Conference concentrated

Having just arrived home from the annual SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I thought I’d break my almost pathological blog silence with a post-conference piece. Unfortunately writing and flying commitments are currently syphoning off almost all my free time, so I am left with a one hour window whilst sitting on a flight between Edinburgh and London to share my thoughts. 

A distilled 60 minutes means I’m going to distill my thoughts…. and so, in no particular (read: undrafted, unorganised, probably unreadable) order, things I learned/discovered/didn’t expect to learn or discover from my weekend in Winchester….

*SCBWI conferences are great.

*It’s always worth getting up early to make the keynote sessions. And to take Instagram worthy photos of early morning cemeteries.

*Alex T Smith partly based his wonderful comic dog creation, Claude, on Larry Grayson. The joy of knowing this could keep me happy forever.

*When you’re dressed as your favourite cartoon dog at the Saturday night conference party, people are more likely to talk to you. Or pull your tail. Or both.

*A children’s writers and illustrators conference isn’t the best place to try and keep a top secret publishing deal to yourself. These people can smell good news a mile off.

*The lunch queue is as good a place as any to chat to award winning YA writers and whisper that you’re joining the same publisher as them. (See what I mean…just couldn’t help myself).

*There’s always time to discuss the calamity of Brexit…even 1.30am after a bucket of wine.  Especially at 1.30am after a bucket of wine.

*Marauding drunks are as noisy at 1.30am in well-heeled Hampshire as they are anywhere. (The last two points are not entirely unconnected).

*British provincial hotels are every bit as disappointing as they always were. A selection of tea bags, a creased city guide, and a wall-mounted fan heater, do not a luxury hotel experience make.

*Writers are the best people on earth to rely on for: support, words of wisdom, congratulation, consolation, encouragement, sharing a joke, advice….helping you attach a dog tail…anything.

*Friends made at conference are for life, not just for conference.

*There’s always time, even at a writer’s conference, to discuss vegetarian haggis recipes.

*You can never have enough conference badges and pens.

And now my top 5 things I learned from Scbwicon17:

1. Never travel without my pillow. A breeze block in linen is not a substitute, are you hearing me Mercure hotels?

2. Children’s writers and illustrators are the best people. 

3. A day without tea and cake, is a day not worth living.

4. Get in the queue early for tea and cake.

5. Finding the funny and giving kids something to laugh at is more important now than ever. It’s also what I love to do more than almost anything.

That’s it. One hour of flying combined with an hour writing. I don’t call myself the flyingscribbler for nothing.

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A Single Man learns a Universal Truth.

I don’t think I’m alone in trying to absent myself from the grim reality that is Article 50, and Britain’s entry on the desolate road to Brexit. To stay tuned in all day to social media at the moment is to punish myself constantly. Every news update twists the thumb screw tighter; each check on Facebook allows the torturer to put another turn on the rack. How many times a day do i need to be reminded that we’re now on a one-way journey to isolation, leaving in our wake decades of progress, peace and mutual understanding?

Last night, aware that on the eve of Article 50 being triggered, this calamitous leap into the void would be all over the news and social media like bullet holes on a shooting range target, I quarantined myself with several pots of tea and a book. Now, reading is not an unfamiliar or unusual habit for a writer, but spending an entire evening reading still feels like a luxury. With so many other projects and tasks jostling for attention, taking four hours out of the schedule is decadence itself. I didn’t even choose a children’s book, which could justifiably be classed as research.

No, my drug of choice in my quest for Brexit coverage amnesia was my go-to, literary comfort blanket: Christopher Isherwood, and last night I settled down to read A Single Man. wp-1490788442115.jpeg

Being a stream of consciousness novel, with a serious, somewhat heavy-going theme, it was guaranteed to transport me far away from this small island and the worries, fear and despair that come these days from living here. I settled down to be transported far away to California, where I could lose myself in the worries, fears and despair of someone else.

