The dread beast nanowrimo

 

OHI0153-NaNo-WordcountEnvyClinic-v2-600.jpg

By the time this reaches you NaNoWriMo will be underway. Some of you will be taking part and to you I wish all the goodwill; may the wind forever be in your sales, may your word processor be reliable, may your pen always be full of the most exquisite ink.

For those of you who don’t know (and why should you?) NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a project by which you aim to have written a complete novel – defined arbitrarily as 50,000 words – in thirty days. Although it’s mainly a solo effort there is a website upon which you can sign up and groups around the world (it should really be called InNoWriMo) to meet and write (and console and drink) with.

I’ve never done it myself. I only found out about it after I was already in a regular writing routine and I felt that was a better way to produce the things I wanted to produce. I still do, and that leads me neatly on to this: another caveat scriptor.

I have concerns about NaNoWriMo. I have concerns about anything that puts pressure on you to produce. 1,667 words a day doesn’t sound like much but trust me, it’s a lot. And for what? For the warm glow of having produced something not very good?

I’m not here to bash NaNoWriMo or its participants. Sometimes targets are useful; sometimes we need a push to get going and this can certainly help spur you into action; if you’ve been spending the last five years wishing you had the time to get those burning ideas down on paper then NaNoWriMo might just be for you.

Just be aware. Writing five (typed) pages a day every day for thirty days is a lot to ask of yourself. So, before you start, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you do it? Is this target even theoretically possible?
  • How stressed are you likely to make yourself? How will you respond to the stress? Maybe you’re someone who thrives under pressure: great, I envy you. Go to it. But, if not, maybe this isn’t for you
  • How will you feel if you fail?
  • Are you prepared to get to the end, look at what you’ve done, and realise that the work has only just begun? First because 50,000 words isn’t really a novel, and you’re like as not going to have to keep working to get the novel to its real conclusion; and second because there’s no time for editing on a project like this. Forwards forwards forwards, that’s the NaNoWriMo way. Never look back, never crop out the missteps or the waffle where you weren’t quite sure where you were going.

Are you prepared for this to be a beginning?

If you’re not used to writing you will struggle with NaNoWriMo. I spent months building up the mental muscles to write regularly. I still struggle to string one word after another; I have good days, I have bad days, and to expect to sling nearly 2,000 words down on a page from a standing start is, I fear, a doomed venture.

Ask yourself this: would you be better served in putting yourself under such pressure or would you do better to try and build those writing muscles? By all means use NaNoWriMo as motivation but, instead of aiming for arbitrary targets, why not work on giving yourself a regular writing hour (or whatever) and building it into your life? Instead of leaping into a raging torrent, dip into the shallows and practice so that, when it’s time to throw those water-wings away, you can ride the wild rapids with confidence.

I put How will I feel if I fail in bold because that’s what’d kill me. Mental health is a noisome beast. Make sure it’s one you can handle.

I’m not here to bury NaNoWriMo: I’m more nanambivalent than nanonegative. Let me rebalance the argument by giving some of the positive aspects of the project:

  • A goal is a real motivation
  • You’ll be part of a community; you’ll get help and advice and sympathy if you want it
  • If you’re wanting to really leap into the writing world, doing NaNoWriMo can give you the confidence to say ‘Yes, I am a writer.’
  • You can do a lot of the NaNoPrep before the start on November; indeed, you’re encouraged to start planning months earlier so that, by the start of NaNoWriMo proper, most of the heavy mental lifting has been done
  • It’s easier to edit a bad book than to start one from scratch
  • It gives you an excuse, a reason, to seize precious writing time from friends and (especially) family. You’re doing this specific thing so you need this specific time: this is your hour, and it will remain so henceforth
  • It is, at the end of the day, one hell of an achievement if you can finish…
  • …and even if you don’t get to 50,000 words by the end of the month you’ll have made a great start

So to all you who are embarking on this project, I wish you fair weather and smooth seas. May your characters be verbose and your plots tangle-free. I salute your endeavour.

Remember this, though: no-one will think any less of you if you decide the journey’s not for you. We want you to succeed, and sometimes success takes longer than a month.

Advertisements

The Greatest

muhammad-ali-leonid-afremov

Art by Leonid Afremov

I would have been the world’s greatest at whatever I did. If I were a garbage man, I’d be the world’s greatest garbage man! I’d pick up more garbage and faster than anyone has ever seen. To tell you the truth, I would have been the greatest at whatever I’d done!

