Closing in

victory

If the quality of my rejections is anything to go by, I’m getting closer.

Yes, it’s another round of ‘near but not near enough’. Last time the rejection was because only special novels need apply. This time it was ‘something about the tone just doesn’t sing with me.’

But the rejection was personalised – which is relatively rare – and some lovely things were said. ‘[Characters] are brilliantly realised’; ‘the writing has real zip and purpose’. I’ll take that, for sure.

I’m getting closer. I’m getting the cover letter right, and I know my work is good. And yes, this may be self-delusion but I believe in what I’ve written. Today, at least; I may feel different tomorrow.

The problem is that I’ve run out of agents to target. Or at least I’m finding it hard to track any more down. I’ve been on the manuscript wishlist website and I’ve been through the Writers’ And Artist’s Yearbook but I don’t want to do things like that anymore; no more blank sending out of queries. I want to find an agent that I feel a connection with, and that basically means liking what they say on Twitter.

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Maybe I should go back to lists and try and hit out randomly. I don’t know. There just seems to be a limited pool of agents who work in the field and I’ve already struck out with most of them. Certainly in my world the same names seem to come up again and again.

So what do I do? Well, I won’t get into a panic or allow myself to get too down. I’ve probably forgotten about a dozen people who are worth submissions. I’ll get to them, I’m sure. I’ll check who my favourite authors are repped by and see if I can’t jump on that particular bandwagon (assuming I’ve not already fallen flat on my face).

And I will of course keep on writing. The best book to sell is always your next one; it’s always the best you’ve ever written.

I am on the right track but it is a tortuous, pitfall-filled road with many slips ‘twixt cup and lip.

But I am making progress. I’ll get to my destination one day.

Unless, of course, this is all massive self-delusion. Don’t be surprised to read a remarkably similar post from me in a year, two years, five years’ time. The industry works slowly, and so do I.

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No flow

flow

At the time of writing I am 47,000 words into my new, refuses-to-be-named, manuscript. And I don’t think I’ve ever written something that’s put up such a fight. And, possibly, is as ropey.

It has been a struggle to get this far. I’ve had to claw for every sentence; at its most difficult I’ve literally taken a break after every few words. Yes, I have become that cliché. But I have kept going, still building one word upon another until an edifice of characters has arisen, rickety and unstable, out of the detritus of my mind.

What I have not yet done is enter a flow state where I lose myself in writing and everything – well, everything flows. I’ve not been in the zone, which is a shame because I’ve been there before and it’s a wonderful feeling; euphoric, even, as you lose yourself in your world and your writing and time seems to disappear as the words amass without, it seems, much input from you.

But that’s okay. And it’s not a problem that I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the words I’ve got down are, in fact, rubbish. It’s hard to tell, when first drafting, whether you’re producing perfect prose or barely-salvageable trash. I suspect the latter.

 

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It’s always easier to rescue a damaged project than it is to start afresh, and so I am forging on. I am, in fact, mostly blocking out my novel, both on a macro- and micro level. I am working out what happens across the whole flow of the story. And I am working out what happens in individual scenes. This high-level thought is taking priority over finding the right words, even over building perfect atmosphere or character.

And it’s hard work. Designing a scene, for example, where protagonist #1 finds herself in someone else’s dream and must fight off a troll and a wolf: there’s a lot of movement, a lot of drama to be created. This is the real imagination-work.

I am, essentially, storyboarding with words and at the same time trying to work it into novel form. Not easy.

Makes me wonder – again – if I should have written an outline – the novel equivalent of a storyboard – before starting the Big Write. But I haven’t, and that’s alright too. As long as the words go down you can write a novel any way that works for you.

Maybe next time I’ll do it properly.

Or maybe not.

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Autodidact

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It’s not something I’m proud of, especially; it’s not as if one method is better than any other. But when it comes to writing I am more or less entirely self-taught.

