Friday, 31 August 2012

In Conversation with My Inner Critic

At a point of great psychological stress for my protagonist, I once posed the question:
What's worse – having voices in your head or answering back?
Well, today I'm going to find out, as I fearlessly launch into conversation with that great and terrible voice in my head – The Inner Critic.

NC - Hey Inner Critic, how are you doing?

IC - And you don't know? Aren't writers supposed to be empathetic?

NC - I was only trying to be friendly.

IC - I don't do friendly, it's not an efficient way to operate. But I know you're not big on efficiency.

NC - What's that supposed to mean?

IC - Come on, we both know that you were supposed to start writing this half an hour ago, in PrĂȘt a Manger.

NC - That wasn't my fault! I lost my pen.

IC - You could have carried a spare. Instead, we had to listen to that woman going on and on about a cardigan she found at a car boot sale.

NC - It seemed important to her.

IC - Boooooooooring.

NC - Are you finished criticising my lunchtime routine?

IC - Finished? I've barely started. But I'm going to restrain myself because we're wasting word count here.

NC - Is that all you're worried about, making the best use of my word count? That must be why you make all my first drafts such a chore.

IC - I'm more worried about the boredom threshold of your audience. You're losing them already.

NC - Am not.

IC - Are too. Look, you've got me wasting words again. You're a bad influence on me.

NC - (Speechless)

IC - This blog post isn't even that original. I Googled "inner critic conversation" and at least two people have written the same thing already.

NC - But that was their inner critic, not mine, so it is different (nyah!) I do think you've hit on something though – your dogged insistence on me having to always write something totally original is stifling my creativity.

IC - I'm only trying to make you the best writer you can possibly be. Don't you want to write The Great American Novel?

NC - Erm, not sure. Could it be set in Milton Keynes?

IC - Like, duh. The clue's in the title.

NC - Then no, I don't want to write The Great American Novel. I just want to entertain people without sacrificing my integrity. Is that too much to ask?

IC - Nope, it's too little. Right now, Mister, you're dead on target for The Valley of the Also-Ran.

NC - I can't stand your relentless perfectionism. Care to tell me what's behind it?

IC - Welcome to Mediocrity Central, population you and every other hack in the known universe.

NC - Isn't mediocrity a subjective measurement?

IC - I hereby crown you The King of Meh.

NC - Are you finished?

IC - And you say that I spoil your fun!

NC - And you're avoiding the question. I put it to you that this drive for perfection is nothing more than a delaying tactic to avoid anyone ever looking at or commenting on my work.

IC - Hey, I'm not the one with a pathetic need for approval!

NC - That's not my fault. I blame the parents.

IC - At least we can agree on something. But really, why should we ever send anything to anyone? They'll only want to reject or change it. If you kept polishing everything until it was perfect, there wouldn't be a need to submit it anywhere.

NC - But I want to be published!

IC - There you go again with the pathetic approval thing. Being published isn't all it's cracked up to be, you know.

NC - I do know that. But at least I'd reach more than a handful of readers.

IC - (Slaps imaginary forehead) Don't even get me started on readers! You think the kind of feedback you're getting at the moment is painful, wait ‘til every chimp with an Amazon account gets involved.

NC - At least they might send me things. Like a handful of nuts or something.

IC - Nuts is the word for it. If you'd listened to me, we'd never have got involved with this writing malarkey.

NC - It's a bit late for that now. I can see that we're going to have to agree to differ.

IC - Maybe. As long as you always remember that I'm right.

NC - Hmm. I think that about wraps it up. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today, Inner Critic. It's been very helpful.

IC - At least someone enjoyed it. I thought it was a waste of time.

NC - You always have to have the last word, don't you?

IC - Yes.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Fail Fast, Fail Early and Fail Often

In business circles, there is a growing awareness that doing things the way they've always been done won't cut the mustard. The massive layoffs in the video games industry are an acknowledgement that even in an apparently high-tech business, things are changing. For years, console games have got larger and larger, requiring bigger teams and budgets. But suddenly, with gaming spreading across every technology from smartphones to Facebook, it's the smaller teams who have reaped the benefits. How are they doing it? By planning for failure and building it into the way they work. They know that a high percentage of their game ideas will fail, so they aim to find that out quickly and move on before a project costs too much money.

You might argue that trade publishing has always worked like this, spreading its risk by publishing a range of different titles and hoping that one or two of them will go on to become bestsellers. Book budgets have traditionally been modest (unlike for games or Hollywood movies) and therefore in the boom years this was a reasonable approach. The grip of recession has changed things – the midlist is going and publishers are increasingly looking for a few high-profile projects to focus their attention on. This translates to massive auction-driven advances for a few lucky books and accordingly high marketing and publicity budgets to accompany their publication. The digital world is full of people who accept that failure is a given, whereas trade publishing is becoming an increasingly brittle industry where failure can be catastrophic.

