My Life as a Creative Octopus

I sometimes wonder how I manage to keep all the creative plates I spin from crashing to the ground and smashing into little pieces. Splinters that I know I would never find again, even with my varifocals on.

My writing process is a bit like that, I finish my synopsis, draft 1 is next, followed by reviewing my bio and the careful preparation of a covering letter that will hopefully make the gatekeepers want to read on. Have I forgotten anything? Is it in the right format? Is it what they asked for?

It’s as if my work-in-progress is taunting me, ‘ah, so you think you’ve finished’, it says in my ear just as I place my envelope in the dark post box mouth of destiny.

‘Spreadsheet’ it whispers on the wind as I head home thinking about all the potential mistakes I’ve made in what I’ve just sent out – a curse of being a writer.

I keep a spreadsheet for all the submissions I’ve sent out to Gatekeepers’ mysterious lairs. I tend to send out two at a time and I bet all of the companies you want to send your stories too prefer a different format, different amount of words, by e-mail, by post etc – the submission guideline list is endless but if you’re prepared, then you will be fine.

I use Libreoffice on Ubuntu but the selections and formatting are practically the same regardless of what operating system you use. To follow is a very basic example of setting up a spreadsheet to keep submission info in…

Open excel/equivalent and select new file. A fresh clean empty page will appear on your screen.

First thing to do before you do anything else is save your new sheet in an on-line folder you will remember. Where do you normally save your documents? C drive? K drive? Perhaps in the same on-line yellow folder where you keep all your story files? Maybe you could create a new folder and keep all your submissions in one place? I would recommend naming each submission folder by year or by publisher/agent – whatever works for you.

Once the clean sheet is saved, you will see the new file name appearing at the top of the page with .xls after it. Yay! Fabulous start.

What information do you instantly want to know from a glance at your spreadsheet? Here’s an example of some subject headers –

Company name – e.g Nosy Crow

Award – if applicable (e.g New Writers Award)

Required – e.g 3500 words from latest WIP, 500 word synopsis, covering letter, writing achievements… Remember to always check font formats from submission guidelines. If you need to complete an on-line form, it’s a good idea to draft up your responses elsewhere and copy and paste into submission forms when you’re happy.

Name – the editor/agent’s name would go here

E-mail – their e-mail address not yours. Yes, I have done that in the past.

Website info – best place to get info on that company/award

File name – add link to the file you sent to this company i.e c:/temp/writing/submissions/May 2017/My story by Great Big Jar 3500 words.doc – you won’t panic if they call or you can’t remember where you saved it. May 2017 should also have all the documents mentioned in the ‘required’ cell. Keep them all in the same folder and saved as what they are My Story synopsis, My Story bio, My Story writing achievements. so when you look for the yellow folder in the file path you will see them all sitting under there. Behaving.

Date sent – date you hit the black button of destiny on your keyboard or posted your pristine pages in the red box.

Deadline date – there will be a deadline date for an award here or put a date in this section that you want to reach before you check in with them. We all do it, so might as well have it in writing.

Reply received – you will be astonished at the difference in each companies reply – same day, same week, same month, a year – expect the unexpected and try not to bombard them with ‘have you read my sub yet’ e-mails. One chase up is enough and preferably after the time they have stated in their guidelines.

Pester date – this is the date that I keep a note of, it reminds me of when I can send a quick ‘have you read my amazing work, you have, haven’t you and you just don’t have the words to tell me how awesome it is and the contract is ready to go’ or not, but you get my meaning.

Now back to your page – you will see that horizontal columns are alphabetised and vertical columns are numerical. You can change the size of any cell by hovering over the line that splits one column from another, a double-headed arrow symbol appears. Just drag and drop to the size you need.

All the bold words mentioned above or your choice of headers can then be typed across the cells – Company Name in cell A 1, Award in cell B 1 and so on. If the heading is too long you just need to resize the cell as before. One you are happy with your row of horizontal headers, make them stand out – bold, italics, underlined, font, size – these tools can all be found on the bar at the top of the screen.  Now you can add in all the submissions you have sent – using one line for each submission. If you’re feeling good about it all, leave a line between each one. Space them out, let them breathe. Go mad, add colour as the replies come in –  green for YES they want more, red for not today thanks, orange for maybe?

If there are too many words in one cell – right click on the cell you want to increase in size, select FORMAT CELLS then ALIGNMENT and tick the box that says WRAP TEXT AUTOMATICALLY. The cell will automatically grow bigger to accommodate the words you have entered and will also change the row to sort itself out – streamlined and perfect.

