Growing Down – Thinking Like Young Children

On a flight from London to Nice, I came across this article in the inflight magazine and it got me thinking… Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking like a Toddler.

It was a review of a book written by Paul Lindley, entrepreneur and founder of Ella’s Kitchen, the company who make those colourful food pouches for tots.

Anything that helps me get into the mind of a pre-schooler before writing is useful. I’m forty something and my children aren’t that small anymore, though we still all love picture books.

Paul Lindley’s approach also made me think a lot more determinedly about how to develop and sell my children’s books and how to get the attention of publishers.

Paul Lindley says: If you think like you did when you were a small child, a load of opportunities open up, because when you were that small child, everything was new, there were no rules and you worked things out yourself.

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He then goes on to list nine ways toddlers think and behave that are a useful perspective for entrepreneurs, and rather helpful for writers too.

CONFIDENCE

Toddlers make their minds up quickly; they are confidant about who they are and what they want to do. And they don’t worry about what people think. They aren’t distracted by second thoughts.

Wouldn’t it be to wonderful to think like that

 And when you are doing something that no one has done before (such as write your book) you need confidence and self-assurance. Because there is going to be a lot of people telling you, you can’t do it than you can.

So true.

GET NOTICED

This is what toddlers do best. They are masters of grabbing attention and getting their message across. They use many strategies.

 I don’t think Paul Lindley literally means jumping up and down and screaming, I can’t imagine many editors being impressed with that, but more the essence of it – being persistent, keeping your message simple, trying different methods until you and your book get noticed.

BE CREATIVE

At the age of 2, 98% of us think divergently, which is a measure of creativity, and by the time we’re 25 it’s 2% (stats: Ken Robinson).

Growing up, Lindley states, kills creativity. Toddlers are life’s great experimenters, always trying new things, giving them a go. They defy convention, they don’t know it exists. And sometimes by doing things differently, they achieve what the rules could never have led them to.

oliverjeffersstuck1 The picture book Stuck, by Oliver Jeffers, sprang to mind. A kite is stuck in a tree. How will the boy get it down? Convention states get a ladder, but when that doesn’t work the boys gets rather creative.

Children’s books should break conventions and snigger at them a bit too.

 BE HONEST

Young children have a bracing, sometimes hilarious honesty… without any fear of the consequences.

As we grow we develop filters, we learn what people want us to say, we tell little white lies to keep the peace, it’s easier to stick to the quid pro quo.  The problem with this is, we stop saying, Why? and What if? – the fundamental questions of creativity.

DIVE RIGHT IN

Toddlers live in the now. They have no past and they don’t really understand the future. So, although their attention spans may be relatively short, when they are in the moment, they are really in it, they dive straight in with gusto. They have no fear of failure.

So, next time you have a light bulb moment and feel the buzz of inspiration – write it, draw it, develop it and develop it. Don’t let learned practicality and doubt pause your creativity.

NEVER GIVE UP

Toddlers are determined because they have to be, says Lindley. They know nothing and suddenly they can walk, talk, smile, hold a conversation…And they can do all these things because they have failed lots and lots of times.

Stoicism about rejection letters springs to mind here. And also, an attitude of, if this idea doesn’t work, never mind, I’ll work on it until it does, and if it still doesn’t work, then I’ll come up with a better idea and a better idea, until one day something sticks.

 HAVE FUN

Having fun is a toddler’s job. They explore the world through imagination and play, and they are very clear about what does and doesn’t interest them. If it isn’t fun they won’t do it.

Roald Dahl had similar sentiments and a fantastic sense of outrageous fun.

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 “Matilda said, “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it’s unbelievable…” 
― Roald DahlMatilda

I hear so many creative people say, it feels frivolous to spend time sketching or brainstorming plots with multi-coloured pencils and sticky notes, because it doesn’t feel like work. But Lindley says, play fosters the ability to think differently.

 Sometimes desks and computers are the last places we should hang out. Switching environments (I love museums and bookshops) and colourful writing/drawing media always helps me think creatively.

