Saturday, March 3, 2018

When someone should slap your hand away from the keyboard...

Writing is not always about writing. Sometimes it is:

fiddling around with unrelated stuff to unblock the drains on your brain
refreshing - the mind
                 - your email
being stuck
researching help/publishers/agents
preparing queries/submissions/synopses

But it's not called 'writing' for nothing, so a big part of what we do is getting the words down and arranging them into a coherent and fresh assemblage that we hope will win readers over. We create the story and then move on to the second and third tiers of writing:

second guessing yourself

Revising, editing and titivating are related, but are not the same thing. Revising is clocking rubbish sentences, it's thinking 'no, I can't kill Mrs Kilgour in Chapter 3 after all cos she's the only one who can slip the note under the door in Chapter 7'. Mrs Kilgour's demise must therefore be moved to Chapter 8. It's activating passive sentences and changing that eleventh 'ambled' into a fresher synonym, killing darlings that just don't belong no matter how hard you ply the shoe horn and fighting cliches tooth and nail. Its moving action around and making the narrative more sensible and the language and sentence structure stronger. It's taking out the obvious 'writing' so the reader won't notice the seams, or the authorial hand if you like. It's what you do before you send your MS out to a publisher or consider it ready for self pubbing.

Editing comes after you feel the MS is done. It is essential and, I always think, best done by another eye. It's grammar and punctuation appraisal and correction. And it's 'Mrs Kilgour really should be gone by Chapter 4, unless you give her more to do between then and Chapter 8. Or maybe just find another stooge to slip the note, or send a text or pigeon post instead.' It's a fresh reader saying 'I don't get why this is happening,' or 'no one talks like that these days' or 'that eye colour change better be the result of new contact lenses but you might want to mention that in the text.' You can't be the objective reader. No, really, you can't. You can be for revising, but not for editing. Trust me on this.

And then there is titivating: the final spruce up that may or may not be necessary. It can easily become a delaying tactic, more a manifestation of the fear of taking the next step than it is a means to improving your work. And titivating is a distant relation and sometimes a precursor to second guessing and if you have reached this point, someone should probably just slap your hand away from the paper or the keyboard. Second guessing is related to self doubt, and is just as useless. It's wondering and fixating on what will make the publisher accept my story, the purchaser pick my book, the reader love it and review it, the judges select it as a finalist etc...that I haven't already included. It sometimes comes before you finally send your story out, and sometimes it happens after a few rejections or indifferent reviews. And the bottom line is you can't know. Your best guide is you. Tell the story the way you want to. Read it and see if it moves you, makes you laugh or cry, or both. Sometimes, and I'm sorry but this is an unpleasant truth, your story might actually be perfect and still not find a home, with publishers or purchasers or readers. A semi-proof of the pointlessness of second guessing is that while 5 publishers may reject your work, the 6th (or 26th) one may love it and can't wait to put it on shop shelves. If you had tried to please the second five by second guessing your work and altering it based on supposition about why the first five didn't accept it, it might no longer be the story you had so much faith in, and loved. And it might not catch the eye of any of the publishers, be they the sixth or the nth one because it is no longer the work of your heart and possibly has even started to show signs of being overworked.  Of course, if twenty publishers or 20 members of your critique group (okay most groups aren't that big but I'm just trying to make a point here so bear with me) all point to the same problem then you revise. But trying to fix a story that isn't broken is fruitless. Second guessing can give you no greater guarantees of success and quite possibly might just tie you in knots.

So to sum up, revision is good, editing is best outsourced, titivating is procrastinating and second guessing is the path to madness. Let's be careful out there people.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

All that potential...

I must try and have more rubbish holidays. The most recent crop have been far too enjoyable which only results in the immediate desire for more holidays. This seems to be a flaw in the whole holiday concept. Or maybe I am doing it wrong. ?

I would say Happy New Year but that was like a month ago and there is 2018 laughing hysterically at me for thinking I'm in charge of the next eleven months. In truth I have no idea what this year holds for me. This isn't new. Every year in recent memory has been way more than half a mystery as it kicks off. And it is fair to say I have been busy enough each year. Too busy sometimes. But of course not busy enough is as bad as too busy and I have little control over the balance. I can say no if things get too hectic but shouting yes into the void won't bring me more events to be involved in or books to be launched. Or ideas to feverishly bring to life.

I passed on the retraining. I tried it on for size and I just knew it would hang in the wardrobe unworn season after season. A cool thing I paid good money for that didn't quite fit me the way I wanted it to. But it is good to be open to new things. And of course I never say never. It is a silly word that cuts off too many possibilities.

