Friday, 31 December 2010

Help! I'm Still a Teenager!

I should probably be writing some kind of review of 2010 today, but frankly I'd rather chalk it up to experience and move swiftly on. As a much better writer than me once put it: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Instead, why not join me in celebrating my 26th year of being a teenager? Yes, I will admit that mathematically and physically I don't actually qualify. I get served in the pub without ID, and I'm able to buy all sorts of inappropriate movies and games with nary a flicker of interest from the sales clerk. But I feel like a teenager. As I climaxed a row with my not-yet-teenage daughter the other day by flouncing out and slamming the door, I was struck by a horrifying thought - what will it be like when there are two of us in the house?

Age has given me many things - a few grey hairs, a sprinkling of wisdom, a painful awareness of my own mortality. What it has yet to gift me is the thing I yearn for most - emotional stability. I still live my days in a jumble of contradictory feelings and fear I always will. But while this doesn't always make me fun to live with, I think it gives me a massive leg-up when it comes to writing teen books.

Those teenage years are a unique time in our lives, a period where the heart rules the head in almost everything. It is a time of being utterly alive - with all the pain and pleasure that entails. Even on my current emotional rollercoaster, I miss the intensity of teenage feelings, the experiences so raw that I can almost stretch out my fingertips and touch them.

When writing a book for teens and pre-teens, I feel my responsibility is not to the plot, characters or language but to the emotional truth of what goes on the page. So many times I've read a book or watched a film that, while admirably made, doesn't connect with me on an emotional level. Perhaps this goes back to my inner teenage state, an inability to appreciate art on a purely intellectual basis. But I'd also argue that art has no business whatever being intellectual!

After I'd calmed down the other night, I went back upstairs to apologise to my daughter. She'd been crying, so I comforted her, felt bad and lamented the fact that I was this stroppy teenage Peter Pan figure. She looked at me with pink eyes and said "At least you haven't grown up and got boring, Daddy." Amen to that, anyway.

Nick.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Writer's Christmas Survival Guide

Christmas is a time of myth, fable and magic - for everyone except writers. Because we spend the rest of our year surrounded by these things, it seems that Christmas is invariably the time when real life decides to get its own back. Presents, decorations, weather, flu, travel delays, sick relatives and ungrateful children - all of these elements conspire to keep us from our fantasy lives. So, in the spirit of that half-forgotten Christmas novelty publication The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, I offer you this gift - a guide to daydreaming your way through the festive season:


HOW TO COOK BRUSSELS SPROUTS

A perennial Christmas "favourite", care should be taken when preparing and cooking this vegetable to ensure the "unique" flavour and texture are preserved.
  1. Wash the sprouts and remove any brown outer leaves.

  2. Slice off the stems and cut an X in the top of each sprout.

  3. Wonder what people would look like if they had an X-shaped mark in the tops of their heads. Wouldn't that make styling their hair really difficult? Resolve to check whether Scott Westerfeld has had that idea yet.

  4. Place the sprouts into a saucepan of water.

  5. Oh no! The X-in-the-head world has flooded! All the little X-in-the-head people are bobbing around, unable to climb up the sheer Teflon cliffs. Who will save them?

  6. Bring the saucepan to the boil, stirring occasionally.

  7. This is getting serious! Undersea volcanic activity is causing sea temperatures to rise dramatically. Little Johnny and Jemima X-Head are seconds from a grisly death! Quick, Johnny, clamber up that giant wooden contraption and escape into the Steampunk kingdom above!

HOW TO BUY LAST MINUTE CHRISTMAS ESSENTIALS

No matter how hard you plan (yes, even writers plan sometimes), there will always be something you've forgotten that is essential for making Christmas "special."
  1. Go grudgingly outside in the snow and attempt to move the car. Get halfway off the drive in first gear and then stop as the wheels begin slipping on the frozen surface.

  2. You are a champion drag racer! Spinning your wheels on the start line, sending clouds of smoke into the cheering crowd as you tense for the green light!

  3. Give up with the car idea because you have just sprayed your neighbours' house and children with filthy grey snow. Get out and quickly hobble away from the sound of uncontrollable crying, towards town.

  4. Discover that many of the shops are shut through lack of staff, except Poundland, which has half the population of England inside. Walk slap-bang into the middle of a violent argument over the last bottle of Domestos.

  5. You are Buzz Lightyear of Star Command! With your heroic bravery and courage, you can resolve this dispute and avert a galaxy-wide crisis!

  6. Trudge away nursing a split lip and the resolution to never argue with an eighty-six-year-old again. Buy some of the things you need, plus a lot of unnecessary chocolate and a jumbo tub of Latvian Pringles.

  7. Pack all of your items into a carrier bag, which then bursts in the street, dumping your purchases into the slush. Curse loudly, squeeze the soggy objects into your rucksack and walk home with a roll of gift-wrap in each hand.

  8. You are Kick-Ass! Twirling your twin clubs of justice before you, taking on the snowy forces of evil!

  9. Slip over on the ice and bruise your hip because you can't put a hand down to break your fall. Limp home using one of the gift-wrap rolls as an impromptu crutch.

