Welcome to my blog. I post here about the work I do helping people to write and edit their children's books, including manuscript critiquing, mentoring and freelance editing. I feature and interview some of my clients, including several people who have chosen to self-publish their books. Recent client successes include being long- and shortlisted for the prestigious Chicken House competition, being signed by an agent, and having a book requested by OUP. Please get in touch if you have any questions - or have a look at my website to see more about my services.
I am planning to run a winter event, helping people to focus on their current project, sharing inspiration, helping each other to talk about aspects such as plotting and character development, and leaving some time for writing (or wandering in nature, if people prefer). This will be open to people working on picture books, graphic novels or fiction for anyone up to and including teens.
This will take place on either Saturday, 2nd March, or Sunday, 3rd March at the Rodmell Village Hall (Rodmell is located between Lewes and Newhaven on the south coast of England, ten miles east of Brighton), from 10 am until 4 pm.
If I get at least ten people I will charge £25 per person. My hope is that this will be a collegiate gathering to help people with their current project - which can be a picture book or longer fiction. We can follow it with a trip to our local pub.
If you are interested, please get in touch by emailing me on Laura[at]lauraatkins.com. I will confirm the date soon, and am currently polling members of my writing group and people who I mentor to find out which day suits the most people.
Here is my final conference post, at least until I find some time to write up the notes I have still have rattling around. In the mean time, friend and client Andy Dickenson (see his blog on the branding session below) has written his thoughts on the conference as a whole. Enjoy...
So then, a conference overview for the self-published and otherwise employed...
For the last few weeks, my wife Sarah and I have been debating the worth of the TV show Cheers.
Whenever we’re flicking through the channels and spot it’s on I immediately vote yes with the remote, regardless of the fact that there’s usually only five minutes of it left. But Sarah has never watched Cheers before, so she finds those five minutes hold little but a slow humour and in-jokes told by characters she doesn’t know, while I just sit there a little embarrassed trying to remember what it was about the show I so loved.
And it dawned on me the other day that a lot of that had to do with missing the opening credits. It’s when you hear the warm fuzzy chords of “Where everybody knows your name...” that you begin to relax into the comfortable charm of Sammy, Norm and the gang. And, if you’ll forgive my rather lame analogy, I’m beginning to feel a little like that about the SCBWI...
Last year was my first “Scooby” conference and I remember the initial discomfort of wondering, “Do I fit in?” My immediate impression, recorded here, was “that you are surrounded by others all chasing the same goal as you, that they're actually your competition”. That can feel inhibiting, but it’s also a show of strength.
So this year I had, controversy of all controversies, my self-published novel, The Last Days, to tout around. But was that really so worrying? Not anymore, it seems. While last year the conference, myself included, seemed a little suspicious of publishing on the Kindle, Kobo, iPad etc, this year it seemed to positively embrace the form – and with a number of lectures and seminars almost purpose built for those starting out on their own publishing adventures.
Of course, that doesn’t mean self-publishing is “all good” and you’ll find its pluses and pitfalls discussed elsewhere here on blogs concerning The State Of The Nation etc. But, for me, to be able to engage in questions such as…
With so many novels being published every hour on, say, the Kindle, how do you attract people to yours?
Without librarians and physical bookshops to filter them properly, who are the gatekeepers of e-Book quality?
And, is the dominance of Amazon forcing traditional publishers and agents to play safer with the products they try to sell?
…indicated both a healthy and effective debate.
The good news is that that conference felt like it was getting to grips with the subject, with lectures on Transmedia, Becoming a Brand and Performing/ Marketing, as well as, if not better than, anyone else.
But, beyond all this, we had fun, we tested each other’s ideas, made each other laugh and, for me, there really was that continuing sense of “community” that Celia Rees referred to in her opening lecture.
I found myself talking with people I was too shy/aloof to wander up to last year. Second time around, an anxious writer hopefully realises there are people within SCBWI he can genuinely share problems and successes with, as well as support – and that they may spread further than the conference walls and into the everyday and cyber worlds outside.
It’s already been noted that after the initial elation of hanging around with like-minded creative types for one weekend a year, that sense of “Yes, it can be done” soon comes to an inevitable crash – perhaps when you get your first rejection letter or you realise your place on the Amazon charts.
But just like Cheers, the conference reminds us that there are friends you can fall back on. Where everybody (well, lots more people now) know your name...
And that’s not just warm and comfortable. It’s also, perhaps, its greatest asset.
You can find Andy's fantastic book, The Last Days, here.
