Turning chaos into order…or pin-board procrastination.

I reached peak pin-board yesterday.

I ran out of cork to pin to ages ago; instead, I’ve been layering ideas. Thought upon thought. Plot upon plot. Names upon names. I’d begun sticking post-its to each other; sellotaping scraps of paper to more scraps of paper. So many ideas – some good, most bad – that the weight of them threatened to bring the pin-board crashing down.

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I know there’s a best selling concept under there…somewhere…

It had never been a big enough board, and of course I’d always intended replacing it with something more suited to the creation of fabulous stories. And yet….

You know how it is: I just never got round to it. But then came yesterday.

Yesterday, I blithely began another attempt to plough on with a first draft (it’s taking so long, my very patient boy protagonist will be sporting a hipster beard before he finally, if ever, wins the day). A few minutes into the writing session I was in need of a name; not a new name, but one I’d given to a character some months ago. I’d scribbled it on a post-it and…er…posted-it on the board. Somewhere. Carefully, almost forensically, I began lifting edges of post-its and scraps of paper, peering hopefully under layer upon layer, month upon month of hastily scrawled moments of inspiration. A kind of foolscap archaeology; leafing through the recent past of my writing. Eventually, I found the name I was looking for. I also found other names. Character names; street names; house names. And plot ideas. And spanners to throw in the works. And motivations. And…loads of really good stuff which I’d forgotten about, and not written in to my draft, because…I COULDN’T SEE THEM RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME WHERE I NEED THEM TO BE!

I made it to the end of that chapter and then downed tools. Time for action. To order my thoughts I needed to bring order to the chaos in front of me. A quick click here, a double-click there, and a double-quick delivery later, my new, super-sized, super-smart, and super-empty pin-board arrives.

Down comes the old. I peel away the layers; slowly revealing months, no years, of thoughts and memories. It’s like stripping wallpaper in a listed house. Who knows what marvels lie beneath that 70s flock? I find: postcards from exhibitions I’d forgotten I’d been to; a list of potential character names; a picture of me jumping for, what appears to be actual joy on my fortieth birthday; my delegate card from my first SCBWI conference.

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Where there once was chaos…

And so to my new pin-board. Is this how great artists feel when presented with a blank canvas? Did Picasso have a moment of hesitation as he contemplated a new masterpiece? Possibly. I know did. How to order my post-its? Where to place my protagonist’s family tree and the town plan? Do I place my ideas horizontally, vertically, or inspirationally in a circle? Should I clear my board of anything that isn’t related to my work-in-progress?

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Order from chaos. At last.

After some deliberation and, ok, yes, some deliberate procrastination (we all do it; don’t pretend you’ve never fallen prey… organising your books, again… nipping down for one last coffee before really, actually, starting work… sorting the washing… grouting the tiles…) I’ve done it! I finally have a well-ordered, easy-on-the-eye (and brain), useful pin-board. Ideas found with a single glance. Place names located with a flick of an eye. Plot twists remembered in seconds, not hours; remembered at all, in fact.

Yes, my pin-board upgrade might have taken all afternoon to complete, and who knows what I might have written in those hours? But the potential for better-structured, chaos-free writing hours tomorrow, was worth the hours lost today.

If your pin-board has become a post-it graveyard and you can’t see the cork for a tree’s worth of paper, it might be time to remove, refresh and re-pin your ideas. I’m hoping it will kick-start my writing and re-gear my first draft; time to move my story into the fast lane with the help of ordered thoughts and easy-to-see ideas.

Until I reach peak pin-board again. And then I’m in trouble: I’ve run out of walls.

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…

 

 

 

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.

Taking a Tip from Trollope

If you read my last post, you’ll know I’m working my way through Trollope’s Barsetshire series of novels. They are enjoyable on many levels, not least in the array of colourfully-named characters with which he populates his stories. Both Trollope and Dickens share a prediliction for comedic monikers; it’s one of the things which makes their work memorable.

Framley Parsonage, the fourth in the Barsetshire series, does not disappoint in this respect.

I’m only half way through the book, but so far I have encountered Mrs Letitia Quiverful, The Reverand Obadiah Slope, Mr Closerstil, Mr Buggins and most glorious of all, the Rev. Tobias Tickler. As with all Trollope’s novels, some, if not all, of these wonderful characters appear elsewhere in the series, with varying degrees of prominence.

