Background artiste from 'Better than Stars'

Sunday, 20 November 2011

How do you keep going when nobody cares?

Maybe I could have put that better. I'm sure somebody cares. Your mother, your partner, your dog. My cat likes it when I write. It means I sit in one place, and he can play the try-to-get-on-her-lap game ... but I digress. Those are not the people I meant. What I actually meant to say was, how do you keep going when the publishing industry doesn't care? When there are no deadlines?

I suppose what would be helpful now would be for me to give some sage advice, but I don't really have any. This was more on the lines of a post to open up the subject for debate. If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

I suppose what most of us do is try to create artificial deadlines - artificial because it won't actually make any difference to anyone else if we don't meet them. Nano functions like that, and other co-operative ventures between writers. I set up little personal deadlines. The only people who will be affected at the moment if I don't finish my current book are my children, who will never inherit the royalties - but I doubt that's keeping them awake at night.

That was one of the benefits of doing an MA in Writing: plenty of deadlines then, and stimuli ... but now it's over, and most of us, apart from the one or two who got agents and/or publishers (it did happen) are finding it hard to keep up anything like the pace.

Of course you're doing it because you enjoy it - even when it's the most frustrating thing in the world. When the plot's hit a wall and the characters won't speak to you, and when you realise you've got to rewrite the whole s***ing 60,000 words. And that's when one of the people who does care (see above, but probably not the dog) will say "But it's just for fun, isn't it?"

And underlying it all, the elephant in the room if you like (sorry Sally), is the real question: if nobody cares, how long before you stop altogether?

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Scribbling with Light

I didn't take my camera with me to the firework display, otherwise I'd post a pic.

Maybe that's just as well. Others more skilled than me will be showing images of dark skies lit up by chrysanthemums of fire ... pictures which say everything but nothing about what it was like to be there at the time: a shower of silver that was both a tree and a waterfall; a cluster of sparks scurrying across the sky, squealing like aliens; the warmth of the mug of mulled wine and the closeness of friends. And above all the experience of what is essentially a performance in time, which has everything to tell us about the importance of pacing and of building to a climax: the anticipation after each lull of a bigger and louder display, until the conclusion which fills the sky and makes you feel as if you are being hammered into the ground with sound.

How disappointing it would be if it wasn't like that.

Monday, 24 October 2011

'The Vampire Angel Syndrome' - on the naming of books

I made that up. Just to catch your eye. Another one I like is 'The Skin is Sweet but the Flesh is Bitter.' I overheard someone say it once - they were describing the experience of eating a kumquat - and I've always known exactly the kind of story that would go with it, if it were the title of a book.

How important is the title of your novel? Very, very important, once it's published. I imagine the reasons are self-evident, and because of that everyone wants a say: editors, marketers, sales reps ... So is it worth agonising over the title of your unpublished MS, given that it's almost bound to be changed if you get a deal?

I think yes. After all, it has to do the same job on your behalf in the slushpile, as the final title will on the bookshop shelf: say to someone who might otherwise pass it over: "Pick me up! Me! Me! You know you want to."

My titles could be improved. The second one, Better than Stars or Water, has been in place since the book was conceived. It's a line from the poem which inspired the story, and as such I'm rather fond of it and like the reference it makes. It's performed quite well getting the novel a first audience, but I doubt it would survive the critical eyes of a marketing team. It's too long. The giveaway is that even I tend not to use the full title. I shorten it to "Better that Stars," or worse still "The Venice book."

The titles for my first novel have been pretty dire. I never use them when talking about it. I've had plenty of better ideas. They must have been good, because I check them online, and find they're already out there attached to published books.

