Nanowrimo – To do or not to do?

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I am currently contemplating whether or not to do Nanowrimo. And this is not a decision to be taken lightly. It would make me a social recluse for a period of thirty days, as I shut myself in my flat and sit at the computer for as long as I can bear it (having already had an 8-hour episode of screen gazing at work). I would have to pour out words, words and more words onto the blank page which stares back at me with its evil flashing cursor.

The sense of satisfaction at the other end, if I ever succeeded in splurging out 50,000 words, would no doubt be immense. But I worry that I’d do it for the same reason that I would enter a marathon – to be able to say, when I’m grey and old, that I’d done it: ‘Guys, one month I just sat down, and wrote a book.’ They would gaze at me in wonder, and it would have all been worth it. Whether the 50,000 words form any coherent order that even vaguely resembles a novel is another matter. So I decided to compile a clever list of pros and cons to help me out.

Pros

–          Above-mentioned sense of satisfaction

–          A tiny inkling of a possibility that it could evolve into a good piece of writing with many, many edits in the coming months

–          Even if I don’t finish, there may be an idea hidden in the depths of my tired mind, that happens to come out in one of my creative episodes

–          A chance to meet fellow writers online and maybe even at one of the events

–          A good way to get feedback from said fellow writers

Cons

–          Not leaving the house, other than to go to work and stock up on foods that enhance creativity

–          Consequently developing cabin fever

–          Churning out words for the sake of it, without creating a coherent plot or anything with substance

–          Having friends who are also participating constantly asking me about word count

–          Losing heart half way through and not being able to tell the grandkids in 50 years time…

Verdict? I will let you know in due course… And in case you’re tempted, here are the details: http://nanowrimo.org/

What we can learn from Hans

Last weekend I went to Copenhagen, home of one of the best children’s storytellers of all time – Hans Christian Andersen. Visiting some of the places in which he wrote his stories made me think about what I enjoyed most about them as a child and what ingredients gave them their universal, timeless appeal.

And because (as you may have noticed) I love lists, I thought I would jot these down here, with some example stories:

1. Mixing comedy with moral teaching

Many of Andersen’s stories have a subtle element of humour, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which the title character is punished for his arrogance by being blind to the fact that he’s walking through the streets naked.

2. Creating characters that grab the heart

The Little Mermaid is a classic example – giving up her voice in exchange for legs, only to be jilted by the man she loved. It’s no wonder that Walt Disney decided to create the highly popular film version!

3. Combining sadness with hope

The best example of this is The Little Match Girl, whose freezes from standing outside selling matches in the cold – fortunately her grandmother arrives to rescue her and her soul is taken up to heaven.

4. Implying that things aren’t always as they seem

This is a lesson retold frequently in children’s stories. The Ugly Duckling has become a classic story of personal transformation for the better and has been retold in many languages.

And it only seems fitting that the grave of Hans Christian Andersen is in a beautiful Copenhagen park which families frequently visit, particularly during the summer, to have picnics and tell stories.

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Revise, cut out, start again…

Today I went to meet a children’s book editor. We spoke for two hours about my book and it was the most productive time in my entire writing process.

She questioned everything: Why had it written it? Who was it aimed at? How did I imagine the characters? (It turned out that what I said aloud was actually very different to what was written on the page.) Most importantly, she asked – Did I think that I’d tied up everything at the end? I thought I had, but the answer was ‘no’.

It took someone asking these very basic questions to make me realise where I had gone wrong with the narrative. Having discussed my answers at length, I now have a much better idea of what I need to work on.

I decided on this type of editorial process for several reasons: it was within my budget, I found it useful to discuss the process of writing and I don’t think I’m yet at the stage where having an editor go through my work line by line would be helpful.

But I had a few options open and I thought other writers might find it useful if I listed these:

1. Give your draft to a friend or family member and get their feedback – obviously this is the easiest and cheapest option, but you’re likely to get a lot of bias, with people saying your work is great and giving little constructive criticism. If you have a ready audience available that is within your target age group, you’ve struck gold – particularly when it comes to the younger age ranges, in which it becomes quickly apparent if they’re bored of your work.

