Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Writing the Book of Your Heart

Just before Christmas I went to see Hugo.  This was taken from the graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  Selznick was a successful illustrator but like many in that business he had become disillusioned and depressed and had stopped working.  Then he met Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are.  

He talked to me about my work, which he said showed great promise, but he steadfastly maintained that I hadn’t come close to reaching my full potential yet. These words resonated with me very strongly. I think I had secretly felt the same way. I talked to him about how lost I felt, about how I didn’t know what I should do next. His words were simple but powerful: “Make the book you want to make.” 

At the time Selznick didn't understand him, but gradually a book unlike any other came into his head, a 550 page long picture book. He had no idea if there was a market for such a book but it was the book he wanted to make.  So he did.  The result was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which received the Caldecott Medal, and it's from his acceptance speech that the above quote comes from.  

I say to students all the time that they should write from the heart. Creativity has to come from the heart, and not the head.  There's no point in trying to write a particular style or for a particular market if it's done for cynical reasons.  Everything in writing has already been done - every plot has been covered, every character has already appeared.  The only thing that hasn't been done is your story told in your way, with your whole heart behind it.  

Monday, 30 January 2012

On Readers, Writing and Macaroons

Every year at Christmas I make macaroons.  Old fashioned ones, not those fancy coloured French things piled like jewels in patisserie shops (and selling for practically the same price as jewels).  Mine are big, chewy things with a crisp exterior and a soft interior, with rice paper on the bottom.  They are damn fine macaroons, even though I say it myself.  

At Christmas the kitchen is scented with almonds and as I prepare yet another batch, occasionally I dream of a macaroon making empire where I will supply the world with my macaroons.  But the reality is that, while I enjoy my cooking stint, if I was preparing macaroons every day the charm would fade fast.  It would become just another job.  

I was thinking about this because someone wrote to me about the difference between writing for oneself alone, and writing for a reader.  To paraphrase, writing for oneself you could do what you liked, but once a reader was involved you had to be aware of them and pay attention to things such as pacing, structure, characterisation and so on - the stuff I teach.  

I agree, up to a point.  But then, what about my macaroons?  I have no intention of ever trying to build even the smallest of macaroon empires, but I strive to make them as good as possible - even if it's just me who is going to scoff the lot (it has been known...).  I think we can write just for ourselves, and yet also want our writing to be as good as it possibly can be, even if we're not intending to show it to anyone else.  

So, no macaroon empire for me, but I still enjoy the making and the baking and the satisfaction of doing a good job.  Even if we have no intention of ever showing our work to anyone I think we can try to learn to be the best writer we can be.  Apart from anything else, the journey is such fun.  

Friday, 27 January 2012

The Writer's Process

I had two conversations about the writer's process yesterday. One was with a student who was amazed to hear that I went through many drafts before considering my work finished (the never ending book has, in fact, had two endings so far, but I'm about to write number three), and the other was with a fellow writer who mentioned that he had the same process. "I think of the first draft as just getting my ideas down," he said. "It's only after that that I 'write' the book."

I daresay that there are some writers for whom the words just flow in perfect order - like Mozart taking dictation - but for most writing is a process. Some will plan and then write, others will write and then plan. It doesn't matter what your process is, and it may take some time and plenty of trial and error before you work out what your personal process is.

There will almost certainly be several phases:
A thinking phase.
A writing phase.
A planning phase.
A re-writing phase.
A fine tuning phase.

But the order in which you tackle each phase is personal to you. So, some people go chapter by chapter, thinking, planning, writing, re-writing, fine tuning. Others will write a whole mad first draft in a great burst of energy, and then start the thinking and planning processes. The order you do things in doesn't matter, so long as you do them.

My mother told me not to fret about when my babies walked, or talked or was potty trained, on the grounds that they'd all manage it by 18. It's the end product that matters, not how you get there.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Agents and Statistics

At an agent talk before Christmas, the agent casually announced some statistics. He received 5,000 submissions a year. Of these 4,800 weren't what he wanted (he was actually more blunt than this). Of the remaining 200, he asked to see a full manuscript once a month. He took on half of these.

