Friday, 30 December 2011

Dreams of Innovation

Could I change the world? Would I want to? Those were the thoughts running through my head as I perused a list of the fifty greatest innovators in the world today. At least I wasn't thinking small, I suppose, although the competition was daunting. A lot of the names were from the technology sector – Mark Zuckerberg, Gregg Zehr (inventor of the Kindle), a posthumous mention for Steve Jobs. But there were people from other sectors – Lady Gaga, Camila Batmanghelidjh (who runs the Kids Company charity) and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. One author caught my eye, but that was because there was just one author in the whole list. Even more regrettably, it was Stephenie Meyer.

Could Meyer really be considered a great innovator? I wanted to rail against the poverty of her craft and the conservatism of her worldview. Surely, an innovator would be more original and daring? I wanted such an author to be of a more liberal cast, not someone who was reinforcing the same tired gender stereotypes that women have been battling for the last fifty years. But Meyer's innovation hasn't been in plot or character – her impact has been more on the level of understanding exactly what teenage girls want and aggressively targeting that demographic. It's extraordinary to think that with just four books, she has transformed the Young Adult marketplace. All of those red and black covers in Waterstones are testament to that. But her reach goes far beyond the printed word – not just the Twilight films, but also creating an environment for TV series like The Vampire Diaries and the wonderfully inappropriate True Blood. Would anyone be making a Hunger Games film if Meyer hadn't blazed a trail before it?

Reviewing the list of innovators, one thing stood out for me. Great innovation is not about complex originality, but the simplicity of a good idea applied in the right area. Of course, as writers know, finding the simplest route through a problem can take many hours of thinking. And the application of that idea can take many months more. Persuading the publishing world of its brilliance Рwell, that can be the work of years. We hope it will lead to the great clich̩ of the author's journey Рall that rejection suddenly transformed by a six-figure deal and bestselling acclaim.

But even then, can authors really change the world? Has long form narrative had its day? The playing field seems unevenly tipped towards other, more immediate, sectors of the mass media. It strikes me that video games designers have unprecedented reach at the moment, though they seem happy for the most part to deliver upgrades on existing game designs and ever more spectacular cut scenes. Yet, there are some amazing projects out there, like Foldit, a game that gets players to solve complex biochemical problems with real-world medical applications. Ever fancied designing a flu inhibitor? Here's your chance.

It's my feeling that writers will need to embrace technology – whether it be games, blogs or apps – if they are to have a profound effect on the world stage. We are the idea machines, after all, the "what if?" engines that can power a thousand stories. Who's to say that our powers of innovation aren't just as good as any technologist, pop star or politician?

I'll leave the last words to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the female president of Liberia: "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough." Gulp.


Friday, 23 December 2011

Letters to Santa

Dear Mr Claus,

Thank you for your recent submission. I enjoyed the unusual prose style and autobiographical main character. In these times of doom and gloom, it is a great relief to read about someone with such a positive, can-do attitude. Thanks also for the enclosed mince pie and glass of brandy – this was an unexpected twist that added much flavour to my day.

After much reflection, however, I am afraid that I will not be able to represent you at this time. Celebrity biographies are on the wane and, in truth, I wasn't sufficiently thrilled by your manuscript. In the current challenging market, a book must literally make my socks catch fire with excitement before I can consider taking it on.

My assistant tells me that beards are a hot trend for 2012, so perhaps you would consider a book on personal grooming?

Yours standing-in-a-bucket-of-water,

Marigold Bestagent.

Dear Santa,

This is a belated thank you for last year's present – a Moleskine® Special Edition Snot Green Extra Large Notebook with Removable Double-Sided Fountain Pen Tray. It helped me to write a very meaningful poem about clouds, and several wonderful shopping lists. Although it is still 80% empty, I must have this year's version in my Christmas stocking, as Moleskine® have increased the line spacing by 0.2mm, which is bound to improve my writing even more.

Also, can I please have the ultra-rare Moleskine® Swoonpad? This has a leather cover embossed with the portrait of hunky children's author Marcus Sedgwick – I am sure that staring at the delectable Marcus until my eyes go blurry will take me to new heights of creative ecstasy.

Many thanks,

Mary A. Certainage.

Dear Father Christmas,

It has come to my notice that I'm on your naughty list. Again. This is despite my efforts this year to enslave all muggles and create a world fit for pure-blood witches and wizards. I would rather have nothing for Christmas instead of your usual lump of coal, as last year, Nagini ate it and was then horribly sick on the hall carpet.


