Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

Writing book proposals

In the past few months, I’ve done little else than writing book proposals, i.e. being in the hellish no-man’s-land of half-written books and super-polished synopses.

What are book proposals for?

For books following the First One. Even if your publisher has an ‘option’ on your next book (or series), that next book will likely need to be outlined to them before they give you the money and the deadline.

So, in short, the first book (most often) got bought in glorious, fully-armed completeness, like Athena springing out of Zeus’s skull. However, the second must woo the Editor and the Acquisitions team half-finished, half-naked – stripped down to its synopsis and a few chapters.

Birth of the First Book.

Birth of the First Book.

Book proposals are evidently a ‘good’ thing: if you’re at this stage, it means you’ve got a publisher who likes you and wants to see more of your work. But god, are they a pain to write. Book-writing eroticism degree zero, my friend; degree zero.

The first book was similar to your stumbling in your everyday clothes with graceful naturalness into a roomful of people, and one of them falls in love with your little quirks and endearing youness. A book proposal, meanwhile, is like a long-planned date with a man whose head you’d quite like to see on your pillow (with the rest of the body still attached). You’ve spent the past few weeks checking that you’ve got absolutely everything right to achieve the desired outcome. You’re wearing your hair the way he likes it and have revised all the topics he talks about on Twitter, while making sure you retain some of the aforementioned graceful naturalness.

The sexist undertones of the above paragraph are not fortuitous; there is, in book-proposal-writing, something ineffably demeaning and unnatural, something that kills the uncertainty. Like dressing up in a certain way to cajole someone into liking you, it may give you an impression of control, but definitely not one of power.

What should a book or series proposal contain?

Personally, I write a few chapters; how many? As few as will give the Editor a good sense of the tone, characterisation, and appeal of the book. I write a character list, with short descriptions. A general plot summary. A rough evaluation of the genre(s) that the story belongs to, and the age range. And then a very detailed synopsis.

The synopsis isn’t the worst part for me. I always write synopses for books I’m working on – not always chapter-by-chapter, but I don’t mind doing that. I’m a plotter, obsessively structured. But I can guess how horrible those must be for the many writers who are ‘seat-of-the-pantsers’ – i.e., who don’t know where the story is going before they write it. It must be like asking an explorer to chart a territory they haven’t been to yet.

The writing sample is not hugely fun to write. First, there’s this dull feeling that you can’t get too attached to the story because you might never get to write the rest. This is a strange phenomenon, because when you start something which you’re entirely free to finish, you often lose interest in the story and fail to finish it. But it’s all due to your laziness and/or disenchantment with the idea. Whereas the prospect of someone else effectively preventing you from writing the rest makes you extraordinarily keen to finish the book now.

Why am I saying ‘effectively preventing you’? Well, of course, if your Editor rejects your proposal, it can still be offered to other publishers, though that could cause diplomatic drama which your agent might not want to get into. But if they all reject the proposal, then evidently you’ll never write the book, no matter how much you ‘believe in it’. You won’t waste time in finishing a book no one will want.

Secondly, the sample is dull to write because you know exactly what it has to do: give a feel of the whole story, explain who’s who, set the tone, convince the reader that this will be the best story ever, etc.

Once again, that’s something you’d do anyway in the first few chapters – and yet, when you know you have to do it, you suddenly resent the very concept of an exposition scene, and all you want is to begin with a story-within-a-story, a postmodernist mise en abyme, crazy prologues: in short, everything you really shouldn’t do.

Does it sound like I have a problem with authority? Yeah maybe.

Don’t get me wrong, writing book proposals is a very useful skill to master. It teaches you to think more commercially than you would; it turns you into a judge of your own project in its entirety, not just of the emotionally-charged finished story. It also makes the writing process much more secure: once you’ve got the contract, all is well. A deadline and advance are excellent remedies against writer’s block. And you do feel like you are doing something professional, efficient, controlled.

But I have now been working for months on proposals. I have a book proposal that I worked on all August, and I still haven’t shown it to my Editor because my agent (very rightly) wants me to modify it significantly so it’s more likely to be taken on. Then there’s another one I’m working on for yet another project.

