Friday, 15 September 2017

Doing the Time Warp

By Nick Cross

Time Warp choreography animation by Luca Alberton, DensityDesign Research Lab

We talk a lot about certain aspects of writing a great novel - craft, voice, plot, characterisation etc. But one authorial choice that gets a lot less focus is that of time. The timeframe a novel is set within has a huge impact on the style and structure of the finished work. James Joyce’s Ulysses famously takes place on a single day, zooming in with microscopic precision to the individual thoughts and actions of its characters. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels couldn’t be more different, spanning the thousand year interregnum between the fall of one galactic empire and the rise of the next. Such a massive scope means the storytelling is much more fragmented, with the narrative sometimes leaping fifty years between chapters.

1976 editions of the first 3 Foundation novels with amazing Chris Foss wraparound artwork

Time is an endlessly malleable resource for storytellers. Consider the movie Groundhog Day or the recent children’s book The Never-Ending Birthday by Katie Dale - both present a narrative where the characters must relive the same day again and again. Or what about the novel One Day by David Nicholls, which takes place on the 15th July every year for twenty years?

Each of the Harry Potter novels is structured across a school year, which gives the series a very particular feel. Although there are lots of pulse-pounding set pieces that occur in a short time period, these are set against the wider boredoms of school life. The Harry Potter books are full of regular events: potions lessons, mealtimes, holidays, quidditch matches, detentions, end-of-year exams. JK Rowling’s genius is that she uses this repetitious structure both to show how attending school (even a magical one) can quickly become over-familiar, and to subvert our expectations when something unexpected happens within the predictable cycle.

My wife dislikes books that take place over a highly-compressed time period, because it seems that the characters never get a moment to rest, being pulled from one crisis to the next. When do they eat? Or sleep? It feels for her (like the characters) that she is never able to catch her breath, which can make for an exhausting reading experience. This was a criticism that was regularly levied at the TV show 24, whose lead character seemed to have a constitution (and bladder) of solid iron.

I’ve become acutely aware of time as I work on my current YA novel. As you might remember if you read my earlier blog post Living in the Past, I’m writing a story that parallels past events. My initial plan was to structure the book as a series of publications, each published a couple of months apart. At this point, the timeline of the book was going to span 3 years, which meant I could frame most of the incidents in the plot as a reaction to real-world happenings. The problem with this structure became very clear when I got a critique on the first 12 pages - although I was presenting the book as a first-person commentary, the fragmented nature of the plot meant I was unable to properly explore my protagonist’s rich inner life.

After a bit of head scratching, I switched to a diary format, which meant pretty much starting the book again. And with this narrative change, the timeline of the novel contracted massively. Instead of 3 years, my whole book will now happen in less than 10 months. On the plus side, this has left room for a sequel, on the minus I quickly realised that there were simply not enough real incidents to steer every plot event. Organically, I’ve compensated for this with more fictional characters and plot of my own, but tying these into the real-life political and cultural environment.

As well as compressing the narrative, the use of a diary format has also intensified it. Instead of scenes set months apart, I now have a scene or two per calendar day. The scenes themselves have also got shorter and leaner - which is the way I like it. I hope this all helps to communicate the rollercoaster rhythm of teenage experience, where every day is simultaneously the best and worst of your life.

Altogether, the changes have meant that the book has moved much closer to a highly-illustrated YA novel than the experimental graphic novel format of the prototype. I don’t have a big problem with that - it’s what's right for the book, and a familiar structure gives new readers a pre-existing reference point.

Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Finally, there’s another aspect of time that strongly affects the writing process, which is how long it takes you to finish the book. Some authors like to produce a whole book over a very short time period, writing furiously. Others can take ten years or more to come up with the finished article. I’m somewhere in the middle, and regularly curse my slow progress. Taking the decision to illustrate as well as write this book has compounded the problem, since I’m now doing the work of writer, illustrator and designer. Additionally, my preference for regularly reviewing the process and resetting the book hasn’t helped me so far get to THE END, although I feel the format is now nearly right. Would I be more productive if I rushed out a full but imperfect draft, then revised it? Perhaps, but my mind seems to be best suited to my current way of working, as frustrating as that sometimes is.

