Friday, 30 October 2009

But what's it all about?

On my to-write list at present is the third in the Euphemia Martins Mysteries, the outline for my next YA and maybe that radio play that is always going to get written sometime.

I'm not the type that gets stuck for ideas. In general I have an over abundance of them. However, it often takes many years for these ideas to turn into a book. I may be creating worlds, building life stories of my characters, manipulating their relationships, but even when I can see and feel all this I have to decide what the story is about.

Great stories can usually be summed up in a couple of lines. Pride and Prejudice is exactly what it says on the cover - the story of two young lovers who have to overcome pride and prejudice. A Christmas Carol is the tale of how an old miserly man who hates Christmas is given the chance to reflect on his life and discovers a new found love of life and humanity. Rebecca is the story of how the influence and circumstances of a dead first wife almost destroys (the never named) heroine's marriage.

Each of these stories is rich in sub-text, weaves and interweaves plot, but never loses sight of what it is the core sense of the story.

One of the difficult parts of being a writer is not digressing. It might be hard to write 50,000 words, but it's much harder _not_ to write 100,000 to tell the same story. For me, it can take years to figure out what a novel or play is about, but until I have that two or three line precis I know I mustn't unleash the torrent of story I have conceived in my head. If I don't wait I end up with endless rewrites, a plot so huge it would take ten tomes to do it justice and eventually having to lose much of my hard work to create a thinner, sleeker piece. When I manage to find the patience to wait I produce my very best work and the story does that magical thing of writing itself.

A Death in the Family was one of those magical stories. Euphemia, my heroine, is loosely based on my great grandmother and as a character has been with me for most of my life. But not everything takes that long to gestate. My short play 'Breakfast After Dark' (on at the Traverse, Edinburgh on Nov 15 as part of '10') took weeks to think about, but only as long as it took to type to write. (And the director was very pleased with it.)

In essence - don't write too soon. Carry your story and let it form before trying to put anything on the page. If you're attempting to earn your living by writing then the nice idea of writing only when the muse strikes is not profitable. There will always be times when it is knowing your craft rather than divine inspiration that will get you through. Personally, I carry many stories in my head. It makes me absent-minded and distracted. I've been known to end a telephone conversation by apologizing that I need to be in 1910 now. But the brain is a wonderful thing. I can carry many stories at once. My mind works on plots for while I sleep, eat and go about my daily life. Feed your mind with experience, make small notes and stay aware of all the stories you have and hopefully one day your stories will feed you. If nothing else being so distracted gives one an excuse to be lax with the housework.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Author as Product

Once upon a time publishers used to sell books. Now, more and more they are selling personalities.

On October 1st this year eight hundred new titles were published. This stunning number is in part due to the theory that it takes most books three months to succeed or fail, so October 1st is the ideal date to start the race to be in the Christmas best seller list. (There also being this year the unspoken yet fervent hope that the credit crunch will encourage 2009 present shoppers to go for books rather than expensive techno gadgets.)

On October 10th my crime novel A Death in the Family was released into this maelstrom to fend for itself. My lovely publisher is doing all they can, but without a marketing budget into five (or even six) figures for me, like many authors, it's a struggle to be seen.

Not surprisingly with this sudden onslaught of books the ones that so far have been rising to the top are the celebrity autobiographies and novels with celebrity names on the cover. To accompany this the celebrities are out doing the signing rounds and to their fans the price of a book is a small token to pay to meet their idols - and so celebrity reads shoot up the best seller list and become the most talked about books.

This can cause a bit of consternation among more regular authors. You see, it is not uncommon for a busy celeb to outline their idea to a ghost writer, who will do the hard graft of actually writing the book. Then all the celeb has to do is ensure they read the book before they turn up at a signing, so they are familiar with what is in it. For those of us who write away in our garrets and send out our work without the backing of a tv or glamour career it can be hard to compete.

Because the sad fact is that authors are in competition with celebrity reads. You could argue they are entirely different kind of products, but they're both stacked side by side on the shelves and thus in direct competition for the buyer's hard earned cash.

Imagine Aunt Mary trying to buy a Christmas present for her teenage niece. She has to decide whether to buy what looks as if it could be a jolly good story by an author whose name seems vaguely familiar, or does she go for the glossy, picture-book autobiography of a house-hold name? Which one will produce the initial oohs and aahs of pleasure when unwrapped?

But it's not over yet. The regular authors are fighting back. Some of our stars are becoming celebrities in their own right for nothing more than writing their own books. Today, more than ever, authors are actively building their own fan bases.