The time it takes for rewriting, redrafting, re-synopsising and discussions is enormous, and all that’s before you even have a contract. It also feels artificial: contrary to the first book, when the Editor and agent didn’t know what would happen, and were reading it literally like normal readers, the book proposal gives away the whole plot. This is good, because it allows the Editor to spot potential plot holes before you can dig them, but also bad, because they’ll never have a ‘virgin’ read of the book.

It’s difficult to get excited, I think, about a book you’ve seen in proposal form. Explaining plots (especially the convoluted ones I like) is boring; everything sounds much more complicated in this condensed form than it will be when it’s developed over two hundred pages. And a story is, of course, not reducible to its structure and plot elements.

I don’t have a romantic view of writing, by the way: I’m very much in favour of demystifying book-writing and publishing. This is a job, and book-proposal-writing is part of the job. I don’t have any patience for people who say it’s all about inspiration, emotion and spontaneity; I think we should take time to think about what we’re doing, to structure and nurture our ideas, and to debate them with editors and agents. A book is the work of a collective. Even in self-publishing, there should be no writers who think they can do it all themselves and know better.

But book-proposal-writing, even with the most literary-minded, enthusiastic authors, editors and agents, gives you a weary feeling of über-professionalism; of the perfect polish, watertight smoothness of prophylactics. A prophylactic against crazy deformed, cross-generic, monstrous fiction-babies; as if no mutations could occur once the blueprint has been deemed impeccable.

I’ll be glad, obviously, if and when one of those is finally accepted for sure, and hopefully they will be just as good as if I hadn’t obsessively reworked their first few chapters and synopses before writing the rest. But I won’t forget that their conception involved quite a bit of eugenic tweaking.

Getting published: France vs UK

This is a variation on the obligatory ‘How I Got Published’ post. Just like every honeymooner in Thailand must recount the two weeks in tedious detail to seemingly interested friends actually entertaining murderous thoughts, it is absolutely necessary for the Debut Author to explain in blog form, at some point before Book One comes out, how they went from manuscript to agent to publisher. In my case, this post is long overdue, so here it is.

But I thought I’d take this opportunity to offer a little comparison of the publishing systems in France and in the UK, since I’ve been published in France for three years, and that the two systems are interestingly different. I don’t claim that my experience is entirely representative (but whose is?), so take this with a pinch of salt (or with a pair of pincers, as the French would have it).

FRANCE: Alone in the jungle

In France, I started sending stuff to publishers when I was nine years old, because I was already joyously self-confident and deluded. I got dozens of adorable rejection letters. You get really nice rejection letters when you’re a kid; it’s when you turn 14 or so that the standard rejection letters start coming in. Anyway, I continued sending story after story after story for eleven years.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise George-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to shoe-sized.

Eleven years during which our pet tortoise Georges-Alain grew from matchbox-sized to clog-sized.

Then something funny happened. When I was 20 I was interning for a French publisher over the summer, and I was beginning to know their list by heart. So I thought I’d tailor one or two little stories to their editorial line. I wrote two, sent them to the publisher under a pseudonym, and was therefore there when they opened them, discussed them, and accepted them. It all happened in the office, in front of me.

It’s only when they started going, ‘Oh, it would have been good to have her phone number, she hasn’t written it anywhere’ (I’d made up a pseudonymous hotmail account, though!) that I said, ‘Well, guess what! you can talk to her LIVE!’ and it was all very theatrical and amusing. That’s how my first two books got published, and then the third one was published with the same publisher as well but a year later.

P1040152My first three: Samiha et les fantômes, Les petites filles top-modèles, La plume de Marie

But see, in France the issue is that there aren’t any literary agents, at least not for unpublished writers. It’s not the way it works. Authors have to fend for themselves. They have to send manuscripts to publishers (they all accept unsollicited manuscripts, of course), and they have to negotiate their own contracts. This makes them much more vulnerable than in the UK.

Authors in France are rarely tied to a specific publishing house; many publish lots of different books with lots of different publishers, sometimes at the same time, because they have to make money and that, well, being published in France isn’t exactly the most comfortable position financially. Ok, I’ll be honest, it sucks. You’re paid very little, unless you’re remarkably famous, or remarkably good at negotiating. Volume is thus key if you want to make a living out of writing – or you can do lots of school visits, which are well-paid.

