Saturday 30 June 2012

The importance of SCBWIs

First SCBWI Social
On Thursday I held the inaugaural Winchester SCBWI Social meeting and it was a refreshing reminder of how important this organisation is to me. We met at a local pub and had a large jug of Pimms to celebrate - it was delicious! The best part was to be able to sit and discuss your own writing and that of others with people who understood the issues of writing/illustrating for children and the stress of the publishing machine. There was never an awkward silence as you tried to think of something to say and two hours went very rapidly. I will be organising another one in August. If you are interested leave a message in the comments below.

I first came across SCBWI-BI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2006 when I attended their conference which is held at my university. I had just finished my MA in Writing for Children and just embarking on my PhD. There were some fascinating speakers but I also found it quite daunting and overwhelming at that time. I sat on the periphery for several years, watching from the sidelines. Once my PhD was nearly finished I started to get more involved. They have their own Facebook page, which is a wonderful thing for networking and making friends. The members are all so friendly and supportive. And the more involved I get the more I realise how important the organisation is. I suppose it comes from all being in the same boat and understanding the pressures.

The aim of SCBWI-BI (some call it Scoobies) is to support published and, importantly, unpublished writers and illustrators. They hold many events during the year including the professional series held in London, the north and the north east. These can be events where you meet publishers, talk to other authors or have a specialised session like one on marketing. Who knows, maybe I will be able to get Winchester to start its own professional series on day..... ;-) There is even an Agents party, where you can schmooze and use your one line pitch.

Also, there is their annual conference which, as I previously mentioned, is held at Winchester University and always well worth attending. I went again last year and it was so much larger than the conference I attended in 2006. This year I am holding the first conference Scrawl Crawl on the Friday. This is where we will be visiting various places within Winchester to find inspiration and write and/or draw.  I will put up a link to the conference when it is ready.  They also hold an annual retreat. This is something I haven't managed to attend yet but from the feedback and photos it looks amazing and well worth attending.

I suppose what this post is really about is finding support networks when you write. The members of SCBWI have been fantastic. They celebrate everyone's successes and give a great deal of support to those who are having a difficult time. They become like a family. I am lucky many of them have become very good friends too that go way beyond the writing. But that's what you need as a writer is to surround yourself with people who understand what it is like to write/illustrate. How lonely it can be and how pressurised it can become once you have been published. People who understand and won't take offence if you need to be left alone because you are in the middle of a writing session. As the BBC would say, 'there are other similar organisations' - one that comes to mind is Lapidus, another one that is well worth looking at particularly if you are interested in creative writing and well being.

Finally, I would like to thank all my SCBWIs friends who have been such great friends and have helped me get to where I am. And thank you to those who attended Thursday's event. I look forward to many more.

Mary Chapin Carpenter's 'Chasing What's Already Gone.'

Monday 25 June 2012

Write Cold, Edit Hot

This quick, little post was triggered by a comment left by KM Lockwood on my previous post where she stated that she felt 'thick' for not understanding what 'write cold, edit hot' meant. I thought I would explain as that is the last thing I want to make anyone feel, particularly, as it is me that does things the wrong way round. It is apparently 'normal' for writers to write using every bit of purple prose they can think of and then have to edit hard with a cruel red pen which removes swathes of words. What results eventually is a highly polished piece of work.

Well I'm not normal. I can't do it that way. I have tried and failed miserably. What I do is write the bare bones of the story until it is complete and there is a solid plot. I call it writing cold. That in part is why I can write so fast (16,000 words in three days recently). But I then have to go back and edit hot. I have to add in elements of description using all the senses. Making sure there are some motifs  and subplots which follow through the story. Painting the picture so that the reader can see what I am seeing - or at least a version of it. Some might say add some padding to an initially thin story. The best analogy I came up with was doing some tapestry where you stitch all the outlines and only when you have done that do you go back and fill in the colour.

I am not saying this is the right way to do it. In fact, I don't believe there is a 'right' way to write. Instead I think you have to find what works for you. I found this out by trying the 'normal' way and struggling but if I hadn't tried it I wouldn't have known. You have to try things out before you settle into your own style of writing, I believe. It helps you become a better and stronger writer. Or that's what I believe anyway.

Well the music just had to be Carole King and Tapestry didn't it!

Saturday 23 June 2012

Elation and fear!

