Conference Call!

I think it’s time for a positive blog post – my last was pessimistic in the extreme. And, after all, I have something upbeat to write about.

This weekend, I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Winchester. This year’s theme: Cracking Characters.

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This was significant for two reasons: first, I was returning the county where I grew up; second, this was my initiation into the world of SCBWI conferences. Here’s the good news (I said this post would be upbeat)…I’ll be going again next year.

For anyone with even the faintest sense of fairness and equality, the past months have been a shock. Along with so many others, I’ve found it hard not to allow myself to be dragged down into the morass of gloom and hopelessness left behind like a dark, sticky slug’s trail by the year’s events. I think I’d stopped trying to get unstuck.

And then came Winchester.

From the moment conference started I felt a resurgent sense of purpose. The opening remarks set the tone for me; referencing the doom that is 2016, we were reminded that as writers, we have a role to play in forcing light into the dark. He Who Must Not Be Named need not succeed…we can all defeat the menace, one scribble at a time. And with that, I felt the weight of our collective annus horriblis lift ever so slightly.

And it continued to rise throughout the weekend. David Almond couldn’t help but inspire with his instinctive joy and enthusiasm for writing for children. And if learning that he can make sense of the apparent chaos of his notebook – turning it into award-winning, vital stories – doesn’t fill you with optimism, nothing will!

Volunteering on the merchandise stall at lunchtime was always going to give me a boost, in the way that volunteering does. As the wickedly loveable muppet puppets of Avenue Q sing…”when you help others, you can’t help helping yourself”.

(Please enjoy this musical interlude)

Plus, I got to resurrect my link-selling skills from my short-lived retail days at Body Shop…turning, “Would you like some conditioner to go with your hemp shampoo?” into “Why not buy a soft, cotton tote bag to wrap your SCBWI mug in?”. I particularly excelled when a fellow delegate asked if I had a pen he could use to fill in his raffle tickets. “Certainly,” I replied, “how about these lovely SCBWI pens? Just £1.50 each”.

Then came the moment which gave me the biggest lift of all. The ‘Hook’. I’d entered this “pitch your book to a panel of agents” event for the same reason I’d offered to volunteer and for the same reason I’d decided to go to conference at all: Why Not? I realised that I’d have nothing to lose…in fact, in this event, win or lose, the finalists’ pitches would all be heard by the agents and any one else in the audience. Yes, I was nervous (very); yes, I doubted myself (more than once); and yes, it was hard work preparing for (hours spent going over the pitch and recording myself).

It paid off and I won the event. My prize: a meeting with the agent of my choice from the panel. I chose Thérèse Coen, from Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

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Therese Coen and a very happy contestant.

She now gets to read my whole manuscript before we meet. This is such a huge opportunity, I can’t thank the organisers enough. And I couldn’t be more pleased with myself that I went for it. The sense of camaraderie between the five of us during, and after, the event, only added to the growing lightness of heart.

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The five ‘Hook’ finalists, some in cunning disguise.

Why did I put myself through this? Because, at the end of the day, I often put my heroes in a position where they have to choose whether to go for something, even if it’s terrifying, in order to advance or survive or save someone. Some role model I’d be to my characters if I didn’t do the same myself.

I suffered a slight dip on Sunday morning…well…people would keep buying me drinks the night before…but surged back after Sarah Davies (of The Greenhouse Literary Agency) delivered her keynote. Despite hearing how many millions (ok, thousands) of submissions she receives every year, I still came away feeling optimistic about my own writing and chances. Concept and craft are her focal points in a good manuscript…and give every writer something to aim for. Create a great concept, then write it well. It sounds simple, and I know it isn’t, because otherwise I’d be delivering a lecture to writers rather than sitting in the audience hanging off every word…but I’m determined to get both right.

Finally, the good folk at SCBWI British Isles weren’t going to let us get away without some good old-fashioned, blood, sweat and ink-stained fingers. Cliff McNish offered the chance to get our heroes shining and our villains sweating with a double dose of expertise. These were great sessions to end the conference and I was thrilled to have a light bulb moment when I realised I should turn one of my characters from parent to villain.

