Friday, 24 February 2012

Deadline Dash

I have a week to finish this book before I send it out. Seven days to make it perfect.

No, scrub that – it will never be perfect, and that's why I need a deadline. Kindly people in publishing have been saying things like "Don't send it out until you're completely happy with it." Which is good advice, unless you're someone like me, pathologically holding on to a manuscript so that no-one can reject it.

Enough. No more. In a week's time, it will have made its journey to the great slushpile in the sky and I will be free to do something new.

In the meantime, everything else - work, family, this blog – feels like an imposition. "But don't you know I have a deadline?" I whine, like a stricken child. Except other people don't really see it that way, especially if they're paying me to do something else. So I have to fit the writing in when I have a spare moment (as ever). At least the deadline pressure means that I usually have the proper motivation when that moment presents itself.

As a writer, my strengths lie in starting things, not finishing them. I don't think I'm alone in this, given the number of new projects that my writing colleagues submit for critique. The difference is that my strategy for combating this lack of focus has been to make myself write only one book at a time. To be honest, I don't know how well this is working out for me, because I seem to get horribly blocked and discouraged. But it does allow me to pour all of my creativity and focus into a single project and (hopefully) make it the best it can be. Maybe my "something new" will be to start three different things and see which one suits me best.

There's one very nice aspect to the deadline dash, and that's the paper edit. Nothing fills me with more confidence than seeing an electronic manuscript printed out in physical form:
"Look, Mom – I wrote a book! Look how many pages there are – did I really write all these words?"

"You sure did, Honey. I'm afraid you now have to read each one to make sure it isn't complete hogwash."

"I'm not too old to get a sicknote, am I? Am I, Mom?"
Ok, consider that a qualified confidence boost. But having the manuscript in hand at least allows me to consider the scale of the problem. I'll be going through it tonight with a stack of Post-Its, marking out the areas where I think it still needs work. Expect more yellow on the page than white by tomorrow morning.

Perhaps I shouldn't start making a list of things I've done wrong during the eighteen months spent writing this book, because I only have 500 words or so here! But one thing I would definitely cite is my attempt to make myself go digital and write the whole book on my laptop – it just doesn't work for me. Something about the physical medium – the size of a piece of A4, the ease of visualising and flicking through printed pages, the act of writing with a pen – unlocks my creativity. Just the act of sitting down at a computer will sometimes freeze me up, and that's without adding the myriad distractions of the internet. Technology doesn't always equal progress – even in my line of work.

So tell me - have I written enough for a blog post? Can I go back to the book? Because I have got a deadline, you know.

Nick.

Friday, 17 February 2012

One Vision

I'm going to talk today about vision statements, so let me preface this post by saying that I've always hated them. Often spotted at the start of 50-slide PowerPoint presentations, they seemed like the worst kind of airy-fairy corporate doublespeak. Therefore, imagine my surprise when I wrote one for work this week and found it genuinely useful. I was trying to explain an app I was designing to someone who just wasn't getting it. Instead of banging my head against the wall, I wrote a very succinct four sentence statement about what the app was (and wasn't) intended to do. Suddenly, a complex product seemed very simple and manageable.

I got to thinking where else I could use this technique, which led me to a vision statement for this blog:
Who Ate My Brain is a blog about fiction writing and publishing. It will be sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always honest. No aimless waffling permitted - all posts must be about something and they must be true to life (even when they're fictional). The words are all that matters – there will be no photos, pullquotes, graphics or other media to distract from them.

Put that way, it feels almost like a manifesto! Perhaps that's appropriate – what is a vision statement if not a blueprint for the future? The very first blog posts were much like diary entries shared online, and I think a blog still benefits from having a strong identity and focus. Style, voice, subject, presentation – all of these are vital and I hope the vision encapsulates that.

So, how might the vision statement translate to books? I'm a big fan of the ten word pitch, where you describe the book in ten words or less. But that's often about plot or concept, whereas I feel a vision describes more about what you, the writer, want to achieve with a book (or series of books). Here's one I've cooked up for Lemony Snicket:
A Series of Unfortunate Events will comprise thirteen books – each more calamitous than the last. It will be funny, but not reassuring – good people will fail, villains will triumph and words will be explained. It will use the structure of the classic children's book against itself to produce something subversive and satirical. Ultimately, the writer of the series will prove to be the most important character of all.

Compare that to a couple of potential pitch lines I came up with for the same series:
  • Things start bad and get worse
  • No more happy endings

Since I promised you something infantile last week, here's another book vision, for the mighty Pants by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratt:
Pants will be remembered as one of the great historical documents of the twenty-first century. Through its clever use of rhyme, illustration and political rhetoric, this picture book will start a revolution. Never before, or since, has the phrase “Giant frilly pig pants” held such emotional and intellectual weight. Truly sublime.

Ok, maybe that wasn't quite what they intended. Try again:
Pants will be rude enough to be funny, without being overly vulgar – thus amusing children and pacifying parents. It will be so rhythmic and brightly coloured that it will be almost impossible to stop reading once you've started. The reader must always close the book with a smile on their face and a lightness in their heart.

