Now that the text for Squishy McFluff the Invisible Cat is done, I have lots and lots of time to think about the second book, Squishy McFluff and The Supermarket Sweep.
It also needs extending quite a bit and I've started adding to it here and there. Going back to it has made me think about the different ways I've been writing the Squishy McFluff stories. It's also made me wonder whether other people have a standard (and sensible) way of pulling their ideas together.
When I wrote the first story, it was almost a re-write of my column, on Parentdish, about Ava's imaginary cat. It's changed a lot now (see my last post), but when I began, I essentially had the plot already – it just needed to be written differently, with a sparkle that would make children's hearts' pop.
When I came to write Supermarket Sweep, it was a bit different. The idea for Ava and Squishy McFluff going shopping did actually also come from a column I'd written, so that was the seed of the idea, but I didn't intend to just transform it, the way I had with Invisible Cat.
Instead, I sat down and started writing, without knowing what was going to happen in the story. The plot just came as I wrote: I started at the beginning and finished at the end.
I did go back and forth, of course, when it was done. Some ideas that had come initially were dumped and replaced with ideas that worked better, or seemed funnier, when I'd given them more thought.
But there was no real planning, no forethought. What would Miss Holland have to say about that I wonder?! She was my English teacher when I was about 13 – I remember her drawing a strange spider diagram on the blackboard, illustrating how good creative story writing came about with logical planning: beginning, middle, end; intersperse with characters A, B, C…
The third book, Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot happened differently again. With this one, I began not at the beginning, but the end ("what madness is this?!"), when the last two lines popped into my head at some ungodly hour.
The lines were about Ava's little sister, Baby Roo, being born – and I realised they were the basis for a whole new story (Mad Nana Dot would be required for a little spot of cat sitting, you see). So I got up and, with my eyes pretty much closed, I typed them on to a Word document, before shutting the laptop and going back to bed. In the morning, I looked at the lines I'd written in the dead of night.
Tgey wrre vry garlbled ad fll of tyops, but I'd managed to get them down just well enough so I could read/understand them!
From there, from the last two lines, I worked backwards a bit, perhaps a third of the way, then I started writing from the front, and joined it all up somewhere in the middle.
Book four, Squishy McFluff and the Seaside Rescue was perhaps more standard in its creation. I wanted to send Ava and McFluff on holiday – and by this point I knew that the text would need to be much longer than the others.
So (get ME!), I plotted it. I typed out in prose what was going to happen and in what order. The most important part was thinking up the gags, the funny parts. And with those done, I created a new document and began writing in verse. The jokes went in the right places and, as I went, I filled in everything between.
Now that I'm on to tinkering with Squishy McFluff and The Supermarket Sweep, I'm finding myself employing other methods. On occasions, if I have a craving to write McFluff rather than anything sensible (for my day job), I just sit and hammer out funny words that rhyme.
I have lists of them, on a Stickie on my desktop:
Wobble squabble gobble hobble bobble nobble / flipping snipping tripping ripping skipping zipping
… I'm sort of building a Squishy McFluff rhyme-a-saurus. Sometimes just pairing up silly words will be enough to give me a new idea for what's going to happen.
So do you write? How do you do it? Are you as haphazard as I am? I often see Tweets from other writers about how an idea has come to them in the middle of the night, or at 4 o'clock in the morning. I think it's common for creativity to invade your space just at the time when your body is trying to wind down and relax.
But what about the plotting thing? Is that going to stay with me? It worked last time, but then so did writing with no plan at all. I'd love to hear how you do it. In the meantime, I guess I'll go with the flow, as all cool cats do.
I have some exciting news! Okay, it's not news really, but it's very exciting for me. The text for the first Squishy McFluff book is finished, or as my publisher Leah said: "Baked and ready for icing"!
You can probably tell I've been a bit behind on this blog, but here's how I got to this point.
