Wednesday 5 February 2020

Writing forward by Alex English

I’ve always had the habit of writing in bits and bobs, going back and forwards through my story picking out various scenes, tweaking here and changing there. When I wrote my forthcoming novel, Sky Pirates: Echo Quickthorn and the Great Beyond, I had no idea if it would be a series or a stand-alone book (or even whether it would be published). I just wrote it, very much pantsing my way through and discovering the world along with my character. I didn't have a long series arc mapped out or plans for a trilogy. But now that the first book is more-or-less finished (off to typesetting this week – hurrah!) and I have started writing the second book in the series, I’ve realised that this time I can’t go back and change the beginning. The first book is fixed and I have to go on. A scary thought for a fiddler like me.
Help! Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash
In an improv workshop with Sally Nichols many years ago at a SCBWI retreat we played various games but one particularly stuck in my mind. We stood in a circle and built a story step by step – each person had to make up one story beat, the story then moved on to the next person and the next around the circle. I can’t remember the fine details of the exercise, but one thing that did really stick with me was Sally’s exhortation to keep the story progressing forward. Each beat needed to change something and move the story on, but more than that there was no possibility of going back to seed in something at the beginning that you need at the end. 
Often when I write it’s only when I get to the end that I realise what the beginning needs to be. But when stories are told orally and real-time like this you can only use what you already have, however small the detail, and build on it.

Whenever we got stuck in the improv exercise, Sally urged us to look back at what had gone before. What skills did our characters have? What experiences had they gone through? What possessions did they own? Which of those side-characters that made cameos earlier could come in useful now? Which of those small details that we thought were just for colour could prove to be more significant?

Onward! Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
As I was chatting to a friend at the recent Folly Farm retreat, it occurred to me that this concept is going to come in very useful when writing a series. Yes, the first book is finished. Any opportunities to go back and sneak in a crucial clue for use in future books are now gone. But that’s okay – thinking back to Sally’s workshop has made me realise I have everything I need. I'll take what I have and write forward. The only way out is on! 

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.

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