Friday, 24 January 2014

Going Dark

I'm going to take a break from blogging, for the next month or two. Not a wildly controversial decision, you might think, but it's one I've found difficult to make. When I review my blog archives, I can see that I've been posting virtually every Friday for over four years! And I've never found it difficult to come up with new subjects and ideas every week, at least until recently.

But, since the tail end of last year, I've been finding this weekly blog becoming more of a chore than a pleasure (though there were exceptions like last week's post, which tumbled out in a blur of excitement). Although writing a post every Friday has been great discipline for me, it feels like it's time to take a break and recharge my blogging batteries.

Don't worry that I'll get bored, because I'm going to keep writing the Words & Pictures Blog Break (where you get to have the ideas instead of me!) There's also the not inconsiderable matter of a completely new draft of my novel to crack on with, and it feels good to commit to my fiction writing for a while. So please excuse me as I retreat into my dark cave and I'll see you on the other side!

Nick.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Game is Afoot

I was having a certain kind of day and planning a certain kind of blog, when an unexpected email dropped into my inbox. OK, I say unexpected, but it was an editorial response to a full manuscript I'd submitted, so I suppose I was expecting it at some point.

I stared at the email header in the list and it stared back at me. I thought of Achievement Points and publishing glory, and then ran away for ten minutes to do something else!

When I came back, it was still there, waiting for me. "It's going to be No", I said to myself. But it could be a Yes! said a tiny voice at the back of my head. "It's not going to be Yes," I responded, clicking my mouse.

It wasn't yes.

But equally, it wasn't no, either.

Instead, I had some honest-to-goodness editorial feedback. Only a page and a half (probably a mere pittance compared to what commissioned authors receive) but still a generous act by a busy professional. And look - my book doesn't totally suck after all!

I'm a great believer in reading feedback once and then putting it away for a day or so, because I know the next steps will come in their own time. If I decide to follow the suggestions it will probably require a complete rewrite, and I'll need to consider whether that will fit with my own vision of the novel. But damn it if I'm not suddenly excited about the book again and ready to try something new.

I think back to two years ago, the last time I received detailed feedback on a full manuscript. That time, it was six pages of intensely negative criticism that almost made me throw in the towel. But somehow, I didn't, and I feel like I've arrived at a much better place because of it. Because, this kind of editorial feedback, this back and forth, is really at the core of what we are trying to achieve as authors when we pursue publication.

Publication, fame and fortune might be the ultimate goal, but writing and rewriting is the game we play to get there. And it seems like I might finally be learning to enjoy that.

Nick.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Into the Wild

As I haven’t let anybody forget, I have a published short story in Stew Magazine, just out this week. It’s the first work of mine that’s appeared in print since the Undiscovered Voices anthology, and I’m again reminded of the curious feeling that accompanies your work being released into the wild.

(Cover by Jesse Hodgson)

For the first half hour after Stew arrived (once I’d checked my story for proofing errors, natch), I was elated. Here was my work about to make the journey into the hands of actual children for the first time! So I put the magazine in the hands of my own actual children and had them read the story. And neither of them liked it! How have I managed to breed these kids who dislike so much of my own work? (perhaps all that time devoted to developing their critical thinking would have been better spent making them recite the words “Dad, you’re a genius” over and over)

My self-doubt was eased by a couple of nice messages from people on Twitter, saying how much their children had liked the story (I resisted the temptation to make my own kids read these). It’s also a relief to be part of a larger magazine, full of other quality articles and features. A writer can hide behind the (true) notion that nobody can like everything, and a child will get a great experience out of the magazine regardless of what parts they enjoy most or least.

There’s additional comfort in having an editor and a creative team involved with the production. My creative choices have been analysed, approved and integrated into someone else’s artistic vision. I has become we. It’s made me realise how exposing self-publishing your novel must be, opening yourself up to praise and criticism without any buffer between you and the one-star Amazon reviews.

So, finally, my doubt has become expectation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids are going to read Princess of Dirt over the coming months. Some will gasp, some will sigh, some will nod approval, and some will look confused and turn the page. But all of them will feel something. And isn’t that what good writing is all about?

Nick.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Girl Power

TV viewers of a certain age (i.e. mine) may be disturbed to hear that it’s been ten years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended. Apart from making me feel old, this statistic prompted Naomi Alderman to make a thoughtful Radio 4 show and accompanying article on the show’s legacy. While Buffy has been hugely influential, the article quickly concludes that one of its key components – the array of complex female characters – is not echoed in many modern works. Naomi Alderman argues that while strong female characters (Katniss Everdene, Daenerys Targaryan, Black Widow) do exist in modern movies and TV shows, they are invariably isolated from other women, and often end up in the boy, girl, boy groupings familiar from Harry Potter or Twilight.

This set me to thinking about my own work. After a long period in which I was scared to write female characters (particularly in first-person), I’ve been making up for lost time. My forthcoming Stew Magazine short story has a strong feminist slant and my story in the subsequent issue will also feature a girl protagonist. My recent novel is, similarly, written from a nine-year-old girl’s perspective, taking a heavy swipe at the “girlie-girl” culture of children’s toys and fashions. But in all of these works, I realised, my central character is also generally isolated from other female characters. The Stew stories are very short, of course, and can probably be excused. In the novel, however, the other female characters are all antagonists, obstructing the heroine or forcing her to adopt cultural norms that she despises.

This realisation was initially troubling for me. Had I, subconsciously, been acting out my own misogynistic urges in the story? I couldn’t really find any evidence for that in the rest of my life, and I could also see strong dramatic reasons for my choices. By isolating the main character from help, I ramp up the tension in the story and lead her to take increasingly desperate actions. The cultural perception of females as being less physically able than males (ironically) feeds into this, eliciting more sympathy and sense of jeopardy from the reader. You can see this same dynamic at play in The Hunger Games. Would that book even have been published if Gale or Peeta was the main character instead of Katniss?

A lot of current and forthcoming movies featuring strong but isolated female characters are based on YA books, and so are inevitably skewed by the YA readership (or at least publishers’ perceptions of this audience). Romance is a key tick box for Young Adult, and it’s generally a straight romance, which necessitates a male character alongside the female lead. Add a love triangle and suddenly you have the boy, girl, boy grouping again!

All this doom and gloom ignores the fact that there is plenty of product for young people out there that passes the Bechdel test. Although Marvel’s big screen superhero movies have a distinct lack of lead female characters, Buffy creator Joss Whedon has ensured a 3:3 ratio of women to men on the Agents of Shield TV show. And the other day, I discovered great female characters in the most unlikely place - My Little Pony - Friendship is Magic. My daughters are obsessed with this recent reboot of the cartoon show, which features a whopping 6:1 ratio in favour of the female ponies, with one “token” male dragon. Although her name could use some work, Twilight Sparkle is the pony who takes the lead role in many of the early episodes, and her skills at magic are shown to be gained through intense study. Unlike Hermione Granger, she’s not belittled for her commitment and intelligence, because without all that learning, the forces of darkness might quickly triumph. A female role model who saves the day because she does her homework? That’s girl power!

Nick.

P.S. I’m reminded of this brilliant article imagining the Harry Potter series if Joanne Rowling had been prepared to take a few more risks and make Hermione the lead character.