Monday, August 16th, 2021
Interview with The Oxford Editors
Zoe, thank you for agreeing to talk to us today.
Thank you very much for asking me.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve always love listening to the radio, and about twenty years ago I was in the kitchen and this rap song came on, and as I’m not a fan I thought to myself, “Hmm… I wonder if I could have a try at writing a song?” That’s when I started writing A Difference in your Life, and I liked writing so much that I then started collaborating with two friends, Les and Jack. Over the next three years we’d written over fifty songs together. Five years later, my son was diagnosed with autism, and this gave me the idea of writing Clueless Clarence, and I asked Les if could help me. Les sadly passed away in July 2014, but the first edition of the book was finally published in December 2015.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Clarence took a little more than a year to write. Les liked history, so he worked out all the anniversary dates and most of Clarence’s subsequent comments. I mainly did the diary entries, and the poems were a joint effort.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I usually write in the morning. I will most probably start at about 9am and could keep going for a couple of hours or so.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Let me give you two characters in reply to that question. They are Clarence Upton-Smythe, who is my main character, and Mr Arthur Willis, a retired piano teacher and choir master.
Clarence, a teenager with mild autism, is fixated on time so he can’t stand it if other people or things make him late for anything. He also hates waste, untidiness, disorganisation, being in small confined spaces and only has a few close friends.
Arthur, a scatterbrain, is a widower who lives on his own. Actually, in my mind, I can see Sir David Jason playing this character.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
Well, all the drawings and most of the poems were done many years before I started the book, and I thought, “Hey, I know, why don’t I just add them into the story? So I did.”
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a tennis star, or an actress, or to sing in a pop band of some kind.
Do you have any suggestions to help people become a better writer?
Find the style that suits you. It’s always best to start with what you know. When I’m writing I like listening to classical music because it helps me to concentrate a lot.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like reading books especially autobiographies, Cathy Glass, Tory Hayden, Dirk Bogarde, Sir David Jason, Brian Blessed, Tony Hadley, Paul O’Grady, I recently read Camp David by David Walliams and now I’m reading Just A Boy by Richard McCann. I also enjoy playing boardgames – especially Cluedo (the Harry Potter’s version), piano, violin, singing, tennis and badminton. I love watching Coronation Street, Loose Women, Escape to the Country, Disney cartoons, The Hit List, comedy/police dramas/films, Countryfile and Sir David Attenborough programmes.
What does your family think of you writing?
Well, actually my sister Sally Hunter is a writer too. She created characters like Humphry’s Corner and Digby the Dragon which is currently showing on TV.
What do you think makes a good story?
I like stories to have a little quirkiness about them just like how Sue Townsend writes. That is why I decided to have my very own Adrian Mole type story, but with a few extras.
I am sure that will all be very helpful to new writers. Good luck with the second edition.
Thank you, and bye for now.
Thursday, July 29th, 2021
Monday, April 19th, 2021
I recently published my first children’s picture book in support of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), in gratitude for my three year old daughter’s diagnosis and treatment for a rare condition called ‘Segmental Haemangioma’.
My book The Secret Lives of Two Googly-Eyed Cats is about my daughter Penny and her two toy cats, Milly and Tilly, who creep out at night in search of fun and adventure.
Publishing a children’s book wasn’t something I’d planned to do; it happened quite by chance and paved the way for a new identity and potential new career path.
When Penny was just six weeks old, she was diagnosed with a rare condition called ‘Segmental Haemangioma,’ a potentially dangerous red swelling condition caused by an overgrowth of blood vessels on her face and around her airways. It appeared when she was one week old. Then after several weeks of doctor appointments we ended up at GOSH where Penny had an MRI scan and endoscopy under general anaesthetic. She was then medicated with beta blockers until she was two years old, to reduce the redness and swelling.
How storytelling helped Penny sleep
Aside from reducing the haemangioma, the medication had side effects, such as disrupting Penny’s sleep patterns. For two years I spent many a sleepless night up with her telling stories about her googly-eyed cats. The stories involved Milly and Tilly going out and causing trouble in the neighbourhood while we were asleep. Not the typical story to soothe your child back to sleep but it seemed to work. Over the two years, I created many different types of adventures for Milly and Tilly.
How I came to write a book
Writing a book wasn’t something I’d planned to do, it just sort of happened during my maternity leave. As well as making stories up about Milly and Tilly, I was also reading a lot of children’s books to Penny and became immersed in children’s literature. I started to get to know the popular authors, the different writing styles and what types of characters worked well.
Then while Penny was napping and my parents were looking after her, I wrote up one of the googly-eyed cat stories. It took me a few months as it was a bit of a stop, start process. I then put the book down for a further few months and came back to it later and edited it. The whole process took about six months.
Having never written a children’s book before, my approach was quite experimental. I used to be a musician and played the piano and violin as a child, so my approach was like writing a song with a strong drumbeat. This helped keep the rhythm consistent which I think is important for a children’s book. It helps keep children captivated and engaged in the story.