Now that you have all this info there, you don’t need to worry about who’s still to get back to you etc. Start another WIP and carry on being creative. You have indeed made progress and there will be an agent/publisher out there for you, you just have to have a little hope.

Be Awesome. Always.

Good luck!

 

Picasso Splashes and Other Stains

There’s a monster at home that lurks in our loo,

It deletes all the training in boys and men too.

It sprinkles the walls with pee-coloured spray,

And ‘apparently’ no-one has made it that way.

 

I ask once again, ‘who pee’d on the wall’,

Not me, not you or the dad who’s so tall?

The shrugs and ‘don’t knows’ echo round the thin room,

The lowering of heads fill my vision with gloom.

Continue reading Picasso Splashes and Other Stains

Lost and Found

It was the start of an ordinary day in the life of Great Big Jar. Copious Weetabix were consumed in the normal mad rush at that time of the morning with the infuriating pebble-dash splatter of the cement-like goo right down the front of my freshly donned t-shirt. Tea that was poured hours ago, now sits in the mug forming a perfect oil spill, its pale demeanour knows all too well I’m going to empty it down the sink and create a clone that will do the exact same thing.

(The literary legend that is) Sue Wallman, on the other hand, was cooking up a conniving way to entice me out of my melodrama and through to the West side of my fair country. It was all under the pretence of bringing through SCBWI South East Scotland members on a road trip to the event itself. And ‘seeing as you’ll be there anyway kind of chat’ began to happen.

And she succeeded. The short and very neat conversation went something like this…

Sue: Help! We need a chair for the event in Glasgow and wondered if you knew anyone who is familiar with the children’s literary scene and is going to the same event you’re going to…

Me: Erm, I can do it, if you like?

Sue: Yay!

Yes, the rat was very smelly but I am so glad she asked.

From that moment on, I became the chair for the last stop on the epic Lost and Found Young Adult tour.

Channelling my inner Rapunzel my emotions went into overdrive – you know that scene, when she finally touches grass for the first time and then freaks out in-case her mother found out she had left the tower. That.

The great thing about doing an event like this in a different part of the country from where the authors involved live, is that I knew that we probably wouldn’t get the chance to meet up before the event itself. What do you mean, you shout, of course you want to meet them in person?

To explain, this gave me the chance to curb my huge fangirl cheesy grin and appetite for shenanigans when I meet amazing authors (almost reminds me of the excitement I felt when I met the band ‘Bros’ when I was 13, almost) and just get on with the task in hand in a professional and efficient manner. Obviously.

It’s not as if they could hear me shriek at my kids as I told them about it ‘Oh, wow! Patrice Lawrence is going to be there boys, she’s amazing. Remember that book about the boy who’s girlfriend died at the very beginning and I was engrossed in it so much I was late for work four times because I kept missing my bus stop’…Orangeboy! Or, ‘Do you remember pink-haired Kathy Evans, she’s coming up to Scotland guys! I love her and More of me! Remember the Facebook photo shop thing we did for the launch?’ And ‘Olivia Levez‘s amazing novel The Island, remember we chatted about plane crashes just before I booked our Summer holiday?’ Oh, ‘and Sue Wallman‘s scene from Lying About Last Summer with the swimming pool, that you didn’t get the chance to re-enact at swimming club after all’ and then ‘Eugene Lambert‘s amazing novel The Sign of One when we coloured our pinkies red to match the twins and talked about what’s it like to have a family member the same age as you and how they can finish each others sentences and speak their own language as pre-schoolers’…that bit might just be me though.

And breathe. Yes, it’s fair to say I was very excited.

The art of conversation was not dead, it was merely having a nap while I e-mailed thoughts and suggestions to them all about what kind of event they would like to have to end their literary tour. They were very gracious with me, some people may have called it tolerant. Did I mention I was very excited at the time?

In true girly guide fashion, I gave them all a little momento of the journey they had made. They would never get lost ever again. Much better than a Blue Peter badge. Maybe.

Anyway, here I am, re-living it all. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of that world, even just for an hour. It confirmed that writing is the right thing for me to do after all. The intrepid explorers North also gave me a gift… there may have been something in my eye.

If you ever get the chance to chair an event, go for it. 

 

I drew a thing that actually resembled a thing

Today I did something I never ever thought I would do.

