Thursday, 25 February 2010

GOOD AUTHOR BEHAVIOUR: RESPONDING TO NEGATIVE FEEDBACK

No one actually likes negative feedback. "I welcome your feedback" is usually said through gritted teeth and with a sinking feeling. But the mark of our stature is how we respond to it.

Responding well does not necessarily mean following the negative feedback to the letter. It doesn't necessarily mean changing anything. Responding well involves:
  1. accepting that someone did not relate to or enjoy your book;
  2. working out whether that person's view is one which should give us cause for changing anything. For example, if this is feedback before publication, and if you asked for that feedback trusting the person's view, if you now don't accept it you should wonder why you asked for a view. Or, if this is a review or comment after publication, again, decide whether perhaps the person has a point, whether he/she was indeed the intended reader, or not, or whether perhaps this has given you an important insight into something you'd like to do better or differently next time;
  3. accepting that you won't please everyone and that some people are simply not meant to enjoy your work;
  4. not bloody well reacting negatively, at least in public. That is known technically as #authorfail.
If you want to tread into utterly exemplary author behaviour, consider doing what Alex Scarrow has just done. When he came across the opinion of Catherine Hughes (follower of this blog, reader extraordinaire of eleventymillion books and person who I would like to like my books), in which she said she hadn't yet managed to get into Alex's TimeRiders, and was discussing what makes us give up on books, Alex actually left the most gracious comment. So gracious was he, and so impressed were the other blog-commenters, that he has almost certainly scored himself a few more readers. I was tempted to paste his comment here, but I really would like you to read C's blog and the comments thereunder.

Impressed?

My personal taste in books makes me not the likely ideal reader for TimeRiders, but I know plenty of people who are. So, I'm going to buy the book, and have a sneaky peek before giving it to a friend who I think will like it. So, that's one more sale.

Now, unless Alex is a very strange person indeed, the moment when he saw that Catherine had not immediately been hooked by his book cannot have been the best moment of his year so far. However, I think you will agree that whatever he felt, discretion won over vitriol and his response was absolutely the best one he could possibly have given.

As you know, I write reports for people through my Pen2Publication service. Over the almost three months since it started, I've written some reports that must have been really hard for the recipient to read. (I should stress that I've also had the opportunity, and taken it, to write glowingly, too!) It is to the credit of all the writers that their responses have been impeccable and gracious, in every case. I have had writers thank me for pointing out the problems, and going away with enthusiasm to re-write their oeuvres in the confident belief that the criticism was constructive. I only take clients who I believe really do want the truth.

Maybe, when Catherine tells Alex what it was that failed to engage her (which she has promised to do, once she's had another shot!), he will choose to do something a little differently next time. Maybe he will at least feel her eyes looking over his shoulder when he redrafts. Or, maybe, he will take the view, "win some, lose some." It looks to me that his books are fabulously successful and that he can afford to "lose some".

On the other hand, he won some amongst Catherine's blog readers. And he may do here, too.

Meanwhile, for your delectation, a most relevant video.

Monday, 22 February 2010

SHORT STORY SKILLS

I am no expert on the short story form, having had little success with it myself. Having said that, a) I was short-listed for the Ian St James Awards many years ago and b) I don't actually write short stories, let alone send them off, so success is somewhat unlikely.

However, I keep hearing that the short story is on for a revival and so it should be: in this busy world, surely they are perfect reading material? And, if I don't know about it, I know people who do. So, I asked them.

Actually, first, I didn't. First I saw Nik Perring's post about short stories a while ago and asked his permission to link to it for your benefit. So, go there first. Nik is an excellent and hard-working writer, and knows of what he speaks.

Then I asked Sally Zigmond to chip in. And she did - coming up in a minute. I also asked Vanessa Gebbie and she would have loved to help except that she's frantically completing a novel. However, all is very much not lost, because Vanessa did two very useful things:
  1. She pointed us all towards a book she edited, called Short Circuit - a Guide to the Art of the Short Story, which is highly recommended by many people, including Sally.
  2. In a moment of madness, she offered a copy as a prize to the person with the "most creative/engaging way of telling me why they want to write a short story that is more than just a yarn". Hooray! Please email your entry to n@nicolamorgan.co.uk before March 12th. Please put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line. 50 words max.
 So, what did Sally add to Nik's advice?
  • First, she agreed with it, though would like to emphasise that actually we should think "a great deal" about the reader. I'd agree - I'm always banging on about thinking of the reader.
  • Sally also thinks that Nik's video clip of Kurt Vonnegut contains superb advice.
And now, I can do no better than quote Sally directly:
"A short story is very condensed but exactly like a novel in that it needs an overall shape, narrative arc as it were, although other shapes are available. It has to have a theme and it has to have strong characterisation. Every image, every word, every phrase must match that mood and whilst I'm not advocating uniformity to the point of dullness, a short story is less tolerant than a novel of any change in mood or tone. It cannot cope with multiple plot strands and multiple themes. And each aspect must help create a story that is greater than a sum of its parts--what I call the Tardis Effect and have mentioned on my blog."
"Moment of change: To me every short story needs one and again I've blogged about this. It doesn't have to be as clunky and obvious as a bad character changing his ways, confessing his sins or a poor person suddenly becoming rich or realising that 'money isn't everything,' but something small and subtle. It can even be in the mind of the reader. The most obvious version of this is the 'twist in the tale story' which is frowned on by more literary types, slightly out of fashion now, but still popular in commercial magazines. But again it can be subtle. The reader can end up seeing another side to a character they felt they were certain about at the start.
"The reader must have experienced something when they finish reading--I call it resonance. Beautiful prose is not enough; there has to be progression of some kind to avoid that feeling that he or she has just wasted their time or, as editors call it, that SFW (so f***ing what)  reaction.

"Concentrate on one character--or no more than two.  Go for depth, not width.

"Keep the duration short, too--you can't stretch a story over years, unless you're very skilled. Concentrate on one 'moment in time'. If a novel is a full-length film, then a short story is a still photo.

