Saturday, 27 February 2010

Excuse me if I hate your work...

A recurring theme on writers' boards is the issue of rejection. It's accepted as a given that every writer goes through a baptism of fire before finally being accepted, and freelance writers are routinely rejected throughout their career. So it pays to get a tough skin as soon as possible.

I wish I'd known that many years ago when I submitted a piece for a well known satirical magazine. This was back in the days when I didn't feel the need to research things like submissions policies and just shoved stuff into an A4 envelope, scribbled the address on it and Bob's Your Uncle. I was quietly pleased with my effort which closely resembled a regular item they published. At the very least I expected a word or two of praise to come back in the post. But no such luck. My piece sprang back so quick I doubt anyone had even bothered to glance at it, with the words NO THANKS scrawled on it.

Charming. The reason it has stuck in my mind after all these years was the sting I felt at what seemed a comprehensive and damning rejection of not only my wonderful piece but myself as a writer and a person. Not only had no one bothered to explain to me what was so wrong with it, they hadn't even taken the trouble to write a proper note. Clearly I was beneath contempt, unworthy of any professional courtesy. My uninitiated and tender heart quickly consigned my work and myself to the municipal dump of ignominy.

If I could go back in time and say anything to my younger self it would be this: Never let someone else's opinion crush you. A rejection means one thing: your piece isn't right for them. Nothing else. It doesn't mean you can't write for toffee. It doesn't mean you are a low and worthless person. And an offhand dismissal probably means they are very busy and haven't time to sugar coat it. Shrug it off and move on.

Would I have believed it? Hard to say. We tend to wallow in negative feedback, don't we? We dismiss praise as someone "just trying to be nice". Years on it's that stinging rejection that remains in my memory. Of course there's potential for learning in rejection, and we should take it. But never to the extent it undermines our confidence and makes us give up the fight. At the end of the day, it's only one person's opinion.

And if you want to see how wide ranging people are in their opinions, go and look up the Amazon reviews of any bestseller. You're guaranteed to find plenty of one star reviews amongst the good ones, and pretty scathing they are too. Reading them you wonder how that writer can even get out of bed in the morning when someone hates their work with such passion! But they keep writing and selling books because enough people DO like their work.

It's a lesson for all of us.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Outline or not?

Leading on from the last post about plotting software, I've been thinking about the whole issue of outlining.
I've seen this topic discussed on writers' boards many times over the years and what I find most interesting is how my own viewpoint has shifted over that time. All the How To books recommend an outline before you start a book. At the opposite extreme is the NaNoWriMo philosophy of No Plot, No Problem.

I first discovered Nano nearly four years ago and after years of planning but never getting down to writing it was a revelation to find that just sitting down every day and letting the words come out could work. It was exhilarating and fun and I was a convert. But the problems came later; revising a hastily written book is a huge task. And if you're writing a mystery the threads of the story need to be so carefully sown in you can't do it justice with such a helter-skelter approach.
With my now finished novel I faced a huge rewrite last year. It wasn't just a tweak, it was root and branch pruning. The plot was full of holes, some scenes didn't go anywhere and the characters were unbelievable. I had to go back to the drawing board and take the whole thing to pieces, discard the dead wood and write a lot of new material. It was hard work, and I couldn't help feeling that I could have written a much stronger story in the first place if I'd gone through the painful planning process before I'd written anything at all.

So I learned the hard way that planning matters.

Maybe it's the way my brain works. When I start a project it's all over the place, picturing scenes, contriving plot twists, conjuring characters. The plot refuses to be pinned down. Just when I think I know what a character is about, I have another brilliant idea to make him something else. I wrestle with that slimy octopus until it drives me near demented. I write myself into corners, waste time on scenes that go nowhere, get terminally frustrated.

The second act is the biggest problem. I can usually get a clear sense of Act 1, the set up for the story. That's easy. Then there's Act 3 - the big finish. Not as easy. Strange as it sounds, that's even harder to pin down. I keep wanting to change the ending; keep wanting to be surprised by my own story; keep writing like a reader, not a writer.

But Act 2 is toughest because it has no clear landmark in my head. I end up having the characters wander about for a while, maybe have a few twists and turns to keep things interesting, but generally I'm lost. And with a mystery you can't afford to be lost. You have to know exactly where you're going or it shows.

So that's why I'm a convert to outlining. I'm giving up on the thrills of discovery in favour of the thrills of mastery. If I already know what the scene is about I can concentrate on the writing, and hopefully that will make the whole process more efficient and satisfying. That's the plan, anyway. Watch This Space.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

At it again

I managed to get through January without buying any new software for my shiny new Mac (son gave me the money to buy Scrivener as a Chrissie present so it doesn't count). And instead of forking out for Microsoft Office (around £120) or Apple iWorks (around £50) I've been using NeoOffice, a free word processor similar to OpenOffice only better suited to Macs. Might have known I was doing too well for it to last.

I've now installed another programme that looks useful but isn't alas free. Contour is really a screenwriting tool for plotting your movie script within a three act structure, but it's just as useful for any kind of story including novels. So far I have downloaded the month's free trial version and filled in Act 1 of current WIP. It's simple to use and not laden with jargon (which these types of programmes often are), intuitive to navigate and so far I've found it extremely helpful in working out the finer points of the plot. Embedded in the box-filling programme are pointers to what should be happening when, which archetypes are needed to meet the requirements of the traditional hero's journey, and there are lots of examples in the form of several well-known movies to illustrate the points.

