Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Teenage Identity Focus: Martyn Bedford's 'Flip'

One of the pleasures of giving talks and workshops is the chance to meet other writers. I met Martyn Bedford back in October, when  I gave a talk at the Calderdale Writers' Roadshow in Halifax. Martyn  has published five adult novels and has now written a YA novel, Flip. After my talk, he very kindly allowed me to sit in on his fascinating workshop on writing for teenagers. (And by the way, some excellent pieces were written by students on that course - I was so impressed by how they were able to recapture the teenage mindset with incredible wit and sympathy).

I was curious about how writers make the transition from writing adult fiction to children's fiction and Martyn agreed to guest-post about this on Literascribe. Since then, I've read Flip and loved it: he succeeds so well in getting inside the head of his teenage hero, Alex, who, poor lad, has inadvertently got inside the body of another boy... The novel explores how Alex wakes up in another life, with another family, and with the kind of good looks and health he's always longed to possess - and how he copes with this abrupt and scary transition, how he learns what has really happened to the Alex he once was, how he sets about taking charge of his life - his real life. The story covers all the emotional angles and I felt the attitudes and dialogue rang very true. Even minor characters are depicted with realism and sensitivity. There's humour, pathos and a great deal of suspense - I wondered how on earth Martyn was going to resolve the central issue of the plot: he pulls it off magnificently.

It's wonderful to learn that Flip is now on the running for two major awards: it's just been shortlisted for the Costa Children's Book prize and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. Respect! I wish Martyn every good luck with both of these. His work is yet another example of the very high quality of current children's fiction. Here's his guest post:

There's no such thing as an advice-free lunch (or how I came to write my first novel for teenagers)

I have a former editor to thank for my first novel for teenagers ... I wrote it because he advised me not to. Back in 2005, he took me out to lunch to celebrate the deal to publish The Island of Lost Souls, my fifth novel. We went to Pizza Express in Leeds. Towards the end of the meal he asked what I planned to write next. Up to then all my novels had been for adults, straddling the border between mainstream literary fiction and psychological thriller. But I'd an idea for a story more suited to a teenage and young-adult audience. When I mentioned this, the editor shook his head.
     'You don't want to write one of those.'
     'Why not?' I asked.
     But, beyond a mumbled platitude about my strengths lying elsewhere, he didn't really give a reason. Thanks to Rowling, Pullman, Haddon, Sachar et al, the teen/YA market was buoyant back then (and remains so today), so it seemed unlikely that he was being dismissive of the genre. Perhaps he suspected me of jumping on the bandwagon, or that I wouldn't be able to turn my hand to that type of writing. Maybe he foresaw a 'rebranding' problem for his sales and marketing people. I don't know. Whatever his rationale, I came away from that lunch feeling miffed that he'd tried to discourage me from writing the book without even asking what it was about. Like any author, I also resented being told what to write; in this case, what not to write. I decided to go ahead with my teen novel and to hell with him, even if he had just paid for my pizza.
     In the end, for reasons which are too convoluted to go into, it was 2008 before I started work on my teen book, called Flip. It tells the story of Alex, a 14-year-old who wakes up one morning to find that his soul (consciousness, spirit, psyche, or whatever you care to call it) has switched to another boy's body and he faces a life-and-death quest to return to his own skin or be trapped for ever in the wrong existence.
     As soon as I had the idea for Flip, I realized it was a book for teenagers - not just due to the age of the protagonist but because of the story's themes. Issues of identity, self-awareness and self-image are at the heart of the novel and I drew on some of my own experiences of being Alex's age. That difficult transition from childhood to adolescence, where you have to reinvent a sense of who you are and how you relate to people, and where you worry so much about your appearance and what your peers think of you.
     So, having decided to write teen/YA fiction, I read more than a hundred novels for this age range in preparation, immersing myself in the genre to get a feel for the tone of voice, style, characters, stories, settings, themes and subjects that are to be found in modern teenage fiction. I also read other novelists' tips on the Dos and Don'ts of writing for teens. Youngsters, it seems, are more inclined than adults to give up on a book, so I gave the storyline a strong forward momentum and incorporated twists and turns, end-of-chapter cliffhangers and the like. I placed my hero and the other teenage characters at the centre of the action, with adults (parents, teachers) at the margins. And I used very few expletives and avoided sex scenes altogether - not because today's teenagers don't swear or have sex, but because I copped out. Publishers of 12+ fiction are still uneasy about these issues and, as a newcomer, I wasn't ready to test the boundaries. Similarly, I chose a 3rd person narration rather than adopt the 1st person voice of a teenager, for fear of sounding like a middle-aged writer trying to be down with the kids. Of course there are plenty of very good 1st person teen novels but I wasn't brave enough to write on on my first foray. What I didn't do was dumb down the vocabulary, or the ideas which the novel explores. Young people are brighter than we give them credit for and I was determined not to patronise my readers.
     Along the way, I received helpful feedback on various drafts of Flip from a handful of teenage readers - a niece, and a neighbour's son and daughter - and from my wife, who is a high-school librarian. but the funny thing was that, as I sat tapping away at my PC, I never really felt like I was writing 'for' a teenage audience. Writers write to please themselves, first of all. So you could say the only teenager I was writing for was the teenager I once was.
     With the manuscript completed, I sent it to Jonny Geller, my agent at the Curtis Brown literary agency in London. I knew he didn't represent teen/YA fiction but I hoped he might pass the typescript to a colleague at the agency who specialized in that area. He did and, fortunately, she liked the book enough to take it on. That agent, Stephanie Thwaites, has been brilliant. Firstly, as critic - the novel is much better for the revisions I made in response to her feedback; secondly, as a wheeler-dealer. Flip went to auction on both sides of the Atlantic and was published in spring 2011 by Walker Books in the UK and by Random House in the U.S. and Canada. It has also been translated into German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Thai. At the time of writing, Flip is on the longlist or shorlist for a total of five prizes for YA fiction - including a longlist nomination for the prestigious Carnegie Medal - and is a Red House Children's Book Awards 'Pick of the Year' title in its age category.
     Naturally, I'm delighted and thankful that my first teenage novel has gone down so well. But perhaps the greatest debt of gratitude is owed to that editor, in Pizza Express, whose advice was the best I've never taken.

