Friday, 25 October 2013

A Life in Transition

This month’s Words & Pictures theme is Diversity, and although I’m not blogging specifically on the site about the subject, I thought I’d add my own contribution here, based on some unexpected experiences I’ve had over the past couple of months. The individual I’m going to talk about has given me their blessing to write this, though I’m going to avoid including any names.

A couple of months ago, one of my male work colleagues announced he was transgender, and furthermore, would be transitioning to living as a woman from then on. As you can imagine, this was something of a surprise for everyone, and as I worked quite closely with him, I knew that the process could potentially affect our working relationship. I like to think of myself as fairly liberal and open-minded, so the actual idea of him changing wasn’t shocking to me. I did, however, feel apprehensive – though I’m sure that was nothing to how he felt about it!

The transition itself seemed surprisingly smooth – I’m lucky enough to work for a company that has high ethical standards and encourages staff to uphold them. So there was the odd double-take and a bit of whispered gossip, but generally, nothing terrible happened. Nonetheless, I remain incredibly impressed by the bravery of my colleague and her determination to just get out there and live her life. Too many of us live with restrictions that limit our life experience, restrictions that are so often based on our perception of what others may think or say about us.

As an observer to all this, there were small challenges I had to navigate. Pronouns were a particular problem, and I felt terrible every time I used "he" or "him" when it should have been "she" or "her". For the first week, it felt as though we were all operating under a strange kind of consensus reality, where this person we knew had been replaced by someone with a new name who looked and acted almost the same. I realised how much of what we call society is really an agreement to see the world a certain way, and that this view can easily shift if the will of the many demands it (which is actually pretty positive when you think about it).

A couple of months distant, I almost wonder what the fuss was about. My colleague is still suffering at the hands of petty bureaucracies as she tries to change her name on the many bank accounts, pensions and contracts we amass nowadays. But she is clearly happier and our working relationship hasn’t suffered – if anything it feels more grounded than before. The app we’ve developed together has also survived the process, and will hopefully be coming your way very soon!

In an unexpected way, my colleague’s transition links into an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot this year - gender politics. It’s a major theme of the novel I’ve just finished, and regular readers may remember the post I wrote on discovering that someone online who I thought was a woman, was actually a man. But that was a pretty superficial experience compared to recent events. Perhaps these new themes will find their way into my writing, perhaps not, but it’s given me a far better understanding of who transgender people are and the challenges they face in society. Perhaps the secret to embracing diverse cultures is to experience them up close, and to confront our own prejudices and preconceptions. I certainly feel richer for the experience.


Friday, 18 October 2013

Why Not Be a Writer?

You can’t have missed the sudden boom in writing tuition over the last year or so. It seems that barely a week goes by without someone announcing a new course or programme to help writers build their skills and get published. Agents, publishers and even newspapers are diversifying into this growing market. Some would rationalise this as evidence of a newly democratic focus in fiction publishing, where editors can no longer rely on the slushpile and must go out to the public to find the next big thing. But it's also about being entrepreneurial and going where the money is.

It may be lucrative in the short term, but is this model sustainable? After all, there is increasingly less money in the actual publishing of books, which is what is forcing writers and editors to go freelance, and look to teaching as a means of supplementing their income. This means that you have a tuition industry that is top heavy, reliant on new writers (with day jobs) to keep pumping money in as they follow their dreams of being published. Yet who is going to read all these books (even if they do get published) when everyone else is so busy writing?

The rise of social media has lead to an explosion of self-expression, and with it a new cultural paradigm based on speaking, rather than listening. This is by no means all bad, but it’s easy to see why the maxim that “everyone has a novel in them” seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. People are beginning to see it as their right to express themselves, no matter how banal and ill-considered that expression might be. And unfortunately some of them get very angry when others refuse to acknowledge their genius!

I’m aware that this post could come off as sour grapes, especially after my tongue-in-cheek call last week for you all to abandon your manuscripts. There’s no doubt that democratising and demystifying the process of writing a book will encourage some shy but very talented people to produce great work. But it will also increase the sheer amount of chaff that clogs slushpiles and slows down the process for everyone else.

That said, many of these courses are excellent, so by all means go on them, learn your craft and meet some cool new people. Just please don’t get sucked into the fantasies and half-truths about publishing such as the ones being peddled here. I know lots of full-time authors, and they all work very, very hard just to keep their heads above water (Midnight Storyteller’s post Can’t Pay or Won’t Pay? chimed with a lot of people this week). This is not a career for someone who just woke up one day and thought “wouldn’t it be nice if...” This is a career for the committed, and sometimes those who should be committed!


Friday, 11 October 2013

Ask Agony Author Returns

Regular readers will remember me helping Owen Cauliflower curb his unnatural desires to write adult fiction a few months ago. This week, I've received a letter from an even more desperate case. Time to...
Dear Agony Author,

I swear I must be the unluckiest writer on Earth. Not for me, the inbox filled with form rejection letters or the sound of returned manuscripts thumping onto the doormat as I lie in bed. In fact, my front door is so far from my bedroom that it’s actually in another postcode. I have a different curse, one called popularity.

