My Mini NaNoWriMo

Latest incarnation of Alfie

Latest incarnation of Alfie

I wasn’t going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I am desperately trying to get an entry together for the Chicken House/Times Children’s Fiction competition, so I’m all about the red pen, not the free-flowing first draft.

Except.

I gave the latest version of my Alfie Stanton manuscript to my husband, waiting for applause, or at least constructive feedback and got … Nothing.

The story is doomed. I started it two years ago, with a character called George. Resurrected it for Chicken House last year, but had the first chapter trashed by a children’s editor so shelved it and entered Dragon Wraiths instead. In fact, after being told by the editor that maybe I wasn’t cut out to be an author if I wouldn’t break my manuscript down to the smallest part, I nearly quit writing for good.

I don’t do ‘edit to death’. I find my work tends to get worse rather than better if I overthink it and let ‘analyst’ brain take the wheel. But anybody who’s anybody in the writing world will tell you to edit, edit, then edit some more. Even last year’s Chicken House winner gave that as her main piece of advice.

So this time I thought it was time to grow up and do it properly. I broke my manuscript down, looked at characters and themes, description, language, conflict. But mostly I got in a huge muddle and came to hate the story and everyone in it. The harder I tried, the flatter and duller my writing became.

It wasn’t a great surprise, then, when husband’s silence screamed, “this is shit!” although I thought it was just the first draft of anything that was meant to be that.

And do you know what, I think he’s probably right. By trying to be literary and funny and to incorporate all of Barry Cunningham’s advice, I broke my story.

What would once have killed me made me stronger. Seven days ago, I came up with a brand new character – Esmerelda Smudge. Six days ago I started writing, and two days ago I sent a 20,000-word lightly-edited brand new story to my (new) editor. 20k words in just over 4 days. That knocks the spots off NaNo.

Rough Cover

Rough Cover

Is it good enough to enter in the Chicken House competition? I’m not sure. I still think Alfie, for all his flaws, is more what they’re looking for, which is probably why I can’t quite get him right. My style has always been more mainstream than award-winning. But Esmerelda has a great story. I gave the first 14k words to hubbie to read, and he polished them off in an hour. Not that he’s the best judge, but at least he’s honest.

Maybe, instead of trying to follow all the advice, to force myself into a mold and mode of working that doesn’t fit, I should continue on my own deluded way. After all I wrote Two Hundred Steps Home that way and it’s proved popular. Dickens wrote in serial form – he can’t have analysed his story arc to death on every book.

And I do put in the work. When I’m drafting, my brain buzzes and sleep is scarce. I carry the story arc, character profiles, the motivation, the continuity and conflict and comedy, all around in my head and pour it into each chapter. But it’s written fast, with no time for fear. And, for me, it works.

Most of all, it produces books that I would choose to read. That at least is one piece of writing advice that I can follow!

 

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KS1 English vs Being an Author

VCOP Pyramid

VCOP Pyramid

We had our children’s learning conversations last night (parents’ evening for us oldies!). I’m proud as anything of my two babies but, being a worrier, I don’t just smile and move on.

Oh no.

This morning I ordered half a dozen workbooks on handwriting, grammar, comprehension, and spelling. They’re not for me, although they probably should be.

It turns out the new curriculum has new targets for grammar, punctuation and spelling and Year 2 (my daughter’s year) are having to play catch up.

I won’t get on my high horse about changes to the curriculum. I’ll save that for people more eloquent than me. And in principle I like that my daughter is learning grammar and punctuation. I wasn’t taught it once I moved schools (age 8) and have struggled ever since. When I started writing novels seven years ago, the first thing I had to do was learn how to use commas and what an adverb was.

My daughter comes home and tells me about adverbs. She ‘VCOPs’ her own writing (underlines the vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation – see picture). It is a level of sophistication in writing that I don’t see in some bestsellers.

But here’s the thing. My daughter is being taught to use adverbs (mostly words ending in ly) and alternatives to said (think shouted, whispered, argued, complained). These are two elements of my writing that I have fought against for the last five years.

