Saturday, 28 June 2014

In search of a perfect formula or Cu2CO3(OH)2

Not quite Cu2CO3(OH)2, but wondrous, nonetheless.
We are drowning in a sea of information, except that we're not necessarily becoming any more informed. More opinionated, possibly, but that's not quite the same thing.

Wanna be a writer?

Sure you do, and now it's easy. You don't need to live, to challenge yourself, overcome difficulties and express your inner truth; no, you just need to follow the steps, connect the dots and, most importantly of all, trust in the formula. 

Because there's always a system, right? 

Erm...

Alongside opposable thumbs, superior intellect (superior emotional intelligence pending...) and an ability to make and use tools, surely one of our greatest gifts is the ability to make and recognise patterns. We are adept at observing and recording, and then making deductions to allow us to make sense of whatever we're presented with.

When it comes to writing, which - frankly - can be a difficult thing to do - the notion of a surefire pattern or formula can seem oh so tempting. Here's the thing though: most of those patterns have worked for one or two individuals. When they say 'it did it for me' they're not kidding. But they're not you.

I'll wager few of us have deliberately tried to live a life like Ted Hughes, or Jack London, or J K Rowling, but somehow all the elements of their lives - skills, experiences and opportunities - coalesced together wonderfully and the results are literary legend. 

And yet...

There are courses aplenty that not only show you techniques to free up your own creativity, they also give you the formula. Ah, that tingly formula - making us wonder why we ever tried to take the long way around. Forget "Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, lizard's leg and howlet's wing," the formula for writing is, ironically, a lot less formulaic.

- You need a proper education, or an intuitive grasp of language.
- You need to apply the standard rules of grammar, or to apply your own (James Joyce and Eimear McBride).
- You need to have contacts, or you need to be lucky.
- You need a social media presence, or no one ever sold novels through social media.
- You need a strategy, or you need to learn as you go.
- You need an agent / publisher, or you need to go it alone.

Chamomile tea is available at the end of this post.

I'm not saying that there aren't many useful things to be learned from courses. For examples, a novel writing summer school I attended at University College Falmouth (and if you want to know why it's written in that order, look at the initials - I was genuinely told that) radically changed how I write and gave me new insights about plotting, POV and characterisation.

What I am saying is that you need to find the formula for you. The fact that there are no guarantees and no absolutes is not a tragedy. Sure, it can feel that way when you think you've tried everything and nothing has worked. But that just isn't so. No formula, no fate and no destiny is not a tragedy, it's a liberation.

(And yes, you might say that thinking that way is fated anyway, but how would we ever know that one way or the other. Unless we're fated to, I mean.)

Science relies on formulae, which, by definition, produce the same results when the same elements - in the same combination - are combined in an identical set of circumstances. And that's the point. No two people, no two book and no two sets of circumstances are identical.

Writing, like life, involves risks, chances, connections, timing, opportunities, inspiration, influences, money, talent, perseverance and not a little luck. Who knows? Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be.

Whatever your system (cosmic ordering, how to write a perfect novel pts 1 to 24, the 'you can sell a ton of books like I did' course, or my parents own a publishing house and distribution network, etc.) please don't let any of it distract you from the only system that does work.
- Select from any of 26 letters.
- Add appropriate punctuation (and only you know what's appropriate for you).
- Write with passion, style, talent and authenticity, or none of those things.
- Get to The End.
- Edit.
- Now you have yourself a book.
- Figure out what to do next.

And why Cu2CO3(OH)2 in the title? Well, if you haven't looked it up yet - and I seriously doubt that - it's the chemical formula for Malachite. When I was first introduced to geology as a child, and later, when I used to make jewellery from semi-precious stones, I thought Malachite was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. Still do, actually.

The picture above holds its own story. Anything super green tends to catch my eye - broccoli, the Faery tradition, emeralds, algae covered rocks - all those and more. So when we were walking on the beach and I saw them, how could I resist? No matter that the rocks were unstable and only an idiot doesn't have two hands out to steady themselves, right? That picture is the last one the camera ever took. Shortly afterwards it - and my elbow - had a close encounter with a couple of boulders. Memory cards are surprisingly robust these days, don't you think? It must be something to do with the manufacturer's formula...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Seven Useful Tools

Sometimes it seems as though the writing life is just so damned complicated. You can't help wondering how the likes of Hemingway or Jack London managed with just a writing pad, a typewriter, and a bottle of liquor for company. But manage they did; they and countless others who did not have the blessings - and the tribulations - of technology to get them to The End.

Are you overwhelmed by choices and possibility?

Do you ever feel that sometimes this writer's life is missing something? I think I can help. I know just what's missing.

It's you.

Unless your writing has your undivided attention, mentally and emotionally, you're doing it - and your readers - a dis-service.

