Saturday 21 January 2012


This week I was lucky enough to have a one to one with an agent that I had won via a raffle at the Society of Children Book Writers' Conference. It was with Madeleine Buston of Darley Anderson Literary Agency and I have to say it was an absolute delight talking to her. Not just because she happened to like my book but because her advice was well thought out and considered. Madeleine was able to advise me on various aspects including suggesting I think of a new more explicit title to the book we were considering - currently still retaining its PhD title: Ham and Jam - and thinking of a one line pitch. Her support and encouragement was invaluable and way more than I expected from what is basically a 'free' consultation. But Madeleine didn't stop there, she very kindly arranged for me to talk to Vicki Le Feuvre, an editor at the agency, who had also read my sample chapters and had enjoyed them too. Vicki went through her notes with me on the phone and then even emailed them to me. A particular thrill for me was when she spoke about one of my characters, whose voice I had been worrying about, but who she found to be fresh and honest with a really readable voice. Vicki had some truly brilliant ideas which are really going to add to the story and that had me thinking: why didn't I see that, it's so obvious. I came away from the session absolutely buzzing and full of ideas.

My point with this post is not just to say thank you to Madeleine and Vicki for their insightful advice, and to the excellent organisers of the SCBWI conference who arranged the raffle, but to also remind everyone how important it is to get your work critiqued. Getting other people to look at your work brings fresh eyes to it and may help to spot parts that are just not working. Family is not always a great bet - they might feel honour bound to tell you it is wonderful when actually it needs quite a bit of work, but it does need to be somebody you trust. As I said in numerous earlier posts writing is all about the rewriting and listening to others can be part of this process. I always warn my students that when I am marking their creative pieces I can pick out those who have not bothered to partake in class workshops. The pieces will lack polish. It is something I miss having finished my PhD as then I always had someone there to give me feedback. If you are not already in one I would suggest that it is well worth considering setting up a critiquing group (online or face to face) where you can get this sort of support. The SCBWI is excellent at pointing you in the direction of such groups if you are interested in writing for children.

I have to say the one to one was a highlight of the week along with a hilarious evening spent with my children and some good Australian friends. However, the rest of the week was not quite so successful. Let me ask you this, do you ever have one of those weeks when your head is so full of stuff to do that it explodes and you end up not thinking things through and find yourself irritating or hurting people? The rest of the week was like that for me. I just didn't think and it  is the potential of hurting or irritating someone that caused me so much pain and stress this week. Probably stupidly but I really worry about things like that. The body is rebelling and the brain is struggling to cope with everything but it is a new day and maybe next week I will do better. What I do know is I will be working on Ham and Jam full of inspiration and drive.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Show not tell

Having just finished all my marking, much of which was creative writing assignments, I am aware that over and over again I have written 'show not tell'. Showing rather than telling brings a piece of writing to life otherwise it can feel quite flat. It allows the reader to be part of the story, to embrace it. We can all remember those stories in which we have become so totally involved we have forgotten the outside world exists.

When I am talking to my students about showing rather than telling there are a variety of tricks I suggest they use. I thought I would share them with you too.

1. Use dialogue. It allows the reader to experience a moment as if they were present. Let the reader hear the emotions through the language you use within the dialogue. For example:

'John James Smith, get in here now!'

You don't need the word 'angrily' in a tag as you can see it and almost feel it through the language already used. Dialogue can give your reader a great deal of information about character, emotion and mood.

2. Use sensory language. Readers can fully experience what you’re writing about if they can see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world you are creating. Try to use language that incorporates several senses, not just sight.

3. Be descriptive. We all remember learning to use adjectives and adverbs in school and it is easy when trying to be descriptive to slip back into using just those words. Being descriptive is more than inserting a string of descriptive words into your writing. It’s all about carefully choosing the right words and using them sparingly to convey your meaning. Remember often less is more. It is all about creating an image in the mind of the reader.

These are just the basics which might just help lift your writing a bit. But of course there are moments when telling can be just as applicable....but that's a whole other post!

This is the same song as I posted the other day but a really quirky version which I just love - thanks Jen for bringing it to my attention

Friday 13 January 2012

'Just in case' moments

After the last post there has been quite a bit of debate via Facebook and other blogs on what is meant by 'commercial' and the future of publishing. All of which was very interesting but it is Friday, I have finished marking and I don't start teaching till next week so this post is a very light-hearted one.

I have a question - did you ever practice your signature just in case you marry that man that you were currently in the first throes of love? Maybe it was just me, I am an old romantic at heart you know.

I call that a 'just in case' moment.

Well I have found another 'just in case' moment whilst I was driving the other day. This time it was about who would I dedicate my book to and what the acknowledgments would say 'just in case' my books ever got published....(if you were wondering the answer was very easy to come up with but you will have to wait for the books to be published in order to see what my answer was!)

Do you have any 'just in case' moments?

Normal posts will resume shortly....

And because we are all 'glass half full people'

Thursday 12 January 2012

It must be 'commercial' and the self fulfilling prophecy

There is a word that has been haunting me for the past couple of days. That word is 'commerical.' Those of you who are based in the UK or have seen the furore on FB may have seem that our 'esteemed' Prime Minister has suggested that the film industry should support "commercially successful films.' I then read Philippa Francis' blog post on Beverley Birch's visit to the Hampshire Writing Society, at Winchester University, entitled 'It's not about good books anymore...'. Beverley Birch commissions fiction for Hodder Children's Books and is also an author. She presented an illuminating talk entitled 'Between a rock and a hard place: keeping faith with your writing self in today's stormy commercial seas.' During this talk she mentioned how, in the current market, aspiring writers need to understand that the chances of being taken on have nothing to do with the readership. It is all to do with whether the likes of big buyers (supermarkets, book chains etc) will be interested in purchasing it. Apparently, and to quote Philippa: 'It is not enough to have a coherent plot, engaging characterisation and a well-conveyed setting. There must be pace and sense, of course. The voice of the piece must also must be distinctive and vigorous - and it must be commercial.'

