Friday, 24 June 2011

Rereadability

Over a year ago, I wrote a post called Unputdownability, which considered how to write a compulsively readable children’s novel. Lots of people seem to have got rather good at this in the meantime, and I often see comments on Amazon from young readers discussing how quickly they raced through a book. I remember leaving my own eleven-year-old daughter a copy of Skulduggery Pleasant at 8am on a school day and returning at 6pm to find that she’d read the whole thing!

But, as much as I want to write the unputdownable novel, I do feel a pang of sadness at the idea that my book might be tossed away so quickly. With children’s authors averaging one novel a year, that’s a long time to wait before my next one comes out. Will a young reader even remember my name once that new book makes it to the marketplace? It’s true that this problem becomes lessened as a writer’s career progresses – if I love the new Marcus Sedgwick novel, for instance, he has a ten-year back catalogue for me to peruse. But for a debut author, it’s tough to make a reputation that will stick.

Looking back over the comments on that earlier post, I saw one mentioning rereadability, which I thought was an excellent way to keep your work alive in the reader’s mind. Imagine if, in that year, a teenager reread your book four or five times? Then they would certainly remember you. But then I hit a deeper problem – what makes a book rereadable? Is it just the fact that it was readable in the first place? So I don’t claim to have any answers on this one – consider what follows as discussion points rather than hard-and-fast rules.

  • Brevity - A short book is going to be quicker to read, and reread. Certainly, when I’m selecting a book or a film from my shelf, I’m always drawn to the shorter ones. But is that only a time-poor adult problem? My daughter has just reread Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the third time in six months!

  • Being Either Really Memorable or Totally Forgettable - I’m certainly more likely to reread a book if I remember bits from it I really liked. Memorable characters, dialogue and scenes draw me in a second time. Paradoxically, though, I’m also likely to reread a book if I don’t remember anything about it – that’s like experiencing the whole thing anew. Sadly, in the latter case, I may get halfway through and remember why I put it down the first time.

  • Clever Plot Construction - Much is made of films like The Sixth Sense and Inception, of which the posters will say: “You just have to see it a second time!” By having a massive twist or a mind-bendingly complex plot, such films ensure that patrons will buy another ticket so they can explore what they missed on the first viewing. Of course, you can do this with books too, but I think it’s a harder trick to pull off. Readers are very adept at flicking back and forth through a book, picking out those little clues that you thought were so carefully buried. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t books with an amazing twist at the end that makes you see the whole story in a different light. Please feel free to suggest some in the comments.

  • The Feelgood Factor - Books that make you laugh or feel good are definitely going to promote rereadability. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of days when I feel like something weighty, but a comedy will always hit the spot, regardless of whether I’m feeling up or down. Again, this is maybe an adult thing – teenagers seem to have an endless appetite for darkness and death at the moment.

  • A Terrific Ending - I can’t stress how important it is to end a book well, especially when you consider rereadability. No-one is going to wade through the whole thing again if the resolution isn’t rewarding. I wonder, for instance, how many people read The Knife of Never Letting Go when it first came out, and then didn’t look at it again until Patrick Ness had finished the trilogy?

Ok, there’s your starter for ten. Is there a formula for rereadability? Or is it simply a case of writing a completely brilliant book in the first place? Your comments, please.

Nick.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Confidence Trick

I have nothing at all to say this week.

Nick.


That's the blog I want to write every time I sit down at my laptop on a Friday morning. The one that lets me read Metro, or suck down a cappuccino or stare out the train window. The one that frees me from the tyranny of the blank page and sticks two fingers up at the reader. Look at me! It's Friday and I don't care!

Except somehow I'm writing a blog post about how I don't want to write a blog post. Because writing something, anything at all, is a victory over that tiny voice at the back of my head that tells me I'm worthless. The voice that was taunting me all yesterday, stopping me from writing the book that could one day be published. It's taunting me even now, reminding me of how no-one commented on my blog the other week – as if that really means anything.

Writing is the ultimate victory of confidence over reason. It isn't reasonable to spend your day living in imaginary worlds full of invented people. It isn't reasonable to think you'll get published when more talented people than you have failed. It isn't reasonable to think that you'll sell any books in a crowded marketplace or get nominated for awards or even win one. A lot of people drop out of the race when they realise how far the odds are stacked against them. But isn't it amazing how many people stay in the game?

I could spend a hundred blog posts speculating on why people choose to write. Some will claim they do it for love, or to satisfy a burning urge to share their stories with the world. Many, I suspect myself included, do it to gain approval (I blame the parents!). Whatever their reason, these writers manage - for hours at a time - to quiet those voices and push forwards. First drafts often seem to exist as a way of managing imperfection, a parole agreement that allows you to get away with all the bad writing and glaring inconsistencies with the promise that you'll fix it in the edit. In many ways, writing successfully is a trick, a way of telling your mind that what you're doing isn't important, but knowing somewhere deep down that it's utterly vital.

The game changes up when you win a competition, get an agent or find a publisher. Now you feel the weight of genuine expectation on you, whether real or imagined. Simply writing any old crap is not an option anymore – you really have to deliver. This achievement can be empowering, a confidence boost that helps to temper your more "artistic" impulses and guides your work closer to the market. But I've also seen the genuine anguish of writers who have been signed to an agent for a while, but not yet sold a book – the unspoken fear that they will get dumped and be further back than when they started.

