How do you know?

JK Rowling was an amateur. Twelve Rejections? Twelve? Ha! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been turned away at the door. Twelve? No offence, Ms R, but that’s not even trying.

I’m the first (actually, probably the second or third) person to admit that I have an arrogant side, especially when it comes to my writing. When I complete a piece I’m damn excited. I lose all sense of perspective. Okay, I know it ain’t perfect, but I’ve got the bones down. And what bones – the bones of a colossus, a juggernaut, a god. Rational thought – sure, it gets a look-in, but excitement, even tempered with experience, is a heady brew. Writers are notoriously bad at self-evaluation.

This, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. As long as you have a strong enough support network – a writing group is ideal – you’ll get feedback and can improve your work over successive drafts. But how do you know when it’s ready to send out to publishers/agents or to self-publish?

I’ve got this wrong. I realise that now. I started sending my work out far too soon, maybe even years before I should’ve been thinking about publication. Occasionally it was for good reasons – publishers running open submission periods, for example – but mostly it was just down to impatience and arrogance. Plus the unwitting encouragement given to me by beta-readers. How do you know? How do you know when you and your work are ready?

The problem (one of them, at least) with the publishing industry is that it’s a one-shot affair. You send out your material and you either succeed or fail. And then you can cross your target off your list. Done. For that project, at least.

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true. Can you resend the same material – or at least material from the same project – to a publisher? Can you go back? Is there a sort of statute of limitations?

Still, I’m pretty sure it’s bad form to go back to the same place once rejection has been established. And that’s where literary consultants come in. How do you know when your work’s ready to go out? You ask a professional for their opinion. Most, these days, at least claim to be ‘talent scouts’ for agencies, so if your work’s ready you stand to get a leg-up. If it’s not you get valuable advice on where you’re going wrong.

I get it now. I didn’t before. In my arrogance I didn’t see the point. After all, my writing is technically pretty good – I enjoy punctuating and, with (free) help can vanquish most typos. My flaws are slowly being eradicated as they’re pointed out to me.

But now that I’ve had my work critiqued by a professional I can finally see where I’ve been going wrong all these years. Where my plots are falling down. Where my characters are behaving – well, out of character.

I’ve got this far (pretty much nowhere) without paying a penny. I guess that’s something to be proud of, but I’ve cost myself a lot of opportunities on the way. If I’d paid for assessment a year or so ago I’d have stood a much greater chance of having an agent/publisher by now. Yeah, I get it now. I finally see the point.

Which is not to say that I regret doing it my way. I have learnt. Learnt a great deal along the way. Maybe it was best for me to make the mistakes as I went along: 2013 was, for me, The Year Of Learning How To Be Professional. Maybe I had to go through that (not in a predestination type of way – balls to all that) in order to accept the lessons. I just wish I’d been a little more patient before sending my writing out to publishers and agents.

Of course, I know I should finish by saying that I’ll never be so impetuous again. But I know myself. Even though I (think I) know what it’s cost me, I don’t think I’d change. That’s just the way I am. And if you’re in the same position then don’t be too hard on yourself. Be accepting. Be Zen. Keep on swimming.

By the way, why is it that consultants only seem to exist in the world of writing? I know of no comparable services for the music industry, or in art. All rely on interpretations of taste and of technical ability. I tend to think of all the arts as similar in structure, but maybe I’m wrong.

What do you think?

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Readers and writers

Reading isn’t the same as watching a film. It’s kind of strange: you enter a world that is fundamentally of your own creation, a compact between you and the writer. What’s in their head as they write is likely to be different to the one appears in yours. It’s kinda creepy, if you stop to think about it.

When you watch a film all the decisions have been made for you. You know what the characters look like because they’re there in front of you. You know the environment because you can see it; can see all the props, the explosions, and with good acting and direction and dialogue can even get a sense of smell, weight, mass… It’s all there for you. Watching a film, therefore, is a passive experience. I think this is why the films that stay with you longest aren’t the flashy effect-a-thons, but the ones closest to a literary experience: those that suck you in with the intangibles: plot, character, the things for which words can’t quite grasp.

Books are different. Books have always been different. If you and I were to read the same book then we’d be experiencing different things. That’s kind of magical, if you stop to think about it. The author writes something. You read it in your own way and get something else out of it. You lend it to a friend and they get something else again. Magic.

This is, I suppose, down to the nature of description overlaid against your own experiences. I’m currently reading a book set in India. I’ve never been there. I trust the author has, or has at least has done extensive research. So they have a more complete mental image of the landscape, the smells etc than I have. Is that a problem? No, because the author (should) provide enough hints, enough description, enough evocation for a world to be built in my head. I suppose this suggests that the author’s world is more ‘right’ than mine. But that’s not true. Books are democratic. I said at the beginning that books are a compact between author and reader. I rely on the writer to give me enough hints to mould my mind’s eye without dictating strictly to me. It’s an intensely personal thing without right or wrong.

