Wednesday, 29 July 2009

MIRROR MIRROR, WHO'S THE CLEVEREST WRITER OF THEM ALL?

Indulge in a happy imagining: a publisher has just offered you your first contract. Hooray! Break open the sparkly stuff and send me chocolate for my invaluable advice.

And then, before you drift off into permanent cloud-nine-land, tell me something: are you ready for it? Specifically, are you ready for the fact that whatever type of writing you do, you will have to defend it. If you write literary fiction, you'll have to put up with a) not selling enough books to buy the jam for your bread and b) people turning up their noses at your pretentiosity. If, on the other hand, you are such a crawling low-brow that you write - God forbid, perish the thought, OMG etc etc - crime fiction .... then be prepared to be well and truly looked down on.

(And let's not even think about what you'll have to deal with if you write chick-lit or - pause to draw three deep breaths - kids' books. The sound of a deflating ego will become familiar to you rather quickly.)

Don't believe me? Well, John Banville is a man who knows. Not only is he, obviously, John Banville, Booker-prize-winning (and therefore erudite and literary ...) author, but he is also, under the name Benjamin Black, a hugely successful crime writer. And he has just put his size elevens in it at the Harrogate Crime Festival. Not a place you'd want to cause a stushie, not with all those crime writers around: scary people who delight in doing very nasty things to others and having their bodies turn up in disgusting states of decay.

You'll need to read the article before you read on here. See, I've got a bit of an issue with the message. Not that I'm one of those silly people who think everything is equal and all must win prizes and that Katie Price deserves to win a literary prize as much as JB.

My issue is this: all he said was that it took less time to write the required words of a crime novel. Is that the same as saying there's less skill? (Isn't he actually phenomenally extra skilful because he can do both?) Is someone who can make intricate sugar decorations for a wedding cake, which takes hours and hours, a better and more skilful cook than someone who can conjure gorgeous flavours from a few perfectly-prepped, inspirationally-seasoned and cleverly-combined ingredients to produce a mouth-watering meal in minutes?

Is how long you take over something the mark of its brilliance? Was Leonardo Da V a better artist than Picasso because he took longer and angsted more about the detail? Or the perfectionist Mozart a better player than the best improvising jazz pianist? Was Flaubert's agonised paragraph better than one that he managed to write in substantially less than a week? Or was he possibly just a tad precious and maybe needed to practise a bit more to get quicker ... (You can picture Mrs Flaubert. "Hurry up Gus, your tea's getting cold. Are you still on that same sentence? Never mind, dear: you'll get the hang of it soon enough.")

Instead of measuring writing skill in how slowly the individual writer chooses the words, should we not measure it in how well he achieves his aim, how perfectly he inspires and delights his intended readers? Whoever those readers may be? Otherwise, don't we have a somewhat absurd situation whereby more respect is accorded to the literary writer who takes ten years than the one who took only seven?

Yes, by some measurements, literary fiction is cleverer; but by other measurements - for example how well it taps into the human love of story - crime is cleverer. As for how well it pays the bills ... **Reginald Hill's wife gives the right answer there.

(**BuffyS - I am quite sick of how clever you are and how much better your reading skills are than mine. And no, sqrl, I'm still not paying you? OK? I do not give money to sqrls, however well they can read.)

Anyway, please stop worrying whether your chosen genre is high-brow or low-brow - just worry about how well you can do it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. THEN EDIT AGAIN.

I just came across this very interesting piece by Jenny Diski in the Guardian.

In short, she was asked to guest edit a student literary magazine, and then the student editors disagreed with her editorial judgement. They didn't like the fact that she didn't effuse when she didn't think the pieces deserved to be effused over. They appear to have found her attitude of honesty to be at odds with their aim to make the magazine "an encouraging platform for new and developing student writers".

Those of us who want to be good writers, as good as we can possibly be, must be strong enough to allow (in fact welcome) professionals to judge our work. If we don't open ourselves to the notion that our work is not perfect, or is not even as good*** as it could be, then we don't deserve to improve. Or be published. Taking criticism is not easy, and I'm not saying we should always agree with it,. but we have to be open to it.

(*** corrected thanks to BuffyS's superior editing skills - but I'm not paying you BuffyS!!)

In primary school you might expect to be told you're doing brilliantly when you're not (though I question whether that's a good idea either ...) but by the time we're adults we have to face up to our short-comings.

