Friday, 19 July 2019

Making things up: going out of order

by Teri Terry

Part 6 in Marking Things up: a blog series about the creative process
When you are writing, do you start at the beginning and carry on until you get to the end, or do you write scenes out of order? 

Back years ago when I was still learning to write novels, I had a problem. I'd come a long way and could say I had these three elements pretty much in hand: 

1. Idea for the story: one that was big enough to take a whole novel to explore.
2. The beginning: one to drag readers into the world and story
3. The ending: a satisfying end to the character's - dare I say it? - journey. The sort you don't necessarily see coming but once you have it gives you that feeling that says it always had to be that way.

What's missing? the pesky middle

I loved - still do! - writing beginnings and endings. Then I'd rush as quick as I could from one to the other. I didn't have saggy middles; it's more that they were missing. I'd put in the essentials to lead from beginning to end but no more. There were no pauses or beats in the story, no subplots, no breaks for the reader - just a breathless rush from one to the other.

It took me a while to understand this, but once I did, I still struggled to understand what needed to be there. 

When I wrote the Slated trilogy, it was originally going to be a single novel, not a trilogy. I wrote the part of it that would have been the first third if it was a standalone, and realised there was too much of a rush through it, that it needed more, and made the decision to change it to a trilogy. So, I had something less than 20,000 words that needed to grow.

I think this is the first time I made a chapter table: first column, chapter number/word count; second column, a paragraph saying what happened in the chapter; third column blank. The important third column is where I'd add notes of things that were missing, needed to change etc. Doing this helped me see what was missing and where to put it, and is still something I do today, not so much as an initial plotting tool but further along in the process when I'm getting stressed about the missing middle.

Because of the way Slated evolved, I'd written the beginning and ending before I filled in the middle. To be fair I wrote the ending before I'd finished even the shorter version of the novel that I had to begin with. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I did this: write the ending early on in the process.
If I save a scene that is in my head, clear in my thoughts, and don't allow myself to write it until I get there in the plot, once I'm there it's lost what it had before - that urgency the words need to have, that delight in writing it also. 
Writing out of order is something I've done since then whenever I had a scene in my head that won't leave me alone. It might have to change - even drastically - when I get there, but that's ok. I need to get it out when it wants out.

Somewhere along the way I stopped writing out of order: multiple viewpoints tripped me up. Book of Lies, the Dark Matter trilogy (Contagion, Deception, Evolution) and Fated all have multiple viewpoints. I tried different ways of approaching this but I found that writing out of order to any extent didn't work when I was alternating chapters between different character's points of view. I still occasionally would write a few critical scenes - the key scenes that define the character &/or move the plot along - that were niggling at me even though the point of view would end up changing later on once I got there. 

Now I'm writing a Shiny New Thing: I can't tell you much about it yet, but it has a single point of view. I think somewhere along the way I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to do things out of order, and how useful it is to my writing process. 

Writing takes a lot of self-discipline, particularly when you add in deadlines. I used to really push myself to hit word counts or hour counts of how many hours a day I was writing, and it was taking the fun out of it. Being able to daydream my characters and think ahead and backwards and ahead again makes it more fun, but beyond that:
Writing critical scenes first cements the story and key elements in my mind. It makes it obvious what is needed to link these scenes together - and there is my missing middle. 
I still use tables to keep me on track when I need to. At the moment I'm at the stage where I'm approaching the finish line, and there are gaps here and there in my table - missing chapters that need to be written still - that get me from one critical scene to another.

There are no rules on the best way to write a novel: every writer and every story will work in a different way.
But if you've ever felt it is inherently wrong to jump ahead to the fun stuff in your plot, don't punish your muse! They like a bit of freedom.

Making Things Up: previous blogs in this series on the creative process

Part 5: Finding the place for your story
Part 4: The Care and Feeding of Plot Bunnies
Part 3: Writing all the right words: but not necessarily in the right order
Part 2: Getting Started
Part 1: Because I'm a writer, and that's what I do


Friday, 5 July 2019

Good News!

By Nick Cross

Image by freepik

I have SO much to write in this blog post - please do excuse me if it goes on a bit. But with that in mind, I won't make you read through the whole thing for the headline news. I (and my illustrated YA novel Riot Boyyy) have an agent! A real live agent, and not just someone who I have conversations with in my head. I’m delighted to introduce Heather Cashman.

Heather is an associate agent with Storm Literary Agency, living in Kansas (yes, in the US of A). Although she has only been a full-time agent since January, Heather is far from inexperienced. She’s been a professional editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, interned at various agents and publishers, and is the former Managing Director of mentoring programme Pitch Wars. She’s also really nice (this is important, folks!)

Heather has a small list of clients at the moment, and that’s definitely a bonus for me - as an aspiring debut writer/illustrator I know that my career will need more attention than someone who’s better established. We also have the infrastructure of an established agency to back us up.

Five years ago, I wouldn't have considered looking for a US agent. Now that I've signed with one, the whole process seems very straightforward. All of the tools for remote working (email, Skype, Dropbox) are there to assist us, and even the time difference isn't a big problem. Given that I have a full-time job, the fact that Heather is mostly online during my afternoon and evening is actually pretty convenient.



For the last 6 or 7 years, I’ve had a bottle of vintage champagne in a box. Every so often, I would slide open the box, look at it and then slide the box closed again. Because, you see, I was saving that champagne for something really special - signing with an agent. And yet despite my best efforts, year after year that didn’t happen. After a while, that champagne started to weigh me down, it became another reason to feel bad about myself, that I had somehow failed by not making the (seemingly) impossible happen.

