Aagh, I’m being bombarded…

…with tempting promises.  Every time I turn on my computer I get offers.  All I have to do, each advert assures me, is click on some flickering link and I’ll have a gift card for some class-appeal store.

Tenniel's 'Alice'

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

I’ve checked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition of gift is something ‘given willingly to someone without payment’. So this would be a present, not cash-back, easily forgotten, spent on mundane, sensible items.  This is about self-indulgence.

It’s FREE money, isn’t it? That’s got to be better than working. Especially in this heat.

I know, us Brits are always wittering on about our weather.  Here we are after a few days of sun and half of us are wilting.  In Washington, a newly-returned friend tells me, most people just don’t go out in it. Although, eighty degrees, he says, is considered quite a moderate temperature for summer there, where air-conditioned cars transport people from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned work.

I linger in the chilled aisles of the supermarket while my car turns into an oven.  Yes, I did forget to get it’s environmental control system re-gassed, and now it’s too hot to face making an extra journey to sit in the garage waiting while they top it up.

Besides, teaching is pretty much finished for the summer, I won’t need to travel much until it’s cooler.  Better to return home, open the windows and doors and hope for a passing breeze, as I refill my glass with ice and water.

DSCF5356Summer, I like to claim, is ‘me’ time.  All through the rest of the year, when I have to snatch writing-hours from between class preparation and delivery, I anticipate this writing space.

I visualize myself, under the dappled shade of our tree, working through the heap of notes I’ve brought out from my desk. I’m comfortably cool, wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses.  Effortless, about sums the picture up.  Unhindered by a realistic recognition of my commitments to family, friends, dog,house or garden, in this idyll I will create a perfect first draft.  Seems like I’ve neatly sidestepped the usual displacement activities, doesn’t it?

The danger of such fantasies though, is that I forget these are as much a fiction as the gifts that the double glazing, insurance and internet companies offer me. While I wait for the perfect conditions for writing, the long lazy weeks of summer dissolve and that heap of ideas remain on the side of my desk.

A cracking literate yarn sets me thinking

I’ve just finished novel three of Philip Pulman’s Sally Lockhart stories.  Roller-coaster rides, all of them.

the RubyInTheSmokeLovely period detail and a feisty female lead character, who doesn’t wait around to get rescued, or fall into hysterics so that she can show-case other characters.  Okay, so in Edwardian England she’s slightly improbable, but this is a thriller, and that’s the way they work.  Outlandish conspiracies, truly wicked villains and lots of violence are requisites.

This is the sort of stuff I love, and have loved for decades. I think I started with Enid Blyton’s ‘Five’ books.

The only thing I can’t quite decide with the Sally books, is what age-group they’re aimed at.  By which I certainly don’t mean to say it should have a restricted readership, any more than Pulman’s, Dark Materials trilogy should (if you haven’t you should – and you need to read all three to get the full effect).

The ruby -sally-lockhart-mystery-collection-philip-pullman-4-books-[3]-30312-pThe thing is, I keep seeing Sally Lockhart referred to as written for children.  I’m not sure if that’s just because in the first book Sally is sixteen years old.  I’ve seen reviews that compare the books to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, but the only similarity I see is that both series are, to use an old phrase, ‘action-packed’.  So are the James Bond books.  I worked my way through all of them when I was sixteen or seventeen.

I’m not saying that a twelve-year old wouldn’t enjoy the Sally Stories, rather that it seems a shame these books seem to have been marketed as suitable for children.  There are books that are definitely children’s, and that’s how it should be.

Content-wise though, I’m not sure if there’s an issue when it comes to these.  I know that children read adult books, but how much adult content is allowable in stories for children?

While not explicit, in book two, there is a sex-scene.  By book three, Sally is in her early twenties, and thinking as an adult.  Shouldn’t this then come under the Young Adult (YA) category?  I wonder where most bookshops and libraries shelve it.

The%20Ruby%20in%20the%20Smoke%20Jacket%20CoverNow that publicity is such a large part of the writing process, I suppose labels are vital.  And writers shouldn’t complain too loudly, after all, with so many books getting published each one must work hard to sell itself, and on the other side of that argument, it means the odds for any of us to get in print must be improving.

So I also wonder what each of these book covers suggests to you about the content.  Is it the book we judge by the cover, or the person reading it?

Junior-school Shakespeare

bottom and titaniaI went to see my niece and nephew in their end of term play this week.  It was a modern-English version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’ve had hard things to say about adaptations in the past, and the dumbing down of stories to make them suitable for readers who are too young.  I stand by them, for books.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school. 3 JPGWhen it comes to plays though, I’m a convert.  To see a school so joyfully engaged in a story is wonderful.  The children didn’t just perform a series of scenes, they’d investigated it, finding out what a theatre would have looked like when the play was written, what sorts of costumes were worn, and checking out what the big words in the script meant and how to pronounce them.

