All in the balance

I was inspired recently by a talk at the online Bookseller Children’s Conference, where the founders of small, independent publishing company Magic Cat discussed how they have navigated 2020 with all the unexpected challenges it has brought.

As part of their response strategy to extraordinary times, Magic Cat owners Rachel Williams and Jenny Broom put together a ‘balance board’ showing the things they could not control, such as bookshops closing their doors and the impossibility of international travel; and those that they could control, such as the quality of books produced by the company and creating a refreshed, thoughtful, business-savvy digital presence. What can writers learn from this, during the pandemic and beyond?

You’ve got the power

It’s useful to start by thinking about our own power – and remembering that we have some! For all the things we can’t control (how an agent or editor responds to our work, whether people will buy our books, what reviews may be like) there’s something in counterbalance that we do have the power to curate or develop – or even ditch, if it’s no longer serving us. We can, for example, create a new daily routine that prioritises a restorative walk; schedule time to update our book listings for PLR to help boost income; or take a break from social media to help preserve precious writing time.

“Wobbles and muddles
help us adapt, learn and grow”

A better balance

A second useful strand is balance – a concept that’s rarely held up to the light and acknowledged as the incredibly difficult thing that it is for humans to achieve, either physically, emotionally or on a practical level.

We learn the basics as toddlers, falling often, seeking comfort, trying again and eventually (if we are lucky) becoming proficient at standing, walking, jumping, hopping, skipping and running; and perhaps later on cycling, dancing or skating.

Learning and growing

As adults we amass an amazing range of ‘balance skills’ across all areas of our lives but, when something’s askew, it is all too easy to heap criticism on ourselves. But without wobbles and muddles we would never adapt, learn and grow. We’d stay static, afraid – and how then can creativity flourish?

If you’re in a jotting mood, write down how you’ve shaped your writing life as external circumstances and your own obligations and aims have changed; how you’ve identified competing forces, reviewed priorities and adjusted routines. You may be better at balance than you think.

Image credit: Nicollazzi Xiong at pexels.com

Season of mists and manuscripts

People often talk about writer’s block, but sometimes a rough patch along the creative journey feels like facing a nebulous invisible barrier, mysterious as autumn mist. This often strikes writers who’ve embarked on a novel – typically 100,000 words – or a Young Adult or Middle Grade work, which may be up to 60,000 words.

Tackling a project of this scale, even if you’ve done so before, is an immense task on many levels – emotional, practical, creative. Even in a ‘normal’ year without all the anxiety and uncertainty arising from the pandemic, a writer may face a ‘misty patch’ that gets in the way of finishing that all-important first full draft. Often, it seems to arise around 35,000 to 40,000 words in – a huge investment for any writer, but perhaps only a third to half way through the eventual book.

“If you’re stuck in the middle, try writing the ending next.”

Here are three tips to help you find your way through the mist:

1.Write in patchwork form

There’s no law that says you must start at the beginning and write in linear fashion until you reach the end. Pick a chapter further along in the narrative – or maybe the very last scene – and write for enjoyment without worrying about where it is leading. You can stitch it all together later. If you’ve written a synopsis or treatment for the project, you’ll know exactly where each scene goes. If not, you have the joy of finding out!

2. Write the hardest scene

Sometimes there can be a fear of a particular step in the story that is acting as a brake. Author Louise Tondeur recommends writing the hardest chapter. What would help you tackle it? Imagine how you’ll feel once it’s written. Relieved? Happy? Encouraged? Possibly all three. Mapping out a rough but robust summary of the chapter before starting to write can also help, Lou says.

3. Give yourself permission

Novelist Laura Wilkinson describes an early, complete manuscript as a ‘dirty first draft’ whilst acknowledging how important it is to write the whole story, rather than polishing early chapters or sections (or, as it’s otherwise known, procrastinating!). Getting the whole story down is vital, since without this the process of editing and refining cannot begin. Sometimes the thing we need most is to give ourselves permission to ‘just write’, without the pressure of perfectionism.

