Friday, 22 February 2013

Identity Crisis

I had an uncomfortable surprise this week, when I discovered that someone I'd been communicating with online was not (as I'd been told) a woman, but actually a man. There was no Catfish style conspiracy involved, the third-party who introduced us had simply made a mistake. Our discourse had also been purely professional, so it wasn't as if I'd proposed marriage or anything! In fact, nothing had changed except my perception of who this person was, and I was further surprised to discover how much that perception meant to me.

It got me to thinking about all the assumptions we make about people we've hardly met, a subject that seemed particularly appropriate in the wake of all the allegations about Oscar Pistorius. Here is someone who most of us had only seen for a matter of minutes on the TV at athletics events and in the run-up to them. Yet, it seems that a great many of us had formed a perception of a brave, heroic and balanced individual, a perception that has been very quickly swept away.

Do we make similar judgements about authors when we read their books? One of the joys of fiction is that we begin to believe that the author is speaking directly to us, so it's very hard to stop ourselves building a mental model of the kind of person they are. Yet, all of us writers know that the process of creating fiction is about trying on different personas and seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Just this week, I wrote a story from the viewpoint of a vengeful fourteen-year-old medieval princess – a state of being that I'm very unlikely to find myself in during the course of my everyday life!

I think back to the way that Joanne Rowling chose to call herself J.K. on the Harry Potter books, a move supposedly designed to avoid alienating boy readers. Later on, this naming became a moot point, because everyone in the world knew who she was, but I wonder how this affected the early readers of her works? Did they imagine that the writer was an avuncular, Dumbledorish figure, or a grown-up version of Harry himself? Perhaps the story was so smoothly and skilfully told that they didn't form any perception of the author at all, but those who wrote fan letters must surely have had their own ideas.

I'm writing a middle-grade book for girls at the moment, and I wonder how much my own gender might affect the way that the book is marketed. Will I have to become "N. Cross" to avoid a female readership rejecting my book in droves? Could I pretend to be a Nicola or Nicolette? Having daughters myself, I like to think that female readers aren't so fickle as male ones, that they will read books featuring boy protagonists, whereas most boys won't go near books with girl protagonists. As the book is also something of a commentary on perceived gender roles, perhaps my gender is a selling point rather than a detriment. Anyway, we shall see (when I finally finish it).

The Internet has demystified authors and it's now much harder to prevent fans from finding photographs, biographies or Facebook profiles. Indeed, if I'd bothered to do some Googling in the first place, I would have found out that my mystery person was very definitely male. But much could be said of finding out that Daisy Meadows or Adam Blade are not real people, and that doesn't stop schools trying to book them for visits! Our internal perceptions of other people and our environment are what form the thing we call reality, and clearly each person's reality is a little different. Thanks for spending some time in mine every Friday.


Friday, 15 February 2013

The Difficult Second Act

I've been thinking about second acts this week, prompted by Ben Affleck's comments at the Bafta Awards on winning the Best Film award for Argo:
This is a second act for me - you've given me that and I'm so grateful and proud. I want to dedicate this to anyone that's trying to get their second act because you can do it.
Affleck was referencing the oft-quoted line from F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby), who said "There are no second acts in American Lives." A prodigious alcoholic, Fitzgerald famously failed to reach his own second act, dying at the age of 44. Affleck, still only 40, has however managed to navigate a transition from actor to award-winning director. Even more remarkable is the fact that ten years ago, he hit a career low-point and became the most derided man in Hollywood, winning two Golden Raspberry awards for his performance with Jennifer Lopez in Gigli.

While Affleck is a talented director, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised by his resurgence. He's still a handsome man and has the advantage of being able to cast himself for free in the lead role of his films. He also no doubt has a huge address book that allows him to call upon Hollywood contacts the rest of us can only dream of. Plus, there's nothing the self-mythologising film industry likes better than a comeback story – it's the American Dream writ large.

So where does that leave the rest of us, who are also working on our own second acts? Perhaps you got a job straight out of school or decided to stay at home and bring up some kids. And these were the things that defined you, until you got the itch to start writing. And if you're the kind of person who's persistent enough to keep writing over a period of years, that gradually begins to define you instead. Once you're passionate and committed to an activity, it's only natural you want to make that your primary career. But most of us aren't as well-groomed, well-paid or well-connected as Ben Affleck. Which is a problem when trying to get that second act off the ground.

I look forward to the forthcoming SCBWI Professional Series session on Making a Living as a Writer for tips on how to make the transition to full-time author. But I also have to step back and wonder whether the idea of life having distinct acts isn't rather outdated in our age of rapid change and portfolio careers. Perhaps there isn't just one story running through our lives, but several, and we are at different stages in each simultaneously. This also fits in with the major preoccupation of our modern world, which is trying to juggle the various aspects of our lives to achieve the fabled "work-life balance".

Writers have always been tempted to frame life in the terms of a story – "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," was the version that some bloke from Stratford-upon-Avon came up with. There may be few second acts in American lives, but perhaps in the UK, every scene we appear in is a chance to grow and do something new.


