With A Little Help From My Friends

Ha, how cliche is this title?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cliches over the last couple of weeks. Now that I’m (finally) trying to work out an overall plot for my new project, the phrase, “THAT’S SO BLOODY CLICHE” has been reverberating around my head more than any other (except possibly “I’m hungry”).

I’ve got no idea how many times I’ve embarked on the plotting of a new story, and I think every single time has been different. Sometimes it all comes out in a frantic fever-dream of creativity (or so I’ve heard), sometimes it’s a sudden coming-together of this idea and that concept, sometimes it’s a series of evenings sitting down with a whiteboard and trying to connect a few sparky dots in your head.

This time,  I’ve mostly nicked stuff from my friends.

In the past, I’ve usually played my story cards very close to my chest until I have a draft I’m happy to share. However, in the past when I’ve shared it at this written stage – when it is, to my mind, maybe 80% complete – some careful, honest, supportive friend has gently said, “But you know this decision she makes at the end of chapter one, which triggers everything that happens after? Don’t you think she’d do this instead?” and you look into their gentle, trying-to-help eyes, smile knowingly, pat them on the head and say, “…shit.”

ah shit

So I’ve learned, guys. This time, I cornered my partner (also a writer), stole his whiteboard, explained all my disconnected ideas and thoughts to him, and then wrote down everything he said and passed it off as my own original thinking. This done, I bat-signalled (read: facebook messaged) two writer friends from my Creative Writing Masters, explained the outline I alone (ahem) had come up with and again wrote down everything they said and am now passing it off as my own original thinking. And you know what? Turns out my own original thinking is good.

And this is hardly a groundbreaking approach. Pixar, the Masters of Storytelling (if you don’t agree with me I will fight you), have been doing this for years, and, you know, they’ve done alright out of it.

To nobody’s surprise, this has been enormously helpful. Not only does it help to give me some perspective on how worthwhile my own ideas are, it pushes me to think in directions I wouldn’t have considered on my own. Plus, you know, plagiarism.

So that’s where I’m at this month. Feeling more positive, more original, and more like I’m onto something…with a little help from my friends.

sunglasses

 

 

Advertisements

Finding What Works For You

I’ve been struggling, so far in 2018, to properly settle to a writing routine. If you read some of my earlier blogs from last year, you’ll (correctly) get the sense that routine, schedules and templates are pretty important to both who I am as a person and how I like to work. This is not romantic. Jack Kerouac would have no time for this shit.

But what I realised several years ago now, when obsessively studying successful writers methods and habits to try and burn them into my own and thus achieve greatness, is that most of them don’t work. At least, not for me.

I do not do a whole bunch of things that writers are ‘supposed’ to do. I don’t get up at 6am to write for two hours before work. I don’t always carry a notebook. I don’t write something every day.

I have good(ish) reasons for all of these things. I don’t get up early to write because I cannot deal with mornings as they are, and anything I wrote in them would probably not be passable English, let alone competent storytelling. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t tend to write ideas down the instant they occur to me, because I like to let them rise for a while, like bread dough, developing and improving before they go in the oven – sometimes if I write an idea down too early I realise its flaws too fast and don’t give it a chance to become something tasty. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t write something every day because whenever I’ve tried to, the pressure of knowing that THIS IS THE ONLY FIVE MINUTE INTERVAL IN WHICH I CAN WRITE ANYTHING TODAY paralyses my ability to write anything at all. Also, I’m lazy.

and that works for me

But there are plenty of ‘common writing tips’ that I follow to the letter. I try to stick to a set routine. I read widely both in and outside of the genre I’m writing. I write stories I love, not ones I think will sell (as is now teeth-grittingly apparent). I hammer out a first draft without pausing to over-analyse what needs editing.

I discovered the various things that work for me through trial and error, and I’m still always learning new things that help and new things that absolutely do not. Here are a few of my personal discoveries:

  • Routine = good. Trial and error led to the realisation that I hit my writing stride an hour or so after I’ve technically ‘started’ (but there’s an awful lot of checking Twitter, getting cups of tea and staring slack-jawed out of the window in that hour), and once I stop for a break I rarely get my mojo back. For me, this means the best hours for writing are between 10am (I know, I know, it’s disgusting) and 1pm, and afternoons are only successful once you’ve ploughed through two hours of feeling like a talentless piece of human crap.
  • Being realistic = good. Whatever I do to try and help myself, there are days when I sit down, look at a flashing cursor and bleed slowly and painfully into a word doc, only to delete all 61 words two hours later when I realise it’s pointless exposition. Accepting that these days will happen, rather than feeling like a failure and stroppily refusing to start in the first place, is healthy (which is not to say that’s how I always react…).