Last weekend, I opened the bottle and my family toasted my success. But although the champagne tasted absolutely fine (in no way guaranteed after 7 years in the bottle) it wasn’t worth waiting that long for. I resolved in future to celebrate the smaller successes along with the larger ones, to ride the ups and downs of the writer’s life with equanimity.

And let me tell you, there have been plenty of ups and downs over the last few months. If you read my earlier post The Thrill of the Chase - My Quest for the Perfect Agent, you’ll know that I hadn’t initially intended to send out Riot Boyyy to agents at all. But when I did, I really went for it. Here are the stats:
  • Agents submitted to: 45
  • Rejections Received (to date): 28
  • Full Manuscript Reads: 4

Despite the large number of submissions, my process was actually highly selective. I leaned heavily on the Manuscript Wish List site, looking for agents who represented YA books as well as:
  • Representing illustrators/graphic novels
and/or
  • Looking for books about feminism

Pro tip: The Manuscript Wish List search can be a bit limited, so for better coverage you can use a Google site search. For instance, searching for “feminism” on manuscriptwishlist.com returns 10 results. But typing “feminism site:manuscriptwishlist.com” into Google returns 90 results!



I can’t honestly say that I looked at Heather’s profile on Manuscript Wish List and cried “She’s the one!” I remember that she looked kind from her photo (some agents’ photos are mildly terrifying), and that her interests aligned with mine. But honestly, I had also sent to lots of other agents who seemed perfect, to no avail. When you are a writer submitting to agents, you have to be careful where you spend your emotional energy, because it’s very easy to burn out - especially when you’re sending a lot of submissions. Of course, I’m an emotional person, so it’s hard for me to stay detached all the time. Although each individual rejection hurt less than it has in the past, there was a period at the beginning of March when I was receiving rejections every day. That was really tough.

I had some notable misses with agents. One rejected me after 42 minutes (with feedback to boot). I found another on Twitter #MSWL, asking for boys’ books set in the 1990s. I thought that one was a slam dunk, but I got rejected after just 5 hours. Both of these were evidence that my pitch was really working, encouraging agents to read my chapters as soon as they received them. I scored a hit with an agent who responded to my initial submission with effusive praise, after less than a day. With great excitement, I immediately sent my full manuscript, but the agent then proceeded to sit on it for five months. This was the very definition of a mixed message (though the message I finally took was that they were too busy to be my agent!)


When you are searching for representation, the whole process is partly one of judgement. The agent is judging whether your writing excites them and has market potential. They are also judging your pitch and your ability to be professional - are you the kind of person they can have a working relationship with? The same should be true of the writer, however much the temptation is to jump up and down waving a banner saying “Like me! Like me!” Signing with an agent is not something to be entered into lightly (believe me, I have history with this), so I unavoidably found myself assessing Heather’s potential to represent me. After I sent her the full manuscript, she replied saying that it would take her three months to read it. Fair enough, I thought - it was good to have a timescale. When she replied a week and a half later, I knew I might be onto something. But then she did something really smart - she asked me to put together a document containing extracts of four to six other projects that I had written. She wanted to look beyond the book that I was submitting, to other potential projects that we might work on.

What an opportunity! Like a lot of unpublished writers, I have a bulging bottom drawer full of projects that never quite made it to market. It was honestly such a delight that someone wanted to read all this stuff, the words that I thought might remain undiscovered forever.

Throughout this post, I’ve been talking more from the perspective of a writer than a writer/illustrator. And part of the reason for that is the way that the submission process is set up. Nine times out of ten, an agent will ask to see the words first and the illustrations later (if they ask at all). Perhaps for picture books this is different, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to submit older illustrated fiction.

So, right up to the point I had my first Skype call with Heather, I didn’t know if she wanted to represent me as a writer, or an illustrator, or what. I didn’t know, because I hadn’t dared to ask earlier in the process! I tentatively broached the subject of whether she would be pitching the novel as an illustrated book, and she said something like: “Of course I want to present this with your illustrations.” Cue a massive sigh of relief from me! Later, when I received the agency contract, I got very emotional when it said I would be represented as a writer/illustrator. This is an incredible milestone for me, and I truly I believe that the authentic voice of Riot Boyyy comes from the synthesis of words, pictures and presentation.

OK, I need to stop now, before this blog post ends up being longer than the novel it’s celebrating. But I can’t end without a quick round of thank yous:
  • To Heather and the team at Storm Literary for their belief in me
  • To the Notes from the Slushpile crew, for their moral support through difficult times
  • To Sara O'Connor, whose enthusiasm for Riot Boyyy was instrumental in me deciding to approach agents rather than self-publish
  • To Terri Trimble, my "authenticity consultant" who read the whole novel and corrected my slip-ups in language and setting
  • And to all the Scoobies who cheered me on at The Hook. As ever, you rock!

Honestly, I'm still pinching myself about this. But if you go to the Storm Literary website, you can see my author profile, so it must be true!

Nick.


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.

Friday, 7 June 2019

TopTips on Social Media for Authors and Illustrators

Insta Post!

Social media - love it or hate it, it's part of our modern lives and a big part of the deal of getting your book to readers.   Not everyone takes naturally to it, and not everyone has an instinct for using the technology.  If that's you, this post aims to give a simple guide of how best to make social media work for you without swamping your life. If you've any questions, pop them in the comments and I'll do my best to help.

Website.


You probably need a website. It doesn't need to be all singing all dancing but it needs to showcase you and your work in an appealing way so that if someone searches for you, they're going to be mildly impressed. This is especially important if you're an illustrator.

Here's mine: www.kathrynevans.ink

Who does it reach? Anyone searching for you - potentially agents, editors, reviewers, readers, librarians.

How to use it?  

