Wednesday's Inspiring Books

I'm feeling good today. I stayed up last night and got all my writing deadlines fulfilled, so technically I can spend a lot of today doing writing writing. Work should probably happen as well, though. England in three days! Exciting stuff.

Today's inspiring book is a special one. I think it might actually be the the most inspiring book I read as a kid, and the one that has changed my writing aspirations, writing style, and world view the most.

Hodder Literature: Skellig (With online teacher resources)

Skellig, by David Almond (also, here), has already been (rightly) recognised as a ground breaking, long lasting classic. His prose is sparse, poetic and philosophical and the story is an understated exploration of what life is for a young kid, what magic is, what miracles mean,  and how people work. It's more than that, too. You should read it.

My own writing is very deliberately influenced by Almond's style. I think as a stylist, he's a master, and as a story teller he's unique even still amongst British authors. He won the  Hans Christian Anderson Award in 2010, the highest international children's book award there is. What more to say?

When I first read Skellig my expectations of what a book was were turned on their head. From the brief chapters to the minimalist language to the ending and the ambiguity Almond loves, I was drawn in and my eyes really were opened to the possibilities beyond my own limited definition of Good Book. That's what drives me now - wanting to write something that will have that exact effect on another reader, another kid somewhere who picks up EREN and gets all the way to the end.

I only picked up Skellig because of the cover. Pretty cool, isn't it? But that act changed my life and, hopefully, my career as I work my way to being an author.


Five Things I'd Tell Young Me About Writing

Progression and growth are, of course, part of being a writer. You get better at what you do. Every story, every new word, every crossed out and discarded line of crappy, terrible dialogue makes you better. At the very least it makes you different, which isn't always the same, but it's something.

So, looking back at some of your very first work might be cringe worthy and embarrassing (good grief, did I really write that?!), but it can be encouraging as well. You wrote that? Well now you write this! See how you fly! It's a Good Thing.

So what would you say to a young yourself if you could? If letters in a bottle floated backwards through time and you had a chance to give advice - specifically about writing - to your Young You?

Well, I, for one, might say this.

  1. Young Me, finish the damn book. Stop reading about others' successes and imagining agents seeking you from afar and (ye gads!) designing covers, and write the book. Seriously. Buy The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, and don't look at it until the book is done.
  2. You know the plot? The thing that's meant to tie the whole story together? At least know how it goes roughly before you start typing away. You don't have to plot every chapter out in exquisite detail if you don't want to, but come on - at least know what happens before the characters do. Know why? It makes everything better. You get to play with foreshadowing and irony and character development and hidden meaning and all those other literary tools that are really just reward badges for talented writers who know how to earn them. It's great.
  3. Seek out other writers. It doesn't matter if you're young, or even if you're crap. Other writers will help you - with contacts, with industry knowledge, and with style and voice and art. Try - please, just try - not to take criticism as an attack on your genius. It's what you need to get so much better.
  4. Write a few short stories. Live a little. Try genres you don't really know and styles you're not a fan of. 1500 words is enough. Shouldn't take you more than a couple of days. It's like weight lifting or driving lessons. It's not necessarily always fun, but hey, it works. 
  5. Get out and about, Young Me. Have adventures. You get to decide what that means. You'll be a better writer if you've seen other places and know other people. Let the computer be the place you write about your experiences, not how you experience the world.
Also, buy shares in Google. It's gonna be big.

What would you say? Feel free to let me know!


The Fate of Your Rejection Letters

I recently went back to the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook website. The Yearbook, for those who don't know, is the UK equivalent of Writer's Market. I'd had a long hiatus. Yes, hiatus. I can use that word. I'm a writer, after all...

I bought my first ever copy of the Yearbook a long time ago in a shop that, sadly, has gone the way of many independent bookshops nowadays. I remember feeling very official and professional now that I owned this one book - this one book with all the agents and publishers and writers' advice and the correct way to write a letter, and so many other things. I've bought several other copies over the years, and recently had it confirmed by the W&A Twitter monkey that this May/June they're launching an online version, giving me access once more without buying a big heavy book from abroad once a year. Great!

