Sunday, 27 November 2011

A long drawn out and frustrating conversation 27th November 2011.

We have been rather trapped into a long and ultimately frustrating conversation with a potential author over the last four months. I guess if I’m perfectly honest about this, she’s no longer a potential author for us, irrespective of the quality of her manuscript.

This, probably, very nice, lady sent in a submission around the end of July. Unfortunately we had a problem with the attachment, so we couldn’t open the attached manuscript – it was corrupt on receipt.

My business partner replied to her, politely asking her to forward another copy, suggesting alternative formats she could use. We heard nothing for nearly six weeks.

Then we got an answer asking, rather pointedly if we had received her first e-mail, and were we actually interested in her book.

We, of course replied, forwarding our previous e-mail back to her.

Nothing more was heard then we got an even more pointed response from her, asking us in her words “for a final time” if we were interested, and she was surprised by our lack of common courtesy in not even replying.

By now, our own patience was wearing a bit thin, so we checked out the e-mail link, and ascertained everything was fine at our end, and we weren’t black listed for spam with anyone either. It was clear she was either not receiving the return e-mails or, they were being dumped into her spam folders and she wasn’t checking them. She provided no alternative means of contacting her.

Over the weekend we’ve received what I can only assume will be her final e-mail to us:

“It's been another two months since I asked you if you were going to help me. Seems like I should have an answer by now. Would be nice if you tell someone if you are going to help them or not. Thanks anyway.”

She has of course now gone away cursing us for not replying, when we have, and we in the mean time are annoyed someone is now going to be posting the fact we haven’t replied all over the internet and telling people not to touch us with a barge pole.

Frustrating is only the start of it.


Sunday, 20 November 2011

21st November 2011 – Open and Closed Doors.

No, I’m not talking about how some publishing doors seem open to you, and some seem closed, which is probably the case for 99% of us. I’m talking about the actual crafting of the book, and the way an author should approach their work.

We all do it, the book starts off as a germ of an idea, a tiny seed gem that sparks out creative imagination and then germinates to produce a seedling. Form here we start to think about the book as a whole, maybe develop a formal synopsis, maybe just a rough story treatment or outline. At this point many of us will run said treatment past a very select group of trusted friends to see if the idea has wings.

Sorry, I’m mixing metaphors like crazy, but remember this is a creative process, so we’re allowed to describe it in those terms.

Then having been given a green light we develop a detailed plan for the book (how detailed is up to the particular author, as is how that plan is developed) and then finally we sit down with a blank piece of paper, or a blank screen, to produce the first draft. This is, finally, where the doors concept comes in.

Stephen King was the first author I found who propounded this way of working in his book “On Writing” and it’s probably the best single piece of writing advice I’ve read:

“Write your first draft with the door closed.”

In other words, shut the world out, keep your workroom door closed, (he even goes as far as to close the blinds too) and let no one or nothing interrupt the flow. He doesn’t mean start writing and drop dead from exhaustion halfway through. What he’s specifically talking about is don’t show the uncompleted manuscript to anyone, not even your agent, publisher, friend, spouse or publicist. The door is closed to them, and everyone else so you can concentrate clearly on your vision for the book.

Finally, when the first draft is complete, this is the time to think about opening the door, to a few select people (not necessarily the same group as earlier in the process) and take note of their comments and critique as you from your ideas for the second draft.

First draft, door closed, second draft, door open letting the world in.

It works for me.

20th November 2011 – Editing with a chainsaw.

There’s been a lot of discussion on FB and the groups over the last few days on the subject of converting a first draft of a piece into something worthy of submission to a publisher or agent. Most of the “old hands” come down firmly on one side of the debate, and most of the more inexperienced authors come down on the other.

There’s an old adage in publishing, and a large number of well established authors lend pretty vocal support to the concept that, the second draft should be 10% shorter than the first draft. In other words, the second draft will be tighter, faster paced and will have had a few scenes, which added nothing to the plot, removed. Back in the days when all you had was a typewriter this wasn’t an easy process and you actually had to think long and hard about each cut or change, this was a major deal. Nowadays with modern word-processors it’s much easier and sometimes an author can get a little carried away – the chainsaw metaphor.

(Having said that, we stayed in Wales last year and in the middle of the park was a beautiful tree sculpture done with a chainsaw, so sometimes it can be the right artistic tool.)

The less seasoned writers tend to be far more protective of the words they’ve spend so long meticulously crafting. For them, cutting is like harming their own children, something they just won’t do. It’s a psychological block which they have a great deal of trouble getting their head around.

I think, there is one mental trick that can provide a solution for the reluctant pruners here and it’s about visualising the end result. The more experienced authors will visualise the end product they are going to pitch as the book. The less experienced visualise their product as the words. In simple terms I’m sure you can see how important the difference is, where the emotional attachment sits. If you are emotionally attached to the book rather than the words, then culling words feels far less emotional than culling seals does to the squeamish among us.

By the way, I’m not suggesting culling seals with a chainsaw either!

Just to throw another metaphoric concept at you, my next blog is going to be all about opening and closing doors.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

19th November 2011 – Bad Science.

