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…

 

 

 

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Big Stories vs. Big Settings

There’s nothing quite like peering out of an aircraft window to clear your mind. In daylight hours you are likely to be treated to an ever-changing view, featuring any combination of clouds, sun, mountain tops beaming with snow, deserts, lakes and foam-flecked oceans. Even in the darker hours you might be lucky to see stars twinkling just that bit closer, mirroring the constellation-like cities as they pass by below, (unless the cabin lights are on, in which case all you see is a ghostly reflection of yourself, which makes the whole clearing your mind thing a bit pointless).

You might think someone who flies for a living would have long ago lost interest in gazing out into the void; not a bit of it. I frequently steal a glimpse whilst placing something onto a tray table or chatting with a passenger. The wonderful sight of a glacier pouring from a mountain like cream from a jug is great therapy for coping with disgruntled customers, and looking beyond the cabin is always an effective way of putting my tiredness and jet lag into perspective.

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Even when I’m flying as a passenger I can’t help but look at the world passing below and the sky above; it’s a joy to be in that middle place, skimming clouds. I did just that last week on my way back from a Hogmanay spent in Scotland; the views were stunning. The sun was shining with as much strength as it could muster on a winter’s afternoon, painting the clouds with an ever-changing palette. How lucky, I thought, to be seeing all that, whilst below the clouds, a flood-wary population looked out of damp houses onto rain-soaked streets.

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My writer-devil, the one who sits on my shoulder with a three-pronged fork ready to poke me at any given opportunity, jumped into action and reminded me that a real writer would be compiling vivid descriptions of the skyscape; they would be waxing lyrical and composing metaphors. Proust would probably have filled half a volume in describing the features of the top of a single cumulus formation. For a minute or two I tried doing these things; I even thought up names for the colours I saw, trying to be as creative as some paint companies insist on being, (‘Oil Slick Shimmer’ or ‘Camel’s Wheeze’ anyone?)*

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Eventually I realised that I’d stopped seeing what was out there and was instead concentrating on how it might be useful to me in my writing; in short, I was losing sight of those views as quickly as they were changing. I sent the devil off on a tea break and began just looking again. I also took these photos, reasoning that I could use them at a later date for as much creative word-smithing as I liked, which went some way to placate my devil when he reappeared a few moments later.

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As we dipped into the billowing clouds before landing, I turned my attention to the other passengers. None of them, at least none of those within my field of vision, appeared to have been looking out as I had at the glorious views of the English sky. Some had their window blinds shut, faces flickering in the electronic glow of tablets; at least two were furiously filling in Sudoku grids; whilst another beat his earphoned head in time to a silent rhythm. I wasn’t disappointed that my fellow passengers seemed to be oblivious to the natural wonders flitting by outside; I’m not that arrogant. I find it interesting; but it’s not everyone’s thing. Rather, I suddenly wanted to know what they were thinking. Were they preoccupied with other, deeper thoughts? Was that boy, cocooned in his inner world of sound, trying to forget yet another oppressive family Christmas? Or was he perhaps reliving an unexpected New Year’s Eve kiss? Had one of the Sudoku players made a resolution to complete at least three puzzles a day, wary of a family history of early-onset dementia? Maybe the other had lost a lover in a plane crash and was desperately trying to occupy a wandering mind.

Before I knew it, I had written at least four character back stories in my head, (‘Where’s your notebook?’ asked my writer-devil, ‘In my bag, out of reach in the locker,’ I answered), and remembered why it is often as important to see what’s happening immediately around you, to look at what other people are doing, as it is to gaze out at the big picture. Yes, our setting was beautiful, and would add interest to a story, were I to write one; but given the chance, those characters in the plane could really thrust the story onwards to who knows where?

It’s for this reason that I am always happy to take a seat with my back to the window in a restaurant famed for its views: the real story is often being played out at the other tables or in the kitchen.

The hour or so spent on that flight taught me several valuable lessons:

One.  I can, and should, enjoy looking without my writer’s hat on sometimes.

Two. A setting can be stunningly beautiful, but don’t forget that guy two rows in front: now there’s a story.

Three. No cup of tea will ever come close to one I brew at home myself and in my own teapot.

