Tag Archives: storytelling

Effective Storytelling

Today’s a day when I’m up to my back teeth in stuff to do, and sadly – because I haven’t yet managed to perfect the art of bilocation – something has to give. That thing will have to be the blog, unfortunately, which will, perforce, be barely more than a thought.

It’ll be a good thought, though. It’s one I came up with all my by own self, too.

Image: takenfilm.wikia.com Taken (2008), dir: Pierre Morel, EuropaCorp Distribution.

Image: takenfilm.wikia.com
Taken (2008), dir: Pierre Morel, EuropaCorp Distribution.

Have y’all seen the film Taken, released back in 2008 and starring Ireland’s finest, Liam Neeson? I’m going to assume you have, because it seems as though this relatively low-budget affair took over the world a few years back, pretty much becoming the movie, spawning goodness knows how many memes and jokes and so on. It’s a pretty good movie, I think – but then I enjoy most anything with Liam Neeson in it, so that’s no surprise.

Anyway. The point of all this is in the image I’ve used above, taken from an early scene in the film. You may remember it as being the scene wherein Mills, whom we’ve watched paying for a birthday present for his teenage daughter in instalments, wraps up said present in brightly coloured paper. I think this scene – just those few tiny seconds when Mills is wrapping the present – is one of the best examples of characterisation I’ve ever seen on the big (or small) screen.

Why, you might ask? It’s just a big bloke with some naff wrapping paper, surely? But no.

I love that the director chose to show us – even if it’s only for a second – the precision and painstaking exactitude with which Liam Neeson’s character wraps the present. You could literally shave on the edge he creates in the paper, and it all lines up exactly. You see him checking the ‘line of sight’, to make sure it’s neat, and you see the small grin of satisfaction when it’s all done. I think this scene is a particularly neat piece of visual storytelling because, at this point in the film, all we know about the character is that he has a teenager whose birthday is coming up, and that he’s short of cash.

But this present-wrapping scene tells us everything else we need to know.

Precision, exactness, attention to detail – just from watching him wrap a present we can infer that our Mr Mills is, or was, a military man and/or a person with high levels of concentration and focus. Now, of course, as movie watchers we’re familiar with Liam Neeson and the types of characters he plays – he doesn’t go in for playing poets much, let’s say. All his characters are butt-kicking types. But just put that aside for a moment and appreciate the sheer storytelling power contained in this tiny scene. I think it’s genius, and it shows how tiny details, seemingly innocuous, when skilfully utilised, can tell your story for you. Something we can all learn from, oui? Oui.

(And if this post-ette gives you a reason to re-watch Taken, then my real work here is done).

Resolution – Not Just for the New Year, Folks

I’ve recently come to a renewed appreciation of the power of a good ending.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Image: dailymail.co.uk

Over the past few days, Ireland has been gripped (well, all right. Perhaps that’s a bit over-the-top. Mildly interested, then) by a TV mini-series, which has been showing on our fine upstanding national broadcaster since Sunday night last. I was one of the many thousands of viewers who tuned in, night after night, hooked by the tale of a teenage girl who inexplicably vanishes from the bosom of her (fractured, and slightly weird) family, waiting patiently for the story to come to a Conclusion.

(If, by any chance, you were watching the same TV show and you managed to miss the final episode and you don’t want your televisual world to implode, you might want to stop reading at this point. Here‘s a fun thing for you to look at, instead. See you tomorrow, when I’m sure I’ll be discussing something non-controversial.)

If you’re still with me, let’s proceed. Please note: there will be spoilers.

So. This TV show was, by Irish standards at least, slickly produced and reasonably well acted. It showed Dublin as a hip, happening sort of place with its own fancy tram system and everything (get us! None of this ‘starvin’ for a spud’ nonsense any more), and several lovely cosmopolitan apartments. It featured an ultra-modern separated couple. It had hints of the movie ‘Taken’ (which also featured – of course – the most famous Irishman since Daniel O’Connell, our very own Liam Neeson!) in the frowning, ex-Army Ranger father character. It had a beautiful young mother character who was very well equipped in the crying department and who lived a super-swish lifestyle without any visible means of support. It had a mournful-looking little boy who nobody really cared about, which was terrible and Very Meaningful all at the same time. It hinted at Societal Issues, touching on things like immigration, organised crime, prostitution and underage people doing things that they shouldn’t really be doing in fancy nightclubs.