This is an area where it’s much more preferable to be under- rather than over-done. My personal hate (and this is found more on the internet than in print) is of stories that begin with a great list of a description – sometimes of background but more often of people. We want to have description drip-fed to us so we get the essence of what a character is without having them summed-up to the precise bra-size, to the last stray hair. Description should some up a character’s personality rather than appearance. Why is this? Buggered if I know. I suppose partly because a novel needs to involve the reader and nothing involves you more than having to work on it yourself. It’s collaborative. And the best stories leave you with a vivid impression of a character (or landscape) without you ever having any memory of being told anything about them.

Which is why readers can get upset when the character they held in their mind is changed for film or television adaptation. Remember the controversy when a black actor was cast in Hunger Games – even though the book actually specifically said he was black? It’s because it’s so easy to miss the small details. And then the character becomes solid in the reader’s mind – more real, sometimes, then your neighbours. You fall in love with these people. They matter. The illusion is precious, and fragile.

I suppose this article is more about description than the actual meaning behind the novels, but the same applies to text and subtext. One man’s novel is not the same as the other, and authors can be as surprised as anyone when critics see themes in their writing to which they were oblivious. I’m still mildly amused by the tale of JRR Tolkien: as a passionate Catholic he was regularly infuriated by fan-letters from neo-pagans and hippies. To his mind, they had subverted his stories. But he had inspired them. Who was right? Neither, I’d say, or both.

It’s also a (somewhat trite) fact that you can’t read the same book twice. Each time you read you do so with different eyes. You’ve learnt new things. You see things you missed before, make connections that resonate in different ways. The words speak to you with a different voice.

Because books are magical. Stories are special, and precious, in a way that nothing else is. Because the author only creates the outline. The real work is done by the reader. You are magical. Possibly also insane, but mostly wonderful and amazing. And probably very clever. Especially if you read my work.

Ciao for now, folkses.

The fine art of procrastination

So, you’re there at your keyboard, picking away at the letters, frowning at the screen and generally struggling with an aspect of the plot. Your mind wanders. It’s hard to keep focussed for a long period, especially when the human brain seems designed to be lazy. You fancy a cup of tea, or a cigarette, or whatever your poison may be. But no, you tell yourself, this is my writing time. I can’t prevaricate, must go on, on, on.

I’ll let you into a little secret. In some writing sessions I spend almost as much time in something entirely unrelated. A classic for me is choosing music; the amount of time I‘ve wasted staring aimlessly at my CD collection is frankly ridiculous. Another is doing the washing up or putting the laundry on. Cigarettes are out for me: I’m quitting. But I do drink an obscene amount of coffee.

But this isn’t wasted time. By no means. Repetitive manual tasks especially are when your subconscious is working hardest. Novels grow in the dark. That’s what JD Salinger said. I take that to mean that the problems are solved when you’re not thinking about them. Indeed, not thinking can trump mental effort – sometimes, in some ways.

Don’t think this is an excuse for not getting down to it: on the contrary. There are times for slog, for grinding on and there are times to give your brain a break. It’s not always easy to know the difference. But I always get (mildly) annoyed by articles ‘teaching’ you how to be more productive. Temporarily disabling the internet, taking the phone off the hook, setting up a timer and saying, ‘right, no breaks for half an hour’.

Sometimes the words come easy. When you know where you’re going, when you understand your characters and all you have to do is set down the story, then you can fly. At times like this distractions don’t even enter the brain and you’re amazed when you glance at the clock and realise an hour has passed.

But most writing – and certainly most editing – isn’t like this. It’s a puzzle. A constant search for the right twist, the proper angle, a viable future. You’ve got the ass up the minaret and can’t, for love nor money, work out how to talk it back down. This is where I think advice to steam on, steam on, don’t ever veer away, is at best unhelpful and at worse the cause of abandonment.

Tempted to take a break? Take one. Leave your work prominent on the screen, or proud upon your writing table, and do the vacuuming. Your subconscious will be picking over the problem even as you fight with your flex-length (a problem that mostly affects men) and worry whether the bag needs emptying. And when you’ve finished, get back to the writing. You’ll find that the problem won’t have vanished, but you’ll be able to get a few more words down, a few paragraphs, maybe, and before you know it you’ll be on the next problem. Well, it was just about time for a coffee anyway.

And, unusually for something I’ve written, there’s actually proper scientific evidence to back this up. My lovely fiancée, having met me, put the sent the following article in my direction: http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/best-of-2013-how-to-waste-time-properly. Its conclusion is that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

But that’s enough from me today. I’ve got a novel to edit: no time for such flim-flammery.

