Friday, 31 May 2013

The Book as Object

I was lucky enough to participate on a panel today, at the University of Oxford English Graduate Conference, speaking on the subject of The Book as Object. I was joined on the panel by Paul Nash (Oxford University's chief Printing Tutor) and Stephen Walter (a text/map artist). We each spoke for 10-15 minutes and then had a fascinating panel discussion afterwards.

If you were at the conference, here is the link to the Transmedia article I mentioned.

If you weren't at the conference, read on for an edited transcript of my speech on the subject of The Book as Object and how that role is changing in the digital age:

Friday, 24 May 2013

Writing as Therapy

Although my last post was totally flippant concerning writers' mental health (which you all seemed to rather enjoy), I wanted to change gears this week and try to treat the subject a bit more seriously. I've heard quite a few authors say they use writing as a form of therapy, and I thought it was worth exploring in further detail. What does that statement mean and is writing a good way to work through your problems?

Let's face it, a lot of writers have "issues" (myself included). Throw a rock at any writers' gathering and you'll hit someone with a traumatic family history (only don't try that for real, as they might have unresolved anger issues to boot). Even those who grew up in a stable, nuclear family have plenty of other pressures to contend with: career, relationships, kids, health issues, etc. So the act of channelling and making sense of our emotional responses through our writing seems eminently sensible.

The act of writing itself can be therapeutic, there's no doubt about it. Escaping from the pressures of everyday life into a safe, fictional world that's totally under your control? Sounds good, right? A novel can also be a sandbox where we try things out, playing with weighty questions like "What makes a good person?" or "How do you define evil?" We talk about the need to make a character face their worst fear, and very often it's our own fears that we've mapped onto them. And this is great therapy, because, being clever writer types, it's our job to find them a way out of that situation. In doing so, we are, in part, answering the question of what we would do when faced by our worst fear. This is just one of the many ways that writing can offer deep catharsis.

But amongst those benefits, there are also risks. Quite a few writers start out with a serious need for recognition and that presents an instant problem – how can you use the act of writing as private therapy, yet also expose those issues to the whole world? It's no wonder that many of us feel rejection so painfully, so personally. You wouldn't expect to see a counsellor every week for a year, only for them to publish the transcripts of your sessions for anyone to read. But in some ways, that's exactly what many writers hope for with their books!

Another risk with using your writing as therapy, is when the writing itself becomes part of the problem. This happened to me – I started writing a deeply-felt novel inspired by my experiences of depression and discovered that it began to make me depressed again. In addition, I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to get the book exactly right and as a result my writing ground to a halt. Luckily, I was also seeing an actual therapist at this point, but I felt a bit phony when our sessions began to consist of me moaning about how difficult my writing had become. It seemed like I had tied myself up in knots, making a new problem where before, none had existed.

So, in summary, writing can be good therapy, but treat it with caution. Don't use it as your only outlet, and remember that there are plenty of professional counsellors and therapists out there if you need them. It all comes down to balance - do keep immersing yourself emotionally in your writing (because that's how you'll do your best work), but make sure you also come up for air from time to time. A bit of perspective can make all the difference to a book and a life.


Friday, 17 May 2013

A Guide to Common Writing Disorders

It's been a while since I wrote a funny blog post, but this is not it. Oh no. This week, I'm taking a very serious look at some common phobias, irrational beliefs and other mental disorders that can affect writers. As a former sufferer of some of these conditions, I feel it's my solemn duty to dispel the stigma surrounding them through full and frank discussion. Although some of these disorders might seem bizarre or even humorous, on no account do I expect to hear any sniggering out there. Do we understand each other?

  • Pleonasmaphobia (A.K.A. Dan Brown Syndrome) - This is the fear that you will put too many words into a sentence, a horror – if you will - of including a profusion of lexical units in a given construction while also trying to cram in too many words, many of which will be superfluous, unnecessary, unwanted or even redundant to the overall meaning of the sentence, whose import will be forever clouded by the excess of words. The only treatment for Pleonasmaphobia is a course of aggressive editing, preferably at gunpoint.
  • Moleskinomania - The compulsion to buy nice stationery in the hope that it will improve the owner's writing. Doctors recommend that the condition be treated with the application of a splash of petrol and a lit match.
  • Lineditophilia - The belief amongst novice writers that poor proofreading is the root cause of their continual form rejections. This leads them to spend ever more time on formatting, spelling and grammar checking, while completely missing the fact that it's their writing that totally sucks. See also Querymania - the compulsion to endlessly rewrite your query letter rather than your novel.
  • Submission Submission - This condition arises from a writer's belief that literary agents know better than them, and that they must do everything an agent says in order to get published. Crueller agents have been known to exploit this disorder for their own amusement, sending sufferers to buy tins of stripy paint, making them hop for hours along the North Circular or by playing sadistic games of Simon Says via email.
  • Pigeonholophobia - A fear of being easily located amongst a genre or category of writing. Sufferers will claim that their work is "unique beyond measure" and make grandiose predictions about how they will change the world of publishing forever with their brave cross-genre experimentation. Unfortunately, this also leaves retailers unable to work out where to place the books on their shelves, leading to high return rates and royalty cheques that are too small to see with the naked eye.
  • Commentoriasis - Also known as Blogger's Cramp, this is a creeping disorder that manifests over many weeks and months. New bloggers are especially prone to the condition, as they post excitedly about grammar checking and puppies, while receiving no comments on their blog posts. At all. Commentoriasis can be relieved through the topical application of marketing or by giving up blogging altogether. Left untreated, however, it can cause the sufferer to question whether the internet is broken or induce delusions that convince them they are the last person left alive on planet Earth.
  • Blankpagitis - A severe form of procrastination that leads the sufferer to attempt increasing pointless and desperate activities in an attempt to avoid beginning a new novel. Symptoms including dusting, ironing and the vacuuming of curtains, while sufferers can often be identified due to the large quantities of cake they make and ingest on a daily basis. If left untreated, this condition can lead to dust allergies, third degree burns and an appearance on The Great British Bake Off.


