Friday, 27 February 2009

COMMON MISTAKES WHEN WRITING FOR TEENAGERS

Quality teenage fiction is my passion - it's what I largely choose to read and what I try to write. If you haven't read any of the best teenage fiction of the last ten years or so, you haven't experienced some of the most cutting edge, dynamic, and well-crafted stories around. Oh, and by the way, if you haven't read and admired any modern teenage fiction, please don't try writing any of it.

Because that's the first mistake: not reading it, a lot, and greedily. You should be able to reel off your ten favourite teenage authors. Which I will now do: David Almond, Laurie Anderson, Julie Bertagna, Ian Bone, Tim Bowler, Kevin Brooks, Robert Cormier, Sarah Dessen, Catherine Forde, Keith Gray, Julie Hearn, Ali Kennen, Rachel Klein ... Yes, sorry, that's twelve but you don't expect me to STOP, do you? And I'd not even got halfway through the alphabet. And the list might be different tomorrow, but the point is that I read teenage fiction, I respect it and I know how it works. All of which need to be the case if you're going to write it, as with any other genre.

Teenage fiction is as broad as adult fiction - there's every style and genre within it, and a book for every reader, whether that reader wants something light or deep. Oh yes, there's badly written teenage fiction too - adults don't get all the dross. But of course, if you want to write teenage fiction, you want to write the good stuff, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this blog, which is for serious writers wanting to get seriously published.

Anyway, you want to know the common mistakes. Or at least, I want to tell you, and it's my blog so I'll tell you if I want to.

Define teenager. Yes, certainly: a teenager in reading terms is not a 13-19 year-old. Your market starts at 11 and finishes not much past 15, though lots of older than 15 year-olds continue to read and love this stuff. I, after all, am a tad more than 15. But by 16, your teenager has either largely stopped reading (perhaps temporarily, until school and exams and peer pressure and all sorts of other pressures have died down a bit) or else has moved onto non-teenage books.


So, remember, your teenager may be 11 or 12, and this is perfectly valid, because in fact their brains have started to become teenage by then. I regret to say that at this point I need to draw your attention to my book on the teenage brain, as I do honestly believe that understanding teenagers is the second thing you need to do (after reading their novels). So, here it is, without even any shame:


So, having pried into their brains and raided their bookshelves, how do you avoid the mistakes which (trust me) most writers make when they think they can write a teenage novel?

DON'TS:
  1. Dont think you can teach them anything. Teenagers have an inbuilt early message warning system. You even suggest that your book hopes to teach them not to drink, smoke, take drugs, have sex, be mean to their parents, be loud on buses or hang about on street corners, and you ain't got a reader. Just tell the story; forget the message. They're most definitely not stupid (though, like adults, they may do stupid things) and they will take their own message from it. If they want to.
  2. Don't get down with the kids. If you overdo the teenage language, a) you'll just look like a sad git and b) by the time your book comes out it will be out of date. I mean like totally out of date. On the other hand, of course you can't sound like a BBC TV presenter from the 1940s or someone who would rather be writing a grammar book. Just tell the story and create an authentic voice that is not you the middle-aged (sad git) author, but just a normal voice that they can be happy to listen to and that won't get in the way.
  3. Don't start with an "issue". OK, so maybe your book is going to be about death, or drugs, or bullying, but forget that it is: it's a story, with real characters and emotions. The story is king.
  4. Don't talk down to them or simplify the language. Although your prose should be pure and crystalline, it can be as deep and symbolic as you like, as long as the story is ... yep, you got it: king. Lots of teenage readers, like lots of adult readers, want beautiful and clever use of language. What most readers don't want is an author who is unpleasantly far up his/her own posterior, and teenage readers are less forgiving than adults - so don't over-write (except the gory bits, which you are welcome to over-write). They want you to get to the point, which brings me to the next one ...
  5. ... don't hang about. Most adult readers don't really want an author to waffle on interminably or become inebriated by the beauteousness of his/her prose style. Well, teenagers certainly don't. You go off on one for even two sentences too long and they're away, off to do something way more interesting, like watching Lord of the Rings for the 99th time (which my daughter has apparently actually done, but she is studying film. Nice excuse, Rebecca.) No seriously, my personal rule is that I treat each sentence as though my teenage reader really wants to go and do something else, and my task is to prevent him/her.
  6. Don't allow an adult to sort any problem out. Adults in teenage novels should be rarely seen, even more rarely heard, and never listened to. They need to be absent, feckless or otherwise useless. They can occasionally offer advice but this advice should be either ignored or wrong. Dead parents are very useful but if your character's parents are not dead, please remove them by some other means. Parents may return at the end to say well done and be proud but that's all they're good for, though parental stupidity can be a very useful plot device earlier on.
  7. Don't forget the gate-keepers. The gate-keepers are the adults who have a major part to play in whether your teenage book gets a) published and b) read. So, the fact that your friend's teenage son down the road wants you to write a book in which a mass murderer comes to town and chops random adults' heads off and cooks them on a barbeque before destroying all the nearby schools in a fire is not a reason for writing such a book. It won't get published. It's a fact that most books for teenagers are bought by adults who want their teenagers (pupils or offspring) to read them. So, you have to tread a razor-thin line between what the teenager wants to read and what the adult thinks the teenager should want to read. Shock value can also work well though, because if you get a "parental warning" sticker on your book, this has the rather wonderful effect of making parents say no and then teenagers actually going to find it.
Two other things to remember:

Safety nets - in modern books for small children, the child usually knows (or learns to know) that nothing too bad will happen: they don't need a safety net because there's no real danger. In books for older children, the safety net becomes progressively further away: the child worries that something bad might happen but trusts that it will be all right in the end, even if something bad does happen first. In a teenage novel the trick is for the author to make it seem as though there is NO safety net: the worst possible thing could happen. However, secretly, there is a saety net: you will not allow the very worst thing (loss of hope) to happen because you care for your reader. It is my personal belief that you must care about your reader if you write for young people.

Strawberries and spinach - stay with me. Strawberries and spinach are both very good for you. In fact, pretty much the main reason most people eat spinach is because they know it's good for them. Actually, I love spinach but don't mind me - and besides, even when I'm eating spinach a part of me is thinking how incredibly good it is for me. Strawberries are, arguably, equally good for us. I read recently that scientists discovered a chemical in the seeds of strawberries which makes them spectacularly beneficial. But when we eat strawberries we do so for one reason: pleasure. We don't sit there thinking, "Omigod, I haven't had my strawberry quota for the week, now my hair's going to fall out and I'm going to get some disease and it will be all my fault."

My point is that books are like strawberries: we consume them for pleasure, even though they also happen to be good for us. When adults choose to read one book as opposed to another we usually do so because we think we'll enjoy it more, not because we think it will be better for us. (OK, there are times when we have to read a book for another reason, but I'm talking about when we choose a book.) And when I talk to parents or teachers about getting kids reading, I always make this point really strongly: that we must not use the "books are good for you" line, but the "books are for pleasure" line.

It's essential for the writer of teenage books to remember this. So, quit with the teaching and the messages and the wishing that teenagers wouldn't drink and smoke and be scary on buses. Just tell them a wonderful gripping story, of whatever sort you want, in the most beautiful and apt language you can find, with the most interesting and real characters you can dream up.

That's pretty much it. Doesn't sound much different from adult writing, does it? Nope, and it's not. It's usually faster, and often tighter, and frequently incredibly interesting. But most of all it's just great stories, well told, to an audience who give the most fabulously perceptive feedback.