 

I hope you found this post interesting or of some use. If not, I shan’t be offended, and at least you’ve had some pretty pictures to look at. But if they didn’t do anything for you….why not? Is there something on your mind? Something interesting you’d like to share with me?  I’ve got my notebook handy now and my writer’s hat firmly on.

 

* I made these up, but they were inspired by two actual colours produced by a fancy manufacturer of domestic paint: ‘Elephant’s Breath’ and ‘Mouse’s Back’ are both available from all good stockists. (‘Oil Slick Shimmer’ and ‘Camel’s Wheeze’ are not).

© flyingscribbler 2013

Mining those seams of inspiration.

Astute readers will, no doubt, have noticed my extended absence from these pages. Have I perhaps been immersed in a mindfulness exercise requiring total seclusion and severing of technological ties? Well, no, as it happens. Was I called away to fly to a far flung destination yet to be connected to the twenty-first century? Not that either, and anyway, if such a place exists I sincerely hope that no airline begins flights there. Or had I simply had enough of the persistently atrocious blog stats which accompany my efforts? Of course not. As we all know, it is the pure pleasure of writing which brings us back to the key board; such trifling matters as whether anyone reads my posts do not signify. (One of these statements is false).

My non-presence has a rather more prosaic explanation: I have spent the past two weeks shuttling between home, work and a hospital eighty miles away from both in order to visit my mother and her new knee. I shan’t bore you with the personal details of her medical sojourn, the post-operative complications, collapsing lung and embolism, all of which transpire to keep her prisoner on the orthopaedic ward. Nor shall I recount the experience of twice driving to the hospital directly from ten hour flights; the second occasion I was awake for over thirty hours.

Spending so much time in a vast location like a British teaching hospital does have its upsides. After the initial horror of being there at all has worn off, after regaining my breath having held it for the thirty seconds it takes to walk through the wall of smoke fortifying the main entrance, and after having deciphered the outrageously complicated signage which would surely confound even the brightest of wartime code-crackers, I begin to take note.

There’s much to see: patients, nurses, doctors, visitors, machines, noises and those unmistakable hospital smells: a story with every glance and sniff. And once I start to mine this rich seam of Hippocratic detail, I can’t stop.

Naturally, there are the characters.

Firstly, the double amputee sitting in a wheel chair outside the entrance, smoking endless cigarettes; he attracts pity and disgust in equal measure. Has the horror of losing both legs not shocked him into kicking the habit? Does he have no shame? Is this his last pleasure in life? Or, more intriguingly, is he a visitor? An unlucky ex-serviceman come to visit an ailing parent perhaps? A victim of a frenzied shark attack nervously awaiting the arrival of a longed-for child? The possibilities for this one character alone are endless.

Then there is the man who is wheeled by on his bed, a scaffold of wire and pins piercing his damaged head; the stuff of horrible nightmares. How did it happen? Accident? Suicide attempt? Daring experimental surgery to correct a debilitating skull deformity, performed by a dashing, yet frowned upon doctor?

Or how about the terrified student nurse who hangs on every word and every action of her agitated mentor. When will she make her first mistake? Will it be fatal? More importantly, should she tell someone about the good-looking young patient in bed number five and his habit of revealing himself to her in a state of obvious arousal? If she does, they’ll have to move him.

And when did the woman who brings tea to the ward last see her family back in Africa? If she only eats once a day there will be more money to send back for her child’s education. She hands out her cups with a smile which masks a thousand lonely tears shed in the confines of a damp bed-sit.

Finally, those visitors in the coffee shop: she quietly weeping, he bearing up. Have they just bid a final farewell to a dear friend? Or are they about to? Does she have a pathological fear of hospitals? Has he chosen this moment to inform her of a long-standing affair with her sick friend? Are they performance artists from the local college?

Then add to the mix the sensory overload of details: the incessant bleep-bleeping of machines: machines to dispense drugs; machines to pump air; machines to measure life’s force; and machines to provide the force to measure. The urgent alarms: alarms to call the crash team; alarms to call the nurse; alarms to summon rescue from the bathroom. And the bleepers, pagers and, now they are allowed, the constant ring-toning mayhem from a dozen patients’ mobile phones and the accompanying one-sided moaning and groaning.

Not to forget the smells: smells of disinfecting washes and ointments to mask, incompletely, the smells of functions completed in public.

