I've been reminded twice this week of the Queen's Christmas message (read it here). Whatever you may feel about the royal family, her 2016 speech had a strong message that's stuck with me: small acts done with great love can make a big difference. She said: "...It’s understandable that we sometimes think the world’s problems are so big that we can do little to help. On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine."
So, with Imogen Cooper's post about helping two homeless people in London, and Rowena House's blog thinking about endurance and love in writing (read it here), I wondered what the small things are that I do with great love which might make a difference. Naturally, the many small things I do for my family sprung to mind. Also caring for my pets, helping out friends, creating a painting or picture for someone's birthday. All these things I do because of love. They're not entirely selfless acts. I want the 'thank you', the smile, the hug. I'm no Saint.
‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’ - Saint Teresa of Calcutta
And then, of course, there's writing. Writing is where I really feel the smallness of what I'm doing. I do it because I love it. There's a selfish angle that writing stories makes me happy - even when it's hard, because all love can have great highs and lows. But the kind of stories I write that give me the greatest joy are stories of struggle, stories that explore compassion, evoke empathy, that tell of the darkness and of the light. These small acts of writing are always done with great love and, in their way, I hope will lead to greater compassion when they're read.
As the Queen said, I often feel helpless, both on a personal and a global level. Sometimes problems do seem too monumental to challenge or overcome. But, with each word I put down, maybe, maybe, this very small world I create can grow, ripple outward like a pebble hitting the surface of water.
A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my new story, A Thousand Times. I was euphoric. It was so much fun to write. Ideas spun out of me. I kept in mind all of the many, many things I learned when writing Not Even Myself, all the tidbits of useful writing tips I've picked up from fellow writers, the Golden Egg Academy, Alex and Jude, other YA fiction I've enjoyed. I even made a hat based on it for the Golden Egg summer social. Yes, the hat looked dodgy but it actually won a prize - surely a sign that this draft was very possibly the best thing I'd ever written, right? Erm...
"It's fragile. Leave it alone a bit" - Imogen Cooper
So, beta readers are vital. They should ideally be writers themselves, or voracious readers. You should be able to trust what they say because they say it kindly and honestly. I have really great beta readers. I sent this first draft to three of them. After two critiques I stopped the third one reading any more because - eek - the other two had already brought up a heck of a lot of 'issues.'
Bump, I crashed. My beautiful world collapsed. That first draft wasn't as wonderful as I'd led myself to believe. The trouble with falling in love is it can often blind you to flaws. And this first draft of A Thousand Times has about a thousand flaws.
I've left it alone for a week now and tried to reimagine the parts that don't work. But I find it SO much harder to redraft than first draft. Working out which parts of the critiques I want to take on board, which parts I just need to get rid of, which parts simply need describing better.
I've read a lot about how hard it is to finish a first draft of something, that finishing is half the battle. But I've found my battle lies in the redraft, in distancing myself to see what's not working. It's analytical in a way I love to do with other people's writing but seem unable to do with my own.
I tweeted Imogen Cooper on #geaqa about what to do with a first draft and she advised caution. 'It's fragile,' she said. I didn't understand what she meant but now I do. This draft is fragile. The last thing I want to do is rush at it and, both literally and metaphorically, screw it up.
I've thought of drafts like a growing tree before, all the layers of redrafting like the invisible rings in a tree. First drafts are the shoot. And you don't pinch out a shoot until it's grown a bit otherwise it dies. It needs to be left alone awhile to sprout leaves, get hardier. The first draft needs to grow in your mind before you do anything with it.
"A writer's notebook is a junkyard of the mind."
A few months ago, I went to an amazing workshop run by author Tessa Hadley. There were many lightbulb moments (which I dutifully noted down in my notebook), but the thing I most remember is capable, brilliant Tessa taking my notepad to read aloud my paragraph (potential squirm factor = high) only for said notepad to fall apart in her hands... Pages fluttered covered in scruffy handwriting scrawled at jaunty angles, sketches half-sketched, water-stained, ink smudged... Basically, a mess of thoughts, semi-started ramblings and notes about stories long-since ditched.