There wasn't much left, as you can see from this selection of working titles:

Peregrin Zefyr and the Alloid Invasion (sounds like a West Country book about World War II)
Peregrin Zefyr and the Ratsnatcher (sounds like something from the Victorian slums) 
Peregrin Zefyr and the  Cosmic Ratsnatcher (too cumbersome)
Peregrin Zefyr and the Timesnatcher
Peregrin Zefyr and the Timehiker

... getting there, but you must be able to see the theme that's holding us back. Peregrin Zefyr (usually shortened to Zeff) is a central character, but it's a mouthful. Eoin Colfer can get away with Artemis Fowl, but, well, he's Eoin Colfer ... and you've got to worry when people keep spelling it wrong.

I finally sent the sample out under the shortened title Timehiker, and got a request for the full MS. And - here's the fortuitous bit - it was referred to in error by the agent as TimehikerS.

Timehikers. Brilliant. I think I'll go with that ... for the time being at least.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Of Star Wars, Shakespeare and Ancient Egypt

Well I didn't see that coming ... and I promise that is absolutely the last soothsaying joke you will read in this blog. Well, almost.

It's a while since I've posted: blame the demands of Antony and Cleopatra. As you can see, in the end my appearance was more by Darth Maul out of Obi Wan Kenobi.

In fact, I wasn't the only Star Wars character in the dressing room. We also had a giant Ewok

and Princess Leia.

As for Jabba, Yoda and R2D2 ...

And what was it I failed to foresee? Actually nothing to do with the play - except for the odd fact that it's not the first time good news about my attempts to get published has sneaked up on me while I've been looking the other way because of a performance. All of a sudden I've got interest in my first book - now provisionally called Timehikers - from two directions. Yay!

I can't say any more at the moment. You'll have to watch this space ... although of course I know already how it's all going to turn out (sorry).

PS Thanks to my fellow actors for letting me include their images, and to Owen Benson for letting me use and abuse some of his photos of the play (apologies for the cropping)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

More about the Kids' Lit Fest

Check out this link for encouraging news about childrens' books, and reviews of some of the events from the festival. Don't miss the video clip of Eoin Colfer at the beginning of his hilarious set.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

In-Fested - or why I like the children's literature festival

What's good about festivals? And the Bath Kids' Lit Fest in particular?

Bath Festival of Children's Literature

I know one answer ... it's a great event for kids who love books, a festival children bring their parents to rather than the other way round - but there are others better qualified than me to talk about that. Children, for instance. What's in it for someone like me, who keeps turning up to volunteer as a steward? It's not the T-shirts, that's for sure. Buttercup yellow. Need I say more? Nor am I especially altruistic: so I must be hoping to get something out of it.

Originally I thought I was going to sit at the feet of authors I admire, and learn ... and I have, but not much about writing: there are better contexts for that. It's been more about professionalism, and the whole business of being an author.

Perhaps I'm trying to get close to successful writers in the hope that something will rub off ... that looks slightly unpleasant now I've written it down.

Forget networking. There's nothing like being behind the scenes of a festival as an unagented, unpublished writer to make yourself realise exactly how low in the food chain you really are. And it's surprising how invisible you become when you're wearing a uniform ... those T-shirts again. Of course, you could always buy a book, queue up, get it signed and raise your status by becoming a fan. I did get into email conversation with an author a couple of years ago, but that was a result of attending an event as a punter.

Really it's none of these - or all of it, plus something else that's just as important. I've realised why I feel so good this week. The Festival is a celebration of children's literature, and a chance for people who care about it to get together. I'm sure the authors feel this too. It reminds us writing isn't always something you do on your own.

Either that, or it's an excuse to get away from the computer keyboard ... Nah. I can't wait to hang up the yellow T-shirt and get writing again. I'm inspired

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

How wild are today's children's books?

Where the Wild Things Are

Great article here about the legendary author Maurice Sendak, whose book Where the Wild Things Are is an absolute classic of scary kids' stuff. As he says - ironically I assume -

"You mustn't scare parents. And I think with my books, I managed to scare parents."

