In My Wildest Dreams: Adventures in Children's Fiction

Back to the future; no time like the present in the post-Trump world!

It's over a year since I last posted to this blog, so long ago that I have been fishing around on the screen looking for the 'New Post' button. The format of Blogger has changed during this period of absence. The world has changed - Brexit, Trump, I am older. Less optimistic? Never!

But I haven't written a word of a book in twelve months. I left my current project for 10+ two thirds of the way through, not because I don't know what is going to happen - well, I do so far as I can foretell the future - but because life just got in the way: things as exciting as family visits from abroad, visits to France & Canada, and other events as mundane as decorating, a new roof, a new garage... Christmas to Christmas in a flash. Writing was squeezed out.

Or was I just exhausted after five and a half years, four books and countless rejections from agents and my old publisher? Time for a rethink.

What have I decided to do with the life I have left? It does come down to that. I am a finisher and a starter. I shall complete the book for 10+, because I have to. I shall trawl back through my list of agents to see whether I have missed any from my submissions list and see if any new faces have appeared on the scene. Concurrently, I shall begin a novel for adults.

I haven't written an adult novel since I completed one when I was 23 years old. It was rejected once and I put it in a drawer. I have learned a lot since I pounded that one out on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
Most of all I have learned not to give up, that writing is a necessary part of me, and  that I probably should have developed a brand in order to be successful commercially, rather than telling the story that discovers me at the time.

Rather than self-publish the books I have written, I shall find someway of conserving them and curating them; i.e putting them up on the web, perhaps with notes, for free.

Time will tell.

So for now, I am winding up this blog. Thanks all of you who have taken time read bits and pieces of it. Rest assured, I #amwriting.


Back where I belong?

I am happy to have spent the morning deep in the  Ramswold Valley! Good to be back where I belong. A new book to write. Batteries recharged.

Mind, you I nearly started writing another thing entirely. Time will tell whether I chose wisely! No more elation until I finish.

So may I introduce to you...

I re-drafted the synopsis of The Reaping and it still remains at around 1,200 words, which is better than the 3,000 it became at one point. Who knows whether it is any good? I've kind of lost the plot with the exercise, which is not great when when you are trying to impress someone about your ability to tell a story.

I have now sent off my proposal to five agents, electronically. I am working on the basis of tackling one submission a day. Each agency wants the same sort of thing, but in a slightly different form. Attention to detail is all, requiring the same concentration as a CV or job application. It is not a job to be rushed or for the faint-hearted. The screen is a duplicitous thing. It colludes with your eyes against your best attempts to spell and punctuate, to put each word in the correct order or to put them in at all.

Press SEND and be damned... one hopes not. I am philosophical, not excited. Pleased to be finished... for now.

I must not go a wandering...

I have not posted anything on the blog for a while, simply because I have been working on revisions to my manuscript, currently standing at 61k words. I have used Scapple to develop a revisions map, and as you can see I am working through it (whilst listening to piano music) and RAG (Red Amber Green) rating my progress.

I started with small details that could easily be changed, but have now moved on to writing new scenes and revising others. Then I shall play around with the structure of the story. Finally I shall look at fleshing out some of the character descriptions (physical) before I re-read the whole thing and begin polishing the text.

So far so good... but I would say that wouldn't I? The sunshine makes working more difficult, but I am sticking at it and hope to finish by end of June 2014


The remedy for rejection.

I am in that happy place - 20% into the first draft of a new book, which in this case translates to about thirteen thousand words - telling a tale to myself, finding out who inhabits it already and who else is to be met along the way. This is just as well, because of the ten agents to whom I have sent The Tall Story of Tiberius Small, seven have said no, albeit one was a near miss. I have three left in the mix, before I have to start thinking about buying a monochrome laser printer and sending out submissions on paper to the diminishing number of agents who still accept such things. An inkjet just won't cut it as far as printing text is concerned. I look forward to the time when all agents accept electronic submissions only.

Writing is the only remedy for rejection. Self-publishing doesn't quite do the trick. It is an aspirin; not quite as good as meditation as a way of clearing the head. And that's what writing is, when it is going well: a meditative state. It's only when the self-editing begins, that stresses come into play as you wrestle with the nuts and bolts of the construction that is creaking and wobbling and tilting in front of you.