In a recent Guardian Q&A, novelist Siri Hustvedt was asked what her greatest fear was. She replied:
“I’m afraid I will die before I finish whatever book I am working on.”
I totally get that, the feeling of time conspiring against our creative endeavours, and the race to the finish that might be required to outsmart it.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 2015 SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday, 1 September 2017

What I intend to achieve on my writing retreat.

by Addy Farmer

Into the writing cave

(of an army) withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.
"the French retreated in disarray"

withdraw, retire, draw back, pull back, pull out, fall back, give way, give ground, recoil, flee, take flight, beat a retreat, beat a hasty retreat, run away, run off, make a run for it, run for it, make off, take off, take to one's heels, make a break for it, bolt, make a quick exit, clear out, make one's getaway, escape, head for the hills;

change one's mind or plans as a result of criticism or difficulty.
"his proposals were clearly unreasonable and he was forced to retreat"

synonyms: change one's decision, change one's mind, change one's attitude, change one's plans; More
an act of moving back or withdrawing.
"a speedy retreat"

withdrawal, pulling back, flight;
"a counteroffensive caused the retreat of the imperial army"

Sometimes running is a sensible option
So, you get the idea that this is about a retreat and why not? Well, I can hear all three of you SHOUTING, "Actually there are quite a few reasons why not!" Steady on. I understand. There are:

the children ...

I swear there were only 3 children ...

the job ...

work is fairly full on
the money ...
"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery." Mr Micawber
Fair enough but if you can scrape together the means and you have the organisational skills of someone RIDICULOUSLY well organised (I do), then a retreat is a Good Idea. Why?

Sometimes you just have to go far far away in order to find the head space to get the job done and I have a job to do. That's my excuse anyway. I have been to 'writing' retreats with other people and found myself just having nice chats or admiring bees or thinking about what's on the menu. Because whilst there is time to write and often the stimulus to write, there is still too much going on for my tiny brain to actually get down to some Sustained Serious Writing. So I am retreating alone for seven days of no-one else and no bothersome other jobs tugging on my thoughts. I can eat when I want, write where I like, grow a beard, dispense entirely with personal hygiene and there's NO INTERNET. That should just about do it.

Sitting on top of a pillar in the desert could be your thing but poor old Simeon Stylites still had visitors
So, I am going to North Wales to sit inside a cottage and complete the first draft of my mid-grade VERY funny novel. Or, I am going to North Wales to sit inside a cottage and have nice chats with the bees, admire the walls and wonder where the next meal is coming from. In the meantime and to make you happy, I leave you with advice from lots of writers about writing. Which you may wish to read when you are not writing.

Wish me well and I'll see you on the other side of story mountain.

Friday, 18 August 2017

The Ninja Art of Writing

by Paula Harrison 

At this moment, around the country, writers are creeping ninja-like to their desks. They sneak downstairs early in the morning before anyone else is awake. They lurk at the computer late at night when the house is quiet. They smuggle notebooks into hand bags and rucksacks and hide them in bedroom drawers ready for that moment at 1 am when a really great plot idea will burst into their brain.

I should know. I've done most of the above and more.

There's no doubt that writing fiction is a little bit addictive. Maybe it's the experience of being in control of a fictional world the way we're never really in control of our real lives. Maybe it's the pull of trying to produce something beautiful or powerful or completely hilarious. Most of us pursuing these dreams need to create as much as we need to breathe. During times when I've taken a break from writing I've found myself *trying* to make music, throw pottery or paint pictures instead. The muse never sleeps.

Where does this urge to create come from? I've no idea but to me it feels like it's something divine. Before I wrote I felt as if something was missing from life. Once I began it was hard to understand why I hadn't started sooner! Since then I've been writing pretty consistently and only tried to give up once in 2010. The Undiscovered Voices competition (run by SCBWI) is an amazing thing and hats off to all those involved in running it. But for me as an unpublished writer, 2010 was the second time I'd failed to get anywhere and when the results came out I made a serious effort to give up writing entirely.
I was tired. I was fed up with form rejections and frustrated with not knowing whether I was any closer to getting published than I'd been ten years before. I was working mornings with young children who had just started school and I'd been spending every afternoon writing. Suddenly I had so much time! Housework was done. Phone calls got returned. Family members were fed new and delicious meals. I lasted two weeks until the itch to write became overwhelming and I gave up on giving up. I'm so glad I didn't succeed!