I'd like to counter with Neil Gaiman's Coraline, one of the scariest books for adults or children I have ever read. I heard him tell the story that's well known now, about how he and his publisher (or agent?) were unsure whether it was too frightening to publish, so a child test-read it for them. She said it didn't scare her, but has since confessed that it did, but she knew that if she told anyone she'd never get to read the end. Nuff said.

You don't get much scarier than the average folk tale (Red Riding Hood, for instance; and the original version of Cinderella in which the ugly sisters cut off bits of their feet to try and get them into the slippers. No-one noticed until they started dripping blood.) Surely the point is that stories give the opportunity to confront the fear in a safe place.

Do you think children should be protected from frightening books? Or can you think of other contemporary children's novels that are as edgy and dark as Sendak's and Gaiman's?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

What Writers Need Most ...

... Maximum Credit

Thanks to The Scribbling Sea Serpent's recommendation, I've recently been reading Maximum Ride, and it's taught me a lot. It's aimed at an audience I've been trying to write for, and as such it's a good model. It cracks along at a tremendous pace, narrated by a strong, funny protagonist who speaks to you as if you're flying alongside her.

Yes, I really did say that. Flying. Because this book underlines the point I made in my previous post Desperately Seeking a Story: it's the story, or the idea behind it, that matters most. James Patterson, one of the bestselling contemporary authors for all ages, has written a highly successful series driven by the amazing idea of kids who can fly. What young reader could resist that?

I've spent my writing time over the last few days trying to extract a single viable story from a novel I abandoned within sight of the end four years ago. I dropped it at the time because I realised it consisted of two incompatible plots hopelessly entangled. I left them to their efforts to strangle each other and got on with writing another two books, but now I'm back working on the same MS. Why? Because it contains an idea I still believe has potential. And I'm prepared to make major changes: partly to free it from its evil twin, and mostly to incorporate the huge amount I've learned about writing since I wrote it. Trouble is, I'm also finding lots I want to keep: characters I'm fond of, scenes and passages of dialogue that seem to work, the story itself ...


I've been trying to write seriously now for about 6 years. In that time I've thought of loads of story openings, but there are only a few I feel I could develop into whole books. The number of good, original ideas that could drive a plot is even fewer. These are my most precious stocks in trade, yet it's one of these I'm keeping wrapped up in a tired old story I created when I was just starting out.

This is what I've learned from James Patterson. Maximum Ride is a good read, and it's holding me, an adult, strongly enough to make me want to finish it. He's got the important things right - character, voice, urgency of plotting - and the whole thing is driven by a powerful idea.

Our good ideas are our most valuable possessions, and they deserve to be shown off in the best of settings.

Looks like I'm going to have to start again.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

What Would You Do to Get Published?

Apart from selling your soul that is, or any other personal strategies you'd rather keep to yourself. What I mean is, how much would you be prepared to change your novel to please a third party, if the stakes were high?

"Not at all!" we cry - but hang on, who's taking the financial risk here (unless you're self-publishing, which is another story altogether)? And who has the more knowledge and experience? As I blogged last week, a good title is really hard to find: I'd be grateful for any help I could get.

The title goes. I wouldn't be happy about seeing the book in a cover I didn't like: but I have even less skill in that area. So would I be prepared to hand over control of the MS completely?

Of course not. For me, the crunch point would be when changes stopped it being recognisably my novel, and that would be different for each book: the protagonist's name for one, the outcome for the other ... probably.

Or who am I kidding? Is anything sacred?

What do you think?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

More to Follow

Last week I was thrilled to receive a 'One to Follow' award from Kate, The Scribbling Sea Serpent, which I customised as a Mole Award. It marked a new development in my still-rather-damp-and-newly-hatched career as a blogger, and it did some great things for me, but it was a bit scary too.

The great things were - welcoming new visitors to my blog! Good to see you; - and it pointed the way to other blogs I've enjoyed visiting since, and where I've signed up as a follower.

