Monday, 23 January 2017

Weather or not - a quick guide to writing the weather in children's books

by Addy Farmer

When I mentioned that I was thinking about the weather and how it fitted into writing, that YA genius, Teri Terry uttered the immortal line:

'It was a dark and stormy night ...' which is the first line of a forgettable story by Victorian novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (I had to google him).

Well, someone had to say it and actually it has become a rather well known first line. So well known in fact, that primary school children recognise it and Janet Alhberg used it as the title of her pirate kidnapping picture book.


Maybe this one sentence is the reason, Elmore Leonard declared:

Never open a book with the weather.

Ok, so he also went on to say,
“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long, the reader starts skipping ahead looking for people”
Thanks, Elmore but actually we're children's writers and we NEVER go on too long.


And thanks to the excellent, Candy Gourlay, I came across what the excellent Scott Westerfield writes as an excellent rebuttal to this dictum. Here's a taster:
The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit. —Uglies Yeah, baby! I not only start with the weather; I start quarter-million-word trilogies with the weather. That’s how I roll.
Scott Westerfield
Basically, this cat-vomit sky is in Tally’s head; the sky is actually lovely, but her depression turns it ugly. In a few weathery sentences Westerfield subtly evokes character and setting and tone. Beautiful.

I promise this is the last name-drop, but no less an author than Hemingway did urge:
Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.
You'd be relieved to know, Mr Hemingway that I agree with you  - I think the weather is very important to get into your god-damned book.

So what is the role of the weather in children's stories?

Sometimes the weather is the story.

Children can be scared of storms with their loud noises and flashes of light - a primeval fear in us all maybe? 
Dealing with the aftermath of a storm is a situation common to many
I'm often accused of having my head in the clouds

Weather as mood music ... 

Hagrid looks out of the hut window, contemplates the sky over Hogwarts and murmurs, 'There's a storm coming, Harry and we'd best be ready when she does.'

'There's a storm coming, Harry. And we'd best be ready when she does.'
Is there an actual storm coming, Harry? Probably best to put your hoods up and run back to the castle! Or is our lovely half-giant being all metaphorical and warning of trouble ahead. Well, of course it's the latter and just about every young reader will understand what J K Rowling intended when she wrote those lines. A storm is a common metaphor for turbulent times; it brings with it, the threat of danger, the need to take cover and the feeling that this is Not Normal. I love a good storm.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! You cataracts and hurrincanoes, spout!' King Lear
I remember studying King Lear in sixth form.  His descent into madness was accompanied by the fearful stormy weather. King Lear's tumbling feelings of anger, despair and confusion were reflected in the weather and this was my introduction to the literary device of pathetic fallacy. It acted as a short cut to show how Lear felt and added visual depth to the feeling. Then came one of the best lines ever, a full-throated bonkers cry, 'HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! HOWL! HOWL!'

You just can't imagine King Lear uttering this against a backdrop of sunny meadows.


In Holes, by Louis Sachar; unlike the cold, stormy weather of King Lear's moor with its abundance of noise and flash, the weather is hot and sunny and dry. Camp Green Lake is cursed with a never-ending drought. But with Stanley's arrival, it becomes an oven where sound is muted and movement is slowed. You know that soon the heat will become unbearable and then something BIG will happen. “There was a change in the weather. For the worse”. It’s not until the tension is broken that the rain comes.


At the end of the book, the rain signifies the end of the curse. It is a cleansing agent, washing away the sins of the past and preparing the way for renewal - yeah, my interpretation is a bit flowery but this is A GREAT BOOK

The cold weather of winter and the warm weather of spring signify different feelings in Oscar Wilde's, The Selfish Giant'



Oscar Wilde's beloved tale tells the story of the selfish giant who built a wall around his beautiful garden to keep children out. It was always Winter in the garden, for no other season would venture there. Then one morning, a special child brought Spring back, and the giant's heart melted along with the snow.



This is a story where the weather is a big player. The cold is symbolic of the barren, cold, spirit-less heart of the giant; it is made concrete for the child reader with the depiction of a Winter garden. Similarly the rebirth, the acceptance of giving-love and ultimately Christ, into the giant's heart, is revealed through a Spring garden. Simple and effective and affecting.

Random weather check 

I looked at a random selection of books to see what role the weather played. Interesting ...



In ghosty history mystery, The Crowfield Demon by Pat Walsh, the weather is on the front cover! It starts in Chapter 1,  paragraph 2,

"The March morning was cold and a biting wind whipped the grey clouds across the sky."


