Saturday, 30 October 2010

SHORT STORY MAGIC from TOM VOWLER

There's a writer I know who lives all tucked away in Devon where no one can properly see him. He's just got engaged, so obviously someone saw him, but I know many more people are going to see him one day because his first book, The Method, a collection of short stories, is blow-away magic. I cried on a train. I have cried on trains before but that was with frustration. This was proper. And The Method won the inaugural Scott Prize so it's not just me.

Tom writes and edits fiction. He’s just finished a novel and has recovered sufficiently to consider another. This is one seriously talented writer, and I say that as one who doesn't really do short stories. But these have really stuck with me. I sure as hell hope Tom's novel will be published SOON because I want to read it.

Here is Tom's blog. And his Facebook page. Here is The Method on Book Depository. And here is the page on Salt's website. And here is Tom's interview.


NM: So, Tom, what is this book? (Published tomorrow, by the way.)
The Method is an award-winning collection of short stories. Its characters are all good at losing things: lovers, children, hope, the plot. The past tends to theme heavily, with its inexorable grip on the present. As does revenge. There is humour, tenderness and tragedy in equal measure.
NM: Why short stories? What's in them for you?
I love the form’s immediacy and intensity, its potential to dazzle, to startle, all in a few thousand words. Whilst it can hold a mirror up to reality, to the nuances of our complex, beautiful and flawed lives, it can also transcend it, capturing the more visceral aspects of what it is to be human. As someone once said: ‘Each of us has a thousand lives, but a novel gives a character just one.’
NM: With a novel, we find ourselves drawn into one complex story. What's different about the ideas for shorts, do you think?
They usually come from the big masquerading as the small. A condemning look between lovers. A barely noticed news item. A throwaway remark. An aside in a waiting room. An anecdote in the pub. Snatched moments, glimpsed, where I ask myself ‘What if…?’ before weaving them into a narrative. I almost never start with character or place, but with something abstract: a concept, a dilemma.
NM: In practical terms, what’s the journey from this initial spark to the final version?
It’s often a longer one than people imagine. Working on a novel, I might write a thousand words a day, two thousand on a good one. But a story seems to require more precision, more consideration, even at this early stage. Once the ideas are all in place and I have some sense of where I’m going, it’s as if that’s the block of ice or marble, and now the careful sculpting can begin. So the bones of a story might take a week or so to compose, but I can be months tweaking it, leaving it to mature between drafts, returning with a scalpel, ruthless. And then some way through this I’ll start to read it aloud, listening for awkward phrases, repetitions, getting a feel for the piece’s rhythm. I check I’ve taken care not to force feed the story to the reader. Finally, I ask whether it would suffer if I took something out, whether a sentence is working as hard as it should be, if there’s sufficient dramatic tension, emotional intensity, conflict.
NM: How much of this process is inspiration, how much technique and craft?
Good question. I’m reminded of a writer saying that they couldn’t write unless they were inspired, and that they made sure inspiration flowed every morning at nine o’clock. If you only wrote when you felt inspired, your output would be rather meagre. So you need technique, craft and habit to fall back on. Inspiration comes in mercurial bursts, for me usually when I’m walking and have forgotten my notebook. Or at 4am. Or standing at first slip waiting for the cricket ball. But writers, as they say, write. Whatever the mood. Discipline and tenacity will always dwarf the wonderful eureka moments.
NM: Some of your stories have formal structures - do you plan that in advance or does the structure come by chance?
Certain subjects lend themselves to different narrative structures. I might have what I believe is a fantastic story with a powerful voice, yet for some reason it doesn’t quite work. And rather than discard it wholly, this is when it’s time to experiment with the piece’s architecture. Perhaps the linear chronology would be more effective were it fragmented. Maybe the story’s arc takes little risk as it is. Is the wrong person telling the story? You have to be flexible, murdering not just your darlings, but sometimes the entire nature of what you’ve written. Break some of the rules. Take a risk or two.
NM: You came to fiction (both as a reader and writer) relatively late; can you tell us a little about how you found books, or how they found you.
Yes, to my shame, with the exception of a compulsory text or two at school, I didn’t read a novel until my mid-twenties, which seems extraordinary now. An acupuncturist started giving me reading lists as part of the treatment. The first was Kafka’s The Trial, which, as first books go, chucks you in the deep end, I suppose. But it was an extended bout of illness that saw me write anything myself. Stuck on a sofa for weeks, months at a time: what else was there to do? I think a brief career as a journalist helped my sense of timing, but it was a creative writing MA that really focused my attentions. For all their criticisms, the course was the first time I took myself seriously as a writer.
NM: So, if you didn't have as many years practising as most writers - all those years of rubbish experimentation - how did you get to this point so quickly and so surely? Teacher? Inspirer? MASSES of reading?
I suppose I have had to catch up, yes. As an editor of short fiction I found myself reading a thousand of so stories a year - good, bad and indifferent. And I rarely stray from reading work removed from what I write - though I certainly intend to - so focused, yes. I'm not a great believer in innate ability; if you put the hours (years) in, it's a fairly even playing field.
[Major disagreement alert. I think Tom absolutely displays innate ability, honed by fantastically focused practice. You just don't get to be this good without innate ability. I've seen the MSS of aspiring writers who've been writing all their lives and are nowhere near as good. So, shut up, please, and behave.]

NM: Which short story writers do you read, and why?
I see, sneaking two questions into one. The first part is easy, and for the most part is reflective of what I like to write. Glancing up, a section of my shelf reads: Updike, Proulx, William Trevor (x4), James Salter, Carver, Ali Smith, Mike McCormack, Jane Gardam, Kevin Barry, Clare Wigfall. Andrew Flintoff (how did he get there?). Whilst it would be hard to pinpoint an obvious connection in style or theme between all of them, they are all great storytellers. I read them for their brilliant timing, the subtle slipping in of a phrase, a moment, that might hit you like a train, or stun you with its resonance and wonder. You almost see it coming, but of course you don’t. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the story ‘Last Night’ by James Salter, which, for me, contains one of the most powerful, albeit subtle, scenes in short fiction. Another would be Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, a story that, I imagine, stays with you a lifetime. But William Trevor is the master at this. I dare say he could kill you with a sentence if he wished.
_________________________

Maybe, but I think Tom's prose is deathless. And that's better.