Since winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize, I had been quietly beavering away at another story and in fact, by the time the offer from Faber came, for four books, I had completed that one too, I was all fired up and on a roll.
I already had an idea by that point that the stories might need to be much longer rather than much shorter, so this time, rather than holding back and self editing to save words, I really let myself go with it.
I didn't have a plan for word count, I just wrote and wrote until all the ideas were out. The end result was that the fourth Squishy McFluff book was almost twice as long as the first one.
Well, towards the end of November, my contract with Faber drawn up and signed, I had my first editorial meeting with Leah Thaxton. and I knew that this disparity was going to be the major thing to fix with book one.
Squishy McFluff, The Invisible Cat would need to be extended a great deal – and this felt very daunting. Obviously, not as daunting as writing a novel, and then someone telling you to add 50% of the word count, but nevertheless, I had spent a long time thinking this story was finished.
It was far from finished. The first draft of the text was 21 stanzas long. Leah estimated that I'd need to get it to 36 stanzas – and the story was to be split into thee sections of 12 stanzas each.
Talking through it with Leah was immensely helpful and inspiring. She had some ideas for me, where I might add material – could McFluff be a bit naughtier here? Could we have a bit more dialogue from Ava there?
It was refreshing too. I write as a day job, for magazines and websites. I like to think I write to brief pretty well, I don't tend to have great swathes of copy cut or changed. But as for the little things, if an editor thinks something isn't quite right, they'll just tell you to change it, or change it themselves.
It wasn't quite like that with the book. Where Leah had ideas that I didn't really agree with, or I wasn't sure I could make work, I said so and Leah was fine with it. She gave me a huge amount of input, but then it was left to me to figure out the solutions, in the manner I felt would work.
We went through the first three texts that afternoon, but book one, the biggest job, was priority. I had agreed to get that text delivered before the New Year, and it felt like there was a lot to do.
Naturally, I couldn't wait to get started. The next day, with a large coffee, I sat down and began. At first, I started working methodically through Leah's suggestions for adding stanzas here and there. And as I went, I realised that the story needed not only more words, but more substance.
The first draft was a re-write of a column I had written, with some McFluff style mischief inserted, of course. It starred Ava and McFluff, and co-starred Mummy with a brief appearance from Daddy. But now it needed someone else, and I knew exactly who it would be.
Enter Great Grandad Bill.
Great Grandad Bill is real person, so I knew just how to write him. Among all the hullaballoo surrounding me receiving my offer from Faber, my stepmum had reminded me that the publication of the first book – in February 2014 – would coincide with the month my Grandad (Ava's Great Grandad) celebrates his 100th birthday.
My Grandad is sweet and funny and of course, at the age of almost 99 now, he knows a thing or two. He's as wise and as lovely as anyone gets. He's also a writer (it wasn't his trade, but it's in his blood) and so he's rather interested in all this.
Bringing Great Grandad Bill into the equation gave me lots of new material. But I also needed to up the high jinks, and this is where I really had some fun.
How naughty can an invisible cat be? And what exactly would an invisible cat want to do to pass the time? The ideas suddenly came flooding.
I finished the second draft after two solid days of writing. And I do mean solid – I mean I was writing around he clock. Are you a writer? Can you let it go when you're in the zone? I didn't really sleep for two nights. I felt like I was dozing, and as I dozed I wrote and re-wrote lines in my head, over and over again.
I'm probably a bit difficult to live with during these processes. I'll be in the middle of doing something, and then a line with perfect scansion will pop into my head, and I'll drop whatever I am doing and bolt to my laptop to get it down before it's gone again.
I even left Ruby hanging on for dear life on the loo once.
When it was done, I was pleased with it. I'd taken the story from 21 stanzas to 41 (I'd checked that it'd be okay if I wrote more than the additional 15). But I wanted to live with it for a few days before letting Leah see it. I read and re-read. I tinkered and switched things. And then, finally, I hit 'send'.
Leah loved it. The relief was so immense, I'm not sure what I'd have done if, after all those additions, I'd had to start over.