So that's where I am right now. Maybe I need to stop writing this and get back to that tricky chapter full of exposition that I've been avoiding. Perhaps this wasn't the best blog post in the world ever, but I have – in just over an hour – made something out of nothing. And that bit of alchemy is a trick worth celebrating, I'd say. Now where's my cappuccino?

Nick.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Keeping Busy

I was chatting to another author at the SCBWI Buyers Party the other night and commiserating about their workload. In response, they expressed surprise that I managed to fit in everything I was doing. And after thinking about it, I was surprised too. Can I really have been out four nights this week? Do I really have two SCBWI crit group meetings in the same seven day period? How have I somehow managed to write 5,000 words, re-plot the third act of my book and go to work every day? Not to mention fitting in writing a blog post.

For me, like many others, writing is a part-time job. At least, it feels like a job, even if the work I'm doing is with the promise of payment rather than an actual wage. I have a demanding day job to supply that, as well as all the meetings I can eat. And then there's my SCBWI work and social events to fit in, plus a wife and children who demand my attendance on a regular basis. And not just my physical attendance, either, they need me to switch off all of the other stuff in my brain and actually, like, pay attention.

Keeping busy does have its benefits in that you can avoid what mindfulness experts call "the ruminating mind," the part of your brain that chews over what you've done and said and haven't done, making problems where there weren't any to start with. As long as you are in the moment, dealing with stuff, there's no room to worry - that's the theory, at least. And I am nothing if not a worrier!

But there's a hitch here - the ruminating mind is actually essential to being a writer. The same thought processes that lead you to worry about what will happen if you forget to lock the back door, also allow you to imagine a post-apocalyptic future colonised entirely by telepathic ducks. Therefore, it's not surprising that so many writers are neurotic, or that they fight that by overloading themselves like a Buckaroo mule.

Perhaps the more you do, the more you can do. Certainly, all the hours I've spent on trains this week have allowed me to write those 5,000 words. But I still feel bad about not doing more. Why didn't I finish the book last week? What happens if I don't finish it next week? My agent is accommodating my ever-changing deadline for this novel with good grace, but at some point I will have to deliver an actual first draft. Perhaps I'm just in the middle of some very elaborate avoidance behaviour...

I set high standards for my work, and I know I'm not the only one. But those standards often tip into the category of unreachable. And unachievable goals, as any motivational expert will tell you, are not a strategy for happiness. If only I had time in my schedule to think up some better ones ;-)

Nick.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Small is Beautiful

I'm excited to report that my first proper author interview is published today, in Wyvern Magazine. I've known the team behind Wyvern Publications for a while, and they asked me some great questions, to which I've tried to find great answers. In case you're not totally wild about me (is that possible?), there are several more interviews, articles and original fiction in the 50 page June edition, which costs a mere £2.

*Promotional section ends. Mostly.*

I say mostly, because I thought this was a perfect opportunity to talk about small presses like Wyvern and the great work they do in the fiction market. As you know, the publishing industry is becoming increasingly polarised, with big publishers looking for books that will have big sales and self-publishers flooding into the market via the e-book. The midlist - those books with a definite, but not mass appeal - is being squeezed out. Some of this midlist will move to the larger independent publishers, but these are also suffering from the increased costs and lower profit margins affecting the whole book trade. Independents can take more risks than the majors, but not that many.

So that brings us to the small press. Employing a tiny staff, often on a part-time basis, they aren't able to publish many books each year. In fact, many have grown out of self-publishing, in a desire to achieve more than the fleeting pleasure of seeing your name on the cover of a paperback. These companies aren't run for profit or fame, but mostly for love. More than that, a small press can develop a vision and identity, taking the founder's author brand and expanding it into an editorial strategy that attracts likeminded contributors. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that small presses put out substandard books that couldn't find a home elsewhere - with so few releases each year, their commitment to quality has to be just as high as other publishers.

Where small fiction presses like Wyvern and Bridge House excel, is in the promotion of forms long ignored in our novel-obsessed society: short stories, plays and poetry. They give a platform for developing writers and illustrators. They allow us to read delightful books that were too far off-trend for other publishers to consider. Sometimes they publish work that was actually too on-trend to get noticed in a crowded market (Wyvern have a vampire anthology called Fangtales that comes out later this year). Small presses, with their not-for-profit slant, are also a perfect place to publish charity books.

Some of you might be detecting a whiff of hypocrisy here. If I love small presses so much, why haven't I offered my work to be published by one? Well, my mealy-mouthed answer is to say that things are different for me - I have an agent and I'm also dealing in mass-market concepts that are aimed above the midlist. I happen to think that a traditional form of publishing will be the one that serves my work and intended audience best. And in case you don't believe me, I listened to Nicola Morgan saying a very similar thing in a talk at Foyles last night. But as to how my career progresses once I've built up a readership? I guess we'll talk again once that's happened.

To conclude, I think Wyvern Publications is a smart operation with real charm. You can read a lot more about where they came from and what kind of books they publish in Head Editor Holly Stacey's interview with Tall Tales and Short Stories.

Nick.