Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Feedback Deciphered

By any other name...
For those who think sequentially, feel free to consider this post a direct descendant of something I put on Strictly Writing, not so long ago, just for fun.

Rejection can be a bitter pill to take, not least because it isn't always clear what to do next. Oh, sure, you can dive into the Handbook or the Yearbook, but have you ever received a note back from an agent or publisher and wondered exactly what they're trying to say?

Grab a comforting drink and find yourself a comfy space - it's time to break the code...

1. Not one for me this time (because hell hasn't frozen over and we want to stay solvent).

2. Your work shows great promise, however. (Many of the words are spelt correctly and appear in the right order. Well done, you.)

3. Unfortunately I'm unable to give you any feedback (because it's difficult to laugh this much and type at the same time).

4. Our schedule is full for the next year (with real books). (And the year after that I'll do whatever it takes...)

5. However, I'd be interested in seeing your next book. (Go away for a year or so and try to forget about me.)

6. We have a special scheme for new authors. (Do you have any money? We could really use a sponsor.)

7. It's an unusual premise. (Your ideas scare me, or confuse me, or revolt me.)

8. Unfortunately we've recently taken on something similar (only with better ideas and better execution).

9. After careful consideration...(we let the intern decide).

10. It still needs some work. (You've cut corners and it shows.)

11. I hope you won't feel too disappointed by this letter. (I have no concept of how important this is to you.)

12. I wish you every success in finding the right agent or publisher. (Next!)

13. The story failed to come alive on the page. (I want magical pages that sing and dance.)

14. There was insufficient narrative tension and the characterisation wasn't fully realised. (I have an MA and you can't disprove my opinions.)

15. It's not our policy to reconsider previously rejected material. (You again? You may be desperate, but we're not.)

16. This is only my opinion and you may find another agent or publisher who sees your book differently. (I didn't like it - end of story. Someone else might dislike it less.)


About the author
Derek Thompson is a humorist and purveyor of words. Some people mistake that for being an embittered cynic, which is a shame. Especially if they are potential clients. However, if his brand of wit doesn't put you off and you need a writer, drop him a line - he wants to buy some more shiny things.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Dark Dates


They say you never really know someone until you live with them and I've found that applies to writers as well. By which, I mean, it's only when you spend quality time with them that you begin to understand what makes them tick and what life experiences they're drawing upon.

Sharing a blog like Strictly Writing is a little like being in a relationship of sorts, or maybe a creative commune. We share ideas and anecdotes, as well as excerpts. However, sometimes one of us will post something that's so visceral that it cuts through any intellectualising and brings you to a standstill.

Fellow scribe Tracey Sinclair did just that recently when she blogged about grief and creativity - you can find it here and I recommend a second reading. You'll also note from the comments we received that Tracey's willingness to share exactly what was going on in her life really touched people.

I caught up with her to find out more about her journey as a writer and how her recent experiences had impacted on her writing practice.


Was it a difficult decision to talk so openly and personally about where your life is right now?

It was and it wasn’t – I have blogged about personal things in my life before so it wasn’t a new thing for me to do, and I do think there is genuine value in sharing these kinds of experiences, but actually writing it and getting it out there was far harder than I thought and felt quite exposing. The reaction I got from people made me glad I did it though, as lots of people got in touch to say they found it inspiring and moving.

Have you found writing to be therapeutic and does this change how you write?

Not therapeutic, no, I don’t think so. I enjoy it and it makes me happy, so that has, I suppose, a therapeutic value, but I’m not one of those people who finds some sort of catharsis through writing.

You have a foot in two writing camps - fiction and copywriting / editing. How do you make time for both?

Part of the reason I became a freelancer was so that I would have more flexibility and be able to fit in more fiction writing. Because I can set my own hours I can adapt my work schedule as needed, and work whenever and wherever I want. Sometimes that does mean working very long hours and every day of the week but I don’t mind – I’m happy to be writing at 2am if that’s what it takes to get something done.

What's next for your main character, Cassandra Bick?