Critique groups and writing groups are also often guilty of over-effusing and under-criticising; partly because when someone delivers negative crits, all hell breaks lose and the fall-out from deflated egos can be ugly to watch. So, if you can't take criticism in public, don't be published, because you'll sure as hell get it once you are. Instead, either find a trusted person and listen to that person's opinions or learn to edit your own work to within an inch of perfection. That inch is as close as any of us can expect to get, but we have to try.

If you remember only one bit of Diski's excellent piece, remember this:
"What surprised me most was how many of the stories felt unfinished, as if I were reading a early draft. Problems with structure, sentences that need to be worked on, far too many easy clichés not rejected - all of this normal for a first draft, even a second. For me writing is the editing. It's where the you make the story your own. Draft, redraft, let the thing sit, and then consider it again, read closely, carefully, cut away everything that you haven't properly thought through, and some things that you have."

It just about sums it up. Accept nothing less from yourself than intended perfection, even if perfection is rarely actually achievable.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 4: adult readers


Another Submission Spotlight opportunity
for an intrepid author to receive feedback.

The author, "Devan" tells me that she has had good feedback from an agent, but that the agent decided to pass because she "didn't feel the affinity with my style that she would need to champion my work." (Valid reason). Devan is now trying to work out whether this was just that agent or if there are "issues" to sort out. She also says, "I've been working on the ms for so many years that it's becoming increasingly difficult to see where the rewrites are needed." Oh, haven't we all been there!

So, it's over to you.

For those of you who haven't given feedback in a Spotlight before, please go here first for the original submission guidelines, which are NOT exactly what a normal agent would ask for. It might also help you to read a couple of the other submission spotlights, especially the comments, so you can see what happens. (On the Labels list, choose Submission Spotlights).

Oh, and Devan also makes the point that there's a US flavour to this (or should I say flavor??).

Here goes:
__________________________________________
Dear Mr Agent,

I am currently seeking representation for my 108k-word literary novel, The Persistence of Memory. I very much enjoyed (existing client’s novel), and as I seek to write in a similarly vivid style, I believe I may fit in well with your existing list. I am not currently submitting the manuscript to any other agents.

Set in the world of musical theatre in the mid-20th century, The Persistence of Memory follows the life Patrick Winters, an English actor and singer with too many secrets. We meet him in 1939, on the eve of his overnight Broadway success, and follow his career over the course of a quarter-century as he agonizes over his mysterious wife’s infidelity and disappearance. He immerses himself in theatre, affairs, fairy tales, alcohol, and a conflicted relationship with his American protégée Dara, but the great question of his life is whether any of these things can compel him to risk a comfortable life of self-pity for the demands of self-sacrifice. Unusually for the story of romantic crooners, the word ‘love’ appears only once in my novel – in the last chapter – as the characters struggle to discover what it really means in their lives of theatrical romance and overwrought emotion.

My target audience includes, though is not limited to, women in the 18-24 age bracket and fans of musical theatre, which I believe is currently an underdeveloped market. I enclose the first 500 words of the manuscript and look forward to hearing from you in due course.

Yours sincerely


FIRST 500 WORDS, AS REQUESTED

In the last act, the few minutes before curtain-down, the Actor was beautiful. Draped in white robes, he knelt in the one shaft of light that cut through the great darkness. He held a woman in his arms, and around them music flowed, a violin straining forward with vibrato and retreating to a quivering sigh, the accompaniment to a kiss of kisses. As the violin faded, finally out of breath, the man’s hand made a quick movement. In the silence, the woman dropped over in his arms without a cry, red already spreading on the bosom of her gown.

There was no more music for a long time.

Finally the Actor lifted his face to the mezzanine, and a thrill passed through the hypnotized Manhattan audience at the sight of the first tear that ran down his cheek, catching the silver gleam of the spotlight. Nobody noticed when the music started again, but then he was singing to it, his tenor quiet and low:

One blood, one flesh
One knife, one death-

A dagger glinted, and he stabbed himself to the heart and yielded up the spirit without a sigh. The hero was dead, but patrons in the more expensive seats could see that his body still trembled, for the performer was crying. He wept until the curtain fell over his body with the mournful note of a cello.

The heroine was applauded, but when the Actor appeared onstage, looking drained and bashful and British, he was astonished by an ovation beyond all propriety. And what was the musical about, what did it celebrate? It was nearly two thousand years since the Jewish fort of Masada had fallen to the Romans, and the inhabitants thereof committed mass suicide in the face of inevitable defeat. And now a young Englishman who had never known a wound worse than a cricket injury or a broken heart – now he was idolized for his admirably acted self-destruction.