So where to now? I am currently looking for a routine that will work for me during the week. I have interviewed a few but they just weren't qualified enough or where overqualified and I knew they wouldn't stay in the job. And I need something flexible enough to work on a part time basis when the need arises. I'll keep looking and let you know how I get on.

Since finishing the last novel my brain has been lying fallow. A fallow brain is at risk of self doubt so I am looking to bring it back into use soon. Chuck Wendig made a great point recently about self doubt making it too easy for creative folk to put their tools down and resist picking them up again. I mean it's self doubt, right? It compels you to avoid the things that you feel doubt about and then you're not doing the things you should be doing. It's a slippery slope/ feedback loop hybrid. Fair call Chuck. Point taken.

So I'm casting about for some new projects and girding my loins to dive back into one that is like two thirds done, while eyeing up my empty dance card with mixed feelings. Feeling simultaneously nervous and excited about what the year might hold. All that potential.....

Friday, December 15, 2017

Flamingo wrangling 101

Next year is a bit of a mystery. I have been contemplating retraining. I know you all think I'd make an awesome ninja assassin or flamingo wrangler but I actually had something else in mind. I am still undecided but time is running out. 2018 is so keen to get here.

I am off on holiday with my honey in January in honour of being wed for 30 years. This seems like quite an achievement these days - not too many folk make it that far - but if I'm honest it's not like it's been hard. But who am I to say no to a celebratory trip away. There will be photos and commentary at some stage because I'm not one to keep you out of the loop.

In the meantime I'm hemming and hawing and its not about whether I should pack my bikini. So while I make up my mind here are some tips and rules for 2018 because y'all know it's nearly upon us...

1) Say yes to things. Your instinct might be to say no because you have limited experience or you feel nervous but if it fits with the long game you have embarked upon then the time to start is now. Or five minutes ago.
2) It's okay to say no. Not often, but often enough to give yourself time and space to do your core activity. If you are an author and you run out of time to write new content you need to address this.
3) If you do have time and don't fill it with writing, don't beat yourself up. The stars align for writing at their own discretion.
4) People will disapprove that you seem idle - why are you not in paid employ or studying? That's how the rest of the world works! My response is the creative world marches to the sound of its own drum which they can't hear. We have our own set of rules and more than enough self doubts and criticisms without the offerings of others. Tell them it's a full time job. Say you are doing research. Tell them you found their comments very interesting and have taken notes. Say you are very sorry about what happens to the character you have based on them.
5) Plan a reward. Maybe for mid year. Have a weekend away with other writers, a night out with friends, a visit to an exhibition or show or... you get the picture. Whatever wine or chocolate you buy or thing you do, double your investment and treat yourself like the star/god/goddess you really are. It may not be visible yet, but anyways just persisting in this industry is noteworthy.
6) Do a charitable act. For other writers, for young readers, for someone new to the industry. Charity is the marshmallow that cushions and sweetens our community.
7) Be charitable to yourself. Writers tend to be their own harshest critics.
8) That 100 rejections thing is a good idea. Plan for 100 rejections in 2018. Make a list of what you will apply for and who you intend to send your work to. Make a list of what work is ready, nearly ready to go out. Make a list/calendar of the competitions/opportunities you would like to enter. Add the one thing you have always secretly wanted to do/try but have always felt was out of reach. Make a plan to be ready for them all.
9) Have a safe and happy holiday peeple. And see you in the new year!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Off-stage, behind the curtain ...

I finished my work-in-progress a few weeks ago. The writing of it had fair galloped along, and it was an enjoyable process for the most part. The muse had been awfully kind and given me something not far off fully formed. I felt more like a conduit than a creative controller, although I know the old brain is deceptive and that in reality my noodle had probably been assembling something quietly off stage behind the curtains for some time, waiting for that moment when the tale was ripe for the picking and there was enough energy, space and motivation on my part to do something about it.

It seemed to come out in good shape, and revising was a fairly swift affair. I'd pitched the 'idea' to several folk, and now the manuscript was complete I followed up with a few others. I naively thought they would share my speed, my excitement and enthusiasm. You have to wonder how some one at my stage in this business can be that naive. But there it is. Even though I've ridden round the block a few times I'm still surprised by that blind entrance.

So now I am playing the author's favourite, the waiting game. I wish I could say it gets easier but I don't want to be naive AND a liar. It is, as always, torture. I know the best way to wait is to work on new content but the last story was such a gift in its completeness that I am resistant to anything that requires more significant brain gymnastics. I will get over my laziness at some point. I suppose. (see voodoo comment below). Folk also suggest that completing a story is an achievement in itself and requires its own kind of acknowledgment and celebration. It has been a while since I've completed a novel and it IS nice to think I still have it in me to reach The End. Woohoo. Look at you, you cute-as-a-button complete little manuscript, you. I am so proud of you :)

I often get asked, when I am talking about the nuts and bolts of publishing, whether it's okay to do multiple submissions. I think it is. Some publishers ask that you mention you have submitted to other publishers, and other publishers say nothing about it at all. I assume that they've just naturally assumed I'm doing multiple submissions. I think that is pretty much the norm in places like the US. I feel like it should probably be the norm here too. That assumption. Just assume that no one has time to wait months for a response to a single submission before sending it out to someone else. Of course multiple submissions mean you exhaust your potential publishers faster but I think that just enables you to get back to the writing of new content sooner. I find submissions can sometimes cast some voodoo spell of writing paralysis over me.

So I wait in submission-limbo, nervously contemplating my empty calendar for next year, and hope the noodle is busy, secretly back at work behind the curtain.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The 2017 Storylines Hui and what I learnt there ...

Weekend before last I attended the 2017 Storylines National Hui for Children's Writers and Illustrators with other delegates from all over New Zealand. There were plenty of familiar faces but a whole host of new ones as well which I thought was a terrific sign. The mood was collegial and a positive hum accompanied every gathering. I attended keynote speeches, workshops and panel discussions. I engaged in more 'active listening' then I've done since university and man that stuff is seriously tiring but totally worthwhile.

I gave a workshop on the business of being a writer, or 'What They Don't Tell You at Writing Class' (and discovered that when you are worried about providing sufficient content for 90 minutes, you end up with 180 minutes worth of content),

and I was part of a panel where I talked about Fabostory, with the other panel members talking about cool initiatives such as NZ Read Aloud, SCBWI, Getting Kids Into Books, and Storylines itself.

There were some sobering moments where people talked about the realities, difficulties and disappointments of their own experience and/or current local and global trends. There were some moments of envy when established writers talked about close relationships with publishers and agents, 6 figure advances and long successful careers. Nearly 60 delegates pitched to publishers and agents during the Pitch Slam and I really hope we get to hear some success stories down the line from these. Agents talked about what's hot, what's not and what's downright dead. I made some pitches of my own. To two agents and two publishers in the end and now I wait too to see whether anything has 'taken'. It's part of my attempt to get 100 rejections this year. The philosophy is that the more submissions/applications/entreaties/pitches you make the more chance you have of something being selected/accepted/supplied. There is merit in this idea although it does mean working harder submitting and applying often enough to achieve this, and it does mean preparing yourself for a higher than usual rejection onslaught. But the truth is there is no yes without the submissions, the applications and the nos. I can't go soft on that stuff. And all the submitting and applying gives off a nice aura of possibilities.

So, back to the Hui. My favourite workshop? Poetry with Paula Green. Hands on word play is like a happy drug. And I wrote some things I really really like. Stacy Gregg ran a close second with her realistic insights into the life of a series writer. Not for the faint-hearted. My favourite keynote? Brian Falkner. Honest, unexpected, and a testament to all the things that make up a career - self belief, hard work, luck, more hard work, and gripping on for dear life during the tough times. I felt strangely buoyed by his words. I learned that success is a strange creature with many faces. And that is a useful thing to know. I felt grounded, and encouraged and motivated by the whole experience. And I felt reminded yet again that my community is a wonderful one. And whatever happens it is very clear that we are there for each other. Love you all guys.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A brief stint on the high wire ...

Well that month went super fast. It was already looking pretty busy with a bunch of school visits for the Otahuhu Project and one or two others, as well as some planning, plotting, organising and wrangling for the Storylines Hui and then, what-ho, at the 11th hour I got an invite to take part in the Storylines Nelson Tour with some other wonderful writers right smack dab in the middle, and I couldn't resist saying YES!!

So here we are - Apirana Taylor, Gareth Ward, myself and Juliette MacIver looking fresh and shiny on our first day (all photos by our intrepid driver, and all-round awesome author and schedule wrangler, Vicki Cunningham). We toured around Marlborough and Tasman, visiting schools and libraries, and school groups in libraries.

I did my best Hobbit impression.

The scenery was beautiful (on the way to Takaka) ...

... and pretty as a Picton (photo by me).

and we had a fabulous time! What wonderful schools, stellar students, amazing teachers and librarians, and brilliant travel companions!

