Children Book Tuesday :: Writing by heart

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As some of you know, I have spent much of the last week sitting beside a lake, writing. Words flow in a steady stream. I pause for a moment to look up at the magical horizon, then back at my computer, lost in the story as it unfolds.

This is what I imagined it would be like to write a novel.

Like many lovers of books, I’ve had a quiet fantasy to at some point write a novel. Every novel I have read since I was a kid makes me feel like maybe I could do this too. But it was an airy fantasy. Because, as I have been finding out, writing a novel is far harder than it looks. It’s craft. It’s hard work. It requires knowledge.

I’ve studied writing at university, and have written many thousands of words since. Last year, it occurred to me that I really need to learn how to write a story. A novel-length story. I can write a 350 word picture book. I can write 150,000 word course books. But as far as I knew, I didn’t have the skills to write a full length novel.

My first step was to ask other professional writers: what courses have you done? What books have you read? Where did your knowledge come from? I read blog posts and websites. Some resources I have come across include Story, by the formidable Robert McKee, James Patterson’s masterclass,  Writing Irresistible Kidlit  by Mary Kole and The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. I also did a wonderful course through SCBWI Netherlands earlier in the year with Sarah Davies. Threads started to come together, and I began to understand the makings of a good story. The task of writing a novel began to feel less daunting.

Because I haven’t been doing a lot of paid work this year, I’ve had time to write. So armed with a little knowledge and time, I began. I had a few story ideas, so started to flesh them out. It seemed that writing by heart was my style, and I would write, and write and write, and suddenly had 10,000 or so words for a couple of stories.

But that’s where I’d get stuck. I began four different times. Four different stories. Each time, when the uphill bit began, and my story started to lose momentum, I fell into the temptation of a new prospect. A new character would come to mind, and a new plot would unravel, and I would leap from what I was doing into the next project. It became easy to start, but incredibly hard to keep going.

One of the popular theories in fiction writing, is that you are a pantser or a planner. Al Tait says you are a mapmaker or a discoverer. By all attempts, I thought I must be a pantser, i.e. someone who writes by the seat of their pants, and sees where the story takes them. The discovery is fun. Characters come to life, and an initial idea for a plot swells and twists, taking you in all sorts of directions.

In life, I am a pantser – someone who plays everything by ear. I wait and see where I end up. There is no official plan. No law degree, or linear education. I have done things because I like to, or am interested, or because a particular door opens at a particular time and it just feels right to step through. Mostly, this approach has worked. But there have been times, {like nowish}, where I find myself living in a tent, with no clear objective and direction. The world is my oyster, but geez, that’s a scary concept.

As is completing a novel, when you have absolutely no idea which direction you are heading.

Of course, when I explained the concept of pantser vs planner to my husband, he had to play the devil’s advocate.

‘I don’t buy it,’ he said. ‘No one will be one or the other. They will be a combination of both.’

I read about the Snowflake Method at some point in my self-education, and decided it wasn’t for me. I’m a pantser, after all. But maybe there was something there – something to help me.

When I write education and training course books, they come with an outline. I use the outline, and fill in the blanks. I work fast and well, and before I know it, I’m 100,000 words in. Because there is an outline.

When I thought about my life as a pantser, I had to think again. Yes, sure, I’ve followed random paths, and taken unexpected forks in the road. But then again, I do have clear goals and objectives. I know, and have known for a long time, that I want to be a professional author, and I know roughly what my objectives within that look like. I’m heading to certain plot points along the way. Plot points evolve as I move towards them, and goals shift, but that just makes life interesting.

Could it be I am not such a pantser after all?

I revisited the Snowflake Method, and applied it to one of my stuck manuscripts.

I couldn’t bring myself to do the whole scene by scene, Excel spreadsheet breakdown, so I did an abbreviated version. My steps were:

1. Write down a clear story hook; make sure it sings

2. Write down a clear plot summary, outlining the key arcs and finale of story

3. Get to know characters thoroughly, and outline a story synposis for each

4. Flesh out the story synopsis

5. Write.

In truth, the planning stage didn’t take long at all, because the idea was already there, and I had already taken three attempts to write the story.

When it came to writing character outlines, the story really took shape. I could start to see various subplots, and understand my characters’ motivations. I needed to see how this story would shape them.

While I started a scene by scene lowdown, I gave up when I got to the lakes of Austria. It was time to launch in, headfirst. And so the tick tick of my keyboard began.

