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…

 

 

 

Everything might not be alright…or then again…

Being in the midst and mire and mystery that is searching for an agent or publisher for my novel, I feel conflicting emotions gnawing away at my edges.
One day, the emotional high of a publisher asking for my complete manuscript.
The next, a corresponding and equalising low when three agent rejections materialise in my inbox. (One during my middle grade crit group meeting which struck me as ironic. Actually, it felt like being struck between the legs.)

I was trying to find a way to explain – to myself as much as anyone else – what these opposing emotions felt like.

Thankfully, because I’m worded out just now, modern art has done the job for me at the Edinburgh Modern Art Gallery.
You don’t even need to enter the building for this lesson in the uncertainty of life where, across the gallery lawn, aphorisms duel:

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As with everything in this life, my writing career could, as these neon words suggest, go either way just now.

Rejoicing vs. Rejection.

Good news is always worth waiting for. Nobody waits in for bad news to arrive.

Trouble is, for the aspiring writer, bad news is the more frequent of the two visitors.; and it’s not easy to shy away from it.

This bad news visitor generally arrives in the guise of an email announcing competition results. It lures the expectant entrant into opening the message with all the hope and positive anticipation they felt when submitting the work so very many months ago. The emails have to be opened because you might, just might, find your own name lurking somewhere, anywhere on the list.

Not in the top three? No problem, keep reading; there’s still the shortlist to go. Still the hope that all your efforts were worthwhile. Not on the shortlist? Nor the long list? Who cares? It is, as we all know, and let’s hold hands and repeat the mantra once again, THE TAKING PART THAT COUNTS.

Still, for all that, the sinking heart and  momentary stab of regret are hard to avoid. Thankfully, these feelings and the disappointment always become diluted and tend to result in a burst of renewed energy and vigour; a determination to return to the desk and try again. Try harder. Almost certainly fail again. But next time, fail better (Beckett said this: wise man).

Yesterday I received a results email. I metaphorically hid behind the sofa as I scrolled down, as if waiting for a Dr Who monster to burst from my kindle fire. I felt prepared to do battle with my sinking emotions. I am, after all, predisposed to tackle the setbacks, the blighted hopes. We all are. It comes with the territory. Naturally, I hadn’t prepared for the converse emotional response: the thrill, the joy, the sweet delight of actually winning something. The need for this is so infrequent, so rare, so very unlikely, that it never occurs to me to brace myself to seeing my name up there on the list of winners. Runners and riders yes; winners no.

But this time I’m in the winners’ enclosure. The results of the Words with Jam ‘Bigger’ short story competition 2013 are out and I placed in one category and made the short list in another. I have neither won anything, nor been published for such a long time, I’d forgotten how it feels. To be honest, I was numbed yesterday by jet lag and tiredness, having literally just returned from our holiday to California. This compounded my brain’s confusion and probably inhibited it’s ability to compute positive information of this nature; it certainly meant that I couldn’t contemplate toasting the glad tidings with anything more exciting than a mug of Horlicks.

This morning in the warm, glowing light of day (it’s not: it’s cold and windy), I can bask more easily in the knowledge of my small success.

Now I just have to make this feeling last….it might be some time before I find myself dusting off this emotion form the shelf again.

My second placed story “Sackcloth and Ashes” in the category for stories up to 1000 words can be found over at Words with Jam. It is also to be published in a winners’ anthology in due course. My short, short story which was short listed will also appear in the anthology.

Follow the links above to read my story and the other winning entries. They are all very good.

Props in Writing: How do you use yours?

Sorting out an issue with a character in my ‘work-in-progress’ children’s’ story yesterday, I ended up giving them a prop to wear. Suddenly, everything clicked into place for her; hitherto I had been aware of the possibility of a glaring inconsistency which had the potential to stop my efforts in their tracks; but now, the way is clear to carry on with the story, safe in the knowledge that at least one discrepancy has been dealt with. (I am quite aware that many more lurk in the pages of draft number one; I’ll cross those bridges when they’ve been uncovered.)

The prop is question is a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Not über-trendy wrap-arounds or sci-fi chic, X-Men laser-eye protector shields (although mine do play a similar role, as it happens); rather, good, old-fashioned, aviator mirrored sunglasses. The sort sported so admirably by the lads from CHiPs back in the 70s.

CHiPs the The boys from California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

CHiPs. The boys from the California Highway Patrol modelling my new prop.

 Already, I’m beginning to see my character differently; she even has a new way of speaking. The glasses have lent her a confidence which was lacking previously; this is a good thing: she’s about to face a test of nerve and stamina. Already quite an unusual character, the glasses augment her traits; I hope she’ll turn out to be even more memorable than she would have been before.

