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Pompous letter to Society of Authors magazine

Our hero got annoyed at articles in the SoA magazine referring to wooden books as ‘real books’.  They published this…

Those of us who wish to write in the new reality should distinguish between personal taste and a universal moral law.  Printed books, e-books, and audiobooks are all ‘books’.

I like the physicality of a printed book, and of browsing a bookshop.  I read a lot on computer screens for my day-job and I don’t enjoy novels on a Kindle. I think I skim more on screen [1].  I loathe the idea that, like my daughter, I should read novels on a smartphone.  I don’t listen to audiobooks.  As a reader, I have a preference.

However, as a writer, I wish to get my story into the heads of the reader without dilution or intermediary.  All these means of delivering a story are fine by me.  I have no intention of lecturing complete strangers with different tastes, if they will buy and consume my book.

Those who like the cheaper e-book are in my experience, prolific readers and given to online reviews and discussion of the books they read. 

I suggest the Society of Authors adopt a house-style under which ‘books’ refers to any of these delivery methods, and then run a competition for the best term for the traditional version.  I vote for ‘dead tree books’, which to be clear, are one of the truest loves of my life.

The Society of Authors offers excellent advice and support, grants and networks.  It’s a bone fide trade union for authors.

[1] I think I skim more reading novels on screen.  I edit my books on screen and I am not sure I notice the same effect

In praise of the crappy first draft

Some writers craft each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter as if they are a Swiss watchmaker.  And when they get to the end, a quick polish and the book might be ready to be shown to someone else.  Hey, if that works for you, great.

I’m not like that. Writing a book explores how your characters react to each other and the world.  Writing a plot tests it for coherence, probability, and interest.  Writing your ideas may shift how much you want to emphasise one thing or another, or begin to strengthen and draw out themes that were not explicit in any plan.

I think that would be true even if you plan chapter by chapter in advance.

There is every reason to believe your first draft will need at least one major revision, at the level of character and structure.  Probably more than one.  So it feels to me that aiming for it to be perfect as you go is a mistake.

I am 30,000 words into Mysterious Second Book, and already I have lists of things I want to add, strengthen and possibly remove.  I have a choice, to go back and redo what I’ve already done, or keep ploughing on, taking notes.  I’m also leaving scenes that aren’t working to come back to them.

If I must be happy with everything I have written, and I must write everything I need up to this point, I could hover for months endlessly refining.  I could get stuck on a scene I may decide in the end I don’t need.  Better to have the whole thing done, however patchy in places, and then know what you are working with.

So, when someone says the first draft can be crappy, they don’t mean that bad writing is good, that everything in it ought to aim to be crappy.  They don’t mean, in my experience, that they don’t read each chapter over and fix or annotate obvious issues.  They’re saying, they have let go of what they have written first off needing to good enough to show.  It will be the second or third draft, perhaps, that might be fit to be let into the light.

The most important writing advice is probably read a lot.  The second might be, don’t do what Famous Author says they do just because they say so.  Understand why they do it.  Maybe, you should try it, maybe you should accept it, maybe it is the best advice for you ever.  Maybe, you will end up like other authors who don’t do that.

What you don’t need is a folder full of the first thirds of several different novels, each polished to gleam and yet abandoned.

I Will Write You A Short Story

Authorsforfamilies.org is a group of literary people mostly from the US who got together on Facebook, to support immigrant children separated from their families.

Ripping children away from their families in tears and locking them up in cages, and no-one speaking the kids’ languages… and no paperwork… no easy way to connect a kid and their parents … we have this crazy idea that this is a Very Bad Thing. ***

So, we are fundraising to help, and we’re doing an auction.  There are lots of books, critiques, and advice things to bid on.

I’ve offered to write you a new, original short story.  Yes YOU, if you bid the most.  Cool, huh?

Here are the details.

It will be a story for age 16 + but without excessive sex and gore.  It will be between 1000 and 10000 words.  It will probably have some science fiction or fantasy take, but probably not vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  At the moment, I try to write things which end with hope.

