Friday, 11 April 2014

Reach for the Sky

When I sat down to write a blog post about ambition, I was sure that I must have written about it before. I searched my blog archives and found nothing, then discovered a Word file from 2012 on my hard drive that I must have abandoned. But before I’d given up, I’d written over a thousand words – so it must have been a subject that really mattered to me! In that almost-blog, I’d covered ambition in many forms: for status, money and creative expression. Perhaps by focusing on just creative ambition today, I’ll manage to succeed where I previously failed. Ironically, my last attempt may have been just too ambitious!

I don’t think any of us would disagree that being creatively ambitious is a good thing. We all want to feel that our work is good enough to be published and read. We all want our work to mature and improve, and not to feel that our best days are behind us. But I think this also needs to come with a slice of realism – an acceptance of your own (current) limits as a writer and the knowledge that what you enjoy writing is not always the most intellectually challenging thing you could be writing.

This creative realignment is something that I’ve been through myself of late. After reaching for the sky and falling short with my previous novel, my recent work has definitely been less ambitious in plot and thematic terms. But (in my opinion) it’s also a lot more fun to read, which is a valid ambition when writing children’s fiction. Simplicity has replaced complexity as my writing goal, although I’m very much discovering that the path to simplicity is not a straight line – it’s sometimes necessary to push through the complexity of a book and out the other side.

Learning to simplify is a skill that takes time to acquire. When we first start writing, it can be hard to separate what we dream of doing from what we’re actually capable of producing. Sure, it’s surprisingly easy to plot out a seven volume fantasy series when you’re really enjoying it, and to fill in reams of backstory for every character, no matter how minor. But all this detail can obscure the story, and we are not all J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin (who has himself fallen prey to the lure of too much world-building in recent volumes).

I’ve talked to several fantasy-novelists-in-waiting who are struggling to reconcile the scope of their ambition with the logistics of realising it as a story. The YA fantasy market continues to be series-based, which puts extra pressure on writers to map out a coherent story over several books, and to pepper the first volume with clever foreshadowing of future events. Agents (keen to find the next big thing), sometimes sign up such authors early and put unwitting pressure on them to deliver on their promises. Too much pressure too soon can be a toxic cocktail, which is something I’ve discovered to my own cost. I was only working on a single novel - what can that pressure be like for an author trying to write three books in their head simultaneously?

It’s a definite shame that the publishing trade’s love of launching debut authors with an instant breakout novel leaves less room for the small, frequently autobiographical novels that new writers have traditionally been drawn to. To use a movie analogy, it is as if Christopher Nolan’s first film had been the mind-bogglingly complex Inception rather than the small but intriguing Following (which was shot for virtually nothing in the houses of friends and family). Hilary Mantel is someone else who has benefitted from working up to her greatest work over a period of years, rather than being expected to deliver Wolf Hall out of the gate.

There is a point where healthy creative ambition becomes mania, where the author begins to disrupt their own working processes by worrying too much about the market, or by trying to (in my own words) "write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it." That way lies madness...


Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Elements of Style

Where does style end and voice begin? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for a while. But though voice is (for me) a rather frustrating, intangible quality of a book, writing style is much easier to identify and analyse. Style is all about which words the author chooses and how they’re laid down on the page, a technical skill that can be learnt, refined and applied for maximum effect

I’ve been watching my own writing style evolve over the last few years. Or rather, I should say styles, because I’ve realised that I don’t have one form of writing for all occasions. When I’m writing this blog or the Blog Break, I pick a particular style that is probably closest to my own speech. It’s not always the shortest and most efficient way to express myself, but I hope it has a conversational character that makes up for that. When I’m writing a story, however, I like to pare my writing down to the barest essentials. That “however” I inserted into the previous sentence would definitely have got the chop!

This commitment to terse, efficient prose is, I think, why I’ve been able to write the very short (six to seven hundred word) stories for Stew Magazine. But even there, I’ve deliberately been evolving my style as I go along. This month’s story The Door Keeper sees me experimenting with more sensory detail to offset all the telling that’s required in such a short tale. There’s even an action sequence in the middle, which was initially quite lucky to escape my red pen. But later, I realised how much the action adds to the visceral experience of the main character, and how it connects the two halves of the story far more effectively than I could have managed otherwise. It’s easy to become so focused on the technical challenge of telling a story in a few hundred words, that you forget to make it any fun for the reader.

Action scenes are an area where I’ve definitely noticed stylistic development, both in my short and longer work. I began experimenting with a rather cartoonish action style in a previous novel, which was (of all things) a dystopian comedy! As you can tell from that description, I’m not sure the tone of that novel entirely gelled, but I was really pleased with the pacing of the action and resolved to take that style into my next book. With that book’s most recent rewrite for 7-9, it feels as though the cartoonish style has found its natural home, and also its natural end. For my next book (which will most likely be 9-12), I’m looking forward to trying something new.

Who knows, I may even break my dependence on a first person narrator in the next book. I’ve been writing pretty much exclusively in first person since 2008 and maybe it’s time for a change. But I’m sure my blog P.O.V. will stay the same - if I do start referring to myself in the third person, you have my permission to give me a slap!