The curtain came down as applause still roared through the auditorium. Backstage stood a colorful knot of the long legs and ribaldry and freakish egos that make up a Broadway cast. The chorus girls stood in the back as always, knowing their places. For a moment every champagne glass, thrust toward the heavens, trembled down liquid gold drops like rain on the cast of Masada. The lead actress stood at the centre of the crowd, giggling and raving as she received the company’s toasts, still wearing her robe that was soaked with mock blood. Only one member of the cast was absent.

In the largest dressing room, all was still and quiet except for the petty, persistent tick of a clock. To be in the room was to be in the presence of mystery and skill, of the theatre itself. For at that dressing table in that room, the Actor, the center of Broadway on that night, remarkable for his dignity, charisma, and theatrical passion, sat before his dingy mirror and stared at the table.
__________________________________________

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

DO YOU NEED TO GET OUT MORE?

I know I do. I know this somewhere deep inside, but I forget it when I'm overwhelmed by deadlines. Because things like going for walks seem like luxuries when you're really busy. Which I am: coming up to Edinburgh Book Festival madness, with six* talks to prepare from scratch, two events to chair, an AGM to plan and chair; and I'm organising a hot-ticket party for 200 in one of the festival marquees - and yesterday I was called for jury service. For August. Oh. My. God. A breakdown looms. Or jail, if they don't let me off.

(* thought it was five but realised I'd not put one in my diary)

But all that pales into insignificance when you're trying to get a novel started. As I am. Desperately, because it would have been so great to have the first chapter written before August came and then it could mull away in my brain and I'd be ready to leap back in in September. But it's not working. The voice isn't coming. Why? Because I'm simply not ready. I haven't had enough time (or the right sort of time) to let the characters, particularly the main one whose voice it will mostly be, grow inside me and begin to talk.

Thing is - and here's my learning point for this post - you should never write until your characters are clamouring to get out of your head, till they're pestering you day and night, rattling their cage, till they start to force your hands to move over the keyboards, till, in short, they absolutely demand that their voices are heard.

In fact, Howard Nemerov said that writing was like the relationship with your bowels (stay with me): "First you can, then you can't, finally you must: only then should you reach for the paper ..."

I've talked about voice before - see here. Voice is not something you can order about. Voice has to come somewhat mysteriously, at least partially of its own accord. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not. But you have to get it right and you have to nurture it very, very subtly, in a hands-off kind of way - though with utter ruthless control, too. If you don't get it right, your fabulous plot is stuffed. To be honest, in my case I don't have a fabulous plot either, but that's because for me voice comes first, plot follows; because the plot depends on the characters' actions and the characters' actions depend on their voice and the book's voice. I know, you'd think it was the other way round - but think about it, play with it, and see what happens to your relationship with your book when you do. Does it become more real?

So, what's this got to do with getting out more? In the words of my favourite film**, a lot.

I've noticed for a long time that different environments make me more or less creative. You've probably noticed the same. It's not surprising or rocket science. But there is some science behind it. This article in Sciam Mind is pretty eye-opening: it suggests that we are more creative in rooms with higher ceilings, for example. The article mentions research in which two groups of people were given a task. One group was in a room with an 8-foot ceiling and the other was in a room with a 10-foot ceiling. The second group came up with more abstract, imaginative and creative ideas.

In terms of ceilings, what greater ceiling can you have than the sky? I know that when my writing is stuck the only answer is to go for a walk, not to stay at my desk. "Environmental psychology" now explains it. And there's even a word for the tendency of people to work better when they can at least see a natural scene instead of a brick wall - biophilia. Love it! I am a biophiliac, not a drifter who keeps going outside instead of "working".

So, since I'm throughly blocked, writing-wise, I'm going to take Nemerov's advice and not reach for the paper yet. I'm going to get out, outside, out of my study, out of myself, into the biggest ceiling I know. I know from experience, and therefore have to trust, that this will work - ideas will come when I give them space. I'm going to stop trying to force this character to speak before she's ready; she must grow slowly, and one day, soon probably, she'll hit me between the eyes with her power and reality; she'll start yelling to be heard.

I just hope I'm not in the middle of doing an event when she does it. Pretty high ceilings those book festival tents have ...

