2018 – what’s the plan?!

Another year lies ahead and I’m really looking forward to it.

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2017 saw me spending time with the Golden Egg Academy. I completed their ‘Foundation Year’ which is an amazing course. (See my other posts on the GEA for more detail). Suffice to say, I feel I have benefitted massively from the tutelage of the fab Emma Greenwood (my editor) and the first draft of my work-in-progress (a middle grade dragon fantasy) is much the better for it.

Having self-published two middle grade books already, I had been through the process of getting a book finished and editing it, etc. Just finishing a book is a huge achievement but it was one that I knew I could overcome. What I needed was to better understand how to structure a story and start to perfect the various techniques involved in knowing how to improve it and make it better in the planning and editing stages. The Foundation Year has ticked all these boxes for me and has exceeded my expectations. It has propelled me forward far better equipped now to write and edit a story into a compelling shape and style.

Of course, there’s still a huge amount to learn (from others and my own efforts and practice) but I now feel like I have all the necessary tools in my writing kit, I just need to practice them and deploy them in a way that others will enjoy (which is easier said than done!). But, I have the tools, and that’s an enormous leap forward from where I was this time last year. Back then, I had a few bad habits (hopefully now gone) and I had a few good ones too – gut reactions as to how a story should be along with a rudimentary understanding of story structure. The difference now is that I have a better understanding of why some of my techniques and approaches worked. I understand story structure far better and no longer have to rely on my gut!

As a plotter (not a pantser), this is the way I like to be.

So, tools in hand, I march into 2018 in the hope that I will be in possession of a pretty decent middle grade dragon fantasy by the end of it; one that might be ready for submission to SCBWI’s ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition and more.

That’s my goal and I will be spending another year with the GEA on their ‘Work on your novel year’. Seriously… I can’t wait.

All I have to do now is find the time that my book needs from me!

Um… yeah…

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Reality check!

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So, I attend my third (and last – boohoo!) all-day session of The Golden Egg Foundation Year on 30th September and, once again, it was amazing.

We studied how to improve our work by injecting sensory detail and inner thoughts of our protagonists into our prose. We got closer (in third person) with free indirect speech, exposing the attitudes, prejudices and word choices of our protagonists. We learned how these techniques help bring a story to life. Some of this, I’m sure, all writers do naturally – allowing our characters to rant in their own voices, describing smell, texture, etc – from time-to-time, but adding it to most pages (and, heaven forbid, most paragraphs!) starts to make you realise that crafting a truly immersive story, one that sings and doesn’t just hum a ditty, takes time. A lot of time.

That’s where the reality check comes in…

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The award-winning book, The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave took… wait for it… two years to re-write and perfect following a first draft being pick-up by Chicken House Publishing. Full time. The vast majority of aspiring writers have day jobs that keep them afloat. Two years full time may well equate to five or more part-time years of late nights, early mornings and long lunch breaks in order to devote the time needed to craft a tale of similar quality.

Then again, perhaps we are all naturals who can conjure-up a classic without putting in the sweat and the tears and the dreaming time. Yeah, right! Seriously, that’s not going to happen.

It’s pretty sobering to think that my current project (Dragonspire) could take another 2-3 years to tug, prod and cajole into a decent enough shape to pitch, but it’s better to be realistic and to do the work to produce a good story, maybe a great story rather than to settle for an OK or mediocre one. Isn’t it?

I hope so because that’s my plan. Any child who, one day, might read one of our stories, deserves nothing less than the best that we can produce.

Sit your a** down and write!

So goes the writing advice of the amazing, Pat Rothfuss (The Name of the Wind/Wise Man’s Fear) and it’s so true. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s the best writing advice you can ever get!

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Currently, in a desire to get my first draft finished by September (which is a tad ambitious!), I am getting up at 5 am three days a week to grab an extra hour or so writing time.

Does it help?

Yes, is does. Okay, today I only managed to re-read what I did last time I sat down to write, tinker with that a bit and add another 250 (approx.) words but that’s still another 750 per week, 3,000 per month which, on top of my normal writing time (at more sensible times of the day!) gives me a better chance of hitting target than not bothering with the early morning push.