Nobody mentioned Mass. Or tea. Or shamrocks.

Feck it, anyway. Image: fatherted.wikia.org

Feck it, anyway.
Image: fatherted.wikia.org

So, in many ways, it was different from anything I’ve ever watched before in terms of a TV show cooked up, produced, and made in Ireland. The only Irish thing about it was that funding difficulties meant it was made over two years ago and we’re only getting to see it now, but that’s another story. Anyway, I watched it with great enjoyment, having fun spotting all the places I recognised and wondering if I’d see anyone I knew wandering around as an extra and trying to figure out how they made Dublin look so clean and tidy.

And then, last night, the final episode aired, and everything went a bit sideways.

Nothing was explained. No resolution was offered. I’m sure that plenty of choice words were hurled at TV screens in living rooms across the country as the credits rolled.

The show’s conclusion was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever seen on a small screen. If I may be permitted a small flight of pretension – I understand, artistically, what the makers of the show were trying to achieve by ending things the way they did. From a creative, oh-so-modern point of view, things were wrapped up perfectly. It didn’t play into the hands of expectation, norms were shattered, and the idea of perfect closure was told to take a long walk off a short pier. Rather more poignantly, from the perspective of how it really feels when a person goes missing, the ending of the show makes sense – and I understand all that.

But from the point of view of storytelling?

It’s important for stories to conclude. Even if things don’t work out the way you want, and even if certain things – important things – are left unexplained. My main problem with this particular TV show was the fact that, as well as the main storyline, so many side threads – subplots, interesting hints dropped during previous episodes, stories which started but sputtered out – were left to the viewer’s imagination in the long run. Sure, I get that when you’re investigating a person’s disappearance in real life, you have to cope with red herrings and false leads and information which doesn’t go anywhere at every step of the journey – but this wasn’t real life. This was a TV show. This was the kind of thing that people turn to for comfort, and for explanations, and for resolution. Leaving a storyline unfinished is like infesting people with an itch they can’t scratch. It goes further than irritation – it is profoundly disturbing.

The human psyche is programmed to need completion when it comes to a story arc. It’s not so much because an audience is curious to know what happened to these particular characters in this particular situation (though, doubtless that’s a large part of it); it’s more than that. Our need for an ending comes from a deep part of the brain, and it’s no coincidence that stories have been told by humans from our very earliest days, when the world was full of unexpected threats. Stories end because they are controllable – unlike life. Stories are utterly in thrall to human power, and it is completely within a person’s ability to affect and effect the movement and meaning of a story. In a world where nothing else seems to pay heed to humanity, where our power is regularly crushed out by nature or war or random tragedy, stories can be used like talismans to reflect back to us our perfected version of how the world should be. We need stories to end – even unsatisfactorily – because if they don’t, they might as well be real.

And nobody wants that.

I wish that this TV show had ended differently – even just slightly differently. I can accept the fact that the main thread of it couldn’t have a neat conclusion, and I understand that this is the only way it could have gone. But I’m irritated by the way it was done. I’m annoyed that the subplots, and the details, weren’t tied off, and that the viewers’ investment in the show – the effort put in to ferreting out connections and seeing the hints and wondering about images and motifs – wasn’t paid off. It’s irritating because it’s frightening, and because it says more about the chaotic nature of reality than anyone is comfortable facing up to. It was a clever artistic statement, sure – but a deeply upsetting one.

And a good lesson in how to anger an audience, too.

A Golden Age?

Here’s a question. Do you think children’s books these days are better than they used to be?

