Category Archives: The writing process

Writing YA

Last year I wrote a book.  If I were to categorise it I’d call it a women’s commercial novel.  A more grown up version of the books I had published in my twenties.  It was a cathartic book to write, and dealt a lot with what it’s like to be the parent of a child on the autistic spectrum.  As I was editing the book last year (which I did too much a lot) I was mulling over what book to write next.  I had an idea that was darker than the last.  Higher concept.  It would be a challenge but I was excited by it and itching to get going.  In a quiet moment one afternoon I sat down and started to sketch it out.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how some ideas grow slowly over time and some just hit you – bam – fully formed?  That was what happened when I was plotting my next book.  All of a sudden, in strode a brand new, completely different idea.  It was suited and booted and ready to go.  It had a plot, characters, title (The Howard Objective), everything.  The trouble was, it was also a YA story.  It had to be.  It had four main characters aged 16 and 17.  I was just about ready to start sending out a women’s commercial novel.  How would it look if I said my next book was YA?  Publishers like to build a brand and style, they like consistency, don’t they?  I tried to ignore it and stick with the women’s commercial but it was no good.  The new idea was shouting the loudest, demanding to be heard.  It was making my heart pound.  It had me Googling whether it’d ever been done before.  It kept me up that night.  It had to be written, like it or not.

So, that’s how I’ve ended up writing a YA novel.  It’s a new genre for me but it’s one I have a huge amount of respect for.  Some of my favourite books fall into the YA genre – Holes, Catcher in the Rye, Eleanor & Park, anything by Judy Blume (who got me through my own YA years).  My two children are both teenagers.  At home I’m usually outnumbered by young adults and I still feel like one myself a lot of the time – does that ever stop?

I guess the reason for me writing this post – yes there is a reason – is that while surfing around a few days ago, blog hopping and Twitter link following and generally #NotWriting I found a site for a well known book series giving advice for people new to writing YA.  What I read was so surprising I’ve had to revisit it several times to be sure I got it right.  Use shorter sentences, blurt things out, choose simple words, use hyperbole…teenagers exaggerate, judge and act quickly, are self absorbed…  Gargh!  I mean, I can’t profess to be an expert but surely anyone who reads, writes or hangs out with young adults will know that they are some of the brightest, most curious, interesting, intellectual-at-times, challenging group of people you can meet.  They’re smart.  They’re being fed knowledge on a daily basis and they haven’t had time to forget it yet.  They’re diverse and switched on and just like adults, they understandably hate being patronised.

Since I’ve started writing YA I like to think I’ve raised my game (others may argue but as no one’s read it yet that’s my line and I’m sticking to it).  I’m more aware than ever of what I’m writing, I feel creatively more free and I’m certainly not going to be dumbing down for potential readers.  It’s daunting writing YA, a genre where John Green (whose novels are more intellectual than most charting adult books) is awarded the adulation of a rock star.  Just go on sites like Tumblr and Good Reads and you’ll see this genre attracts some of the most vocal, analytical, passionate, loyal fans any writer could ever hope to have.

Perhaps I’d better not dwell on that too much.  My hands are getting sweaty.  I guess all I want to say is that if you ever come across that advice when you’re procrastinating researching on the web then skip right past it.  My advice, for what it’s worth, is simply to respect your potential readers and write the best story you can.

Oh, and don’t go on Tumblr too much.  You’ll lose days.  Literally.

NanoWriMo: Challenging the Urge to Edit.

pile_of_paper

National novel writing month is nearly here and for the first time since I heard about it three years ago I have a book to write, children at school and nothing else in the diary.  50,000 words in a month is a hefty challenge for any writer and I’m not convinced I can do it.  If NanoWriMo is a marathon then I’m the kind of runner who clocks up roughly 5-10K a month using a run/walk technique that occasionally puts my knee out.  It’s got me thinking about more generally about my writing technique.  Do I even want to write 50,000 words without time to pause and edit?

There is a commonly accepted theory that you should write first and edit later.  Getting words – any words – down on paper is your best bet.  Just keep going and don’t stress the details.  Write drunk and edit sober, Ernest Hemingway said.  Kill your darlings, added William Faulkner.  Stephen King was even more prescriptive in his memoir On Writing, quoting a formula written by an editor on a rejected submission: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.  He says this rule transformed how he wrote forever, but then he also described himself as ‘a natural putter inner’.  I have a suspicion that NanoWriMo is perfectly suited to just this kind of writer.  The ones who write too much; who can let themselves loose on a page and grow a story like wild brambles, pruning it into fruit-bearing submission only when it’s reached full height.  It’s a great way to write and works perfectly for many, but what about those writers who prefer to be frugal with words or whose progress is more two-steps-forward-one-step-back – the natural ‘put it down and come back later’ers.

I’ve always edited as I’ve gone along, writing up to a point where I feel my mind  becomes muddy and I need to go back and clean up, print it out, read it through, correct, tinker, add and subtract.  To me it’s like getting the foundations on a house right.  If something’s amiss and you build on regardless you risk the whole lot going askew.  I edit when I’m finished too, don’t get me wrong.  Stephen King’s formula is some of the best advice I’ve ever read and my first draft can easily become a tenth draft after the event, so why can’t I resist the urge to wait?  Am I just making life harder for myself?

