Friday, 14 April 2017

Second Book Syndrome

By Kathryn Evans

Is it even a thing? Second Book Syndrome? Surely, once you've been published, your confidence is sky high and your second book just OOZES out of you.

Not in my experience. I am currently trying to turn my second book into something worthy of the name and it is HARD.  Especially as my wonderful editor  pointed out, it shouldn't be AS GOOD as the first book, it needs to be BETTER.

And she's right. I know she is.

 On paper, this is me:

Kathryn Evans, author of More of Me, winner of the Edinburgh Book Festival First Book Award, Nominated for the 2017 Carnegie Medal, shortlisted for multiple regional awards and translated across the globe.

In reality, this is me:

What If The Next Book Is Rubbish?

 I have readers who want to read what I write next because they loved More of Me. I need to blow them away with Book Two. It needs to be brilliant, to be different and fresh and full of depth and have amazing characters and a plot that zooms along and tension that keeps you turning the pages and..



Oh yes. Second Book Syndrome exists. You've got  expectations to fulfill.

So, I did what I always do in an MODP (Moment of Deep Panic), I turned to my writer pals for advice and reassurance. They did not let me down. Many, many writers have suffered Second Book Syndrome. Not Chris Priestley, just so you know, he's got his own Syndrome Syndrome in which he's worrying he doesn't have a Syndrome but THAT is a whole different story.

Here's what the others had to say:

Sue Wallman

Sue Wallman  is the author of YA psychological thrillers Lying About Last Summer ( Selected for the Zoella Book Club)  and See How They Lie

Sue Wallman

"2nd (or 3rd etc) book syndrome is for me a terrible panicky feeling that things aren't coming together. Sometimes I think it takes a long time to fall into your story because your heart still belongs to the characters in your last book, or you've simply forgotten how hard writing and rewriting actually is. The only solution I know is to keep chipping away and trust that you'll get there eventually."

That made me feel a little better until I read:

Rhiannon Lassiter 

Author of Void: Hex, Shadows Ghosts:

"Your second book should be entirely different from your first. It creates range and space and avoids being trapped in a box. That's not what I did, of course."

NOR ME!!!! Is that true? Please let that not be true!

Cath Pickles

 Author of the Worzel books:

"The worst thing you can do with a second book is think about it too much"


Jo Franklin

Help I'm an Alien author, is always practical:

"It's easier to write book 2 if it's a series, as you already know the characters and their world. Though writing for an editor, rather than yourself, brings a whole new anxiety. It's best to get Book 2 well underway before Book 1 is out. The anxiety about securing a second book contract is another matter entirely."

Tell me about it!

 Miriam Halahmy 
 Author of Hidden and Illegal:

 Miriam is now on her seventh book and says she didn't suffer from second book syndrome. She's now in the process of finishing her seventh novel.

 It's kind of nice to know it doesn't afflict everyone.

Shirley Mcmillan

Shirley's debut, A Good Hiding, came out last year.  The Unknowns will be published by Atom ( Little, Brown) at the end of 2017:

"I finished my second book a week before the deadline. How clever of me! I thought. And then, immediately, The Fear. The first book, A Good Hiding, was written during a Master’s degree when I had more time and fewer children, and, crucially, nothing at all to lose. The second was written under contract, with a small teething child and a first book to promote and OMG WHAT IF THE FIRST WAS A FLUKE AND THIS ONE IS SH*T AND MY LOVELY AGENT AND AMAZING PUBLISHER ARE ABOUT TO FIND OUT THAT THEY MADE A MASSIVE MISTAKE?! During that week I sent my new one off to several friends, one of whom read the entire thing, all of whom emailed their reassurance. At the end of the week, I let it go. That was the lesson- do your best, try to trust yourself, and then let it go."

That's better, I found that very reassuring - until I realised - she'd  written her second book before her first book was even out !!! 