So am I a disorganised arty-type with no sellotape in the house? Well, yes. But is something else going on with this ever-expanding (and ever-falling apart) notebook?
Having got to know a fair few writers, there is, among many, a bit of a stationary-obsession epidemic. A new notepad will be commented upon, even fawned over. It's frankly weird. Having studied art, many artists have a similar, disturbing fondness for a decent pencil and pad of paper. I admit it; I am not immune to a beautiful sketchpad in Paperchase and there's plenty of articles, books and exhibitions concerning famous writers and artists and their notebooks.
But what are they for? Yes, notes. Yes, sketches, ideas, a turn of phrase. Author Stephen Norfolk described them as a junkyard for the mind This is close to it. Maybe, if I look carefully, there are some gems in my junk-filled notebook. However, I don't tend to keep my junk. I put it out in the dustbin for collection each Friday. I would NEVER chuck my notebook! I don't imagine many writers would. So notebooks are more than a junkyard; they're also a creative force in themselves. Each time I take mine along to my writing group, I have evidence that I've done this before, that I've dreamed and written and drawn and (even if 98% of it is unused) my notebook tells me I can do it.
I love my notebook because it's a messy, senseless, falling apart creature. I love my notebook because it's as much an expression of me as any finished story or painting or illustration. I'd go so far as to say, it's probably better.
I recently saw something about the Myth of Sisyphus, a philosophical essay by Albert Camus. Keep reading - I promise this isn't a pretentious blog! Sisyphus was a Greek character who was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again, forever. Albert Camus discussed what Sisyphus' thoughts were when marching down the mountain, to start again in his futile task - and this is where I think there's a parallel in writing and the greatest myth of all: that, if you're a 'good' writer, writing should be easy.
Camus says: "It is during that return, that pause...(I see) a face that toils so close to stones (it) is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment."
When writing, it can often feel amazing. Like running down the mountain. Free. But often too there are times when it feels like carrying a boulder uphill. It's hard. Just when you think: 'I'm done! This draft is the final draft! I'm at the top of the mountain and can finally put down that boulder!' your beta reader or your agent or your editor sends it rolling back down to the bottom of the mountain and tells you to go right back and get it. You are not finished.
It's now, as Camus says, in 'that pause,' where we writers need to show our true grit, our greatest amount of belief and willpower: to persevere, to chose to go back, knowing the pain it took to get us to the top of the mountain but to start again anyway. It's what makes a piece of interesting writing become piece of promising rewriting. It's what grows a good manuscript into a fantastic published novel. 'That pause' is the difference between writing and being a writer. And it hurts. And it's worth it.
Thank goodness that, unlike poor Sisyphus, our torment doesn't have to be a lonely course. Sharing the pain is the best gift any writer can give themselves. It was one of the top tips Robin Stevens (author of Murder Most Unladylike) and Non Pratt (author of Trouble) gave at the SCBWI workshop I went to yesterday: make friends with other writers. SCBWI writers, like the writers at Golden Egg, are at various points on the mountain but they are all cheering each other on. 'Cos children's writers are a really friendly bunch.
Now, back to that boulder...
I've been keeping shtum these past few weeks, out of nerves and out of that dreaded condition Mr Darcy suffered from, pride. Lovely Imogen Cooper, after lots of suggested additions, edits and tweaks, told me my manuscript was ready to submit to Barry at Chicken House. I pretended to go with the flow. Yeah, no big deal. It's ready so I'm ready. But inside I kind of shrivelled up. This was it. Judgement time.
I know, from having paintings not accepted in exhibitions or nor sold, that rejection is a part of creating something. Not everyone is going to rate it or like it or want to part with their money to have it. But knowing and experiencing that is one thing, having immunity from the gut-wrenching feeling is quite another. And I have thin skin. Tissue thin. Part of what's been so brilliant about The Golden Egg Academy has been protection, delaying sending out to an agent until someone as in the know as Imogen tells you to submit. But it can't last forever.
