Month: June 2014

The books that shaped me

I’m always fascinated hearing about the childhood books that influenced other writers. Last month, the very awesome Will Kostakis looked at the reading that shaped him as an author, which, not surprisingly, had quite few entries that would make my list too (The Hobbit! Fight Club!) There are plenty of books that I’ve fallen in love with as an adult, and quite a few that I’ve loved so much that I’ve had to re-read them, some more than once. But I’m not sure that these books have had quite the same impact and influence as the books I read and loved as a kid. So, following Will’s list, here is the history of me, as a reader, in a very condensed nutshell:

Enid Blyton2

Like Will, my earliest reading memories are all Enid Blyton. The Magic Faraway Tree was definitely a favourite, but The Naughtiest Girl and The Wishing Chair series’ were also right on top of my list. These are books where I would come to the last page, and then turn back and start reading right from the beginning again, sometimes without a break in between, because I just couldn’t stand being away from that world. Oh, and the food – I wanted to eat ALL THE THINGS! No writer has ever managed to make a picnic with ginger beer and jam sandwiches and handfuls of radishes sound quite as appealing as Enid Blyton.

Roald Dahl2

I’m not sure if I was unusual, but I never really enjoyed being read to as a kid; mostly, I think, because I liked being in my own head with my books. But I did have one primary school teacher who was the master of the spellbinding reading, and the best part of the day quickly became story time before the final bell. He is directly responsible for my discovery of all things Roald Dahl. While The BFG became a go-to happy book, Danny the Champion of the World was a stand-out for me. I haven’t read it in years, but I still remember the pheasants, and the hot coco, and the warm and fuzzies in the relationship between Danny and his dad.


[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

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Pretty shiny things: creating a book cover

Like all proper book nerds, I have a stash of books on my shelf that I’ve bought but haven’t got around to reading. No matter how many times I’ve told myself that there will be no new additions until the spine on ever last unread book has been cracked, the lure of shiny new books, with beautiful covers, is just too tempting. Who hasn’t picked a book up in a bookstore or library just because it has a stand-out cover? Something that catches your eye amid a sea of other rectangular paper objects, that you must have in your hand right now because OMG – THE COVER!

Ever wondered how a book cover comes into being? Who decides what a book will look like? This might surprise you, but usually, it’s not the author. Publishing houses have teams of very clever people who’s job it is to give your naked book the perfect outfit; to take all your words and package them in something that’s going to make it jump off the shelf screaming YOU MUST PICK ME UP AND READ ME!

Generally, this is what happens:

At some stage during the editing process – sometimes very early on – the very clever publishing team will have a chat about the direction that they think the cover should go. They’ll look at other books on the market in similar genres, and will brainstorm ideas, looking at the ‘mood’ that they want the cover to invoke. They’ll research type treatments and images that they think say something about the story. They’ll put all these ideas together into something called a cover brief, and will send this off to a designer or illustrator, along with either the text of the book, or a synopsis of the story. The designer has the very fun job of taking all those ideas and thoughts and instructions in the cover brief, and, using their own expertise, sending back some rough ideas with their own creative spin.

Cover roughs might look something like this:

Cinnamon Girl CVR directions 1

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

Your manuscript, the director’s cut: editing and second draft blues

image copyright savagechickens.com

Possibly the hardest piece of editorial advice to accept is the suggestion that bits of your writing should be cut. When you’ve slavishly toiled over every word in your first draft, slashing them from your pages again can be sort of heartbreaking. You love ALL THE DETAILS you’ve created for your characters, and you want everyone else to love them too! The layout of the bathrooms in your space station on Zargon Four is REALLY COOL and NEEDS the eighteen pages of description that you have devoted to them!

One of the trickiest lessons to learn as a writer is to trust in your own words. Trust that you’ll probably need to write far more in your first draft, while you’re discovering your characters and your world, than will ever need to make it onto your final pages. Trust that sometimes a paragraph may not be necessary when a sentence or two will convey the same sentiment. And trust that your readers will be able to make the leaps you want them to make, without every infinitesimal detail sketched out for them.

Here is a little example from my novel, Life in Outer Space. No real spoilers here – this is the opening of a chapter early in the book, which gives a bit of background on one of the main character’s best friends. The first version is the paragraph as it was written in the original draft. The second version is the same section of text as it appears in the final book.

Original manuscript:

Adrian and I met in kindergarten when we were four. At least, that’s what Mum tells me. It’s not like I can remember the actual day he walked into my life. I don’t remember a significant incident, a montage of conversations in the sandpit that would change our lives forever or anything like that. Fact is, I just can’t remember a time when Adrian wasn’t around. The earliest Adrian-memories that have stuck are of him falling down a lot. Not being shoved over by arse-faced bullies — that would come later. I remember Adrian just walking over flat ground and then no longer being upright. His mum always says that he took longer than everyone else to learn to coordinate his arms and legs, but I have my own theory. Adrian Radley always had more stuff going on inside his head than the synapses of his brain could cope with. When we were kids, this meant that he’d be thinking about his play lunch, and the park, and about the episode of Dragonball-Z he’d watched that morning, and about fifty billion things he wanted to say to me all at the one time. Now it means the parts of Adrian’s brain that are thinking and the parts that are controlling his mouth are usually having different conversations. Sometimes in different conference rooms. Often, in different countries. If Mike is the brother I never had, then Adrian is the Chernobyl-born cousin who came for a visit and never left. I guess some people enter your orbit and get stuck in your gravity, and there’s nothing either of you can do about it.

