Category Archives: Anita says…

Books for Christmas

It is coming up to Christmas and you may be searching for that last minute present for your writer friend. If you are here is a list of books from my bookshelf that I have found useful during my writing career.

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The Creative Writing Coursebook: Forty Authors Share Advice and Exercises for Fiction and Poetry edited by Julia Bell and Paul Mars (Pan, 2001)

A comprehensive guide for improving story. Contributions from forty authors provide a generous pool of information, experience and advice.

The Forest for the Trees: An Editors’ Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner (Pan, 2002)

Betsy Lerner is an editor turned agent and provides a true insider’s perspective. Everything you could ever possibly want or need to know about story is here.

Story: Substance, Structure, style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (Methuen, 1999)

Robert McKee is a New York ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ type who runs a popular film structuring course. The techniques he suggests can be used in all writing and not just in writing screenplays.

Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilisation by Michael Tierno

Tierno uses examples from some of the best films ever made to demonstrate how you can apply Aristotle’s ancient insights to modern-day story.

Twenty Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias (Writer’s digest Books, 1994; Walking Stick Press, 2003)

Gets you thinking about story. All the great stories can all be found in these plots.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler (Pan, 1999)

One of the cornerstones of modern screenwriting theory. Vogler’s ideas have been used by a whole generation of story writers.

The Art of Story

As previously mentioned I love to go talks and workshops given by other writers. I am very much a course ‘junky’ and believe you always learn something new and it can’t be bad to reinforce what you already know.

Tony Bradman is one of my writing heroes. I particularly like him because he remembers who I am when we meet. In May 2006, I went to a SCBWI-BI Professional Series where author, Tony Bradman, was talking about story and what it is. His advice has always rung true with me and has had a big influence on my own writing.

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Tony Bradman has been writing children’s fiction for over thirty-five years. He has written hundreds of books and edited many anthologies. He summed up story very neatly:

“A story is about the problems people face and how they overcome them. It is part of everyone’s life and can be told in different forms: film, plays and poems. Story is a form with a structure of its own. Very few people know what a story is and how to do it.”

The Art of Story
Tony explained:

“Often, when you start out as an author, you don’t know if a story works or not. This is a stage all writers go through. A writer needs to understand everyone reaches a stage where they don’t know if it is any good.”

Tony revealed he often struggles with stories he is working on. He claims it is very rare for him to write something and have the confidence it is as good as he can make it.

“In story, we concentrate on the pivotal point in which a character makes an action and the world reacts differently than expected. The essence of great story is surprise. The characters have flaws that influence the plot and the plot will have conflict, which changes the characters. It is a two-way process.

There are things that you can do that will help you through the problems of story. If you get half way through and get stuck, tease out the structures that might already be there. Step outlines and synopsis are stages of story that can help with a scene you are struggling with.”

Tony Bradman’s Approach
Tony said:

“All my stories start with a single idea that needs to be developed. Often if left, a story will reveal itself.”

When he starts a new story, he makes notes and descriptions of what the story is going to be. He likes to get to know his characters. When he begins to hear the dialogue he knows he is ready to write. If he knows it is not working and he is not happy, he will revise over and over again, often waking up in the night. After editing, he can look at it and know it is complete. By the time he has finished, he knows his stories word to word.

Tony prefers to edit his writing himself. He loves the challenge. He considers that one of the things that taught him most about writing is when he worked as an editor. He used the lessons he learnt from editing other people’s work in his own writing.

Tony told us:

“I have been known to write a 20,000-word summary, for an 1800 word story.”

He revealed that he writes the whole story without dialogue and puts a one-line description of each scene, highlighting the beginning, middle and the end, or as Philip Larkin says, a beginning, a muddle and an end. This way he can expose any weaknesses in the plot, any digressions and lack of tension. Tony believes it is the same technique for 100 as 100,000 words.

“Story is divided into three acts, sometimes more, never less. Each act can be broken into scenes, and each scene can be sub-divided too. In a typical scene, the protagonist embarks on a difficult task; only to discover that what is required of him is far more demanding than he first thought. It is under these testing circumstances that ‘deep character’ is revealed.”

Tony stressed:

“The two most important aspects of story are character and plot and of the two, character always comes first.”

Creating Strong Characters
Tony believes character is key to any story. He said:

“If a story is not working it is often the character that is wrong. Take a good look at your characters. Why do you like them? What do they want? They should want to solve the problem. This is the spine of the story. The key thing is to get the reader to engage with the character, so they want to know how they solve the problem.

“You need to think what is the best thing a character can get in life and how could this also be the worse thing. When people want something and do not understanding it is wrong for them it is known as a reversal. Story is a great way to explore this.”

A good example of reversal can be seen in Tony’s book, Under Pressure, where Craig, one of the thirteen-year-olds at the soccer school, wants his dad to love him and be involved in his life and when he is involved, he betrays his son by using him as a way to get money. Reversal is also evident in the sequel, Bad Boys, where Lee fights to make his own decisions, only to realise he made the wrong choices.

