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.

Monday 2 July 2018

Do not interrupt.

One of the notices I have on the wall above my laptop says:


It's not a message aimed at the writer's usual domestic distractors – pets, spouses, children, chores – but at myself.

Because the truth is, it is not the outside world but my own weak will that is the greatest barrier to good wordage.

I am not even talking about the internet, Facebook and obsessive inbox checking.

I am talking about interrupting story. My own story.

Something is happening in the story. It's compelling, exciting. The reader is transfixed. As the something happens, a character is triggered to remember something else. The Something Else is relevant to the something actually happening on stage. The Something Else explains stuff about the main something. Sometimes the Something Else triggers another something else that triggers yet another something else.

Only when all is explained does the story circle back to deliver the pay-off promised by the first something.

By that time, the reader's mind has already wandered to whether or not to put another load in the washing machine.

We novel writers do this self interrupting all the time in our first drafts, when we are still trying to figure out our stories. The interruptions are us explaining our stories to ourselves. But this sort of jumping around has no place in the final draft.

Go on, re-read the first chapter of your manuscript. Are you cutting away to explain tiny bits of background? Then you have work to do.

The screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines story structure thus:

STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.
Admittedly, the first time I read that dense sentence – which was before I'd ever written a novel –  it compelled me to go and put another load into the washing machine.

I only appreciated McKee's meaning after I had experienced the labyrinthine problem-solving involved in novel writing.


... meaning, don't include events that only serve to bore your reader.

My favourite explanation of this comes from Kathleen Duey, author of the astonishing Resurrection of Magic books. Duey says writing a scene is like shining a spotlight on a stage. The world of you story is all there, on the platform, but you, the author, chooses what the reader should know, at every single moment.

So interrupting your story is akin to the spotlight going dark on the hero and an extra four or five spotlights suddenly picking out actors on different parts of the stage, performing scenes from different parts of the story.

It is harder to avoid this than it sounds. When I was beginning to write novels, I was constantly trying to explain background, afraid that the lack of information will drive the reader away. It took nerve to accept that it is this lack that keeps the reader reading.

Says the author Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides): '... I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food or drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.'

But we can't help being driven to explain our story – in big, clumpy info-dumps and in tiny darting asides. The craft of writing a novel that can possess a reader, that can create that thirst to know what happens next is to know when and how to reveal this information.


Have you ever verbally told a story to a friends, then realised it would get a better reaction if you set it up a little bit better, and interrupted yourself saying, 'Oh wait, before I tell you that, I have to tell you this!'

This is why we interrupt ourselves.

We realise that the story would be better told – nay, better experienced by the audience – by laying more groundwork.

This is what we are doing when we interrupt a scene to cut away to some information.

But unlike a story told in conversation, we novelists don't have to interrupt ourselves. We have time to take that nugget out and put it where it belongs.

When critiquing opening chapters and I suggest to a fellow writer that cut-away information should be separated out and written up properly as a scene, the suggestion is often met with resistance.

The most common reason to resist is that the opening chapter is an explosion – it has been written specifically to hook the reader. The writer is only following advice to be found in countless places on the internet and in writing books. So if they insert a set up chapter before their exploding chapter, wouldn't they be missing the chance to hook the reader?

I think this misunderstands the idea behind hooking a reader.

What hooks the reader? Emotion.

An explosion can do it, causing fear, excitement, the desire to find out why ... but re-read your work carefully. Explosions can be humdrum too. Like the ones that come at the end of every superhero movie, the ones that you don't have to watch because you've seen it before.

So hooking the reader is about strategy. About finding the emotion that will keep him turning the pages. Sometimes, that emotion can be had without an explosion.


The first time you write your novel,your only strategy is getting to The End.

But once you've got it down, and you have time to examine the scenes you chose to lay down on paper, your strategy should shift from satisfying your own need to tell the story to mapping your reader's emotional experience of your book.

Revising with our reader's emotional arc in mind is a good way to weed out those tiny interruptions that we all seed into our chapters.

I wrote about it in detail back in 2016: Exposition: it's about emotion not information – in which I quote film editor Tony Zhou:

"Emotions take time ... Editors have to decide how much time to give an emotion."

Actually, Tony was talking about character emotions. But when you're revising your manuscript and strategising about how much time to give a scene on stage, spare a thought for the reader.

If you keep cutting away to fill in information, you are dampening the emotional impact of your scene.

And no, don't just cut it out. You put it in because you knew it was necessary. Now you need to craft a place for it in your narrative. This is not a nuisance but an opportunity to deepen and enrich your story.

Good luck.

Candy will be joining Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal) and her editor Bella Pearson in a discussion of Writing Other Lives on 3 July 2018. Book your place here. Candy's third novel Bone Talk will be published in August. Find out more.

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