Friday, 15 December 2017

My First Nativity - and the impact of modern technology

I've had a blast over the past few weeks doing the Key Stage 1 Nativity. It was a joint effort between two classes, and as much of the practice was done while the teachers were on PPA, I got to take the reins.

I've done plenty of Year 5 Family Assemblies, but there's a big difference between a class of ten year olds who can follow directions, and sixty little'uns who have the attention span of a goldfish. That's not an exaggeration - it's only natural. Kids in KS1 are constantly looking for anything and everything to entertain themselves if they are not the ones at the centre of your attention.

To sum up, it's been four weeks of singing, crowd control and shouting. The kids were great though, happy to run through scenes again and again - I think I was a bit obsessive about trying to make them sound natural. I kept having to remind myself of their age, and this is a primary school nativity and not the West End. But it worked, and the kids were amazing.

As the Director/Main Shouting Person, I got to sit on the floor at the front to prompt lines and songs - so I got the best seat in the house.

But there are few other things I do during family assemblies that worked well here. One is to put all of the backgrounds and music on a Powerpoint presentation.

When I first started the school, incidental music and backing tracks were all played via cassette.  Someone would have to man the 100 year old music station with a script in hand and a heart going like the clappers as they pressed pause and play. CDs made things a little easier, but not by much - someone still had to sit at the side of the stage and press a button.

But now, with a laptop and a bluetooth clicky-button remote thing, there's no need for anyone to sit at the music station -  I can cue music perfectly from anywhere. We've got an overhead projector, so that same remote can activate animated scene changes in the same Powerpoint. Add a few cordless microphones and a brand new sound system, and the voices of those six year olds belt out. Isn't technology fantastic?

However, advances in technology aren't always helpful. There was a time when half the parents would hold up camcorders for the nativity. Not any more, and not because they've been replaced by smartphones and tablets. They don't hold those up either. They can't - they're not allowed. At the start of the performance, our headteacher has to take a moment to ask parents, family and carers not to record and not to take photographs. And not just in our school - this is now standard in most schools. Thanks to Facebook and facial recognition software, it's something we have to take seriously.

What we can't do is apply this rule just to the classes that have those children, because that in itself identifies them. The only solution is to roll it out across the board and simply state that the school has several children who cannot go on social media under any circumstances - even in large group shots.

Thankfully, our parents are great - probably because rather than just state a blanket rule and get everyone's backs up, our Head give a clear explanation, and they got it. No moans and no complaints, and there was plenty of time after the nativity for photographs of individual children, all dressed up and on stage or in front of our tree. Still magic, and still a memento of a fantastic show.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

How long does it take to write a novel?

Next week, I'm going to start writing a new novel for MG readers. I'll give it a working title of "Gherkin" for now - it has something to do with the plot without giving anything away.

I usually write a first draft and let the story find itself. This time, I've planned first and have what I hope is a fairly solid synopsis. That took a few weeks - but most of that time was just thinking about the story while I'm walking the dog or lying awake in bed. Not exactly hard work. That starts when I write CHAPTER ONE.

And so, as soon as I finish the last of the Buttercup illustrations, that's exactly what I'm going to do and keep going until I hit THE END. I'll blog updates to keep track.

Also - this isn't a writing retreat thing. I'll still be at work, so fitting writing in and around normal life.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Writing stuff - Editing time

The book is written, I've done the pitch, made a sale and got a top agent to negotiate the contact. Now it's time for the real fun to begin. It's editing time!

Working with an editor is very much like being back at school. You've done your best piece of work ever - and it must be good if you've got an agent and a publisher, right? Right, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. It's the editor's job to take a good script and make it even better. 

Here's a screen shot of a page somewhere near the end of Buttercup. There are two colours of comment box because I've got two editors working on this. 

No one writes a perfect script. Even Stephen King says that every writer needs and editor. That's simply because it's often impossible to see your own mistakes. Not just typos but continuity errors - someone out of breath in one scene, fine in the next. Wearing a yellow scarf on one page, a purple hat in the next. Also, because you have the full story in your head, if you haven't managed to get all the details across to the reader, some parts might not make sense. An editor will see those things, and a lot more. They also come up with suggestions to improve or strengthen the story, they spot areas where the story dips or moves too quickly. 

For a writer, there's something genuinely exciting about receiving a manuscript filled with edits and comments. Someone has read your work enough to really, really think about it. You also have to weigh up suggestions - if you really don't feel a suggestion works, argue the point. This isn't someone pulling your work to pieces for the fun of it - you're all in the same boat, trying to build the best sail that will take you to Land of Commercial Success. Or at least, trying to make the book the best it possibly can be.

So here goes...

Friday, 1 September 2017

Wheelie bin terror on wash day.

