Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The ephemerality of ideas ...

I am often asked where I get my ideas from. And I think a lot about what my answer should be. Giving a truthful answer can feel a lot like telling you how to herd cats or how to hold on to a live eel, or draw a picture of something in constant motion. The moment an idea comes to life can so often take little more than a split second. Not all of the contributing elements are visible or obvious, and even though you have hold of the idea in that instant, it may not fully reveal itself until you've worked through it. So the answer is complex and often incomplete. And the way it works for me may not be exactly the way it works for you. It is a magic trick, a sleight of hand, with fluid rules

But with all that said, here are some thoughts on getting ideas that might be helpful

1. Ideas NEVER come when they're called. They prefer to sneak up on you when you're least expecting them, and I swear, sometimes they seem to work very hard to do it when it is most inconvenient for you. So I don't go and 'get' ideas, I just happen to be there when they turn up ... looking for a host. And part of my host responsibility is being relaxed and open. The harder you search for ideas the more elusive they can be. And if you look at them directly they will vanish, so a sideways glance is always best.

2. Less than 30% of all my ideas become a successful story. Less than 30% of those stories are published. Those odds don't sound fab. But a lot of what appear to be great ideas in the beginning often just fizzle away to nothing under scrutiny. I think this is completely normal and it doesn't cause me any concern. And I reckon truly good ideas are uncommon. If you think about the books you've read where you've really been wowed by the idea behind it you won't be talking about hundreds of books. Great ideas don't turn up every day. They're not meant to. Crikey that would be exhausting. Don't panic if you are not floating in a veritable sea of hot ideas - no one is. And don't worry if not every one of your ideas works out. Ideas that don't work out can have two issues - 1) they were never going to work because they've already been done to death/the plot just won't work/despite your best efforts it's really only half an idea/etc... or 2) you are not yet ready to write this idea in which case you keep everything you have already written on it and keep busy on other projects until you can do it justice.

3. The best ideas are born from things that you find fun, surprising, intriguing and/or thought provoking. When I said your mind needs to be relaxed and open, I certainly didn't want to imply it should be empty. Ideas cannot spark inside a vacuum. Read, watch, experience things you enjoy, that matter to you, that make your brain skip and soar and crave. From serious news articles to memes and youtube clips, everything becomes grist to the mill.  A little heart melting video of a chicken running to greet a beloved human was the spark for my most recent picture book story. But it was a throw away comment on a friend's facebook post containing a photo of a chicken that truly set the wheels in motion. Now I must wait to see if this idea that made it to the 30% that turn in to complete stories, makes it through to the next round of stories that become books.

4. There is no rhyme, reason, pattern or sequence to any of this. I can go months without a new idea although I am continually trying potential ones on to see if something develops. It is important to not get anxious about not finding something good to write about. As mentioned above those ideas inevitably turn up when you get busy with other stuff.

5. Don't panic if at first your idea does not seem to be whole. When I get an idea for a book it often initially appears as the tip of an iceberg, with a raging (but hard to justify) confidence that the rest of the ice is there under the water. The act of writing it down will usually tease the rest of it out. Sometimes it needs to be lured or enticed. Chocolate and compliments (yes you ARE a beautiful idea) work best.

6. While most of my ideas coalesce in an instant (even if I don't immediately have a grasp on all aspects), there are occasionally some which are slow burners, where something intriguing that I can't quite put my finger on keeps tumbling slow motion through my mind. The fact that I can't shake these thoughts reminds me to give them some space and freedom and to pay attention from time to time to see if they have ripened. There is no telling how long the slow burn might take. It can be weeks, months or even years and should not be rushed.