Sometimes, of course, their feedback is less than perceptive ... I recently had a comment from a boy who said that my novel Fleshmarket "started off a bit boring". This is a book which opens with a woman having a breast tumour removed without anaesthetic, in front of an audience and by the end of the chapter she's dead of blood poisoning. Honestly, there's no pleasing some people.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

NEGATIVE REVIEWS - SHHHHHH

You know how the Norwegians (I think it's Norwegians?) have hundreds of words for snow? Well, in Scotland we have numerous gorgeous words for the various things that we like a lot, such as insults. I notice we also have a lot of words for bad weather and being drunk, but I can't think why that should be - I can only think that an English person wrote the dictionary and was introducing outdated cultural stereotypes. But there's one beautiful and useful Scots word which doesn't fit into any of those categories: stushie. A stushie (sometimes also known as stromash) describes an argument held in public, which a whole load of people get themselves involved in. (This is something we never actually do but we often observe south of the border, of course, which is why we need at least two words for it.) It's the slightly more civilised equivalent of a street brawl. And there's one going on here right now

Essentially, a self-published author who was lucky enough to be reviewed in Scott Pack's blog but unlucky enough that the review wasn't 100% brilliant, (and why should it be? It's a review, not an advert) has not done the sensible thing (stay silent and understand that no one will notice, especially since it wasn't a particularly negative review ) but the unwise (but, I argue, very human and understandable) thing (react, thereby ensuring that everyone will notice it and only remember the negative bit.) Sorry, too many brackets there. (I think I have a serious bracket habit. There are worse faults.)

And while I agree with the general tenor of the messages, which are mainly telling him how silly he is, I actually want to do two things here:
  1. Sympathise with his feelings (although I would certainly have advised him not to respond) because it's horrible to get a negative review. It goes to the very core of oneself as an author and is the type of public humiliation which most other people don't have to deal with (though they don't get the public acclaim either.) My sympathy is limited in this case because actually it was a very anodyne and perfectly valid review - but I'm extending my sympathy to encompass all recipients of negative reviews, generous person that I am.
  2. Use it as a useful cautionary tale for you, to prepare you for that moment which is a rite of passage for published authors, and self-published ones if they are very lucky, when you read a review that is not quite as glowing as the one your mother would have written for you.
Sympathy for recipients of negative reviews
It is rawly, utterly, searingly gutting when the work you slaved over and made as brilliant as you could is received negatively, in public. The fact that the negativity may be slight cannot initially register with the author: one drop of lemon juice on a cut feels no less painful than five drops of lemon juice. The author in this case is also self-published - this means he is having to deal with "No one wanted to publish me" along with "and now a reviewer doesn't think I'm the bees knees either". You can't not take it personally. Rationality goes out of the window. People such as me telling you that you're lucky to get a review, that it's "just one opinion, right?", that there'll be good reviews, that no one will notice or remember - none of that makes sense in the early moments of reading that bruising review.

In the old days (ie before the internet) a bad review disappeared with the rubbish the next day; no one who hadn't read it would ever see it again. Now, of course, it's THERE FOR LIKE EVER. It is googlable and forwardable and printable and cut-and-pastable. Schoolkids will find it when they do a school project on you. People will blog about it and link to it and really they might as well just put you in the stocks and throw rotten tomatoes at you.

But, somehow, for your own sake and no one else's, you have to avoid reacting, at least in public. Oh, in private, no problem: stick pins in the review (or wax model of the reviewer), burn it ceremoniously while chanting ancient spells, flush it down the toilet. But in public ... rise above it. The moral high ground is a damned fine place to be and the view is spectacular.

The lesson - learn, remember and store up for future use:
  1. Be grateful for ANY review, especially on a well-respected blog or newspaper. MOST books get no reviews except when the author's mother writes a thinly disguised one on Amazon. (And it has been known for a publisher to do this too - don't trust Amazon reviews. Oh, and by the way - don't post any anonymously yourself: there was an incident a few years back when all the anonymosity disappeared from Amazon Canada's reviews, causing a few blushes amongst some well-known authors ....).
  2. Recognise that not everyone can like your book, or like the same aspects of it, and reviewers should be allowed to say so, as long as they do so with integrity. A good book will get a variety of responses. You can choose to ignore any review, especially if you don't respect the reveiwer or if you feel that his/her taste is simply different from yours, but you might actually learn something from the content. That's up to you. It's your right to ignore it or believe it, though there's a school of thought that says if you believe the good ones you should believe the bad ones ...
  3. Focus on the positive bits (supposing there are some) - I know an author who had a review which went something like, "this is an inferior book from the author of the utterly suberb *****" and she used the "from the author of the utterly superb ****" on her website and other places. A negative review is a bit like falling off a horse except that you don't break your arm. Pick yourself up and carry on. Perhaps someone else will leap to your defence on Amazon/wherever - fantastic. But if it's your mother, do give her some lessons in disguise.
  4. Don't react. I don't know: go and buy some shoes or something. Wine and chocolate are two other justified and proven strategies. Of course, you have the right to respond, but you'd be foolish to: it will get you nowhere. And for goodness' sake, if you write an email or blog post, don't click Send. Sleep on it and then bin it. I tend to stick pins in less than mother-like reviews and imagine the reviewer dressed in huge pink underwear with a tea-cosy on his head. This is very helpful, I find.
Everything's a phase. Believe it or not, your negative review will fade from your memory like a bruise. In fact, the person who gave me my only really bad review is now a friend - we never talked about it and I haven't a clue if she/he can even remember writing the comments that had me spitting tacks (privately, of course - moral high-ground, not clicking Send etc etc). And sticking pins** in a wax model doesn't seem to have done any harm either. Well, not that I can see. Mind you, the pink frilly underwear could be covering that up.

**PS For those of you who are sensitive to ideas of modern witchcraft, I am not nor have ever been a witch, nor have I never stuck pins in anything other than a pin-cushion, nor could I be bothered to. I was speaking merely metaphorically. I do a pretty effective line in cursing though.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

OH YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!!

OK, I'll calm down. In a minute. But first let me watch this video clip again.

Harlan Ellison on the subject of PAY THE AUTHOR

Sorry, but I am totally with this guy. I have had a moderate rant along the same lines on a number of occasions but he does it SOOOOOO much better.

There are times when authors can legitimately and sensibly do something for nothing, but never just because we've been asked to or because it's ignorantly expected. Nowadays, if I'm asked to write something for charity I ask the question: is everyone else in the project also giving up their wages? And if they're not, I ask why not, why only the author? I do a few free talks around a new publication, but only with guaranteed publicity, audience and books sales. And if I'm ever asked if I'd like to donate a fee back to charity, I always say, "No, but I will consider the charity when I do my next charitable donation." For a start, I already run a charity (The Child Literacy Centre) which I created myself, and I don't ask a penny from anyone, so I reckon I do my bit without being made to feel guilty. It's about choice. I prefer to separate giving from earning, and keep my work professional.

God, but I'm hard. Crabbit doesn't even come near it.

Anyway, sorry, bit of a rant there and not something that's going to help you be published. BUt do remember it when you are.

And thank you to the wonderful Society of Authors for pointing me in the direction of this uplifting and rabble-rousing clip.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

SLOW DEATH BY COFFEE GRINDER

OK, I promised and here it is: my heart-warming story of staggering ineptitude. You need to understand that it is absolutely true, every bit of it, though I have changed names and locations to protect the innocent.

Before you read on, you need to understand three things:
1. Sophie, PR person extraordinaire and the star of my story, was wonderful and I really liked her. She battled with extreme conditions that were not her fault (sort of) and made me feel strangely (very strangely) relaxed. She was the bright spot in a terrible day. I would promote her if I was in power. I also want to emphasise that having directional confusion is very common amongst intelligent people (I should know) and I do not intend to cast aspersions on her undoubted talents and intelligence in other fields. Honestly, if I could afford a PR person, I would employ Sophie like a shot. I just wouldn’t ask her to drive me. By the way, Sophie works for a PR company, not my publishers. And my publishers are lovely too and this was not their fault either. Just so that's clear.

2. It may have been a terrible day, but no one died.

3. I have never written a book called Brainteasers. Nor do I plan to.

Anyway, to set the scene:
I was asked to do a charity (ie free) school event in a coffee shop somewhere not close to Glasgow. (Sensible readers are at this point asking “why?” As in “Why free? Why in a coffee shop? And why the hell did you say yes?” There is no answer to these questions.)

About a week before the event, a lucky school was told that if they took thirty ten-year-olds to a coffee-shop at a certain time, an unnamed author would read stories from her book "Brainteasers". And sign free copies of the book for them. When the school resorted to Google for more info, they were perplexed not to be able to find such a book in existence anywhere in the universe. Not surprisingly. Luckily, I cottoned onto the fact that there was a problem, and phoned the school, thus introducing myself and sorting things out. Kind of. Temporarily. We established, at least, that the book in question was actually called The Highwayman’s Curse.

