Where do stories come from? Joan Aiken explains…

Argosy webpage

Joan Aiken studied her craft while working for the short story magazine Argosy in the 1950’s, and always said it was the best training she could have had. As well as reading hundreds of submissions, interviewing and gleaning advice from the top authors of the day, such as Paul Gallico or H.E.Bates, and submitting her own stories to fierce editorial scrutiny, she was tasked with filling odd corners of pages, searching out entertaining news items, and writing a humorous Log Book to introduce the magazine each month.

With the petrol supply problems and queues in the UK at the moment, this one is rather timely:

Argosy jingles

While many of Joan Aiken’s Argosy stories were later included in her own supernatural or fantasy collections, she was so prolific that many had fallen out of print until fellow fantasy enthusiasts, Gavin Grant and his writer partner Kelly Link of the independent American publishers, Small Beer Press, offered to bring out a collection of these early works,  even including some previously unpublished finds, among which are some of her wildest and most memorable stories.

Also in this collection is a short introduction Joan Aiken wrote for the title story, full of her own generous and hard earned writing wisdom, especially useful advice for other writers just starting out perhaps?

Here it is:

“Writing short stories has always been my favourite occupation ever since I was small, when I used to tell stories to my younger brother on walks we took through the Sussex woods and fields. At first I told him stories out of books we had in the house and then, running low on these, I began to invent, using the standard ingredients, witches, dragons, castles.

  Then doors began to open in my mind, I realised that the stories could be enriched and improved by mixing in everyday situations, people catching trains, mending punctures in bicycle tyres, winning raffles, getting medicine from the doctor. Then I began mixing in dreams. I have always had wonderful dreams – not as good as those of my father Conrad Aiken, who was the best dreamer I ever met, but very striking and full of mystery and excitement.

   The first story I ever finished, written at age 6 or 7 was taken straight from a dream. It was called Her Husband was a Demon. And one of my full-length books, Midnight is a Place was triggered off by a formidable dream about a carpet factory. Most of my short stories have some connection with a dream. When I wake I jot down the important element of the dream in a small notebook. Then weeks, months, even years may go by before I use it, but in the end a connection will be made with something that is happening now, and that sets off a story. It is rather like mixing flour and yeast and warm water. All three ingredients, on their own, will stay unchanged, but put them together and fermentation begins.

    A short story is not planned, in the way that a full-length novel is planned, episode by episode, with the end in sight; a short story is given, straight out of nowhere: suddenly two elements combine and the whole pattern is there, in the same way as, I imagine, painters get a vision of their pictures, before work starts. A short story, to me, always has a mysterious component, something that appears inexplicably from nowhere. Inexplicably, but inevitably; for if you check back through the pattern of the story you can see that the groundwork has already been laid for it. 

   The story of The Monkey’s Wedding for example, was set in motion by a dream about an acerbic old lady hunting about her house for lost things and buried memories, combined with a news story about a valuable painting found abandoned in a barn; only after I had begun the story did I realise that the last ingredient was going to be a grandson she didn’t even know she had lost.”

As a taster you can read one of the stories in a post from Tor.com here – this one is called Reading in Bed and is perhaps a warning to choose your late night reading matter carefully for fear of falling prey to nightmares – or alternatively, as a way of providing useful story material –  as Joan Aiken also said when she recommended eating cheese before bed in order to encourage fertile and fantastic dreams…

Monkey's Wedding 3

Find the collection at Small Beer Press

Joan Aiken’s stories for Dark Times

Downs JA

~ Joan Aiken painting of the Sussex Downs~

One of the darkest times in Joan Aiken’s own life, and that of her children, came in the 1950’s when she lost both her husband and the family home – a beautiful farmhouse in a Cornish valley – and her livelihood which had been taking in paying guests while she wrote stories and tried to sell them to magazines. This turned out to be the spur which turned her into a full time writer, and drew the remaining family into a shared bond which was to help them through times of difficulty.

Years later she described this time to a class of students, how her ability to write had developed from telling stories to her younger brother while keeping him happy on long walks on the Sussex Downs near their house, as in her painting above, using them to distract and cheer him when he was tired and thirsty.