"Don't go for sensation to make a story 'exciting.'  Most down-trodden wives or hen-pecked husbands don't end up putting poison in their spouse's tea or blowing up the garden shed (yes, I know it does happen but it rarely works in fiction--but still such stories turn up again and again). Stories about the minutiae of life work best in short fiction--but they must have depth of emotion and intelligence of thought. Too often minutiae ends up as dull as ditch water--which is why some writers are tempted to add sensation to 'spice things up.' They're going about it the wrong way.

"Avoid stereotypes. Obviously one should rid the text of clich├ęs but don't have cliched characters or reactions either. Avoid the hard-bitten business women or nasty bosses out to crush the workers. Most tarts do not have hearts. Avoid the school story where the bullied eventually trounces the bullies. Too many stories are about young anorectics, self-harmers etc. All harrowing subjects but often handled in such a meaningless way they become wallpaper. All these stereotypes can work but only if handled with care.

"Learn to distinguish the differences between so-called literary and commercial fiction. Neither is 'better' -merely that the requirements of both are different. I write both but I have to wear a different head when I write each one. (I actually find writing commercial fiction much much harder.)"

Finally, as well as Short Circuit, the book about literary fiction writing, Sally recommends for commercial genres, Della Galton's How to Write and Sell Short Stories.

Next week(ish) I'll be bringing you Tania Hershman talking about very, very short stories - flash fiction.

Don't forget to enter Vanessa Gebbie's competition now... When you email me, remember to put SHORT CIRCUIT COMP in the subject line.
Meanwhile, it gives me the hugest pleasure to tell you, if you didn't already know, that Sally's long-awaited NOVEL, Hope Against Hope, is published on April 4th. Hooray for hoping against hope! Do go and visit the special blog that Sally has set up to tell you all the background stuff. She'll be signing books in Watersone's in Harrogate on April 9th, early afternoon - do go if you can! And here is the lovely book itself:
Edited to add: I'd also like to plug Nik Perring's forthcoming flash fiction collection. Go here and click the In the fridge link. I'll plug it again when I properly talk about flash fiction. Or, in fact, when Tania Hershman does.

Friday, 19 February 2010

RISKY WRITING AND THE MODERN WORLD

In difficult economic times, sensible people think more carefully about risk. Sensible publishers are more cautious about flinging their money around; sensible writers take more care to make sure their book is as good as it can possibly be before they send it out.

Going, going, gone are the days when an agent or editor drooled over raw talent and positively ached to spend eleventymillion hours honing that talent into a publishable book. Welcome to the modern world.

Did I say modern? I'm reading the US ultra-mega-seller Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann at the moment. I know, bit late, but I wasn't allowed to read it as a teenager - actually, "they" made sure I never heard of it - and I had to wait till I was 48 before I dared. The main character's man of the moment - I'm only halfway through and God knows how many more men there'll be; or women - is writing a book, which he is desperate to publish.

Bearing in mind that Valley of the Dolls was published in 1966, I thought you might like these snippets from it:
"Right now, I'm not sure if I can write. I'm not sure the book will even be good. At this very moment there must be half a million ex-GIs sitting at type-writers and hammering out personal versions of Normandy, Okinawa or the London Blitz. And each of us - we really have something to say. It's just a matter of who says it first - and who says it best."   ...
"Lyon ... after the book is finished, will you marry me?"
"I shall be delighted to - if the book turns out to be a good one."
She was silent for a moment. "But you said yourself ... even a good book doesn't always make money."
And then in a scene a little later, Anne is talking to a friend, Jennifer, about the fact that Lyon has finished his book. (That was quick...). Jennfier says:
 "Wonderful! Now you can get married!"
Anne laughed. "It's not that simple. First it has to be accepted by a publisher. He gave it to Bess Wilson - she's a very important literary agent. If she likes it and agrees to handle it, he's halfway home. A publisher will automatically read a manuscript with more interest if he gets it from Bess Wilson."
So, it was never easy, and agents were always important, and writers still sruggled. Even good books didn't necessarily make money. 

Oh, by the way, Lyon gives Anne up for the sake of his writing. He takes her type-writer and disappears to the North of England - as in England, UK, not New England. Crikey, isn't that where Jane Smith lives? - and plans to write, because, "If I want to write, there's only one thing to do - write."

Yep. That hasn't changed either.

Oh, and he plans to marry "the first plump English girl who will cook and tend for me." Typical bloody man.

Anyway, back to the thing about risks and the real modern world, the one with a recession and all sorts of horrible threats to books. I was reminded of all this by this excellent post on whether children's editors are taking risks any more, from the Kidlit people. I think it nicely explains the situation. And don't think this only works for children's publishing. It applies to all genres.

It shouldn't depress you but it should goad you to better and better. There's no room for laziness or second-best if you want readers.

And as for plump English (or even British, as some of us prefer to be called, in case we might actually be Scottish or Welsh or Northern Irish) girls to cook and clean for you, fugeddit. Atcha with my pointy shoes.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

HEROINES IN THEIR PRIME? APPLY WITHIN

Since you ask, I'm 48. Middle-aged, c'est absoluement moi. I am, I like to think, in my prime. I am more in control of my life than ever before, I buy more fabulous shoes than I did when I was younger, I make more effort (I have to) and more radical decisions, earn more, want more, accept new experiences, meet more and more interesting people, and exciting things happen to me - sometimes not in a good way, but excitingly, nevertheless. Some of the things that happen to me even make pretty good stories.

But apparently I couldn't be in a novel. What utter tosh. Isn't it? Or is it?

Publisher and writer (and woman of a somewhat similar age), Lynn Michell, drew my attention to this the other day, because she blogged about it here. Do go over and read what she says.

Lynn quoted a "well respected" literary agent as having said:
‘I can’t sell a novel these days about a middle-aged heroine. No publisher would touch it. Give up. Youth is exciting. Old age is interesting. Middle-aged men are either powerful and sexy or going through a crisis or thrilling baddies. But forget all about women aged between 40 and 65. No-one wants to read about them in novels.’

