That book you're thinking about writing won't write itself. Stop reading advice on writing and go get on with it.
Write a bit each day, even if it's just a little. Keep moving forward. Some days will be Bad Writing Days. Doesn't matter; even a Bad Writing Day is better than a No Writing Day.
Don't know how your story ends? You'll never find out if you don't put words down on paper. Word by word, page by page, like stepping stones across a swollen river. Not everyone's got what it takes to make it all the way to the other side. Are you scared? Good. You should be, it's terrifying - but that's part of the attraction.
Come on in, the water's lovely.
Avoid non-essential writing.
Such as blogging. It's best to cut out non-essential writing altogether when you're in a writing phase. It's just another form of procrastination, really.
Yes, it's better to write something than nothing at all, but if you're in the middle of writing a story (or whatever it is that you write), you'll just lose momentum if you keep putting your real work down and picking something else up, and you risk The Fear setting in.
Prioritise your real work: writing. The other stuff can wait. If it has to be done, do it after you've achieved something with your writing - another page, a new idea, an edit (a lessened word count can be a positive achievement) - make sure some hurdle or other has been crossed. Keep moving forwards by working at it, a little every day.
That told me. Now I shall take my own advice and get on with some proper work. I'm going to make 'Pencil Tips' a regular feature on the blog. Well, semi-regular. I have proper work to do.
This one might sound silly, but when it comes to writing fiction, silliness is good.
If you're feeling stuck, particularly when coming up with ideas, turn your writing pad around and write through the ruled lines. This works even if you don't use lined paper - just turn your pad sideways and write up the page instead of across it.
Do diagonals, if you like. Free yourself up. If you don't normally do this, you'll be surprised at what a difference it can make. And it does feel particularly good on ruled paper - almost anarchic*.
Try it. Write sideways, think sideways.
*You may gather from this that I am not exactly what you would call a rebel.
Leave the room.
Stuck mid-writing? Whatever you do, don't just sit there staring at the blinking cursor. Get up and walk around. You don't have to down tools entirely, especially if you're pushed for time; just going to use the bathroom or making a cup of tea can help your brain switch into problem solving mode.
Change your scene, breathe differently, move, look at stuff - even if you end up looking through it. Give your brain a chance to unstick itself. Some of my best ever EUREKA moments have come from being stuck and making a cuppa. Keep thinking about your writing, though - don't get distracted or you'll end up doing the housework or watching TV. What a total waste of time when you could be working on the next big thing, right?
Take time to gaze. You might just let your eyes fall out of focus and see nothing, or you might observe something inconsequential yet fascinating (we're writers; nothing is inconsequential, right?!).
It's vital to allow yourself some zoning-out time. It's not laziness. Observations fuel your creative brain. Rest allows it to fire on all cylinders and make those crazy connections that lead to IDEAS. You can't have ideas if you don't feed and rest your brain. Go to it. Gaze
Everyone's a critic.
As a teenager I did a degree in 'creative advertising', a large part of which comprised having my work deliberately torn to shreds to harden me for the career that lay ahead. I didn't enjoy it all that much, but I'm glad I put myself through it - it was good training for this bookish career, too.
It may be hard to welcome it, but criticism is often correct (even if it isn't always delivered in the most sensitive way). I know from experience that constructive criticism - or, much better, collaboration - almost always makes my work stronger. However, I also know that everyone and their dog feels comfortable criticising writing even if they don't write themselves, beyond the odd email or shopping list. Sure, everyone can write. Everyone can drive a car, too, but we're not all Nigel Mansell*.
If you want to get anywhere with your writing, you must let other people have their say>. If possible, try and make sure it's someone who knows what they're talking about - perhaps an agent, an editor, an avid reader or writer - and get ready to hear things you might not like very much.
*Yes, I do know Nig is a bit past it now, but he will always be number one in my eyes, okay?
Writing in rhyme
It may seem that writing rhyme
Is tantamount to heinous crime.
‘How so?’ you say. ‘Everyone knows
The Gruffalo is not in prose.’
The reason is: to help books sell
You need them in Chinese as well.
And French. And Swedish, Russian, Dutch...
(They share the printing costs, and such.)
Could YOU translate three words like Sun
And Run and Fun, then when it’s done
Make sure the same three words still rhyme?
Try it - they won’t, not half the time.
Of course there’s room for poetry,
Just don’t write it perpetually.
Plus: do a really brilliant job,
Or you’ll end up looking like a pillock.