Why elation and fear I hear you ask? Well I am elated because I have finished the first draft of the rewrites and a week ahead of the deadline I had set myself. On the other hand, I am full of fear that it won't be what the editor wanted. I have to say it is not ready for her to see but I have something tangible to work with at least. A story with a beginning, a middle and an end, which seems to flow too. Miracle!

Of course, these are not emotions that only I have as a writer, I know we all go through them. Meg Rosoff wrote a great post the other day about finishing the book,which is well worth a look. I was delighted to read that some of her first drafts are 'thin'. I know that is a problem of mine but as I write cold and edit hot I should be able to sort that. My plan now is to print it off, have a quick look through it and create a book map (yes I know that is probably the wrong way round but it is the way I work), it will help me see where there are holes. (Thank you to IC for the map btw). I will then put it away for a a couple of weeks, maybe if I can be strong the whole of July, and then I will go back to it with eyes afresh. It will be that editing time where you have to distance yourself from the piece and read it as a reader and not as a writer this time. Should be fun.

This book is a rewrite of my PhD novel, last year's great achievement, but apart from some characters it bears very little relation to that story. Even the name has changed from Ham & Jam  to Trafficking. But I have to admit I think it is better for it. Don't get me wrong it was tough killing my babies like that. The PhD novel had been a huge part of my life for a very long time and it was hard to give up sometimes, however, you have to do these things all in the name of art.

I feel I am standing on the edge of the high wire (see Keren David's post where this idea came from and Candy Gourlay's brilliant response). It is a moment where there is a lot of potential ahead and it is down to me to make sure I make the most of it. That's another part of the fear - what if I waste it? But I mustn't think like that. It is all about looking forward. Having read Candy's post it made me thing of some high wire moments in my past where I haven't grabbed the moment and I deeply regret it. However, it is not all negatives, I have also grabbed several other moments and they have made a huge difference. One of which was making the decision back in 2002 to go to university after I had lost my business through illness. Who knew that that idea was going to take me to this point? It had been my way of not vegetating in the corner waiting to die as the medicos seemed to think I should, instead I found a whole new career and love of life. And I am sure it is going to continue like that.

I have pinched this from a friend's recent post because it is one of my all time favourite songs and I know I have used it before but hey who cares.

The Civil Wars and 'Dance me to the end of love'

Thursday 21 June 2012

Writing and Sychronicity

Synchronicity is acausal connection of two or more psycho-physic phenomena, as coined by Carl Jung. Or in simpler language it is about coincidence. Freud might even call it uncanny. It is those moments when you think about someone you haven't heard from for ages and they phone you.

I had my own moments of synchronicity this week. At the weekend I was at an excellent conference entitled Great Writing organised by Graeme Harper. Here as well as giving a paper (I will blog on this later) I chaired two brilliant panels. One panel included a paper by Hannah Kent of Flinders University, Australia, which was entitlted 'Intuiting Agnes: Synchronicity, Research and the Writer's 'Hunch''. This was a fascinating paper about Hannah's trip to Iceland and how she kept coming across people who had information pertaining to the novel she was writing. She related this all back to synchronicity. Then on Facebook a link to a blog was posted which was also exploring synchronicity and how it can be used by writers.

I decided to put my penny's worth in too. I believe that synchronicity is very important to writers and we are not always aware it is happening. I would like to think there is some magic to it but logically I think it is more a case of the fact that we are very aware and highly tuned into what we are writing. Consequently we immediately pick up on anything that has a vague connection to it.

A couple of years ago when I was on an Arvon retreat I had been working on my novel Ham & Jam. In this novel I talk about Bill Milins who was the piper with Lovat's Special Brigade during the D Day Landings. Having just written the chapter that involved him I got up and went to the kitchen for a drink. The daily paper was open on the table where someone had abandoned it. The lead story was how Bill Milins had recently died. I hadn't seen or heard anything about this until I saw that paper. It was a very strange feeling. But this is not the only one. I have had many experiences like that and I am sure I am not the only writer to do so.

Synchronicity can also be a really useful plot device that can help move your story on and tie things together. I was writing yesterday and one of my characters was walking along a street when she looked up she saw a red car. This red car could have meant nothing except there had only been one other car mentioned in the whole story so far and that was, yes, a red car belonging to a particularly unpleasant character. A whole new plot line appeared in that brief moment that would create both cohesion and drama to the story. She was going to be kidnapped. When I started writing I had no idea this was going to happen. My unconscious stepped forward and took over. As writers I think we do need to have faith in these sudden diversions. It can take the story to a whole new level.

