What I Read About When I Read

A friend came over a few nights ago for nothing more than chats and catching up. I enjoy conversation with no fixed topic, and certain people - whether through a natural affinity between you, or shared experiences / interests, or adventures to be retold - are more interesting than others as time goes on. Perhaps that's ungenerous to some, but it's true and it's honest. 

Conversation on this occasion was excellent, and it's left me thinking about one thing - the habits of a writer, and repetition over various books. 

In this case, it's Haruki Murakami. Both fans of his work, my friend and I often find him coming up as we talk. In this case it led to a particular list, of things he has in all his books - of, in a way, unoriginal memes that identify a book as Murakami's. A loner man, a promiscuous girl, drinking beer from a bottle, detailed cooking scenes, ears - the list goes on and anyone who reads his work will recognize that these are more than just themes; they are his trademarks. The word 'iconic' was used, but I'm not sure about that one yet. 

Frog Continues
Clever, friendly Starky's blog - well worth a read

So does it apply to words, too? Certain writers just like certain words better. I know I overused 'chuckle', for instance.  And there's style. The Guardian books section has done a wonderful job at times of aping the writing of known authors for parody. Alexander McCall Smith got one, and it really was instantly recognizable as his writing - except, of course, that it wasn't. 

A good stylist can copy another writer like a good painter can paint in the style of a known master - Picasso or Van Gogh or whoever. 

Tags, like in street art, get known, and they become your own. Even word order, or chapter arrangement, if copied over more than one book, can become representative of the most elusive thing in writing - your voice. 

There's a lot of talking about finding your voice as a writer, though I'm not sure that's quite bang on. Perhaps it should be about using your voice - in being comfortable enough to ignore convention and grammar and good usage, as long as it's deliberate, for the sake of the story you have to tell. 

Once I'd written several books, I saw my own little tics. Things I did over and over (some good, some bad), things I'd copied from other writers (switching 'said' to be before or after the speaker's name, for example, I saw well used by Philip Pullman), things I was just doing wrong...

They all add up to make something recognizably yours.

Maybe I'll put dream sequences in all my books. Maybe I'll always use the word 'mote.' I just hope that above all I'll let the story get told, and that it'll be a good one.


WYy its importe nt to always edIt your work."

Yes, the title is a joke. Come on, now. 

Editing is often seen as the bane of a writer's life. If writing is the joy and the creativity, editing is somehow the dull counterpart that's more of a slog through a grammar book than any sort of artistic expression.  It's like firing a kiln when throwing a pot is finished. Or framing a painting? Anyone with the know-how can do it.

Wrong, of course. Yes, editing is in part about catching typos and mistakes and pointing out grammar use, and it is also, in part, about editing plot and character and pointing out that they had Christmas twice in a week or that a character walked out of a room, came back in, and came back in. It's easy for a writer to lose track when they're focusing on the big picture over several months of writing. 

But editing is more. If it were only a matter of grammar and punctuation, then anyone could do it if they knew the rules.Why is it not? Because it's a part of the creativity itself, and a writer should edit their own damn work. Want the analogy back? It's like drawing the outline and getting someone else to just 'fill in the colours.' That's not painting as it should be. 

Done, UK- and US-style.

When I edit I'm looking for style and phrasing and taking another chance to go over the whole thing and improve it. I like to - to tinker with the whole thing again. Take another shot. Once it's out there and you've sent it off, you can't take back what you said...


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

With recent busy-ness and other distractions, I've missed this for a couple of weeks. A gradual return to normality now seems called for, so without further ado, let's get on with this Wednesday's inspirational book.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Book 1)
That's right - it's the original British cover. None of your fancy re-releases. Gerrof my land! 

In many ways it's an obvious choice for any blog about children's literature over the past few years. J.K. Rowling has been credited with inspiring a whole generation to turn back to books, with redefining what children's literature can be, and with breaking down the children's / adult's literature dichotomy. 

They're great books - don't get me wrong - but it's not all of that I want to focus on. Instead, in the spirit of this blog feature, I want to share, just quickly, how Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone influenced me. 

