Thursday, 29 November 2012

Rollercoaster Ride

  My weekend at the SCBWI conference is over and all I can compare it to is a rollercoaster ride. I considered writing a detailed report on the whole thing but in the end it seemed a better idea to make a couple of  lists instead.


10 things I learned at the conference;

1. I am not a wannabe writer. I am a pre published author! (Thank you to Lin Oliver for that one!)

2. Winchester is a wonderful place to visit and the Cathedral is magnificent.

3. Receiving many critiques in a short space of time can be hard and demoralizing.

4. Celia Rees was in a crit group called The Literary Ladies of Leamington Spa - I say!

5. Conference is exhausting - might pace myself slightly next time and hopefully avoid nodding off in my lasagne.

6. The future of publishing is changing and no one knows where we'll be in five years.

7. Dressing up to mix with the great and good of publishing is marvelous fun.

8. It's good to have lovely writer friends like Tania, Larisa and Miriam - thank you!

9. "Character is the engine of plot." - quote from Celia Rees.

10.  SCBWI volunteers are all fabulous, wonderful and completely barmy - Thank You!

3 amazing things that happened to me at conference.

1. I somehow ended up having lunch with Celia Rees and Steve Hartley. I may have made an idiot of myself by mentioning Philippa  Gregory but luckily I've blanked the whole thing from memory. Thank you to Steve for talking to me anyway.

2. I talked to five agents at the party. FIVE. And they were all lovely. Thank you Gemma Cooper, Molly Ker Hawn, Bryony Woods, Ella Kahn and Penny Holroyde!

3. I won a Raffle Prize! I never win anything and now I have a one to one crit with Piccadilly Press - hurrah!

1 final and gushing word

THANK YOU TO ; the volunteers who organised it,
                                   the speakers who attended,
                   the agents and publishers who gave up their time,
           the other attendees who were so enthusiastic and welcoming
                                not only but including
    Jan for saying hello to me, Faye for having a laugh, Tania for sharing a room, Mo for telling me about her amazing year, Larisa for putting up with my moaning, Lin for her humour, Celia for her candour, Miriam for listening...

Monday, 19 November 2012

Fight the Fear

The fear of failure stopped me chasing my dream for twenty years.
Twenty. Years.
Apart from making me feel very old it also makes me feel rather stupid. What was I thinking of? Why was I so scared?

Because, I suppose, at the age of twenty failure felt like the worst possible outcome. Twenty years ago I hadn't failed at anything of importance. I didn't know if I could cope so instead of trying to become a writer I gave up writing altogether.

It's a stupid dream I said. Dreams never come true and besides,
Hardly anyone becomes a writer, so,
Why put myself through all that agony for nothing? Might as well be sensible and just get on with life. Get a normal job, settle down, have children, forget about dreams...

So I did. And I was happy. I was fulfilled with my family and my work, it was all fine.
Besides, I had my secret life. The one inside my head. The one where I made up stories. I never attempted to write them down, I never spoke of them but I worked on them, changed them, adapted them, lived them all in my imagination. That was enough wasn't it?

Some years later during a late night conversation with one of my best friends she asked me why I never tried to write if it was what I'd always wanted to do.
I gulped and from somewhere came the truth.
"If I try and fail then I'll have to give up on my dream. If I never try, then I'll never fail and it can always be my dream."
I think I realised how stupid it was when I said it aloud but it took a bit longer for me to change.

It was a prolapsed disc, years of pain, spinal surgery and months spent flat on my back that finally forced me to try. I started to write a story for my son and I read it to him, as I wrote, chapter by chapter and he jumped around on the bed with excitement and rolled around laughing at my words and suddenly I knew how very much I wanted other children to read my words, how important it was that I put my imaginary worlds out there for others to enjoy.

 I didn't think it would be easy. I knew I'd probably fail. Alot. But somehow, twenty years on the fear was finally manageable. Because by now I had failed in other things and discovered that it wasn't the worst thing ever. In fact it was okay. You fail. You try again. That's it.
It's not like losing someone you love. Or living in pain every day. Or a thousand other terrible things that people deal with every day.
A rejection is just someone saying no. No is just a word.

So, finally, twenty years later I am trying to live the dream. I do feel some regret that I wasted so much time but on the other hand life has made me into the person I am now, the mulch of my brain has fermented over all those years in to the compost from where my stories come so perhaps only now, at this stage of my life, could it have actually happened.

These days I write as much as I can.
I cope with rejections and revisions and creative crises.
And I don't fear failure any more. What scares me now is never trying, never giving it a go, never putting myself out there.