A couple of hours spent in a hospital and I have more inspirational material to work with than I could imagine. All I had to do was pay a little attention. It certainly makes for a more fulfilling and useful hospital visit.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and whilst sitting at the laptop, staring hopefully at the wall does, sometimes, bring forth the seed of an idea, getting out there where life (and death) puts on its show is guaranteed to produce a bumper harvest of ideas. Just don’t forget your notebook.

Perhaps I’ve had that mindful experience after all.

Happy convalescing, Mum.

 

© flyingscribbler 2012

 

Quid Pro Quo – a new flash fiction out of Africa (and my #fridayflash offering).

It worked! It really did! I have felt so much better since ranting the other day. Yes, things are still as bad as they were then, but boring you all with my views on it has swept away the block and got my writing head back on properly. I have even begun to sketch out characters for a novel which has been festering/pestering me for ages. That is, I have actually committed ideas to paper. This may seem trivial to more experienced writers, but to me it means a lot. And I really enjoyed doing it. Of course, now they have names and jobs and lovers and houses they will be with me all day long, and probably most of the night too. Fabulous. I look forward to getting to know them even better.

On to my latest flash fiction. This time inspiration comes from my recent trip to Johannesburg. We decided to go on a day safari drive and it was great. We saw plenty of elephants, rhinos, giraffes and all manner of skipping springbok/impala type animals. And a lioness. I would like to point out that the following didn’t actually happen. But we did meet a very generous woman who lent us a pair of binoculars, enabling us to watch the lioness for a while. I hope you enjoy the sights and sounds…

Quid Pro Quo

The wooden boards creaked loudly as the two couples and their guide entered the  watering-hole hide. A woman crouching over binoculars in the corner turned suddenly and held up her hand in a silence-making gesture. The afternoon heat was intense in the stifling interior of the viewing hut and sweat beaded the visitors’ foreheads as they gingerly crept to the free bench, vainly attempting to hush their progress.

Quietly taking measured breaths, they slowly focussed on the panorama offered by the narrow gap of the hide’s slatted wall. Wordlessly, they pointed out vignettes of savannah life as it materialised, chameleon-like, from the heat-hazed dust.

The woman, who had returned to her private, long-range vigil, shifted on the bench, easing the tension in her cramped legs. She checked that the arrivals were complying with her unspoken rule of silence, and returned to her quarry.

To the right, a warthog busily chaperoned her brood of tottering youngsters towards a hollow formed in a desiccated tree trunk. On the left, a trio of uneasy impala hesitated in the shade of a thorn-bush, desperate for a drink yet wary of approaching the muddy water. They, like the warthog, sensed her presence. Instinct winning over impulsiveness.

Even the turtles gathered on the back of a solitary hippo, basking in the afternoon sun, seemed alert to an unseen but familiar danger.

And still the dust settled through the thick air.

‘She’s watching something,’ whispered one of the men, ‘it’s under that tree.’

The others followed her gaze.

‘Lioness,’ mouthed their guide, ‘a big one.’

‘She’s called Zara,’ whispered the woman with the binoculars in a thick Afrikaans accent, ‘I’ve been watching her for years. But she never comes to the water when I’m here. You know, don’t you girl. You know.’

The couples and their guide fell silent again, intrigue now adding to the drama outside.

The sun inched over the water as an egret flapped its wings in an exhausted effort to cool itself.

Still, they waited; watching.

Suddenly, a young warthog made its escape towards the water. Simultaneously the woman let her binoculars drop on their strap whilst reaching beside her; meanwhile the lioness widened her eyes. Waiting. Watching.

The warthog began to drink greedily from the water, complacent with juvenile bravado. The hippo and its cargo sank silently into the murk; the impala merged back into the grass.

Springing from her position, the lioness launched her immense body towards the water but stopped short of her prey. Her eyes locked with those of the woman in the hide in a long-gone but never forgotten glare.

‘That’s right girl,’ said the woman, ‘you remember me, don’t you.’

The shot cracked like thunder, ripping the innocent silence apart and blasting a hole in the side of the lion’s head.

The woman withdrew her shotgun from the ledge and turned to the horrified faces looking at her.

‘She took my husband,’ she said flatly, ‘ripped him apart.’ Rising from the bench, she brushed the dust from her shorts. ‘Now we’re even.’

copyright: flyingscribbler 2010