SHOW YOUR FEELINGS

Whether it is a tantrum or uncontrolled excitement, we always know how toddlers feel.

Publishers look for authors who can enthusiastically convey their passion for their story not just on paper, but in person on the publicity trail.

INVOLVE OTHERS

Toddlers are naturally open and trusting. Their ability to make new friends and learn from them puts the most accomplished professional workers to shame.

Although creativity and drafting are solo occupations, there comes a point in the writing process where you can no longer go it alone. Whether it’s professional guidance, or a crit. group,  diversity of opinion on your manuscript and writing style is essential for perspective and improvement.

And it’s rather lovely to have writing friends too. Lots of them. The more the better!

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Little Wins: The Huge Power of Thinking Like a Toddler by Paul Lindley is published by Portfolio Penguin

 

 

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Six Reasons to Write a Story Map

Despite attending writing classes, which herald the benefits of properly planning a novel, I still dive straight in, ‘pantsing it,’ with only a broad three act overview and a couple of character portraits. Why? Because I’m enthused. I have the dramatic first few scenes in my head and I want to get them down on paper before they become diluted by doubt or distraction. There’s nothing like a good start – or so I think.

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So 15,000 words into my second novel, a middle grade children’s fantasy set in today’s contemporary world with a parallel fantasy world, I get writers block. And not just for a day or a week but many weeks. My word count shrivels to a pathetic few hundred a day. I write, rewrite, rejig, leave it, come back to it and repeat (there are more words on my cuttings page than in the manuscript). I still love my story, I know there’s something charming about the idea, but I’m fed up. I’ve lost my flow and doubt I can write chapters. Perhaps I should stick to picture books and short stories. Maybe novels aren’t for me.

Crit groups are rather good at providing perspective (and a timely kick up the rear). Fellow SCBWI’s pointed out: my action was great, my fantasy world had potential BUT (there’s always a BUT) my world lacked specifics and my heroine didn’t know who she was, both literally and metaphorically, so neither did the reader.

I had to admit what I already knew deep down; I could only ‘pants it’ so far – it was time to write a proper story plan.

The very first question I asked myself was:

1.What kind of story am I writing?

A fantasy adventure, I thought. Hmmm. Turns out there’s more than one kind. I flicked through Ronald Tobias’s, 20 Plots & How To Build Them (Readers Digest), and discovered that my story borrows elements from a Quest, Adventure, Pursuit and Discovery plot. And to make matters even more confusing my story is a potential trilogy, therefore, should there be an overriding plot and different individual book plots? Common sense suggests, yes. The first book, on closer inspection, is an adventure pursuit plot. My heroine is running away at the beginning of each act, headlong into even more trouble, and there is also an overarching goal of personal discovery – she’s trying to find out who she really is. Pursuit plots work best when there are lots of unexpected twists and turns, and the purser, or his/her emissaries, should always feel close behind, which keeps tension tight. This gave me a basic structure and style to work to.

2. Every scene is complex and every paragraph, sentence and word should moves the plot forward.

Spreadsheets aren’t my favourite piece of software due to many years looking at company budgets, but they do force orderliness and empty boxesimages-6 scream:

HERE’S A GAP IN YOUR THINKING!

There’s also the dining room wall and lots of sticky notes, but I’m worried about children tampering with it or a puff of wind scattering them, so spreadsheets it is. I am also told Scrivener is very good and this in on my Christmas list.

So how to build your story map:

List chapters/scenes in the vertical cells. Separate them into three acts.

Horizontally, across the top, list all the things a sensible writer needs to consider in every scene. Here are the headings I use for each column. Adapt to suit.

  • Chapters/Scene title
  • Word Count
  • Plot summary (Briefly)
  • Editor’s notes (detail changes/things to check in next draft)
  • Setting
  • Character (list)
  • Reveals – signposts/clues/info (pacing exposition is crucial for tension)
  • Chapter/scene arc – three acts (cause/action>>> effect/emotional fallout>>>decision)
  • Conflict/tension – (should include change of polarity within scene e.g happy opening>>> tense ending.)
  • Hero’s character arc (growth/change)
  • Secondary character(s) story arc or notes
  • Meaning and symbolism

Suffice to say, it’s a lot easier to draft and edit a manuscript if all the important elements are listed and of course the map evolves as you write and rewrite.