This could sound very depressing, and the person who actually attended the talk had thought they were damning statistics. However, I thought they were actually rather cheering because the implication is that he's very good at weeding out the manuscripts that he knows he's not interested in for whatever reason - subject matter, genre, writing style, author approach. For him to take on half - half! - means that he's good at spotting 'his' thing.

And that's what you want, an agent who thinks you're 'their' thing. You don't want to work with someone who doesn't believe in you. You don't want to work with someone who has to have their arm twisted in order for them to take you on. You want the agent who thinks your book is fab, the one who is bursting with enthusiasm to sell it, the one who utterly believes in your work.

And it's also encouraging for anyone who has received anything other than a standard rejection. Yes, you're one of the rejected, but the final 200 out of 4,800 doesn't sound so bad. You're in the top 2%! You've been picked out as worth of special merit, but this time - and with this agent - you're not moving on to the next level. However depressing, it's also a strong sign you're on the right lines.

Rejection is tough. Of course it is. But we all go through it. The writer who has never been rejected on the road to publication is a rare beast. I possess a letter from one agent who told me not to bother with writing as I was wasting my time. (I had a good publishing deal with a Big 6 publisher a few months later, so not entirely wasting my time...)

Take heart! Push on through the rejection, and try again. Try better.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Character Wants and Needs

Characters should have both wants and needs, but it's sometimes hard to tell which is which.

Let's suppose your character is an aspiring politician. They want to be elected as a Member of Parliament. The reasons behind that want are the need - they need to have power over others to hide their own self doubt, they need to win to gain the approval of a never satisfied parent, they need to show the bullies at their secondary school that they can succeed.

Your character, in the telling of the story, might gain their want, but not satisfy their need - for example, they become an MP but realise they don't have any power, or the parent still isn't satisfied or the bullies don't care.

They might lose their want, but gain their need - for example, they lose the election but realise that they'll have more power outside formal politics/they don't need to have power over others, their parent says they're proud of them, the bullies are humbled.

In An Officer and A Gentleman (oh yes, I go for the most high brow examples) the Richard Gere character, Zach, wants to become an officer to gain the respect of others, but what he needs is to learn to become a team player and not to just look after himself. He wants to get the fastest time on the assault course because he wants to win. Towards the end of the film he tackles the assault course but when the finishing line is in sight and it is certain he's going to get the record, he stops to help a struggling team mate and they cross the finishing line together. He loses his want - the record - but gains his need (friendship, he's no longer alone), and in turn gains his other want that of truly deserving to be an officer and a gentleman. Oh, and he gets the girl...

Cue music, the factory, the hat, the uniform...

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Holding a Reader's Focus

I hate it when I'm deep in a book and get interrupted. Woe betide you if you phone trying to sell me double glazing or PPI insurance protection. But then, what to do about the author who constantly interrupts me reading their story?

Anything that interrupts my reading focus is an interruption which is why you need to edit and edit and edit to make sure that there's nothing to stop the text flowing. This is where beta readers come in, friends who will read and note any places where they had a hiccup in the reading experience. Hopefully they'll pick up things like this, seen in last Saturday's Times:

"Freddie Max Wright was born on November 18, 2011. Freddie was born with a full head of hair weighing 8lb 3oz."

That's some hair! If you were reading it in a story you might blink, smile, and then carry on but even that momentary loss of focus might be enough to break your commitment to the story. If there are repeated mistakes, then the reader will give up. That's why it's so important to make sure the text is as clean as you can make it. No typos, no grammatical glitches and nothing to stand in the way between your text and the reader.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Coincidences and YouTube

There's a video about a road rage incident in Bath currently going viral on YouTube. It's not me, but a coincidence that we share a name and live in Bath.

Coincidence happens all the time in real life. Sarah Duncan isn't an unusual name, and I expect there are several Sarah Duncans in Bath who are currently fretting in case anyone thinks the video features them.

