Friday, 15 April 2011

Reader Request: the Journey

Today's Reader Request post comes courtesy of Saumya, who wanted me to talk about my journey to getting a book deal, from start to finish. This could easily turn into a monster of a post if I let myself yammer on, so I'm going to try and be as concise as I can.

How long did it take me? That depends on which way you want to look at it. I was fifteen/sixteen when I first sent a letter/partial out to a publisher (it was awful, but the editor who replied was very nice) and twenty-two when I got my book deal for a very different book. So I guess it took me six or seven years.
On the other hand, I could boil it down to just A TORRENT OF LIGHT. How long did it take me from starting the first draft of TORRENT to getting the book deal? 

About thirteen months. 

I did it by the book i.e. I researched agents, I wrote the dreaded query letter, I had requests for partials, requests for fulls, ultimately got an agent, who then sold the book. So I probably could be a poster girl for How Hard Work and Persistence/Pigheaded Stubborn Determination Can Pay Off. I could also be a poster girl for How One Agent Had to Read Four of My Manuscripts Over the Course of Four Years and Ultimately Rejected Them All But Was Still Terribly Nice About Giving Me Second Chances, the Poor Bloke.

But anyway, for Saumya and for any other interested reader, here's how a manuscript called ECHOES became the soon-to-be-published A TORRENT OF LIGHT-

Late September 2009
Sangu starts writing a book. (Ironically, she is in Bangalore for the end of her summer break from university and she's writing the first part of her book which is set in England.)

November 2009
Sangu is back at university in England and stops writing the book because she thinks it's rubbish. (By this point, you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear she's writing the part of the book that's set in Bangalore. Go figure.)

January 2010
Sangu starts writing the book again because Steve (then boyfriend, soon-to-be-fiance and eventual husband) tells her it's amazing and she should and, moreover, he kind of wants to know how it ends so could she please stop being such a selfish cow and just finish the damn thing already? (He's the best cheerleader ever.)

February 2010
Sangu finishes her 'first draft', though it's not really a first draft as she's done a lot of going back and editing as she wrote it. She starts to edit, using beautiful red pens and shiny pieces of paper and feeling distinctly proud of Her Editing Tools.

March 2010
She starts querying agents. She probably did this a tad too soon, in hindsight, as the manuscript would be revised several more times in the months to come, but Oh Well.

March-August 2010
She gets a lot of query rejections, a fair few partial requests, and three full requests in these months. An agent called Holly Root finishes the manuscript in August and likes it, but doesn't think it's right for her, so she gives Sangu a referral. Sangu emails the agent she was referred to. This agent, in case you didn't already know this, is Melissa Sarver.

One week later
Melissa gets back to Sangu and wants to talk. After a long chat about the manuscript, Sangu does a few revisions, sends it back to Melissa, and

Mid-September 2010
Sangu HAS AN AGENT. Like, ohmygod.

Late October 2010
Sangu is on her way to Bangalore (funny how these things come full circle, hey?) on holiday when Melissa sends her a text to ask if Sangu is available to speak to an editor. Sangu spends the rest of the trip (a four-hour flight from Dubai) freaking out and annoying Steve with questions like 'BUT WHAT COULD SHE WANT FROM ME STEVIE TELL ME WHYYYYYY'.

Early November 2010
Sangu speaks to two editors in the space of a week, ends up with two offers on her book, talks things over with her agent, ultimately goes with one of the two offers, and HAS A BOOK DEAL OMG FAINT.

Okay, so it did turn into quite a long post after all. But I tried, I promise. Alas, me and concise will never be the best of friends.
And that's how it happened. My journey to a book deal: six years or so, five manuscripts, an awful lot of rejections, and thirteen months of crazy, exciting stuff.

And no, it doesn't end there. That's when the real work started!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Writers and Lady Gaga: more in common than we thought?

Just a quick stop today. So we all know that Lady Gaga likes to wear unusual things, right? Meat dress, anyone? (Ah, I love Lady Gaga.) And many of us are writers/artists of some kind, are we not? And in true artistic fashion, do we not have our quirks? 

