Recently my writing colleague, fellow SCBWI and friend Nina Wadcock asked if anyone would be her Beta reader. I volunteered straight off. We got on well and I had every expectation it would be a good read. She accepted my offer – and then the second thoughts came fluttering in a black cloud… Continue reading
In medieval times, they say, Good and Evil were pictured as a devil and an angel sitting on your shoulders whispering advice. That’s why you throw salt over your left shoulder, to blind the little devil.
I’m editing (still) and I’ve got two voices whispering in my ears. They are not Good and Evil, but more like Imagination and Creativity on one side – and Logic and Analytical Reason on the other. I have to keep testing and refining what I am revising – as Scientific an enterprise as you could wish for – but I also need to generate new scenes on occasion. Cue Art – and the need to stick a gag in my Critical self’s gob.
Should my door be shut or open? (to use Stephen King’s metaphor) Tricky.
I need to come up with new material, to innovate, to avoid cliché – but at what point am I re-inventing the wheel? Is the accuracy and honesty of, say, a particular image worth disrupting the flow of a paragraph for?
make it simple and easy to read, please the target readership , give them what they want
be true to yourself, use your own voice, the readers you are meant to have will love it that way
Who do I listen to?
I need other voices guiding me – external ones. I am aware of my own stubbornness, my (surprising-to-some) shyness and reticence in seeking help. Partly I feel embarrassed, ashamed that after years of teaching , and a Masters’ Degree in Creative Writing , I still don’t know how to write for children.
I have to squash my ego and seek advice. It’s the task that matters , not some day-dream of being An Author. And then comes the really important bit:
I must be discriminating in what I do with that guidance.
As my wonderful friend and musician colleague Pam Wedgwood said the notes are only a guide. It’s up to me how I interpret them.
I need both passion to rise above the ordinary to keep me going – and commonsense coupled with humility to be thankful for those who have helped along the way. (SCBWI/Golden Egg pals – this means you.)
So I’m rather hoping by responding to both, I can figure out my own way. Something like having callers on both sides of the river telling me which way to steer – from their point of view.
On June 15th I attended a pitching workshop in Newcastle c/o Mslexia and New Writing North. It was a complete writer-to-jelly-making experience. I ran out of spit, my lips turned to unresponsive flabber, and my brain had all the computing power of a Fisher-Price chatter phone. Torture.
But so good. I hope they run more and offer them to the wider writing public.
Thinking well I can’t be any worse than that I set off from The Witterings to the Big Smoke and Foyles last Thursday. My entire system bubbles with nerves – think Mentos and Pepsi here – and I get into a complete muddle on the Underground. I come out at Charing Cross.
Now if you are not hicks-from-the-sticks, you will know this is a good old step from the bookshop. Panic. Cue one helpful policeman. From the North East. There is most definitely a God.
I’d declined the offer of meeting up with the other writers first – which was just as well.
If you’re wondering why, I didn’t mean to be rude but my way of coping is on my own. I can be hideously over-sensitive – I pick up atmosphere like dried seaweed forecasts rain. (I can get drunk on the scent of other people’s prosecco – which makes me a cheap date – but I digress.) I really didn’t want any more nerves doing an Audrey II tentacle thing on me.
Just in time I get there and I go for it.
I have a very loose connection with Ben Illis (BIA) via Imogen Cooper of The Golden Egg Academy He’s the agent for the lovely Lu Hersey, winner of the Mslexia prize and fellow selkie enthusiast. So I wade in and ask if he has space for another selkie story. I am aghast at my own cheek.
Not unexpectedly, I get an utterly charming rejection* – so charming in fact that I stay on to chat (thanks to Lu-the-tolerant). I inhabit the role of confident, enthusiastic writer. I talk anyway. I talk to editors and agents, scouts and fellow authors. It works. I get interest from people I am not self-consciously pitching to.* there are only so many selkie stories a chap can represent.
So if you get chance, say the SCBWI-BI Agents Party, go for it. Just talk honestly about what matters to you. If nothing else results from it, you will have had chance to refine your ideas with industry professionals – who are not there to make you feel a twit.
This doesn’t mean: don’t do your homework, don’t bother working out what is the core of your book and how that will appeal to your readership. Think hard. Listen to pitching advice. Work all that stuff out, hone it and then LEAVE THE SCRIPT BEHIND.
You are not selling double-glazing from a dingy call-centre in down-town Doncaster.
But it is most definitely worth getting over those confidence-draining, saprophytic nerves. In the words of Marni Nixon singing for Deborah Kerr in The King and I:
Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are!
When I returned from my wonderfully stimulating and exhausting weekend in Frome at the Golden Egg Academy, I started work immediately – on preparing my house for bed-and-breakfast guests. I had a photo-shoot scheduled for Tuesday morning courtesy of Airbnb.