So, as well as submitting to Chicken House (which is part of the deal with GEA, CH have first refusal) I submitted to agent Kate Shaw. Two weeks of waiting felt like two years. It's been awful. I've never minded too much waiting for Imogen's feedback, or Abi's, or my wonderful writing group. A little nervous but excited too. This wait had zero excitement. It was all angst. I kept planning how I'd react to different outcomes. Generally, they resulted in me sobbing into rather too many packs of biscuits.
Then... an email from Imogen popped up reading URGENT. My hands buzzed as I clicked the mouse. Oh God, oh God, oh God. And there was the most dream-like positive email from Kate. She mentioned being willing to 'walk through fire' for this book. My book. OMG.
I met Kate the following week, last week, in London which all felt terribly grown-up. Half of me felt like weeping, half of me felt like whooping. I generally stuck to talking about the book - which was probably a good thing because she said she'd like to represent my writing and be my agent. I actually held off having a little cry until I left the café. I was in shock.
So now almost a week has gone by and I've signed on The Viney Agency's dotted line. Kate had lots of ideas about a certain area in the book and I've been diving back in to, yes, rewrite a little. She's also created this great little blurb. It was strange reading something I know so well in someone else's words. But all quite exciting, like I'm singing in my head. Not because having an agent is the be-all and end-all - I think some really great writers have difficulty getting one and some don't have one at all. But because someone as lovely, bright and creative as Kate believes in my story. That's making me sing.
Yesterday, two things happened: I watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer before heading to London to the Golden Egg Academy's 3rd birthday bash, The Big Honk, at the Savile Club. Overnight, my brain seems to have merged these two things and now I'm itching to write a blog about how being in the Golden Egg Academy is just like being in the marvellous Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bear with.
If you've never seen or heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer rectify it immediately! It was a TV show created by the genius Joss Whedon about a girl chosen to be the slayer of demons. The story has since continued in comic book form with Dark Horse Comics. It is excellent.
So, imagine being part of the GEA is like living in Buffy's Sunnydale, a town on top of the Hellmouth. Only we're not living above a Hellmouth. We are on the precipice of the Publishing, er, mouth. Now imagine we are those people who walk the streets at night, clueless that demons are all around us; you know, the ones who blindly walk down dark allies, too busy writing to look up until...
Eek, a demon! Only not vampires (thank goodness) but Plot Tangle Blood Suckers, Evil Characterisation Demons, Howlingly Bad Voice Werewolves, Fiery Setting Monsters. Argh, you cry. You try to fight off these nasties but they are strong. Your own inner demon tells you to give up, this is a battle you can't win. Why even try? But then...
Tired of this analogy? Well I'm not finished! Even the gang on Buffy the Vampire Slayer have bad times. In the best episode EVER, Once More With Feeling (a musical that makes life worth living), all the gang, like all us Eggs - and even mentors - have times of terrible, awful, gut-wrenching self-doubt. In this particular episode, Spike (one of the demons who is in fact the key to everything good - like, for me, the Plot Tangle Blood Sucker) sings to Buffy. Yes, the singing's pretty shaky but the words are fab and apply to all of us too. I've replaced the words 'life' with 'writing' and the words 'living' with 'persisting':
'Writing's not a song,
Writing's not bliss, writing's just this,
You'll get along,
The pain that you feel, only can heal
Slay those writing demons (or make them your very best friend). Sometimes you'll have a scary episode, like Hush, or a very upsetting episode where only a really good cry will help, The Body, or a massively uplifting, joyous episode, Once More With Feeling. Just know you're not alone. You're in the gang.
PS If you need convincing, watch this youtube video and then you'll see why you should watch Buffy and Angel!
