Authenticity

I’ve returned from an exhilarating weekend of stories at the international Storytelling Festival Beyond the Border, St Donat’s, South Wales. Listening to oral stories is, for me, important and enriching and makes a fine change from the written word. Some of my highlights at this year’s festival were:

Ben Haggarty keeping his audience spellbound on Sunday morning in an open- air cliff top setting. He dressed all in black and told tales of the devil, very well suited to his commanding tone and presence.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

Ben Haggarty enthralling the crowd.

On Saturday, luscious Italian Paola Balbi wore red, her rich voice and swaying hips adding colour to her stories of medieval naughtiness. Beowulf, from The Telling Theatre of Denmark was part-theatre, part-telling: spare, virile and unmistakably Scandinavian. Eerie percussion accompanied Grendel’s passage amongst the trees, through the squelching bog, into the feasting hall and the Danish tellers Andersen and Ejsing used their words with all the precision of a singing sword.

The Telling Theatre's magnificent 'Beowulf'.

The Telling Theatre’s magnificent ‘Beowulf’.

I chatted with Dorset storyteller Martin Maudsley about sharing stories and how a storyteller can take ownership of a traditional tale. They craft and embellish it until, by twists and turns, it becomes something new and exciting, unmistakably their own, in much the same way as a writer strives to find their ‘voice’ on the page. The resulting performance/creative piece has an honesty and truthfulness which audiences can’t help but respond to. All in all, the message is: be yourself, write from the heart and find a voice that’s truly your own (we knew that anyway, but I guess it’s always good to be reminded).

The importance of authenticity was also flagged up by Melvin Burgess in the talk he gave to MA students and tutors at Bath Spa University this summer. He spoke about his process of interviewing ‘real people’ as part of his research for novels such as Junk, Nicholas Dane and Kill All Enemies. Many of the characters in these books are so powerful because the author has taken time to understand the people behind the stories, and the bittersweet voices of Gemma, Tar and Billy are some of the most authentic I’ve read.

JA

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What Makes Frozen a Hit? A Writer’s Point of View.

frozen

Children appear to grow up very fast these days. They look and talk as if they are older than their years; they aspire to be adults and there are lots of computer games, films, youtube videos… and even books that tap into this aspiration. But my experience of being a mother is that underneath, children are no older than we were at their age. For example, when my son was ten all the boys took a teddy on the school trip to France.

Disney also realise that kids are still kids, and that there is big money to be made from selling child-like things. The animated movie Frozen, about two princesses, a talking snowman, a young man and his pet reindeer, made nearly $1.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue. It also sold 18 million DVDs in 2014 .

It is not only preschoolers that have become obsessed with Frozen. Just a couple of days ago I overheard a girl saying to her dad, “You can be Elsa and I’ll be Anna.” She was about six-years-old, the same age as my nephew who also loved it. At my son’s junior school, children who were seven and eight were talking about the film constantly when it was first released ─ creating buzz ─ many of the nine-to-eleven year olds went to see it too (for their siblings!). In an article on How Frozen Took Over the World, the author Maria Konnikova talks about a seven-year-old who knew she would love it, even though she hadn’t seen it yet, by what she’d been told by her friends. Parents also like it. I asked a Dad who had seen the movie, the sing-along movie version and had also bought the DVD, why the film was so appealing.  He said, “We like the innocence of it. It’s just good family entertainment.”  Konnikova suggests that part of its success “may have just as much to do with parents as with kids. Kids aren’t just liking it more; parents are taking their kids to see it more.” Perhaps parents don’t want their kids growing up too fast; they value childhood.

As you can imagine, business analysts and reporters have tried to identify the factors that made the film so successful (see references below). If you know what worked, you can replicate it. Right? The pre-release marketing campaign was designed to appeal to a wide audience and focused on what was unique about the story; the film was released in November (which is apparently the optimal release timing) and, cleverly, Disney allowed the very singable music to spread through social media; they didn’t crack down on the millions of youtube tributes. It has two strong, not simpering, princesses that children can relate to; the story’s a bit different for Disney ─ an act of self-sacrifice saves the day rather than true love’s first kiss ─  it’s about the relationship between two sisters and growing up; there’s the allure of magic, a wisecracking sidekick snowman and the film has the feel-good factor… However, what the experts all agree on is that you could put all these ingredients into another story and it wouldn’t necessarily work. I don’t think it will stop animation companies from trying though!