7. If you want to write, you will get ideas. It is important to believe that this is true because there is no reason why self fulfilling prophecies can't also be positive ones. If you embrace writing and keep your mind well stocked, be confident that the ideas are out there, waiting for you.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review

Occasionally I get sent books for review. I've been reading most of my life and a significant proportion of the books I have read are books for young people. I have completed an English Lit degree and a diploma in Children's Literature and I also write, as you know. I think a lot about what makes a good book. I know my taste in books is different to other people's tastes, and I know readers have a range of needs and desires they want satisfied when they pick up a book. But ultimately I am always striving, as a writer and a reader, to make/find books that are, and do, more. The ones that surprise my tired brain in a good way.

The most successful picture books might appear simple but they contain multiple layers of meaning and avenues for exploration that can be peeled back and examined with successive readings. They prompt discussion with peers and parents, teachers, grandparents and others. A good picture book will say different things to readers at different ages, while connecting, entertaining and challenging them all. They leave the reader richer for having read them. The best ones linger long in the mind after you have closed the book. I know there are many fine picture books out there that don't achieve these things, but these are the things I am looking for when I pick one up. I want to fall in love and I am always ready to do so.

Review – A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies by Kate Hursthouse (Little Love, an imprint of Mary Egan Publishing, 2018)

I was sent a review copy of A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies and I was excited at the idea of this book. Collective nouns are a real pleasure trove for the creative mind. A sleuth of bears, a murder of crows, a gang of buffalo, a cauldron of bats and a pounce of cats. The list is thrilling and long. I couldn’t wait to see what Kate Hursthouse had done with this.

The quality of the book production is lovely and the pictures bold and vivid (the tiger illustration is great), with some cute characterisations and interesting application of geometric shapes.  Yet I desperately wanted the illustrations to riff more on the collective noun itself or for there to be some additional subtext or story telling in the pictures. One of the most effective in terms of the collective name is the kaleidoscope of butterflies, but many of the others felt rather inert and aimless. And while ‘herd’ appeared twice, it felt like some of the most fun collective nouns were missing. I also found a number of the pictures cluttered and the fonts very hard to read, especially where the text was in close proximity to, or tangled with, the illustrations and this will make things difficult for emerging readers. There was so much promise in the idea, but in the end this book hasn't quite got there.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Barriers to writing...

I have been applying some brain twirlings to the business of writing recently as you might imagine after my last post. Why is it easy sometimes and not others? How come the ideas that accumulate and assemble into rational plot lines and sentences in our heads sometimes refuse to fall into line on the page? And why do the same composed words give us joy one day and grief the next? Well I have no answers to any of those questions and I am willingly accepting any that you might offer, but in the meantime I thought I'd talk about a bunch of things that can interfere with our writing.

1) You aren't reading enough and aren't benefiting from the lessons you could be getting if only you read more books demonstrating how good plots, great characters, well composed sentences and expertly applied grammar look and work. Reading can also be inspiring and motivating. And I'm sorry, but if you don't read at all I'm not sure where your desire to be a writer can possibly come from.

2) You are reading too much and everything you read is light years better than anything you've been trying to write, and/or you are reading so much you run out of time to produce your own things. Too many books can overwhelm and demotivate you. It is a delicate balance and it may take a little while to strike it right. Being aware of the potential problem is a good place to start.

3) You aren't living your life. Seriously folks, having a life makes writing easier. Experiences provide raw material for future stories.Where else can you eavesdrop on the juicy conversation of others and find the people who will become the basis for the antagonist in your story who you will gleefully kill off in the most slow and gruesome fashion in your children's comic novel. And for a bonus 190,000 points, living your life will help you keep body and soul together when the writing is proving difficult and deflating. Hanging out with people you love is the best tonic.

4) You forget to feed your creative mind. Seriously, that thing does not work for free and cannot run on empty. And those sad desperate $20 fill ups that have you limping along will not result in the best work. And don't fill the tank with just anything or a constant diet of the same thing. Go watch, listen to, feel and take in, stuff you love, hate, want to analyse, and feel terrifyingly jealous of. All will inform your work in a positive way.

