Monday, 30 November 2020

In Praise of Writers' Resilience

by Em Lynas

Part 1. Pre-Published

Rejection Requires Resilience

Writers for children, like any writers, encounter rejection at every stage of their career. They need resilience to keep going but what is resilience for a writer? What are the moments in each writer’s journey that require it the most? What does it even mean and – how does a writer get it and keep it?

Resilience:

The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

So, what sort of difficulties is a childrens’ writer likely to encounter? How can you develop resilience? How can you spring back from rejection? Is it possible to spring back?

A host of Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, British Isles members, have allowed me to share their inspirational stories from our facebook group to show that writers are tough and can bounce back from every knock back into who they truly are – writers who need to write.

Kathryn Evans: When we start this journey we often have no idea how long it can take, we look for quick fixes and are frustrated when they seem to come to nothing, but it all adds up, eventually it adds up. 15 years of seriously trying, 5 of those with my agent. I gave up for 6 months and it made me miserable. I needed to remember that I don’t write to get published, I write because I need to and I want to. I started again, writing a weird book that was totally me and mine . It was More of Me.

Rejection can come from many sources:

  • From family and friends
  • From critique groups
  • From agents
  • From editors
  • From publishers
  • From booksellers and bloggers
  • From Award awarders
  • From buyers and readers

In this post I’ll deal with the pre-published rejections and suggestions for how to deal with them. The next post will be all about post publication rejections and ideas on how to deal with those.

Rejection from family and friends

Not all family and friends will understand your compulsion to write. Their rejection of your dream of one day being published may be subtle, passive aggressive, or just downright rude. And hurtful.

They may say:

Isn’t that book finished yet? On repeat.

Are you still writing your book? On repeat.

Don’t you think it’s time to give up? On repeat.

When are you going to give up? On repeat.

Why don’t you write a book about – insert inappropriate suggestion that has nothing to do with children’s books.

So and so (insert name) has just had a book published. She only started writing last year.

I see David Walliams has another book out.

It can’t be that hard to write a story for children, there’s hardly any words.

This is often accompanied by looking at you oddly, as if you’re a different species.

Disclaimer: The above is not representative of my immediate family and closest friends. Most often it was acquaintances.

You can’t do anything about acquaintance’s rejections of your publishing aspirations but you can educate those who are closest to you to be more sensitive and understanding.

How?

Gather information that it TAKES A LONG TIME! All they hear on the news is about the super deals done with young debut novelists. This is not representative!

·        Research how long your favourite authors took. How big is their slushpile of rejected works, unfinished ideas? My favourite – it took David Almond twenty years before his first book, Skellig, was published. And he’s brilliant!

·       Show them this post if they need convincing.

I found that there was a tipping point, about five years into my writing journey. A sense that rather than thinking I was nuts to keep on flogging a dead horse, family and friends were proud of my determination and resilience in the face of many rejections. They were proud that I continued to learn and grow as a writer and overjoyed when my first book came out.

Sally Poynton: When I started this journey my youngest was a baby, he’s now coming up 15. And I’m still not published. I think it can be so difficult with all the rejection and the fact that success is binary. You are either published or not. The thing that gets me through is support from friends and family and the key thing is CELEBRATING THE SMALL THINGS. Making sure that every small competition long/listing or good feedback is marked, or you’d go mad.

Rejection from critique groups

I am in a SCBWI_BI critique group and I would highly recommend joining SCBWI to meet other children’s authors and gather feedback. Writing for children is a very specific skill, different for each age band, and you need feedback that reflects that.

Most critique groups recommend the Feedback Sandwich (a polite term for the more colloquial Sh*t Sandwich which is often a far more accurate term)

Top slice - Highlight a positive.

Filling - Add in some constructive criticism, preferably not subjective.

Bottom slice: Highlight a positive.

This sounds great, a really kind way of giving feedback, but in reality we’re all dismissing the bread and waiting for the sh*t. We need it. If we’re ever to progress as writers we need to accept it and take it on the chin (sorry, yuck). But even the most constructive criticism, kindly delivered, can be felt as rejection and a knock to your confidence resulting in bad thoughts.

I still can’t get it right. I haven’t done this. I haven’t done that. I’ve failed. They’ve rejected my story. I obviously can’t write. I’ll give up.

It’s important that you distance yourself from the work. This is not a criticism (or shouldn’t be) of YOU, this is all about whether the story works in the way you want it to work, (or should be).

Reality check:

What are you expecting from the critique?

·       Do you want an – I love this, thanks for sharing critique?

·       Do you want an analysis of whether your story is working or not?

I do think initially everyone wants the first and it’s part of your growth as a writer when you accept and appreciate the second.

·       Check that your critique group is right for you – are you getting the best feedback as a children’s writer if your group mainly consists of poets, creative writers, or real crime writers?

