Friday, 26 November 2010

The Joys of Being Unpublished

Yes, it's true. There are a ton of good things about not being published. Why not join me as we skip hand-in-hand through the roses of Slushpile Meadows?
  • With No Power Comes No Responsibility
    I know I stole that off a recent superhero spoof, but that doesn't make it any less appropriate. An unpublished writer has no masters except themselves. Want to stop writing that incredibly commercial sci-fi action thriller and devote yourself to an eight-volume epic fantasy about sentient rocks in Guatemala? Be my guest. Want to stop writing altogether and pursue a new career as a primate psychiatrist? There's sure to be a course at Bolton University to suit.

  • You Can Take Pleasure in Others' Award Success
    I must admit to the odd pang of envy at other people's book deals. Book awards, by comparison, fill me with nothing but admiration. I don't have any books out there to compete at the moment, so I can enjoy everyone's success. SCBWI British Isles is having an absolutely sensational year and I'm so, so pleased (and a little teary) when I think about all of my friends who are out there kicking ass and taking prizes.

  • It Only Gets Harder From Here On
    The business of publishing is tough. Not, like, Hunger Games tough, but still hard work. You will be forced to meet tight (and sometimes arbitrary) deadlines. You will be pushed harder in your writing than you ever have been before, making and justifying creative choices that were completely implicit in your earlier work. You will be driven past the point of tedium by endless questions, rewrites and copy-edits. At some point, you may get paid - but don't bet the farm on it.

  • Writing is Supposed to be Fun
    When I started writing, it was entirely for myself. And I think that can get lost in the blizzard of rejections, the endless agonising about titles and genre and covering letters and where the market is going and are there even going to be any actual books around when I get published?
    This doesn't affect everyone - I know plenty of published and semi-published authors who retain their complete affection for the creative process. But for the rest of us - don't forget why you started out and who your number one consumer should be.

  • Being Published Will Not Make You Happy
    Shock horror newsflash! If you are a naturally dissatisfied person, no publishing deal in the world will make you happy. Honestly, it won't. Becoming massively successful and critically respected did not make Kurt Cobain happy. Or Tennessee Williams. Or David Foster Wallace. Only you can make yourself happy. And I'm sorry if that sounds like self-help B.S. but it's a truth that's been creeping up on me for a while.

  • You are Not Alone
    You may think you know a lot of published authors. That is because your friends are all writers! Out there in that place they call The Real World, mostly everyone is unpublished. And worse than that, a lot of them are undistinguished, unambitious and unaware - like a Cro-Magnon with better shoes. Just by trying to write a book, you have climbed further up the evolutionary ladder than they have. Yes, that's you, outside the cave right now, rubbing two sharpened pencils together to make fire. Plus, if you are attacked by sabre-toothed tigers, you can throw your netbook at them.

  • There are Worse Things Than Being Unpublished
    You could be dead. Or Gillian McKeith.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Copyright Awareness Day

I'm taking the highly unusual (for me) step of blogging twice in the same day, because I found myself extremely passionate when talking about copyright earlier. You can read all about Copyright Awareness Day on How Publishing Really Works

I wanted to give the perspective of someone in the IT industry, because a lot of the dissent I read about copyright is from people in the digital domain. I've yet to see any writers arguing that copyright is a bad thing, but lots of rubbish from other people about how information is "free" and you can't stop the flow of it, so you shouldn't try.

As people point out (endlessly), the software industry has been coping with copyright theft for many years. And it mostly does this by ignoring the problem and hoping that it can sell more games than are stolen. I'm not sure this path of least resistance is really a viable model for publishers, especially since the price point for video games is so high for this very reason. The price of books is not so flexible in this respect, I suspect - witness the pressure to bottom-out the price of e-books, despite the fact that the bulk of the costs of publishing are in the writing, editing and acquisition process.

The mindset in the software world has become even more warped in recent years by the advent of open-source software. Suddenly, everyone can (legally) get everything they need to build their applications for free. If complex software is free, why shouldn't everything be the same way? After all, writing a book can't be any harder than writing a piece of software, right?

Erm, well I've done both and let me tell you the answer is no. The main reason for this is one of collaboration - software can easily be broken into modules and written by a large team of people, but a work of fiction needs a single author (or at a push two) to give the work a unifying voice. Writing well is exceptionally hard work, both functionally and intellectually. And that is what we're talking about here - intellectual property.

