Celebrating Life – and Good Friends

Today I went to Birmingham for the funeral of my good friend’s dad. It was sad and uplifting in equal measures, sad because Brian no longer walks amongst us and he will be sorely missed by those who loved him, and uplifting because so many people turned out to pay their respects. Brian was a larger than life character, and it’s always those people who leave the biggest hole when they pass away. I didn’t know him well, but I knew him well enough to know he would have thoroughly appreciated every moment of today, from the sympathetic vicar who delivered the ceremony in exactly the way he had specified before he died, to the inordinately large volume of champagne that was drunk in his beautifully sunny garden afterwards. I know he would have loved the fact that everyone had come together to raise a glass in his honour, and above all else I know he would have been hugely proud of his son, my friend, who has borne his father’s untimely passing with such strength and courage, helped in no small part by his gorgeous fiancé and wonderful family.

It’s on occasions like today I realise how important it is to count blessings. When I looked around me in the crematorium, which was lined wall to wall with people, I really felt the value of the life that had been lost. I like to think I live my own life well enough to ensure a decent turn out to my own send-off, whenever that might be, but that’s not to say I can’t do more in whatever time I have left on this mortal coil to positively contribute to others’ lives, to make them feel valued, supported and loved as they have me. I felt particularly grateful today at the wake, when I recognised the fantastic and extensive support network of friends I still have from university – not something everyone can claim to have sustained a decade after graduation. This friendship group is special and, despite not getting together nearly as often as we’d like, it is also lasting. I know I’m being a soppy cow but sometimes it’s just nice to take a moment to reflect on all the good things. And I’m sure that somewhere up there in the ether, glass of champagne in hand, Brian Simonite is doing just that too. Cheers, Brian.

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On Writing Autobiographically

During last night’s crime writing class at the City Lit we discussed characterisation. I told the group I was intent on making the protagonist of my latest story as unlike me as possible. Why? Because I’ve realised that, all too often, I write characters as if they were, in fact, me, and whilst Polly Courtney said at last week’s Writers’ & Artists’ conference that most people write their first novel autobiographically (“because they have something to get off their chest”), in my case I fear it might be more to do with laziness than self-expression. I worry that in writing characters who are based, no matter how loosely, on me, I’m closing myself off to a host of far more interesting and complex characters. Not only that, I’m failing to examine their personalities thoroughly enough to be able to fully inhabit them, as I’m assuming they would have the same thoughts and feelings as I would, when this isn’t necessarily (and indeed shouldn’t) be the case.

After a written exercise, wherein we were encouraged to introduce our characters by name (“My name is X…”) and elaborate on how they felt about that name, whether it had any connotations/associations etc., we had a group discussion. One of my fellow students said she didn’t like the character she had written about in the exercise – in fact, more than that, she actively disliked her. The teacher was concerned about this, and said that if a writer is unable to empathise with their protagonist they must at least be able to foster a sense of curiosity about them. For example, what experiences have shaped them into the person they are today (or at the time your novel is set)? Why do they hold certain viewpoints and like or dislike certain things?  

A useful exercise in characterisation, we learned, is to take your main character and write about them both ‘from the inside out’ and ‘from the outside in.’ In other words, write one paragraph ‘as’ them (a letter to a loved one, for example) and then answer a series of questions ‘about’ them (e.g. what is their favourite colour/food, what do they like/dislike etc.). One particularly pertinent and often revealing question is ‘What does he/she dislike most about him/herself,’ as it often gives rise to useful insights into their inner psyche.

The lesson, I suppose, is that if you don’t completely identify with your main character that’s fine, so long as you like them sufficiently to be curious about who they are and what makes them tick. What is certain is that during the creative process you’ll be spending a huge amount of time with this person, so it has to be someone you’re happy to hang out with – or you’ll likely have a pretty miserable time writing it!

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For Fellow Aspiring Writers: Advice from the Writers’ & Artists’ Conference

On Saturday I went along to the Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Get Published’ conference in Euston. Given my aversion to early rising it was quite a commitment for me to show up at 9.45am on a weekend, but by the end of the day I was so glad I had. I live-tweeted throughout the event but it has since dawned on me that advice drip-fed through Twitter isn’t that easy to come back to afterwards. So for all my fellow aspiring writers I thought I would encapsulate the key learnings in this blog post for reference purposes.