So, this is me, putting myself out there and to everyone else, out there, giving it a go and fighting the fear - more power to you and me and all of us!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Critically Yours?

 It's one week until my very first S.C.B.W.I conference and mixed in with the excitement there are a certain amount of nerves kicking in. Doing anything for the first time always makes me a little nervous and meeting so many new people is also making me anxious - what if no one likes me?? !- but conference also means crits and that's where the nerves really kick in.

 I have had some experience of critiquing since I began writing just as all the books suggest. I had a report done by a literary consultant on my first book, ( my m.s looked like the victim of murder there was so much red scrawled across it !) I joined an online crit group through SCBWI and then moved on earlier this year to my very first face to face group which I helped to set up.

 I know how useful good crits can be, I know that they can help you move your writing on and I'm very grateful for the help I've had but at the same time they can still be hard. Nobody really likes to hear negative comments about their babies, however justified, however useful.

 I'm booked in for two sessions at the conference, the Friday night crit done in small groups with other authors and a fifteen minute crit with an agent or editor.
 Now, although I have anxiety about hearing feedback on my work - what if they hate it?? - I find myself more worried about giving my comments to the others in my group. Giving constructive criticism is a real art form and I'm not sure if I've mastered it.

 I had a tutor once who had the most remarkable gift for giving feedback. Even if you had done terribly, by the time she was finished talking you felt amazing, confident and ready to fix whatever problems you needed to. Part of her skill came from the fact that she was very experienced and spoke from a knowledgeable place and I sometimes feel I'm far too much of a beginner to be offering anyone advice. Of course I know what I like, I think I can determine good writing and that I understand a little about the craft but do I know enough to be criticising anyone? I don't know.

 And I want to do a good job, I want to feel that my comments might make a difference, might show a way forward or inspire someone to improve but I also want to be honest. I think tough, honest feedback is what can make the real difference to a writer but I don't know if I'm perceptive enough to analyze someone's work the way it should be. I've read other peoples comments and I'm often amazed at how perfectly they've summed up the problems. All I seem to do is offer my very subjective opinion and I'm not sure that's enough.

 Perhaps it's something I'll learn to do as time goes on, or perhaps I'll just never be good at editing other peoples work, perhaps that is a gift that can't be learned? Or perhaps it's something that should be left for professionals? Do editors and agents offer the best possible critiques? Of course their comments are still subjective but they also come with experience, training and  market knowledge. Is that what we really need or can other writers offer us the same help? Does it depend on the writer?

 I must admit some of the best and most useful feedback has come from agents and editors who seemed to see through to the very heart of my story and show me the way forward. But at the same time I love my critique group, the support and friendship and feedback have been invaluable.
 So perhaps we need both?
 Perhaps my sessions will give me the perfect balance I need?
And perhaps, even if my comments aren't perfect they may be helpful and they will of course be offered with my respect, understanding and support.

 What do you think? Crit groups or Publishing professionals? Have you had great or terrible feedback from one or the other? I'd love to hear - please comment below and for anyone going to the conference ...
please like me!!! ;)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Judgement Day

 Occasionally, I will read through my m.s and be entirely happy. "It's good," I'll think," it's really good!"
 The next day however I can quite easily read it through again only this time I'll be entirely miserable. "It's rubbish, it's awful, it's a pile of monkey poo and I'm going to give up writing and move to Mongolia to try my hand at Yak farming instead."
 I believe, that this is actually quite normal among writers. This sort of Jekyll and Hyde behaviour is common and if we're lucky the good days will outnumber the bad and we won't actually book a flight to Mongolia.

 The hardest days though usually come after long months of revising, after you've read your m.s so many times you could almost recite it backwards and that is that day when you no longer have any idea of whether your work is good or bad and you've lost all sense of judgement about it entirely.
 Possibly it's a work of genius that will lead to a publication deal, fame, glory and riches but it's also possible that any agent  receiving it will be so offended that they'll decide to give up their job and get the next flight out to Mongolia so they can start a new career in Yak farming.
 I hate those days with a passion because what are you supposed to do now?
 There is a huge temptation at this point to just send it out on submission and let someone else figure it out for you. Usually you're so fed up of it you never want to see it again anyway so you might as well try your luck!

Or should you?

 Because, let's face it, even when you send out your work when you're as confident as possible that its as good as possible  it  that holds no guarantees at all. It may be good, it may be well written but;
 It may not be what they're looking for.
 It may not have a saleable concept.
 It may be similar to something else they're already representing.
 It may not be a genre they enjoy.
 It may not be a voice they engage with.
 It may not be to their taste.
 Or, quite simply, (as my friend Larisa once told me when I was rejected on my full m.s) - they might not love it enough. And by that I mean really LOVE it.
How often do you really LOVE a book? Love it enough to take a risk on? Love it enough to read it over and over again? Love it enough to talk about all day with everyone you meet?
 I'm guessing it's not that often and I imagine it's the same for agents and publishers.

