Wednesday 28 July 2010

Titles, titles.

When she was a little girl, my mother was quite sure she knew how authors decided on the titles for their books. They picked whatever it was in the book that had the least to do with anything in the story - and called it that.

Finding the right title for a book can be pretty well as tortuous and agonising as writing the darned thing in the first place. And you can’t simply please yourself. You have to get your editor and the sales team enthused about it too; and hopefully the booksellers and the reading public. A title is ideally a sort of distillation. In three or four words, six or seven at the most, it must fairly represent your 60,000 - 70,000 word story, distinguish it from all others, and stimulate any passing shelf-browser to pick it up and open the cover.  Ha!  And they say haiku are difficult. Not much to ask, is it? (Of course it’s easy to think up great-sounding titles as long as you don’t have a book to attach to them. If I ever write an autobiography, I might call it ‘When All Is Said And Done’. Except I never intend to write an autobiography. And maybe it’s not a good title, after all. It sounds a tad depressing.)

When Lewis Carroll decided to rename ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, the new version: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ was undoubtedly an improvement, but common use has shortened it to the even snappier ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Why didn’t he think of that? And what’s the betting that the sequel: ‘Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Found There’ would nowadays have to be ‘Alice in Mirrorland’?

The Alice titles belong to an old tradition of ‘descriptive’ titles: they tell you what’s inside the pack. George Macdonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblins’ is another example: it tells you straight out what to expect. The ‘Harry Potter’ titles belong loosely to this tradition. Then there are ‘evocative’ titles: Macdonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’; Eric Linklater’s ‘The Wind on the Moon’; ‘A Dark Horn Blowing’ by Dahlov Ipcar – a certain sort of reader will be attracted to these at once. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is another. Kenneth Grahame surely means, ‘Listen! Listen to the voice of the wind breathing through the willows. How it whispers! Do you hear what it says…?’ A lovely fin-de-siècle concept.  He would never get away with it today. The book would be called ‘Toad of Toad Hall’, for sure. Modern editing would focus on the comic elements: Toad and his motor cars: and what has the wind in the willows to say about Toad? Too vague, too romantic, too poetic.  The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the terror in the Wild Wood – I suspect Mr Grahame would be receiving emails gently suggesting cutting these passages as over-literary, uncommercial, unsuitable and likely to put children off.      

A third variety is the ‘teaser’ title: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – how on earth, we are meant to wonder, can such wildly different ingredients fit into the same story? ‘What Katy Did’: what did Katy do? And a fourth variety is the heavily stressed, punchy, one or two-syllable title beloved of thriller writers like Dick Francis: ‘Whip Hand’; ‘Bolt’; ‘Slay Ride’.

My first book was called ‘Troll Fell’ because most of the action happens on or under a mountain of that name. It felt a good, strong title, and my publishers liked it. And the sequel, ‘Troll Mill’, was easy to name as the plot turned on supernatural activity in an old watermill on the flanks of the same mountain.

The third book in the series gave more trouble. For a long time the working title was ‘West of the Moon’, an allusion to an old Norse fairytale in which the hero sails across the sea, ‘west of the moon and east of the sun’ to a magical place called Soria Moria Castle. Some of the characters in my story alluded to the tale, and it was a sort of metaphor for the theme of sailing across the Atlantic in search of the distant land the Vikings called Vinland. On the other hand, and this was important, 'West of the Moon' was not an obvious follow-on from the first two books in the series. To fit with those, I needed a two word title, with ‘Troll’ as the first word. But I couldn’t think of one.

I’d been having trouble getting to grips with one of my characters, too. I wanted a female companion to my strong-minded heroine Hilde. I knew her name was Astrid, but couldn’t decide who she was. Older than Hilde, but not that much older… Shy? That didn’t seem right. I was fiddling about with ideas and then, as characters sometimes do, she came to life, turned to me with a secret smile and whispered, “There’s troll blood in me!” I felt the authentic shiver you get when something is right. All at once I knew just who Astrid was – bitter, witchy, flirty, sad. She’s the most complex character in the book, and she gave me the title too: ‘Troll Blood’.

