Writing update 30 March 2014

A quick update on my writing projects.

 

Sympathy for the Devil

I have a full second draft of the novel, with a proper ending. The first draft was finished within three months (I think taking May-August 2013), and it’s taken another 7 months to properly re-write that initial draft. The first draft was about 70,000 words long, and the second draft is 96,000 words.

In terms of re-writing, I deleted the final 30,000 words of draft one and re-wrote from scratch, taking it into a completely different direction. Of the remaining 40,000 words from the original draft, at least 25,000 words were wholly re-written.

I think this is a good thing. Some initial drafts are strong and need tinkering. This initial draft was strong on the central character (Lucy) and a few key scenes, but had little direction or cohesiveness. I’ve had to put a huge amount of thought and research into giving story a logical structure, supporting characters with depth and multiple and rising tensions that make sense and keep complicating the story in an understandable way.

I think this full second draft of Sympathy for the Devil has an open and accessible style, which is what I was hoping for. (I contrast this with Planetfall, which was quite densely written for a scifi crowd who would already understand the kind of world put forward.)

I’m now resting Sympathy for a few weeks so that I can go back in a few weeks and make a few final tweaks. Afterwards, I’ll be sending it to a professional editor – and all suggestions on good editors are gratefully received.

 

Planetfall

I mentioned Planetfall, and there’s an update on this too.

Book one, All Fall Down, has now shifted over 500 copies through physical book sales and digital downloads. Reviews keep popping up on the Amazon page, which is satisfying. I’d really like to see more reviews on there – there are seven now. Thirty would be amazing. 

A plea – if you’ve read the book, please leave an honest review (whether you loved or loathed it, I don’t mind) on its Amazon page.

Book 2, Children of Fall, is still on hold while I’ve been writing Sympathy for the Devil. I’m hoping to be back with it by September 2014.

In the meantime, while I rest Sympathy, I am writing a short story set in the Planetfall universe. I’m hoping to release it on Kindle and other formats towards the end of May 2014. More updates as and when.

 

Other writing projects

Robocop fan fiction. A couple of years ago I started writing a Robocop fan fiction novella. I have now abandoned this.

Backpackers 2. I wrote half an opening chapter for a sequel to Backpackers. I’ve no idea where that might go. Maybe I’ll add the occasional thousand words here and there. Cath’s a hard character to shake off, and the format – short stories linked together by a single character – is still attractive to me.

Job Centre sitcom script. I was really pleased with the spec script I wrote in 2012. This is now shelved due to lack of time. 

 

Future writing projects

I’ve agreed to co-write a script, probably for a short stage play but potentially a pilot script for a series. The subject will be on mental health, and work will hopefully start around November or December 2014.

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London Author Fair 2014

I was pleased to attend the inaugural London Author Fair yesterday. It’s a great indication, I think, of how far the publishing industry has come in supporting its lifeblood: authors.

The fair was structured around a day of seminars and workshops, covering everything from digital publishing, through cover design, what literary agents do, and how the distribution industry works. There were representatives from Kobo, Nook, Blurb, Amazon (Kindle, Createspace) and a host of other providers in the new publishing industry.

And let’s acknowledge that straight away.

The publishing isn’t going through change. It has changed. Traditionally published (ie, physical) books now account for 80% of total sales. Go back 10 years and that was 100%. 1 in 5 books now sold is digital.

And the industry, I think, is adapting incredibly well. I say that because I look at the music business, which utterly failed to respond to digital music formats in the 90s. Arguably, large parts of the music business are still struggling with digital, although the last few years have seen significant improvements, with the likes of Google Music, Spotify and other streaming services starting to drive the market.

Publishing has long been the preserve of a few lucky people. Musicians can gig anywhere – busking, bar gigs, small venues in focused regions. No such audience for the author, who traditionally could get published by getting snapped up by an agent, or going to enormous expense and vanity publishing.

Now an author can cut out the entire middle bit of the industry and go from writer to publishing on their laptop.

And so back to the London Author Fair. Most of the seminars were focused entirely on this. And the technical content (as mentioned above, like cover design) was matched by this strong message: authors may no longer need agents or publishers, but that means they too need to adapt.

Authors have to think of themselves differently now. No longer the tortured artist slaving over a typewriter.

An author is now a business person.

That puts us right in the realm of showbusiness. We might have a book to show off, but no one ever made (much) money by simply showing up or showing off. No, people make money by accepting that the money from ‘show’ comes from tying it to ‘business’. Now that might be anathema for some, it might be uncomfortable or alien to others. But this message needs to go out strongly and be repeated by all authors now entering the market:

An author creates (writes) a product (a book) and is responsible for taking it to a market (a set of readers who like that kind of book).

There is no way to escape this.

I was pleased that this message came through in the seminars at the London Author Fair. We are the CEO of our own small businesses. Like any businesses, as CEO we might not be good at marketing, we may be weaker on finance, we may have started in logistics and now have responsibility for the art department. But as CEO we don’t have to do all of those things, we simply have to accept responsibility for ensuring they are done.

This is an important distinction. All of us authors are responsible for producing one thing: the story. It’s then up to us to find out how to run the rest of our business. That will mean employing others. Employment might be on a temporary basis: hiring someone to design a book cover, contracting a professional editor, perhaps even asking a friend to upload a manuscript to Kindle and do the tech-y things. More successful authors, those who earn millions, have researchers and publicists and managers, all employed from their income. They get it. They understand that to be successful they need to be business-like. And we need to get it to.

That’s the challenge I took away from the London Author Fair 2014: think like a business. Act like a business. Market your product. Find your product’s niche in the market and exploit it. Have a marketing plan. Look after the finances. And if the market doesn’t want the product, go back to the drawing board, do some research, find out what it does like, be humble, and create content that fits a niche.