Tony advocates avoiding passive characters.

“Children are often powerless to do anything about the situations they find themselves in, such as parent’s divorce or moving home, but they should strive to deal with the problem on their own level. They have to come to terms with the fact that this event has happened and carve a new life out for themselves. The characters should always be striving for a goal. Even in 1500 words, the story problem is big and even though the child’s world is smaller, the child still tries to solve the problem.”

Tony thinks hard about the character and the world they live in. He needs to find out what their problem or conflict is and starts with the problem and develops the story from that. He said:

“Character is revealed in the choices a human makes under pressure. There has to be something about your main protagonists character that resolves the problem in the end.”

Tony believes the greatest stories have characters that have two levels: what you see on the surface and the flaws underneath. All great characters are flawed, part of the problem is learning about these flaws.

He said:

“Writing picture books is hard. It is less easy to explore the characters, as there are fewer words.”

You can see how important characterisation is in Tony’s books, such as the Dilly the Dinosaur series, about the world’s naughtiest dinosaur and The Happy Ever After stories, which explore what happens after the fairy tale ending. Do they really live happily ever after? Does the frog prince enjoy his life at the palace with his new bride, or would he really prefer to be living in that muddy old pond? How does Cinderella cope with the Queen as a mother-in-law? This is why Tony’s books appeal not only to young readers but their parent’s as well.

What About Plot?
Tony explained plot in a way that I will never forget. His words are always on my mind whilst I am writing.

“Plot is about life and human condition. If the plot doesn’t work, you can fix it but if your characters aren’t working you haven’t got a story. Nobody is going to read 250 words of character description.

Plot is the action in your story and should never be resolved by a coincidence. Everything within the story must be there for a reason. If it does not move the story forward in some way, it needs to be cut. It may be a great scene, but is it meaningless in the structure of the story?

The protagonist is an ordinary person, whose life is changed by an extraordinary event. This is the ‘inciting incident’. Life is chaos and every time you do some thing, it gets worse and worse. This is true of good story. Events must build up until the hero’s problem appears unsolvable.

The story then concerns the efforts of the protagonist to restore their life to normal. Inevitably, in the course of doing this they discover a side to themselves they were never aware of and become a better person.

Story, as a quest, has the hero’s journey in mind. It is about overcoming your greatest inner fear – your inner demon. In film, this is usually outside of the protagonist, but to overcome their fears they have to work out their inner problems. Once the problem has been overcome, they get their reward, as in the grail quest. There is usually one last great battle before the evil is destroyed and the protagonist achieves their aim.

The structure of story is always there. In the beginning, you meet the character and find out what the problem is. In the middle, the problem gets worse. In the end, the problem is resolved one way or another.”

This was one of the most inspiring talks I have been on and has helped me a lot in my own writing career. If you are interested in finding out more about Tony Bradman or booking him for one of your own events take a look at his website: www.tonybradman.com or follow him on Twitter @tbradman 

 

Working With Editors

I’ve worked with lots of different editors at a wide range of publishers and thought I would share with you today some of the things I have learnt.

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Here are my Do’s and Don’ts of what to do when working with editors. Most I have gleaned from personal experience or chatting with editors and other writers. Most of this advice has been reinforced on various courses I have attended and I must admit I’ve been a bit of a ‘writing course’ junky in my time.

DO

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  • Be professional at all times. Your editor is not your friend, although you should be friendly. Always remember it is a working arrangement.
  • Let the writing speak for itself. At the beginning of the project send samples to check you are on the right lines even if they don’t ask for them.
  • Discover what you can do to make the editor’s job easier by finding out what the editor wants. This is easier said than done because a lot of the time the editor does not know what they want until they’ve seen what they don’t want.
  • Be willing to work with the editor on requested changes, even when they change their mind again and again and again.
  • If an editor goes to the trouble of saying something to you, take it very seriously.

DON’T

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  • Don’t use a fancy font. I have never done this but I’ve heard a story about someone who did and the editor was not amused as it takes time out of a very busy schedule to change it.
  • Don’t miss the deadline. I try very hard to keep to my deadlines and prefer to submit something earlier than late. When an editor gives you a deadline, it means money is involved. If you think you are going to miss a deadline get in touch with the editor as soon as you know so they can rearrange the schedule. Remember everything has a knock on effect.
  • Don’t be afraid to call your editor to ask questions or talk about issues concerning the manuscript. That’s what they’re there for.

Editing

Reading through the posts on this blog, I’ve noticed I often make silly mistakes, miss out words or have extra letters in words that should not be there because I’ve hit the wrong keys whilst typing. It has highlighted to me how important editing is.

With a blog it is easy, as you can go back and correct the posts. But you can’t correct the automatically shared posts to Twitter and Facebook, which is just embarrassing. Notice how I’m talking like a seasoned blogger and I’ve only been blogging on a daily basis for a few weeks.