Why must we be ninja in our writing? When we're unpublished, people  - especially people who don't know us well - may cast doubt on our identity as a writer. Well you can't be a writer if you haven't got a book out, can you? Of course you can. If you're writing then you are a writer and no one can take that away from you. However, to avoid doubtful looks and comments of "So you want to be the next J.K. Rowling" it's good to be a bit ninja. Our nearest and dearest will usually be supportive but occasionally that's not the case. Most people have no idea how long it takes to hone our writing skills and get published. (For most people, including myself, it takes a really long time.) Also, if you keep your writer identity a secret from more casual acquaintances, it becomes easier to listen in on conversations and pinch snippets for your story. All the better to improve your dialogue with, my dear!

But how much time should we steal for writing? This can be an incredibly tricky judgement. Many of us have children or other family commitments. Many of us have day jobs. How can we take time away from our loved ones to write? I've struggled with this for many years. I think in the end, if we listen to our internal voice, we'll know whether we're either short changing our loved ones by writing too much or short-changing ourselves by not prioritising our own needs.

Ninja writing has many advantages.  If all you have is half an hour writing time during a baby's nap or an office lunch break, this can make you extremely focussed in your writing. Being able to pick up where you left off is a great skill and one I'm not so good at now that I have more time to write. Ninjas are masters of the surprise attack. This was very much my writing style in the early days when I had no more than a handful of minutes to scribble at a time. There was a definite thrill to it. Being able to write anywhere is also a skill to be nurtured. Train and car trips turn into an opportunity for scribbling and being out of the house can be very freeing. Stories that seemed stuck can be given a kick start by simply going somewhere else to write. New sights and sounds stimulate the imagination.

Various places I have written:
In a field, in a car park by a lake, in an airport, in a shopping centre, inside numerous cafes, on trains, in soft play venues (until the laptop battery ran out), on a ferry, on a hay bale, inside an ice sculpture (chilly) and in a royal palace.

So consider being ninja in your writing. You never know where it may lead. Now, if you'll excuse me, there's a computer I'd like to sneak off to.

Paula Harrison has published 25 books including the Robyn Silver series, the Tiara Friends mysteries, the Red Moon Rising trilogy and The Rescue Princesses.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Blogger deleted my post so here's a video

I wrote a long, long post about how I'd just pressed SEND on my next book and what I had learned about the author I was and wanted to be.

It was a long, thoughtful post.

And then I pressed 'save' ... and the post was deleted.

I couldn't possibly remember everything I wrote this morning, but hopefully some of it will seep into my future writing. Sigh.

So in lieue of any wisdom, here is beauty.

I was watching these gorgeous birds from the deck of our holiday lodge in Coldingham Bay, Scotland.

Have a wonderful summer.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Importance of Finding Awesome People

By Jo Wyton

Maureen Lynas is one of those people. You know the sort.

You appear at a conference and suddenly someone’s behind you and there’s a pair of arms around you, but no need to wonder who it is - it’s obviously Maureen. You need some encouragement – it’s OK, Maureen will reply to your anxiety-ridden Facebook post. You need a smile – it’s OK, Maureen is right over there and she’s already heading your way. You need advice on a plot, a character, an exchange with an agent, a book title, a dispute, a pondering – don’t panic. Maureen's got your back.

And whilst she’s doing all that and supporting everyone and generally being everywhere at the same time and always her kind, warm self, Maureen is also working her butt off. Learning. Making mistakes. Trying new things. Over and over again. Evolving, never content to stay still. You try to pay attention because she seems to be navigating the publishing industry with all the grace you’ve never managed to summon, and you’re certain that what you are learning from her will come in handy.

And whilst you’re watching, Maureen is working, working, working.

One wonderful day in London town, you sit opposite her in a bar and she has this quiet smile on her face and you are instantly excited on behalf of this person who is always so excited for everyone else, and she tells you that she’s spent the last two days meeting multiple publishers, and that they all want her book.

And from that moment, marvellous things begin to unfold.

Bowie gets it.