Whether we care to admit it or not, the internet has seen an explosion of poor and bad information, and some deliberate miss-information about a large number of scientific topics. Barely a week goes past without some journalist or other raising their standard on new ground and declaring this or that is bad for you.

Too many people take what they read as the gospel truth, rather than applying Occam’s razor to the subject and seeing whether what is left is real or not, and should it be a cause for worry, a cause for concern or simply ignored.

One of my favourite examples of this was the scare about using Aspartame based sweeteners instead of sugar, as this could give rise to vastly increased risks of cancer. Since most artificially sweetened products recommended for diabetics contain Aspartame, and both my wife and I are diabetics now, this was obviously of concern.

It didn’t take long to find the basis of this research was actually flawed. To start with, the research was funded by sugar producers, which tends to flag up the research as being tailored to meet the brief the researchers were given. Secondly, the quantities being fed to the rats which had a higher tendency to develop cancer beggared belief. The rats most prone to cancer were regularly being fed their own bodyweight in Aspartame. I defy anyone to eat the equivalent dosage!

It simply goes to prove the adage, that not everything you see and read is truth, and don’t over indulge in anything – it’s bad for you.

The same point is also true in fiction; you see, I am getting to the point from a writer’s viewpoint. A friend of mine, as it happens a good writer, and a published author, is currently trying to produce a time travel adventure thriller for a young adult market. He’s desperately trying to avoid all the tired clich├ęs of the subject and come up with something new, a laudable aim if ever there is one.

There is one piece of very bad science in his early chapters though, which threatens to undermine the whole book. His time machine comes from the far future and is very sophisticated. When our adventurers go back from the present day to the 11th Century and they leave the machine, their memories of all historical knowledge since then are erased so they cannot inadvertently disrupt said history.

That sounds reasonable, you say?

Actually no.

On the next page one of the time travellers notes to one of the others, how the tangled woodland and narrow mud tracks surrounding them bears little resemblance to the ordered rows of pine trees and wide roads from their own time. That’s fine you say, as does he, that’s not historical knowledge, that’s geographical in nature and the two are unrelated.

At the risk of repeating myself, actually, no.

If you still retain knowledge of ordered rows of cultivated pines, you’ve retained knowledge of how the world came to be like that, why there are roads rather than narrow tracks. The technology that created the modern world is still there in your brain, ergo the history that created that technology is still there. Fundamentally the problem with all such memory wiping is you cannot isolate types of memory, and remove historical knowledge, or geographical knowledge, or economic knowledge, they are all interlinked.

You have to find another mechanism that works, or don’t try to draw comparisons between the “then” worked, and the “now” world. The trouble is that’s a good way to keep the reader’s interest and we tend to use those kind of comparisons a lot when we’re writing.

The big question is, does it matter?

Possibly, and possibly not. With an increasingly literate readership, these things are becoming more and more important all the time.

I’ll let you decide...

Friday, 18 November 2011

18th November 2011 - Giving Writers Advice.

The eponymous title of this section is about a path fraught with danger. We’ve all done it, gone to a writing group, maybe a new one, maybe one we’ve been a member of for a long time, and opened our mouths to give a piece of advice.
Maybe it comes out a little more emphatically than was intended, but sometimes, with some groups, even if the recipient of the advice isn’t the issue, you have to be emphatic to get the point across to some of the others in the room, especially the deaf guy on the other side of the room, who’s turned his hearing aids off, and has his head down reading something on his Kindle.
This is what happened to me.
I was banging on about the need to differentiate between thoughts and narrative when formatting a passage. As it happens, our house standard is to put thoughts in italics, rather than single quotes, or leave them jumbled up with the narrative.
This author decided she didn’t agree. She’s perfectly entitled to, of course.
Today, I get messaged with a link to the blog of another author (more famous than me) who lists 9 pieces of advice you should ignore, which of course includes the point about italics.
It never ceases to amaze me how people see the blogosphere as the font of all knowledge. If you go looking I guarantee you can find someone who can contradict any opinion within a few minutes. I also guarantee that if you look for a few minutes longer you will find someone who will agree with the first opinion, and then someone who presents a third option entirely.
Indeed if you take 10 authors and ask them a formatting question I guarantee you’ll get at least 9 different answers.
The point this particular blogger and I agree on, is the essential need to differentiate thoughts from narrative, either, in our manner, by formatting, or in her manner, by wording. She does, however, clearly state, you should do what your editor wants so we’re in agreement on that too.
One final point on the whole italics question though. Suppose you put all the thoughts into italics in the manuscript and the editor decides they should be changed to normal text. How long does that take? A minute using global replace? No more, that’s for sure. Now think about trying to put them in if you’ve left them out. How long is that going to take? Hours... Days....
PS This blogger also makes a lot of sense on the subject of deliberate rather than accidental repetition. I can assure you all the repetitions above were entirely deliberate. Woe betide any accidental repetitions I hear at the group next week. LOL

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Hi all,

Just a quick note to apologise for my absence for the last nine months or so. Had a combination of writer's block and also far too much other contracted work to deliver on, so this blog kind of went by the wayside.
I'll be back on in the next few days, and hopefully get this blog back on track.