For instance, I wear weird stuff to work sometimes (for example: nothing. I've said this before, I do sometimes get undressed for a shower, then remember an idea, and start writing and before I know it, I'm working naked for hours...) and I'm sure I'm not the only one out there. Anyone else? No? Don't be shy!
So I love this Guardian article. Blog-friend and reader Alesa sent me the link several days ago and I decided I had to share it.

What are your artistic quirks?

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Reader Request: Top Seven Adult Characters

Another Reader Request post! This time the reader is Alex, who wanted a post about characters. Here's what she said:

I'd really like to read some more of your in-depth thoughts on fictional characters/relationships. I loved the top 10 post the other day.  

And here's the post: my favourite adult characters in children's/YA fiction. I think adult characters often get a hard time in children's or YA novels (absent parents, irresponsible relatives, cruel stepmothers, and so forth) - but sometimes you get a truly fantastic, superb grown up, whether they're a parental influence or a friend or an antagonist. In this post, I'll list my top seven, in no particular order.

Note: I'm widening the definition of children's/YA fiction to novels that also happen to be primarily about a child/told from a child's point of view, even if the novel itself isn't necessarily a children's story. I've broadened the definition for one reason only: so I can include one of my favourite adult characters of all time.

1. Sirius Black in the Harry Potter novels (JK Rowling)
I loved Sirius from the moment he appeared and proved just how wrong we/Harry/the world had been about him right through Prisoner of Azkaban. I've always thought him reckless but loving, irresponsible but oddly kind. And sexy.

2. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Atticus is the reason I broadened my definition, because some would argue that TKAM isn't exactly a children's book - though I think it is.
Who doesn't love Atticus? He's good and clever and brave - incredibly brave. He's not without flaws. And he loves his kids so much.

3. Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter novels (JK Rowling)
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that, given my way, most of the characters on this list would be from Harry Potter - I think there are some fantastic adult figures in the series. But I'm limiting myself to a few, lest I bore everyone. And Professor McGonagall had to make the cut. She's brilliant and hilarious and weirdly soft once you get past her sarcasm and prickly, stern exterior. And she totally won my heart when she went out of her way to defy Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix.

4. Luke Garroway in The Mortal Instruments trilogy/series (Cassandra Clare)
Clearly I like the cool, fatherly figure - though Luke is also fierce, totally not perfect, and is *ahem spoiler ahead* a werewolf. I like werewolves (except Jacob. Sorry, Jacob fans. Jacob annoyed the heck out of me.)

5. Topaz Mortmain in I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith)
Again, not entirely sure this officially counts as YA, but if it doesn't, I think it should. 
Topaz is obviously a lunatic, and I mean that in the best possible way. She stands on the heath stark naked in an attempt to commune with nature. This makes her awesome to me. And hilarious. She's also rather sweet.

6. Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman)
Definitely not the loving father, him. He's ruthless and charismatic and often cruel, but he ultimately redeems himself. I just love that about him. And he's another sexy one, so I fancy him anyway.

7. Mags in Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)
Any Hunger Games fans out there will probably think this an odd choice. After all, Mags is barely in the book - she hasn't got much page-time. But this is an old, old woman who volunteers to fight to the death just to save another girl from having to do it. And when a certain something happens to her, I bawled my eyes out, which just goes to show how quickly I grew to love her.

And there you have it: my top seven. Who are your favourite adult characters? And why do you love them so much?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Ten Tips for a Great Story: Guest Post by David Baboulene

Today I have the pleasure of announcing a guest post from writer David Baboulene, as part of his blog tour. I recently read David's The Story Book, a fantastic guide for writers and storytellers, and I'm thrilled to have him here.

A big thank you to David for this post!


The Top Ten Tips to Make Stories that Grip!

In my work I have been fortunate to have conversations with famous people who have made their money from stories, including:
  • Bob Gale (scriptwriter of Back to the Future);
  • Lee Child (16 million Jack Reacher Novels sold);
  • John Sullivan (TV comedy writer of Only Fools and Horses; Just Good friends; Citizen Smith…);
  • Mark Williams (Actor in The Harry Potter films; Shakespeare in Love; 101 Dalmations...);
  • Willy Russell (Theatre supremo and writer of Educating Rita; Blood Brothers; Shirley Valentine…)
to name but a few. So, from the insights from these fine gentlemen, from my own experiences getting published, my work as a story consultant, from working on films and from undertaking my PhD in Story Theory, and of course in writing and researching The Story Book, here are my top ten tips for writers.