So, I went back on the site. It's changed almost completely since I last visited, and now has a pretty awesome 'Community' space, to share work, ask questions, and build connections, I guess.

And one of the user questions got me thinking. 'What do you do with old rejection letters?'

Great question, right?

Save 'em? Discard them and move on? Keep them ready to burn joyfully when you're published? Remember the names, for your great 'A HA! You see?!' moment when riches and fame come calling?

Some thoughts:

Rejection letters (physical letters) are a strange thing for writers. One the one hand they represent your communication with real, genuine publishing professionals. You're not just dreaming of being a writer, or of one day, maybe, writing a book - you're doing it. On the other, they do represent a failure by the Establishment (grr) to recognise your evident brilliance.

Although e-mail is becoming more common, the same thoughts can be applied. And what I'd say is this.

Form rejections should just be forgotten. Deleted, or thrown away, and moved on. It was a no, which is sad, but life goes on, and so does your writing.

Personal rejections? I'd keep 'em. Not so you can gloat later. They're professionals, so are you, and it's nothing personal if your writing isn't for them. No, keep them for the boost you get. If it's personal, what does it say? What did they like? Are they encouraging? You need those things, for the dark hours when you stop believing in yourself and start to wonder - just for a second - if being a writer is worth it.

That's when you'll be glad you have them. They don't have to represent rejection and all that means. They can mean so much more - that you are a writer, with good work to submit, that you've made it over the biggest hurdle of all, which is actually finishing your damn book, and that although this agent wasn't for you, they see you as an equal, as a part of the publishing world. They've accorded you the decency of a formal, personal response to your business suggestions. What's wrong with that?

You may be able to tell that I have a couple of letters from years back still in my possession. I think I was thirteen, fourteen years old, and the agent's letter spurred me on. All my present writing, in all its forms, is in some way built upon those few kind words, years ago.


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Today's book is a good one. Oh, yes. Let's not even pretend to have an introductory paragraph for this post. Boom!

Great cover, no?

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (and The Moon of Gomrath, the sequel) are disturbing, honest and, on the surface, quite simple books, but with such depth and long lasting power that it's no surprise Alan Garner is widely recognised as one of the great classic children's writers, and he isn't even dead yet. The stories, which can appear quite straightforward, almost seem less important that the sense of ancient magic and deep, deep danger that Garner is able to write about without you ever quite knowing how he does it. That's the depth - that ability he has to leave you with impressions of thing you can't quite put into words, to make you scared of things he never mentions, to leave you feeling like you know places you've never even been to.

I got this book off my mum years ago - it's one of her favourite books, and we were holidaying in deepest Wales when we first started reading it. Wales is a good country for books like this. Not high fantasy, with epic battles and flashy magic, but fantasy earthed in the land and the myths you can feel in the hills. I remember one dark night in a small, rented cottage, an old place surrounded by old trees under an old moon, when I stopped reading Weirdstone 'cause it scared me. That's good writing, that is.

I do have criticism for Garner. Both these books have as their central theme a single challenge to be overcome, and once that task is complete, he just... ends. Stops. The pen freezes in his hand, I suppose, and there's no need to carry on. No wrapping up. No bothering about loose ends. Perhaps it's a compliment to readers - we can sort that stuff out on our own, we don't need telling and babying. But imagine Lord of the Rings ending just as Frodo drops the ring in Mt Doom. Yes, technically, they've won, but there has to be more story - the return home, the coronation, the cleaning up of all the mess.

Not in Garner books. Things end when the adventure is over and it's up to you to either sulk and want more or just imagine for yourself what happened in the end end. Maybe that is a strength. Maybe it's not anything. It certainly helped me know what kind of books I want to write.

And one day I shall write a book about a small, old cottage in Wales, and the ancient magic that stirs nearby...


Why Writing's Not a Game You Can Win

It's warm today in NJ! England should be a nice escape...

