Monday, 25 July 2016

How not to choke as a writer

by Paula Harrison

A children’s writer encounters many obstacles on the way to publication - learning their craft, understanding the children’s book market, finding an agent and publisher who love their writing. Before reaching publication, many of us believe that once we find that Golden Ticket marked You Have Got a Publisher, the journey is over and we will simply float away on a fluffy cloud into a blissful published heaven.

The truth is that the obstacles remain after getting published and at times they can be even harder than before. Sustaining a writing career is not easy. There’s (rightly) a lot of excitement about debuts but each writer only gets to be that freshly-discovered talent once. As we forge a writing career, we start worrying about new things. Are our books  being packaged the best way possible? Are we out promoting them enough? Are sales good? What do the reviews say? And all the while we try to remain true to our creative vision for our new story.

Each time a story goes to an agent or publisher, we open ourselves up like a target. There’s nothing that hurts like the arrow of rejection from people that know what they’re talking about. All of us know that shrinking feeling inside if someone tells us they are not interested in our stories. Having sold more than a million books, I know I’m far from saying goodbye to the experience of rejection. It will happen again either by agent, publisher or reviewer. It’s probably one of the few certainties of my life as an author.

As creatives, we feed our experiences and emotions into our work. So how do we stop that shrinking feeling from seeping into our writing. When that ‘no’ leaves us feeling so small, how do we prevent that smallness getting on to the page.

How do we manage not to choke?

For a long time, I’ve thought that the psychology of writing fiction is similar in some ways to the psychology of succeeding as an athlete. We produce something from nothing and pour it on to an empty page. We have to believe our story, why it needs telling and that we have the power to do that well. Instead of facing another tennis player on Centre Court Wimbledon, it’s our own self-doubt on the other side of the net. It’s a match that we keep playing over and over, each time we sit down at the computer.

So here are ten top tips to keep self-doubt at bay: 

1.    Remind yourself you’re not alone. You’re reading this blog so you’ve completed that step – well done!

2.    Be bloody minded. I don’t know about you but I’m quite good at this one. Do I think the last person who turned me down has no taste? Damn straight! ;)

3.    One door closes and another one opens. Before getting published, I got down to the last 3 writers who were considered for writing a chapter book series by Hothouse Fiction (a packager). If I’d been picked to be the final writer, I’d have been writing under a pseudonym instead of finishing the story that got me published under my own name.

4.    If you feel like you’re getting nowhere, re-define what success looks like. Writing 200 words is a success. Editing one chapter is a success. Being an author is a marathon not a sprint. Celebrate each thing you’ve achieved even when they’re small. Write them down to remind yourself what you’ve done.

5.    Different agents and editors have hugely varying tastes. Not everyone will like your story and that’s OK. It may be that they are one of the (deluded clearly!) people who won’t appreciate what you’ve created. This happens to all writers. Look at the 1 star reviews for the Harry Potter books on Goodreads as proof.

6.    Admit that some drafts of a book – even some whole books unfortunately – are bridging moments where you needed to work on your craft and improve. You have more than one story in you, don’t you?

7.    If other people’s success is distracting you, turn off social media for a while. Be happy for them from a distance. Send positive vibes and reward yourself with a Kit Kat. Your turn will come.

8.    Believe in what you’re writing during the first draft but let your inner editor out when you redraft. This isn’t the same as telling yourself none of it is any good! Consider joining a critique group and if you develop a good critiquing relationship with another writer – nurture it. People who can give you helpful feedback are like gold dust.

9.    Remind yourself why you’re writing THIS story. Immerse yourself to the point where the story is the real world and the real world is just pretend. This is what I love about writing first drafts. It’s waking-dreaming. Find music/  pictures/ places that take you there. (I refer you back to my post "How to thrive on deadlines"  and Kathy Evans’s excellent post "What if I just don't feel like it? )

10. Find writing friends to share the highs and lows AND HANG ON TO THEM FOR DEAR LIFE! (I refer you back to Jo Wyton’s excellent post "The Importance of a Good Network" )

Being a writer, you’ll start to see the seasons turn in your creative life. Winter will come (yes Jon Snow) but after winter comes spring. I wish you the best of luck. Now I’ll get back to eating that Kit Kat!

