Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Tough Luck by Nina Milton reaches Amazon top 45

Alison Bacon, author of A Kettle of Fish, and Shirley Wright, author of Time out of Mind, both published in the same stable as my own children's book TOUGH LUCK contacted me to ask me more about the book. I was delighted to tell them that the book Alison went on to wring these questions out of me...
What was the working title of your book?
This children’s novel for confident readers was originally called Bad Luck Dimesy, but everyone told me that this wasn’t urgent or specific enough; it didn’t tell the buyer anything about the story. So now it is called Tough Luck, which is emphasized right at the start of the first chapter...

Do you believe in luck? Coincidence, fate, any of that stuff? 

Before I knew Jake, I only believed in my own bad luck. The world and its mates were out to get me and mostly they succeeded.

Where did the idea come from?

An article in a Sunday supplement about people who have black ancestry and yet have, in the following generations, lost any physical trait of that side of themselves. They look white, or maybe tan easily. Some didn’t even know they had African or Afro-Caribbean ancestors. I thought this would be a fascinating subject for a novel; at that point I didn’t really think about using it for a children’s novel at all.

What genre does the book fall into?

It’s a book for children who are already confident in their reading, sometimes called 8+ (or 9+ in Waterstones). It’s a personal drama with historic aspects. My last novel for this age group, Sweet’n’Sour (HarperCollins) was a ‘time slip’ - the character finds himself ‘out of his own body and/or in some other place’. This is used in novels such as Stig of the Dump and Tom’s Midnight Garden and Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution. I wanted to do something a little different this time, but still use a historical aspect; in this story, the children discover things via a school project.

Which actors would you like to see play your main characters in the movie of your book?

Well, clearly they will be 13 year ideal opportunity for the acting profession to discover a new generation of Emmas, Ruperts and Daniels...

What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Brandon’s in deep with tough luck trouble – all because a conker fell on his head; there’s a gang out to get him and a mystery to solve, and Constable Webb is on his case, catching him out whatever he does...but getting to know Jake Silver reveals just what tough luck can really mean…

Will the book be self-published or represented by a traditional agency?

I’m delighted to say that ThornBerry Publishing has offered me a contract for this book, and that it will be the very first on their new Children’s List. I’m hoping that together, we can promote both the book and the new list!

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I did a lot of research for this story, mostly (and some of it was extremely difficult to read) the history of slavery in the Caribbean. It took me about 2 years, I think.

What other books would you compare yours to?

Keren David’s books in the first person are as gritty and realistic as well as being informative, although about different subjects.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Racism just doesn’t seem to go away. When I was younger, a bit older than Brandon, some of my friends were attacked in the way he is in the story, and I can remember at that time thinking that one day we would all live in peace in this country, but that just doesn’t seem to be happening, not completely, anyway.

What else about your book might pique a reader's interest?

Tough Luck is a modern adventure story, which allows its characters freedom to have exploits in the ‘real world’, to follow a ‘quest’, and to learn about the history of slavery. Brandon, a year 8 Bristolian boy of Afro-Caribbean extract, tells this story. He’s a bit of a maverick, and likes to be thought of as a joker, so the narrative style is upbeat and easy to read, even for children who are still struggling. The action begins quickly and builds into several peaks. The themes of the story are hard-hitting and effect children’s lives today. But most importantly, Brandon and his class mate Helen are feisty and energetic children, who come over on the page as kids you might want to get to know. During the book they grow through the discoveries they make within their story. Brandon is no lover of school work – he’s easily influenced by his friends and has trouble staying out of trouble. But despite his insistence that he is dogged by bad luck, telling us that us the reason he likes his friend Helen is because ‘she knows who she is’, the paradox is that as their adventures unfold, it is Brandon discovers how to be himself with growing confidence, while Helen has to rediscover her place in the world all over again.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Inspirational Move to Wales leads to Book Success

Embark on Nina Milton and you won’t stop reading…
(Naomi Lewis, Sunday Observer)

 I moved from Bristol to Ceredigion in west Wales a year or so ago with the desire to live simply, eating our own veggies and the eggs from our hens, and to enjoy the rolling green landscapes and slower pace of life. I also hoped it would inspire my writing, and that’s certainly been the case. Since arriving, I’ve divide time between the writing desk and the garden, not to mention our lively, ever expanding social life. Tranquil, yes, but boring? Not in our house.

 I’ve been concentrating on a number of projects since moving, and the first bears fruit today, with the publication of my latest book for older children. It’s out as an ebook today, Monday the 10th December, and already other writers are acclaiming it.
Jane Rogers,winner of this year's Arthur C. Clark award for her novel about a 16 year old girl, The Testament of Jesse Lamb, says of Tough Luck...Gripping storytelling – Brandon’s voice is strong and convincing, his world vividly imagined...

