Tag Archives: stories

Is it easier to write for children?

When I decided to try and make a career of writing in my early forties my first stumbling block was that I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be. I’d written a number of adult novels in my teens and early twenties, and sent a sample of the last one to six big publishers, four of whom had asked to see the whole MS. They all went on to send me encouraging letters of rejection, the concensus being that my book was too ‘experimental.’

Royal Jelly - too experimental!
Royal Jelly – too experimental!

Like lots of writers dipping their toe in the market for the first time, I didn’t notice the encouragement, or indeed clock what a good sign it was that four out of six major publishers wanted to read my whole manuscript. I took the fact that they’d all rejected it as a sign that I wasn’t good enough.

In the long gap between those early novels and my decision to try and be an author, I’d also discovered a great enthusiasm for children’s books through reading billions of them to my own children. So I wrote an adult novel, a whodunnit and several children’s stories and sent them to several agents.

letter

The agent who took me on said she thought I could be published as both an adults’ and a children’s author, but advised me to start with children’s stories. She stressed that it wasn’t easier to write for children but, purely because of the much shorter length, it was quicker. I might spend five years writing an adult book and then not find a publisher, which would be crushing, whereas I could do a lot of children’s stories in that time and, even if I got rejections, I might well still hit the market quicker.

I was happy with that. Writing shorter pieces was easier to fit into my daily routine of grabbing a few hours to write in the mornings when all the children were at school or playgroup. I enjoyed it hugely, but I assumed it was a phase – I thought the reason I could write children’s stories was because I had children at home, so I was kind of in the zone. When they grew up, my writing would surely grow up too.

But since my children have flown the nest, I’ve discovered that there’s this lively ten-year-old in me, and she’s the one I’ve been writing for all along. She’s both my reader and my protagonist, and she loves funny stories, with lots of action and chaos.

I don’t think it’s outer circumstances that make a children’s writer, but what’s inside. If you haven’t got that vocal, living inner child demanding and driving your story, you’ll get the voice wrong, you’ll speak down as your adult self and your readers won’t connect with what you’ve written.

In that case, I’d say personally that it would be easier to write for adults.

Writing the bright shadow

Lots of shadows in the House of Dreams lately, but before I leave this theme, an update from Toko-pa has prompted me to write a balancing article about the bright side of the Shadow.

I did mention the bright side in my article ‘It’s the seat of creativity – so how can you find your Shadow?’ but only in passing:

This is not to say the Shadow is only negative. Positive potentials which may have been strong in us can be lost. For example, a strong-willed child may learn to identify that strength as a bad thing, and grow to suppress and deny it.

The Shadow is everything we can’t see directly in ourselves. Toko-pa says 90% of that will be ‘pure gold’, but I feel the percentage will depend upon other aspects of your personality. A person with low self-esteem, for example, will be unconscious of many of their more positive qualities, strengths and potentials, whereas someone who feels they are ‘good’ may be suppressing or projecting out many of their own human weaknesses.

When we write, our protagonists express energies in our Self of which we may or may not be aware, and these are not only the dark energies of our villains but also the bright energies of our heroes.

In our heroes, we experience qualities we may not identify with in life, but which must exist in us because they are finding expression in our stories. My protagonists are usually resourceful, independent and brave, but I’ve only come to see where they are me through writing their stories. I used to think of myself as the very opposite of all that.

So there are bright lights hidden in these shadows which, if we follow them, can lead us into the most wonderful areas of the Self. The process may still feel challenging, because anything that shakes our beliefs about ourselves unsettles our world and forces a readjustment of both our memories and our future dreams.

And we have to walk this path lightly, not trying to understand or interpret, but listening for echoes, being aware.

Have you noticed key characteristics that run through most of your protagonists? Are they qualities you recognise in yourself?

Next week I’ll be giving my answer to a straightforward writing question: Is it easier to write for children?

Do you notice the hidden connections?

In interpreting dreams, we’re looking for the hidden connections between the dream and waking life. The clue is often in the emotional quality of the dream, which may resonate with the dreamer’s feelings about a waking life situation.

When we find the emotional echoes, we will often notice that the dream is a kind of alternative story-version of a daytime event or situation. ‘I felt shocked and anxious to stumble upon a shallow grave in my dream when I was wandering through a dark wood… and, come to think of it, I felt shocked and anxious to discover something I had previously been in the dark about…’

Wandering through a dark wood

The events of the dream are so different, we won’t usually notice the hidden connections unless we go looking for them, and it’s the same with writing.

The stories we write come from the same layers of the self as dreams, and like dreams they are usually symbolic versions of the stories we’re living in our ordinary life.