1) If you want to be a writer, read a thousand books.

2) Write every day. Make it a priority, build it into your schedule and discipline yourself to it. Set yourself a manageable word count and make sure you achieve that. Stephen King reportedly writes 2000 words a day, every day. Sunday, Christmas Day, his birthday - every day. And when he finishes a book, if he's only done 1500 words of his daily count, he gets a clean sheet of paper, writes 'Page 1' at the top, and starts the next one. Self-discipline, folks. Yes, being a writer is glamorous to talk about and a romantic place for dreamers, but the ones who make it in this business work very hard, are professional and productive.  

3) Don't try to learn 'how to write'. No course or method or guru can tell you how to write. There's only one person who can tell your story your way, and that's you. Those who find success have self-confidence in writing what THEY think is great. Yes, learn about STORY - where the power comes from in stories, how they work, why they exist, how they resonate, what factors are present in all great stories - then use that understanding to get the most you possibly can out of yourself as a story teller. Then you can use your personality and your knowledge to take responsibility and write your story YOUR way to the best it can possibly be.

4) Understand story structure, but structure is NOT a starting point for story development, so don't let it drive you. Let your creative brilliance run wild and free and write from the heart in creating your story, then later, use your understanding of structure as a fantastic tool in problem-solving and optimizing your story.

5) Most of all, understand SUBTEXT. And understand the creative behaviours that embed subtext. Subtext is the substance of story. If you have no subtext you have no story. The more subtext there is, the higher a story is rated by the audience. Fact.

6) Stories are about character behaviours. Don't think about 'plot' and 'character' as separate things. What a character does when he takes action will define his true character, and what a character does when he takes action will also provide the action. Character behaviours define both plot and character. Get this right, and your story telling will be tight, cohesive and superb.

7) All the greatest stories show us a character learning and changing and growing through the experiences of the story events (or failing to learn and grow, but the lessons are still evident to us as readers/viewers). Try to ensure that at least one character is offered the opportunity to climb the ladder of life. You will find that this is actually your real story, and this is what resonates with your readers and elevates your story.

8) True character comes only from putting your protagonists under pressure to make difficult decisions. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain might be a huge challenge, but  he'd be delighted to do it, so the conflict is not meaningful and therefore the story is not meaningful. For a mountaineer to climb a mountain to save a stranded friend... risking his own life whilst his children are begging him not to go and his wife says she’ll leave if he does... that is a story. Sit your characters on the horns of a dilemma wrapped in a choice of evils and sandwiched between rocks and hard places and your readers will be gripped...

9) It's really important to learn to handle rejection (there WILL be rejection...) otherwise you will never send anything off. I know many, many writers who develop their stories... then develop and develop some more... because they are so scared of the Judgment Day that comes the moment they admit it’s finished. There's no easy way. You have to grasp the nettle and get on with it. Put your ego to one side (the vast majority of rejections are nothing to do with your ability or the literary merit of your story); dig deep, be strong, and put it out there. When I asked John Sullivan for his advice for aspiring writers he gave me this series of steps that should define a writer’s life:

    A) Write the best stuff you can.
    B) Send it off.
    C) Go to A.

It ain't rocket science! But you do need to be brave, or else you won't get anywhere. As soon as your material is good enough, you WILL be recognised... and you WILL get a deal! And I promise you - once you’ve had 10 rejections, the 11th doesn’t hurt so bad!  

10) If you would like more detailed information on any of the above, get in touch with me and I will send you a free chapter from The Story Book on the topic that is puzzling you.

Very best of luck with your work. Oh, before I go, I think there might be just one more tip we could all benefit from...

11) Get off the internet and go do some writing!

Thanks so much to Sangu for the opportunity to contribute to this wonderful website.