On Saturday, not long after rewriting my story from the beginning with my new outline in mind, I sent myself a 30,000 word draft of an almost complete middle grade novel.

Of course, there is no way this is anywhere close to being complete in real terms. Now the really hard work begins, as I go back over it, refine the story, and probably rewrite every line.

Still – something a week ago which seemed impossible was suddenly possible.

So maybe, as usual, my husband is right. Writers, or at least me, aren’t one or the other. A bit of pantsing and a bit of planning can take you a long way when writing a novel, just as it can in life.

What are your thoughts on this?

Join in for Children’s Book Tuesday by linking your post below. Anything related to children’s books is welcome!

Writing in the mountains

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It’s Sunday afternoon in a little house in Austria. The fire is burning. The children, their father and grandma have gone to the pool. After days of skiing, {indoor} swimming is fun for a change.

And guess what? Mummy’s at home, with her computer and hours in front of her to write. How glorious is that?

Work has eased off in recent weeks. Yes, it could be stressful, living in Europe with less money than planned.

But…the mountain air is good for creativity. And having time on my hands means time to spend with the children; time to play, and to homeschool, but also time to spend with my ideas and my computer.

Words are flowing thick and fast, I kid you not. On a typical work day, I write up to 8,000 words. These last weeks, I am channeling that energy into various creative projects.

When we visited Veere, in the Netherlands last month, my youngest and I puddled along behind the others. We walked beside the canal, where various houseboats came to rest.

‘I wish I lived on a houseboat,’ said my little Rosie. And so, a small idea began.

Here in the mountains, that idea has become a manuscript for a chapter book.

I set myself 1,000 words a day. Surprisingly, it was achievable, even when I was working and/or spending time with kids.

All day, little Rosie needs me. She’s three, and it’s understandable that she cannot leave her mummy’s side for a single second {right?}. She’s very cute and all. And fortunately, she goes to sleep easily at around 7.30pm. From that moment, my computer is on, and I am writing.

My eldest is happy playing board games at that time. And she doesn’t mind that I am not taking her to bed, because she knows in the morning there will be a new chapter to read. She tells me it’s the best story she’s ever heard {flattery will take her everywhere}, and many of her ideas have been directly incorporated into the story.

The last couple of Sundays, the others have gone off and left me for the whole afternoon. And I try not to waste a second. Last Sunday, I didn’t look at Facebook once and I was so proud of myself. Especially because I finished the manuscript I have been working so hard on.

All week, my best friend and best editor, Husband, has been reading the manuscript and giving me feedback. He is amazing at picking up incompatibilities, missing words and plot errors. So today, I am working with his suggestions, and trying to reconfigure the script.

I have written over 50 picture book manuscripts in recent years, but I have been less confident to try longer stories. I had a crack, last year, writing early readers. I think they still need some work. And who knows where this current manuscript will end up? It’s exciting, though, seeing a story form. To love the flow as it drips from the fingers onto the page. To meet the characters, and to dream about the world they inhabit.

Today, I am also working on two picture book manuscripts that have been a long time in the making. It’s funny how 500 word manuscripts take as much or even more time than it takes to write a chapter book. Today, though, I feel like I might have finally got to a place I am hoping to go with them. Hopefully, one day I can tell you more about them!

Anyway, happy times in this little Austrian cottage, with creativity and mountain air pumping through the veins. My children are benefiting too, with so much nature, and so much parental and grandma stimulation.

So yes, work is quiet. But other things, not so!

Hope your Sunday was happy too. Any creative or other projects on the go? What’s exciting you right now?

xx

Intimacy and blogging

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Blogging and social media has surely changed so much of how we relate to one another. Here we are, cup of tea in reach, reading the intimate details of each other’s lives. Some write about weaning their children, others about school drop offs, some write about struggles with mental health, others about traumas of their youth

Reading the beautiful Foxs Lane blog recently, it struck me just how much its author, Kate Ulman, gives her readers. We get an intimate insight into her life on the organic farm, her country, wholesome living. We feel like we know her beautiful daughters. (I found this post particularly beautiful.)

I’ve often questioned how much about my own life I want to share here on the blog. In early days, I felt I could share it all. I put up pictures of family, of my kids, and talked about the songs we sung, or the fights we had. It was liberating, and was a platform for connection. People wrote to say how much they appreciated reading my words.