The scary thing was the injunction to "pass it on." Now I believe very much in the principle of this, which is why for instance if someone wants change for a locker at the swimming pool and I don't have enough to make up the sum, I give them the small coin they need and tell them to do the same when it happens to them. Good things are even better when shared. But it was also scary, because I didn't really know my way round enough to recommend ten other blogs. Here however a few I've discovered which I don't think are on Kate's list. - a lively and interesting blog by a young scientist and writer - a thoughtful blog by a debut writer - not so much a blog: more an excellent way of keeping up with everything that's going on in the publishing for young people industry. I've been following this one for some time.

And finally: Eden wanted a Mole and I'm delighted to award one to her. Unfortunately access to her site is restricted, so if you want to read her entertaining blog on life and writing, you'll have to ask to be invited. There's a link on my page which will give you a taste, but it's to an old post. Say Sue sent you.

And finally, before I pass on the award (you'll have to prise it from my unwilling fingers, and then of course you have to pass it on too) I'd like to take a last opportunity to thank everyone: my partner, my cat, my hairdresser, the person who delivers the paper ... ouch! Lemmego! It's mine ...

Thursday, 1 September 2011

What (also) Makes a Great Book Title?

I was interested in this article, Three Elements of a Killer Title. I've struggled to find a title for my first book, currently appearing as Peregrin Zefyr and the Timehiker - not my favourite choice, but the nearest I could get to something that did the trick, IMHO ... and which had not already been bagged by somebody else.

I was not short of ideas, and they must have been good ones. I googled each one as I thought of it, and most of them are already out there attached to recently published books for children.

According to the writer of the post, the title needs to represent the story, add intrigue and sound good. I'd have to add, you also need to be the first person to think of it.

Ho hum.

Friday, 26 August 2011

An Award!

Thanks Kate.

And it's virtual too - my favourite. It can be any shape I like. Let me think ... some kind of small furry animal ... a mole. Why? I don't know. Let's see. A blogger is like a mole because ... you toil away in the dark thinking no-one's noticing: meanwhile you're creating little hills all over their lawns.

Just to explain, this beautiful golden statuette of a mole (you need to see it, friends) is a 'One to Follow' award from Kate, aka the Scribbling Sea Serpent.

Now I need to pass the favour on to others. Trouble is, as she says, I'm very new to the blogosphere and I doubt that my recommendations will add much that's new. On the other hand: what an excellent stimulus to follow up a few links I've been meaning to chase.

Watch this space: more Moles will follow - though of course the recipients can also make the award in any image they like ...

Monday, 22 August 2011

Keep Writing, Even if it’s [expletive deleted]!

Desperate Strategies for Getting Started 

Well, I did find a story lurking on my desk. It wasn’t a complete surprise – I knew it was there, but I thought it had died a death. Not a bit of it. Ever since I picked it up, my protagonist has been nagging at me to get on with it. Perhaps this is a time when for once I should shut up and listen. And before I start, I thought it would be useful to remind myself of some strategies for the early stages of a WiP [sounds kinky, but it’s just an acronym for Work in Progress].

This time there will be bullet points on the page. The first one is probably the most important.

·         These are ‘Desperate Strategies’: not because of any element of last hope, but because they (sometimes) work for me.  You may disagree with them, but that’s the nature of writing: what works for one, doesn’t work for everyone. Sorry. Whichever way, I’d like to hear your thoughts.

For what it’s worth, here are the rest:

·         Commit to your idea.

I’ve (more or less) completed three books. That only happened because I learned to tell myself to “keep writing, even if it’s c**p.” Otherwise, they would have ended up in the drawer with all the other novel openings I’ve abandoned.

·         Put some planning in place before you write so much as a sentence on the computer.

This is probably where we’ll really start to disagree, and it threatens to open up a couple of other debates: handwritten vs typewritten first drafts, and planning vs pantsing [writing by the seat of your pants]. I did say these were my strategies ... and suffice to say, if I get a bit ahead of myself, with a general idea of the story arc + a more specific outline for the first three chapters or so, I find point #2 much easier to stick to. I can say to myself, “I know it’s c**p, but you know what’s going to happen, you’ve planned the next chapter, so you might as well carry on.”

