Joan Aiken on the Joy of Writing…

Even better than reading – getting lost in your own book!

How to get there?  Thoughts from a master escapist…

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More thoughts on writing from Joan Aiken in

The Way to Write for Children

See also The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize 

Now being offered for a new Children’s novel

Closing date July 31st 2017

 

 

Writer’s Block….. no joke!

Writer's Blockpic

Joan Aiken was a skilled artist and produced some beautiful pastel drawings while brooding over her plots, some of them can be seen here, but this little doodle on the back of an envelope suggests a rather different, very un-fertile state of mind, brought about by the distractions and endless pressures of daily life (Gas in barn? applesauce?) and recalls the dreadful to-do list that accumulates unbearably when you have something you would really like to be getting on with, but can’t let the ‘shoulds’ go – or in Joan’s case, the ‘oughts’.

Here’s a selection from one of her many TO DO lists – a very personal expression of her state of mind, and by no means the whole of it, emerging furiously from her typewriter!

To Do list

And she goes on: “Somehow one’s crazy conscience always relegates the really important job – the getting on with one’s book – to the last, as if it were a piece of self-indulgence.”

Although she produced an enormous range of different work – plays, short stories, articles and introductions, poems and talks – there would always be, seething somewhere at the back of her mind, the current repository of all the hopes and dreams, the great obsession that called itself  ‘The Book.’

In her adult books you can sometimes hear Joan’s personal voice quite clearly,  she put a good deal of herself into some of her heroines, as for example the heroine of The Ribs of Death.   Aulis, or Tuesday as she is also known, who is described by one reviewer as ‘a feckless sophisticated, cheerful, courageous little tramp of a girl’ but she  is also the victim of a major case of writer’s block, having had extraordinary beginner’s luck with a risqué experimental novel she wrote at the age of seventeen and been unable to produce anything since that her publishers would even consider.  Not only is she oppressed by her publisher’s expectation that she will obligingly produce half a dozen more in the same vein, but she is also forced to deal with the snide comments of people who assume that tossing off a novel is something any fool can do in their spare time – and in this case it is the ice cold – or in Tuesday’s mind ‘cool as aspic’ – Doctor Eleanor who needles her mercilessly on one of their first meetings:

Writer's Block

This is clearly drawn from  her own experience, but despite the cold fear it expresses, Joan Aiken was also familiar enough with her craft to have learned how to avoid coming to a total standstill in her writing, by having more than one string to her bow, and as the list up above suggests, she always managed to keep several projects in hand in case one of them stalled.

Having, like her heroine. also been published at the early age of seventeen, and managed for most of her life to earn a living from her work, she had obviously learned how to strike a balance between the dreaded ‘to do’ list and the project that was really close to her heart – writing The BOOK!

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Have you heard about The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize?

Find entry details here

Are you managing to press on with your own book despite current distractions?

Perhaps it will be the saving grace that whisks you away to a world of your own…

 

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The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize

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Could You write a classic children’s book that would be in print fifty years from now?

When Joan Aiken was writing The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1960, she was also travelling up to London every day for her ‘day job’ on Argosy magazine, which paid the mortgage and fed the family. As the daughter of an impoverished poet, and step-daughter to another well known but equally impecunious author, she had no illusions about the difficulties of a writer’s life.  But now, having survived the years of fantastic difficulties ( read more here!) that beset the publication of this award winning novel, she was absolutely determined to continue in her chosen profession.

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Joan Aiken had decided to be a writer at the age of five, and so after her first success with ‘Wolves‘ she continued unstoppably for the next fifty years – producing over 100 books in her writing lifetime.

As her career developed, and her books became known worldwide, she took time to share her experience with other hopeful writers, even the very young ones in schools she visited – her top tip to them was always to keep a writer’s notebook!

You can find quite a bit of her ‘writing advice’ on this site (see menu) from the entertaining and heartfelt guide she produced as part of ‘The Way to Write…’ series, although of course she said there were many, many different ways…!

Way to Write cover

A fun read, and full of good tips – find it here

 So Joan Aiken would surely be delighted with the wonderful idea that her agent, Julia Churchill of A.M.Heath has come up with – a competition to encourage and discover new writers, and perhaps to produce a classic of the future?

Julia writes:

“We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, it could have the makings of a series, or be one crystalline stand-alone. We know we’re setting the bar high. We hope to find a book that will be in print in fifty years, as Joan achieved with the Wolves series – and many other books.”

Could this be you?  Have you got a wonderful story to tell? If so have a look at the details below and conditions for entry, and get writing!