Whoever reworked this play for the junior school did a lovely job (and no, the writer’s weren’t credited in the programme).  It kept closely to the plot and therefore the spirit of the play, using several songs to condense the action and move the story on.

Despite nerves, the children clearly loving being on stage.  They all seemed to glow with excitement.

All of the years were included in this cast, but the key roles are always offered to the oldest class.  It’s a kind of leaving present for them, and most have been looking forward to taking part for a several years.

I’ve been to a few of these now, but usually they’ve been adaptations of musicals – songs and dance are, of course, an obligatory part of the end-of-year play.  The youngest classes have chorus roles, and sit on mats at the sides of the stage; the middle classes make up the walk-on parts and boost the singing.  They sit on chairs to the side of the stage, ready to provide crowd scenes.

What I liked about this production was that whoever cast it had thought carefully about matching the actor’s personalities to maximize the effects of the roles. Puck seemed naturally full of mischief, and the four romantic characters were nicely balanced.

Peter Quince, Snug, Snout and Bottom were played by girls.  Snug was the timidest, most fragile-looking lion imaginable, and a hush needed to fall to hear her soft roar.  While Flute was played by a sturdy boy, which meant that when the time came to play Pyramus and Thisbe we had the full comic effect.

Actually, when Thisbe strode on stage, still trying to straighten his large bubbling blonde wig and not managing to control his flowing blue cape, the audience pretty well collapsed in howls of laughter.  The rest of the cast caught the infection, and for several minutes the story was delivered in giggles.

‘We couldn’t help it,’ Rose said later. ‘He’d never had that outfit in rehersals.’

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school.2 JPGA legend, it seems has been made.  We all should have such a triumph to look  back to.

Shakespeare, these children have been taught is fun.  Later it might get serious, but for the moment, all of the school, including the infant classes, who had watched the dress rehearsal, have been involved in a live performance.  They’ve also got to grips with the basic plot of a piece of classic literature.  Live performance, they’ve learned, is magic.

Every so often, when I looked around that audience, I saw not just pride, but engagement.

Midsummer Night's dream, norton school

The lights went down, the curtains opened, and it was not children we watched, it was actors, re-creating stories of other times and beliefs.

So here’s me modifying my ideas.  After this, I’m all in favour of adaptations when the outcome is to whet the appetite for more.

Recognising the individual within a pack


An exercise I often use for creating a character is based on a questionnaire.  It begins by asking for the mundane details of human life: name, age and address, then moves into the personal areas of like, dislike, favourite things, hopes and fears.

I’ve no idea who first realized that forms could have a creative use besides being a boring necessity.  Not me, my tutors all used versions of this when teaching me.

In my turn, I’ve adapted my own variations on theirs, that I set according to which aspect of character formation I’m working on.  For instance, do I want to create a character from scratch, or develop an existing one?

Here, in best Blue Peter style, is an example of a general purpose one:

© Cath Humphris

Twenty Questions on your protagonist.

Character Profile for _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (full name)
1. Address:
2. Date of Birth?
3. Place of Birth?
4. How does this character occupy most of their time?
5. Who, if anyone, do they live with?
6. How long have they lived like this?
7. What object does your character always carry?
8. What do they most like about their appearance?
9. What do they least like?
10. What does your character do on Thursday nights?
11. What is character’s most valued talent?
12. What is their favourite way to spend holiday time?
13. List three things that make them angry:
14. Describe their favourite clothes?
15. What is their favourite pass-time/hobby?
16. Who are they closest to?
17. What is their favourite extravagance?
18. What is their favoured economy?
19. Describe their most embarrassing memory:
20. What is their secret ambition?

No, don’t groan, trust me.  It can work, even if you start rather flippantly, because clearly the name, and the answers to the first three questions can be plucked from the air.  The trick is to write your answers down, and complete all the questions, even if you have to complete them out of order.

Commit to completing the list and I defy you to not find yourself linking the pieces together.  As the questions become more personal the whys and wherefores build up and a backstory emerges.  This is research.  It’s the bottom of that Hemmingway iceberg theory that is your story.

There are two things that I like to see happen when I do this with a group.  The first is that some of their answers extend beyond the page, either into the margins, onto the back of the handout, or into a notebook.  The second, is when someone has to go back to an earlier answer and rewrite it to make it fit with the answers they’ve made further down.

That’s when I know they’ve hooked into the individuality of their character, and a flat stereotype is becoming individual, and therefore, rounded.