Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Children's Books That Failed to Sell #3

Bob the Builder and the VAT Fraud

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Adventures In The Cave – The Next Generation

I had a lovely weekend in Derbyshire with my girlfriend. We packed a lot in, enjoying all the things that are different to London. So much so, in fact, that it wasn’t until we were halfway round one famous attraction that, with a massive déjà vu-like rush, I realised exactly where I was.

I was in a cave.

I was having an adventure in a cave.

I rarely visit caves. I have only ever been to two or three previously in my whole life – an average of perhaps once a decade. So what were the chances of me finding myself in one so soon after having transcribed and analysed the whole of Adventures In The Cave? It can’t be discounted that the prominence of the story in my mind meant that I had made a subconscious choice of which tourist attraction to visit, but the joyous surprise I felt at the sudden revelation made it feel that life had some kind of meaning.

I nearly laughed out loud at that moment – the guide certainly gave me a funny look as he was pointing out some fossils, and I was in a good mood for the rest of the day. I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again.

In tribute, here is my adventure:

Salvadore and his girlfriend lived together. One Saturday, Salvadore’s girlfriend said “We’ve come all this way, let’s go out somewhere.” So they went.

At the cave Salvadore couldn’t find the way in. He picked up a sharp rock, but then the guide opened the door. So they went in.

“Wwwwhat is ththat” said Salvadore’s girlfriend, questioningly. “It can’t be a gosht” said Salvadore, doubtfully. “It’s a rock that looks a bit like an elephant” said the guide, in an explaining way. “Hi here’s a kind of ladder” said Salvadore. So they went up the kind of ladder.

“That’s a Tyranosawas Rex OK” said Salvadore. “That’s what’ll” said Salvadore’s girlfriend. “Tyranosawas Rex” said Salvadore. “This is a fossil of a brachiopod – a kind of shellfish” said the guide. “That’s what I meant” said Salvadore.

“This must be the way out” said Salvadore, pointing at a door that had not vanished.

“Yes, that’s the way out” said the guide.

So they went back to the hotel.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Adventures In The Cave - Part 6

In the final part of this serialisation we will look at the book’s illustrations. Firstly, the inside front cover:

Adventures In The Cave

There is nice attention to detail here with Susan wearing the white knee socks that were fashionable in the 70s, and in her carrying the item that is first on the equipment list of any potholing expedition: a handbag. But my main observation is that if you are writing some kind of action-adventure thriller, the climax of which is the unexpected and shocking appearance of a long-dead monstrous creature, don’t put a picture of it on the inside front cover. It is like starting The Crying Game with the caption “Oh, by the way: she’s a bloke”.

Now let’s look at the inside back cover:

Adventures In The Cave

Again, nice crayoning, but it does rather support my view that Steve and Ian are somewhat indistinguishable. Not sure about the lesser known combination of brown trousers and blue shoes, but their black leather jackets look ace.

Finally, the back cover:

Adventures In The Cave

I have no idea why I drew this. It could be some kind of attempt at a publisher’s logo. Unless this is the gosht...

Monday, February 12, 2007

Adventures In The Cave - Part 5

Previously on Adventures In The Cave: Steve, Ian and Susan heard a gosht, had an argument about proceeding and went up a kind of ladder.

Adventures In The Cave
Adventures In The Cave

The trap door closed. “Ha Ha” said a vocie. “HELP” cried Sue. “Thats Tyranosawas Rex O.K” said Steve. “That’s what’ll” said Sue. “Tyranosawas Rex” said Ian. “Hi here’s a trap door” said Sue. “It must be the way out” said Steve. “Oh dear they’ve discovered the way out” said a voice. “Here we go” said Ian. So they went down the trap door.
The End

OK, you were only six years old, but I have to say it: this is rubbish.

You seem to jump genres from supernatural horror (the gosht) to thriller (a human who has set traps and laughs at them) to sci-fi action (a dinosaur recreated in the modern world). Did you plan this at all before you started writing?

We should now be in the most perilous part of the story, with the stakes raised to their highest point, but your protagonists’ reaction to seeing a ferocious flesh-eating monster that should have been extinct for millions of years doesn’t really convey this. Steve says “That’s a Tyranosawas Rex OK” in the same it’s-a-bit-annoying-but-let’s-keep-cheerful way that one might say “That’s a flat tyre OK”.

