Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Just get on with it (0)

So, I have reorganised the study (don't all the pretty writing books look shiny...and so many of them unread). I have tidied and sorted paperclips, and am considering colour coding them. Stationary has been sorted and tidied and put in separate drawers and pots. Pens in pen pot. I am even faffing about with a second printer in case the first one is not sufficient for the dissertation. What I haven't done is write a single word for the actual dissertation.

All it is is 20k of reasonable words, frankly, two weeks work with fair weather and a following wind, with another month for editing, a few weeks away from it to develop some sort of distance and back for a good edit. Middle of August, at the latest. All of which would feel way more feasible if I had actually written one poxy word of it.

I have decided to humiliate myself into some sort of effort by recording my word count each day on this blog. Hopefully this will make me stop pratting about with my previous words (which won't count) and write shiny new ones. On the plus side, I've written 2000 words on my children's book in the last 24 hours - maybe the two are connected?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

All assignments handed in!

I have now done 5/9 of the MA, with just the dissertation to go by 30th September. Having thought I would need an extension, I have powered on and done the assignments, probably not to the highest level, but my back won't allow me to do much more. Tonight we read ten minutes of our children's story - which is such a nice idea, celebrating our work. Then I'm off home - thank goodness. I'm so tired of having to try and type while lying almost flat. I think this time, I may actually have to have surgery, which is a sobering thought. 

I've read some cracking children's writing in the last twelve weeks, real talent expressed through drafts of stories and an inspirational bit of poetry/picture computer work. I have really enjoyed learning to write for children - the tutor is a published children's writer and an inspiration. She's also a fascinating lecturer, keeping my interest despite the pain of the last few weeks.I wonder if the writing for children MA would have suited me better! On the plus side, my other tutor this semester has helped me see the value of fiction for grown ups. And the toolkit module has made me research - and use that research as a starting point for fiction, rather than slavishly following the 'facts'. And poetry - I've so enjoyed writing poetry, which I used for three of my five assignments, even though it's definitely not my superpower.

I've also sent in an entry to Undiscovered Voices, the SCBWI competition. Having listened to two winners of previous competitions, who found it got them off the blocks into publishing their books, I thought it was a useful exercise, even if I realised I had left a glaring error - on page one- as soon as it had been sent. Oh, well. I'm not expecting much, it's been a bit last minute!  

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Working on my children's story

I've had some amazingly useful feedback from my children's fiction tutor. It's helped me set an age for the readership (8-11) and has asked the question (which I hear ringing through this whole year) 'but what's this scene about?' So I've printed it off and am writing (in big, colourful writing) what each scene is FOR and, more importantly, what it could be for.What I'm hearing, and hear everywhere, is more hooks, more reasons to read on. These younger readers need lots of encouragement and short, snappy chapters. So I'm rewriting with a slightly younger audience in mind. This structuring and plotting is is a pain. The urge to just write the story is overwhelming, even though it would be waffly ramble to nowhere. I suppose I shall have to take those scene as raw material and starting points for the actual book.
Meanwhile, I have been reading The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Wow. What a powerful dystopian story, which at its heart, is a wild western survival story against lawlessness and power struggles. I've passed it on to my son and it's another book on a list my kids are queueing up to read. Set in a pioneer world, Todd is brought up in a world without women. He's the last child, the others all having passed the initiation into manhood. In a world where everyone can hear each other's thoughts, Todd's feelings are broadcast to the town. So when he finds something remarkable  that challenges everything he's ever been told... The guardian review by Frank Cottrell Boyce is here. Well worth a read - and I agree with Boyce, this is a book that will entertain adults. I have ordered the sequels. The sad truth is, I have a long way to go, as a children's writer. 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Scary Times

I hate moving house. That is to say, I'm addicted to moving house but get completely twisted up about it. This time it's a bit more complicated because I have a poetry assignment to do first then my back may not be up to much tidying and sorting. It takes several goes to put my socks on, for goodness sake.