HOW TO OPEN YOUR PRESENTS

What you will need:
  • A ruthless ability to get to the pile of presents first.
  • A large pair of scissors (unsuitable for running with, though you will anyway)
  • A nose that can sniff out packages containing chocolate or alcohol at twenty paces.
  • The receipts for the gifts you are giving your family, so you can threaten to take them back if they haven't bought you better stuff than last year.

How to proceed:
  1. Approach the present pile, rejecting anything that is squashy or not box/bottle shaped.

  2. Pick up a small, hard, intriguingly lumpy present.

  3. Realise that this could be the Holy Grail of writers' gifts - stationery!

  4. Scream like a banshee and attack the parcel, all the while fantasising about the projects you can finally start now you have the right materials.

  5. Discover that the present has been wrapped by some obsessive-compulsive freak who has covered the whole thing in thick foil paper and taped down every possible edge

  6. Scream louder and start hacking away at the paper with the scissors while your family run for cover.

  7. Finally unwrap a pink spiral-bound notepad with five matching fluorescent gel pens.

What to say:
  • "Thank you, this WH Smith value notebook will be the ideal thing for writing my next bestselling novel in."
What not to say:
  • "I wanted a Moleskine, idiot! I want to stroke the crisp pages and slide my used bus tickets into that cute little pocket. I couldn't write a shopping list in this crappy excuse for a notepad! You think my muse is even going to bother to show up for this 60gsm recycled paper? Think again, buster!"

Nick.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Researching a Fictional World

I've never been that keen on research. I know that for many authors, research is the be-all and end-all, but it just doesn't float my Antarctic survey ship. I've never read a great deal of non-fiction books (including writing ones) and I also find a lot of documentaries rather snoozeworthy. Narrative fiction has always been centre stage in my interests, so I prefer to research the few things that need to be correct and make up the rest.

All of this is probably the reason why I've stuck with contemporary settings in my work to date. I feel fairly confident that I understand how the modern world works and if I need to know the travel time between London and Edinburgh I can look at Google Maps, rather than having to work out how many teams of horses and riders would be required. One day, I'm sure I'll screw up my courage and write the 1960s novel that's rattling around in my head somewhere. Just not yet.

However, my current work-in-progress is set in an alternative present, and I've quickly discovered that means indulging in some fictional research - AKA world-building. Now, when I say this term, the first thing that springs to mind is some sub-Middle Earth fantasy world with Elves and Dwagons and a dull farm boy off on a quest to retrieve a piece of mystical tat (ok, pretty much the plot of Eragon). But I think we should reclaim world-building from those people who like to draw maps with unpronounceable place names and paint lead figures of Gandalf in their spare time. Because a well-built world is essential to the believability of any novel, no matter where it's set.

One of the hardest things about building a world is convincing the reader that it has always existed. Part of this is allowing the protagonist to be immersed in that reality and avoiding unnatural exposition. But there is also the issue of convincing yourself of the solidity of what you're writing about. In the past, I've tended to fudge this and take a wholly bottom-up approach, writing the story and filling in the details of the environment as I went along. While this worked and gave me the excitement of discovering the world along with my characters, it did give me credibility problems - I certainly had an uphill battle convincing early readers that the reality of Back from the Dead was tenable.

How then to find a balance between the joy of discovering a world through writing and the horror of realising that it doesn't make sense? Something new I'm trying for this book is writing supporting documentation that is contemporary but parallel to the narrative. For instance, both my main characters are in therapy at the start of the book, so I've been writing their psychological evaluations as seen through the eyes of the therapist character. This material probably won't make it into the text, but it's been useful for me to flesh out their personalities, the prevailing attitudes of the authorities in their world and also the rather unpleasant course of therapy that the doctor has in store for them. It's also much, much more interesting than filling in a character sheet.

There's plenty of further scope here - newspaper items, travel reporting, official documents, TV transcripts, diaries etc. These things are valuable in that they provide a kind of avoidance behaviour that still contributes directly to the story - while addressed in moderation, anyway. But I can also see a further life for them in terms of extras I can offer on the book's website, bonus material that voracious fans will lap up. Look no further than the recent The Thick of It book to see how supporting documents can take on a life of their own.

Ok, so none of this is rocket science and possibly quite close to what a lot of you are doing already. So please share - I'm interested in how you make your worlds believable and how much you write and plan that never makes it into the book itself. For instance, I was fascinated the other day as Ellen Renner described how she draws her characters to help her to visualise them - not least because I can neither draw nor tell you what my characters look like! I've also heard several writers say that they stage interviews with their characters in order to get to know them better.

What works for you? The comment box awaits...

Nick.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Being a Professional Writer

What does it mean to be a professional writer? Is it simply about being paid for your work, or does it go deeper? Since I've yet to be paid for my work, I hope the latter is the case - certainly after this week I feel like a professional writer, whatever happens next in my career.