Cass came from a place both of love and frustration – I love the urban fantasy genre but I was sick of the fact that the female characters seemed to fall squarely into two camps, these days: impossibly kick ass lone wolf women or swooning teens, and there didn’t seem to be a place for a woman who you could picture yourself having a drink with, a woman who you can imagine living in the real world and who has friends and a job – someone a bit like me, I suppose, only with a far more interesting love life! I also wanted to write something that reflected modern London (and modern life) so wasn’t just peopled by straight white people. Plus I love writers like Jim Butcher and Joss Whedon who realise that adding humour to something doesn’t devalue it or mean you make it less serious; you can care deeply for characters but still tell a joke, or recognise how ridiculous a situation is. I love the fact that in Dark Dates many of the characters, especially Cass, realise just how insane their lives are and can still make jokes even when things are tough, because that’s how people cope with extreme situations.

In terms of what’s next for her, I honestly don’t know – I have a vague idea of what’s going to happen in the third book, but I won’t know until it’s written, as I tend not to plot too far in advance, I like the story to unfold as I’m writing it. In terms of being affected by my own recent experiences, I don’t think her storyline will be. She’s already lost people and is no stranger to grief so that isn’t a new subject for the books, and I have no plans to shoehorn anything in to write through my own experiences. I imagine all of this upheaval will come out in something, somewhere, but not just yet and I’m not sure these books are the place for it. 

What's your process when writing a Cassandra Bick story?

I tend to start with character sketches or short scenes – sometimes funny, sometimes not – that allow me to give ideas a work out then expand that into a handwritten first draft. Sometimes these stem from the fact that I think something would be funny, sometimes just from an idea I had that I’d like to see how it looks written down. I then do another handwritten draft because I think the fact that it’s a laborious process makes me pay more attention and notice mistakes. I rarely build scenes around humour, but I do reread them once they’re done to see if I can puncture any po-facedness, as that’s one of the things I want the books to avoid. I’m with Joss Whedon (again!) on this one, where he said – and I’m paraphrasing because I can’t recall the exact quote – make it as dark as you like, but then for God’s sake, tell a joke.

When and why did you decide to self-publish?

I had two small press titles published in the literary fiction genre, and was struggling to find anyone to take Dark Dates because, apparently, ‘vampires are over’, but it wasn’t the kind of thing my existing publisher would be interested in. So I thought, sod it, and just put the book out there myself, partly because I just got bored of waiting for any progress and I just wanted the first one off my desk. It’s been quite the learning curve – it’s far harder work than you’d think – but I’m glad I did it, as so many people have told me they loved the books and the reviews have generally been excellent, so it makes me feel like I wasn’t deluding myself by thinking they were good!

Where can we find any other interviews?


Where can we find out about your books?


And where can we buy your books?




Thursday, 18 July 2013

The 'about time I wrote something' post

The right conditions + time and effort = something amazing.
Well, who'd've thunk it? JK Rowling swallowed some of Hermione's Polyjuice Potion and then emerged from the Hogwarts loos as crime writer Robert Gilbraith. 

I'm sure there'll be many writers, struggling to get a foot in the literary door, who will cry 'Foul!' but all credit to her. She could have submitted the book under her own name and would have been assured of a hearty welcome. Instead, she chose to let her work stand or fall on its own merits and that's a brave thing to do when you don't have to.

The story of the story, if you get my meaning, also confirms what writers have long accepted as gospel:
- If the opportunity arises, good writing wins through. 
- An agent can make a world of difference. 
- Good reviews do not necessarily translate into plentiful sales.
- Not everything is every editor's cup of tea. 
- It's been reported that Orion Books turned The Cuckoo's Calling down because, although it was 'perfectly good' it didn't stand out. Depending upon your frame of mind, you could either feel buoyed up or devastated by that!

A couple of my friends have recently been signed to agents and so their journey has moved from 'get an agent' to 'get a deal'. From what they've said, the next stage is very similar to the first; writing, rewriting, submitting (albeit the agent does that), waiting and then jumping every time the phone rings or the inbox pings. 

Unless you're a celebrity and something is ghostwritten for you, or you are the conscious reincarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (feel free to replace with the author of your choice), there are no shortcuts. Because, without every single, faltering and maddening step, there is no development as writers. Put aside, for a moment, all the internet hype about analytics, community, coverage and kudos levels. If you can't write - or worse, you won't write - then you will struggle to become a writer.

Becoming is not a word that's popular these days. it doesn't fit the mould of 'be a successful gymnast in 90 days using our proven technique'. Even Lord Alan Sugar, in the recent final of The Apprentice, commented that business start-ups need to realise that you start at the bottom and work your way up. It's not just the road less travelled, it's the road frequently avoided. 

