Friday, 30 September 2011

Creative Refreshment

Something I love about blogging is that you can change direction at any time. I was all set to write a post on a totally different subject (you'll probably get that one next week), when I read this interview with singer/songwriter Leslie Feist. It's been four years since her last album The Reminder, which I loved, despite the fact that her music is really not to my usual tastes. So she must have been doing something right, and the new material sounds great. But my interest was piqued by the following:

Feist took a year-plus break from playing any music at all-- the longest sabbatical of her career thus far. "I almost had a chip on my shoulder about how much I didn't feel like playing," she says. "I wasn't curious anymore."

I've been in a creative low period over the last few months, and I'm sure we've all experienced that feeling of temporarily losing our muse. But to take a whole year off? That's pretty hardcore.

I would try to pick the guitar up sometimes, like, "Hey, remember me?" It was like reintroducing yourself to someone who's got a grudge. But there was this silence. I would put it down and be defeated.

Her idea of creative curiosity is an interesting one. Perhaps she was lucky, in that her last album had been successful enough to provide a financial cushion for her time off. Perhaps because she didn't have to play any music, she didn't feel motivated to try. To be honest though, it sounds like the experience of touring the same material night after night burnt her out - an idea that will be familiar to anyone who has spent too long staring at the same manuscript. Leaving my own novel in the box for two months had definite benefits in terms of stopping me fiddling with it. But because I was thinking about it every day, I'm not sure I really got that far away from it.

The other side of the coin from Feist are people who are prolific artists/writers/filmmakers. Another interview I was reading with Guillermo Del Toro (of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy fame) stated that he was in the habit of getting up at four in the morning, just so he could write a series of novels on top of his producing and directing duties. I am in awe of people like this. There is no way I could match the energy and work rate of someone like Del Toro or Stephen King, even if I didn't need any sleep at all!

As my kids never tire of telling me, "We're all different, Daddy." Everyone has to find the creative pattern that works for them, and overcome the mental blocks that stand in their way. Workaholism isn't generally recommended - it's said that a sitting US president ages at twice the rate of the rest of us. But there's also an argument for making the most of your day in the sun, grabbing every opportunity that success affords. Leslie Feist has deliberately turned her back on that idea, choosing to reject the market in favour of something more personally fulfilling.

I just made something for myself, and that feels better than any Grammy. I did what I wanted to do.

It'll probably still sell like hot cakes, mind.


Friday, 23 September 2011

Developing a Thicker Skin

Excuse me for wandering briefly into the realms of management theory, but I wanted to talk this week about business development, because this is something that writers do all the time (whether we realise it or not). Put simply, business development is the creation of new products, services and revenue streams to ensure that a company has long-term viability. Rather than relying on existing work and contacts, a forward-thinking business is always seeking out niches in the market and making new opportunities.

Writers, by their very nature, are constantly creating new stuff. But I think that's often where the comparison to structured business development falls off. We either wilfully ignore the market, or dive headlong into the most crowded area. Nowhere is this more evident than in fiction, where discussion turns daily towards the latest hot trend and how to capitalise on it. We are told by other writers to follow our hearts and write the book that only we can write. But what if that produces work that no-one wants to read or commission? Can man live by creative nourishment alone?

I've done quite a bit of business development in my day job and it usually follows a set pattern, also known as the "Capture Management Lifecycle":
  • Pre-bid Phase - This is the process of collecting business intelligence on companies and the market, or identifying existing tenders that the company might like to bid for. In writing terms, I would equate this with time spent researching agents/publishers, looking at the market (Bookseller etc.) or reading books within the sphere you want to write for.

  • Bid Phase - This is the process of creating a bid document, outlining how your company would satisfy the tender and crucially, how much you would charge. The bid document is usually very involved and can run to hundreds of pages for a large tender. A bidding company will often make a presentation of their bid and have significant discussions with the customer about it. This translates very closely to the process of writing a book, sending to editors and then meeting them to discuss it. Editors will often be looking for changes to improve a book or target a particular segment of the market. Depending on whether a book has been through acquisitions, money may be mentioned, but it's interesting how that seems to be the last subject of discussion, rather than the first. The gatekeepers of publishing often seem more concerned with the creative merits of a project, rather than the financial cost of acquiring it - unless an auction situation develops.

