Monday, 29 March 2010

Experimenting in Plain Sight

To my mind, there is a wonderful sweet spot halfway between the mainstream and the avant-garde, a place where fascinating things happen. This is where left field bands go to record their "pop" album, or quirky Jewish filmmakers decide to make a Capra-esque comedy. Tempering our artistic ambitions in order to actually make some money can be so much more than just "selling out" - popular culture is constantly driven forward by this commercial cross-pollination.

Take My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade as an example. This is an album that is both wildly experimental and deeply indebted to classic rock, welding jagged emo to the kind of guitar riffs that would have Brian May nodding his shaggy perm in approval. A concept album all about death that is somehow uplifting, a furious screaming metal album that is also incredibly tuneful - truly a contradiction in terms.

In the TV realm, consider Glee. It is a show full of mashups of popular songs that is itself a mashup - High School Musical with added irony, social comment, mawkish sentimentality, sharp comedy and will-they-won't-they sexual tension. It's an exuberant mix that doesn't always work, but is riveting even in its failure.

Across the film world, there are almost too many examples to pick. Hollywood delights in stealing ideas and directors from the world of indie movies and twisting them into commercial projects. The entire canon of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith pretty much fits into this category. Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan - these are all directors who started out making humble, innovative movies for themselves and somehow ended up with multi-million dollar franchises. I defy anyone to watch Spiderman 2 or the Dark Knight and tell me that art, money and entertainment can't coexist.

Children's writing provides a perfect arena for this kind of cautious experimentation. Our market is composed of readers who have - if you'll pardon the phrase - a very low threshold for bullshit. On the other hand, we writers struggle to get noticed without some original hook to our work.

My first attempt at a teenage novel was a bit of an experimental hotchpotch, with a deeply metafictional plot, characters who were conceptual artists and a whole chapter written as a screenplay (with all of the scenes in the wrong order). Unsurprisingly, I felt the need to meet the market halfway for the next one. I'd shown an unexpected talent for horror in the earlier book (yep, told you it was a mess), so zombies seemed like the perfect vehicle. They are both scary and funny, as well as being trapped in a moribund genre which is ripe for reinvention. As Joss Whedon discovered with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, such conventions are crying out to be messed with.

As a bonus, genres provide a wonderful shorthand - I've lost count of the number of times I've been introduced to someone in the industry as "the zombie guy." Long live the undead!


Monday, 22 March 2010

Signing Bonus

How I feel about book signings depends on whether I'm approaching it as a writer or a reader. The writer in me loves the idea of meeting my public (especially as they mostly exist in my head at present). Signings are also a cost-effective way for publishers to support bookshops, sell books at full price and ensure that none of the signed copies can be sent back!

Speaking as a reader, a book is a book - whether it has a personalised scribble in the front, or not. I came out of a talk by Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman and Frances Hardinge on Saturday, and my heart sank at the length of the signing queue. There were all these lovely piles of books and these brilliant authors waiting to sign them, but I couldn't conjure up the enthusiasm to connect the two halves. For the rest of the day, I wondered if I'd missed something, some shared social experience that was made all the more British by the fact it involved queuing.

I didn't help myself by compounding the sin. I can't believe I'm about to admit this, but I found and bought a copy of The Amber Spyglass for £2 in a remainders bookshop not ten minutes later! That's a 75% discount, but what price my self-esteem?

It was not ever thus. As a teenager, I became obsessed with a thrash metal band called "Dark Angel", because they were a) quite good and b) no-one else had heard of them. I got the back of my jacket signed by the band and drew a huge, slightly wonky logo in gold pen. I paraded around in this get-up with no little pride and to no little derision from my schoolmates, including the girl who was to remain the-great-unrequited-love-of my-life. Was it this experience that put me off signed items?

I returned to the literary festival yesterday with my daughter to hear Louisa Young (aka Zizou Corder), my mind made up to damn well get some stuff signed! The queue was much shorter, so I clutched a copy of Lionboy, the plastic foil cover making my hand sweat. My daughter had a copy of Halo, but sensibly she was reading it (in fact she didn't notice when we'd reached the front of the queue). The signing itself wasn't exactly an epiphany, but Louisa's a very nice lady with an extremely cool signature. If nothing else it suggested I need to start working on my own (very underwhelming) signature. I'm figuring the publishing industry might give me more time than I'd like for that little task.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

I'm on Tall Tales & Short Stories!

Does this mean I've finally made it? What's that you say Mum? Yes, yes, I'll finish writing the book first...

SCBWI Undiscovered Voices Winner: Nick Cross

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Emotional Resonance

I might wear my heart on my sleeve, but provoking a genuine emotional response to my writing is something I'm still working on. Maybe that's why I feel a need to write for boys, because emotions are something that can remain implicit - only surfacing at key moments to highlight the plot.

But where do these emotional moments come from? Is it a matter of feeling the thing strongly ourselves and transmitting that to the reader? Can you learn to fake this stuff by building your plot in a certain way; making tears fall onto the page like the syrupy music in a flawed-but-heroic-mother-gets-her-kids-back movie of the week?

James Cameron comes in for a lot of flak for his somewhat simplistic storytelling, but to my mind the guy has a supreme mastery of the emotional theme. By taking a few strong character themes that resonate with the audience, he is able to build them into a thrilling and immersive whole. Millions of people have gone to see Avatar a second time - not because of the action sequences but because those action sequences mean something to them.