I'm not sure how long the books had been out when I read them. They certainly weren't the huge success they were to become. The fourth book definitely wasn't out. Possibly the third one was only just being noticed. I found a copy in the house that belonged to my little sister, and I have vague memories of being told the book was quite popular. I read it, and thought it was good, and I decided to find out more about the author. 

That was my introduction to the whole world of authors and books and publication and that people sat down, struggled, and wrote these things. As media attention grew and focused more and more on Rowling, I came to discover one thing - being an author was an actual job you could do.

I promise you, it wasn't the fame or the money that made this one book turn my head. It was finding out, in and of itself, that writing was a choice and anyone could do it, if they wanted. It was off the back of this that I wrote my first ever novel (A terrible book which, I pray, never sees the light of day).

Writing one book turned into two, which turned into three, which led to buying The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and making first contact with an agent, and learning the ropes, and honing craft. Which all leads up to the here and now, of course. More learning. More honing. More writing.

So that's today's story. Books change people who read them, and if you're lucky, it changes you for the better, and in a way that will be felt for years and years to come.


EREN prepares for launch

It's a weird experience, sharing work. This blog was originally started to try to break me of the habit of being secretive and coy about my writing. I'd say it's done a good job so far. Getting out there, on Twitter, on Facebook, in the world at large, certainly helped me get signed to an agent - but it's the contacts I've made that matter just as much. Other bloggers, Twitter-ers, general readers - the community, I suppose, of writers. Being more declarative about writing is always good.

EREN is approaching submission to publishers. We're in the last stage of edits now. I'm changing all the single quotation marks ( ' ) to double quotation marks ( " ) for the American version, along with spelling and word choice and, at times, idiom. It's been line-edited and gone back and forth between me and Molly several times. It's been formatted into a lovely sans serif font.

And then editors are going to read that. Isn't that strange? It's a terrifying thought. It's a brilliant thought. That EREN might be taken seriously and considered by real people, as a real book, is still completely bizarre to me, even if it is what I've wanted for so long.

But that's where we are. I wrote a short bio of myself in third person to go with the pitch, and Molly is deciding which editors and publishers to approach on both sides of the Atlantic.

And now, a big shout out to my stupendous wife Ashley, who bought me a pipe, that I could be a Real Writer. What an awesome gift.


Practical 'How Do I...?' Publishing Stuffs

A more practical post today, following on from my thoughts and experiences of writing a novel and what goes into a book.

I've written a few books over the past 10 years or so, and in that time I've been learning about publishing, about what writers can do to help themselves out, and about the basic, professional standards in the industry. Now, I lived, studied and worked in England for the majority of this time, so this advice is UK-specific, but I'll mark US-equivalents where necessarily.

This all applies to novel-length fiction, by the way.


You've got to write a book, first. Surprisingly, this isn't something everyone knows or does. Literary agents (of which more below) and publishers do get approached by prospective authors or with a 'pre-query' (which is not a thing) but all that does is show you haven't understood how the system works. Non-fiction is different, but that's not my field. Fiction is, and in fiction, you gotta write. So, write your book, and revise it, and make it as good as you can. Only then move on.

Written it? Great! Congratulations. You're already doing better than most. Starting a book isn't the same as writing a book. Awesome.

You can approach a publisher directly, but this is almost always going to lead to a form rejection. In today's world, most editors are simply too busy to take on un-solicited manuscripts (mss.) Un-solicited in this case means 'not requested,' and any mss. sent in like this go on the slushpile, or the stack of books waiting to be read and / or responded to. I'd avoid publisher submissions for now, and instead aim for a literary agent.

And here's the first link - you need to buy The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. Published annually, it lists all the agents, publishers, and everything else you'll need, along with explaining how to write to them, complete with samples, advice and pretty much anything you could need to know. (The US equivalent would be The Writer's Market. Both this and the Yearbook are available in most bookstores)

The 2013 edition will be out very soon. Read through it, see what agents are accepting your genre, and do what the books say, exactly as they say. Professional writing needs professional approaches. Literary agents will be able to submit your ms. to publishers - the normal rules don't apply here, if you like, and they have a more direct line to the editors. Most of them are friends, or colleagues at least. They add professionalism and gravitas to your submission, and you pay them with a cut (15% is normal) of any money you make. Go on their websites and follow their guidelines. You have been warned.

