Tag Archives: fiction

Are you making the most of your writing?

Last year, I was writing about recycling as part of my new children’s non-fiction work on helping the planet. As we go into this new year, I’m thinking about recycling again, but this time about recycling writing.

There are lots of ways I do this, and if you haven’t been doing it too, you might be missing a trick.

First, there’s recycling rejected manuscripts. Sometimes a book may be rejected simply because the timing isn’t right. One publisher my agent sent a manuscript to turned it down because she had just accepted one on a similar theme. I bumped into her at a conference a few weeks later, and she advised me to send it again in a year or so. I told her I would redraft it and do just that, but she said, ‘No, don’t change it. Send it just as it is.’

Another story I wrote for younger children was about a rabbit. My agent liked it and sent it out, saying that with any luck we might find a publisher that had a ‘rabbit-shaped gap.’ Rejections don’t always indicate that your work is just not good enough.

Then, there’s writing for different readerships. A lot of non-fiction topics can be adapted for children as well as adult readers , and within that for different ages of children. Stories can sometimes be adapted for different kinds of reader by switching the point-of-view character and seeing the situation through their eyes.

You can also write about the same non-fiction topics for different levels of expertise, from beginners to readers with a similar level of knowledge and experience to your own.

Finally, there’s recycling ideas across different genres. When I’m in the zone with a theme, I usually develop fiction and non-fiction around it at the same time. I always submit magazine articles on the themes of my books as well; they’re easy to write, once you’ve got your ideas clear in your mind through writing the book, and they also help to promote it.

Because this has always been my natural approach to writing, I like to mix things up in my workshops too. That’s where the idea for Free-Range Writing: 75 Forays for the Wild Writer’s Soul came from.

free-range writing

To take that book as an example of recycling, I’ve gone on to write articles about free-range writing for several magazines and now I’ve got a regular monthly column in Writing Magazine, called Free-Range Writing Through the Year.

At the time of publication, I issued an ebook taster, with the idea that people might buy and try, and then go on to get the book itself, but that didn’t sell. So I withdrew it from sale, adapted the introduction and end pages, and recycled it into a lovely little stocking filler, A Little Gift of Free-Range Writing.

I’ve also written a talk about being a free-range writer and a free-range writing workshop, that I’ve been touring round the UK.

Manvers Street Baptist Church

 

A few days ago, someone who came to one of these workshops emailed me to say she had developed a magazine article from the ideas she explored in the group, and asking if she should submit it to Good Housekeeping. I straight away thought of all the other magazines she could also pitch it to, using the same idea but adapting it to different readerships. And then perhaps, a book… And more than one book! It could be memoir, how-to, local interest, short story collection, novel…

If you write about things that matter to you, then once you’re in the zone, you’ll find there are all kinds of possibilities for the themes and stories you are developing. Writing for different readerships will help you build your profile too. For example, one of the things I’m known for is writing about bullying, because I’ve got fiction, non-fiction and articles about bullying out there aimed at children of all ages, teachers and parents.

bullying2

So whenever you find a subject that engages you enough to write one piece about it, think about how you might develop and recycle your ideas. It makes sense, both economically and creatively.

Are you already recycling writing? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

 

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It’s publication day!

Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding. 

'A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.'
‘A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.’

I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.

I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.

They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.

‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’

We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.

I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?

Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’

My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.

On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.

My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.

I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

 

 

Is writing a gift or a curse?

I think the main gift writing brings me is escape from what is happening in my life at the time… I create a fantasy world instead, one which I can control. If I am happy and living life, I don’t feel the need to write so much. If I am writing a lot, I am not really living. There must be a balance somewhere but the writing does take over sometimes… which makes it less a gift, perhaps, and more of a curse?

If you read the comments on this blog you might remember this one from my ‘Three gifts of writing’ series of posts before Christmas. (If you don’t read the comments, you could be missing some thoughtful and thought-provoking responses)

 

I absolutely relate to the experience of writing as creating other worlds to escape to when this one feels too hard. It’s been a great blessing for me particularly at times when difficult thoughts and emotions are stopping me from sleeping. Then, I get up and make some tea, turn on my computer and slip into the world of stories just as easily as I would normally be slipping into the world of dreams.

All writing takes you away from everyday life to some extent. You can’t socialise and write simultaneously; at times, the world of the story feels far more exciting and interesting than the real world.