3. Do you really know your world?

  • What does it look like?
  • What are the beliefs/values of your world?
  • What’s its history and law?
  • Who are its leaders: – religious – political – scientific – economic?
  • Does it have a different language or original/quirky phraseimages-12s or sayings?

I cannot recommend storyboards, paper or digital (pinterest), enough. We cannot feasibly visit and know all our locations, especially if they are only loosely based on reality. There is some beautiful photography and fantasy art on the Internet – endless free inspiration! You can also build mood boards for key scenes.

4. Do you really know ALL your characters?

Categorise them into:

  • Protagonists/POV characters
  • Allies
  • Antagonists – primary and secondary
  • Mentor
  • Ambiguous (good turns bad or vice-versa)
  • Subordinate/minor characters (friend or foe) that inhabit the world and make it feel real.

After I finished my story map, I listed all my characters and summarised their plot purpose. I have 21 characters, 14 have more than one scene and are important to the plot. I have two POV characters, therefore, I need to consider their understanding and reaction to all the other characters they come into contact with in the context of each scene, as well as each other. In addition, I need to map secondary characters behaviour with each other. This is why I got stuck. I simply hadn’t appreciated the number and complexity of these relationships.

Start a second excel sheet and name it ‘characters.’ List their relationship and attitude, e.g. Captain of the Guards, subordinate to King, loyal, brave, blinkered, will use blunt force, but not a brute.

Casting and interviewing your characters, finding pictures of them and including clothing and personal props, really helps to bring them alive. And it’s good fun.

Another blog post about interviewing characters will shortly follow this one.

5. Have you considered your sequel, series or prequel?

If we spend a lot of time world and character building, it’s a shame not to put all that research and effort to good use again. Drop in unresolved sub plots, interesting secondary characters or other dimensions that can be later explored. Tolkien and J.K Rowling knew how their series was going to end and the broad theme of each book, before they finished writing the first instalment. Use the different sheets in Excel to build a story arc for each book.

6. Clarity of pitch and positioning

In a covering letter, an editor will want to know what kind of book they are about to read. Clarity of purpose leads to clary of pitch, and a story map will also help you write a tight synopsis.

Best wishes and happy mapping.

Notes from the London Book Fair

 

I went on the Tuesday and Thursday this year using the SCBWI members three day ticket. Fellow SCBWI’s have been asking if the Fair is worth it and I would say, yes, if you are gearing up for submission, if you want to meet/hear/talk to well known authors and publishers and if you want to find out about new releases and the publishing world in general.

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Little Tiger stand, The Children’s Hub @LBF

There are agents and editors about but unless you know them or have pre-booked the 15 minute pitch slots, it’s unlikely you’ll get time with them. Their priority is selling rights and networking, not new authors. Having said that, I did manage to get 20 minutes with an editor I’ve been having an email conversation with about one of my stories. It is always good to put names to faces.

YA & MEG ROSOFF

Meg is one of my favourite authors and I found her in the Penn Literary Salon talking about writing and her new adult screwball comedy, Jonathan Unleashed. Meg has also just won the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Prize for her YA novels and deservedly so, her characters are quirky and original, and she is superb at first person voice.

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Meg Rosoff: Winner of the 2016 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Meg says she “writes on the edge of reality, where the strange might happen,” weaves into her stories the two big questions teens and young adults are preoccupied with. Will anybody love me? and What will I do with my life?

She says her stories reflect her “cape crusader personality”. She believes in “being good in an unconventional way,” and that life is not about finding happiness, “it’s about being useful and being loved.”

She spends a lot of her day thinking and a small part writing and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until her characters resonate.

Seminar Notes: The Power of Pictures: Working with Picture Book Creators in Primary Schools.