I had almost pulled out of the event the day before, but was mollified by Sophie, the charity’s PR person. I was very impressed by Sophie’s ability to mollify me - she will go far. She even sent me flowers to apologise for distress caused - and that was BEFORE The Day From Salvador Dali-land.

So, Dali-Day arrives. Sophie is supposed to collect me at 8.30. At 8.30 Sophie phones and says she's "had a bit of trouble with the car" and will be "a bit" late. At 9.15 Sophie arrives. She then tells me that she won't be able to turn the car round in my very small cul-de-sac because she's dyslexic and doesn't know which way to turn the wheel when reversing. (I am very sympathetic to dyslexic people, having taught them for many years, and I understand the issues). So she asks me to help. I assume she means that I should stand outside the car directing her. Or maybe drive the car myself. Either of which would be fine. But she means me to sit in the passenger seat and show her which way to turn the wheel, with actions and WITHOUT using the words "left" or "right", because Sophie doesn't do left and right. (Nor do I, actually, but I decided not to tell her that, as one confused driver in a car facing the wrong way in a cul-de-sac is enough.)

We arrive at the venue late, (after we have tried to park in three places that are not carparks and Sophie has had the same issue with reversing without the concept of left and right). The café is full of journalists, hyper children, bemused customers, and a TV crew from Newsnight. Yes, Newsnight. (Note to non-UK people: this is a big deal in the UK.) Unfortunately, although the kids have permission to be photographed, they do not have permission to be filmed on moving film - which is different - and the Newsnight thing was too last minute to get permission sorted. The cameraman explains to us that paedophiles prefer moving pictures. Which is a charming thought and doesn’t help my stress levels. So they can’t be filmed and the Newsnight team is mightily miffed.

I am told to start the event, with no introduction, something which always bugs me but which is the least of my problems today. The event involves me delivering my words of wisdom at the top of my voice for an hour and a quarter to the kids, while journalists take pics and teachers and PR people run here and there trying and failing to organise filming permission, and while innocent customers carry on drinking and chatting loudly to drown my voice, and while milk frothing machines regularly spurt incredibly noisily and coffee grinding machines grind horribly, to the extent that occasionally I have to stop shouting and give up. I learn afterwards that the Newsnight people were desperate to film because they thought the event was perfect (for a comedy show, I assume), but they can't get permission so they eventually scarper.

The kids (who are incredibly lovely and lively - probably helped by the free coffees they are slurping) ask questions on and on and on and on, and on quite a bit more, and no one thinks to stop them when an hour is up. I am too polite to ask if we can please stop. Eventually a teacher asks if they could possibly go and catch their bus, I look at her as though she is my saviour, and she takes them away.

First, however, they are all given a copy of The Highwayman's Curse. Some of them bring them back three minutes later, complaining that the covers are upside down, which they are. I try to persuade them that this might make them valuable later on, but they look at me as though I am a con artist or an idiot. I am certainly one of these.

I ask Sophie if I could have a sandwich and a coffee or I will pass out. She agrees. She doesn’t eat much. Her stress must be internal. She will probably collapse once this is all over but meanwhile she is determined to smile. We then go back to the carpark. Luckily, I have remembered about Sophie being dyslexic and have taken note of where the car is so when she says, "Which way do you think the car is?" I know the answer and we find it quickly.

But ...

...the weird unlocking mechanism doesn’t work and we can't get in. It's a car from a car-share scheme and there are fancy electronic devices to scan. Sophie's scanning card doesn't work. If we don't get in soon, we are going to be late for an award ceremony I’m supposed to be at, which is about 40 mins drive away, and which I really do need to get to because I am on the shortlist, although I would much rather stick red-hot needles in my eyes and twist them a few times while inhaling chilli powder.

Sophie phones the car-share scheme head office, says she can't get in her car and asks if they have any suggestions. They suggest she puts the key in the lock. She does. It opens. We get in. The car won't start. Sophie phones the head office again and they say that four buttons have to be pressed simultaneously on a special gadget inside the glove compartment. This is physically impossible for one person to do but, between us, Sophie and I get four fingers on the right buttons and the car starts.

Sophie then refuses to trust Simon, the Satnav voice, even though Simon really does need to be obeyed, and we get hopelessly lost on the outskirts of the place that is not Glasgow. Actually, I have sympathy with her, as I don’t really trust Simon either, and he is asking us to go onto the motorway back to Edinburgh, but I have a sneaking feeling that he must be right - he sounds so very confident and Sophie doesn’t. Sophie is now on the hard shoulder as she debates whether to go onto the Edinburgh-bound motorway or not. We don’t. Simon is concerned and patiently tries to force us to turn round "as soon as safely possible". Several times. Eventually, after much argument and concern, during which I am convinced I hear his voice begin to panic even though I remind myself that he is only a machine, Simon tunes in to Sophie's dogged refusal and allows us to go a very stupid way sort of towards Glasgow, until I say that actually we must trust Simon and we get to the award ceremony with five minutes to spare.

Simon and I are by now complete wrecks and I really need a bit of TLC, (or even maybe a cup of tea - well, anything really), but somehow survive without anything until two hours later when my friends Lindsey and Kathryn rescue me and drive me home. I can only hope that Sophie managed to reverse out of the narrow street I left her in. She may still be there. Perhaps I should check.

This is the sort of day I should be paid for. A lot. But I shouldn’t complain: I did get a very nice tuna sandwich and a more than decent (though cold by the time I got to it) Christmas Special coffee. Highly recommended. But preferably drunk in peace and quiet. Or maybe in the company of Simon. He does sound very charming. And he would stop me from doing stupid things like saying yes.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

BIG MISTAKE 1: A SLIP OF THE VOICE

I hope you are sitting comfortably, and that you have your most studious faces on because today we are going to get serious. Here begins a series of pieces about the most common things that stop a potentially publishable book being as good as it needs to be. Or as good as you think it is.

Let's assume you can organise words in a better order than a drunken monkey given unwise access to a keyboard, and that your book actually does sound pretty damned fine when you describe it pithily, using a well-crafted hook. Perhaps you've got to the stage of sending off your submission and you've swottily followed all my rules about approaching agents/publishers - including not putting toffee (or even chocolate, even Green and Blacks, in answer to the plaintive but valid question by "Emerging Writer") in the envelope. So, we're saying you really have been a perfect student, that you have even stretched yourself to being polite, charming and modest, and that a quietly intelligent potential emanates from the page of your crystalline covering letter.

Let's suppose that despite all this, a terse rejection letter wings its way all too speedily back. Because it usually does. It may give you very little information, other than the "not right for our List" variety. Yaw-n. Or, if you're lucky, it may tell you a tiny bit more, like "has some merits, but ultimately we did not feel sufficiently strongly about it." Now, that is only a tiny bit more but it's quite an important tiny bit more, because it does actually mean that there were some merits. They're not going to tell you what the merits are, oh no - because that would be foolish of them, opening the door to the torrent of your eager follow-up* letter: "Oh merits, THANK YOU so much for noticing my merits - could you now list those merits, in writing, and preferably capital letters and then I will use them to entice other unwary agents and publishers with the fact that you, O glorious one, think I am utterly brilliant?" And you would then be doing your well-known impression of agog, blushing in anticipation of the glowing praise you about to receive.

(* NO! No follow-up letter! Just crawl back into your hole, lick your wounds, and prepare to try again.)

And no again because what your book's merits are is irrelevant, except as a panadol for your bruised ego. You need to know its crucial rubbishnesses, not its merits. Trust me, you do, even if you don't think you do. You must find its faults, somehow, or you will languish in a state of toe-curling unpublishedness for so long that your toenails will have grown into something like those slinky springs that used to keep me amused for 15 seconds when I was a child.

Them "not feeling strongly" means that the book is not (yet?) good enough in some secret masonic aspect which will not be revealed to you. Because if it was, they'd have to kill you. So, let's begin to extract the answer, which we will do by guesswork because they have offered no clue. Given that you can string some better-than-monkey sentences together and that the hook was so damned brilliant, there are, thankfully, only a small number of things it could be.

