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The Dark is Rising

30 Jan

Image result for winter

 

I always thought I hated winter, with its cold dark days when the chill seeps into your bones and you just want to curl up in bed and sulk until the sun comes back.

My least favourite things about this time of year include: getting to work in the dark, leaving work in the dark, people on the bus taking turns to exhibit their hacking coughs, always losing at least one glove, and icy pavements, which I don’t seem able to walk across without imitating an elderly constipated penguin.

However, I have to – grudgingly – admit that the darkness brings something with it; there is magic and mystery in the shadows. Back in December I found The Box of Delights on DVD and watched it over a long weekend, nestled under a blanket on the sofa. This series is based on the children’s book of the same name by John Masefield and its events unfold during one boy’s snowy Christmas holiday. Clandestine villainous meetings are held in murky back streets, wolves give chase in the night, and at one point the antagonist calls up a blizzard to cut off the epicentre of events from the rest of the world. I can’t imagine this story working, or generating anywhere near the same amount of threat, if it was set during a blisteringly hot summer.

There are many other children’s books that I could say the same about; The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Jane Aiken are just three.

I think the reason for this prevalence of winter-time settings in children’s books of a fantastical and frightening sort is two-fold. Firstly, it’s easier to imagine the existence of mythical beasts or the occurrence of magical events when the world is in shadow. Again, I don’t think the bright light of day lends itself as well to the mystical. Secondly, we humans have retained our fear of the dark; of what could be lurking beyond the reach of the light that shines from our windows. It’s very easy to squint into a moonlit wood or even to walk down a darkened street and imagine you see something moving slowly towards you, a black shape full of evil intent.

Let’s face it, the dark still spooks us.

So winter is a gift to writers, particularly those who want to evoke the feeling that all is not well, we really aren’t safe, because something is out there in the shadows.

Maybe I like winter after all.

The post-novel void.

6 Aug

I knew it was going to be odd, not having a novel to work on any more, I knew I was going to suddenly discover oodles of time that I’d previously spent editing, but one or two things did surprise me about my post-novel void.

It’s been three months since I finished my MA and three months since I looked at the book I wrote for it. In the initial days after hand-in, I mainly went to work, celebrated, and slept. I used my suddenly abundant spare time to patch up my social life, which had been somewhat neglected in the run-up to the deadline. I basked in the fact I’d actually finished the book, and encouraged my writing brain to chill out.

After a week or two came the sadness that I was expecting: sadness at the end of a three and a half year process of learning and fretting and learning to fret less, and getting to spend time with people who cared about writing as much as I did. I still miss all of that, very much, but I’m lucky to have some excellent writer friends – both from the course and otherwise – who have massively reduced my withdrawal symptoms.

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how much writing had become a habit for me. My brain soon started craving its laptop time again and I was surprised by how quickly ideas began dropping into my head. I thought I’d need a long fallow period to recover from such an extended stint of work, that I’d be out of action for a while, and rightly so. But that was the other thing that surprised me: almost as soon as I’d handed in my MA novel, I began to feel like I should be writing something else, a sort of “okay, you’ve finished that, but what are you doing now?”.

I have a habit of putting too much pressure on myself, so I resisted this persistent little voice for a while and stubbornly stuck to having some time off from writing. I read a lot, which was just lovely, and very much helped to fill the post-MA void. Then I came up with a plan. I like plans. I dislike floating about waiting to see what happens, and plans keep me occupied and positive. My plan was to re-read the majority of the short story books that I have – more than I’d realised as it turned out – then spend some time turning the ideas that appeared in my head into short stories and flash fiction pieces.

And for the past few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’m lucky, I get a month off in the summer, and aside from lie-ins and reading and plenty of tea and cake with friends, I’ve been reading and writing pretty much every day. I’m not working for as many hours per week as I was on the MA, but that’s just fine with me. I am meant to be on holiday, after all. But I’m very glad that writing is still a part of my life, and that I still enjoy it so much.

Once the summer is over, it’ll be time to get out the book for another edit, and actually, I’m really excited about getting reacquainted with it. I know I’ll do a better job on this edit having had a decent break and maybe that’s really what the post-novel void is for: to recharge. To rest and read and let your enthusiasm for your work return so you can make it better. I hope so anyway…

The End – part 2

22 May

MA receipt

A little over two weeks ago, I completed my children’s novel for my final MA submission. Although I was immensely proud of this achievement, the hand-in process was anti-climactic to say the least. I didn’t expect applause or a confetti cannon, but the woman behind the desk at the university just peered dubiously at me as I gave her two bound copies of my work. She eventually found me on the system, and printed out a scrappy receipt (see above) which, at this point, is my only proof that I’ve actually finished the MA.