Unlike Stephen King I also leave out rather than put in.  I like to keep concentrating on advancing the story with the bare minimum of lengthy description.  It’s only later that I’ll look back and realise there’s no sense of place or character description.  I may cut down my sentences Stephen King-style but my second drafts are often my first drafts + 15%!

Of course there’s no right or wrong way to write a novel.  The best advice is surely to write in whatever way works for you.  My only worry when I apply this to NanoWriMo is that perhaps my way is not compatible with the challenge.  How can I tinker and still end up averaging 1,700 a day?  Having said all this I’m still determined to give it a go.  I have two novels sketched out that I’m desperate to get my teeth into and as I can’t write them both at the same time what better way to tackle them than to blast my way through one?  It’s too tempting an idea to pass up.  I’m still learning all the time and I’m sure I’ll gain insight into my writing by challenging techniques and trying something new.  I may not reach the giddy heights of 50,000 words, I may not be able to resist a tinker every now and then, but a more focused approach might just help – even if it simply means I spend less time on Twitter (ahem).  I’m going to enjoy finding out how it works for me and following those of you who are also giving it a go – especially if you’re a tinkerer.  Let me know how you’re getting on with resisting the urge and good luck! x

Jeff Bezos – CEO of Amazon – bought my e-book & other stories

When you’re a writer and a parent the holidays are always challenging.  How do you keep up the momentum on your book and entertain the kids?

I’ve never used childcare as, being self-employed, I couldn’t justify the expense.  With no family nearby either I’ve had plenty of holidays where work has just ground to a halt.  As the summer holidays approached this year I’d been undertaking the exciting and scary job of sending out Book 4 to agents after a long break from writing (see previous post).  I sent it to a few select favourites and got some fantastic feedback – one regretfully declined as it clashed with another project she was working on, two said some lovely things but couldn’t figure out where it sat in the marketplace and two suggested an edit and a resubmission.  The problem with the book seemed to be that, as it was written in a commercial style but wasn’t quite a romance, it had no clear market to pitch at.  It was suggested I ‘bring the romantic sub plot to the fore’ and after much thought the penny dropped and I realised they were right.  I started working on ‘romantic edits’ in July and I’ve been really enjoying seeing the book come together with more direction.  I’d been hugely motivated by the positive comments from the agents who’d seen it and was working all day, every day, wanting to get it done as quickly as possible.  Then the schools broke up and my 9-4 work schedule ceased to a halt.

This year has proved to be easier than most.  As my kids are now 12 and 15 getting them out of bed before lunchtime is a near impossible task.  If we’ve got nothing going on that day they sleep in and I get to work on the WIP before lunch.  It’s slower progress but it’s still progress.  That was until last week…

Before the summer my daughter nagged me to take part in Gishwhes (greatest international scavenger hunt the world has ever seen).  She’d been watching back-to-back episodes of Supernatural and was forever trying to educate me on the positives of Misha Collins.  As this is a charity scavenger hunt he set up she was keen to join.  ‘Sure, why not?’ I said, giving it very little thought.  It’ll keep her busy for a week.  I can work on the WIP.  Everyone’s happy.

As the day grew nearer and my daughter kept appearing with her laptop to educate me further on GISHWHES I started to realise exactly what she’d signed up for.  A week of completing challenges with nine of her friends and another group of 6 from Norway.  The challenges range in difficulty from hugging 100 people to putting the charity decals on a military plane and filming it taking off.  They collect photo and video evidence of all challenges completed to earn points and the winner gets a holiday in Vancouver.

On day one the house filled up with teenagers who decided to use it as ‘base camp’ and so started one of the most random, hilarious and full-on weeks we’ve ever had in a summer holiday.  I spent the first evening composing a Haiku for them to stick on a bus stop (amazingly it’s still there and hasn’t been graffitied)

haiku on a bus stop

They turned my dining room into this…

diningroom

My garden became this…

wooster

My writing cupboard was transformed into this…

writingcupboardshrine

…and so the week passed trying to find a mouse to put in a Barbie car and find a friend who’d give blood with me while wearing a Christmas hat.

One of the challenges was to sell an e-book to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.  Ellie sent him an email at the start of the week and rather like the email she sent to Stephen Hawkins and phone calls made trying to gain access to a particle accelerator she didn’t think she’d get very far.  Then, a few days later, she got a reply saying ‘Doesn’t everyone enjoy a good scavenger hunt, of course I’d love to help’.  After the initial excitement wore off we realised the other teams were getting the same response.  Jeff Bezos was responding to all requests with the suggestion that they pick a book from the Amazon Monthly Deals.  Ellie promptly emailed back asking if, instead of the books on offer, could he possibly buy The Dream Theatre off her.  It’s a book I wrote for the children when my son was out of school.  I’ve never really promoted or pushed it as a book and chose the e-book route as, although I loved writing the book and it means a lot to me, I wanted to return to writing adult fiction.  Children’s books don’t sell particularly well as e-books yet so Ellie figured it could do with a boost.  Low and behold just a few hours later she got her reply.  Jeff Bezos had bought my e-book and sent it to her as a gift to show it had been done.  He may well have responded to all personal requests, have had someone to do it for him or even done it for PR but I still think it’s pretty great to be able to say ‘Jeff Bezos bought my e-book’ and have the proof!  It was also good of him to support the GISHWES charity (NASA weren’t quite so forthcoming!).

