Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The SCBWI Conference from the Other Side of the Fence

Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the SCBWI British Isles annual conference in Winchester. It was the first time I had not attended as a volunteer and I was expecting the grass on the other side to be very green. I didn't have to know what was going on everywhere! I didn't have to worry about sessions running over, people getting lost, speakers not speaking. I could do whatever I wanted, go wherever I wanted, and cultivate an air of blissful ignorance if I so desired. Of course I did all of those things but I did, on occasion, feel just a tiny sense of loss for not being part of the "team". But, above all, it made me appreciate just how much work our fantastic volunteers do, often in the face of adversity! So, yay for the conference team! And a HUGE thank you to them too.

So to the weekend. I met Liz de Jager at Waterloo at a stupidly early time but we finally regained the power of speech and were quite lively by the time we arrived at the campus. Celia Rees's excellent keynote speech set the tone for a weekend of wonder. Her books are really compelling. She manages to transport you into her world with enviable ease. Feeling buoyed up, I excitedly sat in the auditorium for her session with Sarah Odedina of the splendid (oh how I love them) Hot Key Books. And I was not disappointed. For they talked of historical fiction with such love and enthusiasm, I realised that I probably wasn't barking up the wrong tree with my new Victorian thriller. I scribbled down their words of wisdom.

When writing historical fiction, the writer must have a real world for their story, and their characters must show the same emotions and drive as in contemporary fiction - just in an historical setting. So, there should be no sense of remoteness. The writer should re-interpret their research for the reader without overdoing it. Description can take you away from the narrative. And this really stood out (we all need to pin it over our desks): Every author has the right to write the book they want to write. Thank you!

The rest of the day was all panels (of which no room here, but they were brilliantly informative) and book sales and, of course, the awe inspiring Debi Gliori's keynote speech. Oh my goodness, the woman is a genius. She talked about her illustrating life, she told us a story, she almost cried, we almost cried (as one) and we gazed, open-mouthed at her heart-breakingly beautiful illustrations.

Then, of course, we had the party, which was all excellent cake and a huge crowd of amazing SCBWI authors and illustrators, as we celebrated their publications over the past year. We talked and applauded and were proud. There was also the fabulously entertaining Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, who hosted the party and made us all laugh. She also ran a session earlier in the day on writing humour, which everyone who attended raved about. Oh to be in two, three, four places at once! And I finally, after all these years, met the lovely Vanessa Harbour!

So, Sunday. I loved Sunday. This is the first year the conference team have given a whole day to intensive sessions and every single person I spoke to agreed that this was a fine thing indeed. I was lucky enough to take Sara Grant's 'Finding the Plot' and, boy did we find it! This marvellous woman is not only a great editor and a very fine writer, but she knows everything! AND she won the Crystal Kite award for her excellent novel Dark Parties (buy it!), which she truly deserved. So, back to the session. We all had our novels in various forms, from scraps of ideas either in our heads or on the page (Moleskine in my case), through to finished drafts. First of all we were given a sheet (Sara loves a handout!) which I will use for every novel I will ever write. We had to write down the heart of our story, the premise (I really struggled with this), the controlling idea, the theme, the pitch (in my case - Oliver Twist meets The Godfather!), and then more about the characters - basically the who, what, why, where etc etc. I have to say that single page has absolutely unlocked the key to my story. It was truly a lightbulb moment for me.

After lunch (there was cake), we had another handout, this time with a graph! We mapped out our stories and then talked about suspense, tension and the general structure of the story. We then split into groups (I was dreading this, but it was fantastic) and were each given 15 minutes to talk about our plots, and their problems, and then brainstorm. I was paired with the marvellous Addy Farmer who gave me an idea that has transformed the story and given my protagonist real motivation. So thank you Addy!

As well as telling us what to do and how to do it, Sara talked about her own journey to publication which was truly inspiring. She really is a gem. If you get a chance to go to any of her workshops, then do it!

Buzzing with ideas we then drifted off for the closing remarks and then we all trooped home, heads and hearts full but happy.

And the grass? Actually, it's pretty damned green on both sides! I can't wait for next year.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ten True Things

These are my ten rules – things that I have realised are true to me.

1.        A novel won't write itself.

2.        Dark chocolate is good for you but not if you eat the whole bar in one sitting.

3.        Telling friends and family you can't see them/talk to them because you're writing is wrong if all you end up doing is mucking about on Facebook.

4.        Talking about writing is not the same as actually doing it, however enthusiastic you may be.

5.        Green tea is good for you but it tastes vile.

6.        Leaving difficult tasks until they become irrelevant does work, but the huge amount of guilt you feel just isn't worth it.

7.        There is such a thing as too much research.

8.        Reading running magazines will not make you fitter unless you actually go out and run.

9.        Your teenage daughter rarely wants your advice even though you invariably do Know Better.

10.        It's OK to fail but it's not OK to give up.

What are yours?

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Living Story

Things have been a bit rubbish recently. Lovely Novel turned out to be Lousy Novel and has been discarded. The doctors thought there was a chance the cancer had come back (it hasn't). The little girl missing in Machynlleth is from the town where my family live and the whole place is, understandably, in shock. My mother broke her leg, well, her knee, but it's a full plaster and she's totally immobile. So that's that.

But, there has been a gleam, a little sparkle, a nugget of loveliness. And, bear with me here, it all started with a trip to a Victorian mortuary. Yes, I know. It doesn't sound that great. During the London Open House weekend (which is a splendid thing and everyone who can go, should go), I went to Rotherhithe to see the mortuary. I thought it would be interesting, after all, I am the woman who spent the evening at the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge, listening to a talk about the history of autopsies. There's nothing left of the mortuary now - it's a community centre - but as I listened to the history of the place, how the building was used, how they took in the bodies washed up in the Thames, the seed of a story planted itself in my head. I spent the rest of the day wandering around Rotherhithe. I spent another day wandering around Wapping. And I went to the Crossness Pumping Station in Erith Marshes. And I read. Peter Ackroyd's London Under building in particular built on my story idea. I went mudlarking. I went to the Mayflower and the Angel (oh, such hardship in the name of research) and I scribbled notes, took photos, and let the story evolve.
It struck me how lucky I am to live in London, the place where my stories are usually set. You can still find historic buildings and atmospheric lanes. The river itself tells so much - the shores, the old jetties, moss covered steps long since abandoned. And all these things build a picture in your head, give your characters somewhere to grab onto, make the story come alive. We have excellent museums. The Museum of London has a Victorian shopping centre. Their off-shoot in the Docklands has Sailor Town - a street with a lodging house, shops, the riverfront. You are never far away from the past, whether real or imagined.

And my story? It grows day by day. I have my setting. I have my story line. I have my characters (thank you Miriam Halahmy for the fantastic SCBWI masterclass). But because of my wanderings, I have my world. It's in my head. It's real, it's breathing, it's alive. And you can't get better than that.