Thursday, 6 December 2012

Germolene and Sticking Plasters

“You put him through a lot of pain!” someone said to me after reading The Poison Boy, aka Sleepwell and Fly recently. They were talking about the protagonist. And yeah, I’m prepared to admit he has a pretty rough time of things. There’s the poisoning, the explosions, the fights – that incident with the knife; I could go on. Re-reading the whole thing again (I’m down to the final line edits now) I got to thinking about why I’ve done this. In many ways, I think, it’s a kind of weakness in the book, and it springs from a weakness in myself.
Here’s what I mean. I’m comfortable when my team of cheerful protagonists are pulling together, battling immeasurable odds and getting a good old-fashioned kicking. Cuts and bruises will heal and they’ll still be the best of friends after it’s all over, see? What I’m a little more scared of – I recognise this now – is putting them through emotional turmoil or upheaval. So I make up for it by throwing an extra gang of heavies with pistols in their direction and watching them grit their teeth and get through it.
It doesn’t necessarily make for a good novel though.
Let’s imagine two protagonists, both at the same point in their narratives; two-thirds through, entering the final act with daunting challenges ahead of them. (And rather than break with tradition people, let’s imagine these guys are both called Argyle):
  • Argyle 1 has to escape a prison cell at the top of a high tower, battle his way through a flotilla of armed guards and rescue a stranded pal before the book ends.
  • Argyle 2 has to choose between breaking a sworn confidence by revealing his best friend’s dreadful secret, or betraying his girlfriend.
There you go.
Now, I know which I’d tend towards: Argyle 1. Why? Because I feel more comfortable putting poor Argyle through the straining of muscle and sinew, the fear, the physical danger, the broken teeth, the fist in the face. He’s trapped in a corner? No worries, Argyle! Open a can o’ Whup-Ass and it’ll all be alright in the end, yeah? I know that, the reader knows that, and as a result all we get is a prose version of Mission Impossible with endless running and jumping, hiding around corners and wise-cracking as the bodies mount up.
But we can all see what makes the more dramatic story; it’s Argyle 2. That lad’s got a major problem, and no amount of ninja skills is gonna get him out of it. He’ll agonise, he’ll fret, he’ll suffer terrible torment… I’m nervous just thinking about it. That’s real drama, right?
So I reckon I need to change direction for my next story. Be brave and tackle it head-on. I need to give my protag a problem that can’t be solved with germolene and sticking plasters.
The question is… what?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been lucky a hundred times over this last year. Here’s an example. My good friend Veronique David-Martin – a great writer and tweeter who can be followed here, y’all – tagged me to take part in a pass-it-on blog meme called ‘The Next Big Thing’. Now I’d settle for being a thing of pretty much any size, I have to admit, but given the choice I would indeed pick ‘big’. Here’s hoping my luck holds, eh?

1- What is the title of your next book?

It’s called ‘The Poison Boy’. It was called ‘Sleepwell and Fly’ – the names of the two main protagonists. Maybe I’ll have to change the name of my blog as well now. *sigh*

2- Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was in a garden in Alnwick, in the north east. It’s an amazing garden – all the plants in it are poisonous; every single one. It’s walled with a black iron gate with skulls on it – very gothic. As I wandered around looking at all these poisonous plants and reading about all the terrible ways in which they could kill you, I knew I had the beginnings of a really good idea; orphaned food-tasters who’d become experts in poison-detection. As soon as I was back home, I started writing.

3- What genre does your book fall under?

Well – it’s YA Fantasy, aimed at readers of 10+ years of age. Maybe a little older; parts of it are pretty gruesome. I’ve been taking out some of the lurid gore from the opening scenes and trying to keep all that visceral nastiness in check a bit. I think it’s better for it. Hopefully it will appeal, to use a phrase borrowed from Carlos Ruiz Zafon, to “young and youthful readers.”

4- What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Now there’s a question. As a younger writer, part of the fun of putting a story together was imagining which parts I could play myself. Seriously; if I’d answered this question fifteen years ago, I’d be saying – me, for all of them! maybe it’s time to admit that’s never going to happen. Anyway, I’ve got what they call a face for radio.

