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.

Friday 5 May 2017

The Writer's Journey - How Long!?!

by Em Lynas

Last year was weird. I signed with agent Amber Caraveo of Skylark Literary and landed a 3 book deal with Kate Wilson of Nosy Crow.
Next year is set to be weirder as I write two more books in the Toadspit Towers series and promote the first.

It feels weird because it’s led me to do a bit of thinking and wondering about time: how it’s passed and how and why I kept writing over...
Eighteen years from ‘I think I’ll become a writer!’ to ‘I have a book coming out in August!’

Why did it take me so long? What were my steps? What led me to here? What led me to Toadspit Towers, School for Witches and the deal with Nosy Crow. If I'd known it would take so long would I have even started?

Let’s go back to 1999. Yes, the last century! Before the millennium! I was a teacher. A reception teacher who needed to get out.

I had A PLAN! Become a picture book writer and never suffer an OFSTED ever again!
I was obviously an expert in picture books (reception teacher remember) so, I wrote lots of picture books. They were bad picture books. They all lacked something. But not always the same something. They were amateurish.

Some of these books had:
No lead character, tick; no conflict, tick; no plot, tick; no theme, tick.

Comedy? Tick. Yes. They all had comedy.

I kept writing because:
I had great feedback from agents and editors. I even had a near miss from a big publisher. They kept Maybe the Baby for a year and then said no. That was a bad ending. The book’s ending was bad too.

What next? Stick to picture books and learn my craft? Of course not. Picture books were obviously far too hard (everyone said so) and I needed to try something different, something easier.

Aha! PLAN 2 Become a comedy sketch writer.
Link provided to
Lily's Tassels
 on request.
I signed up for a comedy class. It turned out to be less a class and more a boozy gang of very sweary comics (think VIZ but actual live people) led by a not-very-funny outspoken woman with a not-very-funny act that involved extreme piercing and tassel twirling. 

I kept writing because:
This group led to my friend and I meeting with a local comedian who had an idea for a comedy drama script.

Aha! PLAN 3 – Become a script writer.
We wrote the script for From Fags to Riches. Six episode outlines and one full script of episode one. That script is waiting to be discovered. It’s good. One day it may find a home.

This script has:
An interesting premise, tick; a well-structured plot, tick; believable characters, tick; loads of peril, tick; comedy and pathos, tick; well-known actors and actresses interested in taking parts, tick.

No production company deals, tick; it’s not my voice, tick.

I kept writing because:
I was getting a sense of my voice. I had my own ideas. They wouldn’t go away. I’d learned a lot about structure while we wrote the script. But what next? Stick to scriptwriting? Nope. I love books. I love comedy. Mmm. Comedy.

Aha! PLAN 4 Write a book. A comedy for adults.
Mother on the Mantelpiece. I still like this book. Brenda, school secretary, is a middle-aged woman being haunted by her mother who still ‘knows best’ and is ruling her life from the grave.

This book has:
an interesting premise, tick; an unrequited romance with the bloke downstairs, tick; believable characters, tick; comedy and pathos, tick; a beginning, tick.

No plot, tick; no ending; tick.

By now I’d been to a few scriptwriting courses and creative writing courses, and had begun to engage with other writers. I joined the online critique group You Write On and Harper Collins critique site Authonomy.

What a great procrastination! What an emotional rollercoaster. What a waste of writing time. BUT I did learn lessons. It was an introduction to objectivity versus subjectivity. ‘Your characters are so believable!’ ‘Your characters aren’t believable.’ ‘Love your premise.’ ‘Hate your premise.’ ‘Your plot is so well paced.’ ‘Your plot is too frantic.’

I kept writing because:
People at courses and online laughed. They found my writing funny. That was amazing.

Aha! PLAN 5 Write a different book. A really silly book for kids. The daftest book I can write.
I loved Tony Ross’s book Don’t Do That! About a kid who gets their finger stuck up their nose and it reminded me of the saying – If The Wind Changes You’ll Stay Like That! A warning not to pull faces.

And so Gurner Gobbit and the Bloodcurdling Bug-Eyed Jawbreaker was born. This was the first novel that I actually completed. I loved it. I loved Gurner and his recklessness, and his best friend Pete who was obsessed with reporting Gurner’s antics. It was whacky – set in an alternative Lancashire where extreme face pulling was the norm. But certain faces were BANNED as too dangerous. Pulling the BANNED faces had consequences.

