Archive for the ‘writing techniques’ Tag
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
On the crime panel at Sci Fi Weekender, I found myself – quite literally – between two opposing views on plotting. At one end of the table was a writer who was evangelical about the importance of plotting. At the other end of the table was a writer who says she never plots and believes she would lose interest in writing about her characters if she knew what was going to happen to them next. I was sitting in the middle.
I was struck by how neatly this set up demonstrated opposing views on plotting. Some writers are plotters, some are ‘seat of pantsers’, but rarely have I seen two extremes demonstrated so neatly on the same panel. And it inspired me to come up with this post.
I am on the side of the plotters, I have to say. But it hasn’t always been that way, and it has been my own experience that has brought me to this way of thinking.
When I started writing SUFFER THE CHILDREN, it was based on a short story called “Kiddiwinks”. The story was basically about a group of children telling scary stories to each other about the witch that allegedly lives in the haunted house. They dare each other to go in and discover that it is, indeed, occupied by a sinister old woman. Who, they learn too late, eats children. The writing group encouraged me to turn this short story into a novel, and the premise behind SUFFER THE CHILDREN was born.
When I began the novel I knew the monster was to be a mythological creature, and that the main characters would have to defeat the creature. What I didn’t know at the time was how they were going to do that. I began the first draft, thinking that ideas would come to me as I went along. I ended up writing half the novel, and then got stuck. I went back to the beginning, and re-wrote the first half, but I was still stuck at the same point. My characters were floundering around saying that they had to defeat this evil creature, but they had no idea how to do it, and neither did I. I put the novel away, for a good five years – writing short stories in the mean time. I dreaded going back to it. I had no idea how I was going to write myself out of the hole I’d dug for myself.
But I wanted to finish the novel, and eventually I bit the bullet and realised I had to work out how it was going to end. So I went back to the beginning and wrote a three-page summary of the whole novel. From there I took that summary and broke it down into a chapter by chapter plan, from beginning to end.
At that point, I went back and started the novel over. And lo and behold I got to the end of the first draft.
I have used this technique for writing ever since. I write the plot summary first – usually it runs to three pages. I break that down into a chapter by chapter outline. Only then do I start writing the first draft.
Some people baulk at such a regimented plan, but this is now the only way I can write a novel. It means that every time I sit down for a writing session, I review what I wrote last time, and I look at my chapter plan and I know what’s going to happen next. Sometimes my chapter plan is quite brief – it might say, for instance, that in chapter 10 my amateur sleuth has to discover X about this character, which turns out to be a vital clue. But how she’s going to discover this piece of information I still have to think about when I sit down to write the chapter.
This doesn’t mean that things always go to plan. Writing the first draft of DEAD COOL I was surprised to discover about three quarters of the way through the first draft that the killer was not who I initially thought it was. But knowing the identity of the real killer suddenly made a lot of things in the plot that hadn’t been making sense click into place, and all I actually had to do to correct the second draft was to plant a couple of extra clues and rewrite a few scenes with different characters. And of course it did change the ending a bit.
If you’re a pantser and not a plotter, I am not disrespecting the way you work. Everyone has to find the system that works for them. But I will say, as a reader, I can tell when a book has not been plotted. Generally the book will start off with the characters heading in a certain direction, and suddenly they’ll lurch off and head in a completely different direction. Some people might say that they enjoy unexpected twists like this, but I tend to find them a bit off-putting. But this is just me. On the whole, I don’t like surprises.
Perhaps we can liken writing a novel to taking a journey. A plotter takes the GPS, and the map. They’ve studied the route beforehand, they know where they are going and how they are going to get there. There are no surprises. This is the way I work. Occasionally I might take a slightly different road than the GPS suggests, because instinct suggests there’s a better way, but only if I’m confident that I’m still going to end up in the same place.
A pantser, on the other hand, will get in the car and start driving. For them, it’s about the journey, not the destination. They will get lost, they will arrive very late, they might end up someplace completely unexpected, but they enjoy the journey and not knowing what’s around the next corner.