Here's the next blog post, this one thanks to client and friend Astrid Holm. I've been working with Astrid for many years. She originally found me when she was working on her MA in Creative Writing at Sussex University and she joined my monthly writing group. Astrid's writing has gone from the strength to strength. She was shortlisted for the Chicken House Prize, and is now represented by Ben Illis at A. M. Heath. She creates damn fine historical fiction (her first novel was described by Barry Cunningham as Chaucer meets Hollyoaks) and writes with vivid detail and characterisation. You can read more about her on her website and you can find her on Facebook. This is her summary of the intensive session on character.
'Making a Character Jump off the Page' with Julia Golding and Julia Bell
Julia Golding started us off by giving everyone a picture of a character. We were asked a series of questions about the picture.
- Who is he/she?
- What is the mood colour of the picture?
- What animal would they be?
- What music score would you associate with the picture?
- What does the character smell of?
- What did they last eat?
- What is the voice in their head saying as they look out of the picture?
Julia read out the answers to two contrasting characters. Then we swapped over what the characters smelt of.
Now, a nice little girl smelt of hair oil and dirty clothes and a rakish villain smelt of flowers and soap. Immediately this gave us new ways into thinking about the characters, it made them literally jump off the page. Why did she smell of hair oil? Had she stolen it, or been given it by her dad? Why did the villain smell of soap and flowers? Did he have an OCD handwashing problem or a darker secret?
Next we could choose to work with the same picture or shift to thinking about a character from our own work in progress.
Julia asked us to create a memory box for them.
What special items would the character have kept?
Julia asked us to describe the object in detail. She explained that it is through the details that authenticity lies. By triggering a memory of something similar in the reader, it authenticates the voice telling the story.
Many people found that one particular item in the imaginary treasure box had special resonance for them. I was drawn to describe a doll my character had loved during childhood and it really helped me clarify some points in her back story.
To make a character seem real Julia Bell highlighted four points.
She discussed how reading a book should be an experience for the reader; that they are in the moment at every point of the action. They are with the character as the action happens. As writers, to bring the story to life we should be in the moment too as we are writing. If we are bored writing it, it will be boring to read!
'It's a story not an essay' said Flannery O'Connor.
Voice is often very strong in the first person, very immediate. By using a first person narrative voice the writer can illustrate blind spots in the character by what they leave out, or don't understand. Secondly, this voice can show how the character justifies actions to him- or herself and, obliquely, to the reader. And thirdly, the reader can make their own interpretation of the character by the information, or lack of it, given by the narrator. An unreliable narrator creates an ironic gap where the reader becomes aware that they are not being told the truth.
When using third person narration it is also very important to get the sense of the character's voice. The tutors highlighted the author Henry James as a master at this technique. Using third person narration, the author can choose to use an omnipotent narrator that knows everything and tells the story from above, or a more subjective third person voice (also called limited third person), where the writer allows us into one or more of her characters thoughts.
Next Julia Bell gave us an exercise called 'My Neighbours Neighbour'.
We had five minutes to talk to the person next to us about an old neighbour (which could be an individual or a family), describing them physically and what they were like. We then swapped for five minutes.
Now we were challenged to write about our neighbours' neighbour, creating a character from a real person. It was fascinating how, by being given the bare bones of a character, that magic fairy dust of imagination was able to get to work. I found myself on a hot, dusty street in Boston, writing about a thirteen year old girl in rollerboots!
After lunch, Julia Golding led us through another exercise called 'Getting to Know You'. We all selected a postcard of a place that we thought our character might inhabit from a selection laid out on a table at the back of the room. When we returned to our desks, we were told to describe the place and put our character in the scene, for a paragraph or two.
Now we had to think of four escalating disasters, going from number one which would be a slight mishap to number four where the world is falling apart. My disasters for my historic heroine were:
1 Whilst in a crowd, an old man coughed over her and spat on her shoe.
2 She was pushed to the ground in a crush of people and broke her wrist as the crowd surged forward.
3 She was mugged and knifed outside the government building by thieves and had all her money robbed as she lay bleeding on the road.
4 The entire crowd was gathered up and arrested by fascist police and escorted into trucks to be taken to an ethnic cleansing camp.
Next we decided which disaster interested us the most and of course I chose number four!
Now Julia G gave us a timeframe for the disaster, (or as Julia B called it 'the Beaufort Scale' of disaster!) where we wrote about the event:
1 One second after the disaster.
2 Five minutes after the disaster. What are they thinking and feeling? If it is only a minor disaster, perhaps everything is all right again already.
3 One hour after the disaster, is it over yet?
4 Twelve hours since the disaster. Are there still impacts? For example in my disaster number one, she would probably have completely forgotten the spitting incident already, but number two with the broken wrist she would still be in pain, and number three she may well be dead. Number four, who knows?