As she told them:

  “Well, presently my younger brother grew older and stopped wanting stories, and I took a job, and then got married, and had two children of my own. By the time the children were reaching an age when they liked listening to stories, we were living in Cornwall, and I was running a guest-house. Of course I really wanted to be a writer – I’d had a book published, a collection of fairy stories, and written another book and a half.  I hadn’t made much money from writing and I didn’t have much time for it, between the guest-­house and my children. But I used to write stories  – rather short ones – between podding beans and washing tablecloths. I sold 2 or 3 of these stories to a magazine called Argosy – and that was tremendously exciting, because I got paid twenty-five pounds for each of them. Twenty-five pounds! That seemed to me about what two hundred pounds would today!

  Then a sad thing happened to us. My husband fell ill, and died, when my two children were aged three and five so I had to move back to London and get a job, and, because I couldn’t look after the children and go to an office, they had to go to a kind of boarding-school; we only saw each other at weekends. It was very miserable for them-losing their father and their beautiful home in Cornwall, and only being with me two days a week. And it was during that period, which lasted three years, that I learned the real power of stories. Because as soon as I went to fetch my children on Friday evening (their school was near Hampton Court) they would say “Tell a story, tell a story” and all the way in the train from Hampton Court to Wimbledon, where I had a flat, all the way in the bus from the station, and walking across Wimbledon Common, and all the rest of the weekend, I had to tell them stories, one after another, one after another, as fast as I could make them up. And on my holidays from the office, when we used to go and stay with friends on a farm, it was the same: every spare minute had to be filled with stories. The stories were like a kind of bandage for the children; as if their own life was so sad that they needed something to take their minds off it, to protect their pain from the cold air.”

Joan Aiken became especially well known for her children’s writing, The Wolves Chronicles series, and many collections of fantasy stories which were always among her favourite work, but there is one thing they all have in common. She didn’t believe in easy solutions, either in life or in stories, and felt that children were not easily fooled either and demanded better than a simple happy ending.

In a book of advice for would be writers she was very firm about the real value of stories. She wrote:

Life is a Riddle 1

How much more satisfactory it is for children, she concludes, how much more it accords with their own observations and instinctive certainties to be told this, than to be told the world is a flat, tidy, orderly place with everything mapped out…they need to get from the stories they read a real sense of their own inner existence, that matches their own inner vision, however dark it may sometimes seem.

*    *    *    *    *

Joan’s thoughts on writing for children are published in this heartfelt guide

The Way to Write for Children

Although of course she said it wasn’t the only way!

 

 

The Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize – We have a winner!

AYEWcopy postImagine the moment when a copy of Joan Aiken’s own first published book arrived in the post – what if it was yours?

At the time, in 1953, despite her dreams of honour and glory (and all the hard work!) she was paid the princely sum of £25.00…but that didn’t discourage her from going on to write over one hundred more!

Were you one of the ‘dedicated semi-lunatics’ (as she called fellow children’s writers!) who entered our competition to write a new children’s book?  Joan Aiken knew this was no easy task; she herself had long dreamed of publishing a book, and she understood it took hard work and persistence, (and some of the lunatic self-belief she describes above!) before she would finally see the arrival of her own first published copy.

We were thrilled by the enormous response to our search for a new writer to follow in her footsteps, for a story inspired by Joan Aiken’s own classic children’s books and her  dedication to writing for what she considered the most demanding audience – children – who may form a lifetime’s habit of reading pleasure having been inspired by your story!

Julia Churchill, Joan’s agent at A.M.Heath, and Lizza Aiken, Joan’s daughter, chose a shortlist of six, and then had the incredibly difficult task of picking a final winner. The entries ranged from magical adventures, to gritty modern dramas, some were set in exotic landscapes, some in the past or in futuristic societies; they were written in language that ranged from poetic flights of the imagination, to the gritty dialogue of 21st century urban life.

And the winner  we chose – a joyfully inventive and gripping adventure which encompassed many of these alternative realities – was Harklights, by Tim Tilley.

The setting, like one of Joan Aiken’s own Wolves Chronicles could be sometime in the Victorian past, but also conjures up the possible future with the threat of a disaster that affects us all, the loss of our green world through greed and the exploitation of the miraculous gifts of nature – the loss of our old shared world of myth, magic, and natural mystery.

Wick, the orphan hero of Harklights, escapes the brutal mechanised world ( an Aikenesque orphanage!) and finds a family home and a life in the forest, where he has a chance to stop the terrible destruction of the Natural World.  He is able to go back into a society that has almost been lost – a world of magic, where there is love between all creatures, where children are cherished, not abandoned as he was – but then he must also return and confront the monstrous machinery which is mercilessly eating it all up…

mushrooms

What are the important elements in a children’s book that make it a lasting favourite? Katherine Rundell said about Joan Aiken’s writing that she excelled in three main areas that appeal particularly to children:

“Love, peril, and food…she writes all three with an insight and grace that has rarely been rivalled.”