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Image: allsorts.typepad.com

Recently, I was looking through one of my bookshelves, just browsing – as you do – through some reading memories. I came upon a book I owned as an eleven-year-old, and I remembered loving it passionately, thinking of it for a long time as one of my favourite books. It’s an Irish book – Irish author, Irish publisher – and uses Irish mythology as the basis for its plot. It reimagines the story of the fairy woman Niamh Cinn-Óir (Niamh of the Golden Hair), and her human husband Oisín, whom she takes away to Tír Na n-Óg, the Land of Youth. It has beautiful illustrations, and an amazingly designed cover, and the sight of it brought back a lot of good memories. Best of all, the author of the book is still writing – he has published a prodigious amount of stories for children over the course of the last twenty or thirty years, most recently a fantastically imagined series about witchcraft and alchemy which I really enjoy – and so I grabbed it up and immediately started re-reading it, perhaps in an attempt to relive some of my childhood love for it.

Except – well. It wasn’t as good, not nearly as good, as I remembered.

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question - just in case! Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

Niamh and Oisin on horseback. This is not an illustration from the book in question – just in case!
Image: celticanamcara.blogspot.com

I do realise that many years have passed and lots of water has flowed under the bridge of my youth, and all that – but I’m the sort of person for whom that sort of thing doesn’t matter. I love children’s books, and I’d like to think I always will, even when my eyesight’s failing so badly that I need to get the Large Print editions of my favourite stories. I loved this story as a little girl, and I could see why – it had all the things I adored at the time, and which I’m still partial to now. Mythology, love, adventure, horses, monsters, and a brave little boy who faces his fears. So why didn’t I love it any more?

It was because of how the book was written, I think.

Reading this book reminded me of the stereotypical ‘bad’ essay: ‘And then this happened, and then that happened, and then, and then, and then…’ – it was, pretty much, a list of things happening, without any tension or subplots or dynamism. There was no characterisation – the brave little boy was brave at the beginning of the story, and he was brave at the end. Niamh and Oisín were unchanging throughout. Oisín, at one point, takes his leave of Niamh and she fears she’ll never see him again, but there is no emotion in their goodbye. I wasn’t expecting a lingering kissing scene, or anything of that ilk, but something would have been good. Children’s books are emotional, and one of the most significant things in a child’s life is learning about what it means to say goodbye – so this emotionless, businesslike farewell was puzzling to me. There is an encounter with a terrifying monster near the end of the book – or, at least, a monster who would be terrifying, if the author had allowed any sort of tension to creep into the story. The whole thing is told like a medieval chronicle. It’s essentially a list of things, a shopping list of children’s fantasy literature essentials all piled into one book.

I’m not trying to say that the person who wrote this book is not talented – his list of writing accomplishments is mighty, and I admire him very much for what he has brought to children’s literature – but what I mean is, perhaps the requirements for a good, gripping children’s book have changed radically since the days in which this one was published. What made a magical children’s story then seems to have morphed into a different beast, these days.

I’m reading a children’s book at the moment, Sarah Prineas’ ‘The Magic Thief.’ I adore her use of dialogue, her creation of interesting and three-dimensional characters, and the ways in which things like letters between the players in the story are interspersed with the narrative to create all the things I love in a book – intrigue, suspense, and interest.

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

Image: bellaonbooks.wordpress.com

I am not yet finished the book, but I’m hopeful that these things will be maintained throughout, and that I’ll be left breathless with admiration and thirsty for more by the end of the story. Importantly, I feel that ‘The Magic Thief’ is the sort of book I’ll come back to in five, ten, twenty years’ time and still enjoy, much the same way as I still enjoy the books of Alan Garner, which I first read when I was eight years old. Those stories have the same power over my mind now as they did when I was a mere slip of a girl. However, a lot of the books I loved as a kid have slipped beneath the murk of memory, at this stage. I have a feeling a lot of them were written like this story of Niamh and her Oisín – paint-by-numbers type tales which don’t weave the same sort of spell over a reader once childhood is over.

‘The Magic Thief’ is a good book, not just a good children’s book. I have also been lucky enough to read another good children’s book in recent weeks, which I’ll be reviewing next Saturday. Rich, and detailed, and complex, and interesting, these books couldn’t be more different from my childhood favourite. I hesitate to say that the simplicity inherent in the story of Niamh and Oisín was common to all books of that time, because of course one cannot draw a conclusion like that based on a single example – and, of course, there are good children’s books from generations back which are now deserved classics. But still, I wonder whether children’s books have become better over the past twenty years or so, in terms of the reading challenge they offer to children and the richness and skill of their storytelling. Perhaps it’s that readers have become more demanding, and perhaps it’s also true that there has been an explosion of interest in children’s books, and in publishing for young people, and – as in every walk of life – competition can raise standards.

