Monday, 22 February 2010

Social Networking

If there's one thing I'll remember from the Undiscovered Voices launch party, it's the noise. The awesome hubbub caused by 70+ people all at schmooze factor 9. In many ways, it fitted my romantic image of a literary party - a room full of people sipping white wine and chatting animatedly about the state of the industry - except WE WERE ALL SHOUTING.

But this was absolutely a good thing, because - if I hadn't realised it already - Undiscovered Voices is kind of a big deal. The first anthology had no such expectations, indeed much of the action for the authors happened after the launch party. Last night, it was clear that many of the negotiations were well underway.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was the initial awkwardness between the writers. We've all been communicating on a semi-regular basis online, but suddenly being dumped together in a room was quite a different experience. It might not have been so bad if we'd had some time to bond, but suddenly the publishing industry came streaming in the door and we were forced to network as if our lives depended on it! I'm not joking about this actually, Working Partners deployed a team of their staff to make sure we weren't hiding in the corner mumbling to ourselves. Sometimes this worked, sometimes not - I had an excruciating few minutes where I was escorted to talk to a couple of agents, both of whom had previously rejected the book!

I discovered that I was still a little bit scared of agents and that some of them held an air of unapproachability. But maybe that was just me - I found it much easier to talk to editors. To be fair, they were mostly all editors who had expressed an interest in reading Back from the Dead so we had some initial connection there. Hopefully I talked lucidly enough - to be honest I can remember some individual conversations very well, but others seem to merge and tangle in my memory. It was all a lot to take in.

It also turned out to be a lot of work for my wife, who I hardly saw for two hours as I was being whisked around. The "plus ones" were quizzed by industry people almost as much as we were and found themselves doing quite a lot of pitching on our behalf. My wife, I'm proud to say, was brilliant - even grilling my prospective agent on why she still hadn't signed me up! (I heard a lot of conspiracy theories on this subject from various writers, but the simple answer seemed to be that my book just isn't ready yet)

I'm still getting used to people saying to me that they've read my extract in the anthology, but what really threw me (in a most pleasant way) was how many people said that they had read this blog. I've got to tell you, moving to a state of having readers - after so long writing for myself - is a big readjustment. But thanks!

Nick.

The Calm Before the Launch

It's the Undiscovered Voices launch party tonight and I should be desperately, frantically worried about it. In fact, my relative calm is so out of character that I'm worrying about that instead! So what went right?

Well, nothing actually - it's more a case of life suddenly bursting in on me like a surprise family birthday and distracting my attention. Just as I've been going through an intense period of revision on Back from the Dead, my day job has revved-up to match and suddenly there are blogs to write, pitches to work on, manuscripts for critique and children who need help with frustrating video games. Ok, none of this is exactly new, but the volume and intensity have vastly increased until I feel like the Buckaroo mule - constantly on the verge of kicking out at someone. You may want to approach the comments section with caution ;-)

With the background of all this, a nice evening of drinks and speeches with some publishing industry people suddenly feels like it might be - dare I say it - actually fun. I don't think any of the winners are going to be required to do any public speaking, yet there's a part of me that wouldn't mind doing a reading from my book if I had to. Clearly, madness has begun to set in!

The one thing I've really neglected so far is my elevator pitch (see below for the latest version). Maybe you can help me with this? I wonder if I might have taken it too literally...

Nick.


Back from the Dead - Elevator Pitch

What? Erm ... fifth floor. No, the green button. That's ok ... really, I'll just get out and walk ... Say, are you a literary agent? You must get so fed up of writers telling you about their books, right? Oh ... you don't? Right ... I suppose I could tell you about my novel. But, well, it's complicated. I mean it's deep, right? You couldn't sum it up in just a few words to someone you just met in a lift. I'd need a couple of thousand words to do it justice. I mean it has themes, you know? Really important current themes and stuff that cut to the heart of our modern world. Get off! That's my throat ... you ... maniac. Let me go! Ok, I'll ... precis it. Just a couple of hundred ... Eugh, that hurts. Ok ... ok, thirty words? Euuuugh! Three words? How can I find three words ... that ... Alright! Alright! Just three words: Zombies are Family.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Competitive Spirit

I've never seen myself as particularly competitive - I was always chosen last at team sports and I lived the typical geeky kid's life of too many computer games and not enough sunshine. So far, the children's publishing industry doesn't seem to be particularly cutthroat - beyond the need to land 'The Next Harry Potter' before someone else - and that suits me just fine. So why do I feel this pressure to compete?

I guess it all started, a few scant months ago, with getting into Undiscovered Voices. Before that, my greatest achievement was receiving a personalised rejection letter, but suddenly I was thrust into the spotlight. Not a very big one, perhaps, but big enough. My first thought was "Oh My God, they really like me!" My second? "I've got to be the first one to get signed with an agent."

