Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Morning! Every Wednesday I want to share one book with you that has been instrumental in my journey to becoming a writer / author. I think it's fair to say that no author ever lived who wasn't standing on the shoulders of those great and giant books they read as a child / adult / the week before they wrote their own novel / etc. Writers are readers - this is a firm and unmoving truth. A Truth, even, with a capital 'troo.'

Today's book is War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo

Hey look, it's even a film now!

This was a set text way back when I was in, I think, Year 9 - a notorious year in any high school, when the kids are just getting the hang of rebellion, but don't have the disciple over themselves or their own bodies to be really good at it yet. War Horse stayed with me for a while, but it's actually when I went back and re-read it several years later that I realised how good it was. The fact I even thought to re-read it tells you a lot. I was not a bookish child, and I think it would amuse quite a lot of my old teachers to find out what I'm like now. 

So, why did I reread War Horse? Because it's flippin' good - and because Michael Morpurgo is probably one of the most prolific and influential children's writers living today.

It's strange that he doesn't get the big 'hurrahs' of mega-authors, but at the same time, it makes sense. He has written a vast number of truly good books, but always in a quiet, dignified way. While the ebb and flow of celebrity and over night success makes the media giddy with delight, Michael Morpurgo is an author who spends time in schools, time on his farm, and time writing lasting books to change lives. And winning awards, of course. And praise. 'Cause he's amazing.

I also reread War Horse because I had been to the local WH Smith and bought Kensuke's Kingdom (with this exact cover!)

Kensuke's Kingdom
I wonder if I still have my copy of this, in England?

I bought it because it was by him, that author I'd liked. First time I ever did that. Nowadays we call it brand loyalty, or consumer penetration, or a whole host of words designed to hide, and not reveal, meaning. Bah. I call it wanting to read more, because I liked his first book.

What more can a writer ask for from kids?

I even moved to Japan years later, though in fairness, that wasn't because of Michael Morpurgo, or Kensuke. Probably.


I think.


First Blog Award!

My thanks go out today to J.W. Alden for giving Plottypus its first award! The Liebster Award, I learn, 'has been traditionally awarded to honour those blogs which motivate and inspire us. It is also granted to those blog authors who have accumulated 200 followers or less. Its purpose is to summon new followers and increase awareness of other noteworthy blogs.'

Well, what a fantastic idea, and I'm thrilled to be thought of. You should totally go check out his blog. I will be passing the award on to a couple of my favourite bloggers in time, but for now I'm going to hold back while I put some thought into it. There are many great bloggers out there and it's really cool to see community being built like this. Thanks to everyone!

In other, non-awardy, book news, I have added a couple of scenes following feedback, and couldn't be happier with how it's all going. 

Also, check THIS link out for some real home truths about being a writer, and what rubbish 'writers' block' is. Warning - language and adult content may be involved. 


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

As a new and hopefully regular feature, every Wednesday I'll be posting about books that have been especially influential in my life, and in making me a writer. All writers read, but there are some books that stick with you, from years ago and the far reaches of childhood, and you just know that everything you write is still being changed by it - whether it's a single word, a phrase, a feel, the first realisation that people actually do this for a living...

So, let's get started on today's old - but oh so important  - book.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

I only read this book because I had to. High school English Lit. required reading does not normally go down well with kids, but this book is the first one I remember reading and - almost guiltily - realising I wanted to keep reading out of school. It's all thanks mostly to the passionate and dedicated teacher I was lucky enough to have, and her ability to engage and interest the whole class - thirty uninterested teens - in the dangers and troubles and daily realities of Ralph and Simon and the rest of the boys who didn't really exist.

Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I remember being fascinated with this, wanting to find out more, to know why, and how, and what that meant, and who chose it...

The story in this book is played off perfectly with the moral and philosophical points Golding is making at the same time - but the reason I'm starting with The Lord of the Flies in my list of important books is simple. I wanted to read it, to find out what happened. What greater praise can a young boy give an author?

And now I make my own stories, and try to live up to the standards set by the great, great writers who came before me.


Sunny Monday Writing

It's a beautiful Monday morning here in NJ, with none of the promised fog and all of the promised warmth.