 Tough Luck is for kids who are becoming confident readers, and is the story of Brandon, a 13 year-old boy who’s tough luck always leads him in into trouble. There’s a gang out to get him, and a mystery to solve, and Constable Webb is on his case, catching him out whatever he does. All because a conker fell on his head! But when Brandon and his class mate Helen get to know Jake Silver, a slave boy from the eighteenth century, they learn just what tough luck can really mean…

 Jean Burnett, historic author (Who Needs Mr Darcy? published by Sphere) says; Tough Luck is a multi-cultural fable, a painless history lesson, and very good fun.  A first rate young adult read...

 Tough Luck is set in my home city of Bristol and deals with powerful themes, especially racism, belonging and of course, luck! Through Brandon’s and Helen’s eye, the reader enters the world of children growing up in a tough city today, but also the world of a child who was growing up as a black slave two hundred years ago. Tough Luck is out from ThornBerry Publishing as an ebook available on Kindle and other ebook media from 10th December.You can buy it via the link :

 When sales are established, it will also come out as a paperback.

My previous novel for older children is Sweet’n’Sour published by HarperCollins. It is available now as a paperback from Amazon.  

Thank you, everyone who has endorsed the book; I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it. Now I’m asking all my friends and acquaintances to download Tough Luck onto their Kindle, Ipad or whatever, and leave a review on Amazon if you possibly can, as my writing compatriot, Shirley Wright,  author of Time out of Mind (also published byThornberry) already has....
An engaging and moving novel, Tough Luck tackles issues that confront most teenagers today. Drawing upon Bristol’s dark history of the slave trade, this story of inner-city racial tensions challenges children to think about the ability of individuals to make their own luck and so change the future...

Don’t forget, with Christmas coming up, Tough Luck will make a great gift for screen-keen kids of around 8 to 13, and, with its low price and even lower postage costs, it won’t break the bank. Just contact me on if you would like me to ‘sign’ the book via email.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Samuel Johnson...Quote of the Month

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can get information upon it...

Do you keep a Miscellany File? What’s in it?  What is it? And where do you keep it?

Johnson was quite right (which is just as well, because he generally did think he was right!), if you know where to get the information you need, your research is halfway done. Which is where a miscellany file comes in, because sometimes (quite often, really), writers don’t actually know what they’ll need to know or even what they want to  write about until it jumps out at them. 

Think about this. I was skimming through the Sunday supplements one afternoon (not necessarily on Sunday of course...) and was absorbed by an article on genetic history....the story of people who’d discovered that they have ancestors that don’t belong to the cultural, social, national or even racial group they always imagined they were part of. I cut it out, for no better reason than it was interesting, and as a writer, I keep things that are interesting. 

I put it into my Miscellany File.

Months later, I came across it and started to write a story about this subject. I researched it closely, battled on,  finished it, submitted it, and on the 10th of December, it will be story for 9+ children called Tough Luck. 

Thank you - Miscellany File!

A Miscellany File is a store of incidental items that a writer might find useful, informative or inspiring in time to come...a collection of  ‘miscellaneous’ cuttings…pages from magazines or printouts from the, postcards, business cards, pamphlets, maps, CDs & DVDs. Collecting incidental items is what a miscellany file is all about. 

A Miscellany File is useful in two main respects:
  1. Sparks of inspiration – save anything and everything that might get you writing
  2. Research material - if you know what you are interested in writing about, search out cuttings on specific subjects. If you don’t know what you’re planning to write, keep things that attract your attention.
Get into the habit of collecting ideas in this way, and leaving them in the file for however long it takes for them to brew-up into something you might want to write about – this might be days or years. What you are dong is nourishing your imagination. A writer never knows what will spark off an idea that later becomes a poem, or a novel, or a letter to an editor. As this happens, a certain section might start to grow, as you look out for things of interest that, for instance, might fuel your research into a specific subject.

The file will probably start out as an envelope of cuttings, but even with the occasional ‘weeding out’, the collection will eventually grow large enough to be moved into its own box folder or office drawer. Mine is in a shoe box with the word Amblers on the side.

In Johnson’s time, such a collections was called a commonplace book.In his dictionary of 1805, he defines a commonplace book as a "book in which things to be remembered are ranged under general heads." He also lists a verb "to commonplace" which means "to reduce to general heads." 