It’s a hard lesson to learn. It’s an essential lesson to learn. And I think the London Author Fair 2014 did a great job of showing the publishing industry has woken up to authors, and of pushing that challenge back to us. I’m taking it on board. And to my fellow authors, I challenge you to take it on board, too.

As ever, good luck with your writing, and I’m happy to hear everyone’s thoughts.

astro x

A sneak peek at “Sympathy for the Devil”

Since April I’ve been writing a novel which I’ve heretofore called a “secret project”, simply because I had no title for it.

Around early August I hit upon a title: Sympathy for the Devil. And at the same time I finished the first draft of the novel. It was a quick turnaround for a first draft: about 4 months, writing in my spare time outside work.

During August I rested the material and started writing some new material for Sympathy, with the intention of matching it up when I started editing. I find this an important exercise when writing – it gives me an opportunity to ‘brain dump’ material that never quite made it into the first rush through the narrative, or which might give clues for editing or character or plot development.

Longer-time readers will know that I occasionally publish rejected material for my books, and I’m repeating that habit here. Pasted in below is a rejected Chapter One for Sympathy. There’s nothing wrong per se with the writing, except for one thing: the tone and voice of the material, and the narrative perspective, doesn’t fit the rest of the book. This rejected Chapter One is written from a 3rd person omniscient point of view, whereas the rest is from a 1st person. And this text includes a confused amount of the unique voice of the main character. On which note, a warning: the main character’s voice is in poor grammar, so you’ll see wrong words in places. These are deliberate, not typos. Spelling mistakes are typos, but poor grammar isn’t.

I owe a debt of thanks to my writing circle for convincing me to reject this material.

If you’re still reading by this point, and want a sneak peek at Sympathy for the Devil, then here you go. This is the real background to the novel, but the material won’t make it into the final edit.

Enjoy,

astro x

Sympathy for the Devil:

[REJECTED & UNEDITED]

Chapter One – 1984 CE, 1945 CE, 61 CE

It started in many places. Three, if you want to focus. But who’s to say they was more important than another three? Let me pick one for you, though, my love. Because you’re new to this and you want to know what’s going on, ain’t I right?

Now how do I know where it started, you’re wondering? Me and all. Well, there’s some things what you just know. Know what I mean?

It started up north in Yorkshire in 1984CE, when Little Ruthie put up her hand and said, “My dad says there’s no such thing as G-d. He says there’s no need for G-d in nineteen eighty four.”

Mr. Sowerby, who was her teacher, held his hand behind his back. Between thumb and forefinger he squeezed the stick of compressed skeletons what he wrote confused facts with about people long since dead. “Does he now? I know your dad. Taught him in this very classroom, Miss Willoughby.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“He,”

“But he does say that Margaret Thatcher is the devil.”

“Really?” Squeeze. “And who is the Saviour, then?” A smile full of pride on his face.

“Mr. Scargill, dad says.”

“That donkey jacketed,” squeeze, but she interrupted again.

“Sir, my dad says Manvers will never be closed. That’s why Mr. Scargill’s got them to walk out. To keep it open.”

“So he’s a picket, is he? Always was a trouble maker. You listen to me. Your dad could have had a proper job, rather than being buried underground ten hours a day hitting rocks. Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t need uneducated oafs. It needs people with O levels and ambition. Britain needs strivers, not miners.”

You can imagine him thinking, There, that shut her up. Ten years old and full of herself.

“Sir?”

“Miss. Willoughby.”

“My dad says Mrs. Thatcher is a complete,”

“We’ve all heard quite enough from you, Miss Willoughby. Let’s return to your religious,”

“When I’m Prime Minister I’ll re-open Manvers.”

Little Ruthie ducked as the chalk flew over her head and shattered on the wall behind her. It made a high pitched chink when it struck the tiled floor, where it rolled from side to side to side to side. Children looked every which way.

“There’ll be no presumption in this class, you hear me? This is a religious education lesson. I am in control.”

O’d faces all around the class. No one had ever seen Sowerby mad.

Little Ruthie looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.

“Enough!” he shouted.

“I’m telling my dad on you.”

“Tell him all you like. If you can get him off the picket line. These strikers care more about coal than they do their families. Now, anyone else wish to discuss the politics of Communists? No? Good. Then please open your bibles to the Book of Job.”

Little Ruthie flicked through the pages. Her eyes was out the window, on the distant colliery where the wheel no longer turned. No fun fairs went to Wath, not any more. The only spinning lights came from the riot vans at the coal plant.

One day, she thought, one day I’ll prove my dad’s right.

And it started in London in 1945CE, where it carried on decades later. And sometimes for startings, names ain’t so important, not now and not after.

“Let’s see,” said the girl. “Is it really Mr. Churchill?”

“He’s with someone. Who is it?”

“Shh, shh, he’s gonna speak.” The girl craned her neck.

“He’s done us ever so proud,” said someone nearby.

“It’s his victory what’s freed us,” said a woman close to the girl.

“We should all say that, eh?” said the girl. “Shout at him, ‘It’s your victory!’”

“’It’s your victory.’ I like that. Here, mate, you hear what she said?”

And so on through the crowd.

Winston Churchill took the balcony of the Ministry of Health, abet by two colleagues. The skies were finally clear. That nice Mr. Hitler’s bombs and doodlebugs and V2 rockets were silent, his scientists fled to America to dream of space and rocket ships.

“Here he goes, shh shh,” said the girl.

On different sides of the throng of people, two men dressed almost identically started pushing their way in. They thought very similar thoughts and were headed for the same point in the crowd. Each was in a smart wool suit, fedora, Mackintosh coat. Even in the crowds they cut a dash, while their eyes and elbows cut a swathe. One was tall, the other short. From a distance that was the only difference.

“G-d bless you all. This is your victory!” said Winston Churchill from the balcony.

