Friday, 29 November 2013

Celebrate Everything

Each morning when I open my inbox, I wonder "Does anyone want to acquire my novel today?" Thus far, the answer has been a resounding "No" and it's a situation that makes it easy for me to obsess about publication, while overlooking all the good things that have happened to me. It's for this reason I instigated my Achievement Points system and also why I want to talk about a couple of recent achievements - one in the children's writing field and the other in my day job.

Let's take the day job first. As Digital Product Manager for Oxford Dictionaries, I'm proud to announce that we have a new app available for iPhone, iPad and Android Devices - Oxford Dictionaries Quick Search.

It's totally free, so please download it using the links below and let me know what you think. The core idea of the app is to provide quick, simple and free access to the complete text of Oxford's current English dictionaries (both British and American), and to link to our site (where you can access the same content and much more).

As well as being our first free dictionary app, Oxford Dictionaries Quick Search is also notable for being the first app that we've built entirely in-house, using a small team headed up by yours truly. I even did some of the programming, but the app continues to work very reliably despite that!

Here are links to the two versions and QR Codes if you have a scanner app installed on your device:

Apple iPhone and iPadAndroid Devices

In the children's writing realm, I'm very pleased to say that I will be getting into print for the first time this coming January. As some of you who attended the SCBWI conference already know, my short story Princess of Dirt will be featured in the debut issue of Stew, a new indie magazine for children aged 8-12. The magazine is looking great so far (you can see sample content and subscribe at and it's amazing to see my work illustrated as a stunning double-page spread by the very talented Jayde Perkin:

The story itself is something of a departure for me, a feminist revenge fantasy set in a world where magic is boring! I hope you'll sample the magazine and read the story when Stew launches.

Do excuse me for all the self-promotion this week, but it's so nice to have something to announce, let alone two good things at once. Who needs novels, eh?


Monday, 25 November 2013

I Love the SCBWI-BI Conference Because...

I get to play with Playmobil!

As part of Elizabeth Wein and Sheena Wilkinson's worldbuilding session, Elizabeth got us to play for ten minutes with her children's amazing Playmobil collection. It was a bit of a tussle to get the choicest figures, but that kind of added to the creativity, because you ended up with a mismatch of elements from different sets. I made this:

When I started off, I grabbed the camel and put it straight in the boat, saying "It's Life of Pi with a camel!" This probably demonstrates how conceptually my mind seems to work nowadays, but it also turned out to be part of the point of the exercise (as Elizabeth would tell us later). No fictional world is built entirely anew - it has to be assembled from pieces that we and the reader already understand, otherwise it would be incomprehensible.

I was just posing the figures with a couple of people watching and I started to riff about what was happening in the scene. The more I talked, the more bizarre it got:
Leon is a down on his luck actor who drifts into petty crime. He also volunteers at an animal sanctuary, and discovers that his associates have a plan to smuggle drugs by injecting them into the hump of Colin the Camel, and then cutting off the hump to retrieve them (everyone went "Eurgh" at this point"). So Leon escapes with Colin, but finds himself trapped at the mouth of an estuary. He loads the camel into a rowing boat, with his former associates hard on their heels. They are dressed as pirates because they are actors too, method-acting ahead of a Christmas pantomime production of Peter Pan. Meanwhile, on the seabed, another associate waits in lead diver's boots, ready to drill through the bottom of the boat.
As well as pretty inappropriate 7-9 book plot, I also discovered something important about myself - I really enjoy making up stories in front of an audience. There was something so effortless about spinning this yarn that doesn't always apply in my more formal writing.

This taps into something else I like to do, which is show off! And there seemed to be ample opportunity to do this over the weekend, so I apologise to anyone who was sick of the sight of me by Sunday afternoon. One particular bit of showing off that spiralled out of my control was the video to celebrate Natascha Biebow's amazing 15 years at the head of SCBWI British Isles. I was asked to contribute a word that summed up SCBWI and I overdid things with a small craft project:

Little was I to know that Candy Gourlay would use the Mary Poppins theme for the whole short film! But it was a fantastic video and a fantastic weekend. Here's to Conference 2014!


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Conference Blog Challenge

Here's a reminder of the blog challenge that I unveiled on Words & Pictures this week:

During or following the SCBWI British Isles conference this weekend, I'd like as many of our SCBWI bloggers as possible to write a short post with the title:

I Love the SCBWI-BI Conference Because...

Once you've written your post, please email me a link at: with the subject:
"Conference Blog Challenge" by 9pm Monday 25th November.

I will include every SCBWI member who emails me in next Tuesday's Words & Pictures Blog Break post.

And I'll be back with my own Blog Challenge Post on Monday - see you then.


Friday, 15 November 2013

Taking a Break

I'm feeling a bit "creatively challenged" at the moment, so I'm going to take a week off from the blog to recharge my batteries. Given that the SCBWI conference is almost upon us, I'm sure that will give me a boost for future blogging!


