Top Five Tips for Beginning Writers

I am so thrilled to have been asked to be involved in the Sadiporticoe Massey Awards organised by the team at the Portico Library in the heart of Manchester.

(If you’ve never been, go. It’s seriously stunning. Weird, fascinating, quirky…a place to set your imagination reeling.) The Awards celebrate creative writing and book reviewing for Key Stage 3, 4, and 5 students with prizes including author schools visits and publication for the winners.  So, what advice would I give to people wishing to enter?

  1. Read. Read anything and everything. You need to get a feel for how stories work. Look in particular at the way writers structure their work because creating sentences is a doddle; weaving them together so the reader wants to keep turning the pages, now that’s the tricky part.

  2. Have a notebook in your bag. Jot down interesting things you hear, see, all those random plot fragments that pop into your head when you’re sitting on the bus.

  3. And on the subject of buses….stare out of windows when you can. Zone out. Let your mind go for a wander. It’s often when you’re not actively looking for them that ideas leap into your subconscious.

  4. Write a bit every day. Life is packed with tasks and obligations and sometimes it can feel like writing is a bit of an indulgence. When your to-do list could wallpaper your room, squeezing in time for creativity is difficult. Aim for one sentence. If you can’t manage any more, at least you’ve hit your target. But very often, you’ll find one sentence leads to another.

  5. Don’t get hung up on making it perfect…at least at first. The important part is to finish. If you spend days polishing up your opening sentence, you’ll run out of steam. Write the whole story down in as few sessions as possible. Make sure you’ve got a beginning, middle and end before you go back and start tinkering.

Finally, once you’ve caught your whirling thoughts and pinned them to the page, ask someone whose opinion you trust to read and give you kind, honest, constructive feedback.

And most importantly, have fun!

#writing inspo: How being a teacher made me an author.

Before I started writing, I vaguely assumed plots dropped fully-formed into authors’ minds, transforming into books by some writerly alchemy the second they fired up the PC. If only! Three YA novels later and I am a platinum member of the staring-at-a-blank-screen-at 2- am- with-a-deadline-looming club.

I wrote my first book, ‘Me & Mr J’ deadline-free and for fun, squeezing it around the fraying edges of a life crammed with parenting and full-time teaching. The story is about a girl, Lara, enduring the toughest of times- family breakdown, money troubles, horrific bullying- who has an affair with her teacher. And I suppose it’s a clear example of how ideas ping at me from various directions.

First, conversations. I was teaching English in a college and a class of learners were discussing (theoretical) rumour about a girl who’d started seeing her old PE teacher after she left school. Their take (‘it’s romantic’) contrasted totally with mine (‘it’s a gazillion shades of wrong’) and really struck me, sparking the plotline for what would be ‘Me &Mr J’, a book from the perspective of the poor girl involved. Around the same time, I was sent on some truly eye-opening training about cyberbullying and that fed into the sub plot of what she endures at the hands of her bitchy classmates.

Second, students. Being a teacher has had a huge impact on my writing. I’ve spent the majority of my working life observing my target audience and that’s initially what made me choose to write YA.

Many of the learners I’ve taught over the years haven’t been keen readers. Not because they’re not capable, but because they had so many distractions and sometimes because reading wasn’t something they’d grown up with. I wanted to write funny, shocking books with ordinary protagonists, scandalous storylines and a soap opera/ magazine/ real-life appeal. My second book,  ‘The Number One Rule for Girls’fits this mould too. Daisy, like Lara in ‘Me & Mr J’, uses flippant humour as a defence mechanism when she finds herself caught up in a toxic relationship with a guy she meets at college. The fuse for this was lit when I overheard a super-ballsy, confident student at my college being publicly bad-mouthed by her boyfriend. (I’m happy to say she ditched him shortly after).

I was spending several hours a week with two archetypal bad boys at the time: Heathcliff and Stanley Kowalski; and I’d just read a stack of ‘troubled boyfriend’ novels. Plus, the ’50 Shades’ juggernaut was still thundering along and I loathed that whole abuse-masquerading-as-love thing. (My personal view. I know plenty of people who consider the novels empowering). All of this distilled in to a desire to create a heroine who’d realise her life was too valuable to waste on Mr Broody Bad Boy and his moody shenanigans. Kick the bad boys to the kerb, it’s Rule Number One.

