Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Interlude: We've Got an Elephant!

Some writers seem to understand shape at some preconscious level. It’s in their damn DNA, it’s so deep. Ian Rankin talks quite openly about being his detective in first drafts – he has no idea where the story is going; he discovers things at the same time as Rebus. But the result is shapely and satisfying nonetheless.

Me? Most days it feels like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

At its worst, it feels like if I can screw up the structure of a story, I will. To use an analogy: I’ll pitch a beautifully sculpted elephant, then deliver a camel and a heartfelt apology. And my editors have to patiently unpick it all. (Thought about taking those humps off? What about adding a trunk? Plus – just asking Fletch – can we bulk this baby out a bit?)

Eventually, it looks sorta elephantine. But it’s miles away from the thing I first conceived.

Imagine my relief, then, when I saw this:

Thank you, Maureen McHugh. Thank you Austin Kleon. And most of all, a massive thank you to my editors. We’ve got an elephant at last. 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Water and Ice

A post that first appeared on the very splendid Author Allsorts website.

There’s this thing about writing and liquid – people talk about the writing process like we’ve each got some sort of creative plumbing system, and it’s either running smoothly or mis-firing. When things are going well, we say the words ‘flow’, as if all our valves and chambers are flooding beautifully, and when the process slows or stops, we say the words have ‘dried up’ or worse still, that we’re ‘blocked’.

I guess one of the reasons I don’t ever worry about or experience ‘writer’s block’ is because I don’t particularly subscribe to this metaphor of flow or block in the first place. This isn’t an act of will on my part; even on a subconscious level I don’t ever consider the creative process in terms of water.

Unless it’s frozen water, that is.

I was struck recently by American sitcom writer and comedian Amy Poehler’s much more revealing comparison that writing is like hacking icefrom the inside of a fridge with a screwdriver. Now this is way more my line of thinking. Poehler’s image emphasises hard work over ease; dogged persistence ‘chipping away’ over effortless ‘flow’.

So my advice in short? Don’t believe in writer’s block, and suddenly, it doesn’t exist.

Instead, writing becomes a process that requires effort and optimism. Sit down at your desk with a song in your heart, friends. And as you spend a few moments contemplating the task ahead of you, try the following:

  • Don’t write in sequence. Save a killer scene for those days when hacking ice feels like it isn’t much fun. Avoid death-by-chronology.
  • Jump the problem. Put a long “…………….” for that particularly tough icy outcrop, and carry on as if you’d already dealt with it. (Tip: Don’t then submit your mss having totally forgotten to sort it out. Been there, done that.)
  • If you don’t fancy the piece you’re hacking at, switch to a scene with lots of dialogue. Tune-in to everyday talk and write. You chip away at lots that way.
  • Use ‘The Ten Minute Rule’. It a psychological trick that goes like this: “This section is really hard and I can’t see how to hack through it. So I’ll write something – any damn thing, without any critical assessment – for just ten minutes. Then I’ll stop.” I’ve done this a whole load of times – and found myself returning to reality half an hour later, the ten-minute curfew totally forgotten, with a bunch of words. Which is a bunch better than nothing. (Tip: This one works even better with headphones on, and playlist cued up.)
  • Hack out the final scene of your novel, right now this moment. If you’ve never considered your final scene, this can be fun. If the actual problem is your final scene, sit yourself down and watch the last five minutes of five great movies, then read the last five pages of five great novels, then try the ten-minute rule.

Or finally…

  • Write a scene you know will not be in the novel, but will appear in a lavishly-illustrated fully expanded ‘director’s cut’ version of the book that one day will be greeted with rapturous critical acclaim, sell millions and keep you in beer and sandwiches for the rest of your days.  

Monday, 23 March 2015

Magical Thinking: The Tyre, Mud, Two Kids, Rules of Summer

When I meet distant acquaintances who know me as ‘that guy who wrote a kids' book’, they politely enquire after book two. “Writing another?” they say.
I say yes.
“Is it for kids again?” they say. (There’s an implication here, and it’s “Are you going to do a proper book next? One for grown-ups?”)
The answer: Yes, it’s for kids. I love writing for young people. I’m having a blast.

This post is an attempt to weigh and measure what it is about writing children’s fiction that’s so exciting. I hope you’ll check out the four texts mentioned; you probably know them – each in some way captures the same magic about what it is to be a child or young adult, and what, by extension, it is about writing stories for and about children that is so magical.

Next time anyone asks, I’ll tell them this:

The Tyre is a poem by Simon Armitage, based on a childhood memory of finding a huge abandoned tractor tyre up on the moors above Meltham and, along with a gang of mates, lifting it upright and rolling it across moorland and onto the road. Once on tarmac the tyre accelerates, breaks free of its captors, and rolls over the lip of the hill down towards a nearby village. Terrified, the kids chase it, imagining a trail of devastation. Instead?  

…down in the village the tyre was gone,
and not just gone but unseen and unheard of,
not curled like a cat in the graveyard, not
cornered in the playground like a reptile,
or found and kept like a giant fossil.
Not there or anywhere. No trace. Thin air.

Being more in tune with the feel of things
than science and facts, we knew that the tyre
had travelled too fast for its size and mass,
and broken through some barrier of speed,
outrun the act of being driven, steered,
and at that moment gone beyond itself
towards some other sphere, and disappeared.