In part, I think, it's why creatives become (yes, I know it's that word) so disillusioned. In a similar to staying online because we're afraid of missing out, we can avoid committing to writing because we want to sidestep the pain of the first draft and the purgatory of the subsequent edits. When we do that, we kill inspiration stone dead. The muse packs his or her bags (I have one of each, currently, and they don't get on) and heads off to someone more appreciative. And then those lovely stories we know we are capable of telling fall silent even in our own heads. Or else they torture us with whispers when we're stuck in traffic or reading someone else's work.

All I'm saying is what everyone who has ever written a book has said: writers write. It's as simple as that. Everything else is a whole other ball of beeswax. There, that ought to do it. Now I can get back to my novel.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Bare Bones

Stick with it, there's a novel in there somewhere.

So it's time to get motivated (or shamed - either is fine with me) into starting work on the new novel. In some ways it feels a bit of a cheat when the previous two in the series haven't been picked up yet. (Agents and publishers, form an orderly line...) And I've ruminated on it long enough to list my occupation on my passport as bovine.

For a long time, despite having enough conversations with my characters from Standpoint and Line of Sight to warrant therapy, the premise for a new novel eluded me. And then two completely separate, standalone book ideas came along, pulling me in different directions. I even started the two beginnings and kept them side by side on my desk, weighing them up. 

When Warren and Martin met up with me, for our usually quarterly writers' gathering, they could see what I couldn't. Neither new character would sustain an entire novel, but they'd fit the bill for antagonists and instigators in a new Bladen book. 

I didn't plot the first two books in any detail. Standpoint came to life at a novel writing summer school in Falmouth (thank you, Jane Pollard), and my main character arrived pretty much fully fledged. Line of Sight was an experiment in 'What happens next?' and a desire to explore the background of one of the other Standpoint characters. Plus, I really liked the idea of writing the consequences from book one into a book two. 

This latest project (when, exactly, does it become a book?) is entitled The Caretaker and takes a slightly different approach. At this stage of the game, I have a collection of post-its, including the ending (which is out of camera in the image above), and a page of notes. There's also the prologue and chapter one, taken from those formerly competing openings, but they might not make the cut. 

The writing of the first draft kicks off in earnest in July. Not so much nanowrimo as let's see what I can do in three months of writing (lswicditmof - badges coming soon!).

I'll keep you posted.

Meantime, what writing projects are you starting?


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Poetry Emotion



When I was at school, to the best of my recollection, most poetry rhymed. I also stuck slavishly to couplets, or, if I was feeling particularly adventurous, I'd try A B A B rhyming. 

Once I'd left school, however, a wider world of poetry was waiting for me beyond the gates. Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke, Ogden Nash, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Stevie Smith, among others, led me to experience poetry as a means of personal expression, of protest, and a way to explore aspects of life that we, the readers, may never have considered (or have had to). 

Bear that in mind as I bring you an interview with Villayat 'Snowmoon-Wolf ' Sunkmanitu, who uses poetry and photography to cope with his own PTSD and to raise awareness about its impact on PTSD sufferers and the people in their lives. Regular visitors to this blog will know I've interviewed him before, but here he talks about what's next for him now that he has completed a trilogy of works in his Poetry of a Veteran series. Just like his poetry, his responses come straight from the heart, or the gut. Here he is, in his own, inimitable style.

1. Soul of a Wolf if your third poetry book, which you've said is the last in the series. What's next in your journey?

I feel the need to walk away from writing PTSD related work at the moment.  My next projects will be photography and wolf related ... focussing on photography as well as the written word.  I have had both of these projects swirling around in my mind for a few years now but I promised myself that I could indulge myself in them when I got the painful writing out of the way.  I also have an autobiographical novel planned ... but I need to rest up a lot more before getting to writing that one.

2. We've talked in the past about the therapeutic value of the arts. How has writing and photography helped you?

Creative therapies help us to process information stored as memories in a subconscious way.  With my poetry it's as though I've temporarily become a Vulcan (Mr Spock type for you Trekkies) - you don't feel your emotions, they just come pouring out in your words.  When you go back and read your own words it can be a bit harrowing because 'Vulcan mode' is switched off and you're having an emotional response to your words.  Sometimes it's as if you were in a trance and this is the first time you've seen the words and you question whether you wrote the words in front of you on your screen; computer date stamp and copyright tags says - 'Yes - you did!'