I really hope he is talking tripe. Not just because it's obvious (though not the point) that in real life middle-aged women are no more or less capable of being all the things needed in stories - they are vulnerable / feisty, strong / weak, tragic / domineering, lucky / unlucky, sexy / shy, betrayed / murdered / attacked / hated / loved, criminal / dramatic / damaged / heroic. But because lots of modern novels do feature women of a certain age. Surely. Don't they?

Lots? Er, like, give an example. Erm... Here's where I run away because I am (honestly) frantically busy - for which there's a very good reason which I will tell you quite soon. So, it's over to you, my fabulous, well-read blog-readers, to come up with novels written in the last few (say sixish) years, featuring a heroine aged 45 - 60. Catherine, Sally, Emma, Daniel, Jo(s), Jane, David, Cat, all of you... come on, please.

Because, if you can't come up with some answers, the "well respected literary" agent was right. 

And if he was, I'm doomed, and so are some of you. Not interesting enough, eh? Would he like me to prove to him that I am perfectly capable of providing the murder and intrigue which he so doubts?

I really want him not to be right. Would it not be absurd if he were right? Fundamentally weird? After all, are we not the main reading demographic. So, if he's right, is it our fault?

PS I should add that I am a huge Fay Weldon and Bernice Rubens fan and they certainly had middle-aged heroines - however, BR hasn't written anything in the last few years, being dead, and I haven't read any FW in very recent years. To be fair to the agent, FW is well enough established to sell anything. So, who has taken on FW's mantle?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

ROMANTIC WRITING IN THE AIR

Bit of a coincidence this. The other day, fably successful romantic novelist, Katie Fforde, started following me on Twitter, and I was duly flattered. Then I thought, hmm, what I don't know about writing romantic novels could be written on the Great Wall of China and leave no space for a postage stamp, so why don't I ask her to answer some questions on my blog, just for you? So I did and she said yes with the suspicious alacrity of a writer who ought to be writing and desperately isn't.

And then I realised that it was nearly Valentine's Day and that there was therefore no better time to schedule such a post than today. So, this comes with love from me to you. (Of a strictly cerebral and platonic nature.)

NM: Nutshell time. Romantic fic? Can you define it in one?
KF: It's impossible to define modern romantic fiction in a nutshell.  It's a very broad genre and it just won't fit!  There must be a romance but it doesn't have to be absolutely central. It can be like a golden thread that winds itself through all the other elements making sure it all ends in a satisfying conclusion.

NM: Tell us how you came to be writing it? What drew you to it?
KF: I found myself writing romantic fiction because it's what I like reading.  Although I'm very happily married, I do miss the chase, the romantic moments, the 'will he, won't he' part of it.  I think readers like reading it for the same reasons.  I've never really wanted to write anything else although I do enjoy other genres.  But for me, there has to be a bit of romance.  Fortunately lots of novels that are classed as crime, for instance, do have this.

NM: What misconceptions are there about writing romantic novels?
KF: The biggest misconception people make is that it's easy.  Take Mills and Boon novels, for example.  They are short, about half the length of a mainstream novel, and they publish a great deal of them each month.  (I made this mistake although I did love them too).  People think they could knock one off in a long weekend.  English teachers on holiday together think, after a few glasses of wine, 'we could write one of these, easi-peasi' and then write a pastiche.  (How do you spell that, ed?)  [Just like that, Katie! Not sure about "peasi", though... NM] I failed for eight years, although I did do it because I really wanted to, not because I thought I was clever, and learnt my craft through doing it.  

NM: What's the biggest mistake that stops a romantic novel being accepted for publication?
KF: With mainstream romantic fiction the problems tend to be the same as with other genres, the most common being lack of narrative thrust.  Page-turnability is what all novels need.

NM: How has it changed in recent years? If writers haven't read modern stuff, what mistakes might they be making? (Apart from the big mistake of not reading it in the first place.)
KF: The main difference between romantic fiction now and say 25 years ago, was that then heroines tended to be beautiful and were rescued by heroes.  After Bridget Jones (and I have to say here, I came before the lovely Bridget!) heroines became more real, more like women we recognise.  My heroine had to lie on the floor to do up her jeans, Bridget constantly weighed herself.  Real women do these things. [Indeed they do - how very observant you are. NM] In the old days they were far too unworldly to care about such things.  You still get perfect women in books but I find them a bit dull.

NM: Of all your books, which one would you most/first recommend for an aspiring romantic novelist to read?
KF: It's very hard to say which one of my books I think would be of most help to an aspiring author.  However, Living Dangerously, my first published novel, does show that I tried to write for Mills and Boon for many years, I think.  The hero appears on the first page (as he does in later books, but not always) and there is a bit of heroine-rescuing.

NM: What's the market like for this genre now?
KF: I don't know about the current market in the US but in the UK, romantic fiction is strong.  In times of recession sales of lipstick and chocolate remain boyant.  To quote Matt Bates, of WH Smith Travel, romantic fiction is chocolate. [Oooh, we relate to this, don't we, people? NM] It is an escape from the real world to somewhere with sexier men and better restaurants. [Take me to this world. NM]

NM: Tips, please, teacher.
KF: My absolute top tip is hard to take up just now!  It's to join the Romantic Novelists Association of which I'm currently the chair. The trouble is, our wonderful New Writers' scheme is always oversubscribed.  You have to get your application in on the 1st of January.  Check out the website!

Other tips: get together with other writers.  Talk about your craft, read books on writing, read novels in your chosen genres, but most of all, WRITE!!!

Do edit, cut and fiddle about if you want. [Ignore that answer, pupils. You have to edit, cut and fiddle. A lot. It's a rule. Katie is far too successful to need to do things like this but we all do. OK?]
Thank you, Katie. Apart from that dangerous piece of advice at the end, we're really grateful to you for taking the time, especially on Valentine's Day, when you are supposed to be dreaming of sexier men and better restaurants, even if you are happily married.

