Unsticking My Story

During the summer, I started writing a new YA (young adult) novel. The idea came suddenly, and the first 8000 words came flowing out. But then they stopped. I sat looking at my screen, not knowing what to write next. How had my story, that had spilled out of me like monsoon rain, suddenly gotten stuck?

The idea for the story had come organically, and I had begun writing it with no plan. I had written the opening chapters with plenty of feeling, but with very little thought. Once the initial excitement blew over, I was left with empty pages and no idea how to progress.

The problem with losing confidence in one piece of writing, is that the lack of confidence spreads. I was afraid to write anything, in case I would find myself stuck again.

I needed to unstick my story. So I followed a few steps, to get my confidence back.

1) Rewind

Firstly, I went to the beginning of my novel and read what I’d written. I questioned myself, at what point did the story stop working? I went back to the last point that the story worked, and restarted from there.

2) Why did it start to fail?

I considered what had made the story begin to fail? Had I filled my chapters with back story instead of action? Had I forgotten to include any conflict? Did I lose sight of the character’s motivations? By becoming aware of what not to write, it helped me see what my story needed to stay interesting.

3) Alternative story lines

I considered alternative story lines. I made a chart of different routes the story could take, and then decided which way appealed to me the most.

4) Character Study

When I really couldn’t see what I wanted to happen next, I took time out from the story and made a number of character studies. This included making a character sheet for the main characters, learning their fears, their experiences and their goals etc. When I had a clear image of my characters, their natural motivations guided the story.

5) Take a Break

It’s often when I stop thinking of how to the solve a plot problem, that the ideas start to flow. I find going for a walk, or doing something physical, helps to shift my focus from my mind. Releasing the pressure on my creative mind gives it room to breathe.

6) Talk About It

I am lucky to have some super writer-friends, and to attend a brilliant writing class a few times a year. When I get stuck, I look to them for motivation, for problem solving inspiration; even for opinions on my plot. This helps enormously.

7) Find Inspiration

I used to wait around, believing that divine plot inspiration would shine upon me. But this is not a good plan, because it doesn’t work. I accepted that I have to find my own inspiration. Creativity needs to be fed, and sitting a room with no art, no beauty, no nature, is not the way to feed it. So I went out, I read, I made a conscious effort to stimulate my desire to create.

8) Day Off

I occasionally need to take a day, or two, or a week, off writing. This helps reduce the pressure I put on my writing. It also gives my brain a wash out so it’s ready to start again. And rather than dreading sitting down to write after my day off, I often find myself refreshed with motivation. It also helps me begin again with fresh eyes and a fresh head.

So now I’m back on track, and the words are flowing again. I have a clearer direction, a better understanding of my characters and I know what I want to achieve with this book. I took the pressure off myself and gave myself a break, and found my motivation again. And once the words started flowing, my confidence was rebuilt. Believing that I can write this novel, is the most important step to reaching those precious words, ‘The End’.

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Feedback Frenzy

image credit unsplash.comI recently went to my regular writing workshop. A couple of us meet every 2-3 months, to critique each others stories.

My initial reaction to my feedback was positive. Okay, so I had a plot problem. But at least now I knew, I thought to my myself. This will be great. Knowledge is power.

But then something strange happened. It was as though all those grey tubey-looking parts of my brain starting twisting around themselves, and I realised that fixing this problem was a mammoth task. How would I fix it? And if I did fix this one piece of plot, how would it affect the rest of the book? I had smugly thought the book was finished, ready for submission. But now here I was with a significant problem smirking at me, like a steamy eyed skull.

Hello feedback frenzy.

One little plot problem. A tiny bit of the story that didn’t quite work. If I’m honest, I knew it didn’t work. Every time I thought about it, I had a niggling feeling in my bones, that this was lazy writing, that it wasn’t age appropriate, that it needed to be fixed. The problem was, I didn’t know how to fix it. So I ignored the tug of the alarm bell-string in my chest, and kept on writing.

But when a room full of people (who know things) said that this needed to change, I had to listen. I had to stop seeing the problem part of the plot as a weak area, and start seeing it as anti-plot. But how?

When faced with calamity, I always go back to the basics. First, I thought about how I would fix a problem with something small, like a sentence.

For example, if I wrote this:

“The moon sparkles in the sky.”

I would quickly realise that I have a problem. I’ve written a cliché. If I try to fix it by altering what I already have, all I can think of are similar words;

“The moon shines/ twinkles/ glimmers in the sky”

The cliché remains, and so does the problem. So instead, I delete the whole sentence and start from scratch.

“Moon-rays frame the sky like bleached rainbows.”