Today's post is aimed at unpublished and submitting writers - that is, authors who are approaching agents and publishers. It's inspired by various comments I see weekly in writers' forums and message boards, and by a general attitude I've noticed there. To be specific, an over-thinking of tiny details, an over-estimation of the finickiness of professional readers, and an almost unspoken belief that there's a Big Secret to Getting Published.  I'll explain...

Being published is more than a goal for authors. It's a dream. It might even be more than that. Though it can be hard to explain to someone with no interest in writing a book, professional validation of your own talent, and the financial freedom (ha!) that would come from a bit of success is the be all and end all for many writers. So, it's understandable that you want to do everything in your power to help yourself along, to stand above the competition and attract the attention of Those In The Know.

Which leads to some fretting and worrying about rather insignificant things. I've seen people asking for advice in the boards (never a bad thing, by the way - writers need community to survive) on weirdly specific matters.

'The agent asked for ten pages, but I sent eleven. Will this count against me?'

'I sent the query, but forgot to say I'll be away from the Internet next Wednesday. What if they reply then, asking for more, and I don't get back, and I lose my chance...?'

'Agent asked me to revise and resubmit. I want to reply to say thank you. How to I phrase the e-mail? What's the correct way to address them if I know their name but they just said 'Hi,'?'

The problem, I think, is that in over-thinking every little detail you do an injustice to agents (making them out to be some pedantic dragons who only need a single excuse to burn your manuscript, laughing maniacally) and yourself (leaving yourself incapable of using common sense or being independent enough to react to normal situations).

The answers to the above three questions, of course, are no, for goodness' sake that's not even a problem, and just write the damn e-mail, you're supposed to be a writer, and an adult.

The other point I wanted to raise is that the undertone of a lot of this fretting is a bit worrying; the feeling that if you can just follow the form letters, just use the correct phrasing, if you can just be professional enough and show you know the tricks, then that is what helps the most.

I'm not advocating ignoring best practice and industry standards. Query letters and pitches have a very specific format used across the industry and you ignore that at your peril. But I am saying that, for most agents still, and most publishers, there's one thing that counts above all. Know what it is? The writing.

Boom. Shouldn't sound shocking, should it? Good writing still makes up 90% of the package you present. Dotting ever i and crossing ever t won't count for anything if your story sucks.

You can't cheat your way in just by following rules.

I just feel bad for authors querying agents who clearly feel like there's this big, organised industry trying to keep them out, with arbitrary rules, strict specifications, and a big REJECTION stamp hovering over their work, waiting for them to trip up. Find the middle ground. Don't be sloppy, but don't be nervous and jumpy and believe that those tiny things actually matter.

It's hard to get an agent. Really, really hard. The kind of hard that, if you finally do, you'll be annoyed when friends and family don't react as they should. So I guess I can see why it's tempting to become a 'literary conspiracy' advocate, and then feel like you help yourself by making sure a request for the first 5000 words means you send 5000 words exactly, lest the agent fume and rage over any extra ones you tried to sneak in.  But agents don't need you to treat them with kid gloves. They sure don't see it that way.

OK, I'm ending now. I just want writers, unpublished or not, to feel happier, more confident, and more professional, and to view agents and standard publishers as colleagues, and not the enemy.

And also, stop asking dumb questions ;)


Facebook Plug

Hey, it's shameless plug Sunday!

OK, that's not a thing. But would you mind 'liking' my newly created Facebook page? I just need one extra follower to access more of the admin stats. It could be you!

The link is here - http://www.facebook.com/pages/S-P-Clark/202132689888451

And, gee whiz, I'd appreciate it.


I also started mentally planning a new poem today, called 'Give me the trouble makers.' More to come.


AW April Blog Chain - Dead Bunnies

Dead Bunnies

We saw him just after Christmas. The holidays were over, school was back, and the air was still crisp enough, still cold enough, to leave frost on the pavement for us to crunch every morning. No leaves yet, though. No warmth. The world was grey and white and cold and walking to classes was a chore.