But that doesn’t feel to me as if I’m ‘not really living.’ It feels as if I am living, and very intensely, but in another life. The experiences I have in imagination – whether in stories I’m writing or in dreams when I’m asleep – are real experiences.

As the dreamer in our dreams or the protagonist in our story, we access experience through our senses and emotions, the same as in ‘real’ life. We encounter new people and situations, and we are changed by them.

Writing isn’t only an escape from ‘real’ life but also an escape to other lives, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Because the story will always, like dreams, be related in some way to whatever is happening in our ‘real’ life, writing is an opportunity to explore and resolve our emotional and practical difficulties in imagination.

Story is always an experience of triumph over adversity. That experience can give us faith and strength to face what has to be faced, and often strategies to deal with it.

What do you think? Is writing a gift or a curse for you?

The gifts of writing – 3

So Christmas is nearly here, this great celebration of loving and giving – the perfect time to talk about the third gift that writing gives us, the gift of empathy.

When I wrote my children’s book about writing, How to be a Brilliant Writer, I asked my friends in the Scattered Authors Society if they would like to send me a few sentences on what they loved about writing. This is what Enid Richmont sent me:

A writing game I sometimes play when I’m trying to bring one of my characters to life is body-swapping! I pick a stranger – in the bus perhaps, or the supermarket – then I try to become that person. I feel the wrinkles on my skin, I walk with a limp, I look at my long scarlet fingernails or I run my fingers over my shiny bald head. Right now, I’m being a squirrel! I like to think, as well, that ‘becoming’ other people, or creatures, also helps me to understand them.

In fiction, we create characters and give them big problems to deal with. There’s always going to be struggle, conflict, pain because if everyone’s happy there’s no impulse for change, no movement, no story.

As we imagine what it feels like to be homeless, or orphaned, or bullied, or bereft, we feel everything our character is feeling – we have to, because otherwise we can’t know how they will behave, and our story will feel hollow and unconvincing.

It takes emotional toughness to do this work, and everyone has to find their own way. I personally have usually opted to put my characters in situations that are difficult but not overwhelming, and I use humour to leaven the hard parts. If my reader – and I – feel like crying at times, I want to make them feel like laughing too.

Other authors I know are braver and tougher than me, going into dark areas of experience such as criminal gangs, drugs, self-harming, eating disorders, abuse – which are part of real life that older children need to know about, and reading serious fiction by responsible authors is probably the safest way of gaining this knowledge.

Writers are used to imagining another person’s story, looking beneath the surface, feeling their joys and pains.  We do it in imagination, and that spills over into real life. I think that’s why most writers I know enjoy hanging out in cafes on their own, people-watching.

I like to think, as Enid says, that ‘becoming’ other people might help us to learn to be less quick to judge and more aware that sometimes it can take real courage and faith to get through the vicissitudes of even an ordinary life.

So there they are – stillness, awareness, empathy –  the three greatest gifts I think I get from writing. What does writing give to you?          

Some sound, if neglected, writing advice

People often ask me for writing advice, and they’re surprised when the first thing I tell them is to keep a dream journal… keeping a dream journal is perfectly sound, if neglected, writing advice ~Andrew Blackman on writetodone

This extract is from a blog post I read last week which had me punching the air – yes! The author says even people who don’t normally remember their dreams can become dream-recallers through practice. He recommends

  • recording whatever you can remember immediately upon waking
  • not trying to judge or analyse your dreams

Then he outlines the advantages for authors in keeping a dream journal, which boil down to inspiration, breaking through blocks and seeing the world differently.

I couldn’t have put it better, but there are a few things I might add about the dream journal itself.

My two most recent journals - they have to look and feel beautiful!
My two most recent journals – they have to look and feel beautiful!

When I first started recording my dreams over forty years ago, I wrote them in school exercise books, just the dreams, packed together with no extra content except the date. I’m not knocking it – that’s all you need in order to establish great dream-recall.

Then I studied dream interpretation using the Western psychological model, and began to include some brief details about what was going on in my waking life, so in effect my journal recorded two parallel lives, waking and dreaming. This threw up some real insights into how both dreams and waking life work, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you’re looking to use your dreams as a creative resource.

