I love the creative freedom independent publishing gives me. Here’s one of my micro stories. I hope you like it!
First posted on my author blog.
The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.
But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.
The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?
Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?
Who doesn’t love fairy tales? From that lyrical “Once upon a time”, which tells us we’re entering another realm, to the “Happily ever after”, which we all seek, children and adults alike. Of course there are fairy tales with unhappy endings, too – but you won’t see many of those on Disney.
Sara Graça da Silva, a social scientist/folklorist with New University of Lisbon, and Jamshid Tehrani, an anthropologist with Durham University, have conducted a phylogenetic analysis of common fairy tales, using a technique that traces linguistic attributes back to their origins. The origins appear to be much older than modern linguists and anthropologists believed.
The part of the report that caught my attention was: “they started with 275 fairy tales, each rooted in magic, and whittled them down to 76 basic stories…”
Each rooted in magic. I loved that. I don’t know about you, but I find all creative writing to be rooted in magic. That doesn’t mean it has to be about spells and fantasy. All sorts of magic can be yielded by a blank page and a quiet afternoon – though maybe not so quiet if you count the barking dogs, beeping mobile and husband yelling, “I said dinner’s ready!”
I’ve found that, like in so many fairy tales, what we end up with in our own writing is not what we started with, after all the editing and changing and rewriting is done. But, hopefully, we retain the core of the story we’re trying to tell. That’s where the magic is.
Physics teaches us that a pure element cannot be destroyed. I think fairy tales are literary creativity in its purest form and no matter how we rewrite them, edit them, disinfect or Disneyfy them, they will endure. The core remains. Stripped to its core element, the fairy tale is pure story.
Here’s how one core element changed over the centuries: Cinderella started life as Yeh-hsien, believed to have been written down by Tuan Ch’eng-shih in mid 9th century China. In the original version there was no fairy godmother; a magic fish helped Cinders. In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s version, a hazel tree helped her, the ugly sisters cut off their toes and heels so their feet would fit the shoe, and their eyes were pecked out by doves. Can you imagine the collective fits of apoplexy at a Disney editorial meeting if they read that story board? I’d love to see it. 🙂
Yeh-hsien went on to be called Zezolla by Giambattista Basile in 17th century Naples, then Cerentola. Joseph Jacobs called her the Cinder Maid. Charles Perrault (end of 17th century) introduced the fairy godmother and the pumpkins and mice… And what story do you think the film Pretty Woman depicts? Same core, different clothes.
If Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid Tehrani are right and fairy tales are more ancient than we thought (Wilhem Grimm also believed this), then these core stories are even more embedded in our psyches than we thought. Which is great news for all story tellers.
Fairy tales teach us much more than the ultimately unchanging human condition – they hold good lessons for writers too: keep structure and plot simple. Remember, “character is destiny”, and be aware that rhyme, rhythm and poetic sentence structure are important. Symbolism is universal. The words “once”, “long ago”, “far away” and “for ever and ever” can give us instant access to the reader’s unconscious, especially children.
I’m delighted that, as a storyteller, I’m carrying on an ancient tradition and, yes, I believe it is rooted in magic. As writers, we can take these cores and dress them in whatever finery we choose. And that feels magical, too.
Pictures courtesy of pixabay.com
I’ve returned from an exhilarating weekend of stories at the international Storytelling Festival Beyond the Border, St Donat’s, South Wales. Listening to oral stories is, for me, important and enriching and makes a fine change from the written word. Some of my highlights at this year’s festival were:
Ben Haggarty keeping his audience spellbound on Sunday morning in an open- air cliff top setting. He dressed all in black and told tales of the devil, very well suited to his commanding tone and presence.
On Saturday, luscious Italian Paola Balbi wore red, her rich voice and swaying hips adding colour to her stories of medieval naughtiness. Beowulf, from The Telling Theatre of Denmark was part-theatre, part-telling: spare, virile and unmistakably Scandinavian. Eerie percussion accompanied Grendel’s passage amongst the trees, through the squelching bog, into the feasting hall and the Danish tellers Andersen and Ejsing used their words with all the precision of a singing sword.
I chatted with Dorset storyteller Martin Maudsley about sharing stories and how a storyteller can take ownership of a traditional tale. They craft and embellish it until, by twists and turns, it becomes something new and exciting, unmistakably their own, in much the same way as a writer strives to find their ‘voice’ on the page. The resulting performance/creative piece has an honesty and truthfulness which audiences can’t help but respond to. All in all, the message is: be yourself, write from the heart and find a voice that’s truly your own (we knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always good to be reminded).
The importance of authenticity was also flagged up by Melvin Burgess in the talk he gave to MA students and tutors at Bath Spa University this summer. He spoke about his process of interviewing ‘real people’ as part of his research for novels such as Junk, Nicholas Dane and Kill All Enemies. Many of the characters in these books are so powerful because the author has taken time to understand the people behind the stories, and the bittersweet voices of Gemma, Tar and Billy are some of the most authentic I’ve read.
