Monthly Archives: January 2015

Leaving the Stable

It was never going to be part of my writing journey that I send my manuscript direct to a publisher (the few who will actually take unsolicited manuscripts of novels these days) and they offer me an advance and gush about how much they need to publish my wonderful novel.

No, that’s not quite how my life story has ever gone, or indeed probably not how the vast majority of dreams are achieved. And I never really expected it to be, though one can always hope of course!

So, now for two months I, and some of you, have been waiting to hear on a decision from the marketing and production people at the publishing house who read my manuscript.

If you recall, there were some positive things said, (you can read for yourself here) though there were weaknesses, they were confident a good editor could iron those out.

Then yesterday, finally I had this email. It was a mixed bag, as you’ll see:

Dear Joanne
 
I have now received responses from my colleagues in marketing and production. Marketing have expressed some concerns as to you, the author, being unknown and untried. It is always difficult to market such a book and its author to the reading public as compared to someone who is known and in the public domain. However they do believe that the theme of your book is saleable. They also suggest that a paperback edition would perhaps be more marketable than a hardback edition.
 
On the other hand our production department are suggesting that if well proofread and edited that this book would have potential.
 [I have had preliminary discussions with our publishing executives who are reluctant to take this book on with our full financial commitment. They have suggested that if some of the costs can be shared with the author they would be prepared to give it a shot and bring it into our stable.]
 
I did not want to prepare contracts before I had written to you to explain our thinking. If you are agreeable to this suggestion I will arrange for a contract to be prepared. I will endeavour to keep working with you to support your work, but my hands are tied. I do feel that your book is quite unique.
 
Please let me know your decision.
I can’t even begin to comment on the “bring it into our stable” line, so I won’t!
Anyway, though there are some positives, (theme of the book is saleable, has potential, your book is quite unique…)  my gut reaction upon reading the email was a deflation rather than elation and one which screamed ‘no, this will not be the path to take.’ Although it is their own personal company practice to have a mix of authors they pay an advance to and others who share costs which I knew this from the outset, it is not even so much the idea of paying out money which bothers me. (Though subsequently discovering this would be in the region of £1800-£2000 has of course put a lid on the whole thing anyway.)
No, my reasons for not wanting to go ahead are as follows:
1) I want a publisher to be wholeheartedly behind my book. I want them to have a least some of the passion I have for it, otherwise who’s championing it? I do realise this is an industry, a business like any other and their primary aim is to make money, I am not naive, but I can’t help but wonder how much effort they are going to put into marketing something they only half believe in and haven’t invested much money in. My answer is they probably won’t.
2) I want the best look for this book. I have visions for it and yes, I might be a snob wanting it in hardback, but that is what I want. If I ever do end up self publishing, this will be one of the options. When they say paperback is more saleable, they mean it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper to make, it’s cheaper to the consumer and it’s less risky if they don’t sell. However, I believe this book deserves more and the children who finally get to read it, deserve more.
3) A publisher’s job surely entails some form of risk? It irks me that new authors are not given much consideration, simply because they are unknown. (No wonder the indie publishing business has taken off.)  The line on “being unknown and not in the public domain” grates on me a lot in this email After all what are we selling? A book or a person? Seemingly not a book any more. I find this sad because I don’t think children are bothered about who writes the book. Children want a good story. It’s tough writing for children in a business where all the decisions are actually made by adults. The only reason I myself decided not to go down the self publishing route is because I envisage the book to have a certain stylistic look and feel, which I could not achieve as an indie publisher. Particularly not in relation to the art work. There needs to be maps and family trees. Not necessarily illustrations but certainly a bespoke front cover.
4) Bearing all that in mind, if this publisher is wanting me to invest £2000, then I may as well hire an artist and editor and self publish. The fact is though, I don’t have that kind of money. Writer’s generally aren’t rich folk. (You’d think they would have realised this from the covering bio letter I had sent them: Part time teacher should give a clue to how much money I don’t have!)
So there it is. I will now go to plan B. I have exhausted the list of publishers for children’s fiction who accept unsolicited manuscripts. Now it’s time to bombard agents. (Lucky people!) Thankfully I am already armed with my Writers and Artists’ Handbook complete with pink post-it notes already earmarked on likely targets candidates. 😉
However, first I will work further on the manuscript, as it is evident from comments received that I need to do this. Of course doing so, will take me away from completing the draft of Book 2, as soon as I liked (now 54,000 words in). However, this is what needs to be done.
So, as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” “Good things come to those who wait” etc, etc….
The journey…now in it’s fourth year, continues. Thanks for keeping on with me, through the highs, lows and plateaus! 🙂
(Also, if you’ve read this and wondered why there are no spaces between paragraphs and points after the copied email section, please ask WordPress as I can’t fathom what’s happened!)
 
