Thursday, 27 May 2010

A Sin to be Original?

This might sound really weird coming from someone currently trying to sell a book about zombies, but originality is very important to me. There is nothing I hate more than the idea of going over ground that has already been scrubbed clean of insight or surprise. The trouble is that nowadays, originality seems to be in pretty short supply.

Since postmodernism came along and made it ok to basically steal what you like from someone else's work, originality has quickly been edged out by familiarity. Scared (financially and creatively) to take a chance on a new concept, the movie and TV industry prefers to "leverage their back catalogue" - in other words, remake stuff. Occasionally, this can have electrifying results (Battlestar Galactica, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, The recent Star Trek movie) but mostly it results in warmed-over trash (Knight Rider, Wonder Woman, pretty much every horror movie remake, etc.)

Due to the lower costs of entry, this isn't a problem that has affected the book industry as much, but I wonder if the creeping influence of "the series" will have much the same effect. With a lot of the revenue for children's book titles driven by merchandising, it makes business sense to consolidate as much as possible and to land-grab kids' time with familiar brands and characters. Children's book series are now planned very much like TV series, with a frequent drip-feed of product to keep consumers buying. There isn't anything particularly new or evil about this trend, but it can serve to lock children into a brand - you only have to observe an impressionable pre-school boy obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine to see that particular phenomenon in action.

But even if you remain aloof from commercial concerns, the explosion in TV channels and the internet over the last 15 years makes originality very difficult. From YouTube to fan fiction to late-night Sci-fi movies, it seems that everyone else has had an idea before you. Perhaps there was no real novelty in fiction concepts before the internet either, but at least writers were generally insulated from the evidence. Now all it takes is one Google search to reveal the futility of your latest brilliant idea.

All of which leaves me with a whole load of old ideas spread over the living room carpet and no instruction leaflet. Can I reassemble this kit of familiar parts into a new book that somehow becomes an original work? Is it enough to just take a hackneyed genre and subvert it for my own entertainment? I'll get back to you on that...

Deep down, I have a naive yearning to be someone like Charlie Kaufman or David Lynch, free to mine my own unique personal vision in increasingly bizarre and thought-provoking ways. But then again, I think about films like Synecdoche, New York and the terrible Inland Empire and wonder if being wilfully original is always the best course.


Friday, 21 May 2010

Surviving the Submissions Process

After a few (minor) false starts, the final draft of Back from the Dead is finished (you can tell that it's the last one, because it has the words "Final Draft" in the filename). Now, my agent has to make up a submission package, unleash it on the publishing industry and wait for the polite rejections to drop into her inbox. But how can I best fill this long period of uncertainty?

Here are a list of dos and don'ts for surviving the submissions process:

  1. Do write a blog post with a list in it. Lists are short, snappy and give evidence of an ordered mind. Any editors reading such a list will be impressed.

  2. Don't write sub-lists. These are:
    1. Boring.
    2. Evidence of an over-ordered mind.
    3. Suggest someone who might set fire to an editor's cat if their book is rejected.

  3. Don't over-hype the book. Publishers are sick of receiving letters claiming that an author is the next J.K. Rowling or Lemony Snicket. Be more realistic with your comparisons, but avoid saying you are the next Kaavya Viswanathan.

  4. Don't reveal business details about the submissions process. Statements such as "Editor X has offered me a gazillion pound deal" or "Editor Y wants to sign me up for 10 books" may prejudice the contract process. Also, avoid phrases like "I think Editor Z fancies me."

  5. Do find a new hobby to fill the tense weeks and months while the book is out for submission. Consider embarking on writing a multi-book series about wizards or vampires, or buy a really, really big jigsaw.

  6. Don't list every rejection you receive on your blog, along with comments about the editor and notes on their personal hygiene. A simple gift of soap or deodorant is so much more thoughtful and will ensure the editor in question remembers you when your next book comes up for submission.

  7. Do draw a picture for the cover of your book, or ask a small child to draw one for you. A publisher's marketing department is not always the easiest place to work, and they will gain many hours of simple joy from laughing at your attempts to do their job for them.

  8. Do be prepared to meet publishers and talk enthusiastically about your book. Do not become psychotically enraged when they suggest turning your YA werewolf novel into an early-reader series about fairies with "issues."

Finally, do have fun. The submissions process is not a dehumanising cattle market - it is a chance to make new friends and earn an advance that will more than cover your agent's photocopying bill.