The sense of community I found at the conference was one of the most important aspects. I’d already had a sense of this from my home network in Scotland, and they helped make sure I made the best of my time at conference.

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SCBWI South East Scotland delegates. Plus photo-bomber.

And the wider community of SCBWI wrapped me in an even bigger embrace.

However, it’s the feeling of empowerment with which I left Winchester that most surprised me. To know that I haven’t been wasting my time with writing and that it can be appreciated…that’s empowering. To have learnt new skills and made important plot and character decisions…that’s empowering. To know that I’m part of a huge community of supportive and talented writers and illustrators…that’s empowering. And to know that my writing, all of our writing, might let some of the light back in…that really is empowering.

Over to you Leonard…

 

 

 

Capitalism:1; Creativity:0

Buildings tell stories.

At least, the people inside them have stories to tell, or stories to be told.

I was considering this in New York last week. If there was ever a city whose buildings can spin a yarn, it’s this one. Think, The Hotel Chelsea, with its cast list of famous and creative residents; The Empire State whose viewing level has played host to countless stories of love and loss – not to mention an infamous skirmish with an oversized gorilla; massive department stores – Barneys, Bloomindales, Bergdorf Goodman – where staff sell hopes and dreams and too-tight jeans to harried and hurried customers; the ghosts of the Twin Towers with their thousands – too many thousands – of tales of loss and mourning and grief; glamorous apartments house even more glamerous ageing widows…think Iris Apfel; nondescript buildings in the East Village whisper the secrets of beatnik poets.

For me, it is the apartment buildings that have the most to say, simply because they contain the most people. I love to stand and look up; look skywards and gaze at the hundreds of windows, behind which who-knows-what is happening. Someone laughing here on the phone…they’ve just been told some gossip, but shhh!…it’s a secret. Someone there in tears…they’ve been dumped by text. Up top there’s a couple taking the morning off…loudly. In the lift, a man wonders if he can still pay the rent now that he’s been made redundant. At the entrance, an elderly woman with a small dog on a leash whispers in the doorman’s ear and presses a twenty into his hand: for his daughter’s education, you understand. How else can he send her to college?

Every storey tells a story.

Cycling in Central Park, the tops of hundreds of apartment buildings loom over trees. Just because these Upper East and West side addresses house mostly the wealthy and privileged, doesn’t mean they can’t tell their own stories. Even the rich have secrets: they laugh and cry; they love and hate; they live and die.

But there is a building in Manhattan which will buck the trend. It’s freshly glazed windows won’t blink to reveal. It’s heavy doors poised to shut like sealed lips. It is a building with few tales to tell because despite its size, it is mostly void of humanity and will most likely stay that way.

432 Park Avenue is a new breed of building.

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Conceived solely for a new class: the Ultra High Net Worth class (UHNW). These are folk with assets of at least $30 million. We’re not talking the 1%…we’re talking smaller percentages. This is a building which reflects the rise of the global super-rich. Even its architect, Rafael Viñoly, has said that “there are only two markets, ultra luxury and subsidised housing”. And this place is ultra.

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Ultra-high. Ultra-expensive ($95 million for the pent house anyone?). Ultra-inaccessible.

Ultra-empty.

And here’s where a building’s ability to tell stories has been stifled, silenced, starved of material.  For this is a building which will never be fully occupied. It’s a building designed to be less than half occupied. Some reports suggest it will never be more than a quarter occupied. 432 Park Avenue is where the UHNW club come to park their cash. If they come at all. It’s mostly just where they park their cash. Too much wealth Sir? Don’t like the look of that domestic tax bill Madam? Why not allow your money the luxury of a multi-million dollar residence? There it can bask in the summer sun or revel in the winter snow. Allow it the space to breathe, to flex and to grow (in value).

This is a building destined to remain silent. Silent of laughs. Silent of tears. Silent of the stuff of life. And whilst The Chelsea and those run-down East Village apartments no longer resound to the creative beats of writers’ and artists’ drums (the creative class of New York having long ago been forced into an economic retreat), at least their history can testify to something human. Something emotional. Something we can all relate to.

