10 things I learned about writing in 2016

I’ve just spent my first full year as an agented writer after years of learning how to write children’s fiction. In no particular order, here are my lightbulb moments of the last 12 months: things I’ve realized that have helped me most in my development as a writer this year.

  1. Beautiful writing abhors repetition, unless deliberate. There’s a fabulous, funny example of intentional repetition in BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, one of my top reads of last year.
  2. Transcendent writing says something about the human condition. Frances Hardinge writes exquisite sentences I could happily live inside for a month, but it’s the insights that pepper her work that make feel wiser, and changed, after finishing one of her books.
  3. Revision always hurts and is always worth it. Wonderful pieces of writing may get cut during this process. Lin Manuel Miranda said this better than I can recently: “You don’t cut because it’s not good, you cut because it’s about serving the story and momentum. Editing would be EASY if just bad bits fell away.” Remove whatever’s needed and work hard to go deeper, closer, realer.
  4. Making up words is okay (viz. RIVERKEEP).
  5. Length doesn’t buy us depth as writers. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET has 757 words and yet it’s heartbreakingly profound. I also learned that one of my favourite books of 2016 was given a last-minute edit just before press by its author, who pared back 3000 words at the 11th hour.
  6. To write something worth reading, the story must be in me and I in the story. The manuscript I’ve just given to my agent was ostensibly for my daughter when I first drafted it two years ago. But I realized during early edits that this wasn’t enough. I located the place inside myself that the story really sprang from, and that’s what brought it to another, stronger place. James Scott Bell talks about this in PLOT AND STRUCTURE: the need for a personal resonance in the stories we choose to write.
  7. Experimentation is good: challenging myself with new forms is worth the risk. I discovered that a story told from two points of view could work, but I had to let go of the metronome-like regularity (even back-and-forth between both characters, interspersed by an outside insert) of the first structure I tried; loosening up a bit helped the narrative function better.
  8. Beginnings matter. This fantastic blog from Jennie Nash talks about the need for confidence from the very first line. Some of my writing friends said they felt the need for hooky openers is overstated these days, but I disagree. If we can write, why not write something memorable, right from the starting gun? Maybe this is an impulse from my copywriting day job, where every syllable counts. A captivating first line is large part of my satisfaction as a reader, and I’ll do all I can to deliver the same experience for my readers. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Dickens knew what he was on about in this regard. “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
  9. I need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself. In my most recent story, character motivation wasn’t strong enough, stakes were too low and the goal unclear. I prioritized the changes I had to make, took my agent’s advice on which areas were dragging, and got to work. The new draft made us both a lot happier.
  10. If editing feels hardest as I near the end of the story, that’s because it is. And that’s okay. Writer Vikki King said (I’m paraphrasing) the work of writing a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.

What were your lightbulb moments as a writer this year? I am actively seeking tips – please let me know your insights below. 

 

Image from Sheng-Fa Lin on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/CeuUD

I pledged allegiance

The Pledge of Allegiance

I pledged allegiance to the flag

after the scuff of chairs and desks,

facing front, hand pressed to my heart;

The sagging stripes and folded stars

didn’t stand for the Republic,

but Happy Days and Hostess cakes,

sprinkler summers and autumn leaves,

tobogganing and snowball fights;

They’re throwing more than snowballs now,

and there’s no ducking it: it’s blame,

for their dead American dream.

My hand still presses to my heart.

O America, this rebirth

of indecency must not stand;

Remember justice?

It was supposed to be for all.

 

 

 

 

Words: Sheila M. Averbuch

Photo: Paul Sableman on Flickr

Why kill your darlings?

7527209_b26bbdcc57_b

Few writing tasks are harder for me than rewriting my opening chapter. I end up stuck to my opening lines like a suction cup, afraid to break the book by reimagining how it might open. It’s where I’m least willing to kill my darlings, but I’ve realized why my first chapter, of all places, can’t be a safe haven for favorite phrases, descriptive passages, or belches of backstory.

The story’s opening is like a cross-section of the book: it lets the reader glimpse elements that run right through the narrative, all the way to the climax. Anything in chapter one must earn its place through multiple rigorous edits.