“No, it is yours!” shouted the crowd. People looked around at each other. They’d done it, said the thing all together. There was that spirit, still working together, singing the same message. They all cheered. It was a new dawn, a new day. Britain was a community, working together to defeat National Socialism. Now Britain was victorious, triumphant.

Churchill looked down at the crowds of people: nurses, labourers, soldiers, children.

“It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land,” he continued. “In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this.”

In the crowd, the two men pushed, separately, through hugging friends and wormed through strangers bonded over that singular moment of triumph.

“Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the unbending resolve of the British nation. G-d bless you all.”

Applause. Cheers. Hats thrown in the air in that way what don’t happen no more. London in celebration, a nation glued to its valve-radios and memories of steamer ships and Victorian colonies. Flags flipped back and forth, hearts swelled with pride, relief and grief and loss.

In the crowd there was a surge, and it pushed a gentleman against the girl.

Further back, another gentleman looked on, eyes flat. He tipped his hat and turned: it was too late. He would have to wait. He disappeared into the crowd, melted away into London and the world and future plans.

She, the girl, looked round, briefly, at the contact. People pushing didn’t bother her. It was a crowd. Besides, she thought, it was gentle and felt nice. Sort of cosy, like. And she knew the cues, the signals, how her profession worked.

Churchill carried on talking, but the girl had places to go. There was money to earn, bread to put on a table. She turned and looked up into a smile and a twinkle.

“Quite the speaker, isn’t he?” said the man behind her. Nice hat, she thought. Nice suit.

“Did you hear what he said?” she smiled back. “We all done our best. No one ever said that before. Least not to me.”

The man looked into her eyes, “I wonder if a victory gin would be appropriate?”

“For you or for me?”

“For us both.”

“Sauce. Don’t even know you.”

“Perhaps,” and he leaned until his breath stroked the fine hair on her earlobe, “today demands the spirit of triumph, rather than the spirit of propriety.”

She looked at him, her hands fiddling with a purse, irises never quite settling in one place. “Where was you stationed?” she asked. “Gotta know you’re respectable, ain’t I?”

“North Africa, originally,” he said, and pulled back, adjusting his hat.

“Rommel and Montgomery?” she weren’t quite sure who they were. Surviving the Blitz and keeping up with what was happening over in France had taken all her time. But everyone knew the names, and it had always been enough to strike up a conversation with other clients.

“Something like that,” the man smiled. “What’s your name?”

She tugged his tie, gently, gently smiling, “No names today, Mr. Desert Fox. Gin and triumph only. Alright?”

He offered his arm, and they fought their way out of a cheering crowd.

They drank in a little place he knew, and then went to a quiet back street hotel where they saw in the dawn.

By the morning he was gone. Despite her insistence that the night was a celebration, there was still a pile of money on the dresser. “Bloody men,” she whispered.

A knock on the door, “You’ve had your fun. Ten minutes, then I call the police. Back to normal, missy. This is a respectable place.”

The girl pulled her clothes on and picked up the money. “Bloody Nora,” and she looked to the window, even though she knew he wouldn’t be outside, standing by a lamp-post, looking up at the window, waiting for a reaction. “Gin and triumph,” she whispered. She left behind the stained and crumpled bed sheets, and entered that new world with a swing in her step and a seed in her belly.

And it started somewhere above Watford, in Northamptonshire, long before it were called that in 64CE. It were somewhere along the Fosse Way, after the sacking of Londinium and Camulodonum and Verulamium. Bodies of Romans strew the land. And the warriors of the Iceni and Trinovantes and the other tribes lay with them, their blood seeping into the mystical land of northern Europe, that land what the Greeks called Albion. Cos sometimes stories don’t start all together. Sometimes you gotta go way back to the roots, ain’t ya?

“We are defeated.”

“My Queen, the Romans are too many and too strong. It’s impossible. Their ships arrive every day with more soldiers.”

“Send word Corslan. Despatch a rider to the Fair Folk. Then tell the tribal chieftans. Those who want to remain may do so. But we will take our armies and those who will come with us, and retreat.”

“My lady?”

“We retreat to Tír inna n-Óc until the time is right.”

“Retreat? But the Romans will spread and take Britain.”

“We will abide. The Fair Folk will provide a champion. When the time is right we will win back Ierne and Albion from the foreign invaders.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Albion will endure.”

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, ten year old Yorkshire lass. Hair pulled back under an Alice-band. School bag decorated with pins for Bananarama and Adam and the Ants.

The streets of Wath-upon-Dearne was decorated with banners, “SUPPORT THE MINERS”.

Policemen walked around in pairs or sat in riot vans, bored, waiting for something to happen. Pissy little mining towns with their upstart miners. Why couldn’t they just get other jobs?

Men in donkey jackets stood at braziers, watching pathetic flames lick at the cold air. The great chimney at the colliery was quiet, its usual belch settled in its belly. The men grumbled about the lack of jobs, and talked about the families what had moved south, to the factories of the Midlands. One family had even moved to the south coast to open a bed and breakfast. Not one of the men could bring themselves to call those who’d gone traitors. But still the word floated in the air between them, missing its lightning rod. Traitors. Traitors. Traitors.

“It’s John’s girl,” one of the men nodded his head at Little Ruthie. “John! Your lass is here.”

John Willoughby was stood in a group of miners, a confabulation.

“Ruthie, come ‘ere love,” suddenly all smiles for his daughter.

Over their shoulders, the coal ramps were still. The site was asleep, the workers was outside and above ground, and the coal slumbered in its bed.

“Bring her along, John. She should see,” said one of the other men.

“You want to come to Orgreaves, Ruthie? We’re going on a demo up Rotherham way.”

“OK.”

“It might be a bit scary. Lots of pigs around.”

Little Ruthie held her dad’s hand. The callouses and ground-in coal dust were home, her tiny hand was soft and clean, now smudged with that solid fuel that burns so well. She could smell her dad a mile away, the pit was in his lungs and his bones.

“Will Margaret Thatcher be there?”