Here's my second linky! Getting an agent itself is hard, with competition from other writers far outstripping the amount agents can handle. How can you give yourself a boost, keep up to date, learn the best practice and get great advice from those in the know? Get involved in the writers community on the Absolute Write Forums.  It's invaluable, I promise you. Your query and submission will be better, you'll be more informed, and you'll be happier for it all.

Once you're submitting, I recommend Query Tracker as the easiest way to keep up with who else is walking the same path as you, agent response times, and agent moves.It's free and pretty easy to use. Response times tend to hang around the three month mark, so try not to go crazy, and keep busy. Start your next book, for one thing.

Through all of this, keeping up with the latest book news is a good idea, since you want this to be your profession. The Guardian Books site, for all its flaws, is one of the best I've found. See what's happening to authors you know, in the industry at large, and learn about the newest trends.

And finally - what do good writers do? Read! Read widely, in your own field and outside of it. Read the latest prize winners and best sellers, and then read whatever else you want to. Reading is learning, I guess. Learning craft and style and words you can steal later.

It's hard, but the part where you write and read should be fun. Remember that most of all. If you're not enjoying it, what's wrong? Are you isolated, or have you misunderstood what to expect? Turning a hobby into a living is never easy, and if you don't have a love of writing for writing's sake, that could be a indicator of trouble to come. Stay positive!

And that, for now, is it. Do you have any other links or tips to share? Let me know in the comments below - I'd love to keep learning more myself.


Writing, Finishing and What Books Really Are

It’s been a fun week, feeling all accomplished and happy, feeling that being able to use the phrase ‘I’ll talk to my agent’ is a Big Step. With EREN now going through line edits, and submission to publishers now very much a reality, it’s tempting to sit back, and think of that book as done. Except books are never really done – ask any writer you know. They get finished, and sometimes published, but there’s always tinkering to do, always things you missed out, or feel you shouldn’t have put in. Reading through EREN, even knowing I made it safe and onto an agent’s books, I still feel awkward. Did I write that? Why? That word’s a bit off. I shouldn’t have made him say that

Books do get rereleased, of course, and sometimes authors are lucky enough to get a second chance. Mostly, though, the book has to be good enough in the writer’s eyes, even if it’s just plain old good to everyone else.

Now comes the switch, though. I feel like I’m at the end – a complete book! Edited and polished and minding its p’s and q’s! I have made it!

Taken with instagram
Eren, Eren and agency contract in a big pile of happiness, avec stylish clips

So where’s the next book?

There has to be another. If this is my life, where are the next few books?

The answer’s pretty simple. They’re in my head. It’s just getting them down on paper that’s the tricky part.

So I’m back at the beginning, in a way. And that’s brilliant. It’s exciting and frustrating and so, so rewarding to be working once more on a book which is raw and untamed and doesn’t make sense. New characters, new worlds, new feelings to write down. And everything I finish makes me better at writing the next stuff.

I’ve come to think, over the years, that books are like machines. They work like clockwork, I suppose, or like a great, hulking steam engine. There are different parts – dialogue, voice, tone, person, tense – that you have to understand to make them all fit together. You have to tinker and stand back, blowing your cheeks out, and saying ‘Well, that doesn’t work, does it? Wonder what happens if I do this…

It’s writer as mad scientist and expert mechanic. It’s writer as engineer and handyman and inventor. Why doesn’t this character work? Here, try a No. 2 screwdriver and move his introduction to the third chapter. The writing is clunky and making a strange, pup-tang noice. Change it to the first person. Better?

©2009-2012 ~SystematicChaosInc

Books are complicated things, in the end. They need watching over and taking care of, or, when you start them up and read them, they fall apart - or worse, don’t do anything. Just sit there, big empty piles of cold nothing, and you sit back and go, ‘Oh. I thought it was supposed to roar into life. Do you think I should have put this screw in?’