That’s why, incredulous-bloke-at-party. That’s why.
Researcher’s-friend Wikipedia tells me that, Magical thinking is the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.” Neat. Childhood not only gives permission for magical thinking, but positively encourages it. There’s pretty much no other kind at all at that age.

Want some more magical thinking, some – as Armitage puts it – being in touch with the feel of things? Try these:

Mud is a coming-of-age drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. There’s a boat high up in a tree, two boys called Ellis and Neckbone, and a superb central performance from Matthew McConaughey.
Two Kids is a song by Anais Mitchell. Dad has “plenty of Campbells and beers in the basement” in case at some point in the future, no-one can leave the house. The kid’s just trying to figure out why. It’s borderline-heartbreaking and beautifully conceived.

And Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer is a list of lessons learned, like this one:
"Never forget the password" is the rule printed neatly in the centre of the left-hand page.
Damn right, because through those doors is a realm of magic, mystery and unspeakable wonder.
A lot like childhood, I guess.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Sound of Missed Deadlines

A few days ago, the wonderful Chicken House announced the shortlist of their Children’s Fiction Competition. I wish everyone on that list the very best of luck. I’m a huge fan of the competition, and with good reason; I won it in 2013.

But the shortlisting process this year reminded me of a particular day back in 2011. It was a memory I’d pretty much let go, and it came back in a rush of anguish and frustration.

Here’s the tale. It was deadline weekend for the Chicken House competition and I was still working on a book that at the time was called Sleepwell and Fly. It was a bit of a ragged young tyke – an ugly street-urchin of a story – but I was happy with it and keen to get it delivered. Sticking an 80,000 word manuscript in the post and sending it to Frome in Somerset is no straightforward task. It costs a few quid, and you need a working post office.

So why had I chosen that particular weekend to take off for a break in Derbyshire I don’t know. I had the book with me. I had a super-strong envelope and a fist full of first class stamps. I went for a long walk with my girl, had a pint in the afternoon, unwinding after a tough time at work. The footy results started coming in; the sky darkened and the sun went down.

Then it hit me full in the face. Bloody hell. There was nowhere I could post the frickin’ manuscript. It was too big for a post box. The post offices were closed. Tomorrow was Sunday. Then it was deadline day.

I lost the plot. I swore and raged at my own stupidity. I cursed and paced. Then I went all broody and silent and furious. I ruined the rest of the weekend, barely able to live with myself. The following week or two was just as gloomy. I was horrible.

About a month later I had the courage to return to the story. I pulled it out of its envelope and started reading. Two things happened almost simultaneously. The first: I started wincing at the prose. Christ, I thought. This is clunky. Ouch. I began tweaking it. Second: I had a couple of ideas. Hang on, I remember thinking. If I just add this character; chop this section… you get the picture.

The year after, I submitted the manuscript, three weeks or so before the deadline.

These words have been typed here before but I guess they bear repeating: I’ve made these mistakes so you don’t have to.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015


Dial-a-Song was an answer-phone song-service set up by John Flansburgh and John Linnell in New York in 1983. They had a scratchy lo-fi college band called They Might Be Giants and at the time, it was faltering. Flansburgh had his apartment burgled and a bunch of his kit lifted; Linnell broke his wrist in a bike accident. They wouldn’t be touring anytime soon, but needed to stay current and present. This was their solution.

Basically, if you called a Brooklyn number; (718) 387-6962 to be exact, an answering machine played back a song in the place of an outgoing message, via a cassette tape. Flansburgh and Linnell recorded demos, jingles, experiments and rough cuts of studio tracks onto cassettes and then queued them into the machine so they’d rotate. Then they’d drop fliers, place magazine and newspaper adverts, and wait for the calls to come in.

Only one person could call at a time (one of the Dial-a-Song slogans was, “Always busy, often broken”) and this made the experience curiously personal.

From where I’m sitting, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the whole Dial-a-Song idea.

First, as Ira Glass says, “Put yourself on a deadline.” These guys excelled at keeping busy. I’m writing this now partly because They Might Be Giants have recently announced the service is to re-open. The details are here. Every Tuesday in 2015, there’ll be a new song.

Second; a joyous, rough-around-the-edges prototype that’s shared with others and reaps the rewards of feedback beats a polished to near-perfection masterpiece that stays in a drawer any day of the week. Get your stuff out there.

Third, there’s the discipline of restriction at work here. The medium closes down creative possibilities. Flansburgh has talked recently here about how the band width was so tiny, and the audio so poor, that Dial-a-Song compositions could only have a voice – always weirdly high in the mix – and a couple of instruments, max. Nothing else. Counter-intuitively, shutting down your options helps.

And fourth? Flansburgh used to sit in his apartment listening to the calls come in. Some people would give whatever new song was on there fifteen seconds, then hang up. “That,” says Flansburgh, “was the cruelest thing about Dial-a-Song. This is a very cruel business,” he goes on. “It takes a lot to hold people’s interest.” Learning that lesson day after day in the most bruising way must have been hard. As a schoolkid I used to call the service from my mate’s house – my Mum wouldn’t let me call a New York number – and listen in. I remember once I had to hang up half way through a tune cause my pal’s mum came home from work unexpectedly early. Odd to think Flansburgh might have been on the other end of that call, fretting.

Forged as it was back then in trying circumstances and against the odds, the story of the Dial-a-Song service is a fascinating one, not least for its triumph-in-adversity narrative.
I for one will be tuning in on coming Tuesdays.