We now attend more literary festivals than ever before, do more signings and put ourselves up for what was once the celebrity only territory of after dinner speeches. The days of the author-in-shady-garret are over. If you want to sell you have to convince your public. But without the wigs, make-up, push-up bras, scandalous careers, singing voice or tv career what can an author do?

They can perform. The harsh reality is authors now have to entertain not only on the page but in person. We write blogs, we join facebook, and we network like the possessed and we go to voice workshops.

Regular authors promote their work through being passionate about their story. We aim to make you fall in love with our characters as deeply as we have done ourselves. We might get our nails done or buy new shoes, but we are not inherently glamourous. All we can deliver is a passion for our craft. We aim to give you a window into our mind where our characters and ideas formed - where are heroes and heroines were first born. We are becoming performers but in quite a different way. We are the mouthpieces for our characters and the ideas and themes embedded in our work rather than for our own life-stories.

Both the celeb reads and the more mainstream authorial works are both reflections of our society. All books are mirrors of ourselves and our world whether we seek within them escapism, inspiration or understanding. And all have much to offer.

And here is me - doing my best to be author as product and reading an extract from A Death in the Family.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Writing as Craft

The first novel I ever wrote was The Emperor's Men and I thought it was magnificent. It had wonderful characters, more than half of whom I was in love with. The description was vivid and new - I remember with particular fondness the Rose Petal Palace. It stood at around 60,000 words and was perfect for a debut fantasy novel. This was mumble, mumble years ago. (Let's just say while there weren't actually dinosaurs roaming the streets mobile phones were rare and heavy enough to slay a dinosaur should you actually come across one.)

What really surprised me was that no one wanted my opus. Rejection after rejection hit the doormat. Some scolded me for starting sentences with 'and'. And in that I like to think I was ahead of my time, but sadly what I was missing was my novel had a few tiny flaws.

The story jumped around all over the palace. Characters achieved great things 'off-screen' and returned to show their prizes rather than their actions. There was no coherent flow-through of story. It was essentially a series of poorly connected vignettes strung together. The characters weren't bad, but they were more in my head than on the page. There were long unnecessary pieces of dialogue added in simply because I liked 'hearing' them talk and which helped in no way progress the story. Pace was an alien planet. There was some good description, but my world was a nod to every fantasy novel there had ever been. It didn't copy anyone, but there wasn't any particularly special or startling about. (Though be to honest at the time if I had been well known enough that probably wouldn't have been a deal breaker.) But as new break out novel it had nothing going for it except to show there was a chance I might be able to write one day.

At the time self-publishing wasn't an option. It simply didn't exist except in very expensive vanity presses, which by their very name kind of gave you a clue if you were going there it was a bad idea. I'm very glad of this, because at the time I was sure enough of my work and my ability (i.e. arrogant and angry enough) that if self-publishing had been a realistic option I would have done it. If I had gone this route I would have learnt nothing about writing, my work would not have sold and I would have become the embittered sort of failed writer you find in corners of bookshops sneering at the latest top ten titles. (Although you have to admit they do sometimes have a point.)

I'm not saying self-publishing is always bad. For some people it may be the best option forward as long as their work is of a good enough standard and they are willing to embrace the engulfing necessities of marketing.

What I did and what I would encourage any writer to do is learn the craft. I already had a Eng Lit degree, so I could tell everyone else where they were going wrong even if I was totally blind to my own flaws! I trained as a journalist, learned to edit, worked as a book editor, read everything I could get my hands on and of course I wrote and wrote and wrote. I also went on to study psychology and personal narrative in psychotherapy - but even I admit that's not entirely necessary.

And I joined a writers' group.

These are always dangerous places. A group of people who tell you your work is wonderful or who tell you it is terrible are equally useless. You need people who are selfless enough to give their time and attention to your work and to offer what they feel to be constructive criticism - and then, of course, you need to learn how to listen and filter that criticism and how to give it in return. My writers' group is outstanding. I'm lucky.

I could write at length about writing groups, but a short rule of thumb is if they don't audition writers, who wish to join then it's unlikely to be worth taking part. (An audition is usually submission of a piece, followed by a crit session with the group to give and take crit.) Also if at least half the members aren't published somewhere then they're probably not on the right track

I still fall in love with characters. I still make mistakes in my writing. I still leave too much in my head rather than on the page. But I've learned a lot about the craft. Recently, a member of my group phoned me out the blue and asked my advice on which way he should take his story, saying I was rather good at that sort of thing. I won't name him, but he's well published and I remembered feeling extremely flattered that he not only asked me, but subsequently in the following draft took my advice.