5 One year after the disaster.
Both tutors discussed how choosing the correct timeframe for an event or disaster can have a big impact on the pacing of the book.
We also looked at how the character acted during the disaster. Did the character behave out of character? Or did the disaster make the character become more like themselves? I learned about my character doing this exercise, as I found out she was more humane and sympathetic during the crisis than I had thought she would be, being essentially a very selfish girl.
The tutors wanted us to consider why anyone would want to spend time with your character during a disaster.
Do we care about them surviving it?
Why are you sorry for them? Perhaps they are an orphan, isolated, vulnerable, suffering.
How will you make the reader 'root' for your character?
We also needed to work out if we were too interested in the big disaster, and had 'lost' the character within the plot. A good example of this is James Bond, where his character (although he doesn't start out with much of one anyway), is 'squeezed by the juggernaut of the plot'. If the voice of the character is lost beneath the weight of plot, the reader can lose interest.
We discussed how you need to choose your timeframe (as discussed above) to fit your story. The timings listed above are not a hard and fast rule; you can decide on when to revisit the impact of the disaster. This framing decision is very important, as for best dramatic effect you need to work out what timescale works for your character. You could slow a second down, stretch time, or start from a year later and reflect back on an event.
I'd like to Thank Julia Bell and Julia Golding for a really fantastic workshop and for giving me some tools I'll be using for a good long time to come.
SCBWI BI Conference - Why Every Author Needs To Know Their Author Brand with Justin Somper and Philip Norman
This post comes to you thanks to my client and friend, Andy Dickenson. Andy has written and self-published his debut novel, The Last Days, a futuristic thriller and murder mystery featuring a vivid cast of comic book-inspired characters (you can read a recent review here). Andy is also a journalist at ITV/Meridian, as is evidenced by his pithy summary below.
Why Every Author Needs To Know Their Author Brand with Justin Somper and Philip Norman
So who wants to be a brand?
Well look away now because it seems you may have to be. In fact, you may be one already...
As the course notes to this session, Why Every Author Needs To Know Their Author Brand, suggested “branding” is not quite the dirty word in literary circles it used to be. Rather, publishers and readers have probably seen us (both authors and illustrators) as brands for some time now.
That’s perhaps a frightening prospect but one, now that we’re all tied in to social, if not traditional, media, we need to get our heads around – whether to exploit it, or stop ourselves becoming swamped by it.
With the huge changes in publishing over the past three years authors/illustrators, we were told, have more power now. We can publish our work ourselves. We can talk directly to our audience (if we can find them). But what do we say? How much information do we put out? How often, and where?
The key, Phillip Norman and Justin Somper suggest – both with impressive brands of their own to back them up – is consistency. Knowing what your (buzz word alert) “core message” is. How to refine it and articulate it. And, where necessary, adapt it.
To help in this exercise we were given examples of some of the biggest author brands around and gradually managed to boil down the central planks of their public personalities.
Some are restrained: Dan Brown, for example, even goes as far as wearing the same outfit for publicity photos. His message is one of the hard working professional, and little more.
Others are far more fluid and can introduce back stories. The Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan, for example, not only focuses on Greek myths but speaks candidly of his son’s ADHD, giving him a reach beyond the Sunday supplements and into newspaper stories themselves.
All this then begged the question, how far would we go? How much would we make private or keep public? And, with all our Updates and Tweets, what are we saying about ourselves already?
What followed was a personal exercise to extract the clear messages that define us and our books, followed with the chance to test them on others. For some, perhaps the more practiced professionals, this seemed easy – Celia Rees step forward. For others, myself included, this was hard but, I became convinced, necessary.
As the conference went on, the cogs of my mind slowly turning, I began to break down my own message:
- I write books about the end of the world – perhaps giving me some scope to publicly discuss the issues I fear threaten it?
- My focus is on teenage characters with extreme responsibilities – so maybe I can contribute a thought on the antecedents (in my case comic book heroes) that helped define them?
- And, behind it all, I wrestle with ideas of faith, destiny and fear – and would I be brave enough to enter that debate?
This may come across like a work in progress and, of course, it is. But it’s perhaps worthwhile to repeat the conclusion from the course’s handout to underline why, even as a rough sketch, it’s important:
“Your audience will decide what your brand is based on the information available to them. That is, the information you decide to put out there. This includes what you say at events or interviews, what you Tweet about, and how you dress. Your brand recognition will be far more effective if you control what details your audience has to choose from.”
In the flippant parlance so common in social media itself then, perhaps the core message here is: Think before you Tweet.