It is much easier this time to come up with something original, because my brain isn’t trapped into the old phrase. Make sense?

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to fix a cliché, than a plot problem. I deleted the anti-plot from my text, and spent three days with no idea how my story could progress. Eventually  I stopped trying, and that’s when the Bing! moment arrived. On a long car journey, with a Roald Dahl audio-book sparking my imagination, I worked out how to progress my plot.

However, by starting from scratch and inventing a whole new reason that A led to B in my story, I caused untold havoc to the rest of the book. I didn’t just unleash a can of worms, I also chopped those worms in half, and had to watch as their tails wiggled off in the opposite direction to their heads. One tiny plot change, affected every chapter in the book. It led to two chapters being deleted, and one new chapter being written. It led to the entire sequence of the story being shuffled around.

Hours of work.

Hence the frenzy.

But now it’s nearly finished. I’ve spent a week editing and can honestly say that the book is ten times better now than it was. Feedback may send an earth-quake through your text, but at least you know that all the good bits get left behind. And what you build after the earthquake is a stronger, firmer story.

So bring on the frenzy.

Make Every Word Count

When I began writing, I used to plough through drafts like a bulldozer, more obsessed with the word count than the quality of writing. Draft after draft, I’d rush to meet 1000 words a day, whether the words were good, bad or ugly. Now that I’ve calmed down about getting the novel finished, submitted and published (because what is the ACTUAL rush?), I’ve changed the way I write. This came from hearing many writers say “Make every word count”. It took me at least 2 years of writing to finally start listening to this advice, and here’s how I’m doing it:

Stick To The Story

One of the biggest writing sins I was guilty of, was going off in a tangent that had no relevance to the story. No matter how beautiful or funny your writing is, if you forget about the story, you will lose readers. I didn’t notice this problem in my own work at first; someone else had to point it out to me. But now that I know it, I stick to a story plan. If a chapter has no relevance and is not necessary to the rest of the story, then it has to go. No matter how beautifully it’s written.

Play With Poetry:

I started to write and read poems. This got me thinking about words in a new way. I started listening to their sounds, and experimenting with sentences. I let myself loose to play with words, and to trust my ability to get across my message without being blunt and over-obvious. This helped me bring out the beauty in a sentence, or the humour in a twisted phrase. Poems by the their nature are short, which meant I had to cut out waffle and too much description, and taught me how to get to the point in a neater, nicer fashion.

Study Other People’s Sentences:

I slowed down my reading. This helped me step back from the story, and allowed me to concentrate on what I liked in other people’s writing, and what I didn’t like. As I read, I ask myself, what makes a sentence bounce off the page and into my memory, and what makes it sink into the slush of ugly or over-used phrases?

Recognise Repetition

Becoming aware of words I used repeatedly, helped me think outside the box. This wasn’t easy, and I occassionally have to ask other people to read my work to spot my repetitive words. I also started looking out for words that other writers use repeatedly. Some obvious words and phrases I spotted again and again in other people’s work were ‘suddenly’, ‘my heart thumped’ , and ‘Oh my God’. The less obvious ones were ‘ochre’, ‘sepia’, and variations of the moon like a ‘torch in the sky’. If you don’t recognise repetition, you can’t avoid using it.

Originality

When you keep reading the same old metaphors and similes, you start to skim over them, and they might as well not be there. There is nothing as smile-inducing as reading a book and finding original metaphors. Discovering a new way to express a feeling or a vision is one of my favourite parts of writing, and if I achieve only 10 words in a day, but I know they’re absolutely original, then that’s a happy day for me.

First-draft Freedom

If I tried to make every word count from the beginning of my first draft, I’d never ever finish it. You have to pick your time to polish. I recently read an article by Ciara O’Connor, who concluded that when you stop trying to make your writing perfect, that’s when you find your flow. And I totally agree. I need to get my initial story down in a stream of consciousness, and then I can shape it. Just like a sculptor can’t start their work without a sizeable lump of clay. This might be two or three drafts in, once I know the story outline and the characters, and where I’m going with it. Only then can I start filtering the sentences until all the words left need to be there.

The longer I write, the better I get at making every word count. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stage where everything I write is perfect. Does anyone? Have I ever read anything 100% perfect? Probably not. Art doesn’t have to be perfect to be lovely. Once I’ve got a piece of writing to the best I can get it, I recall my mantra “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Da Vinci) and then I move on with the hope that even more words will count in my next piece.

Ignore Imposter Syndrome and Get Going.