Pacing a picture book
I find the pacing of stories is kind of intuitive these days. Hang on. Is that really what I mean? I'm not sure - maybe it's just that I do all the right things now without even thinking. It comes from reading (and re-reading) an awful lot of books, and writing (and re-writing) an awful lot of stories.
Certainly when I started out I used to really struggle, and I don't feel like I do anymore. Here are some things that I now do, all the time, without even thinking about it. There is a very unsubtle theme that runs through all of these points. I cannot stress enough how much hard work is involved in writing picture books. If writing feels like hard work, that's because it bloody well is. But that's what makes getting it right so satisfying. Keep at it. You can do it.
Read, study and dissect picture books. Don't think of this as too much effort; it will transform your writing if you do it and do it often. Copy the text out. Leave line breaks where page breaks occur. See how the text works as a word document with no illustrations. Chances are, that's how the book was originally bought. What's the word count and how does it break down per page? How is the main character and their big predicament introduced? What does this text do that your text doesn't? What magic is there between the lines? What made it a no-brainer for an editor to sell in at an acquisitions meeting? Does your text resemble a real live published one yet? If not, you need to work harder.
Write in episodes. Write the numbers 1 - 13 (give yourself 15 if you must) down the left hand margin. Fit your text into that many 'episodes', aka parts of your plot, aka beats of the story. Make sure the big turning point happens at 9. Your reader's heart should ALWAYS be in their mouth at 9. I don't know why this is the case, but trust me: somehow, due to the magic of storytelling, 9 is where it's at. If you're a natural storyteller, you'll find the ninth beat without any shoe-horning. If you don't, you've either got too much happening or not enough. Rework it. Work harder.
Consider the page turns. Where are the breaks? Where are the dramatic pauses, reveals and climaxes? In picture books you have to tell a whole story with very few pages and very few words. Make a dummy from scrap paper - base it on any picture book you like. Don't cheat and use endpapers as extra pages (all picture books have 32 pages; you usually only have 14 spreads and maybe a single page at either end to work with). If your text doesn't fit the format, if you've bored yourself to sleep setting the scene on page one, if there are too many page turns or too few, if you end up reading too much text on any one page - you need to work harder.
Think visually. Make sure there's scope for variety and don't waste words describing what the illustrations will show. You don't need to be able to draw, but you do need to be able to envisage what image will accompany your words. If you can't picture anything, or you can only see pretty much the same picture over and over again for most of the episodes in your story, you need to work harder.
Tighten your writing. Make it tighter. Tighter still. Now tighten it a bit more. Be ruthless. Any word that absolutely doesn't need to be there, shouldn't be there. Get rid of it. And never use a multi-syllable word when a single syllable one will do the same job. If you're fighting to justify its inclusion, it doesn't belong there. Don't kid yourself. Work harder.
Read aloud. Read your texts aloud, always. Read picture books aloud, always. This is what they're intended for. They must work aloud. If you trip and stumble over your words, tidy them up. If you get bored waiting for the page turns, speed them up. If you're supposed to feel an OOMPH and you're just not feeling it, work harder. That's about all I can think of for now. There may be more. If there is, I'll put it in another post. Hard work, this blogging lark.
I often don't name my characters. This is weird as I LOVE coming up with names and am actually pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. I should name my characters more often, really; in a commercial world, a good name can mean everything in terms of potential spin offs. Still, no point forcing it, eh?
Anyway, if you're one of the many people who struggles with names, here are a few of my methods and some tips I've picked up from other writers over the years.
Brainstorm: Get a sheet of paper and write down everything that comes to mind, good and bad. Don't edit as you go along; just splurge. Don't stop until you've filled the sheet. If you haven't come up with one you love, circle your favourites. Write them on another sheet. Start again.
Pilfer: Go for a walk in an old cemetery and look at the names on the headstones, pick up a newspaper, watch the credits at the end of a TV show or movie. You might take a first name from one place and a surname from another. Something might take your fancy.
Only steal from strangers: Avoid using names from your past; even if you do mix and match, you won't be able to write without thinking of the people you borrowed them from.
Find a sound: Bu-bu-bu... Barry Bungles. A clumsy but kind burglar. Is there something about your character's personality traits that suggests a certain type of language? Soft, harsh, snake-like, little, etc.? What letters and sounds help add to that?
Use a holding name: Don't let being stuck with a name stop you from writing the story. Use a holding name; you can do a find and replace later when you've come up with something you really like. My favourite holding name is Bundersnatch. I don't know why.