Being part of the Golden Egg Academy is so great because you get to hear from other writers all the things you've been fretting over. It makes the whole writing process less lonely and stops you throwing the manuscript into a drawer to never be looked at again.
Writing is hard. Getting that first nugget of an idea on to paper is exciting then quickly exhausting. If you're a writer, the process becomes obsessive. You think about scenes whilst cooking tea, you stop mid-walk with the triumph of a fresh solution to a writing dilemma. You basically start living your story. And then that glorious day arrives when you have that story down, the whole thing, and you think, with a sigh of self-congratulations and relief, that you've done it.
Ah. But then you re-read it, or you ask some encouraging friend or relative to read it, and then comes the blast of truth: what you've written is a mess. My first draft was overloaded with adjectives and adverbs. What do you mean I shouldn't use words ending in -ly? It was also full of plot lulls and holes. And the whole thing was written in third person when first would be much better.
So, I began systematically rewriting. I took out a few darlings (though not many) and worked and reworked scenes, changing characters as I went, adding in new ones. As with my paintings, I'm not terribly precious about my writing. I can be quite cavalier. I horrify my family with how easily I can tear apart a seemingly finished painting because it's not quite right. I take the same approach with my writing, tearing out parts that haven't worked and not worrying too much, trusting my instinct.
Rewrites done. And again, that wonderful sense that I've finished.
Ah. But, another read through, some more trusted opinion and no, of course it isn't finished. More rewrites. So having spent countless hours rewriting the first draft, you're doing it again, cutting out the sections you'd not long ago added in, taking out a character you'd though would add a fresh dimension but hasn't. So what was the point of those first lot of rewrites when all you're doing now is rewriting again? Were all of those hours a waste of valuable writing time? Short answer, no.
When we rewrite the rewrite, we're doing the same thing but this time (and this is important to remember when you're pressing delete on swathes of polished, unworkable writing) you're GROWING your writing.
When we rewrite, we are polishing, honing the story, clarifying scenes, perfecting dialogue, editing out plot holes. When we rewrite the rewrite, we're doing the same thing but this time (and this is important to remember when you're pressing delete on swathes of polished, unworkable writing) you're GROWING your writing.
Imagine the first draft as the shoot from the seed of an idea. Second draft, leaves unfurl, third draft, some hard pruning but the shoot grows thicker, stronger, taller. Fourth, fifth, hundredth draft (the number of drafts all depends on how you work - it's not a reflection on how 'good' you are as a writer) your story is a confident, resilient tree.
You simply can't grow a tree from a seed in one draft - however much we'd like to hope we can. Rewrites are the rings inside the trunk of the tree. They become invisible to the reader of your final draft, but they're in there, in your writing, making it strong.
Lots of successful writers tell new writers to be fearless. I think that's especially true when rewriting. Never keep something just because you've spent hours writing and polishing it if it's not working or is no longer relevant to the story. Never mind that you're deleting hours of painstaking work. You've not wasted your time. You've spent those hours creating, nurturing, growing, the final draft. The final, euphoric, ah.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) event: a talk and one-to-one session with Amber Caravéo and Joanna Moult from the newly created Skylark Literary Agency. I'd already sent them my first three chapters and synopsis and was very curious about their reaction, having not had an agent read Not Even Myself before.
The event was held in Foyles in Bristol. It was lovely to meet Jo Thomas, SCBWI co-ordinator for the SouthWest, and many other SCBWI members. Children's writers really do seem to be the friendliest, most supportive people around! The talk began with Amber and Joanna explaining their background (as editors in various big publishing houses) and why they had created the Skylark Literary Agency - chiming with Imogen's Cooper's desire to nurture good writers and create the very best books.
They went on to talk about their role as agents and I sat there thinking how lovely they are and how nice it would be to have them as agents - their passion, kindness and professionalism added up to me in the same way that Imogen's does.