 All this has got me thinking more generally about the way writers use props in their work: the role they play, how they can make a character more memorable – in some cases how the prop itself appears to become the character – and even how an entire work hinges on the presence of a prop.

 Take for instance Sherlock Holmes. Try imagining Conon Doyle’s creation sans  pipe; you can’t. It is absolutely synonymous with the detective, and it is nigh on impossible to even think about him without also seeing a pipe.

Holmes as we all know him now.

Holmes as we all know him now.

 That other literary detective, Hercule Poirot, is so intrinsically associated with his upwardly-curled moustache, pince-nez and patent leather shoes, that I doubt he would be recognised if he stepped out of his apartment without them. His shoes in particular serve to highlight the prissy and very particular aspect of Poirot’s nature.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

M. Hercule Poirot demonstrates the effectiveness of a few well-utilized props.

 There is, of course, a danger here: it is all too easy to visualise these characters as they are depicted in popular film and TV adaptations. However, Poirot, as Agatha Christie saw him, does appear with these props intact, and Holmes was an inveterate pipe smoker (although the curved pipe was popularised, I think, by Basil Rathbone’s interpretation, and the deerstalker was never actually mentioned in the books).

 The Artful Dodger, my favourite character from Oliver Twist, sports his past-its-best top hat with singular style: it was “stuck on his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment.” artful dodgerDickens even gives his boy-thief a head twitch to keep his hat on; so here we have an example of a prop creating a character’s mannerisms. Dodger is the little boy in a big, bad world, who takes the smaller, frightened Oliver under his old-hand’s wing. With his hat, he stands just that bit taller, which is just how wants to be seen.

 Another character from Dickens wears her prop as a symbol of her lost love; as evidence of a mind consumed by grief, and a body sinking into decay and despair. Miss Havisham continues to wear her wedding dress years after being jilted; it is yellowed, withered and hangs loosely upon her body. It acts as a potent metaphor for her state of mind, and is an enduring image from Great Expectations, as indeed is the fire which consumes the dress – and Miss Havisham in it – turning it into “a black shower” of tinders falling around Pip and the unfortunate woman.

Miss Havisham. Great Expectations.

Miss Havisham. ‘Great Expectations’.

 Then there are the props without which a character couldn’t be who they are: Harry Potter’s wand for example. Harry only really appreciates for the first time that he is a wizard when taken to Ollivander’s wand shop, and his wand chooses him. Not to mention the fact that wizards need wands to operate: you try casting a spell without your phoenix-tail or dragon’s tendril wand.

 Other props in literature take on a significantly more central role. In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Piggy’s spectacles are so important to the story’s plot and message that they appear on the front cover of some editions; in my own copy, a 1980s school edition, they are the only thing on the cover.

'Lord of the Flies'. Educational Edition. 1985

‘Lord of the Flies’. Educational Edition. 1985

In the course of the story Piggy’s glasses become broken; eventually he loses them completely; finally he himself dies. Golding uses the glasses as a metaphor for the gradual breakdown of civilisation the marooned boys experience: with Piggy’s glasses, they can make fire; without them, they are lost. Piggy, and his glasses, were a last link to common sense and salvation; once gone, anarchy reigns supreme.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of 'Lord of the Flies'.

Hugh Edwards as Piggy in the 1963 film adaptation of ‘Lord of the Flies’.

 On a lighter literary note, we have Mary Poppins. P L Travers could have had the magical nanny arrive at 17 Cherry Tree Lane by any means available: on foot, by omnibus, by penny farthing. Instead, she has Ms Poppins parachuting in my means of an umbrella.

'Mary Poppins'. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

‘Mary Poppins’. Illustrated by Mary Shepard.

The umbrella is a prop par excellance in that it irrefutably marks the character out as someone rather different, whilst at the same time creating the enduring image of the story; one which continues to be used to this day to market films, DVDs and the musical. In the days before every last penny was squeezed industrially out of a franchise, did Travers know what she was creating with that umbrella? Perhaps not; but I’ll bet she knew it would do the trick with her young audience in gripping them from the start with that wonderful image as they read her stories.

 Incidentally, Mary Poppins’ other favourite prop, her voluminous carpet bag, brings to mind another literary work in which the entire action of the piece rests singularly on a prop.

 Imagine Lady Bracknell’s reaction if ‘Ernest’ had been found hidden in something other than a handbag. “In a wooden crate?” “In a coal shovel?” “In a flour sack?” “In a crinoline underskirt?” They just don’t have the same ring to them, do they?