·         Tell no-one.

In its embryonic state, a story is a fragile thing. However strong it seems – for me at least – communicating it prematurely will weaken it, probably fatally. So what happens when you have to present and discuss ideas in advance to an agent and/or an editor? All I can say is, I’d love to find out ...

Friday, 19 August 2011

Don’t Get Me Started (Grumpy Post)

Yet again I’ve been brought up short by someone describing their own writing as “literary.” How can they do that?

After years in the field, I am less and less sure what “literature” actually means. More and more, I think it is something someone else thinks you “ought” to be reading: and that is a judgment that can only be made on an author’s work by others, retrospectively.

If by “literary” you mean well-written, don’t we all aspire to that? If you’re breaking norms and conventions, what you are writing is experimental. Only someone else can say it is literature. And the majority of so-called literary authors are dead.

So there.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

If you were a literary character ...

... which would you be?

I recently said I was like Douglas Adams's displaced-person-in-space Arthur Dent. OK he's male, but in other ways he's quite like me: mildly perplexed and still in his dressing gown; adrift in the universe with a man with two heads and three arms, in a spaceship powered by improbablity drive; all of which he's prepared to believe would be much better for a nice cup of tea.

I thought that was a suitably light way of evading the embarassment of having to describe myself properly. However, someone who used to be my friend read it, and said they thought I was rather more like Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit.

Didn't authors use to be able to hide behind a twenty-year-old photo on a dust jacket?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Stirring the Pot

I’m still looking for that story. The theory at the moment is that it might be buried somewhere on my desk, or at least that if I remove the clutter from my workspace it will do something to unblock the log jam in my head.

Shifting aside more soft toy rats than anyone ought to own (don’t ask), so far the most useful things I have found are a lot of pens – it’s a bit like geological layers: there’s an abandoned writing instrument marking the division between each era – and an uncompleted short story: alas I don’t think it’s what I’m looking for. It won’t bear being pumped up into a novella, let alone a fully-fledged book.

This has also prompted me to ask myself what are the most productive strategies for starting new work, as opposed to keeping going once you’ve begun. I thought a bullet point list would look rather nice on the page.

If only it was that simple. After all, it is probably the hardest thing a writer has to do. One thing I am certain about, is that you have to keep writing, keep the wheels oiled as it were – which is partly what I’m doing here. But some time has to be dedicated to the new Work in Progress each day, even if it is only spent staring out of the window, or what I call stirring the pot: writing lots of notes, sketchy plans, fragments of incidents, dialogues with myself ...

Then the moment comes: a snapshot of the action might flood with colour, a voice tug at your heart, a character turn and look you in the eye.  You know that’s it. The story will live.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Desperately Seeking a Story ...

... and, slightly less desperately, a captivating character or two. A vivid turn of phrase, standard grammar and accurate spelling would come in handy as well: but I don’t think they’re as important.
You don’t agree? Shuffle through a pile of novel openings. Which is the one you don’t want to put down: the beautifully written description, or the tantalising hint of a story to follow? No-one ever got a book deal for their brilliant spelling.
OK, we want to communicate clearly and avoid alienating potential agents and publishers with what looks like illiteracy, but these things can be improved on. An editor who loves your book might even help you. They’re not going to fall in love with your grammar and work with you to develop a story. 
So where do the good stories come from? I wish I could remember the author who replied to that question by saying she wished she knew, because if she did, she’d go there. If you know where they come from, I doubt if you’re going to tell us: you’ll want to keep it to yourself. 
Which leaves me, Susan, desperately seeking a story ...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

No Short Story Cuts

Need I say more?

Maybe I should. I love Radio 4. Their short story slot  is a great listen, and it offers a wonderful opportunity for writers. The threat to close it to make way for a longer news broadcast resulted in an outcry. You know what to do.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

When is a Rejection Good News?

