Friday, 27 July 2012

Mind the Generation Gap

This week, my almost-teenage daughter has started listening to music my wife and I really, really hate.

It's about time.

Aside from all the hormonal madness, being a teenager should be about experimentation and discovery, about exploring your individuality. It's a period in our lives when we get perspective on our parents, or, rather, lose all perspective and begin to suspect that they are in fact aliens, beamed in to make things as difficult as possible for us. YA fiction gorges on this feeling of alienation, and the self-centred teenage girl who believes that no-one understands her has become a trope of the genre.

Creatively, the power of being a teenager is a belief that anything is possible and that nothing is sacred. This "rip it up and start again" mentality has driven successive youth revolutions from Rock and Roll to Acid House. Where adults lumber under the weight of their cultural knowledge, clucking their tongues at the desecration of their artistic icons, a teenage audience can take something old and make it new again. The generation gap lives on.

Or does it? Because as a member of The Generation Who Never Grew Uptm, I'm aware of how far adults interfere with this process in modern society. There have always been adult svengalis behind youth music and popular culture, but the strings have never been as visible as in our post-X-Factor world. I've heard the opinion that popular culture is being filtered down to the level of a twelve-year-old boy, and it's certainly true that 12A has become the certificate of choice for the blockbuster movie. Look also to the huge popularity of YA fiction and teen-centric video games among adult audiences.

With the big media businesses reluctant to take risks, a lot of our youth brands and franchises begin to look very, very familiar. Consider Dr Who or Star Wars or Marvel Comics, creative brands whose reach effortlessly spans the generations. This is great for maximising revenue and word of mouth, but not so fantastic for giving kids something that is theirs and theirs alone. Brands like these have their own mass and gravity, pulling their stories towards familiar characters and situations, stifling anything that does not fit with the accepted canon. How can we make an entirely new story, when the old ones are forced down our throats again and again?

It used to be said that major cultural revolutions (certainly in the UK) came in 11 year cycles: 1955 - Rock and Roll; 1966 - The Hippie Movement; 1977 - Punk; 1988 - Acid House. But you'll notice that the series ends there, because the next predicted revolution never came. Why not? Is it because commentators tried to impose a static timeline on what was essentially a freak phenomenon? Or did the revolutions move away from music into other media? Perhaps The Generation Who Never Grew Uptm, in tandem with the internet, stifled and homogenised culture into one huge mass of "if you like that then you'd like this" consumerism.

I think children and teenagers have the right to something that speaks to them directly, without that product being filtered and focus-grouped for mass appeal. There are a lot of fine children's stories providing that right now, but as publishing companies consolidate, so franchises and crossover sales become more attractive. After all, what publisher wouldn't want to sell a million copies of their book? Maybe the DIY publishing revolution can bring a punk outlook to the business of storytelling, and the generation gap can live on. Because, in order to keep our culture from stagnating, I think we need it.

Nick.

Friday, 20 July 2012

My Life as an Agent

Who'd be an agent? You might discover a literary prince or princess, but you'd sure have to kiss a lot of frogs to get there. For every Eureka! moment when you pick up The Best Manuscript in the World Ever, there are months of wading through stuff that's never going to hit the mark. How hard it must be to know that these missives are someone's pride and joy, work that a writer has toiled and bled over (though hopefully not literally). How hard it must be to be the person who walks around with a pin all day, puncturing people's dreams.

It's not a job I could do, that's for sure. Though I could probably handle the functional parts of the role – reading, editing, submitting, meeting with editors, going through contracts etc. – it's the emotional part that would get me. I'd be the sad bleeding-heart guy trapped in the corner behind a pile of manuscripts, because I couldn't bear to let people down without reading their whole book. I'd be the guy sending out pleading emails to editors, asking them to reread the latest draft of a novel that they'd turned down once already. I would be the one taking on authors just because I loved their work, regardless of whether I could actually sell any of it. I would always take the first offer and never, ever, get a book to auction.

Now, none of these things are bad in themselves. In fact, from a client's point of view, I hope I would be a very attentive agent who did his best to please them. But publishing is full of people eager to please and it can create a weird atmosphere at times. Writers can get messed about for months just because an editor feels bad about disappointing them. Marketing people can pussyfoot around, rather than just emailing the cover design that they know an author is going to hate. When this culture comes up against hard business imperatives (such as at an acquisitions meeting), the results can be ugly.

So what does it take to be a successful agent? A thick skin, for sure, but also confidence in your own decisions. An ability to read very, very quickly certainly helps. Being a people-person is important, so you can schmooze with editors and build up a portfolio of their interests, as well as tracking the status of their lists. You need a good assistant whose opinion you trust and a willingness to delegate (actually, this is true of any senior role in business). You need an iron will so you can keep your nerve during protracted contract negotiations. But beyond this, you also need to keep your emotional centre. An agent is not a machine, trawling through millions of words until they find the exact mathematical combination that will make a bestseller. An agent has to connect – body and soul – with a book before they will consider representing it. And then they have to step back from that decision and make a judgement about whether the market will bear that particular book at that particular time.

Agents need a rare and unusual mix of skills, to be hot-headed and cool-minded at the same time. It's true that anyone can call themselves a literary agent, but it's also true that doesn't mean they'll be any good at it. Choose your path wisely.

Nick.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Adults Rule. Children Read.