But coincidences in stories...now, that's another matter. You can get away with a coincidence at the beginning - the initiating incident perhaps - but any further on and the reader will feel cheated. Put your coincidence at the end, particularly if it solves the overall plot, and they'll be furious.

I think it's because coincidence can makes the story all too convenient. We know they happen in real life, but fiction isn't real life, it's pretend real life. The author is choosing what to include or exclude, and most of the characters' 'real life' will be excluded: you don't often see characters doing the boring stuff like getting dressed or cooking every meal. Everything in the story has therefore been especially selected and choosing a handy coincidence to solve the plot feels like the author being lazy.

I believe that one of the reasons we read fiction is to see how other people handle problems. We like matching up our solutions against theirs. We also like to see characters working to achieve solutions. If the problem is solved by coincidence, then the reader is deprived of those two very basic pleasures and whatever the genre, that certainly isn't a happy ending.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Video On Youtube is NOT Me!

Just to clarify - the video of road rage currently going viral all over the net has nothing to do with me. It's a coincidence that the shop and I share a name, and we're both in Bath.

I don't drive an Audi, have short dark curly hair and never wear green. And I hope I'm not so daft.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Writing When Tired

It's January. The house is cold and looks a shambles. I'm commuting 200 miles between Bath and St Ives. I've just started teaching again. I got a flat tyre yesterday. Am I writing? Er....No.

What I want to do in the evenings and at weekends is grab a cup of tea and snuggle down in front of the fire with a re-run of Wycliffe. The last thing I want to do is write. Creativity and tiredness are not easy companions. But. But. But. Tiredness can also be an excuse. Most of us are tired, but if you want to write you have to find the hours when you can.

I had two young children when I wrote my my first novel and to be honest I don't know how I did it. I remember getting up early, staying up late, writing while dishing up supper (watching out for spag bol on the keyboard). I wrote that first draft while my busy life carried on around me. Tired? Yes, of course, but the motivation to write kept me going.

It's always the first ten minutes that are the hardest. Once you're underway, the writing warms up and soon an hour has gone by without you realising it. And by the end of that hour it strikes you that a) you don't feel so tired and b) you feel proud of what you've achieved. You pushed through the tiredness and now have something to show for it. Hooray!

So forget the tiredness: you'll never get anything done if you wait until you feel fully refreshed. Just get on with it - even if it's only for ten minutes - and enjoy the glow of achievement when you've done some writing.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Picture Book Text Format

Picture books follow a particular technical format.  This is because books are made by printing on enormous sheets of paper which are then cut and folded into 32 pages. (Longer books are made by glueing those 32 pages together - if you check the spine you can usually see the folds.) 

With a picture book the first couple of pages will be taken up by a title page, and the publishing information page, the end pages will be perhaps more information on other titles. That leaves between 24 and 28 pages to play with, which translates to 12, 13 or 14 spreads. 

You have to work out how your story fits into those spreads.  It can be useful to make a dummy book - 8 sheets of A4 paper folded in half will give you 32 pages (page 1 is the front, p 32 is the back). So, pages 2,3,4,5 have title info etc, Spread 1 is p6 and p7, Spread 2 is p8 and p9, Spread 3 is p10 and p11 and so on.  The text is presented like this:

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw an enormous dinosaur.
Spread 2
It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

We also have to imagine the reading experience. So each spread should invite the readers to continue reading.

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw....
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

You don't need to give the illustrator instructions unless it's not clear what should be in the picture.  For example, it's clear from the text that Jennifer sees an enormous dinosaur so you don't need to tell the illustrator this.  It's not relevant to the story what colour the dinosaur is, so you don't need to tell the illustrator that.  It is relevant that Jennifer is a wart hog, and not clear from the text, so you do need to tell the illustrator this.

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise outside the window.  She looked out and saw....
(Illustration: Jennifer is a warthog)
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

And we have to think in pictures.  If Jennifer is inside, the dinosaur is outside, how are we going to show this?  Will we see the dinosaur running towards Jennifer from Jennifer's POV or the dinosaur's?  And will it be that scary if Jennifer is still in the house and therefore protected from the dinosaur outside?  (That Jennifer is a warthog and living in a house is just fine by picture book standards.)