And he's jealous of me because I once went to tea with William Trevor in his (WT's) house, and there are not many people who can say that.

Tom, thank you and good luck. Everyone, I do wholly recommend this book. Go read.

IN FACT... there's a chance for one lucky reader in the UK to win a signed copy of The Method. All you have to do is say in a comment below why you'd love to win it, and Tom will pick one lucky winner. He might do it by a random method or it might be that your words will woo him, but you can be sure that there will be his method in it...

Monday, 25 October 2010

INTERVIEW WITH JOANNE HARRIS

I am delighted to invite Joanne Harris onto this blog. She needs no introduction but I'll give you one anyway because that's only polite and I am. She also has pointy shoes and deserves respect for that. Oh, and she has said very extraordinarily lovely things about Write To Be Published, which she, unlike you, has read. Oh, OK, if you insist: to end a beautifully written review which I'll reveal later, she said, "In short, Nicola Morgan is made of crabbit – but she is also made of awesome." I really need a t-shirt saying that.

Anyway, Joanne is a wonderfully successful writer who has managed something I'd love to achieve: critical as well as commercial success. She refuses to allow anyone to pigeon-hole her books and it's partly that that made me want to invite her here, because we're always being told we must fit into a genre, and she just doesn't. Although she first became very well known with Chocolat, published in 1999, she'd had two novels published already, and I was interested in how she went from one stage to the next. My favourite of her books is Five Quarters of the Orange - I am in awe of its plotting intricacies and in love with its atmosphere.

Obviously, the main thing I like about Joanne, however, is that she shares my love of shoes. Then there's the chocolate, though she claims that it's not as important to her as it might seem. Yeah, right.

Do take a look at her website. Generously, she has a page of advice for writers, and I think you'll like it.

Anyway, here are my questions for Joanne Harris.
_______________________________
NM: On your website you are quite disparaging about your first novel, The Evil Seed. You say, "...it's extremely self-indulgent (if I were an editor I would have cut at least 200 pages); ... and although I had great fun writing it, I do wonder what (if anything) the readers saw in it at the time." Self-indulgence is something a lot of avid first-time writers are guilty of and it was what stopped me being published for ages. When did you realise and what made you realise that it was self-indulgent?
JH: When I went back to edit it for re-publication, 20 years later. I can only assume I'd got better. [Amazing what 20 years can do to one's outlook! But, you must have stopped being self-indulgent much earlier, because your second one was very different.]
NM: Although all your books are different, something that seems common to many of them is a formal structure, whether two-strand split-time narrative, or the multiple first-person narrator. Is that my imagination or do you like playing with structures rather than straightforward linear narrative? Any particular reason?
JH: I don't really think in those terms. I was never taught creative writing, so I don't have any formal knowledge of structures or narrative forms. I work organically rather than with a lot of forward planning, and the story develops itself from there. [NM: I was never taught either, but I think we pick these things up through reading. And I share your organic method. I do think your structures are remarkable though and I can only think that your brain is doing that without your instruction.)
NM: In your advice to writers you say, "Write what you want to write, not what you think you ought to write (or what other people think you should write)." Though I agree with that, it's also one of the things that makes some writers be rejected over and over again, because they are writing only what they want to write and not what readers would want to read. To what extent do you think about readers when you write? Do you have what Stephen King calls his "Ideal reader" in mind? If you don't think of readers, I can only assume that you are incredibly lucky that you happen to write what they want!
JH: I don't think about my readers at all. They all want such different things. I know I can't please everyone, but if I don't please myself, then I don't think there's much point in going on... As for SK's Reader, I think he described her pretty well in MISERY.. :-) [If you're not consciously thinking of your reader, you're very lucky that you've instinctively found a way to write for readers, even if not specific ones. It's definitely the case that many oft-rejected writers are rejected because of the self-indulgence which by definition means they are thinking of themselves and not readers. I think you may not realise how instinctively you have tuned in to what readers need from stories. I wish we could all do that! It's a definite skill. It's certainly true that we can't please them all and that they all want different things, but I still find it very helpful to have in mind a generalised group of readers.]
NM: As I say, your books are all different and they defy genre categorisation. I sense that you're proud of that, and rightly so, but has this ever been or been suggested as a disadvantage? I ask partly because my own novels, although all YA, are also a range of genres appealing to different readers, and I wonder if I'd do better commercially if people knew what to expect. And many new writers might be wondering the same thing about their ideas. You say you like not giving readers what they expect and that you trust them, but you are speaking from a position of strength. Today, horribly, it's all about brand. Do you have any words of wisdom about this for new and midlist authors?
JH: It's certainly true that it would be easier for everyone (and more commercially secure) if I limited myself to one genre. I know this, but I choose to ignore it. It's a risk. I wouldn't advise anyone to take that kind of risk unless they are prepared to accept the possible consequences. I could get dumped tomorrow.
NM: When did you sense that Chocolat was going to be so hugely successful? Did you feel when you were writing it that you could be onto a winner? Did your publisher realise its potential before publication and put effort behind it or did the signs of success come from reader-reaction after publication? Is there something about chocolate?!
JH: I didn't know it was going to be any kind of success. It was exactly the kind of thing I'd been told would never sell (by Al Zuckerman, of all people, author of HOW TO WRITE THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL). Boy, was he wrong. The publishers only started to put money into it after it had been a success. No-one saw it coming at all. [That seems amazing now!]
I ask interviewees a series of short questions under the banner "How was it for you?" Here are Joanne's answers.

How long did it take you from beginning to approach publishers / agents to being taken on?
A year to find an agent. Another year for a publisher.

Any rejections? Roughly how many?
Loads. I made a sculpture. :-)

Any particularly memorable rejection letters?
They all went to my agent. I never read them.

What do you think stopped you being published earlier? 
I didn't know the procedure.

Your best advice for the oft-rejected writer?
Forget it. If you can't, then enjoy what you do. Publication is not the only objective...

Ah, if only we could remember that...

