Saturday, January 28, 2006
Keep on Truckin'
My dad pointed out that I have at least one fan, called Sylvia, who is keen to read the sequel to Déjà Vu. Sylvia is a friend of my grandmother's, and is in her mid-nineties. See? You're never too old to read about time travel and intelligent computers. I will, of course, redouble my efforts on the new manuscript.
Progress on 'Flashback':
76,181 / 120,000
Thursday, January 26, 2006
Snakes and Ladders
Well, I must confess to a couple of shitty days, work-wise.
First up, I noticed that some joker - no, I won't provide the effing link - has placed Déjà Vu in his top five worst books of 2005. At that point, I wasn't having a bad day. It was just middlin'. Next, I get one of those standard 'Sorry, try again,' emails from MacMillan New Writing; I'd sent them my comedy novel 'Proper Job', which an agent recently wrote was 'fresh, lean, original and inventive' (though, to be fair, that same agent did go on to say that humour is virtually impossible to sell, and I should give up immediately). By then, I would describe my mood as 'mildly piqued'. Gumblings: Hah! What do they know? I'll show 'em. Etc.
Then, to round off the day, I get a call from the agent who is currently considering Déjà Vu. You might remember from a previous post that Scott Pack, chief buyer for Waterstone's, saw this blog and asked for a copy of my book. He read it and enjoyed it. Amongst other things, he said, 'the thriller element would hold its own with most of the books we sell in quantity...the characterisation was very strong...the ending left me impressed as I put the book down'. Scott then contacted some literary agents, one of whom contacted me. We chatted on the phone and I sent him a copy of Déjà Vu.
So away. The agent called me back yesterday with the 'thanks but no thanks' speech. Very polite, and refreshingly honest. He got half way through the book and decided that he would not be able to champion it at meetings.
Arf. Mood meter drops somewhat.
I'm appropriately jaundiced about this industry. I mean, it's getting on for eleven years since I sold my first short story as a teenager, and in that time I've written four-and-a-half novels. I've read a number of good books and a number of crap ones. I'm aware that publishing is a lottery, and I'm aware that a writer is, essentially, a foolish person who works - often for years - in the face of long odds. The writer doesn't expect the reward of fame, or fortune. Like a carpenter or any other manual worker, he only wants people to buy his stuff so he can afford food while he's making the next thing.
Me: "Can I interest you in this lovely mahogany number? I made it myself. Took me five years, and the sideboard-critics love it."
Customer: "No, thanks. We just bought a sideboard from Ikea."
Me: "Why? They're flat-packed. They're mass-produced and lack heart. Look, I've carved little mice into the legs. They're practically scampering. Here, micey -"
Customer: "But our sideboard has a vaguely sexual Swedish name. It's called Smegsmog. And everyone's talking about it. The Stockwells at number five just bought one, for Christ's sake."
Me: "But what about the sideboards of tomorrow? What if they only came from Ikea?"
Customer: "Good-bye. You might shift more units if you served meatballs."
Anyway, reasons to be cheerful: (1) If Déjà Vu attracted one agent, it might attract another; (2) Wonderful girlfriend, who seems to believe in me despite these constant messages replies of 'not good enough' from publishers and agents; (3) Good health; (4) Blog on which I can moan.
Progress on 'Flashback', sequel to 'Déjà Vu':
75,246 / 120,000
Written while listening to Don't Phunk With My Heart from the album "Dont Phunk With My Heart (UK single version)" by Black Eyed Peas
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
New web presence for Aliya Whiteley
I'm pleased to report that the up-and-coming author (you didn't hear it first) Aliya Whiteley has revamped herself, web-wise. (Note that her website requires the Flash browser plug-in.) This is part of the drive to promote her new book, 'Three Things About Me', which will be published by Macmillan New Writing in July 2006. Got three interesting things to say about yourself? Post them to Aliya's forum and you might just win a bookmark.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
'Aha!', not 'Ugh!'
What's an act? McKee, among others, defines it as a collection of scenes that end with a major change or reversal for the main character. Modern, popular stories - particularly movies - tend to have three acts. The first act is the set-up, the second the development, and the third the climax or resolution. At the end of an act, something very important happens to the protagonist. In a strong story, the act boundary tends to mark an undoable change. By the third undoable change (the one that occurs at the end of the story, after the third act), the protagonist will be quite different from the person he or she was at the beginning of the story. The story is, in effect, a record of these changes.