Third writing inspo: the news. My latest book, 'This Careless Life’ began with seeing a reporter interviewing migrant workers in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. One woman in particular talked about her fears and as she spoke, she reminded me so strongly of Eva Smith in ‘An Inspector Calls’, one of my all-time favourite plays.  Her words and her fears really resonated with me and I remembered how every time I’d taught the play, I found myself saying ‘look how relevant this still is today.’ I was never stuck for a contemporary example. My first two books had been about two girls and the way other people’s actions impacted on them as individuals. I decided this time, I wanted to flip that and look at how the main characters’ behaviour affects others. Everything fell into place then and I wrote a post-Brexit re-imagining of ‘An Inspector Calls’ in which four wealthy 18 year olds with varying degrees of self-centredness are forced to face up to the consequences of their actions.

Overall, I’d say writing inspo is all around.  Over the last few years, I’ve chucked teaching, eavesdropping, discussions, TV programmes, GCSE texts and watching the news into the pot, given it a good stir, let it brew...and written three books.

But it’s not been easy. The first leap from full head to empty page is consistently the scariest part. That’s the thing about ideas: they sparkle like fairy lights strung around your brain. Getting them to shine as brightly on the page, now that’s when the real graft begins.

Where I Work

Rachel McIntyre BooksFinding a place to write used to be as tricky a task as finding time to write. When I started ‘Me and Mr J’, I was writing purely for fun; grabbing spare minutes between childcare and work. The same went for a space. I’d set my laptop up on the dining room table in among the piles of ironing-in-waiting and random stacks of toys and try to work. I wrote  The Number One Rule for Girls  over lots of late nights in the same place. And in various soft play centres over rainy weekends and sports centre cafes during swimming lessons and football matches.

Fast forward a couple of years during which I moved house and I finally have a dedicated study just for me and I love it! I wrote This Careless Life  in here and the surroundings definitely helped me to focus. And the books…I arranged them all in colour groups because it looks like art and mainly because it helps me to find them quickly. I’m terrible at remembering titles, but I’m great at visualising the covers. The only downside is the gaps when I lend them out to people and yes, I have chosen books based on the spine colour. But that’s not as sad as it sounds as it’s encouraged me to pick up new reads I might not normally choose. I have overspill bookcases other rooms, but even so, the books do creep onto the floor in here. Trying to keep the books under control is a lesson in self-discipline: I’ve got a Kindle and I’m a regular at my brilliant local library.

The two coffee tables are trunks that double up as storage where I keep all my notebooks- I still write a lot by hand- and I have a big portable whiteboard stashed away under the sofa but I like to keep all my notes either on paper or on my PC. Sometimes I use index card and Post-its when I want to visualise things as a whole, but I’m naturally untidy and a bit of a hoarder, so I like keeping things in notebooks or online. And I still end up sitting in my car with the laptop while half-watching junior cricket or football matches!

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Q & A 'Me and Mr J'

me newprofileQ & A 'Me and Mr J'

A version of this first appeared on the brilliant With Love for Books blog.

 

Your book Me and Mr J contains upsetting bullying scenes. Why did you write about bullying?

Bullying never goes away, does it? I’m sure even cave-kids were at it. And I think with the advent of cyber bullying, it comes home too. Reading about teenagers who’d committed suicide after being targeted online horrified me and made me realise it’s an even bigger problem than when I was young. I did cyber awareness training through work and was completely shocked how trolling and predatory behavior has become embedded in teenagers’ lives in such a comparatively short space of time. As Lara says in the book, it’s like having your bully’s beady eyes mounted on the wall of your bedroom.

Some of the scenes made me cry, did you feel like that when you wrote about Lara?