Paula Harrison is the author of The Rescue Princesses series, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and the Secret Rescuers series published by Nosy Crow.
Her new book Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes is coming in September 2016 from Scholastic.

Monday, 18 July 2016

On Being Edited by Maureen Lynas

I’m currently experiencing my first experience of being edited by an experienced editor (Agent Amber) and it has been an extremely interesting experience.

Note: Being edited is nothing like being critiqued.
Being edited has made my story

One big plus is that I now have insider knowledge on how publishers view school based stories. So I shall share one insight that had me hitting the research button.

Are they allowed to be the bad guys?
How bad?
I have three main teacher characters in Witch School Sucks.
Ms Toadspit - the ghostly headmistress
Ms Sage - the deputy headmistress
Ms Thorn - senior mistress

Their roles weren’t entirely clear in early drafts. It was as if I had all of the necessary elements of teacher behaviour assigned to all three and had not clarified which individual played which role.

Someone had to keep the school in the past.
Someone had to bring the school into the future.
Someone had to be the teacher who is obsessed with conformity and standardisation.
Someone had to control the children physically.
Someone had to control the children emotionally and mentally.
Someone had to be the teacher who keeps the rules.
Someone had to be kind to the children.

I needed a bad guy who would put Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle (one character) in physical danger. But which one?

Editing hiccup - publishers are really wary of teachers putting children in danger. School should (usually) be portrayed as a safe place. Teachers should (usually) be portrayed as safe adults.


Harry Potter had bad teachers so how come JK Rowling got away with that?

She had the following bad guys:

Quirinus Quirrell
In cahoots with Voldemort
Gideroy Lockhart
Out for himself
Barty Crouch Junior (Mad-Eye_Moody)
In cahoots with Voldemort and a teensy weensy bit bonkers.
Delores Clayborne
In cahoots with Voldemort, and a power grabber
Horace Slughorn (turned out good)
Out for himself.

They were all either new to the school or temporary teachers on short term contracts.
None of the permanent staff were bad guys. Not even Snape.


The permanent staff could be annoying in the way that teachers can typically be annoying in a real school. They gave detentions for the normal stuff like being out of bed, disobeying a school rule etc
They could be bullies e.g. Snape. But if they were bullies the other teachers were there to reign them in and mitigate the punishments.

Filtch also comes into this category until Dolores Umbridge appears. But he isn’t a teacher so can be a little more chaotic.

So, back to my teachers. 
Who is who and who is allowed to do what?
Ms Toadspit - The Ghostly Headmistress
Is now the mad ghostly headmistress who lurks the corridors and ensures the rules are kept. Because she’s dead she isn’t really a teacher so she can take on the role of temporary teacher and her actions can drive Daisy/Ophelia/Twinkle towards the climax of the story in which (spoiler) there will be DANGER!

Ms Sage - The Deputy Headmistress
Is now the kindly teacher who is looking to the future and the good of the school. She attempts to control the children through her smiley smile of certainty and emphasis on sensible behaviour. I think she’s been reading a book on Neural Linguistic Programing. Or she's been watching Derren Brown but she isn't as good as he is.

Ms Thorn - Senior Mistress
Is now the stern teacher who would like standardisation and conformity in all things.



Maureen Lynas is represented by Amber Caraveo of the Skylark Agency

She posts funny poems on the funeverse and is the author of the Action Words Reading Scheme

Monday, 11 July 2016

More Films about Writers

By Nick Cross

I’ve been busy at work recently. Really busy. So I haven’t done much writing or blogging or tweeting or anything like that. All I’ve really had headspace for over the last couple of months has been working, worrying about my daughter’s GCSEs (now finished), worrying about the EU referendum (now it’s us that’s finished), and slumping down in the evening to watch TV or a film. Accordingly, you’ll have to excuse me if I recycle the theme of my earlier post and jump back into the fascinating world of films about writers.

There were lots of suggestions after my February post about films I could have included, and I’ve tried to cover some of those here. But I’ve also watched loads more that I’d like to tell you about...