Friday, 8 February 2013

Ask Agony Author

This week marks the introduction of a new column on the blog. In Ask Agony Author, I'll be inviting writers to tell me about their embarrassing problems and then using my years of experience and wisdom to ridicule and abuse them guide them to a solution. So, without further ado, let's...
Dear Agony Author,

You may know me as the creator of the bestselling children's franchise Artichoke Foul, a series I memorably pitched as "Die Hard with vegetables." My Foul series has brought me fame and riches, but it has also left me with an terrible yearning that I cannot seem to shake. Agony Author, I have an awful secret – I want to write books for adults.

I know this seems wrong, and I tried to disguise my intentions to avoid a backlash from my loyal fans. By starting off with a tribute to my late hero Douggie Adnams, I hoped to pass off my sequel to The Hairy Bikers' Guide to the Galaxy as the book that Douggie never wrote.
However, once I had set foot in the filthy world of fiction for adults, it became like a depraved virus, eating away at my self-control and self-respect. Since then, I've come out of the closet with a full-blown adults' crime novel called Unplugged and even sunk to writing about that clapped-out Saturday night time-traveller Dr Whoa!

Every time I see my adults' books on the shelf, I'm overcome by feelings of guilt and shame. I just know that my children's writer friends are laughing at me behind my back. Tell me, Agony Author, is it ever OK to write for adults?

Yours self-disgustedly,
Owen Cauliflower

Agony Author Replies,

Thank you Owen, for your painfully honest letter. It took a lot of guts to write to me, especially since I was one of the people laughing behind your back. The emotions you describe are natural and understandable. Many people feel ashamed to admit that they even read books for adults, and that is why popular series like Fifty Shades of Grey are available with special children's style covers for reading on the tube.

With the advent of the e-reader, many more people may find themselves able to secretly read books for adults, though it isn't clear whether they should be allowed. It has long been a well-known fact that anyone can write an adults' book and get it published, such is the lack of discernment amongst adult readers. Commuters in particular seem happy to read any old rubbish provided there is a sadistic murder every ten pages or a fatuous plotline about female empowerment through expensive shoes. Literary connoisseurs, accustomed to the fast-moving and innovative narratives in children's literature, are often appalled by the indulgent, navel-gazing tosh that constitutes most grown-up fiction. These books may win literary prizes, but I'm sure you could feel an equal amount of pride by winning the "County Wexford Best-Kept Wheelie Bin" competition. If nothing else, it would give you a handy place to shelve your adults' novels.

All of these unarguable facts might not help you, Owen, but I wanted to make sure you were fully aware of the cesspit of mediocrity you're stepping into. Rather than try to make you feel better about your choices, I'd like to emphasise that it's not too late to step back from the edge. Adult book readers, who have the mental capabilities of a guppy, will quickly forget you, while children's book readers have long memories and are fiercely loyal to their favourite authors.

Short of becoming Doctor Whoa!, you won't be able to persuade Douggie Adnams to write another book. You can, however, bring your own career back from the dead.

Yours tough-lovingly,

Friday, 1 February 2013

Escaping from Reality

I've often heard authors say that writing is their escape from reality, even to the extent that some consider it an indulgent pleasure. Frankly, I'm a bit jealous of people that can look at it that way - as regular readers will know, it doesn't generally work out that way for me. In fact, I've often found writing more of a punishment than a pleasure. It was therefore with interest that I read Matt Haig's recent post, in which he describes how he escaped the destructive power of his depression through writing.

For my own part, though, I found it very hard to write my way out of depression – it was like being in a deep, slippery pit and what I really needed was a ladder, not words. It wasn't until I was in recovery that I found the compulsion to write again – before that it had (like everything else) seemed a supremely pointless activity. Never say never, though, and it was in the spirit of experimentation that I tried using writing to escape from reality when I was sat in the dentist's chair yesterday. Of course, I couldn't physically write, or even talk, but that couldn't stop me thinking about a story could it?

I'll answer that question in a minute, but for context it's worth talking about what a good writing week I've had. My current book is moving along nicely and I've found the technique of alternating writing and drawing storyboards to be immensely helpful in getting over writer's block. This week I also wrote a short story, for the first time in four years! It was a great experience that made me wonder why I didn't write them more often; it was such a buzz to finish something in a single day and, even better, the person I wrote it for really liked the end result.

So, back to the chair. My dentist has assured me that I won't need an anaesthetic and I'm gripping the armrests as he drills into my molar. I know that my expectation of pain is probably far worse than the actuality, so I try to focus on something else. Another short story idea pops into my head and, for long seconds, I lose myself in possibility. Then I'm jolted back to reality by the dentist asking if I'm OK. Perhaps my lack of frantic squirming has made him worry that I've passed out. I attempt a small noise of assent and he goes back to his work while I return to mine. Later, he takes a photo of my drilled-out tooth and shows it to me, but sadly my mouth is too full of various probes and bits of metal to make a suitably sarcastic comment.

By the end of the appointment, I've sifted through ideas and mentally composed a few bits of prose. The act of writing has made a difficult situation easier, and in my small way I've begun to see what Sally Poyton was getting at in her quietly devastating follow up to Matt Haig's post. Maybe all I actually need to do is simply give myself permission to enter the fugue state where stories are made, regardless of the situation I find myself in?

Anyway, I'll keep experimenting, though I'm not due back at the dentist now for another six months. Perhaps I can find a less painful situation to escape from. Maybe one involving cake?