Unanswerable questions

So, tell us about your novel.

It’s the question that authors hate – the first time, at least. The good thing is that we get asked it so often that we have time to prepare an answer; to evolve a soundbite that we can wheel out and reuse as required. Mine begins with ‘it’s a murder mystery set in near-future Antarctica…’ and often stops there too.

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Stolen from markpollard.net

A book description, however, is a different beast. It’s disturbingly close to being a blurb – a written account of your book that the publisher will use for publicity. As such it’s got to be punchy, moody and to the point – but, unlike a synopsis, it has to avoid spoilers and the end must remain resolutely not given away.

Then there’s the author biography. How much character do you want to put into that? Where’s the fine line between

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dull and factual and cringe-makingly jokey and self-reverential?

Guess what I’m doing at the moment?

 

Yup, it’s another ‘author questionnaire’ for my publisher: the document that they’ll use to try and flog my efforts – to bookstores, to distributors and to the media, should they be interested in interviewing me in whatever form.

And it’s horrible. This is the second time I’ve had to do it and it’s wincingly horrible. Even though I can copy-and-paste some of my answers from the last time I did it, I just have to have a little tinker and in a trice I find myself back inside the prison of my attempts to make myself sound interesting.

Interesting but not an attention-seeking freak: again, it’s a fine line.

It is, in fact, rather like writing this blog.

Some people, no dog

Last Friday I did my first ever ‘Meet the Author’ event, turning out at Earlham library in Norwich to be interrogated by the great and good. Or, at least, to meet the few people who didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday teatime.

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The only photo of the event I have, thanks to my wife having to wrangle the small one whilst 

The crowd was small – it wasn’t quite one man and his dog but it wasn’t too far off. The crowd was bolstered by my own family (a mixed blessing), but an audience is still an audience. And worthy of my best efforts, which I gave in the form of a brief talk, a reading, and a Q&A.

And I had fun, I think, and (I’m told) went down okay. There were enough questions to make the whole thing feel worthwhile – a good one on the use of 1st person as opposed to third, and another on what about the commute from the library to home (as I described in the talk) had given me the idea for a novel set in Antarctica.

Anyway, all this dashing about across the country means I’ve little to discuss this week. I’m a busy bee right now and writing has suffered; I’m still trying to edit the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift, working on my workshop for Edge-Lit (and imbibing as much grimdark as possible before my panel there) – I’m even trying to contemplate writing something new for the first time in years.

So I’m not idle. Promise. I just don’t have much to say right now.

Hope you’re managing to be more productive!

Nervousness

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Nervous System – photograph by Daniel Kulinski

Morning all. Today I am all of a tremble because tonight I’m appearing at Earlham library in Norfolk for a tiny talklet, Q&A and, if anyone’s actually bought a copy, a signing.

What with that and finishing a big copy-edit I haven’t much to say this week. I’m currently doing a beta-read for a friend and I’ll shortly be returning my attention to the pass of the third novel in the Australis series (the sequel to the sequel to Night Shift) that I perpetually seem to be starting and having to put on hold.

And then… what then? No doubt I’ll have more editing to do, with which I can pay (some of) the bills. I also need to get back to Oneiromancer and do a big rewrite; I’m still turning this over and readying myself for the task ahead. I suspect that’s a months-long job, not just the odd half-hour here and there.

And then… then maybe, just maybe I’ll… write something new?

It’s been a long, long time since I first-drafted anything. I have ideas – so many ideas – but they’ve been percolating for so long that I’m not sure they haven’t dissolved into some formless, tasteless soup in the depths of my soup; a viscous brain-goop with fragments of character and plot floating lifeless on the surface like so much pond-scum.

But that’s the fun of writing. I’ll have to take what I can remember, and what notes I made, and reconstitute them into something better, faster, stronger.

That or I… won’t. I’ll be found out as the empty vacuous has-been that secretly I’ve been all along.

But that’s worry’s for the future. For now I have more immediate worrying to do.

