Thursday, 26 February 2015


In the way that often happens, a seemingly chance series of conversations and references suddenly coalesce in your awareness, and something that’s been nagging at you as an indefinite feeling becomes realised in the broad daylight of your consciousness.

Over the past few weeks I have heard several references to the ‘YA genre’. I’ll come back to that nomenclature later. During the same period I have been witnessing a stream of books sent to me to review, or quote for, every single one of which was written in the first person present tense, with a certain breathless intensity of oh-my-weird-little-life.  Usually there’s cancer, death, divorce etc. thrown in to the mix. Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing in the first person present in itself. Many good books have been written this way. Well, one or two, at least. But it made me wonder why so many books for young adults are being written in this way.

Many things determine the choice of narrative voice in a book; but I believe it’s of utmost important that whatever narrative voice is chosen, it is selected for what it can do for the book; how it will work technically, as well as the emotional impact it provides. Here’s an example of how the first person can go wrong; the most obvious limitation to it is that since you as the writer only have your protagonist’s voice at your disposal you can only convey to your reader things that the protagonist knows. That’s okay if the plot of your book will work fine that way, but problems ensue as a writer requires their reader to know things that the protagonist doesn’t. A very smart writer can find ways of signalling thing to the reader of which the protagonist themselves is unaware. Sadly the writer of the latest of such books sent to me did not seem to have coped with these limitations. The result was a text in which the protagonist was constantly overhearing things through walls, eavesdropping on phone calls, standing in doorways but remaining somehow unseen, and in the very best case of all declared ‘if I was in a bad movie I would jump into the closet now so I could hear their conversation. So, I jump into the closet.’ I’m actually not kidding.

So what? Well, I’m fearing that the world of YA books is eating itself. That its horizons are diminishing, its ambitions declining. Again, for the sake of clarity, I am not saying there are no adventurous new books for teenagers being published. There clearly are and you can of course tell me what you think they are in the comments, if you wish. That’s not my point. My point is that it feels as if the vast majority of new books for young adults fit into one of two broad types; there is a) what we might call The Twilight Games, and there is b) the breathless first person novel, or BFPN as I have started to call it, as described above.

And that’s why I think using the term YA as if it’s a genre is not helping matters. As anyone who’s ever heard me speak will know I am very wary of age ranging. Yes it’s inevitable, but overall I think it does more harm than good. At most, that’s all ‘YA’ should mean – a way of placing books in shops with a ROUGH idea that the titles may be appropriate for teenagers. What YA most definitely should not be is a genre. Genres exist; Fantasy, Sci Fi, Chick Lit, Dystopia etc etc etc. Fine. YA should not be on this list. Genres are by definition limiting.

For me, the hallmarks of the teenage experience are these: experimentation, rebellion, the thirst for originality. These things are what attracted me to write in the way I have been in the first place, and when I began, the term YA wasn’t really in use; they were just books for teenagers. They went in a certain section in the bookshop, and their breadth and variety was wonderful. Here, a book like Cider with Rosie could be shelved alongside Animal Farm alongside The Outsiders alongside The Chocolate War alongside Red Shift.

I fear that we are now at risk of operating in a ‘YA world’, in which we all; writers, teachers and students of creative writing, editors, agents, publishers are self-defining what a YA book is, and it seems that that definition is narrowing. It seems very hard to see beyond the two dominating behemoths I’ve listed above. As the book industry continues to adjust to a not-so-brave new world of online retailing, and so becomes ever tougher, publishers are under enormous pressure, and thus increasingly are tempted to make ever more timid decisions. As some will know, I worked in publishing for 18 years; I have seen such timidity occur, and breed: ‘We can get this book through acquisitions because it’s a bit like such and such’.

Perhaps I’m worrying about nothing. Perhaps all this just goes to show the validity of that old adage ‘80% of anything is rubbish’. And that that was always so. And if that’s so, then so be it. Let’s just try and ensure that the 80% doesn’t creep up to 95%.

It takes a bold publisher, one who believes in what they are doing, someone with the confidence of experience, or indeed of youth, to champion a book that is utterly unlike everything else that’s flooding the market. But it must be done, above all, in thinking about books that younger minds will respond to, it must be done, because the desire for the original is what the experience of being a teenager is all about.