If you’re setting out to make a Victoria sponge for the first time it’s wise to follow a recipe; one egg too few or a laudable aim of cutting down on the sugar spells disaster. A writer, on the other hand, might shy away from following advice. Writing is, after all, an intuitive, creative, complex and highly personal activity and the notion of looking at a website that calls itself Ten Ridiculously Simple Tips For Writing A Book might seem an affront to that idea. Certainly the advice to Get a notebook and Put your thinking cap on (the latter accompanied by a really clunky graphic of a guy tapping his teeth with a pencil) is probably a bit too obvious. Some sources of wisdom seem over keen to use the words don’t and never. Call me stubborn but when someone says Don’t anthropomorphise animals I might just give it a go. (And of course everyone can think of wonderful examples of talking animals!) Even Wikihow can help the aspiring writer for children age 5-7: Use bigger words but be careful to explain them so as not to frustrate new readers. But Beatrix Potter’s famous example of a sophisticated word for younger readers surely needed no explanation when she wrote of the Flopsy Bunnies: They did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.
Persevere, though, and you can mine a rich seam of wisdom in a really worthwhile site called Brainpickings, which explores the more philosophical aspects of writing and is packed with fascinating insights of a less prescriptive kind. There are various schools of thought about the rightness of always bearing your target audience in mind. As a writer who has always struggled with the question Who is your story for? Maurice Sendak offers reassurance here. He says he doesn’t write for children; he writes, and then someone says That’s for children! CS Lewis (on the same website) is vitriolic about the tendency of some adults to downgrade children’s literature and to treat adulthood as a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down. This is music to the ears of someone who occasionally finds being an adult tiresome!
Slightly more contemporary advice comes from a book simply called Write, published by Guardian Books. I can forgive the lists of Dos and Don’ts because the contributors are so entertaining. This from Roddy Doyle: Do keep a Thesaurus, but in the shed…or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg: horse, ran, said. Stephen King was in a similar groove when he told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and Mark Twain was famously sorry for having written a long letter because he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Margaret Attwood assumes we’re several steps further along the path to becoming a serious writer when she gives us advice about travelling: Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
If you read enough of this kind of stuff you could be left with the impression that the whole world is waiting to tell you how to write, how not to write, what to write about, how long to spend at it, what to eat, what music to listen to (Schubert, according to Colm Toibin), what to do for inspiration (make a pie!). I reckon that if you think about something too much you become frozen with terror and therefore the only advice that I’m prepared to take seriously is this: just get on with it. After I’ve sorted my sock drawer and e-mailed the Council about the house where the rubbish is never ever left out at the right time. Now, I wonder who lives there?
Julia Draper -Author of The Paupers of Langden
Don’t you just love mavericks?
Stephen Heyman writes on slate.com about how Waterstones’ fortunes changed for the better when Alexander Mamut, described by one broadsheet as: “The most powerful Oligarch you have never heard of”, bought Waterstone’s (when it had the apostrophe, but no profit) and put James Daunt in charge.
Daunt was already a very successful businessman. He founded Daunt Books in Marleybone High Street in 1990 when he was just 26, and ended up running six independent book stores across London, all of which remained profitable even in difficult market conditions. The first thing Daunt did as Managing Director of Waterstones – apart from getting rid of the apostrophe – was to tear up the existing business plan for the failing book store and implement his own, rather unconventional, ideas.
He took power away from publishers and gave it back to the book sellers, promoting what he believed would sell rather than what the publishers wanted to advertise. All those “Best Seller” spots in the window of big book stores didn’t actually mean the books were best sellers. The publishers paid for those spots.
The great thing about Daunt, in my opinion, is that he’s not an accountant, a marketing executive or a PR man. He trusts the book lovers he works with. One thing he said made me laugh out loud: when he discussed his individual marketing plan and how he wanted to shake up the business he loved, he knew publishers would not be happy with his decision to cut their advertising space in his stores. “But,” he said, “we had the advantage of being bankrupt…” Talk about turning a negative into a positive!
He also gave each Waterstones almost complete autonomy over how to arrange their merchandise. So, no more homogeneity, where Waterstones in Glasgow looked exactly the same as the one in Chiswick. Each Waterstones looks different, individual, inviting. The one thing they all have in common is good books, tailored to individual local areas.
What has this got to do with writing and publishing? Everything. Rules are great when they work, and lethal when they don’t. Sometimes we’re so used to following old rules and procedures we don’t realise they’re so past their sell-by date they’re doing more harm than good. Many publishers have been following restrictive rules for a long time: pay lots of money for advertising space in shop windows (take it out of authors’ earnings) … tick. Avoid risks … tick. Ooops, not making so much money – cut authors’ earnings a bit more … tick. Watch the rise of independent author publishers…
I love that as independent publishers we are the mavericks of the publishing world. We’ve stopped trying to second guess anyone, least of all fickle publishers, and write what we want to write. We make it the best we can. Yes, we follow the rules of editing, punctuation and good grammar. Yes, of course we’re aware of the market, but we don’t let it tyrannise us. We don’t jump on band wagons for the sake of a quick buck – we don’t let the bottom line dictate what we write. Where’s the joy in that?
We can’t all be the kind of maverick James Daunt is. But we can learn from him. If you make any resolutions for 2016, make them be to trust yourself, ignore the “rules”, and write from your heart.