Month: September 2013

Undisciplined Writing

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For me, one of the hardest things about writing a story is keeping the plot under control.

Most authors seem to be able to construct a nice, orderly line which connects each scene and pushes the plot sensibly towards its resolution. When I try to do it, I feel like I’m wrestling with an uncooperative python. Whole new characters and concepts erupt from the page like pirates, hijacking my meticulously planned narrative and steering it wildly off course.

“Aha! Simon-lad! You weren’t be expectin’ a dragon to raise its head there now, were ye?” This literary usurper even has a pirate voice.

“No. Of course not. There aren’t any dragons in this story. It’s about an accountant.”

“There be dragons now! Deal with it, landlubber.”

This can be fun and I know it’s led to some good ideas – I sometimes feel like I’m discovering the story for the first time, rather than distilling the thoughts that have been clogging me up all day.

But it means that I don’t tell the exact story that I set out to tell.

I tried to write “The Clockwork Butterfly” as a simple, linear (although obviously incredibly exciting) fantasy story. Six years later it turns out that it includes a massively complex time travelling paradox (and Vikings and vuryl and the Carnival Umbretico) that will require at least seven more huge tomes to explain. It certainly, to my mind, makes the novel richer and more interesting, but it bears only passing resemblance to what I imagined when I started.

“Charlie’s Worries” seems to be taking a similar diversion at the moment too. I was thinking about this problem yesterday morning and I decided that I would use the upcoming NaNoWriMo to exercise my focussing muscle. After a few moments thought though I realised that this wouldn’t be appropriate really. NaNoWriMo celebrates the wild flights of fancy that come and encourages the writer to be as free as possible. It would be counter-productive to impose any self-imposed constraints.

So I shrugged and forgot about it for a bit.

Later, while trying to match various agents with their twitter accounts, I came across a link to Hot Key Unlocked. A writing competition sort of thing? A competition where I’m given a strict outline to work to? A competition that is absolutely what I would not usually write?

This is surely too much of a coincidence. This is the perfect opportunity to test my focus. To write the first 2,000 words of a 20,000 word novella about romance and love and sexy stuff will test me to the limit.

It’s got to be submitted by 13th October. So I’m going to give it a go.

Twitter… Now I understand!

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Something rather marvellous happened yesterday. Something similar to a technological fairytale, or perhaps the beginning of one anyway.

Over the last month or two I’ve started to stalk literary agents and publishers on Twitter as part of my overall scheme to get a novel published. I’ve replied to a few of their tweets, injecting as much wisdom, humour and professional writing skills as I can into each 140 character missive as is logically possible.

No one has replied so far.

But I don’t take this to mean that my wisdom, humour and professionalism have been ignored. No. I think I’m inching into the minds of these gatekeepers like a mental parasite. When they next read a piece from me, a tiny trigger might click and they’ll realise that I’m the very same person who corrected their spelling or told them how wrong they were to like something. Check! Connection made.

Some tweets, though, don’t need correcting. Photos posted from literary events. Announcements that a client’s book has been placed. Publishing dates published… All proof that beyond my study, writerly things are happening.

One such post caught which caught my attention had an agent sounding comment on it from @someoneididntrecognise. After clicking through to her details and then to her blog, it did indeed turn out to be someone in the literary world. In fact an agent who was about to restart her agenting career.

Attaching my best Twittering fingers, I fired off a tweet, asking whether it was a secret where she was about to work and also a note saying how good her blog was. As usual, this led to much time wasting as I checked my Twitter feed once every three seconds.

Three hours and 3,600 checks later, @someoneiwasrecognising twet back saying thanks and “Not long til I can let you know now x” (note the kiss). A genuine message from a soon to be literary agent.

I grabbed the bull by the horns and replied immediately.

Are you accepting sneaky pre-officialagentedpostion submissions? #cheekygrin#rapaciousselfpromotion

(Hashtags are always funny and relevant)

Everything was on show within this tweet. I’ve heard of hashtags. I can make up words. I supposedly know what rapacious means. And I’m being funny about it. She’ll think I’m a genius.

Amazingly, she got back to me straight away. The great thing about twitter is you can read the whole tweet before you get nervous about what it might say. Not that those horrific rejection emails. And this was not a rejection at all. This was an acceptance. She was going to DM me my deets. Which sounded good.

Mere moments later (and these were moments expanded by the time-slip law of anticipation) her deets were indeed DMed to me. (I got her email address via the medium of direct messaging)

So, I dusted off my query letter, cunningly rewrote it to incorporate reference to our Twitter exchange, and sent off the first three chapters and the hopelessly dry synopsis of “The Clockwork Butterfly”.

She, a person not a automatic response, replied back and I wished her luck when she finally revealed her secrets in the future.

