Friday, 25 April 2014

Just My Luck*

Unlucky for some?

Come on writers, you know the feeling:

Your book has been rejected with nary a hint of what you can do about it before the next submission.
One of your writer friends, who's been at it less time than you have, telephones to share news of her latest contract / publication date / agent's gala barbecue, on the same day you get a book proposal rejected.
- That writing competition you sweated blood over ended up being won by a debut writer, barely out of his teens, who put his success down to the year he spent in South America funded by his publishing world parents.
- The 5000 Twitter followers you cultivated so diligently has translated into three copies of your book sold (and one of them was your auntie, who you're certain will never read it). Meanwhile, another unknown author, in the same genre, used exactly the same approach to sell 100s of books in only three months.
-    The blog interview you were so thrilled to get has somehow mis-spelt your name.
- Your book proposal has been accepted by a publisher, sort of. It's just that they're looking at 2016 and can't really confirm until next year whether it will really be viable.

Sometimes it can seem as though the black chicken of doom has made a nest out of your manuscript. We know that luck is an important factor in a writer's success and 'bad luck' can be a contributing factor when progress seems to be as elusive as a five leaf clover.

The essential thing to understand about luck - and this doesn't in any day diminish its impact or importance - is that it is unfathomable. Unless you subscribe to cosmic ordering, intercession or the application of sympathetic magic, you'd best get used to random outcomes - entirely outside your control or influence - in the mix.

Of course, it's human nature to focus on what is desired or what's missing, rather than the good fortune that has, black cat-like, already crossed your path.

Chances are that you've written - or are writing - a book of some kind. If so, congratulations! What good fortune to have had sufficient education, inspiration, time and opportunity to write something. I'm going to assume you're not currently starving, being tortured (artistic angst and writer's block doesn't count), imprisoned because of your beliefs / politics, or forbidden from expressing your ideas on paper / online. Lucky you, huh?!

You also have the marvellous luck to be alive at a time when technology is both available and affordable (and often free), enabling you to self-publish your work, connect and interact with thousands of potential readers. That some technological good fortune also allows you to identify agents and publishers - many of whom welcome material submitted electronically. Imagine the advantages that gives you over writers past.

I can't promise you that 'your time will come' or even that 'talent will out'. Sometimes it's just luck of the draw - who opens your material on what day, what mood they're in, what they're looking for and how much time they have. If you've visited this blog before (in which case, I wish you all the luck in the world!), you'll know that all I can promise you is this: It all stops when you stop writing.

In the meantime, do count your blessings while you seek your writing fortune and be lucky.

Now, just for fun, and by way of balance for the bad luck stories above (which are all artistic licence versions of my own experience), here are a few of my good luck stories.

-    The two book covers given to me, by Annemarie Skjold of Whyte Tracks and James of www.GoOnWrite.com
-    The magazine editor who, while rejecting my original pitch, got back to me with a different proposal for a monthly magazine column. This month will mark the acceptance of my 25th monthly column.  
-    Every non-fiction editor and website owner who has accepted and published my initial pitch, including this one over at Bubble Cow.
-    Musa Publishing, for turning two of my short tales into fully realised ebooks.

* The phrase 'just my luck' had been in my head for a day or so before drafting this post, and then I read about the death of the wonderful writer, Sue Townsend. We could debate into the wee, small hours whether we actually make our own luck. As writers, if we stick with it, we make our own stories.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Picture This



Every time I get a new notebook, at some point as I gradually fill the pages, I draw an updated version of the same diagram. It's usually titled 'My Writing Universe' or something equally modest. Basically, it consists of an overview of everything I'm writing, have written, or really ought to be getting on with. 

It covers genres and categories of writing (novels, short fiction, articles and features, comedy material, etc.) and the relationships between them. Think: lots of rough circles, lists and dotted lines. It helps me keep track and shows me where there are gaps and patterns. It's also a confessional for all those pieces I've yet to complete (or start, in some cases), sometimes added to the canon in pencil. 2B or not 2B, as they say.

I can't say whether that picture is worth 50 score words, but an image or graphical representation can allow us to see things differently.

While working on Scars & Stripes, my latest completed novel, I needed to see the shape of the book and whether the comedy, drama and, well, tragedy had the right balance. I especially wanted to get a feel for the rhythm of the highs and lows, from chapter to chapter. One graphing session later and hey presto it's clear that my idea of comedy tends to be more 'oh dear' than 'ha ha'.



Another great visual tool, which I've used in the past, is Wordle. What better way to highlight those overused words that crop up like unexpected relatives? When I produced a Wordle for Scars & Stripes I was surprised at the result - see for yourself below.


As they say, seeing is believing.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

One, two, free.


Of all the words guaranteed to fire a writer up, few inspire as much passion, controversy and vitriol as the word free*. Many writers, starting out, are happy (or, at least, prepared) to allow their work to appear for gratis. There are some valid reasons for wanting to do it: gaining a publication byline, gaining a link / pdf for your portfolio, or gaining feedback, to name but three.

Critics argue that everyone deserves to be paid for their time and their labour, often bringing out the time-honoured plumber analogy.

I've been vocal in the past about the perils of writing for nothing, unscrupulous editors who exploit desperate writers and competitions where the rules insist that all entrants give up first rights to their submission, even if they don't make it to the final.

By way of balance, I should point out that I've written material for royalties that only existed in principle and never materialised in my bank account. I've also willingly written and edited for free because I wanted to help out or the cause / publication / website interested me.

The thing is, much as it pains me to say it, I've started to realise how much all writers rely on free stuff.

I use online news gathering services and websites to source topical material for gags and sketches. Similarly, Youtube and websites for lyrics enable me to create parody songs for performance. The web is also a brilliant research tool when I'm checking facts for articles and features (not just Wiki, honest!).

When I'm not listening to old radio progs on BBC iPlayer, I tend to go for either Beatles Radio or one of the Live365 stations.

Need some writing advice? There's a ton of it out there. I regularly read tips, links and content from Sophie Lizard, Jon Morrow, Gary Smailes, Mark Silver and others.

Looking for free information about paid writing gigs? Craigslist has been good to me.

Fancy a little distraction? How about a few games of pool on Miniclip?

And let's not forget a few of the essentials for jobbing writers - Skype, Dropbox, Webmail, Blogs and all those free apps.

Of course, as you'll have surmised, some services and information are given freely as an incentive to sign up for a more comprehensive version. I think that's fair enough. It's the closest you'll get to a free lunch.

So, free or not free - what's the verdict?

Everything may be black and white on the page, but trust me, off the page, it's a lot more colourful.


* Okay, maybe plagiarism - I'll give you that.