Yes, definitely. I think she needed to be having a terrible time generally in order for the plot to develop. If her mum hadn’t worked for Molly’s parents; if her cousin hadn’t moved away; if her dad wasn’t having financial problems… then she probably wouldn’t have got involved in a doomed relationship with her teacher. It had to be a kind of “perfect storm” of circumstances that led her to throw rationality out of the window. Poor girl, she had a terrible time. I think that’s why it was important to keep her sense of humour. I wanted to show she wasn’t being ground down.

 What kind of advice do you/would you give girls like Lara? 

a) If you have to keep a relationship hidden, then you almost certainly shouldn’t be in it.

b) TELL SOMEONE. You really shouldn’t keep things to yourself. Bullies are never as powerful as you think.

c) There is ALWAYS a way out, even if you can’t see it.

Me and Mr J makes the reader have conflicting emotions, was this intentional?

Yes, definitely. I didn’t want to write anything too predictable and I think the thing that’s shocked me most is reader reactions to the ending. I was prepared for people to find it a difficult topic. I was very prepared for the knee jerky “you can’t write about this!” outrage. BUT what I wasn’t prepared for was the number of people who wanted there to be a happy ever after. I guess in every book, there’s a head ending and a heart ending and when they’re in conflict, that makes for an interesting-if unsettling-read.

I think your book shows young girls who are desperate for a little bit of love and care what could happen to them and what the consequences are, but it also shows parents that they should pay attention to their children. The story never becomes moralistic, it's actually the complete opposite which for me is one of the reasons that the book is so good. Was it hard to write it like this?

Yes. I knew writing the whole book from Lara’s perspective would be controversial. But I didn’t want to patronise the readers or be the morality police. Everyone knows it’s wrong, it’s illegal for a start! So going into it with that as a given, I wanted to show how it might happen. We all know it shouldn’t but the newspaper stories show us that it does and that’s what I wanted to explore: why a girl would get involved in a situation that could only have an unhappy ending.

meandmrjsmallI need to read this book NOW!

 

Breaking Up With Bad Book Boyfriends

Bad boyfriends in books…your time is up. 
They’re too busy wrestling their inner demons to call you back. They stand you up because they’re working on their angst. They can’t tell the difference between caring and controlling.

ENOUGH.

Post 50 Shades, the bad boy has made an unwelcome return to the world’s bookshelves and I wrote ‘The #1 Rule for Girls’ to show how in real life, brooding boyfriends bring a heap of misery. Daisy, the main character, is witty, fun and enjoys her life until she meets Bad Boy Toby who can’t wait to change that.

So how come Daisy falls for a bad boy?
Daisy also has her roots in some of the students I’ve taught over the years. One in particular was a bright, super confident girl of seventeen who I taught at college a few years ago. One day, I was walking behind her in the canteen when her boyfriend (a member of the rugby team- I have nothing against rugby players, by the way!) called to her using a revolting term and she walked over to him as though it was completely fine! Gutting. I guess sometimes people aren't as self-confident as they appear.
Doesn’t sound much like a comedy…
Life comes in shades of life and dark, good and bad things happen and, like Lara in ‘Me & Mr J’, Daisy has the ability to look through the darkness to the light on the other side. I enjoy writing characters whose quirks mean they live at an off-kilter angle. Even though Daisy  in 'The #1 Rule for Girls' has her heart broken, she is determined to dust herself off. Resilience is a vital characteristic, not just in fictional characters but in life. The idea we all need to ‘keep on keeping on’ as much as we can. The comedy side important to me: I love comedy, mainly quite dark humour. The British have a rep for the dry gallows-y stuff and I guess I’ve grown up surrounded by it.

Bad Boyfriends R Us
Toby is a hybrid of fictional bad boys. Hands up Marlon Brandon in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Heathcliff. Daisy falls for him because he’s attractive, she’s vulnerable and lonely and he seems nice- at least at first. In one particular series I’d read, the inference was that Bad Boy’s controlling behaviour could be excused because he'd been treated badly himself. WT...? There's no excuse for controlling behaviour. Full stop.
So I wanted to use the bad boy trope but from a healthier and empowering angle: instead of waiting for him, the girl gets fed up and realizes she’s perfectly happy to be on her own. It’s Rule #1, right?

number1rulepicI need to buy this amazing book. Right. Here.