You Got the Fear

 A crisis of confidence is never nice but adverbs are better than no verbs

OK, so I've use this photo before. I'm on Christmas wind down.

OK, so I’ve use this photo before. Forgive me, it’s Christmas!

So, I am reading On Writing by Stephen King. I’m at the point where he’s talking about how to write good fiction.  Stevie, gives us the bad news first: some people are simply bad writers. They should probably save us all the misery and give up now. Sorry if that’s upsetting, but for many,  there is hope. It is possible to turn a competent writer into a good writer. However, first we must face our demons; fear being at the root of most bad writing.

Now, the notion that fear is what holds us back in life, is not new to me. With a background in personal development, I have a stack of books telling me, that if I could just find the courage to follow my dreams, the world is mine to conquer. However, the idea that fear also influences my technical abilities as a writer, is an interesting one.

According to King, the writer who overuses those dreaded adverbs and fills their pages with intrusive dialogue tags is afraid. Trust your writing he pleads, tell your story actively and instinctively. You don’t need to slap your reader in the face with an intrusive speech attribution, chances are they already get you.

Obviously every writer is different, but personally, the idea that I’m sometimes tempted to overcompensate for my lack of experience makes a lot of sense. When I agonise over the detail of my prose, I’m not agonising over whether I think it’s good, but whether you think it’s good. For me this doesn’t necessarily mean adverbs, I’m not that type of girl, but it certainly stunts my writing.

And the fear is cyclical: when ever I think I’ve got a grip on it, something else causes me to question myself. You may have noticed, I haven’t blogged for a little while. I could blame time and other commitments, but if I’m honest, it’s about fear.

A couple of months ago I took up a volunteer post at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I was feeling a bit lonely sitting on my own all day, so getting involved in a supportive writing organisation was a great way to meet like minded souls and feel part of a team again. A few weeks into the post, I went to the SCBWI annual conference in Winchester. I had a fantastic time and met lots of great people. Many of these people I’d been talking to online for a while and they already felt like old friends.

So, what’s my problem? The problem is these people are now real. They are no longer cyber friends, avatars in a virtual writing world where I feel legitimate. They are flesh and blood and they have brains. Huge brains. Published or unpublished, they are proper writers. Not like me, playing about on my laptop all day in the hope I’ll one day strike lucky.

Typical me, what should have been a major step forward in my writing journey, has sent me spiralling back into the classic writer’s cycle of self-doubt. It’s ridiculous.

I don’t like being frightened. That’s why all those years ago I jumped out of a plane, so that nothing I ever did would feel that scary again. Stephen has reminded me that fear is normal, the curse of the mediocre writer. The only way out of this is to write. After all adverbs are better than no verbs.

A Love Letter to Liverpool Libraries

Dear Mayor Joe Anderson

You’ve had a lot of letters, recently, about Liverpool’s libraries: I’d like to share a photograph.

newyorkpubliclibrary

This, this picture, is the power of libraries.

I was born in Lodge Lane, Joe. When my Nan was a small girl, she scrubbed steps for the posh people who lived on Parliament Street. She never learnt to read until she married my grandad. A working man, like you, he understood the power of the printed word. And he wanted to give that power to his family.

But that his grandchildren would one day read books at the New York Public Library? Well that was a fairy tale. A fantasy, as real as Jack’s beanstalk. I had no magic beans Joe, but I did have hope, and I had libraries. It was books that allowed me to climb high, to enter worlds my grandparents couldn’t have imagined. To dare to dream.

But libraries aren’t just about the future, Joe. They are about being in the moment, too. See the joy in my child’s face, as he shares a story with his dad; there’s not a lot of joy in some of our deprived communities, Joe.  Can you really take this opportunity away from them?

I know you have it tough. For over twenty years, I worked in local government, I sweated blood and tears. But I had to say goodbye: it was breaking my heart seeing, and being forced to play a part, in the mass destruction of public services brought about by this government.

I am sure it’s breaking your heart too Joe. But a broken heart will mend; a broken community, now that’s a lot harder to fix. The loss of a library is forever, and with it disappears opportunity, hope and dreams.

Share the love Joe, please don’t close Liverpool’s libraries.

Endnote: This letter was inspired by the amazing Cathy Cassidy and her invitation to the writing community to join the campaign to Save Liverpool’s Libraries

All in the Name of Research

Seeing the world through the eyes of the chapter book reader: are you brave enough to recapture your inner child?

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I am a big fan of the first person. I love books that speak to me directly. Characters that let me climb inside their head and share their innermost thoughts. Protagonists I may not always like, but who I understand. Stories I can access without intrusion.

Perhaps because of this, the first person is my default writing position. I’ve tried other points of view, but my writing becomes forced, stifled even; so back I go. But writing in the first person, does have its limitations. The most pertinent being, that language and syntax must be  synonymous with the point of view character.

That last sentence jarred now didn’t it? So, you get it: if you write in the first person, and you write for young readers, there’s no room for this sort of fancy-pants language. Your readers want to hear something of themselves in your writing. They are not interested in the remote academic who lives at the bottom of the street with thirty-seven cats.

But whilst a voice the reader can identify with may grab their attention, if you are going to keep it, you need to do more. You can’t just give them words, you have to provide them with an experience. Now, I don’t have the stomach for going down that whole show versus tell road today, what I’m concerned with  is authenticity. Ensuring that the experiences we describe ring true. That the world we portray is the same world that is experienced by the child-reader.

Observation can take us part way there: it can help a lot with understanding what drives young people and how they feel about things. But if you really want to capture your reader’s world, you first need to taste it. To take time out to remind yourself what it means to be a child.

Easier said than done? Well, because it’s Friday and the sun is shining, I’m going to help you out.  Work your way through the list below over the weekend and by Monday you’ll have regressed so far you’ll be crying for your dummy:

  1. Build a den out of duvets and a clotheshorse. Sleep in it until you run out of clean clothes and you can’t put the washing off any longer. Ensure that the den is guarded by your favourite stuffed toys and that you keep a torch under your pillow: you may have to go in search of a midnight feast.
  2. Do something random. Why not break-up that boring journey to the shops, by stopping on a grassy verge and practising one arm press-ups? Or try out a 360 degree pirouette outside of Sainbury’s. You’ll feel better for it.
  3. When no one is looking drop a sweet into your breakfast cereal. Eat your breakfast with extreme care, rearranging the cereal after each mouthful so that other adults don’t notice the sweet. If you spoon the sweet up and put it in your mouth by accident, place your hand next to your face and spit it back into the bowl discreetly.
  4. Lose any inhabitations you may have about the toilet. Number twos should be a communal activity. Take a friend to the toilet with you and chat about football. Your friend may wish to put their goal-keeping gloves on before they join you in the bathroom. (This last comment may seem weird but it is based on observation.)
  5. Wear your underwear over your trousers and tie a towel around your neck for a cape. Do this whether you are writing for young children or not. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Disclaimer:  with the exception of the underpants over trousers trick do not under any circumstances perform these acts if you are writing for young adults. That would just make you look like a total loser, man.