Macca saw him first. He called us over and chuckled, put his finger to his lips as a sign, winked. Shh. The wind was rustling the tops of the trees.
'Check it out,' he said, flicking his head towards a small crack in a fence. 'Look in. Barmy! Look in!'
We were thirteen, fourteen years old. Life was a joke. I smiled and cocked my head.
'What's up?'
'Just check it,' he said again. Pete leaned forward and pressed his eye to the crack. 'What...?' he began, then, 'Eh? Ha!'
'Let us see...' I said, stepping forward. Pete pulled back and laughed. I stared through the splintered wood into a dead, forgotten garden. Old, brown leaves sparkled in the chill. Bushes had grown up over some weed filled gravel path. And then...
'Is that a man?' I asked, pulling back. Macca nodded.
'A tramp,' he said. 'Did you see his hat? Did you see his coat? He looks like a clown.'
'He looks Victorian,' said Dave.
'Did you see his suitcase? And his brolly? Looks like a penguin!'
'Do tramps wear black suits?' I asked. The man was lying down just beyond the fence, curled under the bushes, his face hidden in his arms. He was definitely breathing. Macca nudged me.
'Let's throw stuff,' he said. 'Let's wake him!'
'He looks old...' I said. I sighed, shook my head. 'Leave him, mate. What's he done?'
Pete was laughing now, hunching over and limping. He growled and leered at us. 'Gimme a child to eat!' he muttered. 'Let me crunch his head! Rar!'
I looked through the fence again. The man was still sleeping on the hard, black earth.  ‘Think he needs help?’ I asked. Macca sighed.
‘Always worrying, you,’ he said. ‘Always fretting and moaning. Why’d he need help? He’s got enough stuff.’
‘I’d like to see you spend a night with no bed,’ said Pete. He grinned and stood up straight again. ‘Let’s have another look,’ he said. The fence creaked slightly as he put his hands against it.
‘What d’you think he eats?’ he asked. Macca bent down to look back in. I clicked my tongue, looked up the street, looked at my watch, and bent down to join him. Now we were all watching, watching the tramp to see if he moved.
‘We should poke ‘im,’ said Pete. We all knew we wouldn’t. We’d never go into the garden. School was calling. Time was moving.

And that was when it happened, quick as lightening, silent as ice, a single, terrible thing. A rabbit was crossing the path – we had enough of them around here, not shy of school kids if they knew we kept our distance – and it moved too close, I guess. Its hops were lazy, random – just searching for food, maybe, out in the morning air. It moved too close to the tramp. His hand shot out with incredible speed and grabbed the thing by its neck. There was a tiny, far off crack, barely more than a twig snap, and the rabbit was limp in his hands. The tramp raised his head and looked at the rabbit, a smile spreading over his face, his tongue licking his lips. He sniffed the air, frowned, shifted his weight. He looked at us, turned his head slightly, and winked. He tipped his hat and laughed, then lowered his mouth and bit and chewed.

We didn’t scream. I don’t think people really do when they’re really, truly scared. But we ran. We ran till our sides hurt and we kept running, not looking back, imagining terrible things, that the man was behind us, that he was flying, that he was chasing us with rabbit blood still warm in his mouth.

We never saw him again. At least I know I didn’t, and if Pete did, or Macca, they never said a word. We laughed about it as months went by. After a few years we didn’t really believe what we’d seen. Kids make mistakes, we thought. People don’t catch rabbits with their hands. It turned into a memory of a story we must have been told. We told ourselves it wasn’t true.

Sometimes I have dreams, though, and it’s always the one same scene. A man, in an old, faded suit, living wild, never dying, the ground around him dark and red with the blood of all those dead bunnies.


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Hullo again! It's a beautiful day here in sunny, exotic New Jersey. Yesterday was spent exploring Central Park with Wonderful Wife, but it's back to work now, with less chances to see things like this:

and this

Spring is a great time to explore. 

Well, in less photo-y news, I've launched my Facebook page, which you can find HERE. All comments and thought appreciated - not sure quite what to make of it yet.

Today is Wednesday, and that means one thing here on PLOTTYPUS. Books! Specifically, inspiring books from my past. And so...

