Tag Archives: publishing

The call of the wild

At a meeting of The Singapore Writer’s Group this week, I was reminded of the importance of playing and experimenting with language. When you’re busy learning the craft of writing a novel, as I am, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanics – character development, dialogue, structuring a plot.

I think carefully about the words I use because I want to achieve an economy of language and capture exactly the right metaphor and so on. Mastering all this brings great satisfaction, but in this pursuit of writing a well-crafted book that will sell, have I forgotten to play? I mean really revel in words and let the imagination run wild.

Authors do play with language but then they tame it, discipline it, strap it down and, after a while, it comes out walking to heel. This is part of learning your craft. You learn to use language effectively to create story, suspense, subtext and to make your reader fully believe in your world.

Then a song-writer called Parijat Mishra read a short piece to our writers’ group that was like a wolf howl to my urban fox brain. He had wanted to write something like a dream, a piece of art, a painting with words. And so he read us Tough Syrup, (it’s the second story in his blog) which we decided was a ‘prose poem’. Me included. The automatic reflex to put it in a box. We loved it, were confused and impressed by it in equal measure and called for story, discipline. And that is what his work needs if his intention is to write a short story or a novel. But I don’t think this is his aim. Not with that piece, anyway. He’s an artist at play. He achieved what he wanted and created a piece of art. His imagery was disturbing, surreal and extraordinary. It was an outpouring of imagination, a dreamscape painted with words.

One writer saw it as a comment on the emasculated male in a female world, I saw it as a comment on living in Singapore where everything is made safe and how suffocating that can be. It provoked thought and we brought our own interpretations to it. And that, I think, makes it art. We recognised that it was raw and wild and ugly and beautiful.

I hope Parijat does develop and apply discipline to his writing because his work reminded me of Kurt Vonnegurt and that kind of talent should be recognised. And at the same time, I like that it’s wild. I like that it roams the boundaries. So thank you, Parijat, and thank you to The Singapore Writers’ Group and all who shared their work, for the inspiration.


Kipling’s If… For Writers

So the green nail varnish has chipped and the birthday optimism is dissipating. Of course I want to be a great writer but first I have to summon the energy to write a sentence. And another and keep going. I’ve written three books. None are published. But I get better each time. My failures are improving, I am getting closer to publication with every book I write. So rationally I know that I have to keep going and I will get there. But emotionally, it ain’t so easy. I have to suppress doubts and fend off the feeling of futility. I get moments of flow and flashes of joy and I hope that can keep me going. And so, with the help of Mr Kipling, (the poet rather than cakes, although cake is darn good idea) I’m giving myself and any other struggling writer a little pep talk.

If you can keep your head when Fifty Shades of Grey

Gets published and your story does not,

If you believe in your writing, come what may,

When no one else cares a jot;

If you can be rejected by publishers and not tire of rejection,

But instead scour the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book

And laugh despite dejection,

And in good spirits begin another book;

If you can ignore market trends and write from the heart,

And bare your soul to the page every day

Not knowing if you’ll win through, yet commit to your art

Your characters and your plot for no pay;

If you can dream of being published – and not make publication your master,

If you can kick those imposters fame and fortune up the arse

And write for the joy of it, despite the disaster

Of the doormat thump of a manuscript come home, and laugh at the farce;

If you can beat the neuroticism, procrastination and despair

And know, beyond all doubt, the word is mightier;

Then what the world thinks, you’ll not care

And what’s more, my friend, you’ll be a writer.

Apologies to Rudyard Kipling for riding roughshod over his great and inspirational poem. Apologies also to E.L. James for the cheap shot at Fifty Shades. No one can deny the supreme success of her books.

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!

Getting to the top of the slush pile

Yesterday evening I was out celebrating with some writing buddies from my old creative writing MA class because one of our number has got a book deal with HarperCollins in the US. A big cheer for David John. Well done, mate and well deserved.

It gives me hope because it’s tough out there for new writers. David hasn’t got a UK deal yet, which is bizarre as his book is a thriller set around the 1936 Berlin Olympics and, with London hosting the 2012 Olympics, you’d think UK publishers would be snapping it up. I expect a UK deal will follow soon but publishers do seem to be risk averse at the moment. And new writers are a risk. It’s understandable, I guess, in the current economic climate, but not helpful to those of us trying to get our first publishing deal.

So how do you get to the top of the slush pile? How do you differentiate yourself?

1. First off, it helps to have a high concept idea or a unique selling point. By high concept I mean like Vampirates. (This is particularly the case with children’s or YA novels.) You need a strong, marketable idea with a plot you can sum up in a sentence or two. Another writer friend Liz Trenow comes from a silk-weaving family and her book, currently being pitched, is set in a factory manufacturing parachute silk during the second world war. It’s a quirky take on the genre and her knowledge of silk is a great USP. It makes her, the author, marketable as well as the book.

2. You need a brilliantly written, well structured novel. That means sympathetic characters, page-turning plot and a strong voice. Get feedback from other writers before you send it out to an agent. This could be through an online community like Writewords, people you’ve met on a writing course or a professional literary consultancy like Cornerstones. Criticism, when it’s constructive, can be enormously helpful. There will be some criticism that you just don’t agree with but often people will pick up on something that you’ve felt unsure about yourself. Listen to that. Sometimes you’ll know there’s a problem in your work but you can’t quite pinpoint it. That’s when you need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. Your book needs to be the best it can be before you send it out.

3. When approaching an agent, presentation is important. (Read the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook for guidance.) Check for spelling mistakes and make sure it’s in the format that a particular agent or publisher prefers – usually three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter.

4. But for an agent to get to the book, you need to stand out in that covering letter. Showing professionalism, that you take your craft seriously, will get them to sit up and take notice. Having done creative writing courses / retreats / an MA will help. If you’ve won or been short-listed for a writing competition, mention that. (Writing magazines often run such competitions.)

5. Belonging to a writing organisation will also help distinguish yourself from the crowd. For instance, I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Such organisations are great for networking with other writers. But often they’ll get agents / publishers/ published authors to give talks. And if you’re approaching an agent or editor, having met them or having heard them speak somewhere is going to get their attention. It means you can say: ‘At the SCBWI conference this year, you said you’d be interested in seeing a good ghost story…’ That kind of personal connection is invaluable.

Good luck!