Matilda: the musical

On Wednesday night, I took my mum and sister to see Matilda: The Musical for mum’s birthday. My mum is over from Canada, and so we have a little tradition of heading up to the West End to see a show — plus, this was one of my favourite books as a child and I’d heard only great things about the musical.

It absolutely did not disappoint. I’m a strong believer that the show experience starts from the moment you enter the theatre — and seeing the magnificent Cambridge Theatre stage covered in colourfully-lit, oversized Scrabble tiles really set the scene. The lyrics were funny, heartfelt and clever – perfectly encapsulating the original Dahl spirit. Our Matilda (I’m gutted that I didn’t take down her name) was a little superstar. Of course, the deliciously evil Miss Trunchbull absolutely stole the show.

I’m not a great ‘reviewer’ of things (probably because I just haven’t had the practice) so I’m not going to say much more about the show itself other than, if you have the opportunity, this is definitely one to watch.

But Matilda struck a huge chord with me because, at its heart, it is a story about power of storytelling. This is especially true for the musical version, a large part of which portrays Matilda delighting her local librarian with installments of a story about an acrobat and an escapologist, all magically brought to life on the stage behind her as she tells it.

Donning my numerous publishing hats, I am surrounded by incredible storytellers… and I’ve also seen my fair share of the not-so-good. I’ve seen so many writers who can compose a stunning sentence, or dream up an amazing character, but who still struggle to tell a good story. It is an art as much as anything else, but one that I believe can be learned.

Reading – and reading widely – helps. But, as seeing Matilda reminded me, books are hardly the only medium for telling a good story. Musicals do it. Plays. Movies. TV series. Even certain songs. And I believe it’s important as writers to keep our eyes and ears open. Plus, you never know when one medium of storytelling might inspire another… as mine did, during a musical.

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Januquery

Writing a query letter to an agent can be a very stressful part of any author’s journey. But never fear, Januquery is here to help! The lovely Gennifer Albin, whose debut novel Crewel is coming out in Fall 2012, has been hosting us Lucky 13ers as we critique queries throughout the month of January.

Today, it’s my turn! Head on over to Gennifer’s blog to see what I had to say about the query for a MG fantasy novel Dust and Bones.

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The Dreaded Prologue

This weekend I was working on the beginning section of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow and ended up reminiscing over some old drafts.  As I was opening documents cryptically titled things like TOS-mostrecent.doc and TOS-noTHISismostrecent.doc [note to self: devise better electronic filing system], I noticed one point of difference between my current manuscript and almost all of the previous drafts: the dreaded prologue.

Yep, I am guilty of committing that newbie author sin (especially prevalent in fantasy novels) of starting my novel in a completely random place for no good reason at all.

My first prologue (there were, in fact, five incarnations of the terrible beast) was in a completely different voice/point of view than the rest of the novel, from a character who only gets one line of dialogue again over the course of the next 80,000 words. Why did I ever think that was a good idea? My entire book is written from one point of view – Raim’s – so why should the opening of the novel be any different? And why would I assume that that character (who, as I said, only gets one other line dedicated to him) would be more interesting that the one I dedicated an entire book too? Nonsense.

Still, I persisted. Another incarnation was in the form of a flashforward. Woot, I’d gained enough sense to realize I had to stick to Raim’s point of view. Boo, I still used a prologue. This was, in fact, a vanity prologue. What is a vanity prologue, you say? Well, I basically picked my favourite section of the book and stuck it in front as a ‘prologue’ which foreshadowed where Raim would end up. (In fact, that section was vastly overwritten, and wow did it ever show looking back on it.)  

Then I even got sneaky with myself. I read about agents hating prologues, so I changed the word ‘Prologue’ to ‘Chapter One’ and thought: Ah, problem solved.

La la la la I will have a prologue no matter what you say!

Turns out? Still a bad beginning to a book.

Eventually – and on the very wise advice of my agent – I just highlighted that entire prologue-slash-first-chapter and hit delete. Gone. It felt painful – like I was taking the crutches away and seeing if the book would still stand up.