Commonplace books have been used since the Middle Ages – the phrase translates from the Latin, locus communis, loosely meaning ‘a wise proverb’. John Milton’s commonplace book was a vast collection of sayings. Over hundreds of years, the term expanded to include collections with a common theme. Often these were scrapbooks filled with items: quotes, puzzles, letters, poems, even prayers. However, I don’t recommend actually using a scrapbook, because cuttings often include articles that run over both sides of a page, and ‘sticking them in’ will become a problem. A writer’s commonplace, or miscellany, will contain all the visual or written material that catches their interest and which might be useful, or might excite the imagination. 

I’m pretty sure Johnson had a commonplace book, full of miscellanies, if this quote from him is anything to go by...
If it rained knowledge I'd hold out my hand, but I would not give myself the trouble to go in quest of it...
Sometimes, the right information drops into your hand, and when that happens you’ve got your Miscellany File to store it in until further need.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Writing a Readable and Publishable Short Story

 One of my OCA students has just written to me. I love hearing from students, whether they are in difficulties with their writing (it’s never easy, after all) or pleased with things. Daniel wrote...
I just wanted to let you know that I owe you a big Thank You:- One of the short stories you helped me work on in OCA 2 - Storylines, will be published in a future edition of Scribble magazine. The story is called 'Karate' and I couldn't have done it without you.This isn't my first piece published by Park Publications, (I think it is my fourth) but it is my favourite piece to date!

Great news Daniel - I know myself just how delightful it is to discover that someone else has read and loved your work enough to invest in it. Scribble is a great little magazine, I’ve been published in it myself in the past, as has my writing friend Shirley Wright, and wanted to congratulate Daniel and broadcast his news. He replied in very kind vein...

I reckon of all the OCA tutors I've had you are the most enthusiastic and genuinely interested in your pupils work and how to improve it - that to me is beyond price! Thanks again, Daniel Crowley.

I’m looking forward to seeing my next two stories in print very soon; the new Scriptor Anthology will be out soon. But it does remind me that I need to start writing new short stories. Finding inspiration to get started is never easy, but when in doubt, I always turn to my Mslexia, the best writing mag on the market. (Sadly, men can’t be published in this quarterly publication, but they can read it!)

This issue recommends this exercise;
  • write 10 single sentence character sketches, in each on choose an odd detail, which can hardly fail to stick in a reader’s mind
  • pick one of these characters and in one paragraph, write a summary of their life to date. By the details you select, see how much you can suggest about your character’s personality and experience...
And here’s one from the Tea Break section;
  • Use polar opposites to revitalize a story or poem you’re not happy with. If you are writing about a character who is kind and patient, make them irascible and on edge. Change She to He or even It. Turn blue to red, a caress into a slap, a big hairy dog into a small sleek cat. Close the open door. Make the moon rise instead of the sun...

So while I’m getting on with this, I’ll just offer Daniel my congratulations and congrats to any new writers out there who have just had the hard-won good news. 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Michael Morpurgo; Quote of the Month 0CTOBER

Yesterday, Matthew Stadien interviewed Michael Morpurgo on the BBC rolling news channel.
Matthew used great landscapes for his interview; firstly the Devon village Morpurgo lives in, where he asked him about setting, especially as the farm he now owns had its own part to play in sending horses to the 1st WW and this was a seed for his book, War Horse, which was turned into a film directed by Spielburg and is now an acclaimed West End play.

Morpurgo has set many of his children's books in places of war, and he recalled how he played in bomb sites after the 2ndWW, how he could remember his mother's tears as new came of family deaths, and how the thought of war distresses, but clearly influences him.

Morpurgo walks the Devon countryside each day, and sets many of his books on the farm because...I know who cuts the hedges....He met Ted Hughes on one of those early walks, in a long boat on the river, and they became the best of friends. He confessed that Hughes had been an early writing hero and described him as inspirational teacher, who has the power to make words sing.

Matthew and Michael  talked about discipline; Morpurgo said he wasn't disciplined, but he was good at doing what he was 'told' - in other words, he'd get the essay in on time at school and now always meets his deadlines...if I've done more than 1000 words in a day I think I'm a really good boy...

Continuing with the schoolboy theme, Morpurgo compared the start of writing as a bit like a cross country race - with the full first draft as the finishing line. Then he reads the work through; and aloud to his wife, before getting down to redrafting that point, he is looking for poetry within the prose. This is great advice for the aspiring writer; get down that first draft...don't fiddle with it too much until you have...then read it through and read it aloud to someone.

Matthew then followed Michael to Venice, which was his first inspiration when  writing the book The Mozart Question (which is about the musician inmates of the concentration camps of the 2nd WW), when he saw a young boy transfixed by some street musicians in the city.

This is how stories often come to successful writers; they link moments of inspiration up, using setting and character to create the outcome...I don't know the end of my story when I start...he said... I'd rather it came organically...

