The magical, wonderful world of children’s writing

Once upon a time in the world of publishing, there were adult books for adult readers and children’s books for children and never the twain crossed. Then Harry Potter was born and suddenly both children and adults were reading the same book or as it turned out, books as long as they began with the words “Harry Potter and …”

Suddenly it was okay for adults to read children’s books. Filmmakers tapped into this appetite for fantasy and fairy tales and plundered Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in search of magic. The same adults, who wouldn’t have touched the books, found it okay to go and watch the stories on the big screen.

And the totally cross over market emerged. Children’s publishing which had never reached the figures of the adult market was suddenly booming. More books than ever were being published for children. It was adults who were buying them for their children and grandchildren but it was adults who in many cases were also reading them.

A children’s novel, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has just won the Costa Book of the Year while another children’s book, The Fox and the Star has become Waterstones Book of the Year. This is only the second time a children’s book has won the Costa and the first time one has won the Waterstones. What is it then that raised them above the other novels, mostly written for adults? Could it be that they fulfil a desire for wonder, excitement, the unexpected and the need of our inner child to truly suspend our disbelief and go back to those strange worlds that captivated us?

Those worlds where anything is possible, where you can fly with the help of a friendly dragon, restore order or defeat evil with a spell from your magic wand and combat and win against almost unassailable, overwhelming odds – how could anything grounded in reality compete with the chance to become a child once more. I don’t know why there’s so much fuss about the news – but I suppose some people are born grown-up!

Oh yes, and to celebrate Libraries Day today – five out of ten most borrowed books from UK libraries were children’s!

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In with the new, hang on to the old

Excuse the paraphrasing but why get rid of the old just because it’s a New Year. It’s only a way of keeping time not like anything drastic happens except if your birthday’s right bang at the beginning, then you could be entitled to feel a bit down in the mouth just because you’re another year older and haven’t finished that great masterpiece that was going to win you fame and fortune but worse than not finishing is never having started at all.

Forget the resolutions – which always look a bit like you’ve never done anything with your life until the 1st of January, year whatever and are usually so draconian you’re never going to keep them anyway. Instead of looking forward into the unknown with a list as long as a mile or kilometre, depending on your preference for imperial or metric, time travel back to the 1st January 2015. Where were you at in your writing ambitions and now fast forward 12 months and see what you have achieved. A word of warning, if you’re measuring success by having a three book deal with Random House and a film option with Steven Spielberg, this is not the blog for you.

If you’re going to carry on doing what is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, except for being perhaps a trainer in a flea circus, you need to value yourself and what you’ve achieved and resolutions just seem like whipping yourself for no reason at all. And we writers are very good at doing that already!

Who have you met that inspires you, makes you want to write? What books or films have you seen that have changed the way you think? What skills have you learnt or honed to help you and can you see the difference?

The only resolution worth making is to avoid anything negative and in the face of difficulties such as rejection – usually by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, resist tears, four letter words and sinking into black dog depressions.   Do not compare yourself with more successful acquaintances – as someone very dear to me once said “You’re doing different things,” and instead search out anything that makes you feel better – things that have gone well, phrases you’ve plucked from the air in a moment’s divine inspiration, images you’ve caught from the corner of your eye that have seared your writer’s soul and will return to haunt you until you bring them alive with words and then, there’s that old standby for when you’re questioning your sanity – quotations by writers but don’t make a habit of it, in case it becomes a bad one. It can amuse, divert and also make you realise you’re not totally alone in this profession we’ve chosen but it’s not a replacement for writing.

So, for today, here’s my quote:  “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.” Doris Lessing.

Happy exploits in your future writing.

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Talking to strangers

There I was at the bus station in Amsterdam, checking out the times, 10 pm and this homeless poet approaches me. I know he was a homeless poet because he introduced himself but unfortunately I forgot his name, so only the poet bit stuck

It was an original way to beg money, one, he was offering a service, helping you find the right bus and as a bonus reciting a poem from his anthology, for which if you felt generous, you could reward him with a small contribution to the arts i.e. the homeless poet.

I didn’t need his expertise with timetables as my husband had already worked out which bus and stop we needed but this didn’t deter the homeless poet. He was into free verse and after a quick check of his little black book, he recited a poem about souls flying up to the moon. It wasn’t the sort of poetry I’m into – I prefer rhymes, they seem to stick in your head better and the recitation was interrupted when he had to answer his mobile but I felt he deserved a euro because his poem did paint powerful pictures.  He wasn’t impressed however and I felt guilty but only for a few minutes when I heard him narrating the same poem to another unsuspecting traveller at an adjacent bus stop.