So I'll stick with it and see how I get on with the Second Act. It's traditionally the toughest part (well it is for me, anyway!). But if it proves as helpful there as it has been already I may be breaking my spending embargo on this one. It costs $50 (around £32 + VAT) but if it saves a lot of faffing about it will be worth it.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Don't forget the title, nitwit

Ha! As if you didn't already know my blog has been nominated for an Over The Top Award - thanks Kate. Here are my answers to the probing and frankly impertinent questions:

Your Cell Phone? Steam driven Marconiphone, one of the first models ever made. It was formerly owned by Winston Churchill who used it to prop open the drinks cabinet at Number Ten.
Your Hair? Brown, straight and prone to Bad Hair Days.
Your Mother? A world renowned tap dancer who gave birth to me after spending a weekend of passion at Butlins in Filey with a male voice choir.
Your Father? The first man ever to swim up the north face of Everest.
Your Favorite Food? Kendleton's Original Tiger Dropping Crisps
Your Dream Last Night? I was bathing an orang utan in champagne when Dale Winton arrived and asked me to marry him. Funny thing was by lunchtime it had all come true.
Your Favorite Drink? Don't drink much apart from the occasional vat of wine.
Your Dream/Goal? To find spiritual enlightenment and the winning lottery numbers.
What Room Are You In? The lounge of my luxury yacht, moored outside Monte Carlo.
Your Hobby? Teaching penguins to fly.
Your Fear? Failure. And success.
Where Do You See Yourself In Six Years? Nowhere the rate my eyesight is failing.
Where Were You Last Night? In the Bricklayer's Arms. Happy Hour is six till eight.
Something That You Aren't? Aggressive, and I'll deck anyone who says I am.
Muffins? Chocolate chip.
Wish List Item? To start getting younger.
Where Did You Grow Up? In my parents' house.
Last Thing You Did? Eat my dinner.
What Are You Wearing? Diamond studded boob-tube and matching flared wellies.
Your TV? It has pined away from lack of use.
Your Pets? One incompetent but well-meaning dog.
Friends? In need? Indeed!
Your Life? Full of surprises.
Your Mood? Jocular.
Missing Someone? My toy boy.
Vehicle? Nissan Micra. Well somebody has to own one.
Something You Aren't Wearing? A crown. (It's at the cleaners)
Your Favorite Store? Ikea
Your Favorite Color? Clear
When Was The Last Time You Laughed? 1984
Last Time You Cried? 1985
Your Best Friend? The ball and chain.
One Place You Go To Over And Over Again? The bathroom.
Facebook? Obsessively.
Favorite Place To Eat? In my mouth.

And the nominees are:

Sophie Playle - lots of insider info about publishing
Welshcake - aspiring novelist
Wise Words - aspiring novelist
Tall Tales and Short Stories - great interviews with authors and agents
Lori Tiron-Pandit - writer's blog

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Self Publishing

Yes, that old chestnut again.

It's not a hobby horse, I hasten to add before you click the 'back' button and head off somewhere else. There are enough of them around the cyber community as it is. I have never self published, nor do I preach against it with missionary zeal. But it always fascinates me how polarising a subject it is among writers.
Until fairly recently self-publishing was the only kind of publishing. Virginia Wolfe had to set up Hogarth Press, initially as a small printing press on her kitchen table, to get her books out into the world. At one time being published was a luxury only afforded to the wealthy. You had to have the means to support not only your writing but the ability to print it.
In the last hundred years publishing has flourished making it more attainable as well as a potentially lucrative career for some writers. In recent years Print on Demand technology has put the printing side of the process within everyone's grasp. And that's where the arguing begins. Should it be?

The anti brigade say no. Not everyone has the ability to write a readable book and their clumsy efforts devalue the medium, bringing the whole industry into disrepute. Without proper editing any book will be too rough to appeal to enough readers to make it viable.
The pro brigade say that's elitist. Why should they have to succumb to the filtering process policed by self-proclaimed gatekeepers of editors and agents? Publishing their work is the right of every person and they will go it alone whatever the consequences, thank you very much.

The internet has brought an additional complication. The success of and other online retailers has helped bring about the demise of not only independent bookshops but large chains like Borders. Then there's ebooks, with the potential to download books without need for paper or presses at all. However much old timers like myself resist the march of technology, is this the way of the future? Are paper books on the way out? If so, the process of self-publishing becomes even more attractive and cost effective.

If you were reading this hoping for a definitive answer I'm sorry to disappoint, but I really don't know what I think of self publishing. Writers want to be read and they are resourceful enough to find ways to that end. We'll just have to wait and see what the future of self publishing is. I suspect it could well be another DIY craze, like the one a few years back that gave rise to hardware chains like B&Q. Once the skill shortage became apparent the enthusiasm wore off pretty quick.

Here's an interesting post by literary agent Nathan Bransford on the subject. Typically for him it's open minded and thoughtful and food for thought.