Monday, 25 April 2011

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Random or chance events happen often in real life. This does not mean that you can easily use them in fiction. If they seem too convenient for the plot, your reader will believe you put them there for convenience, because you couldn't think of anything better, and he will not be convinced. The thing is that it is not enough that a certain thing could happen: the reader must believe that it would and did in this story. There are many extraordinary things that happen in real life about which one says, “If you wrote that in a story, they’d never believe you.” Yep, sadly, it’s true.


It pains me to say that I fell foul of this while writing Wasted. There’s a scene where a pigeon comes smashing through a window. One young reader said she hadn’t believed that bit. It was no excuse that I could truthfully say that this has happened to me twice: the fact is that I’d failed to convince that reader that it would happen. Slapped wrist.

As a writer you have to use your skill to lull the reader into a sense in which he will believe everything you say. Just as there's a body language for lying in real life, there's a body language for writing fiction which casts a spell over readers. You have to sustain it, gently hypnotising them into belief, but any lapse on your part will jerk them back into the world and they will remember that you are only an author making things up. It would be like a hypnotist who suddenly sneezes.

These are the keys to making your reader believe in everything you say:
  • consistency of character
  • consistency of voice
  • no sudden introduction of a new device that has not already been trailed
  • no tricks, no messing around with the reader
  • no "because I say so" - the event must seem as though it was causally determined, not pulled out of the hat as a last desperate attempt by the writer
  • no laziness - no omission of necessary detail to build the context for your device

This, to me, is the whole magic and beauty of telling stories: the mysterious thing that our brains do to fiction, where we will believe the impossible and yet disbelieve the perfectly ordinary. The skill is in getting that right.

And unfortunately for us as writers, sometimes the truth is stranger, more interesting and more convenient than fiction.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

THE CHEAPNESS OF BOOKS

Can books be too cheap? Yes. They can be unsustainably cheap and their cheapness can devalue the difficulty of what we do and damage our earnings. In fact, books often are too cheap, especially in the UK.

So, why did I allow Wasted to be sold for as little as £1.01 on Kindle, in a special promotion from now until early May? (Let me wait a moment or two while you go off and buy it. But not in the US, I'm afraid. Not my fault - ask a US publisher to buy the rights.)

Several reasons. (And yes, Amazon did have to ask permission from my publisher, Walker Books, who asked me, and I gave permission willingly.)
  • It's a temporary promotion. This is important because the point (for me) is to swell the number of people out there who might read it and like it, so that they might talk about it. Then, when the promotion ends, word of mouth will help sales through bookshops, too.
  • It's a promotion. Think about the word. Promoting is what we have to do, all of us who have anything to sell.
  • Even though the income from each sale will be horribly small, I would rather have a small income many times than a larger one from a few sales. (For a short period.)
  • I also happen to believe that ebooks should be substantially cheaper than the physical book anyway. 
Why do I think that? (About ebooks needing to be cheaper.)
  • Because the public perception (wrongly) is that they cost very little to produce. Actually, they cost more than people think. But perceived value is important in the psychology of buying.
  • If ebooks are cheap enough, most people won't download illegally or steal. No decent person will feel the need to.
  • If ebooks are cheap enough, many people will take a risk. I don't mind making a mistake with £2 - £3, but I do mind risking much more than that.
However, £1.01 is far too cheap - too cheap to miss! So, if you want to take a little risk on Wasted, go and try. And if you like it, how about buying the physical book for yourself or someone else, a book you can curl up with, a book I could sign, a book you could give as a present.

I look forward to the day when every physical book comes with a code giving you access to the ebook version FREE. That's my dream and that's the way that this can work for all published writers, publishers, agent and bookshops.

