In Celebration of Pantsing

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Keeping children entertained: full time job

Sorry I’ve been quiet this week. On top of drafting a new novel, which has been draining my energy, I had my daughter at home on Wednesday, because the teachers were on strike. Goodness knows how I’m going to write or blog in the school holidays: I think I might have to try and plan to have manuscripts with editors so I can take the time off without guilt and frustration.

On the plus side, I am really enjoying getting stuck into a new novel, especially one where I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With a Romance, there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, no matter how much you try and avoid cliches and tropes. Eventually boy meets girl, they have some problems, but they get together in the end.

With this Middle Grade fiction book I started only with a character and a rough idea that it would be a fantasy book, along the lines of The Divide – one of my favourite MG books in recent years. (The first book in the trilogy is currently free on kindle. Bargain!) The trick will be to avoid plagiarising Elizabeth Kay’s book and coming up with my own, original, story, while still learning from what I read.

The best bit about Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) is that you avoid the info-dump. The most tedious part of editing a first draft of a Romance novel for me is that I always info-dump in the first couple of chapters, so have to go back and rewrite whole sections. In fact, for both Baby Blues and Class Act, I ended up adding a bunch of chapters at the beginning of the manuscript, to turn the info-dump into action.

But when you know nothing more about a character than his name and the fact that he lives in a farmhouse with his mum and two older siblings, it’s much easier to drop in backstory as required and as it occurs to you. Then the second draft becomes about continuity.

I’ve just watched a top tips video by Barry Cunningham, the man who published Harry Potter, on how to write children’s stories. His first four tips (the fifth covered submissions) could be summarised as:

1. Put yourself back in the age group you are writing for: remember the excitement of that age [Ah crap, I can hardly remember being a child]
2. Include lots of details: The setting. What are they eating? What do they look like? Kids love detail [Oh dear, I’m not one for reading or writing lots of detail]
3. Planning: make sure you know when to introduce and remove characters, when your climaxes are, in order to keep the reader engaged [This is a blog post on Pantsing. Enough said]
4. Remember the importance of humour, especially in dialogue [My book is shaping up a bit dark and depressing. I’m screwed]

Oh well. Plenty of stuff to work on in the second draft! For now I’m enjoying finding out what happens next.

Introducing George: 2013 365 Challenge #111

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

While lying in bed cursing the sore throat and stiff neck that have besieged me this afternoon, a germ of an idea planted in my mind and squirmed into the soil, like the sunflower seeds my kids planted at the Farm today.

I recently finished another great kid’s book and saw that, as with many of my other new finds, it was published by Chicken House. The name rang a bell and I realised it was the name of the publishers that were part of the competition I didn’t enter with Dragon Wraiths because the manuscript was too long.

I visited their website to see if they accept submissions and they’ve just launched the competition again, with a deadline of 1st November.

Ooh went my brain. It’s a long time to 1st November. There’s time to write something new. After all, I started Dragon Wraiths this time last year and had that finished by last November. And that was over 100k words. The maximum for The Chicken House / Times competition is 80k words. If I plan it out this time (at least a bit, I am a pantser after all) I could stay within word count.

On the Tractor Ride

On the Tractor Ride

Now of course this breaks all the rules of being a writer. You’re not meant to write for gain or fame but only for the love of writing. Thing is, I love writing but I need a goal and a deadline, at least to get me going. I’m proud of Dragon Wraiths and that was written for a competition (and ultimately prize money).

But I didn’t get up every nursery day and write 5,000 words just for profit (which would be a foolish aim anyway: everyone knows writers don’t make money). I wrote it to find out what happened to Leah, to find out how the story ended. But on dark days the thought of maybe winning £5000 did help keep me motivated.

So I lay in bed earlier this evening, feeling foggy and sore, and searched through my mind for a new idea. It felt a bit wrong, looking for an idea rather than waiting for one to arrive. But people who write hundreds of books must have to do that. I knew what genre at least: I’ve been aching to try my hand at a fantasy middle grade fiction since enjoying The Divide, The Extincts, Stone Heart, Shadow Forest, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and now Ravenwood. And, after some throwing around of ideas, I tapped out the opening scene to a new novel. One I hope might generate characters that will survive to a sequel, since my favourite books are the ones with lots of volumes around the same central characters. I like characters to become my friends. My only dilemma right now is it might involve Time Travel. Again. According to some agents I follow on Twitter, Time Travel has been done to death already. Oh dear.

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Is it bad, that I’m motivated by entering a competition? I hope not. I read Sally Jenkins lovely collection of short stories, One Day For Me, this morning because I couldn’t get the sequel to Ravenwood as an ebook. All of Sally’s stories were written for competitions. They’re still great. It’s accepted practice for short story writers to write for specific markets and hopefully financial gain. Why not novels? If it’s rubbish it won’t win so no one’s hurt.

