Monday, 25 March 2013

Some rules for writing.

  1. Don't pretend there are rules for writing.  At best there are rules for your writing, but even then, they are probably just rules for writing the book you have just finished.
  2. Don't think that writing fiction makes you a guru.  Just because you can tell a story doesn't qualify you to pepper the internet with platitudes and aphorisms and lists.
  3. Don't take credit for your book jacket unless you did it yourself.  The designer doesn't take credit for your prose.
  4. Don't bang on about what a terrible job it is to be a writer.  You sound like an idiot.  Many of your readers would sell their souls to get a book published, or to even have written something worth publishing.
  5. Write every book as though it were your last.  Otherwise it might be.
  6. Don't take pleasure in bad books.  A bad book doesn't make your book any better.  
  7. Don't dismiss bad reviews because they are bad.  Not all bad reviews are wrong.
  8. Don't set limits on your achievements.  
  9. Don't set yourself goals.  Goals are just another kind of limitation.
  10. Be jealous of the achievements of others, but don't resent them.  It's not personal.  They aren't selling books to spite you.  They don't know who you are.
  11. Don't be a jerk.  
  12. Don't listen to other writers.  They lie for a living.
  13. Believe in yourself, but stop well short of worship.
  14. Don't tell complete strangers how many words you've written that day.  The postman doesn't tell you how many letters he's delivered.  No one cares.
  15. Don't tell everyone you work every day including Christmas Day and think anyone is going to believe you.
  16. Don't go on about how J K Rowling isn't a very good writer, because it gets on my nerves (see 10).
  17. Don't make an enemy of your editor or your agent.
  18. Don't wear your lack of sales as a badge of pride.  Low sales do not necessarily mean that your work is an under-appreciated work of genius.
  19. Trust your own judgement.  But not too much (see 11).
  20. Listen to other writers.  They tell the truth for a living.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The undead book

I've just had a royalty statement for a book I wrote some years ago.  It is called Witch Hunt and was published by Hodder.  It is a piece of narrative non-fiction about the Salem witch trials.  It is, I firmly believe, a very good book.  It is also out of print.

Royalty statements are a bit of a mystery to everyone outside the publishing industry and, to be honest, they can be pretty confusing even if you see them every six months.  They are the kind of documents that seems designed to make the information they contain as hard to ingest as possible.

The writer of a book receives a share of the sale price, agreed on contract.  Royalty statements are sent to writers from their publisher and detail the sales of books and the money due - if any - to the writer.

I say 'if any' because royalty statements can just as easily show a negative figure as a positive one.  This is because when the writer signs a contract with their publisher, they will almost certainly be paid an 'advance'.  This advance - the amount of which varies from publisher to publisher, writer to writer - will have to be 'earned out' before the writer will receive any royalties.

The bigger the advance, the harder it is to pay off.  But because a writer cannot control the sales of a book - although they can obviously help, by attending events, promoting themselves online an so on - most writers (and their agents) will want to try and get the best advance they can.

However, most writers will also want to 'earn out' their advance.  Not just because they want to earn royalties, but because if you don't pay off that advance, you will be in a weaker position the next time you negotiate with your publisher.  But more than that - books that don't earn out their advance drag behind you like the links on Jacob Marley's chains.

Good writers don't just churn books out (and yes I am saying I am a good writer).  We have to balance our artistic needs with the requirement to pay bills, but mostly, I have a real emotional commitment to anything I write.

When a book does not sell it hurts.  I mean it really hurts.  It may be a disappointment to your publisher, but it is often far more than just a financial disappointment to the author.  When a book that you put your heart and soul into does not sell, it can be really upsetting - and unsettling.

A book generally has a limited window of opportunity to sell - or two, if it has a hardback release initially.  In a perfect world, there will be a sales and marketing budget behind your hardback book and it will appear on tabletops in Waterstones and get reviewed in a couple of national papers and those (hopefully positive) reviews will decorate the jacket of your paperback.  Maybe you'll be nominated for an award.  Or even win one.

Your book needs to sell whilst this wind is in its sails.  It needs your other books to sell too.  You need to elbow yourself some room on the shelves.  The book's life - or half-life - will be extended on Amazon, and maybe it will get another chance if your next book sells well.  But maybe it will - gulp - go out of print.

