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.

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.

It’s Getting Drafty Here.

The lamentable abandonment of my blog of late has been entirely intentional; I apologise to my regular visitors.
It was an experiment: in the same way some people opt for giving up watching television; and others leave off Facebook for a while. I wanted to see if, by ceasing to plan and write blog posts, my other writing pursuits increased in productivity or quality.

I hoped to improve the speed at which I’m writing my novel for children.
I haven’t.
I thought it might improve my concentration on other projects.
It didn’t.
I fancied it might focus my mind; free me to think about other things.
It hasn’t.

Although my posts were always sporadic (at best), and sparingly read (definitely at best), I enjoyed the process of blogging. Finding a subject to blog about is always exciting; as is the research it inevitably leads to. Writing the posts is, let’s be honest, fun. I wouldn’t bother otherwise. It flexes the writing muscles, loosens the mind and offers the opportunity to use different styles than I otherwise employ. And then there’s the inevitable wait for responses……….sometimes a very long wait for a single response. Which turns out to be a ‘like’. Or just spam.

So, in addition to the discovery that I miss blogging, I also found that not blogging has no impact at all on my story writing output. It’s the same process which means that when I have say, a week off work, I get about as much writing done as when I have a scant 3 days available. It’s the concentration of time which concentrates the mind so well; much in the way that if you want something doing, you are supposed to ask a busy person.

However, there have been advances in the time I have been away from the blog.
I have progressed to a second draft of the novel; it finally takes shape. I know where it’s going and, most importantly, I know how to get it there.

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This, incidentally, is what one and half drafts of my story looks like. Thank the writing overlords for post-it notes.

I have made a further discovery; a true revelation: if given only 30 minutes of spare time, I can still write something. I can still contribute a sentence, an idea, or just a few words to the whole. These snippets add up. They will eventually lead to a whole.

Therefore, I will keep blogging. I already have an idea for another post. And I will do it with the knowledge that it is unlikely to have any impact on my other projects. And my novel will get written. It’s an organic process; like a plant growing in stages, it sometimes enters a dormant period before bursting back into full, unfettered growth.

So, on with the second draft. And on with the blogging.