432 Park Avenue isn’t alone in being built for the ultra-wealthy. New York is going to be littered with sky-high, tax-free bolt-holes for lonely dollars. And Europe’s not immune to this spreading canker: In London, The Tower, St George’s Wharf is 432 Park Avenue’s Special Relationship cousin, destined to house the currencies of the world’s super-elite.

These buildings are not conceived to nurture lives, loves and lines of poetry. They have only one story to tell; and it’s an ugly one. An empty, heart-sapping tale of selfishness, greed, and complicity in both.

It’s a story no-one wants to read. It’s a story I wish I didn’t have to tell.

 

Inspiration is everywhere…if you can see it through the fog.

Apparently, the UK has been basking in record-breaking September weather. At least, it has if you believe the front pages of the, as ever, London-centric press.

Mid-week last week as the headlines sweated…

…the reality in the east of Scotland, as was the reality in much of the UK, was somewhat different…

As a person who likes to think they’re in tune with the forces of nature, who has some connection with the elements and who tries to see beauty wherever and however it appears, I kind of pretended to say that it didn’t matter what the weather was trying to do to us…I quite like the dankness; the darkness; the can’t see the end of the garden-ness

But come on! A deck chair and a slathering of factor 30 would have been nice. I might even have put some shorts on.

However, I determined to make the best of what the North Sea was offering. And as it happens, I’m currently working on a story in which the fog, or haar, as they call it round here, plays an integral part. So the atmospheric conditions (and that’s called putting a spin on it) spurred me to make a research road trip to see more haar. When the haar closes in, everything changes: the view, obviously, but also sounds, the taste of the air, the touch on your skin. People stare out to sea and wonder…what if? Especially if they’ve seen The Fog.

By the time I got to my destination, in this instance the lovely East Neuk fishing village of Pittenweem in Fife, the haar was in retreat somewhat. For about an hour. But you still have the impression of there being no division between sky and sea. A fishing boat went out of the harbour and was quickly swallowed by the haar. And by the Kraken for all I know. It’s possible. It happened to Captain Nemo.

It’s the endless possibilities that weather conditions like this offer the writer that I find so intriguing. Mystery, secrecy, danger…things hidden and things appearing, words absorbed into the fog…people sucked into the fog. Anything can be hidden on a day like this…if you’ve something to hide.

35 degrees of blazing sun suddenly loses its appeal. It doesn’t offer nearly so much intrigue.

And if that’s not putting a positive spin on the weather, I don’t know what is.

Tinker, Tweak it, or Let it Lie?

It’s the forgotten quandary in the writing process, creeping up on the writer, ready to blow a raspberry in your face just when you thought your work was ready. Ha! It laughs. Thought you were done with this manuscript didn’t you? But are you sure? Go on! It says. Have another look. Wouldn’t another word work better here? What about there? Or there?

Maybe this is your fourth or fifth draft. Sixth even. Or more. Doesn’t matter. Just when you think you are ready to send out to agents, to start the terrifying process of submissions and queries, a voice says: hold on a minute. Are you sure it’s absolutely ready?

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You’ve shared your work with your beta readers; workshopped it; had it critiqued. You’ve polished, buffed and flicked a duster over it. So what! The dust always settles and needs shifting again.

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You’ve cut, copied and pasted. You’ve examined every chapter, paragraph, line and word. You thought they were the best choices, but then the doubts creep in…maybe a tweak here…how about a quick tinker there…

The truth is, you could go on forever like this. There will always be a change you might have made; and it might have been for the better. Poets often rework their poems years later, even after they’ve been published.  But there has to come a time when you say, “That’s it. It’s done. It’s as good as I can make it just now.”

Because all this tinkering and tweaking and dusting and polishing and agonising is simply preventing you from moving on to the next project. That idea which is locked inside, straining at the leash to be let out on to the page…doesn’t it have rights too? How will it ever know the joy of running free if you keep on keeping on at the same novel?

The time has come to cut the cord and allow the completed work to flex its muscles out there. Maybe it will sink without trace; maybe it won’t .

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An agent might throw it a lifeline and reel it in.

In the meantime I think I’m going to release that new idea. I’m allowing it to unfurl its wings to see if it can fly.