Meanwhile those royalty statements keep coming, reminding you of that failure, telling you exactly how little a dent you have made in that advance.  Its a pain that cannot be cured, because the book, if it out of print, cannot sell any more copies.  I think many writers feel guilty about this.  They feel as though they have let the publisher down.  They feel they've let themselves down.  But that's not necessarily the case.

We all want to believe that quality will out, but experience tells us this is not the case.  We see it in our own work, and we see it in the work of others.  Good books (movies, plays, whatever) do not always do well.  Bad books (movies, plays, whatever) often do very well indeed.  Part of this is explained by the subjectivity of the term 'good', I should add.

So what do I think went wrong with Witch Hunt?  I'll start with what I think is right with it.  I think it's well written (well I would say that., wouldn't I) and was well edited by Anne Clark (who is now an agent).  The subject matter is a strong one - there is a perennial interest in witches and in the Salem witch trial.  It also links to the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s and to Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

What, in retrospect, may not have worked was the idea of narrative non-fiction.  It is a very successful genre in books for adults, but is perhaps confusing for children's booksellers.  The cover - which I actually quite like - is designed to look like fiction, I think, but the girl's face effectively rules out boy readers.  It could have been a bit less tasteful too.

Add to that the fact that the budgets for educational books are relatively small, and it becomes harder to promote the book.  It did get reviewed and had a couple of really nice ones as I remember.  But the fact remains that a book like this has a very small chance to get noticed before it sinks - as this one sadly did.  I remember seeing it in only one bookshop - and when I did, it was in the fiction section.

It is humbling to accept, that the success of your book may have as much, if not more, to do with the quality of the cover, the publicity, or of the sales or marketing budget, than about the quality of the prose.  But unless the audience know its there, the book cannot sell.  It is really as simple as that.  And so the writer can feel the book did not sell because the publisher did not back it with sufficient zeal.  The writer can grow bitter.  But who is to tell where the blame - if that's even the right word - lays.  There is always the possibility - however unlikely it seems - that the book you wrote, the book you loved and devoted so many hours to, was actually a bit dull, a bit derivative - not very good.

These undead books that come back to haunt us are reminders of something that went wrong in the mix of writing, editing, design, sales, marketing, publicity, but unfortunately they don't tell us which specific aspect failed.  As dispiriting as it may be to have a book that refused to sell, as a writer all you can really do is put it down to experience and go on and write the very best book you can - every time.

Crying over unsold books is the silliest of all writerly self-indulgences.  Let it go.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

And the loser is....

I had a very good morning in Tooting yesterday at the Wandsworth FAB book awards, marred only by the fact that I didn't win.  Alexander Gordon Smith was the only other author there of the seven who were shortlisted.  We looked on nervously as the books were listed in ascending order, breathing a sigh of relief when ours did not appear in seventh place (he finished second and I finished third, by the way).  Blood Read Road by Moira Young was the winner.

It was fascinating as always to talk to the young people who came along to the event and to hear a little about why they had enjoyed Mister Creecher (they were far too polite to tell me if they hadn't enjoyed it) and to get a chance to ask them about what they liked to read and why.

What was really heartening for me was the fact that they talked about Mister Creecher they really picked up on the friendship aspect of the book.  The possibilities and limitations of Billy's relationship to Creecher were at the heart of all my thinking when I was writing that book.

In many ways I saw both characters as teenagers.  Although Creecher is a giant physically, he is a boy emotionally and psychologically.  He has been rejected by his 'father' and is looking for love, just as Billy, hurt and scarred by his life, is also looking for love.  They want love but neither know how to give it.  Both are wary and suspicious.

I think the relationships between teenage boys can be complicated even without such damaged individuals.  Teenage boys are very conscious of their maleness and are hyper-sensitive to how they are perceived by others.  Boys are full of questions they dare not ask for fear of revealing their ignorance and appearing to be inexperienced - which they are, most of the time.

Neither Billy nor Creecher know as much as they pretend to.  None of their experience is of any use to them in gaining the lives they dream of having.  Their friendship is a dangerous one, shot through with lies and suspicion and resentment.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Portuguese ships

A couple of Portuguese editions of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship turned up in the post yesterday.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

And the winner is. . .

I am delighted to be able to tell you that Mister Creecher has won the BASH 2013 yesterday!

BASH stands for Book Award St Helen's and is voted on by the young people of St Helen's, Merseyside.  I was in very good company on the shortlist and I am very proud and pleased that Mister Creecher was voted the winner.

