Saturday, 23 January 2010

Questions about writing 1#

I often get queries sent through my website about areas of writing and sometimes the reply I send bounces.  I am never sure if this is because they are some kind of inventive spam or just one of these weird things that sometimes happen out there in the ether.

So, not wanting to upset anyone who has taken the time to write to me and not got a reply and also not being very technically adept, I thought it would be an interesting idea to write the occasional post on writing, sparked off by these questions.  I would welcome the thoughts of other writers, editors and agents out there - because when it comes to specifics about writing a lot of it is a huge grey area with all sorts of different points of view.
After all if it was that simple there would be a list of rules and anyone who followed them would be an instant success. 

So this week  - two quite different questions from Kirsty and Tasnim.

Q1- from Tasnim  -  who I assume doesn't live in the UK - and wants to write for children between the ages of 8-13 and asks what are the stipulated word limits in the UK
Tasnim - This is one of those questions that sounds like it should be very easy to answer but its not quite that simple.  Children who are in this age range might want to read very different books.  You may have a very competent reader who will be able to read long fairly complex storylines examples of this are Philp Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights(or known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Anber Spyglass) or the Harry Potter series.

                 Other children may be put off by the thought of tackling something as long as those and be happier with much shorter books.
                 When I was reseaching for my book Writing for Children I spoke to a number of editors at some of the larger publishers and the consesus was that they were reluctant to suggest word length at all.  They said that books were more 'author led'.
                I think that what they mean is that it is the story, and the way the author tells it, will dictate the length that works for that particular story. As always the story must be as long or as short as it needs to be btu I know how confusing that can be if you are starting out.  I suppose it can also depend on whether you are writing for the top or lower end of that age group, and even then books vary so much.  You can have some that are as short as 15-20,000 words and others that are as long as 60,000+ words.
                  My advice would be write your book and see how long it is and then go to a good bookshop and look at books similar to the one you are writing. See the variations in length and which publishers are publishing that kind of story.  If it looks like your story is far too long you may want to have a second look and see if your story is really as well written as you can make it. It needs to interest the reader from start to finish, and make sure you haven't made it longer than it needs to be.  Don't waffle to make it longer. Kids hate that.

Q2- from Kirsty  - Who says she is good at writing stories but wanted to know how to make her writing more interesting.
Kirsty -  If you want to make your stories more interesting there are a few things you need to think about.   The beginning of your story should make the person reading it desperate to keep reading.  You know, the kind of story that makes you beg for a few more minutes before you have to turn off the light and go to sleep.
                 Start your story with something happening and don't have a long drawn out beginning.   Your characters could be running away from something, or having an argument or a fight.  If you begin with your main character being worried about something that's going to happen, or something that they have done; that can make you want to read on.  But don't tell everything at once. Give little clues so that the person reading it wants to discover what is wrong, or what it is they did.

                  When I am writing I like to think of it like a film running in my head as I write. If I can imagine it happening, and if I know my characters well enough, I get so wrapped up in the story that I don't want to stop until it is finished.
                   Sometimes when I start to write I don't know how the story will end but that doesn't matter too much.  Although I do like to stop after a bit and think about what the end of the story might be.  Even then I often don't quite know how I am going to get my characters to the end I have planned.
                   But for me, that is the fun of writing.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Characters - How well do we know them?

As writers we have incredible power over our characters, or is it a responsibility? Creating living, breathing, vulnerable characters is not a simple task. Trying to model them on a single person we know is tempting, but not advisable.

Do we really know anyone that well? Do we even know ourselves?

I don't think so.
At one level we think we know ourselves but in the words of Robert Burns
'O wad some Power the gift tae gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!'
(loosely translated for those not familiar with Scots)
'O would some Power the gift to give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!'

We all clothe ourselves in different garb depending on who we are with.

We are different as parents to our children, than we are as lovers to our partners; different to our closest friends than we are in our professional working environment.
We are also not always good at seeing ourselves honestly, and this is where other people may perceive us to be quite different to the way we think they see us.

All this can feed into the creation of credible characters.

But even our closest family or friends often have sides to them we are surprised by. The person who suddenly decides to do something completely (we think) out of character, such as jumping out of a plane when we were sure they were terrified of heights, or just something as simple as eating olives when we were sure they hated them.

I knew someone who was upset by their mother forming a new relationship when their father had died. The thing that upset them most was that she was suddenly going out a lot socially, getting involved in climbing and skiing, things they thought she would never had done with their father. They were sure she had changed.
The reality was more likely to be that these were things she wanted to try, but wasn't so desperate to do them if her husband wasn't interested. A side of her that no one had seen but that was given free reign in different circumstances.

When we create characters we need to think about the many different faces people have in day to day life, but also the things they hide deep inside.

Sometimes the 'voice' of a character comes quickly, we can hear them speaking in our heads - Yes, I know hearing voices is not something you really want to admit to, but it does happen.

I like to have a conversation with my characters- something that never appears in a story - but where they tell me a lot about themselves that I would never have know otherwise. It often takes the form of a letter or diary entry. Usually they tell me about things that matter to them, people who irritate them and even more general facts about them. All of this is like other research which needs to be thought about, understood and used only to inform my writing.

Where do your characters come from?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

What they don't tell you- about being an author

I know there are so many people out there who dream of getting published but sometimes I think it might be a little like getting married.

All that time, money and effort that goes into planning the wedding day and it seems that a lot of young brides don't seem to think past the big day- to all the days weeks and years beyond that. They are more important than a single day, if it is going to last.

The reality is probably not exactly what anyone expects and there will be times when it lives up to and even exceeds expectations. But as our expectations are often the result of dreams, where everything is so perfect, perhaps it is not surprising that the reality is not always quite so perfect- sometimes better and sometimes not.

I am not saying that being a published author isn't wonderful at times and I wouldn't wish to be anything else, but no one tells you about all the other things.
Those things that don't really involve living in the wonderful world you created, populated by characters you have dreamed up, where you have some control.

Granted, your characters, if you have given them enough complexity to live and breathe like real people, will not always do exactly what you had planned. Sometimes they are horrible and they will act true to themselves - which is where the writer is not totally in control, but that can be quite exciting, too.

So what are these other things no one told you about?
Some of them are things like...

  • answering requests to go and speak or present in schools
  • working out how to cost these out and finalising details
  • working out how to get to places where you have been invited to speak
  • All the background paperwork associated with being self employed such as keeping accounts, tax etc.
  • reading over contracts with publishers, agents etc etc Even if you have an agent you should never sign anything without reading it first and asking questions, everyone makes mistakes
  • finding out about PLR (Public Lending Right) and ALCS
  • joining societies and writing associations (These can a good idea for advice and so that you can keep in touch with the writing world)

And then you need to think about publicity. Do you have a website? Can you keep it up to date? What about a blog, facebook, Twitter? Some of the above are essential parts of the job and others are necessary for your sanity - because writing is basically a solitary task.

In the end all these things can keep you from that one thing you got into this to do - and that is WRITE!

At the moment I am trying to avoid getting my head about the complexity of the Google Settlement and whether to opt in or opt out. But I am concerned that this will be just another displacement activity....

If you are published I wonder what keeps you from writing? What did you not expect?

If you are not published is any of this even on your radar?

Sunday, 17 January 2010

First Post - Resolutions

Welcome to my blog and thank you for visiting.

New Year Resolutions.

Why does the resolve seem to fade as the freedom of the holiday season gives way to day to day normality? With all that deep snow outside it seemed as if the holiday feeling extended at least a week longer than usual which gave me some time to think about which resolutions were worth persevering with.

I have been wanting to start a blog of my own and this seemed a good time to do it. Now that the snow has cleared it is time for a brisk walk by the sea and back to my desk to get started.

This New Year there was that amazing feeling of handing over a finished book and clearing the floor (sometimes literally), before getting settled into another story. The book in question at the end of the year was DEAD BOY TALKING - my new YA novel , which is due for publication in May 2010 (more about that soon).

I am really keen to see what kind of cover it will have. The publishers Strident Publishing produced such a great cover for SPIDER.

My other resolution this year was -
The usual plea to myself to make sure I get out to 'Tuscany' (my shed) to write every day.
I love 'Tuscany' but sometimes I can't quite make it across the garden and away from the emails etc that come in on my main desk computer. I have a rule that I do not connect to the internet when I am in Tuscany so I cannot read emails, check websites or blogs. It is writing time. Amazingly it really works and I can focus completely on writing when I am there - but that is only when I make it across the grass.

We'll see what happens...