A Year Of Trying

‘I am a writer’ is a difficult phrase. For twenty years I have earned my money by writing. I have written stories for video games, advertising copy, technical manuals, and radio and TV commercials. I have written a number of picture books, a poetry book, and share hundreds of poems and stories on my website.

I am a writer.

I am a writer in every sense — except for the fact that despite all of this, I still don’t feel like one.

Not really.

I see the gulf between my writing and that of the people I most respect. Each night I read to my son and gain a sense of how beautiful sentences sound when spoken aloud. I visit libraries and schools and read to children and imbibe the same sense of good writing — the structure, the content —

I experience it now more than I ever did at college.

So late in 2014 I decided to do something about it. I wanted to put some real effort into my writing and see what difference a year of trying might make. Could I get closer to that mark I know exists? Could I learn the skills I needed?

I’ll leave those questions hanging there. You might assume I’ll get around to answering them in the positive, but this article is an exploration. I don’t know the answer. Not yet. Perhaps I will during the course of this piece of writing. Perhaps I won’t.

I wanted to use my year of trying to… TRY. To try everything I possibly could. Try writing, try performing, try meeting like-minded people, try sharing, try being involved with the process of creating stories in any way I possibly could. I knew it would take a huge amount of energy but I also knew that unless I tried, I wouldn’t succeed.

So I began my year of trying by putting myself out there. I’d already made it a part of my writing process to share my work widely and I knew that was a part of what motivated and helped me. The feedback was nice, the sense of completion was essential. I shared stories, picture book scripts, poems, the occasional book review, and teaching ideas and this helped. But I knew I’d need to make this more productive. My work was often illustrated by talented people too — and this helped enormously. I’m especially grateful to Jools Wilson whose own progress has undoubtedly benefitted my own.

For example, the feedback I get on my work ranges from silence to a thumbs up. It feels good to know work is appreciated and enjoyed but it isn’t why I share. Or why I write. That gulf I mentioned earlier? That gulf needs bridging and I’m the only one who can build the bridge (and I’m terrified of heights). I need good, strong material to build that bridge and my year of trying has introduced me to the people who know their bridges — SCBWI.

SCBWI is the society for children’s book writers and illustrators. I joined in January 2015 because I felt that meeting other writers would help. I took a deep breath and walked into the first meeting and said hello. To my joy, they said hello back.

I thought I would get useful feedback on my work and I have done. My fellow North West SCBWI-ers always offer real and useful insight on any piece of work presented. But what has been even more useful is listening to how they do this. My year of trying has developed a key tool — a critical language.

Offering feedback is something which, on the surface, appears easy to do. I liked it. I didn’t like it. I was bored. I wanted more from this character. Feedback such as this is ok. It’s gives the recipient an idea of what works and what doesn’t. But the people at SCBWI have developed a critical language. They know how to give feedback. They know what words to use and how to use them. They have researched structure and market expectations and so when they suggest that a character is acting contrary to expectations then you listen and take note. As I experienced this kind of analysis, I saw how useful it would be to develop the critical language for myself.

SCBWI meetings are mostly every month. I write a lot. Some months I might want two or three short pieces looked at and that’s not fair at all. I was already seeing (and this seems so obvious now I’m writing it down) how experience can make a difference to writing, and so I decided to invest in myself.

Meet Natascha Biebow. Natascha is very experienced. As an editor at Random House she saw words from the sharp end. As a writer herself, she understands that a writer needs not just an opinion but an informed opinion. An unbiased opinion even. I’ve worked in marketing long enough to know how we all like to make our mark on people’s work simply because we can. It’s instinctive, I think, to do this. Well-meaning, no doubt, but often it just changes things without improving. Working with Natascha, through her Blue Elephant Story Shaping service was like talking to myself — in the best possible way. I began to see my habits and how I often fumbled for certain structures.

I also worked with Philippa Donovan at Smart Quill. I needed to experience differing points of view and Philippa had been recommended to me. The work I had her feedback on is still in progress but I feel there’s something there which might turn out to be worthwhile.

These two editors helped lead me towards a much greater sense of awareness.

There’s no more illuminating path to self-awareness than in the spotlight of performance. I’d read my picture books to children in schools, libraries and the wonderful Ebb & Flo bookshop. The reaction children give you helps. In my year of trying I found many ways to improve the way I performed. I’m not a natural storyteller — in so far as putting on voices and reflecting the text goes — but I’m getting better. It takes a deep breath and to connect with my inner sense of wonder to do this but I knew I had to. I had to hear my own voice and see the faces of the people I was writing for.

