Monday, 28 October 2013

Mastering Middle Grade

 Yesterday I attended my very first SCBWI masterclass and lucky me, it was run by the wonderful Sara O Connor from Hot Key Books.

 Twenty eager scooby people turned up at the Theodore Bullfrog Pub in Charing Cross hoping for a practical workshop on writing the best middlegrade fiction and that's exactly what we got!

 For those of you who couldn't join us Sara has very kindly allowed me to blog about the day, so here we go, Halfway to the Middle by Sara O Connor.

We started off by looking at the basics -

 How do you define Middle Grade?

1. Age of the main character (between 10 and 13 usually)

2. Level of violence (do what you want to monsters etc but not so much with people) and romance (not beyond hand holding)

3. Length (around 40 000 words)

4. Contains innocence and optimism and isn't cynical

5. Earnest with a sense of justice.

 We then moved onto talking about character and Sara encouraged us to find our inner ten year old. Most importantly;

Do Not Condescend or Underestimate 

Make sure there is Authentic Depth to your character - 
Know what they Want, Think and Need  
Ensure there is True Motivation.

Writing Exercise One -
Read your first two pages - what do you learn about character? Underline everything you learn about them.
(Remember - Physical description isn't character - we need to find out what they believe, see authentic motivation for the plot as early as possible.)
If we don't find out enough, why not? Is backstory or secondary characters getting in the way?

Remember the Less is More adage. Everything you tell your reader must be worth it!
Imagine that your reader has to carry a backpack from page one to the end of the story. The backpack holds everything you tell your reader so make sure they NEED to carry it.
If they don't need it - CUT IT OUT and remember small details often matter most.

Writing Exercise Two

To make space for the essential details go through your first page and CUT twenty unnecessary words.
(Yes, 20 words!)
Now Cut twenty more. (Yes I know, it's hard. We moaned as well but No Pain No Gain!)

Main Character Essentials

We have to love them in order to want to spend the next however many pages with them. 
They need Conviction - we have to believe in them and what they want and need.
Their Motivation must be in sync with the plot.
They must be in the drivers seat, make decisions and drive the plot forward.

For more help with this Sara suggested we check out the Carnegie Shadowing site and specifically Roddy Doyle talking about Greyhound Girl.

Writing Exercise  Three
Ask yourself these questions;
What is the first thing your character does that will make the reader care about them? (how early or late does it happen?)
Why should the reader want to be your main character? (reading is aspirational)
What is memorable about your main character in the first chapter?
What is the worst thing that could ever happen to them?
What is the one thing they will do anything to avoid admitting to themselves or others?

Sara used examples from published books and participants submissions to highlight her points and the whole group was buzzing over lunch as Sara's ideas inspired us all to think differently about our work.

Plot Basics

Plot should be inseparable from character.
Plot should be because of character.
Ask big questions to develop the plot.
Ask questions again and again - how far will your character go to get what they want?
Each answer should complicate your plot and test your character.
Don't force it! You can't make people do what you want and you can't overlay plot onto character.
Create the situation bring in your character and see how they react.

Before the workshop Sara asked us to write a two line chapter summary that gave the most important points. It was a really useful way to get the whole picture of your novel and check whether the following points all work.

Each chapter should be able to lead on to the next with the word because not and then.
Each chapter should move the story on in terms of plot or character. If it doesn't - Cut It!
With each chapter get in late and leave early.
Remember your backpack and make sure only the essentials are going in.

Writing Exercise Four
Write a two line summary chapter summary for your book.
Now cut out three chapters.
(Don't shout at me, Sara made me do it!)
 Our last instruction came in terms of making our story meaningful in some way. 
We talked about the Obligatory Scene which should almost have been set up in the early chapters. It is what readers have been expecting from the beginning and therefore it MUST happen!

Writing Exercise Five
 Do you have your obligatory scene?
Does your protagonist meet the antagonist?
How does the scene change both characters?
Is it the biggest, best scene in the book?
Where does it occur? Would a different setting make it more dramatic?
If the scene isn't as good as it could be look at the buildup before.