The Evil Lord Voldemort (Esq.)

P.S. All I want for Christmas is a new nose. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Dear Mr Claus,

Thank you for sending me the manuscript of Sleighing Them in the Isles – The Amazing True Story of How I Saved Christmas (Pop-up Edition). As you know, we are very selective here at Qualitty Publishing Inc., but your story just blew me away. I have to have it!!!

This amazing tale of psychic vampires / depressed middle-aged housewives / machine-gun-toting elves had me gripped from page one!! Your writing is truely some of the finest I have ever read! I hope you don't mind, but I sent a few of the pages to Martin Amis, as I think he could do with the help.

Please don't believe any rumours you may have heard about Quallity Publishing Inc. being a vanity press. We are actually a subsidiary of The Great Big Publishing Corp. and our sister companies include such well known brand names as Harper Colon and Hatchet. We would never charge for our services, as we believe that every author is a rare talent who deserves to be nurtured like a prizewinning cheese. It is true that, from time to time, we may levy a special "Internet Publicity Subsidy," but this is only because we operate out of Lichtenstein and are legally required to pass on the cost of our government's new "Twitter Tax". There may also be a small charge to spray the pages of your e-book, to stop them going mouldy in Amazon's Kindle storeroom.

Rest assured that if you place your manuscript with us, you will recieve the highest level of editorial suport and the best proof-readers in the busness. We pride ourselves on the excellence of our output, and the other 1,474 authors on our list would agree. In addition, if you return a signed copy of the attached contract within 10 days, you will receive a ten percent discount on our fees a Moleskine® Swoonpad with special wipe-clean cover. Because we don't charge any fees. Oh no.

Yours sincerely,

A.N. Editor.

Dear Santa,

I think I have been good this year, although I was rather rude to a pigeon a few weeks ago. Sorry about that. I have tried my best to write an interesting blog post every week, even if that one about deconstructionist Belgian picture books seemed to go over a few people's heads. If it isn't too much trouble, could you arrange for a publishing contract in my Christmas stocking this year? And if it could be a proper publisher too, as I still have 2,000 copies in the loft of a self-published book about whelks and probably don't want to go down that road again. I have written a new middle-grade novel packed with action, intrigue and dark humour, and it would be a shame if it had to stay on my hard disk forever.

Yours hopefully,


Friday, 16 December 2011

Guest Blog

This week's blog isn't here at all! Instead, it's a guest post as part of Notes from the Slushpile's Countdown to Christmas series, a space I'm happy to share with fellow "almost there" author Kathy Evans.

Click here to read it.


Friday, 9 December 2011

When Worlds Collide

It used to be so clear-cut for me. There was work and there was writing. Two separate tasks that fitted into two separate boxes. Work was software development – technical, logical and defiantly left-brained. Writing was frivolous, creative and predominantly right-brained. I liked this separation and the opportunities it gave me to exercise different aspects of my personality. But, slowly at first, things began to change.

I started designing software as well as coding it, working alongside graphic designers and other creative people. My writing developed - rather more slowly than my career, it has to be said – and over a couple of years I wrote a 140,000 word novel. Or, a 140,000 word mess as it might more fairly have been termed. What was I to do with this gargantuan lump of prose? Here was where I found my software skills unexpectedly useful. I was used to breaking down a problem and structuring a system in modular chunks. Could a novel be structured in the same way? What was a chapter, after all, if not a single brick that could form part of a larger, more beautiful building?

I won't ever claim that book became a masterpiece. Its final structure was more like a Victorian folly than a scale model of the Taj Mahal. But I learnt a huge amount about applying the problem-solving skills I already had to the business of plotting and characterisation. All the same, writing was still very much a hobby, so software paid the bills and I kept scribbling in my spare time.

Somewhere around the point I won Undiscovered Voices, writing became more like a job. Or, at least, an unpaid internship. I signed with an agent and found myself rewriting eighty percent of my second novel over a period of three months. We went out on submission and suffered the "rave rejections" that seem all too commonplace in the current market. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel, a single editor who loved the book enough to want to acquire it. I revised again, working to tighter and tighter deadlines, my day job firmly shunted into second place on my priority list.

