Monday, August 31, 2009
Just had to post again! Another international offer for WORLDSHAKER came in today - this time from a French publisher, Helium. I love this overseas sales thing. Like having a new novel written over and over again, without the trouble of actually writing it. Great way to make money too!
Saturday, August 29, 2009
They say, the 3 things you need as a writer are talent, persistence and luck (at least, that's what I say in www.writingtips.com.au). I had the hugest slice of luck in making my first sale to a mainstream publisher - I've never heard of any other author making the jump in this way.
I'd had my novel. THE VICAR OF MORBING VYLE, published by a small press, and the first miracle was that it actually got reviewed in the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. (Can't think that would ever happen nowadays.) Glowingly reviewed too - so I wrote to the reviewers just to say thanks. Van Ikin, the SMH reviewer, wrote back to say, 'really liked the Vicar, if you have another MS ready to go, send it to me and I'll see if I can recommend it to a mainstream publisher.' THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN!!!!!! Reviewers are normally so swamped with books that they have to read, the very last thing they'd ever do is offer to take on more reading. As I've come to learn, Van is a very special and wonderful person!
So I quickly finished off the MS I was writing, sent it to Van, he recommended it to Pan Macmillan, they liked it and the rest is history. It came out as THE DARK EDGE in 1997.
Except that history doesn't always follow a perfect path. Making that first sale can feel like climbing Mt Everest, but it's only the start. You have to keep getting published (I managed that) and you have to work your way up to a reputation. After 15 books, I finally seem to have hit the jackpot with WORLDSHAKER. It hasn't been easy - but I did get off to the luckiest, flukiest start!
Friday, August 28, 2009
Trent, Marianne, myself, Louise Cusack, Kylie Chan and Andrew Warrilow were on a panel today about the Road to Publication and what happens after. Thanks to everyone who came along and caught up with us.
The panel topic ties in with our recent posts on First Sales. Having been on these kind of panels before, I noticed there are recurring questions. So I thought I'd answer them over several posts.
How do I polish the craft of writing? Which leads to ... How do I know when my book is ready to send out?
Join a writing group that is specific to your genre. For instance Vision writers. Either on-line or in person (which is better), you can learn to critique in a supportive environment. Critiquing other people's work is really useful to help hone your analytical skills.
Attend as many workshops as you can, to polish your craft and meet other writers. See the QLD Wrtiers Centre workshop program, or the writers centre in your state.
Read books on writing. I always recommend Ursula K Le Guin's 'Steering the Craft of Writing' specifically for its chapter on Point of View. Many beginning writers have trouble with this.
Read widely in the genre, as well as doing your research. Read the books that are being short listed for awards. Aurealis Award, Australia. The Hugos and the Nebulas in the US.
And,when you finish your first book, put it away for a while and write another. You'll learn so much, you'll be glad you didn't send your first book out before you could rework it.
Then have your book assessed by a manuscript assessor who knows your genre. Ask your writing friends if they've used an assessor they can recommend. Take a look at the Australian Writers Market Place, produced by the QLD Writers Centre. You'll find, ms assessors, agents, competitions and publishers.
Next time I'll look at How do I know which publisher to send my book to? and How do I get my book in front of a publisher or agent?
Thursday, August 27, 2009
I've always felt vaguely apologetic about my first book sale story, mainly because it doesn't correspond to the 'right' way to do it.
That is, you start out with a few short story sales, work your way up to pro status that way, submit novels, get an agent, finally sell a novel... basically, earning your place in the hierarchy of writerliness.
What I have learned since is that there is no 'right' way to go about building a writing career. No one's path is predictable.
I started writing novels when I was thirteen, and by the time I started university, I had completed three or four manuscripts. I'd also read a huge amount of fantasy fiction in that time, and had just hit the point of becoming a complete cynic about the genre. I looked at my first book, the epic fantasy I had so lovingly crafted (as part of a projected 12 book series, GAK) and cringed. On my first day of university, at seventeen years old, I started scribbling a new story in my notebook - a comedy of errors, making fun of the fantasy cliches instead of buying into them. I wrote flat out for six months, then my social life kicked in and I let the whole thing lapse for nearly a year.
At nineteen, I picked it up again, and kept working on it. After a few months I found the guidelines to a competition for unpublished SF/Fantasy manuscripts, The George Turner Prize, and that gave me the incentive to get it finished. I almost didn't post it, but my honey made me, despite the fact that he had never read it. (we had been together a year and half at that point, and had a deal he would read nothing of mine until it was published)
A few months later, I got the phone call that I had won the competition. I remember feeling like my legs had been cut from under me. I wasn't twenty yet, and I was going to be published.