Joanne, thank you so much for taking the time to come on my blog. And thank you for your kind comments about it earlier.

Joanne's latest novel is Blue Eyed boy and I have it on my pile. You can follow her on Twitter as @joannechocolat

Any comments anyone?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

AS POINTLESS AS A POINTLESS THING: CARE WITH SIMILES

Remember when you were at school and you were learning Creative Writing? (You know - the bit squeezed between Passing Exams and Spelling. The bit where you got your story read out in class and your head stuck down the toilet in break.) Yes. Remember when the teacher got to Similes, and then Metaphors? And you were the only one who knew the difference? And then you got extra marks and ticks and things when you used a simile or a metaphor? And you came to believe that using similes was Essentially A Good Thing and the mark of A Writer?

Well, sorry. You are all growned up now. Do not add similes to your writing because you think you should. You don't get points any more. At all.

There is only one occasion when a simile really makes your writing better: when it really does make it better. A simile must ADD to what you've just said. It must make what you've just said clearer, and better. If what you're trying to say is very simple and is already clear, don't clutter it up with a simile. Only when the situation is complex, unusual, interesting, extra vivid or strange, does it need a simile to inspire and excite the reader. A simile is special, and should be used for special occasions and for special effect.

Why am I going on about this? Well, I have recently read several manuscripts which are passably well executed in many ways. Until the writer has thought, "Gah! I remember now: Miss Scroggins always used to praise me for using similes. Better put one in. NOW! Why? Oh, because. Because it would be sooo cool to get extra points, just as I used to when I was eight."

People, Miss Scroggins has forgotten you. She retired long ago and is now shacked up in Spain with  Juan, about whom she has been passionate since at least the Wars of the Roses and with whom she longed to run away, a dream which she was delayed from realising by her over-lengthy career teaching children such as you, whom she adored at the time but over whom her pension and some well-deserved sunshine now take precedence. Miss Scroggins has no hold over you now. She has no hold over her waistline, either, and has allowed herself to go gloriously to seed. Forget Miss Scroggins and her exhortations to simile.

Here are some examples of completely unhelpful and pointless similes:
His words paralysed me. I was like a deer that's been transfixed by an arrow, right in its spine, so that it was alive but could not move. [The first sentence says it all. The simile simply adds some wholly unhelpful and, frankly, bizarre, extra images. We learn nothing extra and yet are bombarded with extraneous images of a dying Bambi.]
He leaned over the counter and watched me like a diving hawk. Then he laughed, throwing his head back so that I saw his teeth. [Why diving? How is that like someone watching over a counter? And then the juxtaposition of him laughing and then having visible teeth conjures a weird mixture that does NOT have the effect of making anything clearer in the reader's mind.]
And here's a proper, useful simile, though not spectacularly original:
He moved slowly, like a lion. He knew where he would find them. [The lion simile means that the reader thinks of all the other things to do with lions: that they are strong, dangerous, hunters. You can imagine the lion moving slowly because he's powerful and confident. So, this simile ADDS to the image.]
That is the point: a simile adds.

Importantly, it adds everything about that image, so you'd better make sure you get the image right. The clue is in the word "image", because the point about language is that every word you use creates an image; the reader cannot help but picture things connected with that image.

Let me show you. If I say the word fire-engine, you will think of these things: red, something loud and something large, indicating danger. So, if I say that her lips were fire-engine red, you will think of her mouth as large, red, and probably loud. Possibly even dangerous. Or at least sexy in a loud way. (Not that I have anything going on with fire officers' uniforms, you understand.)

If I say the word strawberry, you think of these things: fruit, sweet, small, strawberry-shaped. So, strawberry lips, make you think of small, sweet, gentle, tasty, strawberry-shaped lips.

Letter-box red lips: bright, loud, large. Cherry-red lips... You get my point?

And so it is with similes: every part of the simile creates pictures and if you use an image with the wrong connotations you utterly wreck or disturb the reader's picture. It becomes a confusing mess.

My final point about similes is that they must be exactly right for the voice, the style of the piece. So, in a colloquial voice you don't want to insert a poetic or literary simile. Or vice-versa. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, is a brilliant example of a book with an exceptionally colloquial voice, and here is an example of a wonderful colloquial simile in it, which is pitch perfect for the context:
We never did eat that sushi. I mean why would you? All seaweed and raw tuna sushi is. More like a fishing boat accident than a lunch.
That is deliriously clever. I love that book, love it. So much so that I have to give you another simile from it.
They were shocking vicious things those helicopters. They were like fat black wasps looking outwards through their glittering eyes.
If it had just said wasps, we'd have thought of stripy yellow thigs, so the author cleverly specifies fat black wasps, and glittering eyes, so we still have the insecty nasty connotation but our mental image perfectly conjures those helicopters into fat black wasp-like things, and we find ourselves absolutely being able to picture them in the way the author wants. We have a sense of, Yes, they are exactly like that.

Three learning points about similes, then:
  1. Only use one at all if you haven't made yourself clear already. A simile is supposed to add meaning, to make something clearer, to elaborate and enrich an incomplete picture in the reader's mind.
  2. The reader, whether you like it or not, will take every aspect of your image and process it. So, make sure your image only has the connotations you want it to have.
  3. And the simile must be chosen for its aptness for the voice, the style and the context.
 And leave Miss Scroggins out of this. The Sangria has addled her brain and she Does Not Care any more.

Meanwhile, I am not going to be able to give you the attention to which you are accustomed for the next few weeks. I have a leaky building situation which is as big as a mountain, as wet as the sea, as expensive as the Tah Mahal, and as irritating as a roomful of mosquitos with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, and which I need about as much as a dose of dysentery before a school event.

Which is probably what I'm going to get if my leaky, rotting bathroom isn't sorted out.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

INTERVIEW WITH IAN RANKIN

The "needs no introduction" cliché was never more true, but it's very rude not to introduce someone, so I will. Ian Rankin is the UK's No 1 best-selling crime author, creator of the lugubrious detective, Rebus, and general all-round star of the Scottish writing scene. (And much further afield, too, of course, but we like to claim him for ourselves.) I used to live round the corner from him, until I moved to the better side of town. Considering his huge busyness, I was hesitant about asking him to come on this blog as an interviewee, but I'm glad I did and very pleased indeed to welcome him here. I'm also glad to say that Mr Rankin revealed himself to be as ill-disciplined as the rest of us when he said he was answering my questions as a displacement activity when he was supposed to writing something else.