I've been thinking a lot about curation in children's books this week. By and large, it's adults who write, edit, publish, promote, shortlist and give prizes to children's books. We also buy a lot of them for our children, but most adults don't actually read them. Of course, this is a generalisation, because there are clearly plenty of adults reading Twilight and The Hunger Games and I have met loads of authors and publishing people who love children's books and promote them at every opportunity. But it's no secret that kids' books are often looked down on by the adult literary world.

As an adult children's writer, I'm obviously not going to sit here and say that I think this curation is a bad thing. Life experience is a key part of being a writer and there is an inevitable urge that strikes adults – especially in middle age – to share their knowledge with the world. Despite some attempts by American publishers to drum up some publicity by signing authors in their late teens and early twenties, writing remains a pastime open to all of us – no matter how old or ugly we have become. Meg Rosoff (who is neither particularly old nor particularly ugly) wrote a great post a couple of years ago about achieving fame later in life and the benefits thereof.

The downside of the adult stranglehold on the book process is the difficulty of reaching any actual children with your work. Apart from a few experiments and the odd (rare) focus group, the target audience won't get to see a book until it's actually published. Which means that everyone in the publishing pipeline is mostly working on gut instinct of what books will connect with the reading demographic and how the books should be marketed to reach them. You can tell an agent that your child loved your book until you're blue in the face, but you're unlikely to get anywhere unless the agent loves your book too.

A further problem comes from some of the major book awards - such as the CILIP Carnegie - which are judged by adults. Yes, there are reader initiatives like the Carnegie shadowing and lots of regional awards that are chosen by children. But the big prizes in children's literature are still considered too important to put to the popular vote.

I was having dinner with a very experienced author friend of mine recently, and our conversation came round to A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which had recently won the Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway prizes. She expressed the view that there was something self-congratulatory in this selection, that here was a book that adults had chosen because it was what they thought children should be reading, rather than being a book that children actually liked. This was partly borne out by the fact that the Carnegie shadowing groups actually chose My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece as their winner.

At this point, I should probably admit to having my own reservations about A Monster Calls. It's not a quality issue – I think the artwork is amazing and the story is incredibly well constructed and modulated, with some challenging themes and an unflinching approach to the subject. But I found that the book didn't really connect with me emotionally in the way I wanted (and needed) it to. Having had a similar experience with a loss of a close relative to cancer when I was a child, I hoped for so much more. But maybe that's just me.

There's been a recent article in the Guardian about a study purporting to expose the "harsh reality" of modern children's books, that was picked up by Vanessa Harbour's blog amongst others. But this study only looked at books selected by adult judging panels for the Carnegie Award, Newberry Medal and Australian Book of the Year. This is a tiny sample of all the books published for and enjoyed by children every year. True, the study was intended to be academic and literary, but to my mind the sample chosen was biased and, as usual, the findings have been blown way out of proportion.

Adults rule supreme over so many aspects of children's lives, and children's books are no exception, a culture that comes down from teachers, parents and librarians. It's a culture that I hope – in general – is fairly benign. But we should never forget that we have a real responsibility, not just for the welfare of young readers, but also to guide them towards what they want, rather than what we think they need.

Nick.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Word Block

What do you do when the words aren't flowing? For two weeks running now, I've found myself in the same situation, staring at my laptop at midday on a Friday, with a half-finished blog post that I'm just not happy with. Ironically, it's been the same half-finished blog post in each case, although I rewrote a lot of it this week in my attempt to burst through the word block. But to no avail, as you can see by the fact that I'm writing this post instead!

Some authors advocate just writing through the bad times – Stephen King describes the activity as "shovelling shit from a sitting position" and Louis Sachar seems to experience despair far more often than he experiences elation. But other writers will tell you to take a break and not to try to push when you aren't feeling that all important urge. So who is right?

I think a lot of it depends on circumstances. If you're under contract to deliver a book, then clearly you will have to write it or suffer eternal shame (and financial repercussions). However, the unagented, unpublished writer (a role I find myself in nowadays) does not have to write and can therefore choose not to. But do we owe it to ourselves to push through anyway, even if we're not doing our best work? It strikes me that the phrase "unagented, unpublished author" suggests very strongly that I have aspirations to A) find an agent and B) get published. If that's the case, perhaps I should still be hacking away at that difficult blog post right now, just to show it who's boss.

Another aspect seems to revolve around which you consider more important – the journey or the destination. Writers who look only to the destination will of course be motivated to try harder to push through the bad times, aware that they need to take the shortest path to victory. Journey-oriented writers will be happy to meander and digress, and in some cases actively avoid finishing a book (although that can reflect a fear of success too).

I was a journey-oriented writer when I started out and have become increasingly destination-focused as time has gone by. But I've discovered that neither approach works satisfactorily for me. If I focus too much on the journey, I end up with a messy, unstructured book that needs major surgery. If I focus too much on the destination, the pleasure of writing gradually drains away, along with my motivation to do it. The more I push against that difficult part of the book, the larger the difficult part becomes. Certainly, I spent a lot of time on my last book telling myself how hard it was to write, and that quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In retrospect, it's ironic that putting too much focus on the importance of the destination actually sapped my ability to reach it.

So, was I right to ditch the other blog post? I've certainly found the journey of writing this one to be significantly easier, and now I've reached my destination too. I'd call that a big yes.

Nick.