Working on the ida that plot comes organically to this writer, Matthew asked Morpurgo if he thought character was, then, the most important things that helped him start and finish his books. He instantly replied that for him, the 'voice' he was writing in was paramount...if you don't find the right voice for the story, it's a sort of a miss-match...I do agree with him there. Often I get bogged down sorting out the plot, and can spend hours creating character sketches, but it's not until I get the voice (persona, I call this as an OCA tutor; the voice you use for a specific character), that things really start to roll. In my most recent book, Tough Luck, out as an e-book in time for Christmas, Brandon's voice came early to me; a cheeky, grinning lad with a bad luck problem... I’m the one who gets ketchup down me when we all bite into burgers. I’m the one who gets the puncture when we all ride over broken glass. That’s my luck – non-existent. It doesn’t worry me too much. I’m a bit of a comedian, I usually turn things into a joke...

But the story I've now started, working title The Bone Singer, is causing more problems. I have three voices and two of them, the boys, as it happens, have come quickly and I'm pleased with them. But the main character, a girl who is speaking in the 1st person, has given me difficulties. She sounds way to grown up and sensible for her actual personality. I'm still working on this!

 Morpurgo said he doesn't ever set out to instruct his young readership, but primarily to entertain, and if, in that case, he also informs, then he would be pleased with that. He says - that he needs to offer optimistic outcomes to even grim stories...I want to show children that there is a light...

Finally, he was asked if he'd become a wealthy man from writing for children...I can always afford to buy a new pair of socks, put it that way... he said. So if you're looking to find wealth from your writing, bear that in mind.

If you'd like to hear the entire interview, go to 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Kelly Smith, Quote of the Month SEPTEMBER

...A definitive moment. A reader downloading a book in real time, while the author talked about it, tells us something about what the trade is calling the 'digital revolution' in publishing...the ebook is now part of the landscape of normal, (but) this doesn't imply the death of the physical book, as the Jeremiahs suggest...  Kelly Smith, Mslexia 2011.
photo of Kindle from
I first decided to throw my instinctive, Luddite dislike of e-books to one side when my children bought Jim and me a Kindle for Christmas. I found it surprisingly pleasant to use, and although I would still rather hold a book in my hands, there are sufficient reasons (cost of downloads, size of print, lightweight packing) to use the Kindle quite a lot. So I was excited when the publisher of my most recent children's book Tough Luck, told me that they are hoping to get the e-version of the book out and into Kindle before Christmas.
It was recently reported in The Telegraph that sales of children’s e-books nearly tripled over the first six months of 2012 ... 2.6 million  were sold over the first half of this year, compared to 1 million the previous year. They've taken off in an “explosive” way partly because kids are techofiles and partly because advances in technology have meant that e-books with  pictures are easier and cheaper to produce.
This does suggest that the next generation will grow up reading more from Kindle screens than from real books, and I can't pretend that doesn't raise a shudder in me, but then I stopped shuddering and got to thinking. Kids spend a lot of time - an inordinate amount of time - at their computer screens now. I would rather they were holding a Kindle in their hands than an Xbox and I would rather they were reading good fiction (my fiction, actually!) than mindlessly surfing the net. And for parents, once they've costed out the initial price of the e-reader, downloading children's stories is going to be cheaper for them than buying from Waterstones. So, if a lightweight Kindle gets kids reading, and the cost of the books gets parents buying, then I'm absolutely all for it. Kindles have one further  advantage over paper books for kids, and that is the facility to 'search and find' within the text; and to quickly move to 'dictionary' and 'thesaurus'. Kids aren't known to put their books down and flip through a heavy tome to find a word they don't know or reference something mildly interesting, but when this turns electronic, it's fun. 
However, the odd thing is that there's not bad news for the paper book. The Times recently reported that while e-book sales are up, it seems as if the market for physical books has not been affected, as of yet. Kate Double, from Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, an independent bookstore in Bath, was positive about the stores' sales - "E-book sales haven't affected our business. Our customers do own e-readers, but while they purchase e-books, they still see value in physical books. It's not uncommon to have customers come in and request books that they already have on their Kindle, because they would like a copy to put on their bookshelf." I think that might especially be true of picture books and illustrated story books for children; it's wonderful to turn the pages. 
Caxton need not roll in his grave just yet, methinks.

Monday, 17 September 2012


I’m delighted to announce that my next children’s novel for 9+ readers will be published in time for Christmas 2012. 

TOUGH LUCK is the story of two 13 year olds living in Bristol, Brandon and Helen, who are involved in a quest to find out about  a nine year-old Jamaican slave, Jake Silver, sold in Bristol as a Georgian pageboy in the 18th Century. 
But right now, Brandon thinks he’s the unluckiest thing on legs. How could anyone get into deep tough luck trouble at school because a conker fell on their head?  Only Brandon, of course!

