By Phillip Pullman RHCP Digital 2015 (Book 1st published 1995)
Children’s Fiction (*see warning)
Score: 8/10 Genre: Fantasy
Northern Lights is the first in the, His Dark Materials trilogy, followed by, The Subtle Knife and The Amber spyglass. It is set in an alternate reality where every human has an inseparable animal daemon with whom they communicate and share feelings.
Lyra has an undisciplined childhood growing up in Jordan college with old, preoccupied scholars as her guardians. When her Uncle, the formidable Lord Asriel, visits Jordan college Lyra overhears him request funds for a mysterious ‘dust’ research project that he is conducting in the cold North.
Lyra seems set to continue her carefree life until children start to disappear, including her good friend Roger. The charismatic Mrs Coulter arrives and whisks Lyra away to London, to a life of comfort and order. After hearing frightening talk about Mrs Coulter’s activities, Lyra flees her London flat and is taken in by the noble, boat -faring gyptians. She travels North with them intent on finding Lord Asriel and the missing children.
In the North Lyra encounters great dangers – crippling cold, institutions of child and daemon cruelty and warrior bears. Ultimately she exposes shocking truths about ‘dust’ and her parents.
Lyra is assisted in her adventures by the truth-telling alethiometer – a compass-like instrument given to her in secret by the Master at Jordan college.
This is a beautifully written book. The descriptions of landscapes and characters are evocative without being too lengthy or pretentious.
Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer (description of the Northern Lights).
The settings in this fantasy are the earthly landscapes of Britain and the polar regions, making it easy to visualise Lyra’s surrounds. This leaves the reader more mind space to digest the vivid character and daemon descriptions.
Crouching like the Sphinx beside him was his daemon, her beautiful spotted coat glossy with power, her tail moving lazily in the snow.
The presence of daemons adds another layer to each character, as each person’s personality is reflected in, both the type of animal, and the actions of that animal. The alethiometer as a device is less effective. There are points in the plot where it would be logical for Lyra to use the all-knowing alethiometer but it is obvious the author has chosen not to in order to heighten the suspense. The movie based on this book was named after the alethiometer and called The Golden Compass (I haven’t seen ).
*The POV character, Lyra, is eleven years old so this is classified as a children’s book, but be warned the story involves horrible cruelty to children and a brutal bear fight. Pullman is prepared to push his characters to the limit which makes for a tense read.
A writing colleague of mine found Lyra’s character to be too much of a brat in the opening chapters and consequently put the book down. I think it pays to stick with Lyra for a while as her feistiness and stubbornness prove to be necessary character traits for survival. Her early waywardness also allows room for her to grow and mature.
The other characters in, Northern Lights, are cleverly nuanced and not always what they seem. We find that the evil can be charismatic the wise, unassuming and the ferocious, loyal.
I was prepared to give this book a nine based on the beautiful writing and interesting concepts but I found the end a little convenient and rushed. I’m not a fan of sudden realisations with no lead-up. This book is not entirely stand-alone as Lyra’s quest is obviously not finished at the end. However Northern Lights can be enjoyed by itself as it does bring to a close a significant chapter in the quest.
Recommended for: 11 to 15-year-olds who are not upset by violent or sad scenes in a fantasy book or adults who enjoy reading fantasy (the language and the concepts are sophisticated enough to keep your interest).
Use for writers :
No info-dumping: Exposition is deftly sprinkled throughout the story especially in relation to the daemon concept. It would have been tempting for the author to immediately give us all the practices and limitations relating to daemons in the opening chapter, instead he only gave out information when it became pertinent to the action. Because the daemon-human relations are so fascinating and offered in easily digestible bites each revelation is eagerly anticipated. To offer concrete examples of the spacing of some of these bites of exposition :
Chp 3 – We learn children’s daemons change form but the daemons of adults do not. (although hinted at before)
Chp 5 – We learn that a humans and their daemons share each other’s pain.
Chp 9 – We learn that it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon.
Vivid descriptions: (as written above) Pullman uses all the senses in his descriptions of landscapes and people. The descriptions of the historic building and spacious grounds of Jordan college, the claustrophobic comfort of Mrs Coulter’s flat and the cold bleakness of The North transport the reader to those locations. Here, the journey north in the gyptian boat is described:
But the rush of water below, the movement in the air, the ship’s lights glowing bravely in the dark, the rumble of the engine, the smells of the salt and fish and coal-spirit, were exciting enough by themselves.
A few months ago I found myself deep in a writing rut. My confidence deflated my motivation stalled, my wheels spinning – going nowhere.