So life is good. The story, the discovery of it and the writing remains the thing.

When a miss is as good as a smile.

The smiling villains are in politics. I don't think of literary agents as people like that (though I imagine  those in that line of business could probably come up with a name or two). It's not been my experience anyway. Like most people they are doing a difficult job in trying and ever changing circumstances. This is my Wind in the Willows view of the world.

The smile then. Well, yes, an actual personal email from a well-known agent. Alas: "There is an awful lot I like about it." (The book) ....  "I’m sorry that it’s been a near miss for me."

Well, that's not bad, is it?

a) It's not a pro-forma rejection - death by a thousand cuts.
b) The book is along the right lines - it may be publishable but not in these dark competitive times. It is not a slam-dunk, it is the basketball spinning around the rim of the net.

What would Tiberius Small do? Well he is tall enough to slam-dunk every time & if by some fluke he did miss, I guess he'd use one of his many connections to make sure he stayed on the first team and took all the plaudits in the school newspaper, if not the Sunday Times. But that's another story?

 Me?  I'll go on submitting, (but not in the passive sense) until I find the right fit, either with The Tall Story of Tiberius Small or another book..


The Tall Story of Tiberius Small

So it is now May. I went to Australia for much of March and April. I meant to look at my final draft while I was away, but I just let it sit, knowing that it was pretty well finished. On my return I read it though once again and made one or two minor changes, sharpened a few sentences and checked it for continuity.

The Tall Story of Tiberius Small is finished and weighs in at 37,000 words, which I hope is about right.  Nine and ten and eleven year olds should be able to read it as long as they are due to hit Level 4 English and have a sense of humour... and still like books. What do I really know? I enjoyed writing it and I am not embarrassed by any of it... so... time will tell. For the moment I am a success.

Tomorrow? Am I heading for a fall? Whatever, I am thick skinned. It is done. I have pressed the Send button. I am right back where I was when I started this blog about three years ago. I am waiting for the joyous Ping! of acceptance arriving in my Inbox.

When Less is More...More or Less...

This is my morning. Still working on the revisions to The Key to Finlac. Still trying to reduce the first 45,000 words to no more than 10,000. It's a tough call, but I'm, getting there. The question to be asked all the time is: What is essential to the story? If it doesn't move the narrative forward, leave it out.

But it is also important to remember that 35,000 words have not been wasted. They have not been expunged. Not so much evaporation as distillation.

I write this, so I have the heart to go back to the book again tomorrow. It's a reminder to myself as well as a glimpse into the writing process.


Agony & Avocets: what birds tell us about story-telling

What could possibly take me a way from me desk when I should be writing? I write in the morning I go birding in the afternoon, not necessarily the best time. Compromise.

Yesterday I broke my habit.  Avocets had hatched three chicks at WWT Slimbridge the day before. This is the first time Avocets have bred on the reserve, or anywhere in Gloucestershire. I felt an urgency to see them - history in the making -  and via Twitter @slimbridge_wild I had an inkling that the parents were about to move them. I left home at 7.30 a.m. I wanted to capture the moment on video.

I succeeded. You can watch it happening here Magical. The birds performed right on time, boldly leading the chicks across the water to a fringe of weeds on the other side. A meagre shelter. This just fifteen minutes before I was due to go back to Stroud.

Jubilant, I went home and uploaded my video, then went into town for coffee.

In the afternoon, comes another Tweet. The Avocet family had gone missing. Predated? Or in a place of safety? The wardens can't find them so the first seems most likely. Agony. Uncertainty. My video somehow has taken on the aura of CCTV images. Last known sighting.

Life is more dramatic than art. Art distills its intensity and fixes it in the collective memory. The Avocets is a story in the making: a struggle against the odds creates a unique and thrilling event, then a mystery that we hope shall have a resolution.

The Slimbridge Avocets & Me says it all about our need to hear a tale well-told, and in children's books, the desire for a happy ending... whilst allowing for the fact that life is often not like that.

This morning the latest Tweets from @slimbridge_wild :

"We have found the male Avocet this morning feeding on the Top New Piece, but still no sign of the female and three young."