Fret ye not. Here are seven everyday tools to help you free up the writer within.

1. An Alarm clock. (What? You were expecting a high value development system?) This state-of-the-art time measuring tool will enable you to get up earlier, keep track of your time - in real time, and give you a reminder when your writing time starts and ends.

2. Spreadsheets. Yes, I know, it doesn't sound very creative but bear with me. Spreadsheets can help you track your submissions (so you're not waiting a year like I did...), keep running totals of chapter and story word counts, and - when the money starts rolling in - use formulae to work out profit, loss, tax and expenses. All you have to do is set the spreadsheet up properly (see Youtube!) and remember to input the data.

3. The trusty notepad and pen. Sure, it seems obvious. But how many times have you had a brilliant idea and by the time you commit it to paper your precious treasure has become a tarnished knick-knack? That notepad should go everywhere with you except in the shower. You can use a permanent marker for that and clean it off somehow later.

4. An answering machine. If you're writing, bar a genuine crisis (that's bigger than your protagonist's crisis), you are not available. You can leave a message to that effect if it makes you feel any better. Think of it as a time stealer training device. The more seriously you take your writing, the more seriously other people will too.

5. The remote control. I like Judge Judy as much as the next writer, and some fly-on-the-wall documentaries are truly compelling, but what about the dramas in your own head waiting for an audience? Turn off, or turn off and record, and prioritise your activities in line with your intentions.

6. A writing system that cannot go online. This could be an A4 writing pad; or an old laptop; or an old laptop, a router and some self control. You can make a note of anything you need to research and tackle it later to avoid interrupting the flow.

7. An open window. This will provide you with fresh air, cunning designed by Nature to help keep you awake. It will also provide background noise, and occasionally speech, to ground you in reality (now and again) and help to inspire you.

Just to show I take my own advice, I am switching off the TV for July. I will record anything I feel is worth waiting a month for, and any actual downtime can be used to watch the 30 hours of recorded material (mostly films) that I've never found time for in the last two years. I'll let you know how I get on!









Thursday, 5 June 2014

What Rejection Can Teach Us

"I'm afraid it's going to have to be a 'no' from me."

David French and I once wrote that rejection was just life's way of telling you you're unworthy. Despite that note of hilarity, it may seem as though there's nothing to be gained from a rejection other than an increased desire for chocolate. However, some rejections can be very useful indeed, once you know how to interpret them.

By way of illustration, here are three recent nil points from my own table along with some thoughts.

1. Sample material from one of my novels to a literary agent.

"While we enjoyed reading your submission, which stood out from the many we receive, we couldn't find an agent here who felt strongly enough to take it further and therefore we are afraid we are not able to offer you representation for this project."

I'll start by saying that I always take rejections on trust. It saves time. I don't assume they're just being kind, or that they'd love to discuss it with me further at great length and preferably in person over coffee. It just is what it is - all they need me to know is in the words.

The highlights, as I see it
-    They enjoyed reading it.
-    It stood out from the many.
-    They couldn't find an agent who felt strongly enough about it.

For me, the key question then is why didn't an agent feel strongly enough about it?

The following thoughts arose
-    Did I target the right agent and / or the right agency?
-    Does my book have enough commercial potential?
-    What changes could I make  - and would I be willing to make - before the next submission?

An afterthought
These days there is little value in writing back to agents. They're snowed under and, realistically, they'll probably refer you to The Writers' & Artists' Handbook, or The Writers' Handbook, or even one of their own courses.

Okay, next please. 


2. This time it was a short story submission to a prestigious magazine.

:This piece was poetic and provocative, for some reason it reminded me of Keats with its longing. I really think it would work better as a poem than a story, because the event described is so isolated and framed in beauty. Were taking a pass on this in its current fiction form, but please do feel free to rework it/resend it or dazzle us with your other stories when we re-open."

The highlights, as I see it
-    They clearly read it carefully and understood the effect I was going for.
-    I achieved that effect to some extent.
-    They're clear about what they'd like to see in order to consider it afresh.
-    I know that such poetry is not within my repertoire.

The following thought arose
- Maybe a new piece in a different genre might interest them. 

An afterthought
I sent one in and I hope to hear back in a couple of months.


3. This final rejection is from the People Per Hour freelancing site.

"Offered to another bidder, price was not the factor. Thank you for your time."

The highlights, as I see it
-    My pricing for the job was appropriate.

The following thoughts arose
-    Was my pitch right for the client?
-    Was the client right for me?


In the end, the worst rejections - and indeed the only really useless ones - are those that tell us nothing new beyond 'no thanks'. In the end, it's a piece of information we can sometimes learn from and develop as a consequence.

Now, where's that chocolate?