So, all in all, it’s just one more query to one more agent. But this one feels like it has a much more personal touch. I made tenuous contact first and I’ve read all of her blog so I do feel I know a bit about her. And she sounds nice.

Fingers crossed.

There’s a postscript to this which is both inspiring and terrifyingly intimidating.

I follow this secret agent on WordPress now and her latest post is in reply to a challenge she must have received on Twitter. I think it’s amazing, but I didn’t want to come across as too sycophantic, so I feel a bit silly “liking” it on her blog. If you want to see it I’ve added the link below…

How can I “write what I know” when nothing interesting happens to me?

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When I was younger, I desperately wanted to go to Narnia.

I had a remarkably specific theory that my adventure would begin in a shop. So, whenever I went shopping with my mum, I would spend most of the time rooting around each shop trying to find a magic wormhole. Now I’m more grown up I can see that this might have been distracting or perhaps even slightly annoying, but at the time I was utterly convinced that one day I would be successful.

I wasn’t.

As I got older and the seventies turned into the eighties, I began to resent the ordinariness of the time that we lived in. In days of yore there were battles to be won, dragons to be slain and damsels to be rescued. In the future men would travel to the stars where there would be space battles to be won, aliens to be disintegrated and space maidens to be rescued.

But now? Now, all we had was a brook, a disused railway line and a forest. But where was the excitement in those? We whiled away our time catching sticklebacks or wading as far up or down stream as our inadequate wellies would allow. We followed the railway line to its ends, scurrying through the hostile areas ruled by the teenagers from the “Scotch” estate. And we’d lose ourselves for hours in the dark recesses of the acres of woodland. But it wasn’t an adventure. You couldn’t write a book about it.

The eighties became the nineties. I went to university and began the long project of working out how women work. A project doomed to failure as I loved and lost and loved again. My heart was broken a few times and then finally fixed when I met the love of my life. I lived on the breadline. Sometimes using change from WH Smith vouchers to buy some food and I joined a startup company that might have changed the way computer games are written. But none of this was worth writing about.

And then in the noughties I became a husband and a father. I watched a tiny human develop from vomit producing helplessness into belligerent disdain. We bought a house and I lay awake worrying about the size of my mortgage and how my careless sarcasm might affect the children sleeping in the rooms across the landing.

More recently, my better half has had professional injustices thrust upon her. She’s fought against despair more bravely than I certainly would and yet she has been sorely wounded. This is my time to shine. I can be a hero by being gentle and kind and just loving her with all my heart. Here are different battles to be fought and more complex dragons to be slain. And literally a beautiful damsel in distress to be rescued.

I never quite realised how many stories there were.

Where should I start?

To Estimate or Not To Estimate

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I was trying to explain the difference between my job and my better half’s job to my daughter when she pointed out that the company I worked for was quite small.

“There’s only about nine people at your work, isn’t there?” She said.

“Yes. There’s ten.” I replied.

“Well,” she said, fixing a beady eye on me and crossing her arms. “I said ‘about nine’, didn’t I?”

“Yes, darling. You did. I was just pointing out that there were exactly ten.”

“And does it make a huge difference?” He arms were folding themselves tighter and tighter and her eyes becoming beadier.

“No.” I said. “Not really. But if you’re giving someone an estimate, you would usually round it up. In this case to ten.”

“Really.” It was not a question.

“Yes. Really. You wouldn’t say :’There are nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty somethings’ if you thought there were about a million somethings, would you?”

“I would.”

“Well that’s silly, darling.”

“Ask me how many minions Gru has in Despicable Me.”

I fought back a sigh. “How many minions does Gru have?”

“Nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty… one.”

“Exactly?”

“No. About nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty one.”

“Well that’s about a million, isn’t it?”

“Yes. But it’s also about nine hundred and ninety five thousand, four hundred and thirty one.”

“This is true, darling. But isn’t it easier to just say, about a million?”

“No.”

“OK.”

There was a bit of a silence.

Then she said: “How many dads are there in the world?”

The question was asked without particular menace, but after a quick calculation I’d worked out that there were a lot of potential replacements for me.

“About two and a half billion.”

Another silence.

“And how did you work that out?”

“Well, there’s about seven billion people in the world…”

“Are there exactly seven billion?”

“No, of course not.”

“HA! Then why not say ten billion people? Are you an idiot? You’ve just told me that if you’re estimating something you should round it up. And now you say seven!”

She was not interested in the rest of my calculations.

She is about twenty years old. But exactly eleven.

Is “Huge” bigger than “Massive”?

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One of my friends at work  (and by friend I mean annoying colleague) gave me some advice about writing the other day. He basically said that good writing didn’t repeat the same word over and over again when referring to the same thing. It was better to trawl through a thesaurus for another word that had a similar meaning, rather than repeat one he’d used before.