Friday, 10 May 2013

Passive Obsessive

If there's one criticism that's been regularly levelled at my work over the last ten years, it's that my main characters are too passive - they allow themselves to be dragged into adventure rather than initiating it. Well, no more – I finally have a protagonist who is feisty, focused and determined. But re-watching The Graduate last night, I was reminded of why passive characters carry such a strong resonance for me. In the film, Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) spends much of his time in a state of near depression, paralysed by the expectations heaped upon him. He hates himself almost as much as he hates the smug, moneyed world of his parents, and his affair with Mrs Robinson is more like self-harm than a quest for pleasure. For much of the running time, Benjamin doesn't know what he wants and moreover doesn't know why he should bother trying to find out.

Even though I'm closer to Mrs Robinson's age, I still identify very strongly with Benjamin. That feeling of being adrift in a world full of people who seem so sure of themselves, while you yourself remain so uncertain. What should I do with my life? What is the one thing that I love to do above all others? These are questions I still regularly ask myself. But many readers, especially young ones, aren't particularly interested in waiting around while a character goes through the process of questioning their motivation. They want characters with clearly focused goals that will drive an exciting plot. Robert McKee's Story is very specific on the use of character motivation to resolve a scene – a protagonist wants something and goes into the scene trying to get it from someone else. Almost every time, they will fail and actually end up further from their goal than they were when they started. Thus, there is rising tension as the goal becomes ever more important while the protagonist faces an ever larger struggle to reach it, prompting them to take ever bigger risks.

It's fair to say that there are some of these mechanics at play in the last third of The Graduate as Benjamin becomes infatuated and chases the object of his desires. But this would be far less affecting if it hadn't been preceded by Benjamin's inability to find his path. The famous final scene on the bus is almost a reset point, sweeping away the excitement of that final act and indicating that perhaps none of the characters really knew what they wanted after all.

Despite my enthusiasm for passive characters and the mirror they hold up to society, I have to be honest and admit that this is a subject better suited to adult literary fiction, where plot takes a backseat to social commentary and writing technique. When we choose to write for children, we don't just sacrifice vocabulary, we also have to accept the wider restrictions of the form. To truly connect with a young audience means presenting and structuring a story in a way that will resonate with them, from a killer first line through rising tension to a meaningful resolution. Active, motivated characters are a key component in that journey.


Friday, 3 May 2013

How Not to Write the World's Greatest Book

I finally met the lovely Kate Scott at a book launch this week, and we had a fascinating conversation about writing that will probably yield several blog posts (thanks Kate, the cheque's in the post). I do a lot of my best thinking in conversation, and while we were chatting, I talked about my last book Die Laughing and the high hopes I'd had for it. Readers with very long memories may remember my excited post about it being THE ONE (you know, like in The Matrix).

After the failure of my Undiscovered Voices winner Back from the Dead to reach publication, I was determined not to make the same mistake with my next novel. Die Laughing would be my magnum opus, the breakthrough novel that would be so good that it would be impossible for publishers not to accept it. I would build a complex and innovative world, layer it with challenging themes and guide my characters to a shocking climax. I took inspiration from other groundbreaking works of fiction, in particular the iconic HBO TV series The Wire. To pitch that series, creator David Simon wrote a letter to HBO exhorting them to take up this opportunity to change television. There was a particular passage that stuck in my mind:
If we do this right – and we will – the critical response will be that HBO has turned its gaze to a standard of television fare: the cop show. And the cop show can never be the same.
And what do you know? He was absolutely right. I took this sentence and tweaked it to fit my own needs – as a mission statement for Die Laughing:
If I do this right – and I will – the middle-grade novel can never be the same again.
Looking back at this now, it seems kind of ridiculous, but at the time I really believed it. It isn't that I've since developed a problem with ambition, because nothing of significant artistic worth ever got made without the creator having ambition. The problem was how much pressure this mission statement put on me when it came to actually writing the book. No idea was good enough, no sentence well-enough constructed. I laboured over a never-ending first draft, becoming ever more anxious about how many times I had to move the deadline with my agent. By aiming so high, I took perfection to a crippling new level.

The irony, of course, is that the book didn't get published, didn't change the world and the middle-grade novel is doing rather well on its own, thank you. For all my high ideals, what I mostly succeeded at was making myself miserable! Once I finally settled to writing the book I'm on at the moment, I made a choice to do things a different way. I wouldn't say that writing it has been exactly easy, but nothing could be as hard as Die Laughing.

So right now, I'm approaching the end of the first draft of a book that will never win the Carnegie Medal for children's literature. Frankly, it's a rather silly romp, although I have smuggled in some real-life issues and a bit of emotional depth. But it should prove to be a gripping and enjoyable read, which is as much of a mission statement as I want to contemplate at present. I'm also reminded that for every successful masterwork like The Wire there are many more artistic failures like the Matrix sequels, where the creators took on too big an ambition, and then crashed and burned in the process.

But never say never – there may be another magnum opus in my future. For now though, I'm happy writing non-life-changing books about slapstick heroes and cool robots.