Not all stories have acts, of course. And some have more than three (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, has a bunch, each one marked by Indy's life being put in danger). But the notion of an act remains a useful one, because the essential property of any story - the property that makes it narrative, where the meaning of a later scene is transformed by the context of the preceding scenes - is the journey, or change, of the main character(s). If the main character remains unchanged at the end of a story, the audience commonly cries 'What was the point?' or 'Nothing seemed to happen'. For example: 'Girl meets girl' (one act, no change). Boring. 'Girl meets girl, then loses girl' (two acts, one change). Semi-boring. 'Girl meets, loses girl, gets her back' (three acts, two changes). Story.
I'm rambling on about acts in this post because, as you can see from the little 'word fuel' gauge at the base of this entry, I'm into the final third of my current novel. This novel is a technothriller: entertainment first, high-fallutin' ideas second. That means I'm constantly on the look out for interesting things to happen to my characters, and I will not wander far from the three act structure, because I know it works in my previous novels.
In some ways, the third act is easier than the first because you have your reader firmly hooked. He or she has come with you thus far, and, as a writer, you are free to stretch your legs theme-wise. Your characters are likely to be in a great deal of peril (not necessarily physical peril) at this point (if you've been doing your job properly), and that peril will sustain the reader's attention if you want to broaden, here, the thematic base of your novel.
In other ways, the third act is the most difficult. You now have to satisfy the reader. All the conflicts and obstacles you put in the path of your protagonist must be resolved and overcome. Not only that, but they must be resolved in a way that makes sense for the characters, their situation, and the themes that may or may not be hovering in the background. All the bluff and mirrors and smoke you infused into the opening and second acts must be employed in useful service to an ending that makes the reader go 'Aha!' rather than 'Ugh!'. Read about Chekhov's gun.
This is the challenge I face over the next two or three weeks. Right now, I just don't know how the story is going to end. But I do have an advantage over a writer who works to a detailed plan: When I complete the third act, I will be close enough to the material for my response to be an honest, fresh one. If I disgust myself and throw my computer out of the window with a shout of 'Ugh!', I'll know that the ending didn't work. But if the ending suddenly clicks into place with an 'Aha!' - it's happened before, with Déjà Vu and the unsold Proper Job - then I'll know I have a draft that might, in a couple of years, shape up to be a novel.
70,869 / 110,000
Friday, January 13, 2006
Approaching an Agent
How do you approach an agent? Carefully? In gum-soled shoes, holding a net and carrying an Indian pith helmet?
I've had one or two enquiries on this topic over the past week, and, since I know that many of my readers (yeah, both of them, not counting Dad; Hi, Dad!) are aspiring writers, I thought I'd post my thoughts. Let it be said that I do not have an agent myself (yet). I did speak to an agent only this week - a friendly chap who sounds interested in representing me, unless he's just being friendly - but I can't say the advice below has been successful for me in the strict sense of the word: you know, the sense that means 'successful'.
(1) Make sure you've edited your manuscript to death. Edit until the manuscript is deceased, defunct, has joined the choir invisible. You should pay particular attention to the first three chapters, because these are the chapters often requested by agents and publishers. The rest of your book won't have an impact on your publishing chances if nobody elects to read it. You might want to employ the services of a freelance editor. They're not cheap, though, and you should ask yourself whether the money might be better spent elsewhere, like the pub.
(2) When submitting, start with the biggest agents first, and work your way down. I'd suggest you submit exclusively to the top few agencies in the UK (PFD, Darley Anderson, Curtis Brown, etc.) and, if/when they turn you down, send simultaneous submissions (in groups of about five) to the rest. The agents may not care for this approach, but it isn't terribly realistic to give each agency an exclusive submission unless you want to hear news of your last rejection via a séance. It's usually a good idea to email the agency (the actual agent, if possible) with a quick-fire, two-line email saying something like "My name is Graham and I'd like to submit a manuscript to your agency. Can you please tell me if you are currently taking on new authors?" The agent will probably reply with "Sure, send me the first three chapters." Then - and here's the important bit - you can then write 'AS REQUESTED' in large, friendly letters on your envelope. This should give the submission an advantage over the other submissions. You might need that, because some agencies (e.g. Darley Anderson) claim to receive more than 300 submissions a week.