There you go. Hope that's useful. I'm currently struggling to name a superhero. All the good names are already taken. Bah humbug. (Hmm, 'Humbug Boy'...?)
I once went on an Arvon Course in which one of the tutors (the wonderful Livi Michael) took us all through a meditation exercise before we began writing. It was awesome. I was all glowing-white-lights-of-positivity. I began work with a clear head and a body so full of deep breaths that if you'd pushed me into the nearby river I'd have floated.
I'm not suggesting you go so far as meditating before you begin writing, but there's no point trying to write if you're uptight about something. I find that, in order to hear the words that are fighting to get themselves onto paper, I have to block everything else out. To do that, I need everything else to be either in good order or at least out of sight and out of mind.
For me - and I'm a self-confessed control freak - that means keeping roughly on top of all the housework (major messes that will take a day to sort throw me into a state of panic), not having anything on the To Do List that can't wait and knowing that the kids are with their dad and I don't need to worry about what mischief they're making.
It's also important not to worry about what you're writing. That means not worrying about the quality in a first draft. It means not worrying what someone else will think of it - an editor, an agent, a reader, a critic, your partner. It also means not worrying whether or not it'll even work out as a story.
Every bit of writing you do gets you somewhere. With every bit you do, you learn and develop, not just your style but your ideas. Who cares if what you're working on now is the next big thing or next in the bin? The point is, you're doing it. If this one doesn't work out, the next one might.
So relax. You're getting there.
Writing to read aloud.
I was very flattered when children's book blogger Read It Daddy asked me to write a guest blog post in support of his campaign aimed at getting more parents to read aloud with their children. He wanted the post to have a writing theme, so I thought I ought to make it about the benefit of reading your own work aloud.
This is part of my Pencil Tips series, albeit in another online location - you can find out why reading aloud is an essential part of improving your writing and hear all about my embarrassing Tarzan impression here.
I know it isn't rocket science. I know it isn't as vitally important as nursing. I know it is only writing, and only fiction at that. But sometimes (cue whiny voice) writing is SO HARD.
I am currently feeling a bit bruised. A text that I thought was really strong got rejected by a publisher who'd seemed very keen. Ouch. Then it immediately attracted the attention of another editor. Un-ouch. That editor then suggested some changes. Fair enough - only a slight ouch. So I did a rewrite.
Then my agent wanted changes. OOooOOch. I did a rewrite.
Then more changes. YOWL. I did another rewrite.
Then I wanted to make more changes. So I did another rewrite.
Then I did another one this morning because I thought I could make it a little better.
Sometimes, when you rewrite a text - especially when you thought it was finished - it feels as though you're dipping the pen into your own blood for ink. With each reworking, the ink supply gets a little lower. I swear, sometimes, it actually physically hurts.
But it's worth it. Even if the second publisher doesn't end up taking this text, it's going to be in such great shape because of the process that the third one will. (Although of course, they might suggest I rewrite it.)
Don't be afraid of reworking something. Don't make excuses and don't kid yourself that the other person's opinion is wrong. If they're an industry professional, they almost certainly have a very good point, and besides, other people's input can help your brain turn a good story into a great one.
And as my dad always tells me, anything worth having in life is worth working hard for. Here endeth the lesson. Now get back to work.
Don't be precious.
The way I see it, a Pages (or Word if you're so inclined) document in a file on my desktop is no good to me. I'm writing to be published; my goal is to get books into readers' hands. If I get feedback that says something's got to change, I change it. Always*.
Let's deal with that asterisk first:-
*Unless it's something I feel is absolutely integral to the entire heart of the story, and that changing it would be akin to trampling all over my very soul. But that has only happened to me once, when an editor suggested I turn a sentimental story into a funny one. It was a story about the emotional turmoil of a family changing and growing; I'd written it while pregnant with my second child and I couldn't bare the thought of taking a sledgehammer to something so deeply personal. That said, now a little time has passed, I might revisit it...
Here's the thing: even if you're really proud of the wordsmithery, the story, the characters... rewriting it doesn't take any of that away. You can save your previous versions as different files. I have folders with versions anything from v1 to v28. If I really want to lick my wounds and read back through them, I can. Nothing is lost. It wasn't a waste of time; it was part of the journey. And it's all good practice. (Forgive me if I spelled practice wrong; that word is my Spelling Nemesis).
Chucking stuff out from previous drafts and trying things a different way frees up the possibility of something amazing happening. Stories become stronger when you explore unexpected paths. Ideas grow bigger when other people have an input. Your word count isn't shrinking because it's cumulative.