Spread 1
Jennifer heard a noise coming from behind the termite mound.  She looked up and saw....
(Illustration: Jennifer is a warthog)
Spread 2
An enormous dinosaur! It ran towards Jennifer saying "I'm going to eat you up!"

(NB I'm assuming in the above scenario that the illustrator will read 'termite mound' and 'wart hog' immediately place the scene on the plains of Africa, not on Willesden High Road, so it doesn't need mentioning.)  

And so on until you've told your story in 12, 13, or 14 spreads, no more, no less. Add a word count and your contact details at the end, and you're done.

I think picture book texts are the hardest form of writing EVER, and the editing process is gruelling - with so few words to play with, everyone can have their say about whether it should be termite mound or ant hill.  Added to that, because the form is short, lots of people try it so competition is stiff, and because full colour illustration is increasingly expensive to produce and print, fewer picture books are being produced.  

If you want to try them, why not, but it's a long journey from having an idea to getting the text right, to getting that phone call from an editor.  100,000 word novels, in my opinion, are so much easier. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Is Telling The Facts Unkind?

A writer presented a picture book text for workshopping.  Now, picture book texts have a particular format and as a result they have various technical issues that must be addressed such as word limits, working in a fixed number of spreads rather than pages, and so on.  Above all, they will need to be illustrated, and therefore the text must imply pictures.  You can't really illustrate certain things, like sound or thoughts.  

The text presented was one continuous piece of prose.  I gave a brief run-down on how picture book texts were presented, and we tried to see how the text would work within spreads rather than pages etc.  It became clear that a lot of the text did not translate into images and that the action was static ie located in one place without forward movement.  In other words, the text was not working as a picture book text - which is not to say that it wasn't working as a piece of writing or a story, just that it didn't fit the market that the writer was aiming at.  

This seems to me to be a matter of fact, not opinion.  Publishing is full of facts like this. If a short story comp states a maximum of 2000 words, then 2500 is too long.  Full stop.  The writer can choose to cut 500 words, or send their story to a different competition, that's up to them, but the parameters are clear.  If someone is looking for apples, they don't want pears, no matter how beautiful the pears are. 

I don't think it's being unkind to present these facts.  If anything, I think it's unkind to pretend that these facts don't exist.  Sadly, I believe the writer misunderstood 'the text does not fit in with the technical requirements of the format you're aiming for' and heard it as 'this text is no good' and was hurt. For that I am sorry.  But it still doesn't stop the facts being the facts.  

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Golden Syrup Is Not Character Building

One of the reasons the film of War Horse didn't grab me was the lack of character development.  Everybody stayed exactly the same and their characters went nowhere (it must have been depressing for the actors - if you were cast as 'mean landlord' you were stuck as 'mean landlord' and even an actor of the calibre of David Thewlis couldn't do much with that).

The original book is narrated by the horse, who changes in the original story from an innocent colt to a survivor.  But the film chose (for understandable reasons) not to be narrated from the horse's point of view.  This transformed it from being a linear character journey into a circular story, a series of episodes before finally coming full circle and reuniting the horse and his first owner.  

This meant the human characters had little opportunity for development.  The chosen solution was to bring on the violins and dollop out the sweetness.  Most of the characters Joey the horse encountered were 'good' - incredibly good.  There was no shade to their radiant goodness.  The other non-good characters were, surprise surprise, utterly bad.  There was no light to their brutish badness.  

We all know this to be untrue.  People are never wholly good, or wholly bad.  They are multi-faceted, and fictional characters need to reflect this.  And if ever there was a time when characters are tested it's war. Essentially good people are put in positions when they are compelled to behave badly or selfishly.  People who have got into the habit of behaving brutally find a chink of humanity.  

Ambiguity in characters is eternally interesting because a) we don't know which way they'll go next and b) it's the truth.  Smothering characters in golden syrup is no substitute for character development.  