Matt Haig, author of Shadow Forest, says otherwise and I respect his opinion but I hope there are grades of love versus money. Writing for love is a given or I wouldn’t have survived to episode #111 of Claire, through insomnia and flu and dearth of ideas. But bills need to be paid and everyone wants to think their novels might be read one day. Therefore, alongside trying to find new adventures for Claire, I’ll be creating George and his new world. Hopefully Claire won’t suffer (I’m actually hoping a new project will kickstart my imagination as I’ve been really struggling with Claire recently).

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Auntie Claire, I don’t feel very well.”

Claire looked down at her niece and recoiled slightly at the green tinge of her skin.

“Are you going to be sick? Lean over the side for heaven’s sake. But not too close! I don’t want you falling in.” She looked around at the other passengers and prayed Sky didn’t vomit on any of them. Something of her reaction must have come through her voice, because a clammy little hand sought out hers. “Sorry, Claire. I don’t mean to feel poorly. I’ve never been on the sea before.”

Patting the frozen hand, Claire tried to remain calm. The white tips of the choppy waves weren’t helping. It hadn’t seemed that windy on the shore, but here in the harbour the small craft was rocked by gusting blasts that whipped the waves to froth. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. I might have known Sky would get sea sick, especially as she’s still recovering from her fever. When she remembered Sky’s amazement as they first arrived at the coast, Claire couldn’t feel it was a bad move. Her mouth had dropped into a perfect ‘o’ of wonder at the grey sea spreading out before them to the horizon.

“It’s so big,” she had said quietly, her eyes wide and staring.

The tour guide called out, interrupting Claire’s thoughts. “You can see grey seals now, if you look towards the shore. There are still some youngsters playing if you look closely. We’ll get in as near as we can.”

“Look, Sky,” Claire said brightly, “baby seals.” Sea spray soaked her skin and she knew it was frizzing her hair to an impossible mess. Snuggling deeper into her jacket, she felt Sky’s hands and face to ensure she wasn’t getting too cold.

Sky raised her head to look at the slick grey animals frolicking in the sea near the boat. Her complexion was still green and Claire hoped the distraction would help her keep breakfast on the inside. I wonder if I dare get out my phone and take some pictures for the blog. If Sky is going to throw up I might not get another opportunity. The boat pitched suddenly and she felt her own stomach lurch. I might even be joining her.

“If you look closely you can see common seals as well as grey seals. The common seals are actually rarer than the grey seals so we’re fortunate to see both today.”

The Guide’s words rolled over Claire like the sea as she focussed on getting a few snaps before another gust of wind sent her or her phone overboard. Feeling a tug at her sleeve, Claire could sense Sky trembling beside her. Tucking the phone back in the safety of a pocket, she pulled her niece onto her lap and hugged her close.

“Alright, sweetie. Just keep breathing through your nose and concentrate on the seals.”

“Here, love, give her one of these.”

Claire looked up to see a kindly face peering out through a fur-lined hood. Glancing down, she saw a pack of polo mints nestled in the woollen glove reaching out towards her.

“Thank you,” she said with real gratitude. Pulling off her gloves, she retrieved a mint and handed it to Sky. She was rewarded by seeing the distress on Sky’s face ebb slightly, like the outgoing tide.

Flashing a smile at the stranger, Claire hugged Sky close again. “That’s it, poppet. You’re being very brave. Well done.”

After a few more days with me, the poor girl isn’t going to want to see her Auntie Claire again. Somehow the thought made her sad.

***

Learning to row and little ones growing up

Turns out rowing is in my family’s blood!

I must apologise for my prolonged silence. When my babies were born a childminder I met said, “As a parent of very young children your world will shrink to a tiny point where the only things that matter are whether they eat and sleep and are happy. As they grow older you will begin to remember that there’s a whole other world out there.”

As my son’s second birthday approaches (this Friday – I can’t believe it) that prophecy has become true. All of a sudden I have re-joined the human race. As a result, some things – like my writing and this blog – have been forced into the background, despite my best intentions that that wouldn’t happen. I’m particularly concerned that I have entered my young-adult novel Dragon Wraiths into the Mslexia competition without the final draft being completely finished. I’m taking a gamble that I’ll be able to at least fix any continuity errors before I might have to submit the full manuscript, which they estimate as being in November for the short list. To be honest I don’t really expect to make the short list so it will be a nice dilemma to have.

For those paying attention to my on-going ramblings about my young adult book I have had to forgo entering the Chicken House competition, as the final first draft came in a third over their word count limit of 80,000. I’m not an enthusiastic (or experienced) enough editor to lop off thirty-five thousand words in a month.

So what have I been doing in the real world?

Learning to row

I married into a family of rowers and always vowed I would learn one day. I vowed I’d learn Italian too (my husband is half-Italian) but that’s proving more tricky. My husband planned to teach me to row after our second child was born, but a premature baby and postnatal depression put paid to that idea.

Then this summer our local Adult Education brochure arrived and I read it cover to cover, as I always do. I’m an academic junkie as well as always being on the lookout for local Italian classes. No joy on that front but there was a five-week Ladies Only Learn to Row course. Fate.

