Friday, 29 June 2012

When Charlie and Lola met Hiccup Horrendous Haddock

Only recently I discovered that Charlie and Lola creator Lauren Child and Cressida Cowell, author of the brilliant How To Train Your Dragon series were at school together.

Charlie and Lola... who else?
What are the odds of two extremely talented and wildly successful writers and illustrators being in exactly the same place at the same time?

Did this serendipitous encounter early in their lives give them the extra push they needed to spur them on to greatness? Would either have achieved as much without their meeting? Who can tell.

It’s rare but not unique of course. Think of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien who were both dons at Oxford at the same time and used to meet in the Eagle and Child pub in the dreaming spired city in the 1940s as part of the literary group the Inklings. The group took it in turns to read from works-in-progress.

It was here, in a smoke-fugged backroom, that early drafts of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings first saw the light of day.

By all accounts, Tolkien didn’t much care for Lewis’s Christian allegory with its talking animals.

Nevertheless, the sparks generated by two geniuses rubbing flinty shoulders led to better stories for both writers.

Lauren Child with creation Clarice Bean
 In an interview in the Independent newspaper, How We Met, Cressida Cowell and Lauren Child reveal they met at Marlborough School when they were 16 and they hit it off from the start.

Both were arty and they shared the same sense of humour. Each girl had begun to write a book. Interestingly, they introduced each other to classics of humorous children’s fiction.

Cowell turned Child on to Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth, while Child showed Cowell the delights of Clement Freud’s lovely Grimble.

Cressida Cowell's How To Train Your Dragon was given the Hollywood treatment
 It’s interesting to compare the two former schoolmates’ work and to discover that they have much in common. Is that as a result of the influence they exerted over each other?

Cressida Cowell's first book in the series
Both write funny stories in styles that are uniquely their own. Only Lauren Child could have written Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean. Cressida Cowell’s Dragon books are distinctly her own, influenced by her time living as a small child on a remote, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. This led to an obsession with archipelagos.

Their friendship has continued across the years. Cressida Cowell’s daughter Maisie was the original voice of Lola in the TV series of Charlie and Lola.

Interestingly, Child broke through slightly before Cowell and I wonder whether she found her own voice before Cowell hers. The marvellous Emily Brown books by Cowell, to my mind, show definite hints of Lauren Child.

So if you’re a young writer with dreams of weaving a wonderful story, it might be worth looking at the person sitting next to you in class. He or she might just be harbouring similar ambitions.

Turn around, break the ice and start chatting. You never know, you might be on your way to becoming the next Lauren Child and Cressida Cowell.

How cool would that be?

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Writer's nugget #5: Terry Pratchett

I love Terry Pratchett. No really. His books are a joy and make life worth living. He makes you realise that we live in a ridiculous world and the best way to deal with what life hurls at you is to laugh. Of his children's books, my favourite is The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents.

The following writing nugget is one of the best analogies I've seen to express what it's like to be confronted with a blank page and the thrilling struggle involved in giving birth to a book.


Okay. I have to say that I change the metaphor about once a week. But it may help if I give you an idea of how I go about writing.
I'm about 10,000 words into my next book. Do I know what it is about? Yes, I do know what it is about, it's just that I'm not telling myself. I can see bits of the story and I know the story is there.
This is what I call draft zero. This is private. No one ever, ever gets to see draft zero. This is the draft that you write to tell yourself what the story is.

Someone asked me recently how to guard against writing on auto-pilot. I responded that writing on auto-pilot is very, very important! I sit there and I bash the stuff out. I don't edit -- I let it flow.

Sir Terry Pratchett (magnificent hat and beard, sir!)
The important thing is that the next day I sit down and edit like crazy. But for the first month or so of writing a book I try to get the creative side of the mind to get it down there on the page. Later on I get the analytical side to come along and chop the work into decent lengths, edit it and knock it into the right kind of shape.

Everyone finds their own way of doing things. I certainly don't sit down and plan a book out before I write it. There's a phrase I use called "The Valley Full of Clouds." Writing a novel is as if you are going off on a journey across a valley. The valley is full of mist, but you can see the top of a tree here and the top of another tree over there. And with any luck you can see the other side of the valley. But you cannot see down into the mist. Nevertheless, you head for the first tree.

