Why kill your darlings?


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

Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor at St. Catherine University’s MLIS Program

Molly Beth Griffin, Author and Teacher

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

Review: Emma Shevah’s MG comedy Dara Palmer’s Major Drama

dara palmer major drama

I’m a sucker for theatrical kids, and it was obvious from the start that Dara Palmer, star of Emma Shevah’s DARA PALMER’S MAJOR DRAMA, wouldn’t disappoint. Eleven-year-old Dara is a born star; it’s just that no one around her has recognised this yet. Passed over repeatedly for starring roles in the school play, Dara ever-so-reluctantly joins the director’s after-school acting class at the local theatre and ever-so-gradually learns that she has a lot to learn about this acting thing…which is not, evidently, based around how many faces she can pull.

If you loved Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER books, you’ll love the Dara story, not least because there’s a heavy dose of heart-warming self-discovery as Dara’s eyes open to other things beyond what makes a good actor. Dara’s one of two adopted daughters in the Palmer family but she’s never wondered (until an acting exercise by her teacher spurs her to do so) what it feels like to be her shyer, younger sister Georgia, who’s habitually outshone by Dara and her megawatt personality.

Dara is one of the most deliciously comic characters I’ve read in a long time, with a non-stop voice that explodes with personality. Her wonderful character is what lets her ruminate genuinely but never in a heavy-handed way about the Cambodian parents she never knew, about what it must have been like for her baby self to be whisked away to live in England, and about the everyday racism of a few boorish classmates. Dara’s dawning awareness that there are no faces like hers on the Hollywood posters that line her walls also feels real, as does her all-guns-blazing determination to be one of those faces, one day.

As a transplanted American living in the UK, I especially adored the view on America; I’ve seen in my own kids and others in our Scottish village the way that the US (in entertainment terms, at least) is like a giant pop-culture monolith to the west, obsessing British kids in a way that’s not altogether a good thing. Dara is irritated that she finds herself misusing US terms like “prom” and “vanity cases” — this is deftly, brilliantly done and is some of the funniest writing I’ve seen in ages.

As a NetGalley reader I didn’t get to see most of Helen Crawford-White’s illustrations, but the sparkling cover has the right glam to draw star-loving readers.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah, illus. by Helen Crawford-White.

Published 2015 UK: coming July 2016 in US.

More info at Chicken House

Review: Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep


I recently joined NetGalley and was thrilled for the chance to read an advance copy of Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep, a river “road trip” tale that put me in mind of so many English literature classics I lost count, but that still managed to steer its own course and be thoroughly itself, and thoroughly unforgettable.

Wulliam is set to take on the role of riverkeep when he hits his 16th birthday in a few days, but he dreams of escaping the responsibility of the frankly abominable family calling: fishing corpses from the river, honouring these dead, and keeping lit the heat lamps that stave off freezing of the waterway.

He’s forced to assume the mantle of riverkeep early, however, when his father becomes possessed by a water spirit; poor Wulliam instantly and energetically messes up everything, but manages to keep his sights on one goal – and it’s not keeping the river, but keeping his father from slipping fully under the spell of the spirit that possesses him.

This book had me at “father” – I’m a sucker for any tale of child and dad, and that’s the heart of Riverkeep. But Stewart has also done such a phenomenal job at sketching character, and evoking the timeless but subtly changing riverside landscape. He also fearlessly weaves in Chaucer-esque bawdiness that passes the time delightfully as Wulliam goes on his nigh-impossible quest to cure his father, an odyssey downriver during which he not only grows up fast, but also attracts a gaggle of hangers-on with their own agendas.

It’s impossible not to think of Chaucer reading this, but there are also shades of Dickens (the crushing misery of poverty, against the backdrop of the distant industrial city) as well as Neil Gaiman in the way Stewart details the horror of Wulliam’s situation, including the spirit consuming his father and the murderous vigilantes pursuing their (potentially sentient) riverboat.

Did I mention that Stewart makes up his own words? I’m officially adopting “sleepmutter” into my vocabulary, and I loved the description of a sea captain’s scarred skin as “onceinjured.” One of my favorite American writers in university was Dos Passos, who shunned hyphens and coined his own compound words left and right – another sure way to my heart. The sea captain’s monologue about life on the water versus life on land, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve read in years.

Published 28 April in UK and 26 July 2016 in US by Penguin Random House. More info here.

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

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