I have something in me that demands I be the best at whatever I do. It’s not enough for me to struggle then ultimately fall short. It’s not even enough for me to scrape home. I must be good. I must be the best version of me I possibly can be. I feel Ali’s quote deeply.

I’ve done a lot of low-paid jobs; I’ve worked in warehouses and in the dirt. I’m the ground-floor employee. And in every role I want to be best, even if I know it really doesn’t matter what I do and that my job will be replaced by robots as soon as they can find machines prepared to perform such menial tasks.

This is not a healthy place to be. It’s beyond human to be good at everything – indeed, it’s why I’ve given up on numerous things I enjoy. It’s why I’m not playing chess anymore. It’s not a fear of losing. It’s a fear of not being as good as I think I can be.

I want to be good. I have to drive on the ragged edge because I can’t bear inefficiency: I have to be perfect, the optimum speed, the smoothest gear-change, the swiftest transition. The problem with the ragged edge is that you don’t know you’ve hit it until you’ve crossed to the far side at least once.

It’s why I crashed my car.

It’s why I put my daughter in hospital.

It’s a fine line: the desire to be best is a great motivator. It drives many top athletes. You need targets and drive and dedication; an arrogance that doesn’t allow losing as an option.

But it’s not healthy. It’s certainly not healthy in the arts, where subjectivity is everything. Criticism is hard to bear at the best of times. When you’re dumb and driven, like me, a harsh word is a piledriver.

I don’t think I’m the world’s best writer. I’m always striving to be better, and that desire is a positive thing. I want to make people happy. I want editors, reviewers and readers to enjoy what I do. If they don’t I feel like a failure.

For me it’s always about the destination, not the journey. It shouldn’t be this way.

It’s enough to enjoy what you do. You’re not in competition with anyone else. Life isn’t a zero-sum game.

It is a balancing act. You need that drive to improve; you have to be willing to work, you have to have pride in your achievements. But you have to enjoy that work. You need to be able to step back from it. You need to have some sort of off-switch; sometimes you need to remind yourself that taking the longer path is just as rewarding.

Or maybe I’m just in a funny mood and none of this really matters.

On writing copy

1+Pen+op+papier.jpg
If you do a search of writing jobs you’ll pretty soon come up with that of copywriter. Sometimes it’ll be called ‘content creator’ or something like that, but it’s all pretty much the same. You’ll be given a topic, maybe some keywords, and told to produce a certain word-count.

It’s quite tempting, really. You’re a writer; you know how words work; you’ve seen a lot of bad writing on the net (where a lot of this copy will end up) and you know you can do better.

Let’s leave aside some seriously dodgy practices that companies use to avoid paying their writers (who are, of course, freelance so they have limited employment rights); let me just come to the point.

Writing copy is incredibly difficult.

This blog is full of copy (and, to be clear, Google tells me copy is ‘text written for the purposes of advertising or marketing’). In this case I’m essentially marketing myself. I’m attempting to ‘build brand awareness’ by creating little essays on the craft and difficulties I’ve found in writing fiction. I’m hoping to build trust in my readership as to my competence and interestingness.

I therefore feel justified in saying in job applications that I’m used to producing copy.
This week I had to write an article for my (former) local newspaper. It’s a little quid-pro-quo: I give them a little piece to fill their pages and in return I get a namecheck. I get the cover of my book in a thumbnail and hopefully (although I’m a little sceptical) a few extra sales.

500 words. That’s all it was. But it was perhaps the most difficult 500 words I’ve ever written.

The is in part because the brief (which unfortunately I don’t think I can share) was dictated to me and contained a few assumptions which weren’t justified and was also quite vague. It was partly that the word count was too big to just toss away but too short to really go into any depth.

I worked damn hard at it. I had two full drafts rejected more or less out of hand by my wife, who acts as emergency consultant on such things. It took me working right up until the eleventh hour on deadline night to get something I was happy(ish) with.

Now I know that this piece of writing doesn’t matter. The paper’s editors don’t care too much about quality – it’ll reflect on me more than it will them. To them it’s a useful little space-filler and, if it really doesn’t work for them, they’re under no obligation to print it.

No, the only person who cares is me.

I should use this as a warning; I should say that you must be wary of accepting commissions that take a disproportionate amount of time or energy or drain your happiness. But let me just say this: no writing is wasted. The article I wrote may be mined for future use. It’s likely that I’ll be asked questions about the article’s subject in the weeks ahead: If nothing else I’ve just had an annoying amount of practice in answering them.