1. I've written a brief how to on my own website that you might find useful for the very basics. You'll find it here. 
2. Keep it updated and fresh. Post public appearances, news,  information about event bookings - have a look at other people's websites for inspiration.
3. Put links to booksellers on your posts - make it easy for people to purchase if they want to.
4. Check your website is usable on phones, tablets and desktops. Wordpress has a facility that will allow you to see how it looks across all of these.
5.  Check in so you can answer any comments or have them sent to your email.

Facebook


This is probably the best known of all the western platforms. It's also, possibly,  the most highly visible in terms of ethical issues such as misuse of data and the spreading of fake news. I won't go in to those here but our own Candy Gourlay discusses that here. Aside from those issues,  in terms of promoting yourself to an audience, is it worth being on Facebook?

I get very little traffic to my Facebook Author page - I keep it because there is some traffic and because I don't want to bore my friends and family rigid with all my book news on my personal Facebook page. In truth though, most of my Facebook followers ARE my friends and family. And that is what I find Facebook best for.  I am a member of several private groups and I love the community space they provide. I can see what my wider family are up to and dip in and out when  I want to.

Here's mine: https://www.facebook.com/kathrynevansauthor/

Who does it reach?   Mostly friends and family. Good for chat groups like SCBWI and other writer groups.

How to use it: 
1. Post regularly, aim for at least every other day.
2. Check your messages so you don't miss anything. Block any horrible people without engaging.
3. Interact with comments at least once a day if you can.
4. Don't push your book at people, give them interesting relevant content such as news articles or reviews.
5. Use the cool things Facebook gives you - there's a Book Now link that you can set up to take your readers straight to  your website.
6. Link the account to Instagram if it helps, (so if you upload to Insta it'll automatically post to the face book page you  select).

There are alternatives to Facebook but I'm not hugely familiar with them and so far, adding extra platforms is just a bit too much for me BUT you'll find a few Slushies, including me occasionally, on MeWe.

Twitter.

Fast paced and furious Twitter can be a bit bewildering and shouty as well as fun and dynamic.

Here's mine: @KathrynEvansInk

Who does it reach? Librarians, book sellers, bloggers and other authors cross paths. If you want to reach industry professionals, Twitter is the place.

How to use it:
1. Don't shout BUY MY BOOK, no one  will follow you.
2. Be wise, pertinent, funny and sharp. You need to be generous - share good things you've found, help promote others - if someone asks for advice, try and give it.
3. Follow people, interact with them. Be interested and interesting.
4. If you get embroiled in an argument stay calm , block anyone who is outrageously rude to you.
5. You can't retweet a tweet over and over without commenting on it but it's easy for a single tweet to be missed so Retweet with comment - you can use ICYMI ( In Case You Missed It) so you can RT (retweet) again later.
6. Use a service like TweetDeck to organise your tweets - you can create search columns and schedule tweets.
7. Use appropriate hashtags - #amwriting #amediting are really useful ones !
8. Use your author name so people can find you easily.

Instagram. 


I was advised to join Instagram by my publicist. I didn't think I'd like it. Turned out, I LOVE it.

Classic Insta story post!


Here's mine: @KathrynEvansAuthor

Who does it reach? Readers and bloggers and librarians. This is the primary place my readers connect with me - I write YA so that  may skew the figures - do comment if you write for a different age group, I'd love to know where works best for you.

How to use it? 

1. Post regularly without swamping people's feeds. Aim for once or twice a day.
2. Be interesting and relevant but don't be shy - the posts that get most likes on my Instagram are usually pictures of my new hair colour!
3. Think about what you're presenting to the world and try and keep to the same themes - I post about my life so it is a bit eclectic - books, hair, pets and fencing mostly.
3. Use hashtags - that's how people find you- #bookstagram #amreading are good ones.
4. Stories allows you to take a reader on a journey through your day without swamping their feed - they have to choose to look at stories - look at how Juno Dawson and Alwyn Hamilton do it. I find their story threads really fun and engaging.
5. Make your pictures as good as they can be - the edit features in Instagram allow you to turn your pictures the right way around and brighten or sharpen them. Take time to get to know how to use them.
6. Interact with people - this is almost more important than posting - comment, ask questions - aim to do so around 5 times a day.
7. Use an app like Repost to share other people's cool posts - ask permission first, they usually love it.
8. Go to settings and connect your account to twitter and facebook - then you can choose which images to share across all platforms.

YouTube


I am on You Tube but creating content takes such a long time I don't use it enough. Still, it's fun and another place for people to find you. Youngsters search YouTube all the time, they use it like a search engine to locate 'how to's' and information about things they're interested in. It's a platform I should make more use of! Though I don't feel qualified to help you with this one but have a look at my channel if you want to see what I do.




SnapChat

I thought Snapchat would be a great way to connect with my teen readers. I hated it - I got sent a lot of pictures of willies and my son deleted all the people I'd inadvertently befriended.

Here's mine:



Who does it reach? Who knows? I only use it to keep in touch with my son these days!

How to Use it: Sorry, it's still a mystery to me BUT it has really fun filters and you can save the images and videos and post them wherever you like. Here's a snapshot  of a virtual reality video I made with a Snapchat filter and then posted on Instagram.



That's it - there are many other platforms but for promotion purposes, these are the main places to be. My final bit of advice though - if you hate it leave it. Choose the place you feel happiest and make the most of that one.


 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of Me. Her new book, Beauty Sleep, ( Black Mirror meets Sleeping Beauty) is out now.  Kathryn loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  

Friday, 31 May 2019

The Writer's 4 Stages of Learning

by Em Lynas
I'm a big fan of the Four Stages of Learning and I apply them to EVERYTHING, Life, Learning, Writing etc. 