It will take how long it takes.  I’d be surprised if I didn’t get you a draft within a couple of months, but what I will promise is fortnightly updates.

When I send you a draft, I’ll listen carefully to comments, but I won’t be planning a major rewrite.   I have a book deadline.

Will you like it?  I hope so, but there’s no realistic way I can write this unless we’re grown-ups, and accept that you might not.  I’d have to grill you about your taste for hours, and it would still be incredibly difficult to produce something you liked.  It may annoy you.  I hope not, but let’s accept the possibility.

We speak by email.  You give me four prompts.

  1. A name
  2. An object
  3. Something about style or setting or genre
  4. A line (poem, song, book, play) or a visual image but not of the object

I will try to use three of these, and it may be central or tangential, literal or figurative.

Of course, it’s fine to throw in some personal comments ‘Stories with aliens in give me hives’ and I may listen to those.

My decision as to whether I have delivered to you a story within the above parameters is final and no refunds will be given.

OK legal bit, as it has my name on it I keep the copyright and will publish it on my website.  The story will always be used with the line ‘Written for [you] after their kind donation to support Authors For Families.’  Unless you want to remain anonymous. You can put it on your website and send it to people in your Christmas letter, and we should talk about anything else you want to do with it.

It will come to you in British English, or a sort of weird hybrid I write when I set things in America.

An odd collection of my stuff is here.  I hope you enjoy it.

Bid early, bid often.

***You don’t think it is a Very Bad Thing?  Convo over, mate.  Educate yourself.

The Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Writing Groups

Even a terrible writing group can spur you to write more.  But having sampled many groups over the years, here are some real problem areas.  Even a good group can drift into these problems from time to time.

(tongue in cheek)

Unwillingness to be critical.  You could read the telephone directory and get a chorus of ‘Oh, that’s lovely.’  If people won’t or can’t give constructive feedback, just buy a dog instead.   Dogs give unconditional approval and you can think about story ideas when walking them.

Ignorance.  The one person who sold a short story once (to Wee Scottish Fluff) dominates discussion of the market, even when they are wildly wrong.   There’s uncritical recycling of unattributed stuff. Spreading myths about writing, agenting, self-publishing when clear, reliable and disinterested information is available.

Lack of ambition.  No-one talks about personal goals, or cares if you are meeting yours.  After a while you realise people don’t act on feedback.  But ambition should be personally decided and owned.  To me, ‘I just want to finish this memoir for my grandkids’ is as worthy an ambition as ‘I want to win the Booker.’

Poor discipline.  The loudest voice dominates.  People are interrupted. The first to leap in sets the tone of the subsequent discussion, no matter how ill-considered their comments.  People talk about the content of the writing, not the writing.

Brutality.  People are destructive, personal, and unpleasant in their comments.  Maybe they are frightened of new people, or worried other people are better than they are, or they are just horrible people.  They don’t understand the difference between ‘I’m sorry, for me this paragraph came across as racist’ – about the writing -and ‘You are a racist’.

Mine is the One True Way-ism. People should offer freely what worked for them and what didn’t, but step back if you are doing it differently.  In turn, be open minded about what they say works for them.

Unsafe.  Some groups are bigoted, or unwilling to protect individuals from inappropriate comments or readings.  The group has no clear rules about what can be read, and any necessary warnings.  Your working assumption must be if you read about sexual violence, at least one person in the room has direct personal experience. In here I throw the usual unfortunate dynamics: men talk more than women, and interrupt more.  Regulars may dominate newcomers.

Salvaged from the Agent’s Slushpile

The Bookseller refers to a recent debut as ‘salvaged from agent […] ‘s slushpile.’

Every trade paper develops a slang, a jocular shorthand.  But to refer to the process of getting an agent as being ‘salvaged’ is a little harsh.  I am worried it might confuse people who want to get a traditional publishing deal.