This is a ‘Find Your Tribe’ moment. You need a gang of writers who have your back because they will help you bounce back and build the resilience you will need for the next stage. My recommendation is – join SCBWI.

Susan Brownrigg: It took me 20 years to get published and I still don't have an agent. Barbara Henderson was my inspiration for trying a different way, and for approaching an independent publisher - Uclan - who are amazing. My advice would be ... enjoy other people's successes ... think of the books that didn't get picked up as a back catalogue for returning to one day ... and take a break if it all gets too much - if you love writing, a story will eventually whisper in your ear when you are ready and your hurt has healed. Try to accept that you may not get published but you will always be a writer.

 

Rejection from agents

Steel yourself: There are three types of rejection from agents.

Agent Rejection One:

The agent rejects your submission and does not take you on as a client.

I shall hold my hands up at this point and admit that I sent out my stories far too early and received many, many, many rejections. Looking back, they were right to reject me, I hadn’t learned enough about my craft and they were clumsy stories, but it hurt all the same. You would be a very unusual author if an agent had never rejected a submission and acceptance that rejection is part of the journey helps enormously.

Agent Rejection Two:

The agent takes you on and is unable to place your book. They don’t think it’s worth re-working it. They want to move on to something else. What have you got?

This happens more than you think.

Keep learning and writing while you are waiting. So that when/if rejection comes you’ve got something else that you love, ready to go.

Agent Rejection Three:

The agent takes you on as a client and then rejects you.

Having been through the third I can tell you this was the worst rejection of all rejections and stopped me writing for almost a year. My tip for surviving? Acceptance of the natural behavioural pattern. I only discovered this a few years later. Maybe I had to go through it in order to understand it?

Event: A rejection drops into your inbox.

·       Reactions:

o   Physical reaction: Stomping, stamping, shouting, throwing, walking, running, scowling, slumping, Netflix bingeing etc etc etc

o   Emotional reaction: disappointment, despair, anger, misery, despondency, hopelessness, depression, gloom, crying, sobbing, confusion, self-doubt, retreating etc etc etc This reaction can go on for a long time (months, years) depending on the number of rejections accumulated previously, your personality and the nature (severity) of the rejection. Be kind to yourself!

·       Reflection: Eventually the emotional brain has had its reaction and the logical brain takes over. Evidence is gathered to support continuing to write. Or. Evidence is gathered to support giving up.

·       Decision: A decision is made. You either stop, continue, or take a break.

·      Action: Depending on the decision you either write or you don’t. You start something new or go back through your slushpile.

Understanding your behavioural pattern and the length of time you personally need to spend in each phase can help make the reaction more bearable. You know you have to go through it, there’s no escaping emotion but perhaps you don’t have to experience it quite as intensely and you can move on faster using distraction techniques.

I stopped writing and turned to learning more about writing. I read all the How To books I could get hold of and read blogs on writing. I blogged about writing on Notes From the Slushpile. I began the poetry blog the funeverse with a group of SCBWI_BI authors. This helped to keep me focused on children’s literature but relieved me of the pressure of Must Get Another Agent. I also began knitting so that I could be successful at something and when I’d finished a few jumpers I returned to writing. Sheila Averbuch took up different hobbies.

Sheila M. Averbuch: If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life. Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing.

Emma Styles: I started in 2008 & not published yet. I had an agent for just over three years, that book didn’t sell & I found myself back on the slushpile. That all happened very early on & was a bit of a rollercoaster. But I learned a lot & like others have said, writing has just become what I do, how I make sense of things, and I can’t really stop. I have tried a couple of times. I remember telling a writer friend, ‘I could have quite a nice life if I wasn’t writing.’ Which was ridiculous & I knew it! I think I had an idea I’d have all this spare time, but to do what? And yes, it’s the friends that have kept me going, plus that mysterious something to do with ‘making stuff up.’ I would love some of that stuff to be appreciated by others which I guess keeps me going too.

So, let’s now assume you’ve taken the next step and you have an agent. Success has occurred not rejection! And now let’s assume your agent has deemed your work ready to be submitted to their favourite publishers.

Now you’re ready for the next post.

In Praise of Writers’ Resilience.

Part Two – Published

Coming soon

This is where I look at the types of rejection you may experience post book deal. I shall leave you with this inspirational story of writerly resilience from Janet Foxley.

Janet Foxley: I started writing a story for my daughter when she was one and finished it when she was 31. I had no support in the form of a crit group, editorial agency or anything like SCBWI until year 29, when my daughter, by then interested in writing herself, drew my attention to an editorial agency she’d spotted advertising in a magazine. The structural report they gave on it showed that I wrote well but had no idea how to build a novel. I turned it round and the editor loved it but pointed out that a 116,000 word saga by a new writer would never find a publisher. I self-published it (through Matador) before self-publishing was respectable and cheaply available, and threw away most of the unsold copies last year when we moved to a smaller house.