It all started when I wrote some book about wizards and ended with a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise. In-between came massive book sales and international acclaim. Can you imagine anything so awful? My fame has become so impossibly large that anything I do is inflated out of all proportion - even the shopping list I wrote last Tuesday has become a Sunday Times bestseller:
I tried following up the wizard novels with some dreary rubbish about local politics, but couldn’t stop the book flying off the shelves. So I reasoned that it would be better to stay anonymous and put out a cunning crime novel under the name Roberto Gallbladder. Yet somehow I was still found out! My other secret identity creating subversive street art as Banksy is still intact, but even that hoodie-wearing pseudonym has become massively rich and successful.

How I wish I was a young, hungry author again (OK, not actually hungry, that was dreadful). All I want to do now is write a book that sinks without a trace or attracts the most one-star reviews in internet history. Can you help me?

Yours desperately,
J.K. Rolling-Pin

P.S. Wish I hadn’t told you about the Banksy thing.

Agony Author Replies,

I feel your pain, Ms Rolling Pin. Once you’ve become one of the most successful authors in history, what is there left to prove? How you must envy the hours I spend writing blog posts and trawling Twitter in a vain attempt to get the publishing industry to notice me. Whereas you have Amazon’s CEO on speed dial, and can demand he come over at any hour of the day or night to break-dance for your entertainment. I will certainly treasure my years and years of failing to get published as a golden time in my life.

I think I see (out of the goodness of my heart) a way to help you. I’d be perfectly happy to do a swap – I’ll submit your book under my name, while you submit my novel under yours. That way you’ll be able to enjoy the experience of being ignored by publishers, while I sit back and count the cash. Or you could shortcut the process by sending me the money via bank transfer (say £500,000?), and then spend a few happy hours with The Amazing Rejectomatic.

What a cautionary tale this is. Writers, abandon your work-in-progress right now, lest it bring you fame, fortune and a lingering ennui that borders on misery (as a totally unexpected side-effect, there will also be less books out there to compete with mine).

Yours hand-rubbingly,

Friday, 4 October 2013

Perspectives on Pitching

So that was the SCBWI Agents' Party. Phew. I was so pumped-up afterwards that I couldn't get to sleep for hours, so please excuse me if I start rambling or stop making sense altogether.

At the start of the evening, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to remember my pitch, by the end I could have delivered it backwards while tap dancing (which would have been memorable, but unlikely to further my career). So I thought I'd share my thoughts today on novel pitches - what they're good for and what they're not so good for.

Let me digress for a second (don't say I didn't warn you) and tell you about the rug in my wife's art studio. She has a rule that when she's standing on the rug, she's allowed to say anything she likes about the picture she's just completed, which usually consists of variations on the phrase "I am a genius!" But if she's not standing on the rug, then she's usually squinting critically at the canvas and worrying about her colour choices. Now, my wife is far more talented than me, but just for a moment please allow me to stand on my metaphorical rug and say My one-line pitch is really great!

Ahem. Thank you for letting me do that. I'm especially pleased because I allowed this book to come together organically, whereas for the last novel I had a ten word high concept pitch before I even started writing (probably to the detriment of the finished book). But I suppose what is constant there is my need to have a strong pitch (or hook) for the book so I can quickly communicate what it's about.

Pitches are useful at all stages of the publishing chain. You pitch to an agent, they pitch to an editor, the editor pitches at an acquisitions meeting, the sales department pitches to book buyers. Sometimes, that pitch even turns up on the back of the book! Much like getting the manuscript right before you first submit, it's also worth honing your pitch alongside it.

Writing a pitch is something that authors often moan about, but I have to say that I find it a lot easier than writing a book. There are so many less words for a start! To come up with a winning pitch, I've realised that you have to leave vanity behind. Yes, you might be a serious artist, and your book might work on so many intellectual levels, but that's for the reader to discover. Pitching is about boiling down your rich and complex story to the barest essentials, and hopefully also relating it to an existing concept that the pitchee will understand. This is why the "It's X meets Y" pitch is king, no matter how reductive that comparison might seem. Yes, you might hope that your concept is cool and original, but the more different it is, the harder it gets to describe without putting the listener to sleep.

Strong pitches are fantastic for getting your work in front of the noses of publishing people. But that doesn't mean that they'll actually connect with your writing and want to take you on. In fact, sometimes an attention-grabbing pitch simply means you get rejected a lot more quickly - I recently submitted to an agent on a Sunday evening and had a rejection by noon on Monday. Don't get me wrong, it's great not to be kept hanging on, but that 6-8 week wait can also give the comfortable illusion that an agent has taken time to think about your work before saying no.

Anyway, that's enough waffling from me. I'll leave you with an example pitch for this blog that I just put together, to show you how easy the process can be:

Who Ate My Brain is a blog by an ex-zombie about writing, worrying and occasional satire - it's Woody Allen meets Dawn of the Dead.

Please feel free to stand on a rug while making your comments.