Monday, 18 April 2011

SMALL PUBLISHERS: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

I acknowledge that being a publisher is hard. (Hold your tears, unpublished and self-published writers...) It's hard for a small and dedicated publisher to make money or even to survive. It's easier if you want to be big and therefore seek to publish mega-commercial books - if you're lucky enough to find some. It's also easier if you strike lucky again and find yourself a few Booker shortlistees or winners, as Tindall Street Press did, or Canongate (which can no longer be called small); or if you pick good books and market them tirelessly, as Strident Publishing do. But what if you don't aspire to that and you just want to publish a small number of good books with a modest but passionate readership? Fair enough, eh? Isn't that like being a midlist author, a perfectly admirable situation and one we have to deal with if we don't choose or happen to write mega-sellers or if we want to write something more cerebral than popular, more artistic than commercial?

I have a great admiration for people who follow what they believe in despite its being hard. I don't exactly take an easy route myself. I also think some of them demand a lot of their potential customers. They ask us to support them because they are small and niche and suffering. I think our sympathies might be more justifiably with small and niche and sensible or ambitious. I say just the same to authors: if what you're writing isn't selling enough or gaining sufficient critical acclaim to make you happy, write something else or go about it differently.

I'd like you to look at four small UK publishers and see what they are doing.

Snowbooks - here I declare an interest because Snowbooks is my chosen publisher for Write to be Published. They are original, award-winning, unorthodox in many ways. After some temporary problems with a piece of software dealing with royalty cheques last year, which understandably caused temporary anxiety to some authors, Emma Barnes (the MD) blogged here about the financial situation for her company and also apologised for the glitch when the printing firm they used went into administration with some of their books underway. I am in awe of this openness. You would not get this with large publishers. Emma is uber-passionate about what she does, but combines this with a very strong business sense, gleaned from her previous career in the financial world. She survives and makes a profit through a combination of publishing out-of-print titles and new ones that she believes have a market - and very often they do. Though she seems to work ridiculously hard, I have never heard her complain. She is amazing to deal with, though I hope her young son wasn't completely fed up when his mother and I spent a whole weekend batting the "final" version of WTBP back and forth.

Strident - I've no idea of the figures, but Strident are looking and sounding very strong. Optimistic, using Facebook and Twitter to promote their authors actively, getting their books into promotions and garnering reviews in great places. They publish two friends of mine, Linda Strachan and Gillian Philip, both authors who are doing very well in terms of sales and acclaim (and both published by other publishers, too.) The MD, Keith Charters, is a children's author, too, and has a business background, enabling him to combine his interest in writing and authors with his financial, business and marketing awareness. Many writers with larger publishers would envy the energy with which Keith gets books into shops and onto shortlists.

Two Ravens - Sharon Blackie, the MD, sent me an email with this link, which she'd like me to pass on to you, and which outlines her current situation. She is fuming about the comments beneath a recent blog-post by the fourth small publisher I'm going to mention (see below) - which surprised me because I thought the comments were largely sympathetic and patient. Sharon criticises "comments like ‘do a business course’ or ‘try e-books/ print-on-demand instead’, 'what if small publishers could band together' or ‘target your specific readership by using social networking sites’" saying that they "show no understanding of the issues that small independent publishers of books that are different – books that the big guys won’t take the risks to publish – face." I know it's annoying when people don't understand but I think those comments were mostly well-meaning and helpful, actually, and they contain a sensible message: if something's not working, try another way. The mission statement of Two Ravens is to publish books "that are non-formulaic and that take risks" - that's enormously brave and commendable but the whole point about risk is that it's risky. And sometimes doesn't work. And, as is the case for authors when a risk hasn't working or is no longer enjoyable, a publisher has to choose what to do to deal with that. 

And here's the fourth one. Linen Press. Lynn Michell asked me some time ago to blog on her behalf. So I did, for the second time. I don't know if she noticed, because she hasn't been in touch, but I hope she's too busy doing more important things, such as selling books. I also spoke supportively about her at the York Festival of Writing and sent people over to what I thought was a great post by her. And Lynn blogged on the Guardian blog about her bizarre situation whereby she loses money each time she sells through Amazon and (as referred to above) she had lots of comments, which I thought, as I said, were largely supportive. The people were generous to take time to answer her problem, I thought. (Having said that, I believe that some of the negative comments were the most helpful ones, just as it's the negative feedback that authors have to deal with before publication that often helps them the most. Yes, it's not just writers who have to deal with negative criticism.)