 So with all the possible problems that can stop even the best manuscripts being successful, imagine how much more difficult it will be to surmount them on a manuscript that you're not confident about? An m.s that you've sent out in a fit of panic?

 The answer to those days when your judgement is impaired, when you can no longer see the wheat in the chaff is not to panic. Don't send it out. Don't delete it. Just put it away. Give it a few weeks. A month. Read it again with fresh eyes.
 You'll discover it all over again and if you're lucky you might fall in love with it and be able to send it out with a warm and fuzzy glow or you might see nothing but problems and things that need fixing but honestly isn't it better that you see them then an agent?

Monday, 5 November 2012

Trilogy Anxiety

 The book I'm currently working on was originally planned as part of a trilogy but the more I learn about them the more I wonder if it's the right move.
 It might seem like a good idea of course because sequels and trilogys are big business at the moment , they're everywhere, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games - and I can see why they're popular :
 For the writer it makes good sense, financially and career wise a popular series can make all the difference.
 For an agent or a publisher it almost guarantees a long term, lucrative return on any investment plus there's also the possibility of film rights and other merchandising so they're bound to like them.
 Finally, for the reader it offers the chance to spend more time in the world you love, more time with the characters you relate to and with any luck a guarantee that the next book will be as good as, if not better then, the last.

 Sometimes that last part is true, sometimes a series is completely fulfilling...but not always. Recently I've read some long awaited for sequels and unfortunately found them a real disappointment.
 Blood Red Road by Moira Young was one of my favourite books and I waited eagerly for the sequel Rebel Heart but it didn't grip me in the way of the first, I found it quite hard to finish it in fact and felt rather downhearted after such high expectations.
 Part of the problem with sequels is when they're not  actually designed to have a sequel - so, for example, you have a fast paced story such as Saba in Blood Red Road who must go on a journey to find her brother Lugh who's been kidnapped. At the end you have a resolution, the bad guys defeated and the siblings are reunited just as you would expect but what do you then do for the next book? You split Saba up from her true love of course so now you can create a fast paced story where Saba must go on a journey to find him instead...but, now you're in territory that the reader has already seen before only this time it's not fresh and exciting but convenient, contrived and slightly boring.

 Another book that I loved was Divergent by Veronica Roth - a great concept, intriging idea, appealing voice, good story so of course I was keen to read the next but Insurgent never really held my interest in the same way. The big concept was already gone of course, we knew how the world worked so now we were just traipsing around in the midst of it and it was nowhere near as exciting.

 My last and perhaps biggest disappointment was the final part of Kristen Cashore's trilogy. The first book Graceling was amazing and the second Fire was just as good so I was sure Bitterblue would be well worth the wait. I was so excited I waited until I had a free weekend so I'd be able to read it in peace... but...(sigh) failed to deliver what I was hoping for.
 The first two books focus on young women with remarkable gifts, Katsa is a fighter without equal, Fire has the power to look into other's minds and control them. Bitterblue on the other hand has no gifts, she is a Queen trying to cope with the legacy her gifted but evil father Leck left behind. They're all well written, they're all set in a fascinating world but our third heroine never beguiles in the same way and is limited not only by her lack of gifts but her position as Queen.
 Part of the problem may be expectations - if they're very high then it's much easier to be disappointed, or if you imagine the story to go a certain way and it doesn't that can also be difficult.

 The best series in my opinion seem to be the ones that were always planned that way. Lord of the Rings was written as one book and only split into three by the publisher because of the length. Harry Potter was meticulously planned to be one of seven books.
 But one of the problems for writers is that all the advice suggests that books must be written as standalones with the "potential" to be a series. It seems that agents and publishers don't want to be pitched whole series but they want you to be able to create one if necessary, without the proper foundations however I think this can lead to problems.
 The other opposing issue is that if you do create a series to start with it often means you split your story up into parts and therefore each part may leave unresolved questions which your reader will need to wait to have answered and this can annoy readers.

 So, what do I do? Go for a standalone or a trilogy? Concentrate on number one or plan out three stories? I, more then anything, would hate to disappoint my readers and the pressure of having to write a second or third book that will fit in perfectly with the first would be huge.
 And yes I know the chances of my book ever being published are minimal but do I need to consider these things now just in case? Or can I just worry about it later?
 Are any of you writing sequels or trilogies? Do you have any advice that might help or words of warning perhaps? Please share!