Final draft:

Adrian and I met in kinder when we were four. At least, that’s what Mum tells me. It’s not like I can remember the actual day he walked into my life. I don’t remember a montage of conversations in the sandpit that would change our lives forever or anything like that. I just can’t remember a time when Adrian wasn’t around.
If Mike is the brother I never had, then Adrian Radley is the possibly inbreed cousin who came for a visit and never left. I guess some people enter your orbit and get stuck, and there’s nothing either of you can do about it.

 

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

Tiny stories

One of the questions I was asked recently by a young fan (whoa, I have those!) is what things I am watching on YouTube. Which made me doubly excited, because a) this young fan was aware of how obsessed I am with YouTube, and b) I got to talk about cool stuff I’m watching online. I love short stories, written or otherwise. Regardless of the medium, it takes a particular skill and cleverness to make you care about characters, or invest in a narrative in a compressed amount of time. While there are plenty of amazing live-action short films out there, I’ve chosen a handful of my favourite animated shorts, some of which are clever, funny, moving, inspiring, or simply a diverting couple of minutes from the real world. Like the best books, what they all have in common is that they made me want to re-visit them as soon as I had finished, and they made me want to share them with everyone I know.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Possibly one of the cutest things ever. Featuring a ‘dog’ named Allen.

Pigeon: Impossible

Bond meets Stop the Pigeon (if you can’t remember Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, look that up on YouTube as well).

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

When the words are not your friends

There are many moments in the life of every novel, when the thought of trying to write feels like this:

Avengers 2You know that the ideas you need are somewhere in the murky depths of your brain, but now, they’re stubbornly, and persistently, refusing to surface. Frustration with your own uselessness starts to build, till you’re feeling like this:

Avengers 3Here are a few things I’ve found useful for navigating around writers block:

Write whatever excites you

Avengers 4

The writing gods have bestowed upon you the kernel of an awesome idea – a Viking ship! Trapped in a frozen fjord! Overrun by zombies! You’ve breathlessly begun penning the scene-setting opening chapters, but now, you have no idea how to get your Viking from the tavern in Gokstad to the fateful encounter with the Longship? Leave that bit aside for now. Don’t save up the writing you’re passionate about in order to fill in first-draft plot holes, or while you figure out the geography of a fjord. Maybe you’re desperate to write the big romantic resolution, or the epic battle scene, or maybe you’re dying to use this one great line that you know belongs in the last chapter. Write whatever elicits an emotion. Write whatever scene or piece of scene or sliver of dialogue you feel like writing right at that moment. Write whatever makes you want to return to the pages of your world, whatever motivates you to keep on going, in whatever order that happens to be in. Keep in mind that when you are genuinely stuck, sometimes you need to jump ahead in order to figure out what goes before…

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

The one where I get to talk about comic books…

tumblr_mzam93QGoB1smcbm7o1_250So you have an idea. A persistent something that has gnawed at your brain doggedly enough for you to start jotting it down. You’re getting to know your characters, and laying down the brickwork on the bumpy path that will become your plot. What next? Well – unless you’re writing a real-time testimonial of your own life (mine might be called Girl Who Stares at Computer and Drinks Many Teas) – you’ll probably need to do some research.

Astonishingly, most fiction authors are not in fact experts in every worldly field. Whether your book is set in a suburb that isn’t your own, or on a space station orbiting Pluto – whether your character is a forensic genius or plays the flute or is champion chess boxer (yes that is a thing) – chances are, your story will demand knowledge of some things that are unfamiliar to you. Writers always walk a line between creating their own worlds, which they set the rules for, and ensuring those rules make at least some real-world sense. Bringing into existence another person who has skills that are not yours can be pretty daunting. There’s always the fear of getting something wrong, or simply of being ill-equipped to execute the story you want to tell…

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]

Conversations with imaginary friends…

fall-in-love-with-all-the-fictional-characters

I love characters. As a reader, my favourite books are those where I can turn the final page and imagine the characters continuing on with their lives. I want to love them, but I’m okay with occasionally loathing them too. I want to care about them enough to send fictitious hugs when things aren’t going their way (or fictitious butt-kicks, when butt kicks are warranted). I don’t need to like them all the time, but I do need to be invested in their stories. As a reader, I live for a good book hangover; being so absorbed in the lives of make-believe people that I don’t want to say goodbye.

One of the best parts of writing a first draft is getting to know my new characters, and seeing them grow from mere crumbs of an idea, to people who feel like fully formed humans. I love living with them, walking around with them nattering in my head, and I love making decisions that steer them in certain directions and then seeing how those directions play out. There’s nothing cooler than being stuck on a plot point, and having a character give you the answer. In other words, I’m probably more ‘pantser’ than ‘plotter’.**

Here’s an example from Life in Outer Space

[For the month of June, I will be writer-in-resident at the fab Inside a Dog – you can read the rest of this post here]