Talking to strangers can be fruitful especially if they want to reply – it’s more rewarding than eavesdropping on one sided mobile conversations on the train or the bus – you get to see people’s faces, read the expressions in their eyes, and connect, even if it’s only for two minutes and that’s all it takes to make an indelible imprint on your writer’s soul.

Or, if you can’t get away from the computer to linger round bus stops, tune into The Listening Project on BBC Radio 4,  for some of the most amazingly conversations you’ll ever hear: humorous, honest and often humbling – prepare for an imprint on your soul.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cqx3b

 

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Cycling pianists, flying orcas and getting out more

 

So there you are chained to the laptop, terrified if you move an inch you’ll disconnect from the creativity flowing down from the great lump of inspiration in your right brain. That’s where your next chapter or scene is safely stored ready to download itself to your fingers and you keep telling yourself you’ll lose the muse if you move.

Sounds like you need to relax but you can’t spare the time; got to keep typing – yet  it’s not working and the muse isn’t  co-operating.

But writing’s organic – it grows and changes with everything that’s happened to you in the seconds when you’re not facing the screen, you know – like nipping out for a pint of milk or the paper or walking the cat round the block!   The necessary stuff just to keep life ticking, but not think too deeply about ‘cos you’re a right brain person and you can’t handle any of this left brain stuff while you’re creating.  Right?

Wrong – all these years we’ve been categorising ourselves.  At school, I didn’t mind not being in the top stream with all those clever girls  who could do Physics and Maths while I was doing Biology and Art, because you had to have a left brain to do them and I wanted to write and draw and you needed a right brain for them.  Simplistic – just waiting to be disproved, like all the myths we believe in.  That’s what science is for, what all those kids in the top stream were doing.

If you scan the brain when it’s dealing with creative tasks, it’s not just the right brain that’s employed but areas on both sides of the corpus callosum, which possibly explains why the greatest scientist in history said “Imagination is more important than knowledge” and  Einstein’s not exactly famous for great Art, so was he recognising that imagination used many more parts of the brain than we’ve come to believe?

If you go back even further than Einstein, you realise that people didn’t separate science from art in the way in which education and society has done since the Industrial Revolution.  Michael Faraday who discovered electricity did so by observing and imagining and isn’t that what writers do?   Leonardo da Vinci, known mostly for the Mona Lisa, was a serial experimenter in just about any field possible.  His inventions, which were mostly impossible to produce in his time, exist today or were quietly subsumed in the Industrial Revolution.  This was a man who used just about every possible part of his brain.

Okay so this must seem all really left field, so time to go back to the first paragraph and why you need to get out and see what’s going on elsewhere.   Nuggets of information acquired out there in the real world have a habit of suddenly popping into your head when you’re stuck for an idea.    Take the writer, Diana Wynne Jones who wrote Howl’s Moving Castle.  She might never have come up with that idea if she hadn’t gone to a school to talk about writing.  A young boy asked her if she could write about a castle that moved.   I wonder how long it took her to come up with the whole story.   And if she hadn’t got away from her laptop, would she have got that idea on her own?   Studio Ghibli were very pleased she did when they made it into an animation in 2005.

And my cycling pianists and flying orcas – yes I did actually see them when my husband prised me from my laptop.   The cycling pianist came round a corner at the Fleetwood Transport Festival and nearly knocked me over.  His piano was attached to a bicycle and he was wearing a top hat.  It was a very strange thing to see a man sitting side saddle on a bicycle and playing a piano at the same time.  Now there’s an imagination to applaud.  And the flying orca – a bit of a cheat – it was a twenty foot inflatable kite at the St. Anne’s Kite Festival but the image against a clear blue sky above a Northern beach keeps teasing me.  Borrow either of them if you like because what you might do with them will be completely different to what I will, because we’ll all be using different parts of our brain with different experiences.

 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/16/left-right-brain-distinction-myth

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The character you never invited.

The story’s coming together, you know who’s the hero and who’s the baddie.  You’ve got all the ancillary characters, the locations, you’re sure of the theme.  You’re ready to get down to the scene by scene and then suddenly from nowhere this character appears.  You’re not quite sure how they’ve got there but suddenly they’re in the scene and they’re part of the story and if you tried to take them out, you’d find yourself with a hole in the plot.  Your uninvited guest has made themselves at home.