“Look on your writing project as a glorious patchwork.”

If your manuscript seems lost in the mist, think about the extra clarity that comes once the weather clears, try a few practical techniques – and award yourself an autumn-themed treat once you’re back in your stride. A nutmeg-scented candle, a morning off to kick about in the leaves, or a socially distanced coffee with a like-minded friend looking over water, drinking in the ebbs, flows and sparkle and the bright clear light.

Good for the soul, and for the work in progress.

Guest writer: Jokae Ayoola

Jokae Ayoola debut author with her picture book How We Love Our Hair

I’m delighted to welcome debut author Jokae Ayoola to my blog as she launches her picture book How We Love Our Hair. Designed to inspire girls to enjoy and care for their afro hair, this fun, character-filled book with illustrations by designer Pelumi I is full of practical tips. Welcome to this little corner of the #WritersCafe, Jokae!

What inspired your project?

The inspiration came from my personal experience with afro hair and the experiences of women around me. Often the struggle of not knowing how to care for afro-textured hair has created frustration for many with my hair type. So, I decided I wanted to write a book to educate little girls from a young age about afro hair care so they wouldn’t have to experience the same challenges. It is also a book for parents who have not yet got to grips with the fundamentals when it comes to healthy hair care practices.

What was your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge was staying motivated. I have had some difficulties with health which have caused setbacks, but I soon realised that this project was just what I needed to take my mind off it all and keep going.

What’s your favourite aspect of the book?

That each character has their chapter with an educational theme running through it.

What have you learned along the way?

Perfectionism is good but can slow you down so at some point you have to let go and realise there will always be room for growth.

Top tips for debut writers?

  1. Build your audience, whether it’s creating posts or reposting posts for an audience on social media. Ask yourself, where do they hang out online? Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or all three? Then join them and be a part of the fun, engage and build a mini-community. You will need their support when you launch.
  2. Seek out other self-publishers and find out what challenges they have and what tips and advice they can give you. Social media is an excellent place for this.
  3. Don’t forget to document or write down the steps you take along the way; this will make it easier for when you do future books. The same with expenses, keep a log and try to stick to a budget.

Order your copy

Having worked with Jokae as a Cornerstones mentor, I am delighted to see her project in print. How We Love Our Hair is available to order online. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

The writing season

Seasons

As the season changes from summer to autumn, cloud by cloud and leaf by leaf, it’s a natural time to pause, reflect and savour that instinct to settle into a different rhythm. We can relish the freshness of a breeze after summer’s humidity, enjoy the earthy colours emerging around us – and, in terms of our creative life, take a long, deep breath.

“The changing season brings a new phase
of creative possibility.”

In our agricultural past, people and communities were deeply and inescapably connected to the ebbs and flows of the seasons. Fallow periods contrasted with high-energy phases, in line with the need to plough the ground ready to plant seeds, care for newborn lambs or bring in the harvest, as nature dictated. The year’s rhythms, and its lulls, were as familiar and foundational as our own breath, in and out. Of course, dependency on the seasons and the weather brought great uncertainty and, at times, suffering. But that connected way of life also offered an upside: regular (guilt-free) and sometimes lengthy ‘in between times’ that provided the opportunity to rest and recharge.

“The chance to pause can be both precious
and surprisingly productive.”

In today’s world those natural patterns have, for many of us, all but disappeared. For all the comforts and advantages of modern life it can feel as if we’re on duty 24/7. The space to reflect, allow ideas to settle and rest our busy brains can be hard to find. Yet for writers, the chance to pause for a while can be both precious and surprisingly productive. Gaps between paragraphs give greater clarity to the whole page, after all.

Top tips 

As the blackberries ripen and the acorns drop, here are three tips for taking advantage of the seasonal cusp:

  1. Do less. For a week, a day or (depending on your commitments) even an hour. Don’t be busy, just be.
  2. Breathe deeply. Savour the scents and the changing temperatures around you. They offer a gentle but unmistakeable gateway to the new season, a new phase of possibility.
  3. Play. Kick up leaves, search for conkers, jump in puddles. Play is a powerful driver for creativity… who knows how it might impact your work in progress?