At the ice rink with Helen, a racist gang threatens them. Brandon insists Helen goes home, telling her they’ve been targeted because he is black and she is white, but he knows this isn’t the real reason. It’s his tough luck. 
He gets trapped in the ancient lanes in the centre of Bristol – the gang race behind him, their footsteps ringing on the cobblestones. They catch him and kick him to the ground. Helen and her father arrive in the nick of time.
When Brandon’s mates start a fire on waste ground, leaving Brandon to deal with it, suddenly he’s in trouble with the law…and his parents...and Helen. He’s terrified of reporting his attack, but Helen has an ancient family wedding photo and together they begin a quest to find Jake Silver. They discover that he escaped in a bid to gain his freedom, and unearth a startling link between Jake and the present day – Helen is his great-great-great-great granddaughter.
My previous book for confident readers

Central to the story is an examination of the continuing problems of race hate and racial attacks. This is linked and compared to the theme of mingled populations, especially how people of differing colours often settle, marry and fade into the dominant population. 
At the start of the story, Helen has no idea she has an Afro-Caribbean ancestor, and Brandon, who is Afro-Caribbean, is trying to ignore the prejudice he’s experiencing. The theme of luck, chance and Synchronicity – those strange coincidences that make us stop and wonder about the way life takes us – are also explored. Brandon’s tough luck often has fortunate consequences, although he doesn’t always see things that way!
my book for younger readers

TOUGH LUCK will be published by Thornberry Publishing 
an innovative independent publisher in December 2012 
and will be available on Kindle for all those techno-kids.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Getting the Perfect Title

I’ve been speaking to my agent, Lisa Moylett, who I love like a sister...a nice, kind sister who says the right things and builds your self-esteem...not the sort of bitchy sister who nicks your new top and gets wine down it. I guess that it is her job to give her clients confidence, but it’s hard to persuade myself that she’s ‘faking it’. Anyway, she’s far too nice a person to be able to lie...and there are times when she ‘tells it like it is’, so when she’s very nice about my work, all I can do is glow.

 In the last days, we’ve been talking about titles. The book she’s about to send out to editors had a working title of Changelings. I looked for a new title because I felt that had been done too many times and didn’t feel right. My choice was God of the Beanstalk Land...please don’t ask me to explain; suffice to say that in the redrafts Lisa advised, beanstalks became less important and I changed it to More Full of Longing... which is a quote from a favourite poem of my by WB Yeats...The Stolen Child. But Lisa didn’t think that was the right title.

Together, we arrived at a four point plan for finding the perfect title to any book:

1.     It should ‘fall off the tongue’ when you say it aloud, announcing what the book is about in as few words as possible...or at least, if long, be instantly memorable and lyrical to repeat, is as We are All Made of Glue. A good ‘side effect’ is that perfect titles stay in the mind as distinct and memorable, so that people who have read the book can recommend it to others. Titles that are too long and random are not good – it should help seize the fleeting attention of a browsing reader, encouraging the buying public to at least take it down from the shelf and flick through.  But most importantly at this early stage is to bear in mind that a good title can initiate the ‘sell’ to a publisher. If the editor’s reader doesn’t like the title,  that might subconsciously influence the amount they like the book

2.     It should arouse emotions and give off the ‘right atmosphere’... so that a little shudder goes up the spine of the ‘right reader’ as they look at the title. For instance Devices and Desires  suggest high-class crime fiction...exactly what that book is. The Far Pavilions tells the reader loads about this story, even before the book is pulled from the bookcase, while Cloud Atlas suggests something rather experimental and modern.

3.     It should be convincing, fresh, positive and exciting. Never chose a title that’s done the rounds, or is a complete red herring so that the reader will still be puzzled why the author chose this title even at the end of the book. I have to admit, I’m still trying to work out who The Stranger’s Child was...and if anyone can illuminate me, I’ll be delighted. Some readers found Wolf Hall an odd title...although I have a theory about that which will no doubt be answered when I read Mantel’s follow-up.

4.     If the title can actually ‘feed’ the reader into the story by ‘sounding right’, then deliver a second whammy when the reader finally understands its full meaning...that’s perfect. For instance, Gill Hicks was one of the last victims to be rescued from London Underground bombings. She was close to death when brought to the surface and had both legs amputated within hours of the disaster. Gill’s first identification bracelet, fixed to her wrist before she left the scene, simply stated…One Unknown…and she used this as the arresting title for her uplifting account.