Today's inspiring book is none other than 1984 by George Orwell.

Big Brother IS watching you...

It's one of those books you hear about before you read it. Through some sort of cultural assimilation I knew a lot of the catch phrases before I read it, but the plot, and the philosophies Orwell warned against, were new to me. It's a powerful book, but I might have been a bit young. I know I stopped half way through (perhaps from boredom) and gave up. Then a funny thing happened. I found I couldn't stop thinking about it, wondering what might happen, imaging the world he'd created. Even when I wasn't reading it. Eventually I was drawn back in and had to know how it ended. Orwell's style is phenomenal and his intellectual honesty is impressive. His collection of essays, On Shooting an Elephant, are worth a read to find out more about him just as much as to enjoy his prose. 

The book inspired me because I think it was one of the first to show me that fiction can say very, very real things about life, and writers should remember that words have more power than we sometimes realise.


Donors Choose and The Bent Agency

Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency (the self-same agency I am writing the redraft of EREN for) posted this recently.Well worth a share, and I'm sure every little helps. All writers should be thankful for the education and chances we've received to enable us to get where we are, and it's worth remembering how small changes early on in children's lives can have an incredible impact down the line. The writers of tomorrow still needs books and pens today.

Here's the text in full, for those who don't want to click!

Please help high risk and special needs students

If you follow me on twitter, you may know that I support a charity called DONORS CHOOSE, which supports teachers in underfunded public schools. The teachers post wish lists of things they vitally need in their classrooms and if their projects get funded, they get their supplies. Some of these students can't afford to bring even the most basic items like paper or pencils to school, so helping them makes a huge difference in their lives.

For the next week, Donors Choose has given me a code which will automatically double your donation to this great cause. Simply type in JENNYB at check-out, and your donation is doubled.

I've created a community page here, targeting special needs, high risk classrooms in Brooklyn. These special needs kids really need our help--they are working with so many strikes against them already, and even a very small donation can make a big impact in their lives. And for the next week, until the projects are funded, the first five donations of $200 or more will receive a query critique and 30 minute phone consult from me. Smaller donations will earn my eternal gratitude--remember, there is no donation too small. Even a dollar will help and will be automatically doubled.

Here is the link. Email me at info@thebentagency.com with the link to your donation to collect your critique.


Don't forget to use code: JENNYB and double the donation!


On The Vital Importance Of Not Editing Your Own Work

The importance of not editing your own work - by which I mean, of course, not being the only one to edit your own work - can't really be overstated. If there were set rules of writing, and there was a Number One Rule, it would be, to my mind, Edit, Edit, Edit. You have to and you need to.

Whether you're trying to build a profession out of your writing - therefore asking someone to pay you for it - or you write only for fun and friends, you aren't taking it seriously if you don't redraft and rewrite pieces after they're done. Finish a story, leave it - for a week, a month, five months - and only then go back and reassess your brilliance. That line you thought was sheer Nobel-inducing genius? There's a typo. That witty barb you just knew would have readers laughing out loud and sobbing into their neckerchiefs? It doesn't make any sense. The final scene you love so much you want it on a t-shirt? You'd forgotten you changed the character's job earlier on in the novel and now it's mediocre at best.

My point is that no writer in history has been great enough to sit down, write, and publish. It's not a sign of lack of skill to edit your work - it's a sign that you're getting much better, and being more sensible.

This post is largely inspired (but not entirely, to be fair) by the fact that my book's been going through a lot of edits and rewrites this last month. Friends and family have read the ms. and got back to me with things that I know I couldn't have caught. Lots of typos, yes, but those are the ones that anyone paying attention could catch. No, the things my beta-readers highlighted are the authorial blind spots - the twists and turns of plot and narrative that I, as the writer, was too close to see. You lose sight of certain problems when you're in too deep and you know the story backwards and forwards. Already in my head are all the previous drafts of EREN, including those phantom scenes that no longer exist, or the big reveals that never actually got written, but that I remember. There's been some good catches, too. For example:

  • Thanks to a scene cut out long ago, a character walked into the protagonist's bedroom, put a tray down on a chair and proceeded to ignore it and walk out again. The tray once carried breakfast - in the current ms. it remained a random and perplexing gift. It's now gone. Bye bye, phantom tray.
  • In a retelling of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig ran from his house of straw into his brother's entirely different and much safer house of... well, straw. Woops. Good catch there. House of wood. I know my stuff.
  • In a previous draft, Oli falls and hurts his wrist, and it bothers him throughout the following chapters. That scene was cut months ago, leaving several inexplicable references to his painful wrist entirely missed by me.
And endless other small things - grammar, strange phrasing, confusing pronouns...

