What Next?

This was it – the final moment. The final sentence of the manuscript left my mouth and my fist punched the air. I hadn’t expected it to be quite like that – dizzying relief and a final surge of adrenaline, both at once. It felt good!WP_20151106_14_17_51_Pro[1]

Of course, it does feel good to finish something, especially something that you’re proud of.  But in some senses, the hard work is only just beginning. I need to re-read, re-evaluate, re-think. I need to work out a pitch, a submission letter, hone the synopsis. So much to do…

But first I need to ask my audience how they feel about the characters, the setting, the pace, the plot twists. The ending is always tricky to get right. Is it satisfying? Does it leave any questions unanswered? If you had to sum up what the book is about  in a sentence, how would you describe it to a friend? Have you read any other books which are a bit like this one? Which character did you find easiest to imagine? Was there a particular scene you could picture clearly? 

The classes who listened are the experts now. No-one knows this manuscript; no-one has gone through the highs and lows with my main character – apart from the children and myself. Now that I sweat over the editing, these kids are my greatest resource.

They get it.

And they are the only ones who do. From the mouths of babes…

My final feedback shouldn’t be too long in coming…

Under the Weather

I’m sure there are many, many advantages to being a writer.

Only that last week I couldn’t think of any at all. I was, as they say, ‘laid low’, stuffed with a disgusting, unremitting, woeful cold, only matched in its severity by my own self-pity. Why me?Symptoms of flu and cold Stock Images

Friday – reading day at school – approached fast. The day before I was to read three more chapters aloud, I still had two to write from scratch. My lack of enthusiasm – and lack of urgency – was frightening.

The solution, however, was so simple that I can’t believe it took me so long to work it out:

I passed my cold on to my main character. After all, it’s supposed to be contagious anyway, isn’t it?

As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved. I sat down to begin the next chapter with Greig, my 12-year-old hero, reflecting on his sorry state and his house-proud mother:

My nose is running like the Niagara Falls. Still, it’s not really an option to stay off school. It’s not like anyone can get a rest in this house, between the hoover and floor polisher and the Radio 4 blare, not to mention the toxic air: a mix of oven cleaner and air freshener.

Not too awful, I thought. Let’s try some dialogue.

“See (cough cough) you tomorrow (sniff), Miss Trundle,” I say through my nose. Come to think of it, every sound seems to travel through my nose at the moment. Sickening slime runs down the back of my throat and my whole body seems to be coated in a sticky layer of sweat. My sleeve bears the splatters of a thousand sneezes. I can’t wait to get home.

I had never identified with my character to this degree. Later in the chapter, it even gave me an opportunity to increase tension: Greig is hiding while observing a key suspect:

My nose begins to tickle. Oh no. Don’t tell me I’m going to…

I pinch my nose hard, and claw into my arm for good measure. Pain always works; it distracts you from the urge.

Grim Jim stops, right on the other side of the bins and consults a piece of paper – the very same piece of paper Lester took a photo of, I’m sure. If I tried, I could probably touch the tattered leather of his coat. He glances along the street until his eyes come to rest on Number 80.

My head is going to detonate, and there is nothing; nothing I can do about it.

Hauling his heavy bag over his shoulder again, Grim Jim strides across the road towards the house.

No.

Please no.

Please please please no…

“AAAAAAAAAAH-TCHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I explode.

Would I be lying if I said I actually enjoyed writing these chapters? No. They are better, more interesting and more authentic than they would have been. I read them out the day after, still nursing my own sore throat, and discovered kids love references to snot, phlegm and sweat. Turns out they like their characters ill (once in a while)!

Next time I feel under the weather, I’m going to miss out the self-pity and skip straight ahead to the productivity.

Remind me, will you?

Positives!

“I’m sorry to let you know that your piece has not been selected to be a part of the final book.”

“Thank you for applying for the Margaret Carey Scholarship. I’m sorry to be giving you the disappointing news that you haven’t been awarded it. As you can imagine there was a lot of competition for the scholarship and the judging panel had tough choices to make.”

“Thank you so much for sending us your work, and I’m sorry for the delay in our response. However, having considered it, I’m afraid that I don’t feel it’s right for our list.”