Any book on self-editing tells you to kill the adverbs and just use ‘said’. The emphasis is on vivid verbs and simple dialogue with use of body posture and behaviour to show emotion.

Of course we’re talking about writing for six year olds that will understand ‘walked slowly’ rather than ‘ambled’. I love that they are teaching dynamic writing and my daughter loves it. But, as an author it hurts!

So I’ll read the books, I’ll learn the KS1 curriculum, and I’ll keep my views on adverbs (mostly) to myself! 🙂 Who knows, if I print out the VCOP pyramid I might make my own writing stronger.

Listening for Echoes

The Martin Kids

The Martin Kids

When I get stuck with my writing – when I’m not sure how a scene plays out or what happens next – I walk the dog. And while I’m walking, I listen for echoes of my characters’ voices.

It feels like hunting for butterflies with a gossamer net. A scene, a visual, a story line, for me, nearly always starts with a fragment of dialogue.From the words, the tone, the attitude I hear, when the words appear in my mind, I can tell the mood and action of the character.

At the moment I’m finishing the first draft of my third Seren Kitty novel. I knew how the story was going to end (I do planning now, get me!) but sometimes that is more a burden than a blessing.

When I reach the climax my writing falls into, “And then Seren did this, then this happened, then this went wrong, then she fixed it like this…’ It’s all too fast and frantic.

So today I stopped, just as the rain stopped hammering on the plastic roof (My poor daughter has been on an outdoor school trip today through torrential rain. She’s going to be soaked!) I’ve come out to walk the dog (who isn’t happy because the vet has said she’s not allowed off-lead while her foot heals, after a bad sprain.)

Almost immediately after I left the house in sparkling afternoon sunshine and puddles, I could hear Seren’s voice. She was calling her mum from the phone she just borrowed from the baddies. She’s explaining what’s just happened. Her voice is clear in my head. She’s scared, but she’s come through a lot already and she’s a plucky girl. And, besides, the rain has stopped falling on her too (which is even more important when you’re sometimes a cat).

Seren has spoken and I have heard the echo. Now I need to go home and make it real. After I’ve taken a towel to the school pick up, that is.

Advice vs Example: How Best to Write Dialogue

The Tricky World of Children's Fiction

The Tricky World of Children’s Fiction

Ever since I started taking my writing craft seriously, I have read a lot of advice on how to write dialogue. Specifically on dialogue tags.

Whether I’m reading writing advice books, studying creative writing, or perusing blogs on what to do and what not to do, the advice is all the same.

1. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’.

People don’t see ‘said’. More importantly, don’t suffer from Dialogue Tag Thesaurus Syndrome.

E.g.

“Where are we?” Marina whispered.
“I don’t know,” Jacob answered.
“It looks like a cave,” Marina replied.
“It’s too dark to tell,” Jacob murmured.

This is good advice. There’s nothing worse than the obvious ‘trying too hard to avoid said‘ you see in some writing. Although I think there is a place for using some of these words sparingly to help add to the description and texture of the dialogue. Especially where word count is tight, like in children’s fiction.

2. Where possible, avoid using dialogue tags at all. Instead work in some action to help move the dialogue on and make it flow better.

E.g.

“It’s so beautiful.” Marina bent down and looked at the flower.
Jacob glared. “It’s girly.”
“No it’s not!” Marina gave him a furious look.
“Well, I think it is.” Jacob shrugged and turned away.

This is fine in moderation, but used too much I think it slows the dialogue down and makes it hard to read.

3. If you only have two characters speaking, you only need to identify them every few lines.

E.g.

“Come on, let’s go, Jacob.” Marina ran through the woods.
“Okay, I’m coming. Slow down!”
“Can’t catch me!”
Jacob heard Marina giggling and followed the sound. “Oh yes I can.”

I use this a lot in adult fiction, but I would use it sparingly when writing for young children. They read slowly and get lost and it’s easy to forget who is talking, unless it’s obvious from the voice of the character.

