Friday, 28 June 2013

Creative Frustration

After last week's lull, I've found inspiration this week in a terrifically candid interview with filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie won an Oscar for his screenplay of the Usual Suspects and recently wrote and directed the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, a lean, 70s style thriller that I was surprised to find myself enjoying a hell of a lot. He's a guy who's been bounced around by the movie industry and the interview makes for fascinating reading, dealing with the vogue for style over story in modern filmmaking, and providing a penetrating insight about what it's like to be the guy on the other side of the studio desk, frantically trying not to screw up a multi-million-dollar franchise.

The main thing that struck me again and again during the interview was McQuarrie's creative frustration with where he is and what he's achieved. He wants to be an auteur, making films for himself, and yet to earn a living he's had to adapt to the corporate system, to give the audience and the movie studios what they want. He says:
"Don't be surprised when you write a script that you know is good and nobody buys it. And nobody wants to read it. Because no one [in Hollywood] is interested in making your script. They have a huge mandate on their table: all this product that they have to generate and they need people to help them do it. And so I stopped being a person who looked at them as if they were people who were not giving me a chance and started looking at them as people who were terribly lost and desperately in need of help."
This new outlook was key to McQuarrie's recent career resurgence. And yet:
"Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I'm working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No."
This is a microcosm that defines many of us trying to make it in the writing game – the business of making a living as a writer can actively get in the way of creative satisfaction. And yet there are others who seem able to follow their muse on every project and still attract a sizable audience. Is this just luck? Or is there a certain visionary quality that marks out some creative people, while the rest of us toil away as mere craftsmen (and women)?

Like McQuarrie, I'd love to have the kind of unique mind and skill set that would allow me to set myself apart from the rest of the market. But I also have to be aware of my own limitations, that my abilities lie in relatively conventional areas such as character, dialogue and story, not in linguistic fireworks or indelible imagery. Right now, children's writing feels like a great place for someone with my skills, but perhaps the market is already shifting, becoming more interested in surface concepts such as concept rather than the deeper satisfaction provided by a good story well told. I spent a lot of time in the early years of my writing trying to manipulate existing storytelling forms to deliver something truly new, without a great deal of success. Perhaps I see the world too conventionally to become a true visionary? Or maybe the world of author-led fiction may yet help me to unlock a truly distinctive, popular voice?

Ultimately, though, perhaps there's nothing wrong with being a mere craftsman who has the ability to construct an appealing story with wit and verve. Creative frustration does serve a very definite purpose, which is to keep pushing you towards towards new creative goals. Too many auteurs settle into a comfortable rut, safe in the knowledge that their devoted fans will continue to follow them, no matter how self-indulgent and repetitive their work becomes. So it's probably a good thing that McQuarrie stays frustrated and (more importantly) stays focused on the task at hand:
"You can't control success any more than you can control failure. You just have to keep making movies."


Friday, 21 June 2013

Running on Empty

Published authors are often asked the infuriating question “Where do you get your ideas from?” I think a much more appropriate question might be “How do you keep the ideas flowing?” Working in a creative industry, it can sometimes feel like you are being constantly asked to come up with new ideas, many of which will never go anywhere. When you’re in the zone, innovating like this can be a totally exhilarating experience. But when the workload is high and deadlines are pressing, coming up with new ideas and new approaches can be exhausting.

So that’s where I am today, out of good ideas and wondering what to blog about! Work is really busy (which is great) but also occupying increasingly large portions of my brain, as I try to juggle five different projects in various stages of completion. I’m also - if I’m being honest - desperate to work on the second draft of my novel (I actually escaped for five minutes and worked on it just now – did you notice?)

Headspace is vital to idea generation, which is probably why focused brainstorming sessions are so effective. Being put in a room without distractions for a couple of hours and forced to innovate can be a remarkably powerful way to unlock the subconscious, building new ideas in a collaborative way. Packaged fiction is often built in this way, with the whole editorial team coming together to hash out the concept, approach and possible market for a new book series.

However, not everyone can work like this – brainstorming favours extroverted people who aren’t scared to speak up, which can be a problem in the slightly introverted, left-brained environment I work in. From an author-led fiction perspective too, I’d also say it’s important not to let other people’s feedback in too early, however hard the process of coming up with your own ideas is. After all, they do need to be your ideas. Yes, sometimes a critique group member will come up with a completely brilliant idea for your book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to use it. Even experienced editors are by no means infallible, and can suggest changes that are completely out of step with your vision of the work. Like it or not, 90% of the time, the best ideas for your book will be the ones you generate yourself.

What to do, then, when the ideas just aren’t coming? I love using [square brackets] to denote bits of my manuscript I need to come back to, although they’re not as useful if you’re up against a hard deadline. Changing modes is always good – I find long periods of uninterrupted time very difficult, so at the SCBWI retreat I tried to change my approach every hour or so. Much of my best work on the novel during the weekend wasn’t done at my laptop, but walking along a farm track with a notepad and pen. I also take a fifteen minute walk every lunchtime before I start writing – leaving my desk, wandering around Oxford and then returning to our in-house library to work on my fiction. At first, I thought this was a waste of good writing time, but I swear I get more done in the remaining forty-five minutes than I would if I had the full hour.

Idea generation is hard but essential – without new ideas we are no longer writers. Nourish your muse: read good books, watch good films, TV shows and plays. Accept that you won’t always be on top form and plan for how to manage those fallow periods. Of course, if all else fails, you could just write a blog post about how difficult it is to constantly think up new ideas for blog posts!


