Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The first few words

There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor.

Brilliant, eh? How about:

When I wake up the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.
Simpson fumbled getting the tape into the VCR. She was all, Which button is it? And I was like, How old are you and you can’t even work a friggin’ VCR?
Three books, three openings. The first - from Neil Gaiman’s superlative The Graveyard Book – has it all. Stylish thrilling writing, immediacy, scene-setting. You’re on the edge of your seat in 30 words.
The second is a slow start to a book full of high drama and extreme violence - The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It introduces the main character, Katniss, and it emphasises her gentler side - a side it’s easy to lose sight of in parts of the book. Her sister’s name, Prim, hints at a dystopian world.
The third comes from C J Skuse’s vastly enjoyable debut novel Pretty Bad Things, and does a great job of establishing voice - laconic, teenage, contemporary - and attitude – disrespectful, impatient, funny.

Authoress McNonymous has been running a first 25 words critique exercise on her blog. Writers sent in the first 25 words of their WiP for anyone to comment on. I found it fascinating – how some first sentences grabbed the attention and others repelled or bored the reader.

As the Suzanne Collins example shows your first sentences don’t have to be action-packed. But, for new writers in particular, they do need to stand out. If your submission is going onto a big pile in an agent’s office then no one is going to read past a dull beginning. You need to spend time on those first words to get noticed.

This might all seem very simple and obvious, but it's not. My first version of When I Was Joe had a slow, scene-setting start. I wanted to create an atmosphere full of questions - who was this boy? Why was he lying?
My original first chapter - which went out to quite a few agents - started thus:

When I come home from school after that first long day of kids whose names I didn’t know and stuffy classrooms I would never be able to find again; he’s there. Doug. Drinking black coffee and smoking, ash speckled all over the scratched white Formica of the kitchen table.

Result: several swift rejections.

Then I had some good advice and changed the beginning. My new first lines read:

It’s one thing watching someone get killed. It’s quite another talking about it.

Result: Three offers from agents.

PS Some of you kind readers have nominated me for the Author Book Blog awards. Now I need more nominations to get on the shortlist! Click here to vote.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Another day, another murder..

Two news items from London yesterday.

At West Ham Football Club in east London, police held a conference for 150 teenagers. They were urged to trust the police and come forward with information about serious crimes they may have witnesses. They heard an emotional speech by the mother of Adam Regis,15 (pictured) who was stabbed to death in Plaistow, east London three years ago.His killers have never been found.

Teenagers at the conference also took part in a drama workshop and had the opportunity to learn about stop and search strategies and community police patrols.
Detective Chief Inspector Steve Clayman said: “The conference is about encouraging young people to think about what their barriers are when engaging with the police and why they will not, in their words, snitch'. We solve 85 per cent of our murders but in a few cases, this makes identifying the people responsible much harder.”

Police highlighted four unsolved murders where witnesses are desperately needed:

- Adam Regis, 15, was targeted by a group of youths in an unprovoked attack in March 2007. Detectives believe they are close to identifying his killers but need crucial information from witnesses.

- Rapper Isschan Nicholls, 18, was stabbed during a suspected gang brawl in Bow in January. Police estimate between 15 and 25 people were involved.

“We have spoken to people who were there but no one saw anything,” said one detective. “It's very frustrating.”

- Teenager Billy Cox was shot in his home in North Clapham on Valentine's Day in 2007. The 15-year-old is thought to have known the gunman. Despite a £20,000 reward the case is unsolved.

- Student Nicholas Clarke, 19, was shot on the Myatts Field estate in Lambeth in March 2008. Eight men were seen on the estate at the time but no one has come forward, again despite a £20,000 reward.

Meanwhile in central London at Victoria station, one of London's busiest at the height of the rush hour a boy was stabbed to death in a brawl with other boys.
According to the Evening Standard 35 youths may have been involved. They quote Kit Malthouse, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, as saying: “Despite the huge reduction in teenage killings in the last two years, this horrible incident shows that we have still not won the battle against knife crime.”