In the dystopian Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Chapter 3, page 5:

" ...in another country where the buildings don't stop rising until they pin the clouds to the sky. Where the sun shines in Technicolour. Life at the end of the rainbow."

So far so weathery ...


A slice of history but not as we know it. Here lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Page 4:

"Wrong as snow in summer or the sun at midnight. War's a thing for autumn, when the harvest's in and the rains not yet come to turn the roads to mud."

So, it turns out that the weather is useful, it can act in many ways:
  • it can be the story
  • be a plot device to move the story along
  • help set the scene
  • be symbolic of a theme
  • be a reflection of mood
  • be a reflection of plot
  • add depth and texture to a scene
  • without it, you're either indoors or in space
But before you go, dear reader, let me indulge you and me with the Moomins. And yes, I know, Snufkin is talking about the seasons but it's close enough for me. The weather has its place and you just know when it is right to use it:
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.”
















Monday, 16 January 2017

Notes from the Critique Group - Fictional Worlds



Investigating the SMALL WORLD/BIG WORLD in fiction.

Em Lynas

As 2017 begins I've been doing a lot of pondering on the real issues of the Small World/Big World I live in.

In 2016 my Small World was a very successful year both personally and professionally with my mam surviving a life threatening illness at the same time as I signed a three book deal with Nosy Crow. Woo hoo for us!

In contrast the Big World turned upside down and I am in a political and social reality that is uncomfortable for me. The human behaviour that's led to this move to TospyTurvy Land is puzzling and I, along with millions of others, feel powerless to influence any change as an individual. Perhaps we're waiting, hoping that someone will step forward to put the world the right way up again. As if one person could.

Of course, that would be the next step in fiction so maybe we're primed to hope for that.

Anyway, it got me thinking. How inciting does an Inciting Incident have to be before it incites action from a protagonist? Does it have to get personal i.e. invade the protagonist's Small World before a protagonist engages? And does it always propel the protagonist out of their comfort zone and into an uncomfortable zone. And how many zones away from the original comfort zone does the protagonist end up?

I kept thinking and now have many more questions.

What do I mean by the Big World?

Perhaps this could be defined as a situation outside the protagonist's normal life. Sometimes this will be BIG physically as in Star Wars and sometimes this will be BIG emotionally as in A Monster Calls. Both stories deal with death. One on a galactic level and one on a personal level.

Obviously not all stories deal with death. Perhaps the Big World of your story involves an issue faced and resolved. I once ran a picture book course where we sorted a pile of picture books by theme. The biggest pile dealt with death. The others were fear, love, friendship, kindness, growing up etc An interesting exercise!

Let's do another.

Stand in front of your bookshelves. Pick a book. Any book. Fiction. That you have read! Then ask.

What is the Small World the protagonist lives in?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Hobbiton. Character secure in - The known. Geographically small, safe, friendly folk (mostly friendly, not dangerous), normal behaviours, predictable life and seasonal patterns, etc.

What is the Big World of the story?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Middle Earth. Character insecure in - The unknown. Geographically big, dangerous, scary people, unpredictable behaviours,  difficult terrain, etc.
Is the Big World the same (e.g. physically, politically, or culturally) as the Small World?

Who inhabits the story in the Big World and is there an echo of this character dynamic in the Small World?

e.g. Lord of the Rings - Having defeated Sauron the hobbits return to their ordinary world they must battle on their own to save Hobbiton from Sharkey (Sauruman in disguise).
Harry Potter must battle the Dursleys in his Small World and Voldemort in the Big World.
In The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent's house is about to be bulldozed (Small World) but then discovers the whole world is about to be bulldozed (Big World, obviously!)


At what point does the protagonist become aware of the Big World?

They may be unaware the Big World exists until the inciting incident. e.g. Harry Potter - the Hogwarts letters arrive by owl.
They may already be aware e.g. Pride and Prejudice - the Bennett daughters are well aware they must have husbands. 

At what point does the reader become aware of the Big World?

Have hints been given as we're led to the reveal? e.g. Harry Potter.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. The implication being not everything in the book would be normal.

At what moment does the protagonist engage with the Big World?

e.g. Star Wars - Luke leaves his home planet.
Lord of the Rings - Frodo sets off to deliver the ring to the elves.

Why do they engage?

Is this a moment when the Big World impacts on the protagonist's Small World i.e. the Big World becomes personal? Must there always be a personal catalyst to prompt the protagonist to engage with the Big World? I'm ignoring the detective genre here. It's their job to engage with the problem.