I love hearing how other writers get things moving. While sitting here, reading a post on Facebook, I could look out and see my wheelie bin standing in the street. It's bin day so there's a few lined up next to the road. The windows are wide open and the translucent roller-blind with the butterflies, that is usually there as a thin, white barrier is up, because I've been washing our fabric sofas and the whole place stinks of washing up powder. The result is a perfect view of my wheelie bin. And although I know what is in there is really an old brown towel all wrinkled up from being stuffed in the top, from here it looks just like three fat human fingers poking out the top. Can't shake he need to go and double check.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Meeting Agent F and a new direction

I've just got back from a fab visit to London. Saw the Tower, Crown Jewels, Oxford Street and got lost on the Tube. But the reason for going was to meet my new agent, Felicity Trew of the Caroline Sheldon Literacy Agency.

I've had a few meetings with publishing people over the years, but some just shine out. This was one. I turned up late to the agency's offices in Notting Hill and was immediately hit with a sense of awe. To anyone else, it would just be a couple of small, cramped offices with packed shelves, but for me, it was like stepping into Hogwarts. Just the thought that this is where your submissions end up, put it up there with the Crown Jewels. This is where agents read material that no one else has seen, where hopes are dashed and dreams are made... where they photocopied the rejection slips I received in 2005. Spellbinding.

We went off to a local gastro pub with scored tables and creaking chairs and spent the next two hours just chatting. What I love about spending time with literary people, is it often shows in their choice of language, even how they begin a sentence. I asked Felicity about her own journey, how she became an agent. And her reply, 'It all began in Cairo...' Fab.

There was talk about books, Buttercup and ideas for future books. In preparation for this meeting, I outlined a list off current projects, nailing a short pitch for each. This is exactly what I thought I'd discuss here and know what to work on when I returned home. But on the way down, I realised something important. Buttercup is a turning point, and an important one.

I started out writing gritty, quite nasty YA thrillers. Clash is particularly dark, but that's what I wanted to write back then. It was exactly the kind of book I wanted to work on, and as a book takes many hours to write, that's a lot of time spent dealing with dark emotions.

After Matthew passed away, I found it increasingly difficult to work that same vein. It made me feel incredibly morose, which is never a good thing. Buttercup was a reaction to that and I had an an absolute blast writing it, and then had the same blast writing books 2 and 3. So I decided not to share the pitches of those WIPs and move forward from this point. I'm still proud of my previous work, of Clash and Arabesque and the two I published through KDP, but for now, I want to focus on fun stuff. Things that make me smile - Buttercup itself was written with Matthew's sense of humour in mind.

Now, thanks to that meeting, I have a good idea of the kind of fiction I want to write, and I know the area of the market to aim for. But best of all, I've got a plan. Books don't just happen. You don't come up with an idea and simply write it down. Digging up the idea takes some work, so that's Stage One: to work out six or seven book ideas. Stage Two is to write treatments for each idea. Stage 3 is taking the best as far as I can to create a pitch and samples.

So that's the plan. Now for the execution. First, I need an A3 pad and a load of fine-liners.

Just been out and got them. Let's go!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

KDP Paperbacks

I think I've reached a whole new level of nerdism. I've done a video blog on the quality of a paperback. But, somewhere out there is another equally nerdy writer desperate to know the quality of KDP paperbacks - are they actually any good? How long does the process take? Do they look like real papery paperbacks you find in bookshops.

Hold onto your seats... it's a white knuckle ride on the crazy wild roller-coaster that is Kindle Direct Publishing.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Notes on Grief

Have you ever seen those model houses with an old woman and an old man that come forward to tell the weather? The old woman means it's sunny and nice; the old man means it's stormy and cold.

Today was my first day back at work after the break. I work in a primary school and I like it. Usually, I'd say I love it (especially Fridays - on Fridays I work in Reception and Nursery. I could write a load of posts on that alone).

Today I was talking to a colleague about Christmas. She initially said she'd had a great Christmas, then added how it was, in fact, pretty bad. Grandparents and falls and broken hips and hospital. That sort of thing. So not really a great Christmas at all. I made a joke that people are inclined to say they've had a good Christmas because that's what people expect to hear, but actually, if you've had a shit holiday, it's good to have it acknowledged from those who understand, because Christmas is a pretty tough time for some.

This year is our second Christmas without Matthew, but things started getting heavy for me around October. I've dealt pretty well with things up until now. I mentioned this and said that I sometimes feel like one of those old models with the old woman and old man. When I'm at school I play a role of the old woman - all sunny and bright. I have fun and genuinely mean all the jokes that get me through the day. But inside, a storm is brewing.

When I get home, I can put the old woman back in the house. The old man steps forward and the bad weather comes with him. And that's not a bad thing, because in all honesty, sometimes it's nice to be the old man. It's nice to allow that side out.

Grief is hard. It comes in waves of different sizes, waves where the dips and peaks can last for months or days, or hours or minutes. Happy times come with their counterparts. What the hell do you call that? Bipolar grief?

One day, I'd like to write a story about this. Not a memoir, but a story, based on all of this. No holds barred, no emotion caged and I'll call it Notes On Grief.

But not yet. Not for a long time. For now, I'm content that I can be the old man in the comfort and safety of my own home, because that means tomorrow, I can be the old woman, and the sun will shine again.

For a while.