I was lucky enough to be invited to Eureka National Children’s Museum in Halifax. There, I told my stories and read my poems to a huge audience. I had to refine my performance and admit the mistakes I was making in my writing — there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t pretend that I was misunderstood or unappreciated. I couldn’t avoid the voice inside which guides me and is growing louder. I saw that whilst I was ok at reading, and that my stories and poems are enjoyable — I’m only ok and they are only enjoyable up to a certain point. It was a levelling experience.

I worked harder to improve my performance, knowing that by making this sense of the sound of good words helps my writing. I did more library readings — thanks to the many supportive librarians of Lancashire Libraries, especially Nikki and Sinead — and filmed myself for YouTube. This outward performance developed my inner voice.

It isn’t just the inner voice which needs to be released — it’s the writing voice too. I switch between picture books, poetry and short stories for all ages. I worry this is too much of a scatter gun. A blunderbuss of words. Yet I don’t want to give up the forms I enjoy. I have an idea and the form chooses itself. Or it’s not working as one thing but begins to shine as something else. I like this. I can’t seem to avoid it.

My year of trying didn’t include avoiding it. I decided to embrace it. I shared more nonsense than ever before but also began to enjoy writing darker short stories. An inkling of an idea for a Halloween story turned into The Scout Witch. And that led more Witch stories. These involve a system of magic which utilises knots. Most involve a character called Agnes Sampson (who is an historical witch but I’m using her story very loosely). The more of these ‘Cord Witch’ stores I write, the more I get to know Agnes and the world (and times) she grows up in. I’m understanding how the perception of witches is very male — in a negative way, and I want to address that. The most essential knot we tie is that in the umbilical cord — the start of life. Witches were the midwives of the past. Seeing them as a danger, as an evil, is something only men have managed to do.

Exploring the short story is helping my writing in many ways. I’ve seen how my themes are reoccurring and I am beginning to use those in more conscious ways. The Cord Witch stories are one strand, my Edge of Christmas stories another. But I also look back now to Tiny the Giant and think of his struggles against the world and wonder what his next adventure might be. My writing voice is beginning to emerge, I think. Not always in ways I expect — I don’t shy away from nonsense just because I am writing stories about a Santa who may or may not have killed someone.

Nonsense is a funny word. It’s sometimes seen as akin to gibberish. That makes no sense, I tell my son as he puts forward what he thinks is a water-tight case for having two desserts rather than a meal. Yet nonsense, like my son’s arguments, contain their own sense. They are watertight from their own perspective. I love nonsense.

As part of my year of trying, as part of my putting myself out there, I submitted poems to the fabulous Stew Magazine (and they were accepted!) and I entered a competition (something I never do). I wanted to join a collective of poets who call themselves The Funeverse. I wrote a dark but funny poem to go alongside a dark and funny illustration by the dark and funny Katherine Lynas. I waited. I had two desserts instead of a meal one day.

And then I heard. I’d been chosen along with another writer, Jo Dearden, whose work (and critical language) I came to greatly admire. I began to write a poem a month to some inspiring illustrations. The act of having to produce a piece of writing to a deadline is a great motivator. Too often I have put off finishing a piece because inspiration hadn’t struck. I knew, from my work in advertising, this wasn’t good enough. You have to write. You have to complete. Learning to finish something is one of the most essential lessons a writer can learn. Sit there. Do not leave the table until you’ve eaten your peas. Go for a walk. Don’t come back until you know what you will write.

There are a million lessons a writer must learn. Or so it seems. There are articles on how to write, how to get published, how to find an agent, how to write a covering letter, how to… well you get the idea. Lots of articles. Some are useful, some are not. Some are there to swap nuggets of wisdom for exposure to the writer’s books. You learn to pick and choose what you read. You learn to find your own way because there is no fixed path through this jungle. Do you want to ‘get published’? Do you want to be a better writer? Do you want fame? Do you want to take your ego out for a walk? There’s no right and wrong about motivation. Whatever drives you, drives you.

I self-published my picture books and my book of poetry partly because I didn’t have the time to submit to agents and editors and then wait. I wanted to know what made a book. The act of putting one together, and then selling it, taught me a lot. It taught me that what I think works as a story to be read on the screen is very different to what works when I have to turn pages. It taught me that selling is hard but gaining your own audience is invaluable. It taught me the value of experience.