 Props, then, can make or break a story; they can help illustrate strengths or weaknesses; aid a character in their quest; fix a character more colourfully in the reader’s mind; or, more practically, assist the writer in sorting out a plot inconsistency.

 A note of caution however: unless you want your character to look like they’ve just had a field day in a flea market, go easy on the props. An umbrella and carpet bag were enough for Mary Poppins; that disintegrating, faded wedding dress was all Miss Haversham required; and Master Potter didn’t really use much else other than his trusty wand to defeat evil and save the world.

 I’m erecting a sign above the entrance to my own prop store: “Use Sparingly for Maximum Effect”, it says. As long as I remember my own advice, I should be fine.

Has the use of props in your writing helped you out of a difficult plot situation? Has a character suddenly flowered and grown by having them wear something new? Have you ever had a prop take over your story? I’d be very interested to know your experiences.

‘Pigeon Chasing’. My return to #fridayflash

It’s been a long while, but I’m finally getting myself back into my writing groove. Moving house (country) sapped my fiction juices away for the duration; I feel they might be returning. Whether they are back to pre-move levels or not remains to be seen (read).

I am marking my return with a very short flash fiction piece for #fridayflash. Other #fridayflash contributors were asking where I’d got to. I’m still here and thank you for asking after me. Comments always welcome.

Pigeon Chasing

Image from google images

When Robert was a toddler he discovered that chasing pigeons was more fun than almost anything else. His aunt, something of a self-taught psychotherapist, assumed his behaviour was an effort to escape the over-bearing clutches of her sister-in-law; but in truth, in was all about the birds.

Robert continued to chase pigeons with an escalating degree of intensity, often resulting in painful collisions: town-square fountains, bicycles, and thorny shrubs, for example.

During a family outing to a picturesque fishing harbour – one famed locally for the quality of its crab cakes sold from a pier-end shack – Robert chased the most beautiful pigeon he’d ever seen. He chased its metallic iridescence along the harbour wall. He chased as he’d never chased before. He chased, ignoring his mother’s anguished shrieks and his father’s stern commands. He chased with increasing joy; joy which rose within him as he neared the terminal velocity of a nine year old.

Unable to perform the bird’s last minute aerial manoeuvre, Robert chased his elation over the edge, plunging into the ocean.

Within moments, he found the close deafness of the water a comforting change from the endless noises and voices he was used to enduring, and so, quite reasonably, he resolved to remain under.

 Briefly distracted from his efforts to stay submerged by the distorted image of a pigeon flying just above the waves, Robert was reminded of his new aquatic ambition by the flickering lustre of a passing school of mackerel.

With any luck, he thought, kicking down into the depths, I’ll develop gills of my own.

© flyingscribbler 2013

Let’s Get Creative! Why I’ve signed up for creative writing classes.

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google images

I finally bit the bullet last week and booked myself onto a creative writing course. I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and had my eye on a suitable course, but it took a week of being off work and laid-low with a flu-type virus to give me the time to decide that it was what I definitely wanted to do.

It wasn’t such an easy decision either: there are lots of reasons why I had hesitated to take the plunge, and an equal number in favour of picking up my pencil and going back to the classroom.

image: fineartamerica.com

image: fineartamerica.com

 It’s a big deal embarking on any course of study, not least because of the cost involved, and there’s a huge amount of creative writing classes out there to choose from. Many are provided by universities or colleges, but there’s a significant market for creative writing courses run by individuals, including several organised around the ‘mindful’ concept of living. There’s one like that available not far from here, and I have no doubt that it would be as useful and interesting as many others; I’m just not sure I’m ready for the meditative aspect of ‘mindfulness’.

The outlay for ‘adult’ education courses varies hugely, depending, amongst other factors, on the length of the course. Not knowing very much about the creative writing industry (and it is an industry; a real money spinner for many institutions), I opted for a short course at a nearby university. My thought process behind this decision was that if the course is being run by a university, the tutors are more likely to be experienced in the field; also, as it is only ten weeks long and not so expensive, if I don’t like it, or it doesn’t suit me, at least I haven’t had to re-mortgage the house to pay for it.

Another thing which had been putting me off is the bad press which creative writing courses seem to generate; there does seem to be a snobbish attitude around the whole concept of being taught skills which could make you a better writer. It’s as if a ‘real’ writer shouldn’t have to be shown by someone else how to do it. I worried for a while that it might be a waste of time, let alone money, attending a course at all. However, I came to the conclusion that it is more likely to be a benefit to me.