And here's what Sara thinks makes great middle grade -

Brilliant idea
Vivid characters
Don't condescend.
Make it meaningful.
Embrace revision.
Have fun! 

I want to thank Sara for giving such a great masterclass. Everything in it was useful and can be applied to my w.i.p so I'm very glad I came along and as always I had a brilliant day with my fellow scoobies and the very lovely Sara!

If you found Sara's ideas useful and would like the chance to work more closely with Sara and three other great editors do check out her new venture Book Bound.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Big Book World

 As you know, if you read this blog regularly, I am often out at events for writers. The last few weeks have been particularly busy, culminating in the wonderful SCBWI agent party.
 As much as I enjoy going to these events I do occasionally wonder if it's actually worth going out in to the Big Book World and if I'd be better off staying in and, you know, writing.

 I decided it was worth analysing in more detail, what do I really gain by going to these events that justifies the amount of time, money and effort that I put in?

1. Connection with other writers.
You've heard it said before but writing really is a lonely business. At times the self doubt and the revising and the rejections are enough to send you quietly mad. Which is why I've put this as number one on my list. Going out and talking to others, finding out you're not alone, the giving and receiving of sympathy, the drinks, the chats, the laughs, the bonding of people who all want the same thing. Who all understand. It is priceless.

2. Pulling back the publishing curtain.
Like many writers when I first began to think about publication I was desperate to find out more. I trawled the internet, read blogs and books and tried my best to educate myself in the art of writing and submitting. The one thing that was really hard to find though was what the agents and editors were actually like.
 My first submissions were made using the Writers Handbook and based on a very short paragraph. It was hard to imagine them as real people and when the rejections came in it seemed as if they were the gatekeepers. Barring my way into publishing, stopping me achieving my dream.
 The first events I went to gave me the chance to see the people in the publishing world as actual human beings. All of the ones I've met, without exception, have been passionate about what they do, giving up their free time to attend events and talk to would be authors. They are unfailingly kind when we flub our pitches, they excuse our stammering attempts at conversation, they know how hard it is and they do our best to help.
 It  helped me understand that they are all looking for something fabulous and that what that was would differ from person to person. It enabled me to tailor my submissions, to prove that I was serious about what I was doing and to accept the rejections as a business situation, not a personal reflection of me.

 3. Managing Expectations
 Meeting with professionals and other writers has helped me understand so much more about the process, the hard work, the difficulties, the things that can go wrong.
 I know now just how long it could take to find an agent and get published, I know how much work is required, how much patience and perseverance. I understand much more about what's involved in being an author, the school visits, the deadlines, the marketing and social networking, the economic instability, the bad reviews, the bottom line.
 And I know that being published will not change my life. I will not become rich or famous. I will not be happy forever more.
 But somehow knowing all that and still wanting it makes me quite philosophical. I'm doing it for the love of it and that is a wonderful thing.

  Are there any downsides to going to events? Well, I'm not the most sociable person nor the most confident so I've had to push myself to talk to strangers, to pitch to agents, to mingle with the crowds. If anything though it's all been good for me. For example, my ability to converse with five agents at the last agent party with some modicum of dignity and to give a decent pitch at the same time is only because of the previous stuttered and embarrassing attempts of previous years.

 The other aspect that can be hard is that being at publishing events moves your focus from the actual writing to the process of submitting instead. It often makes me want to send things out even when they're not done, I feel rushed into submitting so I can make use of the contacts I've made. I feel pressure to just get on with it, to get published now damn it!
 I've learnt to my detriment that this is always a bad idea so now I refuse to give into the feeling and after a day or two it tends to fade and I can get back to writing.

 Overall then I'd say that going to events has helped much more than hindered. I've learnt huge amounts about writing, submitting and the mechanics of publishing. When I'm finally ready to go into my next round of submissions it will be with an understanding of what I'm doing, an idea of who might best be suited to not just my work but to me as a person and with a few hard earned personal contacts.

 Best of all though, because of the events I've gone to in the past I will have a group of people who will be there to help me through the inevitable rejections, to encourage me to keep going and to help me improve for next time. Best of all is knowing you're not alone.