You only have to look at Penguin's recent 48% drop in profits to see what a problem this approach can be. The drop was blamed on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey (which is not published by Penguin), clearly demonstrating how one runaway success can distort the market for everyone else. It's also worth remembering the heritage of Fifty Shades of Grey, and how it came out of an e-book environment where speed to market and the responsiveness of the author were all-important to its success. We might still be buying plenty of books from trade publishers, but the whole ship is looking a bit creaky.

With all this in mind, how can authors harness the mantra of "Fail fast, fail early and fail often?" Having received a rejection in the last twenty-four hours, this is an especially relevant question for me. In fact, thus far, my slogan would be more like: "Fail slowly, fail late and fail badly." I tend to spend a long time on each project getting it to be just perfect, and then take rejection quite personally. This is clearly not a great strategy, because an author's life is paved with rejection, little of it intended as a personal insult.

One strategy I'm looking at is working on shorter books. Perhaps not as short as picture books, but you can certainly see how the picture book form allows writers to work on several ideas at once, in order to build up a portfolio. I've also been exploring other forms of media like comics and apps to give me more breadth, and experimenting with new ways of writing. The danger with diversifying, of course, is that you can lose focus and end up throwing a lot of s**t at the wall to see what sticks. Maureen Lynas talked about this (no, not the poo throwing!) in her excellent Slushpile blog post. It took Maureen a long time to find the right area of children's writing to concentrate on, but she won Undiscovered Voices not too long after that, so she must have been doing something right.

Failure is always going to hurt, and for older fiction the only course may be to spend months and years getting a book right. We authors certainly expend huge amounts of time working on spec, with no clear guarantee that we'll receive any revenue at the end of it. But new funding models are appearing every day, with sites like Pubslush promising to free debut authors from the grip of traditional publishing. And for established authors, there's always the option of approaching your agent or editor with pitches and synopses for several projects, so you can see which ones attract interest and which others fall by the wayside. True, this tends to favour plotters over character-led authors, but perhaps in the new landscape of publishing we'll all need to work a little differently.

The future is failure. Embrace it.


Friday, 17 August 2012

Driven to Distraction

The Olympics were an amazing advert for drive and determination. No-one achieved gold by trying "just hard enough" or reached the Olympic swimming finals by doing a few lengths every Saturday. Instead, these athletes had to train harder and for longer than everyone else. Usain Bolt might have made the odd flippant comment about being lazy, but nobody could doubt his focus and sheer instinct to win once he got out on the track.

The message of the last few weeks has been clear – unless you are driven, you cannot be great. Unless you sacrifice time, family, money, you cannot be great. The Olympics might be about brotherhood and the coming together of nations, but it is human perfection that will be remembered.

So where does that leave the rest of us? The ones who sat on the sofa and cheered, the ones who have to juggle work and families and all the complexities of everyday life? Are we capable of greatness? The self-help industry would like us to believe that it is simply that we haven't found our special skill yet, the one thing we were put on this Earth to do. Once we discover that (so the mantra goes), we will become enmeshed in that activity and driven to perfect it.

Sorry, but I don't buy that. Humans are singularly adaptable creatures, and while I believe that our genes give each of us inherent advantages in one area or another, nurture has as much impact as nature when it comes to skill development. And this is great, because it lets us try all sorts of activities and see which ones we like the best. Instead of picking one track and sticking to it like glue, we can adopt a pluralist approach that allows us to cultivate a range of interests. After all, most of those elite athletes will hit the end of their sporting careers at the age of 35 or earlier, and find themselves retraining into completely new careers. By splitting our attention, the rest of us are simply developing a range of parallel careers that can span our whole lives.

This is a good argument, but you could also read it as an apology for my own lack of drive as a writer. I try not to remind myself that I'm here - almost ten years after I decided to focus on writing children's books - with only three completed novels to my name and none of them published. Why couldn't I have done more and tried harder? Am I simply lazy or is writing just not my "one special skill?" Let me tell you, I have gone through many different opinions on this over the last year, in the fallout from leaving my agent. I strongly considered giving up creative writing – it seemed that the activity I was so keen to perfect was also one that caused me the most pain. In fact, I didn't write anything but this blog for five months, a layoff that proved to me that I didn't have to keep writing for children and could easily stop if I wanted to. So much for being driven to succeed.

In the end, fiction writing was something I crept back to. It still wasn't a thing I felt compelled to do, but it was something that made me feel better every time I did it. Perhaps that amounts to the same thing? Regardless, I had to finally accept that I (because of nature or nurture) was not a totally single-minded, driven kind of person. I am not the guy who will give up his job to pursue his dream of penniless artistic achievement, or of whom his wife will say in a hushed voice "Keep it down girls, can't you see that Daddy's writing?" Yes, I need to make more time for my writing, but no, I won't let it rule my life. Even if I secretly wish it could.


