Outside Opinions: On Writing

This month I had a writing revelation. I was at the Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) conference, and the theme was “Better Together”. Everyone was talking about collaboration, and how projects can come to their full potential when people work together. There was talk of illustrators working with writers, writers working with editors and agents, etc. There was also talk about how authors pull and play with ideas during the writing process, getting ideas, joining ideas, smashing ideas, but most importantly to me, asking for an outside opinion.

Now, I’ve always known that writing at a professional level means getting outside opinions. I’ve read plenty of editor-feedback horror stories, with writers pulling their hair out (sometimes even teeth), because the editor wants a different ending or middle or entire story. If you have an agent, or pay for a Reader’s Report, that will also bring a whole pile of opinions and changes. And I’m fine with that. In fact, I embrace it. But I always felt like they’re allowed to change it, because they’re professional, they know what they’re doing. And your book is already at a fairly advanced and organised stage if you are handing it to an editor. Your idea is well formed. But the thought of getting an outside opinion on a young and fragile idea hadn’t really occurred to me.

At the conference, there was a very amusing and awe-inspiring panel titled “An Abundance of Katherines”, where Cat Doyle asked Katherine Woodfine, Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette, at what point do they share their story? Katherine Woodfine answered that she discusses as she goes, working out the plot and history, often with her husband’s ear (marrying a writer should come with an “I’ll use and abuse your ear warning”). While Katherine Rundell and Katherena Vermette hold their ideas close, for fear that telling someone will take the magic out of it, and they only show their story when it’s all worked out. But they both then share it, and take on board suggestions and make changes, even if it means huge plot changes (including alternative endings).

You sometimes hear of writers who don’t need to think about what they’re writing, that the story gets channelled through them. I’ll admit this happened me once, for a kid’s early reader. The idea just popped into my head and the short book flowed out of me in about 4 days. I thought “This is it. I’m a writer now. What’s the next story?” Alas, it was a one time lucky sort of thing. And so, I regularly get stuck on plot. But for some reason, I didn’t know I was allowed ask for outside help on a first draft. Now that I think about it, I realise how ridiculous that was of me. I mean, it’s not like there’s one rulebook for writers, and everyone has to follow it. More like there are loads of rulebooks and you pick which style suits you. A little bit from this, a little bit from that. Similar to becoming a parent and realising that all the parenting books give you conflicting advice, and the only way to get through it is to follow your gut and that’s the end of it.

I’m the kind of person that sorts out my thoughts by talking to people about them. My husband gets the brunt of this thinking jumble. But when it comes to my writing, I’ve always held back a bit. I’ll throw the main points at him, explain what I’m writing about and why, and occasionally bounce around the kitchen in excitement when some whacky idea arrives that I know will fix a big plot hole. But I don’t normally toy out my plot with him, because my diaphragm gives a little twist if he suggests a big change that I know will make my story better. In fact, I usually pretend I didn’t hear him when he does that. I want to play with my ideas, get an opinion on whether it will or won’t work, but I ultimately want the solution to be mine (my precious, baby!). More of a “Should I do storyline A or storyline B?” I absolutely did not want my husband (or anyone really) to have a brain-storm moment about my book. Because is that allowed? Can I call it mine, if someone else had an input? If he suggests an alternative ending, can I even use it, or is that a big juicy lie? Would I have to write on my submission letter, “This is my novel, but my husband came up with the ending.”?

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I remember the first time I handed over my first daughter to be minded by someone else. The panic, the what-ifs, the “no-one can be as good as her mother” notion that swam around my under-slept brain. But as my daughters grew, I realised that they thrived from outside input, that it brought out new sides to them, and took the pressure off me to be superwoman. Being too closed off, up on a high pedestal with your writing, can give your book cramp. This “Better Together” conference taught me that you don’t have to be the one and only creator of your book, that the end story is the most important thing. And if that means calling in the village, then so be it.

The Story Behind Young Adult Books

I put this post together for those of you interested in learning what YA (Young Adult) books are, and why people read and love them, including adults. I was recently at the Mountains to Sea Literary Festival, and have drawn some answers from the panels of YA writers. Plus my own reasons for loving these books, as an adult.

What is a “Young Adult” Book

General consensus is a YA book is one where the protagonist is a teenager. That doesn’t mean that it’s only for teenagers. It’s not a secret that more adults buy and read YA books than teenagers. Some writers do keep their teenage audience in mind and direct their story towards a teenage reader, whereas some don’t think about the reader at all, and simply let the story flow exactly as it comes to them.

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Why do People Write YA

This, as with any genre, is always going to be personal. I’ve heard a few writers (myself included) say they never planned to write YA, it’s just what came out when they started writing. Every writer has to find their own writing voice, and sometimes they can suffer disappointment when they realise that they can’t actually write like their favourite author or style of book. (I was rather disappointed when I realised that I am never going to be a Maeve Binchy for teenagers). But once they persist, they will find their own unique voice. It could be in YA, or fantasy, or Literary fiction. Until you start writing, you won’t know where your own voice leads you. So really, if you’re a YA writer, YA picked you.