There were some marvellous examples of all of these in our shortlist – Tim Tilley”s hero Wick experiences the first real food of his lifetime – a breakfast of forest mushrooms and eggs – utterly mouth-watering, even if the size of the portion is so tiny! Caroline Murphy’s moving story about fractured families, The Truth about Chickens produced some wonderful comfort food to cheer a lonely boy; in The Wild Way Home Sophie Kirtley wrote beautifully about family love, and our instinctive urge to protect the young and innocent; Nizrana Farook created a powerful story in a landscape drawing on her native Sri Lanka, and feisty characters with their own special charm and spark, who confront deadly peril in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant. Susan Bailey and Nicola Penfold showed great confidence and sympathy in their handling of lonely isolated children and their yearning for fulfilment, in Snow Foal and Where the World Turns Wild, where nature also plays a healing role. 

AYEW JA Frozen Cuckoo

Joan Aiken was a gifted artist, and often sketched while brooding on a book – as in her drawing of the dish of mushrooms above. Like Tim Tilley she included sample illustrations with her submission of that first book – All You’ve Ever Wantedhere is one of them where a cat called Walrus taunts an enchanted frozen cuckoo! Although these were gently turned down by the publisher, who said blue ink would be a little difficult to reproduce, and that they did have their own illustrators,  I felt she would have appreciated Sophie Kirtley’s visual imagination and ‘multi media’ presentation which we thought was very vivid. Nizrana Farook painted a wild and beautiful world with words, and a heroine who was as determined as Dido Twite, and Tim’s illustrations were so speaking that they form an important part of his début publication which has now been beautifully produced by the publishers Usborne – definitely a delight to discover on your doormat!

Harklights book

All in all, running the competition was a fantastic experience, and we were proud to have encouraged so many of you to send in your stories – we wish you all success in the future, and would just remind you not to give up – writing for children is a serious vocation, and once the bug has bitten, it can bring a lifetime of pleasure for the writer as well as the reader!

>  >  >  >  * <  <  <  <

  Do visit the Joan Aiken Website to see a picture Timeline of her life

and discover all the books that she went on to publish!

Save

Joan Aiken asks: Who should write for children, and what should they write?

w2w web page

Can anyone write a book for children?

Joan Aiken took her work very seriously, and was often asked to speak about it. A series of talks she gave was eventually published as a heartfelt guide called ‘The Way to write for Children’ and as her own mission statement, has inspired new writers ever since. As she was aware, this particular field was becoming a tempting market, but to whose advantage?

She wrote:Writing for Ch.3Lately there has been a good deal of discussion about the vogue for celebrity publishing, and perhaps given the healthy state of the children’s book industry and the number of excellent new writers appearing in recent years it does look like a tempting prospect.

Surely anyone could toss off a book for children? Not necessarily!

Joan Aiken had fun imagining a black hooded Grand Inquisition checking the motives of the would be author – and some of the answers that would receive ‘Nul Points’.

Such as: ‘I have read a few, anyone could do it, and it shouldn’t take long, they’re quite short,’ or ‘I’ve read surveys about what sells, there’s a formula, you need a brown furry talking vegetarian animal, with an alliterative name like Walter the Wombat…’

Finally a man comes in with an idea about a rusty bridge, and a trainee tea-taster, and an old lady, and a boy who has stolen piece of turf from a football field, and how they all meet by chance on the bridge and begin to realise they have met before… well, he says,  it’s a kind of ghost story…

What happens next?

Writing for Ch.2

She could be pretty fierce, but then she had spent years answering letters from children, or talking to them in schools, reading her own stories aloud and getting feedback and suggestions, and so she had a fairly good idea what would satisfy or nourish, or what could possibly turn them off reading for life…

Joan Aiken was also strongly in touch with her own childhood self –  the inner reader who had always been looking for answers in books.

Writing for Ch.3As she said:

‘Your book could be the one that starts a child reading, or the only one they possess – what kind of a power is that? Surely you should use it wisely.’

>>>>>*<<<<<

Read more about  Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children

here on the Joan Aiken Website