I'm typing away, being good and doing the work I'm supposed to (though not right now, of course. Right now I'm rebelling...) but all the time, at the back of my head, I know I'm thinking way more about the stories than the articles I should be focusing on.

Plot lines. Word choice. Chapter breaks. Character names...

Maybe I'm just bad at multi-tasking. Maybe I'm making excuses to be lazy and have fun.

I like to think that it's because the one thing I want to do most in the world has been filling my head for days now, and you can't just turn that off.

So here's a Monday thought for you. Writers write, even when they're not holding a pen. Or typing on a keyboard. Or seem to be doing anything, really. They really do.

Now, watch this, for it is good.


Agent Revisions

I was in the city on Wednesday helping to run an event for work, when I got an e-mail forwarded to my phone.  It was an agent in London, one who had my full manuscript, wanting to organise a good time to call. It's pretty exciting when this happens - agents, being busy people, rarely phone non-clients. We agreed a time and I managed to not go crazy for an entire 24 hours. Well, not crazier than normal. I may have woken my wife up with a French accent and an interpretive jig.

The call went amazingly. She likes the book - really likes it, in fact, and said some amazingly complimentary things about my writing, all of which I managed to humbly swat away with the air of a seasoned professional by saying 'Mrghghg. What? Wow. Um. Ha. Ha. Megh?'

The book has some problems, she thinks, but the story has really struck her and the style stood out. In its current state, though, she's worried that there are too many small problems for it to sell to a publisher. And yet she's interested...

In the end, she wanted to size me up to see how open I am to revision. Could we change the format a bit? How would I feel about providing more information about the father? Did I mean to hint at a past resentment with this scene? How about here? And... could we change the name?

Some writers get offended at suggestions of change - the agent herself admitted she's often wary, and likened it to telling a friend, 'Well, yes, your kid is pretty cute... but he'd look so much better without a head, don't you think?'

I'm over the moon. She e-mailed me a couple of pages of notes and suggestions, and we've e-mailed back and forth with thoughts about style and direction. If I can make these changes, and rework the book to be better than it's ever been, she wants to go further with it. That's a real chance, right there - a shot at landing representation.

So now - I'm rewriting. Whole scenes are shifting and growing and shrinking and morphing, but the book is getting better and I feel like I can really do this.

She said such nice words at me.

And hey - I and my wife and my brother- and sister-in-law are going to England at the end of April! Tickets are now booked, and this gives me a great goal to aim for. I'll have the book back to the agent in maybe 4 weeks, and hope that the Writing Gods are appeased, and I can maybe - maybe - even meet her. Who knows?

Few people realise that the whole of London is actually built on a 30 degree tilt...



Yesterday morning I traveled into New York for a meeting with the company I'm working for. Many great things were discussed, including articles to be written, the future of private cinema showings, and the tendency of Bosses to say 'Yes... but also...' when they agree with you. Last night I was at an international entrepreneur panel discussion, which you can get a feel for by searching Twitter for #nyintl.

In between those two things, I had a free day in New York City.

I did think, briefly, of the museums to attend - the ancient cultures I could learn about, the priceless books that are stored safely in ornate rooms, even the modern and contemporary art on show; the performance pieces, the sculptures that challenge me and make me annoyed that artists get paid to do this. New York's a hard city to be bored in.

Then the sun came out. I'd left the house that morning with my winter coat, muttering in a very British way about the griminess and the inevitability of rain. Happy American Wife rolled her eyes that I never actually check weather reports, and told me I'd be fine. She's so good to me.

My morning meeting ended and I realised that, really, the only thing I wanted to do was read in the sun. In Central Park. It wasn't productive, in many ways, and it wasn't necessarily classy (I took my shoes and socks off and leaned against a tree, watching the world go by in between pages of wonder and laughter provided by Terry Pratchett) - but it was a jolly good time.

This photo does no justice at all to the beauty, but it's the best I could do. The sun on the buildings, and their sudden, screeching halt as they hit the park's borders, is almost magical.

I even found out there's a Literary Walk, with a statue of, amongst others, Robbie Burns!

And I ate a hot dog. And a pretzel.

And dreamed that maybe one day someone will read my book, sitting in Central Park and thinking big, big thoughts.