Starting is the easy part. How many times have we all started something new with a heart full of giddiness? The thought that we can do it bouncing around our head, the imagined success and the wonder of the completed project a sparkling goal that seems within reach. And how long into a new project do we start to doubt ourselves? Or conveniently schedule other activities during the time we’d set out for this project. You just have to look at the spike in gym attendance every January to know what I’m talking about. A sky scraper of motivation knocked down when life gets in the way. But does life really get in our way, or do we get in our own way?

The two biggest reasons I have for quitting projects are laziness, and self-doubt. Laziness stops me exercising enough, going out in the evening to stimulate my tired brain, painting the shed (two-toned is in…right?). I think, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll have more energy, the weather will be better, I’ll make time. Procrastination defines my relationship with writing short stories. I go from writing novel to novel so I don’t have to face the challenge of short stories. I was always better at long-term relationships than flings. I find novels easier, less pressure to get each word right from the start. I can be lazy in my writing, because I’ll do a huge editing haul at the end and the main thing now is achieving my daily word count. It’s also a relief knowing what I’ll be writing for the next few months, because I’m writing a novel. Short stories end too quickly, they need a lot of thought and a big punch. And as soon as it’s written, I’d have to think of something else to write, and what if I can’t think of anything? What if I run out of ideas? What if I forget how to write? Imposter syndrome, anyone?

I don’t just have imposter syndrome with short stories. I always start my novel with more gusto than a Tornado, but by the time I reach the mid-way point, I think it’s utter cow-dung. I suddenly don’t know how I’ve spent so many hours working on this smelly manuscript, and what is there to show other than some mouldy coffee stains? The first time this happened me I was devastated, sitting there watching flies hover around the manuscript, wondering how I ever thought I could pull this whole ‘writer’ thing off. I wanted to just go to bed, without even washing my teeth, so deep was my despair. Instead I printed the thing out, read through the hard copy, and was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t half as stinky as I thought it was (2 years later, I now know that it was actually dreadful, but that’s beside the point).

I’ve become used to this half-way doubt. And I’ve learnt that even if it is a total stink-bomb of a novel, the sense of achievement at finishing it is always better than quitting. I’ve finished writing projects and never looked at them again, knowing they didn’t work, but still been dead proud of myself for getting through a beginning, middle, and end. And that feeling of pride at the end is what propels me forward to the next project. As a general rule, I keep writing until it’s finished, because I never know until well after the ending whether it’s any good. My inner critic would have me abandon everything I write, because at some point I’ve thought everything was awful.

Laziness, I find, is the easier evil to beat. I just need to be willing, and thankfully I have some serious willpower when it comes to my dream of being a writer (it’s easier to find will-power for a passion, rather than say, jogging, which brings me little more than sweaty armpits). For me, it’s all about making a routine. A commitment, setting an alarm, telling people the resolution so I am held to it.

Getting to the end of your novel is one thing, believing in it is another. It’s hard to believe in your writing when you get rejection after rejection. Each polite ‘this doesn’t fit our list’ another piece of coal for the inner critic burning inside. So once you get to the end of a novel, and edit it, you now need to gather all your willpower. Forget about taking the lazy option and take your head out from under the pillow. Realise that the real imposter here isn’t you, it’s your inner critic. So tell it to go take a hike.

Finding Ideas

Cloud Idea Bubble - CC0 - pixabay-Alexas_Fotos-686414Ideas come to some authors as easily as sweat comes to armpits in the gym. I’ve heard of authors who have drawers full of ideas, note-books overflowing with anecdotes and stories just waiting to be used at a later date. There are authors who carry special fly swats to rid the air around them of new ideas, so that they can focus on their current book. Alas, I am not one of those authors. On the contrary, I have more next-novel-idea angst than a teenager in an existential crisis. Saying that, I’ve never completely run out of ideas. I’ve always found something to write, but I never know if the idea is good enough until I put pen to paper. I find it very hard to believe in a story before I’ve started it.

It takes me quite a while to finish a YA (young adult) novel, which means I don’t actually need a new novel idea until at least a year after I decided on the last idea. I’m a fast enough writer, though my first drafts are taking longer the more experienced I become at writing. I used to just vomit out the first draft, knowing there’d be time to clean it up later. But then I realised that I don’t really like cleaning up vomit, despite the day job rotating between being a nurse and a mum. Every nurse knows that it’s much easier to prevent the vomit in the first place. So I now take my time, write more slowly, carefully. This also helps to put off the next idea choice. In between editing drafts, I write small Chapter books for kids (ideas come easier when the word count is under 10,000), poems, I attempt to write short stories. I never commit to a new full-size novel until I’m finished with the last.

