Friday, 16 March 2012

Learning Curves

A strange and wonderful thing happened. I won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Book Competition. I know – it’s bizarre. Bizarre and brilliant. So anyway, that’s how I came to be speaking to a journalist about writing stories. During the course of this discussion, an interesting idea emerged. It concerned learning curves. I was sharing my literary disasters, talking through the mistakes that had got me to this point – and I suddenly remembered a graphic I’d used with students before. Here it is:
The neat upward progress that the word ‘curve’ suggests is misleading. This jagged, unpredictable sequence of triumphs and disasters is a more accurate assessment of the learning process, I reckon. There are months in which we write and write without any discernable development in style or progress with plot and characterisation. We plateau; we feel stale. Then there are those moments – and I’ve had plenty – when we might look back at old or abandoned projects and marvel at the quality of some of the writing. Christ, we think to ourselves. I’m actually getting worse. But then there are those points of extreme and accelerated learning, where suddenly, everything comes together and we gallop forwards.
I’ve had a few of these too thankfully, and it’s no coincidence they’ve all occurred when I’ve asked someone else to read the manuscript. This is worth bearing in mind. Don’t hide it away. Hand it over and wait for the moment of learning. Here’s one example; the first Sleepwell and Fly book. It was about 80,000 words long and in epistolary form. I'd finished it, I'd polished it, I'd sent it to agents. It was Spring. The blossom was out and the holidays were coming.
It got a right kicking. I was devastated.
But I got a splendid two paragraph brush-off which drew my attention to a massive flaw in my thinking. “Why the epistolary form?” wrote this helpful, insightful agent. “You’re writing for a generation of readers who don’t write letters, send letters, or communicate in any mode that requires more than 140 characters.”
I stared at the letter. The world went quiet. Dammit, I thought. She’s right. And that was the end of Sleepwell and Fly version 1. I spent that summer re-writing it as a regular first person narrative, but I was beginning to flag a bit – my heart wasn’t in it and I was getting new and better ideas. The whole thing went in the bin and I started again.
But here’s the key, good people. I began my next project at a much higher point on the curve. If you add together all these accelerated points of learning; imagine them queuing up in a neat line from your first ever attempt at writing; and you can appreciate how you might end up a significant distance further forward.  
So, find your critical friend and hand over that manuscript. You never know what lesson you might learn. Me? I’m writing my next novel in emails.


  1. Congratulations on your winning the competition! I do agree with your curve. It's a funny business this writing business and, as with many worked on skills, an improvement or even a jump in one's competence is usually preceded by a plateau or even a slump. I attribute that to the hidden dialogue between our conscious and our unconscious (to me, all is born in the unconscious and takes a while before reaching the surface layer of the conscious -- that's my slant on it anyway!). Congrats again and enjoy! :-)

  2. First of all - CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!! How wonderful to win. Well done you - I'm in awe.

    And wise words indeed in the rest of your post. I do agree learning isn't a nice smooth curve - very stop-start. And, yes, a critical friend is an absoulte treasure for writers.

    So what now for the book?

  3. Huge congratulations, that's just such wonderful news!

  4. Thanks Anne, Joanna - so nice to have you folks drop by and visit! And thanks too for your positivity and support across the last year or so. Glad you enjoyed the post :-)