Luckily, it did – and that’s how I sold it: dreaded Prologue-free.

Just please don’t make me get rid of the epilogue!

(ETA: As one colleague quite rightly pointed out, sometimes prologues work incredibly well, especially in complex narratives – hey, George RR Martin has one in A Game of Thrones – but in my case it was only obscuring what the true start of the novel was!)

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Why running is like writing (and vice versa)

As I stepped out of the front door of my apartment block this morning, the air was frosty but the sky was bright and clear. The perfect kind of morning to run the four miles in to work rather than cram myself onto a sardine-like train from the UK’s busiest train station. I’ve learned to love running now, but at the moment it’s classified as ‘training’ until May 27, 2012, when I complete the Edinburgh Marathon.

Me running in the Royal Parks 1/2 Marathon in 2009 - my first proper race

In fact, in a lot of ways training for a marathon is a lot like writing a novel. Here are my reasons why…

1. You need the right gear… but gear won’t do the work for you!
Yes, you need the right gear to run. Properly fitted trainers, clothes that wick away sweat, maybe a heart-rate monitor so you can judge the improvements in your fitness… they will all help to better your training. But you can get carried away with gear – Nike+ or a GPS running watch? Barefoot running shoes or comfortable, sturdy Asics? You can get carried away with writing gadgets too. Plain Microsoft Word or Scrivener? Fountain pen or ball-point? Laptop? iPad? Spiral notebook? To start running you really just need a pair of running shoes, some clothes you can sweat in, and the road. Just like all you really need to write is good old pen and paper. You can’t let the pursuit of perfect gear prevent you from starting.

2. There are no shortcuts
When training for a marathon, you gotta put in the miles. There’s just no getting around it. Yes, when I’m running to work I’m sometimes tempted to detour toward the bus stop I know will take me straight to the office. But I know that that’s not going to help me on marathon day. Same with writing a novel – you have to put the words down on paper, or else you’re never going to end up with a finished product.

3. Sometimes you feel you’re not getting anywhere
I’m now running anywhere between 20-30 miles/week but when it comes to getting fitter, sometimes I feel like I’m not getting anywhere. Some runs are just plain hard, and I don’t understand why my body will scream against a 4-mile run when it ran 8 miles the week before. Writing feels like that sometimes. There are times when I feel like my writing is not getting any better (it might even be getting worse!), and the finish line feels further away than it ever did before. The only solution to this, I find, is to switch it up. Instead of a run, I jump on the cross-trainer at the gym, or go to the climbing wall with a work friend. Instead of forcing myself to write another paragraph on Oathbreaker 2, I’ll do a freeform writing exercise, or update the blog, or read a book to get inspired.

4. You need to have the proper fuel
In order to run, you have to fuel your body properly. My pre-run breakfast consists of porridge and a banana – boring, but it works! And for any run longer than about 6 miles, I take a bottle of orange-flavour Lucozade Sport. For this month’s Lucky 13s 13th day post, all the 13ers (including moi) are discussing what they eat and drink to get them through their writing days.

5. There will be pain
I’ve actually been fairly lucky when it comes to running injuries and (touch wood) I’ve never experienced anything that has been completely debilitating. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been pain, however! Pain in muscles I didn’t even know I had. Soreness that won’t disappear for days, blisters in between my toes, twinges in my knees and beside my shin bone. In writing, there is pain too. The pain of rejection – injuring the pride you didn’t even really know you had – the agony of not being able to solve a plot point in a storyline that you created, the reviews that cut to the bone… oh yes, and the most common of writing ailments: the dreaded papercut! Sometimes those sting really bad, man…

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I haven’t completed the marathon yet, but I have completed a novel and I can imagine those experiences will have some similarities too. Friends, family and complete strangers will marvel, and say that they could never do a thing like that… they couldn’t run a mile, or they couldn’t dream of putting down that many words. But what they don’t realize is that to achieve those goals you just have to put in the miles, put in the sweat, put in the tears.

Or at the very least, give it a go. And if it’s not a marathon or a whole novel yet, start with a 10K race or a short story.

For every writing or running journey, you gotta start somewhere.

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