My most recent book is set in the Welsh Marches at the time of Richard Lionheart, and includes many supernatural and folkloric elements. While I was writing it, for the best part of two years I thought of it as ‘Devil’s Edge’ – the name of another fictional hill. But my British publishers thought that sounded too much like horror, and we had to find something else. It took ages. The Black Hunt? Underworld? Wolf’s Castle? Elfgift? In the end we agreed on ‘Dark Angels’, which I wasn’t totally sure about, but which is strong and mysterious, and in conjunction with the cover projects the right sort of feel for the story. The dark angels in question are not really angels at all, but elves. In the Middle Ages, one theory for the origin of the elves was that some of the angels who fell with Lucifer were not wicked enough for hell, and found hiding places in this world. (However, another medieval theory which was much more important for me was that the elves were lost and abandoned children of Eve.) When the book came to be published in the US, however, ‘Dark Angels’ did not suit, and we had to start all over again thinking up alternative titles. ‘The Shadow Hunt’ won, and in some ways is a better match to the book.

Finding the right title can be really, really frustrating – a cross between naming your child and solving a fiendishly hard crossword puzzle. But I wonder how much do titles really affect the success or otherwise of a book? Do we attach too much importance to them?  I don't know.  I would never have picked up 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' if a friend whose judgement I trusted hadn't strongly recommended it - simply because I didn't like the title.  Philip Pullman's 'The Golden Compass' was published in Britain as 'Northern Lights', a comparatively characterless title which doesn't chime with the 'Subtle Knife' and 'Amber Spyglass' to follow.  The alethiometer surely is the heart of that first book.  Somehow or other, however, the first round of edits missed coming up with it as a title.  A case of not being able to see the obvious?  And I wonder when and where the series first took off - here, or in the US?

But now I too have a chance to find out how renaming a book can work.  Next spring, my three ‘Troll’ books will be published in one volume, and, following the example of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with its overarching title and three differently-subtitled parts, my editors and I have been trying to think up a good overall title for the three-in-one. Much agonising and head-scratching and chin-pulling has been gone on, but we think at last we’ve finally found it.  We've gone back to my old working title for part three: ‘West of the Moon’.  Fingers crossed!

Monday 19 July 2010

On Making

In Chaucer’s time, the word for a poet or author was ‘a maker’ - as witness the Scots poet William Dunbar’s luminous ‘Lament for the Makers’, in which he lists poet after poet taken by ‘the strong unmerciful tyrant’, death:

‘He has done piteouslie devour
The noble Chaucer, of makers flower;
The Monk of Bery, and Gower all three:
Timor mortis conturbat me.’

(In fact, damn it, go and read the poem first, and come back and read this after you’ve done.)

‘Maker’: I’ve always liked it. It’s less high-falutin’ than ‘author’ or ‘poet’: it links us inextricably – as we ought to be linked – with every other sort of human creativity. People make furniture. They make paintings, musical instruments and gardens. They make brain scanners, television programmes and films. They make homes. They make love – which as Ursula K Le Guin once wrote in the ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (go and read that too), ‘doesn’t just sit there like a stone; it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.’ None of these things (furniture, gardens, brain scanners etc) just happen. You can’t make anything worth having without a lot of effort. I should know, because I spent days this summer digging bindweed roots (thick, white, snappy coiling things) out of the rosebed.  And last year I had to do exactly the same thing.  But if I didn't, the garden would disappear under the weeds, and a garden is a lovesome thing, God wot. 

My brother and I were part of the 'Blue Peter' generation (for North American readers, 'Blue Peter' was and is a much-loved and long-running children's TV show, showcasing an idiosyncratic mixture of outdoor adventure, topical interest, pets, cookery and model-making).  My brother was fantastic at making things out of Squeezy bottles and cornflakes packets. He went on to construct balsa wood planes that really flew, and can now turn his hand to just about anything, including boats, house extensions, and beautiful, glossy musical instruments like this mandola. He’s also an accomplished folk musician who can compose his own tunes.

