Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Living the Dream: quitting the day job to write full time

Wanted: Writer. Must live in own world and listen to voices in head, be able to work in PJ’s, and enjoy Pringles or jammy doughnuts for lunch. Dealing with irregular income and a complete absence of job security required. Dreamers may apply.
For many of us writers, the thought of quitting the day job to write full time is a bit of a holy grail: the thing we sigh at, and hope for.
Of course what job you are leaving behind may have something to do with the intensity of said longings. I've always wanted to be a clown!

Which well known children's writer was Wobblebottom?
(Hint: he is quoted, below)

When I got my publishing deal for thriller Slated with Orchard Books a few months ago (blogged here), I took the plunge: I quit my job with Buck’s libraries to write full time.

Me. Taking the plunge.

It wasn’t without a lot of trepidation. For many, the overriding issues will be job security and financial considerations, but given the stellar career opportunities currently available in libraries, this wasn’t my main issue.
My worry was this. I’ve had a few job… er… let’s call them ‘hiatuses’ in the past. When I thought, OK, the next job doesn’t start for X months; in the meantime, I’ll write the most amazing novel. And it hasn’t worked out: unlimited time meant unlimited procrastination. Years ago my best writing was always in that 6 am slot before work.

Me in previous episodes of 'full time writing'

There isn’t any question that writing is what I want to do, what I feel I am meant to do. I’d do it anyhow, but having an actual publishing contract with fierce deadlines means it isn’t a hobby; it isn’t guilt time that I really should be spending baking/jogging/polishing my ducks (insert as appropriate). It is, somehow, legitimized. And this makes a difference to me. Whether it should or not is a separate issue.

My ducks. Poor dears haven't been this shiny for a while...

But it still took me a few months of stuffing around to settle in to this new role. And here are some of the things I have learned:
  1. writing lists is very important. Hence said list. If I didn’t write lists, all would be lost.
  2. being self motivated is essential. If you need crowded time and deadlines to motivate, this may not be for you.
  3. pulling the plug is important: yes, the internet. Move away from TwitGoogleFace now and then.
  4. I need to have some sort of schedule! For me, joining a gym and scheduling going really helped. It also ensures I see humans at regular intervals, even if they are that guy who waves at himself in the mirror on the treadmill, or those scary dudes with loads of muscles and tattoos.
I haven’t got things sorted quite yet. I’ve been practicing saying ‘I am a writer’ rather than ‘I am unemployed’ in a mirror, but it still seems a bit wrong. Perhaps when Slated is published next May it will feel more real.
In the meantime, here are some comments from Real Actual Published or about-to-be Published Authors on writing full-time: the best, and the worst.

The best things about writing full time:

Che Golden: its fun, you get to work in your dressing gown all day and eat Pringles for lunch!

...or doughnuts. Jam ones. My muse rather likes jammy doughnuts

Sarwat Chadda: The best thing by far is the sense of freedom in writing. You're limited by nothing. If you can imagine it, you can write it. You can go anywhere in time, space, people's souls and their minds. You have the chance to create characters and see they become living things. For a bloke it’s probably the closest we get to given birth. Then there are the readers. I spent 20 years as an engineer and cannot remember once anyone commenting on me having done a good job. But as a writer, especially a children's writer, you get a passion and enthusiasm that transcends the mere words you've written. You can make readers out of kids who've never finished a book in their lives. That's pretty amazing.

It is all about the reader!

Ebony McKenna: The very best thing is my imaginary friends aren't imaginary any more, they are very real to readers.
Tim Collins: I don’t think there’s any substitute for a full day of writing. No matter how early you rise, how late you stay up or how many hours you steal from work, it’s not the same. It’s getting harder all the time to live off advances and royalties, but even if you can only afford to take a career break of a few months, I highly recommend it.
Serena Mackesy: I rather like being able to kill people when they annoy me. I like the fact that I can do it in bed, that I don't have to get dressed and that I've not been on public transport in rush-hour more than twice a year in the past decade.

Writer at work: ssssssh....

Joanna Kenrick: Best things: working at my own pace, taking breaks when I want, taking a day off when I need one, also feeling very smug as everyone else rushes off to work in their posh clothes!
Tommy Donbavand: I like working to my own schedule, being in control of my future.