You? You get to absorb it all and learn from it and be inspired by it. You get to watch all the pieces fall into place and see the spot every part of that learning curve has been leading towards, all this time.

Over on Facebook right now, there is a proliferation of people wearing multi-coloured witch hats. Go find them, they are brilliant. And they're there because Maureen has lots of Maureens in her life, too (in this case being herded in the right direction by the hat-tastic George Kirk). And today, they are celebrating the publication of Maureen’s first book: You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! 

Everyone needs a Maureen in their life.

As a writer, you need several.

Find them. Pay attention to them. You and your writing will be better for it.

(Congratulations, Maureen. You are really quite splendiferous, you know.)

From the Notes of the Slushpile crew (above) ... and all these others (below)

Friday, 21 July 2017

Coming Out

By Nick Cross

Photo by Ruffroot Creative

How long did it take you to pluck up the courage to tell someone you wanted to be a writer? I can remember it was a long while before I would admit to it in public, and there are still times when I’m not sure (usually when the writing is going badly). But recently, I’ve been troubled by an even bigger secret, something I’ve been dimly aware of for some years but also terrified of admitting:

I want to be a writer/illustrator.

When I revealed this information at the recent SCBWI Picture Book Retreat, I was surprised to find that nobody laughed at me. In fact, everyone was broadly supportive of my new creative orientation. So perhaps it’s only me who worries this is a terrible idea.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Home truths - writing about home and finding your way there

by Addy Farmer

A Place to call Home by the marvellous Alexis Deacon
I remember. I went to Italy when I was seventeen. I was going to learn Italian while I looked after two bambini for a Contessa in Turin. Let me tell you now, it was not all Prosecco and panini. I retain an impression of a thin and cavernous house. Inside it was all peeling wall paper and actual servants. The 'bambini' were 13 and 11 and HORRIBLE. I began to feel like one of Mary Poppin's predecessors i.e one of the rejected, loser nannies. The bambini hated me (dead rabbits outside my door/hateful little notes/a complete refusal to do anything I asked) and I loathed them back.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Who Is Driving Your Story?

By Em Lynas

When I first started writing I was under the impression that the protagonist was in the driving seat and I wrote mainly from that POV. I thought that they wanted/needed something and everyone else was pretty much there to either help or get in the way. That their story was the most important story in the book.

I've learned better. After all it's the wants/needs of each of the other characters that establish the big world and small world scenarios thus creating a space for the protagonist's story.

A protagonist has nothing to fight against or engage with if the other characters don't act on their desires.


For instance, In the soon to be published (Yay!) You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School! (By me!) Daisy is destined to be a Shakespearean actress. Nothing and no one is there to stop her. She will perform her Bottom, get another part, then another part, learn her craft and eventually grab the Oscar and make a tearful speech about all the help she's had. That's the story she's in the diving seat of, and the car is a slow moving sedan going in a straight line.

Pitch that to an agent!

So, another character has to put a spanner in the works, take the wheel, and send the car down a bypass.

Introducing - Granny Wart.

She dumps Daisy at Toadspit Towers School for Witches. Putting an end to Daisy's dreams of stardom. But why would she? Granny has to have her reasons. She has to be motivated by something. Love, desire, hate, selfishness, greed, etc. She needs a backstory that impels her to leave Daisy at school and then, Ms Sage, the deputy headmistress, needs a backstory which impels her to keep Daisy at school. Which means Daisy is then impelled to fight against them both.

The motivations and desires of others pushes the protagonist into their story. 

In Harry Potter, Mr Dursley prevents Harry from receiving his Hogwarts letter. His motivation is driven by a strong dislike of magic and magical people, and a refusal to allow Harry to engage in that sort of abnormal behaviour. So when Harry meets Hagrid, he has no desire to stay with the Dursley's and enters Hogwarts.

A beautifully illustrated version from Chris Riddell

In Francis Hardinge's The Lie Tree it's Faith's father's abnormal behaviour that triggers her actions through the book. I don't want to give any spoilers but it would be a book about a boring archaeological dig if he didn't have a secret to hide, giving her a secret to uncover. I loved it.