You have set up an antagonist who can make doors vanish, who has created an intricate underground system of trap doors and kind of ladders, who has brought to life a long-dead reptile from the Cretaceous Period (note to self: check primary school’s Friends Reunited entries for M Crichton), and his reaction to his prey escaping is “Oh dear they’ve discovered the way out”? That’s it? Hasn’t he got anything else to throw at them? To have gone to all this trouble to ensnare children for presumably the sole purpose of seeing them be eaten alive suggests some major psychological issues, unlikely to be resolved with a breezy “Oh dear”. I can’t imagine Darth Vader saying, “Oh dear they’ve blown up the Death Star”.

A major question is left unresolved: Who is the antagonist and why does he want to do this? Picnic at Hanging Rock may have preserved its mystery intact, but this story is crying out for a scene where the meddling kids find out whose voice it is. The only other character mentioned is Mum – is she behind all this? Was this all to stop them pestering her to get the sleeping bags out of the loft again?

Antagonists should be scary. Alas, yours has fallen for every Bond villain’s fatal mistake of giving the hero a chance to escape, though in this case the cave system, obviously designed to trap people with a dinosaur, had an Achilles’ heel in the form of a clearly-labelled exit. Did he or she perhaps want to be caught?

I’m fairly sure that I can spot the exact moment at which your teacher said that the lesson was nearly over. Sadly this moment coincided with the exact moment when you realised that your protagonists were trapped underground with a carnivorous reptile, but no obvious means of escape. So before you can say “deus ex machina”, they find another trap door – both problems solved. This must have been the most disappointing third act ever till Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings movie ran out of money at the end of The Two Towers.

There is some expressive use of language in using CAPITAL LETTERS FOR SHOUTING, along with “That’s what’ll”. And it is a welcome reversal on the previous stereotyping that it is Susan who finds the trap door, even if it is Steve who works out where it goes. But it is perhaps in keeping with your newly acquired literary style that the last sentence is another “So they went...”

Next time: We take a look at the artwork that accompanies the book. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, but what if one of those words is 'gosht'?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bathmatwatch: The Return of the King


Look! Look! Look! Look! Look!!!

As if life isn't exciting enough already what with all the adventures going on in the cave, I have just been to the shop, along the route that in happier times would have taken me past the bath mat, and, despite nearly all the snow around here having melted, I saw a suspiciously large pile of snow right where the bath mat used to be!!! You can look back at Day 1 for proof - the bath mat spent its first weeks on the paving slab in the top right of this new picture.

Closer inspection revealed a carrot - the snow used to be a snowman! (It is a reflection on both the era and area in which I live that instead of lumps of coal for the eyes, grapes have been used.) But why would someone build a snowman on a narrow pavement? They are usually built in gardens or parks - there is a front garden immediately behind the wall and I have seen lots built around here in the past couple of days. But none on pavements. In fact, I am sure that I have never ever seen a snowman on a pavement, not even in the proper winters we used to have years ago when I had to walk through miles of snowdrifts to school, which makes it all the more amazing that one would be built right here.

The only explanation is that the spirit of the bath mat lives on in this spot, and given the first opportunity it had, it expressed itself in the physical world. Alas, the medium of snow is only temporary, and I clearly missed it in its full glory, but in this crazy mixed-up world it's good to know that an old friend is still around.

CarrotAndGrapesWatch, anybody?

Adventures In The Cave - Part 4

Previously on Adventures In The Cave: The door that used to be in the cave had mysteriously vanished, so Steve, Ian and Susan threw some sharp rocks to break a doorway.

Adventures In The Cave
Adventures In The Cave

“That’s done it” said Ian. “Wwwwhat was ththat” said Sue. “It can’t be a gosht” said Steve. “It it is” said Ian. “I don’t like it at all” said Sue. “Don’t be a baby” said Steve. “I am not” said Sue crossly. “Let’s explore” said Ian eagerly. “Why not” said Steve. “I’m not going” said Sue. “You would’nt” “I’m not going and thats that so there” said Sue folding her arm’s. “We’ll leave you” said Steve. “All right then” said Sue. “Come on” said the boys. “I’m coming” said Sue. “Please do’nt dawdle” said Ian. “Here’s a kind of ladder” said Steve. “Why do'nt we climb it” said Ian. “Come on then” said Steve. So they went.