Friday, 8 November 2013

Achievement Points

This is a blog that’s waited in the wings for a few weeks, because I wanted to post it as a follow-up to Benjamin Scott’s Ten Top Tips to Finding an Agent. Benjamin’s idea of treating rejections positively as “badges of honour” really chimed with me when he first told me about it. I decided to expand his concept to come up with a system that I could use to reward myself for putting my work “out there.”

I tried to analyse where I feel the most negative effect during the writing and publishing process, and realised that it’s always around feedback. When I send something out, I’m desperate for that person to read it as soon as possible and get back to me. But when they do eventually get back to me, I tend to find myself wishing that they’d left it for just another day. As hard as I try to read the whole message and see the good in the response, I will inevitably focus on the “areas for improvement.” Paradoxically, the few times I have received messages of unfettered praise, I’ve viewed them suspiciously, as though the person couldn’t be a very good judge of the book if they couldn’t find any problems with it.

To counteract this tendency, I introduce you to the Achievement Points system. Using this, I will earn points for each book as follows:
  • 1 point each time I receive feedback on a partial submission (be that a rejection or a request for a full MS) from an agent or editor
  • 1 point each time I receive feedback on a full manuscript from someone outside of publishing (family, friends, colleagues)
  • 3 points each time I receive feedback on a full submission from an agent or editor
What’s nice about this is that acceptance and rejection are treated equally – they’re both an achievement that builds my experience in trying to get published.

Here’s where I am with my current book:
  • 6 rejections on a partial from agents = 6 points
  • 6 people who’ve read and fed back on the full manuscript (three writers, my wife and two daughters) = 6 points
  • Total = 12 points
At ten points, I rewarded myself with a new smartphone. I’ve still not quite decided what will happen at fifteen points, or if I should get a special bonus for the agent who sent me a particularly disheartening email this week.

I’m sure you can see how this system could be extended. Perhaps I should be awarding myself Achievement Points every time I finish a draft of a book, or take it to a critique meeting? For people earlier in the process, the targets could be gentler – finishing a chapter perhaps, or attending a writing workshop. Published writers could give themselves points for every school event or Amazon review (no matter how many stars it has).

Do please chime in with your ideas on this and similar systems you might already be using. Can we turn the stigma of rejection around to enable us to see just how far we’ve already come in our writing journey? That would be an achievement in itself.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Being Brave

It’s been a strange kind of week. I...
  1. spent days trying to make sense of Apple’s App Store submission process
  2. discovered Jedward in my office (they were filming a TV series, apparently) and
  3. was told by a novice writer that I was "very brave" to submit my work to agents and publishers
While point A could probably make for a cathartic but boring post, and point B would guarantee me plenty of retweets, I’m going to write about point C because it carries over the theme of bravery from last week (although in a different context).

I have to admit that the other writer’s comment wrong-footed me somewhat. Sending stuff out is what writers do, and there was a voice in the back of my head saying "that’s not bravery, that’s just business." But I accepted the compliment gracefully, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised the truth of what she had said.

According to my handy dictionary (OK, I actually have an office full), courage and bravery are "the ability to do something that frightens one." Sometimes, it seems to me that the very business of writing is about controlling and conquering fear. Reading Candy Gourlay’s Words & Pictures post earlier this week, the main point I took away was the sheer terror that gripped her as she tried to write a follow-up to Tall Story.

I fondly remember the days when I could sit down and just write stuff, free from the pressures of craft and quality. As much as I try to get back to those playful times, I often feel the icy fingers of fear slip around my heart as I open up my laptop. Sometimes, when things are going well, I can trick myself into thinking that I’m not writing a book, but as soon as I realise what’s happening, the game is up.

Somehow, I get through, wilfully (bravely even) turning up each day until I have thirty, forty, fifty thousand words of a finished novel. And then, briefly, I reach a moment that is positively golden and I’m sure what I’ve written is totally amazing. Perhaps I could even extend that moment by shoving the manuscript in a drawer and never looking at it again. But I don’t do that, because I need some kind of payback after all that hard work.

So I have to let other people read it.

This is a different kind of bravery, the willingness to let others poke and pull at what you’ve created, to suggest improvements or express disapproval. I find giving my work to another writer just as frightening as giving it to an agent. Although you only get one chance with an agent, at least they will generally let you down lightly, with an anodyne form rejection or a comment about not being "excited enough" by your work to take it on. A fellow writer, on the other hand, will often take a work to pieces and give you a list of instructions on how to reassemble it. This is all in the spirit of making the book better, but it sure can sting an awful lot at the time.

If I'm being honest (which I am), even the process of writing a blog every week makes me a little scared. I hit the publish key, send a couple of tweets and emails, then wait to see if anyone wants to read it, or even better, to comment on it. Some weeks, there's just an empty silence that makes me wonder if I've written something so terrible that nobody can bear to tell me about it. Call it insecurity if you will, but the part I find hardest about showing my writing to the world is the idea that someone (anyone) might dislike what I've done. Given the subjective nature of our craft, I guess I need to gather up my courage until I can face that idea and move past it.