Friday, 29 July 2011

Do Not Adjust Your Internet

I'm on holiday this week and having a strict no-writing policy (put down the notebook, Cross!). So, instead, here are a few other blog posts that are well worth your time:

Notes from the Slushpile - Remembering Margaret Carey

In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series

Notes from the Slushpile - Writing's a struggle. And then Life gets in the way.

Nicola Morgan - ROCK OF AGENTS

Absolute Vanilla - Self-Publishing Part One

Friday, 22 July 2011

Exposing Exposition

I'm in a bit of a hurry at the moment, trying to sort out the apparent mountain of exposition at the end of my novel, so I can get it sent off to my agent before I go on holiday. So excuse me if this post isn't quite as well structured as usual. But in the spirit of what I'm supposed to be doing, what better topic is there to discuss than exposition itself?

Robert McKee gives a very succinct definition of exposition in his invaluable book Story:
Exposition means facts – the information about setting, biography and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.

So by this yardstick, exposition is essential – without it, a book simply does not make sense. But it seems that exposition has become the unwanted stepchild of novel writing, the thing we must ration at all costs lest our audience get bored and demand another action sequence. Yet, when watching Harry Potter and the Collection of Meaningful Stares 7.2 last night, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t the elaborate scenes of magical carnage that really impressed me, it was a 4 minute sequence of emotionally-devastating flashback. Here was a scene that should have been in the way of the forward momentum of the story, yet it managed to encapsulate the underlying sadness and stoicism of the whole series. Suddenly, Harry Potter felt very grown up.

Withholding information like this is definitely a powerful tool – ironically, the problem I’m having right now is that perhaps I’ve been withholding too much and have now got to explain it all! I’ve been emphatically putting this together as a standalone novel, so all the loose ends do need to be tied up – perhaps I can see the appeal of writing a trilogy now...

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with exposition and I think writers are conditioned to dislike it. Do audiences really notice the endless expositional dialogue in modern blockbuster movies? Perhaps they feel like they’re simply being told the story and that's ok? Certainly the meteoric success of Doctor Who and The Da Vinci Code suggests that people are pretty comfortable with a character popping up and spewing out a load of information to move the plot forward.

One of the reasons I decided to have a main character with amnesia in Zomboy was that it freed me from the burden of backstory in the opening chapters. Not for me a massive info-dump in the middle of page two – my first-person character had to discover the rules of his world at exactly the same time as the reader. Of course, I did have to explain things eventually, but as a writer that uncertainty was empowering because I wanted find out what was happening as much as the character (and ultimately the reader). I don’t think you should underestimate the power of discovery in a novel and that’s one of the reasons why planning too comprehensively can be detrimental. Sometimes, you just have to take that journey with the character and see where it leads you.

Ok, I’m rambling now. My protagonist’s journey is almost at an end and all that remains is to tell him what he doesn’t know and let him make his climactic decision on that basis. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was someone to do that in real life? I may have to look into it…


Friday, 15 July 2011

What's the Big Idea?

"Where do you get your ideas from?" is one of the more difficult questions for a writer to answer. "They float into my head on a wave of magical inspiration," isn't a particularly satisfying response, and neither is "I stole them all from Stephenie Meyer."

We all have our own rituals and thought processes for idea generation. Some will brainstorm, others will take a keen interest in dental health because they know the best ideas come when brushing their teeth. For my part, I've recently discovered a talent for literally forcing ideas out, a way of worrying over my lack of inspiration until the right concept drops from my brain. In addition to being a positive application of my neuroticism, this technique has given me two great ideas - the concept behind my work-in-progress (or work-almost-finished as I like to call it) and a shiny new idea for my next novel.

So is a writer simply an ideas factory? An industrial process that hoovers up inspiration from other real and fictional worlds, filters it through the experience of a lifetime and produces a string of book-shaped sausages? I'm sure we could all point to authors whose work appears to have been produced under those production line conditions, carefully controlled and packaged in a protective atmosphere. These are the authors who rarely surprise, but always satisfy - you know what you're going to get from their books and that's precisely the reason you pick one up. Other writers have a more wayward and capricious approach - sometimes genius, sometimes "what were they thinking?" Is there room in the market for both? Perhaps the key is not being so wayward that you alienate your readers entirely.

One of the worst things for an author is finding out that another writer has had the same idea as you. Which happened to me this very week. Worse than that, the writer who I now discover I share ideas with, is a friend. The central concepts of our novels are very different, but there is a key plot mechanic that we've both - quite independently - come up with. How could this have happened? We share work a lot, so the fact that neither of us had read the particular drafts of these particular books was unexpected. At least we can't accuse each other of plagiarism, but nonetheless, the experience has made me very uncomfortable. Perhaps I can't see the wood for the trees here and am focusing on a couple of similarities when a hundred things are very different. But if I've discovered these ideas in a friend's book, what are the chances of my other ideas coalescing in the mind of a writer I've never met? There are quite a few of them out there, after all.

Nicola Morgan had this situation happen to her at the worst possible time - just as her first novel was about to be published. Her blog post is well worth reading and I found it quite comforting - just because someone else has the same idea as you, it doesn't mean the end of your book.

Every writer wants to believe that they are one-of-a-kind (a unique and beautiful snowflake as Tyler Durden would say). They want to believe that their hard-won ideas are original and provocative, streets ahead of the mindless formula pap that colonises our cinema screens and bestseller lists. But somehow, it doesn't always seem to work out that way. Part of the problem is that we share a lot of the same inputs - news is global and inescapable, a single film can reach billions, a group of writers will share the same books through word of mouth. The pool of inspiration, when you look at it this way, is quite small. Is it any surprise that genres suddenly pop up, or that two writers find themselves coming to the same conclusion independently?