This is a blog for writers, not publishers. Don't get me wrong: I love passionate publishers and passionate writers, including when they don't sell loads of books. (After all, I don't sell that many myself: I don't measure success by numbers.) But I also love readers. And I will serve readers and writers until I have no writing bone left in my body. I will serve them above publishers because I know what writers go through to produce the material for publishers. And I know how little writers earn - often below 3% of the cover price of each book their publishers sell.

Authors: write books that will sell. Publishers: publish and sell them. When either authors or publishers fail to do that as well as they wish, they need to adapt. It's the survival of the fittest. Publishers, large and small, need to watch the winds of changes blowing around them. They need to work in proper partnership with authors; they need to be realistic, pragmatic, pro-active, farsighted. So do authors. It seems to me, frankly, that authors are sometimes adapting better than publishers, which explains the rise of self-publishing. (Thereby hang another blogpost or two...) It seems to me also that publishers always need authors, but that authors do not always need publishers.

I wish these publishers enormous success. I hope that Two Ravens and The Linen Press find a way to enjoy and succeed in what they are trying so hard to do. But hard work and determination, of which I know they have volumes, are not always enough. Just as they are not enough for authors. Authors have to know how to adapt after rejection: they have to improve what they offer and do everything right, listening to readers. We cannot afford simply to complain about rejection, unless we want to continue to be rejected. Writers have been told that over and over again by publishers. I think publishers sometimes need to accept the same message.

[Edited to add: I have now stopped comments on this post and deleted some. I dedicate countless hours to blogging for aspiring writers and am not a free advertising billboard for anyone, though of course mentioning your work is completely fine if it's relevant and fair. I had received a number of comments all beginning with exactly the same words and I felt somewhat used.]

Thursday, 14 April 2011

REJECTING THE GENRE NOT THE WRITING

A comment from a blog-reader recently needs answering. He said he'd been told during one-to-one feedback sessions (with an agent, I think), "No one can sell medical thrillers, so write something else." He went on to say that in some ways he preferred this to being told that his writing wasn't good enough and that he found it helpful because he had "a better idea of what I'm aiming at - something where they at least reject the genre rather than the writing."

Back to that in a moment.

This links to something else that happened recently. I was chatting with a senior commissioning editor at a major children's publisher and when she heard I was doing an event on how to write for children that day she said, "Tell them not to do anything with vampires. People are always sending us vampire stuff and we don't want any more."

So, obediently, I relayed this message during my talk. I thought I noticed one member of the audience blanche and when it came to Q&A she asked, "That editor who didn't want vampires - was that [name redacted]?" I replied that it was. She blanched further. She told me afterwards that she was actually seeing this same editor for a meeting later that day, AND it was a vampire story she was pitching. Anyway, when I saw her again later, she was beaming. "She's asked to see the whole thing," she said. "She's interested!" Yep, the editor who said she didn't want any more vampires was interested in a vampire story.

Which just goes to show a very important truth: publishers (and therefore agents) do not reject a genre, unless of course it's actually a genre they specifically don't handle. They reject the book or the writing. Almost always. You can overcome any amount of tiredness or disillusion with great, sparkling writing, a wonderful voice, a new take on an old theme. And the easiest way for an agent or publisher to reject a story they don't think has those elements is to say, "We're not publishing vampires any more," or "No one's selling medical thrillers."

They might mean it's difficult to sell more vampires or it's difficult to sell medical thrillers and that therefore the writing has to be even better, but if you get it right someone will buy it.

However, having your writing rejected does NOT necessarily mean that you're not a good enough writer, only that you didn't get it right this time.

It's all in the story.

Monday, 11 April 2011

HAVE YOU BEEN TO OXFORD?

Because, apparently, if you haven't, you don't stand a chance of being published.