Someone once wrote to thank me for my insight into parenthood, as it made her feel less nervous about her pregnancy.

Somewhere along the line though, my personal sharing goal posts moved. Although I love taking pictures of my girls, and am proud of how beautiful they are, I am more conscious of sharing them publicly. I guess I wonder about the lasting imprint of these images, and where they may potentially end up. Sometimes, of course, I can’t resist. Or the photo is a perfect illustration for one of my sunshine stories.

My sunshine stories themselves are less shared these days, and I am more conscious about the people I am writing about. I question my ownership of their stories.

The point is, the sharing goal posts are personal. Many bloggers I know and respect participate in Jodi Wilson’s The 52 Projectwhich is a weekly documentation of childhood. Some use pseudonyms for themselves and/or their children. Others, Eden Riley, for example, lay their souls bare, and couldn’t be more raw if they tried.

I admire that. And am grateful that souls have the strength and the courage to bare so much of themselves and their lives, which is particularly positive to human connection in terms of how we understand each other, and other’s experience of things like mental health, or parenthood.

Occasionally the interweb heats up with debates about over-sharing, but I wonder if that particular discussion applies at all when talking about personal blogs. Personal blogs are sharing, yes, but I see this as a positive direction our society has taken. Our adulteries, lies and secrets – the dark fragments of our humanity – are brought out from the cellar, into the sunshine, and we learn so much more about who we are as human, and who each other are.

Of course, the one time in the last month I switched on the radio, they happened to be talking about this very issue. Brene Brown, who many of you are familiar with, was being interviewed about embracing vulnerability. I caught these words before they trailed into the ether:

Vulnerability is an honest, raw bid for connection... If we are going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is the path.

So, I would like to say that whether you share pictures of your children or not, whether you use real names or not, whether you are taking photos of your daily outfit, or photos of your pet, or sharing books you read to your children, you’re all contributing in a positive way to our human connection.

And that can only be a good thing.

How do you feel about the intimate portrayal of personal lives in blogs and on social media?

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

Linking with Essentially Jess

Why I Write…

Why I Write This little ‘game’ started over at Always Josefa, and continues to spread across the countryside. Basically, a bunch of bloggers are talking about why they write. Kate Morell, From Katie To Kate, asked me to share my answers with you, so here goes (and if you haven’t visited Kate’s blog, you should! She’s inspiring.)

What am I working on?

Various things. The bulk of my writing is for Aspire Learning Resources, producing assessments and learning material for education and training courses. I love this work. It is varied, and interesting. It keeps my brain ticking. I could be writing about working in preschools, or providing support for people with disabilities. I probably spend about 30 hours a week writing for Aspire. I feel fairly lucky to get to write for an actual living.

When I first open up my computer for the day, though, I sneak in a bit of children’s writing. These are the stories I write in my head when not otherwise engaged.

Often these stories start in my notebook, and sometimes they stem from a droplet my daughter shares during her animated, imaginary stories.

I have a quite a few works in progress, but am trying to develop one in particular…

Then there’s My Little Sunshine House. I wrote here two to three times a week for a long time, but lately, dear blog, I only get here about once a week. But that’s okay. I know you still love me.

I don’t think I have told you about my latest creative venture, which is helping my husband Gregor write children’s music. To be honest he does the absolute bulk of it, but I chip in an idea, or line here or there. Our first song will be released in the coming month or so, so stay tuned. It’s very beautiful. (Proud Wifey.)

How does my writing differ from others in its genre?

I don’t know if it does! I struggle with the Big Blogging World sometimes. There are so so many blogs out there, each with it’s own unique voice and image. It’s hard to know if you are heard, or have anything new or interesting to contribute.

I have been working on various forms of this blog over the years, and have let it take on different directions. At this moment in time, though, I would say my blog is a fairly positive place to be. I like to share happiness and sunshine. I’m not shy of the truth, but generally there’s not too much darkness going on.

On the blog, I also talk about books we are reading to the children, either as a review, or I integrate the books into stories from my sunshine house. I would like to think I promote the idea of reading good books to children, and inspiring small imaginations.

Regarding my writing for children, my stories are usually fairly wholesome, and heartfelt, but a little bit quirky or funny. Hmmm. Time will tell what you all think about them!

Why do I write what I write?

Blogging helped me get back into writing. It became an obsession to share little stories from my life with those who knew me, or cared an iota to read them. As my blog morphed into different forms, blogging helped me connect with the children’s book world, as well as with other bloggers and writers. I guess I blog for connection, primarily.