 

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Reflections of a Fantasist (Part 1)

I’ve just finished reading this book:

2015-01-17 19.34.06

 

Reflections by the (predominantly) children’s fantasy author, Diana Wynne Jones.

Reflections is a collection of… well, her reflections on writing and, in particular, writing fantasy fiction and writing it for children.

The book was a wonderful surprise gift from a Twitter friend from across the pond who chose perfectly. Thank you again, Siofra Alexander! 🙂

Now before you groan and shut down the blog thinking ‘this is going to be a book review’, please allow me to assure you it is not.

I wanted to blog about this book because, having read it, it has become a great big missing part of the jigsaw puzzle of this journey I’ve embarked on of writing a children’s fantasy novel.

Reading this book made me fall in love with Jones and then despise her all within the turn of a page! Reading this book made me fall in love with my writing, gave me inspiration and hope and then, in the next breath, snatched it away, making me doubt virtually everything I’ve put down in the last 132,000 words. Quite a powerful book, wouldn’t you say?

Now, I have never, much to my chagrin, read any of  Jones’ novels. I  will confess I am not widely read in general compared to most people I know who enjoy reading, not by any stretch of the imagination. Reading Reflections made me realise just how little I have actually ever read. In terms of ‘pure’ children’s fantasy I’ve read the most obvious as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia (and then only three of them as I got bored half way through Prince Caspian. ) The Harry Potter series and of course The Lord of the Rings. Oh, and I used to read those Choose Your Own Adventure books which were around in the 1980s. Other than that, my fantasy reading is pretty much limited to the above. Shocking considering what I am writing now. I did, however, gorge on fairy tales as a child. I owned a large number of Ladybird books which I cherished and read over and over and over, delighting in the beautiful illustrations. Cinderella, Chicken Licken, Snow White… the list goes on. How I loved those books! I also was the lucky recipent (I bought it with some birthday money one year if I remember correctly) a huge volume of The Brothers’ Grimm Fairy Tales which I also loved to pieces. It was a brick of a book and I have no idea  what happened to it. However, five years ago I was staying in a B&B in Loch Lomond and in the guest lounge was an exact same copy of the volume I had. It was like coming home. I sat and read as many as I could that evening. I wish I’d asked the owner now if I could have bought it from her. But oh, well never mind. I think that demonstrates the power and magic of the early reading of fantasy stories before I even get much into this post.  Anyway, I intend to read some of  Jones’ books as, I feel as though I ought, given she’s a bit of an authority on the subject.

So the main reason for this post is because I wanted to highlight some of the points Jones made in relation to writing Fantasy and how that relates to what I’ve written so far. Also to comment on what she has to say about writing for children specifically and how that relates not only to writing but also to teaching children. There were many places in the book I was shouting “YES! YES! This woman talks sense; she knows children; she knows writing! I love her!” At other points I found myself shaking my head at the condescending attitude she appeared to have towards teachers and actually towards other writers of Fantasy. (More on this in another post.) She came across as quite narrow minded in some respects. She also came across as extremely intelligent and well read, but narrow minded in some instances, nevertheless.

Anyway, I’m going to break this post into a few posts as I have quite a lot of thoughts and reflections of my own, so here goes with Part 1:

On Children, and the Value of Fantasy

In the first essay in Reflections, ‘The Children in the Wood,’ Jones writes about overlooking the woods near her home and watching the local children play there. She says they always played some version of ‘Let’s Pretend’, i.e the children were being knights or princesses, or soldiers or what have you. She says she noted how often they played that type of game: “it seems to be something they need to do. You can see they need to because they are all so happy.”   She writes about how these games always involves the children splitting off into groups to be the ones dying or killing or just ambling though the action, taking little notice. (though she acknowledges that children play Let’s Pretend games on their own in their heads all the time too.) She notes how, when engaged in this type of play, there are no quarrels. “quarrels happen when….the children are trying to play a game like hide and seek or building a tree house, which does not involve make-believe.” She surmises that they need Let’s Pretend to make them combine together as a group.

Now, as a primary school teacher who has stood on countless playgrounds over the last seventeen plus years and watched children, I can absolutely vouch for this. The times I have had to settle disputes are when the games with rules are played. Like football. Oh, football! How I despair. But never have I had to speak to a child (other than to say ‘get up off the wet floor or else your mother will be cross with you having dirty trousers‘ [it’s always boys rolling around on the damp tarmac, never girls I’ve found!]) when they have been “killed” by another whilst they are involved in ‘make believe’ games.