About my book
My book is a children’s picture book called ‘The secret lives of Two Googly-Eyed Cats.’ The story follows Milly and Tilly, the googly-eyed cats, who belong to Penny. They sneak out at night, in search of fun and adventure and generally causing mischief such as ransacking bins and scrapping with other cats.
The other character in the story is the big dog from next door, who is based on my neighbour’s Bernese Mountain Dog.
The book is targeted at 2 – 5 year olds and aims to empower children to be more courageous and creative. It also helps teach them kindness.
Once the book was written, the next challenge was how to get it published.
How I found a publisher
When my maternity leave finished, I decided to research some independent publishers who take manuscripts from new authors and send it out to see what happens.
After my mum helpfully advised me that I would probably get rejected by everyone, I was determined to prove her wrong and sent it to five independent publishers.
Austin Macauley came back first with a contract offer on my birthday (26 Feb). The best birthday present ever! I also had interest from two other publishers which took me by surprise.
To get the book published, I used my publisher’s in-house illustrator. I am no illustrator, not from want of trying mind you. But first class illustrations are critical for children’s books and you definitely need to get the professionals in.
My book was then published on 29 January this year in support of GOSH.
I’ve had great feedback from children and parents so far and there’s been lots of questions about when the sequel is coming out. I’m now working on the next two Googly-Eyed books, so more to come…
Friday, August 28th, 2020
By Pauline Kiernan
Dialogue does many things at once. Characters show what’s on their minds and who they are. It creates conflict, tension and release. Above all, dialogue is where the story’s essential core is most dramatically realised because stories are powered by characters and their actions and emotions. So first, use words that can be felt on the pulses. We need to stop thinking of words as mainly expressing reasons and ideas, or as if they belong to either our reason or our emotions, to stop making them either literal and logical on the one hand or only emotional on the other. Instead, when you’re writing dialogue think of words as thought-feelings. This helps to make sure the language has energy. There must be something moving, which impels one word to the next, one line into the next, one thought-feeling to the next. Listen to your dialogue as you write. If you leave them on the page you won’t know whether they’re going to come alive for the reader or not. Words must be a release of the inner life, and not an explanation of it or a commentary on it.
The aim is to create dialogue that prompts the reader to hear it in their head.
So the best way to create dialogue is to first say it out loud. Actors warm-up to stretch the body and free up the mind. Writers need to do this too. Spoken words vibrate in our bodies but they also vibrate in space. Moving around as we speak has a physical, emotional and mental effect on how we express meaning. This physical movement is invaluable for gaining a deep understanding of the rhythms of speech, how tone can colour and nuance emotional meaning, and how dialogue breathes. And it’s the best way I know of learning how to turn dull, flat, ‘do-nothing’ dialogue into emotional music.
Get up from your chair and walk around as you speak. Play around with some individual words and think about what ‘physical’ quality the sound suggests. Hard? Hot? Cold? Soft? Say out loud: Cut, Black, Flash, Cool, Serene, Shimmer, Power, Wash.
Think up more words and ‘test’ them on your pulses.
As you speak, taste, touch, smell, see and hear the words through all your senses (not your mind).
When you’ve written some dialogue, get up again and move around. Speak it out loud.
Does it have energy?
Is it original?
Is it unique to the character?
Is it authentic and believable?
Does it express the uniqueness of the character?
Does it help to drive the story?
Is it foreshadowing things which come later?
Does it have resonances of what has come before?
Does it have rhythm?
Does it move?
Does it make an emotional connection with the reader?
Does it create tension?
Does it having breathing space?
Does it create conflict?
Does it pack an emotional punch?
Does it speak to the story’s theme?
Does it make the character intriguing?
Does it tantalise by making the reader want the character to say more, but he/she doesn’t?
Does it have the right tone for this moment in the story, for this character?
Does it express the right mood?
How sharp is it?
How subtle is it?
Is each word necessary?
Does it suggest the psychological state of the speaker?
Is it the right place in the story?
Is it on-the-nose?
Is it dull?
Is it bland?
s it stilted?
Is it emotionless?
Is it rambling without purpose?
Does it have do-nothing words?
Is it unmotivated?
Is it over-ripe emotional?
Is it lacking in ‘personality’?
Does every character have the same way of talking?
Write short exchanges for your characters
Get one character to insult another. Go to extremes. What words are they using? Who’s ‘leading’, who’s reacting? Notice as you write what emotion lies behind the words?
Get two lovers talking. A scene of tenderness. A violent row. Making up. What are you getting them to say? Or not say?
Write a scene in which the characters are so excited that no one finishes a sentence.
Get your characters to go to a party. Write the scene to include dialogue.
Think of a party that you’ve been to. What made it interesting? How are each of the characters speaking?
