Friday, 25 November 2011

Somebody to Lean On

Coming off the back of the 2011 SCBWI British Isles Conference, it isn't surprising that we've seen a lot of discussion about community. Candy Gourlay's wonderful Crystal Kite acceptance speech talked about how she was "looking for a way of life" as a children's writer, and found it in SCBWI. And it was Candy herself who took the lead in this, creating structures (both social and technological) that helped SCBWI-BI become a community. It's a pattern I've tried to follow – I specifically remember proclaiming: "I want to be the Candy Gourlay of Undiscovered Voices 2010" and I hope I've stayed true to that – though without the Carnegie nomination as yet.

Most writers – even if they work in isolation – are people people. To write well, it helps to have a fascination for the human condition. To write well - as Candy and I discovered - you need the help and support of your peers. Because writing isn't about putting words on the page, not really. Writing is about creating and sustaining the mental attitude that gets you to the page in the first place. Writing is about pushing through the blocks and believing in your own judgement, when so many others would seem to know better. Writing and getting published is a crazy, stupid, wonderful dream.

It's good to find others who share your dream. That stops it feeling quite so crazy.

Many writers, like myself, came from difficult family backgrounds. We crave a certain stability that was denied to us as children. What better way to deal with this, than to build our own support structures? That's what I realise I've been unconsciously doing for much of my adult life – getting married, staying married, having children. I do it in my writing life as well, trying to build groups like the Undiscovered Voices 2010 winners, so I've got someone to fall back on when life takes a wrong turn. Put like that, it sounds kind of selfish. But these groups quickly take on a life of their own.

There is a fragility to the writing community at times, though. Perhaps it's inevitable if you put a lot of people together who are all trying to work out their issues in public. Communication breaks down. Jealousy rages. I've seen a couple of writing friendships wrecked by random, unfathomable, even aggressive behaviour. And that's a scary thing because I wonder if it could happen to me. Could I misunderstand or resent someone enough that I'd want to hurt them in some way? Let's hope not!

By and large, we keep those frustrations at bay in the children's writing community. Perhaps being perpetually looked down on by "grown up" writers helps to give us a sense of perspective. When we come together – at events like the SCBWI conference – it's a joyous, life-affirming thing. I realise I have so many people that I can count on, that I can lean on in times of trouble. I hope they know that they can always lean back on me.


Monday, 21 November 2011

You Know You've Been SCBWI'd When...

  • You feel too exhausted to write a proper blog.

  • You wonder how all these new people could have joined without you noticing.

  • The cream of publishing are queuing up to get involved.

  • You could do your pitch in your sleep.

  • You're too excited to sleep.

  • Someone describes their series fiction as "literary crack."

  • You wonder if someone else should have got quite so drunk before making an important speech.

  • A cake makes you gasp.

  • You find yourself carrying too many balloons to fit through a normal doorway.

  • Your badge sells out first (yay!)

  • An agent says: "You can pitch to me, but I'll need a drink first."

  • You have to buy the drink the agent needs before you can pitch to them.

  • You have to congratulate Bekki Hill for organising the bestest conference ever!

  • You can't imagine how you'll be able to wait a whole year for the next one.


P.S. If anyone else wants to do coordinated blogging under the same title, let me know and I'll add the links here.

That Crazy Book Monkey Mark Jones

Julie Fulton

Jeannette Towey

Vanessa Harbour

Rebecca Colby

Friday, 18 November 2011

Gone Conferencin'

It’s the SCBWI-BI conference this weekend, so rather than post today I’ll come back with some kind of retrospective early next week. It isn’t as if most of you would be reading blogs over the weekend anyway*

Who knows, maybe there will be co-ordinated blogging when I return!


*With apologies to Nicky Schmidt, who has probably already left a comment telling me to stop going on about the conference.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Transfixed By Transmedia

As we move further into a brave new world of digital publishing, so the number of buzzwords bouncing around the industry can only increase. Buzzwords help make people who understand them look clever and forward thinking, while making people who don't understand them feel stupid and out of date. Transmedia is one of those buzzwords that suddenly seems to be everywhere, but it's also surprisingly hard to find a precise definition of it. Here's a rather wordy one that the Producers' Guild of America have adopted:
The Guild defines a Transmedia Narrative project or franchise as one that consists of three (or more) narrative storylines existing within the same fictional universe on any of the following platforms: Film, Television, Short Film, Broadband, Publishing, Comics, Animation, Mobile, Special Venues, DVD/Blu-ray/CD-ROM, Narrative Commercial and Marketing rollouts, and other technologies that may or may not currently exist. These narrative extensions are NOT the same as repurposing material from one platform to be cut or repurposed to different platforms.

Ok, so I'm not sure that's much clearer, although I love the bit about "technologies that may or may not currently exist." Because a transmedia storyline spans many different delivery channels, this does make it hard to categorise. But here's my condensed version:
Transmedia is about going where the kids are.