I think book publishers could learn a lot from Disney. Imagine a manuscript arriving on an editor’s desk about a bunch of toys that deeply want children to play with them, and the story is told from the point of view of a cowboy doll. Would the publisher say, “It won’t appeal to the readership; they’ll think they’re too old for it” or “Great ─ we’ll call it Toy Story”.

I’d love to know your thoughts …

Thanks for reading my blog!

Kim

References

  1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frozen_(2013_film)
  2. http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-frozen-took-over-the-world
  3. http://time.com/3656230/why-kids-cant-resist-frozen/
  4. http://metro.co.uk/2014/12/05/kids-wont-let-it-go-why-disneys-frozen-is-everywhere-this-christmas-4975028/
  5. http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/why-is-frozen-such-a-big-hit.html

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Exploring ‘How To Write’ advice

If you’re setting out to make a Victoria sponge for the first time it’s wise to follow a recipe; one egg too few or a laudable aim of cutting down on the sugar spells disaster. A writer, on the other hand, might shy away from following advice. Writing is, after all, an intuitive, creative, complex and highly personal activity and the notion of looking at a website that calls itself Ten Ridiculously Simple Tips For Writing A Book might seem an affront to that idea. Certainly the advice to Get a notebook and Put your thinking cap on (the latter accompanied by a really clunky graphic of a guy tapping his teeth with a pencil) is probably a bit too obvious. Some sources of wisdom seem over keen to use the words don’t and never. Call me stubborn but when someone says Don’t anthropomorphise animals I might just give it a go. (And of course everyone can think of wonderful examples of talking animals!) Even Wikihow can help the aspiring writer for children age 5-7: Use bigger words but be careful to explain them so as not to frustrate new readers. But Beatrix Potter’s famous example of a sophisticated word for younger readers surely needed no explanation when she wrote of the Flopsy Bunnies: They did not awake because the lettuces had been so soporific.

Persevere, though, and you can mine a rich seam of wisdom in a really worthwhile site called Brainpickings, which explores the more philosophical aspects of writing and is packed with fascinating insights of a less prescriptive kind. There are various schools of thought about the rightness of always bearing your target audience in mind. As a writer who has always struggled with the question Who is your story for? Maurice Sendak offers reassurance here. He says he doesn’t write for children; he writes, and then someone says That’s for children! CS Lewis (on the same website) is vitriolic about the tendency of some adults to downgrade children’s literature and to treat adulthood as a sort of existential upgrade, using childishness as a put-down. This is music to the ears of someone who occasionally finds being an adult tiresome!

Slightly more contemporary advice comes from a book simply called Write, published by Guardian Books. I can forgive the lists of Dos and Don’ts because the contributors are so entertaining. This from Roddy Doyle: Do keep a Thesaurus, but in the shed…or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg: horse, ran, said. Stephen King was in a similar groove when he told us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and Mark Twain was famously sorry for having written a long letter because he hadn’t had time to make it shorter. Margaret Attwood assumes we’re several steps further along the path to becoming a serious writer when she gives us advice about travelling: Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

If you read enough of this kind of stuff you could be left with the impression that the whole world is waiting to tell you how to write, how not to write, what to write about, how long to spend at it, what to eat, what music to listen to (Schubert, according to Colm Toibin), what to do for inspiration (make a pie!). I reckon that if you think about something too much you become frozen with terror and therefore the only advice that I’m prepared to take seriously is this: just get on with it. After I’ve sorted my sock drawer and e-mailed the Council about the house where the rubbish is never ever left out at the right time. Now, I wonder who lives there?

Julia Draper -Author of The Paupers of Langden

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How to Write a Bestseller

Electrik Inc is always on the lookout for good advice that helps us hone our writing skills. I loved this Ted Talk video with literary agent, Jonny Geller, about what makes a bestseller, and what agents/publishers look for in new writers. Think about his comments when you’re editing your own work because everyone wants to sell their books and the more we get right, the better it is for our readers as well as our bank balances.

