agents

Dawn shining around tree by woodland road

Is writing going to make you happy?

I don’t believe in writer’s block. All writers have problems with writing. No matter how sensible and practical we try to be about the process – no matter how hard we try to treat it just like any other job – creative work is different. Sometimes you sit down to write and you just can’t. It happens. But you haven’t been struck down by some terribly affliction. You’re not ‘blocked’. Or at least I’m not when this happens. I’m just stuck.

Writers get stuck all the time. Multiple times a day in my case. That’s what writing is. It’s about lurching from one thing that’s too hard/too confused/not working to a bit where ‘Yes! Life is wonderful and birds sings and the words coming pouring out’ and then suddenly it’s back to ‘Disaster! My life is over! My writing sucks! Why do I do this to myself?’

Creative Writing students often ask me questions about what they see as the glamour of being a writer: sipping alcohol and discoursing about one’s genius to an admiring cirle of would-be writers, being presented by grovelling artists with potential cover designs, being chased by reporters dying to hang on one’s every word… And perhaps one in a thousand writer’s has an experience like that. Success in sufficient quantities can bring grovelling and people desperate to hear you say hello (what a disincentive to doing well!), but I expect almost every writer on the planet has reasonably similar experiences when it comes to the act of writing: in short, that it’s infuriating one minute and bliss-and-joy the next. That when it’s flowing and working properly, all is right with the world… and then Life Is Over a the blink of an eye.

When students tell me they can’t wait to be respected authors and have everyone know their name, I ask them what aspect of the actual writing bit they love. Quite often they talk about praise. Now, praise isn’t a bad thing to want at all, but if that’s the bit you really love maybe writing isn’t a good career path. Maybe you will get showered with praise, but if you can’t enjoy the act of writing itself you may find you don’t ever finish enough work to sustain a career to keep the praise coming in.

Writing as a hobby means you don’t have to push through being stuck. Writing for a career means you do. All Day Long. If you hate that aspect of writing  and just want to skip to the praise the finish article may (or may not) garner, you could be setting yourself up for a miserable life. Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write – let alone that you’re not good at it – but perhaps you should think about about whether it’s the right career path for you. I try to explain this to my students at the outset but it often doesn’t sink in until they have to produce a long portfolio piece – a novella, a collection of poems, a full-length script. Some love the idea of having the finished thing but they just can’t stand the process.

And that’s fair enough. But it’s pretty important to be honest with yourself about it. If you don’t like the process of writing, is it going to fulfil you as a career? Is it going to make you happy?

You don’t have to be a career writer to write. But you may need to change your expectations if you don’t.

Getting an agent is often a long, hard slog. So is getting a publisher. And even both of these things are no guarantee of any degree of success… let alone that you’ll get published again. So it’s worth thinking really carefully about why you want to write. It may be that the chances of ever getting enough of the bits you love (or think you’ll love) about being a writer are too low to make all the misery worth it. And let’s face it, writing is miserable as well as wonderful. I think you have to love the infuriating process of writing to have any shot at being happy as a career writer. And if you’re not going to be happy most of the time – or perhaps all of it if you don’t get an agent/publisher or reach the dizzy heights of success you have your eyes set on – is it really a good idea?

Maybe you’ll enjoy writing more if you do it as a hobby and just see what happens. It doesn’t mean you’re not a ‘proper’ writer (whatever that is), it just means you’re being realistic about your best chances of leading a happy life.

Or maybe, on second thoughts, you would be happy just to be published, maybe, some day. Maybe you’re happy to face the doubts that it will ever happen and be content just to keep trying even if you don’t get there. Maybe you’re more ready than ever to keep on slogging when you get stuck instead of hurling yourself down on the sofa and telling your bestfriend that you’ve got writer’s block (though fair play if you want to hurl yourself down, demand comfort and decide to share a whole tub of icecream before you get back to work).

Set your eyes on a career as a writer if the act of writing is going to equate to a happy life for you. If the praise you might or might not receive if you ever get an agent/get published/get your book noticed is what you’re after, then go for it… but maybe go for it with a different career to keep you fulfilled in the meantime. A lot of my writing students who go on to have fulfilling careers and happy lives, come round to this idea. Some of those who don’t, find way to make a living and thrive on the pursuit of their writing dreams in whatever time they can put aside. But some chase those dreams while hating the process of writing. And they tend to be, and remain, pretty miserable. It always seems such a waste to me when they might well find the praise they’re after doing something else… and then discover a love for the process of writing that leads them to success in that too.