Monday, 10 March 2014

The Heart of the Matter

Well, here I am again. Sorry if that sounds anticlimactic, but after six weeks of not posting, I feel rested and ready to start again.

Actually, I say rested, but I've been keeping pretty busy in other ways. As well as work, family and the Blog Break, I’ve spent the period completely rewriting my Middle Grade novel as a 7-9 book. I wanted to just get on with the rewrite without thinking too much about it, and 45,000 words has become 15,000 with the minimum of pain and anguish. I think it’s a much better book this time around, and for the first time in years I’ve mostly enjoyed the process of writing. Hopefully that’s reflected in the finished work!

Anyway, to get to the point of this blog post, I’ve been musing a lot about “the heart of the story.” This is the emotional core of a novel and something a writer must keep in mind as they rewrite a book, to avoid going off track. In her workbook Novel Metamorphosis, Darcy Pattison asks you to describe the heart of your story using the following question:
Why did you write this story and not a different story? If you had to change everything except one thing – what is that one thing? Write a paragraph that describes the heart of the story FOR YOU:
The heart of the story is a key part of the Novel Inventory, a process of recording what you’ve actually written in your novel, rather than what you think you’ve written. I found the procedural bits of the inventory – describing the plot and emotional arcs of each chapter – to be relatively straightforward. But the heart of the story question really floored me. What was the heart of my story? Why did I write it?

Eventually, painfully, I came up with a couple of sentences that roughly described my two main characters’ emotional arc, and left it at that. I did feel a bit stupid though, and wondered what kind of a writer I was if I couldn’t put my own motivation into words. Luckily, the draft of the Middle Grade novel I was working on that point didn’t involve any critical changes, so my fudged answer didn’t matter.

However, when I came to this most recent rewrite, I agreed with an editor that I would change one of the two main characters from a forty-year-old man to a ten-year-old boy! This blew a hole through the heart of my story, because I had linked it so closely to these characters’ relationship as uncle and niece. I was suddenly adrift without my author’s toolbox, and if I hadn’t set myself such an aggressive writing schedule, I probably would have over-thought the whole book into the ground.

Instead, I just got on with it, and as I did a magical thing happened. The emotional core of the book shifted and grew. It became a story about a girl’s love for her father as well as her friend, while the themes of repression and escape in the original draft came closer to the surface. I found it wonderfully freeing to discard much of what I'd already written, carrying across only those characters and plot points I needed to make the new book work. It was great to feel that anything could be changed in pursuit of the ultimate goal: a story that would satisfy me, the editor and those all-important young readers.

I’m still not sure if I could describe the heart of the story for you in a paragraph, the way that Darcy Pattison wants me to. After all, what if it changes again? Perhaps it’s more helpful to think about this problem by considering the only thing that I can’t change, no matter how many rewrites and age group changes this book goes through. Maybe, the heart of the story is me.


Friday, 24 January 2014

Going Dark

I'm going to take a break from blogging, for the next month or two. Not a wildly controversial decision, you might think, but it's one I've found difficult to make. When I review my blog archives, I can see that I've been posting virtually every Friday for over four years! And I've never found it difficult to come up with new subjects and ideas every week, at least until recently.

But, since the tail end of last year, I've been finding this weekly blog becoming more of a chore than a pleasure (though there were exceptions like last week's post, which tumbled out in a blur of excitement). Although writing a post every Friday has been great discipline for me, it feels like it's time to take a break and recharge my blogging batteries.

Don't worry that I'll get bored, because I'm going to keep writing the Words & Pictures Blog Break (where you get to have the ideas instead of me!) There's also the not inconsiderable matter of a completely new draft of my novel to crack on with, and it feels good to commit to my fiction writing for a while. So please excuse me as I retreat into my dark cave and I'll see you on the other side!


Friday, 17 January 2014

The Game is Afoot

I was having a certain kind of day and planning a certain kind of blog, when an unexpected email dropped into my inbox. OK, I say unexpected, but it was an editorial response to a full manuscript I'd submitted, so I suppose I was expecting it at some point.

I stared at the email header in the list and it stared back at me. I thought of Achievement Points and publishing glory, and then ran away for ten minutes to do something else!

When I came back, it was still there, waiting for me. "It's going to be No", I said to myself. But it could be a Yes! said a tiny voice at the back of my head. "It's not going to be Yes," I responded, clicking my mouse.

It wasn't yes.

But equally, it wasn't no, either.

Instead, I had some honest-to-goodness editorial feedback. Only a page and a half (probably a mere pittance compared to what commissioned authors receive) but still a generous act by a busy professional. And look - my book doesn't totally suck after all!

I'm a great believer in reading feedback once and then putting it away for a day or so, because I know the next steps will come in their own time. If I decide to follow the suggestions it will probably require a complete rewrite, and I'll need to consider whether that will fit with my own vision of the novel. But damn it if I'm not suddenly excited about the book again and ready to try something new.

