October Cometh - AW Blog Chain, NaNoWriMo, and more.

Well, the year's really rolling by, now. A decidedly dark and drizzly Friday morning here in NJ, but I'm in my PJs and working from home, feeling smug.

A few things happening in the next few months, writing-wise. Firstly, here on the blog, starting next week, I'm taking part again in the Absolute Write October 2012 Blog Chain. For those who don't know, Absolute Write is an online forum and community for writers, and every month a group gets together to do a 'tag team' story based upon a theme. Essentially, we take it in turns to publish 1000 word stories all from the same prompt. I did it back in April on the theme of - ahem - Dead Bunnies, and I'm doing it again now.

This month's theme, what with it being October, and Halloween a-coming up, is Otherworldly, and I can't wait to see what everyone comes up with.

Also coming up - so much sooner than you'd think - is National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo, which bills itself as "thirty days and night of literary abandon!", is essentially a group project to support and encourage writers to get off their asses and get books written  The aim is 50,000 words from start to finish in 30 days. It's not easy, but it is doable, and it's surprising fun, when you've got such a great resource and support. EREN saw a lot of its work get done during NaNoWriMo 2010, so it holds a special place in my heart. Perhaps it will give me the push I need on BOOK TWO.

Which brings me to BOOK TWO! 10,000 words down, and more to come, and I'm feeling pretty good about it. Agent Molly has seen the synopsis and given it the green light, so now it's just a question of ... well, of writing it. I intend to. More on that as it develops.

Happy Friday, one and all!


Things I'd Tell Young Me, Pt. 3 (Writers' Advice To Themselves)

You can see Part One and Part Two of this series if you follow those links. Genius.

Writing is a process, of growing and learning and honing and generally trying to be cleverer and better than the day before. Words pile on words and the desperate hope is that, at the end of the day, what you're saying matters, and is good. Practice makes perfect, and so writers write a lot more than they ever publish.

But the learning curve for writing is only one part - one aspect - of trying to get published. Being a good writer is, for the most part, not something you're taught. You just are a good writer. Oh, you can get better, but if you don't get how words flow, it's not something a book can tell you. Publishing, though, is a complicated, profit-driven business, with set procedures and standard practices, all with their own rules (and exceptions) and ways of doing things. Those things can be learned. And they need to be.

Look at Slushpile Hell to see what happens when the rules aren't followed, or follow agent Jessica Sinsheimer on Twitter, along with others, to get real time commentary on query and professional mistakes. It's pretty entertaining after a while.

So, Part Three of 'Things I'd Tell Young Me' is themed: not to do with craft or success or goals, but the strictly professional side of writing. Yes, it's Things I'd Tell Young Professional Me..

  1. Yup, you need to get an agent if you want to submit to traditional publishers. But ... there needs to be something beyond that goal. Getting the agent to sign you shouldn't be the end goal itself. It's a step in the right direction. You still need to get to ms. on submission, and sell it, and then write more books. Make sure your eyes are fixed on selling the work itself, not getting signed and assuming that's the end of struggles.
  2. Blog! It's not a hobby to fill the time, or a time-stealing waste that takes you away from real writing. Blog to get into community, and stay there - it takes effort, mate. Be consistent and courteous and keep bothering. Blogging is worth it because it lets people know who you are, and it lets other writers and editors and everyone else plug in with you. Also, the other way round. Read blogs.
  3. Don't be a stalker. Or, at least, if you are going to be all up in someone's online presence, try not to contact them unless you have something genuine to add. Know the editor your book's on submission to has a Twitter? Great! Follow them, sure, but don't get in contact unless what you're saying is relevant. Ditto this for agents, and other writers.
  4. Know those quirky, original ideas you had to get your submissions letters noticed? Yeah, those don't work. Like, ever. Query letters actually follow a pretty set format, Oh Young Simon. You can learn about it if you bother. Check out Miss Snark. Check out Writers' and Artists', and Writer's Handbook. Do a quick Google. Follow the rules, you eejit.
  5. Keep busy with real life. Your day job is important and to focus all your energy on potential future sales is just silly. Advances are getting lower, in general, and even if you do sell, you're an unknown. Be sensible and plan. Write because you want to, not because you want money.
  6. On that note, where's the second book? If you've finished your first, and it's polished and shining and amazing, where's the next? Keep working. If you want a career, you kind of need more than a single publication.