This is both true and not true: I must confess, for example, that both of my parents are writers and so from the very start I had access to beta-readers who could teach me about things like dangling modifiers, not leaving too much space between a question and an answer, and the unmangling of metaphors.

But in terms of education I am a nobody. English was never my favourite subject in school and I didn’t learn much from it. My highest writing qualification is a GCSE grade B, which is nothing compared to those highfalutin’ MAs and MFAs I see floating around.

I guess I have a tiny inferiority complex about this. I often fantasise about doing a course in fiction writing, especially those in either De Montfort University so I can learn from my friend Rod Duncan (buy his books, they’re great) or at the UEA, with its world-renowned MA in creative writing.

But what would I learn from such a course? That’s what no-one has ever actually explained to me. What could be taught that I haven’t already picked up for myself on my misadventure of a life?

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I should say that I’ve read extensively on the art of fiction. I do enjoy a good writing guide. I’m not sure how much I learnt from any of them, though. They tend to pass through as white noise, with only the odd phrase or two entering my consciousness. I guess that, whilst they don’t change how I write, they at least serve to make me aware of what I’m doing and perhaps influence how I treat voice, or structure, or some such. Just a little, you understand.

But truly most of what I’ve learnt has come courtesy of writing groups and beta readers. Being critiqued has been, for me, the best way to improve and to grow as a writer. Taking criticism seriously, with the respect it deserves, is important and a key driver to my own personal development. I was shown what I was not good at and I did my very best to get better at it.

That and reading, of course. Not reading to improve, nor of reading dry text books, but simply reading for fun. Books for adults and for children, classics and potboilers. Just reading because I love to read. That’s the other half of the equation. Reading and writing both together.

Would I have been a better writer if I’d got an expensive education to go with it? Maybe. If anyone out there has an MA in creative writing I’d love to hear from you. What did it give you? Was it worth it?

Let me finish by listing a few books on the subject that have helped me become the writer I am today. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a recommendation or not:

  • Chuck Wendig: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing
  • Will Storr: The Science of Storytelling
  • Laurie R. King & Michelle Spring: Crime and Thriller Writing
  • Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
  • Rib Davies: Writing Dialogue for Scripts
  • Robert McKee: Story
  • Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature

Cheery bye.

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Rejections redux

sorry

If, by any fluke of social media or suchlike, you see me as an established author then let me reassure you that I still get rejections. I want an agent, see, and I am at the moment completely failing to get one.

This Monday morning, first thing, saw a fresh rejection arrive in my inbox. It was kind. They said I wrote with intelligence and imagination and that they enjoyed my sample. But it wasn’t enough for them to fall in love with, to make them fall over themselves with the burning desire to read more.

The rejection contained the specific message: good is no longer good enough; to get a debut accepted you have to be special. And with it the unspoken criticism that my work is not special.

Now I’m not here to criticise this agent – or any agents – or the publishing industry. I’m writing this more of a self-analysis, and a sort of follow-up to the post I posted a few weeks ago. The thing is this: I want to be special. I want to be good at something – properly good. And I’ve been getting a little disheartened recently. I’ve been reading a lot of debuts and yes, in the main they are excellent.

I can’t compete.

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Which is a damn shame because I’m getting older all the time and this – writing – is my last hurrah. I’ve tried sports, tried music, tried academia and this is the last thing I think – I thought – I could actually be good at and build a proper career.

This is, of course, silly. Writing isn’t (directly) a competition. I should be enjoying these great new authors. And I am. I’m also learning from them, if by learning you mean shaking your head in admiration and finding your mind expanded by sheer proximity to their mighty, mighty brains.

But I want what they have. And it’s for all this that I want an agent. I want someone to help me with my work, someone on my side who can see the potential of what I’m doing and believes in me; who advises me on how hard I can push self-promotion and when I’m pushing my luck; who knows the industry and can show me wider audiences and greener fields. The money, the deals – they’re secondary.