BTW - there's another interesting interview with romantic novelist, Christina Jones, on the Literary Project here












As a little thank you to Katie, I am delighted to give a loud plug for two books: Living Dangerously and Loves Me, Loves Me Not, the anthology which Katie edited and which includes great names to learn from, including Joanna Trollope, Katie Flynn, Rosie Harris and many more.

As for me, I'm away to flutter my eyelashes, and fall at the feet of any man who will arrive at my house with arms full of red roses, sparkly wine, chocoolate and a voucher for LK Bennet.

Meanwhile, the main message I took from Katie's words was the one about narrative thrust...

Friday, 12 February 2010

ENGLISH LIBEL LAWS - OUCH

Somewhat off-topic today but I've just been sent something and I thought I'd pass it on through my blog. It is hugely relevant to writers of all sorts, as well as in my view being a matter of public concern. Whether you are interested or not and whether you want to pursue it is entirely up to you. I happen to think it's important as I don't like things that stifle free speech and I think that Simon Singh's experience has been fascinating and appalling.

This was the message that Simon passed around and I am passing it to you:

Dear Friends,
I’ve had an idea – an unusual idea, but I think it might just work.

As you know, England’s chilling libel laws need to be reformed. One way to help achieve this is for 100,000 people to sign the petition for libel reform before the political parties write their manifestos for the election. We have 17,000 signatures, but we really need 100,000, and we need your help to get there.

 http://libelreform.indiemedium.com/lt.php?id=ZkQFVwoCBVAYDEgEAQkFUA%3D%3D

My idea is simple: if everyone who has already signed up persuades just one more person each week to sign the petition then we will reach our goal within a month!

One person per week is all we need, but please spread the word as much as you can. In fact, if you persuade 10 people to sign up then email me (simon@simonsingh.net <mailto:simon@simonsingh.net>) and I promise to thank you by printing your name in my next book… which I will start writing as soon as I have put my own libel case behind me. I cannot say when this will be, but it is a very real promise. My only caveat is that I will limit this to the first thousand people who recruit ten supporters.

When persuading your friends remember to tell them:
(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee.

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to discuss matters of genuine public interest (and public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws are so hostile to responsible journalism. (In fact, it is exactly because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically runs to over 1 million.

(e) Three separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and two medical researchers raising concerns about three medical treatments. We face losing 1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar concerns? If these health matters are not reported, then the public is
put at risk.

My experience has been sobering. I’ve had to spend 100,000 to defend my writing and have put my life on hold for almost two years. However, the prospect of reforming our libel laws keeps me cheerful.

Thanks so much for your support. We’ve only got one shot at this – so I hope you can persuade 1 (or maybe 10) friends, family and colleagues to sign.

Massive thanks,

Simon

The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. So far, 188 MPs have signed our Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for libel reform and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has formed a working party that the Libel Reform Coalition is represented on.
I am now off to sign it myself.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

AGE-BANDS: WHO DECIDES?

A post relating to YA/middle grade writing today. Needed for two reasons: 1) Amanda Acton, loyal blog-reader, asked for it, and when a loyal blog-reader asks, I tend to leap. 2) David Belbin, who is in charge of the YA Creative Writing course at Nottingham Trent University, has just told his students to go read my blog, and since I'm doing a lecture there next month I felt I should look like the YA expert that I am in real life. (Hello, lovely students: I am looking forward to meeting you.)

As far as the rules and tricks of writing for the YA market is concerned, I have written extensively about that here and here. And by defining writing for teenagers, I simultaneously tell you a lot about writing for the age group just below that. Clever me!

Amanda's specific question was different. It was: 
"But I do have a curious question regarding how books are labelled. I've seen Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in both the YA and Middle Grade category. The topic is rather challenging and I'd personally throw it into YA myself, but is that just me being paranoid that young kids won't get it? Or were the people doing the labelling not really reading the books? Or are some books just difficult to put down in one specific category?"
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LABELLING?
Let me clarify. There was an argument in the UK last year, which has temporarily gone away, about whether books should physically be labelled with an intended age range. This came about after publishers suddenly decided that they would and many authors (including yours truly) and kids rose up and shouted loudly, mostly against this idea. The issue was not whether we believed that books should be aimed at particular age groups, which of course they often rightly are, but that we felt that a label was off-putting to many young readers. For example, a ten-year-old who might have loved a book "intended" for a slightly younger age would feel embarrassed to be seen reading something with "8+" on it. We felt it to be restrictive and damaging. And unnecessary, because a good book-seller can give the perfect level of direction to an enquiring adult wanting to buy for a young reader. (One reason why real bookshops are preferable to on-line selling.)

But physical labelling is not what I'm talking about here, and I don't think Amanda is either. We're talking about age categorization, for example in catalogues and, more importantly, bookshops. Who decides, and why, which age group a book is going to be aimed at?

WHO DECIDES?
Generally, and properly, the author, in conjunction with the commissioning editor, at the time of commissioning and/or writing. Sometimes, a publisher is commissioning a series with a specific age category, so the author would be required to fit that model. But usually the author knows who he or she is writing for and has a very strong sense of that.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
  • Your book can usually only appear in one section of a bookshop. So it's important that you and your publisher understand where it will appear. If you are writing a book which is for 10-12 year-olds, it will appear in the section of a bookshop which in the UK would either be "9-12" or "8-12". Adults buying books in this section would expect your book not to contain sex, drugs, alcohol, etc, except in very careful circumstances.
  • It is also relevant if your book is up for an award. I had a problem with this when The Highwayman's Footsteps was shortlisted in an 8-11 category, meaning that most of the young judges would be too young for it.
  • You'll also need to consider how a book fits with your other books. How will you promote it if it's for a slightly different age group? This doesn't have to be a problem but you should not ignore it.
JUST WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PRE-YA and YA WRITING?
As Amanda correctly suggested, they are not always consistent, firm or obvious. For obvious reasons: books and readers don't accept the type of categorization that wooden bookshelves demand. One eleven-year-old is not the same as another eleven-year-old and one ten-year-old can be more ready for certain subjects than some twelve-year-olds. Also, the YA / teenage section caters for everyone from twelve to sixteenish, and there's a huge difference between a twelve-year-old and a sixteen-year-old; not to mention the fact that plenty of ten/eleven-year-olds are reading the YA stuff.