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Bridget Jones approach to writing a novel

Bridget Jones's Diary - the best-selling novel that spawned two films - started out as a column in the newspaper I worked for, The Independent. For quite a long time no one paid much attention to it. There were people on the paper who didn’t realise it was fictional.
It was written by Helen Fielding, and one day I decided to commission her to write a funny piece for the comment page. I rang her up, but she couldn’t do the article. Instead we had a chat about Bridget. “I think she’s getting a bit too stupid,” I said. “I know what you mean,” said Helen. “Maybe I’ll give her a new job.” Remember the bit in the film when Renee Zellweger slides down the firemen’s pole? That was the new job.
I thought about this conversation occasionally when I was writing When I Was Joe. It felt quite comforting that someone could write a novel without really meaning to write a novel. Writing a series of newspaper columns seemed much more possible to me than planning out a whole novel. I didn’t know how to write a book. I did know how to write a feature.
A newspaper or magazine feature needs a purpose - a point, a story, something to say. It needs an arresting start and a good pay-off. It needs quotes which are relevant and interesting. Each feature has a job to do – conveying information or opinion. Space is tight, so you can’t waste words.
I decided to approach writing a novel as I would writing a column in a newspaper.
So, I set myself the target of writing a column-length chunk of novel every day. Each chapter had to have a good start and a good end. I started off by thinking about what the story of the chapter would be, and how the information would be conveyed. If it’d really been a piece of journalism I would have been thinking something like ‘I need to find out about Ty’s relationship with his mum…need to get some quotes from Nicki and Ty, need to tell the readers why they can’t go home…’
I thought of Bridget Jones - the column - the other day when I was talking to a journalist friend who thinks she might one day write a novel. She sees novel-writing as being very different from her current work, writing features. I see it as pretty similar. I thought of it when I read comments from brilliant bloggers who’d like to write books. If you can craft a good blog post, you can build a novel.
And I thought of my conversation with Helen Fielding when I talked to my editor about why he thought chapter 17 of Almost True had to go. “The thing is,” he said, “I think Ty’s getting a bit too stupid.”

Sunday, 21 March 2010

I've been a bit busy...

My computer ate a whole blog post the other day and I’ve failed to persuade it to regurgitate it, so instead here’s a little round up of some of the things I’ve been busy with..

1) School visits. Three to be precise, getting used to talking about writing and books and having lots of eyes looking at me. Don’t feel I’ve exactly cracked it yet, but I’m getting there. I learned that if you sign your books ‘love Keren’ then teenage boys will look distressed, and that if you have a picture of yourself in your book in thinner days with straightened hair and no glasses, then every teenage girl will ask you why you haven’t straightened your hair that day.
I’ve had some great questions:
- Q: Miss, are you going to make your book into a film?
- A: Much as I’d love to I have to wait for a film producer to offer me ots of money to take my book away and make it into a film> Do any of you know any film producers?
- Q: Miss, what is shorthand? (I’d been telling them about my early days in journalism, back in the days of manual typewriters and hand-fed fax machines)
- A. Shorthand is the most useful thing I ever learned. It means you can write very quickly, every word that someone says. It teaches you more about writing dialogue than any MA in creative writing.
- Q: Miss, would you like to have interviewed someone in witness protection for your book? (Brilliant question this, from a boy at St Aubyns School in Woodford)
- A. Yes and no. Yes I’d love to talk to someone who’d had a similar experience to Ty and find out the details of their witness protection. No if it meant their story took over my imagination to the point where I couldn’t make things up.

