Friday, 29 April 2011

Fairytale Endings

I'm writing this instead of watching the Royal Wedding, which is very naughty and unpatriotic of me. But I will be going out later to celebrate at the Abingdon bun throwing, in which specially baked Royal Wedding comestibles will be launched into the crowd from the top of the town hall. Basically, if you're offering me free cake, I'll be there – whatever the occasion.

Reading Lucy Coats's wonderful set of posts about attending Charles and Diana's 1981 wedding (here, here and here), I found myself dwelling on the very unhappy outcome of that particular marriage. This time around, expectations are more grounded for William and Kate, and I wonder how much that indicates a wider cultural shift - one that can't help but be reflected in our literature. Does anyone believe in fairytale endings any more?

Once upon a time, it was a given that children's books would end well. With the exception of a few authors, all of the horrid beastliness of adult life was kept well away from the kiddiwinks. Many of us were raised on the idea that good would triumph over evil and that the princess would find her handsome prince and live happily ever after. I certainly don't remember any stories where the prince was losing his hair at the age of 28 and his slightly potty father was nearing retirement age, yet still waiting to inherit the throne. Maybe I should have read more Norman Hunter books.

The happy-ever-after ending got a bad reputation, in part because of its glibness. It was perfectly acceptable to mire a protagonist in the deepest danger and then, within a single chapter, turn things around and resolve everything in the positive. There was little regard for the messiness that such an outcome left behind, much like there is little regard for the cost of property damage left after the end of the average action movie.

I wouldn't want to lose the moral complexity of the modern children's novel, because it's the very thing that attracts me to the form - a wonderful balance between brisk storytelling and emotional truth. An author like Jacqueline Wilson has spent her career showing us the uncertainties of modern life, how adults are often as clueless and confused as the children they raise, and how we all need to pull together to keep the family unit afloat. Most children do still have what we'd like to think as "a childhood" (whatever the tabloids might say), but they learn early on about the kind of world they are growing up into. With this background, is it any surprise that endings need to be more ambiguous, more understanding of the way that life is an ongoing struggle that doesn't end on the final page?

Some genres will go to the other extreme, choosing endings that are deliberately bleak or cruel. A true dystopia, for instance, doesn't leave much room for a cheerful ending. These resolutions strike me as just as contrived as the happily-ever-after, yet it has to be argued that they are realistic. Life itself holds no happy endings - disease and dissolution lie at the end of all our stories. Perhaps the most unvarnished closing sentence of all belongs to the Grimm Brother's The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet:
And so, all were dead.

Should we aim for the blunt and bitter, or look for a sense of hope at the close of our work? Life, after all, will go on without us and the world will still be here long after we are gone. Let's hope our books will be too.


Edit - In a super-spooky development, Katie Dale was writing on exactly the same subject at the same time I was - except her blog post got more comments. I'm not bitter.

Friday, 22 April 2011

People Watching

I can remember exactly where I was - a departure lounge at Heathrow Airport in the late 90s, nursing a machine-made cappuccino that had long since lost its froth. I was on a business trip with my then manager, who was looking everywhere except at me. When I asked him what he was doing, he said that he was "people watching". One of his greatest pleasures (apart from writing impenetrable technical documents) was to watch other people from across a room and wonder what they were thinking or talking about. This was something I'd never considered - other people were just like static in my life up until that point, something to be ignored. But his words planted a seed.

Fast-forward ten or so years to last weekend, when I was sitting on Brighton's Palace Pier, feeling grumpy. This was because I'd sprained my ankle and also because I had wanted to meet a friend, but we'd contrived to come into Brighton on the one afternoon when said friend wasn't available. So I sat there, arms folded while the world walked past. It took me a few minutes before I realised that I was sat in a perfect spot for people watching. These weren't just any kind of people either, and certainly not the beautiful people you might find in Monaco, say. These were real people, with their burnt foreheads and lopsided tattoos, clad in Megadeth T-shirts or overly figure-hugging Lycra cyclewear. They argued, they ate ice cream, they pretended to push their mates over the rail into the sea. These people were the beating heart of story.

It's a terribly broad distinction, but writers can be divided into those who are interested primarily in plot and those interested primarily in character. How much that affects their writing technique is a discussion I've had before. But it does seem to me that plot-oriented writers are interested in places and character-orientated writers are interested in people. No surprises which side of the fence I fall - I remember listening to Marcus Sedgwick waxing lyrical at last year's SCBWI conference about travelling to St Petersburg in search of the perfect place to set his story. I, meanwhile, thought that I'd actually rather go to the local shopping centre and just watch the people milling about. My latest novel is set in Milton Keynes. 'Nuff said.

I'm not the kind of author who writes down everything I hear or does quick-fire character sketches of people I see - unless they exactly fit a role I need in a story. In fact, I prefer not to base characters on real people. I work on a process of osmosis, trying to soak up people's mannerisms, speech patterns and behaviour in the hope that I can combine them later in a story. It was fascinating to hear Louise Rennison talking the other week, because she takes absolutely the opposite approach - she uses people's real names for her characters and there is almost nothing in her books that hasn't happened to her in real life. Whereas there is almost nothing in my books that has happened to me in real life. I've no idea if this makes me a more creative writer than her, but clearly, I lead a very boring life.