When someone said this to me the other day, I first ignored it, assuming it was a joke. Or a slip of the tongue. Maybe she didn't say Oxford; maybe she said, "the University of Common Sense and Jolly Good Writing". But then she said it again, more clearly. "No, seriously: if you go into Waterstone's and pick up ten books, five of the authors have been to Oxford and the other five have Creative Writing MAs. Literally. I'm not joking."

This is utter tosh, and I told her so. It's patently false. What I didn't say is that it's stupidly self-destructive, the sort of rabid excuse that multi-rejected writers use when they are scraping the barrel of reassurance. (Remember, I was a rabid and multi-rejected writer once. I know what it feels like and I hugely sympathise, but my ignorance now embarrasses me. I probably spoke from the wrong end of my body sometimes. Hell, maybe I still do. Please tell me when that happens.)

Besides, how do publishers know if you've been to Oxford when they ask to see your MS, eh? It's not as though you would say in your covering letter, "I didn't go to Oxford. Sorry. And I'm not bestest friends with Martin Amis, either. Boo hoo." You wouldn't mention your university because it would be as irrelevant as the fact that you once went on holiday to Lyme Regis or have ridden a yak, unless your book is about Lyme Regis or yak-riding.

Mind you, this same aspiring writer also told me that publishers and agents don't read covering letters. They do, actually, unless they have already said they aren't receiving submissions, in which case why should they even open it, let alone read it? I grant you that they might occasionally read the sample first, if they're feeling contrary, and the sample might be so bad that they don't read the covering letter - but trust me: if the writing's not shite, they'll read the letter. I grant you also that they don't always read the whole letter: sometimes they don't need to. Sometimes the first few lines tell them all they need to know. Honestly, I've seen covering letters where the first sentence was so rotten that to read the second one would probably be fatal. I'm not talking about marginal rot; more hyperboliferous shite.

But, back to Oxford, or your (and my) not having been there.

This attitude of ignorance about the reasons why agents and publishers make their sometimes unwelcome - sometimes even stupid, but not that stupid - decisions, is what made me start this blog. It is what keeps me crabbit. It is also not what I expect to hear from any writer who is going about publication the right way. This type of refusal to face the truth will blind you to it. It's also a sign of fear: you're too frightened to face the fact that your book may not be good enough or not publishable and you prefer to blame the foolish publishers and agents for ignoring you because you went to the wrong university, or not a university at all. As if they care. Honestly, they've got more moths in their muesli*  to worry about.

[*Sore point. Anyone know how to remove moths from cereal cupboards?]

Listen. Publishers and agents only care about three things:
  1. Have you written a book they can sell?
  2. Can they sell the book you have written? That's the same, by the way, but it's very important so I've said it twice. Deliberate tautology.
  3. Are you a complete divot who will impede their ability to sell your book through your foolish behaviour and refusal to learn how publishing works? [NB many published writers are divots but it's recommended to hide such traits until after signing the deal.]
I have said it before and I will say it again: if you write a book which a good publisher believes will have sufficient readership, gain sufficient acclaim and/or sales, and make a half decent return on their fairly considerable investment, and if they have room for it on their list and budget, and an editor who loves it, they will publish it. Unless the stars are wrong.

Mind you, I did once spend a very happy weekend in Oxford some years ago, so maybe that thing about needing to have been to Oxford is true after all. Eureka! The answer to your publishing dreams: buy yourself a weekend return ticket to Oxford. WTH didn't I think of that before and save myself a load of heartache?

Alternatively, write a publishable book and work your butt off to make it so. And then submit it with a large dollop of common sense. And magic fairy dust.

PS Some clever people go to Oxford; others don't. One of the things that marks clever people out is that they have an unsurprising tendency to be clever. Clever people have this bizarre habit of succeeding quite often at some of what they set out to do. However, lots of equally clever people didn't go to Oxford. They, being equally clever, will be equally likely to succeed at what they set out to do. And if that's writing books, that's what they will succeed at.

PPS By the way, what's wrong with Cambridge?