Me, I tried. I longed to own a model sailing ship, so I made my own very ugly one out of balsa wood, and painted it yellow. It had so many holes in the hull, it would have sunk like a stone, but I made it and loved it till it was squashed flat in a house removal. I wanted to own an exquisite piece of Chinese embroidery I’d seen, smothered in birds and flowers – so I got a bit of frayed blue satin and laboriously stitched away at a puckered, lumpy, clumsy bird.

I wanted a miniature Chinese garden like one I’d read about in a book – so I borrowed a tray and arranged gravel and stones and moss around a tin lid (for the pool) and stood some china ornaments around it till the moss dried and the tray got knocked over. Oh, and I wanted an eighth Narnia book, so I got an old blue notebook and wrote my own. (You can see it here if you like.) And though none of the things I made may have been any good (by some ultimate critical standard), it was the making of them that counted.

While I was still at school, teachers and other random adults would sometimes remind us that 'it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game'.  It did matter if we won or lost (and those same adults secretly thought so, and we knew it) so we didn't pay too much attention.  Still, the moral was well meant.  For winning or losing is pointless unless you already care about the game. I was no good at sports, didn't enjoy the game, and therefore neither cared nor tried: but sometimes now, if I'm talking to children in schools about writing, I tell them it's very much like practising a sport.  You can have talent and do nothing with it.  Or you can have talent and enjoy writing as a hobby.  Or you can have talent, and practise regularly, and study technique, and with a bit of luck thrown in you may become a professional.  Even in today's celebrity culture, children readily understand that you don't get to play for Manchester United, or in the Men's or Women's Finals at Wimbledon, without putting in a lot of hard work.  (Maybe that's why sportsmen and women are so revered.)  But it's all right to do things as well as you can.  We should let ourselves off sometimes.  Children (and adults) need to remember that it's all right not to play football as well as David Beckham.  We have the right to enjoy doing things at our own level.

For me, the writing is what has lasted.  I'm never likely to become an embroiderer or woodcarver.  But it’s all making, and any child who hammers a nail in straight, paints a picture or bakes brownies knows how good it feels. 

Here’s a poem by Robert Bridges which I learned by heart when I was about nine. It says, so beautifully, exactly what I feel.

I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them.
God hath no better praise,
And Man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.

I too will something make,
And joy in the making,
Although tomorrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream,
Remembered on waking.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Skipping and clapping games


A week or so ago I was in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting, ‘Easy peazy lemon squeezy, easy peazy lemon squeezy!’

I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhymes and rhythms and word-play. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets. You’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?

Here’s a skipping or clapping rhyme my children used to chant at school. I'll show the stresses in the first few lines, but it would be a bit much to do the whole thing. Come down heavily on the italicized words and you'll get it:

My mother, your mother, lives across the street.
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,

Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, which is also a clapping game, runs:

I went to the Chinese chip-shop
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –

I suppose every junior school in the country has a version: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' - but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as texts, or makes children learn them. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.

Long time ago, when I was at school, poetry anthologies for children included a lot of 'serious' poetry.  In fact, we were expected to learn lots of it by heart - which incidentally is great for training the memory.  I loved doing it, and got my own daughters to do the same when they too were little, by the simple expedient of pinning a poem to the fridge each Monday and - no compulsion - offering them a dollar (we were living in the US at the time) if they could repeat it by Friday. I have nothing but admiration for Shel Silverstein, and the many other modern poets (like our own Michael Rosen) who write poetry specifically for children: all the same, it seems a shame that kids don't still get some of the oldies we were treated to. (Or do they?)  I'm talking about stuff like:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold:
And the sheen of his spears was like stars on the sea
Where the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee...

...which, believe you me, if you chant it sufficiently loud, will send shivers running right down your spine.  This was a huge success with me and my friends aged about eleven.  As was:

I'm a mad dog, a bad dog, a wild dog and lone,
I'm a rough dog, a tough dog, hunting on my own...


