Tag Archives: publish

Where do ideas come from?

The idea of this blog was to bring you on the journey with me as I wrote a book. And after about 20 posts about writer’s block and procrastination, I finally got writing but stopped blogging. So I feel I owe you a couple of retrospective posts.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start . When you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with … Excuse me, no idea why I was suddenly chanelling Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Actually, I do know. It started with the words: ‘Let’s start at the very beginning’ and the tune came into my head. It started with the WORDS…

So many ideas come as you write. It’s the magic, the very essence of creativity. So don’t sit there waiting for a great idea. Write and the ideas will follow and then you can shape them.

One idea I had stemmed from an image in Vogue magazine of a model on the Mongolian steppes with an eagle. Woman and bird were in profile, gazing into the distance. It was beautiful, striking. I decided to do an exercise with her as a character. I’d been playing around with a parallel world idea but as I started to write, the photo gave me a new beginning, actually a a whole new incarnation of the book, starting in the parallel world and having the character from our world fall into it.

The book I’m currently working on started because of news articles and TV programmes about the pressures on girls to be skinny, pretty and sexy. I was horrified that girls as  young as seven were worrying about their body image! In one programme girls were shown photos of themselves along with images photoshopped so they looked skinnier and fatter. In almost every case, the girls picked the skinniest version of themselves as being the best. I’d also read about teenagers aspiring to be models or wives of footballers, or just to be on the latest reality TV programme.

Then I heard the crime author PD James talking on Radio 4. She’s in her nineties and that got me thinking about what she must have seen and experienced in her lifetime and how it couldn’t have been easy for a female crime writer early in her career, then, BAM, suffragettes popped into my head. What would the suffragettes make of the world today? What if a modern day teenager met one? That was the genesis of my book.

So the media seems to be a big source of inspiration for me. Looking at the obituaries might seem morbid but they feature interesting lives and that gets you thinking. Or a crime report might give you a plot idea. Overheard snippets of conversation on a bus can spark an idea or a character’s voice, people-watching in cafes is endlessly fascinating, making up lives for them. Putting down your phone so that you’re not picking up emails and posting on twitter but actually observing the world helps a lot. Just asking the question: What if…? Your dreams could give you an idea. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight came from a dream. According to wikipedia, it led to Meyer writing a draft of what became chapter 13 of the book.

Travelling is good. Anything that makes you an outsider, that gets you looking at the world differently can trigger creativity. I recently went to an amazing hot spring in Malaysia with a big pool of geothermic water  surrounded by towering verdant limestone karsts with caves beneath. I felt humbled and inspired by those great architects, nature and time. It could have been another world. It could have been Eden.

The magnificent cavern with stalagtites and stalagmites that had been turned into a wine bar, was quite spectacular. A brilliant setting for a book. Something gothic, perhaps. If Stephanie Meyer had been to this place, Edward Cullen would have taken Bella on a date there.

Your own lives and experiences will give you ideas  – you may not write about them directly but they will certainly inform your writing. And once you’re writing, you start to think like a writer and notice things that you didn’t before. I will hear someone’s name and I’ll think, that’s a great name for a character and off I go. In short, ideas are all around you and you shouldn’t worry about the idea, just the sitting on your bum to write.

Whether it’s a commercial idea is another matter. What publishers are looking for is a good concept that will sell. This often comes from two ideas coming together. Vampirates, for example. Suzanne Collins is reported to have got the idea for the Hunger Games  while channel surfing. On one station was a reality TV show and on another was the invasion of Iraq and the two began to blur in her mind and she ended up with the idea of a dysptopian world where there’s an annual, televised, gladiatorial fight to the death.

I find thinking too much about commerciality blocks my writing, so I’m not going to put too much emphasis on this. The most important thing is to have something that you are compelled to write. If you have something special you can bring to it, you are an immigrant writing about the immigrant experience for example, all the better. You become commercial. The publisher can market you and you will sell your book. My friend Liz Trenow wrote The Last Telegram, which is set in the second world war – always popular– but she had a unique selling point. She comes from a family of silk weavers and she set her novel in a silk factory making parachutes for the RAF with her heroine running the factory.  As well as going to book fairs she goes to textile fairs to give readings. She knows her stuff and the sensuality the silk weaves through her story made it something that no one else could have written.