 

 

 

 

Running for writers

Running shoes on a pavment for running for writers blog

Walking is well known as a valuable part of many writers’ routine, offering a calming balance to the often intense nature of writing, along with fresh air, physical movement and space – but what about running?

For some, it’s impossible due to health issues or practical factors. But for those lucky enough to be able to make running part of their week it can be a revelation as I found when, with encouragement from my daughter, I embarked on the ‘couch to 5k’ programme.

I’m not naturally sporty but it was being made to take part in cross country running at school, without training or preparation, that really put me off. I can still recall the dread I felt when faced with that hill…

So perhaps it is no surprise that, as an adult, I’d frequently say words to the effect, ‘I can cycle, I can do yoga, but I’m not a runner’. I believed that running was not something I could ever do, still less enjoy. But I was wrong.

“Build stamina and assemble support – every
writer needs a bit of both!”

So what changed? It is all to do with the coaching aspect of the couch to 5k programme, which encourages you to build your stamina steadily, week by week; recognise your achievements; look towards the horizon; and, importantly, train your mind as much as your body. The message that comes through is, ‘keep going to the end: you can do this’.

You can choose your coach – I chose Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. There’s practical advice about fluid intake and running technique, too, so new runners can build their knowledge and ‘skills toolkit’.

While the programme is designed to build over nine weeks, there’s no pressure for it to be linear. Tired one week? Go back to an earlier, easier run. There’s no rush, and there’s everything to gain by listening to your needs.

The parallels to the writer’s life are easy to see. Whatever the ultimate goal may be, writers usually face rejection(s), periods of writer’s block, setbacks and lulls in confidence. Self-belief can be a particular issue. A novel may take years to write, and dozens of drafts before it’s ready to be sent out into the world. So, just like athletes, writers need stamina, resilience – and support.

“Your support system will be unique,
just as your writing is.

As a mentor and editor, I value the opportunity to offer encouragement as well as ‘nuts and bolts’ feedback on a work-in-progress. As a writer, I have found my own support system – a combination of wise, supportive writer friends, skilled and enthusiastic beta readers, who are also published authors, through the wonderful New Writing South and the very best non-writer friends who shore me up and celebrate with me in equal measure. I find that being part of the #WritingCommunity on Twitter is beneficial, too.

Now, as a runner as well as a writer (see what’s changed?) I am acquiring ‘stamina habits’ that boost my confidence as well as my fitness. And that feels like a really positive step.

My pavement playlist

I’m aiming for stamina rather than speed, so I listen to Jack Savoretti, The Feeling and Tom Odell. Your playlist might be very different…

 

My friend, the pen

Doodle image 2

On National Writing Day, I’m celebrating the physical act of writing – and the often humble pen that plays such an important role in many writers’ creative lives.

Every writer is unique in the way s/he puts pen, pencil or felt tip to paper, exploring and expressing the work that’s developing with arrows, circles, question marks, underlining, ticks, flashes of highlighter and ‘notes to self’. Visual writers may well add little drawings, or show the work on the page to get a feel for scale, position, balance and drama, as I often do as part of my process.

“The freedom to experiment with words
on the page
is a wonderful gift to give a child.”

Every scribble, however cryptic, half-formed or throwaway it may seem, contributes to a story or poem taking shape, and is therefore meaningful. Are those early notes worth keeping? It depends on many factors, from the strictly practical (available space, urge to recycle) to the emotional (the work’s rubbish, take it away!).

For writers working with children, sharing chaotic-looking notes (especially ones with lots of crossing out, like the ones I’ve shown here – including early work for my picture books) can be a great way to show that no book arrives ‘fully formed’. Trial and error, starting again, exploring a new approach and giving yourself permission to get it ‘wrong’ are essential aspects of the creative process – a wonderful and enriching gift to give a child, akin to the freedom to daydream, that can last a lifetime.