Your use of quotation marks is impressive, but I have to say that these two pages are somewhat dialogue heavy. In fact, you are telling the whole story through dialogue – not something that is recommended. You try to enrich this with modifiers such as crossly and eagerly, but as Stephen King warns in On Writing, the road to hell is paved with adverbs. The foregoing prose should tell us how an action is done – is there another way to respond to being called a baby, or to want to go exploring? At least your young mind has not yet been corrupted by passive verbs.

There is good conflict between the characters though, albeit somewhat stereotyped, with the boys teasing the girl for being scared. And some of the dialogue has inventive features, such as “Wwwwhat was ththat”, showing influence from undoubted masters of the style such as Scooby-Doo.

Horror and fantasy authors time immemorial have created fictional creatures – from orcs to zombies to hippogriffs we have been transfixed by these beasts. Your gosht is an intriguing addition to this canon, though I have absolutely no idea what one could be. It is true that the scariest things are always in our imagination, but a few pointers as to how we should imagine a gosht, and why the characters might be scared of one, would be welcome.

Looking at the crossings out in your original manuscript it seems to be very important that it is Steve and not Ian who says “Don’t be a baby”, and that it is Ian and not Steve who says “Please don’t dawdle”. To be honest, I can’t tell the difference between these characters. The only hint that Steve might be older is that his name comes first in the opening sentence – apart from that they are indistinguishable. In situations such as this I would suggest merging them to make a composite character, combining their personalities to make a protagonist who is capable of both throwing sharp rocks and recognising things that are like ladders. These kind of multi-faceted characters really come to life and leap off the page.

The good news is that you end this section with a sentence that is not dialogue. The bad news is that this sentence is another "So they went".

Next time: What is up the kind of ladder?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Adventures In The Cave - Part 3

Previously on Adventures In The Cave: Steve, Ian and Susan decided to go on an adventure to the caves and that they would need food and sleeping bags.

Adcentures In The Cave

“I know” said Ian. “We could ask mum for them now.” So they went. In the cave there used to be a door but it had vanished. “Whats happened to the door” said Susan in a frightened way.” Its vanished of course” said Steve. “We could throw some sharp rocks on it” said Ian. “O.K.” said Steve “get some rocks.” So they started throwing rocks. Steve and Ian got a big one and threw it which broke a door way.

Your decision not to use paragraphs and chapters adds a certain breathless pace to the story, but it is good to vary this from time to time. As you build to the climax, it is good to take your foot off the gas occasionally to give the reader space to reflect on events. Less is more – that kind of thing. What I am saying is that there is not enough red ink in the world to use on the sentence “So they went”. It is as redundant as Prince Edward.

The next sentence is more interesting, introducing an air of mystery, and also referring back to something that actually predates the beginning of the narrative. This kind of detailed back story roots the narrative in part of a larger world with its own complex history, a bit like Tolkien did with Lord of the Rings. However, it is unclear whether this vanishing is due to supernatural forces, or perhaps something more mundane like a rockslide. It might be a good idea to clearly foreshadow any supernatural elements here, and give the audience a hint of the genre that we are working in.

This sentence is also an example of a third person omniscient narrator, a style common amongst 19th century authors such as Austen or Tolstoy, but less popular since. Your attempt to start a revival in the 1970s was perhaps a little ambitious. But straight away you then use dialogue to tell the audience something that they already know – that there used to be a door, but it has now vanished. Either the narration or the dialogue is redundant. All the dialogue adds is more sexual stereotyping of Susan being frightened, and the boys being the ones with knowledge and ideas. Perhaps the vanishing door could be explained by a mentor or threshold guardian character. Could this character warn them off looking for the vanishing door and suggest instead coming to look at some puppies?