There are lots of how-to-write-a-bestseller tips, from Dean Koontz to Matthew Sparkes writing in The Telegraph on how scientists developed an app in 2014 that analysed best sellers. The findings were very interesting but guaranteed success remains elusive. And so the advice is just that: advice. Remember, what works for one author may not work for you.

I especially like how Mr Geller looks for the “space between the sentences” in any piece he reads. There is often a temptation for writers to give too much description, too much information… I’m always advising my clients to trust their readers to fill in some of the blanks themselves.

Mr Geller’s five-word sentence example is excellent too – a fun way of learning the importance of varying sentence length.

Personally, I would add story to the list. Not the plot or pacing (though they’re important too), but the story: is it strong enough to hold the reader. I always think of that in my own writing. Will the reader care enough to keep reading to find out how this story unfolds – and ends. For me, story is vital. Of course great characters, tight prose and sharp dialogue help, but if I don’t connect to the story, I lose interest. Whether I’m assessing manuscripts, reading for a publishing house or writing my own novels, I keep that in mind.

Jonny Geller also mentions how it all comes down to us, the reader. That reading “makes us better people”, that original writing is so often harder to place because publishers find original material “very hard to market”. Yes, some of us have figured that out already.🙂

The five things Mr Geller looks for are:

The bridge: does it take us from the familiar to the new?

Voice: the unique sound of the writer, which is nothing without the next part:

Craft: writing is difficult. Amateurs and professionals alike do draft after draft to get it right. Does it have resonance? Will it reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?

The gap: the space between the sentences. The gap the writer leaves for the reader to inhabit.

There’s lots more. Jonny Geller has a natural style that’s easy to listen to without feeling you’re being lectured. Check it out.

KAY LEITCH   co-founder of Electrik Inccropped-electrikinc_logo3_colour1.png
Author of  Treasure This
kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com

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C S Lewis and The Inklings

One of the first books I ever owned as a child was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis. Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children – my age and clearly the heroine! – won my heart, especially when no-one would believe her about the existence of Narnia. I re-read the book several times over, and whenever I crept with her through the fur coats to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe collectors editionthat icy world gripped by permanent winter, it sent tingles down my spine. It became a sort of touchstone for what I was looking for in a good story. Though I grew up disagreeing with some of its themes, as an eight-year-old the religious symbolism went right over my head. Aslan shaking his golden mane to bring back spring was, for me, about the magnificence of nature. What the book provided was a sense of wonder at the ordinary world. I made dens in my own wardrobe and lived in a land of make-believe dreaming up stories about seemingly mundane everyday things that turned out to be extraordinary. The iconic lamppost had worked its magic.

So it’s no exaggeration to say The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of the books that turned me into a writer and led me to become a member of Electrik Inc. We refer to ourselves as ‘inklings’, a fun nickname which isn’t only about digital ink and indie publishing, the group’s purpose. It also conveys a sense of magic just around the corner; that goosebump moment when your imagination is on the verge of something fabulous. How strange then to discover that the great C S Lewis himself was also an Inkling – along with his friend and drinking buddy, the author of a vastly different yet equally remarkable fantasy series, J R R Tolkein …

‘The Inklings’ were a small literary circle, mostly academics of Oxford University, who met every Thursday evening in Lewis’s college rooms to read aloud and critique the books they were each writing. Like us, they were a fellowship of friends as much as writing colleagues. Among the group was the lawyer, philosopher and author Owen Bardfield, and it was to his daughter, Lucy, that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was dedicated.

The Eagle and Child, St Giles, OxfordRather more informal meetings took place in The Eagle and Child which became a favourite haunt every Tuesday for many years between 1939 and 1962. On a recent trip to Oxford I decided to visit the pub to pay homage. It’s a must for Narnia fans. Built around 1650, The Bird and Baby, as it’s also known, is a warren of small wood-panelled rooms that feel a bit like the compartments of an old-style railway carriage. ‘The Rabbit Room’, where The Inklings met, is at the back and the walls are full of memorabilia. Most intriguing of all is a framed letter signed by eight of them and addressed to the pub landlord, Charlie Blagrove. ‘The undersigned, having just partaken of your house, have drunk your health,’ it declares.