Meanwhile, here's a picture of my husband (the one on the left) "standing and staring" beside a statue. The plaque in front of them is the first verse of that fab poem by William Henry Davies, titled Leisure. Obviously, I can't print it all here, or I'd be breaking the laws of copyright (by one year ...) but I think that "fair use" allows me to quote the first two lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
Of course, if I were to be imprisoned for not doing jury service, I may have quite a lot of time to stand and stare. Mind you, I could get a great novel written.

** Pay attention at the back: Life of Brian. Could it be any other?

And while you're still with me, and talking about getting out more, I thought I'd show you this photo of the results of my minor gardening escapade during which I created an "alittlement" some weeks ago. These are the beans growing in two pots. Jack, where are you?

And finally, after writing this blog post, I decided I would practise what I was preaching and get out. So I did, and all the way up to my favourite hill in Edinburgh I walked. Considering I live in the middle of a city and it only took me twenty minutes to walk here, I think it's pretty inspirational for a writer to have that on her doorstep. No excuses for crappy writing, I'd say. The shot at the end is Edinburgh Castle - which you need me to tell you, as you'd never guess. I suggest you play it with your sound off - it's damned windy today (which is why I am wobbling a lot).

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

IS THIS WHY YOUR MS WAS REJECTED?

A lazy post today but why expend energy when someone else has done the work? (But please note: that is NOT an excuse for plagiarism, because there is no excuse for that. Plagiarism is copying or stealing and passing off as your own writing. Linking to other blogs is right and proper.)

Take a trip here and see if any of these reaons could apply to you.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

IS YOUR WRITING HOT ENOUGH TO LIGHT FIRES?

I read this Very Useful Post on agent Rachelle Gardner's blog last month and now is the time to draw it to your attention if you didn't read it at the time. It gives a wonderful insight into the mind of an agent and what mental processes they must go through before saying yes to your magnus opus.

I believe that if you fully understand this, it will do two things for you:
  1. help you when you are rejected, especially after those rejections which are accompanied by a message along the lines of "I liked many aspects of this but in the end I feel I have to pass"
  2. encourage you not to submit your work until you are as sure as you possibly can be that it is as compelling and perfect as you can make it
Rachelle's blog contains frequent gems of warm and important advice. Bookmark it - I guarantee you won't regret it.

And if you're thinking maybe she's fussier than other agents, think again. All good agents and publishers make equal demands of the books they agree to take on. There's so much uncertainty in the world of reading that if there isn't passion and certainty in the agent and editor's hearts, then how can they possibly throw themselves behind a particular book? And if they don't throw themselves behind it, it'll be doomed.

Some other blog posts that help explain reasons why your book my be rejected:
But actually, none of those tell it as clearly as Rachelle's post because in the end it's all about hooking the reader. You can follow all the rules you like: if your writing doesn't have the necessary spark and perfection in the right places, it won't light any fires.

I've now had lots of submissions for my Submissions Spotlights, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that none of them is good enough to be published - yet! - though a few contain potential. But you can't expect agent / editor to see through the imperfections to the potential: they need more than that because they simply can't spend the time training you up. All the training and all the practice have to come from you. You can't afford to send anything less than the best.

Hot? It needs to be boiling point before you send it anywhere. Anything less is failure.

Friday, 17 July 2009

DON'T COPY ME

Good old Jane Smith has designated today as Anti-Plagiarism day. This means I'm allowed to imitate her and post about plagiarism but not copy her words. Since I haven't yet read her words, this won't be hard. Or will it? What happens if our great minds think so incredibly similarly that we are writing the same thoughts at the same time? If she posts hers before mine, how can I prove I haven't read her words?

In a minute, I'll tell you an interesting story (and a less interesting but still relevant one) that happened to me but first let me tell you my take on plagiarism. Entirely in my own words, of course. Unless I was sleepreading and have completely forgotten. In which case, apologies to whoever and please don't sue me. I haven't got any money anyway. But I do have chocolate.

Anyway, to the point.

Being accused of plagiarism is one of my worst fears. Authors can even insure themselves against doing it accidentally. No self-respecting author would ever do it on purpose - goodness knows what the guy Jane talked about was thinking when he did it - but it would be possible to do it accidentally. Or to appear to have done it.