If so, it’s a great time to be a reader.

Small Imaginations Hold the Most

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite stories was by Astrid Lindgren, and it was called ‘Nils Karlsson, the Elf.’

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com - also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn't read it in a long, long time before this morning.

Image: gimmesumhunny.wordpress.com – also on this blog, there is a full transcript of the story, which pleased me hugely. I hadn’t read it in a long, long time before this morning.

It tells the story of a lonely little boy named Bertil, left alone each day while his parents go out to work. Beneath his bed is a nail, which – when he touches it and says a magic word – makes him small enough to play with a tiny elf named Nils Karlsson who happens to live in his bedroom. So, the story tells us, Bertil was lonely and afraid no more when his parents left him alone, because now he had a friend to keep him company, and the whole world looked new and different when he was no bigger than a thumb.

I loved that story then, and I love it now. I love it because it makes me realise how much a child’s imagination can hold – how many worlds, how many characters, how much magic. I loved it particularly because Bertil can grow big again when he’s finished playing, and so he has his parents on one hand, and the magical world of Nils Karlsson on the other. That, to me, was the perfect story.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited one of his oldest friends, a man whom my husband has known since they were both about four years old. This is particularly wonderful because my husband’s friend now has a daughter who has just turned four, as well as a little son who is just over eighteen months old. It was amazing to see my husband and his friend fall into the speech patterns and comfortable-ness of their shared youth while his wife and I played with the children – and by played, I do mean played. The four-year-old has an imagination the size of eternity.

During the few hours we spent together, this little girl, her brother, her Mummy and me took a plane journey across another galaxy in order to find a beach in China where we could swim with all our clothes on. We had a safety belt to hold us in our seats (which, when not moonlighting as airline security equipment, is a skipping rope); we had one ‘crash helmet’ (which was a witch’s hat left over from Halloween) which we had to share between us; we suffered alien attacks, volcanic eruptions, inter-stellar fuel difficulties and a severe make-believe coffee shortage until, finally, we arrived at our magic beach.

It was the most fun I’ve had in a long, long time.

I was amazed to hear the constant patter of chat from this tiny girl, all the time making up more and more elaborate tales, constructing story world after story world, taking changes and twists into account. Everything became magical – her scooter became a rocket, her parents’ bedroom a mighty sea. Her own bedroom was a magical cave. She read to me from her books, and told me better stories than the ones written on the page.

And then, like Bertil from my favourite story, when she wanted to return to her ‘own’ world it was a simple matter of refocusing her gaze. Her magic rocket became her scooter again, and her house stopped being an inter-galactic cruise ship just long enough for her to reassure herself that her Mummy and Daddy were still there, or for her to get some juice or finish her dinner. Then, when she wanted it to, her beautiful imaginary world clicked back into place and it was all systems go once more.

I think there’s something very profound in that little lesson.

It also made me wonder whether my own imagination, old and dessicated as it has become, is big enough and flexible enough to hold all the worlds that children can imagine so effortlessly, and so fluidly. I can but try.

Image: omtimes.com

Image: omtimes.com

(Note: my husband drew my attention to this article, a blog in Scientific American, about the value of pretend play to a child’s development. It’s very interesting, and rather relevant to my own little post. So, check it out if you like!)

Growing a Story

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Ah! *Deep breath* It’s good to be back.

I hope your weekend was full of glitter and cocktails and dancing, and that it’s now a pleasantly fading memory. Mine was wonderful – full of family, great food and lots of laughter – and, as well as that, it was almost entirely computer-free. I think it’s necessary, every once in a while, to step away from the screen.

That doesn’t mean my mind didn’t live in stories, just because I was away from the computer, though. Of course.