tantrum

  • Reading = good. Specifically, reading a chapter of a good book before I start writing. I find the most inspirational and least plagiarise-y (important) stuff is books that have a loose genre in common with your writing (i.e. ‘adventure’), but not the specifics (Amazonian survival story vs. fantasy witch escapades). It’s the tone that helps; what I’m after is a nugget of that feeling you get when you – for instance – come out of the Wonder Woman screening and have a physical urge to punch your way through the cinema’s fourth-floor windows and jump with simultaneous grace and power into the street. (You get that…er, right?)
  • Rejection = bad. Which brings us back to this blog. As it has transpired, spending a year being systematically told I am not quite good enough to be a writer has not done much for my ability to write. I am struggling at the minute. I seek out all the flaws in an idea before it’s even formed properly, I lose faith after 100 bad words, I look for everything that’s wrong with a chapter rather than what’s right, I tell myself I have to make it perfect rather than just seeing where my own enjoyment takes me. It’s pretty exhausting.

But if all of these trials and errors have taught me anything, it’s that there will be a balance. Rejection did not work for me, but perseverance does. And having all my personal working tools in place is making it so much easier to stagger on through this current boggy patch.

As hit-and-miss as writing advice is, the most quoted and most common is still, I believe, the best:

Write.

But do it in a way that works for you.

2018 Goals

Hello! Here I am! Posting on the 29th day of January to prove that I really did mean it when I said I’d post once a month! *cough*

And even though it seems a bit late to be posting goals for 2018 now that we’re a month in, it’s still January so whatever, I’m doing it.

i got nothing

Having received a thorough pounding to my hopes, dreams and ego in 2017, I’ve gone for slightly more…restrained 2018 goals. Here goes…

  1. Don’t. Give. Up.
  2. Try to do something that contributes towards my writing ambition every day, even if it’s tiny. Or, at least, most days. Or maybe weekdays…
  3. Submit to the Northern Writers Awards by 1st February (this one is ALREADY almost complete, given that I – thankfully – made no specifications as to quality or finesse of said submission).
  4. Submit to The Bath Children’s Novel Award and the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition later in the year.
  5. Keep an eye out for other opportunities to apply for.
  6. Make time for writing.
  7. Try to be less angry / jealous / frustrated / saddened by the current absence of success.
  8. Don’t rush so much – the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere, they’ll still be rejecting people in a year or two’s time.
  9. Read more.
  10. Finish at least the first draft of a new story. (ALREADY 6000 WORDS IN BOYS.)

nailed it

So let’s see.

Looking back over 2017

Last year, I made a list of every children’s literature agent in the UK that was open for submission. There were 53 of them. At the beginning of this year, I resolved to submit my recently completed (and by that I mean completed, redrafted, redrafted, rewritten and redrafted several more times) manuscript to every one of them, in a do-or-die experiment to see if this could finally help me achieve my long-standing ambition to get the fucker published.

To cut a long story short, it didn’t.

shrug.gif

My current rejection tally stands at 45. There are a few competition / publisher rejections thrown in there as well, meaning there are still 12 agencies left on my list. I don’t think I’ll be submitting to them. I’m pretty tired.

And there has been some good news in there. I was longlisted for one of those competitions, three of those agencies had requested my full manuscript, and several more sent me encouraging responses; that this book wasn’t for them but I was doing a lot of things right and should keep going.  If it wasn’t for those few positive responses I probably would have drowned in a pool of tears and ice cream by now, so I really am enormously grateful for them.

But yeah, on the whole it has not really been a great year, ambition-wise. It is safe to say that both my ego and motivation are feeling a bit:

beaten up

But to re-employ my most wrung-out metaphor; I’ve been waiting for this bus for effing years, one more isn’t that big of a deal – I’m still not moving a bloody muscle until it gets here. So here, once again, is a Plan Of Action:

1. I won’t be posting (on purpose…) in December, because it’s Christmas and I am in dire need of both cheer, and not thinking about my bludgeoned dreams. Nobody wants to be dealing with this crap at the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.

sad elf

2. Currently the plan is to keep The Rejection Box going in the new year, because there are definitely more rejections in my future, amiright?! I’ll be posting fortnightly or monthly though, as for a while my focus will be to…

3. Write something new. Again.

And who knows? Maybe 2018 will turn out to be The Year.