The first one of these is Voice.
I'm starting with voice because I hadn't a clue about this when I first wrote a book with a damned good hook that actually did end up being published. One of the early conversations with my agent, as she was signing me on the basis of the first draft of a very imperfect novel, went something like this:

A: Of course, we'll have to deal with those voice slippages.
NM: Oh yeah, right, of COURSE. (Exit far left to find nearest access to Google).

(At this point you may legitimately be asking, "Huh, so how come your rubbish voice control still got you published? How come that agent saw through your huge faults but agents and publishers are rejecting me in their droves?" Well, I can only think that voice was maybe the only mistake I was making and that the agent could see that it would only take a little bit of work to put the slippages right. Agents don't expect you to get everything first time but they have to see potential, and potential can shine through a thin haze but not through a swirling fog.)

A few things about voice:
  • When you know about voice it's obvious. It's one of the easiest faults to correct in your writing, if you really have control over your words - all you need to do is LISTEN. And I mean that literally. Read it aloud.
  • When you make a mistake with voice, it's incredibly obvious to the reader. It jars. It stops the reader engaging with the story because the reader starts to hear you the author, which is not** what he/she is there for, unless it's your mother ...
  • Being able to use voice skilfully is one of the things that can mark you as a special or interesting writer.
  • But it is also possible to do nothing at all clever with it, and still tell a perfectly good story.
  • Voice is equally important in non-fiction. Same rules, same techniques.
  • ** I said that the reader doesn't want to hear the author's voice - I don't mean that an author can't develop his/her own distinctive voice that shines through each book, especially the books of a series. I mean that the author's own voice mustn't suddenly slip in incongruously - it's the voice of the book that comes first, foremost and only.
  • Well what the hell IS it? Aren't you going to tell us?
Yes, voice is just that: voice. Take me - not in that sense: I'm happily married - and you. When you and I speak, our voices sound different and our friends recognise them. We use different words and phrases for a start, but they also sound like no one else except ourselves. The only time my voice might change is when I've got a sore throat or I've mistaken the wine for Ribena. Sometimes (rarely, darling husband) my voice is angry; sometimes (often) it's tired; and sometimes (most of the time) it's really crying out for unparalleled adulation. But whatever my mood, it's my voice.

A book has a voice too. The narrative voice. And this is what we're talking about, over and above the more obvious different voices of each character within the book. It may have several narrative voices if you want and if you follow certain rules. But it will only have several voices for a reason and the writer will control those voices so brilliantly that the reader will instantly know which voice he's listening to and why. A reader, even a reader who knows nothing technical at all, will notice if you make a mistake with voice, even with one word or phrase. So, voice slipping is highly likely to be something that the agent/editor who has just rejected you has noticed, meaning that he loses confidence in you and loses touch with the story. Imagine you're watching an actor on stage and he keeps slipping out of character - you'd be tense and you'd stop focusing on the story. Then you might start to rustle your sweet wrappers or throw eggs.

Let's look (or listen) in a bit more detail. Some books have very distinctive voices. Distinctive voices are the hardest to do - hardest to keep consistent and hardest not to annoy the reader. My current WIP (work in progress) uses a very distinctive voice, which I have to be extremely careful with: it's present tense, 3rd person, letting the reader entirely into its confidence; it's sardonic, ironic and philosophical, occasionally deliberately pretentiously so. Those are all major things to deal with, and to keep it going for the whole novel without becoming irritating or overdoing it. All of my redrafting is focused on controlling and honing the voice.

A novel that comes out this June (shameless double plug alert - it's called Deathwatch) mixes voices: three times we have a chapter where the main character is seen through the eyes of the adult stalker, and at those times it's present tense, slightly off-kilter, slightly obscured, very dark. Most of the rest of the time it's a straightforward*** 3rd person narrative, with more of a modern teenage feel, since the main character is a teenager.

In another novel, Sleepwalking, (crikey, that's three shameless plugs - I am excelling myself today and surely deserve an advance-rise) sometimes I slipped (deliberately, of course) into an internal conversation in an angry girl's head. To make it crystal clear, I used italics for those parts. You can't do that too much - either italics or internal angry dialogue - it gets boring for the reader.

*** But nothing is EVER "straightforward narrative"
Every narrator has a voice too, even if the narrator isn't an actual character in the book. And that's the tricky point about voice: your narrator, even if never identified, exists. In fact, this narrator is what most gives the book its voice. So, when you say "It was a dark and stormy night", (even though you don't, unless you're being ironic, because it's a cliché) you the writer must be aware of who is telling us it's a dark and stormy night. What is the voice of that narrator? Is the narrator on the side of the reader or one character or several characters? Does the narrative voice take the reader into its confidence, speaking to the reader, or is it more detached? How old do we think the narrator is? If you were to do a study of the narrator (even when 3rd person and invisible), what would the characteristics be?

When you read a published book, you won't be thinking of any of this, because you don't get voice slippages in properly-edited published books. (You do in self-published books because self-published authors almost never pay for proper editing, which is absolutely the most stupid omission.) But where you mostly get voice slippages is on the slush-pile. The slush-pile is a veritable morass of voices oozing and sliding all over the flipping place. And there you will languish amongst all the other greasy spaghetti.

How deliberate should my choice of voice be?
Sometimes, when you start a book, the voice doesn't come immediately. It's not easy to begin a new voice, unless it's been in your head for a while. Sometimes it comes naturally, which is the best way, as it will be easiest to maintain. Often, the voice that comes when you start your book is quite different from what you expected. In that case, you have to decide whether to go with it or change it and start again. Often when a new book feels as though it's sticking, it's because you haven't got the voice right. I have an idea for a novel now and I have loads of the characters in my head, several scenes and a whole load of detail, but it has no voice yet, and so it can't even be started. I have no desire to start until a voice is bursting to get out.

In the Passionflower Massacre - omigodIdon'tbelieveit: another plug? - the voice came out exactly as I'd visualised it. Every single other novel I've written has come out differently from the voice that had been speaking in my head. That doesn't matter, as long as it works and is consistent from beginning to end (except, in those places where you have chosen a new voice for a good reason.)

Now, some exercises for you. See, this is not your average blog that merely asks for comments - this is SERIOUS WORK. Oh, and by the way, mark them yourselves, class. I'm on my coffee break.

1. Take the book you are reading and the book you are writing. For each, analyse the voice(s). You may need to start by taking just a couple of paragraphs in Chapter 1. Ask: is it one voice or several and, if several, what tells me when they change? Why do they change? How would I describe the narrator's character simply from the tone of the narration? How old is the narrator? Which of these words apply: light, serious, chatty, modern, fresh, cheeky, sardonic, pessimistic, optimistic, damaged, hurting, survivor, angry ...? Is the narrator my friend? Can I trust him/her? Does the narrator know everything or only some things? (This is partly a matter of POV - Point of View - which is somewhat but not totally different.)

2. Pick one of these characters: tired old lady, bereaved man, baby, toddler in buggy, grumpy man/woman, harrassed teacher, school truant, homeless person, bench/seat, road-sweeper, pigeon, cat, mother with three children, lost child. Then imagine yourself in a crowded place and write a single paragraph in the voice of that person, without actually describing yourself or giving obvious clues as to who you are. Give your piece of writing to a friend and see if they can say what your character is.

3. Now, look again at your WIP - and examine it minutely for voice slippages. If you find any, be for ever in my debt, because that could indeed be at least a major part of why the editor/agent "didn't feel strongly enough". In fact, maybe the rejection letter is a less messy way of throwing eggs.

Later, we'll do the other things that stop a novel being as good as it needs to be. Meanwhile, that has been such a very serious lesson that I really do plan that the next post will be that story of hilarious ineptitude. Well done and give yourself a round of applause!

Meanwhile, a smaller funny story to end on, though an irrelevant one.
I had an email from a teenage reader once, saying, "Dear Nicola, I'm reading the Passionflower Massacre and really enjoying it, even though it's not what I was expecting because I actually thought the title was the Passionflower Mascara." Yeah, and the title is really quite important, in that there is no mascara but quite a substantial amount of massacring ...