I know, I know. I have a book traditionally published and another on the way. There are people who would (not literally, I hope) kill for what I’ve got. I’m shallow and selfish and egotistical. This is more of a confessional and a mental purgative than it is a true reflection of where I am.

Also I need to say that I don’t mean to put anyone off writing, or seeking representation, or going the traditional route into publication. It is often harder to find an agent than it is to get a book published; Peter McLean, for example, had three excellent books published before he found his agent. You can do it – I’m sure you’re better than me anyway. You really are special.

The other takeaway from this is that you should be reading as many debut authors as possible. They’re all brilliant.

The hardest part

Brian John Spencer - Ernest Hemingway

There’s always debate: which part of the novel is hardest to write. Some say beginning, some argue passionately that no, it’s the end where the problems doth dwell. For me I think it’ll always be the bits in the middle. Specifically the bits between the inciting incident (at around 15-25% through) and the mid-novel climax.

Beginnings are easy: find a good cinematically happy starting point and start writing. No doubt you’ll change your mind half a dozen times before you’re satisfied, and maybe it’ll be a headache in the revision process, but for first drafting I’ve never found it too much of a problem.

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As for endings – well, it can be complex to tie up all your threads in a way that’s concise and satisfying, but at least by that point you know what all your threads are. After a certain point you’re writing downhill anyway: you’ve released all your pigeons and now they’re coming home to roost. I find that endings tend to come more or less naturally after all the hard work you’ve put in to the set-up.

No, it’s middles that stymie me. Especially early middles where you’re still unspooling the wires and making big decisions.

Let me illustrate this by giving a few of the major determinations I’ve made in just this section of my current WIP:

  • Having a major character be abducted (my inciting incident)
  • Deciding how much faffing around my characters should do before she’s found
  • Wondering how insane to make major character #2
  • Having the ‘court intrigue’ subplot result in major character #3 being exiled from the castle
  • Working out how minor character #1 can assist in the search for major character #1
  • Working out a location for the character to be held in
  • Working out if my characters can go straight there or if there should be a misstep along the way
  • Working out the location/details of this misstep
  • Working out how this misstep is carried out, with specific reference to French policing techniques and equipment
  • Deciding what monster my characters must face at the mid-novel climax – the MNC itself being a whole subset of big doomladen decisions

Every single one of these steps was complicated and involved a lot of deep thought. I’m still setting up the framework for the adventure to come; trying to anticipate my needs for later in the story and giving enough clues, enough evidence to set me on the way to a resolution that convinces and has enough emotional wallop.

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I’ve crawled through this section. Writing has been attritional, chip after single chip as I attempt to hew the novel from the great mass of Possibility. And it seems to me that it’s always been like this: this section of the novel contains so many choices, so many set-ups that the rest is almost easy in comparison.

This is, of course, rubbish. Every single bit of a novel is difficult. Everything is the hardest part. That’s just the nature of the beast, kid.

But this is my hardest part. And it probably reflects my lack of outlining or planning to any great degree. Which is ironic, given that I had considered this to be my most planned novel yet attempted. Just goes to show what I know.

Yeah, come to me for advice, folks. I really know what I’m doing.

Stick with me for another month and I’ll be going on about how hard the third quarter of the novel is to wrote.

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No hack

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This week I’m going to talk about something I find difficult, so bear with me if I take my time to get to the point. See, I’ve been thinking about what matters to me, in writing and without, and I’ve come up with this: I want to be thought of as a good writer. I want the respect of my peers. I’d quite like at least a couple of fans, though I realise this makes me shallow and unworthy.

Thing is, I’m just not sure I’m good enough. The longer it goes since I wrote the novels that I’ve got/am getting published, the slighter they seem. That’s the first part of the difficulty, of course, because I still want you to buy them (Night Shift out now; Human Resources out July! Buy buy buy!). I’m also aware that it’s totally natural; indeed, if I still thought they were the pinnacle of what I could achieve it’d be a poor reflection on my development and ambition.