Since then, I've been through two more rounds of editing – we talked through the text over the phone. I had to up some tension and reconsider a few words which weren't quite right for my age group. After the major re-write, none of it felt at all difficult. I just had to give myself time to work the problems out, like making pieces of a jigsaw fit.
The final amend was cleared last week – it was one line that was tripping Leah up. I spent Christmas with that line rolling around in my head and came up with four different ideas for how to change it.
And now it's done. As I said: Whoopee!
Next? Probably the best bit of all – Faber will be looking for illustrators to pitch their interpretations of Ava and Squishy McFluff and so some time, in the not too distant future, I'm going to see what they actually look like.
I can't wait…
ps. By the way, sorry this blog lacks meaningful pictures. It's one of the downsides of talking about invisible cats. That's an illustrator sort of a problem!
I spent the latter part of 2012 reeling – in the best way. After signing up with Julia at The Greenhouse, she told me her plan was to give Leah Thaxton, who had just stepped into her new role as Publisher (Children's) at Faber and Faber, one month to look at three Squishy McFluff texts. If she made an offer by the end of the that time, well, fabulous! If not, Squishy McFluff would go prowling around all the other children's publishers looking for a home.
By this point, after lots of chats with Julia, I'd begun to realise that McFluff was perhaps not destined to be in picture books as I had once thought (or rather, hoped).
This was great news to me in one major way – of the three texts that had gone to Leah, the shortest was the first story, Squishy McFluff, the Invisible Cat, which was about 750 words.
The other two were around 850 words and 900 words respectively – all of them massively too long to fit into a picture book format. Debut authors writing picture books, I'd learned since doing all that writing, should produce a text of no more than 500 words. English, you see, is the most succinct of languages – after being translated for European markets, a book could gain as much as a third of its length. All those extra words simply wouldn't fit.
But Julia's thought, from the outset, was that McFluff could be something else – a format that bridges the gap between picture book and early reader. It's something Alex T Smith has successfully done with his Claude books, and perhaps something Dr Seuss did a long time ago with his brilliantly ridiculous rhyming stories.
Well, a week or so after receiving the manuscripts, Leah invited Julia and I in to have a chat about where Squishy McFluff might go, what might be done with him. Julia steeled me for a casual meeting. Dashed hopes are horribly painful. While almost wetting my pants, I probably falsely assured her I'd be taking neither eggs nor baskets.
As it was, the meeting blew me away. It wasn't at all what I'd expected. Rebecca Lee (editor) had made a tin of invisible cat cupcakes, complete with chocolate mice. In the corner of the room was a cat basket with a label on it bearing Squishy's name. They'd stopped short of a litter tray. Unless there was an invisible one and I didn't see it.
These lovely people at Faber (FABER!) were genuinely excited about Squishy McFluff. They totally got him; they understood who he was, and why he was so curious and naughty. We talked (and laughed) about the complexities of illustrating a cat who was invisible. They loved him as much as I did. Wow.
I left the meeting a little numb, walking on air, full of hope. Julia and I went and used a voucher I had (I LOVE a voucher, don't you?) for a free bottle of cava and we drank it outside in the cold.
Early in October, Julia called me to say Leah had made an offer, and it was a good offer. No, a GREAT offer. Now, I've never had an offer from a publisher before, and of course it's really key to have trust in your agent, to know that they'll find not just a deal for you, but the best deal they can. Julia had again steeled me for nothing coming through, but I don't know, I think she was quietly confident – and, when it came, she was delighted.
Although I hadn't a clue about this process, even I could see that Leah's offer was amazing. I'm not just talking about being offered actual money for something I'd written, I'm talking about the passion and the excitement behind it, the plans Leah had for Squishy's future.
The pitch she sent, for four books, was written almost entirely in verse, which made me both laugh and cry. It had quotes from people working in every corner of Faber. Shall I insert a cat pun in here? Shall I? Oh okaaaay: it was purrrfect. They really wanted to give Squishy McFluff a home.