Oh, and another one from a school visit, and this identical thing has happened to me TWICE, because I'm stupid and don't learn:

Nice Girl: I really love your books.
NM (swelling with pride as this doesn't happen often): Oh really? Thank you. Which one do you like best?
Nice Girl: Sorry?
NM: Which one do you like best?
Nice Girl: Er, I don't know really. I don't really mind that much.
NM (realising that actually the girl was just being kind and hasn't really read any of them): Well, do you like Fleshmarket or Blame My Brain or ... ? (That's six plugs in one blog.)
Nice Girl (Looking at me as though I'm a total idiot): NO, I like your BOOTS.

Can you believe this happened twice?

Mind you, this is Scotland and we obviously can't speak like normal people. And here are the boots in question.

Monday, 16 February 2009

WRITER'S BLOCK AND AN APOLOGY

Apologies to those of you who lovely people who commented or contacted me personally to say they really liked my idea of doing online one-to-one tuition: I'm afraid it's not going to happen, or at least not in the foreseeable future. I was going to do it, really: I spent the weekend planning it, creating a new blog to give you all the info, working everything out in huge detail. The blog was all ready to go live. Just needed to click a button, though first I was going to ask lovely Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works to say what she thought. While I was doing it, I admit that a major part of me was screaming NO! You see, although I love teaching and would have enjoyed so many aspects of this idea, I have a habit of doing too much, spending too long at my computer and not enough time getting a life, and I know that I am supposed to be writing books, doing talks, and all the other paraphernalia of being an author (including this blog, which I really enjoy doing), all of which would be enough even if I didn't have a husband, dog and occasionally two daughters. Not to mention the chocolate habit.

But I wanted to do it, and I'm an idiot, so I was ploughing on. Then, yesterday evening, my husband and I were going to the cinema, just about to leave the house, when the phone rang. It was a friend to say that a good friend of ours had died. Just like that. Out of the so-called blue.

I don't believe in signs, but I do believe in listening to yourself. And my first rational and coherent thought was a cliché: life's too short. Then another one: you only get one life. And finally a line from my favourite film, The Life of Brian: "Life's a piece of shit, when you look at it."

But life isn't a piece of shit - life's good, mostly. Life is for living and loving and so I'm going to live it and love it, and that means making time for myself, family and friends, chocolate, novels, the best words I can produce in the best order I can design. And that means no new and possibly exhausting projects like an on-line writing school, at least for now. Even though I'd have got a lot of satisfaction from it, it's not what I know I should be doing and I know this is the right decision. I hope you understand.

What I will do is include some posts about the various things I'd have taught you if you had signed up for my mad idea. This blog started as purely advice about getting published, but since the most important step towards getting published is writing the best possible book, I should and will include some advice about that, and I'll focus especially on the most common things people do wrong in their writing.

Meanwhile, I am myself learning the brutal reality of writer's block. It does feel as though something physical is sticking there, that if I tried to get back to the novel in progress today it just wouldn't work. Creativity needs space and there's no space in there right now. If I sit at my desk and stare at the screen, nothing will come and the more nothing comes the worse it feels. So, I'm going to switch the computer off and I'm going for a long walk with the dog. She won't be pleased, as it's raining and she's not stupid, but we're going. Walking and fresh air - even wet fresh air - always work for me.

Normal service and "crabbit old bat" sense of humour will be resumed. Just don't go away and please do take care.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

IN DEFENCE OF AUTHORS, AND ABOUT TIME TOO

First an apology: this is not the Thursday light relief that I promised. That story of extraordinary and hilarious incompetence is coming, I promise (something for the weekend?) but I have a need to offload something that is seriously bugging me first.

Warning: crabbit old bat in major full swing. But with a difference. Today, I’ve had enough of criticising my fellow authors, unpublished and published - because we’re all in it together, dahlings - for things like “Inexcusable Ignorance” and general tawdry and unprofessional behaviour. I think I even perhaps once mentioned drunkenness and unpleasantness and possibly arrogance. How could I? Anyway, I’m going to turn the tables. Yes, I am. Now it’s the turn of you nasty mean editors and other forms of publisher, and even booksellers. Because you just don’t understand us, you really don’t.

I feel that in the very few weeks that this blog has been in existence, I have had many approving noises from (wonderful) publishers and (gorgeous) booksellers and I’ve accepted them all like the pathetic, insecure gallery-playing author that I am. And I would not be surprised if you fabulous, long-suffering, aspiring authors were not sitting there weeping quietly and bravely at the crap I’ve been dealing out to you, allowing yourselves to be flagellated by the likes of me. (Please don’t get too excited by that concept - it’s really not nice and, anyway, I mean it only metaphorically.)

So now I say, ENOUGH! Let’s hear it for authors, and let me send a message to those powerful, cruel publishers and booksellers who hold us in their thrall. (Just what is a thrall anyway? I don’t know, but it sounds like a very nasty thing in which to be held.)

I should start by saying that of course I know, and have said before, that very occasionally an author lets the side down by behaving as though he (or even, more occasionally, she) has a brain the size of mouse genitalia, an ego in inverse proportion to said genitalia and an alcohol habit to match the inverse proportion. Occasionally, it must also be said, authors are exceptionally rude and crass and many other unacceptable things. But APART from those few, we are simply misunderstood. And the sooner that editors and agents and booksellers understood this, the better for world peace and various other useful things.

So, let me, on behalf of my suffering writerly colleagues (to whom I apologise for all previous cruelty and mockery - though I don’t take it back, because it was entirely justified most of the time) enlighten those professionals who take such pleasure in berating us for our failure to understand the errors of our ways.
  1. It’s a real bugger being an author, sometimes. Honestly, it’s over-rated as a holiday destination.
  2. We suffer constant insecurity. (Most of us. And we hate the others, so that’s OK.) Well, how wouldn’t we be insecure, when people regularly tell us we’re rubbbish, even once we’re published? And if anyone says nice things, they’re most likely to be a) our publicity people b) our parents or c) deluded (which includes our parents).
  3. Would you like it if your work was reviewed negatively and those negative comments were put on the internet for like EVER? Would you like it if your audience went on message-boards and said a load of rubbish about your oeuvre? The fact that this ignorant rubbish is often written by people who should be asleep instead of messaging crapness at 3 in the morning, and that they can’t spell, doesn’t make it hurt less. Actually, it makes it hurt more to think that such a stupid person would care enough to have gone online to over-share - I mean if the book was just mediocrely awful, wouldn’t they just have ignored it and watched re-runs of the X-Factor?
  4. Some unpublished authors absolutely and utterly deserve to be published and have a glittering career in front of them - perhaps far in front of them but distance is like size: not everything. No one should assume that because an author has failed to be published (yet), they are rubbish. Lynn Price of the phenomenal BehlerBlog was kind enough to be fabulously, well, kind, about my writing - which is a) wonderful of her and for me but b) confusing because in that case how come I was unpublished for so almost-soul-destroyingly long? The point being? The point being that for very many painful years I had regularly and horribly assumed that I wasn’t good enough and for that long I was the person that published writers (including me, until now) and editors and booksellers often knock: the wannabe no-hoper, the deluded idiot who really should just keep on with the day job because everything else - the dream - is nothing more than a dream.
  5. We work for years and years and years (and in my case years) before we earn anything at all from our writing, because we love it are and drawn to it and driven to it and yet some (most) of us will never earn anything approaching a decent salary for it. No violins, please. And OK so some of us don’t deserve to earn anything from it, but we lay our heads and hearts (and actually sometimes lives, though I can’t claim such bravery myself) on the line in our belief that what we produce is art and matters. And what do we get for that? What we get is 96% of the world never having heard of us, 3.9% of the world messaging at 3 in the morning to say what rubbish we are and the remaining 0.1% being either related to us in some way, or pathetically undecided.
  6. We cringe in abject mortification (and some) when we go into a bookshop and our books aren’t there and 99% of the time we slink out (after buying something we didn’t want, just to make us feel there was a point in being in the shop in the first place) and the other 1% of the time we pluck up courage to ask the busy and godlike bookseller if by any chance they might consider - pretty, pretty please - stocking our book because it’s quite a good book and it’s had some lovely reviews which unfortunately you, o glorious bookseller, don’t seem to have seen but if you were to consider stocking my humble little book I promise I will come in and give up my time - free, because of course my time is free since no one’s sodding well going to pay me for it - and do an event for you to bring five people into your shop because I’m such a loser (cue more cringing embarrassment and mortification), four of whom are related to me and the other one of whom came in looking for a birthday present for his mother but got forced or confused into listening when you locked the door. Trust me, it’s AWFUL doing the “how to help bookshops sell your book” thing, unless you have a monstrous ego, which I just don’t, so I apologise in utter shrivening abjectness to every bookseller whom I have failed to help sell my books. And they are many. Oh, how often I have slunk away, worm-like, and how often you have never seen me. I have never put my books face out (yeah, I know, I’m really rubbish as an author - please don’t tell my publisher /agent /editor /daughters / dog and everyone else who relies on me to earn some money for them) or done anything remotely annoying or in-your-face - and more’s the pity, according to my publishers and my royalty statement. I am sorry, so sorry, and please forgive me and please stock my next book because it will be much much better than anything I’ve ever done and has a gorgeous cover, which you always say is the MAIN thing.
  7. It’s a real bugger being an author sometimes. Frankly, it sucks. But you know what? We love it. So forget your violins and take back your sympathy because I’m changing nothing. Sorry, but I just can’t do enough to help you sell my books because I’m too shy and pathetic and actually, you know, I am supposed to be WRITING. And you are the bookseller and that’s why you do it so brilliantly and kind of that’s why I would like to think I’m the writer in this deal and you’re the bookseller / editor / publicity person / EXPERT. And yes I KNOW I am supposed to help but please just let me go home and write. Where the hell is that garret I dreamt of for so long, and that delicious loneliness??

