Thursday, 28 November 2013

Thanksgiving post: thank you, 2013

The beautiful SCBWI launch party cake
Last weekend I went to the SCBWI conference in Winchester. I met (and re-met) a lot of amazing authors and illustrators, and fell in love all over again with children’s literature and the people involved in creating it. The great thing about SCBWI (and here’s my unashamed plug for it – it’s a wonderful support network and anyone interested in children’s books should join it) is that its membership is open to both published and aspiring authors, and so there’s an amazing mix of people at every stage of the writing journey. And talking to all of those different people reminded me of two things that seem particularly relevant today.

The first is how much can change in a very short space of time. Last year I wasn’t at the SCBWI conference. I wasn’t even a member. I was sitting on my couch, jealously reading the tweets from Winchester and feeling light-years away from that world. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that this year I’d not only go, but go as a soon-to-be-published author.

I am so lucky – I am so so lucky that I spend quite a lot of time these days walking around in a state of intense, surreal wonder at what has happened to me – but what being at the conference really brought home to me is that the dream I’m living isn’t just mine. It belongs to every single one of the conference attendees, and for some of them that dream feels just as far away as it did for me a year ago.

I’ve had a lot of good news to post on the blog this year, and I have an astronomical amount to be thankful for today. But part of why this feels so wonderful is that it’s such a contrast to where I was a year ago.

Last autumn – and this is hard to write about, but I feel that it’s important that I do – I was lost. I was applying for a lot of jobs, and being rejected from every one. To distract myself from the relentless soul-sucking process, I began to query the manuscript of Murder Most Unladylike with agents – and again, I was rejected, a lot. In retrospect, this was not the smartest plan, because it made me really start to question my writing ability. I saw those rejections as proof that I just wasn’t good enough. I distinctly remember one particular phone call I made to my mother, in which I stood in the middle of that wobbly bridge outside the Tate Modern and shouted, “MY ENTIRE LIFE IS A LIE! MY WRITING IS AWFUL! I WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING! I MIGHT AS WELL JUST GIVE UP AND BECOME A VAGRANT!”

I was not in a good place. By the time December rolled around, I felt profoundly that I had failed. My boyfriend drove us to my parents’ house for Christmas (he had a really hard time getting me in the car, actually, because I kept trying to persuade him to let me get on a train and spend Christmas in a Travelodge in York. No, I don’t understand it either), and when he parked I sat in the car for an hour, refusing to get out, because I was so deeply ashamed of myself.

In fact, I had not failed in the slightest. I just hadn’t succeeded yet. Because what I didn’t know (obviously), was this: at that moment, at literally the lowest point of my adult life, my future was right there in front of me. Nineteen days after my weird sit-in protest in the car, Gemma Cooper (the woman who is now my wonderful agent) sent me an email to say that she loved my book and she wanted to meet me. And that book, the one that I was pretty close to giving up on is, er, about to be published in May.

What I want to say to other writers is this: publishing is a game with crazily bad odds. Writing is a tough dream to have. But that’s true for everyone. Everyone goes through the same rejections, and low times, and self-doubt. I’m realising now that published authors have everything in common with that person scribbling alone in their room and dreaming of getting their books read by someone who isn’t their mother or their dog. They’re just a few steps further along the same road.

Here, have some cranberry sauce!
If you don’t have an agent yet, or if you’ve been on submission for approximately 23,345,210 years without a bite from publishers, please don’t give up. You never know what might be just around the corner. If I had decided to chuck it all in that day in December 2012, this year would never have happened. You just never know when your work is going to pay off. For me, it was this year. For a lot of the SCWBI conference attendees I met, it’s still in the future. But it will happen.

I have had the most wonderful year. I can’t say it enough. But part of why it's so special is because of what came before it. What I've learnt is that you never know when you're about to be happy.

Have a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Authors for Philippines appeal

By now you've almost certainly heard what's happening in the Philippines. It's desperately awful, and hard not to feel that all efforts to help are just going to be fractions of what's needed.

But we can raise money so that the aid workers out there have the resources they need to save and improve lives - and if you want to help out with a donation and you happen to love books, there's an absolutely brilliant charity auction that started today.

Authors for Philippines is offering an incredible range of one-off bookish goodies from a huge list of totally amazing authors and editors. Every bid you make (and please make lots!) will mean more money for the Red Cross's Typhoon Haiyan appeal - you get to do a great thing, and you'll get some fantastic rewards in exchange.

As you've probably heard, Murder Most Unladylike won't be out until May 2014. But I am offering one very special advance proof copy of the book, signed to whoever you want and personalised in any way you'd like (I will draw and write any message that is not actually obscene or libellous, although I do warn you that I am very bad at art).

If you enjoy this blog, and if you're looking forward to Murder Most Unladylike, please bid. And if you aren't, just bid on someone else's bookish offer. There are critiques from editors, school visits, signed Neil Gaiman books and one-off Alex Smith illustrations, editorial advice from authors, tickets to launch parties ...

This is an incredibly worthy cause, and I think it's important for us to do anything we can, no matter how small, to help out. So, what are you waiting for? Start your bidding now!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Learning from NaNoWriMo: a Survivor's Guide

It's November again, which means that it is three years to the month since Daisy and Hazel began their adventures on the very first page of my very first draft of the book that would one day become Murder Most Unladylike.