Monday, 16 January 2012

Anticipation is Crucial for Story Telling

At the weekend I saw two films, War Horse and Iron Lady.  War Horse I had neither read the book nor seen the stage play.  Iron Lady I knew the story well, as it was the story of my own life as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s.  So, which was the story that had me gripped, the one where I knew the plot or the one I didn't?

Iron Lady was the answer.  War Horse was so filled with cliche that you knew what was going to happen at every turn, and your anticipation was never wrong.  Will the horse and his boy ever meet again?  Well, what do you think?  I don't want to give the plot away, but every plot question was answered in exactly the way you expected.

Iron Lady, on the other hand, had the clever device of switching between Margaret Thatcher in the present (elderly, with the onset of dementia) with her incredible history.  You may have known the history, but you didn't know the present, nor when there were going to be parallels between the past and the present, nor when the switch was going to happen. 

When we read, we often anticipate the ending - the guy gets the girl, the murderer is uncovered, the jewels are found and restored to the rightful owner.  Anticipating the ending doesn't matter; in fact, we'll be disappointed if we don't get the answer we expect.  What we enjoy is not going the route we were expecting, but still ending up in the right place.  That's the trick of story telling: giving us what we expect but not in the way we expected it. 

Friday, 13 January 2012

Why Should Writers Be Grateful?

An offer is made - the writer should feel grateful. That seems to be the overwhelming feeling, whether it's an offer of representation from an agent, or a deal from a publisher, or for an appearance at a literary festival. You should feel grateful, and let's face it - usually we are.

But gratitude doesn't pay the rent. In all of the above situations, what the writer is being offered is a business deal. The person making the offer isn't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts but because they think they're going to make money from you. Perhaps we might start being a little less grateful...

Take literary festivals. The organisers are paid. The brochure printer and website designer gets paid. The venues get paid. But there's often no mention of payment for the author, or it's a nominal amount. And you'd have to sell 1000s of books to get back in royalties the cost of a lost day's work.

The agent and publisher - yes, they're taking a gamble, but they're doing it for business reasons. Lovely that they think you've got potential to make money for them, but unthinking gratitude? Why shouldn't you question the terms and conditions?

I was talking to a friend about garages and cars (I've had car problems recently). He said he wasn't interested in either, he just wanted his car to go. At his last visit the garage asked him to rate the service he'd been given. As he didn't tick "exceptional" he was phoned up to ask why. He said they had done the job they'd been asked to. That wasn't exceptional, that should be normal.

It's a bit the same for writers. You've done a good job and you're getting the appropriate response for it. You shouldn't feel grateful, but normal.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

When Infallible Heroes Work (And When They Don't)

The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth's first novel, was turned down by many publishers because - as it concerns an assassin who is after General de Gaulle - they reasoned that readers wouldn't be gripped as they would know the main character doesn't succeed in his aim, and therefore there would be no tension.  

They were wrong - it became an international best seller and a tension-packed film.  Why?  We know the main character won't succeed, because de Gaulle wasn't assassinated.  So why are we waiting to see if he will be?  

The main character in The Day of the Jackal is an exception to the usual rule. He is an Infallible Hero.  Every setback he's already planned for.  He's got lots of passports, knows how to disguise a car and smuggle guns through customs.  He's ruthless about killing anyone who gets in his way.  He runs rings around the poor old police, plodding along in his wake.  He appears invincible.  We know he won't succeed, so instead of the more usual: Will the hero succeed in their quest (the answer usually being Yes), the question becomes, firstly, how can this Infallible Hero be stopped? and secondly, Who is this Infallible Hero? 

We're not stupid, us readers.  We know most stories start at A and end with Z, whether they're a romance (which always ends with a kiss and Happy Ever After) or a murder mystery (the detective finds out who dunnit) or a thriller (the secret is unmasked).  It's how we get to Z that matters, not what Z is.  The more Z appears impossible to achieve (the lovers have a quarrel, the main suspect is murdered, the trail goes cold etc) the more we like it.  