These are just three of my most recent rejections. It’s fine, of course. I knew they were likely to come.

However, there has been a surprising counterbalance to all this in my current project: reading the Dog-Walking Consortium to a couple of primary school classes asWP_20151007_14_53_47_Pro I write it. Check out these post-its I got for feedback on Friday:WP_20151007_14_54_27_Pro

Now, who can stay down with comments like these?

Go, read your work to some kids!

It might not get you a publication contract, but it certainly will put a smile on your face and a bounce in your step!

Which Dog? And Straplines, too…

Still persevering with the whole reading to classes business. And again, this week I’ve learned something new!

At the weekend I went to a course in Edinburgh, run by the highly recommended Book Bound team, comprised of four published children’s authors/editors. In a one-to-one meeting with Little,Brown editor Karen Ball, she said to me:

“Dogs sell! Out of all pets, dogs are the animals to sell the most books.” I was encouraged – not a bad start for my Dog-Walking Consortium manuscript. She also liked the title (bingo!) and warned me to keep my uptight and grouchy main character likeable. Good advice if I want kids to identify.

On the day we also spent a bit of time working on straplines – the type of line that goes at the top of a letter to a publisher. Think The Boy Who Lived or  Half boy. Half god. All hero.Image result for Percy jackson all hero Quite tricky when you’re thinking of your own precious work!

Another exercise to help writers pitch their work to agents and editors was to try a ‘movie pitch’. If your book was a combination of two well-known films, what would it be? This could even be your strapline!

Hmmmmm. I went back to my previous manuscript. A story of a village’s defiance during the Highland Clearances: Local Hero meets Les Miserables? I suppose…

After a few ridiculous attempts, The Dog-Walking Consortium ended up as 101 Dalmatians meets Spy Kids. Not too bad, I thought, but let me know if you have a better idea, everyone. It’s basically about a young (dog-phobic) Sherlock-type who is forced to gather his clues while walking other people’s dogs.

And, incidentally, stories about dogs sell, but a certain kind of dog sells more than any other.Image result for royalty-free images labrador

Guesses? Yes, you probably got it right! The humble Labrador is the breed to shift the most books, would you believe. Could I put a Labrador in it, asked Karen the editor. I could, as it happens. No problem! In fact, now that I think about it, my book’s all about Labradors….wp_20150922_21_28_00_pro

This lines up nicely with an emerging trend in the post-it notes I’ve been getting from the kids at the school, too.

Oh dear!

Hearing voices….

I’m just back from my latest reading. Generally, I manage three short chapters a time – say just over half an hour- and it seems to be working for the kids (says she, croaking). For me, it’s a case of performing two forty-minute gigs back to back.

I thought it was time to address the thing which has proved the greatest challenge to date:

Voice.

Let me explain. So, all of us writerly types know that it’s best to show the plot unfolding rather than tell the reader what happens. All good. One way of making sure you don’t tell is to pack your book with dialogue. It brings the reader into the action as if they were listening in; as if they were actually there.

You know all this, of course. So did I – or so I thought. The truth is, the whole dialogue thing is proving trickier than I thought when you’re reading every last word of it aloud. I’m now about a third into the story and already I have a range of characters whose voices have to sound distinct and different, both on the page and when their words come out of my mouth:

Greig – 12-year old main character (and 1st person narrator). A bit uptight and terrified of dogs, but can be fun when relaxed. As he is there all the time, his voice is close to my natural voice or it would be a killer to read prolonged extracts.

Lester: Greig’s slightly dim but faithful sidekick. Lester’s voice is a bit like Sadness from the film Inside Out. I’m already regretting that choice as it’s an effort to put on, and Lester seems to have a lot to say. Funny how these characters take over.

Bully Macpherson: High pitch, sneering tone, Glaswegian accent for the school bully.

The Handsome Harrisons: twins in the class who look down on everyone. These guys sound the same as each other and are similar to Bully, but without the accent.

The teacher: hyper-enthusiastic with up and down intonation, volume really loud.

Fiona: the main girl character: I have just upped the pitch slightly and given her a hair-flicking habit. It means I now just need the gesture when reading her and the kids seems to get it.

Miss Trundle: elderly neighbour with humour and boundless energy. Think a slightly fiercer, elderly Sybil Fawlty.