Writers sometimes hope the perfect title will just ‘arrive’ at some point, like an unexpected fall of snow – and sometimes they are lucky enough to have that happen. But others are still searching for their title long after they’ve completed their book. Not knowing yours should not prevent you from writing your book, but if you’ve got the perfect title from early on, it can  give an emotional and psychological ‘leg up’ – adding focus and vigour to your writing, so I do recommend choosing a ‘working title’ as I did.

Finally, Lisa and I agreed on what we both think is the perfect title. The Stolen Child. Not only is a quote from this poem at the front of the book, but we both think it lives up to all four points of the plan...especially the final one. So I’m asking you all now to cross fingers, arms legs and even eyes for me and Lisa as she sends this novel out to the publishing world. You might like to read the blurb that will go with it...

Barbara Campbell left her home for university and never returned to her family. She’d been a drudge – expected to care for her sick mother, her dour father and her little sister. Now, at twenty-six, she’s finally got it all sewn up; rich lover, a home in the woody heights above Bristol’s suspension bridge and the start of a job she can feel proud of.
 But under the surface, all’s not well. She’s the rookie in a social work team, bullied by her boss and struggling to cope with children who are mistreated, abandoned, fought over and lied about. When a client turns out to be her sister, she has to face the family she’s not seen for eight years.
Her ailing mother reveals a history for Barbara’s nativity that is not what she imagined at all, and sucks her into a world of intrigue, madness and magic, where everything she held dear is tipped upside down, enigmas become crystal clear and fortunes are reversed...
With a major theme of mother love, a powerful narrative line and an undercurrent of dark, dry humour, The Stolen Child will appeal to readers who enjoy edgy and extraordinary fiction, blending reality and romance, myth and mystery, and exploring issues that normally remain hidden behind a veil of professional defensive armour.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How do we Cope with Rejection and Comment?