Plotting and pantsing is reflected in reading preferences, too. I much prefer to read books that are plot driven, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Readers who are more fond of character-driven books and ‘surprises’ are going to be more fond of writers who don’t plot. And I suspect such readers may not get on very well with my books – they might consider them too predictable.
This is one of those issues that always causes lively debate – there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s entirely down to personal preference. Whether you’re a reader, or a writer, where do you stand?
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
It’s been a while since I blogged in this series of posts, but I’d like to pick it up again.
In the last post (some time ago now so here’s a reminder) I talked about the importance of routine. Part of my writing routine is a couple of early-morning sessions in Starbucks with the NetBook, before I go to work. It seems to work for me.
The strange thing is, this is now so much a part of my routine that I actually get more done in that hour before work than I do when I have the day off and I endeavour to spend the day writing. On average, I get 1,000 words written in that hour. On a really good day, it might be 1,800.
But it has to be Starbucks. I am never quite as productive if I sit in some other coffee shop. I can’t really explain why. Part of it might be that I generally don’t like coffee, unless it’s Starbucks. And even then it has to be a single shot, with sweetener (or syrup) or I can’t drink it. Here in the UK, we have Continental coffee chains as well as American ones. Europeans generally like their coffee far stronger than Americans do. I can’t drink coffee from other coffee shop chains – I find it too strong and bitter. But Starbucks soya lattes, I like. I also like their muffins. My favourite ones were the ginger ones, which sadly are no longer available here. But I’ve recently developed a fondness for their new chocolate hazelnut muffins.
So I sit there at 7:30am with my NetBook, my soya latte and a muffin, and as I eat the muffin and wait for the NetBook to boot up, I start thinking about where my characters are and what comes next. By the time I finish eating, I’m generally ready to start. Maybe it’s the sugar rush from the muffin, combined with unaccustomed caffeine (I’m generally a tea drinker). Maybe the fatigue has something to do with it. Because I have to get out of bed at 5:30am for my writing mornings, I generally start them somewhat sleep-deprived. I have discovered that this seems to be fairly good for my creativity, particularly when I’m working on a first draft – because I’m writing before the ‘internal editor’ has woken up.
Or maybe it’s just that I’m a creature of habit. Because these early-morning writing sessions are now an integral part of my routine, when I sit down in Starbucks with my NetBook and my coffee, I expect to write, and I do.
Whatever the reason, it seems to be working for me. So I shall carry on crawling out of bed in what feels like the middle of the night in order to keep up my early morning Starbucks writing sessions. The word count is testament to their effectiveness.
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
I was quite interested to discover this summary on the Internet of Lee Child’s recent talk at ThrillerFest on ‘Tell, Don’t Show’ to do with debunking writing myths.
Now, I’m not about to start disagreeing with Lee Child. He’s a best-selling writer and I am not, so he’s obviously doing something right. But the advice he gives here contradicts everything I’ve been told in 30-plus years of writing, and I think it warrants further discussion. Namely, this advice of “telling” not “showing”.
Let’s take this point of describing the character. When you’re writing in third person, it’s easy enough to throw in a brief description: “Jane was a tall, willowy redhead.” I would have no problem with that, and I do like to have the main character described early in the novel – it helps me picture them in my mind. When you’re writing in first person, though, it becomes rather more difficult, without resorting to the old trick of the character catching sight of themselves in a mirror – and admittedly this has been somewhat overdone.
Lee Child maintains that there’s nothing wrong with just telling the story. To a certain degree, I can see his point. A writer who becomes preoccupied with technique can lose sight of the story. But to “tell” instead of “show” flies in the face of everything I have been told about writing, and I think to apply story “telling” instead of story “showing” generically is to tread a dangerous path. Say you’re writing a story about a character who finds a dead body, and gets scared. You could “tell” the story just in those terms, but it would be a far more interesting story to describe how the character gets scared. Describe the dead body. If it’s been there a week and is festering with flies and maggots, that’s going to provoke a very different reaction in your reader than just stating “there in the grass lay a corpse.” How does the character display fear? Does he scream and run away? Does he lose control of his bodily functions?