Sometimes it seems like your brain works overtime to create story ideas when it knows you have no way of taking note of them. You’re in the middle of a meal, perhaps, or on a long car journey, when the Best Idea Ever whacks you between the eyes. When that happens, you can find yourself repeating the idea over and over to yourself until you manage to find a pen and paper, or your phone, or whatever it is you use to keep track of your ramblings; hopefully, by the time you get to do this, your idea hasn’t lost all semblance of coherence, and still sounds like the Best Idea Ever. Also, hopefully, the people who have been trying to hold a conversation with you while you’ve been trying to hold a whole world inside your head aren’t too peeved at your apparent absent-mindedness.

While we’re on this topic: I think it’s important to stay faithful to these ideas, the ones that come at you out of nowhere. If something strikes you as exciting or interesting, then don’t let your enthusiasm for it fade while you search for something to make a note with. I fear many a wonderful idea has been lost down the dark crevasse of that particular form of self-doubt.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here... Image: gutenberg.org

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here…
Image: gutenberg.org

It’s funny how the human brain can talk itself into most things, and out of nearly everything. Have you ever had the experience where a word you use all the time suddenly starts to look ‘wrong’ or weird, like you’ve misspelled it or are using it incorrectly? It happens to me all the time. Common words, if repeated often enough, can eventually seem like gibberish, so it stands to reason that the more familiar your brain is with something, the more nonsensical it can seem. If this starts happening with your ideas, and you start to convince yourself that they’re no good just because you’ve been focusing strongly on them for a while, then try to bear in mind that all you’re doing is talking yourself out of your own process of inspiration.

And that, I’m sure we can all agree, is a bit silly.

Sometimes, though, a story can grow in unexpected ways. It can grow slowly, out of a single image or a fleeting impression, and years can pass before anything changes. It’s not a bolt from the blue, leaving you scrambling for a pen; it’s a far longer and more gentle process, like a flower blooming inside your mind. Something like this happened to me at the weekend, and I’m quite pleased about it. It feels like a warm scarf, which I can’t stop tucking gently around myself. I feel like I’ve found the next step in a long-unsolved puzzle, and that a story seed I’ve been nurturing for a long time is a tiny bit closer to coming to fruition.

For years now, I have had a character in my head. He stalks the corners of my consciousness, raising a scornful eyebrow at me every once in a while. ‘I will have a story for you soon, I promise,’ I keep telling him; ‘yeah, right,’ he seems to reply. I can see him, tall and skinny and besuited, his face long and his smile beguiling, darkness flowing off him like radiation. He is a blood-chilling character, and he deserves a story to match.

Well, I think I might have found the first step in the tale of my unsettling man.

It all happened because of something I misread in a book at my in-laws’ house. The book was a compendium of local folklore and mythology, and the words I read were Irish. They were ‘Féar Gorta’, which means something like ‘Hunger Grass,’ or ‘Famine Grass’; to my eye, though, they first appeared as ‘Fear Gorta,’ which means ‘Man of Hunger,’ or ‘Man of Famine.’ The only difference between the word ‘féar’ and the word ‘fear’ (pronounced ‘fair’ and ‘far’ respectively) is the diacritical mark known as a ‘fada’ which appears over the ‘e’ in ‘Féar’; this little mark changes the word completely, though. As I read the words which I thought were ‘fear gorta,’ my slender, dark and smiling man popped into my head, and took a bow. I thought: Wow. So, now I know what he is. He’s a Man of Hunger – or, at least, a version of one.

A Man of Hunger is, apparently, a folkloric figure in Ireland, a wraith who appears at your door seemingly on the point of starving to death; you’re supposed to show him mercy, and give him whatever food you have to spare. If you do, you’ll never know another hungry day, but if you don’t… well. If you don’t, hunger itself will never be far from you. ‘Féar Gorta’, or hunger grass, is a patch of innocent-looking grass which has dried up and died, but if a person walks over it they’re afflicted with dreadful, life-threatening hunger and must be given something to eat immediately or face death; the legends say that patches of hunger grass sprang up at the places where people dying of starvation during the Famine fell and were left unburied, or where the fairies have cursed the ground.

Ireland, eh? Cheery place.