The best machines work amazingly and you can’t tell it, of course. A tiny white box that barely purrs and glows gentle colours, and it’s actually controlling all the phone lines in a city block. Books can be like that, too. If you don’t realise it’s writing, well then, that’s good writing. All the gunk and the innards and the workings of the beast are hidden deep beneath the pages, where only the author should look. Lift up the hood of a car, and most people can tell you just about where the oil should go.  Goes for books. Authors should learn the craft, so they can fix things when they’re not working.

So I'm putting together a new book now, forcing the pieces together when they resist, banging and clattering and making a fine old mess and hoping - just hoping - that something pretty awesome rolls out at the end.


So this is my agent story

And so I have a literary agent. Being able to write that sentence is phenomenal. It’s taken me thirteen years to do it – although I admit I started quite young, and gave myself a head start. But still, thirteen years from that first letter I sent to an agent, to now, contract signed, done and dusted. I’m an author.

It’s taken me thousands of other sentences written over weeks and months and years to come to that; I’m an author. It’s almost surreal.

So this is my agent story – not covering thirteen years, but instead just the last two.

Lots of work and lots of words

The original idea for EREN came years ago, scribbled down in a notebook I still have somewhere in England. A few scenes, a rough idea of a creature in an attic, and nothing more than that. The story fizzled and died, but there was something there, some part of the story that stayed with me. In the meantime I wrote a couple of novels, got a degree, moved to Japan, and met a girl.

Life happened. The girl (my fianceĆ©, then wife, as it happens) told me about NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. Every November you get together with other writers and try to bang out 50,000 words. In 2009 I wrote a novel called The Gentlemen Travellers. In 2010, I decided to revisit EREN.

Everything had to change, it turns out, for the story to work. Setting, voice, gender – the lot. But once I’d worked that out, I started writing. A year later (so, not a NaNoWriMo winner, then) I had a book, and sent it out to an agent. Surprisingly, she asked for the full. I was still in Japan then, and planning a wedding and move to the States, so times were busy – especially after the March 11 earthquake changed so many things  - but I sent it off and waited.

Waiting takes time. It was August when I heard back. Eight months. It was a no, but with some great insights and tips, which I was happy enough to get. I sent off the revised book to an agent in the UK. Waiting happened. Life happened. I heard back – another no, but with more suggestions. I knew it was good that agents were remembering the book, and offering editorial input, but clearly there was work to do still.

I rewrote and revised more, and selected another ten or so agents, some British, some American, and sent off the queries. I heard back from one British agent almost straight away – a full request. Clearly my query was working now. I heard back from another agent – a full request. Exciting times.

13th March, 2012. While helping to run a panel discussion in NYC for work, I got two e-mails to my phone. The first agent was passing – again, more suggestions, more thoughts on the weak points, and an invitation to submit it in the future if I gave it an ‘overhaul.’ The second e-mail was shorter. Could she phone me to discuss the book?

You’ll find a lot of talk of writers boards about The Call (yes, with that capitalisation), when an agent offers you representation and your true career begins. But this didn’t feel like it to me. I was sensing that the book was decent, but flawed. But I was excited. Agents don’t call you up for nothing – she was already investing at least something in me. We agreed a time.

It’s a strange experience having someone praise your work whose opinion you really trust. She was a professional agent, and she had great things to say. And yes, she had some serious reservations. We spoke for maybe twenty minutes, half an hour, and she asked me if I’d be willing to work on a redraft if she sent me notes. I was over the moon. We hung up, and I sat down to appreciate what an opportunity this could be.

That evening the notes came through – some astute observations on specific points, some structural problems, some questions about red herrings and inconsistencies I hadn’t intended. I agreed to the rewrite, and away we went.

With an agent’s kind words to spur me on, I finally showed the book to my wife and in-laws. I needed objective criticism from someone who’d never read it before. My wife and sisters especially were amazing – they agreed with the agent, for one thing, but they pushed me on every little point that confused them. Why this word? This phrasing was awful. Why was she wearing ear muffs in summer? I’d got this story wrong. I’d misspelled this word. There was a typo on page 102…

I rewrote and added scenes and clarified points and changed the structure. Their corrections and questions never annoyed me. With so much at stake my pride could take the odd hit.