YA is not a genre. Referring to it as such will only diminish us all.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

In Defence of the Young

This post first appeared at Project UKYA.

One quarter of The Ghosts of Heaven takes place in pre-history, and features a young woman on the verge of making the connection between the spoken word and making a mark. When she does, she will effectively have invented writing, one of the cornerstones of human civilisation.

I’ve written before on what I believe must be the oldest story in the world, or one of the oldest, at the very least, and it’s this: our hero goes into the Dark Space, to face the unknown, and returns triumphant, or fails, tragically. This is the story of Theseus in the labyrinth, of Orpheus in the underworld, of Bilbo in Gollum’s cave, and so on and so on. All these stories are, I believe, versions of what must have been told around the fire-pit in the early days of Mankind (which is hard to be exact about). Our primitive ancestors, (and I hate using the word primitive, they must have been pretty sophisticated by the standards of the time), often used caves, for safety and shelter, perhaps for sacred purposes, certainly as places they practiced the earliest forms of art. Caves like Lascaux and Chauvet in France are witness to human practices that are possibly 30,000 years old. Blombos in South Africa shows artistic activity on an organised basis that is possibly 100,000 years old. For whatever reason, we needed to go into those caves. But what might be waiting there? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps a beast of some kind, a lion, bear or wolf? And what tales would have been told of the brave hunter who first ventured into the darkness. We have such a strong, limbic link to darkness, and I think this is why; are inner, collective memories have not forgotten the fear of voyaging into the dark unknown.

Once we had claimed a cave as safe, then we could begin to use it; the art in the caves mentioned above and many others is breathtakingly powerful. I’ve visited a few of these caves over the years, and there is still, tens of thousands of years later, a strong magic about the things depicted on the walls. What’s been revealed relatively recently is that at least some of this art was made by teenagers, and even children. Some of the commentary on this discovery is revealing in itself - it wants to place this Stone Age adolescent art in the same vein as the graffiti of modern times; testosterone-induced markings by young adults to express their clumsy urges. As so often with media representations of the teenager, we are shown the negative and reprehensible. But there’s another way of looking at our image of the teenager.

As recent research has shown, the teenage brain operates differently from that of the child and the adult. Some of the all-too-well rehearsed comments about teenager behaviour; from their sleeping endlessly, to their desire to experiment, take risks and so on, seem to be explained by this new neuroscience. The usual conclusion to this is; well, there, you see – they may be annoying but it’s not their fault they behave so badly, it’s their brain chemistry. But there’s another way to look at this.

Let’s go back to our Stone Age society again (not literally. I like toothpaste and dishwashers). The Stone Age itself is an enormous period of time. Forget the 100,000 years before the present mentioned above; that’s recent history. The Stone Age began, when our earliest ancestors began using stone tools, around two and a half million years ago. This is the time not of our own species homo sapiens, but of other human species from whom we are descended, such as homo habilis. The Stone Age lasts a VERY long time, and there are different names for different parts of it, but by and large things are more or less crawling forward (a bit of antler use here, some flaking of flints there) until we get to around a mere 80,000 years ago. From then until around 30,000 years ago, there is a sudden acceleration in what Anthropologists call “cumulative technological evolution”, resulting in what they like to call “behavioural modernity” which basically means we’re painting pictures, building homes, creating systems of belief and no longer dragging our knuckles in the dirt.

What was the life expectancy in the Stone Age? Contrary to popular belief, while the average life span was perhaps only around 18-20 years, the maximum was much higher, perhaps 60 years old – but nevertheless, this means that a large proportion of the population would have been young.

I think it’s very likely that the teenage brain is the way it is for a very good reason. Evolution doesn’t tend to keep its experiments for the sake of it; natural selection keeps those traits that prove useful to the development of the species, the others tend to die out. So could it be that the teenage brain, with all its experimentation and risk-taking, was just what our species needed to accelerate out of the Middle Stone Age and into the Late, when we began to behave in a much more recognisably modern way? Don’t forget that at this point in evolution, we are living alongside other human species; Neanderthals being the most celebrated. There is evidence that we interbred with the Neanderthal to an extent, but however it happened, homo sapiens out-evolved everyone else, became the dominant species, and the rest as they say, is history.