How do you stop your writing being lazy?

Monday morning, second cup of coffee, a cool, sunny day, and marmalade on toast. Brilliant.

I realised recently that one of the  most common criticisms I level at books, movies, or TV shows is that the plot has got 'lazy' - or, more specifically, that it's 'lazy writing.' It sounds like quite a flippant phrase, and it's wonderfully undefined as well, but it's something that annoys me more than any other issue.

Lazy dog is lazy. Or possibly dead...

What do I mean by lazy?

One of the reasons people get invested in fiction is our amazing ability to empathise with characters and situations that aren't real. We care as if they really were real, and that's the magic. Behind all this is the fact that the situations have to be built up realistically, with cause and effect, motive, choices, emotions, etc. You can't ask readers to care about someone if the character has only been in a single scene, and readers have been given no more reason to care than 'well, you just should.'

It's replacing world-building and good writing with assumptions and 'skip to the end' mentality. You want this death scene to be so dramatic? You can't just decide it is - there has to be work put in first.

The BBC's Merlin was guilty of this in its first episode. Yes, it's a cheesy, family series, and it's not exactly trying to push boundaries, but still ...  wanting characters to have a particular relationship, and so just inserting this fact, is too obviously false to be enjoyable. Merlin, the lovable scamp / clumsy hero, moves to Camelot and enters the tutelage of Gaius, the court physician / general clever clogs / father figure.

Wait, what? Father figure he only just met? Well, yes. And also no. The point is, the writers want Gaius to be a father figure, but they've no time to show that relationship being built up. So, it's just inserted, and that, my friends, is lazy. Within the first episode we had Gaius exclaiming 'Merlin! You never cease to amaze me!' and acting with the stern humour of ... well, a father. But it's forced.

Trying to explain away relationships is just as annoying as using magic machines or catch-all technology to get out of loop holes in plots. The assumption of emotions without supplying the basis for them, so you can reap the rewards of those relationships, is bad writing.

How do you stop plots being lazy, then?

  • Don't start with where you want to end and work backwards. Father-figure relationships, or reluctant heroes, or genuine friends, have to develop at a pace.
  • Don't get caught up and rush forwards to what you think is the best bit, the big reveal, the coup. Stand back and try to stay objective.
  • Cut the cheese. Read your dialogue. Would people really ever talk like that? Would you? If the answer is no, you're using speech to reveal what the action should.
  • Introduce new characters slowly. Let them appear, then drop out again. Have rumours, reports, whispers, etc. Sirius Black in Harry Potter only actually appears right at the end, but by then we know everything we need to. That's good build up. 
There's no be-all and end-all list. Lazy writing, for me, is writing, or scripting, or plotting, that takes no time to earn the things it wants - the shock revelation, the twists, the close friendships that matter. As I said, it assumes. 

Don't assume, then. Get others to read your work. Make sure they feel like everything progresses naturally. Are there any leaps in logic, leaps in characters' views of others? Slow it down. Take the time. Do the work. Don't be lazy.


Place in every book, and a book for every place

Met Molly Ker Hawn, my literary agent, for the first time yesterday. Brilliant lady, with a real gift for the gab. Also seems to be meeting with ALL THE EDITORS IN NYC this week, so spare a thought if you see a slightly frantic blur shoot past you on the subway.

We chatted about a whole range of things, but one thing kept coming up: U.S. / UK differences, in culture, religion, government, people...