I spent a month on revisions – which is a short time. R&R requests often leave you with an open ended invitation. But with a trip to England coming up I felt the timing worked out, and I was happy with the new book. It felt solid and improved. I felt there was a chance – still small, far off, just a dot on the horizon – that I could land an agent. You have to remember the thirteen years bit to get my state of mind.

I sent it back again, on April 15th – which is the start of the London Book Fair (the busiest time for agents in Britain) – a week after the agent moved house (gaining a backlog of queries)  - just as she’d got not one, but two manuscripts from her clients to review (time consuming work). She e-mailed me back, letting me know I would hear in a couple of weeks, and so the final wait began.

You can probably imagine how I spent the two weeks. I was clear from the start not to let my imagination run wild. I would not contact the agent before she contacted me and I would not get my hopes up. On that point I had to be firm. There was no commitment here on either side, and agents take on startlingly few clients a year, from thousands of submissions. The odds are bad even if your writing is good.

Instead I focussed on social media, and building my life as a writer, and my next book. When the first interest had come I’d started this blog and my Twitter account, to show any potential investors that I was serious and committed – that I considered writing my job just as much as anything else.

I kept an eye on the agent’s Twitter feed, of course. We tweeted a couple of times, just jokes and comments. She was busy. I was getting ready for a flight to London and forcing myself not to think about it.

I travelled to England with family, and then back to the US. Jetlag hit, and a sluggish return to work.

Then the reply came, the day after we got back. Could we talk on the phone? 4 o’clock was agreed. I spent the day feverishly ignoring the passing of time and Being Busy. We took the dog to the vet and I played honkytonk Phantom of the Opera on an old piano.

The agent phoned - Molly Ker Hawn, of The Bent Agency – and, well, offered representation. She was fantastic. She said nice things about the book and gave me room to think and wait. She mentioned a few publishers she was thinking of, and a few small edits to make. It was surreal suddenly having an agent. My agent. All I can say is – it was worth the wait.

A happy Simon signing the contract, being told to stop laughing so much by Patient Wife


I have an agent!

A quick, ecstatic post today. I am thrilled to announce officially that I have accepted representation from Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. Molly has already proved herself to be an insightful and hard working agent, and The Bent Agency itself has a sterling reputation. All I can say is, I feel like this major step brings me so much closer to being… y’know… an author.

I will post my ‘agent story’ in a couple of days – I know I always loved reading those when I was querying.

Ha, see that? ‘Was’. Can’t believe I have an agent…

But I do.


Kreativ Blogger Award / Super Race of Penguin Ducks

Chuffed to say that PLOTTYPUS has got its second blog award, via the wonderful route of blogger-pal Kelsey (who seems to be doing very well at this blogging / writing / being successful malarky!). Seems that to wear this badge with pride, I have to share ten interesting tidbits about me. Pretty sure I can do that! And so, on an unusual Thursday post, I present ...

Ten Very Interesting Factoids and Fantasies about Mr S. P. Clark

  1. Last year I lived on three continents. Not at the same time, of course, but for various parts of the year. Japan / UK / USA, if you're interested. 
  2. Following on from above - I speak Japanese. Does that count as interesting? Probably. It's a fun language. I'm especially good at Kindergarten level toilet humour. Seriously.
  3. I do not like emery boards. I HATE them. I hate touching 'em, and being near m'wife when she's using one. Bleh. It's like a very, very lame version of kryptonite. 
  4. I'm supposed to be allergic to milk. Not lactose, but the protein in cow milk. I mostly ignore this because I love pizza, though.
  5. I'm pretty snazzy on a Diabolo. I learned one summer in France. I can make it go really high.
  6. My favourite book is hard to say, but my favourite author is probably David Almond. Read him!
  7. I play piano and drums and vio-. That's like a violin, but only half, 'cause I'm pretty bad. The piano is good though - I never learned to read music and just play by ear. One or two times hearing a tune is normally enough for me to copy it. I'm like a parrot! A piano parrot! A... piarot?
  8. I used to be a member of the Labour Party. Then I realised I hated politicians and stopped. Sometimes they still call me, but I hide behind the sofa until they go away.
  9. I have seen pretty much no movies. All the classics that people love = nope. My wife despairs, I'm pretty sure. I still hold that before the invention of colour, movies were only good for keeping away the plague or the Visigoths or whatever else existed back then. Colour movies, I'm willing to watch, even if they're still old. 
  10. Lastly ... I think penguins and ducks are cool. My dream is that one day penguins and ducks will cross to create a super race of very waterproof, flying beauties who will taste delicious and look funny when they fall over. 
Hope this has been educational!