It’s also now believed that everyone in the world from North and South America, Asia, Australia and Europe is descended from a very small founding group from Africa, of maybe just a few hundred individuals. Times were hard; many populations must have entirely perished, ending that branch of our species for all time. If homo sapiens was to flourish, we needed as many families to survive as possible, and luckily for us, 14 distinct populations survived in Africa, and one made it out of Africa to found the rest of the world. So maybe there’s something good to say about those risk-taking, experimenting teenagers. Maybe they were the ones who invented things, such as the girl in The Ghosts of Heaven who’s on the cusp of inventing writing. Maybe they were the ones responsible for the survival of our charming, respectful, spiritual and caring species, homo sapiens. Whether that’s a good thing or not, is of course, a topic for another day.

Monday, 17 November 2014

I don't understand...

This post first appeared at Wondrous Reads

Sometimes, when I’m speaking to someone about one of my books; they’ll tell me they didn’t understand it. This happens a lot with the end of White Crow, and then there’s the whole thing with Midwinterblood. And when that happens, I try and help them understand it, which is usually just a case of asking them to re-read bits of it more slowly. I’m not a writer who tells you something five times. I usually say it just once, and if I say it any more in a first draft, my editor makes me take it out in a rewrite anyway. That’s one of the reasons that my books are sometimes shorter than other people’s. And that’s one of the reasons why I wish some people would read more slowly. Books are patient; you can afford to take your time when you’re reading for pleasure. Anyway, I do my best to explain, but to be honest, what I’m actually thinking on the inside, when someone says they don’t understand something, is ‘good’.

If that sounds mean, I should try and explain. I don’t believe you have to understand something in order to understand it. That sounds like nonsense, so I had better explain some more. I don’t believe that you have to consciously, clearly, easily understand something through and through in order for you to connect with it, in order for you to take away something valuable from it, in order for you to ‘get it’. In fact, I think that sometimes the works of art that seem initially at least to confuse use and disorientate us are the ones from which we gain the most in the long run.

I believe that the right words, the right music, the right images can in some way connect with older and deeper parts of our minds than the ones we use to pass A-Level Maths or learn to drive a car with.

Keir Dullea as astronaut Dave Bowman, from 2001: A Space Odyssey

And as evidence of this, I offer you 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick. 2001 is many people’s candidate for the greatest film of all time and in polls by people who know, it’s usually in the top ten (it’s in my top two). A little history: The film was written by Kubrick and legendary science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story of Clarke’s called Sentinel of Eternity. Kubrick ran through many possible titles before settling on ‘Odyssey’, hinting at the epic nature of Man’s voyage through prehistory and into the future. Released in 1968, it’s an incredible film, ground-breaking in many, many ways, and far ahead of its time in certain respects. To give an example; the film accurately portrays life in zero-g, the view of the Earth from the moon and various other aspects of space travel and all this was done over a year before we actually set foot on the Moon. (Kubrick got this stuff so correct that certain sorts of people have used it to create a laughably lovely conspiracy theory in which Nasa got him to fake the moon landings so America could win the space race).

The main thing about 2001 however, is that it is weird. It is a very mysterious film, there is very little dialogue (none at all for the first 32 minutes) and when there is dialogue, it’s casual, almost throw away. It’s been called a silent film in the sound era, despite the fact that music plays a vast and vital role in the film. As if strange occurrences on prehistoric Earth, and later, on the Moon have not been enough to unsettle us, the final sequences (known as Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite) take us on a trip in the most psychedelic sense of the word. A small snippet here.

Now the point of all this is that I first saw this film when I was about seven years old My dad ran a film club at the arts centre he ran, and from time to time, my brother and I would go along and watch all sorts of movies that we were ‘way too young to see’. I think my dad knew differently. I cannot pretend for one minute that I understood anything about the film after the first hour or so. Even today, people argue and debate and write dissertations about what the end of the film means. But my point is that it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to understand in order to understand. The images, the music, the words; they all connect directly to a deeper part of the brain, and our experience is all the richer for it. I saw 2001 at the age of seven and my mind was blown wide open, never, I suspect, to close again.

