Wednesday's Inspiring Books

Yes, returned once more, it's Wednesday's Inspiring Books, a series of posts looking at books that inspired me as a child. Specifically, inspired me to become an author. On the shoulders of these giants I now want to stand and do good, bookish things, and it's thanks to these books and these authors that the Simon sitting here today is not some other, non-writer Simon.

Today's book / books is / are THE DOOMSPELL TRILOGY, by Cliff McNish.


Snazzy covers, no?

I read these books because my sister had them, liked them, and at some point left them unattended. The covers probably had something to do with it. At the time I had no idea Cliff was a guy. It doesn't matter whether an author is male, female, or anything in between, of course, but I do know I was surprised years later to find out the truth. Mistakes we make as kids can last an embarrassingly long time into adult life...

These books are brilliant. The beginning of The Doomspell is so sudden and dramatic I had to read on to find out what was happening. The way magic is portrayed, and the villain of the piece, are stunning - vivid, unique, memorable, but all written so that it made sense and was something I could get behind as a kid and now as an adult. As a trilogy the books travel across worlds and see the brother and sister we meet in the first few pages become very different people as they learn about power, their place, and what they can do. It's a testament to these books that there are still a few specific scenes I remember in absolute detail, years later. Certain images I conjured, certain turns of phrase, and certain things that happened that made me think 'No!' or 'Yes!'

I don't hear these books mentioned a lot in fantasy or children's books lists, and I don't know if that's because I'm reading the wrong lists or because they don't have the continued wider audience they deserve. I hope it's the former, and if it is the latter - well, this is my small attempt to begin redressing that.

Read The Doomspell Trilogy because they are exactly what kids books should be - good, eminently readable, and lasting.


Eleven Things Never to Say to an Author

I wish I could do that

No you don't. You wish you could stay at home in your PJs all day, which is what you think I do. What I actually do is work a normal job and also spend hours alone at my computer making things up, like the word 'quobblum,' which I am particularly proud of. Hey. Hey, no! No, don't walk away! I want to tell you about my quobblums...

I had this idea for a book...

Good. And next time you visit your vet I suggest you tell him about the idea you had for a new type of cat.

Remember us when you're rich and famous!

I can't remember you now, mostly because I've been up all night obsessing about whether blood really would show through a wooden plank in a scene that will be cut later anyway. Help me.

Oh, my aunt's sister's disabled dog's walker's husband is a writer, I think. Or a vet...

That's awesome. Does he have coffee or whiskey? No? Well, then ...

I read this book the other day, it was rubbish.


Aren't books dying out? Bit late to get into that game, no?

Something's going to be dying in about four seconds and I guarantee you it isn't books.

You're a writer? Cool! Oh, just kids book? Oh, shame.

Yup, just kids. Good thing they're not some of the most creative, discerning, demanding, open minded readers around, eh? Aha ha. Ha.

So how much money do you make doing that?

Here's a fun new rule. It's called Don't Ask Authors Things You Wouldn't Ask Other Intelligent Adults.

You gonna put me in a book, then?

I might. I might not. Do something interesting and let's see. Look, a bridge! You could jump...

I hate reading.

You say 'hate', I hear 'hit me.' I swear, it's so strange...

You can be the next JK Rowling!

I could, except she's a middle aged woman and I'm a twenty-something guy, so for starters, her dresses will never fit me.


Great First Lines Part One - Twenty Years of The Carnegie Medal

I had it in my mind to write a post about opening lines - about how they mean so much, set the tone, can change whether a person reads a story or not. I thought about writing a post about first lines and how they change from draft to draft to final book, losing words, changing angle, sometimes taking on whole new meanings,

And then I thought - no. Not that. What's the best way to see how to do opening lines? Where's the best place to look to see it done right?

Good books.

Any list of good books is subjective and wrong. So, rather than 'good', maybe I should call these 'popular', or 'successful.' They're all award winners - from the UK, the Carnegie Medal, and from the U.S., the Newbery Medal, two of the many, many fine awards given out every year for children's books. Why only these two? They're established, have a good history, and I like them. Why only two awards? Because these posts can't go on forever.