As we neared acquisitions, I experienced an unexpected crisis. Was I really about to be published? Could I give up my day job and live out my dreams of being a full-time author? Well, actually, no. The book didn't sell and I slid into a terrible period of depression. In retrospect, I realise that there were a whole heap of factors contributing to what happened. I had been working at home exclusively for a year, communicating via phone and Skype with people in several different countries. It's now clear that the isolation didn't sit well with me, that I needed daily contact with my colleagues in a physical workplace. And this, I have realised, was why being a full-time writer could never have worked – the solitude would have crushed me.

I started a new novel, pouring my dark feelings from the previous months into it. It wasn't an easy book to write and remains difficult even now – but nothing worthwhile was ever straightforward, right? Happily, my day job took a much better direction, and I got a new contract position. I would be commuting again, but at least there would be a real office full of people. In actual fact, I got a lot more than I bargained for - all the responsibility I could eat and an incredible new challenge in an exploding mobile app market. At the same time, I watched as publishing realised that its very survival was at stake, that it must evolve into digital markets or risk becoming irrelevant. Suddenly, software – the thing I had been doing for the last fifteen years – was colliding head-on with the world of publishing.

I sat in a room full of authors and illustrators earlier this year, listening to Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow talking about children's apps. And I could see, from the faces and the questions, that I was one of the select few who really "got it," who understood how app development required a whole set of different skills to writing or illustrating a book. Was it chance that put me in the middle of the digital publishing revolution, or a decade and a half of hard work? Either way, the future looks pretty damn thrilling from where I'm sat.


Friday, 2 December 2011

Are You Secretly a Fictional Character?

A great man once said: "Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide. No escape from reality." Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, when you think about it. But he wrestled with an eternal dilemma: are we actual live people or simply fictional puppets in the thrall of some demonic writer? And how would we know? Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see if this psychological evaluation can help you.

N.B.This self-evaluation form has been compiled - using sound psychological principles - by Dr Melfi from The Sopranos and that bloke off In Treatment. Use a pencil and paper to keep score, unless these things don’t exist in your world – in which case you can probably stop now.

Section 1 - General Questions
  • Score 2 points if you have a mysterious voice in your head, narrating everything you do.

  • Score 1 point if you live in Essex/Chelsea and talk in a slightly forced way as though you’re acting in a preschool nativity play.

  • Score 2 points if you have always lived your life in a particular, dependable pattern, except just once when you acted completely out of character.

  • Open your kitchen cupboard. Score 1 point for every tin, jar and bottle that is turned around, so the brand labels face the front.

  • Score 2 points if you have ever met Kurt Vonnegut. Score an extra 3 points if your name is Kilgore Trout.

  • Score 1 point if your internal monologue is filled with insights of startling beauty.

  • Score 2 points if your life fades to black after every significant conversation. Score 5 points if this is accompanied by jazzy incidental music.

  • Score 2 points if you are followed everywhere by a film crew making a documentary about "your life."

  • Do you experience unresolved sexual tension with someone you work alongside? Score 1 point for every year/series this has been going on.

  • Score 10 points if you have ever saved the life of the President of the United States. Score 5 points for any other world leader.

Section 2 - Focus on Friends

Looking at your friends can be a good way to determine whether your life is an elaborate fiction. Score 5 points for each of the following statements that are true:
  • All of your friends are white and middle class, except one who is stereotypically ethnic.

  • Your best friend is a talking animal.

  • Your friends are involved in a mysterious conspiracy that they have somehow neglected to tell you about.

  • When surprising events occur, you have a friend whose sole purpose is to explain what’s happening.

  • Your friends are called Chandler, Monica, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel and/or Joey.

Section 3 - Multiple Choice

Pick one option for each of the following.

  • Is it always raining outside?

    • No. I live in California. (1 point)

    • Yes. I live in a stylish but depressing urban futureworld. (5 points)

    • Yes. I live in Manchester. (0 points)

  • Are you:

    1. A vampire? (10 points)

    2. A werewolf? (20 points)

    3. An impossibly hunky vampire/werewolf with "liquid topaz eyes" or "rock-hard abs"? (100 points)

  • Is there a secret portal that allows other people to climb inside your head for a limited period?

    • No. Please read my blog instead. (0 points)

    • Yes - I am John Malkovich. Please send the Academy Award to my usual address. (5 points)

    • Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich. (100,000 points)

Completing The Evaluation

Total up your score.

Congratulations, you are not a fictional character! No-one who was actually in a story would have been able to work their way through that entire list without a lion bursting out of a cupboard or someone getting shot – it would just be too boring for the audience. So rejoice in the fact that your life is dull, lacking in a clear narrative arc and almost certainly won’t have a happy ending.

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