It's too dark
I grew increasingly nervous about the one-to-one, caring about what these people would think of my novel - the novel I've been working on for over five years now. Chatting to the other writers was comforting but my palms were sweaty and I kept thinking how lovely it would be if Amber (who I was to have my one-to-one feedback with) liked my writing enough to take me on. Yes, I was dreaming, but I couldn't help myself.
For starters, Amber was really encouraging. She made every effort to compliment my writing style and put great emphasis on how she couldn't find fault with what she'd read. BUT, and it was a humdinger of a but, she thought my main character, Millie, was unlikable (oh) but that could be rectified with her engaging more to her friends and family, at least in the beginning, and - here it comes - the whole premise of the novel was "too dark."
In the moments that followed, I could have cried but managed to vaguely hold my nerve. This is a novel about psychosis, it is not ever going to be a breezy walk in the park. But too dark? My novel whizzed through my head. Is it too dark? Are there enough lighter moments within it?
Amber sensitively reminded me that my writing is great but my head echoed with the idea that I may well have spent five years writing a story that is unpublishable. I thanked her, because opinion, no matter how unexpected, from a professional (or from anyone you have faith in) should always be listened to, considered. Writing, no matter how it often feels, is not a solitary occupation. It is a team sport. Opinions, like Amber's, shouldn't make you defensive (or crushed, as is my first reaction) because it's just that, opinion.
Having promptly sent my novel out to my excellent writing group friends, and my more excellent mother, to read through entirely and decide whether it is too dark, I've had two weeks to let the feedback process in the background. My heart believes my story isn't too dark but perhaps there is a need for some further editing, to ensure Millie's preoccupation with the water isn't overdone to the point of irritation.
I am happy she thinks I can write, an opinion that's much nicer to hold on to. But I can't just ignore her other, less complimentary thoughts on my story. Sometimes, opinions confirm what we thought already but hoped no one else would notice. And sometimes an opinion can be like a hit from behind, unexpected and painful. Whatever, it should always be considered, bearing in mind the story is your own and what may be one person's opinion, may not be someone else's.
Illustration is like the vital rising agent in the cake.
I've been thinking a lot about illustration recently and fellow Golden Egger, Helen, has inspired me (with her blog here regarding illustration and MG fiction) to write down my own thoughts. I've wondered before about somehow combining my collage painting with my writing. To begin with, I assumed it could never happen because I love writing stories for teens and young adults and those books don't have illustration - or do they? Lately, things seem to be changing. A handful of books aimed at YA readers have been published with illustration showing publishers are prepared to print them.
This has given me the confidence to start putting graphic word collages into my final(ish) draft of Not Even Myself. But why? Why is it necessary to have illustration in books aimed at young adults? For me, the answer lies in my own experience of reading as a child and then as a young adult, which I suspect echoes many other people's experience.
I was a really late 'independent' reader despite loving stories. When I was very young, my favourites stories to have read to me were the two Mogs: Mog the Forgetful Cat written and illustrated by Judith Kerr, and Meg, Mog and Owl written by Helen Nicoll and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. Unable to read the text, independent 'reading' for me, like many young children, was spending a long time reading the illustration. This is all very normal. It's accepted that for young people, illustration is vital to engage their minds and help decipher the text.
So what happens as children start to read more independently? At MG (middle grade) level, the amount of text increases while the illustration remains, albeit on a smaller scale. At middle grade, I was still bewitched by story. I loved Ramona and The Worst Witch, skipping difficult words and making up any confusion with reference to the pictures. I wrote and drew story after story (appallingly spelled!) The illustrations were part of the story, not an addition. They helped me make sense of what I was writing and they gave me ideas for where the story could go as I went along. I vividly recall hating it when the teacher 'made' us write the story first and then, if there was enough time (which there often wasn't) we were allowed to draw a picture. It's an incredibly backward way of thinking about the link between illustration and text and one that persists unfortunately, once past the picture book age.
