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!
Fresh from a meeting with editor Imogen Cooper from The Golden Egg Academy, and hot on the heels of the tip Tony Bradman gave on Twitter # GEAQA, I thought writing a blog about plot might help get my own thoughts into order and be helpful to other writers struggling with plot. So here it is...
To be honest, I didn't know I had a problem with plot. I've rewritten and edited my story so may times, I thought the plot was as tight as could be expected in a story that is about emotion and strongly character driven. Plot needs careful attention in adventure stories, stories about good versus evil, surely not so essential and 'in-your-face' in more literary fiction. But a clear plot is essential in all stories. A goal your protagonist is striving toward needs to be explicit not implicit. And this was my oversight. I've written my story like a watercolour painting, thin, subtle layers of plot, the goal not really obvious until several layers (chapters) have established. Possibly this may work for adult fiction, where an adult reader may not mind the not-knowing where the story is heading because they'll stick with it. For Young Adults and teens, though, it's important they get a handle on where the story is going, or they can speculate on where the story may be going. Early in the story (by the end of the first chapter) the goal of the main character needs to be clearly established for the reader to understand what the protagonist is up against - even if that goal isn't precisely the end-goal of the whole story.
The first chapter, unlike my current one with its two or three thin layers of plot foreshadowing, needs to be a block of grounding, like an oil painting. The grounding of an oil painting is the colour that influences and comes through the whole of the painting. The grounding of plot in writing needs to be obvious, direct - dramatic.
Drama is a key ingredient. Without regular conflict, the story can stagnate. Each scene doesn't need drama (regular lulls of reflection time are as important) but every scene must move the plot on in same way. It may be a conversation that pushes it on, or a dramatic confrontation between two characters.
Thinking of plot in terms of tension and drama, especially in a character-led story, is really helpful to me. Where I've washed an emotion I need to more clearly define it. Each incident, like each patch of colour, needs to let the reader anticipate the next before leading them on to the next incident, the next patch of colour.
So, yes, more rewriting...
Fiction for Young Adults is as sophisticated and varied as fiction for adults. Generally, YA fiction targets 13 - 18 year olds, but of course many adults enjoy it too. The only notable difference is that language, sexual and violent content tends to be kept mild and to a minimum - more on that later. As YA fiction becomes more dominant in the market, it seems to be sub-dividing, much like film ratings have - think Middle Grade like 12A, Upper Middle Grade 12, Teen 15, Young Adult 18 - but as yet the umbrella genre is still YA (and Children for 12 and under). There is also an exciting new genre called New Adult which is aimed at 18 - 30 year olds.
YA fiction is in many ways more challenging to write than adult fiction. Unless you are an author under 20 years of age (which most aren't - me included!) the most important element to get right is the 'voice' of the age group you're writing for. Having been writing my debut novel (and redrafting and redrafting and redrafting) for over five years, I've discovered a number of ways to try to do this:
Firstly, read successful or highly praised YA fiction. Then read the less successful ones. If you're writing fantasy, immerse yourself in The Hunger Games, Twilight, His Dark Materials. If you're not, still read them. It's a good idea to dip into different YA genres to find patterns in the young adult 'voice'. The broader your understanding of YA fiction, I think the better your own writing will be. I don't enjoy reading horror (because I'm a scaredy-puss) but I made myself read 'The Enemy' series by Charlie Higson and was blown-away by the humour. For my YA recommendations, click on the tab or link below.
TALK TO A TEENAGER (OR TWO OR THREE)
Secondly, delve into your own memories of being a teenager. The emotions and fears don't change, even if the language does. I've found reading the book reviews on Amazon and Good Reads written by teenagers about YA fiction really enlightening. What do they rate? What drives them crazy? Quite often it's toe-curling dialogue or a main character who lacks believability. Worse still, is a main character who is not aged 14, 15 or 16 (for Teen readers) or 17, 18 (for Young Adult readers). It's not always true ('My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece' is a fine example of great YA fiction centred around a character who is 10) but generally, the main character of YA fiction should be a young adult themselves. If you know teenagers (which you really should do!) then ask them their book likes and dislikes.
DITCH THE PARENTS
The best advice I've had was from a teenager who told me to 'cut out the parents'. Well, I didn't dump them entirely but it definitely spun the novel I'd been writing on its head. Later I stumbled across this quote attributed to Philip Pullman:
“As Jane Austen might have put it: It is a truth universally acknowledged that young protagonists in search of adventure must ditch their parents.”
Of course, adults in YA fiction can provide great characters (think Dumbledor) but they are best shown through the eyes of a teenager. Your YA readers may well perceive a character very differently to you. Where you might have intended a restrained father they might only see an unlikeable, unloving man. In the same breath, don't underestimate how much children and young adults do perceive and understand. I don't think it's necessary to always spell out a character's intent or actions.
SWEARING AND SEX
Thirdly, language and sex. A hurdle to conveying a 'true' young adult voice is the limitation on bad language. Most teenagers I know swear. The problem with including too many 'f' words (or any at all) is adult censorship - from the purchasing parent to recommendations from librarians. Adult censorship may prevent a young adult getting hold of a great story so if you want your book to be read by as many young adults as possible, it may be wise to tone down the language.
Sex in YA can be difficult to get right too. It should always be done in keeping with the story. Rachel Ward's sex scene in Numbers is a good example, both necessary to the plot and well-handled. Remember, many readers will have little or no experience so it can't be unrealistic or romanticised or gratuitous. Recall your own 'first time' and focus on how you felt, rather than the mechanics too much.
To sum up, I suggest if you're thinking of writing YA fiction, be sure of your audience, their loves and loathes, and use a voice that is your own. Rediscover the teenager you were - which may be easier for some! And most of all, love reading YA fiction.
Totally stunned, tears brim, head shakes in a slightly absent way - what, really?! Wow! The Ghost Boy, my short story about Jake Bennett, has actually gone and won the Bath Short Story Award! It did, it really did! I keep checking the page to make sure but it's definitely my title on there.
The link to the story is here: http://bathshortstoryaward.co.uk/