Because all the central characters – a gang of children on the run in a smuggler’s town full of flooded cellars, secret passageways and moonlit galleries – are all between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, it might be hard choosing established actors. So I’ll settle for a whole bunch of eager first-timers fresh out of stage school. Plus a heavily made-up Kenneth Branagh as the bad guy.

5- What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Jeez. One sentence? OK. But I’ll have to make it a long one.

When Dalton Fly – food-taster to the idle rich – wakes from a poison-induced trance, drenched in the blood of a dead companion, he knows he’s stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have; and as his life unravels, he realises he will need to use all his remarkable talents to the full and call on the help of a motley crew of dubious allies if he is to stay alive and take on the forces that threaten to destroy him.


6- Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Back to the ‘luck’ thing. I won The Times/Chicken House children’s book competition for 2012. So I’ll be published by the lovely people at Chicken House in April 2013. What a smashin’ crowd they are, by the way. They’ve been so helpful and supportive as I’ve drafted and re-drafted.

7- How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Still going. Two years and counting! I’ll be done by December… *crosses fingers*

8- What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, it was inspired by a number of books with similar features. I’m not saying I’m anywhere near as good, but Chris Wooding’s The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray and Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb are close cousins. And there’s a dash of J Meade Faulkner’s classic children’s book Moonfleet, which I love.

9- Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve been playing with these characters for years. There’s one-and-a-half abandoned novels gathering dust somewhere, both trying to do something similar. I guess it just clicked this time. The main character was named after a beer, believe it or not.

10- What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s all about poison! Imagine a little bottle of liquid that could blow your mind – or kill you. There’s no denying it’s an interesting notion – at least, that’s what I’m hoping readers will think!

Being a first-time writer, I’m not all that well connected. So passing this thing on is a tough gig. But if you haven’t yet visited the blogs of these three wonderful writers – all of whom have taken part – then you must!

Emma Pass


Thursday, 1 November 2012

50 Shades of 'Go Away'

Part One in an occasional series.

Before I was born my mum and dad bought their first house, a fifties semi in Rochdale, from a writer. His name was Trevor Hoyle. My dad once told me about Hoyle's workspace, which they saw as they first visited the place. It had walls lined with - pretty much wallpapered with - rejection letters. There's something brave and brilliant about that; failure being an essential part of success and so on. So I thought it would be fun - a bit ghoulish, but there you go - to share some rejection letters. There's so many varied and interesting ways of being told 'no', and I've built up quite a collection - not enough to plaster the wall of a room with yet, but it's early days.

'No' #1: The Cold Shoulder

Man, this one is tough to take. The equivalent of being utterly ignored. Imagine someone staring with chilly disdain at your outstretched hand as you introduce yourself at a party. Yeah, that. But worse. The Cold Shoulder gives you no indication anywhere that your work has been read - implying instead that it left such a feeble impression on whichever intern happened to be working the slushpile that half-term, that they couldn't think of anything to say about it either way. At least - that's what you've got to tell yourself, or you'll stop submitting.

Some of the friendlier ones look like this:

Sometimes, just being addressed as 'author' is enough to make your day. Though I've got to say, a bit of mail-merge wouldn't have gone amiss.

But take heart. You get one of these, at least you know it can't get any worse. There are much better types of rejection - seriously - and although they don't hurt any less, they're a damn sight more helpful. The more of these you get, the quicker you'll progress.

Something Trevor Hoyle could tell us all a lot about.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Chaos and Shape

The story so far, should you give a damn, is that in March, my editor told me something. I’m improvising wildly here but it was along the lines of; “The ending of the book. I like it. But I think it belongs earlier in the narrative. It would work better placed at the end of act one.”
I took this in for a moment; sequenced my thoughts. “So what happens for the next two thirds?” I said.
“New stuff” she said. The penny dropped. Ah. You mean – you’re asking me to write a new book. And she was. I think I took it pretty well – they talked me down from the roof, gave me brandy and took it in turns to slap me hard across the face for a while. The next morning things looked a little better.

Seven months went by; I finished the virtually brand-new novel, and – wouldn’t you know it? – my editor was right. It’s waaay better, not because I’ve become Hemingway overnight, but because the shape is so much neater. It is, I think, a coherent and shapely piece. I choose the adjective advisedly my friends because when I was but a student I used Jerome Stern’s book ‘Making Shapely Fiction’ quite a bit. (Not enough to learn its lessons, evidently, but still.)