The Front (1976)

This is a little-known farce that’s interesting precisely because it isn’t about a writer. Howard Prince (played by Woody Allen in a rare non-directing role) is a politically apathetic barkeep with an unsuccessful bookmaking racket on the side. But Howard has friends who are writers, and in 1950s America, with communist witch-hunts and the blacklist in full swing, they can’t sell their scripts to make a living. Meanwhile, the TV studios (forced by a culture of fear to toe the McCarthyist line) are starved of good material for their shows. Enter Howard with a simple plan: he will “front” the other writers by pretending to have written their scripts, kicking back the proceeds of the sale (minus his percentage, of course). Naturally, things don’t stay uncomplicated for long, as Howard is quickly intoxicated by both his sudden fame and a beautiful, idealistic script editor played by Andrea Marcovicci. As events escalate, he is investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee and finds himself forced to take an unlikely political stand.

Written, directed by and starring several people who were themselves on the blacklist, The Front was an unlikely vehicle for the first Hollywood film to deal with the communist witch-hunts. Given the weight of the subject matter, it struggles to be truly funny and comes off as more of an amusing drama. But the cast (especially Allen) are great and it’s definitely worth a watch if it pops up on TV in the middle of the night.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) / Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)

I’m giving you a two-for-one deal on these films, which I think is appropriate given how closely Hunter Thompson's life and writing were aligned. The first is a Terry Gilliam directed big screen version of Thompson’s signature novel, which for many years was considered “unfilmable.” The second is Alex Gibney’s documentary on the man himself. Beyond the source material, there are considerable links between the two, not least the presence of Johnny Depp. In Fear and Loathing, Depp plays the lead role of Raoul Duke, a thinly-veiled version of Thompson himself. For Gonzo, he acts as narrator, reading from Thompson’s work. Depp is such a Hunter Thompson superfan that he also appeared in a third film adapted from his works called The Rum Diary (which I haven’t seen), and even funded Thompson’s funeral in which the late author’s ashes were fired into the sky from a cannon!

For those who have yet to be exposed to its lunacy, the (very) basic premise of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that journalist Raoul Duke has been sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race, and taken his “attorney” Dr Gonzo along for the ride. But it quickly becomes a quest to find the heart of the American Dream, fuelled by the most excessive ingestion of illegal narcotics this side of Scarface. Terry Gilliam is the perfect choice to capture the visual textures of drug use, and he creates some wonderfully disturbing imagery to accompany the characters' hallucinations. It’s a film that is often riotously funny, providing fish-out-of-water humour as Duke and Gonzo act in violation of all accepted social norms. But the humour gradually pales, with the film turning nastier in its final third. Despite copious voiceover, Fear and Loathing struggles with a story that is utterly dependent on Thompson's voice to succeed on the printed page. Without that, the characters (especially the repellent Dr Gonzo) become more monstrous than they are amusing.

The Gonzo documentary is more successful, indeed how could it not be given such a dynamite central character in Hunter S. Thompson and a background of 1960s America, one of the most turbulent and eventful decades in modern history. Thompson’s canon seems inseparable from the times in which it was written, embodying the central concept of Gonzo Journalism, that the journalist themselves becomes part of the story.

The documentary interviews figures as disparate as Ralph Steadman, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Carter in its quest to discover what made Thompson tick. The portrait that emerges is of a volatile genius, frequently intoxicated and as happy taking down the system with words as he was letting off one of his many automatic weapons. This apparent paradox - the fiercely patriotic libertarian left-wing dropout - is what fuels the best of his writing. Watching Thompson being interviewed also confirms what lengths Johnny Depp went to in order to capture his voice and mannerisms for Fear and Loathing. Sadly, recent media stories about Depp’s booze-fuelled rages suggest that he may be taking Thompson's life lessons a little too close to heart.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) begins hearing a voice in his head, narrating his every thought and action. It’s a voice not unlike this one actually, except rather than hack-novelist and occasional blogger Nick Cross, Harold is hearing the voice of reclusive literary superstar Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). For her part, Karen doesn’t realise the story she’s writing is about a real person, but she’s very clear on one point: Harold must die at the end of her book.