Still, I took my scrappy receipt and met up with two of my fellow students for tea and cake. Although it was lovely to see them, and to find out how their own work was progressing, they were more excited about my hand-in than I was at that point. The main feeling I had was one of exhaustion, which is what comes from 25 hours of editing per week on top of a full-time job. On the train back to Leeds I struggled to stay awake. I’d arranged an evening out with friends but was seriously considering cancelling it.

I was glad I didn’t. After a few more hours, the giddiness started to kick in. I’d done it! I’d written an entire book, edited it, nurtured it, ended up talking fondly about my characters as if they were actual people, and now it was all finished. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate that than with my friends, many of whom had kept me going through the rougher patches, and provided helpful advice on various drafts. I slept incredibly well that night, and for a good week or so afterwards, although it was less than ten days after hand-in that my brain started bugging me about the next novel I was going to write.

Before I start thinking about that, I wanted to reflect on the build up to hand-in and offer some advice to anyone else who’s got a submission deadline to meet.

  1. Prepare to work like you’ve never worked before! For most of the MA I’d been writing and editing for 10 to 15 hours a week. In the month or so before my deadline, that doubled, and I found myself working every day. This was tough. You need to be disciplined to sit at your laptop every evening and weekend, resisting the urge to lie on the sofa watching Netflix.

  2. Prepare anyone you live with for how hard you’ll have to work. For a short amount of time, you’ll be grumpy, boggle-eyed, and utterly unconcerned with the cleanliness of yourself or your home. Perhaps your partner or housemate might like to take a holiday for a few weeks.

  3. Ask a few people you trust to read your final (ish) draft. They’ll be able to pick out inconsistencies, plot holes, anything that jars, doesn’t make sense or seems out of character. You’ve probably read your work so many times that you’ve become blind to errors.

  4. Do a final proofread using a printed copy of your work. You’ll be amazed at how many changes you want to make when you see your novel on paper. A friend of mine reads his final draft on Kindle to get the same effect.

  1. Any academic work accompanying your writing will take longer than you expect. I allowed myself one weekend to complete a reflective commentary, but the appendices alone took several hours, as I had to find examples from previous drafts to demonstrate my editing process.

  2. Celebration is a wonderful thing, but postpone it by a few days if you can, so you’re less zombie-like and can enjoy it more.

The Forensic Edit

10 Apr

Once I’d finished the third draft of my book-in-progress my tutor told me I was ready for a forensic edit. No white coats or upbeat theme tunes were required, only the removal of every unnecessary word.

Now was the time to cut away as many ‘and’s as possible, delete any syllable of dialogue that wasn’t vital to plot or character development, and stamp out my tendency to over-tell. My book is aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, confident readers with a sophisticated understanding of narrative who can easily pick up on cues provided in the text. They do not need what my third draft still contained: the literary equivalent of a flashing neon arrow attached to a loudhailer pointing out the aforementioned cues. (“Tears flowed down his face. He’d never been more miserable. HE WAS EXTREMELY SAD, GOT IT?”)

Taking out every non-essential word would force me to remove these giant flashing arrows, making my writing subtler and therefore more appropriate for my intended audience. It would also make the text flow more smoothly, eradicating clunky or repetitive passages. That was the hope anyway.

I knew that, after its trim, the writing should still be clear and still convey the same information, sense of character and emotional impact. If I started loosing any of that, I would have gone too far.

So I began. It was surprisingly easy to chop down descriptive passages and shed sections of dialogue, as well as getting rid of unnecessary dialogue lead ins. (She flicked her hair. “I don’t think so.”) I cut so much that it made me a little giddy but after a while the editing slowed. I’d find myself reading the same paragraph fifty times, trying to decide whether to delete ‘that’. Sometimes I’d take words out one day only to add them back in the next, which was a sign I was pretty much finished.

All that remained was for me to hunt down the repeated words and phrases that I’d noticed during the edit. I spent a lot of time with my thesaurus trying to find alternative ways to describe the crackle of a walkie-talkie or the vastness of a secret underground cave.

Eventually the fourth draft was finished and the writing was much leaner. Draft three had reduced the book from 56,000 words to 48,600. Draft four simmered it down to only 42,000. As a result, the text seemed to leap from the page in a sprightly fashion rather than dragging itself between plot points. Everything still made sense and I didn’t seem to have lost anything in terms of my characters.

Now, with 24 days to go until the hand-in date, my plan is to put the book to one side for a week or two, then do a final paper read through. I feel more confident about the state of the work after this forensic edit, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone in the final stages of writing. You can pretend you’re on CSI if you want to.