The worst things about writing full time:

Sarwat Chadda: The worst thing is you're running a business and all that goes with it. Bills, paperwork, chasing up letters and payments. Boring, domestic work that is still bloody important. There is anxiety too. But I had it before I got published and so it just shifts around. Now its to do with sales, maintaining quality, is the new idea strong enough, will readers predict this next twist, or will it take them by surprise and raise the story a whole new level.

OMG! I am terrified of bills! No... wait. This isn't what he meant, is it? Um....

Serena Mackesy: I don't like being skint half the time, especially when it's due to the hiatuses between sending off European double-taxation forms to HMRC and receiving them back months later.
Joanna Kenrick: worry about money and the next contract.
Tommy Donbavand: the self-employed managing of an irregular income takes a bit of getting used to.
Tim Collins: You feel much more guilty about procrastination whenever you start working for yourself. But in writing, daydreaming is part of the job, so it’s hard to avoid some periods of inactivity. I’ve found that daydreaming without The Jeremy Kyle Show on is more productive, though.

I'll add one of my own, best and worst together:

the blank page. Love it or hate it, it waits....

And a final word from Sarwat Chadda:
What never happens in boredom. Again, all those years I sat in the office willing the clock to speed up and dreading Mondays. That pit of the stomach dread that ruined Sundays and corroded the quality of family life.
I never have that now. I spend more time with my kids than they could possibly want and I love Mondays.
I love Mondays. It's what writing's all about.
I love Mondays, too.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Does writing affect one's love of reading?

By Candy Gourlay

Kuper's piece in last Saturday's FT Magazine

In this past weekend's FT Magazine, Simon Kuper wrote a piece entitled How I lost my love of reading - the illustration by Luis Granena was of a man struggling to carry massive tomes on his back. Kuper writes:
My daughter (age five) simply lives the book. Better, she doesn't know yet that books are both status symbols and good for you. For children, reading is an uncomplicated pleasure, like eating chocolate ...
What Kuper thinks he's lost is the ability to be totally immersed in a story ...
The problem was that I learnt to read like a literary critic. I learnt not to lose myself in a book Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now, I get distracted musing on Dahl's socialism (rich kids bad, poor boy good), and his colonialism or anti-colonialism (the Oompa Loompas). Read the article
I meet so many enthusiastic adult readers that I can't believe this is a universal adult problem - but I have to admit that writing novels has definitely spoiled some of the joy of reading for me.

When I read any book, I study the first line of the first chapter and think, "Ah, good opening - that will hook the readers!" I read some more and admire the fact that the author placed an inciting event so close to the beginning. Then I search for set ups - "okay, this means such and such will happen later." I identify the doorways of no return, saying to myself, "right, we're in the second act now." I make a list of what I think are plot red herrings and what plot points will pay off in the end. As the story peaks to a crisis, I look out for the rug pulling moment. And instead of bursting into tears at the end, I nod and say, "Well done, that ending may have been expected but it was emotionally satisfying."

Instead of reading books like this:

This is how I read:

A psychiatrist friend of mine once opined that one of the differences between men and women was that women as they get older increasingly lose their ability to play whereas men don't.

In the case of writing and reading - has the mechanics of writing made me lose my ability to "live the book"?

What a tragedy. My love for reading was what made me want to become a writer in the first place. But maybe there's an antidote ...

Last summer I attended a talk by Shaun Tan (best known for his worldless book The Arrival). I was going to blog about the talk but I'm afraid I couldn't understand my notes, one month on.

What I can do is share the one thing that really stuck with me.

Shaun autographed one of his books for me. He used his thumbprint to create a robin.

Shaun said he hoped his work made people take time to look. He said people these days no longer knew how to look, the multimedia generation just skims over everything. When I heard that, I almost leapt to my feet, shouting "Guilty!" Everyday I skim through so much - emails, blogs, Facebook - I click 'like' or leave a quick comment, then move on to the next thing.

Is it time to get off the fast lane?

I thought, Shaun was right. Not looking was not quality of life.

After Shaun's talk, I tried to take the time to look at things, really LOOK.

Sketching helped. And sitting still helped. And not doing two things at the same time helped. And actually, turning off Facebook helped a lot too.

I've hung this sign up on my Facebook profile

And an odd thing happened. After months of struggling with a manuscript that wouldn't come to life, I began to hear the voices of my characters (And hurray! Writing is now going well!)

And because I was not skimming, the books I was reading developed an emotional quality that I had not noticed before.