I wasn’t present at the talk, so it’s difficult for me to take it in context. However, I do think it’s good food for thought. What’s your take on this? Do you think Lee Child has a point, and sometimes “telling” is better than “showing”? Or would you disagree?
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
I’ve talked before about my dislike of exercise. I’m not one of those people who enthusiastically embraces her gym sessions because she enjoys the adrenaline buzz. I go because I feel it’s a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. I really don’t enjoy it, and I enjoy less the fact that I struggle to climb stairs for three days afterwards.
But because exercise is good for me, I endeavour to make time for it. And the only way it works for me is if I schedule it into my calendar. I have to set recurring appointments, so I get a reminder coming up on my calendar telling me about my commitment. Somehow this makes me more inclined to go. If I delete exercise sessions from my calendar, I feel guilty.
The same can be said about making time to write. This topic is much blogged about, both here and elsewhere. None of us have enough time to do everything we want to do, and when you’re trying to fit writing in around the day job, it does feel like you’re working two full time jobs.
I now schedule my writing time into my calendar the same way I schedule in my exercise classes. Monday evening is the ‘Million Monkeys’ initiative, where writers are invited to gather at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank, sit down with their laptops and start writing. It’s all very informal and very much a ‘drop-in session’, but I find that when I do go, I get quite a lot done. Maybe it’s the collective creative vibe. Maybe it’s the fact that when I am sitting amongst a group of others who are all furiously typing away, progressing on their WIPs, I feel more inclined to get on with mine. So I now schedule this event into my week as often as possible.
I also schedule two ‘writing mornings’. Generally Wednesdays and Fridays, I will get up at 5:30am and get the extra early train into London. This gets me to the Starbucks round the corner from work by 7:30am. I sit there with a soya latte and a ginger muffin, in my usual seat, and I will write for an hour before going to the office. My breakfast there rarely changes, and neither does where I sit. But this is all part of the routine. For me, the routine works. If I expect to be doing something at a particular time, on a particular day, I’m more likely to do it. And if someone’s in my usual seat at Starbucks and I have to sit somewhere else, I don’t get nearly as many words written.
I think for writers, routine works. But it’s equally important to find a routine that works for you. Don’t like getting up early? Neither do I, but strangely I’ve found that now I’m the wrong side of 40, getting up early to write is actually preferable to staying up late. You might be the sort of writer that finds you’re at your most productive at 2 in the morning. That’s fine, but if you’ve got a day job as well, that might be hard to manage unless you can cope without much sleep, or you can negotiate with your boss to start a bit later some days. Some people write during their lunch hour. I find the whole business of trying to eat my lunch and write at the same time a bit distracting, and I’m not a person that can go without lunch, so I don’t that myself. But if it works for you, then great.
Some people maintain that if you want to be a serious writer, you should write every day. Sound advice, if you can manage it, but I was only getting myself very stressed trying to fit in writing every day. My writing mornings are now recurring events in my calendar. In general, I will only delete them if I’m having a day off work and am not going into London, but if that’s the case then I will try and schedule another writing session later in the week – or I will endeavour to fit in some writing at home. If I manage to get extra writing time in then that’s a bonus, but at least I know that if I follow my usual routine, then I will have at least three writing sessions in a week.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the ‘best’ times for writing. You must make time, no doubt about that – a lot of people will talk airily about wanting to write a novel, but “never having the time”. You can talk about it, or you can do it. There might be a lot of trial and error before you find what works for you. But once you do find something that works, make it part of your routine.
Most writers I know are creatures of habit. So work on developing the habits that make you a better and more productive writer.