“Trained her well, John!” shouted the men behind him. They laughed and turned away.

“No, she won’t come up here. Them politicians don’t care, Ruthie. We have to care instead. Listen, don’t tell your mam we’re away to Orgreaves, you know how she is.”

“I’ll say I’m at Nanny and Granda’s, don’t worry.”

“There’s my girl.”

A coach pulled up. Men moved and shared cigarettes, small roll-ups which drooped and went flat between their fingers.

Little Ruthie climbed onto the bus, the only girl amongst those grown-up men, strikers, pit workers.

Little Ruthie went on the bus to Orgreaves, her first demonstration.

Ten year old Little Ruthie darted between the legs of policemen and strikers alike, avoiding the truncheons and flung stones.

Little Ruthie hid behind a police car, hating its protection, and watched her dad struck, fall to the floor, blood on the tarmac and flow between its cracks where grass pushed up, ever hopeful.

Ten year old Little Ruthie hated Margaret Thatcher.

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, cradled her dad, John Willoughby, while he held his cut head and looked at his blood on the soil of his country. “Never forget, Ruthie,” he said, all the way to the hospital, and all the way home. “Never forget.”

The girl quit her old job. Not that there was a boss to tell. She just stopped turning up at the regular places.

The man had left her more money than she earned in three years. Five. She bought a house, decorated, bought plants. Started a small allotment. Dig for victory! still rang in her mind.

She took up sewing work.

Well, she had to. She knew almost immediately that the gin and triumph of victory in Europe had become motherhood and hope. The other girls told her about back street doctors, about women who had gin and coat hangers and hot baths and towels.

“No. It’s a new start,” she told them.

And forty weeks later, she gave birth in that small house, and as the midwife was tidying her room, the man walked in and sat down. Bold as brass. Nary a word nor letter in between before and then.

“Mr. Desert Fox,” she said, hair slick to her forehead. The baby was clamped to her nipple, gumming it, blind, a maggot squirming in swaddling. “Had a feeling you’d be back.”

“Wild horses and all that. So, boy or girl?” He took a seat from the opposite side of the room and put it next to the bed. No other introduction or by your leave. No explanation. Straight in, treated the place like it was his. Which.

“Girl,” said the girl. Woman now. Mother.

“She’s perfect,” said the midwife. “Don’t mind me, I’ll be on my way. I’ll pop in tomorrow, see how you are. Good day,” a professional nod to the man. She saw similar things every day. A baby boom, she called it. The Victory Effect, others said.

“You left me alone at that hotel,” said the woman, mother. She stared at her daughter’s face, the gummy eyes.

“Duty called.”

“It’s OK. Thank you for,” she looked at the walls of the house and around. “What shall we call her?”

Straight away, “Lucy. The light bearer. The morning star.”

“Morning star, I like that. Here, Lucy, meet your father.”

The man held his daughter and looked into her face, “Lucy. You’re going to run this country one day.”

“You can hold her a bit longer,” said the woman, “I need my sleep. Do you mind?”

“Of course not.” The man walked away with the baby and left the mother to sleep.

When the midwife returned the following day, she found the woman still in bed, propped up on pillows. Her face was serene. Possibly the most beautiful face the midwife had ever seen. Not for her natural beauty; she was plain at best. But for the look of deep contentment and peace which had settled over her.

Shame, thought the midwife. The bed sheets was already turning black, the blood dried to a resin.

“Haemorrhage,” the midwife shook her head. “Where’s little miss? She’ll need a wet nurse.”

But the baby weren’t anywhere to be seen.

“My lady. We have what villagers will come. Some of our warriors have chosen to stay.”

“Very well. And the Romans?”

“Sending heralds to the other tribes. They will soon know of our defeat.”

“Queen Boudicca is never defeated.”

“No, my lady.”

Queen Boudicca looked over a stone fence at the rolling green of Albion. “I have a final mission for you. This is your life’s work.”

“My lady?”

“My son. I’m appointing you as his protector, Corslan.”

“I’m honoured. But,”

“I am not going with you. I am the last of the Iceni. Britain goes under Roman rule. But promise me one thing, Corslan, Steward of Britain.”

He said nothing, instead standing straighter and looking to the horizon.

“These islands, Albion and Ierne, will soon be over-run with Romans and their gods. The Fair Folk have agreed to grant you the power of Tír inna n-Óc. We will absorb the Romans, they will become British, and we will win the slow victory. But others will come behind them. New people, new gods. Defend our lands, Corslan, defend Britain against the darkness, against chaos, against anyone who does not hold our values.”

“Yes, my Queen.”

“And when the time is right, put my son on the throne of this land.”

“And what about you?”

She reached out, a muddy hand in a misty field on a young captain’s shoulder. He became a Queen’s knight, “I will become myth. Legend. We shall not meet again. But my spirit will be in this land evermore.”

Corslan kept his gaze on the horizon, “The morning star is risen.”

“Sunrise approaches. Take our people. Protect my son.”

“He shall take the throne, Queen Boudicca. For Albion.”

“For Albion.”

[end]

5 Reasons Why New Authors Should Use Clichés

I started writing fiction when I was about fifteen years old. It was 1988, Margaret Thatcher appeared an unstoppable force in the UK, and The Smiths were a popular band. It was misery in politics and misery in the charts. And writing, for me, was an escape.

That’s the clichéd start to how many of these blogs start, isn’t it? “I wrote as an escape.”  And for those people who say that they wrote – write – to escape, it remains true. It’s a truth repeated so often that it has become a cliché, albeit one we allow to continue existing, because we don’t want to take anything away from people’s feelings.

Fine.

But if you read writing blogs that aim to help new authors, you’d be forgiven for thinking that clichés are verboten, that they’re forbidden in all creative writing endeavour. And I think this is wrong. If we’re allowed to start writing for the same reason – it was an escape – then why can’t we write clichéd things?

