Friday, 26 July 2013

Beyond Recognition?

I’ve just been nominated for the SCBWI British Isles Outstanding Contribution Award for the second year running, a turn of events that I found even more surprising this year than the last. The nomination text is also hilarious, so thank you to whoever wrote that. It’s a great feeling, to be recognised by your peers, and it led me to thinking about how important recognition (and the lack of it) is to the life of a writer.

In recent years, as writers’ incomes have plunged and publishing deals have become ever scarcer, the value systems for authors have begun to shift. For the sake of our sanity, we are no longer allowed to dream about getting a six-figure deal or winning the Carnegie Prize. Instead, the love of writing has to become its own reward. This is good advice in theory, but harder to apply in practice, except in our most objective and sanguine moments. Sure, we can’t keep writing unless we enjoy it, but who would begrudge a little recognition into the bargain?

When you work in a business environment with other people every day, your chances for recognition are much higher. People are constantly asking you to do things and generally say thank you once you do them. You may be mentioned in weekly status reports, given special credit for a job well done or rewarded in structured yearly appraisal and pay reviews. In many companies, recognising staff performance is an important part of employee retention.

Compare that to the novice author, working alone at home. Day in, day out, they are expected to turn up and write, often with no outside input or support. When they submit their work to agents, the response is often that gesture of supreme indifference - the form rejection. Some will be unlucky enough to have family and friends who openly ridicule their career choice, refusing to believe that anyone who isn’t published could describe themselves as a writer. When someone is learning their craft, this state of existence can go on for years and all without a penny to show for it.

So perhaps the "write for the love of it" camp have a point. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t be doing more to recognise the work of upcoming authors and making them feel valued. SCBWI is, of course, working hard to fill this gap – with competitions like the Slushpile and Chalkface challenges and of course Undiscovered Voices. Being in a critique group is a great confidence boost too, even if they may sometimes give you tough love when you only wanted reassurance! I’ve recently started going to the monthly goal-setting London brunch as well – this is a good way to track your own progress and recognise your achievements.

But could we be doing more? Those amongst us who are teachers will know the value that a kind word and a bit of encouragement can have for raising self-esteem and performance. I wonder about some sort of appraisal scheme for writers, perhaps a pair of writers meeting on a three-monthly basis to discuss each other’s achievements over that period? It’s really hard to look back sometimes when you’re constantly pushing forward. We do have the Celebrations column on Words & Pictures, but what about a celebrations forum for lesser achievements – finishing a book say, or even a particularly difficult chapter? Let me know your ideas in the comments section.

Personally, I know I’m in a good position – I am recognised for what I do and I don’t get too many form rejections. But even though I love getting feedback on my writing, I also fear it, because it often seems to be conditional – ‘that chapter was good, but this one needs some work’. Sometimes, I just need someone to pat me on the back and say: "Well done, you’re doing a great job."


P.S. Feel free to cut out that last quote and paste it into the comments box ;-)

P.P.S I’m taking a week off from the blog to go on holiday – the next post will be on Friday 9th August.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Desperately Seeking Symmetry

I wanted to talk this week about a trend I find increasingly prevalent in my fiction – the use of symmetry in plot and character. When I sent the book-before-last to my critique group, one of them commented on how clever I'd been in structuring the characters as a series of parent and child pairs. Had I really? I looked back at the book and discovered that I had indeed, though it felt like a happy accident at the time.

I went away and wrote a whole new book, and it was only after it was done that I realised the symmetry had crept in again. This time, it was a series of male and female pairs, and furthermore, it was the female characters who emerged triumphant at the end of the story. I hadn’t intended that structure either, but as the book carries a strong feminist subtext, I’m thinking it’s OK.

For the new novel I’ve just started, I’ve decided to take the symmetry a stage further, to make what was implicit to my process explicit in the structure of the book. Subject to change, it’s going to be a dual close-third-person narrative, with each POV character acting as the antagonist of the other. The few chapters I’ve written so far suggest I’m capable of pulling this off, so now I just have to write the rest!

The novel’s structure has inevitably been influenced by the last book I read before starting, which was Sara Grant’s excellent Half Lives. This has a dual narrative structure as well, although Sara is rather more ambitious than me, setting one half of the story at the point of global apocalypse and the second half hundreds of years later. As the story unfolds, events in one thread impact on the other in subtle and unexpected ways, giving the reader a broader perspective on the action than the characters are allowed. This technique is both clever and fitting for a book whose subtext is about expanding your view of the world and believing in your ability to achieve greatness. As I read the final chapters, I had the distinct impression that Sara had managed to achieve this goal herself, delivering a book that rises effortlessly above the dystopian norm.

I’m very, very lucky to have in Sara a friend who is a) a great writer and b) prepared to tell me about the technique she uses to write her novels. With Half Lives, Sara plotted both narratives chapter by chapter before she began, and then went away and wrote each novel separately. It was only at the editing stage that she brought the two together and fine-tuned how they flowed as a whole.