Since I don’t want to make a living out of my writing and don’t write very much in French (1 to 2 books a year, which is nothing compared to my French writerly friends), this isn’t my main preoccupation. Personally, my biggest problem is that in France, even when you’re already well-published, you can rarely guarantee that what you’re working on now will ever get published. You have to go through the whole process every time: writing a full manuscript, editing it thoroughly, sending it to publishers.

Of course, you might want to send it in priority to people who’ve already published you, as you have their personal email addresses and it might get read more quickly – but most of the time they’ll just be like, ‘No’. Rarely do editors say to you, ‘Let me read the first three chapters and I’ll tell you if it’s worth keeping writing’. Even more rarely will they give you a contract and a deadline just on the basis of that. So it’s extremely precarious (and discouraging). You pile up manuscripts that never find a publisher.

couv pouilleuseAnd when, conversely, you’re in the happy/ terrifying situation when more than one publisher wants your book, as happened with my latest YA novel La pouilleuse, well, you have to make a decision on your own. It’s tough, because you have very little actual knowledge of what the different publishers may do to your book.

So you weigh prestige against edginess, enthusiasm against advance money, and finally you make a completely uninformed, rushed decision. Not that I’m unhappy with my chosen publisher, mind you – I’m hopefully about to publish another 2 books with them next year. But in no way can I claim that my choice was either rational or business-like.

As a result an author’s relationship to publishers is always ambiguous, and a bit unhealthy. These are people you’re wrestled with, battled with. You’ve asked them for more money, for more author copies, for more consideration. They’ve rejected your stuff, sometimes harshly. They might reject what you’re writing now. They’re also more prone to things like emotional blackmail, voluntarily or not. You’re very dependent on them. It’s not a comfortable position for people like me, who aren’t particularly good at separating professional and private discussions and who’d rather not get paid at all than have to talk about money – especially when you feel like you’re begging for an extra 50€.

UK: On the passenger’s seat

In the UK, getting published is a completely different story. Of course there are ways to bypass agents and submit directly to publishers, but for me, that was a huge no-no. I knew, from my experience in France, that I didn’t have the guts or the patience or the knowledge to deal directly with publishers. So when I finished my first novel in English in 2010, I immediately looked for an agent.

It was a YA novel called Hominidae, and the day I sent the first 3 chapters and synopsis to Kirsty McLachlan at David Godwin Associates (I’d only sent it to 3 agencies, I think), she asked me for the full manuscript. A few days later I talked to her on the phone; we discussed ways of modifying it, I did the editing, we met up in London and she offered representation. It was extremely painless and fast.

Not like the year that followed. Because Hominidae never got sold. That was heartbreaking. When you get an agent you think you’ve done the hardest bit, and that now it’s going to sell – but when you get letter after letter after letter from publishers saying that ‘although they loved this and that, the full thing didn’t work for this or that reason’, that’s pretty awful. Especially as you keep thinking, gosh, my lovely agent’s going to drop me. She didn’t, thankfully.

Sleuth on SkatesIn the summer of 2011 I had another idea and wrote the first Sesame book, which at the time was called Sesame Seade Is Not A Swan and is now called Sleuth on Skates. Kirsty liked it, and dropped Hominidae (which wasn’t going anywhere) and started shopping Sesame. And then, interestingly, the same thing happened with Sesame that had happened with La pouilleuse: namely 3 publishers wanted it. And it was fascinating to see how differently it went.

Firstly, in France I had about two hours to make a decision, and had to make phone calls to French publishers on my own. I had virtually no useful information to decide and no one to consult. Here, Kirsty set up the process of decision and auction for Sesame to last over several days. I went down to London and we visited all three publishers together. They gave me sesame seed chocolates and sesame snaps. We talked for over an hour every time about potential illustrators, further books in the series, modifications to the manuscript, etc. They were selling themselves too – that’s what struck me the most. They were telling me what they would be bringing to the book concretely, not just saying that they liked it.

sesamesnapsThen they made their offers and the amazing, cool-headed Kirsty dealt with all that, which meant I didn’t even have to utter the words ‘advance money’ or ‘royalties’. Although it was still eminently stressful, it was a hundred times better than being alone in making that decision. I was on the passenger’s seat: I gave my opinion and expressed preferences but Kirsty was the one who was doing all the hard work.