What has all this to do with The Ghosts of Heaven? Well, here’s one thing; realising that I was writing a story in four parts, which span human existence from prehistory to the far future, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge my love of Kubrick’s amazing film; hence the name of the protagonist in the space section, Keir Bowman (fans will know why), hence the strapline on the cover, and hence many other things. And as to understanding the book, well, I’m not sure I understand it myself, and I wrote the thing. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got something to say.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

You're on your own

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post and at Delightful Book Reviews.

I hate giving tips for writers. I really do. Not because I don’t want to help other people with their writing, but because there really are no rules for writing. But, as a writer, you frequently get asked to compile lists of tips, or even just a top three, and to be honest, I cringe every time I do it.

But here are three (non) tips. I’m not saying there aren’t some things that it might be helpful to think about. It’s just that they are probably different for everyone – one of the key joys about being a writer is that everyone seems to do it slightly differently. Not only that, but becoming a writer is to set out on a life-long journey of learning – anyone who thinks ‘that’s it, I’m a writer now and I know what I’m doing’ is a) probably fooling themselves, and b) probably a very bad writer. It’s much more common to feel out of your depth, unsure of yourself at times (if not all the time), and wonder why you ever started to try to write in the first place.

But this is normal, so there’s my first (non) tip; get used to not knowing what you’re doing. Writing is hard enough without adding to your woes by worrying incessantly about it. And yes, of course you’re going to worry about it; that’s normal. Just don’t worry about worrying about it. That’s not going to help.

Here’s my second (non) tip – be very suspicious of anyone writing lists of tips (including these ‘non’ tips). I teach on creative writing courses from time to time, so you might say, ‘well, what do you tell your students then?’ and what I tell them is that I’m going to mention lots of ideas and concepts and suggestions as to how to write, but that it’s up to each of them to take away the things that mean something to them, that resonate, that might work in their own writing practice. Writing is unusual in that it’s one of the very few jobs in the world that you teach yourself to do.

Even if you do go on a creative writing course, I believe it’s up to you to navigate your way through the ocean of (frequently conflicting) ideas that you will come across. Should you plan your book, or not? Should you know how it ends before you start, or not? Should you write every day, or not? Should you set times to write, or word counts, or leave it all free? All of that is up to you.

What I can say though, is to read as much as you can. If you (seriously) want to be a writer, you probably read a lot anyway. You can add to that reading everything I’m telling you to ignore – all the ‘how tos’ and ‘top tips’ and essays and books and blogs on writing. But remain suspicious. If you think (as I do) that writing a book by writing a part in the middle and then a bit near the start and then the end and then a bit three quarters of the way through sounds like a ridiculously complicated way of making a hard job harder (and you’d be right, of course ;-) ) then don’t do it. Just because your favourite author imports especially sticky post-it notes from Germany (yes, I do know someone who does that) in order to plan their novels, doesn’t mean you have to.

My final (non) tip is this: get used to paradoxes. Writing is full of things that don’t make sense. It is often a question of having to do contradictory things; I believe you need to ignore the question of who you’re writing ‘for’, and yet, at the same time, you cannot help but think about how ‘your reader’ is going to interpret something. You want to be original and new and yet you have to be familiar at the same time. You have to forget that every story has already been told a thousand times, and then show us how you can do something new with that story.

Writing is full of contradictions. It is hard and it is challenging, and yet, when you succeed in achieving a small part of what you set out to achieve, the feeling of contentment is deep and powerful. That’s the drug that keeps us all going, and like anything in life that’s worthwhile, the journey to achieve can be a hard one. But that’s normal, so don’t be afraid.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft

This post first appeared on Reading Away The Days

Very few writers can truly be called unique; American horror stylist H.P. Lovecraft is surely one who can. Lovecraft, never a success in his own lifetime, and barely more than a cult figure since, is nevertheless one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The same can be said of the writer whose work in turn most influenced Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s work was perhaps a little wider read than Lovecraft’s ever was during their respective lifetimes, but Poe’s nevertheless was derided and belittled while he was still around to hear such things. Only in France, for some reason, was Poe truly celebrated, and outside of that it’s been the sad fate of these men to only achieve their true worth after their deaths.