It’s also a good writing exercise. Copywriting is a skill, and, like all skills, it can be learnt and developed. What took me days of struggle this week might be tossed off in a few hours in a year’s time.

Although, given that I still struggle weekly to produce this blog, maybe I’m not the best person to be giving this advice.

The final countdown

Today’s blog is brought to you in association with a vague sense of panic.

it__s_the_final_countdown_by_maria_marsbar-d38e53l.jpg

It is a month until the Great Day of Publishing. I have so much to do. And I have nothing at all to do.

On my mental list:

  • Write an article for a local magazine
  • Answer questions for another magazine
  • Write many blog posts
  • Be interesting and insightful
  • Arrange bookshop events

Like many people I can make myself work hard and be personable. I can cold-call companies, and bookshops, and ask favours and make demands on strangers’ time. But it’s hard work. I’ve just got off the phone to a bookshop: it took me a whole weekend to work up the courage; I had to rehearse what I wanted to say; I had to be the very best ‘me’ I could possibly be.

It takes time and energy and, until the last decision is made and the final arrangement tidied, there’s always a sense of incompleteness.

Of course, nothing is ever truly finished. Arranged an event with a bookshop? How am I going to get there? Do I need to book accommodation? What do I need to take? Oh God I’m probably going to have to do a reading!

What if no-one turns up?

On my to-not-do list:

  • Harass the publisher
  • Over-commit my time and energies
  • Piss anyone off

I want to tick off the tasks. I want arrangements to be signed, sealed and delivered. But I’ve never done this before – do I do it myself or do my people (ha!) have people to do this sort of thing? I don’t want to duplicate work. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. How many enquiries (per hour) can I send out before my emails get switched straight into the ‘annoying author’ siding?

What I should be doing:

  • Writing something new
  • Editing old works

If all else fails go write. It’s a healthy mantra.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to focus on the things that matter when there’s so much still unresolved.

Still, best be grateful; I can only imagine how the publisher’s feeling right now.

Apart from anything else they’ve got all my emails to read.

Je regrette

Droids
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t trust my own ambition.

I had an idea for a story. I knew what I wanted to happen; what I was struggling with was a mechanism for it to happen. I tried a few things on for size but nothing seemed to be quite a la mode.

What, after all, is a story? Is it setting? Or plot? Or is it the high concept behind it all? I had the latter but not the former. I needed to anchor my idea and shape the reality that held everything together.

My initial idea, the one that I turned many ways and almost put together, was to set the idea in space, on an isolated end-of-the-road station, where bionics played a crucial role.

The idea worked, or could have been made to work. But I retreated. I didn’t trust myself to write that story. I pulled back, pulled back, instead relied on simpler causes.

I did this because I was afraid. Because it took less mental effort to keep closer to the ‘real world’. And this I regret. This choice forced me to make ever more convoluted (and less plausible) explanations to keep some semblance of the original concept. I feel like I’ve wasted that idea.

That’s not to say I haven’t done good things with it; what I eventually produced is coherent and, I think, well written. But it’s not what I set out to do.

That’s not to say that you should never back away from an idea.

Starting a project that would take years to bring to life – even as just a first draft – might not be what’s best for you right now. Certainly, when learning your craft (as I was then), the creation of a whole new world – whether that world is a fantastic planet or an extra-solar empire or a mafia family – might be enough to stall your writing altogether.

Creation requires effort. A space station, isolated though it may be, requires a polity to create it. It requires scientific knowledge (which might be made up, but still). It requires structure, a place, a transit system which might take years to reach it. Communication lag needs researching. Oxygen must be generated.

So I don’t blame myself for not wanting to send months researching, reading and creating. I was impatient to get to the story. And to do that I scaled back my ambition.

What I regret is losing the chance to exploit the potential of an idea that’s fascinated me for years.

Fortunately the world is full of ideas. And they’re all out there just waiting until you’re ready.

How to publish a novel: a writer’s guide

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London novelist’s journey from manuscript to book. But before we go anyway I must caveat in your general direction: I haven’t had a book published yet. I have only my own, limited, experience to draw on via the medium of a single publisher. Your experience will be/will have been different.

The broad sweep is likely to be similar, though, hence the ‘this might be of interest’-ness of this post. I also suspect that many of the stages will be applicable to all you self-publishers out there.

