Friday, 29 March 2013

The Price is Write

I'm not sure that pun in the title entirely makes sense, but bear with me. I wanted to talk this week about the price of being a writer – how much it does and should cost in monetary terms. Clearly, there is also a massive cost in terms of time and an emotional cost of delving into the darker parts of your psyche, but for now I'm just going to talk about money.

When I first started out as a writer, I don't think I perceived that the activity had much actual value. Of course, I was going to be more famous than JK Rowling and give up my day job in a blaze of success, but I didn't want to invest any actual cash to make that happen. So I would "borrow" notepads and pens from work, while also eschewing any form of writing tuition. We had an old laptop at home, and I used that to type the book up, even though the keyboard randomly failed to register certain key presses unless you stabbed it really hard. Even so, there was a certain romance to that and I could imagine I was some kind of Ernest Hemingway type, locked in my garret with only a manual typewriter and a bottle of scotch (although I'm a lightweight and mostly drank tap water). How amazing would it be to transcend my circumstances, to prove that all you needed to write a brilliant book is pure talent?

Unfortunately, I did not write a brilliant book. The next one was a lot better, though, and I took my first tentative steps into the wider world by joining an adult writing group that cost me £3.50 a week – quite a commitment at the time. I found myself paying for other things too, a laser printer for printing those all-important 3 chapter samples for agents, as well as the stamps and envelopes to send them with. Slowly, I was beginning to value my hobby and put some actual cash behind it.

A major psychological shift for me was when I joined SCBWI for the first time. Previously, the idea that I would spend $75 (as it was then) to join a writing organisation would have been preposterous, and I still needed the prospect of entering Undiscovered Voices dangled under my nose before I ponied up the cash. But from my perspective now, I think the SCBWI membership fee is a great thing. Not only does the money keep the organisation running, but it also ensures that each and every member has made a commitment to their writing or illustration. Suddenly, you are put in a position where you want to get value from that investment, and I'm sure this is one of the reasons that the organisation is so vibrant and the members so engaged.

In recent years, my spend to support my writing has continued to rise. There are conferences and retreats, writing courses and events to attend. I bought myself a decent netbook and am gradually getting with the times by writing my first drafts directly into it. I do also buy all my own stationery and haven't "borrowed" anything at all from my last 3 employers (honest). Just this month, I decided to buy a web domain that's prominently featured in my work in progress, even though the book isn't finished yet. It's something I've thought a lot about previously, usually so I could fret about someone else taking the domain before I could get the book published. However, I've also been aware that titles and character names change, and it wasn't worth setting anything in stone before I had a publishing contract. But somehow, buying that domain has solidified my determination to see the book finished and published – now I've put my money as well as my time behind it.

My very latest thought is that I'm sure I would get a lot more writing done if I went out at lunchtime every day and worked in a cafe somewhere. My best writing sessions are always the days where I leave the office, because I can get a clean break from work and the walk helps to clear my head. Plus, I find caffeine and cake are very conducive to the creative process ;-) My problem - beyond the idea being hugely self-indulgent – is the cost. I'd be spending roughly £5 a day, which quickly becomes £25 a week and a massive £1,300 a year! Is my writing worth that much? Hmm, I'll get back to you on that...


Friday, 22 March 2013

Words & Pictures & Where I Fit In

I hope you like shameless self-promotion, because this blog post is one huge puff piece about the new SCBWI British Isles Words & Pictures site, and how it couldn't possibly exist without my invaluable expertise and input.

Actually, I hope this post won't be like that at all, and you have my permission to give me a slap if I get too big for my boots. With a staff of 50 volunteers involved with Words & Pictures, I'm a pretty small cog in the overall scheme of things. I do hope, though, that my role of Blog Network Editor is a significant one because I get to highlight and sing the praises of other SCBWI members, in a similar way to Kathy Evans, our Celebrations Editor.