I stumbled upon this talk and I’m so glad I did!

This is a three year Arts Council funded project, from Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where nine author illustrators have worked alongside teachers to help them understand the creative process that goes into writing picture books. The teachers use this experience to support the children in their classes to become better readers and writers. Author/illustrators taking part included Mini Grey, Nicola Davies, Alexis Deacon and Benji Davies.

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“Good picture books are complex”

Charlotte Hacking, the CLPE programme leader, demonstrated the complexity of the picture books chosen and how they communicate subtle layers of meaning through: body language, expression, line of vision, background, context, colour, page breaks, page turns, rhythms and rhymes, the contrast between words and pictures, and so on.

With a teacher or parent’s support, picture books not only entertain children, they encourage them to use their imagination, organise their thoughts and look for deeper meaning in stories. When children engage fully with a story it can help them learn life skills; one of the most important is EMPATHY.

The CLPE aren’t the only ones thinking like this. Agents/editors are currently seeking picture books that feature a life lesson, e.g. loss, worries, standing up for yourself, finding love, etc. Take a look at the latest SCBWI Slush pile challenge; this is exactly what Helen from Bell Lomax Moreton wants.

I asked the sales reps at some of the  children’s publisher stands: “What’s selling well in picture books at the moment – in the UK and aboard?”

And guess what! Books with a life lesson, stories that make children think, stories that evoke emotion and resonate with both children and adults do, and importantly, they must be humourous.

And bonus! They export well, especially in the Far East’s growing markets.

There was a lot of talk about picture books being relevant to ALL ages. Why do we frown on 7+ year old children reading picture books and push novels on them as soon as possible? Charlotte Hacking advocates breadth of reading for all ages: magazines, digital, comics, picture books and novels, because, “breadth of reading builds reading stamina for life.” 

Seminar: The Future of Children’s Publishing

In this later session, there was a warning and an opportunity. Children’s market are still growing, buoyed in part by adults buying children’s books (seeking what they loved as a child and recognizing the great new writing in this market) and super child readers (from affluent middleclass backgrounds) who are consuming more than their weight in books. Overall though, children of 6+ years are spending less time reading due to digital platforms (YouTube and Apps) becoming more accessible and more attractive. Ensuring diversity and breadth of appeal in children’s publishing is key and creative concepts, which can cross formats are a real opportunity.

INSPIRING AUTHORS

I also attended talks by crime author Peter James, children’s writer Judith Kerr, and watched a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel event called the Write Stuff where five brave authors pitched their novels to agents.

Listening to them talk, it was obvious that successful authors pour their life experiences and passions into their books. Peter James enjoys accompanying the police on raids and his real life tales are every bit as fascinating as his fictional ones.

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Peter James, crime writer

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Judith Kerr, 93

Judith Kerr’s novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, was based on her childhood experiences as a jewish refugee narrowly escaping Nazi persecution. The winner of the Write Stuff pitched a book about the fallout of a relationship after a soldier arrived home from a conflict zone, psychologically damaged and irrevocably changed. Both the author and her husband have been deployed in the Middle East and it was a story she needed to tell.

This kind of passion is catching and inspiring and sells lots of books.

Lastly, here’s my pile of children’s publisher catalogues featuring current lists and what’s debuting spring and autumn this year!

I wonder what the gaps in the market are…..

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How to write fantastic descriptive passages

Part 1. Places

We’ve had lots of conversations in my critique group lately about how to describe places and people.

So I thought I would check out how children’s greatest and best authors tackle it, starting with place…

Here’s an extract from…

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman.

imagesDirectly ahead of the ship a mountain rose, green-flanked and snow-capped, and a little town and harbour lay below it: wooden houses with steep roofs, an oratory spire, cranes in the harbour, and clouds of gulls wheeling and crying. The smell was of fish, but mixed with it came the land-smell too: pine-resin and earth and something animal and musky, and something else that was cold and blank and wild: it might have been snow. It was the smell of the North.

Isn’t he a master at painting scenes with words!