Ok, so I guess that impulse says a lot about my insecurity and also my continuing immaturity in the marketplace. I was not the first of the twelve to get an agent (still haven't, in fact) and given the amount of surgery my book needs, I won't be the first to get a publisher. What I did learn is that you can only be competitive if you have someone to measure yourself against. Even now, I picture the twelve winners bursting out of a starting gate on the day the results were announced. I know some of the other finalists have felt this pressure too - not so much the urge to beat someone else, as to not be left behind by the pack. I can't be the only one who heard news of Stephen Kelman's huge children's book deal this week and felt that the industry had probably blown their budget on someone else for another year.

SCBWI is - by and large - a big, happy and dysfunctional family, and I love dysfunctional families so I mean that as a compliment! We socialise, help each other, commiserate and congratulate. We are also, at some basic level, in competition to get into print or to outsell each other. But this doesn't have to be a negative thing, because I believe this competition can positively affect our own work and push us to new levels. Think of how many times you've read a book and found a plot device or character that closely mirrors your own:

Step 1 - You groan.
Step 2 - You equivocate, trying to see all of the differences between your book and theirs.
Step 3 - You make yours different and better.

It's the same thing with critique - after you've read enough manuscripts you start to see patterns emerging, overused phrases and plotlines that crop up again and again. By knowing what these are you can help the people that wrote them and to help yourself avoid them. It's competitive, yes, because you want your version to be better than theirs. But providing you are honest with your comments, you're making a positive feedback loop for everyone.

That's my theory, anyway, and I'll wager it's better than yours ;-)

Nick.

Monday, 15 February 2010

The Gender Gap

It's impossible to spend much time writing for children before you notice the massive discrepancy between men and women; writers, agents, editors - women greatly outnumber men at all levels of the industry. Does this give us a vision of what life would be like in a matriarchal society? And is that such a bad thing? I've been procrastinating on this subject for months, lest it get me into trouble, but here goes anyway...

I don't want this to become one of those I'm not a sexist, but... posts. I can't help being male, but beyond that I don't really have an axe to grind. In fact, being a man writing books for boys does give me something of a USP. I'm used to being outnumbered by women (I have a wife and two daughters) and I generally find it easier to get on with women than men.

The key question I have is what effect the female domination of the industry has on the kind of books that are being written and published for children, especially boys. We hear all the time that boys are falling behind in general literacy - you can read more about this at the National Literacy Trust. Is there an unconscious bias towards the sort of books that girls would find appealing? Surely the industry must be happy to shift product to anyone who wants it?

The fact that so many more women want to write or edit for children isn't particularly surprising or suspicious - you only have to walk into any primary school in the country to see the gender bias of working with children. Whether this is because the hours are easier to fit around the teachers' own families, or because of some genetic urge to nurture, or a reinforcement of traditional gender roles - well, I leave you to comment on that. Given the historically lower wages for women in this country, it can be less financially punitive for a woman to give up work to pursue her publishing dreams than a man. On the other hand, lots of women stay in full time work and manage to write in their spare time, and lots of men get to 'house husband' while scribbling in the shed.

I'm sure any female agent or editor would hotly contest any accusation that they are selecting titles based on gender bias. Their job is to appeal to the widest range of readers, after all. An additional argument is that there's a glass ceiling in the publishing industry - like many others - and that a lot of the top jobs are still held by men, and that they are the ones who ultimately approve or reject a particular title.

Nonetheless, the market is clearly skewed, most noticeably at the Young Adult level. There are some writers like Charlie Higson or Anthony Horowitz who sell very well to teenage boys, but the majority of this market's customers are girls. Video games are constantly blamed for distracting young male readers, but all the girls I know are obsessed by games as well - it just doesn't stop them being engrossed by books too.

In the end, I wonder if this all comes down to supply and demand. Adult women read more books, so they are more likely to want to write and publish them. Similarly, girls - especially teenagers - are more voracious readers, so it makes sense for publishers to feed that market.

Maybe what's needed here is not so much a change of personnel, but rather a change in our perception regarding what boys are capable of. A Booktrust survey last year found that parents and carers of boys were twice as likely not to read with them compared to those who have girls.

Your thoughts please...

Nick.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Superiority Complex

I have to admit that being a writer sometimes makes me feel superior to other people. I'm going to stress 'sometimes' here, and if there are any other writers in the room, then that tends to drop to 'never'. I guess it's based on the idea that the time I spend trying to drag the right word from my subconscious is somehow a valid and noble enterprise. I'd like to think that when I'm sitting there on the train with my notepad, I'm doing something a lot more constructive than the guy sitting two rows away who's always playing World of Warcraft on his laptop.