A Single Man is not intended to uplift the spirit; it doesn’t entertain; there are few smiles, and those that appear tend to be wry and ironic. The novella is melancholic and pessimistic. But it is also beautifully written prose, well-observed, and unashamed to wear its gay subject matter right there on its tee-shirt sleeve. It is an important book. It speaks the truth. It is life, loss, love and lust. It is a story for all time.

And there lay my problem: reading Isherwood last night reminded me that great writing transcends the here and now; or rather, it transcends the there and then of when it was written, offering universal truths that speak to us across the years, to the here and now. It holds up a mirror to that here and now, and in its reflection we see the there and then.

The opening paragraphs of A Single Man brought this home to me:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken then lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognised I, and therefrom deduced I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.”

My instant reaction to these opening words was: really? Am I not to have even five minutes shielded from the sickish shrinking from what waits out there? I almost put the book down; it was supposed to take me away from my concerns and the sinking, sickish feeling Brexit is giving me. But I didn’t. I carried on reading until the last page.

I’m glad I finished the book; I’m glad I stuck with George as he faced the day ahead. His experience on one single day, as one single human, is about as unsingular as it can be. It is the experience we all face, every single day: we can’t avoid the inevitability of time passing, nor of events happening, so we prepare ourselves for the onslaught of life, or death, and get on with it.

It is the universal experience of being human. Brexit or no Brexit; Trump or no Trump. The day must be faced.

I even forced myself to listen to the news this morning. Article 50 can’t be avoided; it must be faced. I don’t have to like it. I’m never going to like it. But life, with its loss, its love, and its lust, is still there too.

With A Single Man, Isherwood speaks through the decades. His human experience is no different to mine. We all live, lust and love. And we all suffer loss. I’m losing my European identity right now; and I’ve lost more than that in the past.

Isherwood, I think, is saying: “Yes, I know. Shit happens.”

Bridging the Gaps

I’m in the mood for a gratuitous metaphor….

We walked to South Queensferry the other day which, for us here in North Queensferry, invloves crossing the Forth Road Bridge. It’s a familiar route: driven over (often), cycled over (rarely), and run over fairly regularly. Walking it though, offers a different perspective. There’s time to watch the waves, birds and boats do their things. Time too, to stop and survey the progress being made with the new Forth bridge: The Queensferry Crossing.

The view across from the current bridge offers a zoomed-in peek at the process; it’s like every playmobil fan’s biggest fantasy. At night, these towers, with their arm-like roads growing sideways, take on the appearance of oil rigs or Thunderbirds-style International Rescue HQ’s.

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From further off, down in South Queensferry itself, a wide-screen view is available. The entire scene of construction becomes visible. Finally, you can see how this is going to work. This is how to build a bridge. Or, at least, how to build this particular bridge.

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Taking in the sight of these three looming towers, with their harp-string tendons fanning gracefully down to the road sections, is awe-inspiring. Then it occured to me that the method chosen to build this bridge is rather like that I chose to write my current story. The Queensferry Crossing isn’t being constructed from one side to the other; nor have they started at either end to join somewhere in the middle…always a risky endeavor as they speculated widely with the building of the Channel Tunnel. I think the general view back then was, “what if the French aren’t in the right place when we get to them?” Like they’d been digging towards Denmark by mistake, or something.

With this build, they began at multiple points. The towers rose slowly from the water. Simultaneously, the road began to reach out to meet them from either side of the firth.

Likewise, with my curent work-in-progress, I had my starting point. I also knew exactly where I wanted the story to end. More vitally, I also knew the main turning points my main character was going to go through along the way. If you like, I had the main pillars of my story. They were fairly solid in my mind – I even had some sketched out ready. My work has been to join them up coherently, and, I hope, entertainingly (this is middle grade comedy adventure!), so that each section joins up with the next.

Now, I’m happy to report that I am way ahead of the bridge construction. My road sections are all bolted together, I think in alignement. I’m sure once the bridge is whole, there will be weeks, if not months, of safety checks. Rivets will be checked for their integrity. Nuts will be triple stress-tested. Those beautiful radiating supports will be analysed. In much the same way, I’ll be drafting and re-drafting. My crit group will be critiquing. My beta readers will be reading to help me make it better. I’ll be stress-testing and  probably just stressing.