So anyway, calming down slightly (but not much) in the spirit of almost Valentine’s Day (omigod, better go out and buy something for him - maybe a BOOK, and if so then certainly and absolutely from Vanessa’s fabulous bookshop) let’s show a bit of a loving understanding for all those misunderstood authors out there. Yes, sometimes we're rubbish but we are trying not to be. We're doing our best to overcome our paltriness.

Yep, it’s a real bugger being an author sometimes. Which, to be honest, is why we eat chocolate. It gives us courage to brave all you scary, scary professionals. Chocolate is the only known antidote to insecurity. That and shoes.

Monday, 9 February 2009

ON (NOT) GETTING PUBLISHED AGAIN

It's often said that when you've been published once, you have "got your foot in the door". What's less often but equally truthfully said is that if the door is very heavy, this can be a singularly painful and stupid place to have your foot.

Of course, being published the first time is a wonderful feeling. For a while, the future doesn't matter: the present is everything. You don't care whether your book sells in pallet-loads - after all, you won't have to give back your advance, your parents / children are proud of you at last, and what else matters? You're still heady on the cheap Cava from your (self-funded) launch. Your friends are proud to know you. Your mum is talking about, "My son, The Author". You are still walking into Waterstone's and loudly asking for your own book.

But what next? Or what after the second book of the precious two-book deal is written? Friends are already asking "What are you working on at the moment?" and you begin to realise that everyone expects you always to be "working" on something. Being an author is not just about the glory. (The what?)

No problem - you are writing another book. Surely your publisher will want it, if it's good enough? After all, the list of authors who didn't achieve fame and fortune on their first, second, third, even eighth book is as long as .... ooh, well, long anyway.

Thing is, two things are making that door very heavy nowadays and unless you've got steel-capped boots, you're going to feel the pain.
  1. Impatience, fuelled by the "bottom line" - nowadays, publishers have to get a faster and more predictable return on their money; they have big overheads, mean share-holders who weirdly expect a profit, and hundreds of writers coming along who might be the next cash cow if you're not. (No offence meant.) Unfortunately, the current climate means that publishers are more often looking for big sellers - and the gap between biggest sellers and the rest is widening. The mid-list is becoming a scary place to be, instead of just the normal authory place to be.
  2. Damned computers - and Electronic Point of Sale - meaning that because of clever databases like Nielsen Bookscan, your agent cannot massage fictitious life into the pallid sales figures of your first book. Authors used to call themselves "best-selling" if they'd been No 7 on the South Devon Mind Body Spirit List. Now any potential publisher can see exactly how minuscule your figures are. And not be impressed.
But what if your next book might be your "break-through" title? Well, you have to find a publisher who will believe that. There are publishers who will stay loyal to an author they believe in but there are others who won't. Sometimes I sympathise with them; sometimes I don't.

Why am I telling you this?
  1. Because people often ask and I'm one of those people who thinks a question should be answered. (I'd never make a politician.)
  2. Because unpublished authors often think that those who are published are set up for life - it's not a helpful delusion.
  3. Because published authors (and you, the moment you are published) need to act to protect those future contracts.
But how? I would hear you ask, if I wasn't in my garret and you weren't in yours.
  1. By understanding the market so as to produce ideas that publishers will want. (While never selling out to commerciality. Oh no.)
  2. By understanding the market so as to produce hooks, synopses and covering letters that publishers must want.
  3. By using the market and doing loads of clever things to maximise book sales - there's so much that authors can do. Yes, yes, yes, I will do a post on it, but meanwhile you should take a look at Alison Baverstock's Marketing Your Book - an Author's Guide
  4. By being the nicest most publishable author ever. Yes, yes, yes - jolly good idea: I will do a post on How To Be a Nice and Very Publishable Author. Using my own extensive experience.
I feel that this has been a sombre post - oops, nearly typed sober there - so, to make up for it and to reward you for the attention which my trusty stat counter reveals you to have been displaying, I will tell you the story of the funniest day I ever had as an author. Though it wasn't very funny at the time. But not today - on Thursday, when (if) I have come back from the snowy wilds of Scotland where I am doing some school events.

And when you hear this sorry story of hilarious ineptitude, (mostly not by me, of course), you may decide to keep your foot firmly out of the door.

Friday, 6 February 2009

TOFFEE IS NOT A WAY TO GET PUBLISHED

The setting: a house in the heart of England.

The year: this one. This week, in fact.

The weather: snow and general unpleasantness.

The protagonist: a well-known literary agent with tooth-ache; she has spent a day last week at the dentist having a filling replaced - or actually not having it replaced because the dentist, after three injections, had told her, "I can see this is hurting you - let's leave till next week." His leaving it till next week has not helped the agent one bit.

The dramatic tension: the agent is awaiting the arrival of the day's post with unbridled anticipation. After all, the next Dan Brown / JK Rowling / Ian Rankin could be in it. They rarely are, but, like all agents, she lives very much in hope.

Lights, camera, action. The post arrives. The agent snatches it up almost before it hits the mat, and rips open the promising brown envelope. She ignores the picture of a grinning pink fairy at the corner - this could simply be a re-used envelope and she approves of recycling. She does quite a lot of it herself.

Out falls a manuscript. There is no return SAE. This is a bad sign. Her inbuilt "unprofessional author" alert is beginning to beep. Though worse things have happened: there was the time when ... But wait - there is something else in the brown envelope. She shakes it onto the floor, not sure whether to be wary or intrigued.

Two Werther's Originals fall to the carpet. (Point of information for anyone lucky enough to have been born after 1979 or so: these are toffees, very old-fashioned, and the source of arcane amusement in post-toffee Britain, especially in educated circles. I once stayed in a hotel where a Werther's Original was placed seductively on my pillow each night, to which the only sensible reaction was, "What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Get out of bed and clean my teeth afterwards, or stand here freezing in my bare feet while I eat it first?" A very recent visit to Wikipedia elicited some fascinating and detailed information about the different varieties of Werther's Originals which apparently exist but suffice it to say that I entirely agree that these sweets recall "a halcyon age of innocence, nuclear families and good old-fashioned sweets." None of this, however, is likely to help either author or agent.)