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Etiquette for Authors

I'm very lucky this week to have a guest post by the renowned Sir Stanley de Winter, author of de Winter's Guide to Etiquette and Deportment, now in its twenty-seventh edition. Take it away Stan!

Thank you Mr Cross. I shall pardon you for that indecorous introduction, as I am told that you didn't have the benefit of a proper public school education. But that is where my allowances will end, because it has come to my notice that authors all over this fair country of ours have been behaving most unsuitably. It seems as if an epidemic of griping over money and status has afflicted our once-noble breed of British scribes. From my ancestral towers, I am dimly aware that there is some sort of recession in progress, but I am sure that Her Majesty's properly-educated Conservative Government will soon bring the problem in hand.

In the meantime, where is the famous stoicism and positive outlook that made this country great? Clearly, it is my task at hand to correct matters. I present to you a list of what are (colloquially) termed "Dos and Don'ts" for author deportment. Please read them with all due care and attention.

Don't say: "I am never going to get published. I should give up."

Do say: "I could not stop writing even if I wanted to. I will persevere until I reach my proper social status by seeing my books in print."

Don't say: "The publishing industry is impossibly slow (and becoming slower)"

Do say: "That five month wait for an agent to read my opening chapters will give me suitable time to improve my manuscript."

Don't say: "All writers are mentally unstable and I am no exception."

Do say: "I am able to draw on my own personal experience to make this insane serial killer character more believable."

Don't say: "That agent made me do five months of revisions and then rejected my manuscript for some completely made-up reason. "

Do say: "Thank you, agent, for all of the helpful feedback and support you gave me through this important learning period. I knew in my heart all along that I was avoiding the very changes to the manuscript that would have pleased you. It was clever of you to test me by never mentioning those problems while I was making the revisions."

Don't say: "I write commercial fiction because I'm desperate to get published."

Do say: "I never write with a reader in mind. I can only write for myself and if anyone else likes it, that's a bonus."

Don't say to your agent: "I can't believe you couldn't sell that book! My cat could have sold that book! You're sacked!"

Do say to your agent: "What a terrible shame we were unable to close that deal, despite the book going to auction in five countries. I am sure that you are just as sad as I am. I will immediately go home and start work on that book idea you suggested. I think that a biography of a famous and distinguished etiquette expert is exactly what the market is crying out for."

Don't say: "How on Earth did your book get onto the Carnegie longlist? It's a pile of crap! Who did you sleep with on the awards committee to pull that off?"

Do: Press "Like" on their Facebook status.

Don't say: "With my pitiful advance, I can barely afford to buy a notepad, let alone feed my children."

Do say: "I have decided to take additional part-time work in order to broaden my outlook on society and become a more astute observer of the human condition. Would you like to buy a Chocolate Orange for only a pound?"

Don't say: "My book won an award! I am totally awesome and you are a bunch of clueless losers!"

Do say: Nothing. Wait for someone else to notice and post up the details for you. Accept the congratulations gracefully and with all appropriate humility.

And there you have it. I hope that has been a useful primer for you all in the proper behaviour that is required of you. Remember that, as authors, you set the tone for polite society. Never allow yourselves to descend to the level of the riff-raff and never, ever, resort to base humour. I shall be watching.

Stanley de Winter KBE CBE BBC LMFAO.

Friday, 3 August 2012

A Day in the Life

I'm on holiday in a caravan with no internet connection, somewhere in Wales, and really couldn't be expected to write a blog post this week. So here's one I wrote before I went. I gazed deep into my crystal ball and predicted what kind of a day I would be having...

03:07 - Youngest daughter wakes up screaming "Help! Help! Where am I?" for third night in a row.
03:07 and 4 seconds - Jump out of bed, only to discover that youngest daughter has fallen back asleep.
03:50 - Finally fall back asleep myself.

08:00 - Wake up with genius plot idea.
08:01 - Discover that notepad, pen, smartphone, laptop and all other writing materials are in caravan locker above our bed. Briefly consider scrawling something using wife's eyebrow pencil.
08:02 - Both daughters join us in bed, talking/whining/fighting.
08:03 - Have forgotten genius plot idea.
08:30 - Breakfast. Youngest daughter reads the back of the cereal packet in a loud voice, while eldest daughter attempts to secretly read copy of the Dandy that is hidden in her lap.

Do I really have to stop talking while I'm drinking?

09:15 - Stumble into campsite shower block. Am highly amused by conversation from the next cubicle, as a Welsh father tries (and fails) to get his four-year-old son to wash his hair, but have nothing to write it down on.
09:45 - Back at caravan and family nowhere to be seen. Go inside and pick up notepad.
09:50 - Crying from outside - youngest daughter has fallen off scooter into a bush. Put down notepad and go outside, cursing under my breath.
10:15 - Completely uninjured daughter has only just stopped crying. Wife comes back from posting letter and asks if we are having fun.