  • Post-bid Phase - The customer analyses the bids and enters into contract negotiations with the winning partner. Once contracted, the winner will supply the agreed product or service. The post-bid phase is a fraught period in business - one company I worked for went under because they were unable to close a particularly important deal. In writing, it is no less frustrating, with verbal agreements lost in the detail of contracts and books suddenly dropped because of financial constraints or the entry of new management.

Anyone who has worked for a book packager will see how closely their process follows the Capture Management Lifecycle. Authors register with the packager's database and indicate the genres and age ranges they wish to write for (Pre-bid Phase). The packager then sends out a detailed synopsis and character breakdown to prospective authors, asking them to submit three chapters (Bid Phase). The packager chooses the sample whose voice best matches the project and engages that author to write the rest of the book (Post-bid Phase).

Ok, so that's the theory of business development. The practice, I feel, is somewhat different. When you make a bid in a business situation, nine times out of ten it comes to nothing. You shrug, feel a little miffed and muse on what you could have done better. Then you move onto the next tender, because most of the time, it isn't personal. But with writing, it's always personal. You have to delve so deep into yourself to produce a book that a rejection can feel like a knife to the heart (even if it's just a business decision for the other party).

I'm interested to hear about how you cope with these issues and your approach (or lack of it) to business development. I know that I could certainly be a lot more dispassionate about the process of writing and submitting my work. But then, would I ever produce anything of worth?


Friday, 16 September 2011

Appy Ever After?

This week's Nosy Crow event at the SCBWI Professional Series was ostensibly about what it means to be a small publisher. The managing director, Kate Wilson, set out their brand philosophy and talked about their products. But, inevitably, all anyone wanted to know about was apps. This isn't surprising, because picture book apps - particularly the ones that Nosy Crow have so far produced - trigger a wonderfully childish glee in everyone who sees them. You'd have to be a pretty hard-hearted purist (Alberto Manguel, say) to not find a little bit of excitement for the possibilities of the form.

Yet, there's still a part of me that wants to bemoan the projected downfall of The Book, and the implications for literacy that entails. Kate Wilson argues that any "reading experience" is a good one, and that a child reading an app is just as engaged in learning as one with a physical book. But I think there's a spiritual and emotional depth that's being lost here - reading should be more than a functional exercise. Will the children who have grown up with picture book apps transition to e-chapter books? Or will they instead move onto other apps?

Working in software and surrounded by people saying, "Why haven't we got an app for that?" all the time, I tend to get quite jaded about the march of technology. All too often, companies are producing these things because they think they should, not because there's a need or even a market. I'm not saying that this criticism applies to Nosy Crow, who are very clear on their target demographic and corporate vision. But I suspect there are other publishers who are playing catch-up on all this, trying to shoehorn existing characters into interactive platforms just because they know this will shift a few units.

Apps and traditional books are both interactive, but in very different ways. With an app, the interaction happens on a (quite literally) surface level - the tapping, pinching and dragging influences what happens onscreen. The interaction with a traditional narrative happens in the reader's subconscious, a kind of transference between the author and the reader. Video game designers have been struggling for years to reach the emotional Holy Grail - a game that can make you cry. So far, that's eluded them, and I wonder if it's the very active nature of games that precludes this? Perhaps it's easier to induce that state in a more reflective, passive reader.

When I asked her about the dividing line between a picture book app and a game, Kate Wilson wasn't able to tell me - it's something that Nosy Crow are still exploring. But their apps do have definite game-like qualities, and I wonder if we aren't a million miles away from the kind of graphical text adventures like The Secret of Monkey Island that were so popular during the early 90s. Perhaps that's a valid way forward for older readers, combining a strong text-based aesthetic with a nonlinear plot. I also note that those fondly remembered Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are being released as iPhone and iPad apps, although their appeal seems to be largely nostalgic right now. These were one of the earliest examples of a reading/game hybrid, and without them I probably wouldn't be writing this blog today. Is there a modern equivalent that can engage today's children and promote literacy at the same time? Can we reimagine the traditional narrative to provide emotional sustenance on interactive platforms? I don't know, but it's certainly a challenge worth engaging with.