Lovecraft's grave marker in Providence, Rhode Island. Like many other fans, I left a quarter as a token of respect.

If you don’t know Lovecraft’s work, a few titles will begin to give you the idea: The Shadow out of Time, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, The Dreams in the Witch House. But these are no conventional horror tales; Lovecraft not only created a style all of his own, he also created an entire occult mythology for the world in which some of his tales are set. His pantheon of hideous ancient gods; the Old Ones, Cthulhu being the most notable, are painted as being horrible dark influences on humanity from times before our imagining and places beyond our understanding.

Lovecraft created his own corner of New England; Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, the Miskatonic river as the diabolic centre of unnameable terrors and lurking creatures, drawing upon (modern) America’s oldest places as his inspiration for twisted versions of reality. Here, we find decrepit houses touching eaves across foetid alleyways, we find unknown and unknowable things sliming their ways from murky harbours, and time and time again, we find madness. Madness was one of Lovevcraft’s recurring themes. His own father was confined to a mental hospital when Lovecraft was just three years old, possibly suffering with General Paralysis of the Insane (as it was known then) – the tertiary stages of a syphilitic infection. It’s hard not to see this as a direct influence on the writer, a writer whose own life was riddled by ill health and strange behavioural issues.

In coming to write the section of The Ghosts of Heaven known as The Easiest Room in Hell, I decided I wanted to pay homage to a writer whose work I have always enjoyed. This part of the book is set in an insane asylum on Long Island, New York in the 1920s, and features a poet who has gone mad. His name (and Lovecraft fans will know why) is Charles Dexter. Dexter spends his days writing a novel in his head, much to the confusion of his doctors. He strikes up a friendship with a newly arrived Dr James, who hasn’t heard of the poet before. When he learns about his writing, he gets hold of a copy of Dexter’s poetry collection, On Drowning, and reads one of the mad poet’s poems. And here then, was a chance for me to let rip and write some Lovecraftiana of my own; the poem called...


Sea-found, wind-worn and wild; 

the land will lose.

Here are places so old as to defy memory;

The point, the creek, the inlet.

The old tide mills, dilapidated,

were but a blink in the eye of time.

And there are older things here, 

things which the oyster boats dredge from the deep.

There on the headland; 

the asylum, 

and the asylum boneyard,

where the land-borne dead are corrupted,

harmless bodies are sucked of life; 

in the cemetery.

Graves grow from the soil; 

the black fingernails of the monstrosity beneath.

It lies far down, under the ground, under the sea, 

pushing an arm up,

up to the air 

a hand with a thousand fingers; and every fingernail a grave.

Deep in the sea, at the other end of the arm

sits its heart-brain,

this being from beyond the stars, from the beginning of time:

its mashy form quivers inside the shell 

which protects 

and resonates its thought-waves across the world 

in ancient reverberation.

Spiral-set shell mind, 

It blows a soundless horn to us all, a warning:

I am coming.

Monday, 13 October 2014

STANLEY KUBRICK: genius on tour

The sign for the Paris leg of the Kubrick exhibition, at Cinémathèque Française, uncannily brought to mind the famous ‘monolith’, the mystery at the heart of his best known and most revered film; 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intentional, no, but it signalled the right note of portent for this extraordinary show which, to date, British film fanatics have not had the chance to see.

I was fortunate enough to stumble across the show in Paris in 2011, and though reviewers should always be sparing with hyperbole, it was a show remarkable enough to get me on a place to see it again, this summer, in Krakow.

For the Kubrick aficionado, the show is a space in which to dream, but even for those less familiar with his work, it delivers something very special. The show was created by
Deutsches Filmmuseum, but in association with the Kubrick estate, which means that the curators were able to assemble an unrivalled collection; the sheer quantity and variety of exhibits on display combine to offer multiple pathways into Kubrick’s films.

Extras on the set of Spartacus, each with a number so Kubrick could make miniscule adjustments to every one from behind the camera.   