The more time you spend writing - and especially rewriting - the more you learn which things are keepers and which you can happily consign to the archives. Don't be afraid, my precious.
Learn to present.
Spend time reading to children - use other people's books and learn what works well as you go. Think about how you'd fill 45 minutes with one picture book text. It's not easy! Cheap, easy to transport craft materials can be a real help - but you also need strong ideas, a strong set of pipes and stage presence. These things don't always go hand in hand with writerdom.
Put character first.
I've just come home from a trip to the cinema - Rio 2. I'm a little bit in love with Nigel the evil cockatoo. What a great bad guy. I sort of wish he were one of my inventions, but starting with a character is something I rarely do.
Years of working in advertising have made me very concept driven, so my stories usually start with a Big Idea. My plotting is mostly instinctive and sometimes tested against 'The Writer's Journey' structure (read more about this here). But my lack of focus on character means some of my stories never really make it off the ground.
I don't like feeling that there's a weakness in what I do, so once I realised what my writing was lacking I wanted to find out how to strengthen it - or at least how to try. I've written a separate blog post over on the Picture Book Den about attending a course on 'Character Mapping'. But on top of that, I've found myself dissecting what I read more and more.
Instead of just looking at the way plots build, the way page turns are used to build tension and reveal surprise, the interplay between words and pictures, I've also been looking at just what it is that defines the characters in picture books.
What are the moments, the clues - sometimes subtle, sometimes sledgehammered - that make us fall in love with them? It's really changing the way I write, mainly in that it's focussing me on emotion. And having been trapped in the cinema for the last two hours watching my son eat a big bag of pick and mix, my current emotion is hunger. Excuse me while I act completely in character and sniff out some cake...
Above all: just keep
Borrow and copy.
Don't worry, I'm absolutely NOT suggesting you plagiarise anyone else's work. Don't do that - ever. What I am suggesting is that you copy out a text to see how it works on paper. (This one is only really recommended for picture books, although the principle is true for all kinds of writing - for longer texts you can copy out a section or chapter that really impresses you). Don't forget that this is how texts are submitted to publishing houses: without illustrations, without fancy covers; just plain old word documents like the one you're working on now.
Choose a book you've read for pleasure and loved. When I do this with picture books, I lay the copied text out as I would do one of my own texts for submission, i.e. double spaced with line breaks to indicate page turns. Do this and you will learn more in half an hour than you will ever learn from reading any handbook, I promise.
Now take time to observe the tricks of the trade. I'll bet you noticed certain things while copying it down - repeated phrases, alliteration, changes of pace, etc. What has the writer done to make you love that book? How have they achieved it? In picture books, where do the all important page breaks come, and how has the writer used them to create tension? How few words has the writer used, and what sort of language - what's the longest word in the text, how many syllables? What has the writer left for the illustrator to add and invent?
Take note of the word count as a whole and across each spread. See how quickly the call to action occurs, watch for changes of scene and character introduction - how does the writer ensure each spread offers a very different illustration to the one before, time and again? If the text rhymes, how does each stanza move the story forward? At what point are our hearts in our mouths? Count the beats of the story, and look out for that all important ninth one (read more on pacing stories in the first feature above).
What has the illustrator added that wasn't evident in the text? Do you see how the editor and designer made the text work across the pages? Why did the decide to put the page breaks where they ended up? How else might it have been done? How would that have changed the read? And why is the end result so good?
I'm sure I'm repeating myself with some of this advice, but that's because it's so fundamental. Writer's are natural observers. Go observe, and may your writing flourish.
Bad writing days.
Ah - the writer's equivalent to a Bad Hair Day. If you're anything like me, as well as not being able to string a sentence together some days, your hair won't behave either. Double whammy. Thankfully I've been writing long enough to know that a good day will come along soon. Here's what I do on the off days:-
Do something to do with writing, even if it's not write your book. Blog, research, read, do your admin, jot down possible ideas for the next story so you have a starting point when the bad day comes to an end. Because it will.
Relax. Forget all about writing. Your authorly cogs will carry on whirring even without you looking directly at them. In fact, if you're stuck on something, ignoring it might just unblock it. Look at it again when you're rested and feeling ready to defeat it. Even the most daunting of paper monsters is never really that bad.
Go for a walk. Get some fresh air and exercise, and have a good nosey at the world. You'll feel better for it and you might even get some new ideas.