I’ve started many novels based on an idea. And I’ve given up on many novels, thousands of words in, because I knew the idea wasn’t working. Sometimes I don’t even have an idea, just a character, and it can be a real struggle to figure out who this person in my head is, and what is their story. I often start a story and have no clue where it’s going. I’ve tried to write about certain topics, only to realise that the words that flow are dry and boring. I can start a story for the sake of practising writing, and not have a clue what the plan is, and discover I’ve created a character I love and want to keep. My stories are not always predictable to me, but that makes it much more exciting to write.

I find that ideas for short stories and poems are easier to find than ideas for novels. I often flick through magazines, scroll down my twitter feed, eavesdrop on conversations, looking for shreds of inspiration. Sometimes I get an idea for a short story or Chapter book from another story or book. A line, an image, a piece of information that wakes up my imagination like an alarm clock.

Sometimes ideas come in round about ways. This year I did a creative writing class for short stories. I was the only person writing or reading YA, so I decided to try and write for adults. I enjoyed it so much that I even started a novel, based on a woman. This was new to me, as my protagonists have always been under eighteen. However, it didn’t last. You see, it turned out the woman had a teenage daughter, and after writing 10,000 words of the mother’s story, I suddenly found myself writing the daughter’s side of the story. And it was much more fun to write. And that is the where the idea for the novel I am now working on came from.

So perhaps I am not a writer who catches my ideas with a butterfly net. Instead I am a writer who just keeps on writing, whether or not I have anything to write about. And in that mine of words, I occasionally catch a sparkle out of the corner of my eye, and that next novel angst disappears. For another year anyway.

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.

Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.

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.

red-love-heart

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.

Writing Fantasy: My 7 Tips

I’ve tried my hand at many genres, and found that nothing brings the same belly-tingling excitement as writing Fantasy. But it also brings challenges that other genres don’t. I find it the hardest genre to write as a result. I won’t claim to be an expert, and bear in mind I’m not published. But I did write a Fantasy novel, followed by a sequel, for kids aged approx 7-11. I’ve also read many children’s Fantasy novels. And I’ve certainly learnt a few things a long the way.

1: World building

There are no rules in Fantasy: your imagination can run wild, creating worlds of magic and turning people into beings that contradict nature. But the world you create can turn into a trap. What suits the story at the beginning, might make no sense in your world at the end. Or worse, in the sequel. And at the sequel level, it’s too late to go back and change the first book (unless it’s not published, but that sounds like an editing nightmare). It’s also hard to remember every detail of your Fantasy world, so take notes as you go, and make sure each idea consistently makes sense. When editing, ask people to explain your world back to you and make sure it matches what you tried to get across in your writing.

2: Believability

I don’t read adult Fantasy novels, but I love children’s’ Fantasy. But I lose interest in a novel if the story becomes too unbelievable even for the world it’s built in. It’s tempting when writing Fantasy to curve the story to suit yourself. If your character needs a sword, why not let one magically appear in a tree? You make the rules in your fantasy world, so you can do whatever you want. Right? Wrong. It may be convenient, but it’s lazy writing. The reader won’t believe it, unless you give a very good reason for the sword to appear in the tree. Don’t use plot devices to the detriment of the story. That’s what your imagination is for.

On the subject of believability, readers quickly tire of characters who repeatedly succeed just because they’re the ‘chosen one’ , and not because they’re actually worthy of success. You the writer need to believe in yourself, and give serious thought as to how to make them awesome.

3: Description

I have often stopped reading Fantasy books due to description over-kill. I understand Fantasy books require a lot description as you’re trying to explain a whole new world. But I don’t want to read three pages of description. And I don’t just mean landscapes or characters. I also mean explanations of the world, the reason the protagonist is the protagonist etc. The world and situation you create can be described gradually, with clues along the way.

The first chapter of The Northern Lights (by Phillip Pullman if you don’t know, and if you still don’t know, go and read it) is a great example of how to get the balance right. The reader immediately learns characters speak freely with animals, but no explanation is given. The not knowing is what makes you read faster, desperate to know why and how. The descriptions are the salt and pepper, and the action is the dinner. It is tempting to over explain everything the minute you introduce it, but where is the suspense in that? Don’t describe your story, tell it.