I'm a Brit in NYC; she an American in London. Our countries are more different than you'd think. I spend a lot of my time earning a living writing about such things over at New York International.

I am also bad at salutes

And, of course, we talked about books.

This got me thinking a bit. Books rely to varying degrees on their setting to define their feel. Some books are set firmly and irrecoverably in one country. Harry Potter really couldn't take place outside of Britain. The jokes, the coziness, the barmy public, the press - it's all a part of a very British book. Equally, Haruki Murakami's work relies just as much on Tokyo and the Japanese culture its set in as it does on his magical, ambiguous prose.

File:London collage.jpgFile:Tokyo Montage 2012.png

In literary terms, this is called place, and it can be a tricky thing to get absolutely right. You want to set your book in either a) a confirmed location, and make it believable, or b) a generic setting with no confirmed name - an Everyman location, if you like.

Both work well if there's deliberate thought behind them. Both can be bad if they're ignored or done without much care.

Just telling your reader that this is where the book is set, so deal with it, means nothing if you don't then put in place markers, every now and then, to show that this is true;

London. City of Empire, and city of fading glory. Lord Sir Walter Really walked down the pavement...

is an OK opening line, but if there are no more references to buildings, parks, locations, or in fact anything that's actually in London, then why even bother? You can't invoke the feel, smell and place of a 1000 year old city just by name dropping and assuming that's enough.

On the other hand,

He was in a city. Buildings, parks, everything, were his to enjoy. It was big enough. Quite big, actually. But look! That woman. The one he wanted. She was getting a bus, but by the end of the day, he would get her hand in marriage!

though clearly a riveting read I'm tempted to copyright, is too flippant about where the book's happening. It's no where - which might be the point - but it's too obviously nowhere. He was in a city? Much better to show the reader this, with a few lines here and there about smoke, congestion, noise, perhaps an international airport. The rest will be extrapolated by them.

Country-wise, books will be set where the author lives or works. It's just easier. Even books that makes very little reference to the world outside the action -Neil Gaiman's Coraline and Graveyard Book come to mind - build an image, a feel, that's recognizable if you try. Place doesn't have to be something you focus on too much - after all, characters remain the single biggest factor in a book - but it shouldn't be ignored simply because it feels like secondary subject matter.

After all, where would Holmes be without London, or Wuthering Heights without those blasted moors? Things happen in places - and writers should probably remember that.


Don't Go It Alone

A sunny Wednesday morning here, after an admittedly impressive storm hit NY / NJ last night. My agent flew in from the UK yesterday, amid the noise and chaos of tornado warnings and lashing rain, but all is now well, and I'll see her tomorrow. Very excited about that. What a strange world that I can live in a different country to someone, have so much communication, even enter a contract, and not meet them for months.


But writing is an especially odd profession / hobby / inclination / madness. It's solitary in a way that many jobs could never be. In between the editors, the agents, the bookshops and, hopefully, the fans, there are hours - days - weeks - months - (years?) - of typing away by yourself.

Maybe even in one of these awesome writing sheds:

Personal favourite, right here
The trick is not to go mad. Well, madder.

Community is important. Not just a lifeline to the normal world of friends, family, mortgages, bills, grocery shopping, etc. I mean the community of other writers, who share struggles, understand problems, have links and tips and other friends they can send your way.

This is where our modern world, with the net and digital worlds and less barriers every day, really comes into its own. Can't encourage you enough to make sure you're plugged in. 

Twitter, Facebook, this very blog, other blogs, Query Tracker, Absolute Write, SCBWI  ... those are just some of the ways I keep in touch with writers, editors, agents, etc, and then meet new writers, new editors, new colleagues. There are writing competitions (Writer's Digest runs small ones every two months), writers retreats, conferences, online 'webinars' (I do not like this word), and every combination of these, and more, under the sun.

Don't go it alone.

Don't go mad. Don't get lonely. Most important, don't ignore the support and inspiration and encouragement and love of people you might never meet, but who will care about you, about your writing, and about your successes. You should care about their careers, too. 