Hope to see at least some of you tonight.

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Events forthcoming

Imposter syndrome is vicious and cruel and unfair. It’s also not forever. Fresh off last week’s soul-torment I now find myself in the crisp, clear waters of a restorative weekend away where I did nothing, achieved nothing, but found good news awaiting on my return.

Sadly, good news (especially that which you can’t share) makes for less than interesting copy. So let me fill this column with a couple of forthcoming events that I’d love to see you at.

First of all, I’m doing a ‘meet the author’ session at the library in which I used to work. This’ll take the form of a brief chat, a similarly brief reading, and then (probably) the briefest of all Q&As; all on 31st May at 17:30.

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Earlham library was the best of places for me; I loved that job – not only working with books but helping people of all stripes for the sheer love of helping; I – and all other library assistants the world over – work without any self-interest; nothing is being sold, there is no ulterior motive but to make other people happy. How wonderful is that?

It’s also the place where I started both reading and writing seriously. Before I started there, in 2005, my reading-for-pleasure had been subsumed by studies and my writing had been a series of starts-and-fails. By the time I left (2011) I’d written three novels and was contemplating the story that would eventually turn into Night Shift.

So this signing is deeply personal to me. Expect me to tear up at least once throughout the evening, even if, as I kinda expect, it’ll only be a few friends and me.

Secondly, I’m going to be at Edge-Lit in Derby on July 13th. This is my first convention, if one doesn’t count its younger sibling Sledge-Lit, and the first I’m attending as an author. I’m going to be doing a workshop (‘The Art of Description’), a panel (The Future of Grimdark, with some of the best authors ever) and a reading.

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I’m pretty terrified (imposter!) about all this. So please do come along and tell me it’s all going to be okay, hmm?

They say nothing succeeds like success. That’s bollocks. Really what they mean is nothing makes success like friends. And I really hope to both meet some old and make some new over the course of these events.

 

On Air #3

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This is, as per bloomin’ usual, a photo stolen from the internet. I do not look that good.

I’m buried in proofreading and copy-editing at the moment, my deadlines teaming up to smack me oop-side the head. And my daughter has the plague, which is… unhelpful. These are my primary excuses for not having much to say this week.

So please excuse the brevity of this communique. But if you want to hear more about some of my writerly philosophies and the problems of cultural insensitivity, you might like to check out this interview I did on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Monday.

I’m on from around 02:20 in, right after Katy Perry. I’m in and out for nearly 40 mins, which came as something of a surprise to me.

Big thanks and kudos to Charlie Thompson for making me feel at ease and for drawing out the best of us guests. Remember, if you ever do interviews like this, the host is your ally. They will do their best to make you sound good.

And now it’s back to the word-mines with me. Them deadlines won’t meet themselves.

Hopefully I’ll have broken the back of them – and have maybe done something more interesting – in time for next week’s blog.

In the meantime may the words rise up to meet the pen.

On Interviews

Q & A

I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.

It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.

Buckle up, folks. Here we go:

‘Paper’ Interviews

These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.

The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.

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Some quick pointers:

  • Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
  • Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
  • Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
  • If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
  • If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
  • Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
  • Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
  • Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
  • Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
  • Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
  • You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?

Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews

If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.

That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.

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Onto the advice:

  • Pretty much all the above applies
  • If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
    • Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
    • Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
    • Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
  • Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
  • Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
  • Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
  • It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
  • What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
  • You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
  • Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
  • Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
  • Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
  • …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
  • Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
  • Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
  • Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
  • Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!

Homer

And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing!

On air #2

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If anyone’s interested in listening to me disappearing down conversational crevasses, I was on BBC Radio Guernsey on Thursday. Despite having no connection with the Channel Islands for over 500 years (very distant ancestry) I can be heard via this link just around the 02:03 hour mark. Right after Aretha Franklin.

See if you can work out where Jenny Kendall-Tobias is reading from the promo pack she was sent. And keep on listening to hear an interview from a Strictly contestant and to catch up with all the local news.