Ten Ways to Write

Last night in bed I picked up Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing as a quick mind-calm to round off the day. I've owned it for a while, and read it before, but like all good advice found in books, it helps to read it again and again because I take away different things. I've changed since the last time I picked up this book, and that means I can appreciate new things / ignore new things / disagree with new things...

Plus, I get to write my own list for this blog!

So, I give you my very own list of 10 do's and don't's for good writing.

  1. Let it cool before editing. By which I mean, write something - anything - whenever you can, and believe in your heart it's brilliant, but don't publish it, or show it to friends, that same day. Heck, not even that same week. Put it down and let your mind reset before you edit it with a little more objectivity. 
  2. Punctuate consistently and sparsely. Exclamation marks outside of speech are poison to good writing, and getting confused between your hyphens and your commas and all the other little buggers can confuse a reader. By all means break convention, but if you do, do it for a reason - for tone, or voice, or because you know it's right for the feel of the writing. Don't do it because you're not sure how these things work. You want to be a writer; learn the tools.
  3. Try not to use much more than 'said' to indicate speech. Here I'm in total agreement with good ol' Elmore. It's clunky to read and at its worst can be little more that  narrative intrusion that cuts up the flow. 'What?' he interjected. Simon nodded sagely. 'It's true,' he intoned. 'And worse,' he whispered, his bright eyes filled with the wisdom of all great men, 'it sounds a tad pretentious if not handled very, very well.'
  4. Don't hate adverbs too much. The poor guys get a bit of a bashing. Elmore certainly has little room for them. I disagree here a bit. They do need to be used with care, and liberal additions of them make any writing sound like the worst attempts of a school child, but... I have a soft spot for them. And they do work with speech, no matter what other say. So there.
  5. Don't start with weather. Don't focus on it too much, either. Yes, it can set scene, but you know what? So can good writing, and it does so without trying to force it down readers' throats. Thunder can crash, but it shouldn't do so trailing a banner behind it with THIS IS IMPORTANT AND DRAMATIC!' written in big, obvious letters.
  6. Cut all prologues. If it's important, why is it in here? Cut, cut, cut.
  7. Be careful describing characters' looks. Subtle descriptions and throw away lines can build up an image in the mind's eye that adds to the reader's understanding. Shoveling it all on at once can be overwhelming, unimaginative and make it seem like the writer has someone specific in mind they're projecting into the narrative. Think of all the slash fiction / emo stories written by teenage girls with a suspiciously specific description of the lead male. Hmm...
  8. Cut out words. This links into the first point, but it's different. You should be able to get your meaning across without having to let sentences roll on and on. Less is more - it shows a honed craft and a command of the story you're telling. You are the writer. Don't let the writing get out of hand. Adjectives are prime candidates here, and any repetition of description or setting should go. And don't use the same word too much within 200 words of the initial use: 'He was standing in the park. It was a big park, and he had come to the park because he needed space to think. Parks were good for that. He liked parks. He liked this park. This park was always empty, unlike so many other parks in the city...'
  9. Learn what tenses and persons mean. Be sure you don't accidentally switch half way through the story, or worse, half way through a sentence. A cardinal sin.
  10. Show, don't tell. This is the big one - and you'll hear it a lot. It is probably the staple of all good writing, and the fault of all bad. Don't encourage lazy readers, and don't be a mollycoddling writer. Readers shouldn't have to work for meaning, but they won't appreciate being spoon fed. Build up voice and characters that allow events to happen more naturally, without the narrator having to spell it out blankly. This is most true in back story, or the openings of stories where you feel readers need to know information to make sense of actions. Consider; 'She moved through the corridors, the sword cold and heavy in her hand. It has been five years now since the Alliance, the collection of men and bananas that now ruled the world of Pancake, had killed her father, the true King of Breakfast, and had thought to kill her too. It had been almost impossible for her to escape to the barren Lunchlands, to bide her time, but now, with this sword, she was ready...' Terrible writing, not because the subject matter is laughable (although it is, I know, I know...) but because the writer has info-dumped backstory that should have been masterfully woven in, or brought to light in speech, or implied trough revelation. Basically, it's lazy. Yes, it takes more work to do the things I just said, but if you want to make money writing, then it is hard work. True fact!