With that knowledge I set about writing something the right length, but it still took 8 years, two edits from an agency (one of which sent it in the wrong direction) a comment from a publisher’s reader that put it back on track, a prize short-listing and several rejections before it won the Times/Chicken House prize and a publishing contract.

During the 35-odd years from starting writing to publication I did several of the courses advertised in writing magazines and finished several books that were nowhere near fit to submit. For me, the only way of making progress was to pay for structural edits from people who not only knew how to structure a novel but also knew the market. So my advice would be, listen to knowledgeable critics, be prepared to rewrite and rewrite, but also be prepared to scrap an unviable project, or one that has become too stale to love any more, and start on something fresh. I wish there had been something like SCBWI when I started - I’m sure I’d have progressed much faster.

What made me keep going? Quite simply the need to write.

Em Lynas is a long time SCBWI member and author of the Witch School series with Nosy Crow. She is represented by Amber Caraveo of the Skylark Literary Agency. You can find out more about her and her books on her website emlynas




Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Chapter or Verse, a poet’s guide to getting published

By Dom Conlon 

So you’ve opted for the life of a writer.  Congratulations. The race to the depths of your soul begins now. But fear not, there are many wise people to guide your way and darkness shall never... oh, wait. What’s that? You’ve chosen to write poetry? For children? 

Oh, dear. 

You’re screwed. Plus, this is a post-pandemic world so… y’know… you’re doubly screwed for reasons which become clearer further down. There are several differences between getting published as a writer of fiction versus getting published as a writer of poetry. 

Neither is easy, but poetry is (perhaps fittingly) more peculiar.  
 
Fortunately ‘peculiar’ is my middle name so I’m going to offer a few tips and the occasional beard-stroking word of wisdom. 

You will probably not get an agent

The first issue to raise is that you will probably not get an agent. I mean sure, you’re amazing. It’s just that agents for poets are few and far between. 

I know only a handful of professional poets who have agents. And those tend to have agents because of their non-poetry publications. That poses a problem right away: namely that whole getting published thing. Which may or may not be why you write but probably is, given the title of this article. 

The good news is that submissions for poetry aren’t quite the same as they are for fiction. Sort of. 

There are specialist publishers of poetry who welcome direct contact from poets but... you’re going to have to stand out. But that’s ok, you’re amazing! 

You have to stand out

One way to stand out is to get yourself into anthologies. Easier said than done (of course) but not impossible. 

Some editors put out public calls for entries, some don’t. The former tend to be rarer and if you are unknown then you won’t hear about the latter. 

Don’t worry. Don’t give up. 

You have to be visible.

My top tip for all your poetry writing is: BE VISIBLE. 

 Let’s face it, writing poetry differs from its fictional cousin in one big way: it’s shorter (usually). 

Which means you’ve probably not spent three years writing a poem. 

So write lots of poems. Write as many as you possibly can. Not all of them will be gems but you’ll get to know yourself better (and who you are as a poet) in the process. 

You have to share.

So share them. I view the sharing of my poetry as a way to say something nice (or interesting) about the world. Why wouldn’t I want to share that? 

Of course, sharing your poetry isn’t guaranteed to get you into anthologies. It might catch the eye of other poets who (generally) love nothing more than to celebrate great poetry. 


I will share other people’s poetry if it speaks to me. I don’t look at the person’s Poeticum Vitae in order to assess whether or not I should be sharing it. If I love it, I’ll want others to see it. But as inclusive and welcoming as the world of children’s poetry is, there is a deep pool of talent for editors and publishers to draw from. 

You have to try different things.

So in addition to being visible, you might want to try other things. Like entering competitions and submitting to magazines. There are not THAT many competitions but the ones which do exist are marvellous. Write for them. Try them out. Just don’t bet your entire future as a poet on the outcome. 

Magazine submissions, however, are a whole different kettle of haiku. We are in the golden age of magazines for children. Online and print magazines have sprung up to inform and delight children and they rely on great content. 

Buy them, read them, get to understand who they are for and what the editorial policy is, then submit something. 

I wish the same were true for open mic events. In the world of adult poetry, open mic is a rapidly expanding phenomenon. They provide a platform to air your poetry and develop a reputation. But kids don’t tend to hang out in bars or dark gin joints and so you are going to have to turn to festivals, libraries and street corners (I’m joking on the last one, don’t be weird). 

There are festivals where new acts are welcomed. Film yourself and try to get on the bill. Visibility is the goal here, something which isn’t always easy for attention-shy poets. 


You have to sell.

The other, often unsaid, tip for getting published comes down to sales. 

Can you demonstrate an ability to sell your work? Are you a regular visitor to schools? Do you have three million followers on Twitter? Will your extended family buy every last copy of your book and pass them around on street corners (don’t do this, don’t be weird)? 

Publishers are businesses and business rely on sales. At some point in your poetry publishing career, you will have to face this. Part of every publisher’s marketing plan (sometimes the only part) is YOU. Which, in this post-pandemic, socially-distanced world… is really tough. 