2) I was completely obsessed by the case of Jon Venables and tried hard to write a blog post about it. I felt I had so much to say - about false identities, about bereaved parents, about rehabilitation in adult prisons..I was privileged to visit the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison a few years before it closed down, a stunningly radical experiment in the British prison system. I had problems finishing the post, because Sky helpfully cut off our internet, and then the Jewish Chronicle asked me to write this.
3) Proof-reading. I’m on the second reading of the bound proofs of Almost True and so far I’ve got five pages of notes. Plus a few of the lovely people who won copies at my online launch parties have been reading and contacted me with their thoughts – thanks Mary for great info about dogs. Fish has learned a new word thanks to me. She who must not be named is reading too.
4) Outline writing. I’m working on a new book, shaping the characters, setting out some plot ideas, in a whirl of ideas and possibilities and questions. In the midst of all this, and with three chapters more or less written, I have to write an outline for my agent…which is a bit like writing your postcards six months before you go on the holiday. Anyway, I’m really bad at it, all my writing skills leave me and I find it difficult to put two words together.
5) Birthday! Celebrated my birthday by going to see Measure for Measure at the Almeida Theatre, absolutely my favourite Shakespeare play…sex and death, vice and corruption all served up as a comedy. And a brilliant production, where Anna Maxwell Martin and Rory Kinnear shine. And the whole family went out for curry, and I bought some gorgeous perfume and all in all it was a lovely day.
6) Writing Group. It’s all got very exciting at our writing group, with two members signing with agents recently and their (fabulous) books out with publishers. And another member Becky Jones has a new book (written with Clare Lewis) coming out in May - London Adventure Walks for Families: Tales of a City, published by Frances Lincoln, who, as they are also my publishers are a kind of in-house publishing company for my writing group, completely coincidentally.
7) Passover is approaching. Theoretically it's a Jewish festival which about big themes like freedom, liberation from slavery and exodus. Practically it's about mega-spring cleaning, turning your kitchen upside down, shopping and general panicking. I can’t even think about this one right now. I may have to give it a proper post all of its own later in the week.
8) And then there’s work…and seeing friends….and reading…and stuff with the kids…and trying to get some exercise…oh and there’s writing. I need to get back into my writing rhythm. I will, soon…I hope…

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Almost there

Almost True is almost a book - the bound proofs arrived last week, 435 pages thick with a blood red cover.
Some copies will be sent out immediately - to booksellers and maybe some reviewers, and the people who signed up for copies at Yunaleska's online launch party for When I Was Joe. I feel a bit strange about that - excited that people will read it, five and a half months before the launch date but protective as well - it's not quite finished yet, I'm not ready to show it yet.
In the meantime I've been reading it through and making my final changes. I mark the page and then make a note to myself in the back of the book (click on the picture). Those notes will later go into a note for my editor. So far - as you can see - most of the changes are little things that can be deleted, or small changes needed to avoid repetition. There are a few words that need to come out because they don't ring true for Ty (what possessed me to think he would use the word 'tentative' for example) So far I've only found two pages where I want to rewrite a whole paragraph.
It's strange reading it through as a book - quite a different experience from reading on the screen. This is the point where I realised that my editor was completely correct to suggest getting rid of chapter 17 - thank goodness I listened.
And whereas in When I Was Joe I became a little obsessed with feeding Ty (whenever he's tucking into chicken sandwiches, chips or fruit cake you can be assured that my Inner Jewish Mother is showing), this time I'm much more interested in his washing habits. I had only vaguely realised how often he washes in this book - the whole thing is about showers, soap, toothbrushes and laundry (err...it's a bit more interesting than that. Honest.)
I've reached page 285 in my editing, but even when I've finished I won't send it off to the editor until my chief proof-reader has read it for me. This is someone who lives with me but must not be identified further, but she is an eagle-eyed sub-editor who instantly spotted the only error to have got through me and everyone at the publisher in Joe (alas, too late for it to be excised from the first edition but as we're now reprinting then if you have a first edition it might be worth something one day. Buy now, they are running out. Page 116)
We negotiated a price for her to proof-read Almost True. I started at £10, she offered to do it for £30. We agreed £25. Yes, she is a good negotiator. But worth it..she's already told me that London teens say 'cop' instead of 'copper' which makes me a bit sad - I prefer the London word to the American - but she knows best. She's 13 after all.
Anyway, once we've made all our changes the book will be printed and ready to sell. September 2nd, according to Amazon. And very soon I'll be moving on my next project. It's actually quite a sad process when you've written about someone for two books. Ty's been my foster child...now he's leaving. I'll miss him a lot.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Throats, Ghosts, Thongs and Bones

Things have been a little quiet on this blog recently, thanks to the wonderfully incompetent people at Sky who cut off our broadband last week (‘Oh dear, it’s been a comedy of errors with your account,’ chortled some minion in a call centre when we called to complain. ‘I’d call it a tragedy,’ I growled in return.)

Yes it is a spooky coincidence that I was cut off from my beloved social network just after my family had seized control of the blog to exaggerate wildly about my social-networking habits. They deny all responsibility. Hmmm…

Anyway, no internet means more time for reading. Back by popular demand (OK...my sister…) here’s my round up of the YA books I’ve read recently. Inspired by the Oscars (and by the way what a total and absolute outrage it was that Un Prophet didn't win the best foreign language film...in fact it should have got the best film award, if you haven't seen it, and you're old enough to do so, then do.) I’m giving some awards.