Until then, Merry Christmas x

 

 

The Whooshing Sound

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that I was aiming to complete my new manuscript for the Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize deadline of 8th December. I also casually mentioned on my Twitter feed that I’d reached the 40,000 word mark of my new manuscript by early October, but had also come to the troubling realisation that:

thisisshit

Which was, you know, not great.

The situation was not helped by the fact that throughout October I was having a flare-up of ulcerative colitis (a chronic bowel condition I am blessed with, of which you can find more hilarious details at my page on the women’s health blog Time Of The Month). In short, this meant that I was perennially exhausted, in pain and reaching truly unprecedented levels of raging grumpiness. None of which is particularly conducive to cranking out 5000 words a week of a story you’ve utterly lost faith in.

So on having my manuscript epiphany, I did what any fatigued, hormonal, stressed-to-the-nines writer would do. Had a meltdown, spent a week feverishly trying to find a way of balancing having enough time to fix the manuscript with making it not-shit, had several more meltdowns, and eventually was sat down by my kind and sensible partner to be told that maybe it was time to consider letting the Chicken House deadline go.

I mean, this stung. I am, historically, the sort of person who takes deadlines – if anything – too seriously, and have in the past pushed myself to depressing and unhealthy extremes in order to avoid missing one. But, my partner pointed out – with the sort of quiet, carefully-chosen words one might employ when trying to talk someone off a roof ledge – there would be no punishment for missing this deadline. In many ways it was self-imposed, it would roll around again next year, and it was making me really unhappy.

All of which was true. But to me, the punishment for missing this deadline is a missed opportunity.

This came back around to bite me again this weekend, when the deadline for the Bath Children’s Novel Award made that nice whooshing sound as it flew by me. I had been less focused on this than the Chicken House, as rather than needing a full manuscript to enter, only 5000 words and a synopsis was needed, which I had long-since prepared. Right?

laughcry

Well, I had 5000 words I fully intended to rewrite completely and a synopsis I had mentally binned but had no time to alter. So I spent twenty minutes on the day of the deadline looking over everything I had, trying to figure out if there was anything salvageable that would be even slightly worth the £25 entry fee, and eventually concluded that really, really (really) wasn’t.

I’m trying to see the passing of these deadlines not as lost opportunities, but necessary sacrifices. Even had I persisted with the manuscript as it washed down the toilet, the product would have been a ridiculously flawed story I wasn’t proud of and absolutely knew wouldn’t have a hope in hell in these competitions. But it’s been genuinely difficult not to see these whooshing sounds as personal failures. There’s been a lot of ‘if I hadn’t wasted so much time’, ‘if I’d taken longer over the planning’, ‘if I’d gotten feedback early on’, if if if if blah blah blah… And I still haven’t really shaken any of those feelings off. My attitude to writing has always been that it’s better to write something terrible than nothing at all, and that the only way to guarantee I’ll never get published is if I never submit. So to deliberately not submit, rather than submit something I know is bad, might be ultimately more sensible, but has still clashed spectacularly with my instincts.

Instead, I’m trying to focus on the next plan, and not on the feeling that I’ve set myself back a year. I’ve put the terrible manuscript aside for a while, to let it rest and see if returning to it in a few months can highlight how to fix it. I’ve gently started working on something new, but am trying to take it slowly and enjoyably with a distant deadline of December 2018, rather than looming over myself like an angry Judge Judy.

watch

I have embraced the Whooshing Sound. Unlike Douglas Adams, however, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it much.

Celebrity Children’s Authors Whinge

Apologies for the lack of post last week, but I’m gonna make it up to you with a long, in-depth and semi-researched post today, FULL of complaints and whining! I spoil you.

So if you are involved in (or a semi-desperate observer of) the Children’s Publishing market, you were probably aware of the controversy caused last week by the celebrity-heavy line up of children’s titles for next year’s World Book Day. 4 out of the 10 books that will be £1 on World Book Day 2018 to promote reading, were written by celebrities.

You are also probably aware that, ludicrous as this seems, it isn’t surprising. Controversy over celebrity children’s writers has been a growing topic over the last couple of years, when everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to George friggin Galloway to Eyebrows Delevingne has been cranking out children’s/YA books.