Patrice Lawrence  

Patrice's debut Orangeboy was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, and won the Waterstone's Older Children's Book Prize and is garnering accolades EVERYWHERE:

"You have a bubble of an idea. It gets bigger and bigger and then it bursts. You look around for more bubble liquid but either there's a big vat of it and you get carried away blowing loads of tiny bubbles, or there's a dribble in a bucket, far, far away. So how come the bubble turned out all right last time? Was it really this much work?"

Eugene Lambert 

Author of The Sign of One and Into The No Zone,  the first two books in a trilogy:

"As an inexperienced debut author, I signed up to write a trilogy, thus unwittingly walking into a lethal combo of second book syndrome plus middle book syndrome. The latter has at its conflicted heart the brain-numbing dilemma of trying to write a book that is ‘more of the same’ (so that it will appeal to the reader of the first book) while at the same time ensuring that it is sufficiently ‘different’ not to be a clone. Oh yeah, and it has to set everything up for the grand finale in book three, where everything is resolved. Or not. Whoever said that the middle book was the hardest to write in a trilogy was NOT kidding! 

My advice? Just have fun raising those stakes higher and higher …

Olivia Levez 

Star Kirkus Reviewed author of The Island and The Circus, due out in May but which I've already had a sneaky peak at and LOVED says this:


"I hit the wall at 30,000 words THREE times. Need I say more?"

Okay, that's better. If Patrice has bursting bubbles, Eugene has muddling middles and Olivia hit the wall three times and they still got there, I can do it too!

Kiran  Millwood  Hargrave 

 Author of the wonderful The Girl of Ink And Stars, winner of the Waterstones younger children's book award AND the overall winner :

"I wrote the first (short, terrible) draft of 'The Island at the End of Everything' at my grandparents' house in Norfolk, in three desperate weeks after 'The Girl of Ink & Stars' was put out on submission. Fuelled by ale and tears, I paused only to read the rejection emails pinging into my inbox. The Island at the End of Everything is quite different from 'The Girl of Ink & Stars', and maybe some of that is knee-jerk reaction to the feedback I was getting. In any case, I trusted my ability to finish a lot more because I'd finished one already - and that was something, even if the first wasn't going to be published. Two days after I finished my first draft, I got my offer from Chicken House."

Keren David

Keren has written many fantastic books including  When I was Joe, Salvage, Another Life and This is Not a Love Story.

"I had Third book Syndrome, not Second Book Syndrome, because my second book was a sequel and it was already half written when I got my first publishing deal. But my third book - Lia's Guide to Winning the Lottery - was harder. I had a deal, and therefore a deadline. My mum was ill, and my husband was considering a job abroad. I had a new narrator, and instead of writing a psychological thriller, I was trying a romantic comedy. It wasn't easy, and I ended up finishing the book i a massive rush - the ending had to be completely redone in the editing stages. Funnily enough, it's the book that has had the longest afterlife - we're adapting it into a musical, so I have been thinking and talking about those characters and that story for years now. I feel forever trapped writing and rewriting that third book - but loving it!"

Eve Ainsworth 

Award winning author of Seven Days, Crush and the newly published Damage :

"I found writing my second book difficult in that I had an editor now, and someone "to please" but Crush slotted in well with  Seven Days. Book three, Damage, was far, far harder for me - more challenging to break away from the setting and voice I'd already established."

So basically, this gets worse????
Somebody save me!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Can Acting Make You a Better Writer?

By Nick Cross

If you’ve been religiously following the news updates from Slushpile HQ (you have, haven’t you?), then you’ll remember that at Christmas I decided to book myself onto a drama course. I’ve now finished my first six weeks in the beginners' group and have recently advanced to “intermediate” (I know, I know, Ryan Gosling should watch out).

While acting my little socks off, I’ve become aware that being a writer sometimes alters my approach to the stage. So, with the help of a SCBWI friend whose acting credentials are far more impressive than mine, I’m ready for my close up. Erm, I mean I’m ready to explore the question of whether acting makes you a better writer...

Friday, 17 March 2017

The joy of small things - children's writing matters

by Addy Farmer

This blog is not a look at plot or structure although, goodness knows, I could do with looking at those things. But it sounds too tiring for now and I've just signed up to spend a year having a good old think about, 'where I go wrong and how I can put it right', so maybe more of that laterz on.

gratuitous photo of cat typing or maybe the reason why my plots end up with cats saving the day
Neither is this blog to do with setting or character or language. Crumbs, it's not even about ghosts which is my absolute favourite thing. Today, dear reader, my blog is about the small things in your young reader's life and why they matter.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Danger of Reading

Last week, I wrote If Books Are Mirrors, Where are Our Reflections? about a teacher conference that explored the importance of making sure children of all backgrounds and experiences are represented in the books they encounter.

Photo: John Christian Fjellestad | Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, 24 February 2017

Running a writing masterclass

By Paula Harrison

Me with fellow slushies Maureen Lynas and Addy Farmer in the pub afterwards (after eating a very large chocolate muffin)

Last Saturday, I went to Birmingham to run a session called A young series fiction masterclass which I'd offered to SCBWI members. By April, I'll have 20 young series books published over three different series (The Rescue Princesses, The Secret Rescuers and Tiara Friends mysteries) so I wanted to start sharing what I knew with other writers.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Writing for Children - Bryan Collier on Inspiration, Passion and the need for Diverse Books.

By Kathryn Evans

 I've just returned from the SCBWI New York conference. I know - get me! Gadding about the planet. It's huge too - over 1100 people attend and it's packed with very well known American book people this Brit has never heard of. One of them was the first keynote speaker: artist and picture book writer and illustrator,  Bryan Collier.

Bryan Collier and Kathryn Evans
He spoke about his passion:

"Your dream's should scare you they should be so outlandish - hold on to them."

His inspiration:

"Pay attention to all the little things that happen to you, even if it's painful," 
One of his great influences were the quilts his grandmother  had sewn when he was a child.  At the time, he hadn't taken much notice, but the way the patchwork was created became a part of him and a part of his art.

This resonated with me. As a child, I lived so much in books, they are as important to my writing as the laughter and the tragedy I've lived through. They make the patchwork of my books - stories about relationships with a sci-fi twist and a spoonful of horror.  When I embraced that, I found my voice.

He talked too, of his own oddity:

"The things you feel awkward about are the things that are special about you. That's your unique gift. Let that shine."
As a writer of pretty weird books, I wanted to cheer at this. We all have our own oddities - let them breathe.

On why he creates for children:

" There's nothing you can't touch and talk about in picture books."
Bryan's latest illustrations are for Daniel Beaty's story, Knock, Knock -  an intricate tale of loss.
 Knock, Knock

And his need:

Bryan first saw himself in Ezra Jack Keats " The Snowy Day." He was four years old and,

 "Peter was wearing my pyjamas".

Candy Gourlay has often said that she didn't think girls like her could be in books because she never saw Filipino children in books. It matters that all children see themselves in books. As Bryan said:

"Somebody is waiting for you to be courageous enough to say 'I have a story to tell' - that's what's at stake."

 You know, it didn't matter that I didn't know Bryan's work - his words brought me to tears and the entire audience to its feet.  And he finished with this:

 "Let's do this, lock the doors, get desperate."
Children are waiting.

Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She is Co-RA of SCWBI British Isles. Find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and twitter @mrsbung  More of Me will be released in the USA, June 2017

Monday, 13 February 2017

Diary of a Slushpiler: Project 200 Words

By Jo Wyton

On Thursday evening, I go to bed (at eight thirty, half an hour after I started to fail on the whole consciousness front) having written some words. They are not good words. They are, in fact, great words. Because they exist on a screen, which is an enormous step in the direction of Existing On The Page Of A Book. There are 221 of them. (I deleted four for not meeting my high standard of 'making any sense to anybody at all even after two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc'.)

I celebrated. Internally, of course, because quite frankly I had just put Baby in bed at the time, and fat bloody chance I was going to risk ten rounds of 'Hush, Little Baby' because of 221 words. 

As I wrote those 221 words, I had a glimpse of a reflection of myself, a vague recollection of someone I had intended to become, and viewed as it had been through sleepy eyes and what is, by now, a fairly feisty temperament brought on by a cabin fever-inducing routine, it was lovely. 

The next morning, in the shower, I ponder Project 200 Words. After all, I need something to replace the gaping chasm left in my life by the quiet exit of Project Goat (funnily enough, not the title of The Novel, though probably should be), and this seems to fit the bill. Every evening, once Baby is in bed and a sufficient volume of alcohol has been consumed, I will refrain from turning on the tv to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls (peace out, sisters) and will instead write 200 words of The Novel, and will celebrate finishing them by raising my laptop over my head and running in slow motion around the living room to the Chariots of Fire theme tune. I come downstairs to find the world's creepiest doll in the living room and my imagined celebrations are replaced with thoughts of being murdered in my sleep by this thing coming to life.

Friday comes and goes.

Then Saturday. Sunday happens in there somewhere, too, though it seems blissfully devoid of things that require a place in my permanent memory.

Of course instead of writing, other delights fill my time happens. I find myself cleaning all manner of bodily fluids from the depths of the carpet, scrubbing Weetabix from the radiator and wiping snot from the tv (always amazing how high up the screen it can get). None of which is entirely conducive to the imaginings of a Proper Writer. And the time that doesn't involve pretending I'm not high from the smell of carpet cleaner is so filled with all the best things in life, that I forget that there is a part of me not quite being embraced. 

'Just keep swimming' is the advice offered to me on Facebook, which would be great advice if I could only find my snorkel and flippers. Most likely they're languishing in the bottom of the wardrobe having been chewed on by the cat. 

Still, there is a deadline. A writing retreat in May. Surely it would be deemed improper to spend the first day and a half trying to remember where I saved the manuscript and where the charger cable plugs in to the laptop. It has occurred to me many time since I started with this writing malarky that one requires honest and somewhat ridiculous friends in life, and I am fortunate to have many who fit into both categories quite happily. One of them booked me onto this retreat as a surprise. Am sure I have fallen into an unspoken contract to provide alcohol and cake, but am embracing the imposition of a date in my diary as a signal to retrain my fingers in how to type. 

Of course, just as I finish typing this, Significant Other walks into the living room and says 'Are we going to put carpet cleaner on this sick or just leave it?'

Monday, 6 February 2017

Living in the Past

By Nick Cross

I've always been suspicious of nostalgia - that intense yearning for the past that often seems to be an excuse for not engaging with the present. As a result, all of my five novels to date have had a contemporary setting. Writing in the now just felt right - I was engaging with the issues that directly affected child readers, I was keeping up with popular culture and also avoiding doing much in the way of research (which I found tedious).

Yet I seem to have spent the last six months living in and writing about the past. What happened there?

Monday, 30 January 2017

A Room of One's Own

by Teri Terry
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
Virginia Woolf
I didn’t have either of those things when I wrote Slated so I don’t think they are a prerequisite – but I’ve recently considered renting my own writing space. Trying to make the decision got me thinking:
What do I need to write? What do I need to be happy? What is in the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where both co-exist, and why does it seem to keep getting smaller?

Can I say hand-on-heart that I need a room of my own in order to write? No.

To write, all I actually need are pen/notebook/laptop/time. For years I wrote early in the morning in bed before work; for the last five years or so I've been a full time writer who worked from home and often did the same. 
WOW did I love working from home to start with! Not having to go to work, not having to work to any schedule but my own (apart from the occasional pesky deadline), working in my PJs and talking to myself more than is good in public – total bliss.
But ... there are no boundaries:
Much like it did in the pre-published stages, it still felt hard sometimes to justify taking time and space from family/duck polishing/hanging out on Facebook. Working from home makes it hard to switch off the me that does all the other stuff.

It can be even harder sometimes to take time and space away from my writing to give it to the people who are most important. I think a lot of the reason is the amorphous nature of writing. It tends to take over your thoughts and attention when it shouldn’t, and nothing is ever completely finished. I could edit forever if I didn’t have to hit send on a deadline. So working from home also makes it hard to switch off the me that does the writing.

Over time how I felt about writing full time at home gradually changed for the worse:
I wasn’t even completely sure why. Changing the hobby you love to a job is always going to change how you feel about it, and that was part of it, but it wasn’t just that. 
I was looking for The Reason, and I blamed it on lack of space.
I do have the Writing Shack - a garden summer house that I can write in warm weather – but no dedicated writing space inside: not even a desk that was all mine. Stuff always had to be put away – I’m champion at losing things if they’re not left in sight. This was more of a problem on the business side of things than the writing side, though there was the one nightmare morning spent looking for ‘the’ notebook for one of my novels – convinced I’d lost it forever … it turned out the Man was tidying up and put it in the loft. I forgave him (eventually).

Solution: could I rent an office? Should I?
Well, reader: I did
Me! at my table! in my writing studio!
(Photo by Debra Hurford Brown)
The whole time I was considering getting an office, I focused on the practical: my need for dedicated space, quiet. This was my focus and there are huge pluses here with your work being able to be left spread out how you like it. I lose stuff less. I have a filing cabinet! And shelves for my notebooks. Also a work address is handy.

To get over the rent-is-dead-money issue, I convinced myself I’d be more organized and productive. And if that means more work done and hence more money in to pay the rent? Sorted.

But nearly two months on I’ve found it gives me so much more – for reasons that are perhaps even more important:

1. Separation of work and home: BOUNDARIES
I work at work and I don’t work at home. I wasn’t sure at first if that would happen – even though I ‘officially’ wrote during the day at home and not often in evenings/weekends, I always found myself doing bits and pieces then, too. But I’ve stopped doing that pretty much completely (confession: I’ve been writing this blog on a Sunday afternoon at home, but that’s a different sort of work!).
And what I’ve also found is that I’ve started to love coming home and being at home again, and if the man is out (generally at tennis!) and I’ve got an evening at home on my own I’m happy with my own company; when I was writing at home during the day I hated being on my own in the evening.
AND I got a red chair!

2. Getting dressed, going somewhere and talking to actual people!
I've rented an office inside a building with shared common areas. Now I chat for a few minutes with lovely office manager Caroline on my way in and out and whoever else is about of a half dozen or so engineers; there’s often chat by the kettle or at others times of day. They seem pretty tolerant of me babbling (so far!). And then I go to my space, and close the door.

Maybe I understand more now why many writers leave the house and go to write in coffee shops etc? If I didn’t live in a quiet village where the main not-at-home options are pubs (not a habit I need to get into) I might have tried that more, but I’ve never been good at working in places with people around me. It’s kind of like I want people there but not too close; I want to control my own space & sound also. Not a coffee shop option.

3. How I feel about what I’m doing has changed.
It’s kind of like me renting writing space is saying, I take this seriously – it’s my career – and I’m planning for it to continue. I’ve got faith in myself and what I do. It may sound weird to say this, but I feel more like a grown up (in a good way).

Conclusions on the practical stuff?

Am I more organised? OMG, YES.

Will I be more productive? 
I think so, I need more time to know for sure. Maybe not, because it may be that a book takes how long it takes to write and it may not work to try to speed that up. But I’ve decided I’m actually OK with that: I’m happier. The sweet spot has got bigger.
Me! at my table! in my writing studio!
It's so big I even have some giant sized notebooks, like this one!
(Photo by Debra Hurford Brown)

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:

" 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?


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!


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


Click HERE to tweet this readymade tweet! 
How to write your novel for the LAST TIME. #amwriting #amediting #NaNoWriMo #notesfromtheslushpile

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

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

New Year's Resolutions

by Paula Harrison

Budle Bay in Northumbria - I wish I was there and it was summer already!

As soon as I discovered I'd been allotted the first Slushie blog of the year, I thought - I can do New Year's Resolutions for writers! But the fact is I don't make New Year's Resolutions. I never have. There's something about having a bunch of rules that I'm meant to stick to that just makes me want to go out and break them all immediately. I think this is a pretty good reflection of my rebellious attitude to authority that even if the rules are set by me they still annoy me!

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