10:20 - Really should write, but decide to make a cup of coffee and read a book for just ten minutes.
11:20 - Realise I've been reading for an hour. It's a good book. Put it down, pick up notepad instead.
11:21 - Start writing.
11:23 - Decide to check email on smartphone, in case agent/editor has sent a message saying how much they love my book.
11:24 - No signal.
11:30 - Decide to walk up cliff overlooking the sea to get signal.
11:45 - On windswept cliff being attacked by seagulls. One bar of signal.
11:46 - Look over edge and realise this is a bad place to be if I have an email from agent/editor rejecting my book.
11:47 - No emails.

Trying to get a signal

11:49 - Check Facebook, but phone only downloads half of enormous LOLCat picture before mobile signal vanishes. Walk back down.
12:10 - At the bottom. Realise that blog will have auto-posted by now. Walk all the way back up again so I can tweet about it.
12:40 - Back at caravan. Step in mud stew that children have been making right outside the door.
12:45 - New socks and grumpy children who claim I have ruined their holiday (and stew)

A selection of the finest mud cuisine

13:00 - Eldest daughter has read all of the books she brought on holiday even faster than last year, and is eyeing the one that I'm only halfway through. When I move it away, she huffs and makes comments about how we should buy her a Kindle.
13:30 - Lunch. Youngest daughter reads leaflet about owl sanctuary in a loud voice while eldest daughter attempts to secretly read my book over my shoulder. Wife is onto seventh Mills & Boon book of the holiday.
14:10 - Time to write. But first, ice cream!
14:34 - Worry about work for approximately 12 seconds, then forget about it for the rest of the day.

15:10 - Reading again. This book is really good.
15:50 - Heart-stopping climax. I clutch the seat cushion with excitement.
15:50 and twelve seconds - Squeal of pain from the left makes me realise that I am actually digging my fingers into wife's leg.
16:05 - I read the last page, wipe my brow and hand book over to eldest daughter.
16:08 - Eldest daughter reads five pages of book, puts it down and goes back to The Dandy.

16:10 - Decide I will go outside to write, as that will help conjure up my muse.
16:15 - It starts pelting with rain. Go back inside.
16:20 - The children have made a new friend. Said friend pokes around our caravan for some minutes, commenting on how much smaller it is than theirs.
16:30 - Daughters and New Friend are colouring. I pick up my notepad and make some plot notes in the back.
16:50 - Discover that New Friend is colouring the tabletop instead. Confiscate pens and turf children out of the caravan.

The colouring in question

16:55 - Start writing.
17:05 - Wife asks me to wash up as there's no room for her to make dinner. Living in a caravan with one set of plates and cutlery makes for a lot of washing up.
17:30 - Finish drying and putting away. Wife asks me to find children for dinner.
17:45 - Children nowhere to be seen. I wander around the campsite calling their names.
18:05 - Eventually find daughters in New Friend's caravan. It is bigger than ours. Daughters are totally oblivious to the fact I've been trying to find them for twenty minutes.
18:10 - Sit down to dinner. It's delicious. Briefly marvel at how wife has produced this feast using only two gas rings and a frying pan. Then we all tuck in with gusto and no-one reads anything.
18:11 - Decide that one small bottle of beer with dinner can't hurt and might even enhance my creativity.
18:15 - Completely unable to do anything useful for the next hour and a half.

18:45 - Reading Treasure Island to the children. Villainous things are happening. This is good.
20:00 - Can I write now? No. Wife says I have to spend some more "quality time" with the children. This means Scrabble.
20:45 - I win Scrabble with a ridiculously long (and frankly rather fluky) word. Youngest daughter begins to cry uncontrollably.

20:50 - Put the kids to bed and slide their bedroom partition across.
20:55 - Spend some minutes sliding partition back and forth until it provides "just enough light so it isn't too scary, Daddy."
21:00 - Try to write. Children are moaning about too much light coming into their bedroom.
21:20 - Think the kids are asleep. Manage to finally start writing in earnest.

22:20 - Have written about four hundred not-totally-wretched words. As I stretch, hands behind my head, I realise that the kids are giggling behind their partition. Still, as long as they're not bothering me...
22:40 - Kids finally asleep. Clear up and get ready for bed.
23:00 - About to get into bed, when I remember genius plot idea that I forgot this morning. Open caravan locker above bed. Notepad, pen, smartphone, laptop and various assorted writing materials fall out onto wife who was half asleep.
23:30 - Fall asleep. Perchance to dream.

03:14 - Youngest daughter wakes up screaming "Help! Help! Where am I?" for fourth night in a row.