I drew. This might not be a big deal to some but to me it was liberating. I decided there would be no more stick people or sheep that resembled clouds with chicken pox and I drew a thing that definitely resembled an actual thing. Not since I sat my O’Grade Art *mumble* years ago, have I ever tried to draw anything from scratch.

It just so happens I know some enthusiastic kindred souls who are having the same dilemma so between us all we walked the freezing streets of Edinburgh and captured images on our sleet-spattered sheets of paper. And so began the very first Scrawl Crawl of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators South East Scotland network.

Under the watchful eye of our illustrator co-ordinator Catherine Lindow, we thought carefully about what we write/draw and how to interpret it on the page. We delved into the SCBWI Sorting Hat and pulled out inspirational words that would send us on our creative journey, using the scenery before us we drew from:  the perspective of an animal, smells, circles, triangles, relationship of two people…

We all exchanged looks of ‘how do I do that’ and ‘you want me to draw what?’ but with a five minute deadline looming and then we were to swap our pages with our neighbour, the SCBWI group became silent as concentration levels soared. Brain cells could be heard chattering, encouraging their owners from their warm bed under flesh and bone that everything would be just fine. And the grey matter was right.

We ambled down The News Steps near Waverley Station and caused much confusion among the tourists as to why we were drawing in -2C. It’s Scotland, we’re used to it. As the drizzle turned into sleet we made the decision to head indoors.  The impressive Museum of Scotland was minutes away so we grabbed the opportunity for some warmth and carried on drawing as we sat on the balcony listening to the hustle and bustle of the Saturday crowds as they made their way through its vast corridors.

The light poured in from the glass ceiling above as we attempted to replicate the glass-housed artefacts on our sheets of A4.

In the discussions that followed, we realised that a first draft, whether it’s an illustration or a chapter of words are treated exactly the same.

Words are written down in an attempt to create an illusion of a specific character, place and time. Illustrations are drawn to attempt to create the very same illusion. The Yin and Yang of the creative world.

Regardless of whether you draw or write, the very first pen-to-paper experience is the same. Dummy picture books are an example of what we see, as an illustrator, to enable us to clarify where the pictures are best placed in or around the text. Our characters then come to life as we go through the story spread by spread. Writers of longer fiction do the same thing too, they begin to write their story down, stopping every now and again to make sure they’re on the right path. Just like an artist adds colour or shadowing to their first sketch.

At the end of the process – an illustrator has a picture book and a writer has a first draft. Joining them together is when the magic really happens.

So why not try both, let your muse show you the way. Let the words flow or let the paint brush glide…what’s the worst thing that can happen?

Here’s my drawing of one of the many skulls on display in the Museum of Scotland. It is not a stick person or a blob. It’s a skull. And I drew it all by myself. And then there was coffee. Bliss. 

I can’t wait for the next Scrawl Crawl and where it might take me next.

The Great Big Jar of Destiny

On the 1st January 2016, the Great Big Jar family decided to do something a little different in terms of new year resolutions.

Memories over one year are now written in the hand of the bearer of good news and folded neatly among its paper pals in the Great Big Jar of Destiny.

Reading through them all has just confirmed that in amongst all the nonsense that life has thrown at me this past year, there is a glimpse of something special that only family, true friends and snotty kids can give me.

Hope. That we’re all OK. That we’ll get there.

We half-filled our jar. Perhaps we missed a few goodies along the way or maybe we just felt some of the things didn’t merit a place in it. But what we did keep is all there, written in a pencil/pen scribble, with dates and smiley faces.

A highlight for me was being selected to read my work out at the Story Shop event, held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’s a day I will never forget. The sparkly speigletent will always mean that little bit more to me now and has encouraged me to believe in my writing when sometimes it seems I’m getting nowhere fast.

The best bits from our jar include a lot of 1sts – diving off the 3m board, starting a new school where none of your friends from primary are going, being asked to open a new library, finishing a first ever first draft, kick boxing gradings, being asked to speak at a major conference, swimming comp successes, co-chairing writers network for Scotland, surviving a trek across Scotland in a camper van, a new job… to name but a few. It’s amazing what we’ve achieved without even realising it.

Normally we discuss what goes in the jar but for me, an unexpected entry takes the number one slot.  ‘Having a great time at school’, dated very recently. He made the right choice for him. I can stop worrying so much about it (maybe).

We’ll be filling the jar again with the good things in life rather than focussing on the bad. Another year to discover what’s out there.

What’s for you won’t pass you by.