They keep me on track, stop any feelings of being overwhelmed, help me keep a balance between the intensity of learning new skills and relaxing with old skills. I've talked about them before on the Slushpile but for those who have never heard of them, here they are:

Stage One
Unconscious Incompetence

I don't know what I don't know but I am going to... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Two
Conscious Incompetence.

I have had a reality check and I am learning what I don't know (which is taking much longer than I expected) so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Three
Conscious Competence

I know what I need to know and now I am going to practise applying it so that I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc

Stage Four
Unconscious Competence.

At this stage I may have the impression that I'm an expert. I've reached the top of the learning curve and embedded the learning so I can... Write a book/learn to drive/start a relationship/take up skydiving etc
  
When I began writing I was obviously at Stage One. I had no idea what I needed to learn (lots). I also had no idea where to go for help. (SCBWI BI). I had no idea how steep (or how long) the learning curve was going to be but I went through the stages and, eventually, published a series of books with Nosy Crow.

So now I am at the beginning again. Writing a brand new thrill a minute, surprise a second, series. And I started thinking about the Four Stages and where I was with this new work because I feel I am right back down at Unconscious Incompetence in everything.

But that can't be right. I'm an author. I can write. I have proof! Look!



So, I've made a list to get a sense of perspective and hopefully a bit of confidence in the new stuff.

Things I am Unconsciously Incompetent at:

  • This new plot.
  • This Story.
  • Who the characters are.
  • Their motivations.
  • Their voices.
I still don't know what I don't know but as the story develops I will discover this and need to research the things I don't know such as the world I set my book in. Currently reading:


So there's a clue as to what's coming next, hopefully.

Things I am Consciously Incompetent at:

Writing the synopsis
Urgh! Yuck! Please no. Don't make me do it!

Verbally pitching
I recently attempted a verbal pitch to my agent, Amber Caraveo.
Me: blah blah blah
Agent Amber: Er ? Er.
Me: I'll write it down and send it.
Agent Amber: I think that's best.

The marketability triangle.

Nailing age group plus length plus subject matter is easier said than done and there are lots of rules about different lengths re- chapter books and middle grade books.

Time management.

  • Should I have a daily word counts and stick to it?
  • Should I have a time slot and stick to it?
  • Should I sit in the sunshine with my 'thinking face' on and tell everyone - this is WORK people - WORK!

Scrivener.
I can't get the hang of formatting when compiling and switching to Word. The width doesn't match and the text disappears off the right hand side.

Ignoring the REAL BIG WORLD that is going crazy at the moment. I struggle to hide in my story away from the harm that is being done to the world.

Things I am Consciously Competent at:

Plotting using plotting cards.

Structure

  • Using the Hero's Journey as a base and (hopefully) disguising it.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 2.
  • Escalating the plot and story
  • Planning from the midpoint.
  • Kicking the protagonist into Act 3

Characterisation

  • Creating personalities.
  • Creating relationships.
  • Using idiolect.

Pitching
I may be weird but I love writing the short pitch.
Em wants to write a book but her incompetence gets in the way. Can she crawl up the learning curve in time to meet the deadline? Of course she can!

Things I am Unconsciously Competent at:

The tools of the trade

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation.
  • Syntax

Analysis: I LOVE analysing mentor texts looking for:

  • Structure
  • Voice.
  • Characterisation.
  • Openings
  • Endings
  • Midpoints
Editing: I LOVE editing.

  • The big edit for structure.
  • The big edit for consistency of character and motivation.
  • The close edit for clarification.
  • Then the proof-reading - picking up those little things like - Twink Toadspit has six brothers and I've listed seven! That was a close call.

Technology
It's been a huge learning curve but luckily it was one step at a time over a few years so now I know, among lots of other stuff:

  • The norm for submitting
    • Font - Arial or Times New Roman, 12 p double spaced.
    • Layout - Don't indent first paragraph, indent the rest at .5cm
    • Write THE END so agent/editor knows for certain - that's it.
  • To BACK UP!
    • Whether that's on Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Memory Stick (Beware -some can deteriorate), emailing to myself, printing off.
  • How to create a website and blog.

So - are we always In Stage One: Unconscious Incompetence?
I think so. I'm published but I still devour the How To Books, I go to kidlit conferences, I sign up for courses, I attend critique groups.

Why? 

Because I still don't know what I don't know and the authors, course leaders, conference keynotes, fellow critiquers might know what I don't know and the great thing about Kidlit authors is they will share what they DO know. Then I'll know it too. What a fabulous profession to be in.


Em Lynas is the author of The Witch School Series staring Daisy Wart aka Twinkle Toadspit and published by Nosy Crow.

*Reference from Wikipedia
Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell described the model as "the four levels of teaching" in February 1969.[1] Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren mentioned the model in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.[2] The model was used at Gordon Training International by its employee Noel Burch in the 1970s; there it was called the "four stages for learning any new skill".[3] Later the model was frequently (but incorrectly) attributed to Abraham Maslow, although the model does not appear in his major works.[4]

Friday, 24 May 2019

Further Adventures in Illustration

By Nick Cross

Vintage book cover from the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature

It’s been a whole year since I last shared my experiences as a budding illustrator, so I thought it was high time to inflict more of my art on you give you an update.

The submission process for my illustrated YA novel has been taking its toll (see my previous post for more about that), and my writing has been on hiatus recently. To the extent that I’ve started to dread that question you get asked at writing events: “So, what are you working on?” Anyway, to compensate, I’ve been devoting more time to my art and illustration work.

Since I started illustrating two years ago, I’ve found my slow progress frustrating. A reasonable person might say it takes time, effort and patience to learn a new skill, but clearly I am not that person. As a type A perfectionist who is starting to feel the sands of time running out, I want instant results and I want them now! This intolerance for imperfection is, frankly, not helpful when trying to learn a complex new skill.