If we notice this at all, it will often be years later when we’ve gained some distance on both the real-life events and the story we’ve written. But it can be instant, as I experienced this week with the book I’m working on. I suddenly thought, ‘This character is me!’ and it was not a very sympathetic character (hello Shadow!)

Having clocked the mirror she was holding up to me, I really examined my attitude towards a situation I was struggling with. Then she was free and I changed her in the story.

I think there is a psychologically healing or self-developmental purpose to creative work in exactly the same way as there is to dreaming. Through these imagined stories, we rehearse our real-life problems and dilemmas; we experiment with different paths and processes in imagination, and explore all the possible outcomes.

I’ve used creative writing with children in schools in a deliberately problem-solving way to explore the issue of bullying, where the children will create a character who is being bullied and then develop their story by asking, ‘What can they do to make it stop?’

The character will try lots of ideas, until they find one that works. In the writing, the children are exploring a difficult real-life situation and imagining strategies they might use if they had to deal with it themselves.

When writing is free, and not a directed exercise like in my bullying workshops, writers will naturally put their protagonists in situations where they will be faced with emotional challenges and find solutions which might blaze a trail for the writer in real life.

Does this mean we should feel exposed by what we write? Not at all. Like dreams, our stories have hidden connections only we can see, because only we know the secret processes of our hearts and minds. Even people who know me well would not be able to identify the link between my shadow-character and what I had been thinking about during the week.

As Jung said, an interpretation tells more about the interpreter’s current state of mind than the dreamer’s, and any hidden connections readers might find in your stories will be connections with their own lives, not yours.

Have you ever had one of those a-ha moments about a piece of writing, when you suddenly realise, like waking from an obvious dream, ‘I know what that was about!’

Gove levels – give me strength!

So here we are, facing yet another shake-up of the English education system, with the emphasis still on core academic subjects and rigorous testing. Ahem and excuse me, but what about that non-transferable and non-testable vital ingredient of a successful life – creativity?

When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge ~ Albert Einstein

Little children learn to be adults through imaginative role-play, pretending to be mummies and daddies, doctors, teachers, engine-drivers, soldiers, window-cleaners, cafe-owners…

Older children and adults make important decisions by imagining different outcomes – ‘If I did that course, I might become a chemist… then I’d work in a laboratory… or I might be a teacher… I could do that anywhere, in a city centre or a remote island… I could work overseas… or be an independent tutor…’

We make the most trivial of decisions in the same way. ‘If I go shopping right now, I might bump into Donna… she might be angry with me because I got the job she was going for… or she might be happy for me, if she didn’t really want it anyway… or I could go later when she’ll be picking up the kids… but by then they might have sold out of saffron buns…’

We make up stories all the time, quite unconsciously. They give us direction and certainty. If we develop this innate ability further through creative activities, we can explore more complicated issues; we can try on other people’s stories, which helps us to develop empathy and a deeper understanding of what life is.

Creative writing gives us access to experiences we would never have in our own lives.We can imagine ever further, extending the limits of our self.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world ~ Albert Einstein

Creative dreaming is the same. If we unhook dreams from the shackles of interpretation, they also become experience for the self, just like waking life, opportunities to go to places and meet people and have adventures and insights beyond our normal range.

You don’t have to teach creativity – you have to allow it; you have to nurture and value it. You can’t measure and assess it, the way you can test academic knowledge.

But imagination is the start point of everything in life, including learning. We shouldn’t be trying to cut children off from their inner world, by loading the curriculum with academic subjects and stealing more and more of their free time for homework and extra tuition. 

Children in the UK are among the least happy in the developed world, and they are also among the most tested. But even if happiness is low on our priorities, it makes no sense educationally to focus everything on academic subjects and intellectual skills, because the story-making mind is the seedbed from which knowledge and understanding grow.

The mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap ~ Albert Einstein

That’s it. I have nothing more to say. I’m completely fed up with politicians on both sides of the House narrowing our children’s abilities and aspirations, and harming their happiness, through their obsession with  ‘rigour’, ‘standards’ and testing. But please feel free to add your own views in the comments!

Create great plots by harnessing the power of myth

In our culture, because we have broken our conscious connection with myth, we tend to see our lives as separate and unique.

But every individual life follows paths and patterns which are universal. Each life story is built on a template of all human stories.

Through mythology, we can connect with the essence of our own life experience, and walk with greater consciousness the mythic pathways where we all are one.

Being aware of the archetypal dimension of experience can be particularly useful for writers. You can use mythic templates quite deliberately to help you construct stories which will have resonance with your readers.