5) You listen too much to your inner voice when its on a downer. Man that thing can be a complete bummer that makes you wonder what the hell you are doing. It can be a broken record with a broken message. Tell yourself the message is boring, or even better, wrong. Graft in some positive mantras. Or listen to yourself give someone else some good advice and then use it too.

6) You give more weight to the negative voices of others than you do to the positive ones. This a classic. The negative feedback just seems so much more believable because it chimes in with what our inner voice has been telling us. Here is one of the reasons you need to deal to your inner voice. And remember if you choose to believe the criticisms, then you must also believe the compliments. They are no less worthy of your trust.

7) You don't eat properly, get enough sleep or get any exercise. You either treat your body like a temple, or a public toilet. Now think about what each of those might produce.

Things that don't matter

a) having the perfect place to write. Writing is conveniently portable and transferable. You can do it just about anywhere although I hear pen ink freezes in Antarctica. If you are delaying writing while you look for the right place, you are not writing.

b) having that world changing story idea. There are no new ideas, and even if that isn't true, waiting for something that no one has ever thought of before in thousands of years of civilization and written expression will stop you honing your craft, so, if and when that idea appears, you won't be skilled enough to write it. Of course if your world changing idea appears immediately I don't want to talk to you

c) believing there is some insight or secret that will make all the difference in finding writing success. 'Lots of writing' is the only secret I've discovered that works so far, in twenty years of writing experience. Do some writing while you wait

Monday, April 16, 2018

Keeping my head in the game...

I have been working a lot over recent times on keeping my head in the game. Being a writer has never been an easy road and without a doubt it has become a lot harder over the last few years. I'm a bit of a slow learner because it has taken me a while to see that doing things the way I've done them in the past in terms of submissions and queries and revising is no longer working. In my defense my methods were previously never 100% effective because publishing, so it took me a while to see change might be needed, and, also in my defense, I have been trying a range of new things, and with the creeping pace of publishing nothing is an obvious failure until you've given it a decent go. This might mean waiting a year or more. Sometimes under different circumstances they wouldn't be a failure, so then there is a debate over hanging in there with that thing versus shelving it and pushing on. It doesn't help that there is a wide range of complicating variables over which you have no control in the publishing world. Publishers come and go. Staff within a publishing house come, go and move up, down and sideways. Trends happen, timing is a thing, and sometimes it is not your friend (although at other moments it can be everything). Sometimes global political and economic fluctuations remove the rug from under us. This is all an enormous challenge/hurdle at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Feedback is generally a half formed thing (if it is given at all) and is not always clear with a single meaning. We are trained to read between lines and cannot stop ourselves from doing it. Sometimes they are just cushioning the no and meaning should not be ascribed despite it looking like it should be. Sometimes the thing you think you need to fix is not the thing that needs fixing at all. It is a guessing game. And not just for the writer.

So, what am I doing now? I'm currently looking for strategies on how to resurface my self encouraging mantras that have been wearing thin over time. Something like electroplating, cos another coat of varnish just won't cut the mustard anymore. 

I'm sticking with the traditional publishing route for the moment. As fraught as it is, I know where my strengths lie and I know not everything I write can handle the rigours of appearing in book form.  For better or worse I prefer to take my chances with the traditional.

I'm looking at previously unexplored publishers and how to reach them. Submitting overseas is notoriously difficult but worth a try. I am researching opportunities and their relative worth: conferences with pitching sessions, workshops and competitions. I am also reinvestigating trying to find an agent. If one took me on this would electroplate my mantras and expose my work to a wider range of publishers. 

Taking action of any kind is a good thing. Stewing in ones own juices, especially when the water hasn't been changed for months is a sure fire way to get some noxious, stagnant water-borne disease. From time to time you should update the plan.  

And I'm choosing not to change the way I write. This may sound counter-intuitive but I am not unhappy with the way I approach stories. I like what I'm producing. I will however keep pushing myself to create better things. Hopefully the world will come back round to meet me.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

When someone should slap your hand away from the keyboard...