Obviously, all of this was fantastic, exhilarating, incredible – but does it sound strange to say it also felt a bit odd?! I can feel myself building up to some kind of unrequited love metaphor. You know? Hankering after someone so much, and for so long, wishing they'd turn around and say: 'Yes I like you too, actually.' And then they do, and you go: '… … Er… gosh… um… really…? ………… REALLY?!'
Yes. It felt a bit like that. The tables switched. ODD! After thinking for ages: 'Please read it, someone. Please like it. Please take it on. Please want to publish it', now I had a pitch from Faber asking ME to take Squishy McFluff to them. I know I keep saying it, but FABER!
Anyway. My response?
'Oh, go on then.'
Ha ha! I wonder if Leah sensed me mentally biting her hand off?
So, there it was, Squishy's future starting to unfold. There was one little part of it that felt a bit daunting. The format meant that rather than cutting the stories to picture book length (which, in all honesty, I would have hated), I would be extending them. And I wasn't sure by how much…
Well that was last year and now, in 2013 the work on the first book is underway! I've been beavering away at extending the first text with the advice and support of my publisher (!), and I'll write about that here soon.
In the meantime, if you like verse (and I REALLY hope you do) have you seen Elli Woollard's Taking Words For a Stroll? It always makes me grin :D
Don't you love it when, with hindsight, you realise that a tiny, and seemingly insignificant, moment in time actually proved to be a pivotal point, a point when everything changed?
My moment happened with a Google search for writing communities. Of all of those that popped up, I clicked on The Word Cloud, run by The Writers' Workshop. It was while exploring the main site I noticed a little green advert for something called The Greenhouse Funny Prize. I clicked the link, I read the rules, I noticed there were about 10 days before the competition deadline.
I pondered it for an evening and asked Dan if my stories – now about an invisible kitten called Squishy McFluff – were funny enough (he said they were, but I couldn't help feeling he may be a little biased). I read and re-read them and thought, well why not? They were all just sitting there, after all. I only had to format the synopses and write the blurbs. It took me an hour, I pinged them all over. And then instantly regretted it. Oh no! How desperate did that look?! Sending six! I should have just picked one. I cringed at myself.
Then having submitted them all I looked in more detail at The Greenhouse's website. It appeared, as a rule, they did not represent picture book authors. Neither did they represent poetry. And one of the judges, Leah Thaxton – who was Publishing Director at Egmont at the time – had discovered Andy Stanton's Mr Gum. Oh, lordy.
I don't know if you have read any Mr Gum books, but they are seriously funny. I mean, there are bits of those books which have literally had me crying with laughter.
McFluff is completely different, of course, but I think I decided right then I shouldn't get my hopes up. I forgot all about the competition. Chalk that up, I thought.
But a few weeks later, I got one of the best calls of my life. I was told Squishy had been shortlisted, but then to discover he had won, well, I couldn't believe it.
The prize was a ticket to the Writers' Workshop Festival of Writing and, best of all, representation by Julia Churchill who would, within two months, secure me a four-book deal with Faber and Faber.
I am VERY lucky, I know how lucky I am. Squishy McFluff needed a little serendipity and although I didn't know it was happening at the time, there was one moment, one perfect moment, when I could have looked at a different website – but didn't.
What happened with Squishy McFluff shows that, whatever you write and however good it is, not everyone will love it. Certainly some people will say it's 'not quite for me'. But you only need one person to love it, the right person at the right time. It can, and does, happen.
The Greenhouse Funny Prize is back in 2013, by the way. Julia will be offering up details some time soon, and I'll share them here too. So if you write funny fiction for children, in whatever guise, consider entering. Hitting 'send' might be your perfect moment!
Next blog post, I'll tell you about how I received the offer from Faber and Faber, and then I can get right up to date and stop talking in the past tense. In the meantime, Happy New Year!