If you’re not familiar, it’s a whole bunch of clever creative writing exercises, a list of dos and don’ts and an alphabetised dictionary of good practice all in one. Stern’s introduction to his book is interesting. He uses the idea of shapes as a vehicle for the organisation of exciting but unconnected narrative strands. “Shapes” he says, “show you how they can become fiction.” He goes on to cite an apparently common experience of writers, who begin by producing a story they’re pleased with. It just works. “That success” he goes on to say, “gives a pleasant confidence that’s dashed in the next story, which turns out to be a multi-limbed mess. In the first story, you probably had a natural shape that kept you from problems you didn’t know you couldn’t handle.” Hold on a sec, Jerome – multi-limbed mess? That was me! So shapes keep us from encountering problems we didn’t know we couldn’t handle. I like that. The book’s got a decent sized toolkit of interesting shapes and each has a short chapter devoted to it: Iceberg, Fa├žade, Bear at the Door, Gathering and so on. What isn’t there of course is ‘multi-limbed mess’, a shape I excel at.

So I’m hoping this lesson has stuck. Someday, I’m going to plot and write another book, and, if I’m lucky, work with an editor to knock it into – ahem – shape. I made it through the trauma this time, but I swear, if I put myself in a position where I risk getting the same advice a second time, I’ll spare everyone the trouble and just jump off that damn roof.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

An inconsequential fizz of static (i)

A recent American study has shown that the state in which citizens are most likely to waste time is Missouri. Here, workers admitted to spending 3.2 hours a day in a distracted state in which nothing was accomplished. For those of you without a calculator handy that’s 22.4 hours a week, amounting to a mighty 48.5 days a year – full 24-hour days, mind – of staring into space.
I’m trying living at the other end of the spectrum; the end where there’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day in which nothing’s actually happening. The rest is either sprinting... (metaphorically speaking of course, though sometimes literally) ...or sleeping (meaning, er - sleeping.)
As a result, I’m on track to finish the re-writes of Sleepwell and Fly/Poisonboy by the end of September. I’m churning out 4,000 words a week outside of the punishing day job.
If you want a taste of this thrilling lifestyle - and boy-oh-boy, who wouldn’t – I recommend two things. One of them at least is really useful.
Firstly, don’t watch any TV. I can’t claim to have managed zero TV exactly, but I’m pretty damn close.  Total minutes of footy watched during the Euros? About 40 minutes across the competition. (Incidentally – number of goals I saw scored? 1. Draw whatever conclusions suit you.) Total minutes of tennis watched during the two weeks of Wimbledon? 30. What else… there’s been two episodes of Buffy – season five if you must know – and one movie, three times. (Kiki’s Delivery Service; the little one loves it.) And that’s it. I even gave Wallander a miss, dedicated soul that I am.
Secondly; here’s something with a bit more heft. Does 10,000 words a week sound like a pleasingly prodigious output? Hell, yes I hear you cry. I really enjoyed this blog post. It’s friendly and calm and supportive and most of all, impressive. Check it out.
Finally, I want you to know I’m not utterly masochistically stupid. I included a week off in the schedule I gave those good people at Chicken House, during which I will shelter from the rain in a barn in Norfolk. Probably watching Kiki.
Whatever. Enjoy this humdrum and sunless summer, wherever it takes you.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Radio Silence

So far, in the two years it’s been up and running, I’ve committed just under 20,000 words to this blog, and enjoyed every damn one of them. But there’s a situation. Between now and the end of the summer, I have somewhere in the region of 50,000 words of re-writes to do; plus a hefty work-life-balance-threatening day job. Something, as they say in the song, has got to give.
So I’ll be bidding the regular readers of this fine internet institution – both of them – a fond and temporary farewell. Who knows; I might get the chance for a cheeky post, but I doubt it. I may not even get out of this with my sanity intact.
Whenever you’re kicking back; levering the cap off a chilly beer or catching up with a movie – spare me a thought. I’ll be hunched over a second-hand laptop in the spare room, goggle-eyed and feverish.
See you in the Autumn, good people.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Learning Curves

