Last month I pondered a bit on the topic of ‘writing quiet’ – about what that means for me and for my work.
In the course of my ponderings, I mentioned some feedback I received on an early picture book manuscript, which read “Lovely language … but can’t something more interesting happen?”
Although that’s been useful food for thought in some ways, in another far more important sense it’s absurd.
Because how do we define ‘interesting’? Whose version are we talking about? There’s a kind of arrogance in that line, an assumption that the way the speaker sees the world – or the way in which she thinks kids see the world – is *the* way. That there’s a single version of ‘interesting’ which will speak to the readership, and that’s what the writing needs to tap into.
With Book Week done and dusted for another year, I’m taking a moment to reflect.
Every year, writers and illustrators swap anecdotes from sessions and I’m no exception. I generally post these snippets on my Facebook page, tagged as “The Book Week Follies”. Generally, they’re in the vein of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” – things like the reason we didn’t have a car growing up was that it was only horses and carriages back then, that I’m the most expiring author ever, that maybe I should try and be more like Wendy Binks or Andy Griffiths, or that I look nothing AT ALL like my Year 1 photo and what on earth has happened to my face?
These exchanges are amusing and fun, and there was no shortage of them this year.
But sometimes other moments stand out …
When the last copy was edited and the last proof was read and A Single Stone was finally off to the printers, I turned to my husband and said, “Well, that’s about as Bruce Willis as I get.”
He knew what I was talking about because he’d heard me muttering and ranting a lot during the writing process – Yes, but what actually *happens*? Raise the stakes! Back story over steaming broth is not a chapter!
And so on.
Things happen in A Single Stone. It contains actual plot. This may sound ridiculous, but for me, forward narrative movement is the hardest thing of all. I like to sit in the small moments – as a reader and a writer … as a person, those are what I’m most interested in. As silly as it sounds, I have to remind myself that things do need to happen in the story – and not just inside my characters’ heads. Hence the muttering and ranting. Hence my self-satisfied glow when I thought about the cracking pace and tension and high-stakes plot points I had finally managed to achieve in this book. I am fast-paced action thriller – HEAR ME ROAR!
Hence my wry smile when reviews started coming in on Goodreads:
A beautifully written, quiet adventure …
This was a slow-burning, unputdownable delight.
In a way, it moves quite slowly but I couldn’t put it down.
Quiet. Slow. No matter what I do, these words follow me. And even though I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, the truth is that I’m quite happy to own them.
… with a cover: … and a synopsis:
It was the same as every other day – out the door, down the path, into the car, off to school. But when Bella stepped off the veranda, she stopped.
Bella looked back at the house. And as she did, a shiver prickled her skin. Because what she saw made no sense.
What’s a girl to do, when her house can’t find a home?
… [and a 14-year-backstory, in case you missed it earlier]
Bella and the Wandering House, junior fiction for ages 6-10-ish, will be out this September from Fremantle Press, with gorgeous illustrations by Nicholas Schafer. I’m thrilled to have this story finally stepping out into the world …
A while ago, I joked about having jumped on the dystopian bandwagon. But the truth is that post is a little disingenuous, because I don’t think A Single Stone is really a dystopian narrative. The furthest I would go is to describe it as “speculative fiction with dystopian elements”.
Oh, what’s the difference? Why split hairs?
In the first place, because if ever there is a hair to be split, I will pierce it with a fine-gauge needle. It’s just what I do.
And in the second, because the difference is important.
A true dystopia is exactly as it sounds, an anti-utopia, a “not-good place” to coin a literal translation. And I can categorically say that no world I ever write will be either utopian or dystopian. Because those terms imply a certainty about what’s good and bad, and those definitive, clear-cut divisions aren’t at all interesting to me.
What’s interesting to me are the shifty shades of grey, the ambiguities. I am categorically not interested in categorical statements, worlds, or characters; I want the stories that crawl out of the spaces in between, a world whose value system balances on their edge.
I recently received a question from a reader that stopped me in my tracks. When I was writing A Single Stone, she asked, did I know about children mining mica in India? She included a link to a newspaper article entitled, “India’s mica mines: The shameful truth behind mineral makeup’s shimmer” In reply, I said two things: Wow and I had no idea. In A Single Stone, young girls tunnel deep into mountains to harvest a mineral called mica. I chose to use this real-world mineral name for a few simple reasons:
- Since childhood, I have thought of it as fool’s gold – bright and shiny but essentially valueless
- It forms flakes and sheets
- I liked the way the word sounded
It’s possible that some of these reasons are more compelling than others. Although I gave my mineral a real name, for the purposes of the narrative I invested it with some fictional properties. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I didn’t just invent something entirely fictional, as I did for some other elements in the story. Not having done so, there was now this unexpected real-world connection, about which I felt a little uneasy.
With A Single Stone making its way out into the world, I’ve been thrilled to hear that the cover is attracting a lot of praise. As someone who isn’t a visual thinker at all, I have very little involvement in the design process. When I’m writing (and reading) I don’t picture the setting or characters; even at the end of my sixty-third draft, I generally have no idea what people look like or where they are. This leads to my editor guiding me into the sixty-fourth draft with questions like, But how could they possibly see him from there? and Just how big is this valley anyway?
For this reason, among others, I’m perfectly happy to let designers and illustrators get on with their work independently. Once there’s a draft on the table, or early sketches, I might start to have some input, but until then, I’m completely content to leave things in the hands of others. As a result, I generally have no insight at all into how the design process works. And for that reason, I was absolutely thrilled when Gayna Murphy did this wonderful blog on how she went about designing the cover for A Single Stone.