I know this. Or, I thought I knew this. Still, I’ve found myself clinging to descriptive passages in particular, and to favorite bits of character background. The need to hold onto these things has felt almost superstitious, as if these elements are good luck charms that hold my book together. My chapter-one rewrites end up being hugely frustrating experiences as I leaf over earlier drafts, fretting over phrases I’ve left behind and thinking, wrongly, that reinserting them will reignite the magic.

For me, there’s only one way to find the magic: get right back inside the character’s head and be honest with myself about what they’re most preoccupied with, and what their deeper fears are (things that need only be hinted at, here in the early pages).

I’ve just finished a couple hours on my opening chapter, forcing myself to keep the character’s main preoccupation in focus, but it’s terribly hard. What a temptation there is to plonk in my good-luck-charm phrases and descriptions. I’ve known the phrase “kill your darlings” for years, but this morning was the first time I understood why it makes sense to do so. Holding onto those darlings can pull me away from the moment, out of the character’s genuine mindset as I strain to write towards a piece of imagery or backstory-memory that I’ve told myself I must include.

It’s like preparing spontaneous anecdotes in advance of an important social event, terrified of running out of things to say when the stakes are so high. But that never really works, does it? It’s much better to stay in the moment, react to stimuli, and allow pertinent facts to bubble to the surface in a natural way.

Last month I had a similar experience, realizing the need to stay in the moment later in the manuscript, where I introduce a second main character. This girl was truly starving, but spent an unnatural amount of time — and wordcount — resenting her father. When I looked hard at the scene, the hierarchy of needs dictated what I (if I were her) would be thinking, feeling and prioritizing in that moment. I went with the hunger, and her thoughts about her dad sort of leaked out later in the scene, in a much more natural and narratively helpful way.

How do you deal with darlings in your revisions? I’d love to hear any insights or challenges you experience, in the comments below.
Photo by victory of the people on Flickr

When children don’t see themselves in books

DiversityInChildrensBooks2015_fc4 by David Huyck

I’m a white author in a largely white Scottish village, trying along with half the writing world to become published in children’s books. The question of ethnic and cultural diversity in both authorship and storyline has been very much on my mind, because as a newcomer to this industry, it’s impossible not to notice – and agree with — the groundswell of feeling that children’s publishing is overly white and needs to change.

So it was with tremendous interest (and discomfort) that I saw this startling infographic, Diversity in Children’s Books 2015: it illustrates with painful clarity that not enough children are seeing themselves in the books they read.

The disparity is immense. While white kids (and rabbits…lucky rabbits) see themselves in abundance in children’s books, the news is grim for people of color. The data shows that, in an analysis of the percentages of books depicting characters from diverse backgrounds, more than 73% of those depictions are of white children.

Kids of black, Asian, Native American and other cultures are significantly underrepresented. No one ethnic group gets a higher percentage of depictions than the 12.5% of books devoted to animals, trucks “and other non-human objects.”

Diversity in Children’s Books 2015

This infographic is the brilliant work of Illustrator David Huyck, Assistant Professor Sarah Park Dahlen and author/teacher Molly Beth Griffin, and you can read a blog post here by Sarah about its genesis. The infographic has taken fresh 2015 data as its foundation (publishing statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison), so what you see here is the latest, hardest information — and hard it is.

What happens when children don’t see themselves in books? What happens when those children are grown-ups who are aspiring writers, but who have spent years feeling in their gut that their stories aren’t “the kind of thing” people read or publishers publish?

And those questions don’t cover what is perhaps the gravest issue of all, for communities like my overwhelmingly white village: what happens to white kids who lose the chance, in their childhood, to put themselves inside the heads and hearts of black, Asian, Latino, Native American and mixed-race main characters?

A chance for deep, real empathy is lost – that’s what happens. That’s what’s happening.

Even the whitest communities are becoming more diverse, and fast. Scotland’s defined ethnic minority population might be just 200,000 people, but that’s doubled from 100,000 people in 2001. The Scottish Book Trust has recently introduced the Saltire Bursary 2016 to encourage more aspiring authors, poets and storytellers from diverse backgrounds. I am with YA author Elizabeth Wein, a fellow Scotland resident, when she says this truly is one of the best countries in the world to be an author, given the support of organizations like SBT.