Tom Tivnan from the Bookseller, on self-publishing:

  • 86% of those who have self-published would do so again
  • The print self-publishing market is comprised almost entirely of non-fiction
  • Most self-published e-books retail at around £1
  • 69% of e-books are bought by women and only 11% by men
  • 58% are published by women
  • Crime makes up 50% of the e-book market
  • Amazon controls 75% of the e-book market in the UK
  • The royalty rate of self-published books decreases considerably when the retail price is below £2.49
  • When self-publishing, tweak the price of your book often
  • Remember that people buy e-books for price not content
  • Design matters – it’s all about your brand
  • It’s difficult to get into the print market through self-publishing (Amazon has 20% share)

Stefan Tobler, CEO of And Other Stories, an “unashamedly literary” publishing house:

  • “Think of the publisher as the donkey who will get your riches to the reader”
  • The literary fiction market is in decline

John Mitchinson, founder of Unbound, a ‘new way of bringing authors and readers together’: 

  • The concept of Unbound is “about sharing an idea, sharing the potential of the story and, if there is enough critical mass, it will take off”
  • “Publishing is like agriculture. Retailers want the crops with the highest yield and won’t look at anything else”
  • Authors have a 1 in 5,000 chance of getting in with a big publishing house – but there are other ways to get published
  • It’s been in the news recently that the average author’s salary is as little as £11k per year but, f you take the top 10% of authors out of that, the average author makes less than £3k per year.
  • “We’re fighting to keep people reading”
  • Unbound chooses the projects with the best chance of funding
  • People can then make pledges against a particular project. The average pledge value is £35
  • 92 projects have been launched to date. Of those, only 16 failed to achieve funding
  • Unbound has 48k registered users

Polly Courtney, Author, on self-publishing to a traditional deal – and back again:

  • “Everyone’s got a book inside them, but not everyone should publish it”
  • “Whatever way you’re publishing, be sure to build up your own direct fan base.” e.g. by capturing email addresses through cards slipped into the back of your book at a launch event
  • Re-write extensively
  • Never scrimp on cover design
  • Self-publishing CAN work – but it’s all about collaboration
  • For a lot of people the first book is semi-autobiographical. Once you’ve got that off your chest you’re free to write about something else e.g. a theme you particularly care about
  • “If you do get into a conversation with an agent or publisher, ask what their long-term vision is for you and your book. Make sure you understand one another – it’s not arrogant, it’s sensible. Take control of your destiny”

Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, on traditional publishing:

  • “Finding an agent or publisher is like buying a car – you wouldn’t buy one without finding out about it first”
  • “Be yourself and write the book you want to write”
  • Good things CAN happen to first time writers
  • Identify the market and identify your niche
  • If you can’t encapsulate your story in a 200 word pitch, why should anyone else look at it
  • Self-publishing has gone up by 25% but the lion’s share of the (admittedly plateaued) market are traditionally published books
  • Rejection is not an uncommon thing – all the best authors have been rejected (William Golding 21 times!)
  • Things to do to improve your chances:- Read, Read, Read
    – Research / know your competition
    – Join a writer’s group / attend events
    – Practice e.g. by entering competitions
    – Promote yourself e.g. on Twitter, a blog etc.
    – Be patient
    – Be ambitious

Charlie Campbell, Agent:

  • Agents can tell if they’re the first or two hundredth you’ve submitted to, so research carefully before submitting
  • The bar has been raised, so these days agents need to put more editorial work in
  • Having to do too much editorial work limits how much work you can take on
  • When working in a big publishing house out of thousands of submissions each year, only one or two would be taken on
  • “Sending a partial manuscript is almost never the right thing to do”
  • Writers get rejected by agents, agents by publishers, publishers by supermarkets. If Amazon rejects a book, the reader rejects it
  • Successful stories are imitated until they dwindle into nothing. Do what you want but don’t be too out there. It’s the role of the publisher/agent to talk to you about how you can progress

Jo Unwin, Agent:

  • Take care to read submission guidelines and be targeted
  • “You can only be a debut novelist once in your life, so your manuscript needs to be as good as it can be”
  • “I would strongly recommend getting the whole book as perfect as you can before submitting your opening chapters. It’s a different trajectory if you submit a partial manuscript and don’t complete it for another 18 months. The market will be different and the mood of the agent will be different”
  • Whether an agent likes your book or not is a chemical thing. Writing is a craft you have to work on
  • What an agent does in building a writer’s career outside of the UK market is not to be underestimated
  • “In a synopsis I’m looking for storytelling ability, so tell me everything – including the ending”
  • Don’t use the agent as a sounding board – think of them as sales people

Cressida Downing, Editor:

  • Just because you can hit submit doesn’t mean you should, and just because you should doesn’t mean you should now
  • Whether sending to agents or self-publishing make your work the best it can be. People should find your writing frustrating
  • You can’t be a good writer if you’re not a good reader
  • “I read non-stop, all day, every day – and so should you”
  • Self-publishing is ideally suited to people with an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Novels go through 17 edits, on average, before they are successful in being published
  • Good presentation is crucial – get advice but don’t get someone else to re-write it or it will be their work and not yours
  • If you’re interested in money don’t be an author or work in publishing!
  • If you’re self-publishing and can only afford to invest in one thing, make it the cover design
  • When choosing an editor consider their track record, whether you would prefer to be edited by a well-known author or not, whether their style will fit your work, whether they offer a clear explanation of the service they provide, their costs and timings
  • Tips for going it alone: Never publish your first draft, always get someone to have a look, read it out loud and find a peer group
  • Self-publishing is about far more than writing a book and hitting ‘publish’
  • As long as you know what you’re asking and they tell you exactly what they’re providing, paying an editor can be useful
  • If everything in your story is doing it’s job, great. If not, cut it
  • There are four types of edit:

1. Read and Review

“If you pay one industry expert once in your life make it for this.”

Not a line by line edit, help with grammar/spelling or re-write (though they will say if it needs work in those areas).

Does give advice on how to avoid common pitfalls, how well your book is working and what to do to improve it.

2. Deep Structural

Most similar to advice from an agent or editor in a publishing house.

Doesn’t give line by line re-write and won’t correct spelling/grammar.

Does break down and re-build novel – sometimes to extent of changing genre or structure.

3. Copy

Line by line edit looking for continuity and what works to best show off your prose.

Doesn’t look at structural/major changes.

4. Proof

Picks up errors, typos etc. in spelling/grammar.

Doesn’t give advice on writing.

Preena Gadher, Publicist:

  • A publicist’s job is to make your book stand out from the crowd
  • Once you’re published by a house they’re invested in you and can afford a dedicated PR person. That’s the big difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing
  • Promote yourself with a website, on Twitter etc. Always keep sites up to date
  • Read the paper and magazines you want to appear in
  • Work out who your audience is, and what you have to say that would be interesting/relevant to them
  • The relationship with the publicist works both ways
  • It helps to be shortlisted for / win prizes

Laurie Penny, Blogger:

  • Being time-rich and cash-poor is how a lot of creativity comes about
  • Keeping a blog is good training for editing your work

Hope you will find this as useful as I did.

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Generation Y: We’re not apathetic, we’re just overwhelmed

Last night, after watching the news, an overwhelming surge of sadness washed over me. There are so many dreadful things happening in the world – bombings in Gaza, terrorism in Syria, war and famine in Sudan, Ebola disease in West Africa, irreversible climate change…the list goes on and on – that sometimes it’s hard to feel positive about the future of the human race. On top of these issues, in the UK we also have untrustworthy politicians who are currently (on top of many other questionable decisions) rushing Big Brother style privacy laws through parliament. The result? We, ‘the People,’ feel powerless and trapped. And none, perhaps, more so than my generation.

Today at work a colleague, herself a generation older than me, was talking about last night’s Newsnight programme, which had a feature on ‘Generation Y,’ as today’s 18-30s are collectively known. The feature discussed the differences between my generation (Y) and hers (Generation X), one being the fact we don’t fight for causes by campaigning in the streets in the same way that many of those who grew up in the ‘welfare state era’ did. One Generation X spokesperson said she didn’t believe this was because Generation Y are apathetic about causes and only interested in being a ‘selfie generation,’ as many older people might posit, but rather that the political and economic issues being faced today seem so big they are impossible to solve. Generation Y have seen uprising fail time and again (Iraq War anyone?), and we’ve lost all faith in the political system to do what’s right. Even if we do stand up to be counted, we don’t believe our voices will be heard, so the collective feeling is ‘why bother?’

We are the first generation to be brought up with the internet, the consequences of which have been far reaching, and both positive and negative. As a Generation Y spokesperson said on Newsnight, we have a thirst for individualism that derives from constant online comparisons, and a drive to be self-reliant rather than state-reliant. We are flooded with information in a way that previous generations were not, and whilst this is liberating it is also, sometimes, quite debilitating. The internet has both connected and isolated us, and whilst social media has led to a level of inter-connectedness never previously imagined, many people feel lonelier than ever.

The rise of face to face gatherings like ‘swishing’ (clothes-swapping) parties (to name but one) shows that, despite embracing the digital age, Generation Y are trying to stay connected with their peers and local communities. Perhaps it’s through these types of initiatives, rather than by waving placards in the street, that we will make some small difference in the wider world we feel so powerless to change.