The Guardian last week ran a piece by Rachel Cusk in its Review section about the rise of creative writing courses. In it, the writer S J Watson is quoted as saying “the only way to become a better writer is by writing.” It’s true: my writing has become much better with practice. I know this because I’ve started to have pieces accepted for publication and I’ve even won a couple of competitions. With time, lots of time, I know that I will continue to improve; and I think I would be likely to do so without attending a creative writing course. So why bother? All writers, I think, need to do two things to be successful: they should write a lot; that goes without saying. They must also read, and read widely. I have no problem with reading; I read all the time, and I am happy to read almost anything, (I’ve been known to read the back of a shampoo bottle for want of any other form of literature), because it all helps me understand how other people write (even those bubble-filled words of a cosmetic industry copy writer must have taught me something). As far as the writing is concerned though, I try my hardest to get things onto paper as often as possible, but it just isn’t that easy: there are distractions; there are books to read. I find it very hard to develop the habit of writing regularly, and I’m hoping that by forcing myself out of the house every week, in midwinter, to attend an evening writing course, I might start to find a rhythm I can stick to.

Another author quoted in the Guardian’s piece is Anne Enright. She says: “A creative writing course gets the stuff out of your head and into the room.” That’s what I need, a process to help force ideas out from within my brain to a place where they are infinitely more useful: written down on paper or a computer screen. If a writing course can speed this process up, or perhaps teach me methods which make it more likely to happen, then it’s money well spent.

There’s a more important reason I want to do this course; it has to do with the communal aspect of attending a class. Writing is a solitary occupation; it demands that you spend long periods of time alone with your thoughts. You are never lonely because your characters and settings generally come along for the ride. But that protagonist who’s just spent hours driving your story forward from the front seat, is hardly likely to start pointing out the hidden pot holes in your plot or suggest a different route you might take for better effect. My issue is that it’s hard to find people to share my work with. Attracting instant feedback on your efforts isn’t easy; the internet helps to an extent, but it’s very hard to give (and take) criticism in a tweet or a comment on a blog. What I’m looking for is a group of peers with whom I can discuss the ins and outs of writing, the nuts and bolts if you like.  Better by far to share opinions and ideas in the ‘safe’  and immediate space of a creative writing class; a place where you can more easily find out what someone really means when they say something in your writing didn’t ‘work’ for them. It is this feature of my course that I’m most looking forward to exploiting: receiving constructive comments on my own work and offering my own thoughts on everyone else’s, but with the added input of tutors with a proven record in the business of writing.

I’m not naïve. I don’t expect to be shown how to write an award winning novel after just ten classes. But if I can be helped a little on my journey to becoming a more confident and, dare I say, more competent writer, then I won’t have wasted my time.

The business of writing is much like that of living: just as I constantly aim to live my life ever more productively, without wasting too much time, so I wish to improve my writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, until it can be as good as it can be.

Hmm…perhaps that ‘mindful’ writing course would suit me after all.

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google images

© flyingscribbler 2013

 

‘Table for One’ A new flash fiction

I didn’t think I was going to get a story written today. I’ve got some winter virus and it’s snowing. The snow has nothing to do with my ability to write a story, but it sets the scene for you.

Don’t ask me where this one came from; all I know is I did eat a tuna wrap last week. So there you go.

Table for One

They said at the inquest that it came down to sun-dried tomatoes. That might seem strange to someone who wasn’t there to hear the evidence, but having sat through the whole thing, it made perfect sense.

The arsonist, they said, was a loner (aren’t they always?), or he at least kept himself to himself. He sat alone in the restaurant every day, facing the wall. ‘Not exactly what you’d call a conversationalist,’ said Patti, one of the waitresses, who, by chance, had been having a temporary crown fitted the day of the fire, ‘but never rude.’

Patti’s evidence was crucial: no-one else had ever spoken to him; at least none that were still living. His landlord recalled a brief exchange of words from the day he arrived in the town five years earlier; the man had apparently moved around a fair bit until he’d “found a town where they serve my lunch the way I like it”.

Patti thought he probably only ate once a day, and always the same thing: tuna wrap with potato salad. ‘So you see,’ she told the inquest, ‘he never had a reason to talk. But he always tipped.’

She explained that a new chef had started. ‘He was anti-frills and Food Network, if you know what I mean.’ I don’t suppose everyone present did, but she continued anyway. ‘We said don’t mess with the menu, but I guess he had a vision of his own, like chefs do.’

The man had taken a single bite of his wrap before calling Patti over.

‘He asked me where the tomato was. The only words he ever spoke to me in all those years. “Where’s the sun-dried tomato?”’

The inquest concluded he’d been insane; at least, he was when he ran into the restaurant holding a petrol bomb.

Afterwards, when I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the time my mother forgot to take mustard to the beach for our hot dogs.

© flyingscribbler 2013

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