Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Never say Never for NaNoWriMo

Last time I met up with my SCBWI critique group some of us were gearing up for NaNoWriMo. 
National Novel Writing MonthI have never managed to commit to this before as it seems too difficult and scary, although I have tried Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, but floundered after a week. This year I felt a bit brave.

I decided to put my current manuscript on the back burner for a while and I thought I might just test myself to write something new and NaNoWriMo seemed like a glowing opportunity. One of the writers in my group is a pro at Middle Grade Historical Fiction and she had her ideas already primed for a November type-fest. When the group learned that I have a history degree they asked if I would ever consider writing historical fiction too. “Oh no, never,” I laughed saying that I was too lazy to research it all because I would want it to all be historically accurate and that takes a lot of effort. At least writing fantasy I can invent a new creature or a magic fix for whatever corner I have written my characters into. A case of my world, my rules so to speak.  Although I do love a bit of historical fiction to read or a period drama on TV, the double whammy of Wolf Hall on BBC and Kindle is bliss. But to write it is hard work and I know because I have written many history essays at Uni. For me half the fun of children’s fiction is the freedom to write whatever crazy stuff inspires me.

How wrong could I be? Yesterday I was struck with an interesting concept for MG fiction inspired by a recent school trip I helped out on, a trip that I think I enjoyed more than anyone in the entire school!  I began typing away, really pleased with myself caught up in the excitement of a new idea and a kooky character to get to grips with. I ditched my trusty third person, allowing my character to do all the talking for a change and now I’ve gone and landed myself with fantasy and two historical periods to research if I am going to pull this book off and somehow keep it all in the first person.

Suddenly my old manuscript looks inviting. But no, why should I restrict myself to one groove and keep inside it? When I was at school you were told to specialise, stick to one thing and aim for that and only that until pension age. For me it was English Lit and History and I ditched the rest, which meant that I left school with no idea what to do and ended up in a Media Agency with all the other people who had no idea how they ended up there. Why should we narrow our choices and be too afraid to try new things?

If you had asked my younger self if I would ever write a book I would have laughed and said “Never”. Never seems to be my short sighted word. I have already made a leap beyond where I thought my life would go. So maybe the key thing I should realise is that people evolve (like Pokemon)  Image result for pikachu evolutionand once you decide to be a writer you can branch out into different ages and genres and even scripts if you do your research.  

The media were outraged when JK Rowling dared to write an adult book, but why? Should she only write about Harry Potter for ever and ever and live in a Hogwarts lookalike castle? She would become as paranoid as Mad Eye Moony! There’s nothing like the buzz of a new idea filled with potential and hope and who are we to pigeon-hole people and stifle creativity? 

So November may be almost over, but let your creativity live on. Try something new even if it is difficult and scary because it might just be the best thing you ever do. After all you can always return to what you always did before. Never be afraid to fail and dare to follow your dream.  

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Superhumans – The Portrayal of Disabilities in Children's Books

Superhumans – The Portrayal of Disabilities in Children's Books

This week SCBWI opened a new Blue Board to discuss writing about diversity in all it's forms. I am delighted because I seem to keep writing about disabled characters. I don't want to offend people by asking what life is like as a child with a disability, quite the opposite, I want to inspire.

It all started in the summer of 2012 when I saw this poster. 

A huge 96 sheet on my walk into town with “Meet the Superhumans” and a photo of the athletes. It made me realise firstly, that I am quite lazy and I should be ashamed for making excuses, like its too cold to go running and secondly, that if you really want to do something, I mean REALLY want to do it, then there is a way to achieve it. If you are prepared to pour all your effort into into it.

Despite his later personal catastrophe, in that summer of 2012, what could be more inspiring than seeing Oscar Pistorius powering down the last 100 meters of track, so fast that he could compete with the most elite runners of the world? Yet here is a man who has no feet. Can you imagine a little boy with a dream so big? All the difficulties and physical pain he must have endured to achieve it? I can picture adults looking at this double amputee with pity as he says at school that when he grows up he wants to be a runner, thinking, “Well you can dream.” But he did dream it and better still he did it along with all the other medal winners.

If this was in a book people would think it was a far fetched story. I began to think about the characters who had disabilities in the books I read as a child. There was Clara in Heidi. I felt disgusted at Grandfather who just deemed Clara as a bit lazy and she could walk if only she tried. Fortunately for Clara, it seems she could magically walk once she got on with it, but this is not what happens to the vast majority of wheelchair users. They would love to just get out and walk but the reality isn't that simple. If I did have problem walking a book like that would make me feel like my disability was somehow my fault and that is not a message I would ever like to transmit to my readers. I do not want my characters to have blindness cured by tears like in Jane Eyre, or any other ludicrous scenarios.

