Are you embarrassed by the size of your slushpile? Do you hide it, ignore it, lie about it? DON'T! Be PROUD of it! SHOUT about it. I'm telling you now - MINE IS HUGE!
Why am I telling you now? Well, after reading Candy's latest blog post on the trauma of completing her second book, and seeing ex-lurker Tamsin's comments about writing for six years and not giving up, I was inspired to come clean and reveal all. This is my writer's journey. From 2000 to 2012.
THE WRITER'S (HERO'S) JOURNEY
THE ORDINARY WORLD (2000)
My world was teaching in a primary school. A story lover, child lover, OFSTED hater. A wanna be writer of children’s fiction.
The government was crushing my soul with misguided testing, target setting and form filling, and providing fewer opportunities for real training and learning. We all need a kick to get out of our ordinary world - my second OFSTED was looming.
THE DOORWAY INTO THE STORY
So I developed a reading scheme for teaching high frequency words Action Words and left to embark on a new career as an author.
I wrote picture books because that’s what I knew (or thought I did). I sent first drafts out to unsuspecting publishers along with terrible covering letters. I am so embarrassed by them – pages of please love me and my books, I even worked out how many books I had read over my career and told them this meant I knew my subject! I hang my head in shame.
I can’t believe how lovely my rejections were. Some even had real handwriting on them! ‘Thank you so much for sending so many of your stories (9). We really loved Why Don’t You Kiss A Frog? but we published a frog book last year. But you are very funny and we would be interested in seeing more.’
Success! I’m funny! I keep writing.
More positivety – A BIG PUBLISHER PLC got in touch – love your story Maybe the Baby, it’s really funny – I’ll pass it on to the editorial team.
Success! I’m funny! I keep writing.
Two years later and they turn it down, and many other publishers turn down many other books too. I stop writing picture books. I turn to slightly older fiction. Pirates! I write Eebygum the Pirate’s Mum, she’s gross, she's hilarious. I put it to one side (I’ve learned not to send first drafts). Then I get an idea via Tony Ross. He has a book out called Don’t Do That, about a girl who has her finger stuck up her nose. I’m reminded of the phrase Don’t pull your face like that or it will stick – Gurner Gobbit and the Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker is born. But he's called Esmeralda in this version and is a troll, not an extreme face-pulling lad from the
. county of Clogshire
At this point, I decided to put my hand in my pocket, pull out some dosh, and get some professional feedback. So I approached Cornerstones Literary Agency. I sent three picture books and received my report – No lead characters, no plot, no pace, no good. (They were much kinder than that! I recommend them.) But, they added - you're very funny.
Hurrah! I'm still funny! I keep writing.
Then I sent Cornerstones Esmerelda and Eebygum.
Eebygum the pirates – no plot and too many pirates. Esmerelda the facepuller– two plots in one and not enough face-pulling. But, guess what?
I'm really f... No – I can’t possibly say the f word. Dejection has set in.
Time for a course! A self-editing course run by Cornerstones leading to a eureka moment and a friend for life, Christina Banach, my first writer friend and uber critiquer. The course was an eye opener and I thoroughly recommend it. And I thoroughly recommend getting a writer friend who will tell you the truth about your work.
Can you assess your own work? Do you know the difference between show not tell? Do you understand the terminology of your chosen craft? Have you created a believable character? Does your character have a clear goal? What are the stakes? Who’s the antagonist? Have you lost the plot?
I passed on some and failed abysmally on others but it was a huge wake up call. If I wanted to write stories, I had to know and understand my craft. I had to treat it with respect. I had to be professional about this. I had to learn!
There was one fantastic moment during the course when my work was being read publicly for the first time (no one knew it was mine) and people began to laugh. I will never forget that moment.
Hurrah again! I’m funny! I keep writing.
I join a stand up comedy club but I sit, not stand, and I write sketches for others to perform. I toy with the idea of being the next Victoria Wood. I watch Dinner Ladies obsessively, noting the distinctive dialogue of each character, the personalities, the emotional arcs. I note the story arcs too, how she names, previews, and contrasts each event in the story lines. How they overlap.
