Friday, 29 August 2014

Falling Back

It’s been a funny kind of week. Some nice things have happened, specifically the series of posts about Stew Magazine that Space on the Bookshelf have been running. And I’m wrangling that flash fiction story I mentioned last week into shape, although it has been a slower process than I expected (ditto the reorganisation of this website). But all of this has been overshadowed by two rejections I received within days of each other, both on the full manuscript of my children’s novel.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell most of you how crushing this feels: to get so very close and then to fall back, seemingly to square one again. It’s an outcome that has made me question why I’m spending so much time and emotional energy on a process that seems so intractable.

I’ve written several different versions of this blog post during the week, with varying degrees of anger towards the industry and our book-obsessed culture. But I suspect the person I’m most angry with is myself. Why have I continually failed to write a book that someone wants to publish? And (more importantly) why do I care so much about having a book published anyway?

To address the first question for a moment, it’s become increasingly clear to me that craft is not enough. Both rejections were careful to itemise the things I was doing right in my writing, whether that be character work, plotting or humour. But both also agreed that the book wasn’t distinctive enough to gain traction in an increasingly competitive market. And that’s where I find myself stuck for answers. Getting a manuscript seen by agents or editors requires a certain amount of commercial spin – coming up with a compelling pitch and angle on the material that will get their attention. But actually being accepted for representation or publication requires a certain special “X factor” that my recent work seems to lack. And if a book isn’t strong enough to stand out with a traditional publisher, what chance would it have if I self-published it?

As for why I care so much about publication, I refer you to the voices in my head. “Just get a book published, and then you’ll be happy,” they whisper to me. Although, rationally, I know this isn’t true, changing my subconscious attitudes is a lot tougher. I sometimes feel that I’m stuck in an endless cycle of submission and rejection, a cycle I can only break by getting a book accepted by the gatekeepers so I can move on to the next stage. But I also know this cycle is draining my creative energy and distracting me from other areas of the children’s market where I might be able to find a niche.

So what next? Do I give up writing novels, as some of my friends have done? Do I slog on, safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of others in the same boat? Every time I ask myself these questions, I get a different answer. The only thing I’m sure about right now is that something has to change.


Friday, 22 August 2014

A Work in Progress

Well, my plan for world domination by sharing a load of stuff I’ve written is still under development, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

(click picture to see a bigger version)

This mind map is an attempt to flush out some ideas for the type of content I could be sharing. Whether anyone wants to read these things is a different matter, but I guess we’ll see about that.

My next task is to reorganise this website and add some tagging so you can actually find the interesting stuff I’ve already written (and the uninteresting stuff too!) This week has got away from me a little – work has been super-busy and I was also compelled to get down the first draft of a flash fiction that I’m intending for Stew Magazine. It’s a creepy story in the classic Edgar Allen Poe/HP Lovecraft mode, with a dash of Monty Python and a modern twist. The end still needs a little work, but otherwise I’m happy with it. I've noticed a tendency for the definite article in my recent short story titles (The Last Typewriter, The Improbable Prince, The Visitors etc.) so I'm trying to avoid calling it something with "the" on the front, which is harder than it sounds!

Talking of Stew Magazine, I got the proofs of my forthcoming story from the September issue, which looks as fabulous as ever:

(no, you can't see a bigger version. Buy the magazine!)

The illustration by Daniel Duncan is nicely opaque – hinting at the story but not giving too many details away. After a bit of back and forth, we’ve settled on The Visitors for this issue, and anyone keeping score will recognise this as the story I read out at the SCBWI Retreat in May. From laptop to printed magazine in less than five months – pretty good going, I’d say!


Friday, 15 August 2014

Out of the Cave

You’ll have noticed that I’ve been blogging less and less this year. Although I’ve kept up my weekly Blog Break schedule, my updates here have become pretty much monthly. In fact, when I checked, I found that I hadn’t written a “think piece” like this since April, even though they used to be the weekly bread and butter of my blog.

So what changed? I’d love to say that I’ve been working on an amazing secret project, but mostly I’ve been writing the same kind of stuff as usual: the odd short story, a new 9-12 novel that’s about a third complete. I’m sure that I could fit blogging around my schedule, but I haven’t felt compelled to share my thoughts with the world.

This is the crux of the matter, part of a pattern that has also seen me retreat from my personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t mind the Blog Break, because it allows me to highlight (and hide behind) other people’s work, but nowadays my only regular tweets are the ones I send to promote it. It’s not like I’ve become a digital hermit, but I am sharing less of myself with the world than I once did.

Why swim against the tide? There isn’t a single reason, but one thing I have become tired of is the constant noise from social media. Everywhere I look on the internet, there are voices clamouring to be heard, and life seems to be boiling down into a competition about who can shout the loudest. Children’s literature has been characterised by one furore after another this year: Sick Lit, Lynne Shepherd laying into JK Rowling, the Bunker Diary winning the Carnegie Medal, the Slate article about adults being embarrassed to read YA and just last week the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover debate. In each case, battle lines are drawn and the usual rent-a-gobs of children’s literature wheel out their opinions.

I’ve contributed in a small way to some of those discussions, but I don’t want to be one of those people who can always be relied upon to have an inflammatory opinion when these issues come up. Most of the time, I don’t have a strong reaction and want to read the arguments for and against before I make up my mind. But like quiet books, it seems nowadays that quiet voices don’t get much of a look-in.

It’s true that writing is one activity where retreating from the world has traditionally been encouraged. Authors often talk about disappearing into their “writing cave” to work on the next book, and sometimes disappear from the internet for weeks or months at a time. But I must admit that I’m becoming tired of the treadmill that is writing a book, sending it out, waiting for months to get rejected and then beginning a new book that starts the whole cycle again. I’m not saying that I want to stop writing books and trying to get them published, it’s just that I’d like a bit more balance between the delayed and instant gratification of being a writer.

Oliver Burkeman echoed a lot of my feelings in one of his Guardian articles recently. As well as talking about people who shun the limelight, he introduced the concept of creative “stock and flow”. This idea, devised by novelist Robin Sloan, depicts flow as being our daily output of tweets and updates, while stock is the durable content we create that lasts. Perhaps I’ve been spending a little too much time on my stock to the detriment of my flow in recent months?

This week, I stumbled upon a terrific book by Austin Kleon called Show Your Work! which also talks about the stock and flow idea. Kleon’s take on it is slightly different, because he maintains that flow can be converted into stock, with ideas that started as tweets or blogs becoming whole chapters of his book. That sounds easier to achieve as a non-fiction writer than a children’s author, but Kleon’s ideas are still really intriguing. He advocates sharing your process as the best way to build an audience and get discovered, ideally posting something every day.

This approach echoes what I’ve seen Sarah McIntyre doing on her Livejournal site. Sarah is one of the creative people who I really admire, and I always enjoy it when she discusses her influences or shares her work in progress. This is perhaps more straightforward for an artist to achieve than a writer, but it’s made me realise that there are lots of avenues to get my work out there that I’m not exploring right now. After all, Sarah is also the busiest person in children’s books/comics, so if she can find time to blog regularly, anyone can!

Another creative person I admire is my wife Claire, whose beautiful drawings and paintings seem to attract a lot of oohs and ahhs from her Facebook friends. She’s taken to uploading a photo of each one as she finishes it, and I’m quite jealous of the instant hit of admiration she gets by doing so.

I‘m still planning what form my own creative sharing will take, but one thing I’m adamant about is that I want to achieve it without shouting too loud. So be ready to gather close and listen carefully, because I’m hoping we’ll all learn something.