The question: does the agent think to herself, "Well, that was a kind thought. After all, the generous and attempting-but-failing-to-be-innovative author was not to know that a) I have severe toothache and b) I HATE Werther's Originals. So, I will now settle in my armchair by the wood-burning stove, with a peppermint tea and warmed oil of cloves, and forget the pain by immersing myself in what may well be a stunning debut of obvious shining literary and commercial merit by a new author with the whole reading world at his finger-tips."?

The answer: No.

The denouement: The agent places the manuscript unread in the pile of fuel for her wood-burning stove. (I told you she was into recycling.) After all, it's the snowiest day the UK has apparently had for eighteen years, we're in the middle of a British winter that is giving two fingers to global-warming and she's not one to waste a genuinely useful bit of fuel.

The message: don't do it, people. Don't even be tempted. That kind of wacky innovative approach went out around the same time as Werther's Originals on the first occasion, and whereas Werther's Originals (sugar-free version in biodegradable wrappers) have come back, this hasn't.

The really sad thing: that could have been a great submission consisting of perfect covering letter / succinct and compelling synopsis / glitteringly lucid sample. It probably wasn't, if the author had to disguise it with Werther's Originals, but in theory it might have been. You may think the agent should have read it if she'd really cared. But why, if the author didn't care enough to be professional? The agent has many, many submissions which the author thought good enough not to need to be supported by toffee. You can be witty, dynamic, different, extraordinary, unique, fabulous, but you can't send toffee in the post and expect to be taken seriously. Or taken at all.

The quite amazing thing: even chocolate would not have helped. Ask your dentist.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

THE ACQUISITIONS MEETING - AT LAST

It has not escaped my attention that this is supposed to be a serious, adviceful blog and that you are meant to be serious about getting published. Remember that burning desire bit? Hmm, well, I am disappointed in you. You are like schoolkids who think it's so funny to let their teacher go off at a completely self-indulgent tangent about turquoise boots and Klingons, instead of following the statutory curriculum. You'll get me sacked at this rate. So, today we are going to behave and we are going to discuss Acquisitions Meetings. "At last," I hear the swots in the front row mutter.

Also, my editor and agent both believe that I am working flat-out to meet the looming deadline from which my novel currently suffers. They will not be best pleased about yesterday's advice on Work Avoidance Strategies, ("WAS", as we call them, which even those of you at the back must know by now) so, for their benefit, I would like to point out that obviously I was working yesterday - all talk of WAS was merely artistic licence. Of course I don't vacuum behind the fridge, ever. I've never heard such a ridiculous idea. Nor would I be so stupid and time-wasting as to take a dead mouse to the vet - arranging for Pest Control to scour the house with sonic detectors occupied quite enough time, thank you very much.

So, the Acquisitions Meeting. This part of the process cannot be underestimated, ignored or wished away. Of course, it is not as important as writing the right book in the first place, but I believe that understanding it is a surprisingly crucial part of writing the right book. It is my guiding principle that if all authors understood exactly what goes on in and leading up to the AM, they would a) understand why a well-written and worthy/beautiful book may easily still be rejected and b) be better able to write, pitch and sell a book that won't be rejected.

In the old days, the process of acquiring your book was simple. An editor, wearing a tweed jacket and brown suede shoes and taking an old-fashioned attitude to personal hygiene, would read your manuscript over a glass of port at his club, be bowled over by the beauteousness of your prose / piercing insight into the life-cycle of the Lesser Galapagian monkfish, finish his dinner at the Groucho Club, totter to bed, totter out of it, make a quick phonecall to the office and tell them that he'd acquired a book and that he'd tootle along to tell them all about it once he'd finished a long lunch with his new best friend, the author. If a marketing department existed, which it probably didn't, the editor would never have met anyone in it, and if he did, he wouldn't talk to them because they would most likely pass the port the wrong way round the table.

Lest that paints an unfairly negative view of the old days, let me also properly point out that very often, especially in the more recent old days, an alternative process involved a passionate, inspirational and knowledgable editor (very often wearing turqoise boots, if a woman, or a red bow-tie, if a man - though these roles may perfectly easily be reversed or even combined without detriment to the acquisition process) falling deeply, madly, dippily in love with your book and being allowed to make the decision over a muesli breakfast, often to the benefit of all concerned.

Occasionally, but decreasingly so, the above still happens. But don't rely on it - the vast majority of publishing companies, whether large or small, now follow the process below (or at least something intrinsically similar), and you would do well to understand it absolutely. In fact, forget the above two paragraphs: they are the product of a nostalgic and over-caffeinated mind.

Also in fact: if a publishing company nowadays does not follow a similar procedure to the one I am about to describe, ask them exactly what it is that makes them so much wiser than everyone else. If they insist that they don't need to think about such unpleasant things as projected sales figures or marketing strategies, ask them about the sales figures and/or positive review coverage for their last six books. Then ask them what happened to the second books of each author. Remember: being published the first time may seem difficult but being published a second time on the back of a book that has done a passable impression of Lord Lucan is immeasurably more difficult. And much harder to explain to your friends, who will absolutely not understand. Remember: your friends think writing is easy. After all, everyone's got a book in them and you just happened to be lucky enough to have time to write it. (See Dealing With Taxi-drivers ...)

BEFORE THE ACQUISITIONS MEETING CAN HAPPEN
First, as ever, the editor must fall in love with your book, or at least be bowled over by its commercial potential. (Both would be nice, but let's not get too carried away.) The editor must also have an informed intuition that this is the right book for this publishing company and that he/she will be able to persuade marketing and sales departments that it will be easily marketed and sold.

Second, the editor will often pass the book/proposal to another editor for a second opinion. This may be a junior editor (if the editor is quite senior) or a senior one (if not).

Third, if the editor continues to be sure, having read your book probably twice and done some more informed intuition about marketing and sales, he/she begins to work out an acquisitions proposal, or something which may have a different name or be slightly less formal but essentially does the same job. (You can probably see already why the process of accepting/rejecting your book is rarely quick, unless your book is absolute rubbish, in which case you need only wait the amount of time it takes for the postman to deliver it back to you - once, a book of mine was returned to me 36 hours after I'd posted it, which almost defeats Einstein's special theory about the impossibility of anything travelling faster than the speed of light. I would have been impressed if I hadn't been so insulted.)

Fourth, the editor begins the difficult process of preparing the acquisitions proposal. This will have to be presented at the Acquisitions Meeting (henceforward AM in the pages of this blog). The proposal outlines things such as:
  1. The book - why is it so good? Why does the ed love it/what does he/she feel about it? Unique selling point? Genre? Likely page length and actual word count? Price point? Timing of publication, to fit the publisher's existing plans? Likely print-run? Why right for this publisher? Gap in market? How does it fit on list (qv in Common Words You Should Know). Who is the readership?
  2. The author - who? Publishing history? Marketable life-story? (Penniless single-mother writing wizard fantasy series in café with small daughter in buggy because can't afford heating bills has been done ...) Likely to be presentable to the public or better hidden away under the pretext of being related to Salinger /otherwise hermetic /possessing a tragic illness/life-story/prison-sentence?
  3. Finance - what advance is needed/possible, based on all the above, incl likely sales figures? When might this be recouped? Costings at desired format/print-run etc.
Are you daunted? Do you feel sick? Are you saying, "Ah! Now I understand what I'm doing wrong and why they haven't said yes yet"? Because you should be all those things. And more. You should have hit the chocolate big-time and while I would never recommend over-indulgence in alcohol, I wouldn't blame you if you succumbed briefly.

Then, you should pick yourself up and say to yourself, "Well, if the editor has done all that in preparation for the AM, then surely my book now stands a great chance. She/he must really really like it, and that's hopeful, isn't it?"

You would be right, because now your book does stand a great chance. And yes, it is hopeful, or, to be more accurate, you are.

THE ACQUISITIONS MEETING
This is much more scary for the editor than it is for you. After all, you're at home twiddling your thumbs. (No, you're not - you're at home writing your next book. You are not indulging in any WAS, no, not at all.) But it is seriously scary for your editor, because he/she has already invested significant time in preparing the proposal and now has to run the gauntlet of those hard-faced, pointy-lapelled, French-polished people in Sales and Marketing (S&M?) who have MBAs and keep going on assertiveness courses when that's the last thing they need. (They often wear great boots, I have to say, because being more stylish than authors is part of the job spec. And not the hardest part, believe me.)