Part of framed letter signed by The Inklings

Part of a letter signed by The Inklings on March 11, 1948

It’s probably safe to assume that a few beers had been consumed at the time of signing. Lewis’s handwriting looks especially wobbly. The document is dated 11th March 1948, the year he completed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. We’re told by his biographer that he read it aloud to his friends. And apparently, Tolkein loathed it.  The creator of The Lord of the Rings was meticulous in the way he crafted Middle Earth and didn’t approve of Lewis’s jumbling of different mythologies.

Were feathers ruffled at The Bird and Baby? As an Inkling used to forthright editorial debate I couldn’t help imagining the conversation…:‘My dear fellow, you’ve got a lion, a witch, a magical wardrobe, various fauns and centaurs, a pair of talking beavers, even an appearance by Father Christmas. It’s wild beyond belief. Simplify, that’s the ticket. Give Narnia some rules, for heaven’s sake.’

A jowly photo of Lewis stares down in the Rabbit Room. I could almost hear him harrumphing into his pint. ‘At least it’s about ordinary children. Your protagonist lives in a hole, has pointy ears and hairy feet!’

The Eagle and Child pub signI must have been intoxicated – not by drink, honest! Simply by being in Oxford, that most hallowed of literary places – but, I swear, as I left and headed along St Giles something about the pub sign was different. The child, who at first glance, looked like he was being abducted by a horrible huge bird, was actually smiling … Whatever you think of the world view underlying Narnia (I’d much rather help build Philip Pullman’s ‘republic of heaven’) it’s nevertheless a fairy tale that expanded the imaginations of a generation of children like me.

The lamp light shines on, creating new inklings.

Wishing you a wondrous spring.

Lion

(Wikimedia commons) Photo by Trisha Shears

 

Jenny Landor, Co-founder

11.3.2016

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Favourite Quotes on Writing

Having completed my challenge to blog a book quote a day for 365 days, I thought I would want a rest from finding quotes for a while – but I’m collecting more than ever! I love them. Here are some of my favourite quotes on writing for anyone working on a book at the moment (including me). I hope you find them inspiring.

virginia woolf

 So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters.

Virginia Woolf

Explore the reason that bids you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, ‘Must I write?’

Rainer Maria Rilke

 You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Will Self

 Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly. Only if you do that can you hope to make the reader feel a particle of what you, the writer, have known and feel compelled to share.

Anne Rice

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

Ernest Hemingway

 Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.

Stephen King

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Virginia Woolf

 Write the kinds of stories you like to read. If you don’t love what you’re writing, no one else will.

Meg Cabot

 Have fun.

Anne Enright

 Does anyone have any writing quotes they’d like to share? I’d love to hear them.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Kim

Author of St Viper’s School for Super Villains

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How to Earn a Living From Writing

Do you want to make money from your writing? I know… silly question. Or is it?

Regular readers of this blog will know I wrote recently that I believe we should write from the heart (December 2015: What Waterstones Can Teach Writers), work on improving our craft, and dare to be ourselves. I still believe that. There are too many so-so books out there, written by authors who’ve spotted a bandwagon and scrambled over each other to get on to it. Well, we’re all trying to earn a living in this world so I’m not going to throw stones…

But when I read Andrew Crofts’ piece in the Guardian online, I saw that he advises writers to “stop writing only what you want to write”. I thought it worth sharing with you because he makes so many valid points about the difference between what he calls “passion projects” (novels you want to write) and actually earning a living from writing. Sadly, there is a difference. Where I advocate “writing what you want and being true to yourself” (i.e. risk staying poor🙂 ), he takes a much more practical stance and suggests if you want to make enough money to support yourself from writing, you should “gain access to information other people are willing to pay for or provide a service that others need to buy”. Good advice, though it did take him 20 years to hit six figures. But at least he hit it!

As ever, it’s about balance. If you can balance writing professionally, as Mr Crofts does, with projects for other people that earn you a living, then you can afford to do you own “passion projects” that might not make much money but will bring you enormous creative satisfaction. That way, you can have the best of both worlds.

Kay Leitch
Author of   Treasure This
Kaywritesheretoo.wordpress.com

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