For me, people watching is the best kind of research. It's free, readily available and can be done with a cup of coffee in one hand (and an ice cream in the other, if necessary). Who knows, if I hang out with the right people, maybe something exciting will happen for real.


Friday, 15 April 2011

Making an Entrance


Did that get your attention? For me, the first page of a novel is the most important. A weak ending may leave your reader dissatisfied, but without a strong opening, they won't pick up the book in the first place. It's easy to bemoan the attention spans of modern readers, to point out that starting a book slowly has its own benefits in terms of atmosphere and character development. But the simple truth is that in the internet age, the luxury of the slow start has been lost forever.

I was lucky enough to be praised twice recently about the beginning of my Undiscovered Voices 2010 entry. Once was at the 2012 launch by my agent (thanks Jenny - will a cheque be ok?) and the other was by Undiscovered Voices judge Julia Churchill in a blog post the other day. Both of these recommendations made me proud, but they also highlighted for me how hard it is to really start a story with a bang, yet also give the narrative room to grow. As I rewrote the first chapter of my current work-in-progress for the third time, I realised how lucky I was with Back from the Dead because the opening had just appeared, fully formed, in my head.

A lot of people seemed to like the "zombie poetry" that opened Back from the Dead. Here's how it looked in the Undiscovered Voices anthology:

Gnash. Spit. Thrash.
Ropes. Hands. Gloves.
Bite. Tear. Chew.
Taste. Struggle.
Snarl. Spit.

But what's ironic for me, is that only a couple of months previously, it looked like this:

Gnashing. Spittle. Thrashing. Red. Ropes. Hands. Gloves. Bite. Tear. Needle. Blood. Chew. Lilac. Taste. Struggle. Pink. Snarl. Spit. White. White. White.

It was a very perceptive writer at a critique group who persuaded me to reformat it and let the white space do the work. I dithered about it for a while, because I didn't want the reader to get to the bottom of the first page and for nothing to have actually happened in the story. What I didn't see then, was that the story was already happening inside their heads!

My favourite recent opening to a children's book is from Lauren St John's Dead Man's Cove. The first paragraph has everything you might want in a beginning - intrigue, an emotional connection and a yearning for adventure that you know will soon be satisfied. In fact, the paragraph was so strong that it carried me through a rather exposition-heavy first chapter. Once you hook a reader, once they invest themselves in your story, they'll be willing to forgive a lot.

Great openings are a lot like voice, in that we feel the impact when we read it, but sometimes struggle to describe why. Which makes it a little hard for me to give advice - although I'm going to try anyway! At the risk of repeating myself from last week:
  • Be different - Don't open with an alarm clock, a dream sequence, a bus journey or the middle of a history lesson. Why not start the book with your protagonist hanging upside down from a roof or holding their breath at the bottom of a swimming pool or trapped inside a vending machine?

  • Create intrigue - The examples I've given above are dramatic situations that immediately suggest a story. To hook your reader, you need to fire up the imagination centres of their brain and get them asking questions. How did the character get here? How will they get out of this?

  • Don't start too high - The flipside to creating intrigue and raising the stakes for the opening, is that it's tempting to reach too far and use an event that is too dramatic. As a result, you can leave yourself nowhere to go in the rest of the story but down. This can be a tricky balance to get right. One way of looking at it is that your character will grow and develop as the story proceeds, so what seems like the greatest calamity in the world at the start of the story may be a minor inconvenience by the end.

  • Set a tone - Readers like to know from the off what kind of book they're reading. Your choice of language, setting and atmosphere should tell them whether they're reading a murder mystery or a sci-fi saga.

  • Show that you're in control - Your confidence in the material shows through from the first word. If you can demonstrate that you know what you're doing and where the story's going, the reader will trust you to take them there. If you can't - write something else.

Is this the last time I'll rewrite the opening of this new novel? Sadly, I suspect the answer is no, but if it persuades just one extra person to pick up the book, it'll be worth all that lost time and lost hair.


Friday, 8 April 2011

How to Win Undiscovered Voices

Now there's a grand title! I'm generally suspicious of authors who describe the right way to do something, because it's always their way of doing things - how they plot a book, how they found an agent, how they got published. What works for them invariably won't work for you. The other key thing about Undiscovered Voices is that it's all about the shock of the new - the winners will succeed precisely because their work is unexpected and surprising. So I can't predict what you can write to win the competition, but I can help you with some other strategies for standing out.

I will say that these tips have been arrived at retrospectively - all I did to prepare for the 2010 competition was write a really good book. But if that was my only piece of advice, this would be a very short article!

  • Be crafty - This doesn't refer to a campaign of dirty tricks against the other entrants, more that craft is everything. You may be the best plotter in the world, but over such a short sprint you won't get much chance to demonstrate that. What will show through is the quality of your writing, your command of voice and language and rhythm and ability to punctuate lists properly.