I can clearly remember that first envelope with that first rejection.
I had thought that my little story was pretty good...I’d worked hard on it. I’d read it aloud to my writing group, and they all loved it...or so they’d said. I printed it out, checking there were no errors throughout and using A4 white paper, wide margins and a cover page. I’d done my market research; I’d chosen a magazine that I was sure would jump at the chance to publish this story.
And yet, a rejection had arrived, paper-clipped to my submission, its logo clearly announcing that the magazine did not want my work – not this time anyway. And so curt was the wording on this slight slip of paper, I was pretty sure they would never want my work. Never want to hear my name spoken in public again.
It was as if someone had released a little valve on me (somewhere around my solar plexus, I think). The sort of little valve that beach balls have so you can blow them up. Sending off my story, I’d felt pretty blown up; all colourful and bouncy. Now I was entirely deflated. My head buzzed with disappointment. I didn’t feel I could move from the sofa, or even put the rejection slip down. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write again. There was only one thing in the world that could make me feel better right that minute and I fully indulged in a good – not whisky, not chocolate...a soppy musical on afternoon telly.
We have all felt like this; especially at the start of a writing career, when rejections tend to come thick and fast. We all have our own way of dealing with the pain – and please, do tell kitchentablewriters what yours is (if printable!) by leaving a comment below.
But finally, if we are to call ourselves writers, we have to get back to writing. We have to start something new, that we can, all over again, work hard on, redraft, read aloud, research a market for, type out neatly and finally send off hopefully. We also have to look at the work that came back and work out why it did. This can, of course, be left until the pain levels have receded, but it is a massive part of the learning curve and the transformation of a ‘person who scribbles’ into ‘a writer’.
In those dim days of first submissions, it wasn’t long before I noticed there were two sorts of rejection. The first was anonymous; at best, the thin slip of printed paper, at worst, an unreturned submission.  The second was more interesting. Instead of a slip, I was getting letters, often (in those days!) handwritten – quickly dashed off, but nevertheless a personal message from the editor. Mostly, those letters still said thanks...but no thanks. But they often said something extra...something specific about the work they’d sent back. Advice on improving it, in fact.
I read these carefully. No one likes altering the work they thought was perfect, and not many of us want to hear criticism, but it did occur to me that the editor didn’t have to write at all, and if they did, I really ought to listen to what was said.
One of the earliest of these letters came from the fiction editor of Bella magazine, Linda O’Byrne, a well-respected member of the publishing community. She told me exactly what she didn’t like about my story. And then she suggested she would read it again, if I could put these things right. I didn’t really need second bidding. I worked hard on improving the work and altering it so that it was closer to the ‘house style’ – the style Linda wanted because she knew it was what the Bella reader wanted. This, after all, is what market research is all about.
I sent this off, and within the week I had an acceptance from Linda, asking me to invoice her for a three figure sum. Everyone in the house stared at this figure for some time. My previous fee for a published story – in the now defunct Annabel – was exactly 10% of this one. My daughter suggested they’d put a zero on by mistake. I couldn’t believe my luck. But now, when I look back, I realize it wasn’t all luck. Obviously, getting published does need a big dollop of good fortune, but it also requires careful planning, some talent, and some of the things I mention above (such as market research). Plus the ability to take criticism on board and do something constructive with it.
Mslexia recently published some findings from a survey they’d carried out. They asked readers how they coped with criticism. A wealth of facts emerged. Around two thirds said they were...hungry for criticism, and a massive 95% of those surveyed (obviously women writers) did show their writing to others before submitting it somewhere, although a lot of those chose to keep this in the family or show it to close friends, rather than other writers. Not a good idea in my eyes. You might get kindly words from your mates, but you’re unlikely to get useful advice.
Half of the responders felt ‘exposed’ when asking for a critique, while one in eight (quite a few) had felt in the past that criticism they’d received was marred was distorted by the insecurities of the person offering it...which might be the reason they were concerned with exposing themselves in the first place! Finding the critique of your work is all bound up with the critics own personal issues may be a genuine problem when asking friends – or even writing circle members – to look at your work, and does suggest that using a professional appraiser is a sensible thing to do, even when it costs money.
About two thirds surveyed waited until they had a full good draft of their work (even if this was a novel, I believe). This was sometimes because they sensed that any advice might destabilize their efforts. Certainly, there is nothing worse, when you’re planning complex but still incomplete work, than having your hopes dashed by someone who can’t see the ‘bigger picture’. Many didn’t want people to read their work until they were totally finished because they were sure they’d ‘lose the creative spark’. I do think this would depend on who saw your work. I certainly hope I never do this to my students. After all, a major reason for showing your work to a mentor or tutor would be to encourage these sparks to grow.
Those looking for, or using, a critical method, might be interested in the levels of criticism that other writers have received. Nearly 20% found these levels...unnecessarily brutal...some found them... contradictory and confusing...or...oto general to be helpful...(‘it doesn’t work for me’ was a comment cited). ‘Too specific’ was another issue – where comments became all about where to put the commas. You might bear this in mind, the next time you’re asked to comment on someone’s writing. You might check through it, the next time you receive comments on your own.
Some of my workshops in the past have included advice on how to critique other peoples work. In workshops, I tend to ask the participants to simply ‘be nice’ initially. When we’re in a room together for five or so hours, I really don’t want people coming to blows. I then usually suggest the obvious; that they might comment positively on one thing they liked while balancing that by talking about one thing they thought might be improved. I’m there to keep an eye on getting that balance right and add suggestions on just how that improvement might be gained.
But when I look at work myself, reading it first and commenting in full later, I try to be as honest as I can, keeping that honesty constructive and practical. Sometimes the way one phrases an honest appraisal is most important. There is no point in being brutal, as those writers above experienced. All it does is deflate the writer’s beach ball, sending them in the direction of chocolate, movies or the whisky bottle. I would never tell someone that their characters were 2 dimensional, or that their plot was laughable. What I might do, however, is talk about how to work towards a fully rounded character or a convincing plot. I would possibly find the very best bits of the work and praise them, suggesting that the sections that don’t come up to scratch in the same way might be improved by asking...what did I do right there?
I’m honoured and fortunate to work with degree students over a period of a year or more, reading up to 6 pieces of their work, so I’m able to use this sort of format to encourage slow but steady improvement. It is amazingly rewarding to see such improvement, and from the feedback I receive, I know that my students think so too...they can really see how their work has moved on.
Believe me, I still need my movie moments. I think every writer always will – even after publication, there are still the newspaper critics ready to tear your work to pieces. But it’s a wonderful thing if you finally find a good mentor, who will help you see your weaknesses at the same time as praising your strengths. For me, this is without doubt the wonderful Lisa Moylett, who is my agent and always ready to give me an hour on the phone. Even if she's telling me what I don't want to hear, I seem to come away feeling nicely inflated, colourful and bouncy. 
And I do hope, for some of you out there, I’ve been a good mentor to you, too.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The king dies...the queen dies...