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it is:

fiddling around with unrelated stuff to unblock the drains on your brain
refreshing - the mind
                 - your email
being stuck
researching help/publishers/agents
preparing queries/submissions/synopses

But it's not called 'writing' for nothing, so a big part of what we do is getting the words down and arranging them into a coherent and fresh assemblage that we hope will win readers over. We create the story and then move on to the second and third tiers of writing:

second guessing yourself

Revising, editing and titivating are related, but are not the same thing. Revising is clocking rubbish sentences, it's thinking 'no, I can't kill Mrs Kilgour in Chapter 3 after all cos she's the only one who can slip the note under the door in Chapter 7'. Mrs Kilgour's demise must therefore be moved to Chapter 8. It's activating passive sentences and changing that eleventh 'ambled' into a fresher synonym, killing darlings that just don't belong no matter how hard you ply the shoe horn and fighting cliches tooth and nail. Its moving action around and making the narrative more sensible and the language and sentence structure stronger. It's taking out the obvious 'writing' so the reader won't notice the seams, or the authorial hand if you like. It's what you do before you send your MS out to a publisher or consider it ready for self pubbing.

Editing comes after you feel the MS is done. It is essential and, I always think, best done by another eye. It's grammar and punctuation appraisal and correction. And it's 'Mrs Kilgour really should be gone by Chapter 4, unless you give her more to do between then and Chapter 8. Or maybe just find another stooge to slip the note, or send a text or pigeon post instead.' It's a fresh reader saying 'I don't get why this is happening,' or 'no one talks like that these days' or 'that eye colour change better be the result of new contact lenses but you might want to mention that in the text.' You can't be the objective reader. No, really, you can't. You can be for revising, but not for editing. Trust me on this.

And then there is titivating: the final spruce up that may or may not be necessary. It can easily become a delaying tactic, more a manifestation of the fear of taking the next step than it is a means to improving your work. And titivating is a distant relation and sometimes a precursor to second guessing and if you have reached this point, someone should probably just slap your hand away from the paper or the keyboard. Second guessing is related to self doubt, and is just as useless. It's wondering and fixating on what will make the publisher accept my story, the purchaser pick my book, the reader love it and review it, the judges select it as a finalist etc...that I haven't already included. It sometimes comes before you finally send your story out, and sometimes it happens after a few rejections or indifferent reviews. And the bottom line is you can't know. Your best guide is you. Tell the story the way you want to. Read it and see if it moves you, makes you laugh or cry, or both. Sometimes, and I'm sorry but this is an unpleasant truth, your story might actually be perfect and still not find a home, with publishers or purchasers or readers. A semi-proof of the pointlessness of second guessing is that while 5 publishers may reject your work, the 6th (or 26th) one may love it and can't wait to put it on shop shelves. If you had tried to please the second five by second guessing your work and altering it based on supposition about why the first five didn't accept it, it might no longer be the story you had so much faith in, and loved. And it might not catch the eye of any of the publishers, be they the sixth or the nth one because it is no longer the work of your heart and possibly has even started to show signs of being overworked.  Of course, if twenty publishers or 20 members of your critique group (okay most groups aren't that big but I'm just trying to make a point here so bear with me) all point to the same problem then you revise. But trying to fix a story that isn't broken is fruitless. Second guessing can give you no greater guarantees of success and quite possibly might just tie you in knots.

So to sum up, revision is good, editing is best outsourced, titivating is procrastinating and second guessing is the path to madness. Let's be careful out there people.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

All that potential...

I must try and have more rubbish holidays. The most recent crop have been far too enjoyable which only results in the immediate desire for more holidays. This seems to be a flaw in the whole holiday concept. Or maybe I am doing it wrong. ?