In Hamish and the World Stoppers by Danny Wallace, illustrated by the uber-talented Jamie Littler (who just happens to be my illustrator too) something is making the world stop. If it wasn't, then Hamish's dad would not have gone missing and Hamish wouldn't have a mystery to solve. Who or what is that something and what's their motivation for doing it?

In Anne of Green Gables by L. M Montgomery Marilla and Matthew are motivated to adopt a boy who can help on the farm because of Matthew's heart problem and they end up with Anne. The complication being she's a girl not a boy and so, because she doesn't fit their original motivation, they reject her. So she has to fight to stay.

In the excellent Netflix series Anne with an E Matthew and Marilla's backstories are given room and we see why they react to Anne in the way they do. We see what they lost and how much they gain by having Anne in their lives. Personally, I think the story is deeper for that. Purists may not agree.

I've filled in lots of character creation sheets in the past but they often focus on the superficial e.g. what they look like, what they're wearing etc. Please do share if you have any links to character creation sheets based on discovering motivations and personalities.

Meanwhile I'm asking these questions about all of the characters in my books.

How did they get to be the person they are at this moment in time?

What went right/wrong for them?

What do they want in the future? For themselves, the protagonist and the other characters?

What motivates them - status, money, value, safety, learning etc

Why don't they want the protagonist to get what the protagonist wants?

Feel free to add to these questions too.

This might make an interesting starting point for future books - Don't begin with the protagonist. Begin with the world of the antagonist and secondary characters. Then drop someone else in who doesn't want what they want.

The book that immediately springs to mind here is Pollyanna by E. H. Porter

The world of grumpy people is firmly established, each with their own reason for being grumpy, and then Pollyanna is dropped into it like a pebble in a pond. She could never have spiralled down into unhappiness if the other characters' actions hadn't been motivated by severe grumpiness.

So, who is driving your story?

by Em Lynas

Currently residing on twitter as @emlynas and fb as Maureen Lynas
Published by Nosy Crow. Represented by Skylark Literary.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Scrumptiousness of Cake (do not read if hungry)

by Paula Harrison

It's fair to say that cake occupies a special place in many authors' hearts. There's the cake that keeps you going during the tear-your-hair-out stage of editing, there's cake eaten to ease the pain of rejection and just now and then there is celebratory cake when something special happens.

There's also (Shh... insider knowledge alert) quite a bit of cake wafting around publishers' office which is offered to hungry authors who might wander in off the streets. I've only been in one publishing meeting which didn't involve cake. Looking back, I feel this was a terrible oversight. 

Book cover cupcakes at the SCBWI 20th anniversary last Autumn
Cake also features heavily in children's books. There are lashings of them in Enid Blyton, with my favourite being the pop cakes in The Enchanted Wood:

She [Silky] brought out a tin of Pop Cakes, which were lovely. As soon as you bit into them they went pop! and you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the little cakes. 

So it was inevitable that I would include some cake in my own stories. The Rescue Princesses have a particular habit of planning adventures and ninja moves over slices of cake. The Emperor's birthday cake at the end of The Stolen Crystals is one that sticks in my mind:

The twelve-tier birthday cake kept everyone happy, with its layers of chocolate fudge cake, cherry and sultana cake, ginger, lemon, toffee and many other flavours. Emily's little sister, Lottie, ate a slice from all twelve tiers and then had to sit very still on a garden chair to calm her aching tummy.

Cake is not just a food in children's books. It's something that brings characters together, lets them interact, celebrate and commiserate. It can be a tool for setting the scene and signalling characters roles in the story and attitudes to each other. It can be important to the plot.

Who can forget the floating pudding (nearly a cake) which Dobby uses to ruin Harry Potter's uncle and aunt's dinner party in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?

Aunt Petunia's masterpiece of a pudding, the mountain of cream and sugared violets, was floating up near the ceiling. On top of a cupboard in the corner crouched Dobby...

Probably the most memorable cake scene in my opinion is Miss Trunchball's attempt to punish Bruce Bogtrotter by making him eat an entire chocolate cake in Matilda by Roald Dahl. She fails miserably.