I want to thank all those voters and the organisers of the award.  I was sadly unable to attend the ceremony due to other commitments, but maybe I'll get a chance to come up there and meet some of those involved before too long.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The mask

The Mask was the original title for Through Dead Eyes, and for good reason - the whole story hinges on an antique mask that Alex buys when walking round Amsterdam with Angelien.

The mask I had in mind was a wooden Japanese noh theatre mask.  Hanna's father was a Dutch merchant with trading links to Japan and brings it back with him.  Through Alex, it returns to the house he lived in with his daughter - the house that is now the hotel in which Alex is staying with his father.  It is via the mask that Alex makes contact with Hanna - and she with him.

Whether the mask was cursed before Hanna wore it, I will let you decide when you read it.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Publication day

Through Dead Eyes is now published by Bloomsbury.  I have had copies of the book for a while now and I have already moved on in my mind, editing the next book and writing the one after that.  But publication day is still very exciting.  Any writer who doesn't find it exciting is possibly in the wrong business.

So what is Through Dead Eyes about?  I have already said a little about how and why I came to write it, but I have said very little about the plot.

The story concerns a teenage boy - Alex - who visits Amsterdam with his father.  His father is a writer and in the city hoping to get his history of Amsterdam during the Second World War made into a documentary series.  But we quickly learn that there are complications.

Alex's parents have separated and Alex has not adapted well.  He has had some trouble at school and he and his father are doing their best to avoid talking about it.  Added to which his father's editor in Amsterdam - Saskia - is an old girlfriend from his university days.  Saskia's daughter, Angelien is roped into being Alex's guide whilst Saskia and Alex's father talk business.

Angelien is older than Alex, intelligent and attractive.  They become closer as they start to investigate the mystery behind a strange Japanese mask Alex feels compelled to buy at an antiques market, and Alex starts to fall for her - despite the attentions of her aggressive boyfriend.

The mask has something to do with Alex's sense that he is not alone in his hotel room.  When he puts it on he sees the world as it was in the seventeenth century.  More than that, he sees the world through the eyes of the girl who used to wear it - a girl called Hanna.

And it is a very dark world indeed. . .

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Good news, and bad...

Yesterday I was very pleased to learn that Mister Creecher had been shortlisted for the UKLA Book Award.  I know I say this every time, but there are so many books out there, so many really strong writers, that it is a real honour to be singled out in this way.  A big thank you to all those involved in choosing it.

I was still glowing from this news when I heard, today, that once again I have failed to make it from longlist to shortlist for the Carnegie Medal.  I am hugely disappointed, of course - but I don't intend to stop writing any time soon, so I just have to hope my time is yet to come.  This was the third time one of my books had reached the longlist, and that in itself is very gratifying.  Good luck to those who have made it onto the shortlist.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

World book day

I did a World Book Day event yesterday, at the Cambridge International School just down the road from me.  If you are reading this outside of the UK and Ireland you will be confused.  We decided against having World Book Day on April 23 when everyone else celebrates it, despite it being a UNESCO idea.  I'm not really sure we have much of a claim to calling it World Book Day, but it is such a good cause that no one ever seems to complain.  It does miss the point of the whole world joining in, though.  The reasons seem to revolve around the idea that schools may be closed because of the shifting nature of the Easter school holidays and the fact that it is St George's Day.

I'm not sure why St George's Day is incompatible with World Book Day and April 23 is also cited as the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, which seems to make the day more suitable, not less.

Anyway, my World Book Day event was fun.  I arrived to watch teachers in costume recommend books to their students, who were also in costume - and that is rare in a secondary school.  We had some readings and even a little acting, and then I had eight minutes or so to sum up my career, explain the plot of my latest book, do a reading and take questions from the audience.  It was all a bit of a blur and then I was back in the car and back home.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Through dead eyes

A package of advance copies of Through Dead Eyes arrived in the post the other day ahead of the publication day on March 14.  I thought I'd tell you a little more about why I wrote it.

The first and most obvious thing about the book is that it is the first book I have done for Bloomsbury that has a contemporary setting.  Why?

Well, much as I love writing books that have a period setting - and I have no intention of stopping doing that - I know that for some young people (possibly many young people) the period setting is a turn off.  A Victorian setting requires a certain language level to make it believable, it requires descriptions of things that no longer exist and of which the reader may have no prior knowledge.  It is inevitably 'old-fashioned' - it has to be.  For some children, that is enough to put them off.