We live in an aggressively multichannel world. Books used to have to compete with just films and TV, but now there is a plethora of other distractions. And, to be fair, a plethora of opportunities for telling a story. Gone author Michael Grant's new project BZRK is being launched in a veritable transmedia blitz. Much of this is clearly marketing-led, a way of leading tech-savvy readers towards the book itself. But their plans to make money out of the additional transmedia content reflect a publishing industry keen to find new revenue streams wherever they can.

As authors, we need to be prepared for a world where our material can be repurposed in many different ways. This seems to be something especially true of children's books, as this Observer article makes clear. The launch of Pottermore has inevitably changed the landscape in terms of how children will interact with stories and how they will buy new Harry Potter content.

Writing the word "content" there gave me pause, because it's so impersonal. The risk with transmedia is that our words become simply another part of the interchangeable media landscape, another paid-for item that Apple can shove down the digital pipe towards your iPad. A book is a tangible object and it's easy to express what makes it special, what makes it different from a film or a video game. But try that with an enhanced e-book, or a picture book app. Are we moving towards a gloriously mashed-up world of narrative without barriers? Or simply a formless mush of words, images and micropayments?

My feeling here is that the answer lies in maximising the potential of each channel. If you write an app, make it do things that only an app can do. Don't be tempted to make it simply a book with a searchable index or an e-comic that makes KAPOW noises. Equally, enjoy the benefits of the long-form experience that a book provides – don't be tempted to chop it into sections for easy consumption, but instead focus on spinning a deep and involving storyline. Children won't lose the ability to concentrate providing we give them compelling reasons not to. The good news for writers is that our role is just as vital in a transmedia world, if not more so. Because, at some point, every multi-platform franchise was just a vague idea on the back of a napkin.


Friday, 4 November 2011

Talking About Tone

Tone is something that I've meant to write about ever since I started blogging. Somehow, I've never got round to it, and I think my problem with talking about tone is that I'm still struggling with it myself.

Here's what I know – the tone of a book is vital. It sets expectations from the very first page and answers some basic questions your reader is asking:
  • What is this story about?

  • How is it told?

  • Will it be happy? Sad? Funny?

  • Who is it for? (in the case of children's books, what is the age range?)

  • What genre does it sit within?

  • Will it end well?

If the author has set the tone appropriately, you should be able to answer all of those questions from the first page of a book. It sounds fantastical, but try it now – pick up a book you've never read and look at the first page. You'll find a huge amount of contextual information in and around the words themselves. You'll also probably know whether you want to read on.

There's a certain alchemy to setting tone, and I'm not sure I can help you much with achieving the right balance. When the tone of a book is right, we just accept it, suspend disbelief and sit back to enjoy the ride. But when the tone is wrong, it niggles. Tone is like a contract between the author and the reader, an agreement that the writer knows what they are doing and that the reader is happy to go along with them. To master tone, the standard advice for writers applies - you need to read as widely as you can, watch quality TV, seek out good (and sometimes bad) movies. Basically, see how other people approach that tricky balancing act.

So where's my problem in all this? Simple – I love screwing with tone. I love to have a scary scene that bleeds into funny, or a slapstick scene that suddenly becomes serious. I think these kind of tonal shifts are immensely effective for jarring and surprising your audience, indeed the entire oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino is based on this kind of tonal trickery. The problem is that audiences don't always want to be jarred and surprised. I loved the shift from noirish crime drama to goofy vampire splatter in From Dusk Till Dawn, but a lot of people hated that movie.

Another problem about playing with tone is that it is hard. You need an intuitive feel for how far you can bend the rules, and it's always easier to satisfy a mass audience by writing a straight-down-the-line narrative. Not as satisfying, but definitely easier.

An alternative to shifting tone is to try to build an overall tone that feels very personal to you, something fresh and new. William Goldman was a pro at this - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a groundbreaking take on the western and The Princess Bride (both in book and movie form) is sublime. A more recent film that has its own unique flavour is In Bruges, which mixes gangster drama and black comedy with a surreal, almost metaphysical tone. But it works brilliantly, and I think it does so because it gives the audience both what they want (chases and bloody shootouts) and what they don't know they want (oddball character comedy in a medieval walled city). On paper, it shouldn't work, but onscreen the blend comes off, and that is down to the skill of the writer-director and his cast.

There's a section at the end of William Goldman's book What Lie Did I Tell? where he writes a screenplay specifically to show us the process, then sends it to his Hollywood friends for their opinion. Tony Gilroy, the writer of the Bourne movies and director of Michael Clayton is especially scathing about the tone of the piece. He loves to break the rules of structure, he says, but
"Tone scares me."

I can empathise with that. But somehow, I'm just itching to mess with it some more...