Friday, 10 April 2015

Bringing the picture book retreat experience back home by Juliet Clare Bell

I’m just back from a wonderful week away writing in the middle of nowhere in Yorkshire. 

(The only downside, I had a Kate Bush ear-worm all week...)

It was fantastic for recharging my batteries and writing, but possibly the best part of it was time and head space to think about writing and how I can change what I do at home in order to write better.
Here are some things I’ve learned…

[1] Computers
Until now, when I’ve written, I’ve always used a computer. It’s my default. If I’m going to work, I open up my computer. I type faster than I write and I’ve got really used to writing straight onto computer. But for a picture book, with very few words, how much does that actually matter? After spending way less time even within sight of a computer on retreat, my default when working on picture books from now will be with my laptop out of sight. I’ll use it when I need it.

[2] Facebook
I had over a week without looking at Facebook. Did I miss the thing that I feel compelled to check many times a day whilst writing at home? Not one bit. Because the vast majority of my Facebook friends are children’s writers and all of the groups I’m in are children’s writing based, I’ve tried to trick myself in the past that there’s more of an element of work about it than there is. So, I have now banned myself from Facebook during the day, during the week. I’ve given myself permission to check it in the evening for a maximum of half an hour if I really want to. But since I’m way more drawn to it when I’m struggling with some writing and want a quick distraction, I think I may be about to have a much more casual relationship with Facebook.

[3] Writing big –and messy
I love using lining paper to get ideas down onto but I can go months without doing it sometimes. Not any more. I bought rolls of wallpaper lining paper to the retreat –and I used it. Lots of it. It feels like such a happy, creative way to work.  

One of the best uses I found for it was for ten-minute brainstorms, where you take an idea for a picture book and then just brainstorm –big- for ten minutes, setting a timer, and then stopping and moving onto the next one. It’s like speed-dating for ideas. You realise very quickly if you might be onto something. I’ve done it before with hour-long brainstorming sessions for each idea, but what I found on retreat was that I probably got almost as much out of a ten-minute session as an hour-long one, and certainly, it’s an easy, fun and -now even quicker!- way to work through all those hundreds of ideas (think of all those PiBoIdMo ideas generated every year!) that in my case at least, rarely go beyond the initial idea.

[4] Type 2 fun…
My daughter has recently started referring to Type 2 fun to describe something that you’re really satisfied with after the event, but you don’t necessarily enjoy it wholeheartedly at the time. She was talking about an adventure course in a forest, high up. She really wanted to do it with her friends but doesn’t actually like heights –definitely Type 2 fun.

Whilst I was away, I decided to take apart the process of how I create a picture book and divide the stages into Type 1 and Type 2, with a view to seeing if I could make the process as fun as possible. It was really useful -and quite challenging…

                Type 1 fun: the bits I enjoy when creating a picture book (at the moment):

Brainstorming  -it provides instant visual gratification (since I don’t do the pictures, I have to get my visual gratification where I can!); it feels really creative; there's no censoring; it's empowering; messy; stress-free, and slightly magic (at the end of a short session, you’ve come up with loads of ideas that didn’t even exist just ten minutes before)

Research - (often only a small amount is needed in a fictional picture book, but I’ve needed to do loads more recently as I’ve done more non-fiction) it's fascinating; I learn loads; and there's the exciting challenge of getting it across in a really lyrical and accessible way

Structuring – turning the free and easy brainstorming into something that works within the many constraints of the picture book form

Questioning my characters –discovering their motivations; getting to know why they’d do certain things and how they feel about what’s happening. I am inherently nosy (I used to be a psychologist and I’m fascinated by people, including characters). Until now, this has often happened after the event, where I go back over drafts and ask those questions and discover new things about my story’s characters. Although I will still do that at a later time, I’m now incorporating it more into the structuring of the book)

Critiquing –I do a lot of critiquing of other people’s manuscripts, both professionally and as part of critique groups. It turns out I really enjoy critiquing my own manuscripts as if they were someone else’s. It’s very freeing. What I’ve also discovered works well for me is taking other people’s critiques of my manuscript, reading them carefully and then doing a full critique of my own manuscript. The points that fellow writers made which I really agreed with are all incorporated into my own critique, but in my own words

Making rhymes work well

                  Type 2 fun –the bits I’ve discovered I’m not enjoying so much at the moment

Starting the actual writing – for whatever reason, I’m finding this bit stressful at the moment.

Writing –although this challenges my notion of myself as a writer, when I thought about it carefully, I think that I’m not massively enjoying the writing part at the moment. When it all flows and it feels Zen-like, I love it, but too often at the moment, there isn’t that flow and it doesn’t feel so good. A fellow picture book writer and good friend of mine said last year that she doesn’t actually enjoy writing her picture books. I was shocked –she’s completely dedicated to it, and I thought that we were really different in that respect. But I think she was just being more self-aware than me, and just saying what it’s taken me an extra year or so to realise of myself.

Actually making the edits once I’ve done the self-critiquing

So what can I do to make the writing process a more enjoyable one based on those realisations?

I need to re-remember that writing is way more than the actual act of writing the words. I enjoy so many of the other parts of writing, and I want to maximise the Type 1 fun bits and minimise the Type 2 bits. So I can fully justify spending plenty of time brainstorming and structuring before I write a single word of the actual manuscript –and that’s still writing. And since I don’t like starting, I need to make the writing part of the first draft really quick. Where I can, I need to get a first really, really rough first draft done in a single sitting. That way, I only have to start once for each project. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be completing a picture book more quickly, but it does mean that the bits I struggle to motivate myself to do are a much smaller part of the whole process.

And I haven’t written a rhyming manuscript for eighteen months, which I definitely need to rectify.