Below, I argue that we can, and indeed should, write in clichés. This argument is very much aimed at people new to fiction writing, to help cut through the confusing ‘rules’ on other blogs.

Reason #1 – The 7 Basic Storylines

There are seven basic plots that underpin all stories, or so argues Christopher Booker in his seminal work The Seven Basic Plots. (You should buy this book.)

These plots are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster;
  2. Rags to Riches;
  3. the Quest;
  4. Voyage and Return;
  5. Comedy;
  6. Tragedy;
  7. Rebirth

Often these plots are combined, such that we might have a Voyage and Return, like Jason & the Argonauts, in which the hero must also Overcome the Monster.

I won’t describe the basic plot types, but the point here is simple: if we can boil all plots down into one of these basic seven types, with a dash of another thrown in depending on the cocktail presented to the reader, then we are quickly bound to clichés anyway.

“A-ha!” you argue, “but if there are only seven basic plots, then shouldn’t we do our best to escape cliché elsewhere?”

Not yet, dear new author. Not yet. Otherwise there’d be no blog for me to write! But let us ignore that inconvenient truth, and explore reason to cliché #2.

Reason #2 – Wriggle, Wiggle, Crawl, Walk, Run, and Fly

Imagine this: you’re a new mother or a new father. There’s your baby just days old. Her or his little fingers wiggle in your hand, their chubby knees squirm at your tickle and their delicate feet are too cute for words. Now, carefully put the baby on the floor in your home, stand back, and say:

“Baby of mine, I want you to stand up right now, walk to the door, run to the nearest airport, buy a plane ticket, hop on the plane and go travelling!”

What do you mean it’s just a baby and it’s impossible? Tell it to fly immediately, damn it!

You get the point. New authors are like new babies. You’re perfect in every one of your toes and fingers, and each of your letters and words on the page is lovely and cute. But like that baby, you need to practice the basics first.

We don’t look at a baby and say, “Oh god, it’s so clichéd, crawling. Come on, little bubba, innovate a different way to strengthen your legs.”

No, we encourage them to wriggle and wiggle. We help them stand until they can stand on their own. We help them to walk by holding their hands, until they can manage their first few steps unaided.

And that’s how it should be when we’re learning to write. Practice the basics first. And that means practicing the clichés. For example:

Develop a simple love story.

Write a story about going into a cave and fighting a monster.

Craft a tale of a hero who is too flawed, and becomes a victim of his flaws and loses everything.

Write in clichés, and write them until you’ve mastered them. Be good at crawling to build leg strength. Be good at walking and upright balance before you start to run. Write in as many clichés as you can, until you can churn them out without even thinking about it. And then think about flying.

Reason #3 – Clichés Have Power

Here’s a few basic plots and characters. See what you think about them:

1. A woman treated like dirt by most of society is noticed by a rich and handsome man. He takes a fancy to her, and rescues her from the poor life she leads. She lives happily ever after.

It’s a cliché, right? And yet Cinderella is famous the world over, and Pretty Woman is one of the most famous films ever made. Why? Because the clichéd story of someone in a low position being rescued by someone in a high position appeals to us. It gives us hope that maybe we, too, can be rescued. Or if not us, then someone just like us.

2. A dark power has cast a blight on society. A small group of apparently weak and insignificant people travel into the heart of the dark power and overcome it. Society is saved.

Another cliché. Like the first example above, it’s one of the basic plots. But we recognise the power in it. The power of the story speaks to us. What did you think this plot was from? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Krull? These are powerful films because they’re clichés, not in spite of them.

Notice where the power lies in these clichés. It’s in their simplicity. Knowing our clichés, mastering their forms, and then using that mastery to unleash the power in the story is what gives us the grounding we need to become competent, good authors.

Reason #4 – Even Famous Authors Aren’t Above A Cliché Now & Again

What’s that? Famous authors use clichés? Yes, and they get away with it, too.

The question, of course, is why do they get away with it? Is it because they’re famous that we’ll forgive them anything?

No. I’d argue it’s because they’ve practised their writing so much, have mastered the basic forms so much, that they have a damn good sense of when to use a cliché. Because the point isn’t that we master a cliché so we can step away from it. Rather, we master clichés so we know when to use them for maximum impact.

Here’s an example from one of my favourite authors:

“[their] eyeballs moved no more than necessary, as with animals on the hunt.” – 1Q84, Haruki Murakami

Is that an innovative way to describe something? Is it beautiful description? Does it soar with beauty? Or colour synaesthetically our emotions? Not particularly. It’s the kind of description we’d find in a thousand books, from the wonderfully written to the absolutely atrocious.

But it doesn’t matter. It may be a clichéd line , but it’s the context in which it’s placed that makes it stand out: two men are in a bar appraising two women. These are men on the prowl, but within the story, so are the women. And it is the women in this scene who have the power. Haruki Murakami is so practised with clichés, that he can deploy them in a way that makes them effective: here stoking the appearance that the men have the power, when we know it’s actually the women. Mastery of the form, “men looking for women are like hunters looking for prey” is what gives him the ability to use it to better effect.

The point is that you can’t innovate or twist a cliché until you know how to use it properly. And to use it properly, you have to use it improperly first. Write in clichés until you’re sick of them and can spot the approaching from a mile off. And then push yourself to use them in an unexpected way.

Reason #5 – The More Creative the Writing, the More It Distracts

I’m falling back on the great Elmore Leonard here. Here are two of his 10 Rules of Writing which he outlined in a New York Times article [source]

  1.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  2.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Now, what’s the cliché here? For new writers who are still practising their craft, and who are trying to build their creative writing muscles, one of the most common instructions is this: “Try to find interesting ways of to allow characters to express themselves.” So you’d think that using “… she said,” is bad, and we should write things like, “…she screamed,” or “…he whispered,” or as Elmore says, “…he admonished gravely,” and so on.