At the end of the day, if you don’t love writing even when it makes you miserable, maybe it’s time to think again about how devoted to your writing dreams you should be. Determination and perseverance are great things as a rule, but not when they’re just going to lead you to live a miserable life.

So one of the big things I try to teach my writing students is to figure out what sort of writing dreams are actually going to equate to happiness in their lives.

… Just some things I’ve been thinking about after speaking to several ‘old’ students and hearing what they’re doing now.

 

 

Advertisements
leaves against the sunlight

The Next Big Thing

The lovely Katy Darby has just tagged me for the Next Big Thing meme: a questionnaire designed to get writers talking about their next book. Ideally, each writer tags five others but I seem to have a knack for tagging people who’ve done it and those who don’t have blogs. Go me!

Anyway, here’re my answers. (BTW, I’m cross-posting on both blogs because I ended up talking a lot about The Bone Dragon.)

 

What is the working title of your next book?

MoB. While I’m still drafting I only ever refer to a book by the initials of the working title. Sharing the title sets it in stone for me so, as it’s hard to be sure a title’s right until the book is done, I try to keep it to myself until I’m fairly confident I won’t have to change it.

I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to share a work in progress; for me, a big part of the joy of being a writer, and not a performer, is that I can keep my work secret until I’m ready to hear what other people think. If I start sharing stuff too soon, I get caught up in other people’s ideas and start doubting my own. I need to have a draft that’s close enough to the book in my head that I can use feedback effectively before I go about inviting it by sharing information. So, MoB it is for now. And, no, it’s not about men in dark suits or aliens. Or mobsters. Or flash mob dance crews. I defy you to guess the title… But would love to see your best shot.

 

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In The Bone Dragon, I feel that I started a conversation about a series of themes that are really important to me as a writer. MoB is the continuation of that conversation, without being a sequel. The plot developed from the idea for the ‘hook’, which led me to a key moment in the climax. From there, I used the idea of continuing the conversation from The Bone Dragon to help me work out the story of how and why the ‘hook’ leads to the climax – and vice versa, since the story isn’t as linear as it seems. The fun bit is that this is the opposite of how The Bone Dragon works: TBD is completely linear, only it’s not clear that that’s the case until you’ve reached the very end of the book.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

Like The Bone Dragon, MoB is a YA psychological thriller that will hopefully appeal to anyone over 16.

 

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a really tough question for me. One of the weirder bits of being as dyslexic and dyspraxic as I am is that I find it hard to remember and, therefore, to recognise faces. When I’m having a ‘dyslexic day’ (anyone who is dyslexic will tell you that a person’s level of ‘dyslexic-ness’ shifts from day to day – it’s one of the key things about dyslexia that research has yet to explain), I even struggle to recognise close friends and members of my own family. Mostly I recognise people by their context, their voice and, critically, their hair. This has a huge impact on my aesthetic. I rarely take photos of people and, when I do, I only take ‘snaps’. I just don’t have any sort of an eye for faces in their entirety. This is probably why I feel very strongly about letting readers ‘see’ what they want when it comes to my characters. I tend to provide a bare minimum (and often not even that) in relation to physical descriptions of people.

The flip side is that my visual aesthetic is overwhelmingly taken up with settings and objects. I always give a huge amount of detail on these things because I ‘see’ these things with crystal clear focus – almost as a way of making up for the fuzziness of the people. I love taking photos of landscapes and plants. My best photos are to do with angle, texture and detail, and that’s true in my writing as well. That, in a nutshell, is my visual aesthetic.

The bottom-line here is that I’m not sure I *can* answer this question. I’m also not sure I want to. If I did, I wouldn’t give photos, rather I’d talk about what various actors could bring to the parts in terms of evoking the key emotional aspects of the characters. For instance, the main character needs to be thin (it’s important to the plot): she also needs to look like someone who has attractive features but is almost trying to make herself unattractive, so the actor couldn’t be straight-forwardly pretty. She needs to come across as bordering on sullen, but with a degree of vulnerability that indicates that this is more than just ‘teenage sulks’. At the same time, she can’t seem fragile: she’s prickly on the outside and angrily defensive on the inside… Which makes her sound so lovable. But, like in The Bone Dragon, it doesn’t really matter whether readers like the protagonist per se. They just have to identify with the emotions that fuel her behaviour.