A strange and wonderful thing happened. I won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Book Competition. I know – it’s bizarre. Bizarre and brilliant. So anyway, that’s how I came to be speaking to a journalist about writing stories. During the course of this discussion, an interesting idea emerged. It concerned learning curves. I was sharing my literary disasters, talking through the mistakes that had got me to this point – and I suddenly remembered a graphic I’d used with students before. Here it is:
The neat upward progress that the word ‘curve’ suggests is misleading. This jagged, unpredictable sequence of triumphs and disasters is a more accurate assessment of the learning process, I reckon. There are months in which we write and write without any discernable development in style or progress with plot and characterisation. We plateau; we feel stale. Then there are those moments – and I’ve had plenty – when we might look back at old or abandoned projects and marvel at the quality of some of the writing. Christ, we think to ourselves. I’m actually getting worse. But then there are those points of extreme and accelerated learning, where suddenly, everything comes together and we gallop forwards.
I’ve had a few of these too thankfully, and it’s no coincidence they’ve all occurred when I’ve asked someone else to read the manuscript. This is worth bearing in mind. Don’t hide it away. Hand it over and wait for the moment of learning. Here’s one example; the first Sleepwell and Fly book. It was about 80,000 words long and in epistolary form. I'd finished it, I'd polished it, I'd sent it to agents. It was Spring. The blossom was out and the holidays were coming.
It got a right kicking. I was devastated.
But I got a splendid two paragraph brush-off which drew my attention to a massive flaw in my thinking. “Why the epistolary form?” wrote this helpful, insightful agent. “You’re writing for a generation of readers who don’t write letters, send letters, or communicate in any mode that requires more than 140 characters.”
I stared at the letter. The world went quiet. Dammit, I thought. She’s right. And that was the end of Sleepwell and Fly version 1. I spent that summer re-writing it as a regular first person narrative, but I was beginning to flag a bit – my heart wasn’t in it and I was getting new and better ideas. The whole thing went in the bin and I started again.
But here’s the key, good people. I began my next project at a much higher point on the curve. If you add together all these accelerated points of learning; imagine them queuing up in a neat line from your first ever attempt at writing; and you can appreciate how you might end up a significant distance further forward.  
So, find your critical friend and hand over that manuscript. You never know what lesson you might learn. Me? I’m writing my next novel in emails.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Rip It Up

Aside from being a fine author, Chris Wooding is remarkably frank about the writing process on his website. Remarkably frank too about the process of learning that writing essentially is. One particular issue took my eye – the regularity with which he confesses he has to abandon his current draft and start again.
It took my eye because I’ve just done the same myself. And I was feeling pretty gloomy about it, until I read of Wooding’s rip-it-up moments, all of which have an epic glamour that I can’t get near to.
Here’s what happened. I was 14,000 words through Sleepwell and Fly 2 – the ballpark area, I was hoping, for coming up with a proper title and changing the word document’s name from ‘What Next?’ to something more official – when I realised I pretty much had to ditch it all. So I did. I’m now working on a new novel called ‘What Next Again’ and regretting the time lost and the words wasted. Time, as my last post testified, is not on my side.
But next to Wooding’s catastrophes, mine are small fry. “Ever since I had started writing” Wooding says, “I had been alternating between writing books for Scholastic and making abortive attempts at adult novels that inevitably got out of control and collapsed.” The one that captured my imagination was The Cold Road, a novel that eventually saw the light of day as The Weavers of Saramyr. “I sent it to my agent, unbelievably relieved at having finally completed it” Wooding says of The Cold Road. “She didn’t like it. I was mildly crushed... Trouble was, after I got over my initial reluctance to change anything about the book, I agreed with her.” So Wooding started again, taking the final sections of the book as the starting point for a new one.
Next to the mighty trauma described here, losing 14,000 words seems like tossing away a haiku with a cheery whistle. But it does raise the question – what went wrong? Why, to use Wooding’s phrase, do some novels get out of control and collapse?
With me, I think, it boiled down to two things – pace and planning. Basically, I began at a point six chapters before a killer scene I’d already written. When I wrote my way back to the killer scene and re-read it, I loved it. It was better than anything else I’d done. Conclusion: my story needs to start with that scene.
But for all I know, I could be embarking on another fruitless journey. In six months' time, it might be all wrong again.
I can only hope.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Vikram Seth and the Anti-Rapid Prototype