Do they chose to engage or are they forced by circumstances?

e.g. Harry Potter has a moment of choice. He can go with Hagrid or stay with the Dursleys.
Arthur Dent has no choice. If he stays on the earth he will die.

If they have a choice then what will they lose if they don't engage with the Big World?

e.g. Harry will lose any chance of finding out who he is.
Arthur Dent will lose his life.
There's nothing left on the planet for Luke.

Is there a mentor involved in this decision/circumstance?

e.g. Hagrid for Harry, Ford Prefect for Arthur, gandalf for Frodo, Princess Leia for Luke? She gives information but does not offer him advice.


Refusal of the Call:

Is it normal human behaviour to accept that we live in a world that has a lot of injustice in it and is it normal in those circumstances for the protagonist to wish to continue to focus on the Small World?

e.g. Hunger Games book 1 - In the ordinary world Katniss focusses on feeding her family prior to the Inciting Incident of the selection for the Hunger Games. She has no ambition or desire to be heroic. She's doing what everyone else is doing, keeping her head down and trying not to be noticed.

How and why is the protagonist affected by this Big World moment more than the other characters? Why is he/she the hero?

e.g. Why isn't Sam the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings? Why is Frodo the only one who can carry the ring?

Last question.

At what point does the Big World become a problem the protagonist thinks they can solve?

e.g Why did Frodo volunteer to carry the ring to Mount Doom? Why was he the ONLY ONE.

I've focussed mainly on fantasy but I'm sure these questions can be applied to any genre, except those where the main character doesn't change. I'm about to re-read A Monster Calls which obviously moves from the Small World of having to the Big World of loss so I'll soon find out.

Now, time to go back to the real Small World/Big World TopsyTurvy Land scenario where values are being tested and the challenges seem overwhelming and confusing. Good luck to us all.

Best wishes for the future and I hope 2017 is a good year in your own Small World.

The first book in the Toadspit Towers series will be published in Sep 2017 by Nosy Crow. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Final Draft: Looking for Satisfactions

By Candy Gourlay

Happy 2017, Slushpilers!

I am happy to report that I think (fingers crossed) I am about to write my current novel for the LAST time.


I wrote the first draft to find my story.

I wrote a second draft to get to know my characters.

I wrote a third draft to lay down everything I thought had to be in my novel.  All the scenes I wanted, All the meaningful things I wanted to say. All the who does what where and how.

So. Final Draft. What do I want from it?

Satisfaction.

Not satisfaction for me. I've already had three drafts to do that. Satisfaction for the READER.

What can I do to this draft that will make the experience of reading it a satisfying one for the random reader?
I want my reader to be immediately drawn into my story, his curiosity whetted, his attention hooked so that he desperately needs to keep reading to find out what happens next. I want my reader to identify with my hero's predicament, see his own flaws in my hero's imperfections. I want my reader to commit to a long journey in the company of my hero, to rejoice when my hero rejoices and suffer when my hero suffers. And when all is lost, I want my reader to despair ... only to be born again when my hero finds his way out of his predicament.
I've spent the Christmas holidays endlessly re-reading my favourite books about writing, literally listing the faults of my manuscript and searching for solutions.

Here are Five Satisfactions that we owe our readers:

1. Dramatic tension

Alfred Hitchcock was once asked if he had a formula for creating dramatic tension. He replied by calling on his interviewer to imagine a bomb under a table. When the bomb explodes, the public will be surprised, but until it does, they will be oblivious. But if the public knows that the bomb is under the table, then they are complicit - they're part of the scene, longing to warn the characters that the bomb is about to explode. Boy, won't they just love that!

So, in revision, pay attention to whether your reader knows about ticking bombs in your plot. Can you rearrange scenes so that the reader is dreading someone's arrival or something happening? Is that bomb ticking loudly enough, is the reader feeling the pressure of time running out?  What your reader knows and what doesn't know is what makes him read on.


2. Delayed gratification

At some point last Christmas, the family watched Shakespeare in Love, the Tom Stoppard film starring Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow as his inspiration for Juliet. Afterwards, I found myself listing all the  delicious satisfactions that the film had delivered at the very end, including :

• After all the cross dressing, boys playing girls and girls playing boys, Shakespeare and Viola at last end up playing Romeo and Juliet

• At the end of the play the holier-than-thou guy who was preaching that theatre was the devil's work is seen weeping and applauding the play

• Mean old Colin Firth, Earl of Wessex is humiliated royally

• we get to see Queen Judy Dench again!