Normalising the Abnormal

A common theme I noticed at the event, was the amount of writers who talk about how hard being a teenager is. How everything seems so difficult, and every little problem explodes. That teenagers often feel abnormal and isolated. YA books can help to normalise these feelings, to shed some light on a teenager’s problems and hardships, and make them see that they’re not alone. To say “I hear you” to the reader. When I was a teenage reader I loved reading books where the protagonist clearly had a much harder time than me, so I could reassure myself that no matter how bad I had it, someone else had it too. Or had it even worse, meaning if they could get through it, so could I.

Why do Adults Read YA

There were a few answers to this. But ultimately a book is only as good as it’s story and writing, and I personally believe that there is an abundance of excellent YA books around at the moment. A good story will always tempt adults into reading them, whether written for teenagers or adults.

YA books are shorter in general, they get to the point quicker, meaning you don’t have to make a daunting commitment to a block of a book. I love small books. It means I finish it quicker and can feel that wonderful glow of satisfaction at reaching the end sooner. I also like fitting as many books into my reading time as possible, so would rather read three shorter books (meaning three complete stories) than one long book. There are always exceptions to the rule, I know.

There is also a theory that some people (ahem) don’t ever feel like they’ve fully grown up, they still feel like a teenager at heart and therefore love reading about a character who they can connect with, and live a little through their experiences.

Truths and Lies

Every YA book panel or talk I’ve been to, there’s always a question around how the writer decides how far to go, how much truth to put in. Are young adults able to deal with the heavy issues being dealt with in so many YA books nowadays? I think the answer to this will always be personal. Everyone has a different opinion, because it IS an opinion.

But one thing I did take away, is that teenagers are very good self-censors. I’ve heard writers talk of their own reading experiences as a child and as a teen, how they often read advanced books (being the book worms that writers are), but they knew what to take, and what to leave behind. Teenagers know when a topic gets too heavy for them, and if a book is making them squirm then they will stop reading that passage.

There is also a big difference between reading about a heavy issue in the comfort of ones safe bedroom, and experiencing it first hand, or even watching it on screen. I am still haunted by images I saw on videos (yes, videos, I’m showing my age) as a teenager, but I have absolutely no haunting images in my head from books I read. Perhaps I didn’t read particularly heavy books then, but I believe it’s more to do with the fact that a reader creates their own images. The writer can explain, and describe, but every reader will imagine a different picture. Your imagination doesn’t wish to traumatise you like a Hollywood director.

Summary

A good YA book is well worth reading, same as any good story. They’re not all fantasy or sci-fi, but unfortunately they do tend to get shelved together in book shops, despite covering a range of genres. There are plenty of contemporary, funny, dystopian, and terrifying YA books to be found, and they’re all as different as adult books of different genres. So if you haven’t already read a YA book, give a teenage protagonist a go. You might just find yourself hooked.

Baking your stories: Thoughts on Writing

Have you ever tried to create a cake recipe from scratch? I don’t mean if you were lucky enough to grow up in a house with Darina Allen. I mean those of you who grew up in a house where the only buns were lined up in a neat plastic tray from the local shop, and the only flour that came into the house went into the bin un-opened, two years out of date. Then, imagine you get this sudden urge to bake; to invent the perfect cake. It becomes an obsession, occupying your daily thoughts. Just like writing is to an aspiring author… i.e. me.

To begin with, you need to read recipes that already exist. Learn the rules, and follow the amounts carefully. You need to master how to bake those recipes.

When you’ve read and read and read, you hit a point where you feel that you now understand how it works. You understand why you need to mix the eggs in slowly so the mixture doesn’t curdle, and why you have to grease the tin before you pour in your batter so it doesn’t stick. Surely you’re now ready to invent your own recipe. Right?

You begin one optimistic day, with a new apron, and a sparkling spatula. You take a little bit of this recipe, a little bit of that recipe, and mix it all together. You wait eagerly, watching the oven, and bing! It’s ready. At first it looks okay, and you leave it cool down. But when you come back in ten minutes, you realise it’s still raw in the middle. Back into the oven. This time the outside is burnt and the inside is hard. What went wrong? You tell yourself you just need more practice.

You try again, with a new recipe, something more manageable. Again you wait patiently, watching the oven. This time it even smells good. It comes out of the oven and looks reasonable. It even tastes reasonable. Definitely not the worst cake you’ve ever tasted. And so you share it with your family. They each take a bite and politely refuse the rest. Except your child; they tell you it’s the worst thing they’ve ever tasted and spit it out again.

So you go back to reading. You read and practice, not understanding why you’re not as good as all these other bakers, who make it seem so easy.

After much time and patience, you eventually make a masterpiece. Everyone in your family likes it. But when you put it on-line, it being too good to waste on just you, you don’t get much feedback. Why don’t they love it? Why haven’t you won the best cake of the year prize? Why are PR agents not knocking on your door?

And so you keep trying. Month after month, slowly getting better, steadily producing nicer cakes. Each one more delicious than the last. You fall in love with the baking and creating, experimenting and tasting. Out of the blue, you make the perfect cake. Even your kid, who is by now a stroppy teenager, eats an entire slice. And asks for more. People start sharing your recipe, and soon it goes viral. Other people are finally appreciating your creation.

I believe it’s the same with writing. You have to love the writing process enough to do it without needing the world to love your words. Then, when you’ve mastered the craft, someone will find you, if you really want them to. I’m still waiting, but my day will come, and by then I’ll be a better writer than I am today, and will have read more than I have now. Each book I read teaches me more than the words I write. It is an act of patience, love and enjoying the delicious journey.