Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Overworked and under siege

I started last week realising I only had four weeks to go, I had too much writing to do and I was acutely homesick. The addition of a bad back did take my mind off the homesickness and the time factor, but the workload remained. A further deadline was applied when it became clear that if I wanted my rationales workshopped I had to come up with drafts of both, this week, as well as the one for the Open University. There's nothing like one crisis to put the others in perspective, and having devised a way to type practically lying down I got on with them. Forty-eight hours later my back is horrible, but I do have a reasonable draft of each.
So, while I was resting on my laurels - and a heat pad - there was a scratching at the window, and well trained by cats, I actually staggered to my feet to let in...a bedraggled squirrel. It sat, on the edge of the window, hands full of the crunchy cereal I had put out for the birds, and stuffed its face. Realising I didn't want to chase a squirrel out of the house, I waved and hissed at it until it went and opened the higher window instead. Next time I looked up it was back, looking with such interest at the laptop I got the impression it was reading over my shoulder. I closed the window to a crack and went back to the book.
Next time I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, it was a fully grown brown rat, sat where the squirrel had been. When I got up, he legged it, having to squeeze through the gap.By this time, the sun was really hot and the window is half the wall, so I opened the very top light, hoping to put off various rodents but still get some air. At four o'clock, a magpie balanced on the open light and peered in. They've all been back this morning, three squirrels, Mr Rat and two magpies. At least I don't feel so lonely.
Here is a sample of my fantastic fiction rationale, does it read like a sensible commentary to you?

"This chapter is the beginning of the book, and my main concern was establishing the world as soon as possible, with the opening encounter between Marley and the crow. I hope the strange world of the house comes across from Marley’s perspective. I tried to make her the reader’s way into the story. I also needed to establish (in the beginning of a novel which looks like it will be about thirty-four thousand words long) the conflict at the heart of the novel, the threat from the developer.  I also wanted to establish Marley as upset at her parents’ separation and resistant to the move to Cornwall.
When choosing a point of view (POV), I was influenced by Andrew Melrose’s book (2002 p. 29).  I don’t have much experience of writing for children, and he offers advice on the ease of reading for a 9-12 year old audience. He suggests the subjective experience of a third person, limited POV, described as if a camera was following her around, is ideal for this age group. I chose Marley as the central character because hers is the greatest transformation, and thought it was important to see the doubts and decisions as she deals with them. I have structured the story in strict chronological order, as this is the way we normally experience the world. Celia Rees suggests writing a big story as simply as possible for this age range (in Melrose p. 132), and in editing it, I’ve inflated the threat and the conflict, and cut out narrative complications like flashback.
One major change from first to second draft was to bring in more showing, less explanation, especially while trying to establish the ‘rules’ of magic  and the world that includes magic, without dropping in chunks of exposition. Drawing on European folklore about magic potions and animal familiars establishes a familiar tradition for Western children. Bram, the crow, is a great help here, and I used him to explain the world to the reader (and Marley). I thought it was important not to suggest that every problem can be solved with magic, and made it a minor part of the story. 
Feedback from fellow students was helpful. I find writing the physical world and descriptions harder than writing character or dialogue, and I find it difficult to anchor action in the physical environment. Comments like ‘where is she?’ and ‘can she reach the window?’ proved very helpful. I spent some time mentally walking through several scenes, especially the one in the children’s bedroom, to check sight lines and movements.
I was inspired by David Almond’s Skellig (1998) and My Name is Mina (2010).  He places his characters in real world difficulties but threads in supernatural elements. Ultimately, it is the child’s resourcefulness or character which solves the crisis, even if the magic helps. I think books that suggest a magical element in our world help children (in this age group) to imagine additional resources for their own problem solving, and it is an approach I have used in narrative therapies with children. For me, Almond’s characters live and breathe in the pages and I tried to make Bram and Marley as real and convincing as I could. A mistake I have made in the past is to under-write my central character, and I tried to avoid this with Marley, by concentrating on her experience. Bram was easier to write and I wanted to avoid having him upstaging the humans all the time.
I was influenced by Robert McKee’s theory that ‘a story event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character’ (McKee 1998 p.33). He suggests that characters reveal their character when tested under pressure (McKee 1998 p. 101). The fairly trivial challenge in Marley’s life, i.e. moving to Cornwall after her parents’ separation, needed more risk and potential consequence to bring out the doubts and ultimate heroism in Marley’s character. 
This is the first time I have written for children other than for my own. I have always read children’s books, though. When I sat down to write this piece from a prompt I realised it was rambling into a longer piece of fiction. I had attended a talk by Marcus Sedgwick, who wrote children’s thrillers like My Swordhand is Singing and White Crow, and he talked about the planning he does before writing. His first thoughts are for plot, and he only writes narrative once he has the novel plotted. My first (unplanned) draft for my novel ran into difficulty with continuity at about sixteen thousand words. Looking through the scenes I had written, I was able to plot out a structure for the whole book, and start again. Writing to the plan is difficult, but I am persevering. While I am inspired by Marcus Sedgwick’s plan, David Almond starts with character and describes writing Skellig on his website: ‘Much of the time I didn't have a clue what was going to happen next. I didn't know if the baby was going to die.’" 

Perhaps I should leave it out in the garden for an opinion?


  1. Just to remind you what we talked about this evening...;)

  2. Dammit! Why did I never think of getting a rationale workshopped? Can we agree to read each other's rationales for the dddddisertation?

    (ratationale looks like a good analysis)

  3. I'm up for that, Downith. It all depends how many of us will be ready to sign into the Priory by then. I'm always very happy to read other people's work time permitting. Which reminds me... I really must go and get a life. xx