Do I enjoy drawing? Sometimes, although I still find it very difficult. I remember a long period of writing where I couldn’t make the words on the page come out how I wanted them to, and drawing has been the same. Except with drawing, I felt extra pressure because someone else could look at the source photo and see just how far my representation had fallen short.

Because I wasn’t enjoying drawing, I also wasn’t doing the one thing that everyone recommends, which is to draw every day. I would draw half-heartedly occasionally but never with a consistent goal. It occurred to me that working in Oxford, I had all these fabulous museums on my doorstep, including the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers. I resolved to take my pen and sketchbook, and spend a couple of lunchtimes every week drawing stuff.

There were pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, there are lots of things to draw - you can pretty much wander into the Ashmolean and find something totally new every time. On the minus side, there are a lot of visitors and tours - I would regularly look up from my sketchbook to find a group of people blocking my view! But I did learn some important things about my method. Take these drawings of the same statue as an example:



The sketch on the left was something I did very rapidly, just as a warm up. I found that once I had got some of the perfectionist anxiety out of my system, I could concentrate on really “seeing” the subject. The sketch on the right (though the proportions are a bit iffy) reflects that enhanced concentration.

Although I went museum sketching for a couple of months, the very public nature of the process started to grate on me. I’m intensely protective of my creative process, and didn’t like the fact that people could watch me as I worked. Rather than use it as an excuse to show off, I became intensely paranoid and my work started to suffer. It was time to pivot again - I started booking empty conference rooms at work during the quiet lunchtime period, and working in seclusion.

This worked a lot better for me, removing prying eyes and the pressure of working quickly. I decided to stay with similar subject matter, selecting photos of Greek and Roman statues to draw from. Here are a couple of my sketches:





I was much happier with these, though at the end of the hour, the desk was always covered with grey crumbs from rubbing out. However, I read a recent interview with the late, great, Judith Kerr where she said (after a very long career as an illustrator) that she still rubbed out more than she actually drew. So maybe I’m not such a weirdo after all.

I started to realise that I wasn’t interested in landscapes or architecture like I'd thought - I wanted to draw people! My wife and I were watching the Sky TV show Portrait Artist of the Year, and I was encouraged by the contestants who used gridding to transfer the dimensions of a subject’s face onto the canvas. I decided to attempt a portrait (something I had previously thought way beyond my skill level) with a grid built using a helpful online tool. The photo itself was something I found on Unsplash, which is a copyright free image site:


I found using the grid to be a revelation! By reducing the size of the problem, it allowed me to concentrate on just what was happening inside each square. Any preconceptions I had about the shape of a person’s face could be safely ignored - I just had to draw what was in front of me. Once the pencil sketch was done, I wanted to shade it using fineliners, but it was clear from my tests that it would take a long time. So I opted for Winsor and Newton ProMarkers, which I had used for my earlier illustration work. Here’s the result:



It’s good, right? I was a bit amazed when I finished it to be honest! It was the first time that the lines on the page actually seemed to match the photo.

For my next drawing, I resolved to do a bit of fan art, based on the noughties TV show Veronica Mars, which we were rewatching. Kristen Bell is totally awesome in that show, and it was fun to try to capture her likeness. With the gridded pencil sketch done, I made a photocopy to try out different ProMarker colour choices:




I’d recently bought some Bristol Board to try out, so I used it for the finished picture. As well as being fairly expensive, It’s also quite shiny, but the alcohol-based ProMarkers work on practically any surface. The best thing about Bristol Board is how easy it is to rub stuff out! Despite the cost, I may have found my perfect medium.




I was less satisfied with this final artwork than my earlier portrait of the butterfly guy. Although the likeness is recognisable, something about the face just isn’t quite right, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what! It’s definitely much harder to draw someone whose face you’re very familiar with. I also had a lot of trouble with the blonde hair - in retrospect the black hair of the previous subject was very straightforward.

I did start a third portrait, but had to put it to one side because I wanted to tackle the optional task for a recent SCBWI illustration masterclass called The Wonderful World of Non-fiction Illustration. I’m also writing a review of the session for Words & Pictures, so I’m working on both posts simultaneously to avoid repeating myself!

The task was to make an A3 double page spread showing a creature in its natural habitat. That meant museum time again - I went to the Oxford Natural History Museum and took photos of various specimens.



I decided to pick the Japanese spider crab, because I liked the bright colours and the way it would fill an A3 page. The brief made it clear that the research was as important as the finished work, so I made various sketches and an A4 dummy.

To mimic a lift-the-flap book, I made the artwork in two layers. The top layer was drawn on tracing paper:



So you could lift it away to see this underneath:



In order to get everything to line up, I scanned my pencil sketch, added the text in Photoshop and printed just the text on the tracing paper. Then I added the crab’s body and missing leg on the top sheet in ProMarker. This allowed me to keep the bottom layer drawing as just the pure artwork. Working on top of tracing paper was still quite difficult though - if I’d had more time, I think it would have been better to draw the body and leg on a separate sheet, scan them in and composite the top layer digitally.

The bottom layer was drawn on lightweight marker paper rather than Bristol Board, as I needed to roll up the drawing to take it to London.

Later, as I inspected the other illustrations at the workshop, I had to wonder why I'd picked something so terrifying to work on rather than a nice fluffy mammal. There were a number of occasions while researching spider crabs that I had to stop Googling them because the photos were putting me off my lunch! And yet, my chosen style and medium wouldn’t have worked half so well on something with fur or feathers.

I pushed myself really hard with the task for the masterclass, even working on it the morning of the session (by which point I was terrified I would screw it up). I knew that I wouldn’t be able to avoid comparing myself with the other illustrators, so I wanted to make a good show of it. Which I feel I did in the end, and I got some useful feedback from the tutors. I was pretty exhausted that evening, as you can imagine!