Remember, importantly, that at this stage the people in the pointy lapels have not read your book - the most they'll have seen is a synopsis and small sample, but often not that.

Essentially, the AM is simple: the editor presents the proposal, passionately, coherently, inspiringly. And there follows a conversation which may be very short (a good sign) or fairly long (not). Between them they have to answer three questions:
  1. Can we spend thousands of pounds (in staff salaries, editorial input and redrafting, advance to the author, design, type-setting, printing, marketing), knowing that we won't get anything back for at least a year (if the book is already ready to be published) or maybe much more, on the basis that this editor thinks it's a good bet?
  2. Is this the sort of book a book we can sell?
  3. Is it sufficiently different from everything else on our List and yet sufficiently similar? (Is it right for our List?)
When they say yes, they are taking a gamble. It's an informed one but it's a gamble nevertheless. If they lose, they lose money but they also lose whatever book they could have taken if they didn't take this one, because they can't take all the good books that cross their desks. They are also taking a punt on you, the author, and hoping that you will be as good for them as they will be for you, and that there's every chance of a long career for you with them (unless this is a celebrity memoir we're talking about, in which case all common sense evaporates and gibbering lunacy enters left field.)

On the one hand, this is all too horrible to think about for you, the hopeful author. And exactly the same process applies to every single book, however many times its author has been published - though of course the published author stands a better chance, though only if previous publication has been successful .... Indeed, it is painful to think of your dreams being deconstructed in this way by strangers.

On the other hand, it should also be a source of comfort to you: because when you are rejected, it may not be anything to do with the quality of your writing. It may be that your book has fallen down for one of those many perfectly valid reasons. In which case, understanding the reasons can help you submit a publishable book in future. Getting to the AM is a huge hurdle and says a great deal about your potential. It doesn't say everything - "yes" would say everything - but it is genuinely important.

But we also have to end on a very sombre note: at some point you may have to force yourself face a gut-wrenching understanding - that it may be the case that you have not yet written the right book. You may have to start again. I will say that again, as it is something that we all have to consider sometimes (or if we don't, we should): you may have to start again. The next sentence comes with a health warning, for what I am about to say may shock you: it took me 21 years of rejection before I wrote the right book. Since that moment, yes, my life has changed beyond belief and I have had moments of joy that I only dreamt of, but much more important to me is not how my life has changed, but how much I have learnt.

If you take that very, very difficult decision to start a new book, and gently lay your previous efforts to rest with a few elegaic words, I can tell you one thing for certain: you will not regret it, for what you write next will be better. You may, like me, come to thank those publishers and agents who have decided not to unleash your writing on the undeserving public. Yet.

After such a serious and professional lesson, with admirably few tangential and self-indulgent diversions by me, and with you all listening so attentively, I think we all deserve coffee, chocolate, and pretty much anything else that activates the brain's reward centres.

Anyone for shopping?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

BOOTS AND BATS: METHOD-WRITING, LEVEL 1

Today, we're going to look at my patent technique of method-writing. This means not actually writing at all but instead preparing by getting into the role and mind-set of a writer. After all, an athlete has to do all that training and buy the lycra and snazzy running shoes (which is the only reason they can run so ridiculously fast, trust me), so an author in training must behave in all ways like a professional author. In fact, being an author is very much like being an athlete, although you would not know that to look at most of us. But in our minds, oh! How sculpturously we are honed and toned! We are veritable Greek heroes of mentally muscular perfection. And we have terrific imaginations, too.

The first, and almost certainly most important, aspect of method-writing, is developing a full range of Work Avoidance Strategies (henceforward: WAS). I am delighted to tell you that you have already passed Level 1 of this technique, because you are reading this blog, and reading blogs (as well as writing blogs and posting eulogistic comments on them) is the important first stage.

Now, although I am not normally one to boast, I am officially ranked World Number One at WAS. I have won medals in all categories, not only in the standard classes of coffee-drinking, blogging, attention to emails (I won the Butch Cassidy Award for being fastest answerer in the west), shopping, and suddenly remembering phonecalls I have to make, but I have also, I am proud to say, won the Nobel Prize for Innovation in Work Avoidance Strategies after my propensity to vacuum behind the fridge on a daily basis. (I was given a supplementary citation after I took the dead mouse I found there to the vet, thus avoiding work for another hour while I waited for the vet to call my psychotherapist.)

I believe it was in recognition of this talent that yesterday I was given the wherewithal to take my excellence to a new level. It's all the fault of Vanessa Robertson, whom those of you who read the Fidra Blog will know. She and her husband, Malcolm, own the Children's Bookshop in Edinburgh, which is within spitting distance of my house, should I wish to spit on it, which I absolutely don't. (Vanessa is even scarier than I am, I'll have her know.) Anyway, recently, Vanessa and I were chatting about blogs (chatting about blogs is a very good Level 1 WAS which you can all try at home at any time, by the way) and she asked me how my stats were. I thought this was a bit of a personal question, but she quickly explained. My eyes lit up. This sounded very cool. So I tried to install a stat counter myself and was doing fine (it had taken at least half an hour when I should have been working, so this was good - bit like a warm-up for an athlete) but then I came to the word html and freaked, as I always do. Anyone who doesn't freak at the word html has Klingon blood. (By the way, did you know that there are more people in the world who speak Klingon than there are who speak Gallic? Also, that in the Klingon language Klingon language is tlhIngan Hol? It's amazing how educational a quick WAS-related trip to Wikipedia can be.))

"Don't worry," said Vanessa last Friday, when I told her about my dismal failure to install a stat counter. "Malcolm can do it. Come to the shop at 11.30 on Monday." Malcolm? I'd met Malcolm before and he seemed very normal. Surely the Klingons had not got him too?

Anyway, I had to wait the whole weekend in nail-biting anticipation of what I just knew was going to be the dreamiest new WAS toy ever. How could I work with that kind of excitement going on? I wouldn't be able to call myself a real author if I could block out such anticipation. It would be like waiting to hear whether I'd won the Carnegie Medal (not something I have ever experienced, but I have an imagination and day-dreaming is merely a Level 3 WAS).

Anyway. Yesterday came, as expected, and I went along to the shop and there was Malcolm, who showed remarkably few signs of Klingon blood. And ten minutes later there was my stat counter, on my blog. Malcolm showed me amazing things I could discover about you. Like which part of the world you are from. And how many seconds you looked at each page - yes, I know two of you only stayed three seconds and it hurt me, it really did. Have a heart, for goodness' sake - I'm a human being with human feelings. And remember, I know where you live. Or not exactly, I hasten to add, and I suppose "USA" is quite a big place - but I will search for you. (Actually, one person stayed zero seconds - how does that work?)

I can see which pages you looked at first and which were the most popular pages. And I can even see which words you put into the search engine to find my blog. Three people actually searched on "turquoise boots" - no, mine are not for sale, not for ready money or any other kind of money, not on ebay or anywhere.

Vanessa spoiled it all. Just when we were getting along so nicely AND I'd given her and Malcolm the second ever batch of my delicious new invention, Brain Bars(TM) (shameless plug alert: see my main website for Brain Cake(TM), as described in Know Your Brain). "I wonder if anyone searched on crabbit old bat?" she said.

"Don't be silly," I said. "You wouldn't find my blog if you searched for crabbit old bat."

Well, I regret to say that I just tried it (under the lame excuse of a WAS). And you do. It's the first (and second) result in Google. Mind you, the Fidra blog is third ...

Do I really have to go down in history as the first crabbit old bat on Google? Or could I achieve fame as the owner of these gorgeous turquoise boots, which are mine, all mine?


Is there a serious point to this post? Er, no. Except that you might want to consider the words of that other great time-waster, William Henry Davies, who wrote, "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" You have to take your hat off to those guys back in the old days: think how much better their writing would have been if they'd had stat counters instead of just having to rely on having something boring to stare at, like scenery or something. Amazing.

Hmmm, looking at those boots a bit more closely, I think they're a bit dirty. Better go and clean them.