Doodle image 1

So today let’s celebrate those little idiosyncrasies that characterise our writing life when we’re not tapping away at a keyboard, ipad or even smartphone: grabbing whatever’s to hand so we can record that elusive new idea; settling down with a battered but familiar biro that feels like a friend; or perhaps selecting your favourite or only writing implement of choice, because it is enjoyable to hold and feels smooth and satisfying as it flows (along with your equally graceful prose, of course) across the page.

Personally, I like cheap biros in large quantities, as I’m constantly losing them. One of my best-ever Christmas presents was a box of 20 identical, clickable, basic, thin, black Bic pens. They just feel right in my hand, somehow.

“My keyboard is indispensable, but could I write
without a pen to hand as well?

Producing a finished manuscript in longhand would feel to me like an impossible task – although some writers do prefer this method – when I’m so used to the speed and ease of my keyboard and editing tools. But could I write without a humble biro to hand, to help shape my thoughts? I’m really not sure. Perhaps I’ll give it a try one day, when the last of my favourite cheap-and-cheerful pens disappears. For now, on National Writing Day, I’ll take a moment to say thank you to my simple, often overlooked, but vital writing tools.

What’s your favourite?

If you have a favourite (or only) pen, please leave a comment! Maybe we can draw up a ‘top ten’…

Bringing a map to life

Maps are positioned at the front of many books for children – especially adventure stories. It’s a long tradition but a contemporary one too, with maps appearing in novels published as long ago as Treasure Island in 1883, right through to contemporary classics such as Piers Torday’s The Last Wild. One of the most famous is the ‘Hundred Aker Wood’, drawn by E.H. Shepard and home to Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. My own personal favourite is Milly-Molly-Mandy’s neat and orderly village.

I love drawing so when I started to write a Middle Grade book for children The Stone Feather (as yet unpublished) based in a made-up world, it seemed only natural to draw a map of my own. Here’s how it went!

maps one

I wanted the main location in the book to sit within a circle, but I still had to start with some very neat squares. Using scraps of paper helped me work out where to position the different landmarks and elements. It’s easy to move things around that way and means you can try out lots of options until you find the one that feels right – an important part of the creative process for me. I drew everything in pencil, then went over it with ink. And finally, paint!

maps two

A closer look…

There are deliberate differences in how trees, grasses, crops and meadows are depicted.  Before starting to create a map like this, it’s useful to create your own ‘visual language’ – which acts like a key. This helps bring emotional depth to the landscape, for example making a forest look scary, and a woodland sheltered and safe.

The compass rose in the top right hand corner, showing north, south, east and west, is an important element that helps to establish that this is a map, rather than simply a drawing. These can be any design you like. I chose to include swirls in mine because the story features a serpent. It can be fun to include little story clues like this (even if nobody else notices!).

You might also notice arrows, paths, tracks and a river. These features often appear in story maps, helping to show the direction that the main character and his or her friends may choose – or be forced – to take!

For great guidance on creating hand-drawn maps, I recommend Hand Drawn Maps – a Guide for Creatives by Helen Cann.

What’s your favourite map in a children’s book? I’d love to know!

 

 

 

In no particular order

There are many helpful and inspiring books on different aspects of creative writing – here are some of my favourites, as a writer who’s interested in children’s literature, narrative design and the physical act of writing.

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Order lies at the heart of narrative theory – but who decides on that order, and how do we as readers (and writers) recognise and respond to it? It might involve five acts with an inciting incident, rising drama and a neat (or not so neat) conclusion; a resonant, interlaced approach that’s less familiar to the modern reader; or a story built around a recurring symbol or dilemma steeped in our collective fairytale past.

Whatever shape it takes, and however it may seem to fly weightlessly through time or viewpoint, narrative design is always deliberate, always grounded. You just need to know where and how to look. That’s where the expertise and insight shared in my favourite books on creative writing is so very useful in terms of craft.