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Good editing means making wise choices. What words should you use? What order do you put them in? There is never a single correct answer. The best sentences are sturdy and straightforward. The reader can understand them easily, without having to reread them. Sentences become difficult to read for two main reasons: the sentences are too long, or the sentences are poorly constructed.

One of the most informative talks on editing I’ve ever been to was given by John Jenkins, who was the editor of Writers’ Forum. There were three main rules to editing that he pointed out.

The first thing he suggested, is to take out all the adjectives. I found the easiest thing to achieve this was to use the ‘Find and Replace’ application in the Edit menu of Microsoft Word and search for all the -ly words and delete them. More often than not, they were not needed and if I desperately wanted to keep one I could, because I’d whittled them down to only a few.

By combining the verb and adverb into one more descriptive verb, I not only cut the word count but was being more precise. For example, if a person was walking slowly, they could be described as sauntering, meandering, or strolling. So, ‘she walked slowly toward me’ would become, ‘she sauntered toward me’, or ‘meandered toward me’. Controlling adverb/verb combinations, allows me to set the tone and communicate the emotion of a scene.

Lots of adverbs and adjectives slow the pace and jar the reader out of the action. What I did, was look at some of the children’s books I admire and enjoyed reading and found that adverbs and adjectives were used very sparsely and also got an idea of the type of strong verbs used to replace them.

Next, John Jenkins said be active not passive. If you find yourself using forms of ‘be’ such as: are, is, was, becomes, became, you are using the passive tense. I find this the most difficult but, it is important especially when writing articles. I’ve used ‘become’ in a paragraph above, but I think it needs to be there.

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The third rule was to remove all waste words. This included: them, that, began, started, about, all, along, and, away, before, after, down, up, out, in, even, ever, just, little, now, only, over, really, so, some, sort, such, felt, feel, back, returned, instead, to the, to be, there, was, suddenly and very. Again, I use the ‘Find and Replace’ application in Microsoft Word. Then I check to see if any of these words need to be added back in. You’ll be surprised how few do. I replace only the ones that are essential.

I hope this advice is as useful to you as it has been to me. But, remember before you start editing, put the manuscript away and do something else. This will allow you to look at it with fresh eyes and see the mistakes more easily.

Writing an Educational Book Proposal

Before I submit a proposal, whether it has been commissioned or is unsolicited, I look for a gap in the market. I always check out my local library and online bookstores to see if there is a book on the subject already and if there is how could I approach it from a new angle that would be relevant to the classroom today. If I do find a gap, I think why is it there? Is there a demand for the subject? And what would be another books ‘unique selling point’. Finding a new subject, or even better a new slant on an old subject is half the battle.

As in all forms of writing, it is important to study the market. I have been fairly successful with writing educational resources. Today I have over 80 books published. You can see them on my website here. I have to keep reminding myself – this is very good. Yet, the hardest thing for me about writing a proposal is explaining why I am the best person to write the book. I am not very good at blowing my own trumpet.

I suppose part of the process is, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, just like Susan Jeffers books says. Also, keeping in mind we can achieve anything if we really put our minds to it. I remember when I passed my Bronze Medallion (Life Saver’s swimming certificate) in 1994. I was asked to take over training the top swimmers for the Berkshire school’s swimming gala after the previous teacher died of a brain tumour. To do this I needed to have a Life Savers certificate. I saw this as a challenge and enrolled on the RLSS Bronze Medallion course.

When I started I could not even swim one length of the 25m pool. After the twelve week course I could swim 20 lengths in under 20 minutes and fetch a body from the bottom of the pool, fully clothed. To achieve this I had to go swimming at least three times a week, sometimes more. I was still on maternity leave and so had the time to do it but, my stomach muscles were very weak and I could not pull myself out of the pool when I started, I had to use the steps.

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I got the highest marks in the group on the theory exam. But, it was sheer determination that got me through. And you know what? We went home with the relay trophy every single year, until I moved schools and stopped doing the job.

Writing Educational Resources

The main difference I’ve found between writing educational resources and writing fiction is… you get commissioned to write educational books. This means I know my work is going to be published before I’ve written the book. It is also a more of a group effort than writing a novel, with input at each stage of the books development.

I was a teacher for many years and this background in education is beneficial, as I’ve studied most subjects in depth and know what is required in a classroom situation. I can also write to match the targets of the National Curriculum.

When I tell people I was a teacher, the first thing they ask is what did you teach. I usually said, “Children.” But, then I felt guilty for being flippant and would say, “As a primary school teacher you name it, and I have taught it.” Now I say, “As a writer you name it and I’ll write it.” This is very true. I love research and so if I don’t know anything on a subject I will spend time finding out about it.

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I prefer it when the publisher rings me up, or emails me, and says we’ve got an idea for a project. This really gets me to focus. Turn around times are quite fast in comparison to fiction and the books are published within a few months of submitting the final draft of the manuscript, which is actually good as you get to see that final product really quick. None of this hanging around waiting for two years. Even so, it is still important to get started on the next book before the one you have just written is out.