Writers are creative types, and most are doing it for the love, not the money. But that can mean staying inside your own head for far too long, or even getting a bit too much into the worlds you create. Who's going to understand that? Other writers. No, it's not an exclusive club, and no, writers aren't special people with special problems ... but you're going to get limited sympathy if you try to pull off that complaint with someone who doesn't care. Community is the life support you need to make it in the tough world of books, I think.

This article from Guardian Books is a bit worrying: Ebooks Price War Sees Price Cuts of 97%. Seems like the future's only going to be tougher for you / me / us. Best to stick together, eh?


Autumn Writing, Autumn Books

Edited Sept 19, to add more suggestions to the list. Thanks, all! SPC.

Face it, guys - Autumn is coming. Or Fall, if you're that way inclined.

It's my favourite season. I have fond memories of school days playing conkers, crushing dry leaves, splashing in puddles (not technically a seasonal pastime in England) and sitting indoors in the warmth while outside the temperature fell.

Insert 'lovely pumpkins' joke here
It's a good time for reading, when the weather turns but the colour's still there. You can grab a window, or a bench, or a bed, and settle down happily. Pretty good times.

Thought I'd gather a collection of my favourite books to read this time of year.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Why? Look at the date. September is the start of schools in England, and for Harry, the start of this school year is like nothing he's ever experienced. If you're looking for a chance to re-read this series, why not use the time of year as a great excuse?

Tess of the D'Urbervilles 

Hardy's classic story about a girl wronged by the world is placed very firmly in a pastoral, country setting. Harvest, nature, and the natural world vs. modern life are all brilliant themes.

James and the Giant Peach

Yesterday was Roald Dahl Day - how could I ignore this master of the dark, the grizzly, the bizarre, the amazing, and so much more? What's it about? The title's pretty clear on that.

The Lady of Shalott, and other works

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria, and a master at evoking scenery and scale as backdrops to his narratives. The Lady of Shalott's opening lines certainly put me in an autumnal mood. All together now:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
 To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
 The island of Shalott.

And finally ...

What else?

I'm going to be looking for suggestions for the best fall reads, and trying to build up my list. Onwards!

Edited to add:

First suggestions have come in. Harry Potter got another plug (and quite deserving, too):

And also Wuthering Heights

I like this one. The wild moors, the rolling clouds, and the coldness of the heath and the memories that start the story - brilliant. I've actually been to the Bronte Parsonage, and it's amazing to see where these books were written and really get how the landscape inspired the tales.

And now, Northanger Abbey

Which, honestly, I have not read, though I trust the opinion of the reader. Maybe I should give it a try...

Edited again

The newest addition? Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, a great pick from Kat Ellis over at http://katelliswrites.blogspot.co.uk/

I love this book, from its now world-famous opening line to the ending I did not see coming. Name dropping this book also got me on the good side of a girl I once met whilst living abroad - a girl who became my wife. There's an endorsement for you.


Edited again

Mansfield Park

along with Pride and Prejudice

Which, I have to admit, I have a bit of a blind spot for...

And North and South, by Gaskell

Which I have not read, but am open to. Anyone read this? Thoughts to share?

Also, second poem suggestion for autumn times is, fittingly, The Autumn, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Found here, and the opening stanza below:

Go, sit upon the lofty hill,
And turn your eyes around,
Where waving woods and waters wild
Do hymn an autumn sound.
The summer sun is faint on them --
The summer flowers depart --
Sit still -- as all transform'd to stone,
Except your musing heart.

Great stuff, guys. SPC.


Writers write. Right?

A Sunday update, as I'll probably be away on Monday.

Today I set aside time specifically to write. Now, this isn't an unusual thing. With one full book on submission and a couple of short stories out there, I obviously find the occasional moment to scribble away.

Today was different purely because of the amount of time. In fact, the whole day was mine.