I hadn't run away to the circus after all, like some of you might have been thinking. Well I had. But only for a week. Now the month is nearly done I will be putting my nose back to the grindstone and tickling the keyboards as I get on with my WIPs. But before I do I will be taking part in the Storylines Hui in Auckland over the first full weekend in October. I'm looking forward to catching up with old friends, making new ones and talking shop. Events like these are always a terrific boost, lighting a fire under my creativity and making me itch with excitement over my chosen career. October here I come....

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

And the winner.....

We have a winner  to last post's competition!!! A copy of Fuzzy Doodle will be going to the first commenter, Girl For All Seasons. Congratulations! Email me your details and I will sign it forthwith and pop it in the post :)

And as a cool bonus in addition to the competition announcement ... one of my favourite-of-all-time writers, Maggie Stiefvater (The Scorpio Races, The Raven Cycle and many more...), recently responded to a question on twitter about 'Imposter Syndrome' with a somewhat unexpected but totally genius answer. I've often felt the sting of this syndrome. I've picked myself up from the fraudsters' floor and reminded myself that I have a few clues about how stories work. But I love how Ms Stiefvater embraces the idea as a mechanism of keeping ourselves grounded, and a reminder that many things contribute to any success we might enjoy. You can read it for yourself below and I also recommend you pick up one of her books and give them a go too. She is equally smart (and linguistically lyrical) with fiction.  And as always, writing itself, word by word, is what we need to keep doing.

On Twitter, Connor Allen asked: "do you ever deal with imposter syndrome as a writer? If so, how do you get past it and just make yourself write?"
My answer:
Dear connorallen94,
I think everyone does to some degree or another.
Career success and artistic skill are only poorly correlated. What do I mean by this? I mean that you have to get a certain level of skill in order to get published/ put in a gallery/ get musical gigs, but after you get to a certain level of competency, greater or less skill doesn’t seem to have any relationship to how commercially successful you are. Other factors begin to take over in exposing your work to buyers, and moreover, the more rarified your skill becomes, the fewer the punters are who can appreciate it. You can turn a beautiful turn of the phrase while juggling 47 themes and delicately drawing an allegory for the pain of man’s condition? Great. Most people won’t notice. And while that additional skill will get you noticed among peers who are also writing beautiful novels with 47 themes and delicately drawn allegories, it is a bad predictor for commercial success. If you use that skill to delicately render specific lizards, for instance, you still run the risk of only appealing to lizard people.* But mostly it’s just excess — the average person doesn’t care if Coldplay’s Chris Martin can play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in D on his guitar. (I don’t know if he can. But I hope so.)
This is because in the commercial art world, most consumers are not also artists. Other factors are nearly always more important to the non-artist consumer: a strong story, a topical subject matter, a celebrity name, a catchy tune, a wicked hook, a pretty cover, the creator’s funniness on Twitter, the creator’s ability to speak in public, the creator’s actual and literal hotness because wow, relatability of the themes, a movie tie-in, an omnipresent advertising campaign, availability of the work in places that rhyme with BallMart.
It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being the best in your field. It’s why you can be an international bestseller without being remotely the best in your field.
Whenever I say this online, people like to shout “what kind of a self-drag!” I suppose because as an international bestseller, I am supposed to think I am 100% fantastic and have definitely earned my title at the top of the heap by some objective measure of wonderfulness. Also because people are weird and possibly don’t understand how self-awareness, confidence, and humility really ought to play well together if you want to be a happy professional artist. It’s crucial to understand just how big of a role you play in your own success. This is so that you can focus on only the things you can control (you can’t make your subject more topical, you can’t suddenly become a famous rock star with a memoir, you can’t guarantee you have a beautiful, eye-catching cover; you can only work on writing faster, writing more accessibly, writing well), so that you don’t take it too hard when all of your career dreams fail to come true overnight. But it’s also to keep you from being a self-aggrandizing asshole about success. You’ve sold millions of books? Great. Remember, Stiefvater, that your skill is only poorly correlated to that number. You wrote a competent-or-better book at a good time for that genre/ subject/ cover/ something, and it took off. Good job, that was nice. Get back to work.
I don’t generally mind this push-pull, actually. Imposter syndrome whispers that I might be a fraud, a just-okay writer wrapped in accolades I don’t deserve. But mostly I think that’s all right: let the voices whisper. The opposite of the imposter syndrome would be letting myself believe that I am entirely to credit for my success, and that’s just as false. The truth is a middle ground, and this truth is also why imposter syndrome doesn’t get in the way of my work.
Because the truth is this: I’m a writer who works hard, puts down a quarter million words of fiction each year, shows up for work even when life throws health or family or world crises at me, and doesn’t make excuses. Those things aren’t subjective. Those things I can control.
So get to work.