I must admit that throwing rocks is a novel approach to their predicament, and shows them to be the kind of wilful protagonists that readers like. The assured specificity of the rocks being sharp (flint?) shows good attention to detail, and the extensive geological research that clearly predated the writing was time well spent. Readers love having confidence in an author in this way and it helps them to suspend their disbelief and accept the fact that children could throw rocks big enough and hard enough to break a doorway in a cave wall. Perhaps the throwing of rocks could be linked back to a special skill that one of them has in the old world of their home life? eg Susan might be gifted at the shot put?

Next time: What is through the doorway?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Adventures In The Cave - Part 2

Adventures In The Cave

Steve, Ian and Susan lived together. One Saturday Steve and Ian said to Susan “We want to go on an adventure.” “Yes” agreed Susan because we could ask mum for some food and three sleeping bags.” We could go to the caves” said Steve.

There have been some brilliant opening lines in literature: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, “Call me Ishmael”. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. At best its ironic understatement promises a look at the reality of a polyamorous relationship, at worst it is the dullest way imaginable of introducing three siblings. What about "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that three middle-class children in possession of sleeping bags and food must be in want of an adventure"?

The inciting incident appears to be Steve and Ian wanting to go on an adventure. What about if they don’t want to go on an adventure, but accidentally find themselves in the middle of one? That would give scope for dramatic conflict, of which there is none here. Susan immediately agrees (again, no conflict), and the location for the adventure is also decided upon straight away. What would be great is if we could spend a bit of time with the characters to begin with, then use suspense to tell the reader what the protagonists do not know.

There is also a lot of sexual stereotyping going on here. Firstly it is the boys who want the adventure, and it is Susan whose thoughts immediately turn to domestic matters. And from whom will she procure these household items? Mum, of course. You’ve got no excuse for this sexism as your own mother went out to work – she was the one who set this project for your class. Could they not live with a single dad? Or two dads? Alternatively, investigate the issues surrounding the fact that mum appears to allow her children to sleep rough, perhaps introducing the overriding fear of a social worker splitting the family up.

I like your self-styled “Master” honorific though. It's a nice gimmick, like JK Rowling or JRR Tolkien using their initials, and it subliminally gives the casual purchaser confidence in your literary skills.

Next time: They get to the cave...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Adventures In The Cave - Part 1

Another question that I am often asked is “Did you always want to be a writer?” The answer to this is an unequivocal no; it never occurred to me until I did an evening course at random in my mid-20s. Not a single English teacher ever read anything that I’d written and then tried to dissuade me from a default career choice of “I dunno – something in computers?”

But was there some hidden literary genius in my early compositions, cruelly overlooked by large, mixed-ability classes? Stephen King and William Goldman have published some of their earlier works for study, so for the next few days I shall join them and analyse the first and indeed only book that I have ever written: Adventures In The Cave. I shall examine it with the knowledge and craft that I now have, and offer my 6-year-old self some advice that, had he heard it at the time, might have taken his life on a very different path.

Adventures In The Cave

OK, let’s start with the title – it’s a bit bland, isn’t it? What about something simple like The Cave, or, if you’re going for something a bit tongue-in-cheek, The Amazingly Exciting Adventures in the Cave? What you've got at the moment is a bit literal, and dull, dull, dull.

The “adventures” gives the reader some idea of the genre, but all narratives are some kind of an adventure, aren’t they? Joseph Campbell’s works on comparative mythology posit that all stories are a form of quest, so to tell the reader that they are going on an adventure with the characters should be redundant.

The subject matter and setting should also perhaps be more obvious from the cover illustration. What you have at the moment is certainly colourful, with some neat crayoning, but I just don’t understand it. Are those arms and legs, and a nose and mouth at the top? Is this something that will catch someone’s eye in a bookshop? To be honest, I’m not really getting “adventures” or even “cave”.

Depending on where you are pitching this book (mass market horror? Literary fiction?) I would suggest just a dark cave entrance, leading the eye in towards something unknown. The brown background makes the text hard to read as well. What about trying silver embossed lettering? And you should always make your name as big as you can as you try to build brand awareness around it.

The binding is good though. I remember all the children having to take their finished pages up to the teacher, and those three staples have certainly stood the test of time. 30 years later, the pages are as secure as they ever were. So well done there.

But of course you should never judge a book by its cover, so next week we’ll take a look at some of the writing and find out just what adventures await in that eponymous cave.