Thankfully, good books can.

Read, enjoy, and maybe be intrigued, and then read some of these books. I know I hope to. I want to learn, as well, about the importance and the power of once upon a time. 

The Past Twenty Carnegie Medal Opening Lines

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

"'War,' says Mayor Prentiss, his eyes glinting. 'At last.'"
Patrick Ness, Monsters of Men

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

They'd stolen a march on the day. The sky was like dark glass, reluctant to let the light through.
Siobhan Dowd, Bog Child

Even the woods are burning.
Philip Reeve, Here Lies Arthur

The view is fine up here. I can look out across the world and see everything.
Meg Rosoff, Just in Case

In the end it was her grandfather, William Hyde, who gave the unborn child her name.
Mal Peet, Tamar

We have just moved house to 7 Comarty Close. The patron saint of moving house is St Anne (1st century).
Frank Cottrell Boyce, Millions

When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down.
Jennifer Donnelly, A Gathering Light

Dallas leaned far out of the window, his eyes fixed on a bird flying lazily in the distance.
Sharon Creech, Ruby Holler

Rats! They chased the dogs and bit the cats, they --But there was more to it than that
Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

Sade is slipping her English book into her schoolbag when Mama screams.
Beverley Naidoo, The Other Side of Truth

Not knowing his way around, he set off back the way he had come. 
Aidan Chambers, Postcards from No Man's Land

I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon.
David Almond, Skellig

It didn't start with the river boy. It started, as so many things started, with Grandpa, and with swimming.
Tim Bowler, River Boy

A boy and a girl were spending the night together in the back sat of a Volvo estate car.
Melvin Burgess, Junk

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall,  taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights

My footprints track across the faint dew still lying on the grass.
Theresa Breslin, Whispers in the Graveyard

My fascinating life. Yes.
Robert Swindells, Stone Cold

Mr Cartright swung his legs to and fro under the desk, and raised his voice over the waves of bad-tempered muttering.
Anne Fine, Flour Babies

So, take from this what you will - thing you like, things you don't, thinks you wish you could do, and everything else. Happy writing.

Part two - the Newbery Medal and Honour Awards - coming soon.

Modern Grimmoire Anthology NOW ON SALE

Happy to announce that my first officially published story is now out there in the world, to be bought and read and everything else. It's part of Modern Grimmoire: Fairy Tales, Fables and Folklore, which you can read about, buy, and enjoy just by clicking that link - or even by clicking this picture of the actual book in my actual hand:

The hardcover is $18, and the e-book will be available on Friday, May 24. It's a beautiful book and the folk at Indigo Ink Press have done a fantastic job. Really hope you like it.

Happy reading,



I Want To Be a Writer, I Just Don't Have Time To Read

Modern life certainly feels like it's getting busier all the time. Unless you're living in a yurt, or possibly some sort of make-shift tipi, chances are you're reading this on your computer, maybe in between several other tasks, with family and friends and fun nights out all stuffed in there as well.

File:Oglala girl in front of a tipi2.jpg[Full disclosure: I had to look up how to spell tipi. Who knew?]

Working as a writer is time-consuming enough. Getting reading done can become a luxury - a stolen moment when you get to escape, but secretly feel like you're not being Productive and Active and are therefore somehow ... cheating.

This post has one point to make: that reading is more than important for writers, it is essential, and you have to keep your mental attitude to it in check. Enjoy it - absolutely!- but never feel bad, or that it's 'down time' you could be using for Other Things.

Readers make writers, and every book you read - whether it's just for pleasure or because you deliberately thought 'Oh, this is in my genre / by an upcoming writer / the same audience as my book, and lo, I shall read it forthwith!' - helps you learn, hone, and improve your own writing.

That's great, but I'm too busy. I have children / no money / a small and lucrative banana smuggling operation to run.