And so the week came to its conclusion, with a litter pick, dressing my car up as a prom date, making a weapon of mass dictation, hosting a vice ridden poker game with five nursery rhyme characters and driving three of the team blindfolded to a corn field.  We’re all exhausted.  The house is trashed, the fridge is bare and the WIP has gone relatively ignored, but it’s been a brilliant week, with some excellent people and we all want to sign up for it next year.

Today I’m returning to the WIP.  I suspect the teenagers will be spending the whole day in bed so I should get lots done.  I might have to have a tidy up first though…

Mess

Where I’ve Been: Writing, Parenting & Traits of Autism

Typical Family Scenario

You may not have noticed (and I forgive you if you didn’t!) but I’ve had quite a break from the writing scene.

I had three novels published by Piatkus in 2002/2003/2004 and was starting to feel like a proper, bonafide writer.  I’d begun my first novel when I was pregnant with my first child, continuing when she was a baby and having lengthy daytime sleeps.  I wrote my second novel while pregnant with my second child and my daughter was happily skipping off to playgroup for several hours a day.  I was tired pretty much all the time but I was happy.  I felt like I was enjoying the best of both worlds.

By the time I wrote my third novel my youngest child was a toddler and I was starting to flag.  Time was more fractured and the plot of my book existed in my mind like a continually interupted conversation.

It didn’t matter.  I imagined life would soon get easier.  In a year or so I’d have one child at school and the other at playgroup.  I daydreamed about uninterrupted hours of writing followed by afternoon baking sessions and walks in the park.  A perfect, balanced life.  Or so I thought…

When my eldest child was at school and my youngest had just joined playgroup I started to write my fourth novel.  It was then that my best laid plans started to unravel.

My son took to playgroup the way a lion cub might take to being poked with a stick.  He wasn’t happy.  He isolated himself from the group, would barracade himself in the kitchen or sit in the toilets with his hands over his ears.  He fought anyone, child or adult, who attempted to engage him in any activity not Lego related and he took huge issue with playgroup’s preoccupation with singing.  I was getting phone calls several times a week.  I’d turn up and find him sobbing, his face purple and his t-shirt clinging to his clammy body.  It was becoming apparent to all of us that this was more than just toddler tantrums.

Incidents became more frequent until they were happening on an almost daily basis.  Writing what my agent at the time described as ‘warm, fuzzy fiction’ was impossible when my mind was in turmoil.  Bedtime reading had gone from the latest Lisa Jewell to child psychology manuals.  I’d pour over Toddler Taming and 1-2-3 Magic  in tears wondering where I was going wrong.  I couldn’t get to grips with the novel I was writing and the deadline was looming.  The pressure was too much and I decided something had to give.

I told my agent and publisher that my heart was no longer in it.  I’d been published in my early twenties and wanted to explore other areas, maybe write a children’s book and get off the merry-go-round that was the expectation of a book a year.  They were understanding and let me leave my contract.  It was a huge relief not to have to worry about the people waiting for me to produce a book but it didn’t stop me wanting to write.  I had little time or headspace for novels so instead I experimented with shorter pieces whenever I could.  I worked on assignments for an Open University english degree, I wrote several short stories, a children’s book which the lovely Stephanie Zia added to her growing list at Blackbird Digital, and mulled over my next novel every chance I could.

Mainly, however, I concentrated on my son.  I trawled the various child and educational psychologists, fighting for extra support when he started school and laising with teachers and SENCOS when it all started to go wrong again.  I sat in meetings with as many as 13 psychology and education professionals, all of us scratching our heads, coming up with new strategies and new people to request help from.  We tried three different schools and I home-educated twice, then we were granted a 12 week stay at a diagnostic centre where they started to get to grips with my son.

He has a neuro-development disorder, they decided, an umbrella term which autism sits under, and traits of Asperger’s Syndrome.  The diagnosis and the ton of paperwork that went with it was enough to get him a place in a small mainstream school which specialises in high functioning autism amongst other things and we finally started to have some success.

With my son back in school and doing well I was able to devote some quality time to writing again.  I started a novel The Boy in the Wide Sky based loosely on my experiences of having a child somewhere on the spectrum and finished it in April this year.

Now comes the scary part: shopping it around and waiting for a response (thankfully agents have started taking email submissions since the last time I did this!)

To keep me from pacing the floor and continually refreshing my inbox, I’ve started my fifth book and also updated my website – hence this blog!  Hopefully I’ll have some news to put here soon…

In the meantime wish me luck and thanks for visiting x