I am not saying that I am chasing readers.  That way madness lies.  many young people will never read a horror book, whatever the setting.  But it is also interesting for me, as a writer, to see if I can create the same atmosphere without recourse to a period setting.

As with so many of my books and stories, Through Dead Eyes was sparked by my response to things created by other people - things that affected me deeply and stayed with me.

When I was at school we had an English text book called Voices - a very eclectic mix of drawings and photographs, poetry and prose.  I have a memory - although I do not have the book to prove it - that in one of the Voices editions there was a detail from Bruegel's Children's Games which focused in on the strange mask in the window at the top left of the picture.  I found - still find - that image disturbing, every time I revisit that painting.

I also have a very strong memory of watching the BBC adaptation of Schalken the Painter from the late 1970s.  The whole thing seemed to exist in deep shadow and carried with it the strange otherworldly atmosphere of so many interiors and portraits of the Dutch Golden Age.

Then there is movie Don't Look Now of course.  The canals of Amsterdam are blacker than the canals of Venice on a dull day.  Although the layout of the town is not so maze-like as Venice, Amsterdam is still a perfect location for a ghost story, full of atmosphere and history.  There is a little homage to Don't Look Now in the book, for those who know the movie.

So I knew I wanted to set it in Amsterdam and I knew I wanted it to have a link to the seventeenth century - the Dutch Golden Age - and those black-clad merchants who stare out from the paintings in the Rijksmuseum.

But I also knew that I wanted to deal with a boy's awkward attempts at relating to the opposite sex.  I wanted everything to be in a state of flux - I wanted him to have no solid ground at all.  This is common in psychological chillers for adults, but I wanted to try and put some of that emotional confusion into a book for teenagers.


I was drawing in a cafĂ© in Manchester, when I was a student there, many years ago.  A girl of about eight or nine wandered up and looked at what I was doing.  She looked at my hand drawing and she looked at the people I was drawing at the other side of the small basement cafe.

'Can't you draw without copying?' she asked.

That has stayed with me ever since.  For her - like most children - drawing was all about sitting and retreating into a private world - of trying to make your imagination come alive through drawing.  My own son would spend hours at a similar age, drawing complex battle scenes or fiendishly complicated plans of imaginary houses.  Very little thought was given to how well rendered these things were.  They were simply ways of recording the thoughts in his head.  They were functional.

Of course, I didn't see objective drawing as 'copying', even though - in a way - it is.  The subject matter is given to you.  It's one of the things that appeals to me about it - the freedom from invention.  Freed from the pressure to invent, I can just relax and enjoy the accidental arrangements that occur in real life - the way one object partially conceals another, the way hair falls, or clothing creases.

I used to carry my sketchbook everywhere, sketching friends, the corners of rooms - whatever was in front of me at the time.  Over time, as my illustration career and painterly pretentions kicked in, I decided that sketching was all a bit blasĂ©.  I became more and more dissatisfied with the drawings I did and more and more sceptical of the reasons for doing them at all.  Real artists didn't sit about sketching, for goodness sake!

Looking through some sketchbooks from college, I was struck most of all by how thankful I was to have done them and to have these reminders of those I loved and of the places we lived and worked.  But I was conscious too that I had lost some of the confidence I showed in those drawings.  It had been replaced with a doubt - a doubt I think I persuaded myself was the authentic sign of a true artist.

When I write, I am interested in what makes the character I am writing about specifically that character and not another.  I am very, very concerned about setting - about the particularities of the locations that I choose.  I will often set a story in a very specific location.  Even when I have not named it, I still usually know in my head where it is.

When I write, I invent the plot but use actual locations, historical detail and observations of the world around me to make that invention real for the reader.  I think I need to do something similar when I paint and illustrate.

And I think I need to get back to the joy of drawing for pleasure.

The turn of the screw

I went to see the The Turn of the Screw at the Almeida the other day.  As I mentioned a long time ago, we are trying to get a play based on one of my books - Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth - off the ground, and so it was a research trip as much as anything.

It was fascinating to see.  There is a trend at the moment for this kind of effects-based theatre, full of appearances and disappearances, sound effects and thrills.  This was the first I had seen and by all accounts it is not as strong as The Woman in Black production, for instance.