PPS Cambridge is where I'm going to be this weekend. I hope to see some of you there at the lovely Cambridge Wordfest. If you're free at 10.30 on Saturday, head along to the Cambridge Union Dining-Room, on Bridge St. Booking here. Who knows? Maybe it's even better than going to Oxford.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

ADJECTIVES AND MACHETES

I've been mulling over over-writing quite a bit recently. Partly because I've been doing talks and workshops with the title, "What's Wrong With your Manuscript?" and partly because I keep seeing over-writing in the manuscripts that come my way via my Pen2Publication consultancy.

What do I mean by over-writing? Well, I've written about it before but I've recently developed a new name for it: Trying Too Hard To Sound Like a Writer.

I've also written about it fairly extensively in Write to be Published, and I thought I'd give you a little snippet from that:
Some genres and contexts require and tolerate more poetic bits. Some books and voices differ similarly. If you’ve read lots of books in your genre, you can more easily judge what is right for your book. But, whatever your genre, you will almost certainly do yourself a favour by toning down at least some parts, and then your best bits will stand out even better. You can’t see purple against a purple background.

Mark Twain’s words, written in 1880, bear repeating: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

He’s wrong, actually: it’s not hard at all. Be tough with yourself and your writing will benefit. If in doubt, cut it out. My preferred weapon is a machete. It’s remarkably therapeutic.
But which ones? Here are some tips:
  • Particularly avoid the repetitious and over-easy adjective+noun adjective+noun adjective+noun format
  • And adjectives that were incredibly easy for you to think of - consider whether that's because they are clich├ęs
  • When you see a pair of adjectives together, consider whether one of them is better - omit the weaker one
  • Be wary of adjectives that sound too flowery for the context or the character or the voice
  • If you are particularly proud of one, consdier whether you're being too proud and showing off - if it's not right for the reader, axe it.
I've got more examples of how some of you are guilty of Trying Too Hard To Sound Like a Writer. And I will be back with them soon, but meanwhile: get axing.

Monday, 4 April 2011

WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS

At the York Festival of Writing I promised to make a version of my notes for each talk available as a free download. Here's the one on Writing for Children and Teenagers. Please respect the copyright note on the document. In fact - *frowns severely* - it would be against the law not to.

Soon, I'll post the notes for my What's Wrong With your Manuscript? talk at the York Festival, too.

I have to say that you'll get a lot more detail and lots of examples of what I'm saying if you actually come to an event! Here are some opportunities:

How to Make a Publisher Say Yes  - Cambridge Wordfest. April 16th

The Secrets of Writing for Children and Teenagers - whole evening in Edinburgh, with opportunity for personal written feedback on your work. June 9th. Hurry - places filling fast! Masses of detail in this workshop and the feedback from my first evening-long one last week was excellent.

And two more June one-hour events are organised, one in London and one in Edinburgh - I am not allowed to give you details yet. Neither is aimed at writing for children, though - the only place you'll get that is the Edinburgh one on June 9th. Please tell anyone you know who might be interested, as I won't be doing many like this - possibly one a year.

I'm happy to tell you that today I signed off the text for Write to be Published. That means that the next time I see it will be when the advance copies arrive in early May. I plan to put some extracts up here and to announce a competition very soon, with the prize of a free critique of your first chapter...

So, go and polish it!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

DO YOU HAVE GRAMMARPHOBIA?

I have just come across a fabulous resource for anyone who wants the answer to tricky grammar questions or anything to do with what's "right" or "wrong" in our language usage - not just grammar but word usage, too. It's the Grammarphobia blog.

Annoyingly, I sent off the final final final proofs for Write to be Published last night, but I'm going to email Emma at Snowbooks and see if there's time to squeeze it into the resource list at the back. Bet she says yes. She has so far never said no to me but perhaps that's because I haven't  asked for a champagne launch. *makes note on to-do list*

The blog has some good book suggestions here.  And the section on grammar myths indicates a healthy respect for good grammar and yet a willingness to move with the times. For those of you who think that since the authors are American they must write American and not British English: fair enough, but anyone who, as I have, has been edited by American editors, knows that when they know their stuff they know their stuff. They also use the OED as their guide, so they must be good.

Now, off to email my editor to see if we can squeeze it in.