Elmore is telling us that in fact we should stick with the clichéd, “…she said.” Why? Because the power of the dialogue should come through how it’s written, punctuated, and the surrounding build up and atmosphere. It’s a cliché to just use “…said”. But that simple form isn’t is a barrier to the characters properly expressing themselves in the narrative. Flowery description (he admonished gravely) is a barrier and distracts from the story and the characters’ emotions.

(And when you feel you’re practised enough with using “…she said,” try dropping it altogether and just putting the speech in, without attribution to a character.)

Of course, Elmore Leonard also said, “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” and he was absolutely right.It’s not they’re clichéd, though. It’s that they’re just awful.

 

So, there are 5 reasons to use clichés. The blog was aimed at authors still exercising and building their writing muscles. And to them I will always say: use as many clichés as you need to. Master the basic forms and basic approaches to writing, like Daniel in Karate Kid mastered his basic moves in slow motion: first wax on, wax off, and then wax lyrical.

Oh, and that reason I gave at the start about why I started writing? It wasn’t true, it was a cliché and it also gave me a reason to say that The Smiths are rubbish and get away with it. And do you know what? I think I got away with it, too.

London Book Fair 2013

This week the London Book Fair takes place in London’s Earl Court exhibition centre. It’s one of the biggest events in the writing calendar for British authors. I went along to find out what it was all about. In this blog I’ll cover What is the London Book Fair?, What resources were there for authors? Why did I go? And What did I get out of it?

What is the London Book Fair?

The London Book Fair is huge. It features 3 days of focussed business around the buying, production, marketing and selling of books. Now, I’m an author, so you’d think there wouldn’t be too much in it for me. What do I know about publishers selling books to distributors? And what interest have I in new grades of ink being sold to printing companies?

That’s exactly what I thought before I went. The London Book Fair isn’t an opportunity to sell books as an author to either fans or agents or publishers, so why go? Why spend £30 and take a day of my annual leave to attend an industry event?

Why did I go?

Before I went, I was unsure about attending, because of the industry focus. But I was encouraged by 3 people:

  • My friend Yvonne, who went last year. Word of mouth and personal endorsement is important for me, especially as it means giving up a day of my annual holiday entitlement. I have to know I’m getting value for money.
  • Lucy Hay of http://www.bang2write.com / @bang2write who told me it was a great way to connect with industry professionals, especially on the side closest to the author.
  • And finally http://www.diymfa.com. Not specifically. Gabriela, who runs the author support website, has been blogging recently about authors acting like authors. That means forgetting about whether our books are published, or even finished, and starting to act as if we’re already part of the industry. After all, if not now, when? Being an author isn’t just about writing words, it’s about doing all the things that authors do: talking about our work, improving our craft, attending industry events and so on.

What resources were there for authors?

This year, the London Book Fair, or LBF as it’s called when you’re there, opened up to the people most vital to the whole industry: authors. After all, we’re the people who create the content in the first place. While wandering around I heard many people – printers, agents, marketing people – commenting that this was the first year that the LBF had properly focussed on authors. So what did we get?

First, there were 250 free seminars. Not all of them were focused on authors – for example, there were seminars on How To Get Into Publishing, on legal issues like Tackling Copyright Infringement or on technical marketing topics like Delivering ePub3 Titles to Support your Direct-to-Consumer Strategy. All very industry focused.

Us authors, on the other hand, got some quite well focused seminars, mostly aimed at self publishing, which was a major theme running through the event. Here’s a sample of the author seminars on day one:

  • Book cover design workshop
  • The author journey
  • How to get a literary agent
  • Ask the editor
  • Book marketing workshop and
  • Self publishing 101

For those new to writing and who aim to publish, there was plenty to keep us involved. Remember, too, that this was only day one. I’m not going to days two or three due to work requirements, but the seminars continue, with topics like:

  • Helping readers discover your books workshop
  • Children’s book editing surgery
  • Key skills for success as a hybrid author
  • The author as entrepreneur
  • Introduction to KDP and CreateSpace (Amazon’s digital and print self-publishing platforms)
  • Making the right choices as a self-publishing author and
  • Super Q&A with industry experts

In amongst all of this are technical seminars for people in the industry and interviews with published authors like Lionel Shriver.

What did I get out of it?

I think I’m only just starting to digest what I got out of it, and no doubt I’ll blog in more detail about some of content as I reflect on it, or start researching. Immediate information for fellow authors:

 

  • The Alliance of Independent Authors

As it says on the tin, this is a support organisation for people who choose to publish independently. The website is here:

http://allianceindependentauthors.org/

The seminar leader took the audience through a coaching session, where we were all asked to write down answers to the following prompts and learning points:

Being an author means taking enormous risks. What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? How did you handle it? How did it turn out?

What’s the biggest risk you need to take with your current writing project?

What are the three issues with your current writing project where you feel most out of your comfort zone? These could be connected with the kind of story or characterisation, or on technical issues like formatting, editing, self publishing, marketing or selling it.

Any self published book actually needs a team of people behind it, and we have to consider ourselves Creative Directors. We can’t do everything. We need to enlist people to help. For example, to proof read, to design a cover, to help with marketing, to copy edit, and so on.

What’s the budget for your book? To get it done properly, rather than chucking any old rubbish onto Kindle, etc., we should probably aim for around £1000. That’s right: even these days where we can self publish for free, we still need to invest in our product to do it properly.

Copy editors are essential and should charge around £20/hr. A typical spend for a book being copy edited starts at £500.

Who is your audience? Where do you find them? How will you get your book to them or in their awareness? You can’t market your book to everyone.