So what does this mean? Why do children need to play these games and why don’t they fall out over them like in other, more structured, games?

Well, I believe, as does Jones, that fantasy and make believe is the one way children learn to understand the confusion of the world around them. So many adults worry that children cannot separate reality from fantasy. Many adults belittle or make fun of their children for indulging in make believe games beyond a certain age. Many adults are keen for their children to grow up and get a grip on the real world and real life far too soon. Some even actively discourage reading or watching of Fantasy saying it will confuse their minds as to what is real and what is not. Well what a load of hogwash that is.

This idea that Fantasy feeds into reality and becomes a blurred boundary becomes evident these days in the headlines where the effect of computer games and violent films is discussed widely. “Oh that boy/girl committed those awful crimes because they couldn’t separate fantasy from reality.” True, they couldn’t. However, I would suggest, strongly argue, that this may be because these children can’t separate the two simply because they didn’t partake in make believe or Let’s Pretend games at an early age. Their first dalliance with fantasy most likely was to be dumped in front of a computer or TV screen, in front of age inappropriate material, with no adult interaction or explanation to guide them through the confusion. To tell them those graphics in Grand Theft Auto are not real.

However, to have read fairy stories from a young age, with an adult, a child knows it is a story. They know it is make believe. They know that it is safe. Then they are able to go and act it all out in play and explore the ideas safely with their peers. That is why I believe they need it and partake in Let’s Pretend play: to test the world out, to unravel its rules and confusions. As for the argument that this sort of indulgence in Fantasy will lead to a muddle of what is real and what is not, I say this: Do all young children who swish a wooden or plastic sword around as a knight, or aim a plastic blaster gun at a friend in play, go on to kill and maim all across the land? I don’t think so. I haven’t. Jones makes the point more eloquently than I ever could about this aspect to the value of fantasy reading:

“Your story [as a writer] can be violent, serious and funny, all at once….Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children playing in the wood are doing. You make it clear it is make believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone.”

Later on in Reflections, Jones goes on to talk about the influx of ‘Real Books’ for children which flooded the market on the back of new trends in children’s literature. ‘Real Books’ being those where the protagonist (a child of target age group) is real, lives in the real world and has had some social problem to deal with, for example, the divorce of parents, racism or bullying at school. In these ‘Real Books’ she says the rules stated: “you wrote about this Problem in stark, distressing terms. Then – this is the rule – you gave it to the child with that problem to read. The child was supposed to delight in the insight.”

Put like that it does seem ludicrous anyone would want to publish books for children which are like that. “Here you go. This is your distressing problem and here’s a fictional tale about it to tell you how to deal with it.” Quite preposterous really, when you think about it. What fairy tales and Fantasy fiction do is allow children to explore all these confusions of the world at a distance. Through a character or characters who are not them. They begin to understand the world as it is, a multifaceted place where there is good and there is evil and they then try to work out how to deal with that. In fact, isn’t this what we as adults do when reading fiction, really, truly, honestly? We often say we read to ‘escape’, but I often find I  solve problems from reading fiction. Not necessarily consciously, but I  truly don’t think we are looking to escape by reading, I think we are always searching for answers, trying to learn more about ourselves and the confusing mess of the world. Otherwise why would novels have common themes running through them?

Now, the sad fact is, many, mainly adults it must be said, still sneer at Fantasy as a genre and at writers who choose to write Fantasy novels, as though it is somehow a lesser craft than writing about “real” things.

To that I have to say: but we all start with Fantasy really, don’t we? The first stories we are introduced to are traditional fairy or folk tales, even if we don’t stick with them. Fantasy, as I’ve said above, which allows us to see that the world does indeed have bad present in it. (In stories bad is disguised as wolves or foxes, or witches or giants or similar.)  These portrayed ‘bad’ characters  which children know, or learn fairly quickly, don’t exist or are not actually ‘evil’. However, they learn that those evils are overcome and that the hero, whether that be prince, princess, wizard, ie, the children themselves (as that is who they identify with) are good and they are able overcome those bad things. Children don’t need the real version of anything they might be going through given to them in a story to work it through. Fantasy stories allow children to do just that at a distance as I’ve already said.