This kind of development happens more to me in prose than it does in scripts and it may well be that prose at the early draft stage is more relaxed and open to experimentation..  Also it could be novels allow the reader to handle more characters than drama – there’s time for the reader to wander down meandering roads.  The novel is not the tightly constructed screen play, where, if you follow the Hollywood model, you’ll know exactly where you are and if you’re not, what you need to do to get there.  Films need a story as tightly nailed down as a short, short story.  There’s no room f.or uninvited characters.

Yet just because you didn’t know they were coming, until you opened the door on a scene and there they were, doesn’t mean that your uninvited characters are going to change the story you want to tell.  You could suddenly find that your story expands or gains depth through the new character providing a storyline that has resonance for the hero.

In the children’s novel I’m working on at the moment, I was writing a scene where a lieutenant has to report to the arch villain, Jeremiah, who’s evil and cruel.  Writing’s all about show not tell as we’re continually told, so to leave the reader in no doubt as to Jeremiah’s despicable nature, I wrote a scene where he’s interrogating a poor snivelling wretch.  Even poor snivelling wretches if you give them dialogue have to have names but beware, as soon as you give them one, they’ll come alive and start offering you insights into how they could add a bit of variety and humour and even allow your main characters to show who they really are.  Still you should think carefully before you christen them; will Snivelling Wretch No. 1 become a monster and try to take over the show.

So Edwards, as he is now, is part of The Curse of Millie Hapless.  He hasn’t taken over the show, just fitted in nicely.  Millie is a 12 year old girl who accidentally travels back in time and discovers that her ancestor, a famous lady smuggler and spy has been wrongly accused of betraying England, a slur that has echoed through the centuries and impacted on the modern day Hapless family. Millie naturally sets about overturning this injustice.  It was only when I wrote Edwards into that interrogation scene that I saw how he could add to the twists and turns of the plot and even help to save Millie’s great, great, great, great grandmother, Lucy from the gallows.

I’m not saying that all uninvited guests shouldn’t be shown the door but just occasionally it’s worth offering the odd one some hospitality for they could repay you handsomely.

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Digging up bluebells

Forty years ago my front door bell rang. It was my next door neighbour bearing a bulging shopping bag.

“Fancy some bluebells,” he asked, knowing I was on the lookout for anything to go in my new garden. I was only too grateful and spent the next hour planting them and looking forward to the coming Spring. I wasn’t disappointed – the bluebells sprouted and suddenly my barren garden had been transformed into a magical woodland – well almost. Yes, I know, I knew very little about gardening but I have a vivid imagination. It was just a pity that I didn’t know a little more about bluebells for these lovely, nodding heads held on tall stalks were quickly followed by long, green, glossy leaves that swamped everything within twelve inches. Never mind, I reasoned, they can be quickly pulled up and tidied away, not too big a job.  I’ll get round to it some time.

Then I rented out my house and went to live in Canada. Four years later when I returned with my small son and my cat, I looked forward once more to spring and the bluebells. It was just in those four years they had taken over the entire garden. They were everywhere – they didn’t behave like well mannered daffodils and just stay in one place. They forced their way between paving stones, sprouted out of the foundations and hid in the middle of bushes. “They can’t get much worse,” I told myself, ignoring the fact that they’d colonised my neighbours’ gardens as well and they were not best pleased.

You’re probably wondering what bluebells have got to do with writing, well there is a tenuous link, because if all that time ago, I had dug up those dratted bluebells when I realised my mistake, I wouldn’t be faced with the monumental task I now have to shoulder. My bluebells are Spanish, and in the mild British climate, are romping away, threatening the native English bluebell, a smaller, more beautiful, to my British eye, and sweetly perfumed plant, which fits into the British landscape and doesn’t look out of place. So now I’m spending hours digging up these foreign invaders and consigning them to the bonfire.

And the tenuous link? A third of the way into the children’s novel I’m writing, I made a decision to have my two characters time travel and arrive together and in order for them to meet their antagonist, took them on a long, convoluted route through the story. The whole structure creaked but I persevered, determined it would work but it didn’t and impacted on all the other characters and on the plot.   It took my daughter to say “I don’t believe this bit,” to make me take a long hard look and agree.   I’d taken the easy way out like I did when I turned a blind eye to the bluebells.  I thought I could just tweak my story here and there like I thought I could control the bluebells by pulling up the leaves and leaving the bulb to work its way further and further into the ground.  It was time to rewrite – time to dig up the tortuous plot that had no business being there.

I know writers who’ve pressed the delete button on far more words than I had to, so I’m not awarding myself any medals. I’m going to make sure in the future though, whether I’m writing or gardening that I’m planting the right bluebells.