Finally, as the bridge is given a pre-opening sweep, I will be polishing the final draft until it shines.

The Queensferry Crossing is due to open later in the year. I might as well give myself the same deadline.

Bridge building and book writing: they’ve more in common than you might think.

Jet-lag Vs. Writing. This is war.

Jet-lag.
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For the past twenty or so years I have advanced, sometimes danced, less frequently pranced through life, hand-in-hand with this most unwelcome guest.

It’s been there, hiding in the pews, through weddings. It’s accompanied me, silently perhaps, but definitely there, to Christmas celebrations. It’s joined me, albeit uninvited, on nights out. It’s even had the audacity to come to bed with me on more occasions than is decent.

It has discovered a penchant for hiding out in my writing space, where it crouches, unseen, unheard, unwanted, ready to attack. It scares away my muse, who, to be honest, doesn’t exactly visit THAT often.

So far, its attempts to get into my writing have been unsuccesful.

It might just be a matter of time.

The one question I’m asked by passengers more than any other (well, the one interesting question I’m asked) is “how do you cope with jet-lag?”

My answer: “I don’t”.

Actually, I never have. I have just brushed it aside with youthful abandon. Ignored it with the arrogance befitting someone in their twenties. Through my thirties I pretended it wasn’t there, wishing away the ever-darkening circles beneath my eyes. Now, in my forties, I still attempt to pretend it doesn’t affect me.

But it does.

Truth be told; it always has.

And now when asked the BIG question, I answer honestly. I do not cope with jet-lag. It has a hold on me at times and can no longer be ignored.

It makes me tired in the middle of the day.

It keeps me awake in the middle of the night.

In the middle of my life it threatens to derail me from my writing ambitions.

I took a holiday last week to California. It was wonderful. The sun shone. The wine flowed. The whales migrated past our rented terrace, spouting and fluking as they went. I went to bed early; rose from bed early, aided, in part, by the time change to the West Coast. By the end of the week, thoroughly rested, I promised myself, this was how it was going to be: bed early, rise early.

Write early.

And then my working life intervenes and I have to fly east. Eight hours east. Having been eight hours west with the whales and the wine and the wonderful rest only days previously, this equated to a sixteen (count them, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16) time change.

Result: no sleep. Plenty tossing. More turning. Tossing and turning physically and mentally. I turned ideas over in my sleepless mind; tossed them together, spat some out, kept some in to chew over.

And yet I am unable to write them. The ideas remain locked away by this time lag. It’s like my muse has been incarcerated with no visiting rights.

This folks is the mean face of jet-lag. It fells me without notice. It offers unwanted, and untimely, bursts of short-lived energy. It sneaks onto my desk and leaves blank pages blank. Or worse: it snakes into my pencil and forces me to leave wriggles of gibberish on the paper. I might as well be writing in parseltongue. That’s how much sense my words can make.

With the passing years, and accumulated miles, the jet-lag gets worse; less managable; more debilitating. A case in point: I hoped to be at my desk in good time today. Like many writers, the earlier hours are for me, more productive. I like to get the words down before lunch if possible. The other stuff, blogging, tweeting, subbing to agents, I leave until later. My day’s reality has been somewhat different: awake between the hours of 3.30am and five. Desperately-grabbed sleep between five and ten. Breakfast. Tea. Shower. Laundry. Desk at ten past twelve.

Oh, and the fridge was empty, so I had to factor in a trip to the shops.

Jet-lag is for me what children are to other writers: a preventative measure!

It stops me getting on. It slows me down. It holds me up.

Unlike with children, there’s not a lot to show for the effort. Jet-lag isn’t going to heap love on me and come to visit when I’m old and unable to hold a pencil.

And yet….

This can go one of two ways:

I can succumb. Surrender. Submerge beneath the waves of tiredness.

Or….

I can ride the wave. Not give in. Fight my foe. Because you see, I am guilty. Guilty of placing jet-lag in the procrastination file. I use it as an excuse: I’m too tired to write; It’s not worth it for half an hour; my ideas will be rubbish.

