As Mad as a Box of Frogs: Turning the Writing Rule Book on its Head

 Writing Tips from the 19th Century

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I’m currently studying some of the definitive books in the children’s literary canon. If this statement makes me sound pretentious, I assure you, I’m not. The first book I read, A Pretty Little Pocket Book by John Newbery, made me want to stick needles in my eyes.

Things got better though, when I moved onto Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I am in love with Lewis Caroll; the man was as mad as a box of frogs, but that just makes me love him more. In fact, the last time I had a crush this big it was 1983 and the object of my affections was Wham’s Andrew Ridgeley. Did I really just admit that…?

Whilst I’m feeling reckless, I’m going to move the discussion onto writing rules. Now before you stop reading, let me finish. I promise I’m not going to tell you to delete your adverbs: in fact I quite like adverbs. Caroll liked them too. He also liked exclamation marks, brackets and popping out of the story moment long enough to make a cup of tea.

You see, Caroll wrote before the advent of the writing rule. As such, his work presents us with an opportunity to turn such rules on their head. To ask, what if things had been different; if the age of mass-communication had never happened and we still wrote as though we were from the 19th century? So, because I have nothing better to do today, I present you with my alternative rubric: how to write like a 19th century children’s novelist.

Rule 1. Just tell it how it is.

Do you find it hard to convey your character’s emotions through action or dialogue? Well don’t bother. Instead just add an adverb to your dialogue tags: humbly; indignantly; angrily. If they were good enough for Lewis Caroll, they’re good enough for you.

 Rule 2. Bullet-proof punctuation.

Just to be absolutely sure your reader gets it, throw in lots of exclamation marks. If your character is really excited you probably want to add one to every other sentence until they calm down again. If you are still worried your reader can’t process the information you are throwing at them, add some supporting information in brackets.

 Rule 3. Dramatic Tension

You don’t have a thesaurus, so you are struggling to find verbs that are strong enough to convey the drama of your narrative. Simple: just throw in a few more adverbs. Adjectives work well too.

Rule 4.  Transition

Tension sorted, but your narrative still not moving along quite as you’d like it? To help things flow, frequently use words such as, however, suddenly, or presently. If these don’t work, try phrases such as: in another moment; as she said these words; or just as she said this. Your writing will flow like alpine spring water during the summer thaw.

 Rule 5. The perfect ending.

Not quite sure how to wind things up? Is your narrative so weird and wonderful that you don’t know how to explain events to your reader? Easy: it was a dream. Everybody loves a good dream story. And don’t be afraid to follow with a dream sequel.

So there you have it. How to write like a 19th century children’s novelist. Do with this information what you will. After all,  why would you listen to me? I used to be in love with Andrew Ridegley.

Facing up to the Dark Side

Making Friends with the Voices in my Head

Yep. That's me in the black wig. I have no shame.

Yep. That’s me in the black wig. Nice.

OK. I can live with not being funny (see last blog post). But this. This is a revelation too far.

And yet I know it to be true. The evidence is overwhelming: I have gone over to the dark side.

Regardless of subject, the source of  my inspiration, or the age group I write for, I  find myself taking a path that I didn’t intend to follow. A dark path: more sinister than the road I consciously chose to travel.

I recently watched my husband riding the dodgems with our son. His face was pure joy: full of love and light. I was inspired. I wanted to capture this moment. Eternalise  his glee in order that others might share it.

So, I took that moment and I began to write.

A few hours later, I had the outline of a story about a bitter borderline alcoholic, with a dark secret. Somehow, I had taken that beautiful moment and dragged it downwards into the abyss. It emerged totally unrecognisable. My protagonist, no longer a joyful father, but instead the kind of weirdo you’d be  scared to sit next to on the bus.

This dark side has taken me by surprise. When I started my writing journey, I set out to write funny books. Books that brought laughter and light into the lives of children. Somehow, I turned into Darth Vader: the dark side of the force is strong with me.

I am no pioneer. Writers have explored the darker side of childhood for many generations. Yet somehow, I never realised that this darkness is what I am drawn to.

And I am drawn. Completely. I have no choice but to let the darkness envelop me. I used to be slightly in awe of those writers who spoke of stories that had their own momentum; of characters who sprung to life, demanding to be heard; voices in their head that wouldn’t be silenced. Now I understand exactly what they meant.

I also understand that these writers, whilst talented and committed, have no special powers. No supernatural abilities. They are simply gifted listeners. They accept that their characters have something very specific to say, and rather than fight them, they embrace their inner voices.

And so, I make no apologies for stating, that from this day forward, I am going to make friends with the voices in my head. Fine tune my listening skills.  Accept the dark side and let it take me where it will.

Writing Funny: there’s always room for a bit more goo

Sooty and the Crew (Image is a link to thesootyshow.com)

I went to see The Sooty Show on Sunday. Yes, that’s right, The Sooty Show; sixty-six years on, old banana-cheeks is still entertaining the nation’s children.

The puppets have been updated, Mathew has been replaced with a younger model, Richard Cadell, and there’s even a bit of Gangnam style dancing. But other than that, nothing much has changed. It’s the same old tried and tested slapstick recipe: water pistols; knock knock jokes and cakes in faces.  Highly predictable, but coming from Sooty and his crew, funny all the same.

Humour is so subjective. As I  tell my husband, just because you laugh at your own jokes,  doesn’t mean they are funny. Why is it then, that this little yellow bear has such universal appeal? Are the old jokes the best? Or can you only get away with cliché if you are a custard-cheeked bear?

In April I entered the Slush Pile Challenge: a quarterly competition ran by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  This particular challenge, was aimed at those who write funny. The task was simple: submit the first chapter of your book and make Penny Holroyde, literary agent with Caroline Sheldon, laugh.

We got a few sniggers. Penny suggested that some of the entries almost made her laugh, but none of them quite did it for her. Acknowledging that humour is  subjective, Penny noted how many of the entries fell back on ‘the perceived tried and tested sure-fire funnies’. The things the writer felt to be funny to children. Her top tip was to concentrate on dialogue: a vehicle that is perhaps easier for portraying humour than expositional set up.

Penny’s feedback, caused a few ruffles; it’s hard to be told you’re not funny. At the time, I sat quietly in the background. A few months on, having started the re-writing process, I have been thinking again about what Penny said. Mostly, I am happy to take it on the chin: seeing the same old tried and tested jokes must be pretty tedious. However, I can’t accept that there is no longer room for the odd fart joke.

Watching Sooty confirmed it. Goo and poo and stinky farts are funny: to younger children at least. And whilst, I will always endeavour to do more than regurgitate the same old dad jokes, sometimes the tried and tested does work. I mean, bums are funny too. If you don’t believe me, try reading Giles Andreae’s Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants to a group of year one students.

But I agree entirely with Penny: it’s all in the execution. It’s the dialogue and the great story telling, and not the bums alone, that make such books funny.  Sooty and Richard know this too: dialogue is polished, timing perfect, and whilst the jokes are the same, the style is very much Sooty.

And that I guess, is the key. If you are going to rely on the tried and tested, at least personalise that goo with your own unique voice. Add to that, the right dialogue, the right world building and the right timing, and there is, always room for a bit more goo.