These three books have helped me to explore some of the issues that I have encountered in my periods of uniformed service, such as racism, corruption, PTSD, fear and apathy.  It's time to write about other things for a while.  I think it's also helped to get a message out there that not all members of the Armed Forces are chest-beating macho types.  We can be strong and fight when it's needed ... but some are also sensitive souls with feelings, awareness and empathy about current human issues.

3. There's a lot more public awareness about PTSD, but could you give us a personal insight into some of the challenges - and how they affect your creativity?

I would argue that the public aren't as aware as I'd like them to be.  I remember seeing an advert somewhere portraying a Veteran having a flashback.  I could relate to the content but felt that it was sensationalised in the way that it was presented; people are very impressionable and can walk away thinking that all Veterans are affected in the same way.  I find that people stereotype others much too easily ... It's the lazy option and can be
misguiding.  Disabilities affect people differently ... We may have the same condition but the way that it affects us, the way we cope and how we interact with the world around is very varied. 

On the issue of care for Veterans with PTSD - the public have to be aware that everything that the NHS provide in terms of care has a budgetary limit.  They don't have the resources to provide Veterans with what they need to cope with this condition.  The NHS works on the premise that early detection and Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy are the key.  This can work for troops returning from current conflicts.  However we need to be aware of
 a fact that seems to be pushed further and further from the minds of the general public ... We still have many Veterans from conflicts as far back as World War 2 that are still alive - still without support - still suffering in silence with PTSD.  Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy will do a little good but what these people need (myself included) is the opportunity 
to just sit and talk to someone that understands the issues - allowing us to off load and go back to living with PTSD for a while before we need another opportunity to do the same.  The budget holders have intimated that this won't happen because the issue of PTSD and Veterans ranks very low on their priority list and we just have to get on with it.  We've been getting on with living with PTSD for many generations.  A message I would give to the NHS and their government funders is that they need to remember this:  You limit the ways in which you can help Veterans that live a hellish existence resulting in a disability that arose from carrying out their duty to their Queen and Country.  They signed off on their cheques and risked their lives for the British public, as a collective ... but when they needed the help of the system after coming back to broken homes and shattered lives, the British Government made them acutely aware of the following - there is very little honour in civvy street and the Military Covenant is just a myth.

  

Some organisations have done very well on the back of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ... One in particular is 'Help for Heroes'.  They branded themselves in a way that captured the public's imagination and support ... But what people don't know is that they only support projects and troops from the war with Iraq onwards and don't support Veterans or projects from earlier conflicts.  Think back to the number of military operations that the British Armed Forces have been involved in since (and including) World War 2 and try to imagine the real numbers of unsupported Veterans out there that did their duty ... only to be forgotten until a lonely bugle sounds on a November morning.  Remembrance Day could be viewed as a hollow political exercise.

You then have other organisations that make you feel like a worm for asking for the support that they advertise they're ready to give you.  I had such an experience after getting my first home.  I needed things like a vacuum cleaner and some other bits and pieces.  The tone of the officer dealing with the application towards me was at the very least condescending and may have harboured a darker issue.  I have never made a formal application for help from such organisations since.  

Disabled artists and writers can be easily manipulated or abused if they're not careful.  It's a material world and money's the new religion.  Creative people must protect their Intellectual Property very carefully, particularly in light of the current changes made to orphan works in the UK.  For more info see http://www.wolf-photography.com/html/IP-UK/respectIP.html and
please have a good look around the whole of the section of my site.  It will teach you how to protect your internet assets and give examples of how to sell or publish your work without falling prey to the rip off merchants out there.  


As a disabled artist, I have limitations.  This is why I do therapeutic work only nowadays.  I have to be very careful with my energy and how I use it.  I tend to visualise a pot and keep tabs on the levels within.  If the levels are below half, I stop working and rest ... For as long as it takes to fill the pot up again before carrying on.  Coping with a disability, with a community that in the main are ignorant of PTSD and with everyday life - is tiring enough.  When you add something else to the equation (e.g. dealing with publicists, media, book distributors, other businesses etc) life can become pretty difficult.



4. Is there life after PTSD? 


There's life WITH PTSD!  We just have to be careful with our energy, our expectations and how the condition affects us (e.g. what our particular triggers are and how to minimise exposure to those particular scenarios).  

If we're lucky, we find people with kind hearts and open spirits along the way that will help us to achieve our ambitions, whatever they may be.