I know, it's rough. But the fact is, really, that reading is what you have to do so you can do what you want to do (which is writing, remember?). Books are the 101 class of how to write good and proper like what other writers do.

I am a rebel! My work is unique. I don't need to read what's come before.

Yes, you do.

Books cost money.

They do indeed, but libraries don't, and you'd be surprised how flexible they are about things like hours and access. Look 'em up and boggle at the fact they let you take books without charging you anything. it's like state-sponsored intellectual theft but it's ALL OKAY.

Reading is just a layman's writing. Why would I spend time seeing what others have done? I'm not others. I'm me!

Because to invent the jet plane you have to have the biplane first. It's the old 'standing on the shoulders of giants, pretending you're really tall' thing.

Reading is boring.

You're not a writer, are you? You're just spamming my blog. Go away.

I love reading! Why would you even write a piece about making time for it? Who doesn't make time for it? Weee!

Calm down, eager beaver. Lots of people who love reading still let it become a rarity because of the kids / bananas / commitments. This post is meant to be about making sure you don't let it become a secondary activity.

So you'd actually suggest reading instead of doing Fun and Social things?


Doesn't sound very fun.

You're clearly reading the wrong books. And if the book doesn't exist yet that would make you say 'NO!' to friends ... well then, maybe you should write it.


If Only I Had Enough Time - Weak Sauce Excuses and Writing

Gosh, books are hard. Aren't they? They're so long, for one thing. Have you noticed? Thousands of words, at least. And not even the same word. All different words, put together, to make stories that are supposed to make sense. Flippin' heck.

Writing a book. That's something people do. Why not you? You're too busy, probably. You'd like to. You'd love to. You easily could, as well. It's easy. You just don't have the time, what with being so busy and all.

Or ... are you too busy? Really? Or are you, in fact, just putting it off without realizing? Hm.

There have been some fantastically busy people who wrote books. Churchill did it, and got a Nobel Prize. He was also basically a very large sausage with a cigar in his mouth who beat the Nazis through a serious of well timed quips.

JK Rowling was a single mother with a job. Neil Gaiman appears to exist in some sort of perpetual whirlwind of creativity and action, and he has, like, a billion books coming out this year. John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) was also called  His Excellency the Right Honourable the Lord Tweedsmuir, PC GCMG GCVO CH, and was Governor General of Canada (oh my gosh what) when he wasn't writing. Wow. Tolkien was a full time professor. Tolstoy founded thirteen schools. Hemimngway appears to have crashed, shot at or fallen in love with pretty much everything you can imagine.

Busy folk, busy writers.

So do you have enough time to write?

I have all these ideas, just haven't written them down yet.

Awesome. Ideas fuel books. But don't kid yourself. You haven't even started yet. It's like standing at the starting line and boasting about running a marathon.

I have a full time job / kids / I'm a member of a cult that doesn't believe in time / I'm the King of Spain.

Your life is your own, and that's awesome, as well - but it doesn't make you busier than a lot of people. get up half an hour earlier, or take a shorter lunch break, and write.

I can't type.

Then write it by hand and learn to type later

I want to write. I do. But I'm worried it isn't going to be any good.

It isn't. it'll be pretty bad, to begin with. You'll make it better, though, by working on it. Get it down first, though.

I'm worried that the story in my head is too complicated to do justice to. It scares me / excites me / intimidates and overwhelms me.

Baby steps are key. Write a page, then a chapter, and keep track of subplots. Take your time. Take years. Take me in your arms and tell me I'm pretty, or something.

I'm a genius of unparalleled proportions. I will write it when I'm ready / when the world deserves it. I am a god.

No you're not, you're a dick.

I am dead.

You are excused from writing your book.

Write something today.


