Friday, 29 October 2010

The Cult of NaNoWriMo

I started writing a completely different blog post this morning, all about how this blog was getting too cosy and I was worried that I wasn't taking enough risks. And it was such a thoughtful, carefully argued piece that when I read it back, I realised that it proved my point entirely.

So I'm going to talk about something else. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). And how I hate it. It isn't even November yet and I'm already bored by it.

Bored. Bored. Bored.

Nathan Bransford, normally the most engaging of bloggers, has been posting about it all week. Yawn.

All around the web, people are preparing their chapter plans and vibrating with excitement at the thought of writing 1666.6 words of mostly garbage every single day. Snore.

I'm dreading a whole month of status updates as people struggle to fill their quota and fret over the fact that they're not living up to a ridiculously arbitrary deadline. Here is some news just in - novels do not have to be written in November. They can be written all year round!

The worst thing is, I know writers who are good, the kind of people who will take their NaNoWriMo novel and actually edit it into something halfway decent. What must it be like being surrounded by Delusional Wannabes (© Nicola Morgan) who are just going to package up the whole steaming mess and send it off to the nearest agent with an equally delusional covering letter?

NaNoWriMo plays up to the worst kind of writer stereotypes, the "oh, I'm writing a novel" smugness that gives unpublished authors a bad name. It is a triumph of the quantitative over the qualitative. On many days - yesterday for instance - I'm happy to write 400 good words of a novel. Not just any words, but good words that I won't have to revise endlessly for the next six months. Strong dialogue that's funny and sounds natural. Clever ideas and twists that propel the story in fascinating directions. A wholesale rejection of the cliché.

As such an aggressive first-drafter, I suppose you could argue that NaNoWriMo was never going to be my bag. Maybe I'm actually scared of it, frightened of the discipline and commitment, frightened of the fact that I might discover some deep insights about myself. Or maybe I'm just worried that I'll ratchet my already high stress levels into heart attack territory as I waste a whole month and produce a ton of poorly written crap.

NaNoWriMo. Just look at it. Even the acronym doesn't make much sense.


Friday, 22 October 2010

Let's Do Launch


I must admit, I'm getting slightly addicted to book launches. I've been to three now, and I'm writing this on the way to my fourth - for Sarah McIntyre's Vern and Lettuce anthology of her DFC comic strips. For the first time, I'm also taking my ten-year-old daughter, who is both comics-mad and quite excited. She's sitting next to me on the train at the moment, diligently writing in a tiny notepad and occasionally breaking off to discuss plots for zombie stories! Very much her father's daughter, then...

So, back to book launches. They are, I feel, a bit like weddings. A whole load of people from all of the branches of your life come together in one room and you are the centre of attention. You desperately want to talk to everyone, but seem to have only thirty seconds with each person. There's never enough wine and somehow you don't get to drink more than a few sips. At least there's no dancing - not unless you're peddling a Strictly tie-in book, in which case you can probably entice Bruce Forsythe along to drum up trade.

It's an immense privilege to know writers who are getting published. Real actual live books that you can pick up and buy. Whenever I'm at a launch, alongside the great conversation there's always a voice at the back of my head saying "this could be you. Keep going." Right now, that's a voice I really need to hear.


So now I'm home and the post-launch glow has faded a little. But we do have a lovely copy of Vern and Lettuce which is not only signed, but personally cartooned-in to boot. Despite my predictions, Sarah's launch was both very nice and quite atypical. By partnering with Stitch London, she managed to fill much of the pub with people knitting sheep. Yes, you did read that right - my daughter sat for nearly two hours producing a rather fetching example in gold lamé thread. There were so many needles clicking away that Sarah was relatively unmobbed and able to talk. In a Who Ate My Brain? exclusive, I can reveal that this is because she actually can't knit! Shocking, I know, but in every other way, Sarah McIntyre is a creative dynamo - a brilliant writer/illustrator who bridges the gap between children's writing, comics and ... erm ... knitting.

Vern and Lettuce is the exuberant story of a sheep, a rabbit, several mischievous bunnies and a world not so very different to ours. It's very funny, beautifully drawn, superbly coloured and available right now.

*Sales pitch ends*


Edit: Here is Sarah's own writeup of the evening, with plentiful photos.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Learn From Everyone

You must know those internet adverts. The one where a "single mom" discovered one simple trick to whiten teeth, lose weight or achieve world peace. Well, this is my version, one simple piece of advice for addressing all of life's challenges. It's there in the title: Learn From Everyone.

This doesn't just apply to writing. I learned plenty of new things about plumbing from the guys changing our boiler this week, and you can learn a great deal about living in the moment from a four-year-old child. No-one should assume that they know everything or nothing on a subject - everyone falls somewhere in-between.

Few people are more tiresome than those self-proclaimed "experts" who hold forth on blogs and message boards, politely stomping on any who dare to challenge their world-view. This seems to be a disease that affects some writers after their first published novel - hubris, perhaps. The irony for me is that this used to be my view of things - one of the reasons that I didn't join a writing group earlier was that I was waiting until I had an agent or publisher lined up. It would then have been my job to "offer" my learned advice to the unwashed, unpublished masses. Yeeeuch!