Plenty of examples of 'she beamed'

Plenty of examples of ignoring advice no.4

4. Don’t use dialogue tags that have nothing to do with talking. You cannot grin, laugh, giggle, sneer, sigh, groan, moan and talk at the same time. You can whisper, yell, shout, murmur, cry out, but only in moderation.

E.g.

“I bet you can’t climb that tree,” Jacob sneered.
“Oh yes I can,” Marina chuckled. “Watch me.”
“You’ll hurt yourself,” Jacob cautioned. “Girls can’t climb.”
“Don’t be silly,” Marina sighed. “You’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”

Now this is the advice I have the biggest problem with. I hear it everywhere, particularly in the writing course I’m doing at the moment. I’ve trained myself to always put the action separate. “Oh yes I can,” she said, grinning. or to use a full stop. “Oh yes I can.” She grinned at him. But since starting to write children’s fiction, I’ve discovered two things.

a) Using she said, grinning uses too many words. It makes the dialogue slow and static

b) No one else cares about this rule. Seriously. I’m reading a children’s book a day and every single one happily uses, She grinned, she giggled, she chuckled, she frowned. They even use, she hissed, when the dialogue doesn’t contain a sibilant word. (Advice says you can’t hiss ‘Granny’ because it doesn’t contain an s.)

So, here’s the rub. As a new writer, do I follow the writing advice or the examples? I have trained myself so well I actually cringe when reading ‘she sniggered’ as a dialogue tag, especially when reading out loud to my children. But they don’t care. To them it’s normal. It makes the writing flow, it adds texture, and – best of all – they understand it.

Anyone who thinks that writing for children is easy is wrong, wrong, wrong. 🙂

Have you come across this? Do you have a problem with ‘she grinned’? Do you always follow writing advice?

How Knitting is Like Writing

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

Two days in to assembling my 38-piece fairy doll puzzle, and I am beginning to see how creative endeavours are all the same. What looks like the hard part is often the easy bit, and coming up with a finished product that shines takes a lot of painstaking detail that is lost on the person who recieves the final product.

I thought following a pattern and knitting my 38 pieces of doll was the hard part. It turns out that, like childbirth, that was the easy bit. The impossible part is putting it all together so that it resembles the pattern or – failing that – at least looks a bit like a doll.

I’m learning that not all DK wool is created equal, so some of my pieces are bigger than others. I’m discovering that fluffy wool doesn’t sew all that well, and that pillow stuffing isn’t a patch on the proper stuff. Most of all, I am learning that it’s worth the effort to polish and take time to make the end product as good as it can be. Not something I’m always good at in writing.

So many people say, “I’d love to write a book,” – almost as many people as have said to me recently, “I wish I could knit.” The answer is the same for both – anyone can. I only started knitting in August but, through passion, practice and a willing audience cheering me on, I’m now creating something I can be proud of. The same goes for writing.

I started my first novel six years ago and now I’m writing my fifth. And in that time I’ve learned that it isn’t the rush rush bit of making the raw materials that makes you a writer, it’s being prepared to take time putting it all together. Slowly, carefully, with consideration and a willingness to pull bits apart. Actually I haven’t got there with my knitting! I should have redone the hair piece and the wings, but it takes me so long to knit something I haven’t the willpower to pull it down again. But with my writing I do – that’s what five years has taught me.

Next time I watch my very talented mum pulling down a piece of knitting that would have taken me a week, because she didn’t like it, or the wool was wrong, or there was a mistake, I won’t wince. I will just think – there is someone who is such a master of their craft, they know what it takes to create a masterpiece. In the mean time, I’m still practicing, learning. And, more importantly, having fun.

Write Every Day. Seriously

Chatter Boy

Chatter Boy

I hate it when advice turns out to be spot on.

When you start writing, the advice you are always given is ‘write every day’. I’ve managed to skirt around it for the last five years, with the excuse that I have young children (apart from last year, when I took writing every day to a new extreme).

And, to be fair, for a long time I survived on writing only on a couple of days a week. But what I did in between didn’t seem to clutter my brain, and I managed to sustain my story in my head.

Now the children are older, my mind is constantly filled with someone else’s words. Even now as I write this my daughter is showing me photos, videos, making up poems and asking questions. She knows I’m working – this is her ‘not interrupting’.