Being an Author as a Job

It's a sad truth, I think, that published authors represent only a tiny, tiny minority of people who want to be published authors. Working as a writer is something more people can do - both my wife and I work as writers right now, in fact. I'm not trying to suggest that it's easier or somehow less of a profession. No, not at all. I mean that there are simply less chances to be an author. Less money in the profession, and less luck for some than others. Being an author also seems to have garnered a bit of a reputation as a non-job. Or, it can be perceived as an easy life, as if a writer just sat down, wrote a simple story, and gets to stay at home all day.

Ha. Ha.

I'm not an author, in the published sense (and there's a good debate to have! I've written a book. Am I an author?) but I am trying to be - and this means work. For those who might not know, here's the industry standard for getting published!

1. Write your novel. Seriously. This means writing a first draft, editing it, revising it, leaving it cold for a couple of months (sometime), and revising it again. If you don't have a complete manuscript (ms) you can't get past this stage!

2. Query a literary agent. Literary agents represent promising works to publishers. While you can approach publishers directly (and many do, and are sometimes successful!) it's not common practice. A query letter is a trying thing to write. Again, there are industry standards here, and an accepted format (which differs between the US and UK, by the way...!). You have to research, and revise, and get it right.

Agents receive maybe 10,000 queries a year, and most take on maybe five new clients a year. In a good year. Wow!

If they like the query, they'll ask for what's called a 'partial' in the US, and in the UK just the first three chapters. They'll then read these, to decide if your style and voice is a match for them. If they like what they read, and your query (presumably) intrigued them, they'll request the full ms. This is a big thing for unpublished writers - an agent likes them enough to invest reading their book, and in theory you're only one step away from the hallowed, golden egg of wannabe authors; representation.

Many times (in fact, most times!) agents will pass on the full ms still. That's life. In the UK, around 3 months is the standard turn around for a full. In the US it's more varied, but that often means longer. Time consuming, eh?

3. If the agent takes you on, you celebrate! Only other writers who have ridden the query merry-go-round will really understand your joy. Friends and family probably won't, Just accept that.

The agent may accept you with revisions to be made, or as if often the case, maybe ask for the revisions first and only then decide if they will really take you on. Revise and Resubmit (R&Rs) requests are becoming more common from agents, and they are a generous thing even still. The agents sees promise, but flaws, and offers you pointers on how to fix those flaws. Still...

4. The agent, with your complete ms accepted, then pitches it to editors they think are a good fit. How long does this take? There's no answer. Some mss never get picked up by publishers. Some do so immediately, at an auction, for big money. You can't ever guess.

5. If an editor likes it, then they have to convince the house to invest in it. Now money is talked about. Can they reasonably expect it to sell? Will it need investment? How do marketing feel? It's rough, sometimes.

6. If it's a yes, then the deal is done, essentially. Terms are negotiated between the agent (a professional) and the publisher, and the author might finally be able to relax.

7. A year or more later, the book comes out in shops. Phew!

Let me sum up this post. Getting a book published is flippin' hard. So there!


The Shame of Writing?

There are certain people in the world who are proud of what they do. They declaim to the world, through whatever medium, their talents and their strengths. For a lucky number, work itself is something to be cherished and lived through. Doctors, maybe, can go here. All that training and firm dedication? That's love, that is, of a profession.

There are others who do have that burning, singular passion - should I call it a need? - and yet they hide it, out of being embarrassed, or a confused understanding of what it means to have truly made it in this world. Into this category, comes writers. It's strange to say, but so many people who dream of having a book in their name sitting on the shelves of bookstores across the world hide this fact.

Maybe it's that, without being published, it seems like an empty title.

Maybe it's just the niggling doubts that you might not really be that good. How many unpublished writers are so because they never, ever show their writings to anyone?

Everyone can write. Not everyone can be a writer. Does that sound wrong?

Not everyone can be a doctor, either. Takes training, that does. Last time I walked into a hospital and offered to fill in for the surgeon I got blank stares. I think they were waiting for the balloons and custard pies to appear, to make sense of why I was asking such clearly ridiculous questions.

So, writers - a lot of them - are strangely coy about it.

Me too. Oh yes, me too.

This blog is going to follow me, I hope, and chart the journey from being shy and a little embarrassed about my book to getting it out and published.

So, more details to come...