Friday, 27 April 2012

So Many Projects, So Little Time

I must confess that I've been a bit of a creative butterfly of late. I have trouble settling to a new project when I have something out on submission, because there's always the hope in the back of my mind that someone could email me in high excitement and pull me into another round of revision. It's been compounded this time by the fact that I've had an unusually large number of good ideas for a new novel (five and counting), and I can't decide which one to pick.

Children's writers do like to dabble, so I'm by no means in bad company. Maureen Lynas's post earlier this month proved that, with an amazing laundry list of all the different types of books she's written over the last twelve years. I felt a bit of a fake contributing to that discussion, because over the last nine years since I began writing for children, I've managed exactly three finished books (and a couple of abandoned works in progress).

As a part-time writer, I don't have the luxury of committing to multiple projects or the financial pressure of needing to in order to make ends meet. I'm a pretty analytical person (as I'm sure you've noticed by now), so I like to weigh every decision I make very carefully. For instance, one of the ideas I've had for a new book is conceptually brilliant (he said modestly), with a really strong pitch and hook. I spent a couple of weeks thinking about how I might write it and fine-tuning the voice. But no matter how much I progress the project technically, it just doesn't grab me emotionally. I think this links in to what Sara Grant was saying this week at the SCBWI Professional Series. Sara - being very process-minded as befits a Working Partners editor - prepares a bullet point summary of every novel idea she has, giving special attention to what is at the emotional heart of the story. If she can't find that connection and reason for writing the book, she doesn't proceed with it.

Writing a novel is a long, hard business, but your passion for the story has to extend way past the end of that process - into submission, through those meetings with editors and eventually out into the real world with promotion, marketing, etc. Picking a story just because it's interesting or challenging, isn't necessarily going to cut the mustard. So, approaching the problem from a different angle, I started wondering about what was grabbing me emotionally at the moment. I realised that a lot of the issues I was trying to work out in my last book were still hanging around – I hadn't achieved closure, so much as reached a fictional climax. Thus, the question became one of wondering how I might tackle those issues in a fresh way, and hopefully develop some more as a person, as I take another journey with my characters.

Will this latest novel idea be the one that finally compels me to get started? It's early days - so we'll see - but one of the things I've definitely learned over the last few years is this: A good idea is not enough – if you don't believe in it, your book is still going to suck.


Friday, 20 April 2012

Writing the Unfilmable Novel

Before I start, can I say thank you to everyone who voted and commented on last week's post about whether I should find a new agent. The poll came out 71% in favour of me looking for another agent, and I have already had a very pleasant chat with one and sent her my manuscript. Quite a few people favoured a two-tier approach of talking to editors and agents at the same time, so I will bear that in mind. You were all very generous with your advice and if you haven't seen Robot Agent, I suggest you go there right now.

But back to this week's subject – the unfilmable novel. After The Hunger Games' incredible haul at the box office, it seems churlish to suggest writing a book that would be impossible to adapt for the screen. But wouldn't that be the perfect embodiment of a story that could only be written as a novel? In this world of transmedia and ever-expanding franchises, there's a certain charm to a story that knows its limitations. Why not create an excellent narrative that truly exploits the format of one particular medium, rather than being mediocre across several?

I should stop at this juncture and point out that I haven't yet written an unfilmable novel (in fact, the rights to all of my unpublished books are still available at very reasonable prices). But it certainly feels like a challenge worth taking on.

Of course, unflimable novels are nothing new. And what's interesting about them is that, in many cases, someone has already made films from them. Breakfast of Champions, Naked Lunch, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Watchmen - these were all considered to be impossible to adapt until someone went ahead and did so. Perhaps, to a filmmaker, the unfilmable novel is as much of a challenge as it is to me as a writer. Or maybe there's a feedback loop here – if you write something truly inspirational, the readers you inspire will become creative people themselves. And I think we all remember the power of our early inspirations and how much we want to share those with the world.