My point is, editing has to be done by you and by people who aren't going to offend you by pointing out that your work isn't completely flawless and award-worthy. Yet. And you have to choose not to be offended by criticisms. They'll make your work better and stronger, and why would that bother you?

Patience is probably key. Write, but then use all the will power in the world not to put it up on the net that same day, or send it off to agents and start spending your royalty cheques. Get better at writing by, just sometimes, not writing.


Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Afternoon all!

Continuing the series of weekly Wednesday musings, the next book I want to highlight as having had a special impression on me is: Life of Pi

Beautiful cover, if a tad inaccurate on nautical features

Life if Pi won the 2004 Man Booker Prize, and that's why I knew about it. It was a time when I was becoming increasingly aware of the literary world; that papers reviewed books, that there were awards and interviews and 'big news' always being announced. It seemed a bit like a circus, looking in, but an exciting one, and I think back then I was pretty attracted to the idea that I could get swept up in it and be discovered. 

Whatever false conceptions I had about all of that, I still loved this book. It was one of the first adult fiction books I read that wasn't a classic already, and therefore mandatory reading. I remember feeling almost hip with this snappy little blue book, with its awards and its accolades, and me reading it. It's a great book by itself, too - the story is far fetched and the claims that it would 'make you believe in God' were sheer media hype and good marketing, but the writing is amazing and the structure of the story is well researched, well thought out, and unpredictable. Maybe that last point was the best - I didn't know what would happen next but I wanted to know.

I bought Yann Martel's previous novel, Self, and then his collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and instantly wished I had a tragic, dying friend to do the same with. I read Self on holiday in the lake district, in a small cottage on the grounds of an ancient house, and loved it - it's a weird, first person narrative about nothing in particular, but it says a lot, and that's a skill. Now, thanks to my sister, I even own a signed hardback edition of the short stories - a fantastic thing to have!

So, I wouldn't be the writer I am today without this book. Buy it, read it, share your thoughts. I wouldn't bother with Martel's latest, unfortunately - maybe his next novel will see him back on form. 


On Blog Chains, Blog Awards, and Blog Blog Blog

Good Monday!

This post is practically meta in its blogginess. You shall see...
I didn't post at all over the weekend. It was spent seeing The Hunger Games movie, baking Orange and Almond Cake, and driving, for the first time, over the George Washington Bridge to visit Woodlawn Cemetery where, amongst many other vast and impressive graves, I visited Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame. Great times, but not very bloggy. Now I shall fix that.

Wife and I totally made this. It is delicious.

This April I'm going to be taking part in a blog chain, via the Absolute Write forums (and any writers, published or not, who aren't on here - you're really missing out on incredible writerly community). 
The theme of each participant's post, in around 1000 words, is Dead Bunnies. I look forward to seeing what the others come up with before my turn comes about. 
What others, you cry? Why, these others!



And, perhaps, even more in time. You can follow the thread itself here.

In other bloggy news, I am finally passing on The Liebster Award. Wow!

"The Liebster Award has traditionally been 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."

Great stuff! And I say it goes to:

Juturna F. 

To Accept the Award:

Thank the person who nominated you on your blog and link back to them.
Nominate up to 5 others for the award.
Let them know by commenting on their blog.
Post the award on your blog
And that, I think, is all for now. 

First reports are back on redraftings of the novel, with some very helpful comments and some very insightful thoughts. Now I must resist these things and do the work I'm actually paid to do. GOODBYE!