Thanks so much for this, Martyn! I find this article both informative and inspirational, especially as I'm currently engaged in revising and adapting a children's book for a slightly higher age-group. The main lesson that emerges (apart from ignoring editors!) is that you need to be aware of market-considerations but also remain true to your own aims. Because, as Martyn says, he was 'writing for the teenager [he] once was', his story rang true.  

Martyn's website is and Flip is available on Amazon at  

Friday, 11 November 2011

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Wilfred Owen
I'm writing this a few minutes after 11.11.11 - and like many others, feeling the need to acknowledge the significance of the day and the hour. I'm currently teaching Wilfred Owen's poetry and remember as a fifteen year old schoolgirl encountering war poetry for the first time. I reacted as we all do to the absurd hubristic nonsense of human aggression and its justifications. The poem that struck me then more than any other was Owen's 'Futility'. More than the visceral horrors of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or the plaintive Keatsian melancholy of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', 'Futility', in its simplicity, brought home that essential message of WWI. The waste. Owen said that his subject was war and the pity of war, that the poetry was in the pity: well, it's here, in a poem that questions the purpose and meaning of individuals coming into the world, being nurtured to maturity - only to be slaughtered. He even questions the cosmic purpose of the sun in warming a planet into organic life - if all that results is pointless destruction.

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France.
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

Owen's poetry is famous for its superbly shocking images: the soldier floundering in the 'green sea' of gas, the sentry reeling from the blast, his eyes 'huge-bulged like squids'', the God's eye view of the battlefield where lines of men are like 'caterpillars' and he sees how they 'ramped' on one another. His sensory language is muscular and gripping: the gassed soldier is 'guttering, choking, drowning', the weapons of war are spiteful and gleeful - 'How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood:/Blue with all malice'. The sounds of blast and gunfire echo over the decades to us with their 'rapid rattle' and 'whizz-bangs' through the 'shrieking air'. In 'Exposure' he shares with us the bone-aching cold and long suspense, waiting for the signal for battle:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us ...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
     But nothing happens. 

He haunts us, as he was haunted, in the halls of hell in 'Strange Meeting', where he encounters the dead German he has killed and listens to the lesson we hear now, and every year, and yet never act upon:

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

He also, like his mentor Sassoon, lets us know how angered and bitter he feels, how nothing back in Blighty can match the camaraderie of the Front, how no immature concepts of romantic love and fleeting beauty can compare with the fellowship he has found: in 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' he lists the paradoxes of finding exultation in the berserkr mood of battle, the 'passion of oblation' on the faces of his fellow soldiers, how he:

heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share 
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.

It's ironic that when he died, one week before the Armistice, he was little known (ironic, but not unusual - so many times the long trajectory of fame only starts to climb after the artist's death) - and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke would have been better known back then. Nowadays, it's Wilfred who is the poster boy for the Great War - it's his words that are most familiar to us. This should not devalue them. I've taught these poems so many times but still somehow there's the shock of the new.

Siegfried Sassoon
I want to include in this post, however, one of my other favourite WWI poems - Sassoon's 'The General'. It's a wonderfully spiky little verse, dealing with one of the themes of the literature of war - that soldiers are 'lions led by donkeys':

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

In our current conflicts, conflicts which we neither seem to understand nor see a way out of once embroiled, conflicts where all sorts of moral muddiness is stirred up in what seemed to be the clear pool of heroism,  the poets of nearly a century ago still have much to say. And it's sad that they still have to say it.

Harry Patch
Here's a link to the post I wrote in 2008 about the wonderful Harry Patch, who was one of the last survivors of the Great War. Now Claude Choules, who had emigrated to Australia, is gone too - and there's no one left to bear witness with living breath to what was done and seen and lost. But we have archive film and audio recordings and the printed word.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Last day to book Focus Workshop 5th November!

This is just a brief reminder - as I'm deep in the throes of National Novel Writing Month composition - that this Saturday's Focus Workshop will be on Sourcing and Growing Ideas. Booking closes today - 2nd November - so if you're interested, check out the details on the Focus Workshops page of my website, On the 19th November, the subject will be Cracking Openings, and on the 3rd December, Dynamic Dialogue.

Now, off to write my NaNo quota - if you're not familiar with how NaNo works, here's the link to one of my posts about it last year: and I'll be letting you know later in the month how I'm getting on with this year's torture travail experience!