Furthermore (and I don’t know if any research has ever been done on this) but I’d reiterate my argument from before and say that perhaps it is the children who are devoid of Fantasy stories and Fairy Tales or this Let’s Pretend and make believe play using the innocent characters an early age, who may be the ones more likely to drift down into the darker alleyways of life. They may become the ones who cannot work through traumatic childhood issues such as parents divorcing if they arise, and they are more likely (to my mind at least) become the ones unable to separate fact and fiction and work out those confusions in much darker, sinister ways. Who knows? It’s just a theory. Perhaps there are studies. Perhaps I shall conduct one of my own.

However, for my part I know it was the stories I could escape into, the ones so far removed from my own childhood which are the ones which have stayed with me. The ones whereby I learned to imagine and play and pretend.  The ones where I learned most about the world and how to cope with it. Those are the same stories which have allowed me to write.

And if I have one wish as a teacher and as a parent it would be that all parents and teachers see the value in promoting Fantasy stories for children at an early age. I believe they hold more value and worth than many people realise. It’s why Jones says she wrote Fantasy for children, she utterly believed in its power. I know I write it for similar reasons. I understood the power and pleasure it gave me as a child. I understand the power and the pleasure it still gives children now.

In Part 2 I’ll look at the rules for writing Fantasy and writing for children and how many I’ve broken or not broken!

Thanks, as ever, for reading and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below.

 

*disclaimer: The  ‘Fantasist’ in the post’s title is in reference to me, not of Diana Wynne Jones. Just to clarify! 🙂

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The Long and the Short of It.

As you will know, if you are a regular visitor to the blog, I spent a fair part of 2014 writing short stories and pieces of flash fiction which included a high rate of participation in the Twitter flash writing game, Friday Phrases (FP). You can even find some of the short stories here and here if you so wish to torture yourself with a variety of pieces of fiction  which I don’t hold in particularly high regard.

Now, at the time, I enjoyed writing in this form. I guess, as I was pretty depressed for the first half of last year, writing flash fiction and shorts gave me an opportunity to carry on writing when I didn’t much feel like it. Also I needed feedback as to how my writing was developing and it felt the quickest way to achieve that.

You see, for me writing a short story is a little like the practice for the big event, the novel. Now I say ‘for me’ with good reason as I know this is not the case for a huge number of writers. Many I know in fact only write short stories or novellas and like it and are very good at it. It’s their thing.  However, it is not my thing I have discovered. This is because, when I write a short it’s usually from a ghost of an idea that flits about my mind (which does not happen nearly as frequently as perhaps it should) and then I just write it. I don’t outline, I don’t plan characters, I don’t  worry about it or have sleepless nights about it. I draft it, then I edit it and it’s done. It can feel like an accomplishment of sorts when I’ve not worked properly on my novel, but it does not satisfy me fully. Possibly because I do see them as an exercise in writing rather than something I’d aim to have published.

Now, the trouble was last year I became a little distracted by writing these short stories and flash fiction, as well as this blog and  all of those things combined only served to take me away from what I actually love working on which is my novel(s).

I have a theory as to why I became distracted. The main one being that I don’t consider to myself to be a true writer in the pure sense of the word. Simply I don’t feel a deep seated need to bleed ideas onto the page lest I die, as other writers speak of. Unless I am in a state of heart break. Which I very much was until I bled all that out in this blog post. Seems writing really does have the power to heal.

No,  the only thing I feel a need to tell is the story in my novel, and in truth, it’s the only story I have to tell. Really. All those other ideas which found their way here last year could have quite happily remained in the recesses of my mind and no one would have suffered the worst for it. Me least of all.

So whilst I was writing shorts, and blog posts, and participating in FP, my novel sat without moving off the 18,000 word count it’d been on for months and months. This bothered me of course but I justified it and comforted myself with the idea that at least I was writing. Something, anything. No matter what came out. Oh dear.

Then, without my conscious knowledge my participation  in FP began to dribble off in the final quarter of the year until, in December, it became none existent. I pondered on why this was the other day and realised it is mainly because I have no ideas.  They’ve dried up and this I put down to my not being utterly depressed and heartbroken. In February, March, April time when I was perhaps at my lowest I look through my notebook and there were perhaps six or seven Flash Fiction FPs a week. It seems, as I’ve alluded to before in another post, I need heartbreak for my emotions to really surface so that I can have the ideas to then develop further maybe when I’m not so down. My emotions are heightened and so apparently is my creativity.  (An ongoing debate which many have written about before.) This in turn meant my well for short story ideas dried up, and in all honesty I lost interest in writing shorts altogether. I have two sitting half finished in draft form, but I doubt I’ll be finishing them in a hurry.