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Diversity and the box ticking game

What would you do if one of your kids came home from school with a picture they’d drawn of themselves and it didn’t look anything like them because the drawing was of a child who was white and your child was black?  You’d be worried about why they saw themselves like that but the answer wouldn’t be difficult to find.  The overwhelming majority of characters in the media that surrounds us are white.

How many of us use characters from other cultures or ethnic minorities within our own country or do we stick to people with the same ethnicity as our own?  Do we think about characters from other cultures only when a story might be racially based?    As writers we use our imaginations and our life experiences to create worlds to which we can relate and if there are more writers from the larger racial group, then the characters created will mirror this, which is why society tries wherever possible to encourage diversity with box ticking.

Recently Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Producer from EastEnders,  refused to support this practice.   He ‘has rejected the idea of diversity targets on the show, adding that he has no intention of including ethnic minority characters just for their own sake.’ as doing this and then ‘defining them by story lines around ethnicity, sexuality or disability, would leave viewers with ”a blancmange”.   The Guardian.

But why would he have to define them?  Are the white characters in EastEnders defined in a similar way?

It was recently pointed out that fictional Walford is twice as white as the real East London but this is where market forces come into play.   It’s not just East London that’s watching EastEnders; it’s the whole of the UK. When we watch drama, we’re in a make-believe world that won’t be a mirror image of the one on which it’s based. But do characters have to be defined by the story lines that Treadwell-Collins mentions?

I remember seeing the original Star Wars movie.  It was in a small town cinema somewhere in the States and I apologise for not remembering exactly where as I was travelling around a lot then but the scene that stands out most in my mind is when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker go into the bar which is full of aliens and virtually every alien is different and speaks a different language.  And nobody bats an eyelid.  How’s that for diversity?  How interesting, funny, engaging and downright entertaining that scene was.  Now imagine what it would have been like if it had been full of characters from just one culture, the typical kind of character who featured in, say,  a science fiction movie of the fifties or early sixties.  You know the sort, where the men are all white and there’s a token female for the love interest and there to be rescued from the alien.    Not half as interesting.  And not one of those characters had story lines defining them.  And yes, it was a feature film and not a continuing drama series but why should that matter?

Have we come very far along the road towards diversity?  If we look back on say children’s books – I can’t remember any books from when I was growing up that had children from different ethnicities but then I can’t remember any books about kids from working class areas either.  My favourite books as a child were fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm and the book that I will return to read over and over again, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  You could say that when it came to diversity, Lewis Carroll was ahead of his time.  Look at his characters, the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat and he even had a female as his protagonist. And when it comes to being completely inclusive, the Mad Hatter, who, after Shakespeare’s Richard III, must be one of the oldest disabled characters in history. 
 
It was at a Commonword workshop on writing for children that I heard about the little boy and his picture. Commonword in Manchester champions diversity and encourages new writers.  If you want to write for children, their annual competition is worth a look  – http://www.cultureword.org.uk  And if we want to achieve greater diversity in our writing, it’s up to us all to think outside the boxes that constrain us as well as the box ticking ones – that way we can be better writers and reach a wider audience.

 

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Fiction and Fact – Telling the same stories

 

So, do you write fiction or fact?  I started as a short story and article writer but I very soon decided which one I was – a fiction writer at heart.  Just recently  however, I was tempted out of my comfort zone by a series of  courses organised by Nine Lives Media who produced the recent terrific Poundland Wars.  They were funded by Skillset and focused on different areas of factual television from documentaries to format shows.

The excellent Robert Thirkell came to Media City in Salford and spent two days talking us through his career as a documentary film maker.   Even though you know the story you’re watching has been edited, it’s only when you see the process that you begin to realise that storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s fiction or fact.  Both of them have a script because a story has to have structure and a beginning, middle and end and just as with fiction, it helps to know where you want to end up with.  If you don’t know Robert Thirkell, he’s the man behind Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and a host of other successful shows.

I was the only writer in a room of producers and assistant producers but Robert pointed out that he sees his job as being a writer also, finding the best way to tell his stories.

The same elements that work in fiction also work in factual storytelling.  It’s all back to character, character, character.  Just as you have to spend time working with your characters, finding their fears and how they drive them, how everything they do will be driven by these fears, so producers of factual stories have to find characters who will stand out, who are literally larger than life and who will drive those stories.