Perhaps you might like to share a vision statement for your latest work-in-progress in the comments below. I'll kick off with one for my soon-to-be-unleashed-on-the-publishing-world middle grade novel:
Die Laughing is a fantasy adventure story – on the surface. Its first priority must always be to entertain the reader, never to preach or be clever for its own sake. The book will be layered with subtext, and it will be up to the reader how far they dive into that. This will be serious escapism, set in an alternative world, but with strong contemporary relevance.

Nick.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Nothing to Prove

The first draft of this post was called "The Has-Been's Lament" and anguished in some detail about being a previous Undiscovered Voice at this year's launch party (which happened last night). But after attending the launch, I feel more sanguine. Yes, I am a has-been, a former competition winner returning to the scene of what was (so far) my greatest triumph. Yet, on the other hand, I found the whole evening immensely freeing. I didn't pitch (no, not once) and didn't feel I had to zero in on every editor in the room to push my wares. I was helped by the relative frenzy surrounding the 2012 winners, which caused an outbreak of wandering eye syndrome throughout the room.

Wandering Eye Syndrome (also called Publishing Pupil Dysfunction) is a psychological condition caused by the presence of more covetable writers in a room than the person who is being spoken to. Symptoms of the condition are an inability to maintain eye contact during conversation and an edgy, anxious demeanour. In many cases, sufferers will become more and more agitated until they are forced to break off the conversation with a curt apology, and go off in search of their more publishable quarry.

My, those 2012 winners did seem to be in some demand. It appears that deals are being done and I hope we're going to see an even bigger crop of books published from this year's anthology. Certainly there was great enthusiasm from editors, which always nice to see, even if it was more a case of basking in other's reflected glory. It probably doesn't help that I haven't sent anything out recently, and getting someone excited about a pitch can only go so far – they need cold, hard words to move to the next stage.

But never mind. I have primed my favourite editors (they are, really) and set a deadline to get something out there. If it happens this time, that's good and if it doesn't ... well, at least it's finished and I can write something else! I've been working on the same book for eighteen months and frankly, that's enough for me. The challenge (as always) is to find the enthusiasm to do a good job in the final stages – if I happen to enjoy it too, then that would be a welcome bonus.

I say I have nothing to prove, but I will admit that I still want to get published – just not with the same level of desperation that I had two years ago. I feel more protective of my work now and have the need to find a publisher who will treat it in the same spirit – no longer do I pine for the megabucks auction and a contract from the highest bidder. And I think this is all to the good – ambition has a habit of sliding into delusion otherwise.

Gosh, don't I sound like a wise old bird all of a sudden? Clearly, next week's blog will have to be seriously infantile to balance this out...

Nick.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Living Under a Rock

People often ask me how I manage to come up with ideas for this blog. I usually tell them that it's a case of necessity being the mother of invention – I have to post every Friday, therefore an idea will be found. It probably doesn't help that I try to tackle a different subject every week, but if I posted more often I'm sure I would have repeated myself many times over.

Recently, I've become aware of how dependent I am on general themes in the writing world for sparking ideas for blog posts. I've made quite a shift in my working patterns and behaviour since I started my new job, with the result that I've not had as much time for writing or keeping up with the children's fiction market. It was only when I made a conscious decision to stop checking my personal email and avoid social networks during working hours that I realised how much time I had previously been stealing to do it. This has had great benefits in terms of my concentration and focus, but I'm aware that I've dropped off the radar a bit. Someone actually emailed me the other day to ask if I was alright (I am, but thanks for asking).

It's only been a month, and I hope I can tune my schedule to give me more time to keep up with things. But in the meantime, I've often felt that the party was going on without me. I would have dearly loved the chance to weigh in on the "what is commercial fiction" debate the other week, but by the time I caught up with it, the moment was gone. Bekki Hill has been leading some brilliant debates on the SCBWI Yahoo Group over the last month, but again I haven't been able to participate. I kept glancing at the 100+ unread emails in that folder, groaning, and moving on.

The worst part is not being able to read other people's blog posts. Whereas I can jump onto Facebook and off again in a couple of minutes, reading blogs requires time to process the content. I do like to comment as well, which adds more time to the experience. Other blog posts will often spur me to address a certain topic or look at a subject in a different way. Another consideration is one of courtesy. There are people who read this blog faithfully every week (thank you), most of whom have their own blog. I feel I owe it to them to visit as often as I can, but recently that hasn't been very often at all. On a more selfish level, I'm sure more people would visit this blog if I gave them reciprocal feedback.

I said a month back that I was really looking forward to an extra hour in bed every day. But what I hadn't considered was how much I had been doing in that hour. It isn't so much that I miss my long train commute, as much as missing the time it afforded me. Clearly, new working patterns take time to gel, and I need to cut myself some slack about how much it's possible to achieve in any given day. The good news is that I'm happier than I've been in months – I just haven't had time to tell you about it.

Nick.