“Never!” I hear you say – and of course it’s always better to be accepted. But some rejections are better than others: like the one I received recently, which oddly enough made me feel a bit closer to publication, and restored some faith in the industry. It’s also given me an opportunity to reflect on something I think is worth considering: how we deal with rejection, and how we prepare ourselves for it.
      It’s all too easy to mistake an airing of this topic for a plea for sympathy, but bear with me: I’ve already said I’m OK about this. And, let’s face it, it is the norm, at every level of a writer’s career: even successfully published authors shake at the knees when new contracts are under discussion – so I’ve been told.
      For what it’s worth, here are my golden rules for lessening the blow.
      1.  Don’t rush into submitting as soon as your first MS is complete.
      It’s worth saying, although I don’t expect anyone to take any notice. You’ve finished a book! That is so overwhelmingly amazing (it is – well done), you have to share it with the world: and do so quickly, before anyone else can steal your idea, not to mention so you can get your hands on the Ferrari/apartment in Venice/football club [select luxury item of your choice] you deserve, as soon as possible.
      If you don’t pause to think first, you’ll waste your only opportunity to pitch this book to the agent/publisher you most want a deal with (and you will pitch to them first), with your book still in a raw state. However many times you’ve redrafted, however much feedback you’ve had, with the fresh eyes of laying it on one side for a month or two you will want to make changes. More importantly, delaying will give you a chance to work on Rule #2.
      2.  Never start sending out an MS until you’re well into writing your next book
      ... and no, it shouldn’t be a sequel to the first. I know it will speed things up when it comes to the film rights if you already have the second story in the series written, but you need to get your head somewhere else if the rejections are not going to really hurt.
      So, back to my own piece of “good news.” I’d given up hope of hearing from the publisher who initially seemed so enthusiastic about my book, but it turns out that it had been seriously considered by him and his editorial team. Far from it being where I thought it was – lying untouched in his in tray – for four months, it had been passed from one person to another, each of whom thought it was worth a second look. I think that’s relatively speedy, especially since their priority during that time must have been their existing authors. And I feel I’m getting a bit closer, because they had nice things to say about my work and they’re keen for me to submit more.
      A direct route to the editor’s desk: now that is something to celebrate. And thanks to Rule #2, I might just have something ready to send.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

I Speak the Truth

Just had my first rehearsal as the Soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra. What fun! I think my note for this part will be Darth Maul.

Not the ninja/light sabre stuff, obviously - I'm an Ancient Egyptian - but visually. Apparently I'll be wearing a cloak with a big hood and squiggly symbols. I get to glide around (I haven't worked that bit out yet) and make ominous predictions which all come true.

Come to think of it, do you know of a script or novel in which a prediction is made, and it doesn't come true? It's such an obvious device, it might be tempting to experiment with incorporating one which just fizzled out and came to nothing - or would that just be too disappointing?

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Profiled Away

Don't make me choose.

I'm a writer. What I do best is the dazed look which comes over my face shortly before one of two things happens: someone says "You're thinking about that book again, aren't you?" or I walk into a wall.

I don't do choosing, much less about important things like books. If I'm asked which is my favourite, I'm paralysed with indecisiveness. Does it mean just that? As in, my best ever, the one I would save from the final bonfire? Or the one I want to read today, or the one I would recommend to you? Or, as a children's writer, should my answer be my favourite children's book? That would be four different books, if I could make up my mind at all. And it would leave out so many ...

Any answer is bound to be evasive, and different to the one I would give tomorrow. So instead, my profile will say what I'm reading at the moment. I might post a review when I'm finished.

Music, now, that's different ...

Sunday, 24 July 2011

First (Past the) Post

So pleased with my minimalist new blog, I hardly want to spoil it by scrawling on it - I shall carry on playing with the design and post properly tomorrow.

Or of course this could just be desperate writer's procrastination ...