The passage is packed with detail. He starts by describing what Lyra can see from the deck of the ship and then he explores the smell of the place, slowly, so we are standing right next to Lyra tasting the air with her, trying to identify that part new, part familiar smell. The description also conveys a sense of Lyra’s anticipation and excitement. She has finally arrived in the North.

Also check out the punctuation. He uses a mixture of colons, commas and the conjunction ‘and’ to structure the scene. This variation prevents the passage from feeling blocky. He has also achieved a rhythmical quality with lots of doubled-up descriptions e.g. “green-flanked and snow capped,” “wooden houses and steep roofs,” “pine-resin and earth.” It’s a lovely passage to read aloud.

The Way We Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

images-3This short passage is from an early scene when Daisy arrives at her aunt’s farm jetlagged and overwhelmed. It’s appropriately short, as Daisy literally can’t take everything in. Rosoff describes the farm and its inhabitants in one broad sweep to reflect her character’s mood.

There was a welcoming committee staring at me through the window and in it were four kids, and a goat and a couple of dogs…and in the background I saw some cats scooting around after a bunch of ducks that for some reason or other were hanging out on the lawn.

A few pages later, when Daisy’s had a chance to explore, Meg Rosoff lets her pen flow.

First let’s get it clear that the house is practically falling down, but for some reason that doesn’t seem to make any difference to how beautiful it is. It’s made of big chunks of yellowish stone, and has a steep roof, and is shaped like an L around a big courtyard with fat pebbles set in the ground. The short part of the L has a wide arched doorway and it used to be the stable, but now it’s the kitchen and it’s huge, with zigzag brick floors and big windows all across the front and a stable door that’s left open, Whenever it’s not actually snowing, says Edmond….

 Daisy has a wonderful voice and it’s a neat technique, having your main character give the reader a tour of the house and grounds. A benefit of first person POV.

The passage goes on for two pages, which tells us that Daisy is curious by nature and rather enjoying her change of scene.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J.K Rowling.

I have to include Harry Potter because it haHarry Potter landscapes such iconic imagery and fantasy settings are the product of the author’s imagination, so in theory tougher for the writer to convey. What’s particularly interesting about the The Philosopher’s Stone, and typical of J.K Rowling’s style as a whole, are the scattered short descriptive passages. Individually they’re not terribly clever. They don’t have the poetic quality of Philip Pullman or the voice of Meg Rosoff’s, Daisy; but J.K Rowling works another trick here. She weaves her description around the character’s action and dialogue so cleverly, the reader feels as if the story is unfolding in its entirety in front of their eyes. A cinematic quality, which perhaps is the reason the books are so popular with such a wide range of readers.

“Yeh’ll ger yers firs’ sight o’ Hogwarts in a sec,’ Hagrid called over his shoulder, ‘jus’ round this bend here. There was a loud ‘Oooooh!’ The narrow path had opened suddenly on to the edge of a black lake. Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its window sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and windows.  ‘No more’n four to a boat,’ Hagrid called, pointing to a fleet of little boats sitting in the water by the shore.

Checkout that structure! Dialogue/characterisation (with a touch of foreshadowing),then action, reaction, place description, dialogue and place description again.  Great storytelling!

So five things to remember:

  • Show’ a place from the character’s viewpoint (not the author’s). A character’s mood and ability to observe/feel their surroundings can change considerably from scene to scene.
  • Detail, detail detail! Pin sharp detail makes a place seem real. A great setting can influence the mood of your protagonist and set a mood for the whole book. Know your setting’s quirks like you know the quirks of your characters.
  • Utilise all the senses. Authors rely far too much on sight.
  • Think about the descriptive words you use and the structure of your sentences. Similes, metaphors, rhythm and repetition can massively enhance a descriptive passage, as can active verbs and well placed adjectives, and yes, even the odd helpful adverb.
  • Don’t write your descriptive passages in a great lump of prose unless you are very skilled at all the above techniques, in which case, you may be excused as “being literary.”

Next post: How to write fantastic description – Part 2. People