Monday, 20 May 2013

The Writer's Waiting Game

Look at Facebook. Tweet.

Check e-mails....again.

Pay attention to neglected children/partner/job/friends.

Then sigh, pace, flip through the diary pages--how many days has it been now?

And do it all again.

I think it was Alan Bennett who said, "Writing is mostly making cups of tea."

But there are two types of tea drinking for writers. There's the "creative", mulling things over, taking a break from the desk or paper or screen, the stretching and yawning reward cup of tea.

Then there's the "waiting" cup of  tea. Altogether different. This stewed and bitter brew is just a time-killing cup of tea, and it doesn't taste nearly as delicious.

The waiting that I'm talking about is, of course, is that killer time that happens after a work in progress is nominally "finished."  It's waiting to get feedback from your critique group or hear from an agent, publisher or a competition judge. Ultimately, it's waiting for judgement--rejection or acceptance, yes or no.

When you're waiting to get a response from a query, or even to hear back from the wonderful agent you feel so lucky to have, time does strange things. Think back to being a child, and having to wait for your birthday, or the start of the summer holidays, or Christmas.

In Minnesota, where I grew up, my community followed the Nordic custom of opening presents on Christmas Eve. This made for some lovely memories--a roaring fire, Christmas tree lights twinkling in the darkness and, outside the window, starry skies and clean white snow.

But it also made for a long, excruciating, almost unbearable wait till the evening. My parents had plenty of suggestions for passing the time--go play in the snow, take a nap, help out in the kitchen (as if!). Nothing worked. Timed just dragged.

So now, years later, I try the same thing, looking for similar ideas that will distract me during the weeks of waiting to hear back from my agent or get news from a publisher. Playing in the snow? Well, maybe I'll go on a series of long walks, or even a short holiday. Taking a nap? OK, I'll try reading. Help out in the kitchen? God knows those cupboards could use a good clean...

What else helps?

Starting a new piece of writing, obviously, but I'm still rather attached to the piece I've just finished, so instead of starting something new, I go back to my manuscript and do what I call "scab-picking." You know--tweaks and tiny changes that are pointless at best, damaging at worst.

Blogging does--I've made this post "last" by writing two words a day, clever me!

But generally, there's nothing to be done but carry on with life, and with writing.

And tweet, of course.

And check that inbox one more time....

while drinking a cup of tea.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A Writer's Voice

Last week, after a lovely night out, my daughter and I came upon a busker in Brighton's Lanes. It was quite late, very cold, and a young man was sitting on a pile of blankets, bundled up in a heavy coat. He was also playing a guitar and singing an old Van Morrison song, "Crazy Love."

He had a wonderful voice--the kind that forces you to stop and listen, no matter how cold it is or how tired you are, and stay until the end of the song, even if it means missing the last bus. There was no other audience for him--the Lanes were empty--so I did what seemed appropriate at the time. While my daughter dropped a few pounds into his guitar case, I dropped in some harmonies.

Yes, I'm a sometimes singer, and the writing "break" I blogged about a few months ago happily re-kindled my desire to sing and perform. Once I started writing again, I stopped, though--seems I can only exercise one type of "voice" at a time.

Well, the late night, back alley singing felt good. I think it probably sounded OK, too, but mostly it felt good (at least to me!).

Re-wind to a few weeks earlier, when I was at the launch for SCBWI's  Undiscovered Voices 2014. It was a great chance to meet up with fellow UV winners, all of whom are now friends, and to meet other writers and illustrators, who hope to be chosen for the next edition of Undiscovered Voices.

The selection panels were there, too--editors and agents (including my wonderful agent, Sallyanne Sweeney) giving helpful information about what makes a good book, and what they hoped to find in a writer's (or illustrator's) work.

For the writing panel, it all came down to one word--voice.

They talked about other things--personal preferences in genre, types of books they didn't particularly want to read--but really, the only thing that truly mattered to them was voice.

As writers, we hear this time and time again. But what is a writer's "voice"?  How do you know if you have one? If you don't have one, what can you do?

At the launch, several suggestions were made--you can read them on SCBWI's Words and Pictures Online Magazine (and get information about SCBWI and UV2014--the competition opens 15 July!)

For me, my writer's voice comes from the same place that my singing voice does--the inside. Harmonising with the guy in the Lanes reminded me of how singing "feels", as much as how it sounds. It reminded me where my brain has to go, what my body has to do, and helped me remember the magical, strangely intimate thing that happens when two or more voices "connect".

Singing requires a kind of suspension of self, where your body and the words and the music create something that comes from you, but isn't you...yet is.

I think the writer's voice is similar. There's a stillness that has to occur, a concentration, an internalisation, a connection to be made if the voice is to resonate.

But who or what is a writer connecting to? The imagined reader? An editor?

The first connection I usually make is to character (although "character" could mean story, or genre, or setting, I suppose...) Writing feels to me like putting on a new skin, and working from the inside out, in the way that singing is also putting on the "skin" of both songwriter and the interpretative you-that-is-not-you. It's also like the way an actor "gets into character". For a YA or children's writer, this means channeling, usually, a child or teenager's point of view. And here, the actor analogy comes into play even further. To create a role, an actor has to examine herself--often going into deep memory--but must also be a keen observer of  the world around her, taking note of how real people talk, walk, think. To have a voice that is true, a children's writer should have a long memory, not just for incidents or experiences or details, but for emotional situations that were awkward or painful or funny or terrifying.

Like other artists, writers have to use their own lives and experiences, but then shake off the the shackles and limitations of self so that something else can play out on the page. This "something else" doesn't happen all the time--it takes hard work, perseverance  plenty of practice. But to me, this is the "connection" that makes characters and stories seem true and alive, and makes the elusive writer's "voice" take off and sing.