I know that this account might make some UK authors cringe. They’ll say that even though we have agents, we have to be proactive and shrewd and take charge, that I’ve fallen into a trap and am just being lulled into a false sense of security. I agree, of course, to an extent – but believe me, when you’ve been through the jungle of the French system, you appreciate the comfort, albeit illusory.

This comfort extends to relationships with editors, too – I can talk to them and be friendly with them and plan things, knowing that whenever we start talking about money and the details of a contract Kirsty will be there. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be short-changed. The author-editor relationship, as a result, is über-professional, less tainted with ambiguous friendliness-eneminess.

Well well well, as usual I have written a blog post the size of my PhD thesis (which I’m almost done with, by the way!). I hope it’s a little bit instructive even by just reading the sentences in bold. Oh dear, I haven’t even shown what I wanted to show, i.e. pictures of my author copies of Sleuth on Skates which have just arrived in my pigeon hole!


There are flaps with ducks doing manic things, courtesy of Sarah Horne


There’s a map of Christ’s College, in which Sesame lives for parent-related reasons…

P1050379And here’s the pile!

Coming out May 2nd. Fun, busy times. Crazy crazy busy. But I promise you, random reader, that I’ll try to update this blog more regularly. You might not care; but then maybe you do.

Clem x

Pseudonymous: The secrets of writing under a pseudonym

French writer Romain Gary wrote under a pseudonym in order to win a second Goncourt prize, the French equivalent of the Booker, which in theory cannot be awarded more than once to the same author. He managed it, and his pseudonymously-published Life Before Us became an unputdownable timeless classic, as they say.

Meanwhile, there are other people who wouldn’t mind the Goncourt, but who choose to write under a pseudonym for different reasons. Here is the tale of my short experience of pseudonymous writing (and no, you won’t know what I wrote or what my pen name was): why I did it, what I learned, and how I feel about it now. Wow, said like that it sounds like I’m going to start telling you it was a journey of self-discovery. Don’t worry, I’m not.

Once upon a time, about two years ago, thanks to an illustrator friend, I was asked to write a couple thousand words as a test for a series of children’s novels to be published alongside a magazine. I did it not really thinking I’d get it, but I did, and suddenly there I was signing a (very good) contract and agreeing to follow an absolutely unbending set of rules specifying a set number of words per chapter and a set number of chapters per book and the age of the protagonists and no sex or violence let alone a swearword.

Without getting too much into detail, it was a shamelessly, intensely, voluptuously commercial series of novels. The main issue was the theme. It’s the kind of theme that, in my area of study at least, everyone would label trashy without a second look at it. Ballerina stories, football stories, that sort of thing. So in order not to compromise my future applications for Junior Research Fellowships and postdoc positions (*cough* if you have one of those that needs filling contact me I make very good chocolate cakes *cough*), I decided to take a pen name. I didn’t want the Google Gods to bring up that kind of sulphurous secret on page 1 of ‘clementine beauvais’ just under my profile when I’d become Professor Dame Empress of Intergalactic Children’s Literature at Harvard.

Now, as everyone who knows me knows, I’m a feminist and an active member of the League Against Bunnies and Unicorns in Children’s Literature and it was out of the question for me to stop having convictions just because the cover of the book didn’t mention my real name anywhere. It was genre fiction ‘for girls’, but nothing that was intrinsically sexist – I would have refused immediately. And in fact, following my mum’s advice (what would one do without one’s mum’s advice?), while writing those books I had a lot of fun with the conventions of the genre, respecting some and transgressing a lot. Sometimes the publisher said no, but most of the time they said yes. I ended up writing something I’d never thought I’d write: super-commercial but semi-subversive children’s fiction.

I learned a lot writing these novels. You have to write fast. You have to make your descriptions short, compact and evocative. You have to find new things for the protagonists to do, all the time. And above all, you have to plan ahead. Plan, structure, scaffold. Find ways of solving three problems while creating a new one in just one chapter.