The reasons for this roadblock –
1. Several rejections of short stories. No, not rejections, Declineds – this is the term employed by the widely-used Submittable portal. Declined, somehow manages to sound more polite and more impersonal all at once. Gone are the days where some satisfaction could be gained by spearing rejection letters to a spike on the wall (a’ la Stephen King). I admit some of my manuscripts weren’t a good fit for the markets I was submitting to, but due to point 2. I was fairly desperate to send my children’s short stories anywhere.
2. The demise of the children’s short fiction market. In Australia I know of at least four competitions/markets that have closed in the last few years in an already tiny market. I never expect to make money or even wide recognition for short story writing but a little validation and goals to work toward are important. The competitions that do exist for children’s writing often have comparatively hefty entry fees ($12.00 or more) and for the winners there are small returns in terms of both money and publicity. Also children’s short fiction markets stipulate restrictive word limits. Most are under 700 words for the under 11 age group and no more than 1500 for older middle-grade. YA short fiction markets are almost non-existent. Micro-fiction (adult markets often regard anything up to 1000 words as flash or micro-fiction) can be engrossing and clever but also restrictive in terms of language, character arcs and settings. This can be stifling for a writer (especially verbose ones like me) and it is easy to look longingly over the fence at the adult literary magazines where the word limit of individual stories jumps dramatically to sometimes 10,000 words and often 6,000 words.
It is a volatile landscape for magazine publishers and small print presses. The Mslexia indie press guide says this ‘they start up and close down at the drop of a hat compiling an (indie press) guide is a bit like playing whack-a-mole‘ Unfortunately when it comes to children’s magazines disappearing into the mole hole is more common than a new mole poking their head up.
You might think that e-mags would have filled the void but they haven’t. Emags that except children’s writing from adults are hard to find. I did stumble on a mega-short story site recently called East of the Web and found it has a children’s section but am hard pressed to name any other.
Competition within this limited children’s market is fierce the only remaining Australian children’s print magazine – The School Magazine, only publishes a handful of the hundreds of unsolicited entries it receives per year.
Caterpillar magazine, a high quality Irish publication for 7 to 11-year-olds accepts international children’s stories and poems. It has a waiting period of up to 4 months from submission to news of acceptance/rejection.
Cricket media group in the USA produces a series of fiction and non-fiction magazines for children and young adults. While it is hard to find information on the number of entries they receive across 11 magazines even US blog posts I’ve read say this is a tough market to crack for US writers. You can bet it is even harder for Australians. Turnaround time on news of submissions can run up to 6 months. That equates to a big slush pile. Highlights magazine group are the other big print magazine publishes in the USA with a stated four-month submission waiting time.
While American markets do seem to be a bit healthier and varied than ours (or UK’s) I find it hard to adjust my stories to fit the US market. It’s not just the terminology but the organisational and cultural practices as well. I recently wrote a story about scouts. My story relied on having girls in the troop but in the USA scouts is still only for boys. And what about school? Do you change the way you name the grade levels? Although UK is more closely aligned I doubted a story I wrote about children walking home from the surf would resonate with British children. But I hear you say – Aren’t US magazines, in particular, crying out for diversity? Yes, but the not the diversity of an Australian suburbanite. I am stuck in a world which is diverse enough to be confusing but not diverse enough to be enlightening.
There is also a problem of accessing overseas magazines to research their preferred style and voice. So many blogs/podcast/editors I’ve heard say this research is a must If you live in the country of origin it is likely that the library will stock popular children’s magazines but if you have to subscribe from Australia to say, two of the Cricket media magazines, a Highlights magazine and The Caterpillar this can get pricey (over 150 annually) and impossible to justify on a purely cost-benefit analysis. Even if you’re lucky enough to climb the slush pile and win the grand prize of publication the rewards are likely to be less than $200 per story.
As far as competitions for children’s writers I wonder if many organisers have thrown in the towel because there were simply too many entries. It does seem ironic that high demand leads to cancellation. I’m only speculating. Maybe somebody more in-the-know can shed light on the demise of children’s writing competitions. I keep a submissions book which lists the manuscripts I’ve entered going back to 2012. It reads like a column of death notices for fallen competitions. My most disheartening discovery was that the Mary Grant Bruce award was no longer listed in the Fellowship of Australian Writers Awards in 2015. This was a rare opportunity that accepted children’s short stories up to 5000 words. Last year the Fellowship of Australian Writers offered 19 different annual awards across many genres and forms. There was not one award for children’s writing. The 2016 awards list will be released on Sept 1st.