(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)
Listening to old-school writers – those whose first book was published forty years ago – I get the impression that the publishing industry is very different these days to what it was. In the old days, once you sold your book, all you had to do was write the next one. The publishing company took care of all the marketing, all the promotion, all the sales. The book jackets didn’t always have author pics, there was no Internet, and you could live a lifetime never knowing what your favourite author looked like.
Nowadays, things are different. Writers are expected to play a much more proactive part in promotion. A lot of the small independent publishers don’t have PR departments. Even if your publisher does have marketing people in-house, they are going to expect you to put yourself about. Signing sessions, panel appearances, public interviews. Whatever it takes.
I often think that this state of affairs is pretty ironic, given that the act of writing means shutting yourself away, alone, for months at a time, and subsequently writers are, by nature, generally introverts. But the world has changed. At the very least, a writer is expected to have a web presence. I have met one or two that don’t, but they tend to be the veteran brand of writer I mentioned earlier – those that had already established a name and and a readership well before the Internet revolution took hold.
For the rest of us, we need a website. And a blog. And a Twitter account. And a Facebook page. Whatever it takes to get our name Out There.
After all, the book being published is only the beginning. It has to sell. And how is it going to sell, unless people know about it? if the e-book revolution is making it easier to get your book published, it’s also contributing to a very crowded market place. There are literally millions of books out there. How can you make the casual Amazon browser land on yours and want to buy it?
And this is where it’s necessary to become a publicity tart. The Internet makes it easy to reach out to the world, and the more hits you have on the web, the more people will hear about your book.
So where should the aspiring publicity tart start? Get a website, if you haven’t got one already. If you’re completely ignorant of HTML code, like me, go with something like Weebly, which offers a user-friendly template with drag and drop features. Sign up, choose your template, decide which elements you want on your site, and off you go.
Start a blog. “But why would anyone want to read about my boring life?” I hear you say. It’s human nature to be interested in other people’s lives. That’s why reality shows do so well. Just because something is boring and mundane to you, doesn’t mean it’s boring to everyone. I find my daily commute into London crashingly dull. But those who don’t live in London are often interested in the little glimpses of London life that I experience on the train every day, and sometimes blog about.
Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Librarything are all sites that offer you a way of reaching out to lots of people, all of whom could be potential readers, if they like the sound of your book. If you haven’t got an Amazon author profile, set one of those up too. It costs nothing, and you can link all of your books to your account. So if your intrepid reader reads your latest book and enjoys it, she can visit your Amazon page to see what else you’ve written. And that gives her easy access to buying the rest.
Guest blogging is a very good way of promoting your own work whilst supporting other writers, too. If someone does a guest post on your blog, their fans will follow them to your blog. If you guest on someone else’s blog, their existing followers will read your post, and they might decide to check our your blog, too. Everyone wins.
I would recommend getting some decent photos done. Remember what I was saying earlier about going years without ever knowing what your favourite author looks like? Those days are over. You could spend a fortune going to a professional studio, and in some ways this could be money well spent, as these studios include hair and make up artists in the price and you know you’re going to look great in your pictures. But you don’t have to spend loads of money. I went to a friend who’s a semi-pro photographer. He charged me a reasonable fee, I did my own hair and make-up and went to his house with a couple of changes of clothing, and I came away with a good set of usable portrait shots. In fact, all of the images that I use online came from the same photo shoot. Once you have them done, you can use them over again, so every time you do an online interview and the interviewer asks for an author picture, you don’t have to fret about not having a decent pic to use.
All of this might sound very exhausting. It’s worth remembering that most social networking sites allow you to link to other social networking sites. So your post on Twitter will appear on Facebook, and on Amazon too. Your new blog post will appear on your Goodreads page and on your Facebook profile, and anywhere else you care to link it, too, so it reaches everyone at once without having to multiple post.