Voice-driven novels can be especially tricky to adapt. Terry Gilliam's movie of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is pretty good, but it's barely a tenth as funny and outrageous as Hunter S. Thompson's original novel. In particular, the film can't avoid showing how monstrous the characters are, whereas they manage to be perversely likeable on the page. I wait with baited breath for the film version of Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now. It's the very definition of a voice-drive novel and one that manages to not show much of what is going on around the heroine. How can cinema – where one frame can reveal so much – cope with this kind of occluded narrative? How can the filmmakers possibly hide Daisy's anorexia, when she is front and centre in every scene?

Perhaps I'm focusing too tightly by talking about what is unfilmable. As media converge and mutate, there are lots of other avenues for adaptation. Is a non-linear narrative like The Unfortunates ungameable, for instance? Could voice-driven books be successfully adapted as radio plays or podcasts? Some of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that I loved so much as a child have already turned up as iPhone apps to serve the ever-growing nostalgia market. Perhaps if a work is strong or well-loved enough, it is hard to stop it spreading to other media.

One book remains stubbornly out of reach. Even after his death, J.D. Salinger's wishes have been respected, and the film rights to The Catcher in the Rye have not been opened to the market. If moviemakers want to adapt that unfilmable novel, they'll have to wait until the copyright expires.

In 2046.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Should I Find a New Agent?

I know that this sounds like a spoof, but bear with me – I really would like you to help me decide whether I should look for another agent. In groundbreaking fashion (for this blog, anyway), there's even a poll at the end. But first, here's some background...

Six months ago, I was signed with an agent and things were going fairly well. I'm not going to name the agent in question – either you know who it was or you don't (and even then, you can probably find out using Google). Anyway, I had finished Die Laughing (my latest children's novel) and was looking forward to the redrafting stage, when - out of the blue - we had what I can only describe as "serious creative differences." There was a little more nuance that I won't go into, but basically I was forced to choose between my agent and my book. After much agonising, the latter won through, and I cancelled my agency contract. Suffice it to say, I found the whole experience immensely traumatic.

Since then, I've completed another draft of the book, improving the structure and pacing, but preserving my creative vision. Several accomplished writers have read the whole thing at various stages, and the verdict has been very positive. It is, I think, market-ready, so I've sent it to a small number of editors to test the waters. What I haven't done so far is send it to any agents, which is where you come in. I'm going to go through the pros and cons of having an agent (as I see it) and you can tell me what you think.

+ For an agent - It's a commercial book
Agents will only represent something they can sell, and I firmly believe that Die Laughing fits that category. It's a fast-paced, high-concept adventure story for boys, with plenty of subtext to satisfy anyone who wants to dig deeper.

- Against an agent - It's all subjective
You can write the most commercial book in the world, but that doesn't mean it will sell. Or even that people will like it. Agents, just like editors, need to feel a personal connection to a work in order to take it on. By submitting it to agents as well, I could just be opening myself up to a whole new world of rejection.

+ For an agent - The book may need work
I think that every book needs a good editor, and I'm sure this one is no exception. It's hard for me to see the novel objectively, or to know everything about the current state of the fiction market. The right agent could help me hone the book for submission and target exactly the right publishers.

- Against an agent - I'm introducing another opinion into the chain
My vision for this book is extremely important to me, and I want to preserve it as far as possible. That said, I'm very prepared to work with an editor to get the book right for their particular list. But do I want to add an agent's views to the mix as well? The last time I worked with a publisher, one of the first things the commisioning editor asked me to do was remove several chapters that my former agent had suggested I add!

+ For an agent - I need a champion
It's lonely being a writer, and there's only so much you can ask your writer friends to do for you without feeling guilty. Having an agent is brilliant, because it's their actual job to look at your writing and help you with it. They can be your light in the darkness, championing what you've done and building enthusiasm amongst the industry.

- Against an agent - I have trust issues
Following what happened with my previous agent, I'm reluctant to allow someone else into my trust. Imagine having a really bad break-up and never wanting to go on a date again. It's like that, except with more writing and less kissing.

+ For an agent - I feel like a third-class citizen
For the forthcoming SCBWI retreat, I had to fill in a form, choosing from:
  • Agented
  • Published
  • Unagented and Unpublished
Have a guess which one I had to tick! Getting an agent is such an accepted step on the ladder, and I feel a bit left out. More than that, my manuscript is likely to be lower down the list of priorities for an editor than something coming in from an agent. Agents are allowed to be pushy and do things like set a deadline for editors to come back on a particular book – imagine the reaction if I tried to do that on my own!

