Nurturing ideas

I’ve been digging through some of my favourite craft books recently to see if there’s a different way to begin my next project. Although nurture feels less daunting than begin.

My notebooks are full of messy thoughts, unanswered questions and wild possibilities. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the words coalesce into a kernel, something of an idea, a possible starting point.

My notebooks are full of messy thoughts, unanswered questions and wild possibilities. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the words coalesce into a kernel, something of an idea, a possible starting point.

The debate between plotting out your novel versus writing it by the seat of your pants is a personal one. But recently I heard a writer describe herself as a ‘reformed pantser’. (Find Jennifer Laughran’s brilliant podcast here : The 30,000 foot view, interview with Erin Dionne) which made me smile and also made me think. I wrote my first manuscript not only by the seat of my pants but in the dark, fully blindfolded whilst hanging upside down from that crumbly, precarious point at which the sidewalk actually ends. I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote the second one a few years later having attended lots of workshops, writers’ conferences, classes and read a number of invaluable books on technique and craft - but still by the seat of my pants.

As I start work on my third, I’m wondering if there’s a way to do both: to spend the time plotting and preparing whilst leaving plenty of space between the lines. It would be reassuringly PRACTICAL to have everything planned out before I begin, but then again there’s something MAGICAL about hanging upside down and stumbling upon the unexpected. We’ll see.

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Some of my favourite books on craft and writing in general:

  • A Sense of Wonder by Katherine Patterson

  • Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

  • How Fiction Works by James Woods

  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

  • On Writing by Stephen King

  • On Writing by Eudora Welty

  • Bird by Bird Annie Lamott

On my TBR list are:

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, Outlining your Novel by K.M Wieland, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein and This is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

Plus a few links to favourite conferences and workshops that have been instrumental along the way:

Creating space

A few years ago a friend sent me a copy of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  In it, one of the things she talks about is being open to stories; the idea that stories are told through you as opposed to being generated and owned by you.  This resonated with me and while I’m in the process of starting a new project, I'm simultaneously finding ways of opening myself up to the voices that want to be heard, the stories that need to be told, to whatever comes next.

One of my favourite ways to do this is by walking.  Sometimes I consciously listen to whatever's around me and literally stop to smell the flowers.  Sometimes I'll listen to a podcast or music or the news.  But it's a fine line, the balance between paying attention to what's going on, what's happening in the world versus the work of emptying out, of creating space, of being open.  

Dandelion, September hike. The path, noticing, where my foot falls along the way.

Dandelion, September hike. The path, noticing, where my foot falls along the way.

Leave room in your mind for stories to rise up in you. Don't constantly fill your mind with other people's stories, other people's thoughts. Leave space, and quiet, for your own.” - Nikki Grimes.

A trip to the UK

One of my favourite independent bookshops is called Octavia's and it's in the small market town of Cirencester, England.  I'm lucky enough to go in every summer and it's a trip we all look forward to.  I'm always keen to see what she has on display and ask about the middle grade books that have recently been published there.  Some are similar to what I might find at my local bookstore in the States, some are very different.  Either way, it's an inspiring visit and I leave grateful for the presence and passion of indie booksellers. 

A few of the titles we were excited to read, all published in the UK this year.

A few of the titles we were excited to read, all published in the UK this year.

Octavia's Book shop, 24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester GL7 2AA

Octavia's Book shop, 24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester GL7 2AA

All kinds of stories

Recently I read two books that speak directly to the power of story. They were set in different parts of the world, written at different times and driven by very different plot lines - but both brought me into the life and mind of another character so fully that I cried. I cried my heart out, an uncomfortable, messy cry.

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Story is the only means we have of being able to come close to inhabiting somebody else's life, of being able to feel somebody else's feelings or see the world from a different vantage point.  Both of these writers are master storytellers and I would urge everyone to read their work.  It's often assumed that children's literature is full of gnomes and giggles and sweet furry things.  Which is true of course, and thankfully so.  There is a place and a profound need for sweet furry things and giggles, often in the darkest of times.  But there is also a need for other kinds of stories, the ones that delve into the most challenging parts of being human, whether you're a child or not.  Perhaps especially if you're a child.

There is a place and a need for all kinds of stories.

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'The possibilities are endless because the stirring of the imagination never rests, and because we can never stop trying to make feeling felt.' - Eudora Welty.

Links to interviews with both writers:

Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes on The Children's Book Podcast by Matthew Winner

A Monster Calls unravelled by Colby Sharp on The Yarn

 

Do words get lost?

A while ago I read Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane and was struck by a passage about the disappearance of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children.  Many of the words he cited as being dropped were related to the natural world, their empty spaces being filled by words that relate to technology.  It makes sense that dictionaries need to reflect practical and current usage but still, this was depressing news to me.

Illustration by Jackie Morris, taken from  The Lost Words

Illustration by Jackie Morris, taken from The Lost Words

 And yet.  A few weeks ago I read an article about a picture book he recently published called The Lost Words.  The gorgeous illustrations are by Jackie Morris.  It's beautiful, it's captivating, it's original.   Please read it, share it, gift it, because it would seem that yes, words do get lost.  They get lost because they stop being used.  But as this spellbinding book proves, words get lost but they may also be recovered, found and brought back to life.  

A portion of the books proceeds are being donated to Action for Conservation, for more information visit their website.

Badger or Bulbasaur? Have children lost touch with nature? by Robert Macfarlane

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Something of a pause

I have not written enough yet to have a reliable sense of pattern within my overall creative process.  But I have written enough to know that 'endings' tend to be no more than a temporary pause.  For now then, I have finished re-visioning my manuscript.  I've done the part that is within my control: I showed up, I did the best that I could do.  

As I shut down my computer for the night, I don't feel relief so much as gratitude.  I'm grateful to my critique partners, to my close friends and family who have patiently helped me reach this temporary end.  But above all, I'm grateful that this is what I get to do with my days: craft a story, imperfect and honest as it may be.  

Children's author interviews

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I was recently searching for some author interviews to share with my 4th Grade Writing Club, specifically ones that talked about the craft of writing in ways that might be accessible and useful to them. Here are our two favourites:

1. Storycraft  Videos  

This website is a wealth of information and resources. It's focused around World Book Day, which will be on 1 March 2018. Our group especially liked the Cressida Cowell interview.

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2.  NBC Writers Speak to Kids

NBC Learn has a page full of interviews with children's authors. We watched and discussed the Jacqueline Woodson clip but they are all interesting and super accessible. It was published some years ago but much of the advice and thinking is timeless.