I know the story reasonably well - and was encouraged to revisit it on the way home on my Kindle.  I know it best through Jack Clayton's 1960s movie The Innocents, which improves, in my opinion, on the book.  Film allowed for a much more naturalistic performance from the young actors and also allowed them to be genuinely young.  Miles is ten in the story, but was much older here, with a man's voice.  It was understandable, given how much of the story they have to carry, but it did detract.  It was harder to imagine Miles as the beautiful innocent, corrupted by Quint.

The effects were good, in the main.  But it did inevitably become all about the effects, with people craning their necks to see where the next appearance was coming from.  The set revolves so much in the second act that it is in effect a roundabout.

It was also a strange atmosphere.  A little like a pantomime for grown-ups, with people coming for a good time.  And The Turn of the Screw is quite a serious plot to house that kind of fun.  As Gemma Jones as the housekeeper described Quint's depravity, the man next to me chuckled loudly - and he wasn't alone.  The script seemed to have become a connecting device to prepare us for the next jolt.  I don't really know what to make of it, except that it simply did not carry the psychological threat and menace that the story should have.  There was no ratcheting up of tension as there should have been.

Interestingly, it was pointed out to me that although The Turn of the Screw begins with the story being told to house guests and then read to them from a manuscript of the tale told by the governess, we never return to that wraparound story.

This is quite odd.  The man who tells the story was clearly in love with the governess at the centre of the story and when he meets her she is a governess at another house and apparently completely normal. We don't hear what the storyteller thinks of her after he reads the manuscript, nor do we hear what the guests think of it.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Creecher confusion

I just wanted to talk a little bit about Mister Creecher.  The book has been out for a while now and I'm very pleased to say that it has garnered lots of nice reviews and quite a few award nominations.

But nice though the reviews are, time and again the same errors keep cropping up.  I wanted to try and clear some of these things up before I attend some of those award ceremonies.

Firstly, Mister Creecher is not a Victorian-set book.  I actually state the date at the very beginning.  The book opens on New Year's Day 1818, which is the day Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published.  Queen Victoria wasn't even born at that point and it will be almost twenty years before she comes to the throne.

So why do so many reviewers wax lyrical about the Victorian setting?  Well, some of this is down to the stepping stone nature of historical knowledge.  We are more sure of the Victorian period and so reviewers tend to assume if we are talking about foggy London streets and horses and carriages, then we must be in a generic 'Victorian' world (which is actually just as often Edwardian).

This is the Regency period.  Jane Austen has just died.  If you want to people the streets of London in Mister Creecher, a Jane Austen film or television adaptation would be a better guide than a Dickens adaptation.  We are also in the age of the Romantics, so Jane Campion's film Bright Star (about John Keats) is an exact match - and it is a lovely movie too.  Percy and Mary Shelley did indeed live for a while in Great Russell Street, before they left for Italy.  Keats really was at that stone circle in Cumbria that summer.

The confusion about the era is also - I think - to do with the ending of the book.  I don't want to go into too much detail or it will spoil it for those who haven't read it, but what I will say is that Charles Dickens was five when Frankenstein was published.  He was already a published author before Queen Victoria came to throne in 1837, Oliver Twist being serialised in monthly instalments during that same year, when Dickens was only twenty-five.

There is also a continued insistence - particularly I find - among American reviewers to call Victor Frankenstein a doctor.  There is no Dr Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's book or mine.  Neither was Victor Frankenstein a medical student.

I met up with Pierre Fournier who writes the Frankensteinia blog and who knows just about all there is to know about Frankenstein and we talked about this.  We also talked about the fact that whilst everyone assumes the creature - my Mister Creecher - is made up of stitched together body parts, Mary Shelley herself makes no reference to this at all.  She says that Victor Frankenstein frequented charnel houses as part of his research, but makes it clear that he was studying decay, seemingly in an attempt to learn how to reverse it.

Frankenstein is a pro to-scientist - possibly the very image of a mad scientist - but he is also obsessed with alchemy and magic.  The creature seems to have been born out of some meeting of science and alchemy.  The crude scars and stitches that cover the faces of the cinematic creatures are there to frighten us.  They are there to make the  creature seem more horrific.

Mary's original concept of the creature, with its huge build, like a Romantic giant, the workings of his anatomy visible through his wrinkled translucent skin, is far more disturbing and it is the one that I tried to keep in my mind at all times.