Have you had moments of synchronicity?

Here are The Police singing Synchronicity

Thursday 14 June 2012

The importance of reading as a writer

I recently read an excellent blog post by Anne Rooney entitled 'Can you teach creative writing?' to which Mary Hoffman made a very pertinent comment when she said that she asks students what books do they like reading? And this got me thinking about the importance of reading when you are a writer.

I mentioned in a couple of posts ago how I use poetry to get my creative juices flowing again. Most recently it has been Ian Wedde's work (thank you JW for the introduction) but it has also been Okri, Rilke and Milosz amongst others in the recent past. I am a poet trollope. I find one I love. Read everything by them then abandon them recklessly when I have found someone new, irrespective of their feelings. (I do return to them eventually so hope they forgive me). That is only one small part of how important reading is to me as a writer.

I think it is important to read books in the genre that you write in but I also believe that you should challenge yourself and read things that are outside your comfort zone. I have previously said when I started my writing career I had a very definite idea of what sort of writer I was. It was only having the opportunity, during my BA and then MA, to try on lots of different styles of writing and voices that I actually found out what sort of writer I was. Interestingly it wasn't even close to the one I thought I was! I now find myself writing thrillers - I didn't even read thrillers before but it was only by challenging myself that I found out. (A distinct advantage of doing a CW degree)

If you write for children, as I do, you also need to read in and around your age group so you have an understanding of what works and what is appropriate for the age. It is good to keep an eye on what is being successful and winning prizes but don't be afraid to write your own stuff. Don't think you have to copy, in fact, it is important that you don't (obviously copyright helps with this!) Of course, it is almost impossible to predict what is going to be the next 'big thing.' (Or we would all be very rich if we could). Just write what you want to but understand the market place.

Go back and read the classics, read adult books as well as children's, in other words, read vociferously because as Mary Hoffman, quite correctly in my opinion, suggests it will give you a solid base of understanding what is possible. Going back to the quote I mentioned in the previous post from Scorsese it helps with working out what you like and what you don't like, what works for you and what doesn't.

I have heard some people say they can't read whilst writing as they are afraid of  it influencing their work, which I can partly understand, but also have to be honest, it has never happened to me instead I find it inspirational. However you approach reading and whatever you read, it doesn't matter as long as you do. I have a 'to read' pile which is probably as tall as me (admittedly I am quite short) but I keep dipping into it and satisfying the reader and the writer in me. I hope you do too...

Thanks to Imogen Cooper for this, such a wonderfully gentle song: Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell singing 'Hares on the Mountain'

Saturday 9 June 2012

A new approach to writing.

I have been writing, in fact, I have been writing a lot. I have been in the groove so to speak. It all started last weekend, the Jubilee weekend, I was totally on my own for most of it as my children had gone off to various places so I decided to get to grips with Trafficking. I have been walking round and round it without actually really getting down to the writing. Really engaging with it. It was time to change this. I had my denouement. I knew what my characters looked like. I had a change of setting and I had two chapters.

I made a weekend of it and I took Martin Scorsese's advice - he suggests you need to know the past in order to create the new. (Check out this blog post from back in 2010)  I watched a couple of films and read some books in order to remind me of what I liked and what I wanted to achieve. And then I started. I was really lucky the words just flowed. All the images in my head just fell onto the page and  in four days I managed to write just over 16,000 words and 11 chapters with all the rest clearly forming in my head as I wrote. This is the first time it has been such a complete process. In part I think it is down to the amount of pre-writing thinking I have done which has helped form the story so totally.

There was another difference this time though. I am a tinkerer or I was. As I wrote I would go back and change things. Fiddle with them slightly until they were right but this always stopped the creative process. It was like a hiatus, so this time I decided to keep writing regardless. If I thought of something I put it in my notebook under a list of things to check and/or change. For example I wrote a chapter last night which I know is too long (it has been so hard not to go back to it) but I am going to wait until the end and I have the whole picture to see how I want to change it. I also know I need to add more sense of place and more character detail. As I have said to you before I write cold, getting the story down, and then go back and fill in the colour. It is actually quite liberating to just get the story down and not stop. I am now over 22,000 words and the ideas are still flowing easily. I do wonder if this is because I have changed my method of writing. Whether it is or it isn't I am relieved and delighted. When it flows like this it is a wonderful place to be. Long may it last

This was the theme tune to my writing, Paul Buchanan's album Mid Air