Your copyright is important and it is a right. So protect it.


Plotter or Pantser?

Plotter /ˈplɒtər/
  1. A writer who focuses primarily on plot to drive a narrative, with the hope that the characters will come along for the ride. Has been known to indulge in exhaustive planning and complex diagrams that look like one of Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees.

Pantser /pænt zər/
  1. A writer who focuses primarily on character to drive a narrative, with the hope that the plot will just make itself up and look like they meant it to be that way all along. Has been known to plunge recklessly into a new book without even knowing when or where it's set. Flies by the seat of their pants, hence the name.

One of the great/scary things about writing is how much you discover about yourself along the way. I used to think that I was a plotter, I really did. My first drafts were plotted to the nth degree, full of complex interwoven story arcs and clever twists. But there was one twist that was withheld even from me.

I am rubbish at plotting.

Seriously, when I get a manuscript back from my agent, 90% of the comments are about plot. Very rarely does she criticise the voice or the dialogue or the characterisation - except when it impedes the direction of the plot.

It pains me how long I laboured under the assumption that I was great at plotting, but I simply didn't realise there was a problem. There's a really interesting series of articles by documentarian Errol Morris about what Donald Rumsfeld famously called "unknown unknowns" - the things we don't realise we don't know. And that absolutely sums up plotting for me.

In the agonising gap between Back from the Dead going out for submission and attracting the interest of a publisher, I started a new book. It was to be another funny horror novel, all about evil children's books and body swaps and some unorthodox demon worship. After the success of the second draft planning I had done for BFTD, I decided to plot everything scrupulously in advance. Cue four weeks labouring over a word document full of bullet points while rejections flowed in on an almost daily basis. It's fair to say that this didn't put me in the best frame of mind, so with the first act plotted in detail, I decided to make a start on the book proper.

And I didn't want to write it.

I had scoffed at all of those things that other writers had said to me about the dangers of plotting too carefully. That it drains the story of interest by removing the element of surprise. After all, hadn't I painstakingly plotted BFTD from the second draft onwards? And hadn't that worked?

The key word here is second. Perhaps after the first draft I can get myself into the mindset of a plotter. Perhaps I need to as well, because that is the point where I'm likely to get feedback from someone about how crap the plot is! But for the first draft?

I'm pantsing for England.


Monday, 15 November 2010

10 Things I Learned at the SCBWI Conference

This was supposed to be a coordinated blog topic, but it might be just me doing it. Heaven knows I'm uncoordinated enough as it is. Anyway, it's Monday morning, I've just come back from a weekend of too much food, too much information and not enough time to talk to everyone I knew. So strap yourself in for the most intense period of name-dropping this blog has ever known.

  1. David Fickling is a national treasure who might have swallowed a Marshall amplifier as a child.

  2. Sara Grant thinks I am a "media whore."

  3. Some people got really upset by my anti-NaNoWriMo post. Sorry about that.

  4. I want to be exactly like Sarah McIntyre and may have to resort to surgery to achieve it.

  5. Dave Cousins is channelling his inner Carmen Miranda.

  6. Katie Dale and her mum Elizabeth are never seen in the same room at once and may in fact be a single time-travelling author from the future. Or not.

  7. Even Candy Gourlay gets exhausted sometimes.

  8. Lisa Smith has women asking to photograph her cleavage.

  9. Butters (a phrase from current youth parlance meaning "butt ugly") is not a term that female writers associate with Marcus Sedgwick.

  10. Nick Cross has a lot of fine, funny and fabulous friends.

Thank you to everyone who organised, spoke at or attended the conference. It was an enormous success and I hope to see even more of you next year. Go SCBWI!


It was a coordinated effort after all - if you blog it, they will come! Check out these other great posts:

Candy Gourlay
Claudia Myatt
Dave Cousins
MC Rogerson
Keren David
Teri Terry
Rebecca Colby
Ellen Renner

Friday, 5 November 2010

Change Management

Can people really change? The pessimists would say no, yet every character arc in every story is based around a character changing in some way. Is this as much of a fantasy as happily ever after?