There was a particular reason why I wanted to talk to Ian. I'd seen him interviewed in the Guardian, which was partly quoting something in the Word, in which he had said something about how his language had changed between his first novel and more recent ones. Since I'd been thinking a lot about whether writing and reading styles are changing, I wanted to unpick this a bit. Is it really true that we all have to write more snappily than writers did a generation ago?

As an aside, I've always been grateful to Ian for choosing the title Fleshmarket Close for his novel that came out shortly after my Fleshmarket. This means that when people hear I'm a writer and ask me what I've written, I say Fleshmarket, and their eyes light up as they say, "OOH, Fleshmarket! I've heard of that!" Now, I know it's usually Fleshmarket Close they've heard of but they're happy and I'm happy and anyone in earshot thinks I must be famous, so why would I care?

ALSO, when my Fleshmarket had just come out, I was in a branch of Borders and saw a chalk board with the notice, "Ian Rankin will be signing copies of Fleshmarket here tomorrow." I contemplated adding, "by NICOLA MORGAN" to the board but opted for asking the manager why Ian Rankin was going to be signing copies of my book when I had definitely not given him permission. The cheek of it.

Anyway, you're waiting to hear from our guest. So, here we go:

NM: You were a PhD student when you were writing The Flood. And you are quoted in The Word as saying, "Jesus, it's like the writing of a PhD student." How much of that style do you think came from your academic environment, how much from the idealism of youth and how much because the style of writing in those days just was different? Do you remember what you thought about what type of novelist you were or wanted to be?
IR: That interview I did for The Word... I'm misquoted slightly (always happens). The book I was referring to was not my first novel (The Flood) but the first Rebus novel (Knots and Crosses). I do feel K and C is overwritten. There's a phrase in it – 'the manumission of dreams' – I have no idea these days what that means. At the time, I probably just wanted to use the word manumission. In other words, I was showing off. There's a lot of literary game-playing in that book, as befits a PhD student whose head was full of deconstruction and structuralism.  Oddly, there's not nearly as much of that kind of thing in The Flood, which was trying to be Scottish Literature (in the Neil Gunn/Robin Jenkins mould).  Plenty of overt symbolism in The Flood, but not so heavy on the 'jouissance'. [NM returns from consulting the dictionary and now knows what manumission means.]

What type of novelist did I want to be?  Literary. Revered. The usual. But also without the embarrassment of going cap in hand to the Scottish Arts Council for money to live on. I was hoping to be commercial. Hence the crime novel. After which I tried a spy novel (Watchman) and a high-tech thriller (Westwind). Even had plans to write a horror novel. My early goal was to write a novel in every genre, but luckily that never happened.
NM: Naturally, our reading tastes change as we get older, but do you sense your reading tastes changing in other ways? Have you ever gone back to something you loved as a teenager and wondered how on earth you had the patience for it? I recently returned to one of my favourite novels from my youth, Dumas' The Black Tulip, and found it way too dense for my 21st century brain. And I recently read Candia McWilliams' memoir - you maybe have, too - and at first I was delighted to spend time with her incredibly convoluted but perfect sentences, sentences which you simply cannot read quickly, and I felt my brain being re-trained to read properly - but after a while, I found myself thinking of all the urgent things I had to do, and I missed out whole chunks. Do you think we're all so rushed these days that we're unable/unwilling to sit with something slow? What's going on??!
IR: My feeling is that we are not unlearning how to read long, complex novels. Indeed, there are more of them around than ever. Wolf Hall is hardly emaciated.  Ditto A S Byatt's The Children's Book.  Ditto And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson.  Ditto Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  These are books I've read during the past few months; not one clocks in at under 500 pages of dense prose.  We may live in fast-paced times with an immediacy to news and commentary, but we seem still to enjoy immersing ourselves in laconically-paced fictional worlds. [I wonder if the same applies for debut writers, though, writers where the publisher is taking more of a risk? I think debut writers have to have an eye to the market more than established, proven writers, and a very lengthy novel is a risk, in the eyes of publishers, and therefore a risk for the writer who really wants to be published.]
NM: Regarding your writing / genre now, you say, "Writers like me are part of the entertainment industry....In thrillers there's little room for purple prose" and "The style has got to be invisible. If something jars, or if a phrase is too flowery, suddenly the reader is aware that someone is writing a book,"  Do you think that writers now, at least in genres such as crime, thriller or YA writing, are and must be much more self-disciplined about the tightness of their prose than 30 years ago? 
IR: I don't think crime fiction has changed that much.  There was very little fat to be found in sentences penned by Raymond Chandler. I still enjoy crisp, speedy crime novels, but it's nice that there's also room for the occasional 'brick' (Larsson; Ellroy). Back in the 90s, I was told by someone in publishing that a crime novel of under 250 pages was only ever regarded by the trade as a crime novel, whereas one of 350 pages or over might be trying to say something about the world. In other words, might be veering towards literature.  Dunno about this, but my own novels did start to get a lot longer....
As for genres outside crime, look at the success of those very lengthy Harry Potter books. Some might say there was some fat there to be trimmed by a ruthless editor, but the excess didn't seem to do sales any harm. [NM: Note to other writers: lesser mortals can't often get away with this. Publishers have both eyes to costs these days and many won't contemplate something too long. And the JKR exception is just that, an exception. And exceptions don't prove rules. Just saying.]
NM: I often bang on about the importance of writing for readers, more than for ourselves as writers. Though of course we have to enjoy it, too, otherwise it's cynical and will show. How consciously and at what stages do you think of readers, if you do? Do you, like Stephen King, have an "Ideal Reader" in mind?
IR: I write first and foremost to entertain myself, and maybe to try to answer some question that's been bugging me about the state of the world.  This goes way back to when I first started writing short stories.  Whether anyone was ever going to read them or not, there was a real pleasure in crafting something that had never existed until you thought and wrote it into existence.  It was suddenly there, and very real.  You had brought it into the world.  At some point maybe the market comes into it, depending on your goals as a writer.  If you want financial success, it's easier if you know there's a public out there hungry for the kind of book you're writing. If you're writing experimental fiction, that audience may be harder to find than if you're penning crime stories.  It's a conversation you need to have with yourself: write with one eye on cold hard commercial reality, or stick to those early ideals and hope for the best. [NM: Very true, that bit about knowing what sort of book you're writing and why. Another thing I bang on about.]
NM: Can you give your top three pieces of advice for aspiring crime writers?
IR: I was asked this by the Guardian a while back.  I think I offered ten pieces of advice, at least three of which were 'get lucky'.  Luck is an important ingredient and there's nothing we can do about it.  (I took my 8-month old son to a book festival in the USA... a woman stopped to tell me how cute he was.. she introduced me to her publisher husband... he ended up reading my books and offering me a six-book deal.) But you also need to be persistent, toughened to criticism and rejection, you need to have read widely, and you need to have a story you feel no one before you has told. [NM: My bold and red because this is SO right.]