My children love Cerrie Burnell from Cbeebies, they do not need her be like a starfish and grow a new section of arm, they like her because they like her. She is warm and friendly and that is enough. But apart from Cerrie, there are few females of note, real and fictitious who are strong and successful with a disability and heaven forbid that they are depicted as beautiful or powerful as well. You would expect at least Rupunzel to have Rickets, stuck up in that tower without much sunlight, but no. Disney depict her as physically perfect with massive eyes, nipped waist and a cracking soprano to boot. They didn't bother selling any dolls with the cropped brown hair she ends up with, as the idea of beauty is so ingrained that all the little girls want the perfect blonde one with cascading locks.

Now, I admit that I do love Disney Princesses as much as the next girl, but what if you were that little girl, like Cerrie once was, with a limb difference? Or if you had a prosthetic foot and you didn't want glass slippers but wanted to dance? Or if you were blind and you could never see again, no matter how many times your mum cried? Does this mean that your life is over and you must be locked away in a great mansion like the children in The Secret Garden? Heck no! No way at all! It just means that some things might be trickier in life, but lets all write books that show just what people can achieve. Lets write impressive people like those Superhuman Paralympians.

The protagonist I am currently working on would roll her eyes at me for even writing this post. She would get irritated and say lets just get on with it. Children don't want to be defined by what could hold them back, they to be happy in their own skin. To be accepted just as they are so they can embrace their talents and flourish into whatever they dream to be. They want to see and believe that life awaits no matter where they came from or what life throws at them. Surely as writers, that's something we can help our young readers explore. 

# WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Darker Side of Bright.

Children's Stories - The Darker Side of Bright.

I love books, but good writing and stories can come in many forms. Stories for children should be a mixture of escapism and entertainment yet still show children the world. The best ones make them think, to look again to see the things below the surface, where things may not be quite as they first appear. Stories are not just a sparkly place, but a training ground for life ahead. Let's face it, life can be at times rather ugly and hard work.

There is a TV show that achieves this, Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time. It is colourful, wacky and fun, but each episode is surprising and so beautifully composed that I frequently find myself on the sofa asking my children for just one more episode, pleeeeeeease.

My absolute favourite episode is “I Remember You”. If you have eleven minutes or so I recommend watching it. 

Up until this point in many of the episodes the villain has been The Ice King, who steals Princesses in an attempt to marry them. Here, we finally see the reason for his irrational behaviour. The parallel with Dementia or Alzheimer's is so true to life, yet suspended safely in the fantasy world of Ooo. It made me cry.

Although my children didn't understand the very real disease, they noticed the change of view point. They watched enthralled as the baddie Ice King and the self assured Marceline the Vampire Queen were stripped back. Characters at home, away from the persona they show the world, vulnerable and well, like everyone else without flashy titles and magical powers. Just Simon and Marcy, depicted as unconventional family members and suddenly the viewer has a totally different understanding of who they are and why they behave as they do.


It took me back a few years. My father had Parkinson's and just like Ice King, he would at times behave strangely, so determined and set on the most peculiar things (although never capturing Princesses, he had happily married his many decades earlier). But there would be that moment when I would get him back. My wonderful Dad, just as he always was, just like Marcy gets to see Simon. It was there, even if it was just for a fleeting moment. Like he had escaped, not from the Ice crown, but from the mists of flickering synapses unable to reboot. There, bobbed to the surface, his normal smiling self. My heart would flip with joy to see him and hope he would stay this time. But, he never did. The illness was wrapped too tightly, waiting to drag him back under.

So like Marceline, (but with hair that is no where near as cool), I would feel hope, happiness, anger, disappointment, but to the world we tried to seem normal. It is only when normal dissolves that you realise how difficult it is to achieve.

I was in my 20's when my father was diagnosed and my children were still babies when he died. I could already see my son's realisation that something was amiss with this old man we loved.

There must be other children who see it in their Grandparents or maybe, as sad as it is, in their own parents. The more we discuss things and show children, the more we can help them to make sense of things, to understand.

For now my children understand that a baddie isn't just bad and that Marceline is edgy because she has been through some difficult times. This vulnerability has let the children inside and made them love these characters more than they did before.

So when I am writing I will not stray from seemingly difficult or scary topics, but try to switch the perspective, to open it up so children can step inside and explore it for themselves.

I hope one day that I can write as well as the creators of Adventure Time. The key to this episode I feel is that the viewer gets inside the relationship. To see Marceline read and sing the words long ago written by the Ice King when he was still Simon, to the then little girl Marcy he cared for. Instantly the words are drenched in emotion, so deeply suppressed. We realise they have a long history and the powerful, crazy Ice King is shown as an apologetic old man, confused and erratic with his exasperated Granddaughter of sorts. Only she's older now and holds the power in this relationship as the role of protector shifts, a feeling I remember.

I'll leave you with the words she reads.

“This magic keeps me alive,
But it's making me crazy.
And I need to save you,
But who's going to save me?
Please forgive me for whatever I do,
When I don't remember you.”

Adventure time