But is writing any different to knitting, or doing crosswords or updating your Facebook status thirty times a day? Heaven knows, there are enough bad writers in the world to fill up the internet a thousand times over. In fact, here I am adding to the word landfill right now. But nonetheless, there's a definite appeal to being a writer, a perceived status that the word confers upon us. Even better than this is the term 'author', which I've promised myself I won't use until I finally get my name on the front of a book!

Then again, people who are attracted to being published for the kudos alone, tend to be keen to minimise the actual 'work' part of the equation and move as swiftly as possible to the million pound advance, launch party and book-signing aspects. How else can you explain that the very first session to sell out at the forthcoming Oxford Literary Festival was a creative writing workshop entitled "Turning your life into stories"? This ignores the fact that advances are dropping like a stone, lots of authors have to contribute towards their own launch party and that even established authors get to sit forlornly at their own signings, mentally trying to pull punters into their circle of influence. This is not a life of glamour!

I'm sure that no-one would deny that writing well is hard. Like, both mentally and emotionally challenging, filled with self-doubt and subjective opinion. And I hate that part of it, because it's so damned difficult that all of the fun seems to drain out of the activity. But that difficulty is also its saving grace, because what comes out the other side is beautiful. Not perfect. Not timeless. But somehow lovely. And that's something that World of Warcraft guy can never touch.

Nick.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Unputdownability

I was pushed into an uncomfortably defensive position at a critique group some months ago, when one of the other writers asked after the quality of my manuscript. I said that I thought it was very good and he responded:

"It isn't enough to be very good - it needs to be unputdownable."

I didn't know what to say to this. It was true that I hadn't put the manuscript down for the last eighteen months, but that was hardly the same thing.

Later on, when I discussed the book with an agent, the U word came up again, except this time it was pretty clear I didn't have it. Not yet, anyway.

So what is this elusive magical quality, this mental equivalent of printing a novel on fly paper? I'm still not sure I have the full answer, but let me outline what I know so far as regards my own book (which it should be noted is a horror/comedy/thriller):
  1. It has to be consistently brilliant:
    Well, this is pretty good advice for anyone writing a novel, but the unputdownable book has to lull a reader into their trance-like state and keep them in it all the way through. Uneven patches, jarring word use, unbelievable situations - all these things break the reader's suspension of disbelief and send them hunting for other problems in the text. Yes, you can surprise - absolutely, in fact - but plot twists should draw the reader further into the story, not push them away.

  2. Engage the reader on an emotional level:
    Ok, I'm halfway through this blog post and wondering if I'm just teaching you to suck eggs here! Anyway, it's vital that the reader identifies with the main character(s) and gets sucked into the book to the level that their own feelings and those of the character start to intertwine. I guess this goes back to the classic "show, don't tell" - though maybe more like "feel, don't think".

  3. The tension needs to build throughout the story:
    In other words, never give the reader or the characters time to breathe. There should be clear dramatic tension from the very start and a through line that extends to the end of the story. The situation should get more and more serious for the characters and not be resolved until the climax. My plot originally had a rather loosey-goosey feel and several sections where the main character sat around feeling bored. Again, this all sounds like obvious stuff to fix, but I needed someone else to point this out.

  4. Raise the stakes:
    This is the part that I'm still having most trouble with, because I'm not sure how quickly to do this and to what level. Initially, I was writing the book as part of a series, so I deliberately made it more modest in scope to give me somewhere to go in later volumes. This resulted in a bit of a muted climax with minimal resolution. I've now pumped things up, but I'm getting comments that there still isn't enough at stake in the opening chapters. How far do you go with this? Should I start with the Big Bang and work up to a final scene where God fights Satan for possession of man's immortal soul? I think this harks back to point 1, as well - how far can you raise the stakes without sacrificing believability?

  5. Have cliffhangers:
    How could I not do this? I constantly ended my chapters by nicely resolving the tension in the scene. Even when I was trying to build tension in my rewrite, my chapter ends were still not doing their job. The simple solution? Just move the end of the chapter about 50 words back and then resolve the immediate situation at the start of the next one (but keep the central tension building!) If a reader is going to put down a book, they're most likely to do it at a chapter break, so don't let them go!
Is the unputdownable book always a good thing? Are there types of novel where the experience is enhanced by taking delicious bites of the content and letting your mind savour the detail? Perhaps an analogy to draw here is the difference between anticipating your favourite TV series on a weekly basis, compared to slurping up half a dozen episodes off DVD in a single evening.

So many questions! I appreciate any answers you might have in the comments section...

Nick.