In non-fiction, if you're not careful about how you make notes during research, you may find yourself accidentally copying a small section instead of re-working it, and therefore actually breaching copyright as well as committing plagiarism. Also, some pieces of knowledge could be in the public domain while some would be the preserve of the one person who did the research, and if you weren't careful you might not acknowledge this. You could become so immersed between your own thoughts and the research literature that supports your thoughts, that you could cross the line. Perhaps a combination of these things happened to Raj Persaud last year.

In fiction, while there's no copyright on ideas, it would certainly be possible to come up with the occasional bit of phrasing and to think it was your own when actually it's something you've read and forgotten; or even for you to come up with the same phrase when you haven't read it before; and it would also be possible accidentally to mirror someone else's idea. Let me tell you two stories, both true, and both of which happened to me.

THE TIME I BELIEVE I WAS PLAGIARISED
I discovered (because someone sent it to me) that a writer had written a story which was similar to a published novel of mine in many ways. I believe this was not coincidence because I have reason to believe that the writer had read my book. Why do I think he might have copied so many aspects of it? You may be surprised to hear that I think he did it accidentally: if he'd done it on purpose, he'd have changed some rather obvious and easy things. Only a silly kid would deliberately copy someone's essay and not change enough to fool the teacher. This guy knows you can't/shouldn't copy someone else's work, so, if he was going to do it, why wouldn't he hide the fact?

Am I bothered? Do I look bothered?

THE EXTRAORDINARY COINCIDENCE THAT ABSOLUTELY WAS
In October 2001, my first novel, Mondays are Red, was published. I'd been writing it during 2000/2001. Being unpublished, and not knowing any published author at all, let alone a stellar one like Tim Bowler, I had no way of knowing what any other author was writing in the privacy of his/her own garret.

Mondays are Red is a Young Adult novel about a 14 year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

Meanwhile, in November 2001, Tim Bowler's umpteenth novel, Starseeker, was published. He had been writing it during 2000/2001. (For those of you who don't know the business, any book published in Nov was certainly already printed in Oct. Unless it's the biog of Michael Jackson.)

Starseeker is a Young Adult novel about a 14-year-old boy called Luke who has synaesthesia.

Because they were published in consecutive months, we had some joint reviews (hooray for me, debut author being reviewed and interviewed alongside TB!) but no one accused the other of plagiarism, because it obviously wasn't, because a) it couldn't have been and b) despite the identical descriptions above, they are two utterly different stories. Couldn't be more different. (Unless mine had been about a fifteen-year-old girl called Lucy with synaesthesia.)

But it's worth considering the following:
  • if Tim's novel had come out while I was still writing mine, I'd have changed the name and probably the age of the protagonist because the last thing I'd want is to appear to plagiarise
  • next time you hear that two stories have the same motif / theme / premise, don't leap to the conclusion either that one is plagiarising or that they will actually be the same - unless they are
  • similarly with the horrible word "derivative" - nothing stands entirely on its own. No author is an island. Thing is, some look more like peninsulars than others.
There's a funny ending to this story
Tim and I became good friends and discovered we thought in many ways alike. "That's not very funny," I hear you say. No, but when I became friends with him I was writing another book, which had the provisional title of Apocalypse.

Luckily, authory friends tend to tell each other what they're writing.
"What you writing at the moment, Tim?" I asked.

"It's called Apocalypse," he replied. "It's about ..."
And since his Apocalypse was coming out before mine, guess who decided to change her title, even though there's no copyright on titles? It became The Passionflower Massacre. Much better. Who'd want to call a book Apocalypse anyway?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

DOES MY LIFE HAVE ANY POINT?

Sorry, I know this is off-message but I have just had an unusual conversation with someone.

Someone: So, what do you write?
Me: Mostly fiction for teenagers.
Someone: Oh! Mills and Boon! How marvellous!
Que??

Sometimes I think I must be whistling in a tornado.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

SHOW NOT TELL - Part 2

If you have read and properly digested yesterday's lesson on SHOWING, NOT TELLING, you may now move on to Lynn Price's typically excellent and trenchant post on VISUAL WRITING. She makes many wise points, but the examples of dialogue particularly link with my show-not-tell post. Lynn makes the same points about adverbs and dialogue tags - and, though we're far from the first to do so, she got there before me, damn the pesky coyote. In fact, it was reading her words that spurred me to bring show-not-tell to your attention earlier than I was going to. Such an influence she is.