From this clever magical-realist conceit, Stranger than Fiction spins out an amusing comedy-drama which is part character study and part metaphysical “what-if?” Ferrell is surprisingly effective as the repressed, obsessive-compulsive tax clerk who realises he needs to get on with living his life before he dies. The chain-smoking Emma Thompson, meanwhile, portrays one of the most neurotic authors ever seen in a movie, under pressure to deliver her first novel following a ten-year writer’s block. The “death at the end” concept is a brilliant ticking clock that drives the narrative – we simultaneously see Karen’s need to be rid of the book she hates and Harold’s need to persuade her not to kill him. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you who wins!

Young Adult (2011)

Welcome to the first post-Twilight movie about writing. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a wildly successful, wildly self-hating writer of packaged YA fiction, struggling with the final volume of her Waverley Prep series. Mavis’s career choice (the film implies) has stunted her emotional development and left her in a state of permanent adolescence, even as she careers towards 40. Her absorption with teenage matters is so pronounced that she embarks on a delusional quest to win back her childhood sweetheart, despite the fact he is happily married with a new baby. Like Grosse Pointe Blank, the film is especially good at evoking the experience of returning to your home town after a long absence and finding yourself baffled both by what has changed and what hasn’t.

Aside from an amusing scene where Mavis tries to sign books against the store’s wishes, the writing aspect of her life is mostly presented as an ironic voiceover. This is a clever device, with Gossip Girlesque romantic prose juxtaposed against Mavis’s increasingly unhinged real life campaign to reclaim her sweetheart.

With its borderline psychotic lead character, Young Adult is not a film designed to give you the warm and fuzzies. But this defiantly sour and uncomfortable movie does offer a few laughs, and a kernel of truth about the human condition - even if I’m not convinced by its central thesis about children’s writers!

Goosebumps (2015)

R.L. Stine (Jack Black) has a magic typewriter. You may recognise this trope from Ruby Sparks, which featured in my previous round-up. But Stine’s typewriter doesn’t manifest an attractive manic-pixie girlfriend. Instead, it spews forth all manner of frightening (but PG-friendly) monsters. Stine’s absence from the publishing world since his 90s heyday was not, it turns out, because he had flogged the Goosebumps concept to death. No, he needed to protect his now-teenage daughter from the horrors he had unleashed. No prizes for guessing that said horrors are quickly unleashed again to terrorise a sleepy Delaware town.

Goosebumps the movie is equal parts 80s & 90s nostalgia (hello Gremlins!) and modern meta-snark. Jack Black gives a terrifically deadpan performance as Stine – he somehow manages to be hilariously funny just by looking serious and disapproving throughout. But it’s a double triumph, as Black also gets to unleash his wacky side by playing the voice of his nemesis, Slappy the evil ventriloquist's dummy. The film is sometimes a bit over-stuffed, throwing every Goosebumps monster it can find at us, but better too much ambition than too little!

Trainwreck (2015)

I didn’t realise that this was about a writer when I sat down to watch it. But look, there’s Amy Schumer’s character (imaginatively named “Amy Townsend”) working for the most appalling men’s magazine possible, under the frightening stewardship of alpha female editor Tilda Swinton. The whole movie is structured (somewhat shambolically) as a voyage of discovery, in which Amy learns how to do grown-up stuff like having a monogamous relationship and writing from the heart. But the paper-thin plot is excused by the fact that it’s frequently very funny and because the characters are completely adorable. Amy Schumer, in particular, exhibits genuine vulnerability in the lead role, to the extent that I wanted to step into the frame, give her a hug and be the decent father figure she never had.

So there you have it – seven more fascinating films about writers. It’s an eclectic mix, though poor Misery missed out again because I didn’t have time to rewatch it before the deadline. Another notable omission was Crimson Peak, a film where the main character is a writer, but it seems to be merely a convenient character device to set the plot in motion and is then forgotten for much of the film.

Until next time (when I’ll have to come up with a new idea), happy viewing!


Nick Cross is a children's writer and Undiscovered Voices winner.
Nick's writing appears in Stew Magazine, and his most recent story is The Man Who Bought the World in issue 14. Nick received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.

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