There will be something here to fascinate you; for the technician there’s the installation showing the front projection sequences on 2001were put together, or the specially commissioned Zeiss lens which allowed Kubrick to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight. For the screenwriting nerd there are complex diagrams of schedules and shooting scripts annotated in Kubrick’s own hand. 

For the design junky, there are the mannequins from the Korova milkbar (
A Clockwork Orange), or a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove, the work of Ken Adams, the man responsible for the most stylish of early James Bond sets.

Some of the most engaging items are letters; both from Stanley Kubrick to his many collaborators, and those received by him, often from detractors; a Mrs Dobbs from Florida wrote to express ‘protest, utter dismay and complete disgust after viewing the despicable movie made by you and shown at our local theatre last week’ (and that wasn’t even about
A Clockwork Orange as you might expect, but Dr Strangelove).

But it was the ephemera from
2001 that stopped me in my tracks. We’re given the chance to get up close and personal with an ape suit from the Dawn of Man sequences. Completely terrifying: the aggression modelled into the ape’s face brings back memories of that ‘primogenital’ murder, as one of our distant ancestors discovers the first tool, and that tool is a weapon. Next to the ape, the helmet of Dave Bowman’s space suit. It takes an effort of will to look at this icon and remember that it is not real, and that it never went into space. Kubrick employed two ex-NASA scientists on the movie in order to get this, and countless other aspects of space travel, accurate. Such was Kubrick’s drive for perfection.

That perfectionism is legendary; stories about the dictatorial auteur abound. There is a similarity to Hitchcock in this regard; Hitchcock was the British director who went to work in America, Kubrick was the American who came to work in the UK, both shared an absolute belief in control and detail. Hitchcock, for example, claimed never to need to look at a script once shooting had started, he knew it by heart by the time that first day of principal shooting came by. What that allowed him to do was focus on how he was going to get the best from his actors, from his cameraman; he already knew what shots he was going to ask for.

Like all legends there is an element of truth to it, and an element of fiction. What’s clear from the items on display is that Kubrick possessed an intense desire to get it right; to get what he wanted on film. Making films is a complex business, in order to get exactly what he wanted he sometimes went to extreme lengths. He once said that the reason that so many bad films were made in Hollywood was not that people wanted to make bad films, that there were many well-intentioned people trying to make good films. The reason they make bad ones is that the problem, as he put it, ‘lies in their heads, not in their hearts’. By which he meant that it’s the entire structure of Hollywood that mitigate against good film-making. To break through this takes an enormous feat of will.

But what’s also clear from the show is Kubrick’s gentler, human side; for example in utterly polite, considered responses to the Mrs Dobbs of the world. Here is a man, after all, who during the production of
2001 was so concerned that IBM might be offended by what he was doing that he wrote to reassure them of his good intentions.

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was also intensely aware of the fact that form can create content. The restrictions of a structure, the limitations of budget, far from limiting the artist can paradoxically sometimes lead to greater creativity. To take just one example; the original intention for the sequences at the end of 2001 were for us to actually ‘meet’ the alien presences behind the monolith. As shooting wore on, and overran, there simply became a pressing financial need to finish the movie. Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kubrick put their heads together, and instead of actually seeing these aliens, we are left with the mysterious ‘Star Child’ sequence, which I can’t help feeling is an utterly more successful end that the original might have been (if you felt the anti-climax when little grey men wander out of the awe-inspiring ship in Close Encounters and you might agree).

Kubrick, to the New York Times in 1968 on
2001: A Space Odyssey;

“Essentially the film is mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific literal interpretation.”

I said above that reviewers should avoid unnecessary hyperbole, and yet I still have to say that this is not only the best exhibition about film that I have seen; it’s probably the finest exhibition of any kind I’ve had the chance to experience.

If you’re interested in seeing the show, well, sadly for those on British shores it now moves further away; to Toronto, but even that might be worth the trip. After that, you’ll have to go to Seoul. At some point, surely, it
must come to Kubrick’s adoptive home; so write to your MP, Christiane Kubrick, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever it takes to get this most absorbing of shows to come to town, and sooner rather than later.