The Saltire Bursary is fantastic, and change needs to start somewhere. But when we see things like this 1968 exchange between “Peanuts” creator Charles M Schultz and the Americans who urged him to incorporate a black character into his famous strip, the mind boggles that such a badly needed diversification has been so slow in coming.

Look at this infographic, share it. Tell David, Molly and Sarah what you think of it.

And ask yourself – what does happen when children don’t see enough of the real world, and the real people it contains, in the books they read and love? What can you do — in your own teaching, writing, parenting, book-reading and book-buying — to help improve and champion diversity?

Give props to the creators of this amazing infographic, please. Cheers to Sarah for posting it earlier today. Please note, David created the infographic with a Creative Commons license; but please link to Sarah if you reproduce it.

David Huyck, Illustrator
davidhuyck.com/
@huyckd

Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor at St. Catherine University’s MLIS Program
http://sarahpark.com/
@readingspark 

Molly Beth Griffin, Author and Teacher
http://mollybethgriffin.com/

Review: Dave Rudden’s MG fantasy Knights of the Borrowed Dark

Knights of the Borrowed Dark

I first heard of Dave Rudden following his intriguing think piece in the Guardian about how society raises boys, and about his own quiet suffering the face of bullying (Why teenage boys are told not to feel, and why that’s so wrong). So when I spotted KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK on NetGalley, I was extra-interested to read this middle-grade debut, which promised chosen-one adventure and power to the powerless.

It delivers. Denizen Hardwick recently celebrated his uneventful 13th birthday in the glum west-of-Ireland orphanage that’s been his home since he can remember. But when the orphanage director suddenly announces the existence of Denizen’s previously unknown aunt and seems unusually keen to get rid of the boy, Denizen suspects something is awry; his curiosity to learn about his parents outshines his caution, however, and he quietly accompanies the driver his aunt has sent on a late-night cross-country trek to Dublin.

It’s only when their car is nearly crushed by a breach in reality that brings down a tunnel — and lets lose a horrific demon — that Denizen gets a hint of the secrets that have been hidden from him.

The fun really begins when he learns that his 13th birthday wasn’t months ago: it’s now, tonight, and it marks the beginning of Denizen’s own demon-fighting powers.

I loved Rudden’s writing, the contemporary Irish setting and the way he plays with expectations (“…every time someone came to visit [the orphanage], hopeful children began packing their bags, ready for their new life as wizard, warrior or prophesied king”). I was left wishing that the clockwork demons bent on eradicating Denizen and his family had a more convincing motivation for doing so, but maybe that’s clockwork demons for you.

Best of all was Rudden’s world-building: the battle-worn league of knights sworn to fight the demons, their library of spells to do so, and most intriguingly the Cost (with a capital C) that the knights suffer from using their magic. I’m glad this is the first in a series, because I could almost feel the world of the knights rising up huge and cathedral-like behind this story, with so much more to discover than could be expressed in this first book.

Denizen’s hunger to know the truth about his parents, at any cost, is painfully real, and I loved the aunt character, a hardened hero whose company is cold comfort to Denizen after spending so many years alone. What makes the story so satisfying, and raises it above a standard chosen-one tale, is that the ultimate battle isn’t against what you might think: it’s not against the murderous creatures, but against secrets, and whether we can and want to forgive the people who hurt us.

Rick Riordan fans will find a lot to enjoy in Knights of the Borrowed Dark; I lent it to one of my son’s friends for a sleepover at our house this week, and the boy had gobbled up nearly half the book after a few hours.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars
Knights of the Borrowed Dark; Cover illus by Owen Freeman; Cover and logo based on a design by Nick Stearn
Published in UK: April 2016
More info at Puffin

Unlocking a tough scene with a clean-slate rewrite

Pen and Paper by GuudmorningLast week’s revisions were the hardest I’ve faced in a while on my work in progress, a middle grade novel that’s my first full-length fantasy. The scene where the very real world meets the magical just wasn’t working, but thanks to some great reading recommendations from twitter (I especially loved Anne Ursu’s BREADCRUMBS), plus some back-to-the-drawing-board scene brainstorming, I’ve got past my roadblock in chapter 7.

