Friday, 30 September 2011

Writing what you know ... writing what you don't. By Bryony Pearce

Last weekend I presented at my first literary festival (which was nerve-wracking, but really good fun).  After my talk a member of the audience asked me if I wrote only female protagonists.  In answer I said that the first three full-length novels I had written (including Angel’s Fury) had female protagonists, but the most recent two (both in early stages) have male leads.  There was no real conscious decision making process there – a boy’s voice simply took over the book.

A man in the audience was surprised and asked if I thought I’d really be able to write from a boy’s viewpoint.

On one level we’re always told ‘write what you know’ and admittedly I have no experience being a teenage boy; but then are teenage boys really so alien that no female adult could put herself in their place?

As writers we are meant to use our imagination, our empathy and our own experiences to put ourselves inside our characters. We do it all the time when we create worlds that are not our own, when we write anything that doesn’t have ‘Diary’ on the title page.

I have experienced being different, I have experienced unrequited love (and requited love, thank goodness), I have been bullied.  Haven’t boys experienced these things too?

Can’t I use my own memories of being bullied to write about a bullied boy?  Would a victimised boy really feel differently to a girl in the same position?  Or would the feelings of humiliation, powerlessness, frustration and rage all be the same?

I can imagine myself inside a boy – I believe it’s just like being inside a girl. 

What I find harder to imagine is the physical side of being a boy, having those muscles - being bigger and stronger, having (whisper it) male … equipment.  But that shouldn’t preclude me from writing a male lead.  I don’t talk about female specific body parts when I write a female lead, so why should I need to focus on them when I write a boy?

Keren David’s Ty has a convincing voice, as does Gillian Philip’s Seth, Maggie Stiefvater’s James, Candy Gourlay’s Bernardo, Savita Kalhan’s Sam … the list could go on and on.

So I shall continue writing my male leads.  I enjoy being in their heads and I don’t even think of them as boys. They are called Odie and Elliot and that’s how I see them.  Maybe that’s the answer – I can write male leads because think of my characters as people, not generic examples of a gender.

Shakespeare’s Shylock said it best:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” 

So shouldn't we authors be allowed to imagine ourselves in the place of someone different? Whether it be a boy, a girl, an ethnic minority, a different religious background, or a different sexual persuasion … ?

And if readers can accept a book about a boy that was written by a woman, then perhaps that’s a step towards thinking that it’s okay to put themselves in someone else’s place too. The world could do with a bit more empathy … couldn’t it?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Being Gay in Teen and YA fiction -- Savita Kalhan

Over the last few weeks I keep coming across the story of the two American writers, Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manja Brown, who were asked by their agent to either remove gay characters from their YA books or to ‘straighten’ them. The story first appeared on the Publishers Weekly Genreville blog, but the authors, although happy to discuss what they were told to do by the agent, refused to name them. The name of the agent ultimately came to light, but they subsequently refuted the story put forward by the two authors.
There seems to be several sides to this story. Was it a case of two over-sensitive writers being unwilling to change/rewrite a book that wasn’t up to scratch? Or was it the agency who felt that gay characters in YA just don’t sell books? From a publishers point of view, a book with gay central characters is going to have a very limited market compared to one with heterosexual characters. From their perspective, that’s not homophobia, that’s just a question of numbers.
The whole issue is still out there. Soon enough, discussions about what really went on, or might have gone on, or what it was all really about hit Twitter with: #YesGayYA. Many of the commentators felt that the real issue here was the censorship practised by the gate-keepers. We’re talking about the States here, not the UK.
As far as I can tell, and from personal experience, gate-keepers here are very much kept in mind when teen books are published in the UK. The reason why I had to remove a few ‘hells’ and other minor expletives from my book, which is aimed at teens, was because it was felt that librarians wouldn’t approve. I don’t think the same is necessarily true of YA fiction with a slightly older readership. 

In Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry, the younger brother of the central character is both black and gay. Malorie has said that she has had a positive response to this.
Have other writers had a similar experience to Malorie, or have there been problems? And is the divide between what’s deemed acceptable in teen lit and in YA lit becoming wider?

Or is it that better-known writers are afforded more latitude??

Friday, 16 September 2011

In the beginning...

Edge author Sara Grant talks about humble beginnings and time travel

Today I leave for my home state of Indiana to launch my debut novel Dark Parties! I’ve got a number of book signings and school events planned, but I’m most excited about speaking to the students at Washington High School. I graduated from good ol’ WHS twenty-five years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to tell them. It will be my first real school visit since Dark Parties was published. Sure, I’ll talk about writing and publishing. But I think my main message will be – dream big anyway.

I’ve created stories since I was a little girl, imagining epic dramas for my Barbie dolls. I wrote my first short story when I was eight years old. It was titled “A Dream I Wish Was True” and it was a complete rip off of a skit from The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. I dedicated the story to Farrah Fawcett Majors (Yeah, I was unduly influenced by television and a huge fan of Charlie’s Angels.). I think I still have the original copy somewhere. I wrote it in pencil and bound it with three pieces of string I found in the family junk drawer.

WHS - Home of the Hatchets
I wrote my first original story, titled “Adventure in the Bread Drawer,” when I was ten years old. It was about a girl who shrinks and meets a family called the Germs in a stale Twinkie. The story had a surreal and slightly cannibalistic ending where the girl wakes up and her brother has eaten the Twinkle and he’s picking something -- which may or may not be the Germs’ family photo -- from his teeth.