Friday, 14 June 2013

Waiting and Learning

Kathy Evans's burst of unpublished author insecurity this week led me to reflect on where I was in the process and how I felt. Kathy and I have been in the trenches for quite a while, waiting for the call-up to publishing glory – we even shared a blog post at the end of 2011 as writers who were "Almost There". We're still just as Almost There as we were back then and I was briefly tempted to title this post "The Waiting Room of the Damned"! But that would be an overly negative assessment that doesn't entirely reflect how I feel about things.

In many ways, the state of being Almost There is an agonising one – you've won approval for your writing, perhaps signed with an agent, and yet the publishing part stubbornly refuses to happen. You know that your work is publishable and editors love it, but somehow it never goes to acquisitions, or worse, it gets there and is turned down. To build your hopes up so far and then have them crushed is truly awful, especially if you don't have the luxury of rival publishers waiting in the wings to pick up your book. It can be like climbing almost to the top of Everest and discovering a sign that says "Summit Closed for Essential Repairs".

And yet, people do still sneak through. I look to Jackie Marchant or Teri Terry, who sat in the waiting room for far longer than me before they passed on to considerable success. That time you spend as an Almost There can be the making of you, allowing you to hone your skills, make contacts and discover the right voice for yourself and for your audience. I find myself harking back to a blog post Teri wrote in 2010, about the realisation that who she was as a person was getting in the way of the books she was trying to write. By taking her own personality and background into account, Teri was able to find publication with the incredibly successful Slated trilogy. Now perhaps, she was also lucky with her timing in terms of catching the dystopian wave before it crashed, but when I see the plaudits and awards that Teri is gathering (from real live teenage readers), I feel greatly encouraged.

Perhaps my current hopeful state of mind is because I've got something new I'm excited about, a book that's yet to be tainted by rejection. Or maybe it's because I've finally reached the "better place" I've been hoping to find for the last three years. I still want to be published, but I no longer need to be – which is an important mental shift for me. Will this new and improved mental attitude have any effect on my chances of publication? Probably not. But if I can stay feeling like this, then waiting (and learning) doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world anymore.


Friday, 7 June 2013

Another Disposable Blog Post

Someone I was chatting to earlier in the week described blog posts as "disposable" and implied that they had a lower worth than other, more traditional media. It was a throwaway comment, but something I've been mulling over all week, wondering what it means for the state and perception of blogging.

As Blog Editor of Words & Pictures, I get to read quite a few blog posts - maybe fifteen to twenty a week. And then I get to write yet another blog post about the best four or five. In many ways, I welcome the role, because it forces me to actually read these blogs every week, which was something I always told myself, in the past, that I didn't have time for. I would feel guilty that I was expecting people to come to this blog every week, but often failing to read or comment on theirs.

Blogging has always been a medium based on reciprocity, which is one of its inherent strengths and also its weakness. You can see the strength of it where a community comes together (such as on LiveJournal or Tumblr), because people are actively encouraged to chat on and across blog posts, with new topics being sparked by a personal reaction to someone else's post. You can also observe this effect at work across the SCBWI blogosphere, but it is often more diffuse – unless a journalist or adult author says something mean about children's books, at which point everyone piles into the discussion like a well-mannered rubgy scrum!

Group blogs, especially sites like Notes from the Slushpile that attract a wide and diverse audience, do see a lot of comments and a lively discussion. But the weaknesses of the reciprocity model can be clearly seen on individual author blogs, especially where that person has yet to be published or build up much of a following. When your social capital is low, it's hard to get people to read and comment on your blog – even if you're writing something fresh and appealing. Although people will keep reading your blog if you're regularly offering good writing, getting them there in the first place is more about networking and promotion. And as we know, writers are notoriously introspective...

To get back to the core subject, a lot of blogs do begin to feel disposable, simply because we perceive a lack of endorsement by our peers. But the most obvious marker of success – the number of comments – can be deceptive. I have had blog posts with a large number of hits and few comments, and vice versa. Some subjects open themselves to further discussion and others do not. Also, there's the way you write the blog post: I like to cover a subject and then close the loop with a hopeful conclusion, but if I was more open-ended in my summing up, then perhaps I'd attract more comments (not that I'm complaining).

Maybe I could substitute a different word for disposable. How about "topical?" If we consider blogs as an offshoot of journalism, then perhaps it makes absolute sense that many posts are up-to-the-minute and date quickly. No-one complains that the BBC's news output is disposable because it changes so frequently, even though their rolling news channel comes perilously close to this status. What I find wonderful about a blog post is that it captures something of the moment – both temporal and emotional – an snapshot of what the writer was thinking and doing at that point in time. I often like to go back two or three years on this blog and revisit how I was feeling or thinking. People always praise me for the honesty of my blog posts, but there's a lot I have to hold back - there are some weeks in my life where I'm amazed I managed to write anything without collapsing into a sobbing mess.

So, to try to bring that all together into a hopeful conclusion – I think there's life in blogging yet, even if the overall numbers of bloggers are dropping. The blog post offers a deeper, more emotional experience than a Tweet or Facebook update, while still remaining easily digestible. I hope that the "Thou Shalt Blog" diktat that publishers give to newly-signed writers is dropping away, allowing authors to make a choice to blog for the right reasons. And finally, the best blog posts aren't disposable at all – they can continue to attract readers for years after they're posted. There are many books that aren't half so lucky.