I feel that I’m slowly becoming better at illustration and that’s a positive thing. Honestly, all I’ve ever aspired to be is competent! I’ll keep you posted on where the muse takes me next...

Nick.


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.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Tips for being a jobbing children's author

You are a writer.

There. Feel good? It made me feel good when I heard it; actually not just good but floating-on-air good. Beverley Birch told me that I was a writer at a writing workshop and I don't care if she told everyone else because the lovely, brilliant writer, Beverley Birch read my pre-published work and she told ME. It fuelled me for the slog ahead.
me, looking writerly
Post BB; I am published - yay! But mostly, I write in the hope that an editor or agent will say, 'yes'. Rejection is completely normal. I finished a novel recently and approached everybody in a systematic fashion. It led to four full reads but no takers. I think it was my stage 3 friend, Nick Cross, who said that receiving a rejection now causes a mere blip in his day. I mostly feel the same way and that is because taking rejection to heart, Can Cause Madness. I continue to hope and to write because a life of not-writing is unthinkable. I am a writer after all.

But hope isn't quite boundless and it doesn't pay the bills and I sometimes feel the need for a validation top up. So, what's to do? You could do what I do and embrace the creative life. I try and enjoy the ride and find my writing hits in as many tangential ways as possible.

Writing in a different genre

poetry
I love poetry. I love children's poetry. It can say a great deal or it can say nothing. It can be serious or sad, funny or rude or any other thing and you can write it in any way that appeals. I wrote a blog on giving poetry a go here.

children's TV
Anyone go to Kate Scott's excellent Winchester masterclass on writing in for children's TV? I loved this idea of using my writing talent to write for a visual medium. I started my post uni career off by having a crack at film production and had huge fun with a bunch of other young hopefuls (two of whom now live in LA and are Something Big in film).

Norsey Woods in Essex, filming, 'Sword'. Clue - I'm the only girl
Kate's workshop fired me up so much, I decided to give it a proper old go. Naturally the first thing I did was to invite the generous and immensely inspiring Kate up North to give a talk to SCBWI Central North. From there, I came up with ideas to develop. I found that writing dialogue with only the barest context can be a joy! It's another skill but it's allied to what I already do as a writer. Not forgetting that many stories already written can be adpated for this medium.

If you choose to follow this path, I can't recommend the BBC Writers' Room highly enough. It has writing opportunity windows three times a year - the comedy writing slot has just passed (wish me luck). These windows include writing for children in radio or tv or film. What I like about the opportunity is that the BBC will take writers to develop. They want to see the best writing you can offer (no change there) but they will choose the writer and not necessarily the story. Okay, the odds are still STACKED but that's nothing new so why not?

It's also worth checking out the other opportunities that the BBC Writers' Room highlights. These include many theatre companies actively looking for plays including plays written for children which brings me to ...

children's theatre

Seeing your story text brought to life through the work of an illustrator is truly wonderful.
Louise Gardner's Pirate from Mars. from A Place Called Home
But I have also been blown away by how my stories have been adapted for storytelling and stage performance.

Addy Farmer's Pirate from Mars, Baths Hall, Scunthorpe

This came about as a result of writing, A Bagful of Stars with my birthday twin, Bridget Strevens. The Rotary Club were looking to commission Julia Donaldson to write it but obviously I offered first - hem-hem. From there, the awesome Kirsty Mead, artistic director of Rhubarb Theatre in Lincoln adpated my stories for storytelling and for the stage. Not to go crazy but I can't wait for Hollywood to ring. Sometimes, it's good to just do it.


Finding work in unexpected places

I am on Linkedin which I always thought would be a waste of time but actually it's worth joining for the occasional useful contact. I'm sure, there are those of you out there who would be able to use it to its fullest potential. From Linkedin, I was approached by a start up company and paid to write a story world for their product. I was also asked by a Chinese animation company to write a pilot for new series and through a series of contacts I ended up booked to do a spell making workshop at Grimm and Co.


Image result for grimm and co
Grimm and Co. Rotherham - think Diagon Alley

Workshops - the bread and butter stuff

You can of course join Authors Aloud or other organisation which will find you work. Or, you can go your own way.

Running workshops is a crowded market and there is not a great deal of money around ... so you have to do your research, make contacts and find a way in which works for you.

I now offer mostly outdoor workshops. I actually like working outdoors and don't mind about the weather (I always have a back up plan!). I joined up with a local mental health charity called Natural Choice to deliver poetry and story for families, in outdoor settings. It's fun! In October, I'm running a Halloween witchy session IN THE WOODS! I love woods, I really do.


Here's a little video I made doing a poetry walk (paid!) on Crowle Moors.

From this, I went and had a chat with our Landscape Partnership people in the council and offered workshops to discover the stories and deliver creative responses to the landscape round here. So far, I've run medieval stories from a castel mound, been fairy-in-chief on a fairy poetry walk (in the woods!). I'm going to be painting poetry onto bog oak later in the month and then ... becoming a Neolithic priest-type person as I lead children onto a replica Neolithic trackway ... oh yeah. Try finding a costume for that on e-bay.

Sometimes it's good to team up with like-minded people. I teamed up with my pal, Juliet Clare Bell and we offer, 'I am a work-in-progress', workshops to build a positive mindset and resilience in primary schools. 