I would say Happy New Year but that was like a month ago and there is 2018 laughing hysterically at me for thinking I'm in charge of the next eleven months. In truth I have no idea what this year holds for me. This isn't new. Every year in recent memory has been way more than half a mystery as it kicks off. And it is fair to say I have been busy enough each year. Too busy sometimes. But of course not busy enough is as bad as too busy and I have little control over the balance. I can say no if things get too hectic but shouting yes into the void won't bring me more events to be involved in or books to be launched. Or ideas to feverishly bring to life.

I passed on the retraining. I tried it on for size and I just knew it would hang in the wardrobe unworn season after season. A cool thing I paid good money for that didn't quite fit me the way I wanted it to. But it is good to be open to new things. And of course I never say never. It is a silly word that cuts off too many possibilities.

So where to now? I am currently looking for a routine that will work for me during the week. I have interviewed a few but they just weren't qualified enough or where overqualified and I knew they wouldn't stay in the job. And I need something flexible enough to work on a part time basis when the need arises. I'll keep looking and let you know how I get on.

Since finishing the last novel my brain has been lying fallow. A fallow brain is at risk of self doubt so I am looking to bring it back into use soon. Chuck Wendig made a great point recently about self doubt making it too easy for creative folk to put their tools down and resist picking them up again. I mean it's self doubt, right? It compels you to avoid the things that you feel doubt about and then you're not doing the things you should be doing. It's a slippery slope/ feedback loop hybrid. Fair call Chuck. Point taken.

So I'm casting about for some new projects and girding my loins to dive back into one that is like two thirds done, while eyeing up my empty dance card with mixed feelings. Feeling simultaneously nervous and excited about what the year might hold. All that potential.....

Friday, December 15, 2017

Flamingo wrangling 101

Next year is a bit of a mystery. I have been contemplating retraining. I know you all think I'd make an awesome ninja assassin or flamingo wrangler but I actually had something else in mind. I am still undecided but time is running out. 2018 is so keen to get here.

I am off on holiday with my honey in January in honour of being wed for 30 years. This seems like quite an achievement these days - not too many folk make it that far - but if I'm honest it's not like it's been hard. But who am I to say no to a celebratory trip away. There will be photos and commentary at some stage because I'm not one to keep you out of the loop.

In the meantime I'm hemming and hawing and its not about whether I should pack my bikini. So while I make up my mind here are some tips and rules for 2018 because y'all know it's nearly upon us...

1) Say yes to things. Your instinct might be to say no because you have limited experience or you feel nervous but if it fits with the long game you have embarked upon then the time to start is now. Or five minutes ago.
2) It's okay to say no. Not often, but often enough to give yourself time and space to do your core activity. If you are an author and you run out of time to write new content you need to address this.
3) If you do have time and don't fill it with writing, don't beat yourself up. The stars align for writing at their own discretion.
4) People will disapprove that you seem idle - why are you not in paid employ or studying? That's how the rest of the world works! My response is the creative world marches to the sound of its own drum which they can't hear. We have our own set of rules and more than enough self doubts and criticisms without the offerings of others. Tell them it's a full time job. Say you are doing research. Tell them you found their comments very interesting and have taken notes. Say you are very sorry about what happens to the character you have based on them.
5) Plan a reward. Maybe for mid year. Have a weekend away with other writers, a night out with friends, a visit to an exhibition or show or... you get the picture. Whatever wine or chocolate you buy or thing you do, double your investment and treat yourself like the star/god/goddess you really are. It may not be visible yet, but anyways just persisting in this industry is noteworthy.
6) Do a charitable act. For other writers, for young readers, for someone new to the industry. Charity is the marshmallow that cushions and sweetens our community.
7) Be charitable to yourself. Writers tend to be their own harshest critics.
8) That 100 rejections thing is a good idea. Plan for 100 rejections in 2018. Make a list of what you will apply for and who you intend to send your work to. Make a list of what work is ready, nearly ready to go out. Make a list/calendar of the competitions/opportunities you would like to enter. Add the one thing you have always secretly wanted to do/try but have always felt was out of reach. Make a plan to be ready for them all.
9) Have a safe and happy holiday peeple. And see you in the new year!