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Lots of legends like this sprang up in Ireland after the Gorta Mór, the Great Famine, and even though they’re no longer believed, they still have a powerful cultural resonance. I love stories which take elements of folklore and weave them into new and interesting stories, and which bring ancient ideas back to life, and I’m quite delighted with my little misreading, the one which brought me from Hunger Grass to Man of Hunger. It has given me – ironically, perhaps – a little meat to put on the bones of my mysterious character. I already have a story beginning to weave itself around him, and it’s exciting to watch it grow.

Of course, another thing the mind does is give you a good idea for your next project while you’re still working on your current project. It will be a while before I get to actually write any of this, but until then, my subconscious mind can churn away at it. Hopefully by the time I’m preparing my first draft, the story will flow with ease – but if this sly and smiling man inside my head is anything to go by, nothing will go to plan…

 

 

Stories and Tellers

As I write, I am sitting in my parents’ living room, working from my mother’s laptop computer (upon which I will lay the blame for any typos, being as I’m unused to the keyboard, and all); I owe this pleasure to my husband, who suggested we take a trip to my hometown to celebrate the fact that he’s on leave from work for a few days. So, we made the trip, and here we are. It’s only a flying visit, but it’s been wonderful. I haven’t been home in ages, and I’ve really missed it.

However, coming home, as well as being a fantastic chance to catch up with my family, has also taught me a very useful lesson. Sit back, get comfortable, and I’ll tell you all about it.

On Saturday evening, my family and I spent some time in my local pub, whereupon a certain amount of alcohol was, I have to admit, imbibed; as well as this, though, something else happened – something which I believe is rather special, and important, and worthy of sharing. As well as the laughter, and the companionship, and the happiness, there was something which is connected to all these things, but also a separate wonder, all of itself – there was Storytelling.

Image: theabundantartist.com

Image: theabundantartist.com

Storytelling is an important part of Irish culture – we still value the storyteller and the act of storytelling in Ireland, something which has its roots in our earliest history – but from the point of view of my family, it has a hugely important personal significance. My parents have told my brother and I stories as long as we can remember – stories about their lives when they were young, long before we were born; stories about local ‘characters’ and people famed in our hometown for their abilities (or, sometimes, lack of ability) to do certain things, and stories from their own parents’ time, from far back into the history of our town and its foundation. My brother and I were raised on stories of my father’s friend Wilf, for instance, a man who took on heroic proportions in our eyes because of all the tales Dad spun about him, and we were regaled with sagas of the deeds of our grandfathers and other men of their generation, all of whom seemed to have immense intelligence and wit. This weekend was no different. We revisited some of the old favourites, and some new tales were added to the treasury, particularly those told in memory of a few friends who have recently passed away; they may not be with us any more, but their stories and their memory will live on. As I listened to the tale-telling, however, something struck me – something so important, it’s amazing that it never really occurred to me before.

I love to write – it’s what I want to do, and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. My brother is similar to me in many ways, especially in his love for words. Sometimes, I’ve wondered why this is – why my brother and I are so similar, on such a profound level, despite the fact that we’ve chosen to do different things with our lives. Writing, and reading, and tale-telling, are among our favourite things, and something which we both treasure. Listening to my father telling tales on Saturday, and keeping me as rapt as ever, despite the fact that I’ve heard most of them before, made me finally realise something.

My parents are storytellers. They may not be writers, but they are tellers and creators and repositories of stories, local history, cultural history and family history. My brother and I have been raised with these stories, we’ve been fed them and nourished on them all our lives. It’s no wonder, really, that we both want to create stories, and we both love words and the power they possess. We’ve learned it all our lives.

The stories my parents tell are more than just a way to pass the time; they’re a way to bond, to create links between people, to unite communities, to store memories, and to honour those who’ve passed from our sight. They’re the most important thing we have. Most of my favourite family recollections from my childhood involve storytelling of some sort, whether my parents or grandparents or our family friends were the ones doing the regaling; all my parents have to do is mention a favourite story, and we’re all primed to listen, not only to a treasured tale but to all the layers of memory, all the happy recollections of all the times that story has already been told and enjoyed. I’ve had this wonderful trove of story all my life, and I never fully appreciated it until this weekend.