Thus continued the most frantic year of my life, and I say this as someone who has since completed a PhD and had two children...
I received the news in March. I had to complete copy edits in April, over a fortnight which was also full of personal disaster in my real life. In May, the shortlist was published - and suddenly everyone knew I was up for this prize, and couldn't stop asking me about it (I was sworn to secrecy - only my honey and mother knew about it). In June I attended my first convention, knowing that in a few months I would be a professionally published author, but not being able to say a word.
In July, I was flown to Sydney to attend Phancon (run by the one and only Karen Miller, in her own life-before-pro-publication). I attended a dinner at which the prizewinner was to be announced... and only realised too late that none of the other shortlistees had been told what was going on! Awkward... Along with meeting my editor for the first time, and being introduced to all manner of Famous Authors, the highlight of the trip was being presented with a black and white ARC of my very own book, Splashdance Silver in the flesh.
Another month later (at the ripe age of 20, though the publicity liked to emphasise I was 19 at the point of sale), I really was a published author, with my book in real bookshelves and everything. I was also working flat out on the sequel, having signed contracts for a three book series. All this and I hadn't finished my BA yet...
Within a year, the sequel was published, and within another year both books were remaindered, and the publishers let me know they weren't interested in publishing the third book I had written for the trilogy.
*I should have signed with an agent before signing the contract with the publisher. Just because I had 'made the sale' independently did not mean I didn't need someone in my corner. I was put off the idea because of the secrecy agreement, which was not good.
*I should have done a lot more in the way of publicity and promotion for the first book on my own - it never occurred to me that this was something I would need to do, or even how to go about it.
*Chances are very likely that if Splashdance Silver had been published five years or even ten years later, as the YA book it really was, the publishing environment would have been a lot more welcoming to a girly frothy magic comedy on the fantasy shelves. At the time, it seemed, it was far too different to anything else being published, certainly within Australia. But, hey. These things only make sense in retrospect, sometimes a decade later...
I wouldn't trade my early publication for anything, though it didn't turn out the way I hoped. In many ways, I was too young and inexperienced to capitalise properly on a debut novel sale. On the other hand, early publication opened many doors to me - I was teaching creative writing within a couple of years, and continued to do so for most of my 20's. At Worldcon 1999 I was welcomed as a peer to many writers who have formed an important part of my life for over a decade. I was invited to join ROR, which has made a huge difference to my development as a writer. Oh, and I was able to support myself on my writing for a couple of years, before the wonders of postgrad scholarships kicked in. Thanks to that and the financial support of my honey, I managed to get through a very lengthy period as a university student without the distraction of a 'real' job.
Also, that early publication gave me confidence that, having done it once, I could do it again. Which, as it turned out, was 100% true.
Monday, August 24, 2009
I thought I'd get the ball rolling with my First Book Sale. It was a children's book, sold to Scholastic from the slush pile. How did this happen?
I saw a children's short story competition and was inspired to write a story and enter it. The story didn't win, didn't even place, but I liked it. Shortly after this, my children's school hosted a Book Week. I went along and looked over the books. Among them, I found one that was published by Scholastic, aimed at the same age group as my story. I did a quick word count on one page and calculated the number of words per chapter plus the number of words in the whole book.
Then I went home and expanded the story, incorporating a whole new twist and sent it off to Scholastic. I had no idea how hard it was to sell from the slush pile. Luckily, I had chosen a topical game that lots of kids were playing and the writing style was 'fresh and accessible' as a multi published writer later told me.
Scholastic accepted the book, changed the title to 'Capped' and that was my first sale!
The moral of the story? Persistence pays off. Be ready to learn your craft and keep working on your story or book. Do your research and aim for a particular market.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
In July I signed a three book deal with Orbit. The books in the Death Works series are the next stage in what has already been thirty one years of writing, and about fifteen years of publishing short stories. I’m hardly an overnight success.
When I was thirteen, I was sure that I would have sold my first novel by the time I turned eighteen. After all eighteen year olds were wise and clever, and so old. Well, I was only eighteen years out. In the interim I have had had God knows how many false starts, and written at least eight novels – of which, maybe, just maybe, two are any good.
I’ve also written close to a hundred short stories and sold around seventy. I reckon in another ten years I might actually know how to write a decent short story – I’m getting there.
One thing I’ve learnt is that I can write pretty much anywhere. Those stories have been written on the bus to and from work. One of my favourite stories “Slow and Ache” I wrote in the fire-escape in my lunch breaks. If you love writing; you find the space to write.