 

  • How to find a literary agent

This was a broad ranging discussion between 2 agents and someone who runs a marketing company aimed at self-published authors. Here are my tweets from the session storified:

http://storify.com/astrotomato/what-agents-are-looking-for-lbf13?utm_campaign=&awesm=sfy.co_r4eG&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter

Apart from the tweets in the Storify link above, agents said:

Chick lit is getting less attention from publishers

Straight vampire stories have passed their current peak

Psychological thrillers continue to sell well and are of interest

Scifi authors should know that military SF, steampunk and cyberpunk are selling well

 

Those are some of the technical things I got out of it. But the real gain comes on the personal level.

Long time followers of my blog may remember the trials of Becoming An Author. What was really great about the book fair was hearing the Alliance of Independent Authors go through all those questions that I’ve already asked myself: take risks, write outside your comfort zone, involve other people in your writing project, and so on. It was validation – maybe even linked into confirmation basis – that I’ve been doing the right things, by and large. I still need to save up £500-£700 to have my books copy edited, but that’s just a finance issue, not because of any resistance on my part.

Hearing authors ask agents questions that were similar to my own experience was also gratifying. I think the one that made my heart leap was this:

If an agent says they loved your book, and you’ve been through some re-writes on it for them, and they ultimately don’t pick you up because they can’t sell it to publishing marketing departments, should you believe them?

This is exactly the experience I’ve been through. “Loved the book, was on a knife edge about picking it up, but can’t sell it to publishers as they’re all asking for 50 Shades of Grey derivatives.” The agents responded thus:

Yes, the agent is telling the truth. We get lots of books that are brilliant, that are worthy of publishing, from excellent writers, where we genuinely can’t sell them because of the marketing departments of publishers.

The agents went on to talk about this in more depth, covering their own frustration with publishers who have become more risk averse and profit focused. There was discussion about the rapidity of self publishing and the sluggishness of the traditional industry to change, and how both needed to learn from the other. Self-publishers need to avoid the temptation to rush to publication, with a suggestion to focus more on improving story quality, design and marketing plans first. While traditional publishing needs to try more new books, across different genres, even if there’s no ‘obvious’ market.

And above all, I got to see the look on other authors’ faces when they listened to the agents. I got to hear the questions they were asking, and mark my own progress as an author against them: ahead of 90% of them, but behind the odd one who had sold more than 500 copies of their books and were making a small income from them.

Would I recommend attending the London Book Fair to other authors? Absolutely. There were some logistical issues that need sorting for next year, giving author events more space and quieter venues, but that aside, any self-respecting author should make a bee-line for the event when it rolls around in 2014.

Writing updates

Good day.

I’m covering a number of different topics in this blogpost: updates on my writing projects, updates on me as an author, updates on applications to agents. And whatever else crosses my mind.

Writing projects updates

  • planetfall

Well, book one is published! I still owe a huge debt to the cover designer @moviessimple.

The feedback has been phenomenal, too, with really good reviews from customers on Twitter, the Facebook page I created for the book, and reviews on Amazon.

The reviews really help: every time I publicise the book with a genuine reader review, it helps sell another copy. Reader feedback is key to growing the buzz around the book. You read this kind of thing from other authors and artists, saying how grateful they feel to their readers or fans, and now I know from their point of view how it feels. I am indebted to the readers who have taken a risk with my book, and who have felt motivated to write a review. Thanks to each and every one of them.

planetfall book 2: Children of Fall is coming along well, when I have time to write (I’m now back in full time employment). I’m up to 70,000 pages, and finding that my early predictions are bearing out: this is going to be a big book. It will come in somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 words. A typical book is around 70,0000-100,000 words long. At the moment I’m not prepared to edit it to fit into a 100,000 word size. The story needs to live and explore its universe. Once I have a full first draft, I’ll see what’s needed and what’s extraneous and kill my darlings appropriately.

The story is getting good feedback from my writing circle, too, and they are nothing if not honestly critical. They’ll rip something to shreds if it’s not up to standard, as well they should. That’s what critique is for.

  • Robocop fanfic

Some longer time readers of my blog might remember that I wrote some fanfic last year while I was unemployed. What was supposed to be a 1000 word piece on Robocop turned into a ~35,000 word novella. It’s still very raw and unfinished, with half developed characters and some plot lines that just fizzle out. I’ve been thinking recently of resurrecting it and finishing it to a reasonable standard (not highly polished) and making it available as a free ebook download. Just for fun, you understand. More news as and when.

Updates on applications to agents

  • Backpackers

Before Christmas I undertook some significant rewrites of Backpackers, following some very positive feedback from agents. I’ve sent it to 23 agents so far. Of those, about 7 sent personal responses saying that they really liked it, but that their agency was listing different kinds of stories at the moment, or that as much as they liked it, they couldn’t see where it fit into the current market.

I met an agent in October last year, who confirmed that if agents give a personal response beyond a standard reply, that it means you’ve got something good.

Emboldened by these responses, I re-wrote part of Backpackers following a lengthy response from one particular agent. The re-writes were to make the story more commercially acceptable. The character Jack Wolf has been boosted from a bit part in one chapter to being one of the two loci of the story (the other being Cath). He now starts and ends the book, and the thrust of the narrative is about him trying to find the backpacker, Cath Pearson.  This meant re-writing the first 2 chapters almost entirely, a later chapter where Cath originally met Jack (now it’s her 2nd time, completely ditching the character John, and re-writing the final chapter.

I remember about two years ago a good friend, whose mother is a successful author, asked me how I would feel if I had to re-write a story to meet market expectations, and move it away from what I wanted it to be. My answer then was the same as my approach to the re-writes: The story I want is on my laptop’s hard drive saved in a previous version. No one can change that or take it away. What happens to it after that, to make it commercially acceptable, doesn’t matter. After all, a piece of writing only becomes a book when it forms a bridge between author and reader. And if the story needs to adapt so it reaches readers, then that’s fine by me.

So where am I now?

I sent the re-written Backpackers back to that most friendly agent. She kindly re-read it and wrote back saying she was still on a knife edge about whether she should pick it up or not. Ultimately, she went with market conditions: there just doesn’t appear to be the demand from sellers (not necessarily readers) for the story type in Backpackers, so she passed on it.