She [Trunchball] glared at Bruce Bogtrotter, who was sitting on his chair like some huge overstuffed grub, replete, comatose, unable to move or speak. A fine sweat was beading his forehead but there was a grin of triumph on his face.
Suddenly the Trunchball lunged forward and grabbed the large empty china platter on which the cake had rested. She raised it high in the air and brought it down with a crash right on the top of the wretched Bruce Bogtrotter's head and pieces flew all over the platform.
The boy was by now so full of cake he was like a sackful of wet cement and you couldn't have hurt him with a sledge-hammer. He simply shook his head a few times and went on grinning.

So what's your favourite cake scene in a children's book?

Friday, 9 June 2017

Editing Your Novel - Five Steps to Add Texture and Depth by Kathryn Evans

I'm still learning how to edit but I've nailed one thing. If you feel like your story isn't right, it probably isn't. You absolutely 100% can not skimp on editing.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Bookshop That Taught Me How To Write

by Jo Wyton

This week, I was going to write something so light-hearted it was barely hearted at all, given that it's the general election next week and we're all exhausted. And then a process that has been ongoing for two years finally reached it's thrilling conclusion: two of my close friends sold their bookshop.

Nicki and Mark Thornton have owned Mostly Books in Abingdon for over a decade. Abingdon isn't a huge town, and yet for many years it has somehow, miraculously*, sustained two independent bookshops. 

*There is nothing miraculous about it: these guys work their butts off.

The Bookshop of Awesomeness. And a Gruffalo.

I imagine that many people reading this will have a connection to their local independent bookshop. I met Nicki first, at a Kate Harrison event back in 2008 (I think!). I was headed there with someone I'd met on a local writing course, and Nicki was busy doing what all successful independent bookshop owners do - EVERYTHING. 

I am convinced I haven't ever seen Nicki or Mark standing still in the near-decade I've known them. It's possible they're magic.

I joined a local writers group that had been set up by Nicki, and from there joined the SCBWI and a children's writing critique group (with Nicki). At some point, she advised me (read: told me) to drop the middle grade novel I'd been working on and write the YA novel that would follow on from an excerpt I'd read out that evening. I went on to be one of the winners of Undiscovered Voices 2012 with that very novel and haven't ever looked back.

Critique group fun in the sun (actually it's in the shade because we're all pallid writer types)

So Nicki has, you see, been integral to my entire writing journey so far.

But she's also done what a really fantastic bookshop owner will do: she's introduced me to some of my very favourite authors. I think the first book she ever bought me was August by Bernard Beckett, a little-known Australian YA author who writes the most brilliant and unexpected books. August remains  The Book I Would Love To Write.

And on top of all that, she and Mark have really let me get involved. Independent bookshops rely on volunteers to help (if you want experience of the book industry on your doorstep, pop down to your local indie and see if you can pitch in at some events). 

At a Cressida Cowell event in dragon trainer-appropriate attire.

I've sold books with them at schools, book awards and in the shop. I've heard a dozen authors speak to school kids, watched how they deal with book signings (Anthony Horowitz was a total pro, hanging around until every single kid had taken a picture and had a scribble in their book, never rushing one of them), figured out how to recommend books to kids and to parents buying for kids, learned what sells and what doesn't, what the gaps in the market are, how booksellers run their businesses, how they integrate themselves into the community, more like a local service than a shop. Kids have been terrified by the Gruffalo in that shop, been bewitched by Hugless Douglas, coloured in and done easter egg hunts and spent their world book day vouchers. They've scoured the shelves for the next Skulduggery Pleasant and for something completely new.

A cake from my first Oxfordshire Book Awards. The OBA is the most crazy event I've ever done. Imagine about 100 kids all racing at you at once looking for something to spend their pocket money on. The tables we stand behind gradually get shoved back until our backs are against the wall and we are terrified for our lives. 

In so many ways, Mostly Books, Nicki and Mark have shaped the kind of writer and reader I am. So instead of writing a silly post (which I am sure I will thrill you all with at a later date), I thought I would say thank you to those guys and to all the booksellers who become part of our lives. 

And despite no longer owning the shop, next year will be Nicki's biggest one in books yet: her own book will find its place on the shelves after she won the Chicken House/Times competition with The Firefly Cage. Now that is a book launch I absolutely can't wait for!

