Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Every morning I receive a email edition of Sarah Duncan's daily blog about writing craft - a blog no would-be writer should miss. Recently, she's been discussing the format for picture book texts which took me back to my own beginnings as a published writer.

Along with the perennial "Where do you get your ideas from?",  "How did you start?" is one of the questions I get asked most often when I'm talking to the WI or Writers' Groups.

The answer isn't entirely straightforward.  I started writing when I was at school.  Openings of stories.  Those fabulous few first paragraphs that are so easy to get down.  But where do you go from there?  An opening, a set up is easy.  It's the middle and the end that is so often the problem.

It's no easier when you're writing a 600 word story.   My first piece of fiction, inspired by the daily lunchtime ritual of "Listening With Mother" with my two pre-schoolers - and the "I could do that" response to a story about a button - involved a coathanger called Clarissa.  It was bad, but I actually finished it and that's the biggest hurdle any writer has to face.   Even 600 words is a big deal when you've never finished a story before;  it isn't how you start, it's whether you can provide a satisfying ending that makes you a writer.
My second story was about a little girl moving home, a old lady retiring, and a ginger cat.  I sent it off to D C Thomson, the comic people and they bought it for their TWINKLE annual.  I was a writer!   Okay, they paid me the princely sum of £6.  I was not about to follow Charlotte Lamb into tax exile writing for a little girls' picture paper, but I was being paid for writing.

I sold several other little stories to DCT and then I received a letter from their head office in Dundee asking me if I'd meet with someone from the editorial office at St Ermin's Hotel in London.  Wow!  Now I was a writer who was invited to meet an editor in an hotel.  (The event is also memorable for the fact that the Australian Rugby Football team were staying there and walked through the lounge in front of me in their green and gold glory!)

The meeting was to suggest what else I could write for Twinkle.  They wanted to move me on to picture stories.  The regular stories that appeared each week featuring one of their characters.  Nurse Nancy was the big one.  A two-page spread, nine pictures.  And Tessa's Toybox had just started.  Maybe I'd like to try that?  One page, five or six pictures, less than a hundred words.  Well, that had to be easy.  Didn't it?  Well, no.  Take a look at this Tessa Toybox story, one of the many I wrote.

In five pictures there is -

  • Tessa decides that today she's going to play at being a nanny and take her toys out for a walk in her pram.   I write a small description of what will be in the picture for the artist, and then I write the caption.
  • Tessa goes to the park where she sees a little girl about to fall in the pond.

  •  Tessa grabs the little girl as she's about to topple into the water..

  • She has acted like a real nanny.  Result, ice cream all round.
It's a very simple story.  The language is simple, too.  No adverbs, one adjective (it was "big") ice cream.   Each word works for its place.  And the really important thing is that all stories work this way.  Set Up, Drama, Climax, Resolution.

Obviously when writing romance the set up is more complex, the drama bigger (although actually there isn't anything much bigger than rescuing a child from drowning), and the resolution will, hopefully, result in more than an ice cream (although having just written a book with a ice cream van at its heart, ice cream is good!)

This was my training ground.  Before I ever attempted adult fiction, or even a short story, my style was honed to the bone and for that I have to thank the lovely people at D C Thomson.  I always wanted to write;  they made me a writer.

Oh, and yes, I did have some stories read on Listen With Mother, too.  The Scarecrow's New Clothes, The Adventurous Seed...


Teresa Morgan said...

How wonderful! Lovely to read how writers start off their careers. And I vaguely remember Twinkle.

Anne Booth said...

Very interesting! And I DEFINITELY remember Twinkle and the excitement of those stories! Thank you!

Sarah Duncan said...

Thank you so much for your nice comments, and for posting this, I was fascinated! And envious - what a brilliant training for a writer.

Lacey Devlin said...

That's such a fascinating start story Liz! I never would have guessed. Thanks for sharing :)

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks, Teresa. It's amazing how everyone I talk to either read Twinkle as a kid or bought for their own.

I took my little girl to one of my editorial meetings at St Ermins when she was 3 or 4 years old and the lovely D C Thomson man bought her orange juice and asked her what she liked most.

Liz Fielding said...

They were fun, Anne, weren't they?

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Sarah - I love your blog. Wouldn't miss it. Love your talks, too.

Liz Fielding said...

Hi Lacey! Writers do not leap fully formed but have a long learning curve. Reducing the outline of a book to a picture story will soon reveal any shortcomings :)

Henrietta Bird said...

I've been chatting with my mum about Twinkle - it is a central part of my childhood for us both. Mum claims I had the first ever issue. In order to sound younger I hotly deny this.

Twinkle and especially Nurse Nancy encouraged me to learn to read very early. (My mum and 'flash cards' helped - does anyone remember them?)

Liz it is nice to finally be able to thank someone for a lovely part of my childhood!

Thank you

Vince said...

Hi Liz:

My wife loved Nurse Nancy as a child. She even had a Nurse Nancy outfit and medicine bag. But that was in America. Was Nurse Nancy American or British?

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to make a storyboard for a novel just as screenwriters do for a movie. This would be interesting even if you used stick figures. Yet I don’t know of any writer who has said she does this.

What do you think an editor would think of getting a storyboard submission for a novel?


Liz Fielding said...

Hi Vince - my last comment disappeared into cyber space so I'll try again.

My Nurse Nancy was a character in picture paper for little girls published in Dundee, Scotland, so probably not the same Nurse Nancy as your wife grew up with unless she was syndicated. Probably just a coincidence. It's a neat name. :)

I did buy myself a Moleskine story board notebook but could never bring myself to mess it up with my scribblings so I gave it to my husband, who coveted it. He hasn't used it either. It remains a pristine thing of beauty.

While I see scenes as if they were a film rolling, I suspect writers need words to express them. At least this writer does. :)

Jan Jones said...

This is a lovely post, Liz (but then, they all are).

Fantastic training - do you still have those bare bones running through your head as you write?

Liz Fielding said...

Thanks, Jan. I have the bare bones in theory. I do tend to wander off the point rather more with so many sentences to play with :)

Anonymous said...

This brought back fond memories for me because I, too, wrote for Twinkle many years ago. I loved the animal stories - Penny and Pepper, Shona and her Sheepdog, Vicki the Vet and Mary and her Lamb.
I still have my original texts but, having read your post, how I wish I had kept more of the comics.
Thanks for this nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Saffron said...

Nurse Nancy was the best twinkle story ever, I loved it and always played dollies and teddies hospital.