Does all this work actually make a difference? It’s hard to say. Getting yourself ‘Out There’ is a very long, very slow process. It’s now coming up to two years since the first novel was published, and I’m not exactly hitting the best-seller lists. Sales are decidedly modest, to say the least. But the average monthly sales for SUFFER THE CHILDREN in 2011 were roughly double what they were in 2010, so I think the hard work has made just a little bit of difference.
To check on my ‘publicity tart’ status, I periodically Google my name, just to see what comes up. There’s quite a lot out there, actually. Not just the blog and the website, but every guest post and online interview I’ve ever done is still out there in Cyberspace, and comes back as a hit whenever someone does a search on my name.
Like it or not, publicity is part of the game for authors these days. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace your inner tart and put her to work. If only one reader decided to buy your book because she happened upon whilst surfing the internet, all the effort is worth it.
(Cross-posted on WriteClub)
Seventeen years with the T Party means I’m accustomed to my work being eviscerated. As far as writing groups go, we pull no punches. When I workshopped DEATH SCENE, it got a fairly harsh review.
In most cases, however, I found I couldn’t disagree with the criticism. I tried to address these problems in later drafts; my editor came out with very similar comments during the editing process.
Understanding that my writing is far from perfect, then, I tend to take on board criticism and suggestions during the editing process and most of the time I change the manuscript accordingly. Hence, during the editing rounds on both books, my editor sent me suggested changes, I made them, and sent the manuscript back to her. I didn’t know it at the time, but this apparently is helping me build a reputation as a good writer to work with. It seems that not all writers take suggestions for change to their manuscript with as much cheerful acceptance as I. Some make a whole lot more fuss.
And this brings me onto the subject of this post: professional attitude. Now, if you’re a mega best-selling author, and your publishing company is making gazillions from your books, you can probably afford to be a diva who throws tantrums all over the place and people will still fall over themselves to work with you. For the rest of us, however, it pays to have a professional attitude. Editors and publishers are much more likely to want to work with you if you prove yourself to be easy to work with, willing to take on board the changes they want to make and return edits and all the paperwork in a timely manner.
Being a professional writer is about attitude. If you were an employer and you hired someone who never did what they were asked to do, who never turned up to work on time, and who whined on and on about not being in the right mindset to do what was asked of them, chances are they wouldn’t be your employee for very long.
Being a writer should be regarded in the same way. It’s a career. OK, it’s not one that pays the bills for many of us, but it’s a career all the same, and if you want people to take you seriously, you should treat it as a serious business
Maintaining the attitude is in itself is a full time job. You never know when you might run into someone socially who might be a potential punter for your book. They’re much more likely to buy it if they find you an agreeable person. This is why I carry my ‘writer’ business cards everywhere I go. Unlike the day job, which I can leave behind at five o’clock, I try to remember to weary my ‘author face’ whenever I’m out in public.
Being a writer is more than just creating the words. It’s about being the kind of writer publishers want to work with. About being a a writer with the right attitude. These factors all become important when you build your brand.
And that’s a topic for a future post…
I keep saying that life changed when the publishing contract arrived. And it wasn’t just in the obvious ways. It was a lot of little ways, too.
But, let’s start with the most obvious. Before signing the contract, I felt quite often I was just playing at being a writer. Occasionally I would have daft conversations with non-writers. This would normally be people I met at social events, trying to make polite conversation. Upon finding out I am a writer, they would ask, “so where can I buy your books, then?”. I would then explain that they can’t, because none of them have actually been published yet.
The person would then give me that withering, disbelieving look – the one that says, “how can you say you’re a writer, then, if you’ve not had anything published?” Generally the person would be too polite to say this straight out, but would go and find someone else to talk to rather quickly.
But then, all of a sudden I had a book out. Now when people ask me that question I give them one of my cards and tell them, “you can buy the book direct from Lyrical’s website. Here’s the link.”