My parents gave my brother and I the best gift anyone could give. They gave us the history of our family in a series of stories, memories crystallised into tales we can treasure and keep safe to pass on to a new generation, and – as if that wasn’t enough – a love of sharing and telling and creating stories that both of us have used to enrich our lives in ways our parents probably couldn’t have imagined. If ever a parent wondered whether it was ‘worthwhile’ to spend time making up silly or funny stories with their child, or whether it was a good thing to encourage imagination by telling tales, or whether encouraging a child to enjoy language and the feeling of accomplishment gifted by the creation and retention of a treasured story was something to be aimed for, then I hope this post will answer those questions for them.

Yes. Yes, it is. Yes, it certainly is.

Happy Monday. Happy new week. Go and create some stories, and make sure to tell them, and retell them, and turn them into treasures.

The First 10,000 Words

I’m almost finished with my edits for ‘Eldritch’. I thought, yesterday, that I was completely done and dusted, but then I remembered that there was another important job to do.

That job? Polish the book’s beginning with such vigour and vim that it shines.

Now, of course, the whole novel has to be written as well as I can write it, and the entire story has to shine as much as possible. This, without doubt, I know. But I think it’s worthwhile going back over the manuscript and focusing on the opening sections, the first few chapters, the source from which the river of the story flows. The reason I’m focusing on ‘the first 10,000 words’ is because those words are the ones which will be looked at by agents and/or publishers during the querying process; those are the words that really need to be catchy, compelling, interesting and fresh. Those are the words, in short, which have the power to sell, make or break your book. For some obscene and devilish reason, they’re also often the hardest words to produce. They’re easy to write, first time round – you’re enthusiastic for your story, and you want to get stuck into it, so you dive right in and get going – but they’re hard, very hard, to come back to and spruce up.

At least, that’s what I’m finding at the moment.

Not all agents are the same, of course; they don’t all request the same things from prospective clients. But, from the research I’ve been doing over the past few days, one thing seems to be fairly common among them, which is that they like to receive 10,000 words, or three chapters, whichever comes first, from querying authors. This puts me in mind of a job interview, or meeting a new person for the first time, and how important it is to put the best of yourself forward; it also reminds me how socially awkward I am. I am that person who goes in for a cheek kiss and ends up giving a smacker on the lips instead. I am the person who laughs at all the wrong moments. I’m the person who puts their hand out to shake at just the wrong angle and ends up whacking someone across the face. So my 10,000 words – my equivalent of a first meeting – is really going to take some work.

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy. Image: suchsmallportions.com

Sometimes, I remind myself of this guy.
Image: suchsmallportions.com

I’m a nice person when you get to know me. But I hate to think of the amount of people who’ve come away from their first meeting with me wondering what on earth just happened. I’m sure there are plenty. I hope the same isn’t true of ‘Eldritch’ – in other words, everything from Chapter 4 onwards is fine, but the opening sections are completely off the wall.

It’s hard to find a ‘hook’ – something which will hint at the wonderful story to come, which sounds different (but not too different), fresh (but not completely out of left field) and interesting (not in that raised-eyebrow way, the one which is just ‘weird’ in a fancy coat). It’s hard to know whether your idea is flabbergastingly good, one which will make an agent’s heart start to beat a little faster, and one which will make them start sending you an email to request the rest of your manuscript before they’ve even finished reading your query, or whether it’s just plain crazy. Or, worse than these – perhaps your idea is so bland, so boring, so porridge-y that it makes the agent stop reading before they’ve even reached the end of the first page. The first 10,000 words have a lot of hurdles to leap over, and a lot of sinkholes to avoid.

I’ve made a choice with the narration style of ‘Eldritch’ and the structure of the story that I’ve never come across before in any book I’ve read – certainly not one aimed at this age group – so this might explain my trepidation. I’m not sure if I’ve taken a sensible risk, or if I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater altogether.

And this is important to me because, of course, I’m hoping to start making query submissions within the week. Within the week.

Image: buzzle.com

Image: buzzle.com

I reckon the only thing I can do is have the courage to stick to my convictions, and have faith in my choices. There’s no point being half-hearted about it; if you make a choice with regard to narrative style, then go for it one hundred percent. Make it snappy, fast-moving, interesting, fun and exciting; make it new, unique and ‘you’. Make it good. Write it well.

So, no problem then.