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then queen died of grief is a plot –  E.M. Forster
Foster’s definition of plot and story is pretty tight; the only difference is the word grief. No wonder I’ve noticed my students getting a little confused at times between the two. 
Literary theorists like to differentiate between plot and story: plot is the way events are presented to the reader; story is the wider sequence, as we the reader (and author, of course) imagine them to be; their natural order and duration, which, from the perspective of the writing, is somewhat hypothetical. 
A good example of this would be the way a soap opera works inside the head of the viewer. They watch half an hour on screen; the plot they view includes; a couple having a row; a young girl being punched by an older male; a scene in the pub where two old codgers plan some shady business. When the programme is over, the viewer is still processing this; they might ask…what other young girls has this chap hit before…this one should do something about it…why did the couple not see this row coming, after all she’s been ignoring him for her job for months…does this mean divorce is in the offing…will the old codgers get away with this plan, as they did the last… Such meandering is the story behind the plot. We can utilize this in our writing.
Plot is the action that dramatizes the story, making characters come to life. This action consists of the patterns of events and situations that have been selected and arranged by the author to elicit a particular interest in a reader (or audience). Plot has been called the ‘narrative melody’ as it is the motivation around which the story is told, and that melody is entirely in the hands of the writer; they select the story they tell and create a plot to hold it together. 
Plot arises from the result of human activities and adventures, and can be summed up by the word conflict; the opposition of forces between focus characters and their surroundings. A plot should develop conflicts that are eventually resolved, and trace a process of change within the characters caught up in the events. 
An illustration would be the news you tell a friend on meeting them. ‘My dog died last week,’ you say. ‘I’m really sorry,’ the friend replies – they’re your friend and so they are interested – they probably knew the dog. But for this story to interest a reader, it must contain  a tightness that creates surprise and drama, and, most importantly, one that concludes with some satisfaction; whether that’s a happy or sorrowful ending: ‘My dog was run over last week. It was touch and go. I was there by his side all the way. They told me it was a one in a million chance he’d pull through. Then the vet called in a specialist from the city, some bigwig with a new technique. And here he is, by my side, aren’t you Fido?’ (Notice how I can't resist a happy ending!)
This brings us to Cause and Effect. P D James takes Forster’s quote even further. She says...To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.
Causality is a massive part of the plotting mechanism which will have a riveting effect on the plotting of your stories. Readers love to see the ‘story build up’, as events, thoughts, behaviour etc., set up in the early moments of the story, connect, build and develop the story. 
Causality is linked closely to the motivation and personality traits of the characters. As the plot unfolds causality results in a process of significant change which gives the reader regular emotional hits, until the conclusion is revealed.

A plot builds up from incidents that impact on one another. These incidents should not be a series of unrelated events. Causality will help you get a patterned, driven, tight plot that takes the reader on a journey via the motivation of the characters. Causality also helps you guard against implausibility; if the character’s motivation and conflicts are always directed by cause and effect, the writing will be far more believable. 
It is by combining causality with conflict that the strongest plot affects are gained. Conflict allows the ‘screws’ of cause and effect to tighten towards the end of the story. The reader knows all the complexities will be sorted, but they can’t for the life of them see how. A good ending will generally spring that sort of surprise; the ‘how’ of making a satisfactory and (if the author wants) happy ending, where the character has survived his ordeals, and learns and grows as a person. Using a learning/growing outcome often helps the plausibility of the story, and leads to a satisfying end, because the main character will have mostly sorted things out for himself and be responsible for most of the good outcomes. 
So, looking at Forster’s quote above, it becomes clear that story, however interesting it might be to those caught up in it, does not have sufficient structure to hold an outside observer. Bear this in mind while you are plotting. The story that surrounds the plot, that led up to it, is also the story that  that could lead away from it in any direction...floating away from the nice construction of cause and effect. Be aware and beware of that and you will keep your structures and devices tight and focused.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

What are Ma Creative Writing courses really like?

When people ask me if they should undergo an MA in creative writing, I'm never sure what to say. I can certainly tell them that is was one of the most exciting years of my life, but it was also one of the most stressful. I did get some advice, by mostly this was from my peers, rather than from the lecturers, and some of it (even from lecturers) was conflicting and counter-produtive. 
"My best piece of advice was that I should write a book that I myself should want to read," said Christie Watson, who's just won the Costa Prize new writer category with Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. She gained an MA from UEA, where, shortly after it was founded 40 years ago, Ian McEwan started his career. She describes 'being immersed' in an atmosphere of writing, and I would certainly vouch for that. Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm. But, when it came to getting my writing right, my personal tutor quickly told me to ignore what he'd said if I didn't like it... "I will try to make you write the book I want to write," he admitted, and followed that by showing me his manuscript, which, straight out of Michael Douglas' character in The Wonder Boys, was dog-eared and overlong...and unpublished.
"I got very little advice," Ian McEwan says on this BBC ipod discussion from the Today Programme about Creative Writing MA's. "
People go on MA's for very different reasons, from a genuine desire to learn to writer professionally, to a chance to network their skills. I signed up because I was 'stuck' in a book and longed to finish it. I did finish it...but what I actually gained from my MA was my work as a writing tutor, and that has brought me great joy and a part-time career I love.