Book One of Death Works: Death Most Definite was initially written in my backyard. Me scrawling the story down on a lined writing pad. Like most of my stories I just played around on the page until something interesting got my attention. It wasn’t much of a start, all I had was a guy who falls in love with a dead girl. And the premise of people who worked for death and what might happen if someone started killing them off. Not a lot really: so the book stalled.
It was put aside for a year, or more, then picked up when fellow RORee Marianne de Pierre read the first chapter, and told me that I needed to finish it.
In late 2007 early 2008 I wrote a complete draft by hand in the library in Toowong – walking down to the library every day – listening to the same music to get me in the mood - and writing eight to ten pages finding out more about my characters and my world as I went. The narrative always pulled me on. I had to find out what was happening to these characters.
I beat that draft into some sort of shape and sent it off to Orbit. Now Orbit had come close to buying another of my novels, but this one I felt was better – maybe the best narrative that I’d ever written. Still, it was a little while before I heard anything back. I filled in the time writing a redraft of a children’s novel.
What I got back from that submission was an enthusiastic maybe. The MS still needed work, the first third was bogged down in exposition, a few characters really didn’t work, some were doing the same thing in the story, others were really doing nothing to serve the story at all. Rewrites were requested with no certainty of a sale – but I liked the suggestions, they made sense to me, seemed to be heading in the same direction I wanted the story to go – so I knuckled down and started to rewrite the manuscript.
Bits of it were written on my laptop in hospital waiting for a loved one to get better. A publisher might want to see rewrites, but the world doesn’t stop throwing up challenges. Other bits were scrawled out in notebooks sitting on a seat underneath a great big Moreton Bay Fig Tree in the park near home (a similar tree features prominently in the book).
Two months later I had a new draft: one I felt much happier with, but was it enough?
The novel went back out, and I returned to redrafting my kid’s book. Thank goodness for other projects!
When I got the phone call that I’d sold my novel, and the next two books in the series - well, I couldn’t quite believe it. Here was something that I’d desired since I was five, and finally, finally it was happening. It only took thirty one years.
Of course the work doesn’t stop.
I’m in the middle of a structural edit of book one – which, once I’m done will be tighter and more elegant than any previous draft – and half way through the first draft of book two, while thinking about all the terrible things I’m going to put my character through in book three (I already have the final scene written so I know where it’s going).
But it’s the kind of work that I love, and, I’m still writing in notebooks, and post-it notes, and on the bus to work, as well as my computer: if only I could find a good fire-escape somewhere.
Monday, August 10, 2009
I've had some queries about book structure, so I thought I'd take a look at some of the common mistakes I've discovered people make, based on doing manuscript assessments over the last 7 years.
Starting in the Wrong Place.
A lot of authors (even experienced ones) start their book in the wrong place. This is because they have to write some backstory about the world and the characters to get a feel for them, before they can plunge into the story. Then they love what they've written or it becomes 'invisible' because they've read it so many times that they just don't see it.
Often I'll be reading a manuscript and the story won't start until chapter two, or later. Your editor is a busy person. They aren't going to read through backstory to get to the juicy bits. Also, have you noticed how a lot of readers will pick up a book, look at the blurb and read the first couple of paragraphs? Then they'll decide if they want to buy the book. You need to plunge right into the story. That's why one of the first writing exercises we did at VISION was the Opening Hook.
So, get out your favourite books and take a look at where the authors started the story. How did they hook you in?
So you need to Start at a Moment of Change. Even if you go back later and fill in some of the backstory.
Crushed by World Building. In science fiction, fantasy and horror (which is now being called dark urban fantasy), there is a lot of World Building. The trick is slipping that world building in, in such a way that it doesn't slow the pace of the narrative, while giving enough detail to explain what is going on. I love world building and my books tend to be top heavy with this, which means I have to only leave in what is absolutely necessary.
Go back and look at your favourite authors, how have they done this?
Put off by Pacing. You need to keep up the narrative's momentum to sustain the reader's interest. You'll be running three or more narrative threads and sometimes you can neglect one of these.
I was assessing a 700 page book with seven narrative threads which included time slips. I suggested the author get a page of graph paper, divide the side of the paper in chunks of 50 pages, then give each of the narrative threads a colour and drawn lines down the page to show how many pages had been devoted to those characters. Plus they needed to mark which timeline the threads belonged to. It sounds complex when I write it now, but it provided a clear colour coded visual of where the story was getting top heavy in some narratives, while skimping in others. If the author is having trouble keeping track of the narrative, then the reader is going to be lost.
So keep track of your narrative and, if you think the pacing is slowing down, 'put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them' as one of the best selling romance authors said. Make sure your characters have enough problems. I call this the Worry Factor, you want to keep your reader worried about your characters, so they will keep turning those pages to see what happens.
