.
I don't do mountains. I feel dizzy wearing high heels (which is why I don't wear them anymore). This may have been a bit of a mistake. There's a reason they call the place inaccessible. I blame Kate Mosse. No, not the supermodel, that's Kate MOSS. We may blame supermodels for the rise in eating disorders and the general trend for poor body image perception amongst our young but we can't really blame them for the Albigensian Crusade.
In the end we didn't get to the main sights since it was hairy enough just getting out of the house but I had a lot of time to ponder things. Plots. History. Swimming pools. Barbeques.
Plans were discussed, formed and made. Plans within plans.
Now entering my third year as a full-time writer bloke I'm trying to be a bit more organised. Less flapping about and being more focused. Get things written and get out there a bit more.
There will be announcements on all this over the next few weeks.
What I can tell you is that there'll be a lot happening around Halloween. I'm up at the Chester festival, at the Crystal Palace book fest, Norwich and back at Foyles for their Angels and Demons extravaganza and what's more, I'll bring some friends along to. All of them, in fact.
Oh, yes, and John Mayhew.
And I'm in Florida in November for a conference at Disneyworld. RESULT! I haven't told my children as they won't quite understand why Daddy's going to Disneyworld for work and they can't come too. Apparently I count as TALENT so either I'll be able to jump the queues or they'll be dressing me up as Goofy and I've completely misunderstood the email.
Now you know why I don't miss my old job in engineering.