The easiest way to make Z impossible to achieve is to make the main character fallible.  They muck things up.  They get it wrong.  They forget the important gadget.  They go off in a huff.  Or make a bad decision.  Just like us, in fact.  They are fallible, but achieve their goal in the end.  

We often pitch our fallible characters against apparently infallible antagonists, often authority figures like parents, head teachers, megalomaniac bosses or evil corporations.  Think of The Terminator.  Arnie's robotic character is unstoppable but the poor fallible humans have to stop him somehow.  How will they do that?  It's impossible!  But by the end they do.  They get to Z (against all the odds, as the cliche has it). 

If our main protagonist was infallible, and got everything right AND achieved their goal, how irritating would that be?  We'd be utterly fed up with them.  So we need to know that the apparently infallible hero won't succeed a la Day of the Jackal.  Similarly, if our apparently infallible antagonists turn out to be infallible and the poor hero fails utterly, then the story is limp and ends unsuccessfully.  (How to make apparently down beat endings up beat is the subject of another post.)

It's the struggle we like.  We hope that in real life our struggle will be rewarded by success.  If there's no struggle, then we hope the rewards won't follow. Sadly real life isn't fair like this, but fiction can be.  As an author part of our job is to make it so.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Planning or Sailing into the Mist?

I had the idea for my A-Z of Writing at the end of November.  Great, I thought, frantically scribbling down an alphabet on the back of an envelope.  If I do an A-Z, that will keep me supplied with ideas for blog posts all the way through Christmas and into the New Year.  I won't have to think, or be imaginative, or creative at all. I will concentrate on shopping and Christmas instead. That was my plan.

What actually happened was that I changed my mind about my blog posts all the time.  T was going to be about Talent not Totalitarianism, U was going to be about Universality not Unicorns, Y was going to be about Youth not Yippedee-doo-dah.  Perhaps the A-Z would have been better for sticking to the initial list I scribbled down in 5 minutes, but I think not.  They were a bit obvious and boring.  Well, they seemed obvious and boring to me, which didn't bode well given I was the one who was going to write them.

I'm the same with planning what I'm going to writer my novels.  I can plan with the best of them - in fact, I can think of nothing nicer than spending several days faffing around with index cards - but when it comes to actually writing material to flesh out my plan I zoom off piste pretty quickly.  The only time I've tried to stick to The Plan I got so bored I gave up.  

For me, the planning comes best AFTER I've written a first draft, not BEFORE.  I use the index cards to whip that stodgy wodge of material into a decent shape.  This may involve lots of new writing, but that seems to work as I've already got a reasonable framework down on the page.  

Some people need the plan first to anchor them and provide security.  I believe Ken Follett does such detailed synopses of his books that it really is only a matter of fleshing them out a little.  Each to their own.  

I know that I need to have at least something down on the page before I start planning, but the further I have written into the novel, the more detailed my plan becomes.  The plan and the story grow organically together.  But that's my method: it may not be yours. 

Part of the process of becoming a writer is to work out what works best for you.  Maybe you're a planner, maybe you prefer sailing into the mist.  Be open minded, try both, and learn from the experience.  Keep learning.  That's all you can do.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Z is for ZZZzzzz

As a reader I love books that I simply have to finish.  They're the ones that I'm so absorbed by that I carry on reading late into the night, even though my eyelids are drooping and I'm finding it hard to focus.  Books that make a long boring journey happen in seconds.  Books which take my mind off domestic problems and whisk me away to more interesting places.  

Different types of books are going to work for different people - what makes me an insomniac may turn you into a narcoleptic - but I think a primary aim of an author should be to interest the reader to the point that they forget their circumstances, whatever that may be. 

The most basic method is to pose a 'Will they, won't they' question - will they, won't they discover the truth/get together/find out who dunnit.  Part of the skill is for the answer to appear obvious, so the reader thinks they know what they're getting, and then to do something entirely plausible but completely unexpected.  That'll keep them reading.  

A mistake many new writers make is to believe that the action has to be big and dramatic to make it unputdownable.  I read Family Album by Penelope Lively a couple of months ago and was riveted, even though it's a very small story on a limited domestic scale.  The characters were real and consistent, but never predictable. What was going to happen next?  Where was it going to end? I never knew and that kept me reading late into the night.  