  • Write for a younger age group - I'm already encouraged by the people who are saying they will submit early reader texts this year. Each time the competition is launched, Sara Grant and Sara O'Connor beg for more texts in the younger age groups and so far, the majority of the submissions have been YA. It's not too late to change direction - you probably have time to write a book for younger readers from scratch before the competition closes. Be a young fish in a small pond.

  • Frontload your story - This is good advice for any children's writing, but especially for a competition where you will be judged on a short extract. The good stuff needs to happen early, ideally on the first page. And it needs to keep happening - exposition be damned!

    I'm convinced my success in the competition came because of my experience when submitting a previous novel to agents. I realised that most took the first three chapters as an initial submission, so I vowed to make those chapters in my new book as mind-blowing as possible. Of course, I had another advantage in writing quite short chapters, which meant those three were under the 4,000-word limit for Undiscovered Voices.

  • Write something that no-one was expecting - Be daring, experimental, individual. Read my post about author-led fiction from the other week. Come out of left field and score a home run.

  • Don't submit something the judges have already seen - Although the submissions are judged anonymously, a judge is very likely to recognise something they have already had on their desk. More than that, if they've previously rejected it, why would they now choose it as a winner or honorary mention? If you've comprehensively reworked a piece, it might be worth entering, but you'll have to weigh up the risks and benefits.

  • Don't worry if the rest of the book isn't perfect - Concentrate on those first 4,000 words, polishing them just enough to shine. Providing you have the rest of the book finished, you can work on that in the three months between the competition closing and the results being announced.

  • You are not expected to be the finished article - If you were, you would already have an agent or be on your way to a publishing deal. Some of what is attractive about you as a new writer is your rawness and willingness to think differently. There is nothing more pleasurable for an agent or editor than to engage with a promising writer and shape them into something extraordinary.

  • Leave them wanting more - You need to motivate the reader (the judge) to want to see the rest of your book. There's a vein of self-interest that runs through the altruism of the contest - the judges don't only get to enjoy some great writing, they also get first dibs on your manuscript. Make them desperate to know what happens next.

  • Winning Undiscovered Voices is easy - Believe me, it gets a lot harder after the results are announced! It's worth taking a few minutes to think about your writing and how serious you are about building a career. If you know you won't be able to put the hours in afterwards, you might not want to enter in the first place. As another previous winner so aptly put it: Be careful what you wish for.


You can see the entry rules for this year's competition here. You can also read about the experiences of last years' winners in my Notes from the Slushpile guest blog.

Follow Undiscovered Voices 2012 on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Biting Your Lip

There's been a recurring discussion over the last couple of months about what writers should and shouldn't say online. Agent Jennifer Laughran kicked off the subject with her post in January, advising writers to keep quiet regarding submissions and their opinions of the business generally. This week, we've seen an ugly incident in which a self-published author turned on a website for printing a mildly negative review and became instantly notorious. The ability to bite your lip, or to walk away from a fight, has never been so important.

Social media, instant messaging - these technologies encourage a rapid response to stimulus, a "fire and forget" mentality that can be seen very clearly in Facebook's recent decision to remove the confirmation button from comments, which are now posted as soon as you press return. The thinking behind this is presumably to make online "chat" as close to natural conversation as possible. There's one big problem with this – once you say something online, it can be very difficult to take it back. Facebook allows you to delete posts and comments, as does Twitter, but it only needs one person to repost or retweet your words for you lose control of the process.

Despite the quick-fire environment, it should be easier to walk away from a fight online. After all, it isn't as if we have someone physically threatening us or bellowing in our face. We always have the option to switch off our laptops and go jump on a few cardboard boxes. But something about being insulted by someone we can't see - who doesn't even know us – is particularly maddening. And sometimes it seems as if the internet is entirely composed of idiots with nothing better to do than wind you up. Robert Wilensky's quote has never been more pertinent: "We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true."

Dealing with people who get under your skin is a problem that someone in the workplace has to cope with on a daily basis. Everyone, no matter how diplomatic, has their pressure points and some people are highly skilled at exploiting that. So I think that having a day job and learning to cope with this aggravation is a very positive thing for a writer. Offices, publishers and the blogosphere are very alike in terms of the politics and petty jealousies that seethe and fester within them. I was chatting with an editor recently who was surprised that so many writers are unaware of what goes on behind closed doors at a publisher's office. As students of human nature, why don't we realise that the work environment of a publisher is as politically charged as any other?

The life of a writer has many frustrations – creative, financial, political. Nurture your personal support structures so you don't keep collecting resentment until you burst in a murderous rage. And when someone pushes your buttons online, don't bitch them out - take a breath, bite your lip, send a one-to-one email to a trusted friend. As a writer for young people, you have the responsibility to be a wiser, better, more mature person than your reader. That might not be easy – or very rewarding in the short term – but it doesn't make it any less necessary.