Friday, 9 September 2011

What's in the Box?

The manuscript sits in a blue plastic file box on the desk in front of me, biding its time. Can a stack of paper brood? It feels like it might be doing just that, coiled with tension and waiting to spring out and take over my life again. I stroke the box, but crucially, I don't open it. Pandora will have to wait for my agent's feedback.

It's been there for a month and a half, and I think this is the longest I've managed to leave a viable book alone. I'm sure some of you have books you've benched for ten years, but for me, six weeks is a significant period. I'm a serial monogamist when it comes to fiction - I like to have an intense and continuous relationship with a manuscript before I move onto the next one. Even writing the first chapter of a new book for my critique group makes me feel like I'm being unfaithful.

So what will I find when I open the box? Will it be the masterpiece I always wanted it to be, or a clichéd mess? Is it still The One? I hope that this time away from it will give me the perspective to judge, although in truth I already have a half-page list of things I want to fix in the next edit. But still I restrain myself from starting them, letting the book lie fallow.

Waiting on a manuscript is a kind of sweet agony, rich with promise and fear. I find it hard to let go of the process and focus on something else, so those hopeful doubts and doubtful hopes are always with me, swirling in the back of my head. A few years ago, I coined a term for the process of waiting for an agent's verdict on a book - Schrödinger's Manuscript (after the famous quantum theory). Like the cat in the box, my manuscript is in an uncertain state, simultaneously alive and dead. Will it be a bestseller or just a pile of recycling? At the moment it is both and neither.

I remember hearing Philip Pullman talk about the fact that, right now, somebody is writing the next literary sensation and no-one knows it's coming. He was revelling in the idea, excited by what might be just over the horizon. His sentiments had a whiff of idealism too, envisioning a meritocracy where the strongest book would win and there was little or no barrier to entry for a writer. In the real world, I think there's a bit more to it than that, but it's true that there's nothing publishing likes better than a sudden success that comes out of nowhere.

So is that me? Will I be schmoozing with Pullman in the green room at some literary festival in a couple of years' time? Or writing yet another book that I hope will be my breakout novel?

I'd love to tell you, but to do that, I'd have to look in the box.


Friday, 2 September 2011

Cycling Backwards Up Easy Street

I've read a few comments and complaints recently about how some publishers are making it harder for their authors, pressuring them to write in certain genres, to win awards, to get a book just right. But I ask you, who could possibly make it harder to get a book right than ourselves? Who hasn't launched into "just one more edit," convinced that they can make a book perfect? Who hasn't ground to a halt halfway through a draft, sure that their golden idea has turned to lead? Who sets the bar high one day and then moves it up the next? I won't say all authors are built this way, but that description covers a comfortable percentage.

I'm very much in that demographic - I never take the easy route through any problem if there's one that will make life more difficult for me. Instead of splurging out thousands of words and mopping up the mess in the next draft, I pick each word up with tweezers, holding it to the light as I decide whether it exactly fits the space I've allocated. I'm doing it now, rearranging sentences until their sound and rhythm is perfect. If they sold a tuning fork that you could place against a paragraph to hear its harmonic purity, I'd be first in the queue.

Is this craft or madness? Will anyone notice the sentence that's just "good enough?" Hell, does anyone outside of the publishing industry really care about the originality of our voice and the quality of our prose? Our ability to tell a cracking story will be the thing that determines the commercial success of our work, along with strong marketing and good distribution.

Yet, money is only a small part of the story (and getting smaller). We also crave the respect of our peers, recognition from the industry and a deep connection with our readers. We want to publish work that defines our outlook and values, to trap a piece of ourselves on every page. As long as our book lives, we can never truly die. These are high expectations - so high that they can only result in some level of disappointment. But does that make them wrong?

I think the answer lies in how we, as writers, cope with the self-imposed pressure. If you can turn out a book, convinced that it is the best thing you can possibly write, then the work will benefit. But there will also be the inevitable comedown as you worry about how you can possibly top it. Having said that, it's easy to lose perspective as you beaver away in your writer's garret (or back bedroom). There will be other ideas and other books - at some point, you have to let a book go so you can move on to the next.