Archive for February, 2012

Drawing A Veil – Writing Right Outside Your Comfort Zone

My new novella,  Drawing a Veil, is about a girl who decides to wear a headscarf to school, and her friends’ and classmates’ reaction to that decision.

I’m fascinated by the idea of choice, and how we deal with the awkward fact that if we support people’s right to make free choices, then we also have to support them when they make a choice we may not agree with.

Writing this book did make me feel uncomfortable at times, and I know it made a few of my feminist friends uncomfortable too.

So is it a good idea to write about something which makes you feel uncomfortable or challenges the comfy assumptions you don’t question often enough?

If I only wrote about decisions which I agreed with, if I only wrote stories which I felt happy and warm and cosy writing, then I probably wouldn’t write anything worth reading. (A lot of Helen’s risk-taking in the First Aid series, for example, makes me VERY nervous as a mum!)

So, even though I’m an atheist, who would never cover any bit of me up to please a god I don’t believe in, I realised that if I want the right NOT to wear a headscarf, then I also have to stand up for other people’s right to wear headscarves if that’s what they want. (And of course, any girl’s, or any woman’s, right not to cover up if she doesn’t want to.)

Also I think there’s an assumption that all girls in veils or scarves are shy, unsure of themselves, hiding themselves. But when I talk to kids in schools about imagination and creativity, I see absolutely no difference in their levels of confidence or self esteem, whatever the girls are wearing on their heads. So I really wanted to write about a girl in a headscarf who stands up for herself, who takes part in an argument, a fight and a chase (because action is what I enjoy writing!)

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about subjects which make me uncomfortable or make me question my own assumptions. In both Wolf Notes and Rocking Horse War, I’ve written about hunting and hunters, even though I’ve been a strict vegetarian since I was 14.  So writing about wolves hunting deer, or girls tracking deer (poor deer are victims in a few of my books!) made me question my own reasons for being vegetarian. When I was researching wolves and how hunting led to their social networks and their intelligence, I seriously considered becoming an omnivore again, because that’s what humans evolved to be.  But after reflection, I decided my reasons for being vegetarian were more than just a long lasting fit of teenage pique, so I am still a proud veggie.

But the point is that I write about characters who believe very different things from me, and I allow those characters and their stories to make me examine my own beliefs.  I think that’s a very good thing. For the characters, for the stories and for me.

And how did spending time with Amina in Drawing a Veil change my comfy assumptions? Writing about this confident girl and her decisions made me realise that a freely taken decision to wear a headscarf can be a positive assertion of identity, rather than a passive adherence to family or religious pressure.

So – what beliefs or assumptions of yours could do with being taken out and examined by stories, characters and tough questions?

Drawing a Veil cover

Archive for February, 2012

Naming Your Newborn Book

I’ve chosen names for two children, and both times it was a lot easier than naming my next novel!

Titles are sometimes very easy to find. Some of my books have arrived in my head with titles almost fully formed.  I had the idea, I thought ‘oh, that could be a book!’ and by the time I’d reached for a notebook to start scribbling the idea down, I already knew what title to put on the cover.

For example, Rocking Horse War and How to Make a Heron Happy were always the titles of those books. I never considered anything else.

And the title First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts arrived very fast too.  Though to be fair, I always expected someone (my mum, my agent, the publisher) to say, ‘don’t be daft, please come up with something shorter!’ But no-one did; everyone seemed to like it.  And it does describe the story pretty well!

However, it did leave me with a bit of a problem, which is that the title of every subsequent book in the series has to have the structure:

Something Something and other Something Somethings.  Whew.

This has posed problems for every book.  Wolf Notes as a title didn’t appear until I was about 2/3 of the way through the book. I knew I wanted ‘wolf’ or ‘fangs’ in the title, but didn’t know what else, until my husband found the phrase ‘wolf notes’, which I loved because it fitted the feel of the book. Though I have to admit that I went back through the story and changed a few bits of the plot to make the title fit perfectly.

Which poses an interesting question: do you write a different story if you already know the title?  Do you write the story to FIT the title? Is it better to wait until the end of the plot-building to come up with a title, so you aren’t pinned down by the title, or is it better to know the title at the start so you can keep the story focussed?  I’m not sure – I’ve done both, and both ways have worked for me with different books. And of course, sometimes a writer will think they know the title of a book, but the editor will disagree, so the title changes at the last minute! (In which case, can the title ever really fit the book?)

Storm Singing was a title I liked right from the start of the writing process, and I agreed it with the editor early on – we even had the tricky second part (And Other Tangled Tasks) sorted too.  So writing the book and that title went hand in hand, which meant the idea of Storm Singing was a vital part of the plot from the start.

But now I’m working on the fourth First Aid book. And this time I wrote the whole plotline with no idea what the title was going to be.  I had a few ideas, but none fitted perfectly, and the ones I liked best my editor didn’t like at all.  So I finished the story, and started to edit it, still with no idea what the title was going to be.  This felt very weird, because I had little signposts in the book to various potential titles, and I didn’t know which were going to stay in and which were going to come out.

Then only two weeks ago, I came across a phrase which was PERFECT! It fitted the story, it even added another layer which I hadn’t anticipated, and it sounded great!  And not only that, my editor likes it too.

So… I can now announce that the title of the fourth and final First Aid for Fairies book is:

Maze Running And Other Magical Missions!

What do you think?  Please let me know…