2. Join a critique group – I would recommend SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) –  You pay an annual membership fee, but the critique groups are free and it’s easy to join. You don’t even have to meet in person – work and comments can be shared online. Here you have the great benefit of having other writers for the same age group giving you feedback on your work.

3. Use and editorial consultancy – there are many around and amongst the most well-known in the UK are Cornerstones (www.cornerstones.co.uk) and The Writer’s Workshop (www.writersworkshop.co.uk). You submit your draft and they match you up with the best editor for the genre and age-group for which you’re writing. They range in price range depending on how detailed a report you’re looking for and the length of your manuscript, but you’re looking at around £150 – £350. Expect a detailed written up report on everything from characterisation to spelling and grammar. Some offer to recommend you to agents if they think your manuscript is strong enough.

4. Use an independent editor – This is the route that I went down. They offer the most personalised service – often preferring to talk you through their recommended changes either in person or over the phone. Most will also do a detailed report on your work and some may offer to represent you to agents. Make sure that you choose the right agent for your genre. Amongst top independent children’s book editors that I’ve come across are Shelley Instone (www.shelleyinstoneliteraryconsultany.co.uk) and Bella Pearson (www.bellapearson.com).

Good luck with the editing!

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The bluer side of children’s books

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I’ve recently finished reading My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher and it took me a full hour to pull myself back together. It was the perfect storm of a tear-jerker with loss, family separation, alcoholism and bullying thrown together. Granted, I have quite extreme reactions to sad books and films, but it made me wonder if it had that impact on me…how do the children that it’s intended for feel about it?

I keep being told that kids are more resilient than we give them credit for, and that it’s important for them to find out about the dark sides of the real world. I remember hearing a talk by Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company (a charity that offers support to vulnerable children) in which she said that the personal and social problems affecting many children are difficult to understand by their peers who haven’t experienced them. Perhaps that’s another argument for themes like divorce or the death of a parent to have a prominent place in children’s fiction?

I also recently read an article which said that every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent – undoubtedly leaving them with a range of emotions that they never would have experienced before… In these situations potentially reading a book like A Monster Calls would make them realise that they’re not alone in having to go through this.

As for My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, I would definitely recommend it. As well as being awfully sad, it’s a heart-warming story about friendship and family life. You may just need to keep the tissues within reach.

A list of top children’s tear-jerkers:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
  2. A Monster Calls Patrick Ness
  3. The Illustrated Mum Jacqueline Wilson
  4. Skellig David Almond
  5. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
  6. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Michael Rosen

Moons, alarm clocks and how not to pitch

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I’ve just come back from the SCBWI Agents’ Party where I took away some good advice from some top agents and editors. I’ve decided to write this down before it flies from my slightly wine-hazed memory.

1. Aim for a really original first couple of sentences. It sounds obvious, but too many writers these days start their book with an alarm clock ringing, or someone eating breakfast, or waking up from a dream. Apparently the imagine of a moon is also recurring (says Vicki Le Feuvre from Darley Anderson)

2. Don’t ‘info-dump’ in the first chapter. Make sure that you hold enough back to intrigue your readers (and your agent!)

3. Make sure that you always use the first name of the agent that you’re pitching to, and avoid the common pitfalls (mailmerging names en-masse, inserting the wrong agency name or pitching the wrong genre to the wrong person). Emma Herdman from Curtis Brown said she’s had email submissions which said that there was an SAE attached. Don’t be that person!

4. Keep your synopsis to a page max. Interestingly, agents were unanimous in saying that they won’t be put off by a mediocre synopsis if the manuscript is strong. It should clearly outline your plot, but really doesn’t need to contain a lot of detail

5. On the whole, agents don’t mind if you submit to other agents – many advise that you do this so you maximise your chances of finding the best one (and their chances of finding you!)

6. Agents and publishers don’t mind if you’ve self-published before. It’s an good way of them seeing how your work looks in its finished form and how successful you’ve been to date.

Thanks to Benjamin Scott and everyone at SCBWI for organising!