I'd love to say that now I only write perfect work that needs little revising. Of course, I don't. However, I've come an awful long way from The Emperor's Men and I'm still going. Writing is far from being all imagination. A huge part of it is hard graft and a willingness to learn. Be prepared that many of your novels will fail before one is published. But with each work you complete you will learn more.

(See my previous post for an extract from the newly published A Death in the Family: A Euphemia Martins' Mystery.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

An extract from A Death in the Family

This is a video I made for the Readaway Series launch in Cheshire Oaks. I'm sitting in my own library reading a short extract from the Death in the Family - and I do voices!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

What an Author wants from a Book Signing

On Friday I had a private party to launch A Death in the Family. It went marvelously and there will pictures in another blog. On Saturday I was due to do a book signing in Borders, Edinburgh and at the party several well known authors came up to me with their warnings. Alan Campbell said he was always afraid no-one would turn up and Ricardo Pinto had equal tales of warning. I, of course, thanked them for these insights the night before my own signing and when I got home slept badly.

Borders had done a magnificent job of advertising the event, posters everywhere and within moments of being in the store the tannoy announced my presence, my fantastic book and how delighted they were to have me. I hid under the table in the upstairs Starbucks and waited for my appointed hour to come.

It was a strange experience. I'd seen several authors do signings in the store before, so being on the other side of the table gave me a new perspective. As someone who buys a great many books and will often go to signings I thought I'd offer up my new found insight from what an author wants from a signing.

They want people to come. They don't mind if you slip into a seat halfway through a reading - in fact they'd rather that than you bashfully hiding just on the peripheral of their vision. They don't even care if you're intending to buy the book and just want to sit down and rest your weary feet. It's so much nicer to read to faces than empty chairs. Oh, and they appreciate it enormously when you laugh at the comic moments. If you sit down at a reading there is no obligation to buy a book. Even if an author entertains you for a minute that makes them happy. Yes, we write to make a living (or try to), but we also write to entertain.

The audiences I had were lovely and laughed in the right places, but I'm told I had several people lingering behind the speakers in stationary, listening but wary of coming forward.

And then I moved to the signing table. This a device that can make any author look like and feel like a salesperson for an unpopular house fixture. It's truly amazing the number of people who walked into the shop intending to turn left, met my eyes, smiled in a rabbit sees fox sort of a way and shot off to the right.

So here's what an author wants when they're sitting at a signing table. They want you to come over and have a look. No author, with the possible exception of Derren Brown, has the ability to make you buy their book (and I'm sure he wouldn't even if he could). If you touch a book on the table, even if you read the back of it, armed guards will not spring out from under the table and forcibly escort you to the cash desk. The author won't take a penny from you - only the cash desk can do that and you have to voluntarily walk up to it carrying the book.

You see the thing is while any author is chuffed to bits when you like their work they do understand no everyone likes the same sort of stuff. None of us will cry, moan or writhe on the ground if you pick up a book and put it back. Honestly. You will get a very cheery smile if you buy one, but that's a bonus.

The weird thing about a signing table is the more people cluster around it the more that come over. And the more that come over the higher the chance it will be someone's sort of thing. So really, just by coming over to have a look you're doing us a favour.

Having said all this I must also say everyone who came up to my table, including those who didn't buy, were lovely and I was grateful to everyone of you. Perhaps, slightly more grateful to those that bought the book, but I think I hid that well. I achieved respectable sales and I hope everyone who bought the book thoroughly enjoys it.

A Death the Family remains in the buy one get one half price scheme this weekend at Borders Edinburgh. And now the books are all on their own without a scary author, they're probably lonely. If you live nearby you could help them with that!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Writing versus welding

My car just failed its MOT in a it'll-need-welding-for-that sort of a way.

I can pretend it's cool to the kind of writer who drives a car with wing-mirrors held in place with black duct-tape. It means I'm a rebel with style. Well no, it's means I'm a writer and getting the wing-mirrors fixed when they've been broken by wanton vandalism ranks lower than getting the new tyres, or the wielding, done.

So after crowing about how easy it is to make my deadlines, I'm going to spend a lot of time tomorrow running between welders and garages - if they will give me appointments - to try and get the car fixed.

But how lucky you are, I hear many of you cry. I'm stuck in the office all day and I can never be home to see the repairman/go to the garage/run out for the mother in law's forgotten birthday present. Well, no, you can't. But then all the time you're sitting in your wee office you expect Mr/Ms Boss to be putting money into your bank account. I don't deliver I don't get money.