So what does the Blog Network Editor actually do? Well, it's my responsibility to maintain a list of SCBWI BI member blogs and bring those blogs to the attention of Words & Pictures readers. For the launch of the site, we decided to start small, so I've invited a cross-section of 20 bloggers to participate in the SCBWI Blog Network. The guiding principles of Words & Pictures are to be representative, inclusive and diverse, so the blogs cover a range of disciplines within writing and illustration, and their creators come from a range of social backgrounds. I found my own preconceptions being challenged during the process – where else but in children's writing could white males be considered a minority group?!?

My other job is to actually read those blog posts and pick my favourites for inclusion in a weekly feature on the Words & Pictures site called Ten-Minute Blog Break. The idea behind this is to offer readers a guide to the essential blogs they should read if they only have a ten-minute tea break. Or coffee break if you prefer – like I said, we're very inclusive in Wordsandpicturesland ;-)

Don't worry if you're a SCBWI blogger who's not included in the first wave – that doesn't mean anything about the quality of you or your blogging, just that I didn't have enough space to include you. As the site finds its feet, I'll be slowly expanding the list to include everyone. I'll also be including notable links from around the web in my round-up posts, so that could include your blog if you've written a really good post.

I feel the new Words & Pictures is a really significant step in the evolution of SCBWI British Isles. As a site open to everyone (not just SCBWI members) it's a fantastic marketing tool and shop window, demonstrating the benefits of SCBWI membership and promoting our members' wonderful books. And it's also a place for members to hang out and discuss the topics of the day, enter competitions, learn about better writing and contribute to the growing well of knowledge that is SCBWI British Isles. Much of the praise for this should go to head honcho and Editor Jan Carr, who has taken on a ridiculously complex job and very much made it her own, motivating a large group to deliver a really good looking site full of fabulous content, a site that will continue to grow as time goes on.

Words & Pictures launches this Monday 25th March, when you'll be able to find the site at My first Ten-Minute Blog Break post will be live on Tuesday 26th March and every Tuesday thereafter. And have no fear, this blog will continue every Friday.


Friday, 15 March 2013

A Time to Write

A short post this week, because I'm suffering from a bit of a time crunch. Work has suddenly revved up, and I'm juggling several projects at once, often with no clear priorities. The SCBWI Words and Pictures relaunch is imminent (more on that next week), and I'm very aware that I have a load of outstanding tasks still to do. There's also my SCBWI Webmaster stuff, which has been receiving less than my full attention of late. On top of all this, we're in the midst of renovations at home, so last weekend was spent moving out the entire contents of our living room so we could decorate, and this weekend will doubtless be spent moving everything back again.

With all of this going on, I suppose I shouldn't feel too surprised or guilty that my fiction writing is losing out. But yet, I do feel guilty about it, probably more so than failing at any of the other activities. How strange that the thing I do supposedly "for fun" is the one that gives me the most heartache (the irony that I'm here writing a blog post, rather than working on my novel, is not lost on me). I know I should be enjoying the period when I'm still writing entirely for myself, with no deadline pressures, but I'm having trouble doing that.

I try not to measure myself against other writers, but in truth, that's very difficult to avoid. Watching others speed through their first drafts or rewrite a whole book in six weeks, I feel impossibly slow. Have I been trapped on chapter 18 forever or does it just feel like that? Of course, the answer to why I'm not able to speed through a first draft is simply that I'm not making enough time in my week for writing. But how can I rearrange my life to make that time available?

So this is where you come in – tell me your tricks for making that precious time for writing or simply not feeling bad about the fact you're unable to do it. All ideas gratefully received.


Friday, 8 March 2013

Unfinished Business

A close colleague announced her retirement from work the other day. Aside from the fact that she's a lovely person and will be sorely missed, she's also due to leave in the middle of a big project that she's masterminded. Luckily, I work in a large, well-resourced company, so covering her role for the remainder of the project won't be a logistical problem. But I thought it was a shame for her to be going without seeing the project through. Would she be left with a feeling of unfinished business?