Despite that, things are going pretty well. A363 end-of-module 'masterpiece' electronically posted, Marley and the Crow 4000 word sample starting to get ready for SCBWI competition, and rationale coming together for fantastic fiction module assignment. Go me. Which leads me to the gaping hole in my plan. I haven't got enough poetry for the publishing project assignment. I have edited it and concentrated it down (the way I've been encouraged to do) and now it just doesn't fit. I need 180 lines and I have 138. It looks like I need another poem or two and since I can't just knock one out, it takes me months I'm searching through old drafts and free-writes looking for them.

So I'm looking through the rough drafts from A363 and A215 and, although I found the chapters scary as hell, I did come up with some good stuff. I couldn't appreciate it at the time: by the time I handed in my A215 assignment it was all just crap, and somewhat blurry, to my terrified eyes. Yet I got a good mark and they were OK. My notebooks from that time are full of little snippets. I keep notebooks, so why on earth don't I ever look back at them?

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Wow, 200 blog posts

I was going to celebrate the end of A363 - I have finally finished the EMA - but then I noticed this was post 200. I can't believe I wrote my first post in July 2009. Such a lot has happened since then! I started keeping a blog because until that point, I had so little confidence in my writing I didn't dare submit work for marking. With great trepidation, I signed up a course with the Open College of the Arts and the Open University for their writing courses. This is what I said:

Beginning A215

Well, after a couple of years of procrastinating, I have signed up for a creative writing course with the Open University, and am impatiently searching the internet for clues. Clues that will help me maintain the bubble of hope and optimism that getting a whole exercise book full of 'A's in English at school (1973) will create. "You're really good at writing, you should write a book!" Thanks, Grandma. Now I'm ready for someone else's opinion. As long as it's very, very gentle and kind. Encouraging. Having done a BSc with the OU I am fairly sure how to prepare for, and deliver on a science course. So I had a sneak look at 2008's assignment booklet and it's scary. This may turn out to be a bit of an adventure, for my self-esteem as well as my imagination.
Well, it turned out to be more of a raft ride down the rapids of creative writing courses - I passed A215 with distinction and did the same with the OCA. I found out I really can write fiction and may one day complete a book to a decent standard. I'm pretty good, for a beginner at poetry, too. Life-writing is difficult, and drama impossible. I have no real talent for short stories, because they are incredibly hard to write. So all you short story writers out there - wow, superpower. I'm on course for a distinction with A363 and I intend to pass my MA this year, having done  most of the taught part. 

So, where does a blog fit in? This week, I had the pleasure of hearing Candy Gourlay speak about her experience of getting noticed, getting published...and the experience she has had had promoting her wonderful book (and her writing generally). Her lovely blog, Notes From the Slushpile, has been an inspiration for a couple of years, and she also showed us around her website. I had also read her gorgeous novel, Tall Story, which I can recommend to children everywhere (and a few grown ups too). Candy's blog posts inspired me to keep going, keep writing, and keep blogging. Some of the people I have 'met' through the blog have taught me a great deal about writing. I started my blog to record my journey, essentially for me. It's been much more positive than belly button gazing, and I think of it as lighting candles down a very rocky and dark path. If I stumble into a literary ravine or sink into a word swamp, at least you won't make the same mistake that I did!
So, if you are reading this...May your books grow like roses and your pockets always have chocolate.

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?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Brittle spine

Well, this is bollocks. Just as I gear up for working on my assignments and finishing the last 4 taught weeks of the MA, I do something terrible to what's left of my lumbar spine. It seems to be triggered by sitting in the car for 5 hours on the way back from Devon and it makes it very difficult to sit at the computer. I've managed to pull a recliner over to the desk and type with the keyboard on my lap, but I can't imagine how useful that will be when I have 2000 clever words to write by next Tuesday, not to mention the EMA to put in the past. Thank goodness for e submissions, recently extended by the Open University to my course's EMA. And thank you to my beta readers, Jenny and Rachel, who have made me tighten up the links between scenes in my creative piece. Not to mention inspiring me with their own fiction. The OU has given me access to some amazing writers, who are happy to share their creative process.

So, sitting here in a  reclining position, with a heat pad wedged in the back of my trousers and my tea slightly out of reach, I'm going to try and write my commentary for the EMA while sketching the rationales for the publishing project and fantastic fiction. Oh, joy. And I could be walking hand in hand along a beach with my husband, who's down in Winchester for a few days, before stopping somewhere romantic for lunch. Pah.