So, they might be. But then, many ideas produced in my non-jet-lagged hours are rubbish too. It doesn’t stop me coming up with THEM. I just filter out the crap at a later stage. There might be more crap to filter from the jet-lagged ideas, but one or two good ones might remain. Those migrating whales don’t stop to pick out only the edible from the mouthfuls of ocean floor they sweep up; they filter the goodness and discard the rest.

Yes, I need to heed my body’s cries for sleep, be they made at midnight or midday. Likewise I must listen when my muse cries out from his jet-lagged state, muffled, indistinct and almost defeated. Be it for ten minutes or ten hours (anything is possible with jet-lag), I must write if I can. If I only feel the tiniest inkling, I must not give in to this most insidious of enemies.

I shall fight it.

Fight it.

And write it.

 

 

Vernicious Knids rule! Or, the value of re-reading a book.

I re-read my favourite novel last week. Patrick Süskind’s Perfume has been my top read for years; I’ve read it once each decade since the 80s, which makes my most recent read my fourth. I wondered if it would retain its ranking after I’d finished….it did. My copy is now battered, creased and dotted with damp/fungus/something organic, but I think it will survive a few more reads yet. This time, I found the story to be even darker; more sinister. wp-1448985729763.jpegGrenouille, the orphan with superhuman olfactory powers, intent on capturing the essence of beauty in scent form, at all costs, seemed to have more intensity about him. If anything, I had more sympathy for him this time round, this solitary, misunderstood, much-abused creature. And of course, this is the wonderful thing about returning to a novel after many years: I brought a decade’s worth of extra emotional baggage to this reading, along with a decade of experiences, a decade of reading, a decade of relationships. I probably don’t need to buy any more books now; I can simply re-read my whole library for ever more.

The interesting thing about re-reading Perfume was that it felt like reading the book for the first time again. I hadn’t forgotten the basic plot of course, but there was much that had slipped my memory. This isn’t a great revelation to me: lots of things slip from my memory all the time. And ten years is, well, ten years. Details fade away like the colour from sun-bleached book spines. Rediscovering them feels a bit like coming home.

Having returned Perfume to its place on the shelf, where it is now free once more to culture its spores and mouldy patches (which down here by the sea could possibly occur like a speeded-up, time-lapse film), I began thinking about which other novels I’ve re-read over the years. Not a lot, as it happens. Which surprised me. Tales of the City and Harry Potter I have returned to multiple times. They are quick and comforting and I’ll often turn to them when I’m struck down with a cold. Apart from them though, I realised that I don’t go back to novels very often. I’m not sure why; I’ve watched some movies over and over. Part of the reason could be that I’m so keen to read as much as I can as quickly as I can. Time is, of course, running out! And writers are supposed to read as widely as they possibly can. Isn’t returning to the same novels time after time a waste of time? Shouldn’t I just get as many under my belt whilst I can?

And then I began thinking about my childhood reading. Until I began buying middle grade books in my adult years (research, naturally. Not at all because so many of them are so much better than adult fiction. Not in the slightest), I didn’t own many at all. If any. For many years as a child, the library was my sole source of books, until I had money enough to buy my own. I did have a fine range of younger titles – Blyton, Dahl, and my Dad’s 1950s editions of the Jennings stories. But nothing for older children actually lived on my book shelf. There is a reason for this: the lack of middle grade books correlates exactly with my parents’ divorce. Hence, the library becoming so important to my reading after the age of eight (I don’t suppose the Tory Philistines are reading this, but if they are…oh, why bother? They’re not interested in the importance of culture for the masses). This, then, explains why I didn’t re-read anything after becoming part of a single-parent family: when you’ve only got four library tokens a week, they can’t be wasted on something you’ve already read.

However, those few books I did own when I was much younger….those, I did go back to time after time after time. So many times in fact, that, like my favourite movies which I can almost quote from, they are imprinted on my mind, (clearly, I need a LOT more re-reads of Perfume to get to this level). They are not great works of literature; they might not even be close. But they were my books, and therefore formed part of my world.

And now I’m going to be terribly daring. I’m going to reveal – and this feels like an admission of sorts – that the books I returned to most often as a young child were indeed Enid Blyton books. I must have read the entire Famous Five series umpteen times; the Adventure books almost as many. The stories which really stuck with me though were the Faraway Tree tales.wp-1448985780854.jpeg Pure nonsense they might be, but the images Blyton conjured of weird characters (Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot, Mister Watsisname), and strange, ever-changing lands at the top of tree (Upside-down Land, Take-what-you-want Land), these never left me. They’re still up there. And they still make me smile. It’s interesting – to me at least – that I don’t recall the names of the children who had the adventures; I only seem to remember the surreal and slightly anarchic details. For instance: I only owned one Roald Dahl book. Not for me Danny; or James and his peach; or the wonderful Witches. No. My only Dahl is the one no-one else had; the least favourite; the least well-known: It was Charlie; but not the factory. I was a proud owner of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. wp-1448985854044.jpegI must have read this book a hundred times and have never once lost sight of the Vermicious Knids spelling out their sinister message with their bendy alien bodies: wp-1448985937857.jpegwp-1448985945139.jpegSurreal and anarchic, I think you’d agree. Of all the images from my childhood reading that I have retained, I think Dahl’s Knids are the most prominent in my mind.

Having spent a significant amount of time considering the value and joy to be had from re-reading books, I came to a realisation: one day I hope to see my own books published and read by children. And re-read if they liked them enough. And if I want kids to re-read my books, they are going to have to be memorable enough to qualify for a re-read. Which means I should spend less time ruminating about my historical reading habits, and rather more time writing something to read.

I’m off to see if I’ve come up with anything half as joyous as a Vernicious Knid……

 

The Object of my Rejection

Another day; another rejection.

It’s part and parcel of all writers’ lives. And as today’s rejection crashed onto the doormat, winding me like a boxer’s well-aimed punch (metaphores you understand…my in-box pings rather than crashes and I think my shoulders only sagged momentarily as I read the one line auto-email rejection), I decided to not let it incur too heavily on my day.

The attempt to carry on as normal was a failure, but the intent was there.

Rejection letters do ruin your day. At least, they ruin a good few minutes of mine. Then I remember the submissions I’ve yet to hear back from; the submissions I’m currently preparing; the submissions I’ve yet to even think about sending. It’s the thought (call it ‘hope’ if you will) of receiving something other than a rejection that keeps me sending my manuscript out. It’s the same thought that keeps me writing the sequel. It’s the same thought that spurs me on to formulate other projects.

Of course, rejection hurts. I would have to be a hard-hearted, mean-spirited kind of person not to feel it. Luckily, for those suffering from rejection’s cruel caress, there is the internet. Social media is platitude central when it comes to dealing with rejection, but try as I might, I can’t seem to squeeze any comfort from them. They feel anti-septic; wiped clean of real emotion; meaning bleached away.

In fact, they leave me wondering if people really live their lives by these words. Some folk’s social media postings worryingly suggest that they might. Am I missing something? What’s that you say? A heart? How rude.

Go on then…see if these speak to your soul:

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No…not feeling it.

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‘fraid not.

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I’m not suggesting a rejection from an agent is exactly a struggle by the way…it’s not. Ask me again when the rejections hit fifty in number.

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There’s undenyable rhythm to this one, it’s almost a bit rappy, but it still feel vacant; as if it’s been written by a Hallmark cards copy writer.

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Thanks Bo. Stating the obvious ‘aint helping either.

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Believe me, I can be bought. Name your price.

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OK, so this one cheered me up; I admit it. But only because irony works every time. It doesn’t help me grow, or improve, or (and feel free to shoot me down for this) become more mindful. Of anything.

Incidentally, I thought Louise Brown was the world’s first test tube baby. Is she writing now?

Finally, and only because the internet just loves a cute animal…

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I know the mouse is supposed to be doing chest pumps or something, but it still kind of looks dead to me. The cheese looks less perished.