Once you get used to it, it’s not all that bad. The alarm goes off and you think, ‘Yes! What can I add this morning?’ and off you go. I also find that it gets my mind working first thing on my story which helps me keep it in mind all day. Thinking time is crucial to allow your mind to consider what’s coming next and to get ready for the next session. I’m a planner but I don’t do detailed scene outlies other than knowing what I need to happen. I don’t know exactly ‘how’ it will happen. So, I spend time thinking about that and then let myself loose when I get time at the keyboard.

Give it a try. If nothing else, it’s quiet.

Perfect Podcasts

I’ve recommended my favourite podcasts to my fellow writing buddies and thought it was about time to posted about it here.

My favourites are ‘Writing Excuses’ (http://www.writingexcuses.com/) and ‘Helping Writers become Authors’ by K.M Weiland (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/).

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Both are weekly podcasts about writing. Writing Excuses is hosted by fantasy authors, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells. Though it has a fantasy leaning, the topics each week look at issues that touch upon writing in any genre. Some examples of they give of certain aspects of writing are mainly fantasy stories but, otherwise, it’s useful for all aspiring writers.

K.M Weiland started out self-publishing before she got traditionally published. She writes fantasy novels and books on how to structure and outline your novel.

Both are amazingly useful in touching upon topics that get to the heart of the nitty-gritty of putting words on page, editing, revising, structure, starts and endings, characters, conflict, etc, etc.

K.M Weiland is definitely in the ‘plotter’ camp in that she outlines extensively and advocates her approach to writing. I’m firmly in her plotting camp and, not surprisingly, find her mind and approach to writing very much in tune with my own. The guys at Writing Excuses vary on the plotter-pantser scale. They also have guests on each week that vary in genre. There’s is more of discussion, you get multiple points of view on the topic of the week which is fab.

The benefit to me of these podcasts is that I can listen in the car to and from work and soak-up the ideas, tips and advice. Sometimes, it’s just nice to hear that published authors struggle with the same things as I do. Knowing whether or not a happy or sad ending is the right ending; diagnosing the flaws in scenes that appear to lack power, etc They help to flesh out the writing world for me and help me to think through issues that are troubling me now or have troubled me in the past.

Both series are 15-20 minutes long and are incredibly valuable.

If you’ve never tried listening to podcasts to help your writing, give it a try. What reason can there be not to?

So, you’re out of excuses… get listening!

Golden Egg Foundation Year – so far, so great!

The Golden Egg Academy is led by Imogen Cooper, former Head of Fiction for Chicken House Publishing. They have a close relationship with Barry Cunningham (famously, the finder of J.K. Rowling) at Chicken House with whom they have a ‘first look’ agreement.

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In my post of 19th Dec 2016, I expressed my delight at being accepted on the inaugural Golden Egg Foundation Year which began in January 2017. I am now in my second term and loving every minute of it!

The Foundation Year was added to precede the Academy programme. It’s designed to help writers finish manuscripts they’ve started or re-draft and improve manuscripts they have already finished. It teaches the nuts-n-bolts of the craft. Academy students all have completed manuscripts that they are perfecting and learning to pitch to agents and publishers. My hope (and, I am sure, the hope of my fellow students) is to finish my work-in-progress before the end of the third term so that I can get a full appraisal of my story and, hopefully, be accepted into the Academy next year.

In the first term we looked closely at identifying the central spine and theme of a story while looking at the current market and what publishers are interested in. This helped everyone take a good look at their work in progress and to consider critically if the spine of their story and theme were clear enough. We all beavered away progressing our stories, re-writing and reporting to each other at the weekly Facebook group meetings. Everyone chats about how they are getting on and we encourage and help one another in our own private Facebook motivation group. Trust me, it’s a REALLY nice place to be! A 1-2-1 with my fab editor, Emma Greenwood at the end of the term really helped me think about my story and how to make it better. Not only did I cut flab from the start of the story to get it moving more quickly, I also re-wrote the first 14,000 words to switch it from first person to third!

Now, in term two, we are looking much more closely at mapping our stories and using the ‘Golden Egg Story Foundation Sheet,’ a mapping tool similar to the well known Blake Snyder ‘beat sheet’. It helps us writers to consider more deeply how our story arcs move and change and the craft that goes into moulding a tale in a way that creates a fantastic ride for the reader. We’ve even been drawing graphs to help us visualise the ups and downs of how stories work! Maths has never been more fun!