Beware the Sagging Middle. This is where some authors run out of steam towards the middle of the book. This is where you need to have some twists planned to keep the characters and the readers on their toes.
I can't get no Satisfaction. When writing genre there's an unwritten contract with the reader. We promise to deliver a satisfying story and part of that is Resolution. The readers have followed your characters through a hundred thousand words of story. They've identified with them, they've worried for them. Give the readers (and the characters) the resolution they deserve.
These are all general suggestions. Open the books you love and analyse how the authors delivered on their unwritten contracts.
And for an excellent detailed look at story and structure, go to Richard Harland's Writing Tips.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Mega congratulations to Margo. Her book, Tender Morsels, has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award.
Our very one Margo Lanagan has won before with her short story, Singing my Sister Down.
Both the anthology that this story appeared in and Tender Morsels were critiqued at ROR. Naturally, we feel terribly proud and are preparing bottles of champagne to share with Margo, next time we all catch up!
Sunday, August 2, 2009
In one particular writer's ten pages there was something like 16 View Point changes. On one page alone there were 4 VP changes between 3 people. So I sat down the with the writer and began to explain how important it is to let your reader know which character's VP they are in, to give the reader time to get to know the character and empathise with them, and to signal clearly when you're changing VP. We spent an hour and a half together. At the end of this, the author stood up, thanked me and asked what View Point was.
So I'm going to start out by explaining it.
View Point (VP) for short, is when you are in a chracter's head telling the story through their eyes. There are many levels of VP. Here are the basics.
Omniscient VP is like a movie camera. The narrator is the author who knows everything. This is a very distancing VP because the reader isn’t intimately involved with a particular character. And there is no sense of threat, because the Omniscient VP keeps the reader distanced from danger. It is an old fashioned VP because of the tone it gives a book.
The most intimate type of View Point is First Person. This is often used for Children’s books because it is very immediate and drags the reader in and also for Mystery stories, because the narrator can only uncover facts by experiencing events while they are trying to solve the murder. This creates suspense.
Second Person is rarely used eg. 'You're walking down a street, when ...'
The most common VP is Third Person. eg. 'She did this, he did that.' To make a story gripping you can use Deep Third Person VP. It is almost like First Person, but you use ‘she/he’ instead of ‘I’. If you immerse your reader in the protagonist and give them a challenging problem you’ll engage the reader. They will have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to the protagonist. Deep Third Person VP will make events feel immediate and involve the reader.
Don’t chop and change VP.
Once you are aware of VP you’ll notice how other writers use it. Sometimes they limit each scene to one VP and telegraph clearly at the beginning of a scene which VP they are in. Other times they will change VP within a scene, but this must be done sparingly or the reader will get annoyed because they’re not sure whose head they are in. This is called Head Hopping. Best selling romance writer Nora Roberts head hops but because she can weave a good story, the reader forgives her.
When you change VP within a scene there should be a good reason, ie. you change VP to reveal something that only this character could know, or to show how this new character has misinterpreted something the other character said or did.
For an in-depth look at the various levels of VP borrow a copy of Ursula K Le Guin’s ‘Steering the Craft of Writing’ and read her chapter on VP. It is excellent.
In a children’s book limit the VP to one or two characters and signal clearly when you change VP.
In an adult book select 2/3 VPs and limit your book to those primary VPs. Of course George RR Martin breaks this rule and does it well in his Fire and Ice series. But he uses only one VP per chapter and telegraphs this with the character's name.
Some writers mix their VPs. They will have characters whose story they tell in third person VP and another character whose story they tell from first person VP. Personally, I feel there has to be a reason for doing this. In the current book I'm writing one of the characters is deformed and has no gender. I couldn't use third person VP, because we don't have an intelligent non-gender specific pronoun in English. So I'm using first person for this character and third person for the other two characters. I've seen writers invent an intelligent pronoun but for some reason this always jars with me. I can accept an invented noun like Wookie, but not a prounoun like he, she, ve.
Using VP to raise tension.
Just because we write SF, Fantasy and Horror doesn't mean we can't use a technique Thriller writers use to crank up the tension. You can choose to use a brief VP to tell something that the main protagonists wouldn’t know. Thrillers often dip into the VP of a character who gets killed by the villain.
If you have three VP characters and all three of them are in a scene together and you're not sure which VP to use to reveal the scene, ask yourself, Which character has the most to lose? And tell the scene from that character's VP.
If you're worried that your third person VP isn't gripping enough, consider rewriting the scene in first person VP. You'll find this changes the Authorial Voice and and makes the telling more immediate. Once you've done this, try to incorporate elements of this in third person VP to make it deep third Person.
Have you read any books recently that did interesting things with VP?