Monthly Archives: February 2012

How Shrunk happened

We were standing there, on Swanage pier, on a windy afternoon in August.

All of us were cold, most of us were thinking of tea shops, and at least one of us was wondering how on earth you could describe this as a holiday.

“Wouldn’t it be brilliant if you could just look at things through your hand, like a camera, and click, they’d be small,” said cheepy chirpy Rufus.  And that was it, except of course, for actually writing the book.


In praise of short words.

One of my aims, as a children’s writer, is to write something that a reluctant reader actually wants to read; and finds easy to read.

We have three heavy duty readers in the house, and one person who finds THE PHOENIX (wonderful weekly comic) a challenge.  She’ll read the Beano, and Tintin, and love the illustrations in Otteline, but presented with a chapter book: “I’m too tired,” “I’ve read that one,” or just a wrinkled up nose.

Reading has been a monumental struggle for her.  She is dyslexic, and has had the benefit of a specialised school where she’s made huge strides, but she’s also reluctant.  She wants us to read to her, so we do.  She likes audio books, so we take them from the library, borrow them from friends. She can listen to Dickens, Bronte, and Shakespeare. She wants access to the stories, but the mechanics of decoding one word after the other and remembering what they were, for long enough to enjoy a paragraph, is still impossibly dreary.

Just occasionally, when I read two chapters from a book, and can’t face reading a third, she’ll read a paragraph to me.  If we’re lucky, no-one’s put in a word like “chandelier” or “inquisitive”, and we might get through a whole page, but more often than not, she hits a line of difficult spellings and uneven punctuation; and falters.

There are books written for children like her, but not only do they seem to be written for boys, she sees them as “school books”. They don’t look as lovely and beguiling as the other books, the difficult books, and people don’t go to festivals to see those writers.  Other girls, in other schools are reading “proper books” and underneath it all, she wants to do that too.

Up until now, and she’s nearly 11, she’s never read a whole story to herself.

So writers all, please remember the reluctant reader.  Don’t put her off on the first page with a casual “unique”, or a throwaway “inaudible”.  Lure her, entice her, treat her to a few sentences of short words, and build up her confidence.  In those first few words, excite her appetite,  and hold her attention long enough for her to fall into the book.

If you can keep her there for half an hour, you might yet get her to experience the glory of reading; and I for one, will be very grateful.

The best writing is cake.

‘And, could you just write us a little synopsis?’ says the editor you’re hoping to impress.

‘Sure,’ you say,  breaking into a cold sweat, ‘by when?’

‘Oh, soon as…’ she says and you know you’re heading for a week of sleepless nights, and deleted sentences as you suddenly remember that you simply must include that trip to the Moon, or that Wicked Stepmother or the fact that the whole thing takes place in Berlin.

At college, we were told a synopsis should only be a page long, at the most a page and half and that it must include an emotional plot as well as a mechanical plot. We duly shrank our manuscripts into a few pithy paragraphs. We universally agonized. But on the whole, we had actually written the stories, we had something to base our synopses on. The synopsis was a flag to hang out to attract the attention of the passing Agent/Editor.

Now, as a nearly published writer, I find myself in a totally different position. The synopsis has become a taster, conveying the plot, characters, and tone of the work and it is written before the manuscript. It’s a probable summation of what will happen in the book, but it simply can’t be the actual thing, and it seems, its nature depends on who it is for.

My first experience of this was in June. I wrote an overnight one page synopsis of a story I’d pitched to a delightful editor the day before. She was enthusiastic, I was enthusiastic. I even wrote three chapters. “Great,’ said everyone at the publishing house, they got the characters and the tone, but “what actually happens?’ So I wrote it again, but longer this time, with more of the mechanical details. Again, I got the response “but what actually happens?’ In the end, the story found its home, but only when my synopsis had reached the stupendous size of 3,500 words.

As synopses go, it was pretty epic.

So, when the next lovely editor asks me for: “just a page on those two ideas”, what do I do? I go home and write something long, and detailed, and slightly tedious that tells everyone at her end, exactly what is going to happen in the story. It might be that she’d be perfectly happy with a few paragraphs, but I’m not taking any chances.

However, I don’t think either editor, nor my agent, would be attracted by these wordy tales in the first instance. They’re simply too heavy, like books without dialogue. In order to pique the interest of someone in the publishing industry, who let’s face it is reading dozens of manuscripts and thousands of synopses, short and pithy has to be best. And tone and character are probably more interesting than bald mechanics.

I like to think of a synopsis as a piece of cake.

The very best are small, multi layered, and slightly sweet, but not sickly. Held together by a little perfectly structured sponge, they contain sharp zesty mouthfuls, light puffs of cream and only a hint of raspberry jam.

But this cake will have something about it. That fresh red strawberry, or that warm curl of chocolate, placed, just so, that makes a person want to own it.