I attended the SCBWI British Isles conference this past weekend: Bright Horizons: Creating the Stories of Tomorrow. It was an amazing weekend, one of the best conferences I've been to. I went with some clients who are also good friends (Andy Dickenson and Astrid Holm), and also met some lovely new people who have offered to contribute to the blog (Tracey Mathias and Jo Wyton). Look forward to posts from all of them, and I'll try to write some things up as well.
We're starting with Tracey's post on the Sunday intensive session she attended: Find the Plot with Sara Grant. You'll find more about Sara Grant at the end of the blog post. Thanks to Tracey for writing it up!
Half way through a sprawling first draft of a YA novel that often doesn’t seem to know where it’s going or what it’s about... well, where else was I going to go on Sunday, other than to Sara Grant’s workshop on Finding the Plot?
In her introduction, Sara stressed that there are as many approaches to plotting as there are writers. Bradbury sees plot as something that emerges from the writing: ‘observed after the fact’. Others (eg Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel) see advance planning as key. Others follow milestones through otherwise unknown territories. Nothing is ‘right.’ You need to find your own way. And keep in mind that each story makes its own demands, so that we will need to consider each book as unique, with its own unique plotting needs. You might plot one book one way and another totally differently; remain open and responsive to the particularities of each. And be patient. Be aware that plot may only come right after many drafts.
It is helpful to think of writing as a triangle of composing, editing and planning – in no particular order: each flows into and informs the next; the finished book emerges from a long conversation between all three. Plotting’s also a dialogue between the instinctive and the conscious; structures and shapes that emerge from the unconscious can then be crafted into something more deliberate.
Following this, we worked through Sara’s Finding the Plot worksheet – subjecting our own writing to a detailed analysis. We were asked to answer a series of questions to strip away surface details and get to the depths of the story, the things that drive it and give it purpose. This was a really useful exercise. It was like making a touchstone for the story, a litmus test of its essential truths to clarify which plot details belonged and which were a distraction. The questions were:
- What is the heart of your story? – what’s at its core? Why does it matter to you to write it? What’s the key thing to which you have to remain true?
- What genre is it in? (fantasy, coming of age, supernatural, horror etc…) And once you know, read widely in your genre. Know what other people are writing, what the possibilities of the genre are. A story may cross or combine genres.
- What’s the premise of your story? It’s useful to think of this as the what would happen if…? – the initial incident or situation from which the rest of the action flows. For example – what would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort (Jaws); what would happen if a wife walked out on her family (Kramer v Kramer).
- What’s the controlling idea? – what meaning is encapsulated in the ending of the story? What does the reader take away with them. Closely related to…
- What’s the theme? – the big idea behind the story. A story should have something to say… but it must emerge from action and character and not be imposed upon them. You need to find the middle path between having no theme at all and having one that’s sledgehammered into the reader. Theme (like plot itself) is both an intuitive and intellectual act on the part of the writer. (Theme and controlling idea are clearly closely linked and we spent some time trying to tease the distinction between them. Useful maybe to think of theme as something that can be expressed as an abstract noun. Forgiveness. Love. Diversity. Toleration….) And books may have more than one theme, and to stop this getting too unwieldy or confusing, think about using tables or charts to keep track of how they interweave and work together.
- What is your pitch? There were two main ways of thinking of this. One is the hook – which can be very like the premise (what if…). The other is x meets y – that is, seeing your book as the offspring or hybrid or synthesis of two other works. (One Day meets The In-betweeners, The Hunger Games meets The Little Mermaid…) It’s a useful way of giving a vivid idea of what your book’s about when you’re approaching agents. Like other aspects of plotting it may be your starting point, or something that you find at a later stage.
Remember that all of these – heart, premise, controlling idea, theme etc. – frequently emerge from the act of writing, that they need not be set in stone or even really known before you start. Sara likened writing a first draft to making the rough clay of the book; there’s still a lot of reworking and shaping and changing to be done before it is finished.
From here we moved on to think about main and supporting characters.
- What does your main character want? – what’s their motivation? There must be something, to give drive and action to the story.
- Why is your main character compelling? - your main character needs to be interesting, and active. They needn’t be likeable…but there has to be some form of connection to the reader, something that makes the reader understand them and be interested to know what happens to them. They need to have depth (and more depth as you write for older children). As the writer you should know their quirks, habits, likes, dislikes etc. At the end of a first draft it’s useful to look at every portrayal of your main character. Is everything that you have imagined about them on the page? – ie do they have the same depth for the reader as they have for you?
- What’s the arc of the protagonist? – ie where are they now and where will they be at the end of the story? They need to have moved and changed.