I like to use the Hero’s Journey, the master-myth explored at length in Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’

In this story

  • the hero hears the call to adventure, which he at first refuses
  • something helps him to engage with the adventure and he sets out into the unfamiliar world
  • he meets allies and enemies
  • he’s tested
  • he has to muster all his inner resources to face his supreme ordeal
  • he finally claims his reward and takes it back to his community

This is a master myth because it isn’t limited to one area of human experience, such as becoming a mother or making the transition between middle and older age.

The Hero’s Journey explored through mythology and in the lives of women and writers – it is capable of endless applications

The Hero’s Journey describes every challenge we may have to face, however small or large; from the daily challenge of getting out of bed or learning something new to a greater challenge such as finding a new job or coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Life continuously presents us with challenges, which we at first refuse, because we don’t want the effort and disruption of change. If we refuse, we get a nudge. We may seek the help and support of friends or strangers, books or teachers, and we may encounter unhelpful people who stand in the way.

Every time we engage with a challenge, we win a reward – new strength, new insight, new effectiveness in our world, which we can then ‘bring home’ and incorporate in our life.

You can use mythic templates in a deliberate way to construct strong stories, but simply being aware of the universal dimension in your characters’ stories will give them depth and new dimensions. As Dorothea Brande says, ninety percent of writing happens unconsciously, with us often finding things in our writing we did not consciously put there.

If you want to explore the Hero’s Journey in more depth, I’d recommend ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler, where he looks at various Hollywood blockbusters as versions of the hero myth.

August is all about archetypes here in the House of Dreams – next week, I’ll be telling you how I first encountered the archetypes in my dreams

How to take your writing to the next level

What is the difference between a good story and a great one? Why do some characters stay with you for a couple of weeks or months, and others for a lifetime?

It’s all about archetypes.

Your characters are first and foremost individual people with their own personal histories, hopes and personalities, but beyond that they are also part of something bigger – a family, a country, a culture, each of which will also have its own history, values and aspirations.

At the deepest level of collective consciousness, we share a common humanity. People in every time and place know what it is to feel anger, pride, distress, delight; we all have archetypal relationships, such as those between children and parents,siblings, lovers, enemies and friends.

Great stories tap into these archetypal layers. Their characters have a larger-than-life feel, because they embody more than their own personal story, and yet they feel completely convincing because we recognise in them something universal in ourselves.

Shakespeare’s characters have this archetypal quality. King Lear is more than a foolish old King at the end of his reign – his story resonates on deeper levels, as a story of political power, every when and where; on the deepest levels it’s a story of family dynamics and the process of growing older.

Lear’s daughters, likewise, show us different aspects of the universal experience of shifting power within the family, when children grow up and become effective in the world just as their parents begin to lose their effectiveness.

King Lear is like the very embodiment of an old man’s folly; in the same way, Lady Macbeth seems to embody the pure spirit of ambition and Othello the spirit of jealousy.

You can find an in-depth exploration into what gives fiction universal appeal in Donald Maass’s wonderful book, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel,’ which is addressed to experienced writers who may not yet have achieved great sales.

My well-thumbed copy of Maass’s thought-provoking book

Among other things, Maass invites us to consider our characters as part of their social and historical moment, not in a secondary way, but keeping this archetypal dimension in the forefront of our mind.

What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate – Donald Maass

I’ll finish with a more recent example that springs to mind – the phenomenal success of ‘Friends.’ On the individual level, we’ve got six main characters each with their own life experiences.

Massive mega-hit, ‘Friends’

On the cultural level, the series hit at the moment when young people no longer stayed in the family home until they were married and ready to make a home of their own, but could enjoy a transitional time of sharing with a pseudo ‘family’ of their own contemporaries.

On a universal level, ‘Friends’ is a story of every person’s first steps into the adult world, now and back through the ages; when parents no longer provide, and we have to find out who we are and how we can cope without them.

August is going to be ‘archetypes month’ here in the House of Dreams, so sign up for email reminders if you don’t want to miss anything!

Guest post: The dream that became a fairy-tale

How a Dream Became a Fairy Tale – by Juanita Havill

I’ve kept dream journals for years and they provide inspiration, characters, and plots. One in particular, about a glass bed, led easily into a story…

The boy I was babysitting didn’t want to go to sleep. “I’m afraid,” he protested. He balked. I insisted. Still he wouldn’t move. So naturally I turned to an alternate bed, that is, a glass bed. I don’t recall exactly why I had the glass bed with me, but what a relief!

As soon as I rolled the heavy glass bed into his bedroom, he lay on it, stretched out, and fell asleep without the comfort of sheets, pillow, or blanket.