Being offered a contract is a fantastic confidence boost for a writer. Here you have evidence that you can write, after all, and what you are writing is publishable. After the initial euphoria wears off, however, you then start to worry that you have to come up with a second book before people forget who you are. No more taking 10 years to write a book. The second, and the third, and the fourth, have to appear at regular intervals.
So there is a need for discipline. Making time to write became important, even if that meant crawling out of bed at 5:30am to get some writing in before work. It was no longer enough to wait for the Muse to be inspired. The Muse was obliged to get to work when I required her to, instead of sitting about on her lazy backside for months at a time.
As well as finding time to get on with the next book, I also had to make time to promote the one that had just come out. I perused my online writing forums for any sign of anyone who might be interested in reviewing horror novels. Every time I found someone expressing an interest in featuring writer interviews or guest blog posts on their website, I volunteered. My own blog became a marketing tool, rather than just a series of random ramblings. I post a lot more about writing and publicity now, and less about ordinary life which is the way I started out.
One very small but significant thing that changed is the way I read my writing magazines. I subscribe to several. I still subscribe, but before the contract I used to peruse each one carefully, pen in hand, and highlight any article regarding an independent press or an agent actively seeking submissions of crime and horror. For a while after the contract was signed and sealed I caught myself doing this, before remembering (with just that small thrill) that I didn’t need to be looking for places to submit any more – I had a publisher.
And finally I have learned to never, ever, go anywhere without my promotional business cards. You just never know when you might meet a potential punter. Now, if the conversation happens to turn around to writing, and the person I’m talking to appears to show genuine interest in the fact I’ve written a book, I can give them the card and point them towards the link. I even take my cards on holiday with me, though admittedly I’ve never had cause to give them out to anyone. I have given them to friends of friends I’ve met at social events. I’ve given plenty out at conventions. I’ve left piles of them in Starbucks. I’ve even given them to a few of the doctors at work (should they express interest in the SUFFER THE CHILDREN postcard I have stuck on my notice board).
I guess I have to admit to becoming a publicity tart. That’s another thing that’s come about since the contract arrived.
And that’s a subject for a future post, perhaps.
At the point at which the publishing contract from Lyrical Press arrived last year, I had two finished novels working the submission/rejection circuit. One was the horror novel SUFFER THE CHILDREN, finished in 2004. The other was the amateur sleuth novel DEATH SCENE, finished in 2007.
SUFFER THE CHILDREN took ten years to write, as I’ve mentioned before. I was somewhat dismayed to discover, when I did finally finish it and send it out on the submission circuit, that in those ten years the popularity of horror fiction in the UK had taken something of a nose dive. When I consulted my “Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook” for 2003 (knowing the novel was nearly ready to go I decided an up to date version would be in order), I discovered virtually no agents that were listing horror as a genre they dealt with. I decided to start describing my horror novel as ‘dark fantasy’, and began to send it to anyone who said they looked at science fiction and fantasy.
America still seemed to have a horror market, however, so I also sent it to American agents. I kept my eyes on the independent press market, as every so often a new small publisher would pop up, willing to consider ‘dark fantasy’.
But it kept racking up rejections. At one point I almost got a bite, when I sent it to a new editor, formerly an agent, who was starting up her own publishing company. She was very enthusiastic, and wanted SUFFER THE CHILDREN to be one of her first books, but sadly before her publishing company got off the ground, she became ill and the project never happened.
Eventually, I ran out of people to send SUFFER THE CHILDREN to and I got discouraged and put it back in the drawer. I decided to focus on the amateur sleuth novel instead. I reasoned that with the number of crime novels on the market, there had to be plenty of places to send that.
It turned out I wasn’t quite right on that point. The big market in crime novels is for police procedurals and thrillers, featuring gritty alcoholic loner detectives. What I had was a ‘cosy’ crime novel featuring an amateur sleuth.