Interpreting comes naturally with experience, in the same way as experience of life deepens our understanding, but if we approach dreams with this primary focus it’s easy to lose the bigger picture. Understanding dreams only as expressions of the waking life would be like understanding every piece of fiction you write as autobiography. It might be, but if you examine that too closely you can lose sight of the story and its own life.

My diaries have evolved: dreams, drawings, bits stuck in...
My diaries have evolved: dreams, drawings, bits stuck in…

Gradually, my dream journals have evolved so that although the core of them is my daily record of my dreams, and brief notes about events and preoccupations in my waking like, I’m also recording lots of other stuff such as

  • thoughts and observations that have engaged me during the day
  • sketches
  • plans
  • story ideas
  • tarot readings
  • notes on books I’m reading
  • quotations
  • scraps of paper stuck in with cellotape if I’ve jotted ideas down when I’m away from the house

This may sound like a mess, but it’s actually rather lovely, because I use different colour gel pens for the various different kinds of entry.

It may also sound like a major commitment of time but it isn’t. The only regular writing I do is the dreams – all the rest is random, and I’d be doing it anyway, only previously it was scattered about in various nooks and notebooks.

Pulling it all together means it adds up to a rich and satisfying record of my life, both inner and outer, which seems to provide a rich seed-bed in which my various writing projects can easily root and grow.

Are you a proper writer?

Years ago, I was on a Society of Authors retreat at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon centre in Devon. It wasn’t a taught course, but an opportunity to explore our writing ambitions as a group and with individual tutors.

Totleigh Barton

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me, because I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

I was struck by this hierarchical view of writing. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a prominent commentator in the children’s book world at a conference, which went:

Him: So what are you working on at the moment?

Me: I’m mostly writing for educational publishers

He gives me a disparaging look. I give him an enquiring frown. 

Him: Well, it’s second grade, isn’t it? Educational books are never so good.

I was cross and astonished. I’d written for both trade and education, and had always given both my absolute best. I was the same writer, whatever I was writing.

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that mainstream authors might look down their noses at educational writers; they were just different kinds of writing, and demanded different skills.

I had taken, and still take, a holistic view of writing, rather than a hierarchical one. I write all kinds of things for publication and for my own entertainment, including childrens’s and adults’ fiction and non-fiction, educational books, self-help, poetry, magazine articles and blog posts, and every single line I write feels fruitful and worthwhile, whether it finds a publisher or not, because it is helping to develop the writer that I am.

Of course, you could say I simply lack focus!

The holistic approach makes for a joyful writing life. You aren’t trying to hit goals set by the market, or other people’s judgements. You’re open to experiment because the goal is self-discovery, and every new discovery involves an element of adventure.

That’s how I view my writing life –  I’m a proper writer simply by virtue of the fact that I write, as are all the people who gather round my table for writing workshops.

How about you? Are you a proper writer, and if not, what would make you feel as if you were?

Guest post: The worlds where dreams may take us

Flying with Fairies, by Bob Cherny

Bob Cherney

We can analyze our dreams for what they say about us, fear them for what they might mean, take them for more than they are, merely enjoy them or follow them into the worlds where they may take us.

My book “Flying with Fairies” is this last. Born of a single brilliant full-color image, the first chapter turned into a second and then into a novel and then into a series. This book was a departure from what I had written previously and is unlike anything I have written since. But then, the dream that inspired it stood out from the other dreams for its visual clarity and symbolic obscurity. It was an opportunity to be exploited and a challenge to be faced. It spoke of pleasure and of hard work at the same time.

“Gatorbait”, a short story published in a Florida based regional publication, was also based on a single image. Where “Fairies” was based on a mid-air collision between a fairy and a flying human, “Gatorbait” was based on a young rodeo competitor and her flying horse.

I have a first chapter of a spy thriller that was so completely formed in my mind when I woke up, I could wait two days before writing it down. I have no idea what I will do with that chapter, but it’s there in case of whatever.

Everyone dreams, but remembering and exploiting dreams takes a willingness to step into a place where few of us are comfortable going. If you wish to write, go there. Take the risk. Exorcise the demons by writing them down and capturing them on the printed page where they can no longer do you any harm.

Do not work for your dreams. Make them work for you.

http://stagewalker.embarqspace.com/

My thanks to Bob for this glimpse into a wonderful dreaming and writing life, and for his insightful comments about exorcising personal demons by capturing them on the printed page. 

How do you make your dreams work for you?