So if you want to keep your readers from going to zzzz then keep them guessing the answers to your story questions, and then give them answers they weren't expecting.  

Monday, 9 January 2012

Y is for Yippedee-doo-dah

Hooray!  You've had the call from an agent wanting to represent you.  Or you've had an offer from a publisher.  Or you've won first prize in a short story competition.  Time to break out the champagne!

And why not?  So long as after the bubbly's been drunk you stop and put a more cautious hat on.  Most of the time the offer will be entirely genuine and no need to read the small print, but that's no reason to trust them.  This is a business arrangement and you need to stop feeling grateful that someone wants you - which is how we all feel, of course - and get real.  

Take a friend of mine.  A multi-published author, her agent presented her with some contracts to sign selling her e-book rights to her publisher.  She did so without thinking - she assumed her agent would have checked that it was all OK.  And it was, up to a point.  Except, she sees her extensive backlist up on the publisher's website all at the same price as her paperbacks, with no additional marketing by the publisher and no advance up front and 25% of the non-existent royalties doesn't seem such a good deal. Especially as she's just been dropped by that publisher.

Take another author.  First prize in short story competition - hooray!  Publication in an anthology - whoopee!  But copyright was handed over in the small print - which was a pity, given the anthology has been sold to the US with a vast print run (which the author wasn't notified of and only discovered accidently) so no royalties will be forthcoming.  I've recently seen several short story comps which demand assignment of copyright as a condition of entry, which is outrageous - read the small print.

And then there are agents.  I'm not talking about the obvious scammers - anyone can set themselves up as an agent so you have to be careful - but what about the legit agent who offers to represent your novel on the basis of, say, a win in a short story competition? I've heard of agents who seem to trawl the MAs and comps offering representation - a bit like talent spotters I suppose. There's no doubt that they're bona fide agents and get good deals for some of their clients, but an author should think before they commit themselves.  Would they have chosen to approach this agent regardless?  If yes, then fine.  But if they would have been second or third (fourth, fifth etc) choice, why sign early, especially if you haven't yet started approaching other agents?

Finally, publishers.  Publishing has changed dramatically over the last few years and continues to change so find out a bit about the publisher's background before you say yes. There are lots of small independent publishers around, but not all of them are as successful as others.  Some are set up by well-meaning people who believe in good writing but have little idea of how to run a business.  They may cope financially only because of grants (eg from the Arts Council), which might be removed.  If a publisher goes bust, or only sells a few copies of your novel, then it will be unlikely you'll be able to get another deal for that book (though once you've got the rights back, you could always self/e-publish).

So, enjoy your moment of glory, but always read the small print and don't get carried away just because somebody wants you.  

Friday, 6 January 2012

X is for XFactor - the Magic Ingredient

I listened to Adele in concert over Christmas.  Wow, what an amazing voice she has - and still so young.  It's sickening how talented she is.  

I was so inspired I went onto her website out of curiosity.  She's had to cancel some concerts recently due to vocal strain.  I checked out the list of venues - my word, practically every day she was scheduled to perform in a different city in the UK and USA.  Adele may be incredibly talented but she also works hard.  

I wish I was as naturally gifted as Adele is.  But I'm not, and there's no point in fretting about it.  What I can do is work as hard as she does.  Stephen King says he writes 2000 words a day, every day, including Christmas and birthdays.  I don't, and my output reflects that.  Regardless of how talented you may or may not be, if you don't put in the time, you won't get far. 

So my tips to getting the writing X factor would always start with putting the time in.  Then I'd add:
- learning about writing through reading.  
- matching your voice to the right form.
- being persistent.
- keeping the faith
- being patient.  

To be honest, even if you're as super-talented as Adele is, unless you have the other elements it won't make any difference how talented you are.  Becoming a writer is all about a package of factors, and not just one arbitrary element called talent. 