I could spend an entire blog post talking gloomily about the impending collapse of our culture, about how we seem to be recycling ideas more and more aggressively, remaking proven properties rather than taking a chance on the new and unique. But I think I have a part to play in breaking that cycle, by encouraging younger readers to step away from the obvious and inspiring them to build a whole new culture from the ground up.

Now there's an idea for a novel…


Friday, 8 July 2011

I Must Be Mistaken

I think I scared a few people last week with my neurotic perfectionism. I think one of them was me. So this week, I'd like to tell you why you shouldn't listen to a word I say and must immediately run off and make as many mistakes as you can. I give you my reasons:

  1. What do I know? Seriously, I haven't even got a book on the shelves yet. Why are you even still reading this?

  2. You appear to still be reading this. I like your style - you won't be pushed around by anyone. I bet if I told you to do something, you'd go out and do the total opposite.

  3. Under no circumstances, transfer £50,000 into my bank account.

  4. Also, do not give me a multi-book publishing deal, a new brain or a lifetime's supply of cake.

  5. You probably don't believe me, anyway. Every year, millions of couples have their first baby. Millions of friends try to tell said couples how said babies will change/ruin their lives and said couples completely ignore them. This is a basic evolutionary trick, because if people understood how impossibly difficult it is to bring a baby into the world, no-one would ever have children. Exactly the same principle applies to writing a first novel – everyone thinks it will be easy for them, because they are "special."

  6. This blog post was going to be about something completely different. But that clearly would have been a mistake. It was also, at one point, entitled "Serendipitydoodah" – you can draw your own conclusions about that.

  7. Remember, no-one can tell you how to write. They will try, oh yes they will, My Pretty. But all they can ever tell you is how they write. Only you can find the method, circumstances and subject matter that suit you. I was recently praised at a crit group for coming up with a new book idea that was "Very Nick." This is only because I have spent a lot of time in the past writing stories that were "Patently not Nick." Once you exclude all of the things you should never have attempted, only the good stuff is left.

  8. It's why CTRL-Z was invented. See, I just pressed it and deleted something really funny. That'll teach you.

  9. You're unlikely to make the same mistake twice. Unless you are very stupid. You're not very stupid, are you? You could always try reading more slowly if you're having trouble keeping up.

  10. Wait a minute, people have more than one child, don't they? Isn't that making the same mistake twice? This doesn't count because their lives are already wrecked. It's like fitting an extra person in the lifeboat.

  11. No-one ever learnt a thing from getting everything right. Except how to be smug. 90% of the candidates on The Apprentice claim that they have never failed at anything.
    1. They are lying.
    2. This is why they are so utterly useless.

  12. Art must take risks, or it is not art. Profound, huh?

  13. What do you mean, "huh?" I've gone right off you now.

  14. There's always a second draft And a third and fourth and seventeenth. They're only words. They are expendable.

  15. Every mistake makes your writing better. For instance, I've decided that this blog post has been one big mistake from start to finish.


P.S. I'm still waiting on that cake. Whenever you're ready.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Pursuit of Excellence

There's a generally accepted theory that no-one can be good at everything - we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But this idea is problematic for children's fiction writers in today's competitive market, because we have to achieve excellence - or near excellence - in so many categories: voice, concept, plot, character, description, action, dialogue etc. It's no wonder that it takes so long to get published - I myself have been writing children's fiction for nearly ten years and I'm only now starting to hit the required standard in most of the categories. I took a certain relish in reporting my long apprenticeship to my Oxford crit group, but I have to admit that if anyone had told me it would take this long ten years ago, you'd be reading someone else's blog right now.

The drive for excellence is a great thing for the reader and we are constantly told that a "golden age of children's publishing is upon us." To a certain extent, this competition is good for the writer too, because there is no room to be lazy unless you have a strong brand or mega franchise to rely on. But it's a tough, tough world to break into and you not only need to be excellent at the categories I listed above, but also to have excellent drive and persistence. Forget trying to come straight out of education and have a career in fiction writing – to do this you need to be either unusually lucky or unusually talented. And most of us, sadly, are neither.

I'm sure we can all, right now, summon up the names of half a dozen books that are distinctly less than excellent. Mostly, they will be titles with big deals and marketing spend behind them. These are the books we like to talk woefully about on message boards:
"I couldn't even finish it – can you believe it's selling so well?"

"I should give up trying to write something good and just churn out one of these Twilight/Hunger Games/Harry Potter rip-offs."
Which is great in theory, but harder when thousands of other people are doing exactly that. The law of averages says that some of them will get past the gatekeepers. Again, I fear that the law of averages doesn't have a lot of room for little old me.

They say that all you need is one person to say "yes" to your book to get it published. This is a wonderful, empowering statement that is as fictional as your manuscript. True, you do need an editor to love your book, because they are the ones who will champion it around the organisation. But few editors have control of acquisitions, so you also need their boss to love it and the people from sales & marketing and the booksellers and everyone else who will be involved in the journey from screen to shelf (or screen to screen in the case of e-books). It's very hard to influence the acquisitions process once the manuscript leaves your hands (believe me, I've tried), so your best chance for success lies in the manuscript itself.

Thus, I give you my one-step guide to publishing success: write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it. And while you're at it, why not build a better mousetrap and be the first person on Mars? Half measures are for losers ;-)