As usual, the question is prompted by my own state of mind. I want to change, to become not so much a "better" person, as a more content one. Last night, I was struck by the atmosphere at the SCBWI Professional Series event I attended. Four newly published authors, with everything to celebrate, and yet the dominant mood was one of world-weariness (which I may have contributed to). Candy Gourlay specifically commented on the difference in tone between two email groups she subscribes to - one mostly for unpublished authors and the other for published ones. The unpublished group, she said, was full of optimism, but the published group mostly concerned itself with authors moaning.

I've been feeling this shift acutely recently, as my writing moved from offhand hobby to serious work, and I'm sure it has contributed to my low mood of recent months. But how to get past the realisation that all is not rosy in the garden of publishing and enjoy the process? After all, it's not as if I expect to earn a living from writing. Can I not appreciate it for what it is?

I was buoyed up by the outlook of Steve Hartley. This guy is having FUN. Swaggering around in oversized pants and throwing a four-foot bogey at school children. Is that to do with the kind of books he writes, or the kind of guy he is? Or has he just been luckier than some other authors with his agent/editor/publicist? Jon Mayhew was also upbeat about the process and seems to be getting fantastic support at Bloomsbury. And Ellen Renner has just signed up with my agent, so I know that she's safe in Jenny's hands going forward. Oh, and Candy just got nominated for the Carnegie Medal!

I don't want to suggest that any problems the four authors have had are anything cruel or out of the ordinary. Getting published and staying published is plain hard work, pure and simple. Publishing is not a charity devoted to our mental well-being as writers - it demands product and we must supply it. All the authors agreed that they love school visits, which is one of the things I'm really looking forward to as well. But that could be two years away or more - I need to be enjoying as much as I can in the meantime, building my profile reader by reader.

The evening made me reflect that I've been incredibly lucky so far. I have a very supportive agent, am working with a lovely editor and I have you, reading this blog. That's not so bad is it?

Yeah, yeah, I know. Get off Blogger and write the damn book ;-)


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Blocking Manoeuvre

Ok, here I go, being contrary again. This post isn't really about NaNoWriMo, but I wanted to discuss one of the techniques they advocate, the so-called Plot Ninja. The idea of this is that you introduce some bizarre event to your story - such as the characters being attacked by ninjas - that unblocks your writing and spins you off in another direction. And I guess that when you're on such a tight schedule, it's necessary to come up with radical ways of getting words down on the page, even if they do result in a subplot that you're bound to delete in the second draft. Because writers' blocks are always bad.

Aren't they?

What if there were certain situations in which a writer's block could actually be a positive thing? I know that sounds counterintuitive to anyone currently trapped in one, but bear with me for a minute here.

I think there are a number of things that cause writer's block, and they can happen singularly or in combination.
  1. Fear and Doubt - This is the most debilitating kind of block, the one where your brain tells you that you can never write a word of even mediocre quality ever again. I get these a lot! And perhaps the Plot Ninja can help here, like 200 joules to the chest. But I also wonder about the deeper meaning of these kind of blocks and what they say about me as a person. Isn't the crippling self-doubt about more than just writing? Anyway, I'm working on this one and maybe I have the block to thank for alerting me to it.

  2. Plot Snafu - This one is where you somehow drive the plot into a corner and have literally nowhere to go. The old locked-room mystery, except you don't have a key or anywhere you can get one cut. One way to get out of this kind of block is to back up and try a different route, but sometimes the way you've steered the plot is so perfect, except for that pesky problem of where to go next. What's interesting about this one, is that some writers deliberately paint themselves into a corner as a plot technique - the Farrelly Brothers (of There's Something About Mary fame), for instance. Here's a quote by Peter Farrelly from William Goldman's excellent screenwriting book Which Lie Did I Tell:
    If we can go into a corner where there's no way out, and then we take a week or a few days or a month even, and find a reasonable way out without making it absurd, then nobody in the audience is going to sit there and get it within a minute and get ahead of us.
  3. Boredom - Actually, this one's pretty bad too. I've gone over my novel so many times that I'm starting to get bored of it, which is of course no fun for me or the reader. I certainly can't unleash a Plot Ninja, because I'm writing to a deadline and I've agreed the whole plot with my editor. So what is this kind of block trying to tell me? My interpretation is that it's about innovating with the small things, the clever turns of phrase or dialogue, deepening the characters and making them really breathe. With so many excellent books out there looking for a publisher, it's only by being unique and eye-catching that my work can stand out. Of course, achieving that may be a different matter...