Grants

It is worth thinking about funding work with a grant. Two of my picture books have been commissioned and Arts Council funded but this is not for the faint hearted and it demands a great deal of thinking about why you are doing this and what you are aiming to achieve.  Should you, like me, want to develop your own creative practice by attempting a different medium, you should think about applying for the Arts Council DYCP grant which is a relatively easy form to fill in with a six week turnaround.
Image result for quill pen

Right now, I am in the middle of a fairly painful Arts Council project grant application to put on a children's theatre production. But you'll be overjoyed to hear that I am reprising my role as the Pirate from Mars from A Place Called Home, with Rhubarb Theatre in October at The Gainsborough Arts Centre.

Look around for local grant funding as well; e.g. we have loads of windfarms in North Lincolnshire with a lot of pots of money for local projects.

Mine your own interests for creative opportunities

I am interested in how bereavement affects families and through my lovely friend, Clare Bell, I have found a charity to work with in order to create a story which will hopefully make a difference.

Entering any and all competitions

To date, I've entered:
WriteMentor  - result, an unexpected offer of a beta-reader for my wip, Moth-Eaten
New Writing North, Hachette Debut Novel Award - result, embargoed until June
Times/Chicken House - result, no idea
BBC Writers Room - result, longlist in June
Other writing competitions

Image result for moomin papa writing
Moomin Papa - I had to get a moomin in somewhere

Other ways to be in the writing life


- Join the SCBWI - simply the best way to make like-minded friends, to hone your craft and to be part of a writing life. You could even volunteer - there's so much to be gained! I'm just going to mention that the lovely, GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED, Chitra Soundar, will be joining the equally lovely SCBWI Central North for an event at the Newark Book Festival on July 13th. Did I say she was GREENAWAY SHORTLISTED?
- Accept opportunities you think may be beneficial. I was offered the role of Chair of North Lincolnshire Children's Literacy Trust. While, this is a volunteer role, it also helps if I want to approach schools for workshops and is good for some grant applications.
- Festivals - find your local book festival and offer a workshop! This coming July, I'll be at the Newark Book Festival where I'll be offering one-to-ones for picture book and mid-grade work.
- Use your hard-won skills to the max. I am very happy to be a picture book editor and mentor for Manuscript Feedback

So, follow the creative life, enjoy the ride and find your writing hits wherever you can. Being published is WONDERFUL but it's not the whole story.

You are a writer. How brilliant is that?










Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Confessions of a Goal Orientated Writer

by Paula Harrison

Cover art of my first published book by a very talented fan

I've been wondering for a while what makes me happy as a writer.

It's clear to me that my approach to work satisfaction has changed quite a bit over the past seven years since I was first published. I know - I know - if you're reading this as a pre-published writer you are probably yelling at the screen: WHAT WOULD MAKE ME HAPPY IS TO BE PUBLISHED, SO STOP TALKING RIGHT NOW! And you'd be right of course, but whether you're published yet or not, there are decisions we all make about what to write, how much time to spend writing, how much to listen to professional and peer opinions about our work and how much attention we pay to what publishers and agents are looking for right now, and I'm here to tell you that those decisions and compromises don't alter once you become published. They become even more multi-layered.

JUST WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE...

Well, yes. Clearly if you loathe and despise reading detective fiction you shouldn't go there as a writer either, but most children's authors have a range of age groups that they could write in and a number of different interests so you're still making a decision about where to start. This can be influenced by what you like reading, what your children (if you have them) like reading or just what you think might prove popular.

DON'T TRY TO WRITE FOR THE MARKET...

I've seen this advice on so many writing blogs and in so many writing books that I'm not even sure which source to credit. The reasoning is that if, by some chance, you notice that books about handsome vampires are very popular in teen fiction right now, then by the time you've written your own and submitted it and it's ready for publication, the trend will have moved on to something else. This can be true. Except that it's more complicated than that. I HAVE seen people make a success of writing in an area that is selling well by entering that genre or age group with their own unique idea.

MONEY, FAME OR REVIEWS AND RECOGNITION?

You may be laughing at this point. So, do children's authors ever achieve good money and fame unless they are part of the tiny handful of household names? Well, maybe not fame. But it is possible to earn good money if you are lucky and your books sell well overseas, for example, but the authors who achieve this aren't necessarily the same ones getting great reviews in the Sunday Times. So would you rather earn well or have people praising your book? If you had to choose what would you do?
Interestingly, I recently began reading The Happy Brain by Dean Burnett, in which he talks about how important it is to us to have the approval of other human beings. I'm paraphrasing here, but he talks of peer approval having a similar effect on the brain as earning money. So we see approval as a very real gain. I think that's relevant to us as writers. Part of the reason we want to be published, to have the big book launch, the great reviews, the praise on twitter, is because we're wired to want it. We all do it. But is that what writing's really about?

WRITING AS A JOB VS WRITING AS A PASSION

Here's the crux of my change in attitudes over the last seven years as a published writer. Writing became my bread and butter, and with that came the realisation of what is actually possible. As a goal orientated person I probably started off with ALL the possible goals: money, reviews and recognition. Yes, please - that would be great!! But being an author can be a difficult and uncertain business and that reality sets in quite quickly for most people.

BUT WHERE IS YOUR PASSION, PAULA?

Don't worry - I haven't lost it! I often write a book that I'm passionate about in between something that will give me a more guaranteed chance at a contract and writing income. This way I can try to balance personal satisfaction with things that will enable me to buy groceries. Sometimes a safer, more commercial project will become the project of passion - taking a turn that brings fan letters from all around the world.
When this happens the readers become the goal. If we're helping children to learn to read, to discover the power of their imaginations, to see themselves in books, then isn't that the best goal of all?