My decision to use a computer less means that I’m going to print out manuscripts more. In the last couple of years, I’ve written whole manuscripts through to final edits without once printing the story out. Now, I can do a lot of the final editing straight onto paper, which it turns out, is a nicer process (who knew?).

And actually, just getting on with it and doing it quickly means that I’ll get into better habits and some of those Type 2 activities may well move back over to Type 1 ones.

A writer friend of mine said recently “Writing doesn’t always look like writing”. It’s very true, but without having the option of Facebook during the day, more of the things I'm doing now that aren't physically writing are genuinely part of the "writing doesn't always look like writing" writing.

Use positive distractions. I know that I need to distract myself sometimes and Facebook has often been my distraction of choice, in the way that chocolate is my snack of choice if it’s in the house. But I know that I’m much better off having healthier snacks easily accessible and not having an unhealthy alternative available. My post-retreat healthy option distraction is a (non-story) book. I’m keeping it near me when I write, and if I really need a quick procrastinating dip into something, that’ll be it.

[5] More writing outside (Whoops, that last point was so long I forgot I was doing a list!)- I really enjoyed the opportunities I had to work outside –researching, brainstorming, structuring and actual physical writing by hand. 

It wasn’t often warm enough to be stationery outside for long but when it was, I was out, even when I had to be in several jumpers, a coat, hat and scarf and woolly fingerless gloves… 

I need to do that more. And now with less emphasis on my computer, I can –and will- do that.

[6] Make the most of the stillness. I loved it in the morning when I wrote before having spoken to anyone or listened to anything on the radio etc. I used to do this at home by getting up at 6am and getting an hour in before anyone woke up. And I’m determined to go back to that again, having reaped the benefits of the stillness of it on retreat.

[7] Recognise that this all happens in real life. I was able to go on retreat for a week but in real life, I have three amazing and highly distracting children who need to be loved, fed, played with and taken to, and collected from, school every day. I need to make all these changes within my real life and be more efficient whilst I’m working so that once they’re home, I’m theirs alone until they go to bed. More efficient includes using a separate (A4 hardback unlined) notebook for every project I do from now on, so I don’t lose any of my thoughts because they’re in one of twenty or thirty notebooks that are on the go at the same time.

I’m starting a reflection journal so I can work out what’s working well and what could work better. This is so useful for best practice, particularly with school visits, but I think it’ll be good for writing, too. And I think that keeping my computer out of view means that I can be much more present in work and life (and I hope it’ll help my children to grow up not thinking that on-line life is more interesting than real life).

And finally, I’ve found a way to recreate the retreat experience as closely as possible one day a week, when the children are not here. I will have a computer-free day where I don’t actually speak to anyone at all, in person, or on the phone or online from when I wake up until I pick the children up from school. No radio, no internet, no opening up a computer, no voices at all apart from my characters’. 

I made a plan whilst I was away and it still looks completely doable now I’m back. I’m going to stick to it. I’m going to take more risks and make more mistakes, and though I’ll make myself do some Type 2 fun every day, I reckon there’s going to be an increasing amount of Type 1 fun on its way.

A story, brainstormed, structured and written as a really rough first draft, mostly outside, and not going near a computer until I'd handwritten THE END, and all in one day...

Thanks to fellow writers, Ali and Annie, for a fab week.

What about you and your writing? Which parts of the book creating process are currently Type 2 fun for you?


K.M.Lockwood said...

Though I am not a PB writer - not clever or succinct enough for that! - I found this made me think more about my practice. Thank you.
Also -where were you? It looks like Haworth - or is that just my current Brontë obsession?

Candy Gourlay said...

I got a lot out of this post ... but I also kept thinking, oh no, we're going to miss her on Facebook! Glad you had such a refreshing week away.

Rebecca C said...

I might have to borrow some of your new practices. Thanks for sharing them! I love the idea of a separate notebook for each project. So glad you had a productive retreat, and I wish I could have been there!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Philippa. I feel really positive about doing things differently, mostly about staying off the computer a lot!

And yes, we were just near Haworth and the picture at the bottom is of us at the Bronte Parsonage (second time in less than four months!). It was lovely.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Candy. It was a lovely time away. I will still go on to Facebook sometimes (especially with it being the main way various SCBWI groups communicate) -just not during working hours.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Rebecca. It was Ali (one of my fellow writers in Haworth) who told me she'd started doing that last year and it seemed SO sensible and it feels like a proper commitment to each story -saying that each one is worth having a whole book for. So I went out and bought about fifteen books a month ago. It's been great. I really missed you this time round and remembered our last one with great fondness! Hope to see you soon,

Marie Basting said...

Sounds like a week well spent, Clare. Your post has definitely made me think about my own writing routine and the things that do or don't motivate me. Thanks for sharing x

Jane Heitman Healy said...

What a fabulous post! While a retreat is great, these tips could easily apply to every day--and improve productivity immensely!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Marie. I can't wait to start my new routine next week.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Jane.

Penny Dolan said...

For various (good!) reasons, life & home are unusually quiet this week so this post was very inspiring. May try making my own retreat.

Catherine said...

Thank you for sharing your experience Clare. I'm very tempted to go on my own retreat now :)

David Litchfield said...

This is really great. Your description of your writing process is completely the same as my drawing process.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Penny. Have a fantastic home-made retreat!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, Catherine. It'll be worth it.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thanks, David. Happy illustrating.

Enid Richemont said...

Isn't it strange that stuff you've worked at on the computer looks, and reads, completely differently when printed out? Oh, and I totally agree re-Facebook etc - they are drugs!

Juliet Clare Bell said...

yes, Enid. You can get into habits, like reading off a computer, which is what I was always doing, and now I'm printing stuff out and reading it outside usually. It's been lovely -and I suspect the editing is better for it.