Ten Reasons Writer's Block Isn't A Real Thing

Yes, I said it. Plenty of other people have, too. Writer's block isn't a thing. It's not actually a very good excuse for not doing something you want to do. It's not a good reason for stopping and not carrying on - especially if you don't feel your writing life has got "there" yet - wherever "there" may be for you.
It's definitely not a good excuse for stopping just because things are hard. Yes, writing gets hard. Of course it does. That's the moment you're supposed to roll up your sleeps and heave to, with extra blood and sweat and effort and tears and joy. Extra! Not less. Why would you put in less

Writer's Block
Calvin and Hobbes © Bill Watterson
Don't hide behind ideas when you're meant to put down words, and don't hide behind words empty of meaning when you're supposed to be crafting ideas.

Writer's block? No. Don't get me wrong - I'm sympathetic and empathetic and a few more -ethics about getting stumped by how a story should go, or for choosing the best word, or for starting one (Oh, starting stories. Why does that bit have to be so rough?). But I don't like rolling out a handy, ready-made excuse for what might, really, be a slight misunderstanding of what writing is.

  1. If you're writing for a living, then stories are your job. You have to write, or next time you call a plumber, be willing to accept 'plumber's block' as the reason they can't help you.
  2. If you're writing for pleasure (which can be the same as above) then you have even less reason to pretend it's tearing you apart. Think your work is rubbish? OK. Write it down, though.
  3. Anyway, you can always edit it later.
  4. You can delete it too, if you like. Remember what Hemingway said about first drafts and shit and all that.
  5. If you're telling other people about your writers block, that's probably a clue as to why you're not getting much writing done.
  6. At the end of the day artists thrive on attention. Being blocked can be a fantastic way to get sympathy. Stop it.
  7. Have you ever seen a kid tell a story? They go mad. Everything links up. That's the heart of storytelling. Do that.
  8. If you're claiming writer's block because you can't find the right words, you need to learn more words. 
  9. You do Number 8 by reading more words. And if you're not writing because you're blocked up, maybe your brain needs a flush. You do that by putting a few books through the system.
  10. It's important not to confuse being blocked with being confused about where a story's going. Tease out a few ideas and write multiple endings, different choices, different styles. Produce work. Change the tense, the person, the gender. Are you blocked or just lost?
Does this make me seem a bit black and white? I'm not saying that there aren't moments when it won't work and it all seems rubbish and dark and you just want to burn the pages. I'm not. I am saying that that's all pretty normal, usually happens around chapter seventeen, and is something to power through. 

Fight the myth that you need a muse. You are your muse. Or, life is. Or, other books are. Whatever. Everything can be. 

Write. Create. Flow.

And bugger the block.


How Much Should You Pay a Literary Agent?

I'm writing this on a Monday evening, the first day after starting a new job. I've also just received and replied to the edits of OCTOPUS RULES. Much writing, and much thinking about a life spent trying to make a decent wage from writing.

If the series of posts I did for Writers' & Artists' taught me anything, it's that I have forgotten what it's like to be truly starting out for the first time - to not know about agents and publishers and to not be worrying at all about the finer points of contracts and deadlines. It's an exciting time in a writer's life, and the work, and the mistakes, that come from that period can change your life forever.

So, agents. Want one? You might not. If you do, though, it's good to have clear in your mind how the finances work.

When you send a manuscript off to an agent you're requesting that they represent you to publishers. At this stage, you should pay nothing. Reading fees and the like are the signs of a faux-agent or, at worst, a mere trickster. Get the book accepted, sign a contract, sure - but pay zilch.

If everything goes spectacularly and there aren't any more edits needed before the book goes on submission to publishers - hooray! At this point a legit agent will ask you for ... nada. You don't pay an agent to submit on your behalf any more than you pay them to sign you up initially.

But wait - a publisher loves your book and wants to make an offer. This changes everything. The end is in sight - the dreams of authorhood, of books in shops, are so nearly within your grasp. Cue maniacal laughter and sporadic solo dance parties. Getting that agent really paid off, eh? And it's time to pay them a big fat zero. Yup - an offer from a publisher is fantastic, but you still shouldn't be paying anyone anything. Not yet. Not yet.