It will be very easy to slip back into rush rush rush mode again of course. It's not easy to stop and look. I'm still learning.

Just stop.

My takeaway? Yes, writing will affect your love of reading. And it can't be helped because you can't become a better writer without learning the technicalities of story.

But you've got to make the time to restore your wonder. How can you hope to inspire your readers if you yourself have lost the joy?

Besides, writing books is not just about writing books, it's about living a creative, writing life. And if the best thing about living a writing life is the writing, the next best thing is the reading.

So stop, look and listen. Allow yourself to live a book again.

Outside looking in ... or inside looking out? My new novel may be telling a new story - but the themes in Tall Story - of being 'other', of being different, of being someone on the outside - continue to persist. Read my latest post on my author blog

I also blog on the brand new DFB StoryBlog - which features authors and illustrators (some of them extremely famous) of my lovely publisher David Fickling Books. Check us out!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Finding your voice - a SCBWI masterclass with Beverley Birch

By Addy Farmer

The lovely Beverley Birch!

How do you make Beverley Birch sit up straight? How do make a senior commissioning editor for Hachette Children's books, three times nominated Brandford Boase editor listen? You sing. You find your voice and you sing to her. Simple, right? Pick your tune, put the notes in the right order and belt it out. Well, of course not. Finding your voice and the voice of the novel and your characters is the difference between the x-factor and the fat lady. One may have modicum of unworked talent while the other has full on grafted, crafted worked.

It takes guts to work at something and Beverley understands the pain and passion involved in honing stories.

Beverley is a passionate defender of the writer. She is a writer herself. 'Rift' came out in 2006 and you know you are in the hands of a storyteller when you read the first page.

Leaving aside the many established authors Beverley edits, she has launched some 15 authors on their publishing careers and through writing conferences and continuing mentoring and editorial discussion, encourages several hundreds towards, hopefully, their first publishing deal.

Marcus Sedgewick reviewed Rift in The Guardian and said of it,
"Rift is that delightful thing, a book which holds you from the first page."

Why books are rejected

Beverley wants writers to develop their voice, this is, 'the difficult bit'. Good stories are rejected all the time, she says, not because of the story but because the voice isn't working. You could build a dazzling fantasy world with every last detail worked out but unless the reader engages with the characters inside the world, responds to their voices, believes their voices then the story won't really suck them in.

Beverley finds herself sending out the same comments many times:

There's a good story in here, with potential. But I do feel you need to focus your telling a lot more. My overwhelming sense is that you are still narrating from a very external viewpoint - not allowing the reader to discover the story through the characters, their viewpoint, experiences, how they knock against other characters, the situation, the predicament they find themselves in. It's still all too narrator based - a young reader really needs to feel sucked into the story, imagining themselves part of it. Essentially, I think, you need to find the 'voice' of the telling.

Part of this problem is that it leads to a great deal of setting up and scene-setting before any action  or character perspectives, which means readers will drift away before they get there.  You need to ask yourself the question 'why would a reader be interested in this when they are not yet engrossed in the characters?' When you look at it from that point of view, it helps to distinguish between what you, the writer, want to put there because at some point it will be important, but not yet, and what the reader needs to know NOW. Hold information for when the reader needs it and don't pad out the story with it before.

Jump us in to the narrative at a high point, and then gallop us through, threading information as part of the action, not outside it.

So where do I find my Voice?

Ask yourself - why do I write for children? We came up with a few reasons for Beverley - adventure, escapism, to articulate inarticulate feelings. Of course what writers do for children is, in Beverley's words, "help them to try on other lives" and doing so in such a way that their readers can recognise the truth of what is portrayed.

You're tapping into a special time of change and uncertainty when readers want stories that reflect what they are going through. A writer articulates a reader's experiences or possible experiences. Obvious in theory but slippery in execution.

What is voice?

A clear Voice sings out when the writer has a profound sense of who they are writing for. The writer is not writing a book about childhood but a book with the child at its beating heart. The reader will be drawn into the telling and identify with what is happening.

The world inside the story becomes the reader's world. How?

  • be clear who your narrator(s) is and their world view.
  • watch that the authorial voice doesn't hijack the story and mask the character perspective
  • maintain truthfulness/authenticity of the character's point of view

The narrator and their world view.