If a photoshopped rodent helps you through a moment of rejection, well, good for you. I need something else. Something to own the word. Something to make me less scared of seeing it next time. And what better way to do this than with words themselves?

Come to think of it, that platitude with the rhythm, the one with the rap-sound…it’s given me an idea for a platitude of my own. Now I don’t need to pilfer off the internet for words of wisdom; I can turn to my own very own reminder to not giving in to rejection.

Here it is…feel free to copy and paste onto a background of your choosing and post and share with abandon. (But please don’t harm any defenceless mamals…that poor mouse…was it someone’s pet, do you think?)

An injection of rejection is cause for objection.

Subject it to ejection; save your writing from abjection.

© flyingscribbler

Travels with my manuscript; a journey with many destinations.

It’s been another lengthy absence from here…I can think of no other reason than I didn’t have very much to say. It’s always been something I’ve struggled with (at least since I stopped posting flash fiction) : keeping a theme running through my posts. I do think this is how the best blogs attract and keep readers.

With this in mind, I think I’ve found something to blog about which might a) be interesting, and b) keep you coming back for multiple visits. I won’t mind if you don’t, but I’m hesitant to give up on my blog, so here goes.

I’ve embarked on a journey.

This isn’t in itself ground-breaking news. I’m always embarking on a journey. I’m the flyingscribbler.

In my writing life I’ve embarked on several journeys: starting to write; learning to write better; writing short stories; discovering flash fiction; blogging with my flash fiction; entering flash competitions; winning some; daring myself to write children’s fiction; discovering I really enjoy writing children’s fiction; deciding to write a whole children’s novel.

Many journeys. The last, I’m happy to say, I completed. My previous blog (from February, but who’s counting the months?) was about finishing the third draft of my second attempt at a children’s novel, and sending the manuscript out to a competition. I entered my story, Monsters M.I.A., into the Middle Grade (8-12) category of the Kelpies Prize 2015, thereby embarking upon another journey. This is a trip I am not making alone; rather I see myself AND my manuscript heading off on this voyage in tandem. So far, we are having a great trip, the two of us, and have arrived at our first destination.

A few weeks ago, I heard that my story had made the shortlist; and a short shortlist at that.Facebook-20150803-020057 On receiving the letter – a real, physical, rip-it-open-as-fast-as-you-can letter – I apparently screamed as if someone had died. In my head I was whooping with delight and joy with the unbound thrill of it; I clearly need to work on the outward manifestations of my inner emotions. In the months between sending my manuscript out and receiving the good news I had thought about this possibility, but my thoughts were edged in a Disney-like fantasy glow. A couple of times, I found myself imagining that I was at an award ceremony, but again, this played itself out like a soft-focus dream sequence; I didn’t actually think I’d get this far.

Oddly, (and psychologists out there might enjoy this), since discovering I am shortlisted, I haven’t played through the awards’ night scenario once in my head; it’s as if I daren’t. As the event itself looms ever-closer, the tantalizing possibility that I might win has had the effect of shutting down my internal projector; I can literally no longer imagine myself there. I don’t know what to expect. It’s not as if I go to award ceremonies very often. Or ever.

Who does know what to expect when they embark on a writing life? I know I didn’t when I first set out on the journey. I had no idea if I would ever be any good at it for a start. And my modest success with adult fiction didn’t mean I was going to repeat it with children’s fiction.

But here I am: shortlisted (one of three) for an important children’s fiction prize. Publication awaits the winner, but I imagine just being shortlisted will provide a major boost to my chances of getting my story into print. Most importantly, the shortlisting is vindication that I can write for kids. This is good news because I really enjoy writing for them. And I’m hoping one day to find myself walking into a school, or library, or bookshop, with my book in hand, ready to read some of it out.

This journey stretches out ahead of us. We don’t know where or what the final destination is; we don’t know when we might reach it; we have no clue where we might find ourselves along the way. Together with my trusty manuscript though, I intend to enjoy the ride. It’s been pretty exciting so far.