I have also been working on making my prose more visceral, and thinking hard about what motivates my protagonist’s actions which, in turn, drive the plot at key points on the beat sheet. All thanks for my new-found (fledgling!) ability to see and address what’s important in a story goes to Emma at Golden Egg for whom my gratitude is boundless.

Before the course started, I had self-published two middle grade humorous adventure stories, both of which have been well received by readers and reviewers. But there’s is no doubt that the Golden Egg Foundation Course has really helped develop my appreciation of what is needed to craft a story of real quality that can draw upon primal themes. I am learning how to take my writing to the next level.

One major benefit of being in the nest is that Golden Egg have contacts and access to people who can say ‘yes!’ The Academy has a strong reputation for producing work of high quality. Anyone emerging from the nest will benefit from that reputation. In a business which is fiercely competitive, the help that the Golden Egg reputation may give an aspiring ‘egg’ is very welcome indeed. The Academy can help get you noticed.

If anyone reading this post truly wants to write for children and to, one day, see their book on a shelf in Waterstones or, better still, in the hands of a young child (rather than an Xbox controller!) then the Golden Egg Foundation Year is an amazing place to start. Unparalleled, professional guidance from people ‘in the know’ who know people.

And, what’s more, you’ll make some fab new friends who may well join you on your writing journey for many years to come.

Book Review – My sister lives on the mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Uplifting, beautiful, brilliant, funny, tender and wonderful are but a few of the words other reviewers have used to describe this book.

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We experience the story through the eyes of ten year old Jamie whose elder sister (one of two twin girls) was killed by a Muslim suicide bomber when he was very young. Her death made his father turn to drink, ruined his parents marriage and made his single-parent father despise all Muslims. Told in the first person, Jamie has a very strong voice and is surprisingly nonchalant about his sister’s death to begin with. The story moves with him as he joins a new school while longing to see his estranged mother and befriending a Muslim girl in his class. As you can imagine, trouble awaits when his father finds out about his new friendship.

It touches upon a very important political and social issue currently in terms of extremism leading to prejudice against all Muslims in the minds of some. The story exposes this thought process for what it is though Jamie’s friendship with a Muslim girl which is beautifully written.

While an important and wonderfully written book, I do wonder whether it’s adults enjoying the story more than actual children reading it. Though the protagonist is a boy, I can’t honestly see by two boys (9 and 11) ever reading this. A more thoughtful and emotionally engaged girl of 9-12 might like it but I suspect it’s girls of an older age, say 12-15 (more in the YA range) who might actually read and engage with it properly. My daughter was in that age range when she read and enjoyed it. It’s definitely an upper middle grade novel.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: Girls 12+

Book Review – A boy called Hope – Lara Williamson

When 11 year old Dan Hope sees his father for the first time in four years, on TV, he sets out on a quest to reunited his family only to find that he was with his true family all the time.

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This is a fun story. Dan’s relationship with his sister, ‘Ninja Grace’, his mum and stepfather, Dave are all nicely don as is his desire to get his father (who ran off with ‘Babs’ from the chip shop) back in his life. He sets out to meet his father while, at the same time, staking-out Dave (his stepfather) whom he suspects of cheating on his mother (just like his father did) I love the way, written in the first person, we see the world through Dan’s eyes including the simple ways in which children often view the world and how the complexities of adult life and relationships pass them by. The end is quite sad in some ways, uplifting in others as Dan discovers that he was with his real dad all the time.

It’s not a story with a clear antagonist, there’s no ‘bad guy’. The reader follows Dan on his journey, wrapped-up in his desires and schemes as these are explored as themes. It’s quite funny in places and Dan Hope is a very likeable character. It would suit more thoughtful children and raises awareness of families and what really matters in a father-son relationship.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+

Book Review – Little Bits of Sky by S.E. Durrant

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This isn’t the sort of book I would normally read but I’m glad that I did. I had it recommended to me as a fine example of a middle grade book written in the first person and getting really close in to the protagonist. It does exactly that and is an impressive debut.

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The story follows the heart-breaking – and yet uplifting – story of Miracle (Ira) and her younger brother, Zac who are ‘care kids’. They have a ‘book of memories’ that shows them on a chair with a black dog, but that’s about it. They dream of a time when they may find their mum again or of being wanted by a normal family. They expect very little out of life. It may sound too maudlin for children but it’s a real consciousness raiser for children who’ve perhaps had little reason to think much about how other, less fortunate, children grow up.