White Hart typing

 

THE JOAN AIKEN FUTURE CLASSICS PRIZE

A.M. Heath and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, are launching a competition to find a standout new voice in middle grade children’s fiction.
Joan Aiken was the prizewinning writer of over a hundred books for young readers and adults and is recognized as one of the classic authors of the twentieth century. Her best-known series was ‘The Wolves Chronicles’, of which the first book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was awarded the Lewis Carroll prize. On its publication TIME magazine called it: ‘One genuine small masterpiece.’  Both that and Black Hearts in Battersea have been made into films. Joan’s books are internationally acclaimed and she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the United States as well as the Guardian Award for Fiction in the UK for The Whispering Mountain. Joan Aiken was decorated with an MBE for her services to children’s books.

Joan Aiken took her craft very seriously – this may be why her books have become classics. She wrote:
“Really good writing for children should come out with the force of Niagara… children’s books need to have everything that is in adult writing but squeezed into smaller compass. Furthermore, as children read their books over and over, a book needs to have something new to offer each time. Richness of language, symbolism, or character may be appreciated for the first time at later readings, while the excitement of the story will only disguise failings at the first.”
The Prize will be judged by Julia Churchill, children’s book agent at A. M. Heath, and Lizza Aiken, daughter of Joan Aiken and curator of her Estate.
Julia Churchill writes: If I think of my childhood reading, it’s the classic 8+ novels that filled so much of my imaginative landscape. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Charlotte’s Webb, The Borrowers, Goodnight Mr Tom, The Witches. We are looking for a standout junior novel. It could be contemporary or magical, it could have the makings of a series, or be one crystalline stand-alone. We know we’re setting the bar high. We hope to find a book that will be in print in fifty years, as Joan achieved with the Wolves series – and many other books.

Lizza Aiken writes: Joan Aiken, if asked to come up with a winning formula for a children’s book, would say it must have three important elements: movement – a really taut narrative to pull the reader away from other distractions, mystery – to increase a sense of wonder, and a marvellous ending that surprises and also satisfies. An example she gave of superb storytelling was Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, where the character of the enigmatic villain – the cat Simpkin – lifts the story from being a simple tale into a dynamic small masterpiece.

The winner will receive £1,000 and a full set of ‘The Wolves Chronicles’.

All shortlisted writers will have the chance to meet with Julia Churchill

to discuss their work.

Submission guidelines:
The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize is open to un-agented children’s book writers resident in the UK or Ireland.
To get a good sense of the voice, concept and where the character is headed, we’d like to see the first 10,000 words PLUS a short description of the book (a few lines) AND a one page outline that shows the spine of the story. Please send this as a Word doc attachment to futureclassics@amheath.com
Entrants will receive an acknowledgement of receipt, but only shortlisted candidates will be contacted.

Submissions open on May 8th 2017 and will close on July 31st 2017.

A shortlist of five will be announced on August 28th

The winner will be announced on September 14th

A.M. Heath is running the prize in order to support new writing talent, and to find a debut star. We will offer representation if we find an author, or authors, whose writing we love.

Do follow @juliachurchill and @lizzaaiken on twitter for updates. And if you have any questions about submitting, or the prize generally, please send them to futureclassics@amheath.com

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Remembering Joan Aiken

hermitage

The Hermitage, Petworth ~ Joan Aiken’s home ~

Joan Aiken died in the month of January. Listening for her voice I sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case what appeared was a rough version of poem, never seen before and found in an old notebook.

This portrait of Joan’s last house was painted by the architect friend who helped her bring it back to life, when she and her painter husband discovered it lying ruined and abandoned on the edge of the little town where they lived.

It was supposed to be haunted, Joan had read a story about it in the local paper, when a couple walking their dog reported seeing a ghostly monk on the path below the house, and the newspaper took up the story with relish…!

The previous inhabitant, by then an old lady, had found sharing the house with the apparition too unsettling after the death of her husband, and so she herself became something of a local legend:

hermitagenews-clip

Sadly Joan Aiken never saw the ghost, although she bought the house partly because of its strange history – indeed it could be one of her own.  A friend recalled her saying she liked to eat cheese for supper in the hope of having a good nightmare to provide story material; as readers of her ghost stories will know she had a rich and wicked imagination…

I like to think something of her own history now haunts the house, perhaps a friendly presence that belies its quiet exterior, and that was why this poem seemed so apt. Here is a fragment of the unfinished poem, written many years earlier:

  “Swan among trees, the yew in its dark plumage

Raises its points against the glittering sky

Dropping a pool of shadow across the house

Shuttered and soulless since you are away.

Perhaps behind your shuttered features also

There lives a friend? This front gives rise to doubt

No inmate waves a hand at the blank windows

No footprints tell of passage in or out.”

Joan Aiken was often asked where she got her ideas.  Often, she would say, they came simply from life, or from newspaper articles, but it was always worth writing them down in a notebook because you never knew when they would find a home in a story. 

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Read more about Joan Aiken’s strange stories here

And see a recent collection of some of her most memorable ~ The People in the Castle

Painting by Vernon Gibberd