I changed the kids’ nursery days, swore my husband to secrecy, and signed up. Three weeks in and I’m loving it: Now I can actually propel the boat without facing the prospect of a cold bath that is. The first two weeks were HARD. My brain wasn’t used to concentrating for two hours at a time and I got very cross with my lack of coordination. The lady from British Rowing seemed to think I was the antithesis of a natural.

Today, though, the boat flew. It was amazing. I rowed with my eyes closed. Literally. To start out rubbish and get better – to feel myself improve and to get instant feedback (if I sense I’m about to join the ducks I’m doing it wrong) – is exhilarating.

If only writing was like that. Or parenting.

After nearly four years of feeling like a failure it was fantastic to be proud of myself for once.

Little ones growing up

The other thing we’ve been doing this week is looking at primary schools for my daughter. Scary stuff. I’ve thought about where I would like my children to go to school pretty much since my daughter was born. Several of my friends are teachers and my sister moved her family to America partly because of a school she wants them to attend. Education is important.

I think back to the various schools I went to as a child and I can see the different shifts in my personality that came with each one. To make that decision now, when my daughter is not even four and my son (who will hopefully go to the same school) is not quite two, seems madness. Thankfully we are blessed with an array of great state schools around us so the choice is more small village school versus larger town school, and whether to take current friendships into account. No decisions yet. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime I am trying to get my head back into writing, to plod on with editing Dragon Wraiths (harder than I hoped it would be) and writing query letters for Pictures of Love (which I still intend to self-publish but, as I haven’t got time to do the final proof-read at the moment, I may as well rack up a few more rejection letters!)

Have any of you recently sent your first child to school or started a new hobby? What keeps you away from editing and blog writing?

Children’s Novel Competitions: Mslexia vs Chicken House

Ok so now I have a dilemma. The lovely Helen Yendall over on her Blog About Writing posted a link to another children’s novel competition running this autumn, this time with The Times and the publisher Chicken House.

If you follow my blog, you may know that I am writing a Young-Adult book – Dragon Wraiths – to enter in the Mslexia Children’s Novel competition.

Now I have to decide whether to continue to aim for the Mslexia competition, or to change direction and enter this one with The Times and Chicken House instead. They each have their pros and cons.

The deadline for the Chicken House is later than the Mslexia one (26th October vs. 10th September) but the entry is a full printed manuscript, up to 80,000 words (suggested minimum 30,000 words, which is the same as Mslexia). In the first instance, Mslexia are asking for the first chapter, up to 3000 words, with the full manuscript and synopsis to be sent later, if you are shortlisted. Now this is where the comparison gets tricky.

As well as the wanting the full manuscript, Chicken House state:

Each entry must be accompanied by a brief synopsis, plot plan and a letter of submission explaining the book’s appeal to children. (A plot plan is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, with a couple of sentences on each, paying attention to the roles of the main characters, dramatic high points, and the most important strands of the plot. The synopsis should be no more than a page, and should give an overview of the complete story, including key characters, events and settings.)

So, how confident am I about my writing? Do I feel my opening chapter has enough impact for me to take the easier (more lazy) route, or will my story come across better will a full synopsis?

The latter, of course.  

I’ve already discussed how I’m worried my first chapter alone isn’t enough without a synopsis, because the dragons don’t come until a third of the way into the book. On the other hand, writing the synopsis is going to be hellish, because the novel skips between two worlds and two timelines, using different fonts (at the moment) to keep it all separate. Also the plot-plan is going to highlight my weaknesses when it comes to planning, as I’m not sure every chapter has a dramatic high point and so on.

There are other differences between the two competitions: the terms and conditions for the Times competition are much more thorough, including lots about the paper having rights forever to publish excerpts of any entry for free. That kind of stuff worries me, but I’ve convinced myself it’s just free publicity, assuming all excerpts are accredited to me as author.

Getting down to the nitty gritty of money, entry into Mslexia is £25 whereas the Times / Chicken House is £15. The minimum winner’s pot, as I read it, is £5,000 and £10,000 respectively. That’s pretty irrelevant: I don’t expect to win, really, although there’s no harm in hope.

The Times/Chicken House Ts & Cs have an interesting one-liner on what they are looking for:

The winner will be the entrant whose story, in the opinion of the judges, demonstrates the greatest entertainment value, quality, originality and suitability for children aged 7-18.

That’s a tall order for any author, but something we should all aspire to. I have no idea whether my idea is original and I don’t know any young-adults to try it out for entertainment or suitability. I guess these are things outside my control in a way. I find the story entertaining, and I like Young-Adult fiction (I’m re-reading Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials at the moment, and finding it hard to put down, even though I’ve read it before)

Despite the entry cost I am extremely tempted to submit to both competitions. I can’t find anything in the rules expressly forbidding it. I would love to double my chances of at least getting some great feedback and the Times/Chicken House competition offers editorial feedback to the 20 shortlisted entries. That is something I can aim for.

Of course, there might be a problem if I won both competitions, but wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have? 😉

 

Other Links:

Competition Rules:

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/competitions/article3375938.ece

http://mslexia.co.uk/whatson/msbusiness/ncomp_rules.php

The Chicken House Writer’s Guide