By the way, all this stuff about rules: rules are for breaking, aren't they? Rules are for beginners, no? No, actually. Writing rules are for writers who crave the power of language.

The only rule I go by is: if you understand the power of language, you will want every single word to be right. And you will never stop wanting to learn new ways to control your power and therefore control your readers.

Power-crazy? You bet!

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

SHOW NOT TELL - LET ME TELL YOU HOW

"Show not tell" we're always being told. "Told", not shown, you notice. Well, tough - I'm going to tell you how to show not tell.

1. Go easy on the adverbs. Adverbs, used lazily, are an immature writer's stock in trade. Yes, they roll off the tongue, but so does dribble.

Compare:
"Listen," she whispered conspiratorially.

"What?" he interrupted eagerly.

"Nothing," she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
with:
She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. "Listen. I ..."

His pulse quickened. "What?"

Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. "Nothing."
Well?

2. Don't just tell us what someone is like: show him doing something. If you tell me what Fred is like, I may not trust you. See, you might have judged Fred differently from me. If you tell me he is cruel and callous, I'm struggling to understand what your definition of cruel and callous might be. But if you show me him ripping the legs off spiders and making a collage with them for his sister's birthday card, then I'm getting the picture. Thing is, you may be the author but I am so not interested in what you think and I don't want you to mediate more than necessary - I'll make my own judgements, thanks v much.

3. Go easy on the dialogue tags. They feel clunky and repetitive when over-used. And, as with adverbitis, it's so easy to tell the reader how the speaker spoke, but harder for the writer and often more satisfying for the reader when the attitude is revealed in action. Here's an example of horrible over-use of dialogue tags:
"Do you want to come in for coffee?" she suggested.

"Is coffee all you mean?" he wondered.

"What else would I mean?" she scoffed.

"Well, just that I thought you might have some biscuits as well," he responded.

"Aye, right!" she laughed.
Think about it: do we really need any of the words outside the speech marks? We can manage perfectly well with just the speech. Or, if you don't want the dialogue to speak, literally, for itself, how about this:
Carmelle looked straight at him. "Coffee?"

"Just coffee?" He stared back, streetlight shadowing his jaw.

"As opposed to?"

"Well, biscuits. I was thinking you probably do a mean chocolate digestive." How did he manage to make the word digestive sound so desirable?

"Aye, right!"
Do I make my point? Would you like a short writing exercise? I thought you would. Imagine you are me (buy some better shoes, eat more chocolate and learn to appreciate sparkly wine and you'll be more than half way there) and imagine you are writing this blog post. But imagine that you respect the rules of copyright and therefore can't use my words. So, come up with your own examples of dialogue to illustrate my points in 1 and 3 above.

Then, ask yourself how much longer it took you to write the example of good practice than the example of crappy writing. See, not easy being a good writer, is it?

Oh, I should probably say something very important about covering letters too: in your covering letter, don't tell us how brilliant you or your book are/is. Please, please, please. If you tell me it's wonderful or that it's told in a fabulously original voice, I will immediately not believe you. Let me be the judge of your quality. You're just the writer; you're not your own reviewer. So show me how good you are and then I'll tell you how good you really are.

DO REALISE, THOUGH ...
Often, telling not showing is perfectly acceptable. No, forget that: it's never acceptable. When it's necessary and right, it's necessary and right, and therefore perfect; when it's neither necessary or right, it's crappy. All you need do is think precisely about every word and phrase you write and analyse why you are deciding to put it there, and then your writing will be just wonderful.

"All you need to do" - so easy! Trust me, though: thinking about every word is the only way to learn to be a great writer. If you don't think about every word, your readers certainly will and then they'll tell you all about it; and the thing about readers is that they both show and tell. Ruthlessly.

Monday, 13 July 2009

SUBMISSION SPOTLIGHT 3: adult readers

Hooray for brave authors: we have another intrepid victim - sorry, subject - for a Submission Spotlight. The author, "Redleg", describes this as the scariest thing he's done. So be gentle! (But not too gentle.) I should also point out that in his message to me he worries that the submission may be "too Yankee-centric" (be proud of it, Redleg!). So, let's assume this is for the US market; and for goodness' sake, let the Brits amongst us not be parochial and insist on our funny UK spellings - the US of A are independent now. All is forgiven. Really. (And frankly, when you've got people like Lynn Behler** inventing horrible things like chocolate martinis, they're welcome to it.)

(**correction - Lynn PRICE. Thanks, Lynn, you eagle-eyed editor, you. Wanta job?)

