Monday 25 April 2016

Confessions of a Part-Time Writer: Structure, Pacing, Plot and Everything Else, Actually

I typically open any given manuscript I’m working on knowing one thing: I haven’t got much time to work on it.

Writing exists around that other time-consuming thing in my life: a full time job. And I love my job, so that’s OK by me.

But is does mean that when I come to work on a manuscript, I feel under pressure to do something Great with it. 

I jump right in. Maybe I re-read the last few paragraphs I wrote, maybe I just get on with it. Maybe I pick up an existing scene, maybe I write a new one. Maybe it’s planned, maybe it’s not.

Whilst I have usually planned the plot out, I have always been someone more comfortable with winging it than properly planning it.

And that’s fine, except that I was reading Candy Gourlay’s post from a few weeks ago and felt the need to try to do things a little differently.

Why don’t I plan more? Is it because it doesn’t work for me, or because in the limited time I have I prioritise the writing itself? Or is it – gulp – because I’ve never taken the time to learn how? 

In an odd turn of events, I currently have the time, and it’s coincided wonderfully with having the inclination. Sitting next to me on my desk: Story by Robert McKee, Writing Children’s Fiction by Yvonne Coppard and Linda Newbery (from whom I have already been lucky enough to glean pearls of wisdom and kindness generously gifted on an Arvon course), On Writing by Stephen King and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Just as importantly I have surrounded myself by my favourite books, and have gone through each wondering for the first time why exactly they stick in my mind as favourites. Michelle Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity for the depth of friendship invoked, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels and Bernard Beckett's August for their wondrous use of language, Amy Butler Greenfield's Chantress for its use of setting to reflect the characters perfectly – the list goes on.

Reading these books again and trying to break them down goes against instinct, but as Sarah Waters wrote in a 2010 Guardian article, “Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work.” 

Diving head-first into learning how to write better, rather than spending the time writing the manuscript itself, feels somewhat intimidating, but cometh the time, cometh the writer. Probably.

Monday 18 April 2016

The Dreamers of Dreams

The Dreamers of Dreams by Addy Farmer 

We are the dreamers of dreams - Roald Dahl

My grandmother used to tell me that I was dizzy-dolly-daydream. She said it quite a lot and I began to wonder if this was a good thing, so I finally asked her what it meant.

She said that me being in my own funny little world was a bit frustrating for her; however, she thought that that dreamers were important. The important bit made me feel ten feet tall but with little idea of what she was on about since most of my mental meanderings were to do with going to Sweety Land where I could eat everything in sight or jumping into a puddle which took me to the seaside or rescuing a sad donkey/mouse/rabbit from certain doom.
A real donkey being rescued! Don't worry - he was fine and happy
Then Granny being the pragmatic woman she was, added, 'But you do need to do something with your dreams, dear.' Thanks, Granny.
Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages. Terry Pratchett
We can range free in our daydreams, slip the surly bonds of earth and all that, though we are strangely constrained by some inner logic in our night-dreams and nightmares. Whatever they are - daydreams, night-dreams, nightmares - maybe the stuff that dreams are made of can make a story ... and turn the insubstantial into substance. You must have had dreams you remember? I have had dreams in which I'm falling off a tall building, only to land on a squashy car (I've had this at least three times) and the embarrassing dream in which I find myself swimming in a public pool with no costume on (please do not analyse). I have also had dreams which rehearse an important event and woken with a sense of security about what's to come (quite useful but uncontrollable).

It was all a dream ...
I have also dreamed of the dead. I have done this twice. In my dreams I talked to those lost ones, forgetting that they were dead until waking when the memory of loss returned with the most crushing sadness. So my dreams are rubbish for plotting but they have on occasion been wonderful for feeling.
And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again. Caliban, The Tempest, Shakespeare
Back to Granny. When I was about eight I had an incredible experience. I so loved being with Granny at her house and I would frequently dream about being there. One night, I dreamed about my bedroom in that house - the perfumey scent, the sunshine on the bed, the creaking wardrobe door. I woke up and for a glorious few seconds I was there - in that bed, in my granny's house and my happiness was like sunshine. It lasted no time and I woke up again, confused and with a terrible weight of disappointment and a fierce yearning to be back there. Sometimes, I think that this it is what being a ghost might feel like - a tremendous yearning to get back to life. I haven't knowingly used this experience in my work but I recognise it in other stories.
Don't let her in, you fool
Like Cathy's ghost in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch: instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand. The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, "Let me in—let me in!"
Set on the wild and windy moors, Bronte’s Victorian classic has lots of dream-like qualities. There are several occasions when characters are guided by their dreams. The character Lockwood has an unsettling dream about a brawl at an endless church sermon while staying at Wuthering Heights, while Catherine accepts a marriage proposal from Edgar after connecting a dream about going to heaven with their union.
‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. And this is one: I’m going to tell it – but take care not to smile at any part of it.’ the Housekeeper
There are those books which deal directly with dreams like one of my favourites, 'Marianne Dreams' by Catherine Storr.

Ill and bored with having to stay in bed, Marianne picks up a pencil and starts doodling - a house, a garden, a boy at the window. That night she has an extraordinary dream whereby she is transported into her own picture, and as she explores further she soon realises she is not alone. The boy at the window is called Mark, and his every movement is guarded by the menacing stone watchers that surround the solitary house. This story is creepy, disturbing and I realised that it echoed one of my own childhood nightmares where a witch lived in the house next door and I had to devise lots of ways to escape her attentions. 
Soooooo atmospheric and dreamlike in quality
How about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. There is a door at the end of a silent corridor. And it's haunting Harry Potter's dreams. Why else would he be waking in the middle of the night, screaming in terror?