What, you might well ask, has that got to do with writing?
More than I thought at first.
One task was clearing out the clutter. Getting shot of the bits and bobs that got in the way so that the potential guests could see what they were getting easily. It needed to be clear and clean and suited to the people who liked that sort of thing.
Of course, it was hard to wang stuff out. I am temperamentally averse to disposal. Ideologically too – though handing stuff over to charity shops soothed those qualms. I had to get over some of my sentimentality and clingishness. I can’t say I have entirely triumphed – there are cupboards upstairs bursting with that-which-might-come-in-useful-one-day.
But I had to steel myself, to try and look at my rooms with a dispassionate eye. The tired and the sad had to go – because they got in the way of what I was trying to do. Likewise, I arranged things to make it look good in the photographs. There’s an element of the stage set here, the use of props to suggest the atmosphere I wish to convey – a little cynical, perhaps.
You can see the parallel, I suspect.
The crucial, though not the only, learning point of my time at Imogen Cooper’s lovely house was identifying the core of my novel that would appeal to my intended readership. That is what I have to de-clutter. I need to strip away all the extraneous tat – and even the really lovely writing – that doesn’t make it clear, clean and suited to readers who like that sort of thing. I have to chuck out the verbal chintz.
To use an old Yorkshire expression, my novel needs a ‘good bottoming’ – it needs sorting out – or ‘fettling’ from the bottom up. And it’s no good being half-arsed about it (pun intended). I shall have give it a proper seeing-to.
On with the metaphorical rubber gloves, then.
…lay a little egg for me.
Tomorrow finds me on a train to Frome in Dorset before I attend a Golden Egg Academy workshop on Saturday & Sunday. I’m making a day of it and intend to explore a wee bit. Changes of scenery can often lead to new inspirations – not that I’m short of anything to write about but a little prompt whilst between major works-in-progress keeps the creativity ticking over nicely.
I’ll be sharing accommodation with my www.seamagic.org pal Claudia Myatt – so an exchange of sea yarns will be going on, I suspect. It will be great fun to meet up with other writers for young people too – if nothing else, I will find that stimulating.
However the biggie is help sorting out the stack of tamboured muslin, talking gargoyles and civic corruption which is Georgiana & the Municipal Moon. I think you’d have to envisage my first draft as a cabin trunk jammed full of grubby little scene oddments, faded images of neo-Regency life, salt-stained maps of Selchester, the City-on-the-Sea, and the odd transcript of curious dialogue. It seems as if it should all fit together somehow – but I need some serious help putting my scrapbook together.
I am both nervous and thrilled to have Imogen Cooper take my story seriously. I want all the help I can get to make it work the best I can. There is a core, like the spine formed early on in an embryo that I can’t or won’t change, but otherwise: whatever it takes to tell the story.
To be continued…
On Saturday 12th January, I went to the launch of the Golden Egg Academy in Bath. I expected that I would meet at least a couple of people I knew – and I could now tell them about my latest success. I had known since before Christmas that The Selkies of Scoresby Nab had been long-listed for the Times/Chicken House Competition. You would think I’d be bursting to tell anyone and everyone – but I felt oddly reticent. Shy even.
I found myself lost deep in La-la land: talking with the Barry Cunningham, finding that Beverley Birch had read a previous blogpost and remembered it, welcomed by Imogen Cooper as an equal. I had slid into a world of my imagination.
But in my daydreams, it had been easy, I had confidence – not this edgy feeling I have now. I feel I’m tiptoeing on the borders of Fairyland, nervous and full of hope and fear.
I’ve had lovely little glimpses and excursions: a workshop with the much-admired David Almond; twitter conversations with the wonderfully accessible Joanne Harris; and even Susan Hill. There was astonishing interview with Greg Mosse on the MA at West Dean where for a moment he helped me soar, to feel like a proper writer.
But I’m scared. I’m frightened to succeed.
I’ve grown accustomed to being second-rate, an also-ran. Grade B ‘O’ & ‘A’levels, a II:I English degree at Loughborough, not Oxford, a minor teaching post. It’s all been quite comfortable – and I bitterly resent it. It’s also painfully true that I envied Susie Wilde her well-deserved First in her MA at West Dean.
There are times I really don’t like myself.
I wonder, am I bringing my own danger into the Perilous Realm? I really don’t mean to be smug or condescending or self-satisfied – but I hear those thin, superior voices in my head. They distract me from paying proper attention, they tell me I know that or this already.
On one hand, I am so wary of pride that I find it hard to rejoice.On the other, I so desire recognition from authors I wish were my peers that I fear I must be insufferable. I look to see who has congratulated me far too often – yet I am genuinely moved when anybody does wish me well.
Am I hunting for fairy gold?