 

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

MoB is to a ghost story what The Bone Dragon is to a fantasy story about dragons. It starts with a girl in a blue coat vanishing into an autumn wood.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Represented by my amazing, wonderful, fantastic, brilliant agent, Claire Wilson, at Rogers, Coleridge & White.

 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

It’s not finished yet but I hope to have the draft done by the end of January. I know exactly what’s going to happen every step of the way, so it’s just about finding the right ideas at the sentence level. I hope it won’t be a long edit: it feels like it won’t be, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking. I’ve only been working on the idea since about March-April so it’ll be my shortest idea-to-book conversion ever. But I’ve got a good feeling about it, like I had with The Bone Dragon, so hopefully…

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Oh gawd. I always find these questions so hard. It seems so presumptuous to compare to my work to the books I dream about seeing mine sit beside. Um… I guess the best answer looks back to what I said earlier: MoB is the continuation of a conversation I started with The Bone Dragon. If really pushed, I guess MoB is The Go-Between meets The Lovely Bones. Sort of.

 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

When I first had the idea, I knew this was a book I wanted to write… but the inspiration that made it my most urgent project came from being signed by my wonderful agent, Claire. Out of all the books I wanted to write, this seemed the most natural progression from The Bone Dragon. I would love for Claire to enjoy the book and be excited to represent it. It’s the best way I can think of to say thank you for the first miraculous ‘yes’ that led to my finally being published…

… which, in turn, involved another critical ‘yes’. I absolutely love working with the team at Faber: it would be great to see if that relationship could continue and I think they might like MoB… but we’ll see.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The protagonist is 16 going on 17, so the book explores some territory that’s touched on in The Bone Dragon but remains between the lines. The same aesthetic principles apply in terms of how the darker subject matter is tackled, but the conversation goes further. The protagonist is at a different point in her life with different things at stake so I have a very different array of opportunities to explore what damage means for someone who is on the verge of a whole series of life-defining choices – about A-levels, university, romantic relationships, where she lives, how she lives, who she’s going to be as an adult… In MoB, impending adulthood means that the main character doesn’t have much time to ‘get her act together’ if she is going to avoid mucking up her future.

Those are the things about MoB that are most exciting for me, as the writer. For the reader, there’s a much more obvious mystery to be solved in MoB that will hopefully sustain the book in a more fluid way than in The Bone Dragon. But the answers to that mystery will (hopefully) lead readers somewhere they’re not expecting at all.

 

So… three guesses what MoB stands for. Go on. Give it a shot. It’s cold and dreary and dark. Laughing will make it better. (So will chocolate, but that’s your own affair.)

old terracotta curved titles

Revisions, Revisions…

My wonderful publishing editor, Rebecca Lee, started working with me on revising the manuscript before we’d even signed the contract. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, apparently: a deal is a deal, but contracts take a while to negotiate and no one wants to wait around dotting Ts on the legal stuff rather than the book itself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at this stage and awaited the return of my manuscript in terror of what The Red Pen of Doom might have in store for me…

Actually, as with Claire’s comments, I was delighted with my feedback. And, again, the key factor was that no one was trying to change the book, only to improve it: to help me achieve what I was driving towards anyway.

For instance, I already had a sneaking suspicion that one of the smaller elements wasn’t coming across clearly but I wasn’t entirely sure what readers might find most perplexing. Rebecca knew exactly what I needed to do: clarify the geography of Evie’s home. That wasn’t a problem – I haven’t drawn a floor-plan of the house, but I could if someone asked me to. So bringing that knowledge out – the odd phrase here and there – was a simple fix to a thorny problem.

Another key issue related to language… I come from a family that’s part British, part Italian and part American. Critically, for the book, although Evie is English some of the phrases she used in the draft manuscript turned out to be American. Who knew? Well, I didn’t, but Rebecca did… and I was very happy to be able to ditch my accidental Americanisms in favour of phrases that were in character for Evie.

I’d already done my best to avoid mentioning brands and also current ‘big hit’ movies etc. as these things can date a book very quickly, so Rebecca was pleased on that front.

A trickier issue was one of vocabulary. Given that the book is going to be marketed as YA/cross-over, Rebecca wanted me to consider whether some of the words I used (she picked out the key examples) were too complex. I considered very carefully in each case and spent time poring over my thesaurus to see if there were other words that worked as well in the relevant contexts. Sometimes there were, in which case I changed the original word: why use a long word when a short one will do just as well? Well, lots of academics (and some writers) spend their whole careers doing just that (and not an awful lot else), but I don’t see the point. Complexity should be saved for the things that really are complex, rather than wasted on those that can, in skilled hands, be simple.

