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

Plot, structure, death, death and more death

Edinburgh Central Library SCBWI workshop

I’m fixated on plot and structure at the moment – you may be, too, if you’re a writer tackling revisions on a work in progress or a NaNoWriMo draft from last year.

This year, for the first time, I’m editing a manuscript that I’ve left for a long, long rest. I wrote it more than a year ago. I haven’t let a first draft sit for so long before, but I’ve been tied up with revisions on my middle grade sci-fi which is on submission (gulp, choke) with publishers. I completely credit plot and structure thinkers like Darcy Pattison and James Scott Bell with helping me get that manuscript this far – it was their advice that helped me turn my earlier draft of the sci-fi story into something stronger.

If you haven’t read NOVEL METAMORPHOSIS (which was the one craft book that all four tutors at the BookBoundUK Retreat I attended in 2014 unanimously recommended) definitely get a hold of it. I’m also slightly addicted currently to James Scott Bell’s WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE.

Here in Edinburgh our SCBWI Southeast Scotland network hosted a workshop by Scottish YA author Christina Banach earlier this month, giving a quick tour of Bell’s plot and structure techniques. Places were limited and sold out quickly for that intensive, but I did a write up of the plot workshop here for Words and Pictures, the SCBWI British Isles magazine, if you want to read up.

What struck me most about the day was the renewed focus it gave me on plot stakes and character “death” – be that physical, emotional (“dying inside”) or professional death – as James Scott Bell discusses in his various structure books.

In fact, on reading THE LIE TREE recently by Frances Hardinge – it’s just won the overall Costa award here in the UK, deservedly so – it struck me that all three kinds of death are grappled with, both within the main character and within her father who she so admires. In fact the whole story could be described as “death by Victorianism;” wow, that era knew how to make folk suffer.

Reflect and snap

I’ve been trying to reflect more on my writing, as my SCBWI buddy Louise Kelly recommended; Snapchat has been useful for this, as it lets me scrapbook images and video clips that capture what I’m thinking about the revising process.

If you don’t know Snapchat, you’re probably not aged 18 to 24; neither am I. But it may be worth investigating, because it does make keeping a video diary quite easy. Although it first began as a straight messaging app, similar to Skype, Snapchat now lets anyone post pictures and videos to their “story,” a.k.a. public timeline, visible to anyone.

Snapchat poses huge challenges, though, for those of us trying to get a handle on it – and not just because all content vanishes after 24 hours. There are also no hashtags, no lists as on Twitter, and no way to search public timelines, although the user directory can be searched by user name. It’s like a treasure hunt, finding publishing peeps to follow, but some cool folks I’m following on Snapchat include mega-agent Suzie Townsend, plus Chronicle Books and Quirk Books (sztownsend81, ChronicleBooks and QuirkBooks).

I’m cobbling together my snaps in YouTube, but there’s not much there at the moment – could be useful, however, if you’re an author curious about how others are using Snapchat. I’M NO EXPERT, but I am rather enjoying what it’s doing for my vow to be more reflective.

Whatever you’re working on, I hope your writing’s going well. You can find me on Twitter here or add me on Snapchat at sheilamaverbuch.

 

 

How NASA sent my question about kids’ books to space

kids-books-inspired-astronauts-to-go-to-space

When not writing kids’ sci-fi, my day job is to help organisations use social media more effectively. I have to say, the way NASA and its international space agency partners use social media is teeth-chattering impressive – and I’m not just saying that because I got to participate in their most recent social media outreach to the public (my question was selected to ask the astronauts live in space; see video above).

What NASA is doing is simple: using social media to let the public, especially children, feel closer to missions and the scientists who carry them out. If, like me, you feel your spine turn to jelly when you see a rocket take off, or catch sight of the famous “big blue marble” picture of Earth taken during the Apollo missions, you will be delighted to discover the steady diet of thrilling content NASA and its partners are offering up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus and other social platforms.

Reach out and touch space

Here’s just some of what I personally have been able to do over the past six months thanks to social media:

Not just NASA

One of the brightest stars in all this activity is of course not a NASA astronaut but Cmdr. Chris Hadfield from the Canadian Space Agency, who is on board the ISS currently and has gathered a huge following due to his regular tweets, including pictures, sharing what he sees out the window and inside the station. Hadfield’s tweets and pictures regularly make the front page of national newspapers and he also, quite wonderfully, answers children’s questions whenever possible, like this beautiful exchange about spacewalking.

The guitar-playing commander also participates in Reddit AMAs (“Ask me anything”), where he gives insights into everything, from how to shave in space to what space smells like — he’s even done live music collaborations with the Barenaked Ladies and the Chieftains, singing “Moondance.”

 

hadfield-jam-in-space

(pic from Commander Hadfield on Twitter)

Incidentally after my question about kids books, Commander Hadfield contacted me on Twitter to say he’d actually reread his most inspiring childhood space book, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, just weeks ago while he was in quarantine prior to launch. (You can imagine my deep thrill at being contacted by the Commander – I think I spoke only in exclamation marks for the following two hours.)

Going direct, and spreading the word exponentially, with social media

I’m old enough to remember the later Apollo launches, and the fact that broadcast television had lost some interest in what was becoming rote: rockets go into space; astronauts do missions and come home. Social media has given international space programs the chance to be their own broadcasters, conveying live images on platforms like YouTube without relying on mainstream media.

But their use of social goes beyond self-broadcast. NASA brilliantly exploits the viral, tell-your-friends power of social media, most effectively in last Friday’s Google Plus long-distance hangout with the International Space Station. The hangout was the first of its kind for NASA, and allowed us earthlings to post questions directly to in-orbit astronauts. The event, directed by NASA’s tireless social media manager John Yembrick, was publicised across all social platforms, with the help of a dedicated hashtag (#askstro) that NASA promoted for some weeks before, gathering questions, including video questions recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

For a social media geek like me, what was probably most interesting to witness was the morning of the event, when the NASA social media team put up a new Facebook post where anyone could comment, suggesting a question for the astronauts. Refreshing the page every few seconds, I watched as thousands of new “likes” accumulated on that Facebook post: each of those likes spread the message about this live event across thousands more Facebook friends, replicating the message instantly and exponentially.

NASA knows exactly what it’s doing on social media — it even has a fascinating program that allows influential social media users to apply for full press accreditation to visit NASA (at their own expense) during launches, and tweet and share what they experience under the dedicated #NASAsocial hashtag. That’s like the equivalent of the White House press corps suddenly opening itself up to any really great tweeters who can prove they should be there. That’s what I call enlightened.

What does all this mean?

I hope it means that the space program is starting to inspire kids again, thanks to the marvellous accessibility now possible over social media. Twenty years ago, who’d have thought it would be so easy for kids to chat with in-orbit astronauts, and hear those astronauts describe the childhood experiences — the eye-opening books, the inspirational physics teachers — that set them on their path to space? The space program really is alive and well, and it’s all good.