I write a six-part comedy drama script with a comedian and writer friend. We had well known actors keen to appear but couldn’t get a production company interested.
So on I went - I half wrote a comedy novel for adults, then a teen book called Abracadabra about a magic bra, then a cross over fantasy with a body swap – all unfinished. And I loved them all. But all of these ideas and half-finished projects led to huge confusion. I was a writer but a writer of WHAT!
Aha! I thought, if I gather more allies, and consequently more opinions, maybe they will point me in the right direction. So, I joined youwriteon and began to critique and receive critiques in return. Then I joined authonomy I post work. It’s spotted by an editor. But I don’t know this. I get lots of great feedback and guess what -
I'm funny! I keep writing.
MORE ALLIES! THE BEST ALLIES! (2008)
I join The SCBWI - The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I am home. They understand. They are on the same journey. They are incredibly supportive. Thank you particularly to Addy Farmer and Candy Gourlay.
Did I mention critiques? Did I mention the power of feedback? Well, beware the feedback. Beware the critiques. I now had advice pouring down on me from all directions and I was picking up and putting down projects as if I was juggling with jelly.
It’s so tempting to respond to each critiquer, change this, change that, change this to that and that to this. I was so confused! I went down different routes and right around bends that were deceptively curvy and led to fields of turnips.
I looked at my work and I didn't recognise it. I stopped writing. I stopped submitting. I stopped critiquing.
Then, Helen Corner of Cornerstones gave this very good advice which I am totally misquoting – If three people highlight a problem they will come up with three different solutions. Focus on the fact that they’ve highlighted a problem – come up with your own solution. At least that’s the gist of what she meant.
So I began to more critical of the critiquers. Myself included. I looked at their work before accepting their points.
I found people whose judgements and advice I could trust. Thank you particularly to Juliet ClareBell and Rebecca Colby. Thanks to them, my work improved.
I keep writing.
EVEN MORE ALLIES
I dove into the self-help books. Thank you – Robert Mckee for Story, Christopher Vogler for The Writer’s Journey, James Scott Bell for Plot and Structure and Revision and Self-editing, Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly for How to Write a Blockbuster.
THE APPROACH TO THE
INNERMOST CAVE (2009)
Then one day an email appeared out of the blue. Misquoting again! ‘I am an editor with THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. You are really funny. We saw your work online. We want you. Did I say you are really funny? Let’s meet. You have potential. Can you write something funny for 7-9 yrs. Because you know – you’re funny.’
Real success! Big success! I’m funny! I MUST prepare for the meeting.
And how did I prepare for my very first meeting with the very big huge publisher? Did I concentrate on my pitches? Did I practise my interview techniques? Did I think about my writing CV and how I could show my professional approach?
I did not.
I obsessed over what I was going to wear. Because – first impressions count!
Casual? Denoting a confidence in myself and my place in the writing community.
Professional? Proving I could meet deadlines and be trusted not to screw up at the Times Literary Festival.
Scruffy? Showing my disdain for the whole process. I’m an artist! A creative type! You will not own me!
This slightly (?) neurotic behaviour continued until my wise daughter observed me debating over two pairs of trousers one cropped, one not. She shook her head and said, ‘Yes, because the size of a book deal depends on the length of your trousers.’
With one day to go, I turned my attention to my work.
CENTRAL ORDEAL – I MEET THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. IN THEIR VERY BIG CAVE. (2010)
Armed with a list of my books, wearing a professional dress that was just a tad too short and with two spare pairs of tights in my bag, I arrived at the very big offices of THE VERY BIG HUGE PUBLISHER INC. I was met by Edna the Editor (name has been altered to protect any future working relationship we may have). She was dressed causally in a pair of jeans and a top. (You see how obsessed I’d become!)