Thursday, 5 January 2012

W is for Writing

To be a writer all you have to do is write.  

Sounds simple, doesn't it?  I know I'm not alone in that, while I love writing, I find it very hard to actually DO some.  Once I'm going it's not hard, but those first words on the page before I've settled down are grim.  

Writers write.  

If only that were so, there'd be a lot fewer angsty writers around.  I don't know a single writer who doesn't fret about their writing practice to some extent.  What we do is develop strategies to get us writing - planning ahead, setting word count targets, working in spaces without internet access.  Routine helps for most people, although that routine varies from writer to writer.  

The only secret formula in successful writing is summarised by one 5 letter word beginning with W...

You know it.  I know it.  You can spend a lot of good writing time fretting about how much you really ought to be writing.  You can spend a lot of good writing time reading blogs, following writers, agents and publishers on Twitter.  You can spend a lot of good writing time doing the ironing or watching TV...  

Writers write.  That's all there is to it.  I wish it wasn't like that, but there it is.  To be a writer you've got to write.  


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

V is for Voice

A lot of new writers worry about their 'voice'.  Understandable, given that debut novels are often heralded with comments like 'a stunning new voice' and agents write rejection letters with feedback such as 'didn't like the voice' or 'didn't believe the voice'.  I think I was lucky in that I didn't register the term until after I was published, because I'd have been fretting about my voice (or lack of it) and would have become very self-conscious.  

Voice is simply the way you write.  It's about your choice of vocabulary, your word order, your writing style, your subject matter.  It's as individual as your speaking voice and comes as naturally.  You can tweak it, in the same way you can tweak an accent, and you can develop it through reading and writing, but essentially it is what it is.  Your voice is you, and there's not a great deal you can do about it.  

But sometimes your voice doesn't match your chosen form.  When I started I wrote literary short stories.  I had some success with them, but the natural home for my voice is contemporary women's fiction and when I started writing in that style - by accident! - it just clicked.  That's one of the good things about writing exercises; they force writers to go outside their usual genres. Sometimes that suits the author's voice better.  

Writers with very distinctive voices have to be doubly persistent.  They can struggle to find a form that both shows off their style AND fits into a publishing category.  I'm afraid that publishing is a cautious business and they like work that can be neatly slotted into marketing boxes.  Work that sits outside the usual categories struggles to find a home.  Kate Atkinson and Terry Pratchett have such distinctive voices that they have developed genres all of their own, and there are many other similar examples. 

Sometimes authors find their work being published in areas they didn't expect - last year I met a Costa winning author who hadn't expected to be marketed as YA, she just wrote a book.  I've heard other authors who thought they'd written one thing, but were marketed as another eg Louise Welsh and The Cutting Room.  Jill Mansell once told me that she'd tried writing for Mills and Boon, and kept on being turned down because she had too much humour.  She finally changed to chick lit and rom-coms and became one of the top selling UK authors.  

So, don't worry about your voice - it's there regardless - but search for the form that suits it best.  It may not be what you think it is.  

Monday, 2 January 2012

U is for Unicorns

Am I the only person who hasn't read the Steig Larsson trilogy?  I haven't because I've heard they're extremely violent, and I don't like reading violence.  But my avoidance doesn't seem to have made much of a dent in their popularity.  I've not read much misery lit either, or science fiction, and even in genres I do read I have big gaps.  

One writer I like reading is Anne Tyler.  My least favourite book of hers is Breathing Lessons.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1989, so obviously they didn't feel the same as me.  

I once brought into class the opening scene to Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, as an example of writing a compelling suspense-filled beginning.  Most people agreed but it wasn't a 100% success - one person said they'd got fed up with all the hinting and would have stopped reading.  
Three examples where different people have different reactions to books.  All the books have been hugely successful, all have their detractors.  The book that everyone loves is as rare as...well, a unicorn.  

So feedback has to be taken with a pinch of salt, as does any prescription or formula for writing.  There isn't some perfect standard that we're all aiming for, a universal book.  There is only the best book that you can write at this time (which may be quite different from the book that you write next year, or the year after that).