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m coming off the back of a fifty-five hour working week. My weekly word count total stands at 650, done on Thursday night. I’m knackered. Amongst everything else I have to do during the course of the weekend, I happen to hear a snippet of Desert Island Discs – I’ve only got time for a snippet  – and I hear Vikram Seth talking about the writing of A Suitable Boy. The story goes something like this. Seth is in his early thirties. Faber aren’t sure whether to keep him after The Golden Gate. He’s out of money, but compelled by a strong desire to write a book “about India.” He goes home, and his parents agree to put him up for a spell. He stays at home and writes for ten years. For ten years. At home, with his parents.
It didn’t sink in at first. But later, I began to think of what a novel of mine might look like if I had ten years writing time at my parents’ house. Don’t misunderstand me – I wouldn’t dream of swapping my life with that of a thirty-something homeboy. No way. But it’s an interesting thought nevertheless. Here is a list of some of the longest novels written. Seth’s clocks in at just over 592,000 words. It looks like a paperback breeze block. (An aside; I once went on holiday with a group of pals – let’s call them all Argyle for the purposes of this piece; the same crew of Argyles, in fact, who feature in a post entitled ‘How to Spot a Really Bad Idea’ – and one of them brought ‘A Suitable Boy’ along to read. She started with vim and energy on the first sunny afternoon, propped in a deck chair on the veranda with a beer. Evening drew in and the book got left outside. That night it rained. The next morning, ‘A Suitable Boy’ had nigh on doubled in size. Swollen and filthy, flooded, bulging and straining at its spine, it looked like a David Cronenburg movie. Pages had stuck together in great sogging clots, so that turning a section meant skipping chapters and chapters – probably upwards of a year of Seth’s efforts – all at once. None of us ever got round to trying to read it.)
So anyway folks, my question is this: do novels – like jobs – expand to fill the time you have to give them?
Many modern writers’ manuals urge a bias towards action. Get going, they sensibly tell you. Put pen to paper. ‘Don’t get it right, get it written’, and so on. It’s a product of the times we live in, perhaps. Scott Belsky uses the phrase ‘rapid prototyping’, a term borrowed from the world of computer aided design, to describe the process of getting an early version of a project ‘out there’ so you can take feedback and learn the lessons of failure. He even argues that the most successful projects are deliberately constrained. “It is my responsibility” he says, “to impose constraint when none is given to me.” Writers rapid-prototype all the time and it’s completely understandable. I can sympathise totally with the e-publish ethos, the urge to serialise online, to submit submit submit. Why? Because many of those I follow on Twitter are, like me, eking out a hundred words here and there on their lunch breaks, fitting in a thou or so between 5 and 6 in the morning, building a story a paragraph at a time in between all the other things they have to do. Writing in these conditions doesn’t lend itself to the epic. If I thought my 650 words were a drop in a 600,000 word ocean, I couldn’t carry on. Knowing my target is going be somewhere around 67,000 makes it about 1% of the total. I can live with that. I’ll have it finished in maybe a year-and-a-half, maybe two.
And yet. Gimme ten years and a room of my own... who knows what kind of novel might come out. Something tells me I wouldn’t churn-out a 67,000 word YA adventure and then take eight years off.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Projecting Certainties

In her splendid book Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very straightforward and sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Nicely put. My antagonist, I figured after mulling this over in the bath, has no soft edges to test the reader’s judgement of him. He’s a black-hearted misanthropist bearing all the hallmarks you’d expect of a top-draw scumbag. He’s murderous, filthy, hateful and, just in case you’re tempted fancy him, he has half his face missing after a nasty encounter with a wild dog. In summary - so two-dimensional he could double for a fireside rug.
I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused, having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of limited backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real, somehow.
On New Year’s Eve, the punk musician Billy Childish was being interviewed on the Today Programme by the comedian and guest-editor for the day Stuart Lee. Childish, disdainfully assessing Oasis, said that the problem with stadium bands churning out power-ballads was that they did nothing but “project certainties” to mass audiences.
I suppose that’s what we do when we create these flat-pack bad guys; project cosy certainties about morality rather than give readers anything genuinely arresting or thought-provoking – anything that might give us nightmares.
So, a new year’s project will be to go back through ‘Sleepwell and Fly’ and get to know my antagonist a little better. See what makes him tick.
Who knows, I might give him his face back while I’m at it.