No wonder when I have sat down to write recently, I’ve been more caught up in whether the children have finished their homework or what’s for tea than why Edan hates his dad.

Yesterday I was full of cold so hubbie gallantly volunteered to have our youngest while I went to bed (there are some advantages to having hubbie at home). It threw me completely, because usually I work Monday, Wednesday and Friday and have my son home the other days. Even though I slept most of the day and did very little writing, I had a break from the endless chatter and need to listen to words other than the ones in my head. (They are my children after all – they have so many words!)

As a result of the extra child-free day I thought today must be Tuesday. Realising it was a work way was marvellous. I got so much done. I wrote several scenes and rearranged a few more. I stopped trying to over-think my plot while the kids watched Dora, and just wrote some stuff down. I remembered that I know how to write.

I used to have my nursery days together, two days mid-week. I think I would need to do that again if I am going to finish this darn book (I can’t though because the nursery don’t have space.) Thankfully, the darlings will both be at school from next September. Even though that will mean double the homework, ironing and paperwork, it will also mean five glorious consecutive mornings of writing time.

Bring it on.

How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

This morning I’ve been researching the interesting world of swearing, for my MG fiction book. This is the first time I’ve written for pre-teens and I hadn’t realised how many mild swear words litter my writing, or how different words have different shock values depending on the country.

For example bloody hell and bugger off probably wouldn’t cause too much consternation in the UK, although there is obviously more impact on the written page than in the spoken word. I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at crap or oh my god or good heavens. But then I come from a non religious family and I’m sure the latter two would worry religious families more.

Interestingly my children are more shocked by ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ than ‘shit’ because we as a family have given the words more power, although I do try and distinguish between saying ‘that shot was rubbish’ and ‘you’re rubbish’. I’m not even going to discuss the reaction I got from nursery when my son repeated my stressed-out-end-of-tether phrase ‘shut up!’ to another child. Let’s say they would have been less disapproving if he’d said f-off. Maybe.

Swearing, after all, is all about shock value. You only had to see my unfortunate and accidental (and instantly-regretted) reaction when my daughter mispronounced ‘can’t’ during a recent reading session. Having to explain why even Mummy wouldn’t use that word probably gave her the ultimate weapon against me. But I digress.

Some level of exclamation is needed when writing, to show emotion and make dialogue sound realistic. Unfortunately I don’t yet have Tweens, so I don’t know what they say when they’re upset/shocked/scared/angry. And I’m sure what they say to each other isn’t what their parents want to see them reading in a children’s novel.

Scouring several websites this morning, it seems the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. But how to do so without sounding twee? In Elizabeth Kay’s lovely book, Ice Feathers, she uses phrases like ‘for the Wind’s sake’ and ‘flapping’. Unfortunately they make me think of all the phrases I hear on Cbeebies like ‘galloping guinea pigs’ and ‘flapperty flippers’, ‘jumping jellyfish’, or, my favourite, ‘Well, I’ll be a sea monkey’s uncle.’

I think I will use foodie words for my male protagonist, as he loves cooking. Things like ‘fried tomatoes’, ‘pancakes and crepes’ and possibly ‘shiitake mushrooms’ although apparently that’s from a Spy Kids movie and I don’t want plagiarism issues. My female lead is a fairy and lives in the woods, so phrases like ‘eggshells’ and ‘creeping caterpillars’ might work. Is ‘bird poo’ too much? I’m sure I’ve borrowed books from the library for under fives that have the words poo and pants. Does it become unacceptable if Mummy isn’t reading it?

Who knew writing for children was so much harder than writing for adults, especially when you’ve had a colourful upbringing. Well, me actually. But it will be worth the effort I hope!

What are your favourite non-swearing cuss words? What do you let your children say and not say?

Related Articles:

Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog: Danika Dinsmore ~ Tropes & Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers

From the Mixed-Up Files… Of Middle Grade Authors: Is it Okay to Curse in MG Books

AbsoluteWrite: Acceptable Swear Words for Children?