And, without further ado:

Step the First: Write a novel and make it good

A novel by

Yes, it is possible to sell a novel on the basis of a pitch: Gareth Powell did that with his Ack-Ack Macaque stories (and very good they are too). But he did that on the back of a lot of previous highly-regarded writings. If you don’t have a track-record, or if you’re not already famous, you’re going to have to go the long way round.

Step the Second: Find a publisher willing to take you on

W and A 1948

Yes, I know I’m skipping a helluva lot of steps here. But to detail every single rise and fall, every stumble and trip, in here would make this article three times as long. Besides, most of this blog is taken up with these gaps.

Step the Third: Sign a contract

publishing contract childress

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about agents here. That’s mostly because I don’t have one, though I’ve spent more time trying to get one than I have trying to get a publisher. Again, please refer to the rest of my blog ever for my agonies over a lack of agent: suffice to say that I’d really rather like one and this is where they come into their own.

A contract is a potential minefield and it’s here you can be shafted by an unscrupulous organisation. For that reason I recommend that as soon as you get a contract offer you join the Society of Authors. They’ll read through your contract and – very promptly – tell you if the contract’s exploitative and suggest amendments in your interests.

A few short notes:

  • Money goes to you. It’s not a great sign if you’re asked to pay costs
  • Keep your rights. Don’t sign away the rights to adaptations or the right to be respected as the author
  • Make sure that, if something goes wrong (if, for example, the publisher goes bust), the rights to your work revert to you. Clauses that state you can publish your work elsewhere if the novel isn’t released within a year or two of manuscript submission, or if less than a number of copies a year are sold, are nice things to have.

Step the Fourth: Tell the publisher all about yourself

iStock_tell-your-storySmall1

This, I suspect, is where people’s experiences will start to differ as different publishers will have different mechanisms for building up their publicity machines. Some may not do anything at all; others will have legions dedicated solely to your novel.

But as soon as I signed I was sent a huge document to complete: I was asked to write long- and short-form author profiles and a long and a short-form novel blurb. I was asked to give any useful contacts, any bookshops I lurked in, any podcasts I recommended. I was also asked to give ten questions and answers to provide to the media.

I was also invited to share any ideas I had for the cover, which I believe is, if not unusual, then at least a long way from standard.

This took a long time. I’m still not entirely sure what of it has been used, what will be used, and what has been forever dispatched into the netherhells.

The good thing about this is that, once done, it can be recycled: like the perfect submission letter you may tinker and rewrite but once the facts are down you’ll only need periodic updates. This work isn’t wasted.

Step the Fifth: Write something else

draft-phd072314s-writing-struggles-1

This process is full of gaps: of feverish activity followed by lean, fallow months. Don’t sit back and sweat: make your next book sing.

Step the Sixth: The cover

book cover 3

A few months pass quietly. Then I receive a proposed cover and for the first time see your name in, as it were, lights.

I was, at this stage, invited to comment and feed back on the mock-up. Not all publishers do this.

Step the Seventh: A long period of quiet with occasional stabs of publicity

quiet hawkings

This is where I needed an agent and possibly made my errors. Or at least the errors I’m aware of; I’m sure more are to come.

My publishers were hugely busy with a great number of books and I didn’t want to hassle them so I retreated to Step The Fifth – I got on with other things. I was also contacted by Unnerving magazine and asked to do an (email) interview, which was both good for my ego and helped me feel like I was helping.

But I feel this was where I should have been doing more to organise publicity for the release. Could I have tagged myself onto any festival lists? Should I have contacting bookshops or libraries, or at least haranguing my publisher into so doing? I’m really not sure.

Step the Eighth: Copy-edits

Proofmarks

Aha! As if from nowhere, a task appears! To be honest this was a bit of a relief; doing something, even if it’s a difficult, angst-wrencher of a task, is better than waiting. It’s also a sign that the publisher knows what they’re doing (not that I doubted it, but still) and things are progressing. Huzzah!

Step the Ninth: Proofs

minor edits

…and hot on the heels of the copy-edits come the proofs. The turnover was so quick as to be almost the same task; here the difference is really that I was working in a PDF (and thus was visible the pagination, the preliminary pages and so forth).Also the urge to skim was stronger as there wasn’t any handy marginal notes to draw my attention to Bad Writing.

This is, I’m led to believe, the last time you can amend your text without seriously annoying your editor. I also inserted thanks and dedications here.

Step the Tenth: Final (final) changes

Another email arrives and causes me to immediately cease all other activity: another PDF and a last list of editorial queries. This are all little things – the difference between a settee and a couch, for example, or whether something should be in a personal or a personnel file.

Step the Eleventh: Serious publicity

shamelessselfpromotion

This is where I now sit.

Except I’m not really sure what I’m doing, other than querying my publisher’s plans and, upon invitation, sending them some ideas. It’s two months until the damn thing’s out there and I’m not sure how best to go about promoting myself and my work.

Except for going on about it here and the occasional humblebrag on Twitter, of course.
But I’m hoping things will come together. There’s still time; I have to trust my publisher – they want my novel to succeed as much as I do. In the meantime it’s time for me to return to Step the Fifth.

Step the Twelfth: The great release

thatnewbooksmell-32786

So… what happens here? Will we go out with a whimper or a bang?

I’m still hoping there’ll be some sort of event to accompany the release. Even if it’s in my own house, in my own head, having one’s book actually living and breathing is a rare thing. It should be celebrated.

And if I do actually do anything, if there are any events to make the moment, be sure I’ll be letting you know, lovely folks.

Step the Thirteenth: The inevitable comedown

post party

Things don’t stop when the book is unleashed on the public. There may well be continuing publicity. What there will doubtless be is more work. A debut is a beginning, not an ending.

A pause is worthwhile. A glass of reflection is earned. But then the work resumes.
Nothing sells a book like another book.

Back behind the keyboard, young ‘un. There’s more words to be mined.

*    *   *

Night Shift is due out November 6th courtesy of Flame Tree Press. Available in all good bookshops and libraries, and possibly some rather dodgy ones too.

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0

How to crash a car

car.jpg

You know you’re in trouble as soon as you hit the accelerator. The front wheels don’t grip, you oversteer; you have a fraction of a second to try and hold it together before you hit the verge. You’re not quite sure how it happens but you’re thrown back across the road.

You have another second to try and gain control but it’s useless. Your first thought is ‘I hope no-one’s watching this.’ Your second is that the crash is inevitable.

You hit the off-side verge almost straight on; you’re not sure how fast you’re going but it’s fast enough to leap the ditch completely and smash into the bank beyond.

Time for one more thought: ‘This is going to hurt.’

The impact is a barrage. The windscreen shatters. The seatbelt grips. The airbags blow. Then you’re rolling and you lose all sense of direction.

Stillness.

Now the thoughts come hard upon each other: you’re alive; you’re in pain (chest, shoulder, knee, hip); the air is thick with smoke; the baby’s screaming.

This last thought pushes all the others into nothing.

You hit the seatbelt release – no fumbling, just one and done – and let yourself to the ground. You’re lost; don’t know how the car has landed. You consider searching for your phone and glasses but they’re not important, not crucial. You crawl into the back, grateful that however you settled the way seems clear. A moment to realise that the smoke is probably the explosive from the airbags.

Your baby is still in her car-seat, upside down, wailing. You say something to her, or at least you think you do, and support her as you release her. Again, no fumbling; she drops into your arms and now she’s right-side up and still screaming but you cradle her and coo to her and wonder how to get out.

The door is above you. You find the release and push but you’ve only got one hand. It doesn’t give at first. You try again and this time you get something behind it.

Then the door is pulled up. The onlookers have arrived, the assistance. You pass out the baby. You haul yourself up and let arms take you, undignified, to the ground. No, you say, there’s no-one else inside. Just me. Just the baby. You take her back and let yourself be led to a waiting car. Has anyone called emergency services? Not you.

You sit and cuddle your girl. You want to cry; you are crying. The pain’s not too bad. The shame, the shame, the humiliation. What happened? The truth is that you were going too fast for the conditions. There’s no other truth, though you dearly wish there was. It’s your fault. You lost it.

People are kind. You phone her mother on a borrowed phone. You speak to emergency services on another. The ambulance comes; you try to thank people but words are tricky. You hold on to the girl and never want to let go.

The ambulance arrives. Then the police. The breathalyser. People are telling you to be strong, be a father; guilt can come later. It’s already here, you want to say. A spectre of failure. you’ve let everyone down, wasted everybody’s time. You’re the statistic you swore you’d never become.

You’re fine, but for a minor fracture and a lot of bruising. The car is written off.  The baby… prognosis uncertain.

You go to hospital. You’re still not sure if you’re allowed to cry.