Friday, 28 January 2011

Hurry Up and Wait

I've been impatient ever since I can remember. In fact, I was a premature baby, so perhaps it goes back further than I can remember. You don't have to tell me that becoming a writer and wanting to be published wasn't the most logical or sensible career choice!

I seemed to spend so long at my writing apprenticeship, frustrated at my inability to make the scenes on the page match the pictures in my head. Then there was a point about three years in where I realised that barrier had been lifted, but by then I was having to learn a whole bunch of stuff about characterisation and scene structure and narrative blah blah blah. After that, the book still couldn't be published because there was editing and submissions and the whole dizzying world of agents and editors to navigate. Rather than see the waiting as an inevitable part of the process, I fought against it, using that frustration like the bit of grit inside an oyster's shell.

So when things started to happen for me in publishing, I knew I would have to move quickly to convince everyone that I was up to the job. I spent pretty much all of last year writing to tight deadlines, and I hit every one of them - even when it would have been much easier for me to quit. I don't mean to brag here, but I feel proud of that achievement, proud that I could impose some organisation on my otherwise scatty brain.

Yet here I am in early 2011 and suddenly I have time to breathe, to feel my way into the first draft of a book rather than bulldoze through it. The change in work patterns is jarring, sending doubts spiralling around my head. Am I blocked? Is this the right way to do it? How can I achieve anything without that familiar urgency? Worse is the fact that all around me people are rushing - writing one, two, four thousand words in a single day. And yet I'm still creeping along, like an eighty-year-old in the slow lane of the motorway. All I have right now is this one new book, this one thing I'm committing all of my creative energies to. What if it's rubbish or totally uncommercial? I'm not someone like Jonathan Franzen, secure in the confidence of already having written a multi-million bestseller.

For all of this anxiety, there is something marvellous about writing gradually - it forces me to be good. I can't possibly commit to a half-baked idea in the hope of catching the zeitgeist, I have to come up with something remarkable. And right now, with the market for debut authors so very tough, I don't think that's such a bad way of going about things.


Friday, 21 January 2011

Writing Yourself Out

I've been reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, an account of Hollywood in the 1970s which is both juicy and fascinating. It's one long cautionary tale about the dangers of finding success and losing your soul in the process, although it's kind of ironic that I'm worrying about this stuff when I haven't achieved the fame part yet. In fact, if I wanted to be famous, being a children's author is about the worst possible way to go about it. But that's probably another story...

Such are the book's riches, I'm sure I could spin ten or twelve posts out of it. But let me focus on just one of the hubristic heroes, Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver. Schrader was a writer driven by demons, turning out script after script in his office at Warner Bros. As Biskind puts it:
He was writing like a machine, and although he didn't know it then, he was writing himself out.
This was a theme that really spoke to me, that chilled me to the core - the idea that everyone has a finite amount of words and themes inside them, that you can only write so much before you start to repeat yourself. Schrader's career certainly burned bright for a few years and then fizzled thereafter, his films descending to the level of interesting but inessential.

I'm sure most of us don't know why we write. A lot of us don't want to know, don't want to get too close to the magical process in case it all stops working. So we write or don't write and hope that the words and ideas will keep flowing. Yet after a while we start to butt against our own limitations, start to wonder whether we've used a phrase before, if we've begun to rip off our own ideas. For instance, I wrote a scene yesterday and realised that the beginning was almost exactly the same as the opening to my previous book! I was chastened by that and I have to admit a little scared too. Surely I can't be repeating myself already?

At least I can see that there's a problem and can address it, which is not something that all creative people seem willing or able to do. I think there's a lot to be said for keeping moving and continually challenging yourself - several of the New Hollywood moguls in Biskind's book surround themselves with yes men and creative inertia ensues. But not everyone can skip madly between genres and maintain a coherent output - many people work better by pushing at the edges of their comfort zone while staying inside it.

I might not know exactly why I write, but Paul Schrader is an easier study. Back in the 70s, he was approximately 10% genius and 90% darkness, a guy driven half mad by a repressive, aggressive Christian upbringing and constant fantasies of suicide. He wrote what he knew and what he knew was himself (Robert De Niro borrowed many of his clothes and mannerisms for the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Biskind quotes another writer's conclusion that Schrader's creative decline was because "the beasts that drove him were quieted." So should he have quit the writing and directing game when he was ahead?

I have a lot of respect for the recently departed Tony Curtis and Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) who both more or less shunned their day jobs and took up painting in later life. They realised that their best days in one art form were over and switched to another, securing their legacy and their creative pride. Imagine how we would feel about De Niro if he had quit acting after Heat? Instead he keeps churning out desultory movies for large paycheques.

Little Fockers anyone? Thought not.


Friday, 14 January 2011

Catharsis vs Escapism

Writing provides for me:
  1. A form of therapy.
  2. A chance to escape the humdrum 9-5 world.
But how best to balance these two - often conflicting - impulses? It's a question I've been addressing recently as I try to harmonise the light and the dark in both my latest book and my own head.