The headboard of the bed impressed me mightily. Thick glass, it was carved with images of children, youths, deer, rabbits, and foxes. I watched him snooze for a while to make sure that he was not feigning sleep. The warm glow from the little boy’s night light illuminated the glass carvings. Satisfied, I woke up.

I don’t always wake up from dreams satisfied. Often times I’m anxious, puzzled, or fearful, but not this time. I wrote a quick account of the dream in my journal, and a few years later I turned the dream into a short tale for a children’s magazine and “The Glass Bed” was published.

Such is the waking mind that the story became a fairy tale in which a young prince refuses to go to bed at night and neither king nor queen nor princess nor court wizard can come up with a solution.

Although the court jester’s idea of a glass bed is scoffed at, finally the transparent bed with its solid glass headboard is installed in the prince’s room.

The prince continues to have frightening dreams, but because he is no longer alone, he is able to sleep. Why isn’t he alone? Because everyone at court crowds into his bedroom to watch the prince’s scary dreams projected across the glass headboard.

Why symbols dictionaries don’t work

There’s a popular idea that you can decode dreams in the same way as you might translate from a foreign language, by using a symbols dictionary. If you’ve ever tried it, you may have found it less than enlightening.

The point about symbols is that, unlike signs, they have no fixed or universal meaning. For example, a dog would mean something very different symbolically to someone who has been bitten as a child and always avoided them, and a dog-lover brought up in a dog-loving family.

For me, roses always carry connotations of my grandmother’s garden – the smell, the velvety petals, the dark dusky colours – and they have added resonance from all the happy and sad occasions when I played in her garden as a child. Roses are, for me, what madeleines were for Proust.

 

For someone whose first real awareness of roses was as lovers’ gifts, they might be a symbol of romantic love, or they might conjur negative memories for someone whose abusing partner always bought roses to express remorse, for example.

Meaning isn’t only different for different dreamers; it evolves over time within the individual consciousness. The same person who thinks of roses as symbols of love and romance at twenty might also associate them with violence and betrayal at forty.

When I was a child, I ate some berries which made me very sick, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Berries meant Bad. My first encounters with wild blackberries and blueberries were deeply mistrustful, but ultimately positive, so now berries have much wider symbolic potential.

 

In the same way, a culture’s symbols are always developing. The swastica  carried positive significance before the Nazis adopted it as their emblem. The Union Jack has been tainted by association with extreme right-wing groups in the UK.

 

When I was a child, cigarette-smoking was considered a healthy activity, associated with youth, beauty and the great outdoors. Now, all those connotations have completely disappeared.

The objects in dreams don’t have a set meaning; they have personal resonance. If you want to understand more about them, don’t look in a book of definitions. Look in your own life and experiences; notice your own emotional responses to them.

Having said that, there is a kind of dream book which can sometimes throw some light on what dreams mean. I’ll be blogging about it next week.

Do you dream about your job?

A friend of mine made an interesting comment in facebook last week, in response to my post about the ants on the rat.

She said, ‘Since working at the vet’s, I am having a lot of animal dreams!!!! Am just thinking of places I wouldn’t want to work!!!’

I hadn’t really given much thought to work-related dreams, probably at least in part because most of my job these days consists of day-dreaming.

But I straight away realised that lots of people do report having workplace-related dreams, and not just big-ticket dreams about interviews or major projects; often these dreams feel like a continuation of everyday routines.

 

It struck me that this could be a double whammy, if you were doing a job that didn’t fire you and then having dreams about it that didn’t fire you either.

Which brought me to the wider question – is one way of making your dream-life more satisfying by trying to inject more fun and challenges into the day? I’ve seen this suggestion in a number of dream books over the years, but never felt convinced by it.

It seems to me that although the things of the dayworld are undeniably reflected in dreams, the practical, objective, outer life is very much the minor part of what the dayworld is. You can have a waking life which seems narrow and small, with very little variety and travel, yet your dream life be rich and amazing.

The day world is much more than external events; it is also the inner world of ideas and imagination, and dreams reflect the objects and qualities of both outer and inner daytime experience.

Therefore, although working at the vet’s might make me dream more about animals, so might reading animal stories or surrounding myself with animal pictures.

And if I got my nightmare job, taking the money in a toll booth say, then maybe listening to adventure stories on the ipod or grabbing a few pages in quiet times or jotting down ideas in my breaks might save me from dreaming, ‘One-fifty, please… thank you… one fifty please… thank-you…’

This suddenly makes me think of William Carlos Williams scribbling his poems on the back of a prescription pad between patients.

Confession coming up.

I didn’t have a medical problem when I was working in my various ‘proper’ jobs… I had the lid down, reading!