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!

Here’s what I know…

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Here’s what I know…

I hadn’t lain next to my six-year-old for a long time, because this is the year she became a Big Girl, and learnt to take herself to bed. Beside me, she whispers stories to herself. Urgent. Animated. Dialogue rapid and varied, as she swings between characters. Her narrator voice, too, is strong.
‘Go to sleep,’ I urge. ‘School tomorrow.’
But, she carries on, without a pause. Suddenly, she stops. Then I realise. She was telling herself a story to help herself sleep. The girl who never easily slept. Who feared sleep – dreaded sleep, because it took so long to arrive. The girl who learnt to whisper stories that form into dreams.

Here’s what I know…

A littler girl, my three-year-old, spends ten or so minutes getting dressed. She needs long socks. But the right kind of long. She needs big shoes. But black, and bigger. She needs sticking-out plaits, nothing less than horizontal. I do my best to meet her Pippi requirements.
‘Annika,’ she asks her big sister through the day, ‘does Pippi like bananas?’
‘Yes,’ says Annika. So Pippi eats a banana.

‘Annika, does Pippi like riding bikes?’
‘Yes,’ says Annika. So Pippi rides a bike.
‘Annika, does Pippi like broccoli?’
‘Yes,’ says Annika. So Pippi eats broccoli, and I smile over the top of my three-year-old’s head at ‘Annika’. Thank you, I say with my eyes, and she nods in an understanding way.

Here’s what I know…

While Gregor paints houses, I relax into days with my kids. I am soaking up time with them while I have them. Before my eldest is at school full time, and while my youngest is still at home. I literally can’t get enough of them.
Today, though, one is at a birthday party, and the other is at school. I have been at home since 8.30 writing. It is now nearly 7pm. I took a break for lunch, and a run, and now a blog. But those hours have been time enough to lose myself in a new manuscript.
I have always written, and studied a little bit of creative writing at university. Yet I still feel like such a novice. So I have been reading books about writing, critically reading every children’s book I can, attending workshops and doing online courses. There is still so much more I need to know, but even reading manuscripts I worked on a few weeks ago, I realise how much I am learning. And need to learn.
In the last three weeks, I’ve started three different manuscripts. I get so lost in each one, plot, characters and story forms, then a new voice leaps into my head while I am riding my bike, and a whole new outline starts to emerge. I am sticking to the one I am working on today, though, until it’s finished. The story is captivating enough to keep me going. I love the characters. A boy who talks to his resident tortoise, the only one in his life who truly understands him. A mother who blindly follows her criminal husband. A little girl, who blindly follows her new friend, knowing that everything will work out in the end.
Words drip and drip and drip, and it’s such a 
pleasure to write. My daughter needs stories to sleep. I need stories to fill my day.

But maybe we all do.

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

Away from negativity

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I have to admit, I have slipped away from the computer and into nature more than once this week. And you know what? It felt good. I just had to get away from the screen, and all the other little bitty neurotic things that happen behind it.

We spent Mother’s Day weekend canoeing up the glassy Brunswick river, surrounded by mangroves. We stared into the open blue sky and felt connected and peaceful.

Back there, somewhere on the Internet, negative things were happening.

It’s not just the stream of news – earthquakes, devastation, human-less political decisions, executions… It’s the stream of negative comments on just about every news site. Head over to Mamamia now and read the comments on one of their posts if you want to know what I mean. I don’t want to pollute my little sunshine house by pasting them over here.

I do value opinion – sensible opinion – and the right to express it. But there is a difference between a clearly thought-out idea constructively expressed and horrible insult and slander. And it’s not just faceless trolls leaving murky, stinky trails of hatred. It’s ordinary people, assaulting the protagonist or author of the article in ways they would never do to their face.

Having never been assaulted online myself, I can only imagine how painful it must be. Or how thick-skinned the author needs to be to put up with such assault on a regular basis. Always Josefa and Mrs Woog have positively mastered this skill – Good. On. Them. I am not sure I would have the same ability.

I do wonder though about the likes of Belle Gibson. No matter how terrible her actions, how on earth is she faring in the face of such negativity?

Or what about when you share a vulnerable part of yourself in a public forum, and you are ripped to shreds?

I worry too about the person leaving the hate-filled comment. What does it do to the commenter?

I know for myself that being negative and bitchy in the privacy of my own home has but one outcome – I feel crap. Sharing my negativity with my husband doesn’t ever have the intended effect of relieving me of my negative feeling – it just compounds and accentuates it. I am just creating a big, ugly snowball of negativity.

When I first got together with Gregor, he had just come from spending seven years as a Buddhist. He lived in retreat centres, meditated on a daily basis and spent a lot of time studying Buddhist literature.

One of the key things I got from those early conversations was him was the Western Order of Buddhist’s understanding of karma. Karma is not the eye for an eye magical thinking I had thought it to be. Karma is the accumulation of actions. You feel what you feel, but how you act on your feeling results in your future emotion.

Leaving a negative comment doesn’t just insult the person you intend to insult. It becomes part of the fibre of the future you. It begins to define you.

I shelter myself from ingesting such negativity by turning away. I head to lovely, happy places like Pip’s blog or Foxs Lane. Or I simply switch off my computer.

At home, I am doing something practical about addressing my own tendency to occasionally be negative. I have assigned five minutes a day to negative talk – if you have something to get off your chest, do it now, or forever hold your peace until the next five-minute block.

Some days, there is nothing negative to say. The five-minute block sits empty and alone. And sometimes, it’s just a minute or two or not-really-very-negative chit-chat.

The negative spill is contained. I feel cleaner, like that river we canoed on. Glassy. Reflective. Fresh.

And there’s more room for much nicer things.

How do you feel about the constant stream of negativity on big news sites? Is it just me, or is it getting worse?

Linking with Essentially Jess

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

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