I also learned to get rid of many of my prejudices on this type of literature (damn, that’s definitely starting to sound like I’m saying it was a journey). When I started writing them, I found the whole experience stressful and even weirdly humiliating. But then I started to enjoy it. And now I can see that it was an incredibly helpful and enriching experience, and I even wonder if I could have written Sesame without it. Sesame isn’t really genre fiction, but it’s action-packed and borrows a lot from different genres. Without the practice of making up adventures and misadventures that fit into 14 chapters of however many words each, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to write it.

And above all I’m quite happy with these little books, which is all the more surprising as I’m generally übercritical of what I write. It is, I think, good genre fiction. Doesn’t mean I’m going to reintegrate them into my bibliography, once again for university-related reasons.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the series didn’t last very long. The novels were sold in plastic wrapping with a magazine, and the cover art and the magazine design were frankly hideous and the magazine completely uninteresting. Can’t say I was too bothered about it – it meant that I was able to stop writing them discreetly at the faculty library and start working more on my thesis and on more ‘intellectual’, ‘gratifying’ fiction-writing. Not to mention it was extremely good money which paid for a completely lovely holiday touring the Loire castles with my boyfriend of the time.

Azay-le-Rideau. Thank you, commercial fiction.

Yet I still have a lot of tenderness for these little books and I’m really happy to have had the chance, pseudonymously, to try new techniques of characterisation, description, structure, and dialogue.

Clem x

NB This is a translation/ adaptation of a post previously published on my French blog.

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Doing ‘research’ to write fiction, especially whimsical fiction for 9-year-olds, means you end up with a very strange browsing history. According to mine, this is what I’ve been asking Google recently (and yes, I treat Google like a real person when it comes to asking questions):

  • taking fingerprints on glass
  • when is hornet season
  • what’s the name of white fluff falling off trees
  • difference between cider and perry [for a French book]
  • do gargoyles often need to be repaired
  • horses falling off the rock of Solutré [French book again]
  • dormouse sleeping patterns
  • medicine to calm children down
  • weight of normal 9 year old girl
  • what time is evensong

and last but not least (though I should probably have chosen Bing for that one):

  • is google allowed to spy on you

Added to these are, of course, endless searches on these two Ali-Baba’s caves of infinite knowledge which I could not live without, and Urban Dictionary.

I quite like the idea that Google is getting a completely bizarre and incoherent idea of me due to my inexplicable browsing decisions, but unfortunately I’m sure it’s cleverer than that and has clocked that I’m a writer.

Anyway, once in a while you type in a seemingly innocuous little question and end up navigating a whole underground world the existence of which you’d never suspected. One such fine discovery happened to me when I started researching people who climb up buildings, specifically Cambridge and Oxford buildings. These people, my friends, are not only the hidden modern superheroes of our quiet little university towns, they also have a whole community on and offline, with its codes, handbooks and specific discourse.

I ended up buying this incredible little book which is always in the ‘Cambridge’ section of Waterstones in Cambridge and which I’d never thought would be of any interest to me: The Night Climbers of Cambridge. It has its own Wikipedia page, and so it should. Written in the 1930s by Noel Symington, who is now dead, it is no less than a handbook on roof-climbing in Cambridge.

You will learn how to climb up a pipe (with photographic examples) – don’t bother with square pipes, they’re no good. You will learn how to reach the top of King’s College Chapel (once again, fabulous pics); if you fall, you still have three seconds of life, so enjoy them. You will learn how to do ‘the leap’ between Gonville & Caius College and the Senate House. It really is quite simple, but some chaps get cold feet when they could easily jump such a distance if there wasn’t an abyss underneath!

The best thing about this delightful book is the jolly P.G. Wodehousey tone of it all, which takes you back in time almost a century ago in a Cambridge where all Porters still wore bowler hats, where the girls were confined to just a few colleges and where roof-climbing was a necessity in the middle of the night if you’d missed the time when the college closed down.

Anyway, not sure how much of this exquisite read is going to end up in Sesame Seade, but here are a few passages just to give you an idea of it:

‘On the other hand, consider those pipes in the New Court of St John’s, over the river. We know of no-one who has climbed any of the pipes on the outer north wall of the same court. They are the most forbidding pipes in Cambridge.’