Thursday, 13 May 2010

My Agent - Jenny Savill

I'm extremely pleased to announce that I am now represented by Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnberg Associates. Regular readers of this blog will know that I've been working with Jenny for almost six months now, and I've had to do a lot of work on Back from the Dead to reach the sign-up point. It's a great relief to finally reveal her identity, because that she was becoming one of those characters who is often mentioned but never seen (something like Maris in Frasier) and Jenny really does exist because I've met her and everything!

Jenny's children's list comprises nine other authors, including 2008 Undiscovered Voices winners Sara Grant and Katie Dale, Helen Moss (writing the Superstar High series as Isabella Cass) and the wonderful Keren David. Oh, and now she has some bloke wot writes zombie fiction as well :-)

Jenny doesn't have a particularly high profile amongst unpublished writers - she isn't listed by name in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and if I mention her to another writer they will often nod blankly in a way that seems to say "Oh poor you. So Christopher Little still isn't taking your calls, then?" Mention Jenny to an editor, however, and their eyes light up like a child on Christmas Eve. And that, my friends, is what I'm talking about!

Some of my fellow authors have balked at the length of time Jenny has waited before signing me, as well as some of the complexities of our editorial process. It's true that I have been frustrated at times, but I think much of that stems from the insecurity that all unpublished writers feel in the face of a confusing and subjective industry. In actual fact, both Jenny and I have been working very hard towards selling the book during this unsigned period - me with writing and networking, her with editorial and preparing the ground for the submissions process. By working "at risk" in this way for so long, Jenny and I have become very familiar with each other's working methods and built up a huge amount of mutual trust. An agency agreement may seem like an amazing, unbreakable promise, but it can be severed in sixty days by either side. Trust is a whole lot stronger than that.


Monday, 10 May 2010

In Praise of SCBWI

However you pronounce it (I favour "Scoobie" but I know many others lean towards "Scwibby") the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators is a wonderful organisation with a terrible acronym.

The renewal notice that dropped into my inbox the other day reminded me how very much has changed during the first year of my membership. Before May 2009, I was an unknown writer with a horror novel of dubious quality, no agent and self-esteem issues. Now, I'm an undiscovered (i.e. slightly less unknown) writer with a pretty kick-ass horror novel, no agent and ... erm ... well I'm still working on the self-esteem stuff. And maybe the agent thing will be sorted out fairly soon and ...

Who am I kidding? SCBWI has CHANGED MY LIFE. You will not meet a nicer, more welcoming or more focused bunch of people anywhere - on or off the internet. I laboured in adult writing groups for quite a few months, but the fact I was writing for children set me apart and I could never get the kind of market-led and solidly structural critique that I really needed. This is not the case since joining SCBWI - in fact I have way too many critique opportunities now, and am now struggling to keep up. Everyone seems so gracious and well-informed, and despite the time pressures I have been really pleased with the way that my own critical abilities have blossomed over the last twelve months.

Every time I walk into the children's section of a bookshop nowadays, I see books written by SCBWI members. Just yesterday in Blackwells - without particularly seeking any of them out - I saw Greek myths retold by Lucy Coats and Saviour Pirotta, The Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43 by Harriet Goodwin, Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner and of course the marvellous Mortlock by Jon Mayhew. The idea that I know and can actually talk to people who write published children's books, that these people are in a very real way my peers - is still pretty mind-blowing.

The key thing that any writer needs is belief - it's also something that's very hard to supply on your own. Ok, sure, there are your family and friends, but you get the feeling that they would support you whether you were writing books or making a range of Patagonian llama cheeses: "Oh yes, it's very nutty - don't you think, Bernard? And you really fermented all this yourself? You could be the next J.K. Rodriguez!"
(Billionaire Patagonian cheese magnate and self-crowned King of Coagulation)

Fret no more about your Mum's leaden palate and liking for misery memoirs, and turn to the fine members of SCBWI. Just like the Ghostbusters, they're "ready to believe you." To cheer your successes and commiserate on your failures. To tell you that you're "nearly there" when your beloved manuscript is rejected for the seventh time. Because the eighth time might be the charm and if you give up now, you'll never know that. Many of the Scoobies are my very good friends and I hope many more will be my friends in the future. At the Professional Series and the Masterclasses, on Yahoo and Facebook, at the Conference, Retreat and new Pulse events, SCBWI rocks!

But always in an age-appropriate manner.


Tuesday, 4 May 2010

What's My Motivation?

I think my own personal motivation for writing isn't 100% clear. I sometimes feel like I don't know who I am or where I'm going, and this quickly translated into my characters. While this might have been cathartic for me, it left my characters as spectators in their own lives, unable to understand themselves and dragged along by forces beyond their control.