A new person arrives
New information delivered that has an emotional impact on the guests
A subtext going on
A meeting of strangers
A disruptive guest
A shy guest
Two people whispering
An outrageous speech by a guest. The host is looking uncomfortable. Everyone stops talking. It’s embarrassing
Hostility between two people expressed through subtext when on the surface all seems sweetness and light.
This is a terrific exercise in learning how to individualise the way your characters speak.
THE ALL-IMPORTANT SUBTEXT
Subtext is what is going on inside the characters – their inner thoughts and feelings. It’s the unspoken, the innuendo, the nuanced moments that cannot be directly represented.
It’s something understood that isn’t said.
It’s what lies beneath the words – like a river flowing beneath the words hinting at or illuminating what a character thinks and feels but does not say. It’s what lies hidden between characters under the surface of their words. It’s almost invariably the key in establishing the character’s inner life: their goals, motivation, fears. We know from what they say and do on the surface what it is they may be trying to do but it is what lies beneath that gives the reader a deeper understanding of why they’re doing what they do and say. It’s what is meant not what is said. It’s the underlying meaning or significance of a character’s words. That makes subtext a great power in writing. It’s a way to make a direct connection between the emotions of the characters with the emotional response of the reader. Think of subtext as something we read deep between the lines. It is in the gaps between that subtext lies. And they’re gaps that the reader has to fill in. Gaps that the reader will love to fill in. So subtext can do even more things than surface dialogue does. It is revealing character, showing how the character develops, revealing the deeper dynamics of relationships and forwarding the story.
Write a dialogue in which your characters have a conversation about one subject, but are really talking about something else. In other words, what are they really saying?
Here’s a very basic dialogue without subtext.
Woman: How are you?
Man: I’m fine, how are you?
Woman: Fine. And the family?
Man: The family’s very well, thank you.
This may be how we talk in everyday conversation, but it’s boring. It doesn’t tell us anything about these characters. Their speech is identical, so there is nothing to individualise them. It’s not doing anything to make the reader curious about them.
Dialogue has to intrigue the reader. So, what if we include a tiny change. A little subtext?
Woman: How are you?
Man: Fine. Yes, I’m fine. Fine.
Woman: And the family?
Man: No answer.
This sets up a question in the reader and it starts to be a beginning of a story. We
haven’t been explicitly told that there’s something wrong. The subtext has
inferred the underlying meaning underneath the words. The reader is drawn into
the moment. This is using subtext in a fairly basic example to reveal the inner
feelings of the man who cannot bring himself to express them. Subtext is terrific
for this kind of avoidance or aversion. Notice he doesn’t ask the woman how she
is. The repeated ‘Fine’ suggests he’s anything but. The response to the question
about his family is silence. Silence can speak volumes as they say.
So what has been revealed about the inner life of this character? He’s troubled,
and it seems to have something to do with his family. Even with this example,
it does begin to intrigue the reader – we want to know more.
Here’s a couple who’s marriage is falling apart, discussing which restaurant to go to. In the context of their story, the reader is being encouraged to discern what’s going on underneath their exchange.
Jill: I thought you said we were going to Bertoli’s.
John: I couldn’t have. The wine list’s abysmal. Full of pissed traders looking no older than 13. Wouldn’t know a Perignon 95 from a can of Fosters… Jill? … Did you hear me?
Jill. I was cancelling the booking.
John. Great. We’ll never get in anywhere now.
Jill. I’ll order an Indian.
The subtext here could be hinting at or revealing several things about the characters and their relationship. It suggests that John is the dominant one in terms of the power structure in the marriage, that he feels the need to show off his knowledge even to his wife, and that perhaps beneath his mockery of young rich traders is a feeling of envy.
Jill is the passive one, can’t do anything right – and it seems that her submissive behaviour gets John even madder. It also has an element of surprise in that the reader expects that she’ll ‘fight back’ when he blames her, complaining they won’t be able to get into a restaurant now. Her line about ordering an Indian could suggest some ambiguity. It may be placatory or exactly the thing she knows will rile him!
In dialogue, answers to questions should be oblique. On-the-nose exposition, where the dialogue explains everything to the reader is a No-No.
Talk in dialogue is action and when using subtext aim more for the oblique and indirect. Is it saying too much? Is it necessary? Imagine a character wanting to say something but can’t bring him/her to say it.
Practise writing dialogue using subtext.
Notice subtext in novels and short stories you read. Look out for subtext used in films you watch. As you revise your work, mark places where you could include subtext.
See how you can evoke feeling and emotion using subtext.
Make every line work.
Avoid insignificant ‘do-nothing’ dialogue.
Finally, the writer Anthony Burgess once told a writing seminar that he always began a new novel by typing about sixty pages of dialogue – no narration, no description, just voices talking. Then, he said, he knew what the novel was about and could write it.
Hearing voices might well give you some great pointers to make your work really powerful!
Tuesday, July 28th, 2020
20 Booker Prize longlist announced