Obviously in one sense, that’s hugely disappointing: to be so close to the next step to publication, only to have it pulled away. But I was struck by her email: “You can write,” she said, “and please immediately send me anything else you write in future.”

I might not have hit the bullseye this time, but I have an open invitation to submit work in future. And that’s ultimately good news.

  • planetfall

Following the really positive response to planetfall from readers, I’m wondering if perhaps the book is a little better than I think it is (it’s my first novel and full of technical problems). So I am having a second round of sending it to agents. I only ever sent it to 10 agents anyway, and perhaps should have persevered a little more. planetfall never got the level of positive response that Backpackers has, but I did get personal emails from agents saying they liked it and that (beware, deja vu alert) that type of story is missing from the current market. Which worked against it, of course, because sellers weren’t looking for those kinds of stories…zzzzzz. Sounds familiar :-/

I have told agents that I’ve already published the book, and have pointed out the marketing I’ve undertaken, and the reader reviews that it’s gained. In that, I think I’ve changed my approach to agents. I am treating the submission query as a business pitch: here is some product, it has some traction with the market, there is a marketing profile around it, it has already sold a few copies. I’m not sure what response that approach will get, but I think it’s worth trying different approaches beyond the “Here’s my book, please like it!”* that I was using in my first round of submissions.  (*not actual text, professional authors, don’t worry.)

Updates on me, the author

You might have noticed the last few blogs having a slight change: confidence. I am no longer someone who writes books, I now consider myself an author. I hadn’t quite conceptualised it that way until I read a recent DIYMFA newsletter.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking to an outside, but I think inside it suggests quite a radical shift.

My self identity now includes an acceptance that I am an author. This is what I am, this is what I do, this is what I will continue to be.

That means that I will prioritise writing before other things, in the same way that for 40+hours per week I have to prioritise work because I am also a sustainable development professional. I love doing that kind of work, it helps make the world a better place and it pays for my food and home. If being an author could do that to a level where I could survive, I would take the chance. (I already took a huge chance in taking redundancy from a well paid job in 2011 so I can write constantly for a year and improve my writing skills. That risk, that chance, paid off. I made it into an opportunity, the fruits of which are outlined above.)

Because I now think of myself as an author, I’ve started thinking of doing things that I never previously considered. For instance, I will be going to the London Book Fair this year. So what? Anyone can go, you pay £30, you attend. But this is different. Previously I’d considered it was for industry professionals only. Now. Now I consider myself an industry professional, and that I deserve to be there. It’s the attitude change that’s important.

I’ve started running promotions as an author for planetfall, too. The recent competition I ran to give away copies of the book was successful, and got me good feedback. People have said they can’t wait for the sequel. There is a sense of expectation on me as an author, which means I need to respond by being an author who delivers.

Creating community

A few blogs ago I said I would write a blog about creating community, and how important it is as an author. I don’t have time to do that at the moment, so in the meantime the best thing I can do is point writers and authors to DIYMFA’s online resources for building community:

http://diymfa.com/category/community

And remember, the best community you can have is joining a writing circle where you regularly take your work and receive critical feedback on it. Re-writing with external feedback is crucial to improving our writing skills and the work we produce.

As ever, I’d love to hear what you’re up to with your writing. You can contact me on Twitter at @astrotomato or by email on astrotomato@gmail.com Just say “Hi astro” if you like.

A bientot,

astro x

Advice for the advisors

Don’t write, just write. But don’t write, because you’re not good enough.

Like many amateur writers, I follow a number of online writing tips websites. I’m sure you have ones you like. Some of the better ones that I know about include DIYMFA and Bang2Write.

I mention these two because they’re high quality, and give writing tips from different perspectives. DIYMFA from a writer’s perspective, from someone who’s been through a Master of Fine Arts programme (hence DIY MFA); and Bang2Write from someone in the industry who makes decisions on scripts, as well as being a writer.

The good thing about both of those is that, generally, they give this advice: just write. That’s all you need, really. After that, everything is style.

But some writing tips websites almost go out of their way to stop people writing. Which seems a bit bizarre. They say things like:

Don’t write prologues unless you’re highly experienced.

And

Don’t write cliches unless you’re a really good writer and make a really good job of it.

Have you ever seen this kind of advice? It’s nonsense. In the first one, how would one get to be “highly experienced” if one didn’t write with low experience? And how can one use a cliché in writing and make it brilliant, if one doesn’t use clichés in their rubbish form and learn why they’re bad? They almost say to a budding writer, “Don’t write, you’re not good at it. Leave it to the professionals.” And then off we trot to find out how the professionals became good, and their interviews says, “Just write. Make mistakes.”

 

planetfall update

More work on planetfall book 2 this weekend. I’m about 24,000 words in now, which is about 80 pages. It’s already shaping up to be an action-centred book, where the first one was more thriller-esque. The theme of revenge is strong, and I’ve somehow managed to set up four storylines (one major story, three sub-plots) in that time, which I’m pleased about.

My writing approach with this book is a nice mixture of planned and organic. I know, have known, the overall story arc, and roughly where each of the characters needs to end up by the book’s close. So starting with the end in mind it’s now a case of letting the characters explore their personal space and their narratives, and seeing what crops up. Undoubtedly I’ll be editing things out, putting new parts in, treating what I’ve written so far as guide text and adding more exposition and so on, but for now, it’s going very well.

Regarding book 1, it’s still out with agents, and I’m waiting for feedback from about 10 of them. I think I said that I’d received feedback that it “has a big sci-fi feel”, which isn’t seen much these days, but that agents are looking for different kinds of books for current market conditions. (That’s the same feedback I received for my other book, Backpackers – market’s looking for different kinds of stories.)

 

I’d love to hear what you’re working on. Drop me a line.