I started sending it off to agents who said they dealt with crime and mystery novels. The rejections started rolling in. Some agents said there was no market for amateur sleuths, and although they liked the novel, they felt they wouldn’t be able to sell it. At least one agent said it wasn’t actually a ‘cosy’, as cosies are historical, preferably set in the ‘golden age’ of mystery novels (ie 1930s/40s). My sleuth is contemporary.
And then, at some point, horror seemed to take off again, but wearing a new face. In the guise of urban fantasy, featuring kick-ass female protagonists and sexy vampires, suddenly undead beasties were trendy again, and all over the place new publishers were popping up wanting to look at horror novels.
So I hauled out SUFFER THE CHILDREN, dusted it off, and prepared to send it out once more. I can’t remember how I first came across Lyrical Press – I think perhaps it was mentioned on one of the online writing forums I follow. But I took a look at their website, as I always do before I submit something, and was reassured to see that they had a number of horror novels on their list already. And their submission criteria was to send the entire manuscript as an email attachment. So, no queuing up at the Post Office, and no printing out of pages required. Another bonus.
I sent off the email with the required atachment and cover letter, made a note on my submission database, and continued researching other places to send SUFFER THE CHILDREN, for when it got rejected again. I was, at this point, keeping one list for places to send the crime novel and another for places to send the horror novel and my aim was to have at least one of them, preferably both, out on sub at all times.
A couple of weeks later when an email from Lyrical dropped into my inbox, I opened it fully expecting it to be another rejection.
I was at work at the time. I had to read the email three times before I digested what it said. It was not, in fact, a rejection, but an acceptance. With contract attached. There were a couple of conditions attached to the signing of the contract, the most significant of which was the fact that Lyrical wanted me to raise the age of the main character to 18 and not 14, as they felt it was a Young Adult novel as it stood, and they don’t publish YA. But the contract was real. I printed it off and stared at it for quite a long time, trying to digest the concept of what it meant. I don’t think I got much more work done that day.
I had been working 30 years towards getting a publishing contract for a novel. Sometimes the dream had seemed so unobtainable, I had begun to believe it was never going to happen.
But it did. There it was. And I knew that in that moment, life had changed. Not in any outwardly noticeable way – I wasn’t being offered a huge advance, and I wasn’t about to become rich and famous overnight. But in a hundred tiny ways, initially imperceptible ways, life did change.
And that will be the subject of the next post in this series.
I joined the road paved with rejection slips in 1987, when I started sending out my early horror novel TERROR IN TANNER’S FIELD (mentioned in an earlier post). So by the time I received the publishing contract for SUFFER THE CHILDREN last year, I had been travelling that rejection road for over twenty years. And I’ve noticed some changes in that time.
I learned fairly early on that there was no point in sending your manuscript direct to publishers. You had to have an agent. I also learned that between UK and US agents, there was a difference in submission requirements. UK agents want the first three chapters and a synopsis. If they like what they see they will ask to see the full manuscript; if they don’t, they return the pages to you in the required SAE. There is one extra step with US agents, as they want a query letter first, then a partial if they like the query, then eventually the full manuscript (if you’re lucky).
In the early days, everyone wanted hard copy. I have spent many a lunch hour over the last twenty years queuing up in the Post Office, with my envelope containing my first three chapters or my short story, unsealed so when I got to the counter I could get it weighed to find out what the postage was going to be, get the equivalent amount for return postage, stick the return postage on the SAE before sealing the envelope, sticking the other stamps on the outside envelope and dropping the whole thing in the post box.
Having the pages returned to you, though, is often just a formality. When your pages come back to you in the SAE, they are generally in less than pristine condition and not really fit to be sent out to anyone else. After all, you don’t want to make a bad impression with agents and editors by submitting dog-eared and coffee-stained pages.
Submitting to international agents was even more of a challenge. Once upon a time you could send an international reply coupon, but over the years they became unpopular. It became easier to buy stamps whenever I went to the US, to use on SAEs when I submitted to American agents. But because I only visit the US once every couple of years I tended to stockpile the stamps, which would generally mean US postage would increase before I’d used all the stamps up, resulting in the necessity of trying to get hold of a load of 5-cent ones to make sure my SAE had the correct postage on.