An agent works for you.    They try to secure a deal with a publisher (or a series of deals regarding overseas, film, etc.)  They get paid only if you get paid, so they obviously have to be picky who they represent.

Most people who try to get an agent don’t succeed, certainly not on the first book they submit.  But when an agent does sign a debut author, the ‘slushpile’ – unsolicited contributions from people the agent doesn’t know – is a major way they find talent++.  JK Rowling was ‘salvaged from the slushpile’.

An agent usually advertises as being open for business, or not.  Therefore, if you send them your novel as a submission, when they are open, and if they represent that type of book, you are literally doing something they have asked for.

Since the arrival of The Internet, what an agent wants and who else they represent is usually findable online.

Typically, British agents ask for a short letter, a synopsis, and three chapters.  Anecdotally the majority of submissions to agents are doomed to fail.  They fall into one or all of the following errors: the agent is not currently taking submissions, the agent does not represent this type of book at the moment (or ever), or the submission is not what they ask for on their website.  And many of the books that are left are somewhere between dreadful and not at all bad but not quite there.

Given this, I understand why agents call submissions slush, but it might be better called the crude ore from which the agent will find their next nugget of pure gold.

So, in my case I sent my first novel to a dozen agents and got nothing back but a little useful feedback.  Rather than revise that book to the degree it clearly required, I finished the second, Our Child of the Stars.  I sent to a dozen or so agents, one of whom, Rob Dinsdale, told me he was closed.  (His website was down so I’m not apologising.)  Now, living in London, I had been to events and talked to a few live agents, but there are events outside London.  I participated in #askagent on twitter.  One agent advertises that she takes questions via email, so I asked her a question.  This was all mostly to make sure I understood the process.

Wow, a well-known agent, who I had met socially, asked for the entire manuscript.  I chased everyone who hadn’t actually said no, including Rob, who also asked for the full, loved it, and offered me representation.  We talked through what his vision was for the book, which matters.  I shook hands, and he got me a two-book deal with Jo Fletcher Books. (There’s quite a lot of work hidden in that last sentence.)

Lessons:

You can get an agent through ‘the slushpile’, aged over fifty with sum previous publications experience, three short stories in US SFF mags, and no high profile social media presence.

I hadn’t met Rob, and I hadn’t sent him the first novel.

How the industry works is probably more obvious now than it ever has been.  Meeting agents helps understand the process, but they will make the decision based on the book – and whether you share a vision for it.  That’s code for, if they have editorial suggestions, will you work with them on it?

Being polite, researching the process and having a great book mattered.

There are all sorts of things that are unfair, and that’s for another post.  But the point about submissions to the slushpile – one can hope this is the process LEAST open to favouritism, old boy networks, etc.

There are also alternatives to traditional publishing deals secured through an agent.  Some publishers take direct submissions.  Self-publishing is a viable and honorable route.  There are crowd-funding options etc.

 

Edited to add.  Some weeks later I saw two agents talking on Twitter.  One said all but two of her fiction clients came through the slushpile.  The other said 80%.  Of course, mileage can vary.

 

The Student, the Kaiju and the Eight Basic Plots – free on Medium.com

The Student, the Kaiju, and the Eight Basic Plots

That night, out in the family boat, when he was ten years old. Sea-mist came from nowhere. He was careless, and fell into chill April water, breathing its knife pain into his lungs. Panic. The current was strong, and the life-jacket could not protect him from cold. The water wanted to hold his head under, a force, a something that wanted to drag him down.

Story here

Golden Gate bridge

Writing process: like a demented Muppet

Kermit types fast
Kermit types fast

I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)

Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller

I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman

Here’s the point about writing advice.  I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.

Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’  That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time.  To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days.  (Think about it every day if you can.)

Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing.  Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods.  Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet.  Which is right?

I think it depends how you put words together.  Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker.  They write slowly – add a comma here?  Oooh, tricky!   What comes out is serviceable.  Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.