Paula's new series KITTY, featuring a superhero-in-training with cat-like superpowers will be published by OUP in September and is illustrated by Jenny Lovelie.  https://paulaharrison.jimdo.com/kitty-s-midnight-adventures/



Friday, 22 March 2019

The Thrill of the Chase - My Quest for the Perfect Agent

By Nick Cross

All photos of Banta the dog and his frisbee by Tom Ek

I’m only in the first sentence of this post, and already I’m not sure about the word “perfect” in that headline. In fact, I’m quite sure there is no such thing as the perfect agent - they are all human beings like us writers, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. But all I know is that my previous experience of having an agent was very unhappy, and I’m not keen to repeat that!

Of course, I may not get much choice in the matter. As I’ve discovered over the last ten years, you can be friends with any number of agents, but that doesn’t mean they'll want to represent you. In fact, what it mostly guarantees is that they’ll reject you promptly with a kind email and words of encouragement. All of which is much nicer than the alternative, but hardly the way to build a writing career...

So, what to do? It can be a bittersweet feeling to watch your friends achieving success, as most of the Slushpile team have. There have been multiple book deals, awards and all sorts of other good stuff since I first met these talented folks a decade ago. I’m proud of their success and proud to cheer them on. But I can’t escape the feeling that I’m still stuck on the starting blocks, the perennial “nearly there” author.

Enough feeling maudlin. Where is the “thrill” mentioned in the post title? Well, it’s something that’s surprised me about the submissions process for my illustrated YA novel RIOT BOYYY. Six books in, you’d think I’d be well and truly fed up of submitting by now, just going through the motions. But new thinking and new technology have made the process unexpectedly exciting this time around.


The source of my joy is those three little words. No, not those words, I'm talking about Manuscript Wish List. Using the hashtag #MSWL, agents regularly tweet about what kind of books they are looking for right now. Armed with that information, you can quickly craft a submission and get it in their inbox double quick, before someone else inevitably comes up with the same book you’ve already written. Even better than #MSWL is the accompanying website www.manuscriptwishlist.com. As well as linking to #MSWL tweets, this site hosts pages that agents can update with their preferences. It’s searchable by age group and genre, which removes almost all of the guesswork when selecting agents.

The vast majority of agents on Manuscript Wish List are American, but that’s fine because I’m targeting the US market for my book. Aside from the huge number of agents who accept YA fiction, submitting to US agents has other advantages. They are mostly working when I’m not, which means that if I avoid my email from mid-afternoon, I only have to worry about finding rejections in my inbox when I wake up in the morning. Of course, a rejection first thing is not the greatest start to the day! But is there any good time to receive one?



The buzz that comes from using Manuscript Wish List can be addictive. I was browsing Twitter one Friday lunchtime when I spotted an agent who was requesting exactly what I’d written. I sent the manuscript then and there, which took me a while because the agent had some unusually complex submission requirements. But once I pressed Send I didn’t care - this was so exciting!

My dreams of publishing glory crashed and burned the next day when the same agent rejected me. On a Saturday! Like some other responses I’ve received, this rejection praised the book’s concept, but was less enamoured of the way it was written. This sucks, but I guess it’s something I’ll have to live with. I’ve been writing for long enough (15 years!) to know I’m not suddenly going to develop a luminous, poetic writing style where every sentence sparkles like a rare gem. More than that, though, this is the right voice for the book I’ve written. And if you can’t see that, then I guess you’re not the right agent for me.

Submitting to agents (or “querying” as the Americans call it) can sometimes feel like a full-time job. Even with the help of Manuscript Wish List, you have to search for agents, check them out on Twitter, read their submission guidelines, tailor your covering letter, check everything twice and make sure you send only what they ask for. This takes me a minimum of thirty minutes per submission, and often longer (I estimate I’ve spent upwards of 30 hours on submissions of this book so far). The Twitter part is an essential stage BTW, because agents are constantly changing agencies or closing their submissions list. Plus, if their tweets look really crazy, you can swiftly walk away, whistling!

Another technological innovation I’ve encountered is the use of a system called QueryManager to manage submissions. Instead of sending an email, this requires you to submit via a web form, uploading attachments as necessary. This feels like a faff, but once you finish you get a URL back that you can use to check the status of your submission at any time. No more worrying about whether your email (or an agent’s enthusiastic reply) fell off the back of internet, or agonising over whether you spelt their name right in your covering letter.



The use of QueryManager opens up the possibility of asking for more information beyond the basic covering letter, sample and synopsis. Prompts such as “Describe the intended audience for your book” or even “Who is your favourite Harry Potter character?” At their best, such questions can make you think more deeply about the commercial appeal of your work. At their worst, they risk making the submissions process ever more time-consuming and labyrinthine, like some sadistic game.

Talking of sadistic games, I almost joined a mass Twitter pitch session earlier this month, but chickened out at the last minute (I guess I'm not ready for that kind of excitement!) There were tens of thousands of tweets, it all seemed so public, and I lost confidence in my carefully-crafted paragraph because it didn’t seem to follow the rules that everyone else had internalised. In fact, the more I researched the rules for Twitter pitching, the more I began to doubt the pitch I’d been using for months. Should I be including a rhetorical question in my pitch? Was that why agents kept sending me form rejections? Are you going to stop reading this blog post if I keep using them here?

I quickly found myself in a doubt spiral, which feels a bit silly in retrospect because this was the same pitch I’d delivered in front of 200 people, and it seemed to go down pretty well! In the end, I resolved to change nothing and resumed sending out individually to agents. If I’ve learnt anything about my process over the years, it’s that when those doubts strike I need to hold firm and meddle with my novel as little as possible. The devil makes work for anxious writers.

My quest for the perfect agent continues, and it’s hard to say if I’m getting any closer at this point. At least I’m having a bloody good try. My fellow Slushie Kathryn Evans, so long a “nearly there” author, used to have the following as her status:
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Hoping, hoping, hoping.
What she said.

Nick.


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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