But then, a few years ago, things started to change. We began to see an increase in small, independent publishers, who were happy to look at unsolicited manuscripts from new writers. Often they wanted to look at the whole thing, not just three chapters. Sometimes they were even happy to have the file sent as an email attachment.
The new writer is no longer limited to sending their manuscript to agents. The number of independent publishers continues to grow, and most of them are still happy to look at unagented writers. And nowadays it’s not just the new publishing companies that will accept email submissions. Many agents will accept emails also (but not all – there is still a need to check the individual requirements carefully before submitting).
Email submissions are far better for the writer. No more queuing up in the post office; no more small fortunes being spent on stamps, printer ink, paper and envelopes.
There’s an old saying about most writers having enough rejection slips to wallpaper their office with. I still have that old file, labelled ‘rejections’, but I haven’t added anything to it for a while. But not because I haven’t been getting rejections. My most recent rejections are all saved on the PC, in a sub-folder of my email inbox called ‘rejections’.
And this is another advantage of how technology has made submissions better. Electronic files don’t bulk out the folder the way paper does. If you can’t see the rejection folder getting visibly fatter, you get far less depressed.
I am a creature of habit, as I’ve mentioned many times before. It took me long enough to adapt to writing on a word processor, instead of long hand in pencil in the back of note books.
Once I had adapted, though, I had a new routine. I created for myself a ‘writing corner’ around my computer. Wherever we’ve lived over the last twenty years, I had to have a ‘writing corner’ (I would like a whole room, but we’ve never lived in a place big enough). And I decided I couldn’t do any writing unless I was in my ‘writing corner’.
This was all well and good in the days of desktop PCs, which weren’t mobile. But when SUFFER THE CHILDREN took 10 years to write, I was using far too often the excuse that I had no time to write because I wasn’t in my ‘writing corner’. A few years ago, my husband bought me a lap top, in an attempt to encourage me to write more often. I decided I didn’t like writing on the laptop because it took me out of my comfort zone. I bought myself a cradle for it, and set it up on the computer desk with a separate mouse and keyboard plugged into it. I could write on it then, because it was in my ‘writing corner’, which defeated the whole purpose of having a laptop.
So then, last year, he bought me a NetBook. And with the arrival of the publishing contract, I had to change my thinking. I could no longer afford to spend months and years away from the writing. I had to be more than a one trick pony (or, indeed, one book author). I always complain about the day job getting in the way of writing time. But since giving up the day job is not a feasible option (at least not yet), the alternative was to try and find time to write around the day job. I had to get used to writing on the NetBook, and get out of my head the idea that the only place I could write was at home in my ‘writing corner’.
And I have to say I have finally made some progress in disabusing myself of this notion. The NetBook keyboard took some getting used to – I am a touch typist, and the keys are so close together it is easy to hit the wrong one – but now that I have, I am getting quite adept at carrying the NetBook around with me and writing in places other than my ‘writing corner’. I sit in Starbucks and bash away for an hour or so before work a couple of days a week. I take the NetBook on holiday and set up camp in the hotel lobby to get some writing in.
In theory I have time on the train on my daily commute that could be put to good use writing, but in practise that’s not going to happen. First of all, I don’t always have a seat on my train. Secondly, we are all packed in so tightly if I tried writing on the NetBook I would have several people who could see over my shoulder. Writing on the move is one thing but having someone watch me write is seriously off-putting.
But there are plenty of other places where I could get some writing time in with the NetBook, and after 20 years of the ‘writing corner’ I am once more getting used to writing on the move. It is, after all, going back to the beginning. Before the days of computers, when I wrote in notebooks, I used to be able to write anywhere. Why it’s taken me so long to go back to that, I have no idea. As I say, I’m a creature of habit. But I am learning that habits can be changed.