I write children’s stories because I like to. I am in the company of a very imaginative, intelligent little girl, and stand at the edge of her wonderful, imaginary world. It feels a waste not to capture some of her insights and ideas.

I also feel that reading to children is one of the best things you can do for them. I would like to contribute to that.

How does my writing process work?

Varied. My professional writing work, developing training materials, is generally fairly structured. Over the years, I have developed stringent systems for working through the material, and collaborating the knowledge I have at my grasp. I work fast, as there is often huge amounts of material to work through. Some days, I am writing 8,000 words a day, and I have to make sure the words are of some value.

My blog posts generally emerge in the evenings, when all else is done, and there are no important series to watch on DVD. Posts will stem from a conversation I have had with a friend, or my husband, or from a salient issue in our lives. They’ll often be inspired by the books sent from publishers to review.

My writing for children is certainly my most creative writing. My mind needs to be in a very relaxed, meditative state to find the stories. The best time for this is laying in the dark, putting my girls to bed.

Although the best stories are those that come naturally and easily, there is a bit of discipline involved in this process. It feels like the stories are so readily accessible, and around all the time, but in actual fact, if I don’t dedicate time to them, they don’t form.

I try and spend at least half an hour most days either thinking or developing one of these stories.

Editing? I struggle with this stage of the process. Thankfully, my husband is very very good at it, and he sits me down, and goes through my work with a fine tooth comb, while I sit beside him making suggestions. We are a good team, in that respect.

Okay, that’s all for me. I would like to hop this along to someone else…let’s see. Lydia at Where The Wild Things Were , Tahlia from The Parenting Files and emerging children’s book author from Byron Bay, Samantha TurnbullWhy do you write?

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

Linking up with Essentially Jess.

More details about my first children’s book

There was a littler version of me once, who sat at a clonky old typewriter and wrote stories such as this:

Zanni-Louise-Fairy-Story Twenty-four years later, I am bigger, and have a slightly better grasp of grammar. I can even spell complicated words like ‘Why’.

In the meantime, I also had children. Two of them. Girls. Sweet little things, they are, and the best thing of all is that they share my love of reading.

Every night before bed, we read one book or ten, depending on how long the chosen stories are.

We don’t just read at night. We read first thing in the morning, we read to make sad feelings go away, and we read to distract from potential crises (like banana smoothies being a bit too yellow, and things like that).

When there are no books around, we tell stories. My oldest daughter usually requests the theme, and suggests the setting, and between the two of us, we weave a tale. Now she is nearly four, she tells most of the story, and sometimes I catch an idea before it blows away, and write it in my notebook.

Late last year, I wrote a book about my girls. Well, it was sort of about my girls, but really it was story about a childhood feeling. It was one of those stories that could have drifted away with others, but I caught it and wrote it down.

After a number of months, I built up the courage to send my story to a publisher.

A few more months later, I received an email from Margrete Lamond, the publisher at Little Hare, which made me jump so high I nearly hit my head on the ceiling. Little Hare had decided to publish my story. “Your story is going to become real,” my daughter told me over breakfast the next morning.

My first children’s book is called Too Busy Sleeping*, and will be published by Little Hare, an imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont, mid-2015. It will be illustrated by Anna Pignataro, a very established children’s book illustrator, whose titles include Together, Always, and Princess and Fairy. Anna has illustrated a new book, B Is For Bedtime, written by Margaret Hamilton and published by Little Hare, which will be released March next year. I will let you know more, and give you a few glimpses of this beautiful book in the coming months.

Between the age of six and the age I am now, I have had a few dreams, including becoming a lawyer, an actor and famous artist. But I have found my way back to my original dream. This was why I started this blog back in 2010, and every book I have read to my children since has been fodder for this brewing dream of mine.

So, stay with me through the next year and a half. With my children’s help, I will be creating and writing stories in the Sunshine House, and I will share as much as I can with you here. Thank you for reading, and for supporting me on this journey.

I now have a monthly newsletter, so pop over and enter your details so I can keep you updated about how the book is coming along. You will also have access to special offers and giveaways.

And, as always, I am plugging away on Facebook, so come and join the conversation. 

* This is the current, working title. Titles have been known to change.

Linking with Essentially Jess for IBOT and Maxabella Loves for Weekend Rewind.

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