We had an hour long interview and the subject of clothes was never mentioned but she listened politely as I pitched stories from picture books to teen, I didn’t bring up the TV script after I saw her eyes glaze over.
Then I realised the only thing Edna the Editor was interested in was funny stuff for 7-9’s. She had a gap in her publishing schedule. And she thought I could fill it. It didn’t matter how good the other stuff was (if it was) she didn’t have a gap for the other stuff. She only had a gap for that age group, and it needed to be funny. And it dawned on me - she’d actually said that in her emails!
She showed me samples of series books and after a quick brainstorm, she sent me away with the word FOCUS ringing in my ears.
It would be great to say the reward was a deal. It would be even greater to say the reward was a three or over seven book deal. But it wasn’t. The reward was clarity.
I owe a big thank you to Edna the Editor because I went home, laid all of my stories on the table (big table) and wondered what I should FOCUS on! As I walked around the table I realised that I smiled whenever I passed certain books and didn’t smile at others. The books that made me smile were picture books and chapter books and it was because of the characters, they were real to me. Suddenly, I realised I wanted to make children from 3 – 9 yrs laugh their socks off. I’d found my home (which had actually been where I’d started if you remember that far back)
RETURN WITH THE REWARD – THE ROAD BACK
With a detour to pick up more allies – An Arvon Course on writing for children. And I now thank Malachy Doyle and Julia Goulding for showing me where my voice was and helping to bring it out. It came out of hiding during that amazing week of laughter, writing and I meet another life long friend, Louise Kelly.
So, the reward was mine, but now what to do with it? How could I use this knowledge? Well, I could begin by writing, learning, and analysing my chosen field. I could become an expert in how others did it. Then, I could use my voice and start shouting.
So I did. I stripped books back to their basic components, I looked for their structures, their plots, their pacing. I studied the language, the rhetoric, the dialogue. And I wrote To Destiny or Death! I shouted about Prince Bob the frog and his story. Then, I was lucky enough to win a place in Undiscovered Voices. And that led to an agent who thought that –
I was funny!
Who knows? Who knows whether that book deal is just round the corner. It may be. I hope so.
But for now, I'm content to reflect on the journey of 12 years that created my rather large slushpile. Am I frustrated it's taken so long? I probably was, at the six year point. But now, not so much.
If I hadn't written the Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker three times I wouldn't have realised the importance of empathy for character over comedy gimmicks.
If I hadn't written the TV script I wouldn't have learned how to visualise each scene.
If I hadn't studied
Victoria's work I wouldn't have discovered the joys of idiolect (favourite word ever! A character's individual speech pattern.).
If I hadn't written so many picture books, I wouldn't have learned how to use language effectively.
If I hadn’t studied picture books, I wouldn’t understand structure and pacing.
If I hadn't tried to develop so many ideas, I would have limited my imagination.
If I hadn't had a table full of books, how could I have known where my voice was or what I loved to write?
So, how big is my slushpile? Well, this is what you would see in my filing cabinet today.
25 picture books
3 completely different versions of The Bloodcurdling Bug-eyed Jawbreaker about 12 drafts altogether
3 finished books for 7-9yrs –
and the Meanies, To Destiny or Death! I Wanna Dog. Florence
1 work in progress for 7-9 yrs Gertie in Gargantua – love this character!
3 fantasy middle readers, plotted but unfinished.
1 teen novel Abracadabra, plotted but unfinished.
1 teen novel I'm No Emo, unfinished.
1 pirate poetry book WIP
I silent movie short.
1 TV script From Fags to Riches.
1 adult novel – Mother on the Mantlepiece unfinished
Some of these ideas will never be developed. And I accept that. Because more ideas come in every day and I can't write them all. So I have to write the ones I can't bear not to write.
Do I have any tips on how to get to the end of your journey faster?
Write what you love. Focus on what you love. Study what you love. Find your own voice. And know that the journey never ends.
But now I have a question for you – how big is your slushpile? And while you think of the answer -
I'll keep writing!
Maureen Lynas intermittently blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas