Friday, 3 August 2018

Thoughts on writing poetry for children

by Addy Farmer

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. I don't know why, maybe because I'm writing something long with all the long thinking that involves (UPDATE - I'm nearly finished and the slog has been worth it). Maybe it's because I've been doing poetry workshops for children. Check out the awesome video I made (don't panic, it's only just over a minute long).

Or maybe because writing poetry is a bit shorter than writing stories. Hem-hem.

I really do love writing poetry and find that it adds to my writerly range and incidentally to what I can offer in schools. 

Does it have to rhyme? 

Poetry in primary schools is sometimes regarded as something mysterious which can only be handled with RHYME. Whereas, poetry should mean the freedom to write what you feel and ...

if that involves rhyme,
at the end,
of a line
 then fine, 
but if not that is equally okay. 

There are so many different ways of presenting poetry from the simplest circle poetry where there is just an infinitely repeating pattern of words through mesostics and diamanté poems to poems based on the Fibonacci Sequence (I've not yet given that a go). Or why not just go freeform and write like the wind, about the wind and

t o s s
 ThIs WaY
 tHaT wAy

and see
how they

There is poetry in everything if you choose to find it. Here's one I wrote earlier.

I wrote a poem for, Look Out! The Teachers are Coming! It's short and fun and it goes like this:

Please check out who I'm next to ...

What is a poem exactly?

I think of poetry as the nearest I can get to being a visual artist. Poetry can be playful; lyrical or anything you like, so long as it speaks to a brilliant idea or an important occasion or a place you love  or the person you adore. Poetry is evocative. Poetry should leave a picture in your reader's mind (not literally for those with aphantasia) and a feeling in your reader's bones. At the risk of sounding a bit up myself, I quote the following from The Little Prince.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  

In other words, poetry need not be obvious but it should make the reader FEEL - giddy or angry-pants or sad or elated or yes! that's it! Or something


If you want to read poetry defined, then read one of my absolute favourite picture books, 'This is a poem that heals fish' by Jean-Pierre Simeon and Oliver Sorman. 

It is unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound. It offers a playful and profound answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it also answers  the larger question of what we most want in life and how we give it shape.

Or try Michael Rosen, he know a very great deal about poetry for children.

Want to write poetry for children and get it published? 

Me too.

As with writing stories for children, you MUST do your research! Read poetry and then read some more. You can do no better than starting with Em Lynas's wonderful resource funEverse poetry. Ooo, by the way I was a guest poet there!

Try the Poetry Foundation site for great poetry and inspiring articles.

Whist Interesting Literature this site advises 10 classic children's poems ... it is equally advisable to read up to date children's poetry and you MUST read Michael Rosen or let him read to you.

There are probably children's poets out there screeching at this blog and just crying out to give great advice along the lines of ...

You silly little poodle
Why don't you use your noodle
And jot down a little doodle
but do not make it rud-le
(we're writing for children after all).

Please published poets, show us the way! Any advice will be gratefully received - people may even write odes to you.

odenoun [ C ] poem expressing the writer's thoughts and feelings about a particular person or subject, usually written to that person or subject
"Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are poems by Keats.
UK  /əʊd/ US  /oʊd/

Advice for getting your poetry published

  • Write stonkingly great poems. One would think this goes without saying. ...
  • Research markets.
  • Choose 3 to 5 of your best poems for submission.
  • Format and proofread your poems.
  • Write your cover letter.
  • Put your submission together. 
  • Keep track of where you send your poems. 
Get ready to do it all again.

I found a couple of places you might start.
The first is The Caterpillar magazine and another is a writing website with some great advice on writing poetry and getting it published. 

By the way, I do offer poetry workshops for primary schools both indoors and outdoors. 

Poetry workshops are fun
in the rain!
Except for ...
wet paper
which makes your words run
'til they wobble and wibble
and dribble 
sopping and drip-
off the s-o-g-g-y page 
and ...
it's nicer in the sun, really.

I wish you the very best of luck and hope you will share your thoughts and experience!

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Failing... and picking ourselves up again

by Paula Harrison
Budle Bay in Northumbria a good place for reflection

I recently posted on twitter that I was about to sign a contract that would take me (eventually) to being an author of forty books. The tweet got a lot of views and attention - maybe more than anything else I've tweeted - but I felt slightly fake as I posted it. You see I knew damn well that some of the books on the contract might never be published because I've had books cancelled before.

This got me thinking about how we curate our image on social media, presenting the shiny, smooth side of our lives and often hiding the reality. I use twitter mainly for work and a lot of other writers follow me, including those yet to be published. My writing life must appear so perfect to them. My profile says "million-selling author" which is true. It doesn't say "once had 3 books cancelled due to poor retailer response to previous books in that series". Also true. I don't talk about it, partly out of a wish not to look unprofessional, even though it was a huge blow at the time and I probably think about it just as often as I do about the million sales.

Then I found an article in The Guardian by Elizabeth Day The link is here:

This made me think about failure. How do we deal with it? Can we always learn from it? Does it mark us, like a painful scar, or does it make us stronger?

Maybe, if we can be honest about these things, we can find our way through them a little better especially in the early days when writing is such a tall mountain to climb. So I asked some fellow Slushies if they would share a failure.

Maureen Lynas, author of You Can't Make Me Go to Witch School! and Get Me Out of Witch School! wrote: 

My first novel 'The Blood Curdling Bug-Eyed Jawbreaker' didn't work because I didn't understand set up or the need for cause and effect so it was just one long string of silliness BUT there is a creature in it which is forming the basis of a book I'm writing now. The gurglefurter has waited in the wings for at least ten years but now it's centre stage.
Here is the proof that nothing is ever wasted! I have to admit that I have also re-used ideas I really like from my pre-published writings so now I know I am in good company!

Nick Cross, author of many stories including The Last Typewriter, wrote:

My biggest writing failure was having unrealistic expectations. Immediately following my Undiscovered Voices shortlisting, I was suddenly on the fast track to publishing success. Within months, I had rewritten almost my whole novel, gained an agent and had commissioning editors clamouring to read my work. When - after a protracted period of negotiation with a publisher - it all fell apart, so did I. Although I kept writing, it took me years to recover from that early taste of success. Eventually, I learned not to tie my entire sense of self-worth to my book. Once I recognised I had many other skills and achievements that were just as valid as a publishing deal, I began to rediscover the joy in my creative life.
I think, although we don't always talk about it, lots of us have had this experience. Getting close to our goal only to see hope of success evaporate is often more difficult than not getting close at all. To really enjoy our creative lives, we may need to separate our fulfilment from the minefield that is today's publishing business. 

Candy Gourlay, author of picture books and novels including the soon-to-be-published Bone Talk wrote:

One early writing failure for me was something I'll bet anyone who has attempted to write a novel has committed. Having finished my first ever novel, I immediately asked a novelist friend to read it. Weeks later, I met her at a cafe, excited to hear what she thought of my characters, my twists and turns and my wonderful sense of humour. Instead, I spent an hour discovering that my plot was thin and my characters poorly fleshed out. Not only that, the manuscript was riddled with simple typos, non-sequiturs and plot holes.

What did I do wrong?

• Vanity! I shared a manuscript because I was seeking praise, not wisdom

• I exposed myself to criticism before I was ready (I was so devastated, it took me months to start writing again)

• I shared the manuscript before it was fully developed (I didn't even know what a fully developed manuscript was)

• It was not my friend's fault that I chose her to read the manuscript. But later, I learned that I needed time to learn how to trust another person to critique my work
Candy also mentioned that she felt she'd had so many failures it was hard to choose one to write about. I'm sure all the fans of her books would disagree! I do know what she means though, with each new project I've undertaken there have been pitfalls and it sometimes seems to me that I'm always discovering new ones!

Of course there's a difference between failing by making mistakes in your story and failing because you've run headlong into the tough conditions in the publishing market. If you're unpublished it can be difficult to tell where the problem lies, especially if you are receiving form rejections. Does your book need more work or were publishers simply not looking for a story like yours? Sometimes a publisher or agent can have something very similar on their list already and for this reason they won't contemplate taking you on. If you're unsure it's useful to get feedback on your work. I would recommend joining a critique group through the SCBWI or taking part in a critique at their Winchester conference in November.

So has failing made me stronger as a person - as a writer? I can honestly say that it didn't feel like it at the time (times!) but looking back over years of writing both as a passion and a career I can see that I am beginning to learn a little. So here's to failing... and then picking ourselves up again.

Friday, 6 July 2018

How to Keep Nostalgia in the Past

By Nick Cross

Source image by Crossett Library

I’ve just finished a teen novel set in the early 90s, and it’s been wonderful to step back into a world without mobile phones, where tactile, analogue technologies like cassette tapes and vinyl were all the rage. Each time Donald Trump tweeted, or Snapchat redesigned their app, or something like #MeToo happened, I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t trying to write a story about modern teenagers. But there’s a flipside to writing a tale set within my own lifetime - I found myself constantly battling the seductive allure of nostalgia. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the whole book saying stuff like “Ooh, do you remember this? Wasn’t it great!”

“What’s so bad about nostalgia?” you might be asking. “Isn’t it all just harmless fun?” Maybe in small doses. But taken too far, nostalgia can be shaped into a dangerous lie. Without the pernicious effect of nostalgia telling us that things were better in the old days, would we have ended up with Brexit or President Trump?

What I particularly dislike about the use of nostalgia in fiction writing, is that it allows the author to choose easy truths, and prevents them digging deeper into the reality of what life was really like. Seen in this way, nostalgia becomes another form of privilege: because we remember living through a period in a certain way, we assume our experience was universal. And more than that, human memory is notoriously fallible. As writers, we owe it to our readers to do the research, so we can represent the characters’ experiences as faithfully as possible.

I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of nostalgia for many years. Even as a young adult in the 1990s, I was surrounded by people reminiscing about the 60s and 70s. I can remember my university friends getting dewy-eyed about Mr Benn or Alberto Frog and His Amazing Animal Band (look it up - or better still, don’t). In the mid-nineties, my friend Stefan and I created The Encyclopedia of Cultural References, a sort of anti-Wikipedia filled with lies and falsehood. For months, we wrote bizarre articles in which Roald Dahl was a secret Marxist trying to write “the definitive radical existential socialist children’s book”, or the Golden Delicious “Le Crunch Bunch” were hapless pawns in a vicious trade war between France and England (sound familiar?) Over time, these jokey satires have been subsumed by real-life events - who could have possibly imagined the grim reality of Rolf Harris’s off-camera life?

This is just one of many examples that show things were not always rosy in the garden, even if they appeared that way to our childhood eyes. So how can we, as authors, overcome our own in-built sentimentality towards the recent past?

  1. Know your audience
    How many times have I typed those three words in a blog post like this one? A lot. But that doesn’t make it any less true. If your audience is a bunch of adults roughly your age, then carefully deployed nostalgia can be a good way of engaging with them. I myself used nostalgia to get a laugh in my video introduction for last year’s Crystal Kite Award. But if your audience is a group of fifteen-year-olds, tread carefully. You might get a reaction from referencing exactly the right Cbeebies show, but you also might fall flat on your face.

  2. Highlight the bad along with the good
    Nostalgia is all about slipping on those rose-tinted glasses and indulging in a major feat of selective memory. But here’s a newsflash - whenever and wherever you grew up, your teenage years basically sucked! You don’t have to write a 500 page misery memoir, but equally, don’t sugar-coat stuff. Teen readers can spot a faker a mile off.

  3. Tap into the feelings, but not necessarily the details
    If you’re writing a YA book, the chances are that you’re probably carrying a lot of angst around with you. That’s great - let it all out! But mapping your own feelings onto the experiences of a fictional character can help you maintain some distance, and make it easier to see what’s best for the story.

  4. Ask yourself: is this bit of writing for me, or for the reader?
    If it’s just for the reader, that’s fine.
    If it’s just for you, remove it.
    If it’s for both of you, then great!

  5. Pick an area that you don’t know much about
    This is what I did in my book, although it wasn’t a deliberate strategy to avoid nostalgia, but more because that was what I wanted to write about! However, incorporating some unfamiliar settings, characters or themes will stretch you as a writer and force you to do additional research into the period.

  6. Don’t assume the good times are behind you
    We all fear getting older, and because the past is set in stone, it’s easy to imagine that our lives were better then. But the truth is that we have a huge capacity to grow and change, which is a big part of why we became writers in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’m 46 years old, as fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, and I just wrote a kick-ass novel that I’m incredibly proud of. I’d say life is pretty good right here in 2018 :-)

So there you have it, six simple steps to banish nostalgia forever. But before you go, could you answer me just one question? Don’t you think my blog posts were better in the old days?


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a 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.

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