The splendour falls on castle walls
And windy turrets old in story...


It may be that the gulfs will wash us down.
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew...

For children really can love the rhythms and richness of poetry - if they get to hear it young enough.  Keats once said, ‘If poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it had better not come at all,' and to children, rhythm does come naturally.  I don’t believe there’s any essential difference between the contrapuntal patter of playground clapping games and the sonorous rhythms of:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should rave and rage at close of day.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light –

which I once declaimed theatrically in the living room to my ten year old nephew. He looked up startled.

“Wow!” he said.


Photo credit:

Sunday 4 July 2010

Other Worlds (3) Why write fantasy?

My first of these three posts (a trilogy of posts does seem to be the right number for talking about fantasy worlds...) discussed the three classic fantasy worlds I grew up reading and loving: Narnia, Middle Earth and Earthsea.  My second, last week, talked about a variety of more recent fictional worlds.  In this post I’m going to ask the simple question: why?  What’s it all about?  Why bother to invent a world, anyway? And are all fantasies equal, or are some more equal than others?
Until recently I never thought I would, myself, go to the trouble of creating a world. Though I write fantasy, all my books so far have been set in a version of our own world.  I’ve described the three Troll books as a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, and my latest, ‘Dark Angels’/‘The Shadow Hunt’ is set on the England-Wales border in the late 12th century: true as I could make it to the historical conditions, but including a menagerie of supernatural creatures that really were believed in by people of that time – trolls, elves, ghosts, water spirits.  My books are not so much an alternative Britain and Scandinavia (like Joan Aiken’s alternative 19th century England) as the real Britain and Scandinavia, plus.  I wanted to use some of the many wonderful folk beliefs lying about the world.  Folk legends spring from particular places, particular landscapes, and there was little point in inventing an imaginary country to put them all in.  Now, however, on the brink of building my own fantasy world, it seems worth while to stop and consider the reasons why.
For aren’t fantasy worlds merely the fictional equivalent of theme parks?  Places where you can go to see the dragons?  Easy options on the writers?  All you need is a few mountains – let’s call them the Eversnow Range; a deep and dark forest – Dimhurst, perhaps, or Tanglewood; a city on a hill – Goldthrone, or Valiance – oh, and a river to join them all together – and you’re away.  You people the place with a pseudo-medieval society operating on feudal principals, with peasants, thieves, soldiers, lords and a king – shake in supernatural creatures of your choice, and stir. 
Unfair?  Yes, terribly; and no, not at all.  This is the generic world Diana Wynne Jones christened Fantasyland.  And if any of you have missed out on her brilliantly witty and razor-sharp book mapping out the many, many clichés of fantasy – why, for example, the place is infested with leathery-winged avians, why visits to taverns nearly always involve brawls, and why so much stew is consumed – you need to read it.  It’s called ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’: strap on your sword, pull on your boots and don that cloak: your quest is to go out and find it – now.  (At the very least, if you are a writer, it will encourage you to provide your characters with a more varied diet.)  
I’m thinking aloud here.  A fantasy world can have some or all of these components and be brilliant – or it may be really stale and clichéd.  These things by themselves are not what fantasy is really all about.  They are only the trappings of fantasy, and often pretty threadbare too. 
Why can’t a fantasy world involve a more modern society?  Why should swords be considered more picturesque than guns, when both are designed for killing people?  If ‘picturesque’ is really all we are aiming for, we have no business writing fantasy at all. The medievalism of most modern fantasy worlds is due to the influence of Lewis and Tolkien – both medieval scholars, both steeped in the worlds of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and the Norse mythologies – heavily filtered through  late Victorian romanticism. (Of course they could both read the Eddas in the original, but we know of  Lewis in particular that he met the Norse legends as a boy, probably from a book looking something like the one pictured above - wonderful, isn't it?...) And the Morte D’Arthur and the Faerie Queene are themselves exercises in nostalgia and romantic yearning for a golden age of chivalry that never was.  Malory was writing at a time of fierce civil war in England – the Wars of the Roses – and there’s a picturesque name for a nasty conflict. Arthur unifies Britain, then things fall apart: treachery overtakes the Round Table: Arthur dies.
Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he will come again, and he shall win the holy cross.  I will not say that it shall be so, but rather I will say, here in this world he changed his life.  But many men say that there is written upon his tomb this verse: HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.
 This must have been cathartic stuff, back in the bloodstained fifteenth century.  It still is!  And then Edmund Spenser was as much engaged in national myth building as telling a story: Queen Elizabeth I as Gloriana: Tudor England as a European power.   And Wagner’s Ring cycle was part of 19th century German nationalism...  Smaug owes so much to Fafnir.
I really have nothing against medievalism in fantasy per se: I loved and love Malory, Tolkien, Lewis, the Eddas, The Faerie Queene, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, the Narnia stories, almost anything by Robin McKinley, and so on and on.  But these are stories, these are writers, who have something to say: something they throw their hearts into, something worth listening to even if in the end we don’t agree: because it’s sincere.  Medievalism by itself is not enough. 
There are plenty of badly written, badly conceived fantasy novels – as in other areas of fiction – which give the genre a reputation for puerility, superficiality, escapism, schlock.  The ingredients are the sword and sorcery clichés: blond warriors with bulging muscles and magical swords, scantily clad nubile princesses, evil dark lords, bald executioners, bold thieves, dull politics involving emperors and rebel lords, battles to save the universe or at least the world, yawn, yawn… together with a giveaway coarseness of imagination, a lack of subtlety and moral depth: a readiness to assume that one side is right and the other wrong regardless of how they actually behave.  Thus in certain fantasies, ‘heroes’ can perform feats of sadistic violence which readers are invited to admire – so long as the victims are labelled evil.
It may seem harmless, but I find this type of fantasy with its warped values especially disturbing when aimed at children and young adults, and it seems to me that the fantasy setting is used as an excuse.  “It’s not real,” we might imagine the author and publisher arguing: “it’s just a fantasy!”  The same kind of thinking takes children to visit the London Dungeon, a tourist attraction which makes entertainment out of ancient instruments of torture.  Because it seems ‘old fashioned’ and long ago, it’s somehow not real.  The owners wouldn’t dream of getting busloads of schoolkids lining up to see tableaux of waterboarding or electric wires being attached to the genitals – but thumbscrews and racks are all right, apparently.  Because no one really believes. No one uses their imagination sufficiently to understand that these things aren’t quaintly historical, but instruments of appalling cruelty. 
So when shouldn’t we write about fantasy worlds?  Well, I don’t think we should be writing fantasy as fancy-dress, or to colour our fiction with a few dragons and warlords, or because we fancy a hero with a sword.  We shouldn’t be writing it, either, because it maybe looks an easier proposition that researching a genuine historical period and finding out what people’s real fears, ambitions and problems might have been.  Nor should we be writing fantasy if, by placing our heroine Rose and our hero Jack in a cottage in a village in a wood, with a barely realised outer world, all we are really doing is cutting down on our list of characters and making sure we don’t have to consider anything much beyond a couple of miles radius.
And when should we be writing fantasy?  When that is the way the truth shows us it wants to appear.  When, as in poetry, there is no better way of saying what needs to be said.  When with all our heart and soul we see that a story needs dragons, that is when the dragon will appear in his real fiery glory: not as a tired plot device and something for the hero to slay, but a symbol of something enormous – destruction, perhaps, or greed, or terror, or beauty, or ancient knowledge, or even – as in Chinese legend, of good fortune, harmony, the Tao.  And – for whatever purpose the dragon appears – we will apprehend it in a more vivid, more complete way than we ever could without him.  This is what symbols are for: not to be reduced to their meanings, but to enhance meanings, and to make us understand the world more fully and to see it anew.  And this, to my mind, is what fantasy is for, too.