"We hope that the female Avocet is being a good mum & keeping a low profile with her family. Let us know if you see her from our hides today?"

To be continued....

The latest Tweets from @slimbridge_wild :

"Great news it looks like the Avocet family has made it to the Bottom New Piece (Kingfisher Hide) That's about 300M from the nest site."10.45. a.m.

Saturday 19 May 2012

"Fantastic news all three Avocet chicks are still with their parents on the Bottom New Piece (Kingfisher Hide) this morning #GlosBirds"

Revising the Novel: to slash or burn?

Not so much slash and burn as letting light into the wood.  I have chopped and cut, cleared away the underbrush and stacked the timber. Sunshine is streaming through the new leaves. A Wood Warbler sings. The coppice is ready for new growth

By painstakingly listing the scenes in each chapter of the first 45,000 words of the book, I have found a way of losing at least 30,000 words, whilst retaining the heart of the story. It already looks better.

The remaining half of the plantation looks healthier, but it could still do with some more light and colour. I shall tackle that tomorrow.

Then the rewriting begins.

Why I have no appetite for The Hunger Games

Why does The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins vex me so much? Not because it is a huge commercial success or because it is just the first part of a best-selling trilogy. I admire anyone who can do the time and stick at their desk day after day to finish something. I support the work ethic.

But ethics is only one of the issues for me. The violence is comic book and described without attention to detail and nor is much attention paid to the emotional consequences of it. The pages are dotted with splats as if a succession of flies have been squashed. The only death that disturbed me was that of the twelve year old Rue. For two reasons: Apart from Katniss Everdeen, she was the only rounded character in the novel. Secondly her death smacks of exploitation, for shock value, rather than as emblematic of the brutality of the Capitol's regime.

There lies another problem. The dystopian setting of The Hunger Games is never credible. In the past I have said that the Harry Potter books are a triumph of concept, setting and character over content, but in all four of those areas they leave Suzanne Collins' work trailing behind. I believe in Hogwarts, I don't believe in Panem, the Capitol and the 13 Districts. Where is the rest of the world? Considering the Capitol's extermination of District 13, wouldn't you have thought that the people of a Chinese liberal democracy might have made some kind of military intervention? Absurd? Yes. But I think that if you are to write about dystopian worlds, they need a proper context; one which can be discussed, as in Robert C O'Brian's admirable Z for Zachariah.

And why have the twelve districts in servitude all with a separate economic function? Only for the purposes of the Reaping. Given what we learn about the Capitol's ability to terraform the arena and engineer genes to the extent that they can produce the laughable wolverine mutants from the corpses of the fallen Tributes at the end of the novel, clearly the Capitol could produce all the food and resources it requires.

It is the poor plotting (the sudden change of the rules to allow two people from the same district to win), cartoon characters (the stylists and people of the Capitol), lack of challenging themes and paucity of language that really offends me. The book reads like a poorly produced video game. I want to know how those cameras see everything, even in caves - come on explain the technology - how do those parachutes bearing gifts from the sponsors land so accurately?

And teenage romance?  Katniss & Peeta. Where is the intensity? Gale in the background. An interesting love triangle that could provide so much more in the book.

Burgers and fries. Children and young people deserve so much more.

Comments (1)

Truth can't be revised but it can be found through revision.

How do I feel now I've finished re-reading the first draft of my new book? A little perplexed and looking for kind words to deliver myself a difficult message. My then editor Christopher Reid found the words to describe one of my early drafts of Badgerman & Bogwitch:

"I'm afraid, though, I am still quite a long way from being satisfied. The whole thing still gives me the impression of muddled improvisation, and it has grown to an unwieldy size in the process....One of your weaknesses here and elsewhere, may have been the very fertility of your imagination."

And this is true of the new book. Rein in the imagination, find the truth of the characters, discover the real story and set it out in clear terms.

Back in 1990 when Christopher Reid wrote me that letter, I went for a stomp round the woods to vent my anger & despair. Now I am wiser. I keep the letter close by and listen to what it tells me.

You can rewrite a book; it is foolhardy to rewrite history.