‘On the north side a buttress leaves a recess into which a man’s body fits nicely. The chimney is too broad for comfort, and a very short man might find it impossible to reach the opposite wall, with his feet flapping disconsolately in space like an elephant’s uvula.’

‘Much more could be written about Pembroke if we had the information. Its stone is good, its climbs legion, and we can thoroughly recommend any night climber to pay a few visits to it. Its hospitality is lavish and sincere, and it breeds those strong, silent Englishmen who suck pipes in the Malayan jungle but do not pass exams.’

‘And so, with a good night’s work behind us, we go home to college or lodgings, telling ourselves that perhaps after all we will not attend that nine o’clock lecture to-morrow morning.’

That last one, of course, could have been written yesterday.

Clem x


Just Write the Damn Book

I hardly know you, but for the past ten minutes you’ve been talking at me about how much you’ve always wanted to be a writer some day. Of course you need to find the time, the energy and the right word processor. But you’ve got the ideas already, God knows you’ve got the ideas. You’ve got the story and the characters and the setting and you’ve been taking me through them in such mind-numbing detail that my eyes are swimming in the tears of my painfully unyawned yawns.

And as I marvel at the treasures of politeness I’m able to scrape from the utmost confines of my interpersonal skills toolbox, my internal monologue is on a very different autopilot to the one that makes my social persona interject ‘Oh, that sounds really interesting!’ at occasional intervals of your synopsis-telling session. In fact, what’s going on inside my head is more or less akin to this:


If you want people to care about your story, just write the damn book!

If you want to know how good your ideas are, just write the damn book!

If you want to know if you can write, just write the damn book!

If you want to be a writer, just write the damn book!

If you want to write a book, just write the damn book!

A writer is someone who writes. I don’t care if they write well or badly, if they’re published or not, if they write for children, adults or kangaroos. The necessary and sufficient condition is that they write. If you don’t write the damn book, you’re not a writer. If you don’t write the damn book, it’s not a book.

You really want to know what I think of your story?

That is, until you write the damn book.

Are you writing yet?

Clem x



Writing Funny Things When You’re Sad

Last year, when I wrote the first instalment of Sesame Seade, I didn’t have a care in the world. Gaily bedight, I carried my mini-computer around Cambridge and typed away in various coffee shops and all the Frappucinos in the world smiled at my enthusiasm and little birds sang songs of joy in the blue skies. Easy to be funny when things are generally fun.

And then Sesame got sold, and suddenly there is A Deadline for book 2 of Sesame Seade (Gargoyles Gone AWOL). But just at the time when I was supposed to start writing it, I ran into some quite unfunny personal difficulties, and suddenly it wasn’t as easy-peasy as it had been to write what is essentially supposed to be a lolarious book, as opposed to a supreme tear-jerker.

And thus I discovered what happens when you try to write something funny when you’re sad:

1) The Woody Allen syndrome: Every joke ends up being a sad sarcastic comment about your own existential crisis. Which, of course, is endlessly fascinating to nine-year-old readers (not).

2) The Laurel & Hardy syndrome: Since I can’t do verbal humour and sophisticated jokes anymore, let’s cram the page with slapstick comedy! Ha-ha! Look at her falling over! Brilliant if you want it to sound like your heroine’s lost all her brain cells somewhere between books 1 and 2 and has also become completely malcoordinated.

3) The Recycling Bin syndrome: Hey, there were some funny passages in book 1. What if I changed a word or two and recontextualised them in book 2? Works wonders if your readership is exclusively composed of goldfish.

4) The Mission: Impossible syndrome: If I can’t make it funny, at least I can make it HYPERACTIVE with like A LOT of ACTION and people who RUN and JUMP and at some point there’s a BANG and a WHOOSH and who cares about humour when there are SHRAPNELS???!!! There are many problems with this, the first being that I don’t know what shrapnels are.

But you’ll be glad to hear that after a lot of dilly-dallying and soul-searching and obsessive synopsis sessions (writing a synopsis doesn’t require humour), I finally managed to get going on Gargoyles Gone AWOL. And lo and behold, once you stop angsting about how unfunny you’ve become because of the unfunniness of your current situation, you realise that forcing yourself to write funny things not only works – just like it used to – but also cheers you up.

Bibliotherapy I guess, but the other way around.

Clem x