For example:

The sailor gazed up at the colossal ship. He watched the mariners aboard the gigantic vessel, busying themselves with seafaring duties. The enormous craft’s massive masts soared high above them, immense sails, huge against the midday sun.

I have resisted the urge to punch his face until now, but I can feel my ire stirring again.

Stephen King says in his book On Writing that the aspiring writer should never use a thesaurus. Ever. I may be misquoting him, but I think he means that your writing should flow from your own personal font of words, not contaminated by someone else’s subjective list.

Sometimes I (to my eternal shame and probable literary damnation) do use a thesaurus. It occasionally gives me the inspiration I need when I’m searching for just the right word or phrase to express my exact meaning.

But it  has to be used wisely.

Go to thesaurus.com and look up Majestic. You’ll find a marvellous list of synonyms from august to superb. Click on Lofty and you’ll link through to another list containing Tall. Click that to find Lanky. And that to find Meagre.

So, Majestic sort of means Lofty, which sort of means Tall which sort of means Lanky which sort of means Meagre.

How can this be? How can a word sort of mean something that sort of means its opposite?

Well, the answer is that most thesauruses (thesauri?) are completely context-free. Or, to put it another way, they are only one-dimensional.

“A one-dimensional thesaurus?” I hear you say. “Have you gone completely bonkers? Are you suggesting that we should have a two-dimensional one?”

Well, sort of. Perhaps a multi-dimensional thesaurus would be more appropriate. Or better still, because it sounds more scientific and less science fictiony, an n-vectored thesaurus.

“I give up.” You say. ” I’m a writer, not a nerd and this is changing into a geekfest.”

“Don’t go!” I plead. “I promise not to use n-vectored again.”

What I’m trying to say is that a thesaurus doesn’t understand the context of the word you’re looking up.

I’m not only talking about the fact that words can have many different meanings. In the sentence “Time flies like an arrow while fruit flies like a banana”, both “flies” and “like” mean two different things. “Like” means both “similar to” and “enjoy”; “flies” means both “the act of flying” and “those pesky, six-legged things that do the flying thing”.

What I want to draw attention to is the fact that to an adept reader most words convey more information than merely their defined meaning.

Mary stood, unaccompanied, at the orphanage door.

To me, there is little to infer from “unaccompanied” other than the fact that she’s the only person there. It’s a very matter-of-fact word that seems to hold very little emotion.

Mary stood, alone, at the orphanage door.

Now we start to get subjective. I think there is slightly more pathos in this sentence. She’s not milking the scene, but alone probably pulls on the reader’s own memories of feeling alone rather than being unaccompanied.

Mary stood, forlorn, at the orphanage door.

Now, forlorn’s main dictionary definition is “desolate or dreary” and so the reader is forced to assume that while Mary might be on her own, she is definitely sad. And this is what I mean by vectors of meaning. Forlorn has (at least) two in this context. “Desolate and dreary” and “Unaccompanied”

Mary stood, forsaken, at the orphanage door.

This implies someone has left her alone there, which adds a third vector. I would also read a level of sadness into it too. But is it less sad, or more sad than “forlorn”? What is the sadness vector’s magnitude?

This is a hugely subjective question that probably depends on all sorts of factors: what you’ve read, where you were brought up, general outlook on life. It could even be that you’ve seen one specific usage of that word that struck a particular chord with you. But the point is, changing one word for another that sort of means the same thing can change the emotional context of your writing.

It gets worse too.

Mary stood, isolated, at the orphanage door.

In this case Mary could be surrounded by people, but distinct from them for some reason.

All these words are synonyms for alone on thesaurus.com and each one serves a different, specific purpose.

So, beware!

I was listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs where the guest was Daniel Kahneman  He’s obviously a hugely intelligent chap, and he chose a thesaurus as the other book he would take to the island. The reason he gave was to play a game with it to while away those endless castaway days. And the game was to identify the differences between the words put forward as synonyms for each entry…

Procrastination, Professionalism or Cowardice…

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Since coming home from Crete and getting back into mundane swing of normal life I have done very little actual writing. There are a few reasons for this, ranging from crippling curiosity about how my prospective agents are getting on, to genuinely urgent work projects or home tasks, and, of course, procrastination.

Ah, procrastination! My mortal enemy. If it were not for you I would be the emperor of Northamptonshire… if not the world. Why does the insignificant always take on such a fascinating sheen when I should be embroidering a blank page with magic? Why am I drawn to frivolous diversions like a chubby, flightless moth to the intoxicating flame of distraction?

Who knows?