I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse.  I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again.  I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working.  To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating.  It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet.  I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.

When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.

Plot or pants?  Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants?   See the two esteemed figures above.  Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing.  Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.

I’m more King than Aldiss.   However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous.  People don’t forgive poor endings.  Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book.  Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there.  I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.

What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end?  Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle?  Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies?  Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?

Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’   Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one.  I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.

I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan.  I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan.  Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan.  But the plan is the servant not the master.

Is any of this useful or got any thoughts?  Let me know!  This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!

Cheddar Man was one of us

So, it’s only February but this is a strong contender for the Science Story of 2018.  Cheddar Man, the skeleton of a 10,000 year old hunter-gatherer found in Cheddar Gorge, turns out not to be white.  In fact, like other skeletons of the same age found across Europe, DNA testing shows he was brown or black – but had blue eyes.

This was presented in the Channel Four documentary as utterly stunning and unexpected.  Although three hunter-gatherer skeletons on continental Europe in the 10000-7000 year old range gave exactly the same findings in previous studies, so a bit of hype I think.

Dark man with blue eyes

About 10% of British DNA comes from these dark Mesolithic hunters.  I could hear people falling off their barstools as I read the story.

I’ve been in Cheddar several times, and I am now dreaming of the man and his family hunting reindeer and ‘they gurt* aurochs’ with dogs, looking up at the cliffs … my ancestor, with as much right to be here as anyone else.  His people walked from what is now continental Europe, because there was a fertile land now drowned joining the gaps.  British, European, Middle-Eastern, African, human.

Scientists now think pale skin only came to the fore once farming begun, and palefaces benefited from higher vitamin D levels.  Farming doesn’t feed you better than being a hunter, or keep you healthier, it just allows you to have more people, and take over.  (Cheddar Man was lactose intolerant, which fits with not being a farmer.)  It is interesting that although younger hunter-gatherer skeletons in Spain and Luxembourg come up with the same dark skin and blue eyes, the oldest German farmer found was pale skinned.

I love how new scientific developments throw established wisdom into confusion.  There’s almost no Italian DNA in the UK – so the Romans came, ruled for four centuries, and left without leaving a trace. (That chimes with the fact that Latin words came into English through the post-Roman civilisation.  Can we assume that the Romans didn’t breed with or teach the locals much?**) On the other hand, DNA tests have shown that the Black Death was in fact the Black Death and not as some controversialists claim, something else.

The real truth is hair, eye and skin colour are distinctive, but irrelevant for most purposes.   We’re all related to each other.  In fact, everyone is descended from most people alive in the Middle Ages.  Many Europeans and Asians carry little bits of DNA from earlier versions of humanity than homo sapiens.

The debate about race and racism is not really about facts, but here’s hoping this stunningly visual find opens people’s hearts and minds.

 

*big.  Of course I hear him talking in a West Country accent.

**Sometimes genes just drift out of a population for no obvious reason.

 

Backstage: Editing A Book is Not Ruining It

I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon.  When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.

  • A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
  • When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
  • and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.

[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate.  Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]

Typewriter sends pages flying into air
Editing can feel like…

No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’  ‘Will it still be your book?’

The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book.  What Jo is doing is helping make it happen.  Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out.  If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.

So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with.  ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.

Imagine you write and direct an amateur play.  You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut.  Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed.  Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on.  Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success.  How exciting!

That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one.  But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works.  They will come back with a string of points.  All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama.  Do you need both the heroine’s brothers?  They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other.  You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme.  The set design is very bland.  Is there a reason the period is so vague?

Some of this is so obviously right you nod.  Some of this might be very challenging.  You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on.  Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body.  Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.

Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’  Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed.  But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.

So, you muse on it all.  Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth.  The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns.  You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that.  The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further.  If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play.   And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.

You see the point.  Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people.  A book comes down to you and the editor.

What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively.  So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success.  To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage.  If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble.  The book ought to be winning, and the readers.

An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’.  I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity.  Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable.  Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.

All these books were edited…