WHAT ABOUT BOOKS THAT CROSS THE BORDERS?
Inevitably, and rightly, there are many books that could equally well appear in either section of a shop, and Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy is a perfect example. Ultimately, if the publisher has not made it clear in the catalogue, or if the book-seller disagrees, the book-seller will decide where to shelve your book. So it's entirely possible for me to find The Highwayman's Footsteps in the teenage section or the other one. The only reason I might somewhat prefer it in the teenage section is that that's where my other books are, apart from Chicken Friend. However, when I wrote it I did know that it could equally happily be read by a younger reader and should probably be in the younger section. My publishers and I did have quite a lot of discussion about this and I rather think we fudged the issue  - book-sellers and schools do like clear guidelines.

With the Pullman books, Amanda notes that the topic is "challenging" and suggests she'd put it in middle grade (ie the 9-12 section), but wonders if she's being paranoid that younger kids wouldn't get it. I think it's certainly true that some younger kids wouldn't get it - but a lot of older ones don't either, because the books have depth which some readers won't "get". But on balance, I'd put it in the 9-12 section for the same reasons as I give below, for the Highwayman's Footsteps issue. I personally don't think there's anything that makes it unsuitable for keen younger readers, but that's an opinion.

What was it about The Highwayman's Footsteps that made me feel that it should probably be in the younger-than-YA section?
  • It's pure rip-roaring adventure, rather than angsty stuff (though YA doesn't have to be angsty, and teenagers love adventure, too)
  • It doesn't contain any sex etc, or anything that a sensitive parent could object to.
  • Just a feeling I had. And, frankly, that's all that matters: I was writing as though I was talking to particular readers and those particular readers were about 11, rather than about 15. They were my strongly imagined "ideal reader".
In a way, putting a book in the pre-YA section tells a buyer that this book is "safe" whereas a book in the YA section might be "risky" or contain something that a ten-year-old might not be ready for. And that's a vague concept, too...

Also, note my points about the safety-net factor in those linked YA posts above. The HF safety-net is far away but definitely there. Though I must apologise for the dead horse scene. And the leeches.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER AGE-BANDS?
The same applies: the author needs to have a strong feel for the desired audience. You should be an expert in the books that feel like the one you're writing. Read and read properly: note sentence length, page length, word length; language, topics, taboos, voice. Listen. Only that way will you not make horrible mistakes, mistakes which will leap out of the pages and make an agent roll around in derision before she reaches for that wood-burning stove door**...

** for clarity, the wood-burning stove is for her to throw your MS in, not to put her head in.

One thing I can say for certain: the book I'm writing now is definitely not for sensitive readers. Rape, murder, beatings and prostitution - I think we're talking teenage.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

DECIPHERING REJECTION LETTERS

Since I am not here, and am somewhat up to the proverbial eyes in "it", I am re-posting an old post. This is about deciphering rejection letters. I hope you don't have too much opportunity to practise...

Here it is. Do comment.

I found that each time I got a rejection letter, I would actually groan. The sound slid out as if someone had physically squashed me. It's horrible. I guess I'll get no disagreement there. At this point, you have some choices:
  1. be delusional - take the view that you're brilliant and they don't know a thing. Perhaps read this post here to deal with that particular delusion.
  2. be crushed - take the view that you're crap and they're right and you are not worthy to lick the stamp on the next submission
  3. be practical - work out why you were rejected and do something about it
Most rejection letters fit into one of these categories:
  1. No.
  2. No, sorry, but our list is full.
  3. No, this is not the sort of book we publish.
  4. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities, but we don't feel strongly enough about it.
  5. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities; however this, this and this are not quite right. We would be happy to see it again if you were to think of re-writing with those points in mind.
There is a subtext behind each of them. Sometimes, one rejection letter of a particular sort is not enough to go on. Several in the same vein should tell you something. 700 rejection letters of any sort should tell you a great deal ... (See the Behlerblog for this extraordinary story of idiot delusion.)

1. The subtext behind "No" is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell." There are many reasons why this may be the case.
  • you may not be a good enough writer
  • you may be a goodish writer or even a very good one, but your book is not right
  • either because it doesn't fit a pre-existing category, or because it's not original enough (yes, I know - contradictory reasons there, but this is the real world, not Narnia); or because it's old-fashioned, or because it doesn't have a USP / hook / anything about it which will make it easy to sell in enough quantities to cover costs
  • but, whatever, you have not grabbed them sufficiently for them to bother to encourage you
  • (very often they are terrified of giving detailed feedback of any sort because far too often authors retaliate with vitriol
  • but also because of the sheer size of the slush pile)
2. The "list is full" excuse is usually a red herring. Yes, the list may be full, but if your writing is good enough and it is the sort of book they'd have wanted if the list wasn't full, the publisher will not lose you in such a cavalier fashion. So, the subtext behind this is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell, and your writing isn't great enough for us to want to snap you up anyway." So, your book is not good enough - even though (and remember this) you may be a good enough writer; you just haven't shown your writing skills well or, perhaps more importantly, provided the vehicle of a good enough story.

3. The third category (the "not the sort of book we publish" one) indicates one thing: you're an idiot - you should have done your research and sent it to the right publisher. So, please go to the bottom of the class.