There it is, that word again. 'COMMERCIAL!' Now is there anyone out there who could define this for me so that writers, film makers etc can ensure that they only produce 'commercial' work? The point is no one does know what might be commercial. For example, and I apologise that this is an obvious one but everyone will be able to empathise with it, J K Rowling and Harry Potter, back in the 1990s magic, boarding schools and wizards were not commercial. Anything but. Without the likes of Christopher Little and Barry Cunningham (then of Bloomsbury and now of Chicken House fame) following their gut instincts that told them there was 'something' about that first story we would be without one of the most successful series written for children in the past few decades.

My concern is that if all these people keep talking about how everything has got to be 'commercially successful' it will become a self fulfilling prophecy where publishers, film markers, and, in fact, anyone in the arts stops taking risks. Stops listening to that gut feeling. Don't get me wrong I fully understand that not every film can be made or every book can be published and I am also aware that these are businesses so have to make money but I am begging agents, publishers, film makers and, even buyers, to continue to be brave and trust their instincts whilst not being blinded by that word 'commercial.' And, because I am writer, I would ask writers to continue to believe in what you are producing otherwise we risk having a bookshelf full of generic books.

I will now step off my soap box and ask you to listen to this, it is 'Somebody that I used to know' by Goyte

Sunday 8 January 2012

when does rewriting become editing become proof reading...

Yesterday I shared the following blog post with a few of my friends and it started me thinking. When does rewriting become editing then become proof reading? The blog post is talking about filling in the gaps when rewriting, however, the more I thought about it the more I realised that is what I do when I am editing not rewriting. When I edit I look for the holes they are talking about, the 'show not tells', the bland characters and flat passages. As I have told you before I 'write cold, edit hot' (see August 14 2011 post). I get the bare bones of the story down and then go back and 'embroider it with colour.' Rewriting, for me, however, is something I am doing at the moment, as you know, it is where you change whole chunks of the story. It can be adding chapters in, taking them out, even changing the point of view (which is what I am doing). Rewriting is far more drastic than is suggested by that blog post.

As far as I am concerned rewriting is the major changes, editing is the looking for holes and adding colour, which brings the piece to life and finally, this is then followed by proof reading. Talking of which I have just marked 60+ creative pieces over the Christmas break and I would be a very rich woman if I had a pound for every time I wrote 'proof read carefully' on assignments. I know it is boring and it can be tough. I am also aware that you may have seen your work so often you don't see the mistakes. I have a couple of suggestions to counter this. Firstly, I put it away for a couple of weeks ideally (this is a good thing to do between the rewriting and editing process too) and then I read the work out loud. If it is difficult to read it is because there is a problem with the sentence. You also tend to spot spelling mistakes and inconsistencies if you do this. You can, of course, get someone else to read it out loud to you.

But perhaps I am the only person who sees the process like this. Maybe you have your own variations. What we all do know is that writing cannot be hurried. There are hurdles to be jumped and as I said in the last post: writing is rewriting....then editing....then proof reading....*sigh*

Michael Kiwanuka's Tell Me a Tale seems appropriate...

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Rewriting in the New Year

It is the beginning of January of a bright, spanking new year. Many people have been turning to lists of resolutions, or not, in my case. If I do have a resolution it is to write every day. Since September I have been trying to do some rewrites that I have been asked to do by a publisher but life and work keep getting in the way. I thought I would have them done by now but I still have quite a way to go. In a way doing the rewrites is harder than facing a blank page. The pressure to get it right is enormous.

I have recently come across two excellent blog posts for writers. One is a brilliant list of 25 things a writer should stop doing - I could empathise with almost all of them! And the other is a post on meditation increasing creativity - something I might try.  I need all the help I can get! Making decisions about which words are the right ones can be so difficult at times. We all know the quote from Oscar Wilde who claimed he spent all morning adding a comma and all afternoon deleting it.

I know so many people who are currently rewriting work and we are all struggling the same things - getting the words in the right order - but we all know that writing is all about rewriting and there is no short cut.

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Good luck to all rewriters out there!

And here is something to listen to whilst doing that rewriting. Mumford and Sons have had a brilliant idea of having gigs in book shops. This is called Winter Winds and for those who live in the UK it couldn't be a more applicable title.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Chaosmos and a Beautiful Tomorrow!

Don't you just love it when you find two French philosophers agree with what you say? Maybe it is just an academic thing. Recently when I am not marking,, or battling with my rewrites, I have been doing a bit of reading for a paper I am trying to write. Anyway, those of you who were here at the beginning of this blog a couple of years ago will know that it is called Chaosmos because that is a term used by James Joyce, in his book Finnegans Wake, to imply out of chaos comes order . It is also a term I use to describe my writing style. I get all sorts of ideas and write down snippets of thoughts, poems or conversations I hear and things I see. Out of all this chaos my story will develop. OK, I can hear you say, what has this got to do with the reading mentioned earlier? Well, I was reading the conclusion to Deleuze's and Guattari's book entitled What is Philosophy? and I came across the following quote

'Art is not chaos but a composition of chaos that yields the vision or sensation, so that it constitutes, as Joyce says, a chaosmos, a composed chaos - neither foreseen nor preconceived.'

What a joy, they think like I do!! This little quote has given me the courage to take that first step off the precipice as it made me realise that this really does have the potential to be an amazing year!

Here is Beth Rowley singing Beautiful Tomorrow, except I think the beautiful tomorrow started today.