It’s something which probably needs to change but that’s a whole different article. All of which, in a roundabout-maybe-I-ought-to-have-mentioned-this-earlier kind of way, leads me to talk about self-publishing. 

There is less of a stigma about self-publishing these days. It’s a natural (albeit more costly) extension of sharing your work publicly and can act as a calling card to publishers. 

You have to be patient.

But here’s another tip: don’t be hasty. Putting a collection together (even a pamphlet) requires you to step back. The role of an editor isn’t always present in children’s poetry but that doesn’t mean you are the best judge of your own work. 

If you want to showcase your work then get some input on it. Someone who you trust to be honest. That said, if you are only using this as a calling card then it is an expensive method of attracting attention so think through your aims and motivations with care. 

 Finally, the most difficult part of being a poet lies in finding opportunities for your voice to shine through. It is, I find, also the most wonderful. 

Poetry can be small enough to slide beneath the door and loud enough to be sung. There may be times when you have to find your own way, but try to remember that there is always a way.



@Dom_Conlon is a poet and author whose unique blend of science and poetry can be seen in This Rock That Rock, a collection of fifty poems illustrated by Viviane Schwarz (@VivSchwarz), and Leap, Hare, Leap! the picture book about bio-diversity and environment illustrated by Anastasia Izlesou (@izlesou). Dom has no cats, three pens, and a fondness for cake. You can read more about him and invite him to tea via www.domconlon.com

Saturday, 15 August 2020

How Not to Get an Agent: Submission Pet Peeves plus a Passive Aggressive Ukulele Ode to an Agent

By Candy Gourlay 

 

Inspired by You'll Be Back, mad King George's song in the musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, George Kirk scarily demonstrates how not to communicate with literary agents. If you haven't seen Hamilton, you can hear the original song below. We love it! 

   

If you're a ukulele strummer, you can download the chords and lyrics here.

Always keen to be of service, we asked literary agents what their top subbing peeves were. 

LONG SUBMISSION LETTERS

If this has made you fear for George's chances of getting an agent, don't worry, she's already got one, Alice Williams of Alice Williams Literary

We asked Alice what her top subbing peeve was and it wasn't 'Passive aggressive ukulele lyrics' but interminable submission letters.  

Alice says: "Remember an agent will often sit down and sort through a big batch of submissions in one sitting. They are looking for the standout ideas and writing, and interesting creative people. An overly long covering email can slow the process down and be a bit offputting." 

CONTROL FREAK SUBMISSIONS

Author Nizrana Fahrook, author of the utterly brilliant The GirlWho Stole an Elephant, kindly asked her agent Joanna Moult what pet peeve gets up the collective noses of her agency Skylark Literary.

Joanna Moult
Joanna replied: "Amber (Caraveo) and I often talk about our most hilariously unappealing submission! It came in from a writer who said next to nothing about themselves in the covering email, other than to insist in VERY STRONG TERMS that they were only willing to communicate by email and that a publisher would not be allowed to change a single word of it. It all sounded so mysterious, so we were intrigued and opened it immediately. It turned out to be a disastrously badly written story. So that was a pretty easy ‘no’!"

PREJUDICE

Notes from the Slushpile denizen Nick Cross offers this from his agent, Heather Cashman of Storm Literary Agency (you can read a brilliant article on Nick and Heather's author agent relationship over on the SCBWI newsletter Words & Pictures and you might be interested in Heather's Manuscript Wishlist)

Heather Cashman
Heather says: "This is such a difficult question to answer, because it's hard to choose 'the worst' thing that people have done. I've been told (by aspiring authors that) they have book deals when they didn't, I've been DM'd or emailed incessantly by the same person, I've been propositioned ... but I think the worst would be showing blatant prejudice through the authorial voice. It really offends me."


FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES

New York Times bestselling author Mo O'Hara (whose graphic novel Agent Moose just came out ), has this from her agent Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency.


"Sending a book out on submission is stressful, and lots of agencies have different requirements, so you are adding complicated systems to that stress! That is to say that for me, I understand if mistakes happen. Check the website and try your best to follow the guidelines."

Please don't gaze at the starkly worded instructions on agent websites and think you can do it better.

AUTHORS WHO PUT THEMSELVES DOWN

Gemma collected some comments from other agents at The Bent Agency and there was an astounding number of comments about the lack of self belief on display in submissions.

"I don’t like to see authors putting themselves down," said one agent, citing the number of times she's had to read lines like: “It’s probably not very good" and “I’m sorry for wasting your time”.

"If I’m open to submissions I want to hear from you, so my time is yours to take. You’ve written a whole book. That goal is on a lot of bucket lists, and you did it! Be proud of this and confident in your approach. Be professional. Don’t put doubt in my mind before I’ve read a single word."

QUERIES THAT ARE ABOUT EVERYTHING BUT THE BOOK

Molly Ker Hawn riffed on query letters that didn't actually query.

"Query letters that are all about the author and why they wrote the book, and don’t include a solid pitch for the book itself."


SCATTERGUN SUBMISSIONS

Zoe Plant
Zoƫ Plant adds: "Queries for books in areas or g
enres that I don’t represent."

So, guys, please don't submit a children's book to an agency that only represents adult non fiction, or a young adult novel to a picture book literary agent. It's a waste of everybody's time.




Candy, Mo and George are children's authors who love playing the ukulele together and rewriting the lyrics of songs. During the lockdown they made a video rewording the World War II anthem We'll Meet Again as We'll Write Again. They are pictured playing their ukuleles at the 2018 conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (left to right: Candy Gourlay, Mo O'Hara, George Kirk and Tania Tay)


Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Launching a book in lockdown: disaster or opportunity?

by Teri Terry
Do you have a book coming out - during lockdown or post-lockdown or possible future lockdown? The book trade and publishing landscape has changed - the world has changed - and we're just finding our feet again. Dark Blue Rising came out on 9th July. It was a difficult, stressful time in the lead up to publication. But some positives definitely did come out of it.

I ADORE my cover!!!!
Designer: Michelle Brackenborough
GIF by Sara O'Connor
A new book - a new series! - a new imprint, Hodder - a new year. It was all change for me after a 2019 that, well, let's just say had more than its share of challenges. But somehow I got through it, finished editing, was happy with the story, AND - the dream! - got a book cover that I ADORE. So around February 2020 I was feeling cautiously optimistic about the launch of Dark Blue Rising, coming in July.

And then ... well, you know what happened.

At first there was denial: this isn't as bad as it seems, it is an over-reaction, everything will be back to normal in a blink.

Then panic: it isn't as bad as it seems - it's worse. I'm worried about my family, my friends, the world. I can't write, can't concentrate on anything. 
(I got past my block, eventually - I'll post a vlog on that below.)

Then guilt crept in: I'm worried about launching my new book. 
The very entertaining, tail-wagging,
sock-stealing Scooby

It felt wrong to even admit it with so much going wrong for so many people. So far, the worst for me was having to cancel some events and a long overdue trip to Canada to see family. We were healthy and well, had Scooby to entertain us, a park across the road for our early morning walk, a decent sized garden for outdoor space, no immediate financial concerns. We had it good, and I knew this - still know it now. 

But what about MY BOOK?? WAHHHHH

Sometime around April I called my lovely agent - wondering if the publication date should be postponed. There were conversations back and forth with my publisher. They felt we should stick to the July date; that so many books were being postponed that the Autumn would be too crowded, and with the only other option leaving it to 2021, I agreed. 

Then things seemed to be getting even worse, both with the pandemic and in the book and publishing sphere. There were tales of new books being held up and not delivered to shops, supply chain woes, even Amazon was putting book delivery down the priority list. And again - feeling guilty to even be thinking about things like this when people were losing family, friends.

There is no point worrying about things out of my control, right? I'm rubbish at listening to my own voice of reason though. I half-heartedly read up a little on zoom and other virtual event platforms, but I was scared: of working out the technology, of security and privacy issues using virtual events with my mostly 12 - 14 year old readers, our woeful broadband, being on screen, etc etc etc. I was putting in time learning how to use a number of different platforms on free trials even as I didn't really want to go that way, and feeling increasingly unsure of the right approach.

Then on 9th June I attended - virtually! - a Society of Authors event with Candy Gourlay and Chitra Soundar, entitled Social Media 101. In the chat box I confessed my worry about launching my book, that nothing would happen if I didn't go virtual, that I didn't know what to do. And it felt so good to say it out loud! Well, typed in a chat box. And it really was from that moment on that I decided to take control of what I was going to do.

I won't go into all the details of how I came up with and structured my virtual events as I've blogged about it elsewhere; I'll post the link below. But this is what I did:
1. Virtual Publicity Tour:

I offered a week of free virtual events run on password-protected pages on my website, complete with live Q&A with me, but done in comment boxes: so there was no live video of me or them, no requirement for me to have their personal details. It worked kind of like chat boxes - the sort of thing I felt comfortable doing myself. 

Would schools be too stretched and stressed to want to take part? No! I ended up with eighteen school events being booked, from class size to year groups. I found them in a variety of ways: past teacher and librarian contacts; twitter; Facebook; being shared on a few librarian groups.

the tweet that started things off
Why free? Well, it was my book launch week. Also, I felt I didn't really know how it would work; it was a learning experience. From what I learned, I'm ready to go forward with paid events in the new school year.

2. GIF and Book Trailer:

The GIF was total serendipity - from lunching with lovely Sara O'Connor, previously of publishing fame but now working in coding and programming. I showed her my book cover which, in case I haven't mentioned yet, I ADORE, and she offered to make a GIF, as above. With everything going online it was brilliant timing.

The trailer I made myself: on Vimeo!



3. Social Media:

Hachette Childrens Books rightly focused their efforts here, and they truly did a great job of getting the word out on Instagram and Twitter. They made some great images that were perfect for sharing, and share I did. I did worry a little if I was sending out too much book spam, but actually I think that at the moment, we're all more tolerant and supportive of these things. We all understand - this is our megaphone just now, and we have to use it.

Overall: Disaster or Opportunity?

Both. 

Disaster: 

1. Not getting to events in person. 

2. Missing YALC. WAH! I was really looking forward to that.

3. Book Fairs being cancelled and foreign publishers likely being more cautious; time will tell how that pans out. 

4. Difficulty getting books sold with virtual events.

5. Worry about a certain large online retailer taking over, while independent bookshops and highstreet chains struggle. 

Opportunity: 

1. I know how to do stuff I didn't before. I'm much more comfortable making videos, something I used to HATE. I know how to make them look and sound better. There was a fair amount of hair pulling and occasional swearing along the way as I worked it out, but if I can do it - anyone can.

2. Even though I was quite seriously stressed about what to do/not to do in the lead up, I actually really enjoyed the virtual event experience! Answering an avalanche of questions in comment boxes took concentration and good touch typing skills, but it was FUN. I'm sure I'll continue promoting virtual events even if - finger's crossed - there is a miracle vaccine available just around the corner. 

3. Comments from librarians afterwards were that they felt the format engaged the students, in some cases even more than an in-person event: students who wouldn't readily engage or ask questions were comfortable doing so using this format (link to their comments, below).

4. Going forwards with paid virtual events in the new school year, the reduced cost compared to a live event will make it more accessible and less something only schools with bigger budgets can afford.

5. Shouting out about the virtual event offering got a huge amount of engagement from librarians and teachers around the UK. Many of those who couldn't take part for one reason or another expressed interest in hearing about my coming virtual workshops. Yay!

these were LUSH
6. The reach of virtual publicity events is far greater than just the few I could have travelled to in person. The word is out, even if only time will tell how that translates to sales.

7. I missed some hugs, but Zoom book launches have some pluses: you only have to buy your own wine, and you get to eat ALL the cupcakes.

8. At last: I could dye my hair to match my book cover! In complete confidence that no one would see it unless I wanted them to.


A final word: After my launch week, I was tired - but happy. I did all that I could to give my book its chance in the world, and what more can you do?


Links/Resources:




And finally, below is my Vlog on struggling to write during a pandemic: other narratives are important!


Saturday, 18 July 2020

What if this is the Last Book You’ll Ever Write?

By Nick Cross

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Not to get too morbid here, but it’s definitely going to happen that you’ll stop writing at some point in the future. Either through disease, or death, or taking up some exciting new hobby like competitive topiary. Would the knowledge that you’re writing your last book help or hinder your current work-in-progress?

Eight years ago, I became convinced that the book I was writing would be my last. My magnum opus. Of course, it didn’t help that I was suffering from a serious mental illness and feared that I might die at any second. Or that I felt my agent at the time was pressuring me to finish the book so we could get it out on submission. Anyhow, I pushed and struggled my way through that novel, with a weird mix of fear, self-hatred and messianic overconfidence.

Photo by Christine Keller on Unsplash

Looking back, I’m not sure how I got through that period. What I really should have done is stop writing and trying to get published, because that was part of the reason why I got sick in the first place. If I’d had more of a flair for the dramatic, perhaps I might have taken my own life after typing THE END. I certainly had plenty of suicidal thoughts to work with. But somehow I clung on, through the disappointment of my agent rejecting the book, through me leaving her and the book failing to find a publisher (thought to be fair, it hardly had a fair shot as I only sent it to three editors).

I was wrong about a lot of things from that period, not least that it would be the last book I’d ever write (I’ve written another four since then). But something has kept pulling my thoughts back to the novel I’d written during that dark time, a feeling of unfinished business. Was it still the masterpiece I’d imagined it to be?

Well, no.

It isn’t bad, actually, but it definitely isn’t world-changing in its current form. They say that you should leave your manuscript in a drawer for as long as you can to get a fresh perspective on it, but I’m not sure they were thinking about eight years! Still, I’d recommend it if you feel you can spare the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that it’s just a book, something that can be revisited and moulded into a different form. With the guidance of my new (and much nicer) agent, I’m doing just that, rewriting it as a graphic novel. The rewrite is still not an easy process, but at least there’s a lot less drama this time around.

It’s fascinating looking back at my life and work from such a distance, seeing how much my mental state bled into the characters I’d created. The protagonist is burdened by massive guilt and self-loathing, putting himself in dangerous situations in the hope he might be set free by death. Medication to control behaviour is everywhere. Even the overriding concept of the novel is an elaborate metaphor for depression.