And here's one of the essential conundrums of being a writer, if you're working from home you end up dealing with all the home stuff and while you're dealing with the home stuff you're not earning the money to pay for it. Now, my partner doesn't drive, so I couldn't ask him to do the running around with the car, but even if I did his employer wouldn't let him out. The employer would argue, quite rightly, that he's paid to be within the office walls alleviating the sobs of people whose tech has just broken down in office hours.

However, try as I might to argue with the garage that they need to stay open late to let me do a full day's writing before having to dash out and pick the car up, they don't agree. I have the same trouble with the Emperor's school. All these places are so fixated on working only the hours between nine and five/three. Of course, everyone who has ever tried to get a dentist appointment or get to the store before they sell out of shoes/milk/the-latest-must-have-MacGuffin-that-their-kid-absolutely-must-have-or-the-universe-will end knows the feeling of frustration, but throw in the parenting and the self-employed aspects of being a writing Mum and boy - there are times when I feel like hitting my head off the table for half and hour just so I can feel the relief when I stop.

It's this kind of juggling that sees me writing at my desk when everyone else in the world is enjoying a post-prandial glass of something special.

It is, of course, my own fault for choosing such a deliciously precarious career, but next time you go round to a struggling writer's house and see they haven't hoovered for three weeks cut them a break and make them a cup of tea for once. Better yet, bring a bottle of wine with you and a spare cup of time.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Party

Here's hoping Eprint's party at Borders in Cheshire Oaks went down a storm today. This was the major launch for the Readaway series of which A Death in the Family is part and four Readaway authors were present. Hopefully there was much fun and merriment. As I couldn't be there I sent down a film of me reading part of my novel and I believe the plan was to put it up on a big screen. Rather a funny feeling to think lots of people were sitting watching me read while I was in the hairdresser.

I had intended to post this earlier in the day in case any of your down south were reading this, but as some of you will have noticed the blog came up empty. For reasons known only to itself my portable device of the moment decided I was only allowed to post a title and tags. The actual body of the blog would not load. But hopefully it will went swimmingly and there will be photos aplenty.

My own north of the border book launch will happen a week today at 1pm in Edinburgh's Borders. All welcome. It's a big store and I might get a bit lonely if you don't come.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Book Launch

Borders in Edinburgh are hosting my book launch for A Death in the Family on Sunday 10th October.

Details up on the Borders Website.

Many more details on the wonderful City of Literature website.

Also on Oracle here.

Writers don't get sick. We get busier.

Many years ago when I was in one of the many phases when I was looking to take on an outside job to support my writing addiction I was asked in an interview how many days sick I took in a year.

I think even then it was a dodgy question, but at the time I didn't blink. I looked the interviewer straight in the eye and said, 'I'm self-employed. I don't get to be sick.' Needless to say I got the job, which I stayed in for eighteen months until it became clear that although I frequently found myself in situations stranger than fiction I didn't have the time or energy to create any, so I left to go back to my real job.

Today, although the children frequently try to challenge this I write full time. I may not work office hours, but generally I put in more time during the week than I would do if I was a wage-slave. I have, as they worryingly keep saying on the news, underlying health issues, but I work around these. However, last week I discovered I am not proof against parent targeted viruses.

The Panda, now eighteen months, and occasionally condescending to grace a local creche with his presence, has gone into that phase that all parents dread when he is catching every cold and illness known to mankind in a self-determined programme to build his immune system. Everything he catches he bounces back from - he is the original Bounce Back Bear, but everything he catches he also generously passes on to me. And last week he gave me gastroenteritis of a form and a variety that would be classified by the censors as too terrible for viewing even in the worst of horror movies. Not, you understand, that he had it that badly, that was me. I don't think my head actually turned through 360 degrees, but I can't be sure.

So for the first time in forever I've taken a week off. A week because once I succumbed to this illness several others, who had been waiting for me weaken, leapt upon me like a lion on straggler of the pack.

But writers, like any self-employed person, can't get sick. It's not in the job description.

But I'd been working too hard and once down I was out for the count. What has really startled me is coming back to my desk today is to find that I can still make all my deadlines. It seems some skills once learned are never lost.

In the almost forgotten past when there were no mobile phones, I was a commissioning journalist and it seems that the art of defining deadlines has stayed with me. I'll let you in on my secret.

I quote long and deliver early.

I also, like most writers, work very hard. My long deadlines are often seen as short by editors.

Nothing short of total incapacity will stop me from delivering. I was still doing business emails from my bed on my iphone despite an inability to lift my head off the pillow.

So coming back to my desk today I have lots to do, but akin to the refrain of Panda's current favourite tv show I will be managing to get the job done.