Why does symmetry appeal to me, or to other writers? Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by plots that are as intricate and finely-crafted as a Swiss watch, and having a symmetrical structure imposes a particular order on the tale. Symmetrical plotting also provides a pleasing rhythm for the reader – while one thread is “up”, the other can be “down” and vice versa. Multiple narratives are also a godsend for the writer who wants to mercilessly drive tension, because you can cut away just before the vital moment. Marcus Sedgwick’s White Crow is the best example I can think of for this – at points, the tension is almost unbearable.

Ultimately, perhaps narrative symmetry is all about imposing order on chaos. But then, perhaps every piece of good writing is about that.


Friday, 12 July 2013

Bang Goes the Story

This looks set to be the summer of bludgeon at the cinema. Following in the steps of Avengers Assemble (which itself was trying to outdo Transformers 3), we have destruction on a massive scale in Man of Steel and Pacific Rim. Now, you can call me shallow if you want, but I rather like to watch things exploding. However, even I have to wonder how far this can go on before story is edged out completely in favour of bombast. And, more importantly, how should children's books react to this trend?

It's tempting to say that they shouldn't, that different types of media like books, films, TV and video games should be viewed in isolation. But our audience are no longer consuming them this way – they watch TV and surf at the same time, they watch movies with text overlays and commentary, they read multimedia enhanced e-books (Amazon have just been granted a patent for DVD-style extras and community content within their Kindle titles). Concentration spans are declining and so it seems that only ever-larger spectacle can briefly wrest a teenager's attention from that all-important BlackBerry message.

But there's a problem here for writers, because spectacle is one of the things that books do least well. Sure, you can compose a massive, horrifying tableau of death and destruction, but you'll have to dilute the effect by using a whole bunch of words to do it. By comparison you can achieve the same thing in less than a second on a cinema screen. Where books triumph is in the intimate, the complex and the profound – areas that popular cinema shows little interest in nowadays.

There is good news in all this gloom, however. These massive blockbuster movies attract an equally massive cost, and the Hollywood model of big investment = big payout is looking increasingly brittle. Books have no budgetary restrictions on their content, they are as big as a writer's imagination wants them to be. There was an interesting recent article by Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, where he discusses channeling his idea for House of Secrets into a book because it would simply be too expensive and impractical as a film.

Character is another area in which books will always triumph. Even the ten hour running time of each series of Game of Thrones cannot hold a candle to the character complexity of the accompanying book. And beneath the bombast of modern cinema, it seems that people are still genuinely interested and fascinated by characters and story – just perhaps in smaller numbers than they were in the past.

The book's ongoing blessing (and curse) is the amount of concentration it requires from the reader. Even the fastest-moving story needs the reader's full attention if they are not to become confused, possibly more so than a slow-moving one! But that concentration is its own reward, both in the synaptic pleasure of becoming lost in a story and the fantastic discipline it teaches to a child. We are constantly told of the need for multitasking skills, but in the future, it may be those who can concentrate on one task who will rise further than their distracted peers. And no amount of CGI explosions are going to help a child to do that.


Friday, 5 July 2013

You Know You've Gone Too Far When...

This blog is all Sara Grant's fault! I made an offhand comment about stalking an agent and she contributed the first item on this list. After that, well, it was just too good an idea to waste. As ever, any resemblance to writers alive or dead is (mostly) coincidental.

You know you've gone too far when...
  • You name your firstborn child after an agent you're hoping to impress
  • You rearrange commas in your dreams
  • You're practicing your author signature before you've even finished the first chapter
  • You not only retweet praise, but also criticism, spam and your gas bill
  • You've spent a fortune trying to get various publishing people drunk enough to read your book
  • Your Twitter profile includes the words "brilliant", "visionary" or "genius"
  • You hate email submissions because you can't enclose a gift
  • You decide to enclose a gift anyway, and bulk buy e-vouchers from, redeemable against over 20,000 items of hilarious hamster-themed merchandise
  • You start worrying about your "legacy"
  • You finish a novel and discover that not only is the house empty, but also that your family left three weeks ago without a forwarding address
  • Whenever you spot someone who's in publishing, you run towards them with open arms, screaming at the top of your voice
  • You check your author rank so often that the entire Amazon site crashes
  • You find yourself pitching in a revolving door
  • You have a Google Alert set up with your name and the word "Carnegie"
  • Your first drafts are longer than the bible
  • You think that earning more money than J.K. Rowling is a realistic life goal
  • You find yourself pitching through a toilet door
  • You turn up to award ceremonies, even when you haven't been nominated
  • Your query letters include begging, bribery, threats or offers of sexual favours
  • You start talking about "reinventing the novel"
  • You find yourself pitching through a prison door
  • You email your unpublished manuscript to actors who you'd like to cast in the movie adaptation
  • You refer to your characters as though they were real people
  • You refer to yourself in the third person, as though you were a fictional character
  • You write a blog with a list in it that goes on forever