The duster is shaken out and neatly folded. I’ll be using it again one day; but not right now.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

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Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

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Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.

 

Towers of Words.

Flying Scribbler eschewed flying last week and took to the waves for a trip to Arran.received_641117452708841.jpeg

In years to come, memories of this holiday will, like all memories, fade away. Traces will remain of the walks, the cheese, the whisky; even the hare which sat for a second outside our rental cottage, before leaping away into the long grass. But one memory will linger, persisting in my mind far loner than any other.

Pebbles.

I adore pebbles.

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Pebbles have so much to offer: they are things of beauty; they are tactile; they can be skimmed on the surface of a sunset-drenched sea; and they can be balanced, one-by-one, to create centre-of-gravity-defying, teetering towers.received_641117662708820.jpeg Sedimentary upon metamorphic upon igneous constructions,  growing from the beach, playing chicken with the evening breeze.

The attraction for me is in creating something so temporary out of something as permanent as the rock of the earth. These towers can’t last: even those built away from the reach of the highest tides won’t survive a storm, or the flap of an oyster catcher’s wing. Whilst those built as the waves lap at their very bases will be re-consigned to their horizontal plane in mere moments.

I wonder if by writing, I am constructing something as temporary as the pebble towers, or as permanent as the pebbles themselves?

The paper my words are printed on will, in time, degrade and decay to dust.  If I become published, even the copies of my book held in the permanent collections where all books are destined to be stored, even these will disappear given enough time. The memory of the words I write can only ever be as permanent as the memory of the last person to have read them.

Stories have a finite life. It may be a long life in the case of Homer’s Odyssey, the Norse myths or the Bible. But even these will fade from memory in the millenia to come.

And although those pebbles rolling and frolicking in the surf on Arran, will themselves be reduced by friction and attrition to tiny particles, they will endure far longer than words. They will endure until Earth’s final moment.

So in writing my stories I am creating my own, temporary, pebble towers.

The trick is to build them on solid, even ground, away from the elements, to give them the best chance of standing tall for as long as possible.

As I write, word upon word, line upon line, page upon page, I’ll keep in mind those towers on a beach in Arran, and build the best stories I can.

Second-hand Perks

One of the perks of my job, (besides the obvious: nights out of bed, permanent jet-lag, cleaning up vomit), is the chance to visit some truly wonderful bookshops around the world.

I’ve not taken the opportunity to blog about them before, and I’m certainly not the first to do so, but this being no reason at all not to, let me tell you about Brattle Book Shop in Boston.

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Tucked down a sunless side street just off Boston Common, Brattle Book Shop claims to be one of the oldest and largest used book shops in America.
There are three stories of books inside, including a rare and antiquated section (where I once found a first edition of Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood), but outside is where the most fun is to be had.
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Here, along shelves attached to the brick, or on wooden trollies, are the cheaper books…$5, $3 or $1 will bag you a bargain to send you home with a bibliophile smile, and a couple of kilo’s extra baggage.

There is little order to arrangement outside…Dewey decimal does not deliver here. Instead, fiction squeezes alongside non fiction. Poetry tickles prose. History nuzzles German cookery.
On one trolly I witnessed ‘Advanced Mathematics’ for Christians’ bivouacked with a biography of Lincoln.
So, the keen book-hunter must keep their wits at the ready and scan the shelves with an open mind (which I imagine you would need for that tome on mathematics).
Otherwise, how to explain these three gems which will accompany me home to Scotland?
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Eclectic? Perhaps.
There’s the ‘worthy’ read…Bede’s History of the English Church and People.
There’s the one to add to my other Isherwoods.
And there’s the joker in the pack. How could I refuse the cries (or was it whale song?) of Frances Diane Robotti’s book? This was written in a time before whales were regarded as in any way vital to the planet. To quote from the dust jacket..whaling was early America’s “most romantic and picturesque industry”. I chose it mainly because you never know….inspiration can come from anything.
And indeed, a story immediately presents itself when the book is opened…this was hiding inside:
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Come on, be honest… don’t you want to know what these two discussed either before 11pm or over breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows.
Like I said, inspiration and stories everywhere….