I am powerless to influence the trends in the children’s short story market. So I can only file away my unsubmittable stories and hope a market opens up in the future.
3. Novel woes. I was told a by few sources working in children’s editing/publishing that no Australian publishers would take the risk on a middle-grade novel from an unknown author that was as long as mine – 85,000 words. I received a manuscript assessment that suggested I need to expand certain parts but at same time somehow simplify my story (among other criticisms.) It seemed an impossible depressing task to cut words and yet expand chapters so I put it away – for a while.
My comfortable middle grade wagon was going nowhere. The most sensible option (the least masochistic) would probably have been to give up on my writing journey and call for a taxi to take me to a new destination (Painting? Photography? Gardening?) This was harder than I thought. I tried for a week – maybe two. But I realised writing wasn’t just a pastime it had become a compulsion. I couldn’t stop thinking about my novel (could I fix it?). I got it out and rewrote a few of the early chapters with the aim to strengthened my main character’s motivations. Against my better judgement I even wrote another middle grade short story that came to me unbidden. This had to stop.
Strange, how the social media universe sometimes seems to nag you. As I pondered my stagnation I clicked over to twitter and somebody had tweeted this timely post quoting Coco Chanel
“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”
I had to come up with a way to satisfy my writing habit and still have some achievable goals. Hence I hopped out of my comfortable pot-holed middle-grade car and decided to try out some new vehicles.
I wrote poetry as part of a 10 day WordPress Challenge. This is a great exercise which not only offers a daily prompt to get you going but also provides notes on different devices and forms of poetry. It is the best free course I’ve ever done. And while your poetry is not ‘marked’ the feedback you give and receive is fun and encouraging. The greatest lesson I learnt from this challenge was that I produce my best work when I have to and I have guidelines. For me deadlines and prompts are the best writing coaches. Admittedly I was exhausted after the 10 days but also chuffed that I had managed to write that many poems. I had never even attempted a single adult poem before.
While I know I will never become a great poet, I’m sure the language and the economy of words used in poetry can improve my fiction writing. Picture book writing and nano-fiction, in particular, require a beauty and sparseness of language that is closely related to poetry.
Adult short stories
Unlike children’s writing there seems to be a plethora of opportunities for adult short form writing with a wide range of word counts, genres and forms.
There are many literary magazines and international competitions accepting submissions throughout the year. Two good sites that list these opportunities are:
I also recently purchased, Mslexia Indie Presses 2016/17. This is a wonderful resource for British markets (many of which accept international submissions)
In past years I have started many adult short stories and finished a few. I decided to make a conscious decision to write more in the next 12 months and finish at least two of those languishing in my files.
It is not easy to change gears between adult and children’s short story writing and the effort sent me scuttling for dusty short story collections on my shelf and listening to short story podcasts – Selected Shorts and The New Yorker. I prefer the Selected Shorts selections (less high-brow) but I enjoy The New Yorker discussions (sometimes more than the story itself).
In children’s stories all story threads should be tied up neatly – the plot is all important. In adult fiction there is usually some shift in the character, but the language and the mood created are often as important as the plot. A good short story often leaves the reader pondering. I like the description I read somewhere – ‘An adult short story should, end but never close.’ Good short stories often reveal something profound about the human condition. On comparing the novel to the short story, V.S Pritchett’s is quoted, ‘The novel tells us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.’ (From On Writing Short Stories edited by Tom Bailey)
I have managed to complete one adult short story recently but I feel it’s not quite right – almost a fusion between adult and children’ s writing. I am keeping my eye out for a course that will force me to do assignments and take my short story writing to the next level. If there is one thing I learnt from the poetry challenge is that I need prodding.
I wrote a nature essay that has been swirling around in my head for many years. I sat down to write it with great trepidation. Whereas poetry is an embellished representation of your heart and fiction is your imagination, a personal essay is your mind and personality laid bare. This is the one piece of writing I actually felt embarrassed about showing to my very non-judgmental (except re bad writing – as it should be) writing group.
Having said this – I really enjoyed writing this essay about mine and my children’s carefree childhoods in close contact with the coastal bush. Words flowed more freely than in any other form of writing I’ve attempted. Writing blog posts has definitely helped me find my voice for this kind of writing.
There are quite a few competitions and occasional markets that accept personal essays. Sometimes they have an open topic and other times they ask for specialised subjects such as travel stories or nature essays.
I am sure there will be more ruts in my writing journey (and hopefully a few downhill sections). But, hey, there is still screen-writing, play-writing, novellas, flash-fiction, non-fiction articles, picture books, romance…