Yes, Murder Most Unladylike started life as a NaNoWriMo novel. NaNoWriMo, for those who haven't heard of it before, is a project that aims to get aspiring authors/nutcases to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November. To achieve your target, you must write 1,667 words each day, every day, without fail, even if your dog just threw up right in front of you and you have pneumonia and you've worked a 12-hour shift . . .

Basically, NaNoWriMo is self-inflicted literary torture, but people are supposed to do it FOR FUN.

I've written before about my very mixed emotions regarding the use and worth of NaNo. The idea of it is wonderful, and it truly works for many people. A lot of very good and very beloved novels began as NaNo projects, and I'd be a big liar if I didn't acknowledge its role in my own book's creation.

NaNoWriMo class of 2005
But I'd also be untruthful if I pretended that the word document I ended up with on the 30th of November 2011 in any way resembles the book that will be available for purchase come May 2014. After NaNoWriMo finished I couldn't even bear to look at what I'd written for about four months. I picked it up next in March and proceeded to completely re-write the entire manuscript. Then I put it down for another year (while I did my MA), then I did another complete re-write, then I submitted to agents and then (I am seriously not exaggerating any of this) I knocked 25,000 words off the manuscript I had submitted at my new agent's suggestion.

So, did NaNoWriMo help me write a book? Yes. Did it help me write a good book? Er, no. And that's (at least partly) because NaNo's most basic flaw is that it values sheer quantity of words produced over quality. Writing at speed can produce amazing results, but what it usually produces is a pile of utter pants that needs to be mercilessly reworked before it is ready to show to other human beings.

My NaNo draft of Murder Most Unladylike (and I can't stress this enough) was HORRIBLE. It was AWFUL. I knew about Daisy, and Hazel, and I knew who the murderer was (I wrote their name down on the first page of my notebook and then felt proud because I had Created A Plot), but I had no idea how my detectives were going to end up solving the mystery, or even what the mystery actually was. Basically, I had no understanding of the world I was creating or the story I was telling - which, when I look back on this now, makes me feel a bit wobbly.

Last week I went to a Holly Black event where someone asked a question about writers' block. Writers' block, Holly replied, shouldn't be seen as a problem in itself. What it is is a symptom, and so instead of behaving like you have been struck down by the black spot and there is nothing to be done but despair (she didn't say this, I'm paraphrasing), you should use your feeling of writers' block to diagnose the deeper plot issues you're having.

NaNoWriMo class of 2011
I love this attitude! I think it's incredibly true. I can't ever write a scene if I haven't seen it very clearly in my head first. I also need to know who the characters in the scene are, why they're there and what they're saying to each other, and I can't know that if I don't know the story I'm telling. For me, writers' block is a big red flag that says YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE DOING, GO AWAY AND COME BACK WHEN YOU ARE MORE PREPARED. And, for me, a project like NaNo doesn't allow this kind of breathing-space, or warn its participants that such a breathing-space is necessary.

But, see, I don't know if I'd have discovered that if I hadn't had full and shocking experience of what happens when I don't know my story. I learned that I do need structure, and I do need to plan (and then I discovered colour-coded plotting on huge spreadsheets,but that's another story). So in a way, NaNo's big problem gave me a very big revelation that I've been using ever since.

NaNo also gave me a big wake-up call about output. Those 1,667 words a day taught me that writing a sentence doesn't need to take twenty minutes. It can take that long, and sometimes it needs to, and that's OK, but the way I pre-plan scenes (I watch them in my head, like puppet-shows, several times over) means that when I come to actually write I am capable of turning out 1,000 words in an hour without breaking a sweat. Actually, if I try, I can do a lot better than that. I recently finished work on the first draft of something totally non-Daisy and Hazel related, and I think I must have written the last 10,000 words in about five inspired hours one afternoon. Afterwards my brain felt like someone had cleaned it out with a stick, and I am absolutely sure that those 10,000 words will need an enormous edit, but again that's OK, because re-writing is the part of the writing process that I really love. And that's another thing that I've learned about myself since my first NaNo effort.

These days I mostly write my books during my morning commute, which at the moment is 50 minutes on the train. I sit down, I open my laptop, and then I gather all my NaNo knowhow and sprint-write for 45 minutes flat. And that's my wordcount done for the day! I've learned how to leap into to my world and my scene and just go with it, and that's an extremely valuable writing lesson that doing NaNo has taught me. You can edit later, and you ALWAYS ALWAYS SHOULD. Please. Seriously. You need to. But if you don't get those words out, there will be nothing to edit, and then you'll really be in trouble.

So what I think I'm saying is this: all writing exercises are incredibly valuable, even if what you get out of them initially feels more negative than positive. Projects like NaNoWriMo can help you kickstart yourself as a writer, and I'd advise all aspiring novelists to have a go. I'd even advise you to stick at it all the way to the end of the month, even if you're hating it and not making wordcount. But what I wouldn't advise is for you to do it again, if you gave it a real go and still discovered that it doesn't work for you. Writing isn't school (thank goodness) - there's no 'correct' way to make a book. Try everything, and then ignore what doesn't work (no matter how popular it is) and just do what feels fun and right for you. Because, seriously, the only writing advice that will actually help you is this:

KEEP WRITING THE BOOK UNTIL IT IS FINISHED. And then go back to the beginning and write it again.

Happy November.