A final thought (and my own attempt at micro-activism) on Sudan. I have a personal connection, having visited Juba in South Sudan some years ago, and have been deeply saddened to read of the war and impending famine in the region. At the time of my visit in 2006 it was a fairly barren place. I stayed in one of the aid camps and saw little of the locals’ lives outside of the compound. But I do remember an overriding feeling of hope – that things would, and could, get better. Which is why it is so tragic to hear just how much worse they have got since my brief time there. Recent news reports have said there is a serious danger of extreme famine in the coming weeks, but there is no money to run a big advertising campaign to ask for funds. And so I close by asking anyone with a few pounds to spare to consider donating to this cause via World Vision.

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On Being Overwhelmed – and Finding Perspective

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing my typical headless chicken act, heaping unnecessary pressure onto myself with an extra -large spoon and wondering why I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed and unable to write a damn thing in what little free time I’ve managed to carve out for myself. The culmination of this stress was evident when I got around to submitting the one piece of recent writing I was really proud of to a competition on Monday – only to realise that the deadline was midnight the night before. Fortunately my super-pragmatic boyfriend was on hand to prevent me falling too far into a slough of despond over the incident, but nevertheless it made a further dent in my already damaged armour.

The truth is, whilst I established long ago I want to be ‘a writer,’ I grapple every day with what sort of writer I want to be. One day I’ll write a magazine feature pitch, the next I’ll plan a novel or start editing a previous story. Then I’ll turn my attention to short story competitions and try to churn something out for them.  On top of that I’ve recently completed an eight week sitcom writing course at the City Academy, and have this week embarked on a seven week crime writing course at the City Lit and signed up for a conference next weekend on how to get published – all this as well as holding down a job four days a week. Oh, and did I mention I’m also working on a screenplay idea with my writing mentor?

Just reading that last paragraph back makes me feel anxious, it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. But what I’ve realised today, after having given myself a couple of days’ downtime (by which I mean no pressure to write anything, having impromptu catch ups with friends, sitting in the sun at lunch time instead of being hunched over my computer fretting about what to write and yet still not writing), is that when it starts to feel too much that’s generally because it is too much. It won’t help to try and force yourself to do more, the only thing that will work is to allow yourself to do less. Only then can you regain perspective and control over your situation. And, in my case, only then can I remove the creative block that undue amounts of pressure create. This realisation has made me feel instantly calmer, and you know what? I can feel the ideas start trickling back into my brain just like a tap that was turned off has been turned on again. Perspective isn’t always easy to find when you’re mired in the mud, but when you do find it again it’s both a joy and a relief. Phew.

Banishing Self-Indulgence

Earlier today I wrote one of those typical woe is me blog posts, alluding to how hard everything felt, how lacking I was in inspiration etc. But before I posted it I stopped, my finger hovering over the mouse key, and asked myself: What good will it do to share this with the world? It may well be cathartic to get things off your chest, but haven’t you done that just by writing it? Don’t you feel a little lighter as it is? And you know what? I did feel lighter just for having written it. Much like a letter to an ex that never actually gets sent, I had expunged the negative emotions without the need to inflict them upon the world. So that was one thing that happened today.

Another thing that happened was my reading of this article, which can, I believe, be best surmised by the following excerpt:

“The 8-hour workday is too profitable for big business, not because of the amount of work people get done in eight hours (the average office worker gets less than three hours of actual work done in 8 hours) but because it makes for such a purchase-happy public. Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

“We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.”

I don’t know about you, but reading those two paragraphs struck a chord so deep within me that the hairs on my arms stood up of their own volition. Why? Because that person with no time to be ambitious outside work, who feels constantly dissatisfied in a way they struggle to articulate and who spends money they don’t have on ways to make themselves feel better: That person is me. And most likely also many of you. Of course (trust fund children aside) we have to work for a living (and in this respect with a four day week I can complain less than many about my lot), but it’s so true that outside work it takes (what often feels like) a superhuman effort to cultivate the kind of extracurricular activities that leave you feeling wholly satisfied and fulfilled.

But, that aside, the fact is that those with true talent and passion DO manage to make the most of the time they have, no matter how little it is. They don’t sit around complaining about being oppressed and enslaved by the organisations they work for, but rather work out ways to escape their clutches and create opportunities for work – and living – on their terms. Whether incarcerated by consumerism or not, we all have choices. And our choices are the difference between a life of success and a life of failure. Which is a pretty sobering thought.

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