HOW WAS IT FOR YOU? (I ask published writers some quick questions about their route to publication.)
 
NM: How long did it take you from beginning to approach publishers / agents to being taken on?
IR: I was lucky in that I had a poem published at the age of 17 and short stories published in my early-20s, so I had a CV of sorts when I approached publishers. But my first ever novel (Summer Rites) was turned down by every publisher I showed it to. The Flood was eventually published in tiny numbers (200 hardbacks; 600 paperbacks) by a small publisher in Edinburgh.  Knots and Crosses was turned down by the first five publishers it went to. And for a long time after that, I was always on the verge of being dropped...  Success was a long time coming!
NM: Any rejections? Roughly how many? Any particularly memorable rejection letters?
I remember my rejection letter for Summer Rites from Gollancz.  They said the first two-thirds was fine but the last third needed a lot of work.  I just snorted. As far as I was concerned, it was perfect and I wasn't going to change a thing.  (The manuscript is still in my bottom drawer.)
NM: What do you think stopped you being published earlier?
IR: I almost wish I'd been published later.  Some of those early books are not very good.  And in Knots and Crosses I really had no idea what I was doing with the character of Rebus.  It as only later that I began to know him.
NM: It's well known that you had many books published before you became very successful - what was different about the book that changed it all? Was it the book, the publisher or something in the air?
IR: I think my 'breakthrough' was due to a number of factors.  One, I'd written a good book, a much better book than my previous efforts.  Two, it won a prize for the best crime novel of the year.  Three, my publisher had found a terrific fresh look for the jacket and the typography.  The book stood out from the crowd.  Four, I had returned to Edinburgh after 10 years away, six of them in rural France.  So I was available to talk at libraries and schools, do interviews, etc.  But although Black and Blue sold four times as many copies as my previous novels, it still didn't make the UK bestseller lists. I had to wait another 2 or 3 books to reach number one.  By then I had published about 15 books. A lengthy apprenticeship....
Ian, thank you so much. I think your answers show so many of the elements of hard work, perseverance, talent, and luck that have been involved in your success. It all sounds as logical as this business can ever be, very right, and very well-deserved.

To those of you struggling to get the breakthrough to publication and wondering why you're being rejected at the moment, take note of Ian's first reason for his eventual new success: "I'd written a good book, a much better book than my previous efforts." That's what we all have to do, whether in breaking through to publication or to a new level of success after publication.

Remember: publication is not the destination, but a stopping off point on the way.

Monday, 11 October 2010

A PUBLISHING TIME-LINE

I was driven to write this post by two things: people nagging me politely suggesting it and the horrible moment the other day when someone tweeted that she'd just pre-ordered Write To Be Published on Book Depository and that it would arrive on her doormat in 246 days. Which, considering I have only just finished writing it and it hasn't been edited yet, which it badly needs, is very seriously scary.

She then freaked me out by saying she was also planning to pre-order my book on writing for children. Which is apparently going to arrive on her doormat in 429 days, despite the fact that...brace yourselves...not only have I not written a single word of it but also I also didn't know I'd agreed to write it. So keen is the fabulous Emma Barnes at Snowbooks that she's played a blinder of a tactic. Basically, Book Depository and Snowbooks say I'm writing it, so I must be. Bugger.

Note: I have now agreed to write it, but Write for Children is not the title, and nor is Dec 2011 the pub date. It's to be called So You Think You Can Write For Children? and will be published March 2012. AGES away. Relax.

Anyway. Let's talk about the length of time it takes to publish a book.

Here are two things which don't happen:
A. Author finishes book, sends to publisher, publisher says yes, book goes through editing and production process and is published when it's ready.
NOR
B. Publisher says, "Yes, we like your book proposal idea - when do you think you can write it by? Christmas? Lovely. So, we'll arrange our publishing schedule to fit your time-scale. Cheers."
    Here was my first actual publishing schedule:
    1. Egmont commissioned me to write a series of home learning books, based partly on some books I'd self-published. Series to be called I Can Learn. (Which I mention because it became and still is, very successful. And I'm very proud of it. So there. I don't earn much from it, as it's the sort of thing that's based on fees, not royalties, but parents email me and tell me I taught their child to read. So, that's nice. More money would also be nice but you can't have everything.)
    2. At the initial meeting, Egmont said they'd like to publish in twelve months. Lovely, I said.
    3. But the design, illustrations and production would all need to be done after I'd done the planning, layouts and writing of the content, they said. Fair enough, I said.
    4. And all that design, illustration and production would take ten months.
    5. Leaving me with two months? For twelve books?
    6. Um, no, they said.
    7. Oh, so, more than that, somehow? I said
    8. Um, no. Less. See, we need you to do the plan for each book and have it okayed by the team first.
    9. Leaving me with four weeks. For twelve books. From scratch.
    10. Yes.
    Readers, I did it.

    Is that normal? Not exactly, because home learning books are not like full-length books.