And it gets worse, the older you get. My desire to properly read only happened when I was 11 (yep, 11!) I was in my final year at primary school and until that point, I was a hugely unconfident reader. My love of story was undiminished so this lack of enthusiasm I believe came from needing to wear glasses (which I was horribly self-conscious about) and a fear of not being able to read as well as my older siblings. But then I was 'forced' by my teacher to read and review five books by Joan Aitkin. The first few I skim read but then I found her book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and my future love of reading was sealed. Would I have been able to get so absorbed by the story without the brilliantly sinister and dark illustrations by Pat Marriott? I believe not. I reread the book as an adult and the text isn't easy. I know at the time I struggled over many of the words and their meaning but the atmosphere of both Aitkin's words and Marriott's pictures, transfixed me. It didn't matter that I couldn't read every word. And that's how illustration can help the older, less confident reader. I'd suggest they help any reader.
Oh, and then secondary school started and I was thrown into 'text only' stories, many I fell for in a passionate way. But no illustrations? Why was illustration suddenly an absolute no-no? Why was it perceived as a babyish 'addition'? I didn't know and I still don't know why this perception is only just changing. Illustration is like the rising agent in the cake. It is not the superfluous, decorative cherry on the top! For readers like myself, who find text overwhelming, off-putting, or down-right alienating, illustration is a window to the story.
My youngest son, at middle-grade, has dyslexia. He uses illustration, as I did, to decipher the story, to give clues as to the action, the character, the theme. I believe he'll always have a preference for illustrated stories. Fortunately, as he gets older, there are increasing numbers of older, illustrated fiction. A Monster Calls tackles the weighty subject of cancer. The dark, angry illustrations by Jim Kay are a profound necessity - even if the original print run didn't have them. And Tinder, by Sally Gardner (who, incidentally, has dyslexia) has wonderful illustrations by David Roberts that not only add mood and setting but also break up the text and - best of all - weave their own character until you don't know what's telling the story: the words or the pictures. Of course, it's both.
There is a place for illustration in YA fiction. For many readers, it is an absolute must to engage them, help them and make the story accessible. It is not a regression, or an embellishment. Illustration is a part of reading.
Working out how to re-plot Not Even Myself has not been easy. I've been hoping a flash of inspiration might happen if I spent time on other things. I painted a picture of Bath Abbey, I polished a couple of short stories, entering one in the Mslexia competition and two in the Bristol Prize. I even resorted to distracting myself with sorting the rubble mound that was once our dilapidated garage. But still no flash moment has occurred. I've felt a bit uninspired, lost.
Enter Laura from my writing group. She suggested I try looking at Save the Cat. Save the Cat? Turns out, it's not a book for firefighters but for screen-writers. There's a plan that lays out the basic format of a screen story but it would equally apply to short stories and novels. I've never looked at a 'how to' before, gaining understanding about writing along my tortuous way instead. It should be instinctive, shouldn't it? But as I've been foundering on the plot rocks, I decided I would give this method a go.
After sitting at a screen trying to fill in the Book Map for Golden Egg, I knew I had to be more physical with the plot board so I created my own large version using post-it notes. Already I'm clearer on the order of events in my novel. I'm also clearer on when those key scenes need to occur. This has been a big problem for me, the pace. The crisis point, where there's no going back, has been clear from fairly early on but the rest of it has felt like a jumble of scenes with no definitive direction. The plot board is allowing me to make sense of my plot (which is there just in that slightly tentative, wishy-washy way) and how to make the reader want to continue reading. As for worrying that I might be using a system that will make my writing formulaic, I came across this quote from Delacroix.
“First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.”
Which is, after all, what all artists have to do: learn the basics of drawing, the rules of tone, of perspective. Only then can you break them. So this plot board is me, understanding the rules. Yes, most of it's instinctive, but being consciously aware is a revelation.
I'll never be a planner but maybe, once a free-flowing first draft is written, I can use the plot board to tighten up and clarify the story, the themes, the crisis point before I move onto the next draft. I wonder whether this is the final element I needed to understand to become a writer. But I've a feeling there's still more to learn!