If this is all getting a bit TL;DR (get me bein’ all down with the internet), then this gif pretty much summarises my feelings on the issue:

 

unimpressed-gif-11

Unlike most ACTUAL children’s authors, feeling personally victimised by the industry isn’t that new to me (pardon the self pity), so when I hear about a celebrity getting a publishing deal that would probably have paid for at least half a dozen debut authors, it just gives me a particularly violent burst of the impotent rage and sadness I’m usually feeling when I think about children’s publishing.

But I didn’t particularly want to talk about why this is A Bad Thing, because I really do feel like that’s pretty self-evident. (If you don’t think so, David Almond, Patrick Ness and Joanne Harris, among others, have gone into it.) What I wanted to talk about was the brain-frazzling logic I’ve seen defending the celebrity children’s authors. For instance, World Book Day director Kirsten Grant has said, “Yes, there are celebrity writers on the list (who have written their own books), but if they are the catalyst to encouraging a non-reader to pick up a book and start a nationwide conversation about reading, then everyone will be better off.”

not sure

Now, Kirsten, are you telling me that you honestly believe that the average 5-8 year old knows (or gives a flying fuck) who Clare Balding is? Don’t get me wrong, I love Clare Balding – I think she’s very good at her actual job, but I’m not sure her prominence in the televised sports presenting and journalism field is going to have brought her to the attention of many kids, however much they might love animals.

What Kirsten Grant MEANS is that these children’s PARENTS have heard of Clare Balding, and so are more likely to choose a book written by her whilst stood in the kid’s section at Waterstones, staring at the multi-coloured, floor-to-ceiling mirage before them and clutching tenners in their sweaty, panic-stricken hands – because it’s easier. It’s easier than doing some research into children’s books and their non-celebrity authors. It’s easier than asking a bookseller who they would recommend. It’s easier than picking something at random and your child-hating it because they told you that until they’ve read Dick King Smith’s entire back catalogue they couldn’t possibly touch Jacqueline Wilson.

And that’s okay. I get that. I’m not a parent, but that shit looks well stressful, and I can easily imagine ignoring these options in a field where you feel a bit in over your head.

But I don’t think it’s right for publishing companies to ENCOURAGE that. It feels lazy, to me, to spend loads of money slapping a celebrity’s face on an often-ghostwritten book and screaming about it, regardless of its quality, to push parents towards buying something easy. Surely more children will end up reading if they’re given something because it’s good. (Slight disclaimer here that I do know there are celebrity authors – David Walliams, for one – who write genuinely good kid’s books. But it’s an exception-not-a-rule situation.)

So yeah, that’s my two-bit. Please don’t try to tell me that publishing celebrity authors will encourage children to read, because you know and I know that is nonsense.

(And FYI, I’ll write you a children’s book for like 1/1000th of the price of Cara Delevingne.)

Priority Balancing

Here’s a Relatable Thing. As a writer who also has to do ‘other stuff’ (earn money, buy food, do the washing up, book dentist appointments, have friends etc.), I generally find that any writing or publication-hunting I want to get done finds itself languishing in the dregs of the Priority List, somewhere between ‘change that lightbulb in the kitchen’ and ‘tidy files on desktop’.  Unlike the lightbulb, I actually really want to do it, but the fact is that if I don’t put a load in the washing machine, I don’t have any socks for tomorrow; if I don’t make lunch, I’ll be hungry this afternoon; if I don’t earn money, I can’t pay for stuff…ever. Whereas if I don’t send off that submission…well, pretty much nothing happens.

Because of this, it’s genuinely difficult to force myself to make time for it. And half the time, I’ll set a whole day aside for writing / submissions, then find myself at 4.30pm in an unusually tidy lounge with a bunch of things checked off my to-do list and about 8 words written. But this is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ blog, so regardless, here are my top two tips for finding the time:

  1. Set aside time in advance. This always starts off being a whole day, then an afternoon, then a couple of hours, and usually at around 4pm I fling myself down on a chair and assert (to no-one in particular), ‘RIGHT. I am going to write for ONE FULL HOUR.’ (Then I spend twenty minutes fiddling with the formatting and despair at myself.)
  2. Scrounge any time you can from literally anywhere else. I have sent submissions off at work. I’ve sent them off in the middle of the night. I’ve sent them off whilst sat at bus stations. Depending on my motivational and rejection-blues levels, I’ve been pretty crazy about it. (Not that I recommend the craziness.)

And on that ALMOST totally pointless note, I will leave you.