(3) Get up-to-date information about agencies and publishers from a trusted source. Currently, there are only two I'm aware of: http://everyonewhosanyone.com/ is one, the other is 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook'. You'll find the latter in your library, but if you're serious about sending out lots of copies of your MS, you'll probably need to buy a copy, which you can find in Waterstone's and Smith's. (Similar is the Writer's Handbook and, no, I can't add up.)
(4) An agent will probably want to know a bit more about you, and it would be an advantage to have a webpage.
(5) Keep your query letter to one side of A4. Pitch your book in the first line or two, then tell the agent something about yourself (try to pick the interesting bits), then tell the agent about your writing career aspirations. The agent will want to know that you're in the game for the long run, since your first book is likely to lose money for everyone concerned, even if it gets picked up by a large publisher.
(6) If there is anything about you whatsoever that might increase the sales of your book, include it in the letter. Are you an expert in this field? Have you given radio interviews before? Do you have an interesting biographical story related to your book?
(7) Be lucky. Sure, this sounds trite. Let me specify this: The publishing industry is not designed to provide a harbour for talent. It's designed to make money and it knows that first-time authors tend to lose money. That means that you will have difficulty getting your fiction under the eyes of those who count. However, you can load the dice: (i) Don't make spelling, grammatical or style errors; (ii) Be polite; (iii) Be helpful, spread a bit of help around to your fellow writers, because they can help you out (plus, it's nice to have some writer buddies; few other people appreciate the particular situation you're in); (iv) Play the game repeatedly. While the probability of success is low, the probability of being successful will increase the longer you stay in the game. So stay in the game and when you get lucky, be prepared. Respond quickly if an agent wishes to see your manuscript; have ideas for future books if he/she calls out of the blue; remember that publishing time is geological time, and be cool about waiting.
That's about all I can come up with off the top of my head. Some people will find it all commonsensical, and that's fine. Others - including me, a few years ago - might find it useful.
Current progress on new novel 'Flashback':
64,230 / 110,000
Saturday, January 07, 2006
In Our Own Words
Getting Work into Print
Two pleasant surprises this morning: the first, a contributor copy of In Our Own Words (Volume Six), an American anthology of short fiction and poetry edited by Marlow Peerse Weaver. Marlow asked me a few months back if I would like to publish my story 'Afterlife' in his anthology. I said, "Yes," and forgot all about it. Well, today, the package arrived. It's a well-produced book and stuffed full of pieces from writers born between 1960 and 1982. Quite recommended.
Also recommended is the latest issue of The Quiet Feather. This is a small indie magazine with mucho p'zazz. Such magazines - those dealing with short fiction - aren't as popular as they once were, for a variety of reasons. One reason, I must say, was demonstrated to me with last month's Interzone. I picked a story at random and was astonished at the poor quality of the writing (the artwork also lacked imagination). The Quiet Feather, by contrast, is a cute publication stuffed with great piccies, short poetry and a comic strip. (OK, so I'm in it too; but only about 50 words, and the issue has lots to recommend it regardless.)
Update On Fiendish/Evil/Twisted Plan for Dominion of the Very World
As a second footnote to my largely pleasant dealings with Scott Pack, I'm starting to receive solitications from agents who want to know more about my work. Scott, as promised, has contacted several and sent them copies of my book - at least, he will when they arrive. Alas, there is still a significant delay between order and dispatch in the land of POD.
Next instalment of Déjà Vu
Chapter 11 is now up and running. Again, I'd be delighted with any feedback. Episodes have been downloaded 1600 times so I'll continue on to the bitter end. Haven't yet reached my bandwidth limit, but I'm getting close.
Feedback on Proper Job
Had a phone call today from my friend Daniel Graaskov (that's a Danish surname, in case you're wondering). He's read latest draft of Proper Job, my Cornish coming-of-age novel, and enjoyed it. I focused on his criticisms, however, and I think I agree with them. It's a good rule of thumb that, if you have an inkling about your novel and it is confirmed independently by someone whose judgement you trust, you can take that as a green light to tackle the project's limitations. It's impossible to catch them all, but with Daniel's help I'll certainly improve the manuscript.
Progress on my third novel continues. I'm reaching an action-packed set-piece, and I think the characters (six at the moment, bordering on too numerous) are going to collide in a manner that should be entertaining at the level of the story and, equally, at the level of the theme. As per, I partly excited and partly relieved that I came up with an idea in time.
57,882 / 110,000