Writing is a terribly long-haul activity, a strange blend of enchantment and elbow grease, delight and disappointment. I wonder whether this odd mixture helps us to improve our characters and their arcs - by struggling through the low times ourselves, we start to see the sacred value of success. Or maybe it just makes us all a bit neurotic!

Professional writers must understand the market and their place within it. For debut novelists, that place is small and shrinking ever further by the day - so keeping an eye on the market and looking for a niche is a key skill. When dealing with publishers, professional writers must know when to apply pressure and when to pull back - choosing their battles carefully. A writer who carps about every editorial change or marketing suggestion is unlikely to get to acquisitions, let alone see a further contract.

Like any business, publishing is based on personalities and your ability to get on with people. Many a self-proclaimed artistic genius has failed to take over the world because they were actually an odious git. Yet, I think it's true that even the most affable amongst us will run into people that they simply don't get on with. Being a professional is about gritting your teeth and making the best of that situation, rather than repeatedly punching someone in the face. However much you might want to.

Writers shift between publishers all the time, and that is a natural thing, especially given the merry-go-round of editors moving from company to company. I'm very happy with my agent at the moment, but I'm sure we'd both agree that we would move on if our interests diverged too far. Again, this should be treated professionally - getting an agent is not like getting married (even if publishing a novel is quite a lot like having children). I would sound a note of warning to those writers who change agents like they change their shoes - if you are onto your third or fourth agent you should perhaps take a look at yourself and wonder what you could be doing differently to make the relationship work.

Diversification is another thing that professional writers do, but finding the right level can be a little tricky. With a lot of pressure on authors to be brands, diversifying too much can make your work seem diffuse and unfocused, as though you're not really sure what you want to be doing. The problem is that a lot of us genuinely aren't sure what we want to be doing, but being a professional is about hiding that fact!

One thing you can't afford to be as a professional writer is desperate. Desperation is the province of the amateur, no matter how accomplished their writing. If you are desperate to be published, agents will smell you a mile off and shuffle away with a fixed look on their faces. It is important to get your work on the shelves, to build a career and to reach your readers.

But it's only a book. If you're a professional writer, there will be more.

Nick.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Thoughts from a Reluctant Library User

In the oncoming battle for the future of the nation's libraries, we are going to hear a lot of polarised opinions. On one side will be the devoted readers, the passionate defenders of library literacy who, as children, always took out as many books out as their library card allowed. On the other side, the affluent or apathetic readers, who see no further need for any kind of centralised public information facility.

As for me, well I have to admit that I don't use my local library that much. I maybe take my kids there for an hour or so every month. Our house is packed with a tottering stack of books and DVDs that will most likely outlive the time I have left to watch or read them, even if I live to be a hundred. I used to go to the library every day, to write and look at reference material, but my attendance waned as the library got noisier and the internet provided all the research material I could ever want. When I visit our local library nowadays, half the people are sitting at a computer terminal, watching YouTube or updating their Facebook status. I'm not really sure that providing access to YouTube has much of a public service remit.

But wait, I'm not advocating the closure of libraries, far from it. I don't think that I, or my children, should be the target audience for libraries. We can afford books - lots of them. My wife used to be a librarian, for heaven's sake. My children's literacy doesn't need much help from the state, but I'm aware that we might be the exception. With many adults not seeing a place for books anymore in our always-online society, how many children are growing up without a varied media diet that contains books alongside TV and XBox? We all know, somewhere deep in our hearts, that kids need to read. But with reading seeming more and more of a chore, isn't it easier to let that slip?

In Oxfordshire, where I live, 20 of the county's 43 libraries face the axe. I can imagine some of these - in posh areas like Summertown - being taken over by willing volunteers and continuing in some fashion. But what future for Blackbird Leys library, or Littlemore? Can people in these areas afford to work less in order to support a voluntary system? The very communities that desperately need these facilities will see them taken away. In five years time, families will be able to drive past the ex-library buildings - now housing a Tesco Express or Poundland - and spot the corpse of social mobility festering in the gutter.

Admittedly, as a children's author I have a vested interest here. PLR might be unlikely to provide me with much income in the future, but libraries are wonderful for promoting that most elusive of magical ingredients - word of mouth. It's no decision at all for a child to take a risk on a book from the library - if they don't like it then all they've spent is a few calories carrying the book home. In a bookshop, however, they face a very expensive choice - how likely are they to choose my book over a more established author? Kids have always been incredibly media literate - who knows if one might talk about a book of mine they've read or construct a playground game around it? Libraries are a great vehicle for getting the word out about my writing and a great venue for author events.

I don't know what the answer is to saving our libraries. But I do know that they are a vital public service and we need to make a hell of a lot of noise about their potential demise.

Nick.

Some other links on this important subject:

Campaign for the Book Official Facebook Site
Notes from the Slushpile - Bye Bye Libraries. Bye Bye Civilization
Why you should care about libraries
Open Letter to Jeremy Hunt MP, John Penrose MP and Ed Vaizey MP
Why Libraries Really, Really Matter