Saturday, 1 February 2014

Thinking about why I write how I write...

If you've followed the Scribbles for a while, you'll know I've had a few problems with getting my writing accepted by agents. 'Nice' is a word that crops up a lot, as well as the phrase 'lacks sparkle'.

In a conversation with an agent recently, who said both of those things (along with some other very lovely feedback and suggestions for possible improvements for Rurik), I was given a challenge to try to find 'sparkle' ingredients.

Said agent asked me to re-read some of my favourite children's stories and try to identify why I liked them so much. Was it the characters? The action? The dialogue? Then, look at what I considered to be the exciting bits in Rurik and decide whether I could see the same things there - and if not, how would I change what was already written?

I find this SO hard to do! I don't know why I enjoy certain books rather than others! I just know that I like it or I don't - if I get sucked in, it's generally because of a mixture of things.

I do know that what I don't like reading - and therefore avoid writing - include some of the following;

1. Long descriptions of people or places (I want to see action!)
2. Characters with stilted dialogue (Oh, Mrs Smith, do you remember that he pursued me to the woods? Oh yes, he chased you for half a mile over Farmer Fairley's fields and you were quite muddy when you got home, were you not?)
3, Convenient storylines (and then the butler appeared with the same knife in his hand so he was the murderer)
4. Ping-pong dialogue (Are you OK? Yes I'm OK. Are you sure? Yes, of course I'm sure - will you stop fussing? I'm not fussing, I'm concerned)
5. Detailed descriptions of action scenes (Jim's right fist thrust upwards as his left leg kicked out towards the bloated stomach of his attacker. The impact jarred Jim to the core but he followed through with a side chop to the larynx...)
6. Cliffhanger endings (The mystery was solved. 'But you are not my son,' Father said. My whole world had just fallen apart. The End.)

Working on the flip side then, that must mean that generally, I like...
1. Lots of subtle little details about people and places that bring them alive.
2. Dialogue that's realistic.
3. A plot that carries me onwards all the time and then makes me go 'oh! I didn't see that coming, but it's so obvious now!'
4. Action that isn't necessarily a fight scene.
5. A complete story - something that ties up enough loose ends to come to a logical conclusion but also leaves enough strands to weave into a new story at a later date.

I thought - hoped - I included these things in my own writing, but feedback continually shows I'm falling short somewhere.

I wonder how much of the problem comes from the fact that as a child, I read 'nice' books? They were gentle stories which took you on fantasy adventures, unlike the rollercoaster rides of action which seem to be pretty popular today. Off the top of my head, I'm remembering the Magic Faraway Tree, Olga da Polga, King of the Copper Mountain...I can certainly see that 'gentler' element in my own creations. Don't get me wrong - I'm not averse to a bit of Alex Rider, or Skulduggery Pleasant, or Artemis Fowl, but I do get exhausted reading them because of their relentless pace! As a result, I don't write that kind of story - my pacing ebbs and flows.

I suppose the question is, are there enough children today who still appreciate a 'gentle' read? Or will I need to change what appears to be my natural (gentler) writing style to fit the (faster paced) market to stand any chance of reasonable success?


  1. I don't know if you're on mumsnet, but on the Children's Books Forum there are often calls for something different to the relentless diet of spies, zombies, wham-bam action and the rest. I know that's probably coming from the mums, but I'm convinced that many children feel the same way. Why are certain classic stories still so popular? I feel that many of today's books lack a certain emotional depth as the characters are too busy fighting and teleporting and shape-shifting to pause for any self-reflection. Perhaps if you think about your writing adding something that the majority of books don't offer these days - humour, emotional depth - on top of a rattling good story, that's the way to go. Finally, there are real differences in attention span and how children consume media these days (even though these are often exaggerated) which shouldn't be ignored.

    P.S. Nothing I've read from you has ever "lacked sparkle" as far as I'm concerned!

  2. I don't think you lack sparkle either! And I've never read anyone who describes so effortlessly and so beautifully in such a visual/colourful way. I still think that part of it is about landing on the right desk at the right time! And I think there should always be variety in children's fiction - so, yes, there is a market for pacey, high speed action thrillers but surely children want to engage with more emotional. 'gentler' books too? As an adult reader, if I read something fast-paced, I usually end up reading something more thoughtful next. I would hesitate to try and make your writing be something that you are not entirely comfortable being....?

  3. Aw, Spi, Mandy...bless you both! x

    Have to say, I'm not sure I've got the emotional depth bit cracked yet; I'm trying to apply a character arc to my current WIP, but only time will tell if I manage to pull it off.

    And I'm beginning to realise that my abilities may well have limitations, so this could be as good as I get; 'nice' might just be my perfect style!