However, in some cases I’d chosen a word because of its nuances and associations… When that was the case, I didn’t change the manuscript. I may not believe in making things complicated when they don’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of ‘dumbing down’. If someone doesn’t know a word, they can look it up – and that’s no bad thing to be encouraging for YA readers or, indeed, adult readers who might like an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. I wrote The Bone Dragon for all people over a certain age – not specifically for the YA category – so I didn’t want to make changes to the book that I felt would render it less appealing to adult readers… or, indeed, YA readers looking for something a little more challenging.

As it turned out, there were about 10 words that Rebecca felt would be challenging for the YA market: that seemed to be a really good number of ‘difficult’ words to leave in. So I did.

… More on market factors and their influence on the manuscript in my next post.

If you’re reading and have experience of editors or agents giving you market advice about how to change your manuscript, I’d be really interested to hear about it. Did you feel the advice was helpful? Did you feel it conflicted with your creative aims?

daffodil close up

Choosing a publisher

So, with one offer already one the table, the week crept by… I edited like a fury (human rights-related stuff, which did help to put my fretting in context) and tried not to think about it. I’m not really a superstitious person, but it felt like daydreaming too much would jinx things… or just drive me nuts. I didn’t want to end up daydreaming too many wonderful scenarios over and over again in case I started feeling like those ‘pie in the sky’ type outcomes were actually inevitable: no amount of modesty (not one of my vices anyway) can temper a suffeit of hope into realistic expectations… So I just try not to expect anything, but still hope for the best.

And, besides, it wasn’t hard – I already had an offer. A really wonderful offer. Of course more than one is always nice, but it’s just the icing on the cake. One good offer is all it takes to get into print and, really, that’s the important thing for your debut novel.

And then came Monday. A little after 3.30pm, the phone rang. It was Claire. With news.

There had been a bidding war for my book! My book! Two further, fantastic publishers I had only dreamed might one day be interested in me both wanted my book… And both had put the same top offer on the table. So it fell to me to choose which one to go with.

I suddenly realised how completely agonising the reality of multiple offers actually is. How do you say ‘no’ to people you’d love to work with? Who youwould practically have killed to work with a fortnight ago? As a not-yet-published writer it a  dreadful thing (though a huge privilege at the same time) to turn down a fantastic offer from a wonderful publisher. My first thought was to ask Claire if I could just write another book for the other publisher so I wouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to anyone. It felt horribly ungrateful to be turning them down when it really was a dream come true to have them want me…

But Claire, wonderful, patient agent that she is, explained (in very small words, which was all I was capable of processing at the time) that when a publisher launches an author, they have to invest a lot of money… So they want to get a good return on their money by (all things being equal) keeping the author as ‘their’ author, rather than sharing. In other words, my wish to show my gratitude really wasn’t going to be appreciated… Woe! Ah well, at least the thought was there.

So… there I was with two five-figure offers on the table and a third, though lower offer, all from absolutely fantastic publishers…

As you know, I ended up going with Faber & Faber. I am still surprised and amazed that they like my book and that I get to work with such wonderful people. It’s been absolutely amazing… and the book isn’t even in print yet!

foxgloves

Let the bidding war start!

So, you probably already know by know how this story ends… but the journey was fun too.

My wonderful agent submitted the book on 5th March. She seemed upbeat all week. I worked like mad on editing for other people and tried not to think about the book at all.

Then, on the following Monday, my agent emailed with the news I’d been waiting my whole life for: a wonderful publisher had made an offer on the book. Finally, someone wanted my work! Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel… the whole stupid business of writing that I’d had my heart set on since before I could remember was actually going to pan out.

I read the email properly… Claire was confident that there would be more offers: that this was just the first.

Of course I’d hoped for that, who wouldn’t? But I hadn’t really expected it to happen. I hadn’t ‘expected’ someone – anyone – to say yes at all…

I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at that point, but decided that it didn’t really matter. One way or another, I was  going to get published. Finally, the life I’d always wanted was about to start: my life as a professioanal writer. I was numb with happiness, and relief that I wasn’t going to have to go through my whole life hoping and never quite achieving.

I am still just as happy as on that day: it hasn’t paled. Whenever I’m miserable, I remind myself I’m going to be published soon and I can’t help but smile. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

 

Anyone else out there with a similar story? Or a similar dream? I’d love to hear how it all came together for you.