- Against an agent - I have plenty of time
People tell me that Die Laughing is a pretty original book, and I'm trying not to chase trends or do anything with a fixed expiry date. With that in mind, I don't lose much by waiting for the right publisher to come along. I also have a very good day job, so I don't need a gazillion pound auction to launch my writing career.

+ For an agent - They have lots of contacts
Experience has shown me that - once a manuscript is ready - getting published is a numbers game. You may need to approach a large number of publishers before you find the right combination of: editor who loves it + receptive sales team + an appropriate spot on their list. I'm quite well-networked, but a good agent will know far more editors than me, as well as what they're looking for.

- Against an agent – It would be cool to do it all on my own
It seems that a debut novel not only needs a story within it, but also a story about it. Everyone loves a tale of victory against the odds - I can feel myself mentally noting every cruel twist of fate for later usage in blogs and interviews. Being without an agent does give me more freedom in what I say and do, which stories I write and which publishers I approach. But I'm not (for the moment) intending to self-publish, so am I just making life hard for myself?

I could go on, but I suspect I still wouldn't reach a conclusion. That's why I need your help! Please vote in the poll below, and you're very welcome to share your good or bad stories about agents in the comments.

Thank you, and please use your power wisely ;-)


Should I find a new agent?

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Second Death Star

There are plenty of reasons to criticise George Lucas's Star Wars prequels - wavering narrative focus, clunky dialogue, unclear target audience or an unhealthy fascination with interstellar taxation. But one area that it's difficult to find fault with is imagination. Every CGI-buffed frame of those films teems with weird-looking Jedi, cool spaceships and outlandish alien planetscapes. If you like eye candy, you're in for a really good time.

I like to think that all of that wild invention is atoning for the moment in Return of the Jedi (the third film in the original trilogy) when that movie's Big Bad hoves into view. After all the cool weapons that The Empire deployed in the previous film, the eleven-year-old me was primed for something totally mind-blowing. What did I actually get?

Another bloody Death Star.

Yes, it was a cooler Death Star because it was all skeletal, with those half-finished bits of gantry sticking out and everything, but it was still a fundamental failure of imagination. Were the filmmakers (and presumably The Emperor) really so exhausted that they couldn't think of anything better?

Just this week, I was reminded of this moment of intense disappointment, as I was reading another popular fantasy trilogy. I won't mention the name for fear of spoiling it for you, but I can tell you the exact moment that the series jumped the shark: 209 pages into book 2. I had been enjoying the novel immensely up until that point, as the book expanded on the characters and hinted of exciting new directions to come. Then suddenly, shockingly, it was Return of the Jedi all over again. A particular plot device was reintroduced, and I had a sinking feeling as I realised that the second half of book 2 was to become a virtual repeat of the first book's second half. I felt sick, betrayed even, that the author could let me down in this way. I was not reading these books to go over old ground – I wanted to see something new and I felt the plot had somehow lost its way.

Over a hundred pages later, I am still reading – despite my disappointment. I care enough about the characters that I want to find out what happens, and the writing is still as wonderfully readable as ever. There have been a couple of nice twists, but my overriding sensation is one of over-familiarity. This is the video game approach to sequels, taking the framework of what has gone before and repeatedly trying to perfect it. And this seems to work for games, possibly because repetitive mechanics are the whole point of the experience – you, the player, are learning to master a particular task.

Books, on the other hand, are all about taking you somewhere you've never been or giving you a completely different perspective on life. Yes, they must have rules and structure, but these are to ground the narrative, not to interfere with the imaginative process. Hollywood tells us that sequels are all about giving the audience more of what they want, which accounts for the diminishing creative returns of most movie franchises. Sequels can be wonderful, even life-affirming things, but that relies on writers injecting a whole load of stuff that the audience didn't know they wanted. Audiences didn't know they wanted to see Gollum have an argument with himself, or find out that Darth Vader was Luke's father or experience Lord Voldemort suddenly coming back from the dead. But these are moments we remember for all the best reasons.