Write for yourself first but have your reader in mind. Be aware of trends but don’t try to follow them or predict them. You can help a publisher if you can give them a way to market it, something to peg it on. But underneath all that, they need a strong voice, a brilliantly evoked world, great characters and a cracking story.

Hope shimmers on the horizon

The new year has started with a glimmer of hope. I sent the first three chapters of The Smuggler’s Daughter  to a small independent press in Dublin after I heard the managing editor speak at a SCBWI retreat at the end of 2011. I received a lovely email back saying she was ‘impressed’ by my work and I had ‘real talent’ and she wanted to see the rest. Woohoo!

This was tempered by her preparing me for the ‘not right for our list’ rejection as they are a small press and only have one historical title which is also set in Napoleonic times. But she still wanted to read it and she was interested to hear my ideas for my next project. Hope shimmers on the horizon. I’m praying it’s not a mirage.

Are the stars are aligning, at last? Or maybe it’s just taking a positive step like going to a writing retreat that is continuing to reverberate in opportunity and  possibility. I needed the encouragement and support of fellow writers. They understand about the process, about dealing with rejection, about picking yourself up, about persevering. Steve Hartley, who wrote the children’s series Danny Baker Record Breaker, spoke about how it took him 15 years to get published and was afraid that might discourage us. But as someone who has spent 12 years writing (well 10 years writing and two years sulking), it gave me hope. I wasn’t alone.

I’m happy putting the time and effort in to learn the craft. With each of my three books, I’ve got better and got closer, getting shortlisted for competitions and having agents ask to see the rest of my book after years of standard rejection letters. Then, with Smugglers, which I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing (another of those positive steps), I found my voice and got lots of agent interest and a couple wanting to represent me. And then came the barrage of publishers’ rejections and two years of writer’s block.

It’s  harder to pick yourself up when you’ve got so close. But it’s what you have to do and my fellow writers encouraged me not to lose faith in the book. Children’s author Patricia Forde (Hedgehogs do Not Like Heights) gave me the nudge I needed to talk to the editor about Smuggler’s and it worked. It’s being considered again.

Wordism: Take positive steps to achieving your goal of finishing your book or getting it published. Take courses, go on retreats, join a writer’s group, network all you can, develop an online presence.

Just after the retreat, I discovered that my MA friend Liz Trenow had got a two-book deal with Harper Collins’ Avon imprint for her book The Last Telegram. Again, it gives me hope that it can and does happen. The following day, I saw a familiar name on the SCBWI Facebook page. Tina Orr-Munro – a former colleague from my days as a journalist. She had a book cover as her Facebook photo, Ellie Foster’s English Courseworkand sure enough, when I got in touch, I discovered that she too had got published. Not only that, but she’d been through the same journey as me. She’d got an agent only to be knocked back by the big publishers. She gave up writing for two years then decided to try some small independent presses and, hey presto, Rickshaw jumped at it.

The right book has to land on the right desk at the right time. You can have the talent. You can have the craft. But what you really need is luck. I wish you lots of it!

Egmont UK – what the editors say

I went along to the first of the SCBWI Professional Series events in London last night and heard commissioning editors Peter Marley and Ali Dougal talk about what Egmont UK is looking for in a manuscript.

Egmont publish Lemony Snicket and Mr Gum but is publishing more teenage fiction now, picking up on the paranormal trend with The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. The vampire trend is beginning to fall off, according to Ali, but paranormal is still going strong with angels and werewolves taking up the slack. Michael Morpurgo’s brilliant War Horse is on Egmont’s list and the film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, is out soon.

With a picture book, Peter Marley is looking for ‘iconic’, memorable characters that are full of personality. He likes funny or quirky characters. Writing must be concise – around 800 words – and age appropriate. There should be a good story arc and a strong ending.