PS: In case you’re wondering why I have two blogs when the last batch of posts have basically been the same… I will only cross-post on both this site and The Bone Dragon (or TBD as I think of it) for posts about TBD. Down the line, the blogs will diverge again. Thanks for bearing with me in the meantime!

path to ruined barn and red poppy field

Last orders?

So, the re-revised book went back to my wonderful agent on March 3rd… and I am waiting nervously for the thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s now March 5th, just in case you’re feeling a bit confused and suspect it might be July, and there is a new email from Claire in my inbox.

I scan it quickly. Few little changes. Then we can start submitting… Track Changes document attached…

The changes require me to replace one sentence I cut in the last edit, and to remove three ‘ands’ in the first scene. I blink at the computer screen and then rush off to fret over the ‘ands’.

It’s my opening page, I want to wail. I like my ‘ands’! I hear them when I read the manuscript…

But I completely see where Claire is coming from when she says that I may have worked on this page so much it’s not quite as natural as the rest and the ‘ands’ seem a bit contrived.

There’s one ‘and’ I really like… But I can keep that for my version. It’s an ‘and’ after all, and I’m too close to the manuscript – and especially that page – to put my stamp on those three tiny conjunctions being critical. Now is the time to trust my wonderful agent, who has given me so many brilliant, insightful comments – all of which are directed towards helping me get the book I want to write down on the page. This is exactly the time to sit back and say ‘Claire’s the expert. She’s proven she really gets my writing and my book. She can see far more clearly at this point than I can.’ If you can’t trust your agent with these things, then you’ve probably got the wrong agent.

So I put back the sentence, I cut the ‘ands’ and the book goes back to Claire on the afternoon of March 5th.

A few hours later, Claire emails me with the list of publishers it’s gone out to.

It’s a terrifying list. Wonderful, but terrifying. Claire seem confident, but I am a nervous wreck.

I do my best not to think about it and, instead, set to work on my next book.

double spiral staircase

Here we go again…

So, Claire liked the revised manuscript… but we weren’t quite there yet.

Most of the new comments were about specific, individual lines or bits of scenes… But she had one large outstanding comment about the pacing in the second quarter of the book. The difficulty was that she felt that some scenes were too long – but they were ones that we both agreed were really well written.

It’s very hard to cut material – or even cut it down – when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it line-to-line. But, even if everything in a scene is good, if it isn’t doing the book as a whole any favours it has to go… or, at very least, it has to get shorter. It’s a real wrench doing that sort of editing; it’s hard enough to cut words when you know they aren’t right, but cutting ones that, in themselves, are…

I have two little tricks for making it easier. First, I always save a new file every day so that the ‘old’ version of what I’ve written is never lost or deleted: the work, and all the effort behind it, is there should I ever decide it could be of use. Second, I keep a running file of ‘cuts’. Out come individual words, little phrases, clauses, entire sentences, paragraphs, scenes and even complete chapters… But they come out of the manuscript and find a new home in the cuts file, where I have them to use elsewhere should I ever need or want to. I rarely go back to these files, but that’s not the point. The point is to feel that I’m not ‘wasting good’: I’m not throwing away effort, let alone work that is worth something.

So, pinning Claire’s comments to my monitor, I set up a new cuts file and went back to the manuscript and was even more ruthless than before. ‘What does this word/phrase/sentence add?’ I asked myself. And, even more importantly, ‘Could someone else have written this line?’

I tried to cut the purely descriptive material in my ‘slow’ scenes down to 200 words or less. It wasn’t always possible, but it was a useful rule of thumb to work towards; 200 words is less than a page – hard for a reader to get bored in that time or feel that the pace really has dropped, but beyond that…

The other thing I did was look at my book outline (a screenplay-type scene-by-scene structure) and consider the order of my scenes. ‘Does this really have to come before that?’ I asked myself. ‘How many scenes from other subplots can I insert between the ones that are part of the ‘slower’ part of the story?’

Simply swapping a few scenes around made a huge difference. Changing the rhythm of the story, and widening the weave between the different story-threads, was enough to fix the pacing in a number of places… And with some strict but not too harsh cuts, it was enough…

Or at least I hoped it was: off went the book to the ever-patient Claire once again…

Before I get to what she thought, does anyone have any good tips to share about making difficult editing easier? How do you cope with cutting the bits you love when they don’t serve your book as a whole?