I may self-publish more books. I enjoy making my own little print copies of my Witch and Edge of Christmas stories. There’s a sense of purpose to be gained in hand crafting things. There’s a sense of perspective to be gained in looking at a print book the you have spent so much time staring at the words on a screen. That helps in much the same way as reading it out loud to an audience does. But, it’s hard. Really hard.

Selling uses up a whole different set of muscles but it draws upon the single store of energy you have. That’s energy I could use to write. My year of trying took a lot of energy to get through. I had to (and still must) earn money. There’s a lot of plate spinning going on and I’ve learned that I can only do so much. That said, I also decided to seize the opportunity to help with the annual SCBWI Conference in Winchester. Why? Because I’m trying.

The Conference links together all the different groups of SCBWI. It offers workshops and lectures and connects writers and illustrators with one another. I knew going would be useful in my year of trying, but I also knew that left to myself I might sit at the back and hide. I might not meet people and share stories. I might think of a brilliant reason to stay in my room and not dress up as a pirate for a party. I might even find an excuse not to attend at all.

So I put myself in the position of no return. I committed to helping to organise the event. I knew about taking things to print. I knew about liaising with various parties to bring things together. I could do this. Well, I could do it provided the fabulous George Kirk and Jan Carr held my hand. Bit by bit I found my way to help and eventually to Winchester itself. I took my laptop — mostly as a crutch to lean on if I felt I needed an excuse not to be around (I’M WRITING, I’M WRITING hashtag hashtag). I carried it around but only took it out once — at four in the morning when I sat in the hotel lobby by the light of the Christmas tree. The rest of the time I talked to people who, by amazing coincidence, seemed to like the same things I liked. They wanted to talk about books and writing and it was marvellous and useful. The energy I would deplete through writing soon flowed back. Perhaps I could find a way through to 2016. Perhaps I could carry on trying.

That energy gave me the boost I needed to write another short story (called Orry and Dice) and to edit a picture book I’d begun back with Natascha Biebow. I wrote more poems for my website and did some readings in libraries and schools. I also began to look back and question my year of trying. Had all the effort resulted in anything? What was it I was trying to achieve again?

I think being clear about my aims is key to answering the question of my year of trying. If I’d decided to have ‘get an agent’ or ‘get published’ then the answers may have been a little more tricky to discern. Those are things outside my control. Sure, I could put myself in the firing line and maybe something like that would happen but there are too many variables to set those kind of aims. And the rewards are too ambiguous to count on. Do I care about seeing my work in print with someone else’s logo on it if I wasn’t happy with myself as a writer? Would I worry that an agent was taking me on because of a single idea I couldn’t sustain? Were schools booking me because I was cheap or… a nice person? There’s enough going on in my head without adding all this kind of stress. That’s why I opted to measure success in writing terms. And that’s tricky enough.

I wrote a letter to a friend, an experienced and brilliant writer, asking how he assessed his quality. I wanted to know how to do this. I wanted some kind of tool I could use to judge whether I was making progress. He told me that he relied upon his own response — you just kind of know when something isn’t right. And he relied upon the response of readers. This sounded true, no, this felt true. This was part of the critical language I had identified. I was reading my work and seeing elements which were missing. I was hearing that quiet voice a little more loudly. I’d begun a novel and had some feedback from, among others, Marie Basting and Anna Violet at SCBWI. They have a habit of getting to the nerve ending of writing. I decided to rewrite my first chapter at some point after I’d finished a first draft. But then that voice spoke up again and suggested that I needed to go further — to really figure things out and set out my goals right at the start. I’d begun to do this more effectively through my short stories but I was dismissing the urge when it came to the novel. I gave in and began to write. The story is in a much stronger position now and, perhaps more importantly, I feel as though I should keep it to myself until I finish it to my own satisfaction.

My year of trying might be turning into a year of patience.

Some links

Marie Basting.

Natascha Biebow at Blue Elephant Story Shaping.

Jan Carr.

Dom Conlon’s Inkology website for stories and poems.

Dom Conlon’s YouTube channel.

Philippa Donovan at Smart Quill Editorial.

Ebb & Flo.

Eureka National Children’s Museum.

The Funeverse.

George Kirk.

SCBWI British Isles.

Stew Magazine.

Anna Violet.

Jools Wilson.