“Today, children, there’s a writer in the classroom…”

9 Mar

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I was recently invited to a primary school to speak to two year 5 classes. The topic: me as a writer. Where I get my ideas from, the process of writing my book-in-progress, a sneak preview of chapter one, and activities focusing on setting to tie in with the children’s work on Great Expectations. (Great Expectations! In year 5! One pupil, talking about his favourite author, told me: “I like him because, like Dickens, he has exciting events from the very start of his story. Dickens had to do that because his novel was being serialised in a newspaper.” I think I might have gawped at him a bit.)

I’m not sure who was more excited about my visit; me or the children. I’d forgotten how brilliant year 5’s are – extremely enthusiastic and utterly adorable. When I said I was going to read out a chapter of my book one of them actually punched the air and shouted “Yes!”

As well as reading, I showed them sketches of maps and objects, then shared a scribble-covered third draft. I asked each class to analyse excerpts from my book that dealt with setting, including one that I worried was too frightening. To my relief the year 5’s loved that part and both classes – with no time to confer – announced that the scene was ‘freaky’.

The children listened attentively and asked many excellent questions. They really got into the writing tasks I set them, producing some beautiful and horrible descriptive pieces. I left at the end if the afternoon exhausted but very happy, wishing I could do it all again the next day. My sessions hadn’t been perfect of course, and these are the main things I learnt from them:

  1. It’s not a good idea to plan two hours worth of activities for a one hour session. I’m sure with practice I’ll get better at knowing how much I can fit into a given time slot, but I’d definitely reduce the amount I try to cover at any future events.

  2. Reading while standing on one leg is hard work, even if you’re doing it because you’ve somehow found yourself acting out your chapter.

  3. Children are really keen to talk about their own favourite books and writing experiences. They like it when they’ve read the same books as you and when they can relate what they do in class to what a writer might do. For example, they were really pleased to discover that I keep a thesaurus on my desk and use it regularly.

  4. There is no such thing as being too enthusiastic when you’re working with year 5. No matter how enthusiastic you are, they will out-do you.

  5. It helps to check with the school beforehand what sort of terminology the pupils are used to. The year 5’s understood about adjectives and similes, but for them editing was RAP or Reflect And Perfect, which I really like the sound of.

  6. Check what the children are currently studying. Trying to fit in with this makes your visit more relevant plus you’ll get a better buy in from teachers.

  7. Don’t be alarmed if over the course of the session a third of the class is taken out, one guilty looking child at a time, because of a lunchtime ‘incident’ in the boys’ toilets. The rest of the class will ignore this interruption if you do.

  8. Being able to move around the classroom while you talk and ask questions helps ensure that all the children are involved. It also means that the two pupils right at the back are less likely to snooze on their desks while you’re reading. Hopefully they were tired, not hinting at the utter mediocrity of my writing.

  9. Keep your visitor’s badge when you leave so you can put a photo of it on your blog and glory in the fact that your occupation is listed as ‘writer’.

Losing the plot

21 Mar

Now, can I ask you something? Is it just me, or is plotting really difficult?

I’ve heard people say many different things about planning a book. Everything from ‘have a chapter by chapter breakdown before you start writing’, to ‘so long as you know how it starts, how it ends, and a few key points in the middle you’ll be fine’, to ‘ it’ll just work itself out’. At the moment, from the middle of my plotting quagmire, I’m not sure I believe any of these things!

About a year ago I wrote a chapter by chapter breakdown of my work in progress, which was about 10,000 words long at that point. It was joyless, and didn’t help me. I just went from having plot problems in my head to having plot problems on paper. And the second method doesn’t work for me either; I’ve always known how the book is going to start, how it ends, and the key points in the middle. The difficulties I’m having are with working out how to get my characters where they need to be, and how to get them out again. I don’t want to make things too convenient for them or use outside forces to intervene, robbing them of their agency.

To be fair, I’ve made things hard on myself through my choice of setting and genre. My book can best be described as magic realism, if such a thing exists for 8 to 12 year old readers. This means I have to set up the world of my protagonist, and the ‘magical realism’ world of the antagonist, plus get in enough sub-plot to keep my readers happy, as well as figuring out how a 12 year old and a 14 year old can infiltrate a secure adult organisation and not be immediately caught…

To sort all this out, I’ve started reading up on how to structure a novel – about time too, I’m sure you’ll say. I can’t believe I’ve come so far through my MA without ever picking up a book on the subject. Anyway, so far I’ve read about avoiding a ‘sagging middle’ – which sounds very uncomfortable – or an ending that fizzles out. A lot of the advice is great. Seeing the main action of the book as a series of causally linked mini-plots makes a lot of sense, as does the idea of carefully placing your key plot points, both those where the protagonist makes discoveries and where they’re exposed to the antagonist.

However, none of this is helping with my ‘how do I get my character into that room at that point, and then back out again?’ problems. Is this something that all writers find difficult? Don’t get me wrong, I’m making some progress, but it seems to take an age for my narrative wrinkles to smooth down. My question is, fellow writers, is this normal?