It’s set in the 1980’s which seems to be a very popular setting for a few middle grade books at the moment (Time Travelling with a Hamster comes to mind). There are Poll Tax protests and later in the book, Ira and Zac get caught-up in a riot in central London with heartrending consequences.

Despite all her problems and worries, Ira remains a stoic and likeable character. She begins the book nine years old and ends it eleven. I was a little bit surprised that the writing changed very little to show that change in age but it didn’t really effect my read too much. She and Zac start spending an increasing amount of time with a lady called, Martha but, even then, you really feel for Ira as her narration suggests that she has no expectations of where this time spent with Martha might lead. She dismisses pretty quickly any hope that begins to bloom within her. Hope does not come easily to Ira and any adult reading this book will want to hug her for it.

Overall, it’s an uplifting, thought-provoking book. Perhaps more suited to girls that boys but there’s enough there for boys to latch onto. It explores what it is to grow up in care, to hope for nothing more complicated that a family and to enjoy life when you have so much to be unhappy about.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending but it’s not an easy route for the children. Highly recommended to children (girls particularly) between 10-12.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+

Writing against intolerance.

Look, I’ll keep this short but I have to say something about the abomination that is Donald Trump and the worrying direction in which western society appears to be moving.

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The recent decision of Donald Trump to ban residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries is troubling beyond words. I hope we we’ll all get through this madness and reflect on our profound relief that his repellant antics didn’t send the world plunging into an abyss but, right now, I can’t be certain of that being the final outcome.

What I am clear on if that we must ensure that such overt racism and isolationist and intolerant behavior does not influence our children. The world has come so far since the early part of the 20th century when, let’s face it, the vast majority of the western world was overtly (and ignorantly) racist, foreigners were feared, degraded and/or persecuted for no other reason than they were different. Okay, such attitudes still exist today in parts of the world and I am making some wide-sweeping generalisations here but the point, I believe, is broadly true. Integration, free movement of people and embracing difference (tolerance) is the way forward. The World Wars taught us that but it appears many of us have forgotten. This is worrying. The world is going backwards.

As human beings, parents, friends and writers, we all have a collective duty to not allow these moves towards a less tolerant and less inclusive society to prevail.

I write for children. Many people reading this will too. Let’s make sure that we address this as an issue in our work to do our bit to try to keep our readers minds attuned to what is good. Let’s help them avoid falling for the scaremongering propaganda of fear, intolerance and hatred.

 

Book Review – Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford

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I have just finished this and have been left more wowed than I have in years. What an amazing story!

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Al’s father is dead and on his 12th birthday he’s given a letter that his late father left for him. This explains that his father had discovered a way to travel in time and he wants Al to go back in time to prevent his death. As the book cover suggests, this doesn’t all go to plan as Al’s father dies a second time and it’s all Al’s fault!

The writing is superb. Al’s travels are full of asides about TV, growing up and his endearing relationship with his grandfather as well as drawing numerous contrasts between modern childhood and the experiences of children in the 1980’s. Written in the first person, these asides allow us to get to know Al really well, draws us into his troubles and makes us root for him.

The book never slows down. It moves at a cracking pace. The sheer number of different, well thought-out, events is impressive. I confess to being a little bit surprised though at the amount of science in the book (you really do learn about the physics of time travel!). I’m not convinced that I would have followed it all completely at the age of twelve but it’s done well and through the eyes of Al. That said, Al is a pretty smart kid and I suspect that this book is very much aimed towards the upper end of the age range it’s positioned for.

I also couldn’t help but wonder at the cover artwork. It struck me as being likely to attract younger readers, especially as the title involves a hamster! Alan Shearer (Al’s hamster) does have a key role to play but this is not a cute story about a boy and his pet. It’s a sophisticated story about time travel and a boys quest to save his father and the dangers that come with meddling in space-time.

The story is also quite complex. The planning that must have gone into it is mind-boggling, not to mention very, very impressive indeed. Various strands of the tale draw together at the end to provide a truly memorable ending that will leave you wanting to start all over again.

It’s a fabulous story and one of the best middle grade books I have read in years. Highly recommended to children 10+.

Rating out of 5: ♦♦♦♦♦

Suggested age: 10+