Catharsis is important because it's why a lot of us started writing in the first place. The more I talk to authors, the more emotional pain I find sloshing around inside them. Perhaps this is true of everyone and writers are just the ones who have found a vehicle to express that? Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the books we want to write - the books we must write - are often those that scare or challenge us on a profoundly emotional level.

YA has become a de facto home for cathartic writing, to the extent that the angsty teen protagonist is quickly becoming an annoying cliché. But there is also the risk that too much catharsis will turn you into a headcase, the kind of writer who taps their own neurosis for inspiration and finds a well that never runs dry. All introspection and no play makes Jack a suicidal boy.

Escapism, on the other hand, is fun. Fun, fun, fun. But in and of itself, it doesn't carry a lot of emotional weight. There is joy, I suppose, and the excitement of discovery, but these are surface-level emotions and risk producing rather hollow work. There was a surfeit of this kind of thing in the wake of Harry Potter's massive success - lots of noise and action and magical happenings, but precious little to make the work actually mean something. People tend to forget that it was Harry's emotional journey that pulled us through those books - his guilt about his parents, his unwanted notoriety, his fear of the enormous task ahead.

I guess I'm rather jealous of writers who can shrug off the material world and escape entirely into their books, who can write about the weird and fantastical with only a subconscious regard for their own problems. Sometimes I find myself diagnosing my own neuroses in a piece of my writing and wonder if being self-aware is really all it's cracked up to be. Still, it worked out ok for Woody Allen.

Overall, I think writers can often be a bit schizophrenic, although it's a controlled kind of schizophrenia. How else to explain the fact that we are crying at the travails of our characters one minute and then cackling as we play God and do something terrible to them? To be a successful author is to be able to shift between all the points-of-view needed for our story, including our own. Maybe when we're cackling it's actually because we've identified with the antagonist for a second? Or maybe it's that we've allowed ourselves a moment to acknowledge that we have a power in the story world that we will never possess in real life.

Or perhaps authors are simply megalomaniacs who developed too much empathy.


Friday, 7 January 2011

Take the Grand Brand Exam

Hey, you there! Yes, you! Are you a children's author? Do you have a clear, marketable identity as a writer? What do you mean, no? How do you expect to survive in today's marketplace if a fifteen-year-old working in Tesco doesn't know where to shelve your book? What was that? Alphabetically? Sorry, no-one teaches that at school any more, it's pathetic symphonics all the way nowadays. No, no, you have to have an author brand - you can't get anywhere if you're not in the same eco carrier bag as a pair of Reeboks and a Hello Kitty training bra.

I can see that you need some help. Why not step this way, get out your pen and spend a few minutes finding out exactly what kind of brand you are in my Grand Brand Exam. And no cheating by peeking at James Patterson's answers on the next desk.

Question 1 - Brand Identity
Authors should define a brand identity that represents their fundamental core values and communicates that concisely to their customers. When you have an idea for a new book, do you:

A) Consider whether that idea fits your overall brand identity and discard or modify it if it doesn't.

B) Start work on the book in the hope your brand identity can stretch like strawberry Hubba Bubba to contain it.

C) Write five books in different genres simultaneously and hope that someone, somewhere will be desperate enough to publish one of them.

Question 2 - Brand Awareness
If I was to say your name to a group of children in the street, would they:

A) Nod enthusiastically and compose an impromptu rap summarising the plot of your last three books (except with more swearing).

B) Shake their heads sadly and attempt to steal my clipboard.

C) Have me arrested.

Question 3 - Brand Loyalty
In a bookshop, a child who has previously enjoyed your work is offered two novels, one written by you and the other written by a different (clearly inferior) author. Both have suspiciously similar covers and the inferior author's has a sticker on it reading "as good as [Your Name] or your money back". Does the child:

A) Choose yours even though it is more expensive and not quite as good as the last one you wrote (although you couldn't help that because your publisher was rushing you and you were moving house and Oh My God do you remember the trouble we had with William last year?)

B) Choose the inferior author's with the plan of getting a refund later and buying yours.

C) Reshelve your book in the "Make Your Own Compost" section.

Question 4 - Brand Promise
A child unwraps your book as a birthday gift. Does your author brand immediately promise:

A) An electrifying tale of adventure and self-discovery.

B) A well-written but slightly dull story about grumpy animals.

C) An opportunity to make a generous gift to the school library.

Question 5 - Brand Love
Can your author brand inspire bright-eyed devotion in today's children? When you announce the publication of a new book, do your fans mostly celebrate it via:

A) Facebook and Twitter.

B) Blogging and MySpace.

C) The letters page of the Daily Telegraph.

Pens down! Let's see what kind of brand you are:

Mostly As - You are young, hip and relevant - well known (if not infamous) across the nation. You are Russell Brand.

Mostly Bs - You are not that well known yet but have enthusiasm and a good platform to build on. You are Katy Brand.

Mostly Cs - Your work is solid, clever, respected by your peers and more-or-less unknown to anyone under the age of 20. You are Jo Brand.