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Agony of Choice

By Nick Cross

Photo by Jared Cherup

Over the last month, I seem to have changed my mind on an almost daily basis regarding what this blog would be about. At the risk of sounding like a Friends episode list, there was:

  • The one about what writers can learn from tech startups
  • The one about how I got the first critique back on my new YA novel and how I've started the book again but it's OK because it’s actually much better for it.
  • The one about how I’m not going to send the completed book to any agents or publishers and have resolved to self-publish from the outset.
  • The one about mental health, mortality and suicide, inspired by the tragic death of my teenage hero, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.
  • The one about awards, because I realised that the Notes from the Slushpile team have an amazing FOUR Crystal Kite Awards among them and aren’t they all crazy talented?

Any and none of these may still become blog posts in the future, of course. But what I realised I actually wanted to blog about was difficulty of choosing between these options. When you have a surfeit of good ideas but limited time available, how do you choose the one idea to go forward with?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Making things up: finding the place for your story

by Teri Terry

Part 5 in Making Things Up: a blog series about the creative process

How do you choose the setting(s) for your story?

This is something I get asked about regularly, and honesty will make me admit: it isn't something I've always given the attention it deserves. With most of my earlier writing before I was published it was often the last thing on my mind. My characters and what was going to happen to them took centre stage, and where these (usually unpleasant!) things would happen was kind of by the by. As a reader I've also always had a horror of long descriptive passages, and describing where my characters were wasn't high on my list of writing fun. Being asked to use all five senses to describe a place in a writing workshop is kind of my idea of writing hell. 

It's fair to say I picked the opening setting for my first published novel, Slated - a village in the Chilterns - mostly because it was where I lived. To start with I had to remember to deliberately add some details of place to give the readers a picture of where the characters were, but felt I struggled to do it in a way that didn't feel I was just describing something for the sake of it. My character, Kyla, really helped me in this regard: having had her memory wiped, things were new to her. Therefore it was natural for her to notice details of place in a way a character generally won't if they are somewhere very familiar to them.

Somewhere along the way as I was writing Slated, something
interesting started to happen. The setting began to develop a life of its own in the story: the footpaths and canal ways became the other way to get around, unseen, for my characters, and this became vital for the plot. 

By the time I'd got to the third book of the trilogy, Shattered, I'd begun to expand how I used and related to settings. The scenes in Shattered in the stone circle at Castle Rigg are a good example. The feel the place evokes, the touch of the stone and so on were important to my character when she remembered going there with her father. 

The thing I learned wasn't to change how I approach writing, which is always from the guts of the character - but to accept that sometimes experiences and memories of place are part of the guts of the character. If they're important to my character, they're important to me.

Back then it was probably mostly serendipity that helped me along with the choice of settings. Now I have begun to approach it with more thought and deliberation, but I still haven't answered the question of how to make the choice.

To answer this question, another must be tackled first:

Is the setting another character in the story, or incidental to what takes places?

A story can take place in an almost unnoticed setting (like my pre-published stories often did); or it can be on the moors of Wuthering Heights. I know which I'd rather write!

Yesterday was the book birthday of Contagion: the first in the Dark Matter trilogy. When I started writing it I had the Scottish settings where the story begins firmly in mind. I've recently blogged on the Scottish book trust website on five ways to choose a setting, specifically in relation to Contagion. Rather than repeating myself I'll put a link below, but the more I think about it the more I think this: while the setting has to serve the story, it also absolutely must inspire me, the writer, to write it.
That is the overriding memory I have of writing Contagion: the sense of the
first time I went to Killin, and just knew: my character, Shay, lives here. This place is part of who she is.

Here's the linky*: 5 ways to choose a novel's setting, Scottish Book Trust website.
     *I apologise for linking to another blog rather writing anew, but I just moved house, have a head cold, and a zillion new book events: I hope you'll forgive me!

Contagion, on the beach:
it rather sounds like a dangerous sort of cocktail ...
... some things can't be cured, can't be killed, can't be stopped.

Callie is missing, and her brother Kai is desperate to find her. When Shay realises she was the last one to see Callie before she went missing, she contacts Kai. Together they race to find her, but can they outrun the epidemic?

A few weeks ago, at Cockermouth School:
 one of the very first school events for Contagion!

Friday, 12 May 2017

How to write with feeling - finding the still points of a turning world

by Addy Farmer

Just imagine that you died. Yes, I know, it's weird but you're a writer so indulge me. You died; in fact you knew you were going to die and you were definitely not going to go gently into that good night. You raged. But it went dark anyway.

I don't want to go

Then you came back to life.

number 10

You woke with all that knowledge of dying and the knowledge of how you didn't want to go. Just think how you would feel; all the big things and the small things would rush upon you. I can't articulate this better than a children's author called Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world ... after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.
Can you imagine it?! All that relief and gratitude and love for life in all its variety, renewed and reinvigorated. Hmmm, I wonder how long that would last? I have never actually died and come back to life but that poignant piece in the excellent BrainPickings really made me think about how my child reader might begin to view her world - with joy, with amazement, with despair, with puzzlement, with a shrug.

What's going on again?

For me, writing for children is a remembrance of not just what happened but crucially how it felt when it happened. As adults we carry baggage of various weights and sizes but as writers we should be able to rummage around and find the bit which takes you to a place or a person or event when you felt something for maybe the first time.

Remembering anew

Italo Calvino would have us believe that, “every experience is unrepeatable,”. That may be so but as writers we must seek to use that experience and enhance our stories by recalling how it felt to be five or fifteen. Can you easily recall any childhood memories? Try a sample of mine from childhood:
  • remembering my grandmother's voice and how she once told me that curtains were the work of the devil 
  • waking up from a bad dream and seeing balloon monsters at the end of the bed and no voice to call out
  • a party ending and not wanting to go and being lovingly mother-handled down the drive
  • moving house and waving goodbye to my friends through the rear window of the car
  • getting lost on a birthday trip to London and being told off when I was finally found
I don't remember all of these incidents in detail but rather what sticks is how they made me feel - confused, terrified, furious, sad and relieved/unhappy/bewildered (that last one still gets me). It's not so much a case of write what you know but write what you feel you know.
Chris Riddell - tells a story every time

The still turning points

Occasionally the past can pierce the present. You might experience one of those amazing occurances where you just couldn't make it up (of course you can). They are what T.S. Eliot called 'the still points of the turning world'. Helen Shapiro writes:
At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.
The chance meeting took her back, without warning, to a happy time with a formative person in her life. Her reaction was wordless and all the more affecting because she felt it. Apart from this being classic, 'show and not tell', this is a lovely example of how a story can start or end ...

lost and found - Oliver Jeffers
Have you ever had a hand-to-the-mouth moment? Something which stirs a forgotten memory. Something powerful enough to transport you backwards in time to a once important person or a place?
  • A meeting with someone you knew or someone a close relative or a friend knew
  • A scent, a smell which brings it all back in an instant 
  • A found object which evokes a past you wanted forgotten or had forgotten you had - a photograph, jewellery, a lock of hair, a toy, a shabby item of toddler clothing ... the list is endless
  • A place, taking you somewhere awful or delightful
  • A song, a poem, an extract from a diary
So many ways to stimulate your story brain and it's all inside you!

Not all memories are pleasant

Sometimes we have to really dig around and find those memories. That sounds ominous. But you know what I mean. It's the suppressed memories - the ones you really have to mine for - that often provoke the greatest depth of feeling. It's a little bit painful to try and prod these into being. I did a writing exercise which made me think about this.
  • think of something you are ashamed of having done
  • why do you think it happened
  • who made you think it was shaming?   
I won't regale you with my shameful past. Although some of these 'shameful' episodes seem funny now. But at the time they made me hide my head ... all right, just one. I was playing outside in someone's back garden. We had a football and I used to pretend that I knew everything about football (such a lie!). Anyhow, I told my friend I could kick the ball further than him. I kicked it into his kitchen window (classic). His dad came out and raged at his son and I stood there and let him. He never dobbed me in but he gave me such a 'look' and never talked to me again. Now, that may not be exactly how it went but good grief I can recall the disappointment of losing a friend through being cowardly. It's fine - I forgave myself a couple of weeks ago.

So, I hope this helps a bit. Remember - you are an individual writer with individual memories and feelings. And this lovely baggage is what gives you your individual voice.

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