Writing, too, has these questions of completion. We can never know when we might be hit by a bus, have a stroke or suffer writer's block so debilitating that it turns us into the next J.D. Salinger. Sometimes we'll put a difficult book down for too long and the moment is lost – it's impossible to resume writing it because you've become a different person in the meantime. There are all those terrible "what if" questions as well. What if I'd started writing earlier? What if that book had got through acquisitions?

I found myself reflecting on my own career so far – both in writing and publishing – and wondering about where it goes next. Preparing for my appraisal recently, I was pulled up short by the question "What would you like your legacy at OUP to be?" This is the first company I've worked for that has had enough of a history to prevent that question sounding preposterous, and I'd never considered "my legacy" before. Barring any of the bad things mentioned above, I have maybe 30 years left before I retire – what should I be looking to do with them? (I have voiced the idea that I never want to retire at all, but I also know that ill health has a habit of forcing your hand)

Is a "life well-lived" one in which we achieve all our goals and die satisfied, or one in which we're constantly pushing ourselves and striving to reach the next level? I have to lean towards the latter, if only because the days of our life are so long and the moments of regret at the end comparatively short. But there's also a balance, because we can spend so long pushing towards the next milepost that we forget to celebrate passing the last.

The more I thought about these issues, the more I could see a continuum in what we do. In both life and work, we join the timeline at a certain point, make our contribution and then depart. There is history before us and what will become history to follow. So in that sense, nothing is ever really finished. Certainly, when considering books or dictionary applications there will always be corrections and changes, new editions and new formats. Though my colleague is leaving, her work will live on for a long time. Let's hope that's true of all of us.


Saturday, 2 March 2013

Whisked Away

What is it that makes some story ideas more attractive to us than others? I'm sure that many of us have had the experience where we've started work on a perfectly good book, only to be suddenly sideswiped by another idea that we have to write about. Kathy Evans mentioned the phenomena in her blog this week and it's also something I touched on during my own creative dithering last year.

I've heard Sara Grant talk about finding the heart of your story, the emotional imperative that will keep you working on a project even while the logical part of your brain is screaming at you to "give up and get a proper job!" And I think it's this emotional pull that characterises the new idea that comes out of nowhere and whisks you away.

Being carried away on an idea is a wonderful creative moment, but for me, the problem is its unpredictability. I must have gone through seven or eight ideas for a new novel (all of them interesting and commercial) before I stumbled upon the one that became my work in progress. I found the process of moving from idea to idea to be quite frustrating, because no matter how good the concept was, I couldn't quite muster up the enthusiasm to start writing the book. Presumably, that reticence was due to me not finding the heart of the story – once I had my final epiphany, I was able to start writing the book straight away.

I hate the down period between books, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it means I've just sent my previous book out on submission, which is a time fraught with its own stresses. Secondly, because I have a rather overactive brain, and having a project on the go helps distract me from worrying about something else (generally submissions). And thirdly, I dislike that moment where another writer asks what you're currently working on, and you have to say "Oh, not much. Just dabbling with stuff, you know." I started to tell people that I was "between books," though it sounds like a euphemism for being unemployed. How do you define a writer who isn't writing? To my mind, that person was a failure who wasn't using their time effectively.

However, I read an article in The Guardian last week by author Andrew Simms, whose new book Cancel the Apocalypse argues that our route to avoiding global catastrophe is simply to do less – work less, consume less and stop expecting endless financial growth. In the article, he takes inspiration from nature by talking about "the importance of fallow time: no ecosystem can be 100% productive all the time." And perhaps that's a good way to characterise that time between books – a sort of mental equivalent of crop rotation.

Rather than beat myself up and ask why I couldn't have thought of that perfect novel idea first, perhaps I should consider that I couldn't have thought it up at all without going through those initial stages. In fact, I saw that process at work yesterday when brainstorming with a colleague on a publishing project. It took two or three failed concepts before we hit upon the one that caught both our imaginations, and then we started generating ideas so fast that I could barely write them down! The small downside with the brainstorming session being so successful was that it consumed my whole lunch hour, which is why you're not seeing this blog until now. But if creativity was predictable, perhaps we wouldn't find it so fascinating?