- 10. Supporting cast. Make a table of who they are, what’s their relationship to the main character, and what’s their importance to the story. Do they earn their keep? Think about – and be careful about – how many characters you’re expecting your readers to remember….
- What’s the importance or your setting? What does it add to the story? - that is, how does it influence your characters? What is its own character? Does it have precision and vividness? As Sara put it, if the setting could be anywhere then it’s not working hard enough!
- What are your main character’s surface and profound journeys – what happens in terms of action and events? How do they change, what do they learn…?
- What is the main conflict / obstacles for your main character? – what keeps the main character from getting what she wants? These can be other people, external circumstance, aspects of self… They are essential. There’s no interest in a smooth ride.
- List the ways in which you create suspense. Suspense is central: Sara observed that storytelling’s about withholding information as much as revealing it… about teasing the reader along with the undivulged secret… In particular scenes, suspense can be heightened by using a variety of devices: danger, the ticking clock, the cliff hanger, the unknown…
Another way of thinking about the essential elements of story is the LOCK system.
L = lead. A main character who’s interesting and compelling, who we want to follow to the end.
O = objective. The thing that drives them – often this will be away from something or towards something.
C = Confrontation. Why can’t the character get where they need to be? Who or what stops them
K = Knockout. The strong and punchy ending. Hard to get right!
In the afternoon, we moved onto construction: how to build and keep control of a plot. This included looking at….
Some essential moments of plot.
- The inciting incident. The thing that precipitates the rest of the action; the point where the world changes.
- Big scenes. There should be some! 6 per 100,000 words has been suggested but like everything else that’s a hint not a law.
- The high point – the moment of apparent triumph, when you think everything’s going to be alright, followed quickly by…
- The rug pulling. Oh no. It’s not ok after all… followed by…
- Climax. The final, critical, decisive moment.
In terms of timing, we might think roughly about the inciting incident coming not later than the first tenth of the novel, and the climax coming about 8 – 9 tenths in. Obviously these are not hard and fast rules, but they do highlight questions of pacing and setting that need to be thought about. In terms of openings, the beginning of the story obviously needs to create the world (where are we? who's the main character?). If you chose to put the inciting incident on page one, then details of the world will have to be woven into the following narrative. In terms of climax, think about what needs to come afterwards, and avoid the sensation of a too abrupt and sudden ending. Don’t rush: give the last chapter(s) enough space and depth.
Big scenes – and especially the climax - need to happen on stage; to be seen by the reader.
Some plotting strategies
Use post it notes! This can be a great way to get going. Write notes of everything you know that happens and lay them out. A really good way of creating an outline – or maybe synthesising one from a rough draft.
‘Plot’ the story on a graph, where the horizontal axis is the action and the vertical axis the intensity. Here you can mark the key moments (inciting incident, high point, rug pulling, climax, aftermath) and also the big scenes; the moments of heightened emotion; the epiphanies… On a graph you can also keep track of sub-plots and how they interplay with the main plot.
A chapter by chapter table can also be useful; for each chapter note action, importance and timeline. This can be a helpful way of highlighting duplication within the plot (do you have the same action on more than one occasion? Do you have more than one scene with the same importance?)
Both the graph and chapter by chapter table are useful for identifying moments where the plot is a bit empty. Do you need to add another character or subplot? Add another level of complication? They’re also probably essential for keeping track of a story with many subplots, but if it’s getting impossible to keep control of them all it’s time to ask if there are too many…
Look at ‘classic’ plots (quest, rags to riches) and how they work. Don’t plot from formula - but if your plot isn’t working, then looking at an archetype can highlight why and where your plot’s going wrong. Useful sources here are The Seven Basic Plots and The Writer's Journey.
Brainstorm with other writers. This can be really helpful in terms of throwing light on areas which aren’t working, the wobbly bits of the structure. At the end of the afternoon we tried it. It was uncomfortably useful; my partners went straight to the point of the plot which I feel instinctively needs to be there, but which I can’t quite square with questions about theme and essence. Back to the post it notes….
And here's a bit about Sara Grant: Sara Grant is Senior Commissioning Editor for Working Partners, a London-based compary creating series fiction for children. She has worked on ten different series and edited more than 75 books. Her debut novel Dark Parties won the SCBWI Crystal Kite award for the UK/Europe. Her second teen futuristic novel titled Half Lives and Magic Trix - a new series for seven plus - will be published by Orion in 2013. Sara is the co-editor and co-creator of the British SCBWI Undiscovered Voices anthologies. Sara has a master's degree in creative and life writing from Goldsmith's College, University London. www.sara-grant.com