4: Uniqueness

Your book has a dragon. So what? Loads of fantasy books have dragons. What makes your dragon so special that I should read it? Find what’s unique in your story and explode it, make your dragon stand out from all the others. I made this mistake, I included a boring dragon. On editing, I realised my dragon was as dull as the dirty ground he walked on. So I changed him, and made his role in the story shine. But I could also have deleted him. Does your story actually benefit from your dragon? Is their species relevant to your story? Make the choice, and make it work. It’s hard to delete. But it can be done. Here’s how: delete delet dele del de d —

5: Pace

Pace is always important to keep the reader hooked, but particularly in the middle of Fantasy novels. The beginning draws you in because you want to figure out what this new world is all about. Endings, by their nature, should have a good pace, magnetising the reader so they’re unable to put down the book until they know how it all ends. But the middle can fall through the gaps. The world is created, the character is known, they are possibly on a journey to a distant land or meeting new people and creatures. But journeys alone are boring. And I don’t want to learn all the answers now. If you get writers block in the middle, don’t fire in all the answers, and don’t throw in irrelevant scenes that stump the reader. I love when clues are still being added in the middle, and when new mysteries appear. Keep the suspense, and you’ll keep the reader.

The middle section of your novel is a perfect opportunity for your protagonist to develop as a character. Use this section to show how your character moves from the beginning to the end of the novel, and how they change in the process. What happens in the middle that forces the character to make difficult choices that determine the path of the novel? Keep the character’s arc in your mind as you write this section, and you’ll be grateful for it when you reach the end.

6: Confusion

I’d rather read a short novel that I can follow, than a long one that I get can’t find my way through. My pet hate in Fantasy is when I can no longer understand what’s going on. Take your time, develop your plot and characters, but don’t squash them in. Give them room to breathe and give the reader time to catch up and process the information.

And remember, your novel isn’t there to show off how clever you are. I don’t want to read a novel and say “Wow, that writer has a fountain of knowledge, but I have no idea what s/he’s talking about, and I haven’t a clue what the story is about.”

7: Characters

I personally struggle with excess characters with unusual or foreign names. Not just in Fantasy (I had to stop reading War and Peace because I kept mixing up who was who with all the foreign names and places. A sad reflection on me, but a reality of many readers. Judge my intellect if you must, but I’m just being honest). Someone once told me they re-named all the characters in a book they were reading to John, Mary etc.. And made a list at the front of the book, so they could follow the story easier. Complicated or what?

This can easily happen in Fantasy, not just from made-up names, but from traits. Too many unusual characters or places can lose the reader. There is power in simplicity. Don’t name more than one main character with similar names, or names beginning with the same letter. Naming characters based on their traits can help. At it’s most obvious level, take these two names and guess which is the troll and which is the fairy: Twinkle-dust and Rotten-breath.

Epilogue

Fantasy is a genre dedicated to imagination and the wildest of dreams. It is a genre to be celebrated and loved. Mostly, I think it’s a genre to be thanked, as it is what made me and many other children fall in love with stories. And once you fall in love with stories, you fall in love with books. And that, to me, is FANTAStic.

Finding the Time

This week has been full of packing, de-cluttering, and the head-ache inducing smell of paint. Tumbling piles of boxes, and where has my living room floor gone? Boxes and bags reluctantly sent to the charity shop, packed with my memories. Out with the old, in with the necessary.

We first began this house move back in July. Seven months of waiting; are we getting it, are we not? When the keys finally landed in my hands, I jumped (honestly) for joy. I wasn’t thinking of the hours of work, the sleepless nights, the chaotic mess. The guilt when packing that I’m not spending quality time with my daughters, and the guilt when I’m spending time with them that I’m not packing.

Sleep has mostly disappeared. I lie down and wake up with images of the rooms, rearranging the furniture in my dreams. Why is this so stressful? Surely I should be filled with joy about my new house, bursting with so much excitement that stress can find no way in?

But it is stressful. It is exhausting. As soon I fix one problem (the bathroom cabinet fell apart), a new one arises (the back door scratches the brand new floor). The days this month have turned into a tangled pile of jobs and unfinished lists. My routine is gone. Change and I are not friends.

And that is why I need to write. It is exactly when I can’t find the time to write, that I need my writing the most. When the world seems so busy that each thought is punctuated by another. That is when I need to sit still, in silence, and focus on each word. To scrunch up the bills and stress and the endless phone-calls and throw them into a bag, seal it tight, and get rid of it. I don’t think the charity shops would appreciate those bags; some things just have to be thrown out.

Part of my love of writing stems from my love of stories, poems and meeting new characters. But I also need the escape. A reason to stop. The feeling of warmth that spreads through my finger-tips as I type, the beautiful shape of words that form in my vision. I cannot multi-task when writing, I can only think about one thing at a time and that is what I am writing. There is no room for stress and worries in my writing mind.

And so, no matter how tired I am, how much I have to do, how many conversations I’m missing, I find the time. And each night I forget about moving house and sit, and write, and relax.