Ali Dougal deals with young fiction (age 5+) through to YA and crossover. She’s is looking for a clear ‘hook’. By which she means a plot you can hold in the palm of your hand, a high concept.  She has to champion a book to her sales and marketing team at the acquisition meeting, so it needs to be an easily understood, marketable concept. One submission that stood out recently, she said, was a book called Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick (brilliant title), a YA action thriller that was fast paced and fun. It was ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off meets Kill Bill‘. This hook helped her pitch it to the acquisition team.  It’s due out later this year.

To make Ali sit up and take notice, it needs one or more of the following: A stunning voice, mass market appeal, a character she loves or something genuinely funny. It can be commercial or have prize-winning potential. If it has both, all the better. International appeal (they have offices in the US and Australia) or film potential also hits the right buttons. Basically, she has to absolutely love it and it has to have the potential to ‘sell by the truckload.’ Publishing is a business, after all.

Ali mentioned a couple of other memorable submissions, also out later this year. The Shadowing, a horror series for boys aged 10+, which had a clear series arc, was commercial and the writing was great. And Dear Dylan, a coming of age story written in email form which dealt with issues but was also fun and had a very real voice.

Egmont is the biggest children’s publisher in the UK and one of the only ones that still accept unsolicited manuscripts. A junior staff member will read them first and pass those they like to an editor. But Ali warned that they receive 180 unsolicited submissions in a two week period so it does take time. If you have an agent, of course, it will go straight to an editor. But all submissions are read. Send your manuscripts to: childrensreader@euk.egmont.com

Thanks to SCBWI for hosting a great event.

Waltzing with words

It occurred to me, while watching Pamela dance her Viennese Waltz on Strictly last night, that writing is a lot like dancing. I used to do ballroom and Latin as a kid and met my husband salsa dancing and more recently got into lindyhop. When you’re dancing, especially with a partner, and you’re really in the moment and in harmony with the music and reading each other’s moves, there’s a wonderful sense of flow and of being at one with the world. I get that same feeling when I’m writing, when I’m inside my story and my characters. There comes a point when the story writes itself. It’s that same exhilaration. It’s spiritual in a way.

But it can be painful starting a new book. I’m having a real problem this time as I’ve been ‘blocked’ for the past year. So on top of the usual force of will needed to get my shoulder to the wheel of a new project and heave it into motion, there’s doubt and fear to contend with. Will I ever get going again? Maybe I’m not really a writer, after all? (Yes, we all think that.) What if I write another book I can’t sell because ‘the market’s difficult’? And as soon as I start thinking about what the market wants, it blocks me. Yet it has to be considered if I want to get published.

Wordism: You have to find a happy halfway house between writing for yourself and for the market. For me, writing for myself comes first, but if you want to be published, you have to have the market in the back of your mind.

I’m trying not to think of myself as ‘blocked’ but ‘recovering’ after my last book The Smuggler’s Daughter didn’t get off the ground. I’ve spent eight years honing my craft. I’ve done an MA in Creative writing which helped me understand plot and structure and write a cracking good read in Smugglers. I had nine agents wanting to read more and three or four wanting to represent me. It was exciting, it was overwhelming, it was all about to happen…

And then it didn’t. ‘Kids aren’t interested in historical fiction at the moment’, was the feedback from the ten publishers it went out to. ‘The market’s difficult’. ‘Not right for our list’. A couple of editors loved it but couldn’t get their sales teams on board. Crash. I fell back to earth. But my book hadn’t left it.

So I have been recovering, nursing my bruised ego, building up my reserves for the next book.

Wordism: The difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is perseverance.

I have been reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (well worth a read), which suggests doing ‘morning pages’ – falling out of bed and, before doing anything else, writing three pages of whatever is on your mind. This is meant to help in bypassing the inner critic and also help you explore who you are and what’s important to you because that will feed into your ‘voice’ as a writer. She also recommends taking yourself off on an ‘artist’s date’ to fill the creative well. So I’ve been doing that too. I am not blocked, I am filling the well. It is important to trick the mind by turning what feels like a negative into a positive.

I am also focusing on that feeling when I’m in the flow, when everything else falls away and the writing seems to come from some force outside of yourself and flows through you on to the page. When writing is like dancing. Like Pamela’s waltz and Kara’s tango.

At the moment, I have a touch of the Widdecombes. It will pass. I will waltz with words again.