I work from home as a writer, but on company time I rarely turn to my manuscripts. Something about mixing the mindsets doesn't work for me. Plus ... y'know ... I'm not supposed to do it.

But today was a writing day. It's been pretty good - a decent 6000 words added to the book. That's more than, ooh, the last few weeks combined. Yup. I've been slacking off big time. With work picking up and some other life changes, I've gone through plenty of days without writing at all.

Is that a problem? I'm not working on time constraints at the moment. There's no publisher waiting, cigar in hand, for my book. Should I rush?

Writers write ... but every day?

There are certainly plenty of opinions on this. I've heard Philip Pullman talk nice and bluntly about writing. If you want to be a writer, then write. Builders build. Teachers teach. Carpenters probably carp. Writers write. They don't mope around, complaining about their muse, and they don't procrastinate on the Internet.


I think, in truth, there's an obvious divide; full time writers, and then those of us for whom it's not a day job. If being an author is my full time job, and I rely on it for income, then yes, I should write. It's an art - sure. No one's pretending it's not. But if it's my business and my life, it needs commitment. If, like me, you're writing 'in the cracks' of your life, with a full job to keep up, then no, I don't think everyday is unnecessary.

Progress is necessary. Getting from A to B, adding to the pages, and telling the story. We all have our own goals and targets. For now, though, I'm happy pottering along, and not feeling bad if a few days go by without some literary inspiration striking.

I would love to keep up a good 5000 a day. The book'd be finished in a month! Imagine!

But where would my life be? It's living that keeps me writing; seeing and loving and exploring the world, and using all of that to make stories. Locked in a room all day every day would make me pretty odd. I'd probably end up a post-modernist. Golly.

Living, working, writing. The balance is there, and we all have to find it.

And I'll keep you posted on the word count for the rest of the week.



Wednesday's Inspiring Book - The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook

New design, same format. You know the drill by now.

It's Wednesday, which around here means looking back at books that led me to where I am today. All writers stand on the shoulders of those they've read before, but for all of us, there are some books that do stand out. Perhaps a book that, as a child, first made you realise people wrote these for a living. Or a book you came across only last week that helped to re-energize your flagging strength. I have enough of those, believe me. Writing to publish can be a real slog.

But reading is working for anyone who wants to write. There's an amazing, mad, crazy wealth of fantastic books out there, and no reason not to go diving in whenever you can.

So, what are we looking at today?

It's the good ol' Writers' and Artists' Yearbook


First edition I bought was many years ago, and I've replenished my stock multiple times. But thinking back to the earlier days, when getting an agent seemed like such a far-off dream, and working out how publishing worked was itself daunting (these were pre-Twitter and social media days, remember), the Yearbook was an amazing resource, encouragement, and solid link to the world of writing and publishing.

Especially as a younger guy - I would have been thirteen when I first wrote to an agent - it was easy to feel like I was kidding myself. The big, real world of authors and contracts and money was a nice dream, but what does a kid really know about the world? The Yearbook was tangible, something with answers, and something I could hold up as proof. Well, it said, I'm trying, at least. What more can I do? I'm trying.

That's really one of the mantras of my writing 'career' so far. I'm going for it - what more can I say? No regrets so far, and none to come, even if nothing more comes of it. I follow my dream and I have so many others to thank for that: Writers, agents who offered even the smallest encouragement to a clueless young boy, my family, my friends - and, equally, the books I read; the stories than inspired me, and the Yearbook that told me what to do with that inspiration.

Check it out if you're UK-based, and if you're not, they still have a website you can plug in to - http://www.writersandartists.co.uk/



Merry Labor Day, one and all. Ho, ho, ho!

It's Labor Day, so I'm skiving off work to go into NYC with some friends and eat English food - sticky toffee pudding, cream teas and the like.

So, no post today, except for this one to say I'll be picking up on Wednesday with the next Wednesday's Inspiring Book post. Until then, take care.