This book has:
A ridiculous premise, tick; bonkers characters, tick; crazy events, tick; comedy conflict, tick; logical plot, tick.

Really poor set up of the events and ending, tick; a protagonist who can’t speak because his face is distorted, tick.

I kept writing because:
I joined SCBWI. Gurner won an honorary mention in The 2010 Undiscovered Voices. An editor saw the book on Authonomy and expressed interest. People thought it was funny.

Next plan. PLAN 6. 6! Get a book ready for the next Undiscovered Voices competition. Maybe twist a traditional tale?

To Destiny or Death! Prince Bob is turned into a frog by the evil Hagatha and it’s all King Fred’s fault!  I love King Fred and his food related idiolect. Another completed book! And it’s in my voice.

This book has:
A big heart, tick; strong characters, tick; a structured plot, tick; conflict and peril, tick; logical set up and motivations, tick; funny dialogue, tick.

A protagonist who can’t speak because he’s a frog, tick. There is now a pattern of non-speaking protagonists. If 2 makes a pattern.

I kept writing because:
To Destiny or Death! won a place in the 2012 Undiscovered Voices competition. I signed with an agent. I had publishers interested. It failed to get past sales and marketing.

Note the date. 2012

We’re now thirteen years into the journey to publication. I haven’t mentioned the other picture books I’ve written, the two teen books planned and not written, volunteering for SCBWI, setting up the poetry website the funeverse with SCBWI friends, joining the blog Notes from the Slushpile with even more SCBWI friends. I'd become very busy at being a writer.

Back to the timeline.
This was a dip time. A bit of a depressing time. I considered not writing. I felt I knew what I was doing now. I understood structure, set up, characterisation etc etc etc but I was failing at the last hurdle – being published. It was very difficult to maintain any enthusiasm for submitting and sharing my work with the publishing industry.

I kept writing because:
I still loved writing and I had another story. A story that still makes me smile. Florence and the Meanies – Cupcake Catastrophe! I also wrote book 2 Canine Calamity!

Based on the Cinderella dynamic, Florence and her two fairy godmothers must save the princes from the evil Meanies. Florence was a lot of fun to write, especially because the two fairy godmothers Hatty and Dotty are such contrasts of good and naughty. But having parted company with my agent I wasn’t sure I wanted to put Florence (and me) through the submission process. So I worked with my daughter Katherine Lynas to produce an illustrated version for the kindle and we did the layout for a createspace book too. I’ve since withdrawn the book because ... I have a plan for Florence.

These books have:
Everything I want them to have especially warmth, heart, my voice and my daughter's fabulous illustrations.

I kept writing because:
A new character popped up with a very personal and unique story. Daisy knew what she didn’t want. She definitely didn’t want to go to witch school. I wrote her story. I re-wrote it. I wrote it again. That was in 2015.
Then, in 2016 Prince Bob won a SCBWI BI slushpile challenge with Amber Caraveo and she said the magic words – what else have you got? And I answered – I have Daisy! She’s an actress who’s been dumped at Toadspit Towers, School for Witches, by her granny. Amber fell for Daisy. She fell for the voice.

Pg 93 in the catalogue! Click here!
You can read about Daisy on the Nosy Crow website. In August 2017 she will have her book birthday and I will be a published author.

So, EIGHTEEN LONG YEARS! Could I have done it sooner? Was there a short cut I missed? What if I’d done a creative writing degree? What if I’d done an MA? Would I have climbed the learning curve faster? Would I have been published faster? I don’t think so. No. Not me. There was so much to discover and learn. Not just about the techniques of writing but I had to discover my voice, discover what I cared about and discover what motivated me.

I thought comedy was the motivation, I thought I just wanted to make children laugh. But comedy is just the genre I use to write about the things I care about. It just took me a while to discover what those things were. 

What was the main thing that gave me the confidence to keep writing? SCBWI BI. Winning Undiscovered Voices and the Slushpile Challenge was incredibly motivating. I had to be doing something right if I'd won those. And you should never underestimate the power of SCBWI friendships. They just won't let you give up!

If you're writing for children and are a member of SCBWI BI (or Europe) you can enter these amazing competitions for free. Do it.

Em Lynas

Feel free to follow me on twitter and facebook if you are at all interested in books and writing for children. You can nip over to my website emlynas but I'm not often in.

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