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.

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Squashing the Guilt

Last month was the first month in 2 years, that I didn’t manage to get a blog piece out. As soon as May passed, guilt covered me like prickly sunburn, that I hadn’t succeeded in this monthly self-set goal. But then I started thinking, why do I let myself suffer guilt over my writing? I know I’m not the only writer who struggles with this. It’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. That you should be able to write not only your novel, but also enter short story competitions, and write poetry and weekly blogs. Twitter doesn’t help. Watching other people post their successes, competition winnings, reach word counts in the thousands, while you struggle to find time for a few hundred, or even ten. Life happens, obstacles land in our way, and it’s not always our choice. I have dead-lines, but I set them myself. I’ve no agent, no publisher. Not yet. I am at the freest part of my writing career (yes, I do believe it will be a career, with my smug self-belief) with no one to answer to other than myself. So why do I hold myself to such high standards?

I am someone who has always suffered from guilt. I can feel guilty a number of times a day, sometimes almost to crippling degrees. The rational part of me knows that there’s not always a need for this guilt, that it’s usually a wasted emotion because I’m not actually a bad person. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my young children, when in fact I gave up my permanent nursing job to love and care for them full-time. I feel guilty that I don’t do enough for my marriage, when the time I spend with my husband always involves a lot of laughter. When I work the odd shift in a nursing home, I’m guilty that I’m not at home minding my family. When I’m at home all the time, I’m guilty that I’m not setting my daughters a feminist example of a mother who also works. And in the last 2 years, writing has jumped onto my list of things to be guilty about.

But why should it? I started writing as a way to stop thinking about my real life worries. A big bay window into escapism. I never expected to fall so in love with it, that it moved the goal posts of my life to a whole new field (more like a meadow with a lot of uncut grass and brambles in the way). Like any goal, it brings a whole list of worries and new things to be guilty about. If I over-sleep the odd morning, I wake with niggling self-disapproval that I missed today’s hour of writing time. If I go on a rare night away, my stomach balls itself up until I find the time to write on my romantic getaway.

I’ve been to many writing festivals and panels, and I’ve heard all about how important a writing routine is. I agree. I made my writing routine, and I love it. I love that time alone in the morning before the world is up, and the weather is merely hinting at the day ahead. I love the sense of achievement I get when I finish a Chapter, or come up with a new metaphor after days mulling it over. Outside my routine, I love snatching ten minutes in an unexpectedly calm part of the day, to scribble a few lines. Or the immense satisfaction that comes with three solid hours of work on the train to Dublin for events.

Last month I failed to write a blog post, but I achieved a serious and time-consuming editing over-haul of my novel. My children needed my time more than usual, for reasons I’m not going to go into, but suffice to say, my role as a mother will always come first. I barely had time to read, but I grabbed minutes here and there, because a week without reading to a writer, is like having a shower and realising you’ve plenty of Conditioner, but no Shampoo. I didn’t achieve every writing task I planned to, but I achieved more in other areas of my life that needed it. Sometimes you have to balance the rest of your life, and close your ears to the guilt trying to sink you.

So I’m going to stop beating myself up on the days I fail to write. I’m going to enjoy my days off when there’s a good enough reason to take a day off, like a holiday, or the promise of breakfast in bed, or a migraine (it’s true, I have tried to force myself to write with a migraine, thinking that one little sentence is better than none). If I need time off, that’s okay. If life gets in the way, I’ll be patient and start building my ladder. Hell no, I’ll build a climbing frame; it’s more fun. Nothing kills a passion faster than turning it into a chore. Writing should be a beloved pendant over your heart, and not a chain around your ankles.

Being a Parent and a Children’s Writer: Pros and Cons

Pro: You get to try your stories out on your kids, for honest feedback.
Con: The honest feedback part. VERY honest.

Pro: To write for kids, it helps to know what matters to them. Parenting teaches you what things are important to children (breakfast… second breakfast… lunch… second lunch…), and gives you a Masters degree in their needs.
Con: Kid’s needs are endless. Literally. They never end. And that means very little time in the day for writing. I average one hour an evening, on a good day, and only when they’re in bed. Unfortunately my mind works ten times slower in the evening. I do try to fit writing into the daytime, but ten stolen minutes is about as good as it gets.

Pro: Writing loo humour for children can be great fun. I remember how the word poo made me explode with laughter when I was a kid. I thought you could never over-do loo humour back then. Now I know you can, thankfully.
Con: Dealing with real children and actual loo emergencies and poo explosions is just not funny in real life. And it always happens when I’m in a train of great thought, words flying out my fingers. It is so hard to get the words back in my fingers once that train has choo-chooed out of here.

Pro: Having kids means having heaps of kids books. This means getting to know the market, and learning to see language through the child’s eyes. It also means lots trips to the library and being able to take kids books out for yourself on their cards. Kid’s library cards have less fines.
Con: Having to deal with screechy rowdy toddlers in the library, and NEVER getting to browse the adult books section. Sometimes I forget that books do actually exist for people my own age. I try not to get eye contact with our librarian, as I know he sends me mind bullets. My 2 year old is, let’s just say, loud.

Pro: Kids create extraordinary situations. Like the time my 2 year old secretly took her potty out of her buggy at the counter in Tesco. As I paid for my purchases, she proudly exclaimed “Look Mummy! I used the potty!” She wasn’t lying. There are some things you would never think could happen, until your child does it. Extraordinary situations, and being pushed out of your comfort zone inspires stories and sparks imagination.
Con: Do I need to explain the con in the above situation?

Pro: Kids teach you to be more flexible. You just can’t predict what will happen next with kids. You learn to be creative about when you can write, and just grab your opportunities and feel grateful for them. So when you do get ten stolen minutes to write with Peppa Pig on in the background, you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest.
Con: Looking forward to writing all day long, and then at bedtime one of them gets suddenly unwell and there goes your hour of writing. It is not always easy to be flexible, and even a contortionist parent can’t get out of dealing with sick kids and vomit. A lot.

Pro: Watching your stories switch on the sunshine in their little eyes, knowing that your words made that happen. And even if no-one else ever reads those stories, you know you moved something in your child, and they know you did it too.
Con: Sometimes I find myself let down if my daughter doesn’t immediately love my story. But then I simply think of myself as a child, and let my own little self feel the magic instead. After-all, the most important person to write for is not your kids, or your readers, but yourself.