Spend time living with your hero. Character creation is not just what they look like; the inner self is as alive as the outer self. Dig deep and mine these people for everything they've got because it will make the telling so much more exciting. Your characters will make decisions based on who they are; their upbringing, experiences and outlook. Know them and you'll know your story.

Beverley told us of hearing Terry Pratchett describe his thrilling vision whenever he begins a new story. He compares it to standing on the rim of a misty valley and knowing that his character must journey to the other side. That he will walk his characters down into the unknown of the mists and he doesn't know how they will react until they're confronted with whatever dangers and adventures and characters are hidden there. It's an exploration alongside the characters - the outcome defined by the characters with all their faults and foibles

The misty valley - an open book

The authorial voice

A manuscipt may fail because the hero's voice is inconsistent and lacks authenticity. Beware the external authorial narrator unless there is a strong, purposeful role for them e.g. Lemony Snickett or Bartimeaus otherwise keep the external this voice firmly under control and allow your characters room to tell the story through action - their experiences, how they knock against each other or their environment, their dialogue and relationships.

The demon was close behind. Joshua barged through the doors of a Gothic church. Inside the pews were arranged in neat rows and pink and white roses were arranged around the altar.

Can you spot the problem? Course you can. No out-of-their-wits-scared-demon-chased child is going to stop and notice that the church is in the Gothic style, or even know this fact - let alone stop to smell the roses. There is, as Beverley said, no need for the guided tour. What would that child, in that moment with a demon on his tail, notice? I don't know because I don't know the boy; it's not my story.

Don't think I'd pause to notice much if this guy was after me...

Exploring point of view

Well, it's not all about point of view although that is part of it. It's not telling your story in the first person that gives it a voice. 
  • You can achieve a sense of the first person marrative even with a third person voice.
  • A badly done first person voice can be very dull - to make it work, be sure it is delivering the pov that feels authentic and is creating that sense of conversational connection with the reader that is one of the main strengths of the first person narrative angle
For a third person narrative angle it is important to keep the pov as close to the character as possible and that, as Beverley said, can be a 'technical battle'.

Think filmically. Put a camera up to your eye and decide on how you'll film. Will you be the only eyes or will you sit on your character's shoulder and tell us what's happening to them and others around them? Will your camera view whisk up to give a birds-eye or distant view. Will it swoop back in to the characters again? It will need to keep us with the characters' perspectives.

What's the story here?
The first person is more immediate but can be limited in terms of telling the whole story.  How to overcome this?

Older readers will enjoy some contemplative moments when more can be revealed. Retrospective memories can also be employed. The character can have a 'chat' with the reader. Or try introducing an older, experienced character who can provide essential plot nudges e.g teacher, grandparent and perspectives that a young narrator would not themselves have.

The writer MUST keep control of the voice because a breach will be obvious!

 The third person allows greater range over story-telling angles but can walk a dangerous line where the author can take over the telling. So be careful about the authenticity of your vocabulary and the characters' viewpoint/interaction with others. Don't invest them with your grownupness.

You might have to work harder to get the action to deliver the conclusions the author has about the situation - but that's far more effective story-telling than great wadges of authorial comment. Think about delivering direct thought to the reader e.g 'What was he thinking, she wondered,' becomes, 'what was he thinking?' -  a straight to camera technique that can give a first person feel to third person narration.

Ask yourself if you could help your story with supplementary pov.

Beverley offered us her experience when writing.

Siri tells the story of an English girl in the third person going to Africa and in the first person, a Portuguese historical character dying of the plague. As Beverley wrote she found that the girl's voice became odd, out of character. Why? Because it was the voice of another character - an African boy forcing its way through. Siri ended up being told by two characters in the third person and one in the first person! Then the technical battle is to differentiate them well.

THE RIGHT VOICE brings life to your story

It makes it stand out. It marks it as considered and worth considering. Don't feel you have to rush. Don't be spooked by the market and how difficult it is to get a book noticed. Do be true to your characters and make their story special.

Then you can make someone like Beverley sit up and listen.

Want to read some great examples of voice? Beverley advises to check out awards short lists. Here's the 2011 Brandford Boase which includes the fab 'I am the Blade' edited by the fab Beverley. Then there's the Carnegie shortlist and what about the Booktrust/Blue Peter Book awards? 

Write long and prosper.

You might also want to read:

Meg Rosoff on Finding Your Voice (The Guardian, 18 October 2011)

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