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

If the novel I wrote reflected the man I was then, the new version will surely reflect me now – older, somewhat wiser and definitely more cynical. It’s ironic that we’ve just gone through another period of maximum fear and loathing during lockdown, a period that was not helpful in the least to my creative process, and during which I wrote very little. It’s only since the emergence of a tentative new normal that I’ve been able to start moving forward on the book again, to recognise the kind of persistent, low-level depression many of us have been suffering from in the last few months. And with that realisation comes the uncomfortable truth that I will never be truly free of mental illness, just better able to recognise and control it.

There’s an argument that knowing you were working on your final book wouldn’t change anything, because to write successfully you must pour the whole of yourself into the work, holding nothing back. And while I understand that theory, it also puts a hell of a lot of pressure on you as a writer, denying you the space to experiment and make mistakes. By all means, write your heart out and leave an amazing legacy of work for future generations. But don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others while you’re still here.

Nick.



Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Monday, 17 February 2020

Is there Power in Procrastination?

By Candy Gourlay


via GIPHY

I've fired up my favourite productivity app and typed the chapter number on top of the page.

I am ready to write this thing and remind myself of that quote from my new favourite screenwriter Greta Gerwig:

"You have to will it into existence because no one needs it until they know they need it."

This is what I'm gonna do today: will my story into existence.

But then I go downstairs and mop the floor.

Sounds familiar?

The good news is, I know I am not alone. All I have to do is check my Twitter / Instagram / Facebook feed ... and there they are, all my writing friends, in various stages of procrastination. It's a wonder that anything gets published at all.

If we're all procrastinating, is this a normal thing? And if it is, how do we avoid it?

Apparently screenwriter Aaron Sorkin likes to say:

"You call it procrastination, I call it thinking."

Hmm. Somehow when I'm giving those skirting boards one more polish, it doesn't feel like thinking.


FIGHTING THE INSTANT GRATIFICATION MONKEY


Tim Urban, describes procrastination perfectly on his blog Wait But Why.

He says it's like there are several characters fighting over the steering wheel to your brain.

One is the Rational Decision Maker, who can visualise the future, see the big picture, make long term plans.

Unfortunately, the other character is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who lives in the present moment, has no memory of the past and "only cares about two things: Easy and Fun".

Explains Tim: "The Rational Decision Maker will make the rational decision to do something productive. But the monkey doesn't like that plan. So he takes the wheel and says, 'Actually let us read the entire Wikipedia page of the Nancy Carrigan-Tonya Harding Scandal because I just remembered that that happened ... then we're gonna go over to the fridge and see if there's anything new in it since ten minutes ago.'"

Then there's another character: the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster is in hibernation most times, but emerges in a frenzy when there's a deadline.

Panic is the only thing that can scare the Instant Gratification Monkey away from your brain's steering wheel.

(You can watch Tim's Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator below – but scroll down and read this blog post first.)




But what if you have to go sit in your garrett (without anyone nagging you to do it, of course) and come up with fresh chapters time and again.  How do you fight procrastination when, like many of us, you are still – in Greta Gerwig parlance – willing into being a novel that nobody is waiting for?

(Though this is a bit of a rhetorical question for me as my publisher is DEFINITELY waiting for me to finish writing my novel – yikes!)

Tim says creativity takes emotional and mental toil over time.

"Procrastination forces you to slow down, which is why it can be a direct asset."


SLOWING TIME


Procrastination, an asset? Say what?

"If you really stretch time a bit and go deep into something, it gets more and more interesting, the deeper you're into it."

This is Tomas Hellum, a Norwegian TV producer who came up with Slow TV, streaming hours sometimes days of television.

Notes the New Yorker: "Most art, even the naturalistic stuff ... comes in espresso form: the complexities of human perception are picked when ripe, roasted to intensity, milled, tamped down, and infused into something that’s quickly consumed. It is surprising, then, to find a challenge to this ancient premise arriving in a novel entertainment form—suddenly everywhere—known as 'slow TV.'"

But Tomas insists that this is precisely what people need. "We are living in times when coherent stories and context is somehow exotic. People are longing for some kind of connection or an unbroken story."

"Slowness gives you the ability to take back some control."

1.2 million Norwegians watched Tomas's first seven hour film of a train journey to the Arctic Circle. Slow TV programmes have even been streaming on Netflix.

Listening to a Ted Radio Hour programme on Slowing Down, I was struck by how much my/our art – novel writing  – shares with the slowing down sensibility.

What we write has to compete with the bite-size snacking offered by social media, which has regrettably come to define leisure expectations around the world – entertain me with something easy, quick, disposable.

It's becoming harder and harder to hook readers into long reads, harder to persuade them to invest time and emotion into stories that require concentration and time.

So the idea of Slow TV gives me hope for my art.

But this is by the by. It's not just the consuming of art that needs to slow down, but the creating of it.