Satisfactions!


3. Fun and Games

Over Christmas, I re-read Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder, in which he demonstrated how to plot a story using a 'Beat Sheet' - if you haven't got the book, here's a blog post about how to plot using Snyder's beat sheet and here are sample beat sheets of films. Snyder says that at about page 30 of every 55 page script, there should be fun and games. Fun and games, he explained, "is where all the trailer moments of a movie are found."

Trailer moments??? Gah! I rushed to re-read my manuscript. Were there any moments that would make it to a film trailer if my book were a film?

Snyder wrote:
The fun and games section answers the question: Why did I come to see this movie? What about this premise, this poster, this movie idea, is cool?
When they plan set pieces for a movie, apparently this is where they put them. Snyder said realising this 'leapfrogged me ahead 10 places'. Snyder also called it the Promise of the Premise. What is the cool premise of your book? That high concept that you promised would make it stand above the rest?Have you kept your promise?


4. Mirroring

Reading about structure, you see a lot of stuff about mirroring. John Yorke in his book on story structure Into the Woods spent a chapter examining the patterns defined by eggheads from Shakespeare to Robert McKee (author of Story). Yorke ultimately concludes that a story in five acts reveals an extraordinary, underlying symmetry -- elements mirror each other in opposite and equal actions. Somehow there's something extra satisfying in creating such symmetries. Here are some mirrorings and symmetries to look out for:

Journey into the woods • journey back - It was from Yorke that I first heard of the Midpoint - which is exactly at a story's halfway point, a concept first identified by Syd Field who said it was "an important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story." Yorke calls the first half the hero's journey "into the woods". The second half, is the hero's journey back. The midpoint, smack dab in the middle, is a moment in the story when "something profoundly significant occurs". James Scott Bell, author of Plot and Structure, has helpfully written an ebook devoted to the Midpoint, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Imma gonna try that next time.

Opening scene • final scene - Blake Snyder writes: "The very first impression of what a movie is -- its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film -- are all found in the opening image" while "the final image is the opposite of the opening image. It is proof that change has occurred." It sure would be a nice touch to have mirroring opening and final chapters.

Hero • Villain - Just before New Year someone posted a link on Facebook to David Villalva's infographic Three Ways to Create a Villain.

Number one way is: The villain functions as a reflection of the hero. Woops, I thought. Have I done enough work on my hero and my villain? I sat down and drew a two-column chart, comparing my hero and my villain. I discovered that I had done this without realising it. But having it articulated to me meant that I could get in there and make things even better.

Danger • Opportunity - writing about crisis, climax and resolution, Robert McKee in Story says the Chinese ideogram for 'Crisis' fittingly describes two things: danger and opportunity.
'Danger' in that the wrong decision at this moment will lose forever what we want; 'Opportunity' in that the right choice will achieve our desire.
So the final draft is a chance to ask, have I made every danger in my story an opportunity for my hero? Well not every danger. But it's an interesting way to examine plot peril and develop conflict. Eg: Crisis is the moment when the hero comes face to face with all the forces of antagonism against him. Luke Skywalker pilots the X Wing Fighter into the Death Star. The Climax is one final action by the protagonist that settles everything. Luke destroys the Death Star. And finally, the Resolution. Luke gets a medal. Danger is Opportunity.


5. Character

The greatest task when writing a final draft, is to switch from your bleary author eyes to the nice fresh eyes of a reader so that you can SEE, nay, get to KNOW your characters as if you'd never met them before.

But it does take a lot of forgetting to set aside, in some cases, years of time spent creating, growing, writing your characters. Can you really see them as your reader will see them? Or are you too close, too emotionally attached, too fed up to identify what it is they need to come to life.

It is interesting though, sometimes as your character deepens and becomes richer in nuance, a magical thing happens. You find yourself changing your story, plugging holes in the plot, turning mere obstacles into turning points, everything suddenly growing in meaning and depth. Don't be surprised if your character's voice changes, perhaps she might even develop a life of her own, suddenly introducing scenes that you had not envisioned before.

In On Film Making - An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, Alexander Mackendrick, who made the film Ladykillers, writes :
A situation that seems promising but lacks the momentum to keep going all the way to the end may be a premise not yet explored to its full potential.  
How do you explore the full potential of your story? Character! If you go to your characters and ask them every question, you will find every answer.

If you liked this post you might enjoy Exposition: It's About Emotion not Information

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Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine. Visit her website www.candygourlay.com

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