  

The key is to be realistic about the demands that we place upon ourselves.  I have worked hard all my life until I was retired on ill health in 2006.  I now do 'therapeutic' or 'permitted work' as it's now called.  This allows me to work at my own pace without external pressure and allows me to continue contributing to society in some way.  I get days when I'm very low on energy and I remind myself that it's okay to rest up and just look after myself - no one else is going to do it ... and that I'm not lazy.  There are days when I'm too hard on myself ... That's the result of the work ethic that I have had since the age of seven!  I cannot earn a profit now ... and I'd be happy if the business broke even every year ... but the real reward is that my
creativity allows me to continue living with PTSD.  I've been lucky enough to experience things that still make me smile deep down inside - and most of these are through my photography of the natural world.  If my words reach someone and help them to feel understood or provide empathy or perhaps make them laugh - then I'm content.  Hopefully they're laughing or smiling at something that's meant to engender that reaction rather than thinking my books are crap!  

Whatever your disability is ... find a way to do something creative around it - allow your mind and spirit to be free for a while.

5. Are there any poets or other writers that have particularly inspired you while writing your three poetry books?

None.  When engaged in my photography or writing, I tend to become more insular and don't let other influences enter my mind.  However, it's amazing how many times Wordsworth's Daffodils echoes through the corridors of my memory.  The whole object of using creativity to cope with PTSD is to process my issues and to release the valve - it's a bit like flushing after a good dump - but not as smelly.  So I tend to release a lot more than I take in.

6. You wrote The Words of a Wolf some time ago now. Has the publishing landscape changed much since then?

I think so.  There's a lot more work being self-published and I feel that's great!  How many times have you bought a book on the recommendation of a press piece on the back cover, only to find that it's complete bollocks?  People flock to those books because the big companies use contacts to create spin to make them sound like good books - which some are - but not a lot.  

Retailers have changed their attitudes as well.  When 'Words of a Wolf' was released, the reason for writing the book and details of the project were explained to as many branch managers at Waterstones as possible (to raise awareness of how PTSD affects Veterans).  Their response and support is something that I'll always be grateful for - http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/villayat+22snowmoon+wolf
22+sunkmanitu/words+of+a+wolf/7548871/ - particularly the staff that entered 'book seller' reviews.  140 Waterstones stores held copies of Words of a Wolf at their branches.  

I contacted Waterstones centrally when 'The Way of the Wolf' was released only to be told that decisions would not be made by local managers any longer, that purchasing was regionalised and that they expected 50-60% discount on all purchases before they would consider ordering any stock in.  I was also told that that they weren't happy with me quoting the fact that the book was available in 'Amazon Kindle format' on the back cover - which I found particularly strange as I'd been reliably informed that Waterstones were going to be selling Kindle readers.  If you're designing your cover for your latest book - check out the distributor's opinion on these matters.

7. What do you hope people will gain from your latest book?

I hope that they'll gain a bit more awareness of what living with PTSD is like.  People afflicted by the condition are subject to the same issues that everyone lives with but Veterans have a hard time because they come back to society that doesn't understand where they've been, what they've done, how they've been treated and conditioned ... and the sense of
abandonment that they're left with when they come back to a society that doesn't really want them.

From my own perspective: we were in situations where honour meant everything.  We were ready to lay down our lives for our colleagues and people that we were ordered to protect.  We cared for each other.  We were equals.  Materialism was minimal.  When I look around in civvy street I see very little honour, a huge decline in moral and basic good manners ... and a
huge rise in selfishness based on materialism.  This isn't the UK that I fought for.  Too much has changed ... and it's not down to immigrant workers, differing cultures and religions or any of the spin that people wishing to divide the UK populace would have you believe.  I feel that we're losing our way because there's too much greed and corruption in our political and legal systems ... we need to address this and to provide positive role models from the emerging generations of celebrities, business people and leaders.

8. Do you plan to do any public readings?

I've had an offer from poet and playwright Dave Puller to do a public reading and would to take him up on it.  I'm also planning on doing some readings as part of the workshop elements of my rolling exhibition of poetry and photography that starts in November 2013 - see http://wolf-photography.com/html/exhibition.html.

The challenges?  I could end up a quivering wreck!  :o)  One of the attributes of PTSD is disassociation - perhaps I'll try to make positive use of a negative.

9. Where can people find out more about your book and the project?

Pop along to www.wolf-photography.com - you'll find everything there.

You can
 also follow my progress on these social media: