Thursday, 29 April 2010

This Blog May be Edited for Content

I was going to write a post about character motivation today, but after a conversation with Tracy Baines, I realised that yesterday's post raised an intriguing question - is the way that Back from the Dead is now, the way it was always meant to be? Has being edited professionally finally released my inner muse and banished the shackles of convention that were holding me prisoner? Or has it watered down my artistic vision to feed a cookie-cutter industry that values quantity over quality?

The short answer: Kind of.
The longer answer: Life is compromise. Writing is no different.

I suspect that there are tens, if not hundreds of ways that my book could be written in order to bring it successfully to market. I may still not have found that way. The trick, as I see it, is finding the route that imprints the maximum amount of my personality onto the work, while still offering enough scope for the reader to see themselves in the story. We strive to find a blend of the personal and the universal, I suppose, and invariably an editor helps us make that compromise.

But there is a risk in all of this, some fear that our book will be taken away from us, that in our lust for publishing glory we will lose sight of what made us write it in the first place. Yet, by the very act of sending that book out to agents and editors, we are signalling our willingness to compromise, or at least we'd better be. *

So often for this blog I've found myself dipping into my first YA novel (The New Janice Powley), because it's almost like a proto-blog, a collection of thoughts about writing that I tried to twist into a narrative. The lead character of that book is a young writer and a key strand of the plot concerns his book - his artistic vision - and how it is manipulated and shaped into something else by an ambitious editor. My own fears of the editorial process, laid out in 12 point Times New Roman.

It's now plain to me how much I couldn't see about the industry at that point (and probably still can't!) There are a million and one unpublished books out there, so for an editor to take one and warp it into something else just to sell a unknown author, well, there's a plotline that sacrifices believability on the altar of satire.

A good editor should never try to make us be like someone else, they must magnify the aspects of our own writing style that best serve the book, as well as guiding us through the unfamiliar parts of the process. A good editor does not have to be an agent or a publishing professional, they can be another writer, a tutor or a friend - sometimes all of these things. If we are to be clever and nimble as writers, we must learn from everyone we can and help everyone who needs us.


* There are, I am told, a very rare breed of agents who refuse to give editorial advice, but I've yet to actually meet one. I suspect they stay at home, going over the small print in publishing contracts.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Rewritepercentagealiser

Ok, so it looks like I wasn't the only one who was surprised that I'd managed to rewrite 80% of the book between the first and second drafts. But how did it happen? Was it the right decision? Will the agent still like a book that's so fundamentally different from the one she read originally?

To help me tackle the first of those questions, let me introduce the Rewritepercentagealiser. This is a whizzy new gadget that reflects what marginal voters in Bury St Edmunds think about local planning regulations. Oops, my mistake - it's actually going to show how much of the first draft I was expecting to rewrite at each stage of the process.

Late November 2009

I meet the agent and she discusses her ideas for improving the plot of the book (i.e. making it saleable). I leave the meeting with no earthly idea of how I can do what she's asking.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 100% (impossible)

Even later November 2009
I wake up with a head full of plans of how to fix the book without doing too much work.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 20% (that's more like it)

Even later than that November 2009
I discover that many of my plans are broken and will only work if I change the hero of my book to a giant zombie-hunting frog called Eduardo.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 40% (that's less like it)

Mid-December 2009
I send off the first 6 rewritten chapters and the agent is not keen, to say the least. She tells me that I should write less like Darren Shan and more like Nick Cross. But I don't know how Nick Cross is supposed to write!
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 110% (I've now written even more words that I won't use)

Christmas 2009
I realise that I only have one more chance to show the agent that I know what I'm doing. Actually, I'm not sure that I do know what I'm doing. I spend Christmas replotting the whole book. This is probably the closest I will ever get to the pain of childbirth (which is not all that close, thankfully).
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 50% (well, better than before, I suppose)

Early January 2010
The agent likes the new plan (yes!). I start writing the second draft proper, hoping that I can find a home for Eduardo somewhere around chapter 17.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 50% (holding steady)

Late January 2010
I send the first third of the book off and get an enthusiastic response. The agent says she will give the draft to some of her colleagues to read. I rub my hands and expect an imminent contract.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 50% (yep, looking good)

Early February 2010
The agency colleagues send me lots of comments about the first third of the book and absolutely no contracts. The comments are all plot-related and will affect the chapters I have already written and ripple through to the second third of the book, which I am currently trying to write.
In other news, Eduardo and I decide to separate, as he wants to spend some time "getting to know himself."
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 60% (oh crap)

Late February 2010
I down tools and head back to the plan. More grunting and begging for an epidural. I replot the opening and after some back and forth with the agency, do more work on the ending. I know that the third act still needs attention, but am desperate to get back to the actual words.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 70% (adjusted for inflation)

Early April 2010
Eduardo is seeing other frogs. I have no time to feel hurt as I have written two-thirds of the book and run slap-bang into my shonky third act problem. I spend a miserable Easter Saturday trying to make the end work without changing everything that I've already done. I get there, but not without significant mental anguish.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 75% (but at least there is one chapter that I absolutely have to keep in its entirety)

Late April 2010
I get rid of the chapter that I thought I could not lose. It was expendable - much like Eduardo.
  • Rewritepercentagealiser - 80% (the end)


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Revise. Rinse. Repeat.

With the second draft of Back from the Dead in the agent's inbox, I think it's time to catch my breath and share my experience of the revision process so far.

The last five months have been an intense period of learning about children's fiction, quite possibly the most concentrated burst of craft that I'll ever experience. I'm the kind of person who needs to learn on the job, but sometimes the sheer volume of words, contradictory advice and daily evidence of my ignorance have been a little overwhelming. Especially when all of the time I could feel the market turning slowly away from me like an ocean-going liner.

It's bad enough when you're an unpublished writer trying to get noticed in a sea of submissions, but when you have six editors waiting and a manuscript that's not up to the job - well, that's something else!

Rather than do one megablog, I'm going to make a series of shorter posts over the next week. Let's kick off with some stats (try to stay awake there at the back).

Draft 1 - 51,000 words.
Draft 2 - 47,000 words.

Due to the vagaries of The Magpie Technique (more on this later), I can't do an exact count of how many words from draft 1 made it into draft 2. But a quick count up this morning suggests that it is less than 9,000.

Yep, you read that right. I have completely rewritten 80% of the novel. That's practically a new book. Although my experience is a little extreme, I don't think it's completely unusual. So be prepared for this kind of thing if you get interest from an agent or publisher.

Ok, more later. Let me just close by saying that the second draft is much, much, much better than the first one, in my opinion. All those words were well worth it, whatever happens next.


Monday, 19 April 2010

Bottling It

(or Does Self-doubt Make you a Better Writer or Just a More Miserable One?)

Before I start this post, I am aware that there are some of you who don't suffer from self-doubt. Impossible as this may seem, some view writing as a constant life-affirming joy.

God, how I envy you.

Picture the scene:
I am nineteen (yeah, I know. You're writers, use your imagination)
I am on Blockbusters, the TV quiz show hosted by the venerable Bob Holness. I'm in a team of one, against two other teenagers who are nice enough and smart enough but not totally outclassing me.

I am winning.

It's the best of three and I've blazed straight through the first game and am two questions away from winning the second.
And then it happens. I realise that I'm going to win.

And everything falls apart.

I stumble, I falter. I buzz in too early for questions I could have easily got right if I'd waited slightly longer.
I lose the second game and go into the deciding third. We battle hard, but my confidence is gone gone gone.
I return home from Nottingham with 65 quid and a signed dictionary.

For years afterwards, I will justify my defeat through strength of numbers, and people will support this notion. "It's not fair, two against one," they'll say, and I will nod agreement. Holding the real truth inside me, that I could have easily won but...

I bottled it.

The fact that this event - almost exactly half my life ago - holds such significance for me is worth exploring. Well, worth exploring for me anyway - you might want to go off and catch up on the latest volcanic ash movements for the next few paragraphs :-)

The point at which I snatch failure from the jaws of success has assumed mythic qualities in my mind. But it belies all the things I've done successfully since. Just two months after Blockbusters, I met the woman who became (and is still) my wife. A few years later, I got a first class degree and since then I've managed to continuously hold down a full-time job. Oh, and I've written a couple of books, too.

But it still haunts me. Especially now, when I am a week from submitting the-most-important-draft-of-my-life (until the next one, that is). The book is great so far, I can see how to finish it, I have a plan in place and yet... Well, I lay awake in bed last night wondering about that one!

Self-doubt crops up in many walks of life, but writers seem particularly prone. Many a manuscript has been almost burnt by the self-doubting author (in fact, I know one of the other Undiscovered Voices winners whose spouse saved their book from a similar fate). The action of writing is often to question accepted norms, to explore society and our place in it. It is inevitable that those people who are constantly questioning themselves should feel drawn to this kind of activity.

We hold ourselves to high standards, or at least we have to if there is any hope of ever being published. Clearly, a background level of self-analysis is a good thing because it forces us to attack the problem from several directions and boost the likelihood we'll find the right approach. But high levels of self-doubt are crippling and counter-productive. As ever, it's a case of finding the right balance.

Let me take some comfort from the classic three-act structure. At the end of act 2, our hero/heroine's plan will be thrown into utter disarray. But they must prevail, holding their nerve and self-confidence to emerge triumphant by the end of act 3.

Maybe I'll try to sleep on that.


Sunday, 11 April 2010

How Can I Become a Proper Children's Writer?

I like to keep up with the latest trends in writing, and it seems to me that I am letting the side down in a number of areas. As a form of therapy, I'm posting my failings and perhaps you can offer your wisdom about how I can become one of these proper writers that I hear so much about.
  1. I can only write one book at a time

    Possibly because of the (relatively) short length of their books, children's writers constantly have a plethora of projects on the go. Why, you're simply nobody unless you're simultaneously writing a post-apocalyptic YA romance, a middle-grade action-fantasy, an early-readers' project about plankton, and a special-interest picture book all about Alfie and his struggle with alopecia.

    I, by comparison, spent 4 years writing a YA comedy that basically stank and moved straight on to spending two years (so far) writing and rewriting some book about zombies. I am a serial monogamist and frankly, I'm surrounded by swingers.

  2. I can only write a few hundred words a day

    Compounding the previous sin, I am also physically unable to write a number of words in one day that numbers more than about eight hundred (and even that's pushing it). Others seem to be trotting out thousands in a morning and posting their total on Facebook for everyone to see. I am not - for shamefully obvious reasons.

  3. My characters never run off and start writing the story by themselves

    Writers are constantly saying that their characters write the story for them or that they take the plot in a direction that the writer had not expected. How does this happen? When I'm writing a story, it's me. Writing a story. When a character needs to do or say something, I think about this and then they do or say it. This is, as far as I am aware, how writing works.

    Have I missed something here? Some wondrous way of communing with my subconscious? Do I just need to "let the characters into my life" or is it a multiple-personality thing that requires electro-convulsive therapy?

    When talking about Kill Bill Part Two, Quentin Tarantino moaned about how he intended the Bill character to only come in at the end of the film, but that Bill kept writing himself into more and more scenes. This just strikes me as QT trying to rationalise his inability to properly edit his scripts. His films bloat, either pleasingly in the case of Inglourious Basterds or maddeningly in the case of Kill Bill. What would have been a wonderful two and a half hour movie was stretched to a truly bum-numbing four hours and then explained away by being split into two parts.

  4. I am rubbish at making up stories for my children at bedtime

    Successful children's authors often eulogise about how their bestselling book began as a set of stories told to little Sebastian and Persephone just as they were laying their angelic little heads upon the goose feather pillow.

    "Tell us another one, Daddy!" they cried, and so the author was hyped, night after night, into a Scheherazade-grade frenzy; telling of crossbow-toting ninja fishcakes and scheming damsels who kept putting themselves in distress to nab the perfect suitor.

    In comparison, I joking told my children of a story in an anthology called "The Cheese Who Could Not Talk". When I went on to read an entirely non-dairy-related tale, there were howls of disapproval and a very awkward 2 minutes where I tried and entirely failed to make up some drivel about a mute stilton and his three mouse accomplices. I might consider myself a storyteller, but only with four years' preparation.

Thank you for hearing my confession - comments in the usual box.


Friday, 2 April 2010

Blood, Glorious Blood

I was writing another unspeakable scene in my zombie opus when it suddenly occurred to me what a gift blood is to writers. Everything about it is so dramatic - the colour, the taste, the sound it makes hissing from a severed artery - and active - it spurts, it drips, it gushes. We can easily imagine a character's life ebbing away as the blood leaves their body and forms a shallow pool on the coconut matting.

Would things be so exciting if our bodies were driven by clockwork and bulked out with sawdust, or if we were robots who could be incapacitated with a single bullet to the wrong circuit board? Blood provides a wonderful shorthand for the rushing vibrancy of life and the fragility of the human condition.

Whole swathes of fiction exist almost solely because of the presence of blood. Vampires are a key reference point, but without blood who can imagine Dexter or the slapstick "splatter movie" horror genre? (my favourite example of the latter is Peter Jackson's Braindead, in which the hero ultimately solves his zombie infestation by attacking them with a hover mower)

The red liquid is one that is generally frowned upon in material aimed towards children (which is probably why I get such a transgressive thrill from it). In recent years we have seen film adaptations such as Prince Caspian and The Golden Compass in which brutal violence is permitted at PG providing that no blood is shown. I have seen arguments that we should turn the current classification regime upside down, that the lower ratings should be given to those films which realistically show the effects of violence. In this world, Saving Private Ryan would be a U and the TV version of the A-Team would be banned. And not a day too soon in my opinion...

Finally, to prove that this blog really is a set of interconnected posts (rather than just some random thoughts I had on a Sunday night), I leave you with the hidden track from My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade, a bracing barbershop ditty. Its one word title? You guessed it.

"So give them blood, blood, gallons of the stuff!
Give them all that they can drink and it will never be enough..."