So what music will we have on today..?

Sitrep

Christmas is gone. 2014 is here. Time to pack away your party clothes and get back to the coalface: the work you stowed away, out of sight and out of mind, is back and demanding your attention. After all, you said you’d try to work whilst you were away but did you? I didn’t. I carried my manuscript between two sets of parents and looked at it not once.

So: sitrep. As you know I’ve been asked to rework Night Shift for an agent and it’s this (and this blog) that’s occupying my tiny mind at the moment. As my Dad insightfully pointed out, Christmas could either be the best or the worst thing for me. A break could either disrupt all progress or it could provide a much needed glass of perspective and soda. Before the enforced merriment of Yule I was fighting my way through a particularly knotty section: cutting, pasting, adding new linky-bits and removing odd extemporaneous phrases. Three weeks on and that’s still what I’m doing.

This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. It feels like I’m trying to rebuild a house from the bottom up. Up till about page 100 I was happily repointing the brickwork, occasionally fitting a new window. Now I’ve realised that the foundations are unstable. I’ve dug down and found a burst pipe has washed away all the mortar. So I’ve had to buttress the superstructure, remove all the sodden bricks and replace them in an entirely different configuration. Will anyone notice what I’ve done? They shouldn’t: all this work should be carefully hidden from sight, never to be noticed until the whole structure is finally condemned as uninhabitable (or, possible, given Listed status).

Anyway, the point is that five or so pages have now become seventeen. But were that all it is…

It seems that to avoid unsightly joins in my rebuilt dwelling I’m going to have to dismantle some of the walls as well. A west-face might now become south. Those new windows will once more need replacing as I realise they no longer match the scheme…

Enough of this extended and increasingly tortuous metaphor. The point is that this is what writing is. Thanks to expert critique a number – a significant number – of structural problems have been revealed to me. It’s possible that these issues might never have been noticed by the casual reader – they weren’t noticed by me, the author – but that’s no excuse. The agent was right: plot-holes and illogic must be banished if I want to produce a narrative that convinces and envelops.

So I work on. Cut, copy and paste have become my best friends. New files containing isolated fragments of the novel have sprung up in my hard drive like bacteria. Finally I feel like I’ve got past the ‘knot’ that was preventing any real forward progress.

But every change affects every scene ahead. I’ve dragged in material from further on, saved some for later. I’ve started to forget how the whole thing fits together. Lost sight of the bigger picture, so concerned have I been with this one particular section. This isn’t such a problem as long as I have time, at the end, to go through the whole thing again and smooth out any (inevitable) humps. I’m not concerned too much about the words, not right now. I’m wrestling with alligators, can’t stop to admire the pretty fishes.

This is what writing is. I hope – I very much hope – that I’m learning lessons from all this. I hope this is a valuable lesson for me and that future work will prove easier, plot-holes less likely to bubble up to the surface. Or, with my cynical hat on, I hope that this establishes some sort of a reputation for me and that future is less scrutinised, as seems to happen with successful authors.

No, I don’t mean that. I want to produce the best work I possibly can. I’m a writer. This is what I do.

But it’s anything but straightforward. Anything but easy.

Ready to start

Holidays. Great for the soul. Bad for writing. The time spent away from the computer, the ‘mobile device’, or even – my word, do people still use these? – the old pen and paper: it all makes things much harder to start up again.

Everyone needs to live. We need people around us, to inspire us, to irritate, annoy, and love. You need new vistas, new words, new slang, to invigorate our souls. We need to see things in our minds, to find different ways of describing, fresh eyes. And then we need time to process these emotions – for nothing comes without attached emotion – and to absorb them into who we are.

But then we need to sit down and get on with work and to get writing again or a break can become a chasm.

This really goes back to what I said in ‘The first rule’. A writer must write, and I must get back on with this blog. Then the next time I sit at this keyboard it will be a little easier to find the right thing to say. The mind is like a muscle in this regard. It takes practice. It takes a daily discipline. And then, magically, it becomes the most pleasurable addiction. It’s like any exercise: running, cycling, mountain climbing – fight through the bad days until there’s no badness left.

If you’re a new years’ resolution to write – or to do anything creative – then the best advice I can give you is to find your time and do it. And, if you’re anything like me, that first session will be more frustrating than relieving. You’ll be worrying about how to set out your manuscript, how to manage your software, or simply wondering how to start. Don’t worry. It’s part of the process. This preparation time is progress.

And the second session will see you actually get something down. That something may be rubbish. May be good for nothing more than the recycling bin. It may, however, be worthwhile. You’re still working on nothing more than the base, the foundations. And then the third session, the fourth, the fifth – more and better will come each time.

That’s what I tell myself. Every time I start a project, in any field, any area. Just start. Just start and worry later – much later.

Just get it done.