    Let's look at two more examples
    1. My recent publishers for fiction and some full-length non-fiction, Walker Books, introduced an exceptionally cautious publishing schedule a couple of years ago, meaning that I/we had to deliver the MS of a novel 17 months before publication date. SEVENTEEN MONTHS?? WTF?

    2. Write to be Published, with Snowbooks, had a delivery date of Oct 1 2010 - done! - for publication June 1 2011. That's a low-normal amount of time and I wouldn't want less time between delivery and publication. After all, my delivered MS could be drivel and need massive editing.

    "Normal" is anything between the Snowbooks and Walker examples. 

    So, what has to be done during the time between delivery of the complete but unedited MS and publication? (Bear in mind that a huge publisher may need more time than a small one, because they have more books to handle and you do need to make sure that yours gets enough attention at every stage. And YOU should be informed and involved at every stage, too.)
    • Editing - including perhaps a major revision. At this stage, you and your editor may send the MS back and forth several times until you both agree everything.
    • Copy-editing - and more going backwards and forwards as the 12-year-old copy-editor suggests foolish changes to your MS and also some very important ones that you really should have noticed.
    • Proof-reading - when tiny typos and widows and orphans and double spaces and wrong sort of commas are spotted.
    • Cover design - and its approval by all parts of the company, and you.
    • Back cover copy.
    • Advance Information sheet with info for Amazon and all booksellers - this AI info is crucial and if it's not right it will be not right for ever and a day.
    • Wooing of major book chains.
    • Marketing plans.
    • Typsetting and production.
    • Insertion into appropriate catalogues.
    • Bribery, corruption.
    • Nail-biting.
    • Sales conference.
    • Sending it to lots and lots of reveiwers who use it to prop up a table.
    • Lots of things to do with distribution which I don't understand.
    • Quite a bit of getting cross because things could always be so much better.
    • The realisation that you've actually written a terrible book and everyone's going to hate it.
    • Eating of chocolate.
    • I've probably forgotten a few things.
    Which perhaps explains why it's not quick.

    Learn the art of Zen.

    Friday, 8 October 2010

    DIALOGUE TAGS

    Following from my earlier post on dialogue, I now come, as promised, to dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are the he queried / asked / opined bits that come between the spoken sections. Once beloved of Enid Blyton and many others, their unnecessary use is now regarded as a bad habit and poor style. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s better to repeat he said, than to vary it with questioned, opined, muttered or expostulated. The main reason for this is that it’s too easy to be tempted to tell the reader how the speaker spoke, but often more satisfying for the reader when the attitude is revealed in action. Dialogue tags are just a bit lazy and spoon-feed the reader too much. At the same time, they give the instruction after the reader has read the dialogue: too late, in other words. Sometimes, they're necessary, but you should only use them when they really are.

    Let me illustrate with an example of an over-use of dialogue tags:
    “Do you want to come in for coffee?” she suggested.
    “Is coffee all you mean?” he wondered.
    “What else would I mean?” she scoffed.
    “Well, just that I thought you might have some biscuits as well,” he responded.
    “Aye, right!” she laughed.
    Do we really need any of the words outside the speech marks? No: we can manage perfectly well with just the speech, if the dialogue is strong enough. And that’s the key: your dialogue needs to be strong. If it is strong enough, it is strong enough to do the job on its own. Then you will need very few dialogue tags, and then usually only to show who is speaking. (Young children need more dialogue tags, as it is harder for them to follow who is talking.) Dialogue tags should show who is speaking, not how he spoke, unless that feels absolutely necessary.

    Often, you can make the dialogue speak for itself, without any dialogue tags. Take a look at the same conversation re-written:
    Carmelle looked straight at him. “Coffee?”
    “Just coffee?” He stared back, streetlight shadowing his jaw.
    “As opposed to?”
    “Well, biscuits. I was thinking you probably do a mean chocolate digestive.”
    “Aye, right!” How did he manage to make the word digestive sound so desirable? Carmelle felt herself begin to blush.
    Finally, just in case you haven’t quite got the point, here is an example of too many dialogue tags with the extra burden of unnecessary adverbs. (I've written about lazy adverbs here. Remember that there's nothing wrong with adverbs per se, just with their lazy use.)
    “Listen,” she whispered conspiratorially.
    “What?” he interrupted eagerly.
    “Nothing,” she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
    And here is how you could re-write that without dialogue tags or adverbs:
    She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. “Listen. I ...”
    His pulse quickened. “What?”
    Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. “Nothing.”
    Well? Please tell me you think the second one is better. Yes, the second one uses more words, but it uses them better. It uses verbs and action, shows us how the two characters behaved, allowing us to feel that we are there, to experience what they do. It draws the reader into the conversation, relegating the author (me) to a very appropriate sideline. After all, when you go to a puppet show, do you want to see the puppeteer?

    Tuesday, 5 October 2010

    DIALOGUE TECHNIQUES



    Good dialogue is very hard to do and some writers are much better at it than others, just as some actors are much better than others at doing accents. Good dialogue is dialogue that a reader hardly notices as good or not, but bad dialogue sticks out painfully, dragging the whole book down. Poor dialogue is certainly one of the things that can contribute to rejection, not on its own but then poor dialogue is most unlikely to be the only thing wrong.

    The first thing to know about writing dialogue is that you should not try to write exactly as people speak. If you did, you’d have lots of ums, vast tracts of nothingness and many non sequiturs. At the same time, you mustn’t write dialogue that the characters would actually never deliver. So, we devise a kind of stylized representation of speech, something that feels very natural. In essence, good dialogue is not about writing as we speak; it’s about not writing as we would not speak.

    Dialogue is usually best broken up into sections, separated by narrative. You are not writing a film script or a play – unless, of course, you are, in which case you are boiling a whole different kettle of fish. You do not have to relate the whole conversation; in fact, you shouldn't. Most parts of a conversation are way too boring to set down. Yes, no, I don't know, and OK should all be reduced to their absolute minimum.

    Oh, God - so should Oh, God. Amateur writers put loads of standard minor expletives in their dialogue but, again, the fact that a real person might have used a word doesn't make it deserve a place in your book. This is not about being prudish and avoiding swearing - probably the topic of another blog post - but about creating flowing, strong dialogue.

    Some other big bad things to avoid:
    • As I say, too many yeses and noes. Better to replace some of them either with nodding / shaking of heads – though that can quickly become repetitive – or with the rest of the sentence and context indicating positive or affirmative.
    • The blatant provision of information for the reader, which the characters would already know and therefore not say. For example, “Gosh, Sally, I hardly recognized you. You used to have dark hair with a fringe and now it’s a blonde bob. Did I tell you I recently saw Samantha, your younger daughter, the one who went round Australia? Lovely girl. She’s married now, of course, and they have a baby on the way.” Bleurgh.
    • Dialogue tags – I'm going to tackle this in the next post, but dialogue tags are when we say, for example: he replied, she opined, he queried, she reiterated. Where possible, stick to said, asked, or nothing. I will show you how on Friday.
    • Anything which makes it hard for a reader to hear the words in his head – this means that using dialect of any sort becomes very tricky for writers. You have to be very confident in your reader and in your writing to get away with the heavy use of an accent which that reader doesn’t speak. Trouble is, sometimes it would be absurd not to use dialect to some extent, if that’s how the character would speak, but do try to keep it toned down. Think of your reader.
    The key to writing dialogue is to read it aloud, preferably imagining yourself acting it. If you’re not an actor, as I’m not, this is difficult but it’s the very difficulty which will help you think more carefully. If there’s a bit of dialogue that keeps jarring every time you read it and you can’t find another way to express it, turn it into narrative instead. Better no dialogue than poor dialogue.

    I admit that dialogue is not something I find easy or something I shine in. Perhaps that's why I'm extra careful with it and extra aware of when I get it wrong. I spend a lot of time trying not to get it wrong. Good dialogue sings and makes your story sparkle and come alive. Bad dialogue is horrible and drags a book right down.

    She opined.

    Saturday, 2 October 2010

    IN WHICH I GET CRABBIT ABOUT AUTHOR EVENTS

    Today I'm blogging indirectly for writers, by offering advice to people who organise author events. The idea to blog about this came from Jane Smith's post at How Publishing Really Works, about why authors should be paid, and the discussion that followed it.

    I have spoken at too many festivals, conferences and events to count. I have also been involved in organising a strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and have given free advice to two people setting up new book festivals. I have organised a major writers' conference myself and am planning to do the same around publication of Write To Be Published. I know what makes a good event for authors and readers. And I don't too much care about anyone else. As far as I'm concerned, writers and readers are the important people in this, granted that we also need supporting people. Including the event organiser.

    So, here are my points, aimed at organisers and with huge respect for what the best of them do, including many school librarians.

    MONEY
    If you value your writers, you have to pay them. You might get their publishers to contribute to travel expenses, but don't assume that. Most writers do not earn much but, actually, that's beside the point. It's about value and respect. It's about your purpose in organising the event. If the writer is the only adult not being paid, that is intolerable, utterly unacceptable. If you think the writer is going to earn from book sales during the event, think of this:
    • Authors earn a very small percentage of the profit on a book sale, not a percentage of the cover price, but of the price after the publisher discount to the retailer, often 60% or more, is applied. They might earn 40p per book, if the supplier doesn't have a high discount, and sometimes less. (Depends on cover price and discount.) If you sell 30 copies of their book, which is optimistic, that's £12 for the author for the whole event, which they won't receive for around six months. So, sod book sales as a compensation for you offering no fee.
    If you can only offer a small fee, offer it with an apology and make it up in other ways, by fantabulous book sales and great respect. Don't say things like, "Oh, you never know, you might get some more work out of it." or "It will look great on your CV, you know - increase your profile."  That's for me to decide. Say, "I'm so sorry we can't offer a proper fee and I will fully understand if you can't accept, but I'd love to look at other ways to make it beneficial for you." You cannot, however, expect a low-earning self-employed person to pay for coming to you, and pay is what they'll do if you're not offering FULL expenses, including incidentals.

    Sometimes we might do an event for nothing but if you have to ask this, ask yourself why you have to. Are you charging the audience? Why can't you manage to pass some of that to the author, the person with the talent on which this event is based? I have also found that when events are free, more things go wrong - audiences cancel and people don't think they are getting something worth having. Having said that, we do do things for nothing and sometimes that's fine. But there has to be a good reason and it has to be our choice.
     
    When the author is paid £150 for an event, which in the UK is the recommended fee - though not usually achievable by festivals, with Edinburgh being an honourable exception - that may seem like very decent earnings for an hour. And it would be if it was an hour's work. But it's not.

    Here's what happens to me when I get an invitation which I accept:
    • You and I have an email conversation, which over the time leading up to the event may take 1-2 hours of my time, because you very properly want a biography, pictures, details about whether I eat prawns, details about my arrival, details about the contents of my event, a blurb for the programme, a photo, discussion about who is supplying the books and how. Actually, let's say three hours.In fact, the more and better questions you ask, the more time it will take - Catch 22. Or I pay my assistant to do this because I should be writing.
    • I spend some time - say another hour - organising to be away. I sort out dog-sitting, food for the house, family, book train tickets. Get stuck on the Trainline website...
    • I plan the actual content of the events. Planning can be anything from twenty minutes if it's a school event that I do hundreds of times, to ten hours or more if it's a new event which you've specifically asked for - such as for a conference talk on a particular topic with powerpoint.
    • I print out leaflets and order forms and handouts, as appropriate.
    • I pack, including several bits of equipment which are different for each event, and travel to the event and back again, which is never going to be less than a day. A day during which I can't write, or not meaningfully.
    • I have inevitable costs during the journeys, some of which I don't charge even if you're kindly offering expenses. 
    If authors want to do things for nothing - and we often do - that's up to us. But don't expect it any more than I would expect any paid person to give up their earnings for a day. 

    THE EVENT
    OK, so, I've done countless events and never get nervous. But. I use up the most enormous amount of energy during the event. I'm entertaining and inspiring an unknown audience. Sometimes, I don't know in advance what the audience is going to consist of. Sometimes I do, in theory. Often my audience is teenagers who may not want me to be there because they think books are boring, or adults who think they know it all. I have to work to get them on side, I have to adapt what I planned to what I find, I have to think on my feet. I do this all without notes, so I'm driving my brain hard. People who try to speak to me afterwards may think I'm silent because I'm stuck-up - no, I'm silent because I'm exhausted. What is my point?

    My point is, please:
    1. Every author is different, with different needs. So, read my Inviting Me To Speak page on my website and just ask me about anything you're not sure of. Ask, for example, what I need in terms of food. Or else provide it anyway. I totally love the school librarians who give me a plate of sandwiches, a kettle and a SILENT ROOM after an event. One even lent me an ipod. I could have married her. (Note to organisers: I now have an ipod, thank you!)
    2. Understand that I can't make scintillating conversation to you or your colleagues between events, or in your car between locations. I do not want you to take me to lunch between events instead of paying me, or even as well as paying me. I want you to let me eat my lunch with my eyes and my ears shut. Once - O. M. G. - I was taken unwillingly to lunch and then asked to PAY because their budget didn't stretch to it. Bloody hell. I could barely speak to them. (For clarity, being taken out at the end is lovely - quite different, because although I'll be tired I'll not have to focus again that day. And, again, every author is different. I just find my head spins and I don't talk well when that's happening.)
    3. If I am doing two events, please let me go and get some fresh air in between. Otherwise you will not like me.
    4. Don't ask me to deliver three events in one day. (Except in exceptional circumstances.) I will be crap. This is NOT like teaching three lessons in a row - I have done that, too. That's a doddle in comparison. No, this is like - no, is - performing on stage on your own for an hour, followed by an hour, followed by another hour. Humans can't do it and remain even vaguely pleasant.
    5. Note that I once fell asleep at the wheel of a car travelling at 70 miles an hour on a dual-carriageway because librarians had asked me to do too much. I nearly died and so did a load of other people.
    6. Never. Ever. Ever. Never tell me that it's ok not to pay me because I will be able to get some writing done and you won't ask for a cut of the "profits". PROFITS? Don't bloody make me laugh. (This happened to me recently. I said no.)
    Not all authors would have the same needs. Many have different ones. Just ask. it's not difficult. We don't want expensive things.

    Sometimes, school librarians in particular go to great lengths to provide lovely home-made cakes and things. This is incredibly sweet of them and much appreciated but it's actually not necessary. My point is just that I don't have demands for luxury or anything, just a bit of gentleness and the understanding that what I do is important to you and exhausting for me. I love it, but it's exhausting..
      BOOK SELLING
      This is not only a Very Good Thing: it is also how authors survive. Yes, I know you're going to pay me to talk to you but if I can't write any books there will be no books for me to talk about. And if I don't sell books, I won't be allowed to write any. Seriously, publishers drop authors who don't sell enough books. Especially nowadays. Trust me. I know.

      So, please sell books. That does not mean put them on a small table in the corner of a little-used cupboard where fire extinguishers used to be stored. It means display lots of them in all their glory, tell customers that they will be there, provide lots of time for people to buy them, TELL people to go and look at them and consider buying them and generally puff the idea of owning glorious books.

      MISCELLANEOUS
      • Always give the author an introduction. Say nice things about us even if you haven't read our books. I have had people forgetting my name, people saying I need no introduction and then not giving me one, and I've had fabulous introductions. I once arrived on the stage of a large theatre to cheers and whoops from the huge school audience - they probably hadn't read any of mny books but the librarians had got them excited. That's fabulous. It creates an energy about the event from the start.
      • Study the author website. It makes such a difference when you know a bit about us.
      • Let an author have a few minutes peace before the event starts to collect her thoughts. Get the head teacher out of the way - now is not the time for a marketing drive.
      • Provide a good space for speaking. I don't like people looking up my nostrils. I also don't like lunch trolleys being wheeled through when I'm telling a story.
      • DO NOT MARK BOOKS DURING THE EVENT.
      • Do not spring unexpected tasks on me. "Oh, I thought you'd like to come and say a few words to the remedial class on your way to lunch" is not a good idea. With all respect to the remedial class but they deserve more than a few words. 
      • Oh, and if you've got local press coming, which is a lovely idea, do NOT let them interrupt my talk to take photos. I once lost 10 minutes of my talk because local photographers couldn't wait till the end. Totally lost momentum.
      • Edited to add: do NOT steal  deduct tax from my invoice. An invoice is an invoice. I pay my own tax and the tax people do not need me to pay them twice. Universities and councils are the culprits here: I'm waiting for the refund of wrongly deducted tax from a certain University where I spoke in MARCH. Am livid.

      Got it?
      So, now you think I'm a stroppy cow? I'm not. Not at all. I am never a prima donna at events - I'm professional and committed to the audience. I do all my stroppiness at this stage, when we're deciding, you and I, whether we want to do this event and make it great. Once we've decided, you will find me very enthusiastic and determined to do everything to produce the absolute best event for the audience.

      But it's not just my event: it's yours, too. And part of its success comes down to your preparation, enthusiasm and understanding. So, let's do it. Let's make great events together. It's one of my favourite bits about being an author, which is why I say yes so often.

      EDITED TO ADD: to give you an example of perfect event organisation, next week I'm going to the High School of Dundee on Monday and Chesterfield library on Friday night, to chat to a group of teenagers and adults in a fab-sounding reading group. I am 100% confident that these will be exemplary. Just a few minutes ago, my assistant passed me an email from the Chesterfield organiser saying that they'd have sandwiches for me before the event and that they'd take me out for a bar meal afterwards, as the guest house has no catering facilities in the evening. That's very caring and wonderful of them. They've thought it through AND they've told me in advance. Both Dundee and Chesterfield are fully paid events and I am sure that many hoops were jumped through to sort out the considerable costs to school and library. I love you, organisers of both events and I am looking forward to giving your audiences the best experience I can.

      PS - I knew there was something I'd forgotten to tell you. (A draft of this post accidentally disappeared and I tried to remember what I'd lost.) Yes, I thought I'd tell you about the time when I rejected an invitation after reading the first two words:

      "Dear Sandra"

      I just kind of felt a bit unwanted, you know? :-(