But I also look at what I’m doing now and I worry about that too. Is it good enough? Will I ever be good enough to meet my own standards? Am I, in fact, capable of becoming anything more than a hack?

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These are the doubts that plague me. As I struggle to get anywhere near the end of my WIP (currently about a quarter of the way through) I wonder if I can actually achieve what I’ve envisaged, or is it all some impossible pipe-dream no different from when I was a child and dreamt of being a top-flight footballer.

Will I ever be good enough?

I say ‘will I ever be more than a hack?’ but that’s to disregard the skill involved in being a hack. A hack has to produce copy to order, to keep churning out material even if their heart isn’t absolutely in it; they have to achieve publishable quality again and again and again. It’s a skill, a talent, and I’m not sure I’ve got that in me.

I still aspire to be respected for my writing. I want people to look at my work and say ‘yeah, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’

I’m not there yet. The only thing to do is to keep going. To keep writing, to try and encourage people to read me and to try and make them happy when they do.

Maybe then I’ll feel like I’ve met my own objectives.

Or maybe I’ll grow up and get over myself. Who can say?

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A little about the business

Business

Authors are not employees. They are freelancers who aren’t tied to any particular business and who can be contracted to several – or more – at the same time.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I got an email from my publishers that opened with ‘nice to be working with you again.’ As far as I was concerned I’d never stopped working with them. It also raises the possibility that, at some point, my work had simply dropped into a canyon of disinterest; that, once my novel wasn’t new anymore, they had no interest in either it or me.

This is both true and not true. Of course any publisher will prioritise new books and bestsellers; it’s the way of the industry, and they can’t keep trying to flog every old potboiler that just happened to slip through the quality-control net. There is a point where one is just throwing good money after bad. Or, to be less cynical about it, to take what slender earnings they received and move on.

But publishers still want to sell their back catalogue and so, once a relationship is forged, it never simply disappears. As long as a book is available – not remaindered, if such a thing has any meaning in this world of ebooks and print-on-demand – then both author and publisher want to sell it. They just don’t want to spend any money so doing.

So the relationship between author and publisher is always a bit confused. An author might want to promote a book that’s been out a year, but they’re not employees – and the industry has moved on. A publisher won’t simply forget an author but, ultimately, they have no responsibility to look after them once the terms of the contract have been honoured.

The agent-author relationship is even more complicated. Technically the author employs the agent but it can often feel like it’s the other way round. The agent deigns to accept a writer as a client; a writer doesn’t have hordes of agents clamouring to be selected. The agent critiques and edits the work and often has great creative say in what’s eventually put out.

But the money flows from writer to agent, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. The writer hires the agent. Don’t forget that.

It’s all terribly confusing. But, if you’re looking for advice, allow me to present you to with a few quick bullet-points:

  1. Maintain good relationships. Try not to piss people off; you might only be working with them for a limited time but you might always publish more than one book with the same people. That’s surely the aim. Don’t get a bad reputation.
  2. Remember that, beyond the terms of your contract, you are beholden to no-one and no-one is beholden to you. Do a good job. Thank people who have helped you. But don’t be fooled into thinking you work for them. Be free!
  3. If you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, don’t think you have to slavishly follow their every command. If it’s not working – for any reason – you have the power to make changes. No relationship is better than a bad relationship
  4. Keep writing. It’s ever so tricky, sometimes, to remember what you originally were: there’s so much publicity to do, so much business to clear. But you must keep on producing material because every new work is a new slice of freedom. Unless you’re tied in to a multi-book contract – in which case I doubt you’re reading this – each story is a new deal. And you can take that deal anywhere.
  5. Keep track of what you’ve sent where. All this freedom can all get terribly, terribly complicated – especially if you’re working on short stories, poems, or other things where you might be sending out multiple things to many places at the same time. Try and develop a system – even if it’s only the simplest of spreadsheets – so you don’t feel like you’re drowning