"What did you you say your name was?" "Lucy Robarts, my Lord." "Oh dear. How very dull." *

“What did you you say your name was?”
“Lucy Robarts, my Lord.”
“Oh dear. How very dull.” *

Other intriguing names to appear in earlier Barsetshire novels include: Doctors Bumpwell and Fillgrave, who both appear in Barchester Towers along with Mr Lookaloft and Sir Omicron Pie; Dr Thorne gives us Sir Rickety Giggs, Mr Reddypalm, Sir Abraham Haphazzard, Mr Nearthewinde and, most memorably of all, a chap who goes by the name of Neversaye Die.

"If only Trollope had given us funnier names, we might have something to smile about." *

“If only Trollope had given us funnier names, we might have something to smile about.” *

This cast of characters are guaranteed to raise a smile, if only by their eccentric names alone. Naturally these names are no mere accidents, (Trollope was, after all, a skilled writer, a best seller in his own time); they frequently befit their owners to a tee, or, at least, are suggestive of traits in their personalities. And it’s not just people, Trollope frequently employs comedy for his minor place names: Creamclotted Hall in Devon for example. Subtle: not. Funny: oh yes.

"Oh why oh why couldn't I have lived at Creamclotted Hall!" *

“Oh why oh why couldn’t I have lived at Creamclotted Hall!” *

So far so good.

But wait. Having now read over 1,500 pages of Trollope, I’ve noticed that the above-named persons do not take centre stage in his stories. They shine, certainly, flitting around in the background, occasionally coming to the fore, but they are never central to the plot. The main characters, those with whom each novel is chiefly concerned, carry rather more prosaic names: Mr Harding (The Warden); The Proudies and Grantlys (Barchester Towers); Doctor Thorne and the Greshams (Doctor Thorne); and the Robarts and Luftons of Framley Parsonage.

"It's no use Miss Dunstable, however hard I try, I just can't make your name more interesting."*

“It’s no use Miss Dunstable, however hard I try, I just can’t make your name more interesting.”*

These are the people we are destined to remember; they are the ones Trollope fleshed out with substance and depth of character. We share their journeys, their triumphs and disasters; we see them succeed or fail, enjoy happiness or despair, we watch them learn or fail to understand. These are characters to be remembered for what they do or what they achieve; we love them for the things they say and for the lessons they learn. Trollope didn’t need to give these people amusing names; they are memorable enough without them. And there lies his skill: if a writer gives a character enough interest, taking them on a journey and investing them with spirit and emotion, they don’t need their name to support them. But by giving his cast of minor characters creative and comedic names, Trollope achieves something else: he builds a picture, a story, a history for them, without the need for pages of explanation. They act rather like scenery on a stage, supporting the main action and providing an extra layer of depth.

"Don't look now, but Tobias Tickler and Sir Rickey Giggs are just behind us." "Amusing names they might have; but we'll always be the principle characters in this story!"*

“Don’t look now, but Tobias Tickler and Sir Rickey Giggs are just behind us.”
“Amusing names they might have; but we’ll always be the principle characters in this story!”*

These are skills I’m getting to grips with in my own writing. I currently have a cast of principals and a supporting chorus of minor characters for my comedy adventure aimed at 8-12 year olds. The smaller roles I have filled with names which make me laugh (I hope they’ll make other people laugh one day). However, I’m not sure about my main characters. I want them to be memorable for the things they do, not just for their names; but then, I don’t particularly wish to burden them with bland titles either.

J K Rowling pitched her three principles’ names perfectly: Harry Potter (could be any one’s name, plucked from obscurity to achieve great things); Hermione Granger (just a bit unusual, sounds a bit clever, posh even); Ronald Weasley (again, not particularly memorable for the name alone, but sounds just a bit like he might get picked on, has no apparent brawn, but ends up a hero none the less).

That’s a skill I’ve yet to learn. I hope by the time I’ve reached the end of the first draft, my main characters will have either grown into the names I have already burdened them with, or they will have suggested a change themselves. Memorable for being interesting rather then for sounding interesting: that’s what I hope to achieve. Trollope does it; Rowling does too. My minor characters can prance about all they like with their odd-sounding, look-at-me names; they are the comic relief, the scene change, front-of-cloth distractions, to be enjoyed whilst the main cast reset themselves for the next chapter. A main cast which must stand (or fall) by their deeds alone.

So, back to work everyone. Quiet please in the chorus, settle down in the wings, spotlight centre-stage and action.

* Pictures by Millais from Cornhill Magazine. Words by flyingscribbler.