As fiction writers, there’s much we can find in these stories, from their structure to their characters, that we can borrow.  The hero will be there and there’ll be an antagonist, someone  or something that’s standing in his way.  The most successful work when the story’s tight and keeps the hero/heroine in almost every scene, for it’s him/her that’s driving everything.   When there are too many stories being interwoven, it’s like too many sub-plots.  You can lose track of what’s going on, unless the theme is strong and keeps them all going in the same direction.

Watching good factual programmes like Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and Poundland Wars, both UK television shows, and comparing them to fictional feature films, will tell you a great deal about structure and  character.  Good ensemble films will show  how some of these factual films are put together – take a look at “Magnolia”,  (1999) with its use of opening narrative and two parallel stories with interweaving stories.  Check out the storyline and plot on IMDB – a word of warning – sometimes it’s best to read the shortest, most concise version and not become mired in too much character detail.

In her book “Secrets of Screenplay Structure“, Linda J. Cowgill sums up ensemble films and, in my opinion, the elements they have in common with documentaries with multiple story lines and characters:

To create a seamless intertwining of plot lines, a filmmaker needs three things; 

1.    A clear issue or theme for the characters;

2.   A context in which the characters relate;

3.   An event which frames the story.”

In the end it comes down to basic storytelling no matter whether it’s come out of our imagination or true life.

Secrets of Screenplay Structure” Linda J. Cowgill, (1999) ISBN 1-58065-004-X

Conflict” Robert Thirkell,  (2010) ISBN 978 1 408 12909 8  This has a good section on scripts and a breakdown of an episode from “Jamie’s School Dinners.”

Happy writing!

 

 

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Shit Sandwiches and what made you cry when you were eight years old

Shit Sandwiches and what made you cry when you were eight years old.

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Shit Sandwiches and what made you cry when you were eight years old

It was eleven pm and I’d finished a few hours working on a difficult part of my children’s novel.  I’d run out of steam and my eyes were hurting.  It was time to call it a night but the siren call of the internet, which I’d ignored all day, stopped me closing the system down. Ten minutes emptying my in-box was just good housekeeping and there might even be something important and life changing in there. Peculiar how you convince yourself to ignore your tired eyes and behave like a four year old who doesn’t want to go to bed in case they miss something.  But I was glad I did because I came across this post and it made a great deal of sense.

http://markmanson.net/life-purpose/

Mark Manson’s question ‘what kind of shit sandwich would you be prepared to eat to realise your goal or dream in life’, isn’t something I’d ever asked myself because my drive to write was so strong that I was prepared to take any amount of rejection in order to succeed – and at the time, success was getting published. But what happens in the low periods, when inspiration or the so called muse escapes you, what drives you then – that’s where your eight year old self comes into play.  Back then, when I scribbled stories in an old exercise paper, I had no idea of publishing; I wrote because just the very business of escaping into a world of make believe, all of my own making was worth it.  I wrote the kind of things I enjoyed reading, reproducing the pleasure and the excitement over and over again.  The writing itself was enough, even though it wasn’t very good but at the time I was happily ignorant of that. It wasn’t until I grew older and got distracted by puberty that I wrote less and when I returned to it at different times over the next few years, I’d find I’d hit a brick wall – not writer’s block – I just didn’t have the skills or the technique or the tools to carry on.

The shit sandwich of rejection that would be coming later, had a different filling  to the one I had to chew then – I had to write in order to find how to make my writing work now I could see that it wasn’t good enough, wasn’t convincing or credible and that my reader wouldn’t suspend their disbelief.   Looking back on things I wrote during that period, I can see some outstanding scenes and passages amongst the dross but at the time the sandwich of failure was hard to swallow.   It was excruciatingly painful.  You can take classes and join writers’ groups but the only way through this period is to keep on writing and I wanted to be a better writer so much I was prepared to do it.

If my eight old year self had been told I wasn’t any good and I should stop, would I have given up?  I don’t think so.  I was a very determined, bloody minded, ‘I’ll show them’ kind of girl – and maybe that’s what you need to keep going, because there are plenty of nay sayers along the way and plenty of cutting comments and the further you go in your career, the more vicious they can become.   So it might have made me cry but it wouldn’t have made me give up.   I’ve always taken heart from William Goldman, the writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who said “Nobody knows anything.”

In his blog, Mark Manson asks what kind of olive do you want to eat with your sandwich.  My olive has always been to get better at what I love doing because if I get better, then the chances of being published or produced are increased and also because at the end of a long day’s writing, I can go to sleep with an easy mind, a sense of fulfilment and  if I’m not too tired, a quick look at the internet.

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