4. Obviously this one (the one about good qualities) is more positive. They wouldn't say this if it wasn't true, so pin it to your board and cover it with sparkly things. But, clearly, it's still a rejection... As briefly as possible, here are the things you need to consider.
  • this is not about whether your book is better or worse than half the rubbish that IS published, so don't trot out that old chestnut. This is about whether a human being who is also an expert in selling books LOVES your book enough to fight for it in all the meetings that will have to happen before your book gets to market. See my post here and here and Lynn Price's here.
  • it has to be not only a book the editor loves and believes in, but also one that fits the lists and the plans of that particular publishing company at that time.
  • although "worse" books than your rejected one are often published, understand why I put "worse" in quote marks. It's not about "better" or "worse": it's about being right for an intended group of readers. Readers of chick-lit want something different from readers of Margaret Atwood. If a publisher sold chick-lit readers a Margaret Atwood, the readers would say it was crap and wouldn't recommend or buy it. So, your book might not be as "good" as a Margaret Atwood and therefore not "good" enough to be literary fiction, but much more "literary" than a chick-lit novel, and therefore not "good enough chick-lit". You have to know exactly who your intended readers are and write for them. So, you may well have written a "better" book than some of what you consider to be published drivel, but it's still not the right book for the right market.
5. The last one (the "re-writing" one) is obviously also very positive. And very, very rare. Take it extremely seriously, but be sure that you understand and agree with the suggested changes before you do anything. If you don't agree, you won't be able to do it properly. However, don't pester editors at this stage, since they have to deal with existing projects and the last thing you want to be is needy-seeming or irritating. It's fine to send ONE briefish email to check that you understand what they're saying, but after that you should keep quiet until you've done the work, unless they say they're happy to correspond more often. Often, a suggestion by the editor is a light-bulb moment, when you suddenly realise what's wrong with the book. A light-bulb moment is a wonderful thing and even if the publisher later turns you down, you will have improved your book.

Essentially, behind all these rejection letters is one message: you got it wrong. Sometimes you were just unlucky. But most often, it's simple: your writing is not (yet?) right.

Next up: a post on YA writing. Probably on Thursday.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A POINTY POINT ABOUT QUERIES

I know I'm focusing on craft rather than querying for a while, but every now and then I come across a post on **querying which I'd like you to see.

Apologies, btw, for any glitches in this post: I'm going to be away when it goes out, and it's so much easier to proof it once it's published. So, bear with me and don't tell me about typos.

[**I seem to have gone all American in my use of the word "querying". I mean it to include the various processes of approaching an agent or publisher on any side of any ocean and with any type of writing. Let's say that querying has become a generic word for "approaching" and that it incorporates the chosen method/s of your country.]

Anyways. Here is the post I want you to see. When you've read it, please come back, because I want you not to focus so much on the detail but on three general principles obliquely raised:
  1. The agents and publishers whom you are querying have usually seen far more query letters than is good for them. They can read between the lines and judge your level of knowledge and readiness from the things you say and the things you don't say. They are often cynical, glazed and pessimistic about the basis of your enthusiasm. Don't push your luck: just be confident about your one best project, even if you mention the existence of others in passing. [Which is a good idea, but do keep that bit brief, unflaky and sedate. No gushing from the fount of your enthusiasm.]
  2. If you are a beginner or otherwise unpublished writer, your work is likely to have many faults, faults that make it more or less unpublishable, and faults of which you are horribly unaware. So, if one of your ongoing projects has these faults, they all probably have. Therefore, just present one piece, and make it your best one. If the best piece is an early piece, ask yourself why you're not improving. Because an agent sure as hell will be wondering.
Clearly, there are exceptions to this rule. Genius is one. But it is better to allow your genius to shine through in this one piece of writing. Leave 'em wanting more.

3.  The third point to take from the Kidlit post is this: agents know what they're looking for and they know how to find it. Or if they don't know, it's not up to you to tell them. Don't mess around by trying to give them what they've not asked for. Like the tea-bag my agent friend just received. Last week she also got a letter which started by calling down a curse on her, and then went on to ask if she'd like to read a manuscript. You couldn't make it up.

A couple of you have asked if we could have another bad query competition. I think that's a very good idea and should be a reward for good behaviour in a few weeks' time. Meanwhile, to remind you of how bad queries can be, go and read the winning entries from the last one.

Soon I will be hitting you with a post especially for aspiring children's and YA authors. It will be about pitching your work appropriately for age. Kids' books follow all the same rules as grown-up books, but there are extra rules. There are also extra pitfalls, as this true story shows.

Early on in my career as a YA author, I was doing an event for middle grade / upper primary kids. [I'm going all American again - dang you yankee critturs]. I was not talking about my first and at that time only YA novel, but about Being A Writer. The teacher happened to mention to the kids that I'd written a book called Mondays are Red. Here's what followed:
A grubby boy, whom we shall call Liam, interrupts to say: I've read that, Miss.
Teacher [looking somewhat surprised, as Liam had done nothing to indicate a tendency to read unless forced]: Really, Liam? Did you like it?
Liam: No, Miss. It was pure shite.
Shite or not, it was my first baby and Darren was not worthy.

Now, I am away in London for a few days, for some school talks and meetings. [Watch out, London.] Please don't misbehave while I'm away. a) I will be able to read your comments even if replying is tricky and b) that scary Jane Smith is going to be policing you and de-spamming me. She is donning her weaponry as we speak.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

MORE POINTS OF VIEW - SAYS WHO? SAYS I

I promised to go into a bit more detail about POV after my recent blog post on the topic. Call this one POV for non-beginners.

It’s not as simple as “Is it 3rd person or 1st person”. It’s not as simple as “if the POV character can’t see it, you can’t say it”. It’s not as simple as “don’t switch POV mid-chapter.”

In a way, however, it is as simple as my original exhortation: that every time you say anything, you ask yourself, “Says who?” And you answer it very, very honestly.

I would like to add two points:
  • If you are genuinely mired in the voice of your book, and if you think properly about every sentence, you will not get it wrong. And when you do, you will notice. Think not of rules but of voice and its integrity. BE your story, think your story, breathe and dream your story.
  • It is not difficult to repair POV slippages, once you’ve learnt how to spot them. I’m going to give you a real example.
After the last post about POV, "Sarah" asked a specific question that she was worrying about with her WIP. I asked her to send me something by email so that I could see whether her doubts about POV slippage in her WIP were correct. [If any non-writers are reading this, they may think they’ve stumbled on some kind of dodgy site!]