Now, things start coming together. The publisher and the agent will hash out the details of the deal, including advance payments, percentages, and when you'll get the money. Should you pay the agent now? Yes! Well, it would be more accurate to say Kind of. Payments from the publisher will come via the agent, who will take their percentage before passing the bulk on to you. How much should you pay then, then? Depending on the rights and the territories, 15-25%. This will all have been in the agency agreement you signed when   you first got representation.

And that's how it's done! With agents and authors, the general rule is that money should go towards the writer. There can always be extenuating circumstances, and every agency is different, but if you're paying an agent something besides a percentage of a done and dusted book deal, be cautious. It can be hard enough making money as a writer without falling to unscrupulous practices.

The Association of Authors' Agents Code of Practice section 6(h) states that:
Agents may reimburse themselves from money collected from third parties on their author's behalf for money properly spent for such expenses as photocopying of manuscripts or proposals and/or for the purchase of proofs or books for submission, for bank charges in relation to overseas payments or other exceptional postage and/or courier expenses. However, no member shall charge a reading fee or any other fee to a client beyond his/her regular commission as notified to the Association without the client's or prospective client's prior consent in writing.
And, in the U.S., The Association of Authors' Representatives Canon of Ethics Sections 3 and 8 State:
In addition to the compensation for agency services that is agreed upon between a member and a client, a member may, subject to the approval of the client, pass along charges incurred by the member on the client’s behalf, such as copyright fees, manuscript retyping, photocopies, copies of books for use in the sale of other rights, long distance calls, special messenger fees, etc. Such charges shall be made only if the client has agreed to reimburse such expenses.
The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term “charge” in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials
So, the writing's on the wall for this one. What should you pay an agent? What they earn - and believe me, a good agent earns every penny.


FIND the time to write

I should start this piece by saying that, yes, everyone is different, and I realise that some people's lives are a lot, lot harder than other's.


For the next three days I'm in an unusual position. I'm finished my current job, and I start a new job on Monday - giving me three days of ... well, nothing. A three day hiatus from normal life. It's not often adults get those. I plan to write a lot - a few more short stories, and work on some books that need a bit of help. I've also just has my piece OCTOPUS RULES accepted into a new anthology from Elephant's Bookshelf Press, so there might be some work there, too.

File:LOUIS GEORGE Berlin Taschenuhr montre de poche pocket watch 02.jpg
It's all got me thinking, though. About time, and art, and creativity, and how rushed modern lives are and how busy we can get. Writing can take a backseat so much of the time. Because it's not real work, or because it's just a hobby. You get home from work, feel tired, watch the TV, or go out with friends. and before you know it days have gone past. It's easy and understandable.

Bollocks, though.

You have to find / make / reclaim time for art. Perhaps the biggest shock for some people is that writing isn't always fun and writing isn't always easy. I'm not trying to say that it's a constant, pretentious struggle you need to complain about. I am saying that sometimes you have to say no to friends, or get up an hour early, or go to bed a hour later, so you have writing time.

To be professional, and to given stories the effort they need, requires a conscious effort. Three, or two, or seven day breaks from life don't normally come around, and people still write books, get agents, etc., etc. Sometimes you do have to be harsh.

Have a time a week that's 'booked' for writing - Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening - it doesn't matter when. Stick to it.
File:Fountain-pen-nib white1.jpg

Or just write for the length of a film - and then skip whatever blockbuster's on repeat at 10 p.m.

Have kids? I don't. That's gotta make it harder. But you can find out what works for you - whether it's ten stolen moments at midnight or twenty during the day.

Commute? Brilliant! Trains and buses are good even if it's just thinking about your writing, or taking brief notes.

There just has to be time - time to write and create. It's easy for it to get pushed to the side in a hectic world that doesn't see it as that important. Hell, no. It is important, and you have to convince yourself of that before you can convince others.

So go, write, and be proud of what you do when you can do it.

Photo Credits: Pocket Watch
                       Fountain Pen