Before commenting, please note the submission rules, which are not quite the same as those for real submissions. Comments on the last two Submission Spotlights were really constructive (even where they contradicted each other ...) and I'm counting on you for the same again.

The questions to ask yourself are: does this sound like a book that will sell? Does it fit the intended genre? Does it feel like a professional piece of writing? Is this either a fresh voice or does it fit neatly within a commercial genre? How would you improve it? And remember, Redleg has thrown himself on your mercy - be honest but always constructive. Please also state whether you have any professional experience in his chosen area - and whether you are reader, agent, editor etc.

Here goes! Good luck, Redleg ...

______________________________________________________


Dear (Agent Namespelledright),

Jack Pasternak is staring down a row of gun barrels in post-revolutionary Blue America. His only chance to escape the firing squad is to explain to his executioner why he crossed three war zones to save his lover. I hope you’ll consider representing Jack’s swan song AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARIES, a science fiction novel (with a hint of political satire) complete at X words.

Jack’s gallows confessional is the tale of how he survives the Culture War after the shooting starts. Jack leaves his socialized medical practice in California after he receives a cryptic message from his fiancée in Maryland, “Rescue me.” Three thousand miles of obstacles separate Jack from his lost love including the Las Vegas and Ohio war zones, the independent Mormon State of Deseret, and the entire enemy nation of Red America. With a pot-dealing barista and a partisan warlord (warlady?) in tow Jack takes off in a gas-fueled convertible on an old fashioned road trip through a very brave new world.

Below, per your submission guidelines, I have included the first 500 words of my manuscript. I look forward to hearing back from you.

Best Wishes,

Redleg



Chapter 1

His back against the brick wall, Jack Pasternak contemplated the discordant row of bayonets and gun barrels pointed at him. The cord binding his wrists was a little loose, but even if he did pull a Harry Houdini he would be gunned down like a rabid dog before he got five paces. His options were as follows: die now or die later. Neither was particularly attractive.

“Blindfold?” the Blueist sergeant asked.

Jack shrugged.

“Sure, why not,” he said.

Even as a physician Jack still looked away from his own inoculations. He tried to imagine the firing squad as a big fat inoculation against further breathing, but even he found that metaphor a bit of a stretch.

The Blue sergeant leaned in close to Jack and whispered conspiratorially, “I’d have to fill out the requisition forms. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t be able to get any blindfolds back from the front before tomorrow. So it’s kind of an exercise in futility to even bother trying.”

A lifetime of familiarity with Blue bureaucracy left Jack surprisingly unsurprised. He didn’t even bother to ask why the sergeant had offered him something he couldn’t provide. Asking such questions simply wasn’t done.

“How about a joint?” Jack asked.

The firing squad erupted in scornful mutters and shuffling feet.

“There’s no toking in public here,” the Blue sergeant scolded.

“Just as well,” Jack said with a sigh, “I don’t toke anyway. How long is it until sundown, anyway?”

With no better way of telling, the Blue stared up at the sky. In a streamie Jack would have kicked the Blue in the balls, wrenched his wrists free from their bonds, and run off amidst a hail of poorly aimed bullets. Since this was real life instead Jack just waited quietly for his captor’s assessment of the time.

“Well, there’s no need to wait, I suppose,” the sergeant generously decided, then added, “Unless there’s anything else…?”

It wasn’t really a question, but Jack had only ever seen condemned men offered three things in streamies: a blindfold, a disgusting tobacco cigarette, or…

“Do I get a last request?” Jack asked hopefully.

The sergeant exchanged a glance with the senior member of the firing squad, a corporal Jack had heard the others call Toomey. Toomey shrugged, offering his boss little assistance.

“Well, it is almost sundown,” the sergeant pointed out.

“But not quite,” Jack countered.

The sergeant looked back at the sky, as though hoping that staring a little harder would hasten the sun on its path. Despite his angry glare, though, the sun made its inexorable descent at the same rate it did every day.

“Well, what’s your request?” the sergeant asked.

“I want to plead my case,” Jack said.

The sergeant scratched the back of his neck.

“Okay, go ahead,” he said.

“Not to you,” Jack scoffed.

“Well, who then?” the sergeant asked.

“Who signed my death warrant?”
___________________________________________________

Friday, 3 July 2009

TRUTH HURTS - SO UNLEASH YOUR HIDDEN MASOCHIST


For a writer, there are sensible ways to take feedback and there are foolish ways to take feedback.


