Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Creative writing mentoring part 2

Where it all began: the fishing hut in the first page of my novel

 I was downhearted when I wrote my previous post. The key message that a session of creative writing mentoring had revealed to me, I felt, was that I was that I had barked up the wrong tree by trying to label my first novel as ‘young adult,’ and letting this influence the content and style as I wrote. In sum, my novel seemed to sit so far away from publishers’ expectations of what a young adult book should be like, that I faced a rewrite that would be a different book.

In the second session, part of a mentoring package I won on the strength of the first page, I admitted as much to my mentor. But despite this negative start, we had an extremely productive hour together. I outlined the plot revisions that I had sketched out between our meetings, that would make the story stronger even if I couldn’t face a stylistic overhaul. That set the creative juices flowing on both sides, and my mentor helped me to find ways of solving other problems that would support this plot without making compromises I was uncomfortable with.

 I’ll give two examples, really to show how engaged my mentor was with me and my novel, and how much input she was able to give in such a short time.

I had written about teenagers, in the modern world, but had not given them mobile phones or computers even though a late plot twist depended on smugglers using mobiles. This was because I personally find people texting and emailing in novels dull and somehow cringey, even though we all do it in real life, especially if it is not necessary for the plot. My mentor suggested that, given I wanted my main character to feel isolated anyway, and he already lives in a small town somewhere a lot like the Isle of Man, I could move his family home out of the town into the countryside, where mobile signal is difficult to get at all, and perhaps the broadband isn’t reliable either. This would create frustration (good) and get in the way of joining in with his friends’ activities (good)

In this second session I expressed my worry that the protagonist, a fourteen year old boy, does not really have a ‘thing.’ By that I mean something that he feels gives him identity, or defines him both to himself and the reader. He has no passion (a sport, a skill, a plan for the future), and this troubles him. I wanted the change he undergoes as a character to include, if not the discovery of a ‘thing,’ at least the possibility of one. This seemed to me to be something that mattered at that age, but by attempting realism by making my character lack a defining ‘thing,’ it made him harder to access for the reader. My mentor pointed out that, given he already spends time alone roaming the landscape around his home, it would make sense if he had acquired, without really noticing, an in depth knowledge of the coast – its caves and secret paths, features that are not on the map. In a novel that involves drug smugglers using the coast, and whom the protagonist is attempting to thwart, this would be a genuinely useful device. It is also exactly the sort of skill/knowledge that a person doesn’t notice they have, or thinks nothing of, until someone else is impressed and points it out to them. His knowledge could more emphatically save his friends and the day at the novel’s climax, as well as developing the character’s sense of himself.

Many other ideas came out of this session, and after much brainstorming and plotting I really am considering a rewrite. This is positive but scary, mainly because of the time it might take. I’m just beginning to embark on a Creative Writing PhD (a story for another day), and I want to move forward with my new stories, but I have a feeling this one is not going to leave me alone. For anyone considering shelling out on a mentoring package, though, I’d say that if you’re prepared to put in a lot of work, and if you really want to improve what you’ve written, it would be a worthwhile investment.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Young Adult dreams - writing and writing for publishers

Does your age determine what you like to read?

I’ve been away from this blog for a few weeks, time spent musing but not in a way I could quite articulate. Forced to explain myself to a friend yesterday, I managed to spit out at least a version of what has been getting my creative spirits down since last I wrote.

My previous post described a first encounter with a creative writing mentor, supplied to me by Adventures in Fiction after the first page of a novel I wrote won their competition. They have a clear remit: to work to get your manuscript into as publishable a state as possible. There is no doubt that the advice my mentor gave me was designed to do exactly this, based on a set of assumptions: that we had to turn this novel into something that was recognisably ‘young adult,’ aimed at a definite age range as determined by book shop shelves, and subscribing to a genre that already exists.

I’m not completely ignorant of this ‘young adult’ category. I have spent many an awkward hour hovering in the new teenage section of the local library, trying to reach past languishing youths on computers to grab the actual books. But of course, I have read ‘young adult’ books that appeal to my tastes, those that are both literary as well as emotional, that exploit either normal or semi-magical settings as opposed to gang-ridden violent thrillers that deploy the word ‘angry’ three times in one paragraph. The books I found there that I loved, and which influenced my own novel with a teenage protagonist, were ones by David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Siobhan Dowd. Often these writers do not play by the rules (but of course, if you are David Almond, you can get away with it).

The more I’ve thought about what I would have to do to my novel to make it conform to publishers’ expectations about ‘young adult’ books in specific age ranges and genres, the more I have been forced towards the conclusion that I would have to effectively write a completely new novel using some elements from the original. And I haven’t the heart to do it. It is not that I feel at all precious about my story, or my words. I agree that what I have written not only fails to be commercially viable, but also needs quite a lot of honing to make it fully satisfying even for me.

Where my heart gives out is at the point of commercial pandering. I have tried this before, and failed; the novel I began after The Tarney Scalp was consciously designed to contain ‘young adult’ appeal, and that is precisely the reason why I could never bring myself to finish it. For whatever reasons (and I think I know what they are) I am just not designed to write the kind of novel that fits this very precise ‘young adult’ category. I can’t do genres. I am programmed to prefer mild surface content with the real drama seething beneath (too much Thomas Hardy), and depictions of behaviour that leave almost all the work to the reader in discovering motivations (a dollop of Kazuo Ishiguro). If this kind of thing is not marketable as ‘young adult’ fiction, then I’m happy to write without that label. If, on the other hand, a fourteen year old happens upon a story of mine and enjoys it, then I would be very happy.