Anyway,  with news from the publisher in mid November that they were interested in my novel and passing it onto marketing and production to make a decision, I figured I desperately needed to get back to the second book which leads on from Book One. The word count now stands at just over 53,000 which has grown from those 18,000 in early November and which had been sat at 18,000 for a good nine months previously. Not my most productive writing phase.

Getting back to the novel, really getting back into it, has made me realise this much: I much prefer writing a novel to short stories. The process that is. Despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, much harder. It is for me at least so much more enjoyable.

This then got me thinking about different writers and how they view the long and short form.

I know many people in the writing world who very much enjoy writing short stories, even prefer it to novel writing. They submit continuously to websites and magazines for publications and are sometimes successful  at being published, at other times they are not. Nevertheless, they write and write and write and seem to do little else with their spare time from their day job.

They seem to be able to write story after story after story, having so many ideas flowing from them they don’t know what to write next.

I don’t. I just don’t have that many ideas floating around in my brain. I did back in February/March/April time but generally I don’t.  Hence why I can never really consider myself a proper writer. What I do is a hobby as I have too many other things I love to do in my spare time too. My novel is, nevertheless, a hobby I hope one day to have published and be able to share with the children of the world. I have other writers being kind enough to recommend places to submit short stories and poems to or competitions to enter, but truth is, I have no real interest in this. Maybe that’s cutting my nose off to spite my face.  All these other writers who write and submit, write and submit will one day get their break. The law of probability is on their side. I’m not making it easy for myself by not doing those things too, this I know. However, I wouldn’t submit my shorts as I know they are simply not good enough. Also, maybe I just like the thought of a long hard slog on one project which I can eventually feel proud of. I’ve never felt especially proud of my short stories, (probably because they are not that great, or original) but I feel very proud of the 130,000 odd words I’ve written so far over the two novels.

On the up side though, writing shorts has helped me develop such technical skills as: showing not telling or playing around with viewpoint and structure. For me this feeds directly into my novel -the big project, the one I am passionate about. I don’t have that same passion for writing short stories. Maybe, if I’m really honest, my passion is not even for writing itself ; it is for the process of creating. I’ve created a whole world with characters and a plot and a history and timelines and maps and family trees. Writing is just the form this has taken. If I was any good at art it could have been a mural or a comic strip. I don’t know. But to perfect that form I’ve had to pay attention to the technical stuff and writing shorts and flash has indeed helped me to focus on the actual art of writing.

To my mind, and perhaps this may be controversial in writerly circles, (as I generally have no clue what I’m talking about having never attended a writer’s club, forum, support group or workshop) the process of writing a short compared to writing a novel is completely different.

When writing a novel, for example, there is more opportunity to develop characters, get to know them, play around with them, shake them up when need be. In a novel the characters drive the story, where for me in short stories it seems the plot drives the characters.  (Maybe because I’m doing it all wrong!) The characters in short stories don’t seem to do unexpected things because there is a ‘punchline’ to reach and it needs to be reached in a specific word count.

Writing a novel also means weaving multiple different threads together. So much so it can feel almost like solving a murder mystery and really gets the brain thinking. It can make it ache too, but in a good way. Weaving multiple narrative and making them meet is  a form of problem solving and it feels great when it all comes together. (Especially if you’re a bit of a pantser like me!) This feeling of accomplishment is something I have never found I gain with writing in the short form. As I say, with a short the ending presents itself like a flash of inspiration and then you run with it until you reach it. The biggest problem solving you have when writing a short story or Flash Fiction is to convey what you want to say in as few words as possible. We all know I’m verbose to the extreme, so perhaps this is why I prefer novel writing!

Now, on a personal level I do actually like reading short stories very much. I loved all Roald Dahl’s Tales of The Unexpected and other short stories when I was a teenager. He, to me, is a master in the art of short story telling, and the novella “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” is one of my all time favourites. However, as a writer, they simply do not give me the same pleasure (and perhaps the same pain!) that writing a novel does.

Those light-bulb, Eureka! moments in the shower when you work out, almost subconsciously, how to fix that plot hole that’s been bugging you for months or maybe that you didn’t even know was there until a couple of characters started a conversation in your head whilst you were washing up! That is a complete thrill and once you get it written down, utterly satisfying.

Writing a novel is a marathon over the sprint of a short. It’s harder, certainly; it’s more gruelling, but the feeling when you finish it is far more exhilarating.

These are just my thoughts of course.

What do you writers think? Do you prefer the marathon or the sprint? Which process do you enjoy more?

What do you readers think? Do you prefer to read short stories, what with the busy lives we now all seem to lead, or do you prefer something you can get your teeth into?

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts in the comments box below. 🙂

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

 

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