Greig’s Mum: obsessively houseproud.  I’ve given her the habit of addressing everybody in terms of endearment, like Greig-dear and Brian-darling. So far, it seems to work.

Greig’s Dad: Policeman. Low, rumbling voice, often complains. Usually about the unsolved crimes which form part of the book’s mystery.

Grim Jim MacPherson: Bully’s dad and the Dog-Walking Consortium’s scariest customer by far. Think panto villain and pirate captain combined. Just for the voice, that is.

The school secretary: clipped sentences, fragments as she keeps getting distracted, a bit over-formal.

And there will probably be more. You see my predicament. Have any more than, say three of these character in the same conversation and you’re in trouble, unless you want to finish every sentence with ‘so-and-so says’. It’s a bit of a no-no in terms of writing that flows.

As an aside, all these characters’ voices can cause maximum embarrassment in the wrong context. Say you’re thinking out a conversation and the phone rings and you answer like Lester. Not that this actually happened to me. Honest….

Friday Lessons

You’d think children learn when they go to school – and they do, of course! What I didn’t realise was just how much I would learn by reading to them. To put it into context, last Friday was part of a get-your-head-down-and-just-get-through-it weekend of absent husband, guests staying, another funeral, a million zillion jobs I would have never signed up to if I’d realised they were all at the same time, and virtually no sleep.

Fair to say then that all of this was hanging over me a little when I trudged into school to do my second reading, namely chapters 4-6 of my manuscript The Dog-Walking Consortium. With a week gone since the last time, I wondered if they’d even remember anything.

I needn’t have worried. Not only were the kids enthusiastic – they remembered more detail of the story than I remembered myself! Which brings me neatly to the things I’ve learnt:Snapshot_20150908_2

  1. There is nothing, but nothing that kids won’t spot. Stop trying to rationalise; just admit you’ve accidentally got someone’s eye colour wrong or given them a different breed of dog in chapter 6. Fix it and be grateful.
  2. Watching young listeners is a brilliant way of measuring entertainment value. There were a couple of paragraphs which I thought were pretty funny. Alas, no laughs! Depression! However, a handful of phrases and expressions got proper belly laughs; so much so that I had to stop reading until things had settled. Result! I learned a bit more about what works and what doesn’t.
  3. The chapters which had a particular character in them (an elderly neighbour) fared particularly well. There might be a bit of mileage in extending those interactions, as Miss Trundle appears to be such a favourite with my target audience. Even reading her aloud has brought her to life for me in a way which just wasn’t there before, and I love her more for it.
  4. Above all, know this: kids are encouragers. My wonderful audiences had some specific comments and suggestions, but overall they were definitely on my side, rooting for me and – really importantly – for my poor main character. All but three of my post-its this week were variations on ‘I just love it!

For me, the best moment (after more than half an hour of reading) was this: a loud chorus of groans when I declared it was time to stop.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow I’ll write and write – and you can bet your bottom dollar that Miss Trundle will elbow her way into the story once more!

Rod…Back…Create

The title is my husband’s brief  but articulate response to my repeated whingeing this week. His three words were true, of course: the project is a rod I’ve created for my own back. The pressure to have the next three chapters ready to read to my eager audience tomorrow afternoon is entirely of my own making.

The week went something like this:

Monday: “It’s been such a busy weekend, and now I’m at work I’ve no time to finish these chapters. I’m never going to get this done by Friday!”

Tuesday: “I have so much to do for work, and this is the busiest night of the week. I can’t do this…”

Wednesday: “Right, now or never. But I’m feeling ill now, plus the house is a tip! Woe is me!” (Cough. Splutter. Sniffle)

Today: “I’ve got the bit between my teeth, as they say.” I ticked off seven jobs on my to-do list before 11 in the morning and whipped my coughing carcass to the café down the road. I have no time to feel ill; I have a manuscript to write!

No distractions. No housework. No phone calls. Just my manuscript and me. And as if by magic, three chapters were completed.

Now, I do not claim for a second that these are three great chapters, but I have what I need to face those classes tomorrow. With a bit of luck, I’ll even have time for a read-through ahead of the gig .

Rod…back…create?

BRING IT ON!