I think back to two years ago, the last time I received detailed feedback on a full manuscript. That time, it was six pages of intensely negative criticism that almost made me throw in the towel. But somehow, I didn't, and I feel like I've arrived at a much better place because of it. Because, this kind of editorial feedback, this back and forth, is really at the core of what we are trying to achieve as authors when we pursue publication.

Publication, fame and fortune might be the ultimate goal, but writing and rewriting is the game we play to get there. And it seems like I might finally be learning to enjoy that.


Friday, 10 January 2014

Into the Wild

As I haven’t let anybody forget, I have a published short story in Stew Magazine, just out this week. It’s the first work of mine that’s appeared in print since the Undiscovered Voices anthology, and I’m again reminded of the curious feeling that accompanies your work being released into the wild.

(Cover by Jesse Hodgson)

For the first half hour after Stew arrived (once I’d checked my story for proofing errors, natch), I was elated. Here was my work about to make the journey into the hands of actual children for the first time! So I put the magazine in the hands of my own actual children and had them read the story. And neither of them liked it! How have I managed to breed these kids who dislike so much of my own work? (perhaps all that time devoted to developing their critical thinking would have been better spent making them recite the words “Dad, you’re a genius” over and over)

My self-doubt was eased by a couple of nice messages from people on Twitter, saying how much their children had liked the story (I resisted the temptation to make my own kids read these). It’s also a relief to be part of a larger magazine, full of other quality articles and features. A writer can hide behind the (true) notion that nobody can like everything, and a child will get a great experience out of the magazine regardless of what parts they enjoy most or least.

There’s additional comfort in having an editor and a creative team involved with the production. My creative choices have been analysed, approved and integrated into someone else’s artistic vision. I has become we. It’s made me realise how exposing self-publishing your novel must be, opening yourself up to praise and criticism without any buffer between you and the one-star Amazon reviews.

So, finally, my doubt has become expectation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids are going to read Princess of Dirt over the coming months. Some will gasp, some will sigh, some will nod approval, and some will look confused and turn the page. But all of them will feel something. And isn’t that what good writing is all about?


Friday, 3 January 2014

Girl Power

TV viewers of a certain age (i.e. mine) may be disturbed to hear that it’s been ten years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended. Apart from making me feel old, this statistic prompted Naomi Alderman to make a thoughtful Radio 4 show and accompanying article on the show’s legacy. While Buffy has been hugely influential, the article quickly concludes that one of its key components – the array of complex female characters – is not echoed in many modern works. Naomi Alderman argues that while strong female characters (Katniss Everdene, Daenerys Targaryan, Black Widow) do exist in modern movies and TV shows, they are invariably isolated from other women, and often end up in the boy, girl, boy groupings familiar from Harry Potter or Twilight.

This set me to thinking about my own work. After a long period in which I was scared to write female characters (particularly in first-person), I’ve been making up for lost time. My forthcoming Stew Magazine short story has a strong feminist slant and my story in the subsequent issue will also feature a girl protagonist. My recent novel is, similarly, written from a nine-year-old girl’s perspective, taking a heavy swipe at the “girlie-girl” culture of children’s toys and fashions. But in all of these works, I realised, my central character is also generally isolated from other female characters. The Stew stories are very short, of course, and can probably be excused. In the novel, however, the other female characters are all antagonists, obstructing the heroine or forcing her to adopt cultural norms that she despises.

This realisation was initially troubling for me. Had I, subconsciously, been acting out my own misogynistic urges in the story? I couldn’t really find any evidence for that in the rest of my life, and I could also see strong dramatic reasons for my choices. By isolating the main character from help, I ramp up the tension in the story and lead her to take increasingly desperate actions. The cultural perception of females as being less physically able than males (ironically) feeds into this, eliciting more sympathy and sense of jeopardy from the reader. You can see this same dynamic at play in The Hunger Games. Would that book even have been published if Gale or Peeta was the main character instead of Katniss?

A lot of current and forthcoming movies featuring strong but isolated female characters are based on YA books, and so are inevitably skewed by the YA readership (or at least publishers’ perceptions of this audience). Romance is a key tick box for Young Adult, and it’s generally a straight romance, which necessitates a male character alongside the female lead. Add a love triangle and suddenly you have the boy, girl, boy grouping again!

All this doom and gloom ignores the fact that there is plenty of product for young people out there that passes the Bechdel test. Although Marvel’s big screen superhero movies have a distinct lack of lead female characters, Buffy creator Joss Whedon has ensured a 3:3 ratio of women to men on the Agents of Shield TV show. And the other day, I discovered great female characters in the most unlikely place - My Little Pony - Friendship is Magic. My daughters are obsessed with this recent reboot of the cartoon show, which features a whopping 6:1 ratio in favour of the female ponies, with one “token” male dragon. Although her name could use some work, Twilight Sparkle is the pony who takes the lead role in many of the early episodes, and her skills at magic are shown to be gained through intense study. Unlike Hermione Granger, she’s not belittled for her commitment and intelligence, because without all that learning, the forces of darkness might quickly triumph. A female role model who saves the day because she does her homework? That’s girl power!


P.S. I’m reminded of this brilliant article imagining the Harry Potter series if Joanne Rowling had been prepared to take a few more risks and make Hermione the lead character.