I won't add (much) to the vitriol hurled from and at two writers who got themselves into the news this week as examples of extreme(ly bad) ways to take negative criticism. Alain de B and Alice H will make up their own minds how to react to the feedback to their feedback to the feedback (aka reviews) to which they took such exception. Published writers must learn that some people will hate their books and must work out which negative crits they respect and which they think are rubbish. And how best to react. (Answer: not.)

But what of unpublished authors? What of the feedback that you get, if you're lucky, when you send your precious oeuvre to agent or editor asking for an honest opinion? I know, you don't really want an honest opinion, unless the opinion is "Brilliant! How much do you want for it?" But the fact that so many unpublished authors react unpleasantly to the more unwelcome honest opinions is partly what stops many agents/editors from giving any feedback other than "Sorry, I don't have room on my list." I know agents who've been told to rot in hell after saying that a piece of work wasn't up to scratch. Why should they put up with that when they're not paid and not likely to be paid if offered work that's crap?

Thing is, if you send your oeuvre to an expert, someone you plan to trust with your work during publication, you must accept his/her honest expert opinion when you get it. That doesn't mean you crumple into a heap and blindly make every change suggested if you don't fully believe or understand it, but it does mean that you consider closely what they say and accept that they know what they're talking about. Otherwise, why did you approach them, you deluded idiot? (Crabbit old bat is back.)

The author who does not listen properly to feedback from trustworthy sources (i.e. agents with a track record, publishers with a track record, writers with a relevant track record, and select readers who actually know what they're talking about, and NOT your relatives, friends, pets or even most members of your writing critique group unless they fall into the first category) is a fool and does not deserve to be published. Thing is, if a publisher happens to be taken in by your inferior writing and actually publishes it, readers will not be so forgiving: trust me. They will rip you to shreds on Amazon and your book will die horribly, messily and painfully. And you will be gutted and quite possibly throw a hissy fit. (In private, please.)

The aspiring author who, on the other hand, behaves like Jen Campbell, bravely and open-mindedly laying herself bare (not literally) and allowing herself to receive feedback in public from a host of people she has never met but has decided to trust on the basis that if they read this blog they must kind of slightly know what they're talking about, deserves publication and success.

The aspiring author who does all this and then generously gives me chocolate, just because I allowed her to be publicly judged, deserves to be published thrice-fold (or more) and then to win all the prizes going. Jen, thank you so much for the gorgeous Coco chocolate, pictured below - you honestly shouldn't have, but I'm very glad you did!

Vanessa's bookshop
now seems to be the depository of presents for me. In case any of you need to know, for any reason of a donatory nature, her shop can be found at 219 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh EH10, and delicious chocolatier Coco of Bruntsfield is conveniently close by. Vanessa is also opening a grown-up bookshop soon, and I am equally happy to receive chocolate or sparkly wine there too. I am sure Vanessa is quite delighted to look after things for me.

Jen, you're amazing, even without the chocolate - you are an example of how to take feedback properly, maturely and constructively. There's no reason why you should follow it all but I believe what you're doing is seeing your work through the eyes of others and you know much more clearly what you might do to make it gorgeously and perfectly publishable. When you get there, let me be the first to know and I will give you chocolate too.

I also take my hat off to others amongst you who have submitted work to the Submissions Spotlights, either for children or adults, and especially those who sent their work in even after seeing the intensity of the comments that Annie and Jen so wonderfully dealt with. Congrats to Annie too - her response to the feedback for her children's submission was also wonderful.

Meanwhile, I'll be doing another spotlight on July 13th or thereabouts, and I haven't completely decided which ones to pick so do keep your submissions coming. Please follow the same rules as before. I was really pleased with how it went - I learnt from it too.

Thank you all for being such excellently contributory blog readers. You are restoring my faith in unpublished authors: see, I confess that before I started this blog I thought most of you were completely hopeless nutcases and that, on top of that, if that were not enough, many of you were also deluded idiots. Nutcases and idiots among you are obviously keeping quiet, which is quite the best thing for you to do, letting the sane and potentially publishable have their voice and show good author behaviour. Having so many published authors, agents and editors reading this blog is also an enormous help - thanks, one and all.

I can't send you chocolate (otherwise, of course, I would) but I can show you Jen's chocolate and the lovely Coco bag.