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Some books you read as a child and they stay with you. Some books you see as a child but you don't pick them up. They're around, but always, somehow, not for you. You know the cover but you couldn't give the title. The colours and the size are familiar from all the times you've seen them around the house, but what are they actually about? Who knows. It's an adult book.

Strangely, the above applies, for me, to Terry Pratchett. My mother and sister were avid readers of his Discworld books for years before I was, and perhaps this is why I didn't pick them up. They were for older, better readers than me. The British covers especially are loud, eye catching and busy - and still somehow adult. Or at least daunting to Young Simon.

But one day, in France on holiday, I did pick one up. Maybe it was because it was out of place in a French campsite, and not around our house in England, and that made it suddenly approachable. The book was Guards! Guards! and it was the first of many I would read.

I'm sure a lot of the jokes went over my head. All the Latin puns, certainly, and even now if I re-read Pratchett books I find new in jokes and references. He's a master at that - at making one book seem like many, seem like something new every time you read it, 

It did influence me, I think, although it's not in the same, direct way as some of these other books. I'm not a funny writer. I like to think I'm a funny person, but my writing is more ... literary? I mean that only to distinguish it from Pratchett's genius, everyman books. I'm just not good enough to write like he does. What I have done, is read so many of his books that there has to be some small part of me he's got to. His writing is complicated and his plots are brilliant, ludicrous and satisfying, and his observations on justice, people, Right and Wrong, and everything else, are piercing in a way only a comedian can be. 

And when I first met the gal who's now my wife, I made a Terry Pratchett joke, and her heart was mine for ever. 'Nuff said!


Literary Journeys

A week without posts - woops. I've been away visiting family in England, and visiting England with family-in-law. It's always fun being a tourist in your own country and this trip seems to have been particularly good fodder for this blog. For why? For because of all the places I've been with literary links! 221b Baker Street, for example, or Dr Johnson's house, or The Eagle and Child pub, Oxford (of Inklings fame), or Christ Church College, also Oxford, with Alice in Wonderland characters in the stained glass (and also where various Harry Potter scenes were filmed. That's literary too, I guess...) Quite a lot, actually. Bath, where Jane Austen spent a lot of her time, was stunning.

It's all got me thinking (and do forgive this rambling post. I woke up in London this morning and I'm in New Jersey now. Jet lag may apply...) about what might be deemed literary tourism. That is, the trade that springs up around the physical world of a writer. Not just the house they lived in in the real world (think Beatrix Potter Museum or the Bronte Parsonage) - and not even the culture that can come from visiting places they made their own (here would be the Tolkien / Lewis pub et al) - but the fact that, as with Baker Street, and a host of other locations, they're famous for things that didn't really happen. In fact 221b wasn't even built yet when Sherlock Holmes was written. It's there now though. and has become a real tourist hot spot. It's fantastic, by the way, and I recommend a visit.

This is writing at its best. Making worlds that are so real they become real. Too much for the page but not enough for the imagination, people make them happen out here in the real hustle and bustle of life. There's a Harry Potter world theme park now, isn't there, in America? But you can bet if Rowling had been more specific on Hogwarts' location - or given the Durselys a real address - then that's where people would go. And that's brilliant. Stories should be enough to make us want to reach out and really be there - to see the view with our own eyes, to know what it smells like, so we can imagine a certain scene, visualise a certain character reacting...

It's a good aim, isn't it? I don't write about places so much, but if I ever do, and someone takes the time and effort to actually go there because of words I wrote, I can't imagine a bigger compliment.

And now I'm tired. Goodbye!