Sarah has given me permission to use her example here. She said:
“…..For instance, I'm trying to write a story about a city girl who ends up in an 1890s sheep station. Obviously she isn't going to know the names for a lot of stuff, but it could get a bit tedious if everything she comes across is described as 'the long brown cutting thing' or similar.

So in this example, I go from being inside Kavita's head as she wonders what's happened to her (she's just fallen down an old mine and woken up in the past), to a description of the homestead that I think is in a slightly different voice. Eg., it includes a post-and-rail fence, which I'm fairly sure she wouldn't describe that way:
                  
"Kavita woke. Sunlight shone through the lace curtain covering the window above her bed. It dappled the floor, which, reaching out to touch it, she discovered was bare dirt. Still here, then, she thought.
       She sat up. She felt groggy, but at least she was warm.
       What the hell was going on?
       Through the window she looked onto a garden of tangled herbs and flowers. Beyond the garden was bare ground, then a small stand of fruit trees covered in bright new leaves. Around the trees, and stretching either side around the house, ran a wooden fence made of rough-hewn posts and rails. A horse stood sedately in the paddock outside the fence and she could see a handful of cows and sheep. Beyond all this, far away, a sloping line of hills ran along the horizon, blue-green and dark with trees.
       Kavita looked down at the old-fashioned nightie she was wearing. It was plain, thick cotton, and when she lifted the hem she saw it was hand-stitched.
       This had to be a joke. Some kind of reality TV program where she’d been unsuspectingly kidnapped into a horse-and-cart community. Like the Amish. Were there Amish in Australia?
       Or it was all fake. It was one of those live museums and she was being filmed to see how she’d react. Either way, what was unlikely—what had definitely not happened—was that she’d fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century.
       ‘No way,’ she said softly."
Sarah wonders if she’s stepping too far out of Kavita's head when she describes the paddock. The answer, in short, is Yes. But this is not a disaster and very easily fixed. I have fixed it for her, as you’ll see below.

All you have to do is apply the “says who?” question rigorously, and then make sure you are properly in voice. The answer to the “says who?” question is supposed to be “Kavita”. Not an impartial narrator. Not a narrator sitting on Kavita’s shoulder or following her around. And certainly not an omniscient one.

So, here is what I said to Sarah:
“I think (without having read the rest of it) that your instincts that it might not be OK are correct. I agree that you can't have her going round saying "the long brown cutting thing" etc etc, but there are ways round it. So, yes, you have inappropriate POV slippage and you'll need to put it right. The thing is that the POV is K's, even though it's 3rd person.

Here are some suggestions. Obviously some of them may totally have missed the point or repeated something you've already done, but I offer them as tricks to get round your issue, and you can adapt them and improve them. My comments and changes are in red. [By the way, Sentence 3 needs to be re-written – it’s clunky. But you weren’t asking me about that! I might also add something to the first para, something to show some disorientation.]

"Kavita woke. Sunlight shone through the lace curtain covering the window above her bed. It dappled the floor, which, reaching out to touch it, she discovered was bare dirt. Still here, then, she thought.
       She sat up. She felt groggy, but at least she was warm.
       There was something odd - a different smell. The sheets felt kind of rough. (I also think you should put the nightie bit here, as that's when she'd notice it. And instead of saying the hand-stitched bit so quickly, which she probably wouldn't have understood so fast, you could say: When she lifted the hem, it felt all bulky, with big, uneven stitches. As though someone had done it by hand.)
       What the hell was going on?
       Through the window she looked onto a garden of tangled herbs and flowers (say "plants" and then maybe specify - "roses and other flowers clambering everywhere". I don't think she'd know they were herbs). Beyond the garden was bare ground, then a small stand (would she say stand? group? cluster?) of fruit trees covered in bright new leaves (she wouldn't see that from so far away - omit). Around the trees, and stretching either side around the house, ran a wooden fence that looked like something from an ancient farm  - chunky, uneven posts and thin planks. A horse stood sedately in the paddock outside the fence and she could see a handful of cows and sheep. Beyond all this, far away, a sloping line of hills ran along the horizon, blue-green and dark with trees - I think she's describing too much here. You need to show some emotion now, some shock / confusion a bit earlier) It looked like a scene from one of those old-fashioned TV programmes - (I'm thinking of Little House on the Prairie but you can find a way to describe this).
   (Put this earlier: Kavita looked down at the old-fashioned nightie she was wearing. It was plain, thick cotton, and when she lifted the hem she saw it was hand-stitched.)
   (Now have her noticing one more thing, something odd in the room - maybe a jug of water and a bowl for washing?)
   This had to be a joke. Some kind of reality TV program where she’d been unsuspectingly kidnapped into a horse-and-cart community. Like the Amish. Were there Amish in Australia?
   Or it was all fake. It was one of those live museums and she was being filmed to see how she’d react. Either way, what was unlikely—what had definitely not happened—was that she’d fallen down a mineshaft and ended up in the nineteenth century. (Is the earlier context sufficient to support this guess? Is there a reason she'd come to the correct conclusion so quickly? If so, that's fine.)
   ‘No way,’ she said softly."
So, as you can see, it requires a bit of extra thought and some minor tweaking. It does not require a radical rethink of the POV. I know all that red makes it look like more than minor tweaking [I was a teacher, I NEED to use red] but it really isn't. It just requires thinking in character, in voice.

It’s also worth mentioning that if you [not Sarah, all of us writers] know this POV stuff before you start your WIP, you will find that POV slippages are minor and can easily be fixed. It’s all about getting properly into the voice of your narrator right from the start.

The secret is this: the narrator is actually a character itself. Every novel has a narrator, even if invisible, and it’s the voice, personality and mindset of that character which must sing out clearly in every sentence. It's like an actor getting into character, into the right voice. That's what you have to do. Put on the clothes of your narrator and feel what it is like to be him, her or it. Then speak.

BE your story, and tell it truly. Says who? Says I.