Then there’s the act of writing itself – the pattern on the page, as you might say. Where did letterforms come from, and how did they evolve into type? Why are pages page-shaped, and when was the idea of a paragraph invented? If these questions entice you, read on… in the order of your choice, of course.

The Art of Writing Fiction by Andrew Cowan – full of artistic insight as well as observations on process

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel – a stunning exploration of the physical tome in all its medieval beauty and symbolism

How Fiction Works by James Wood – an incisive review of the nuts and bolts of narrative, peppered with analysis of the many and varied techniques employed by novelists

Singing for Mrs Pettigrew by Michael Morpurgo – a gentle but enriching reflection on stories, interwoven by unforgettable prose pieces

Into the Woods – a five act journey into story by TV producer John Yorke offers a very clear account of how and why story works.

 

“Stories perform for us the cultural work
of illuminating the darkness”

Maria Tatar

 

Paper – an elegy by Ian Samson – it’s been around for some 2,000 years, used for everything from banknotes to novels, advertising posters to legislation. So paper definitely deserves its own book!

Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison – this intriguing book looks at narrative from a very different perspective

Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland – perfect if you’re a fan of fairytales and deep dark woods, and dare to explore a little further…

The Golden Thread by Ewan Clayton – a fascinating exploration of how and why we write, the advent of print and bookmaking technology

Enchanted Hunters — the Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar – a glorious wander through storytelling, from the fireside stool.

Into the forest and out again

Why is it that so many stories involve forests? In the past they were (and may still be) places of exile and danger, hard work and jeopardy – certainly no leafy playground. In a forest, you cannot see very far ahead and there may be no clear path; it’s easy to get lost. And when darkness falls, those gently rustling ferns can seem more like monsters than friends. Then there’s the question of who – or what – you might meet in the woods. Strange people, hungry animals, magical beings?

But for young heroines and heroes, one huge advantage of forests is that they are much more exciting than the safe confines of home – and so, they offer an enticing landscape for children to explore, testing their own limits and learning about the world. It’s no wonder that forests (especially deep, unfamiliar or forbidden ones) are such a promising setting for stories.

In the first chapter of my work-in-progress for children, young hero Ethon finds himself in scary Viper’s Wood after dark and soon realises why it is out of bounds. It’s fun to draw different types of trees and think of ways to represent safe and not-so safe woodland areas. In these sketches, I’ve experimented with different ways of representing trees, from cosy to creepy!

pjimage (5)

 

The beauty of a writing retreat

pjimage (4)

It started with a tweet, mentioning that one place was left on the Arvon Centre’s four day writers’ retreat. No tuition, no structure, no feedback – just time to write. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Spending a few days at the Clockhouse in Shropshire is something I’d recommend to any writer in need of peace, quiet, time and the simple luxury of not being ‘on duty’ in any way. The retreat has been designed by people who really understand writers’ needs: the physical spaces are spacious and restful, with no distractions such as TV or even loud artworks. The setting is beautiful, with a magical woodland walk and a kitchen garden providing lettuce and raspberries. I half expected to bump into Peter Rabbit. The food provided is plentiful and delicious, with veggie and vegan options and the option to bring your own wine (or gin and tonic!) or pop a few quid in the honesty box.

There are just four studios at the Clockhouse and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful view of the countryside from my study window. My fellow writers were a delight – one from London, one from Hong Kong and one from Colorado. We socialised over dinner, sharing tips and describing our various writing projects, whilst respecting each other’s desire for peace and privacy the rest of the time.

Best of all, my first ever writers’ retreat was an intensely and enjoyably productive time: as well as finishing the draft of my novel for 8-12 year olds (which was my objective) ideas surfaced that are now an exciting and essential part of the work. There’s more work to do in two of the middle chapters of The Stone Feather before I can truly say ‘it’s finished’ but I made more progress than I’d ever have believed possible.

I can’t wait to go back.