One of the things I love about SCBWI is the verticality of it, that a newcomer can rub shoulders with an established author and find that the author is just the same as them, albeit five years further through the process. Social media have done wonderful things to break down the barriers too - there are few lines of demarcation on Facebook and almost none on Twitter. I can follow a whole raft of popular authors and, within reason, join in with their conversations. We all need friends, and I find myself bonding online with the most surprising and interesting people. And, of course, some self-serving or impossibly dull ones - what I learn from those people is to avoid them. 1

Rules are made to be broken, and this is what new writers do all the time, often because they don't know what the rules are. This can be incredibly exhilarating to see and is one of the reasons that agents keep wading through the slushpile day after day. I'm sure there are some rules we would consider sacred, like "show don't tell," but I'm discovering that even this is flexible; an editor has recently asked me to unpick my similes and add more telling for reluctant boy readers.

I've had some superb advice at critique groups from writers seemingly further down the publishing ladder than me. The same editor recently praised me for my chapter endings, which used to be dreadful. I hadn't realised they were even a problem until another writer pointed this out in critique and showed me how I could easily move the ending back a few sentences to really drive the reader into the next chapter.

This has been quite a long post considering I can sum up my philosophy in a three word title. So I'll end by asking you to please go out there and share your knowledge generously, whoever you are. But also be prepared to change your mind if someone else thinks differently. They might know better than you.


1 Special note to any of my more insecure friends - before you ask, this is not referring to you. You are lovely, so stop stressing about it.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Any Point to Posterity?

There's a great aspiration amongst writers that their work will endure. The idea that once a book is published, it becomes a permanent statement that can outlive the writer themselves by several lifetimes.

So should I care about that? Really?

To take the selfish viewpoint - no book is any good to me when I'm dead, even one I've written. While I'm not advocating a Viking-style funeral where I get to be torched along with a branch of Waterstones, I'd like to enjoy my writing when I'm alive, thankyouverymuch.

I can see the argument for posterity. As writers, we spend so long gathering experience and learning our craft, so long climbing the publishing ladder, so long trying to sell books, build our audience and stay in print. Couple this with the fact that many authors start a little later in life, and it can feel like the clock is constantly ticking. The idea that we are creating permanence is a comforting feeling, it seems to vindicate our struggle towards publication and beyond.

It's wonderful to pick up a book from an earlier age - especially a children's book - and experience life as it was lived then. The bookshelves in my house are crammed with authors who are no longer with us - C.S. Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richmal Crompton, Noel Streatfeild. But how are we to tell which of today's authors will still be read 50 years hence? Many novels which were hugely successful in the 1960s are out-of-print today, so being published is no guarantee of endurance.

As I commented the other week, the quest for permanence can have more detrimental effects, preventing us from including contemporary references in our books and making us constantly grasp for some elusive literary significance. My aspirations right now are to write books that I enjoy, that my agent and editors will enjoy, and that my audience will enjoy. I won't do that by writing something that is half-arsed or schlocky, but beyond that all the bets are off. I want to sell books in my lifetime, connect with my readers and maybe have some money coming in for my retirement.

I very much hope that my children will reach adulthood before I die, so what is the point for them of any further royalties from my book sales? I'm reminded of the lead character from About a Boy, and the perennial Christmas pop song that both torments him and funds his slacker lifestyle. As corporations stretch the length of copyright ever further, the situation becomes yet more ridiculous. Witness the Tolkein family's battle for unpaid royalties over the Lord of the Rings films and Warner Brothers' unseemly rush to make another Superman movie before the rights revert to the families of the comic strip creators.

There are more positive ways to grapple with the problem of posterity. J.M. Barry's bequest from Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, for instance. More recently, I have been humbled and inspired by Siobhan Dowd's example, setting up a charitable trust to use her book royalties to bring reading to disadvantaged children. A truly unselfish act by a woman whose writing career and life were so tragically cut short by cancer.

I hope she stays in print forever.


Friday, 1 October 2010

One Year On

I'm visiting secondary schools again with my year 6 daughter, this time for real after last year's trial run. The last time I did this, it was in the week following the Undiscovered Voices results and I was on a high - imagining visiting school libraries as a published author.

I was nearly there.

A year later, I'm still nearly there. Paradoxically, I've also made a huge amount of progress. Much of that disconnect was because of my ignorance of the publishing process - I had a manuscript that I thought was ready to go, whereas I'm still rewriting it today, two and a half years after I typed the first sentence. In the meantime, I've managed to find the right agent (I mean, what are the chances of finding any agent, let alone the right one?) and I've now found an editor who cares as much about the book as I do.

All good things, to be sure, but I've also seen several of the other winners clinch deals with publishers who rejected me, which I have to admit hurts a little. But that doesn't stop me being pleased for them - we've all worked damned hard in the last year. The anthology entries were selected on merit - twelve books that were ready to meet the world of publishing. But the twelve writers behind them have proved just as ready. It takes considerable bloody-mindedness to succeed as a writer and we've all been keenly aware that Undiscovered Voices was just our invitation to compete.

It's another year until the Undiscovered Voices 2012 competition results are announced, and I hope that many more of the 2010 winners (me! me!) get book deals in the interim. But I have a delicious feeling that someone is writing one of next year's winning entries right now.

It might be you.