The central character - Jake - is a case in point. A man desperately lost in his own skin, Jake is looking for a home and a body. Cameron beautifully handles the reveal that Jake is in a wheelchair, then doesn't labour the point too much - showing Jake's resentment but surrounding the viewer in a whirl of exposition (quite literally if you're watching in 3D). When Jake finally steps into his Avatar body, the scene where he runs around the recreation ground is a glorious emotional release for both you and him. It might not be all that clever, but he sure is big (about seven feet, actually).

I was struck by a similar effect recently while reading The Graveyard Book. In just a few words, Neil Gaiman somehow manages to bypass your brain and get you right in the heart - evoking the pain of a couple who have died without having children or the simple joy of finding a friend. With the point made, he moves on and it is up to the reader to take what they want from the experience.

It has always been a goal of mine to write a scene that makes the reader cry. I don't know if I've got there yet, but I do know that I wrote a scene a few weeks ago that made me cry! That felt like a pretty good first step.


Sunday, 7 March 2010

Visibility Spell

I'd like to think that you are so riveted by my words that you haven't noticed the lack of adornment on this site. The words, after all, are what matters, not some amusing viral video or a flashing banner ad for teeth-whitening products. Yet there was something very definitely missing, and that thing was a photograph. I considered waffling on about the whole brain logo thing being mysterious, or some progressive attempt to 'build a brand', but it was easier just to stand in front of a camera and pull a face. So there you have it, another mystery solved.

I resisted the photo for a long time, on account of being a bit 'funny-looking'. This state is actually no impediment to being a successful writer, indeed in some ways it's a positive bonus. As with radio DJs, being a funny-looking writer seems to assert that you have some authenticity; those wrinkles showing evidence of your increasing wisdom and that persistent crease above your nose pointing to the deep thinking that you need to do on a daily basis. There will be occasional carps to the contrary - some debut novelist who is launched into the review pages shining with loveliness - but by and large, writing is not a beauty contest. If you're pretty enough to be a film star then you won't need an impressive command of the English language anyway.

The internet has brought us all closer to our readers and to each other (for unpublished writers, these two groups are often exactly the same). It has also made it much harder to be judged solely on our words - debut writers are now expected to be visible and available for readings and signings, school visits and promotional activities. I don't personally object to this - hell, I'm actually looking forward to it - but being ourselves is not the reason that everyone becomes a writer, especially a writer of fiction. I'm quite sure the world is hiding another Thomas Pynchon or JD Salinger, but what's the chance that we'll ever hear about them via conventional publishing?

Some have dabbled with the alternative route of creating a fictional persona - manufacturing the person who they really want to be. This is a nice idea, but also fraught with legal and ethical problems. Laura Albert's "JT Leroy" pseudonym was undone by a movie contract that she signed as her alter ego - an artistic statement that cost her $350,000 in legal fees. James Frey's "unreliable memoir" A Million Little Pieces may still have made him a lot of money, but he did have to go on national television and be told off by Oprah Winfrey. Naughty boy.

Ultimately, I've picked the most direct route - this is me, and this what I look like. It may not mean much to you, but for me it's another step up the psychological ladder towards actual publication. Or to put it another way, like emerging from my chrysalis and accepting the fact that I'm a cabbage white, rather than a red admiral.


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Losing Your Voice

As writers, we hear a lot about "voice", the mysterious quality that somehow differentiates our work from someone else's. Because it is a vague and ineffable thing, voice is often used as shorthand to proclaim one person's work and denigrate another's. The publishing industry is desperate to find "original voices", but much like the movie industry it doesn't know what these are until it finds one. Just this week I made one of my writing friends feel bad (and myself too) by telling them that I didn't think they had a strong enough voice. I still think I was right to say there was a problem, but I so, so wish there had been a better way of expressing it.

How much does your literary voice correspond to your actual voice? The way we talk has a strong effect on our personal image both internally and externally (some of us - like me - tend to have a direct connection between brain and mouth with not enough filtering in-between). We might all like to hide behind our writing, but we also feel we know people from their words, that we connect with them on a personal level. Depending on what they write, this can either lead to rapture or disappointment when we meet them in the flesh...

I was delighted to hear about Roger Ebert getting his voice back, albeit in synthesised form. For those who don't know him, Ebert was the pre-eminent US film critic of the pre-internet age and still packs quite a punch in the microblogging era. He used to co-host a massively popular movie review show on American TV until thyroid cancer treatment in 2006 robbed him of his speaking voice. I've always had a soft spot for Ebert's reviews because he shows a streak of generosity and a willingness to like a movie that so many other, more sour-faced critics lack. That said, he also isn't afraid to smack down those poorly conceived and wilfully lazy films that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis.

After his surgery, Ebert retreated behind his words, continuing his weekly film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, writing books and articles. One might argue that of all the things Ebert could lose, speaking was the least important - he could still indulge his lifelong passion to watch films and write wisely about them. He still had a voice, even if he didn't have an ... erm ... voice. But on a personal level, it was clearly hellish - to be someone who relied on their quick wits to make a career and then be forced to type everything laboriously on a laptop and hear it read out in a flat alien voice? That isn't anyone's idea of fun.

Everything we read, everything we write is in some way a study of human relationships, and communication is what makes us who we are. What would your writing be like if you became an actual hermit? (and not just hid in the shed because it was your turn to cook dinner). Would dropping out of Facebook actually make you more productive, or would it just make you miserable? I don't know if mute people only dream in shades of grey, but it sure is a nice idea for a book...


Monday, 1 March 2010

Buying Undiscovered Voices

Just a quick note to say that if you would like your own copy of Undiscovered Voices 2010 to treasure (or keep in the loo), that they are now available for a mere fiver each from the UV Website.

I don't get any royalties from this, sadly, but I do get a big smile every time I hear that someone's read it. Which is much nicer, but harder to spend.