Growing up my creative writing assignments usually were returned covered in red ink with points deducted for spelling errors. I was convinced I could never be a writer because my spelling was appalling. Thank the writing gods for spell check!

I have a drawer full of rejection letters from editors and agents and a brain full of memories of people telling me I was wasting my time or I wasn’t quite good enough.

But now I also have a book with my name on the spine, sitting on a bookstore shelf under a sign that says ‘Top Teen Picks’.

No one is ever going to beg you to write a book. I’m not going to tell you it will be easy. But if it’s your dream, do it anyway. Never stop reading and writing and revising and learning and failing and dusting yourself off and starting all over again.

At the Barnes & Noble in Bloomington, Indiana
I wish I had a time machine so I could travel back to my chubby teenage self and tell her about her future. How she’ll one day – yeah, she’s going to have to wait a long time – live in London, England, and make a living writing books. She won’t believe me. But, hey, I almost can’t believe it myself.

And since I don’t have a time machine, I’ll hope that one day some budding young writer will be sitting in the audience and I can tell her or him to keep the faith!

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? What was your first story?
Dark Parties -- a dystopian novel for young adults -- will be published by Orion in December 2011. Find out more about Sara and her books at

Friday, 9 September 2011

Wired for Sound

The Truth about Celia Frost author, Paula Rawsthorne, asks will soundtracks on our ebooks enhance our reading experience?

I’ve been fascinated about the recent release by Booktrack of certain ebooks with added, synchronized sounds that hope to “dramatically boost the reader’s imagination and engagement”  (quote from Booktrack’s website).  These soundtracks include ambient music and sound effects such as rotating helicopter blades, creaking doors, lashing rain-whatever detail is chosen from the text.

Booktrack, have only released a very limited range of soundtrack ebooks so far, but their first efforts seem to be concentrated on the Young Adult market.  I presume this is because they think that teenagers need the added stimulation of music and sound effects as they read, because they haven’t got the capacity to conjure up the world of the story in their imagination.   Or maybe it’s because the company reckon that young people are growing up in an environment where they are plugged into a virtual world provided by game consoles and the internet, which makes them reliant on being spoon fed images, sights and sounds.  Therefore, just plain reading a story is not enough to hold their attention.

I wish they had more faith in teenagers and in readers in general.  We already have audio books and radio plays and I can see how, this medium might be enhanced by well chosen music and sparingly employed sound effects.  However, I have seen and listened to short samples of the new Booktrack releases and, for me, the soundtrack was intrusive, distracting and rather than enhancing my reading experience it felt that I was battling against noise pollution.

To be fair the ebook reader is in complete control of the soundtrack so it can be turned off and the soundtrack can, cleverly, keep pace with your reading speed, so shouldn’t drive you mad in that respect.  It will be interesting to see if this concept does take off with readers, teen and adult (short stories by Salman Rushdie will soon be getting the soundtrack treatment). 

You could argue that any new angle that might get more teens reading is to be applauded.  However,  I think that I’ll be keeping faith in young people’s ability to let their imaginations be fired up by the words on the page, alone.

What do you think about ebooks with soundtracks?       

Friday, 2 September 2011

Summertime and writers go out in the Miriam Halahmy

Writers constantly need to replenish their imaginations and for me that has always meant taking to the road. When I was young I travelled all over the UK and Europe, sleeping in youth hostels, tents, barns, railway stations and under the stars on the beach. 

The earth belongs to me ( and to you of course) and I have continued to travel all my life. I have paddled in four oceans and withstood temperatures from -30C all the way to +45C. I have spoken in languages from Russian to Arabic and everywhere I went I always had a notebook at the bottom of my bag. 

This summer I started a new book and I had to dig very deep for the words. My travels took me to Crosby beach within sight and sound of Liverpool and its great historic docks.

On Crosby beach are 100 cast iron life-size figures, sculpted by one of our great modern artists, Anthony Gormley ( Angel of the North.) The figures are made from casts of the artist’s own body. They are dotted along 3km of the foreshore and 1km out to sea.  Gormley says, “they harness the ebb and flow of the tide to explore man’s relationship with nature.” 

When we first reached the beach at 11.00am the tide was in and huge waves crashed against the concrete walkway. The sculptures were completely covered but as the waves rose and fell; heads and sometimes shoulders were revealed like upright drowning men. 

People hang jumpers, scarves, sunhats and even a motorbike helmet on the sculptures, casting them as modern scarecrows trying to frighten the gulls and the wind farms out at sea.

 By 4.00pm the beach was like a different planet. The sea had receded by almost a quarter mile and all along the damp sands we could see the iron men facing out to sea as if seeking a new world. Gormley calls the installation, ‘Another Place’ and says, “This sculpture exposes to light and time the nakedness of a particular and peculiar body. It is no hero, no ideal...

The entire experience blew a new world through my body and my mind, giving me inspiration, mystery, imagination, pictures, colours and streams and streams of words. If I am to remain true to my art of writing and writing without compromise to the edge, then days like this are the structure and sculpture that I need to propel my work forward.
Do you write to travel or travel to write?