NO RUSHING


Have I mentioned that Greta Gerwig is my new favourite screenwriter? Watching her take on Little Women had me listening to every writing podcast I could find that featured her.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, Jeff asked Greta about her process. Did she outline? Did she plan? How long did it take her to write her award winning films, Lady Bird and Little Women?




She said she keeps her writing "diaphanous" as long as she can, that she doesn't even put the manuscript in a screenplay form until much later because anything that looks final "gives you the illusion it's a final draft – it gives you a cosiness that you haven't earned" making it harder to change it.  "I find when I outline before I write its the fastest way to kill all my ideas. It makes everything quite literal for me."

Screenshot of Jo March laying pages of her manuscript on the floor  from the film Little Women
 Writing is a messy business – documents everywhere, sheets in longhand, she even writes using a typewriter. "I write a lot of scenes, gather a ton of material. I write until it feels like I can see a shape to it."

Tacked above her desk is a sign:

DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE BORING.

"I got good advice at the beginning: write everything. Write the things you think might be boring because there might be something in it. I think sometimes, when you're writing you’re in such a hurry to entertain, you can miss something that could be fruitful.”


FYI here is Greta Gerwig's Annie Leibowitz cover for Vogue

"It’s not about output it’s about sitting with the problem. That’s the thing about writing."


PUT THINGS OFF


Hearing Greta explain that she is more interested in earning that final draft than writing it, is fascinating to anyone who feels the pressure to perform, especially in the children's book world, where your reader can outgrow you before you've finished writing a series.

American psychologist, Adam Grant tells the story of how Martin Luther King Jr was rewriting his speech until seconds before he took the podium before a 1963 civil rights rally in Washington, then leaving the speech in his chair to utter the words "I have a dream ..." which was not in the script.

"By delaying the task of finalising the speech until the very last minute," Adam says, "he left himself open to the widest range of possible ideas. And because the text was not set in stone, he had freedom to improvise."

Adam says we often misunderstand procrastination as laziness when it is actually discouragement that makes you want to flee a particular task. The danger is that the procrastinator might "rush ahead with their simplest idea because they didn't have time to work out their creative ones." But the non procrastinator is in as much danger of being less creative: "(non procrastinators) tend to rush ahead with our first ideas which are usually most conventional. We also make the mistake of thinking in very structured, linear ways."

In fact, says Adam, studies have shown that procrastination can boost creativity as long as it doesn't take too long. "People who started (work) early and then put it away for a while and then came back to it were more likely to do divergent thinking and incubation. Actually boosting their creativity."

Here is a video clip of what Adam said about procrastination in his Ted Talk The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers (watch it after you've finished this article!):




BUT GRAPPLE WITH THE PROBLEM BEFORE YOU PUT IT OFF


We procrastinate because of doubt.

Self doubt - an inability to believe in yourself – can be paralyzing.

Idea doubt, though, the kind that makes me mop my floor instead of writing the next chapter, is different. It can be energizing.

Says Adam: "It motivates you to test, to experiment to refine, just like MLK did.

"Instead of saying I'm crap, you say the first three drafts are always crap and I'm just not there yet."

Like Greta Gerwig, we need to put off our final draft as long as we can, we need to earn it. Says Adam: "Procrastination can become creative when you've actively grappled with the problem".

There is actually a name for why we are advised to set aside a manuscript's first draft before attempting an edit. The Zeigarnik Effect – named for the German phsychologist who identified the process  – describes how we unconsciously continue to work on incomplete tasks that we've set aside.

Explains Adam: "When you finish something, you check it off your to do list and  it's erased ...whereas incomplete tasks ... Your brain continues to work on a problem, testing out different ideas" even as you are pursuing other activities.


TAKEAWAYS

I was inspired to write this after listening to the Ted Radio Hour Podcast on the theme Slowing Down.

We writers often talk about how showing up is half the battle of writing a novel. But how many times have I shown up and ... no matter how hard I stared at my screen, could not make my writing go to the next level ... then, after setting a project aside in  despair, found myself refreshed, full of new ideas again?

I am always impatient when I write, wanting to churn out chapters quickly, religiously recording my word count, and hating myself when I fail to meet my objectives.

But learning about slowing down, thinking about Greta Gerwig's advice to "sit with the problem", I realise that I have known all along what gets my novels written.

I must turn up, yes. But I must also give myself permission to take time. Procrastination is taking time. It allows your brain to work on the problem. It's good for you, Adam Grant says, as long as you grapple with the problem first, and don't take too much time.

So I mustn't let it be a source of stress, but of creativity.

Besides, my house will be cleaner for it.




Candy Gourlay is the author of Bone Talk, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie and the Costa children's book awards. Her next book is a biography for young readers on the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. In the UK, it will be published in paperback by David Fickling Books this April. Pre-order here. In the United States it will be published in hardback by Abrams in September. Pre-order here.

First Names: Ferdinand Magellan by Candy Gourlay Illustrations by Tom Knight



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