Monday, 1 February 2010

PITCH YOUR HOOK

Yes, yes, yes: it's the writing that counts. But your aim is that people should read it, no? In order to get people to read it, you have to pitch it to them. So, your pitch must hook your reader - in this case an agent or publisher - and this hook forms the basis of your pitch.

Pitches and hooks? Gah - get to the point, wummun!

A blog-reader, Sarah from the Slushbusters blog, asked me to say something about pitches because they're running a Polish your Pitch comp over there. [Not in Poland - yes, I was confused, too.] So, I will say something. Inevitably, I will say several things.

First, the word "pitch", in this context, means, "the short, snappy thing which will beautifully and compellingly describe your book in such a way that no agent or editor who handles such books could possibly pass on by and no reader who reads such books could possibly not read it." Sometimes when we say "pitch" we mean "the whole approach and submission". That's not what we're talking about here.

So, your hooky pitch describes your book in a very few seconds [because that's all you may get]. It is never too early to work out how you will pitch your hook as you never know when you might need it. For example:
  • At any point during the writing of your tome, someone may say to you, "So, what's your book about, then?" [They always call you "then", for some reason.] You will blanche internally, and possibly externally. If you don't have a hook, you will then start gabbling and using phrases like "sort of", "and then", "kind of", "well", "oh, and also", "but the thing is", "to cut a long story short", "mysteriously", "and meanwhile, while all that's going on" and, finally, "well, I can't really explain but it'll all become clear when you read it." And your audience will have drifted away to cut its toe-nails.
  • At many points after publication, the same question will be asked.
  • But, way before that happy point, you certainly need it when you first approach an agent or editor formally.
  • You may even bump into such a person in unforeseen circs, and you may suddenly feel the urge to pitch your book there and then. If you start waffling now and getting involved in sub-plots, you've lost your fish.
  • Also, your agent will need to pitch it to a publisher and your editor will need to pitch it to the sales and marketing people, who wouldn't dream of actually reading your book. They need your hook and it needs to be simple, because they like simple things.
  • Sales and marketing people will then start writing Amazon blurbs, still without having read the book. They will certainly need your hook then.
So, get it right.

Or them, because actually you need two forms of hooky pitch. You need the written one, all beautifully scripted with not a word out of place. And you need the spoken one, the one that sounds like [because it is] you talking from the heart about your fabulous book.

Pointy point about hooky pitches: if you plan your hook beforehand, it can hugely help you focus your book while you're writing it. I usually write a blurb for my books before I write anything else. After all, if I know what it's about, that kind of helps.

Tips about your hooky pitch:
  • It must be short. How short? As short as possible while still saying what the book is about. [Ignore all those annoying** people, including important agents, who say you have to use maximum 3 sentences.The thing about rules like that is that you then write really long sentences and anyone who is hung up on number of sentences isn't really thinking about the power of language. I could write the examples below in max three sentences if I wanted to, but they'd be no better, and actually would be clunky and ugly. So, people with unhelpful rules, please butt out remove your posteriors.]
  • Brainstorm some words that seem to encapsulate your book - and use those words.
  • Imagine that when you begin, the listener /reader is expecting you to be just another idiot wannabe who thinks she's written a great book. Your hook has one objective: prove them wrong.
  • Inject some passion into it, whether it's written or spoken.
  • Be confident but not cocky. Don't say um and sort of.
[**I don't mean you, Slushbusters, with your lovely competition! Comps need rules.]

Here's the sort of thing I'd say in conversation if someone asked me, "What's your next book about, then?"
"It's called Wasted, partly because it's about alcohol, but it's really about risk, danger and passion - and wasted chances. Jack - who has had luck so horrible that he thinks it can never get any worse - plays incredibly risky games with chance, tossing a coin and obeying it, whatever the danger. Luck brings him the gorgeous Jess, whose mother is an alcoholic, but in one terrifying night luck runs out for Jack and Jess and then you, the reader, have to toss the coin and determine the ending: life, or death?"
And then, if they were still listening, I'd go into a bit more detail, either mentioning the Schrodinger's Cat angle, or the alternative realities during the book, or the alcohol elements, depending on the audience. There are several things I could mention, each of which has worked well, but I judge it according to who's listening. For example, I might say, "Oh, and twice during the book I write two versions of events and then toss a coin to choose which one actually happens, so the reader sees one possibility disappear."

I do not then waffle on. Though I am sorely tempted. Obviously, given any encouragement, I would. Which happened the other day when I was talking to some teenagers who got very excited and we ended up having a conversation about causal determinism and Buddy Holly...

If I was pitching it to an agent or publisher, in writing, I'd say:
"Wasted is a story of danger, passion and chance. Jack is obsessed by luck. He lets the toss of a coin rule his actions, whatever the risks. Chance brings him Jess, a beautiful singer who will change his life. But their luck won't last for ever. During a night of heady recklessness, they run out of choices. Now it's the reader's turn to take a risk: spin a coin and determine life...or death."
I cheated. That's actually the blurb on the back of the book. But I wrote that, too. So there.

Anyway, please don't get tangled up in rules. Rules are offered by people like me who are trying to help and make things easier, but sometimes they don't. Every book is different and every book requires a different hooky pitch to describe its essence and to hook the reader's enthusiasm. So, it's up to you how you do it. Just get it right in as few words as you can. Inspire, intrigue and hook.

But, if you want rules, I can certainly tell you some things NOT to do in your hooky pitch:
  • Don't use one word more than necessary.
  • Don't bother with minor characters and sub-plots. [Sub-plots may be mentioned in a longer query but not in this distillation.]
  • Don't say how brilliant the book is. Avoid adjectives which describe the book.
  • Don't second-guess the market by saying how popular it's going to be or how it's just made for the big screen.
  • I can't actually think of any more things not to do, but I'm sure you can.
Over to you! Go and enter the Slushbusters competition! You've got till tomorrow evening...

By the way, if I meet you, I will ask you, "So, then, what's your book about?" And you will tell me and then you will ask me the same question and we will be fans of each other for ever and ever.