So, today I have:

  1. Sent off another query to one other agent
  2. Added a little widget to my Excel spreadsheet of agent queries which now counts how many replies I’ve had on each day of the week… (5 for Mondays and Tuesdays, 2 for Wednesdays, 3 for Thursdays and 1 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday)
  3. Rejoined FirstWriter.com
  4. Written this blog entry
  5. Completed level 181 of Candy Crush
  6. Made my twitter page look lovely – (The photo of the sky is from the Scillies, the land from Crete)
  7. Spent a while looking up procrastination on the web… this is meta-procrastination.
  8. Sorted out my seldom used apps on my iPad
  9. Decided to do NaNoWriMo, so spent some time pondering what that novel should be about

Maybe 1 and 3 are prodding my writing career slightly forwards, but even though I’ve spent some time trying I don’t believe the others are. If I’d spent the time writing instead of doing these things perhaps I wouldn’t have got another rejection. This one from Gillie Russell at Aitken Alexander Associates. This rejection may have come out of cowardice though: I wimped out of writing that I’d chosen her because I thought she had kind eyes. So I’ll put this failure down to being too professional.

A Tiny Ray of Sunshine from an Unexpected Direction

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One of my test readers for The Clockwork Butterfly is the son of my best friend. And when I say friend, I really mean that I tolerate him as an acquaintance, but I’d like to keep him sweet because his son is useful.

This test reader is a young man of impeccable taste, renowned intellectual rigour and piercing wit. He’s also eleven. My “friend” has informed me that his son is enjoying the book and was knocked out when he realised who wrote it. This was encouraging but could easily have been a white lie to keep the pretence of our friendship alive.

However my daughter has been speaking to my young test reader and has elicited a little gem of information that has alleviated some of the crippling melancholy laced around my heart.

He said to her that it was the second best book he’d ever read. She told me this with a straight face. I did a little dance and then made her repeat what he’d told her.

Awesome.

My next course of action is to find out what is his favourite book and spoil it for him somehow so that mine becomes his all time favourite.

Utter Torture

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I have now received 15 rejections from various literary agencies for The Clockwork Butterfly. And each one hurts like the crushing of a childhood dream.

There is a pattern to it now.

I check my emails every few minutes. It doesn’t matter what time it is. In my mind agents beaver away reading unsolicited material twenty four hours a day and my writing is so good that they won’t be able to wait a second to send me a gushing email telling me how great I am. And how they would sell their diamond encrusted pants for the chance to represent me.

So I check. And (very, very occasionally) there is an email from an agent. I am immediately paralyzed. This is it. This is the one. Someone has finally recognised my genius. But I am unable to open the email because a tiny part of me knows that it’s another rejection. My mouse hovers over the email. And then, holding my breath, I click on it.

The first time I read it I don’t understand any of the words. It must be a defence mechanism to stop the excitement or hurt destroying my soul.

I calm down. Exhale. And read it again. And it turns out that perhaps I’m not a genius. I’ve been rejected.

A few minutes later, I read it again, just to make sure I haven’t misunderstood what they’re saying. But I haven’t. I’m still a reject.

Then I get cross. And I stamp about and complain that they obviously didn’t read it properly. And that they’re stupid. And fat. And smell. How could they not realise how brilliant it was? I’m going to write back and tell them how wrong they are. About everything.

Then I’m stomach churningly sad and I mope.

This whole process has now happened fifteen times. It’s a positive yet horrific thought to think that it could happen another thirty or forty times before I’ve exhausted my list of potentials. I am unsure if I’ll be able to cope.

Of the fifteen rejections thirteen have been bog standard, copy and paste daggers through my heart. The other two have been ever so slightly more encouraging. Jamie Cowen from The Ampersand Agency said:

You can clearly write, and there is a good deal of imagination on display in terms of the plot. Sam is cleverly thought-out and will appeal to a broad audience, and the cast of supporting characters is remarkable in its scope.

Which is nice and fairly specific to my novel. The other one, from Clarie Wilson at Rogers, Coleridge and White was less specific and now that I’ve read it again may just be a standard reply (disguised for the willingly gullible). I read it the first time and felt enthused though so I’ll still count it as encouraging…

The most confusing email I got was from Madeleine Milburn. I was on holiday (which I mistakenly thought would make the waiting easier) and we were out and about, but that didn’t stop me checking my emails every few minutes. And I went through the process mentioned above. Now Madeleine Milburn is one that I have high hopes for so I was even more excited about this and deliberated for longer than usual before opening it.

And… its title was “Celebrating SOULMATES publication with the Madeleine Milburn Agency” Now, my book is not called SOULMATES, which is a clue that this was not about me, but it didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For the best part of a minute my addled brain tried to wrestle the words in the email into an order that said they wanted to represent me… I failed. It was an email telling me about a new blog post from Madeleine Milburn. And I felt like a reject once again. (Heartfelt congratulations to Holly Bourne though – now that I’ve recovered)