As with Agamemnon’s dreams, courtesy of Zeus (I've waited a long time to reveal that nugget of knowledge), Harry is also led astray by subconscious thoughts implanted by a villain. 
I love a spooky door
And, as if you ever needed an affirmation of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore’s wisdom, he also has something to say about dreams:

I cannot write about dreams without referring to Alice in Wonderland by the peerless Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll really took full advantage of the limitless possibilities of writing within a dream setting. The 19th century author used Alice’s ability to get lost in the dream state and make connections and observations in her real life – much like we all actually do when dreaming.

‘Yes, that’s it! Said the Hatter with a sigh, it’s always tea time.’

Then there's, Mary Shelley's, Frankenstein

With a head full of an evening’s talk of reanimation and galvanism, Mary Godwin did not sleep well: “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie?.I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out?” She realized she had found her “ghost story.” “What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.”

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

In June of 2003, suburban Arizona mother Stephenie Meyer woke up from an intense dream in which two young lovers were lying together in a meadow, discussing why their love could never work. On her website, Meyers says, “One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.”

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

His horror classic also sprang into existence because of its writer’s graphic nightmares. In this case, a “fine bogey tale” tormenting him as he slept grew into one of the most famous and genuinely scary English-language novels ever penned — most especially considering its all-too-human antagonist and protagonist.
"In the small hours of the morning," says Mrs Stevenson, "I was awakened by cries of horror from Louis. Thinking he had a nightmare, I woke him. He said angrily, 'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' I had awakened him at the first transformation scene ..."
Stuart Little by E.B. White:

One of the most memorable and beloved characters from children’s literature entered into E.B. White’s subconscious in the 1920s, though he didn’t transition from notes to novel until over two decades later. From there, the tiny boy with the face and fur of a mouse became a classic.

Dream on, dreamers! (And thanks, Granny)

Monday 11 April 2016

Yay! Whoo Hoo! And Whoopy Do!

by Maureen Lynas Who is celebrating! 

I may be odd but I love going to the tip and on Friday our car was packed with bags of shredding, old computers and cardboard boxes. Tidy house! Hurrah! Geoff was ready and waiting, I was putting my boots on, and the phone rang. I nearly didn’t pick it up - the tip was awaiting! But I did. Right choice!  

Amber Caraveo from the Skylark Literary Agency was ringing with an offer of representation! We talked for an hour, we agreed our terms, we discussed editorial suggestions and happily said our cheerios. Amber went on to share the news with partner Joanna Moult and announce it on twitter. I went to the tip.

Then out for a celebratory lunch. I was a jumble of emotions as I tried to fill Geoff in on all the details. This has been a long time coming and it was a bit overwhelming. By the end of the weekend I realised there had been quite a few emotions at play.
Elation, relief, exhaustion, acceptance, fear and - determination
Elation - the whoopy doops, the yay’s, the yahoo’s, the twitter and facebook storm of congratulations and new friends. It’s exciting. A happy dance must be done. Prosecco must be drunk. Chocolate must be consumed. It was. By both.

Relief - JOB DONE! No more agent rejections, no more fingers crossed, no more searching and hoping that one day someone will ‘Get me’. Relief that Amber loves my work so much she’ll invest her time and effort into my career. Thank you!

Exhaustion - This has been a long journey! I once climbed a seemingly never ending mountain called Ingleborough, in Yorkshire. It had many false peaks and I was convinced that each rise was the top. That the torture would be soon be over. My writing journey has been similar. There’s been a number of false peaks and sometimes it’s been difficult to get back up from them. Songs have helped. Especially this one from Chumbawumba. 

Acceptance - This may take some time but I think using these words as often as possible should help - My agent. As in: When I was talking to my agent. My agent is lovely. My agent is going to be pitching soon.  My agent said… (I intend these sentence endings to be something wise and intuitive to show she is the best agent a writer can get.)  

Fear - Amber is going to pitch my book! It’s not ready! It’s not good enough! I have three pages of editorial suggestions. What if I can’t do it! What if I end up with a big mess of a muddle?

Determination - There’s been a lot of determination over the many years of writing and learning and hoping. Now it’s needed even more than before. Because getting an agent is a huge, wonderful step but it isn’t the end. The end is one of my books in a child’s hand and, hopefully, a lot of laughter.

Here's a song that says it all. Thanks Rod!

Now I'm off to come up with a plan of action for Witch School Sucks! Because MY AGENT is waiting. 


You can see the first half of how I got MY AGENT through the Slushpile Challenge on SCBWI BI's Words and Pictures

Monday 4 April 2016

Notes on How to Write Action

Greetings from the writing cave as I plod my way to a May deadline. Before we begin, may I just say this: AAAAAAARGH!

That's better.

So how do you feel about writing action? Not just the fun action like battles and fight scenes a la Jackie Chan  but all the movement that happens in a story. Characters DOING things. Getting from one place to another. Or when a character is building something, like a rocket or a time machine. Or when your character is living out his dull life and time is passing so that you can get to the part where story kicks in.

As I soldier on with my current work in progress, I constantly ask myself, why am I writing it this way? Is there a better way to get my character from A to B?

Share buttons bottom