At this stage in the book, I know a little about how I want to start. I know some of the things that I want to do on the way. I think I know how I want it to end. This is enough. The thing now is to get as much down as possible.

If necessary, I will write the ending fairly early on in the process. Now that ending may not turn out to be the real ending by the time that I have finished. But I will write down now what I think the conclusion of the book is going to be. It's all a technique, not to get over writer's block, but to get 15,000 or 20,000 words of text under my belt. When you've got that text down, then you can work on it. Then you start giving yourself ideas.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Childlike writers who escape reality

Writing is a solitary activity. Not all, but many writers are shy, retiring people who best express themselves through the written word.

A lot of children’s authors have used their stories as a way of insulating themselves against the real world. Many never really grow up, despite their seemingly sober, grownup outer appearances.

Perhaps this is the main quality that connects our greatest children's writers. 

J M Barrie
For many, J M Barrie is the epitome of the children's author who never wanted to leave childhood behind. He, after all, created Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Perhaps Barrie's psyche was scarred when his older brother David died aged 14 and he tried - in vain - to replace him in his mother's affections. Was it from this tragedy that sprang the idea for the boy who never grew up?

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was another childlike and naive man. He never married and was uncomfortable around women. He was essentially a child in an adult's body.

Kenneth Grahame
Kenneth Grahame wanted life always to be like his childhood growing up close to the river in Cookham, Berkshire, where he had first learned to escape the harshness of the real world (his mother died young and Grahame and his siblings were sent to live with their grandmother). He became a bank worker, rising to become Governor of the Bank of England, a respectable and, dare I say, dull post? Was this an act of escape for the man who based the timid Mole upon himself? Despite dramatic and tragic incidents in his life - he survived a shooting incident at the bank and his son committed suicide - Grahame did not seek adventure, forever wanting to inhabit the cosy, safe world of Mr Toad, Ratty and Mole in the Wind in the Willows.

Lewis Carroll
Some authors – Lewis Carroll, Dr Seuss – seek refuge further by hiding behind pseudonyms. For them, does the creation of this extra layer, a protective skin, provide another way of keeping reality at bay?

Dr Seuss – Theodor Seuss Geisel to give him his real name – was certainly very bashful, with a pathological fear of speaking in public. On the rare occasions he did give public addresses, he resorted to reading a comical rhyme – albeit touched by Seussian magic – in place of a speech. There is a short, but very revealing video clip on YouTube of Seuss smiling at, but saying nothing to, an interviewer late in his life in San Diego.

He never lost his childlike playfulness. Many stories abound of his childlike naughtiness, recounted in the excellent book by Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr Seuss and Mr Geisel. One particular favourite of mine was the time he went into a shoe shop and switched all the stickers indicating what size of shoes were on display.

Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a brilliant, reserved and reticent Oxford mathematics don. He was a man with two sides. On one hand he was Dodgson, the quiet, shy, reserved Victorian gentleman bachelor, a genius in his field. On the other he was Carroll, the dazzlingly creative author of Alice in Wonderland, possessed of a quicksilver wit shot through with a bizarre and darkly comic imagination. The pen name Lewis Carroll clearly allowed the mild mannered mathematician and logician from Cheshire to release his wild and childlike side while offering him the ability to return to the quiet, dusty world of academia when it all became a bit too crazy.

Roald Dahl's writing hut
One could never describe Roald Dahl as shy and retiring. He was the opposite - belligerent, opinionated, domineering. Yet he never lost the ability to recall what it was like to be a child and this is evident in what he wrote.

Nevertheless, like these other authors, he had the desire to escape into his writing. How else do you explain his desire each morning to seek refuge in his little whitewashed, yellow-doored shed at the bottom of his garden where he would sit in an old armchair and swaddle himself in an old sleeping bag so that he had created for himself a womb-like workspace?

There are other authors, of course, not all children's writers - here I'm thinking of P G Wodehouse and Charles Schulz - who escaped into their own childlike fantasy worlds.

So, who would you include in the list?