The Book that Everyone (Adults too) Should Read Award
- Auslander by Paul Dowswell. A historical novel about the Second World War with a clever twist – it tells the story of a Polish boy who is adopted by a Nazi family because of his Aryan looks. His mixed and developing feelings are brilliantly portrayed, and the historical details - the swastika Christmas decorations for example – manage to shock anew. One of the best books I’ve read about this period.

The Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover Award goes to Girl Aloud by Emily Gale. Judging by its bright pinkness, I expected a light and frothy chicklitty romp about a girl taking part in the X Factor auditions. And there is lots of humour in the book, and a great teen voice for Kass, whose Dad is desperate for her to shine. But it’s much darker and deeper than the cover suggests and amid the wisecracks and imaginative metaphors, Emily Gale tells a tale of how mental illness can cripple a family, with plot twists that never fail to surprise.

The Wish It’d Been Longer Award goes to Magic Under Glass by Jacklyn Dolamore. I absolutely adored this book, and hugely admired Jacklyn Dolamore’s feat in creating an utterly believable world in which fairies and magicians co-exist uncomfortably. Nimira is a dancing girl who seeks a better life by taking a job where she has to sing with an automaton - a piano-playing machine in the shape of a man. But the automaton is an enchanted fairy prince and the house where they live is full of secrets. The scenes where Ennis, the enchanted prince becomes aware of the fate of his family are truly moving, and Jacklyn Dolamore cleverly examines political questions about Otherness with a light touch.
The only fault I could find was that the last third of the book seemed to flash past in a rush and I wanted much much more. Thank goodness there’s a sequel on the way.

The Fun Vampire Book Award goes to My Love Lies Bleeding by Alyxandra Harvey. I have to admit being hugely prejudiced against this book on the (pathetic) grounds that a) It’s about vampires (zzzz) b) I don’t like the way the author spells her name, c) Horrible title and d) Yucky throat cover. However I was totally won over. Two great first person narrators - Solange, the reluctant soon-to-be vampire, overwhelmed by her seven gorgeous and over-protective brothers. Then there’s Lucy her friend, who’s funny and feisty, wears specs and hates Solange’s brother Nick. Or does she…
I did get a bit confused at the beginning when there’s a rush of new characters, and the pace is fast and furious. But I loved the jokes and the melodrama and the sweet romance and the way that there was no gradual realisation that we were dealing with (gulp) the supernatural, but it was all taken for granted.

The Shame about the Twi-Like Bits Award
goes to Need by Carrie Jones. Another nasty throat cover (although I like the gold lips). There’s a nice laid-back sardonic voice struggling to get out here, and an interesting though under-developed idea about naming phobias as a defence against grief. Unfortunately cardboard characters, fluffy were-creatures (the doggiest werewolf ever) and, above all, too many similarities to the work of Stephenie Meyer throttle these promising elements. Name-checking Stephen King does not make your book as scary or compelling as his. Quite the opposite.
It may be that chosing Pixies as your paranormal villains is bold and original - it made me giggle and think of Cornish kitschery – but if that’s what you’re after then think of something for them to do other than drinking blood.

The Best First Line Award - no competition, it has to be My So-Called Afterlife by Tamsyn Murray for the very wonderful ‘I knew it was time to move on when a tramp peed on my Uggs.’ Lucy’s a stroppy teenage ghost, tied to the place she was murdered, the Carnaby Street gents toilets. I’m not a big fan of ‘afterlife’ books, so it’s a real tribute to Tamsyn’s entertainment power that I found this so enjoyable, thanks mainly to the wise-cracking narrator. It’s a cross between The Lovely Bones and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging - more Thongs than Bones, thankfully. I lent my copy to a 12-year-old girl who absolutely loved it and it’s doing the rounds of all her BFFEs.

Reading back over these reviews it strikes me what an evil prejudiced person I am - taking offence at throats, creative name spellings and paranormal themes. But we all come to books and films with a load of baggage - based on our likes and dislikes, the cover and..well, you tell me? What else makes you pick up a book or decide to skip it?

Oh and speaking of awards, click here to nominate your favourite author blogs for an award. Like perhaps this one...if you want...