Re-read your best stuff. Don't keep staring at the blinking cursor or the rot you've just written. Look at how good you can be when you're at your best. You did that on a good day - and it was still hard work.
Give yourself a break. Go on. Off you go. Make yourself a nice cup of tea and eat some cake. Find a comfortable chair and a really good book. And if the doorbell rings, ignore it. Your hair's in a right state.
Invest in a half-decent head shot.
Ring-fence your writing time.
Aah, Wednesday mornings. Both of my kids are at nursery, so I have four whole hours in which to write.
I usually write in my attic bedroom, either on or in bed, with a frequently topped up cup of tea to keep me going. I've been longing to get to work this week; I went on a Character Mapping course on the weekend and my head is buzzing with fresh ideas for a novel that I've been planning for ages. Also this morning I've edited my next picture book for Puffin and put the finishing touches to the first draft of a new rhyming picture book about a girl and her parrot. Best of all, I still have an hour and a half left before I need to pick the kids up! (Sorry, kids, but just a little break every now and then is bliss.)
Personally I only get two mornings a week to write, and it would be very easy to fill that time with other stuff that also needs doing and which would be easier to do without the kids around - the ironing, the shopping, coffee with a friend, phone calls, a haircut, school visits, etc., etc. But, unless I'm deliberately taking a rest from writing, I try my best to keep writing time sacred. I might not always fill my whole four hours with actual writing, but I always start it that way and see how much I manage to get done.
It's hard to ring fence writing time, but it's definitely worth doing. Most other stuff can wait, and I always feel better - calmer, more fulfilled, less anxious - for having written. Don't be distracted. So excuse me while I switch my mobile off, unplug the telly, turn a blind eye to the overflowing laundry basket and become very, very antisocial.
Keep moving forwards.
A friend showed me her knitting project the other day. She's making a blanket for her niece by stitching together the most neatly knitted squares I've ever seen. When I asked how she managed to keep every single row looking so perfect, she told me she has to do it that way, because she's a novice. 'If I make a mistake,' she said, 'I don't know how to fix it, so I have to start all over again.'
Have you ever got into a twist with your writing and needed to unravel it? Fixing your work can be hard, especially if you can't quite see what's wrong with it, but there's often a solution and it doesn't always have to mean starting over. The more you rework, the more lessons you learn. You become a stronger writer with a thicker skin.
When you write a picture book, you're aiming for row upon row of perfectly stitched text. This is essential if you aim to be published. If your picture book text has any dropped stitches, little holes (or gaping ones), blemishes and imperfections they will spoil the whole. If you notice them, so will an agent, editor or reader. Here are a couple of pointers to help you stitch that perfect story together.
If any of your words aren't performing a job, you must take them out. It's so easy to get carried away and allow redundant sentences to stay in place just because you feel wedded to them. If a line isn't moving the plot forward or getting us emotionally involved with the characters, if it just describes something the pictures will show, ask yourself: does it really need to be there? Some writers like to see their word count increase. I like to watch mine shrink.
Don't let go of the reins
Maybe you're writing in rhyme and you're in love with a clever little couplet. Sure, it rhymes wonderfully, but in truth it adds nothing to the story - cut it out. In prose and in rhyme, it's easy to let the words lead you. You're the one holding the reins, get them under control.
Read it aloud
I've mentioned this in previous Pencil Tips, but when you think your text is finished, read it out loud and check it for that crystal clear ringing sound. Does it all ring clear and true? If it strikes a duff note anywhere, don't cheat and ignore it. Locate it and focus on fixing it.
Don't be afraid of reworking, it's part of the writing process. You have a big vocabulary and a massive imagination. There are countless other ways to write your story, so take a deep breath and try.
Hello, fans of writing and large extinct beasts. I thought I'd share this link to a special interview with me and illustrator Kate Hindley on the creation of HOW TO WASH A WOOLLY MAMMOTH.
It gives a bit of an insight into giving illustration directions when you write a picture book manuscript. It's something I'm often asked about by people who are starting to write picture books and who aren't sure how to submit their visual ideas.
On the whole, I'd say try not to put directions in unless they're absolutely needed. Of course that's quite often the case in picture books as what the text says can be the polar opposite of what's happening in the picture! Still, just say enough to get the idea across, don't gild the lily.
That's the illustrator's job, and you want to leave them plenty of space to add their own ideas. If you're too prescriptive they won't enjoy working on your book - and trust me, it'll show. *Knowing eyebrow raise*