I don’t know how I’d forgotten this golden rule of revising: when I am struggling to rewrite a scene, I cannot bring over any old material from the previous draft, and by that I mean not a sentence, not a phrase, not a word. I absolutely need to reimagine everything about the characters’ mindset, assumptions and fears in order to generate realistic interactions, and the realistic dialogue that flows from that.

This meant doing some improv acting, devising a new scene (and, yes, talking to myself out loud in my writing room while I did it), exploring what the characters would say to each other on first meeting.

If I forget, please remind me in future – no! copying! and pasting! I have to start with a completely clean slate, especially when a scene is tricky.

If you’ve had any epiphanies during your writing or revising process, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

 

 

Paper and pen image by Guudmorning on Flickr

Your story can make a great story

The Mirror

I shouldn’t be blogging when this is my only clear morning to work on novel revisions, but yesterday’s twitter pitch contest aimed at increasing the diversity in children’s literature has me thinking thoughts that are crowding out everything else.

#DVpit, the brainchild of New York literary agent Beth Phelan, took over twitter yesterday, encouraging writers with polished, ready manuscripts to put a one-liner about their work onto twitter if theirs is a diverse book — especially if the writer him- or herself is from a diverse background. Of course that’s open to interpretation, but here’s how Beth described DVpit.

So for example, if you are a writer of colour and your book centres around characters of colour, or if you are a writer with a disability and so is your main character, #DVpit wanted to hear from you yesterday.

By the way, if you missed yesterday’s contest and you’re writing a diverse story that’s ready to be seen by agents, you haven’t missed the boat. It’s clear from yesterday’s huge industry interest in #DVpit that agents and publishers are keen to hear from you whenever your story is at its best.

That’s why I wanted to jot down some thoughts today – to encourage you, whoever you are, not to be afraid to put your own culture – or elements of it – into the story you’re writing for children. I’m a Caucasian, first-generation Irish-American now living in Scotland, so I don’t pretend to have first-hand experience of living in our society – which still tends to prioritise and reward white, male, heterosexual, middle-class Judeo-Christian backgrounds – as a person from a minority or marginalised background.

But I do know what it’s like to assume, at a gut level, that my own story isn’t as interesting as something I could invent. The first two manuscripts I wrote were set on a space station, centred around a boy struggling with self-confidence issues. The problem with skilled writers is that they can write just about anything and make it sound good, and I was indeed able to write a competent story that had very little of my own guts, fears or fantasies in it.

It was only when I wrote a story that I decided was going to be 100% for me – with deep roots in my own Irish-American Massachusetts upbringing – that I tapped into something special. That third story was the one that got me my amazing agent, Jennifer Laughran, and while a huge amount of writers-craft work and practice was needed to pound the story into shape, I do believe the story works because it’s plugged right into my guts, into who I am.

Don’t discount your own heritage, background, insights, inherited legends or cultural traditions if you’re looking for the stuff of your own stories. I’m not giving the pat advice to write what you know; I’m saying don’t forget who you are when you’re looking for ideas that resonate.

The best advice I remember hearing on this topic is “write what you fear.” (Who said that? If you can remember, stick it in the comments below.) All the way through my Massachusetts book, I had the palpable sense of exploring things that really, really scared me.

And those are the books I adore reading: books like YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS by Meg Medina or Brian F. Walker’s BLACK BOY WHITE SCHOOL, or Lindsay Eagar’s HOUR OF THE BEES, or Julie T. Lamana’s UPSIDE DOWN IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, where the main character struggles to find peace with where they came from and where they want to go. Not all those stories, by the way, are own-voice tales by and about authors from the same tradition. But they are the stories I love most, because they pack an unbeatable punch.

A lot of people in the publishing industry would agree that books on shelves don’t reflect the true diversity of the great wide world, and #DVpit looks like it’s a step in the right direction, encouraging more writers to tell stories that spring from their own backgrounds. I’ve looked at Twitter contests for some years – that’s what set me on the road to finding my amazing agent – and I’ve never seen such a high calibre of industry folks watching the one-line pitches as I saw yesterday with #DVpit.

Whatever your story is, write it, make it awesome, hone your pitch until it shines so much it hurts your eyes, then submit. What have you got to lose?

 

 

 

Mirror photo by Pellesten on Flickr