Thursday, April 23, 2009

Coming Together

It's been a long hard slog - both the gestation of my slowly evolving writing skills (if I have any - lol) and completing this NAW course.

Tonight I put the finishing touches on my final project, thanks to some handy hints by our friend, Peter the Agent - who else can rely upon a literary agent for writing advise, eh?

And he was brilliantly supportive and praise-giving too - which, as everyone who's a client of his will tell you, is something he doesn't often do (the praise-giving that is, not being brilliantly supportive - Peter is always that, he's just also clear, concise and honest, which means the writers in his stable are always under pressure to write better than they do).

I want to share his wonderful words... most especially because this is the precipice I've been straining to reach, and from up here I can now see the valley of work laid out before me. And it's nice to offset the one-sided angst I've ridden out on this blog.

So, a couple of months ago I pitched an adult fairytale - face to face (now, who else gets to do that with a literary agent), with the following encouraging words (that should also help you, dear reader):
I've had a good think about this - it's extraordinary. It's deeply creative. It feels epic and archetypal.

Enough of the praise - most people know that I hardly ever give any.

My checklist:

Could I sell it (sorry, but I'm an agent...) probably not. Not easy to define the market. Not easy to conceptualize for the inevitable elevator pitch, and therefore, not a calling-card book to announce a new writing talent.

How did I feel after reading it? And by extension, how will publishers?

Impressed certainly, but not sufficiently involved. It's a quality piece of writing and creation, no question, but it lacks the requisite degree of emotional involvement. The kind of ms you get fantastic rejections letters about. "I didn't quite love it enough..." It's not quite connecting down there, viscerally.

Advice / suggestions? I didn't catch your voice here. I'm aware of a brilliantly fertile mind scheming away behind the scenes. I'm not aware of who you are, your passion, your essence. It feels a bit like a writing exercise, something intended to show off your creationary brilliance. Maybe a bit too calculating and cold-blooded. I would willingly trade a lot of that sparkling creativity for some authentic voice and zeal. I suspect a lot of that has been slowly edited away.

I'd focus on developing that, actually. Finding your voice can take time, can't be forced. Can be accelerated by the right project, something you have no choice but to write.

You may have got to the point of diminishing returns on this. What are your priorities as a writer at this moment? Developing this -or developing yourself? The two may not be the same.
Imagine my excitement at such a response.

Anyhoo, as you all know by now, my final project has engaged me in plotting and writing the open to a Young Adult novel which is essentially Noughts and Crosses meets Harry Potter. The pitch to Agent Pete produced this response:

I really like this. Good style & pace, very page-turning. Nicely odd, too.

Only a few minor points, nothing major or structural.

Nicely disturbing! Feels surreal, very engrossing.

Nice Lynchian imagery, very powerful.

Basically, I think it’s great – there’s a maturity, assurance and control about it that impresses me. Your writing has very clearly developed. Congrats, and keep it coming!
Yippee. So, while I thought this project would end here with the final project and I'm to move onto pastures new, it actually has legs.

I've been writing towards this for 12 years now, 6 of those with Litopia holding my hand. Hold in there people, keep reading, keep writing, and keep learning.

If I can get this kind of response, then you can too. It just takes time and commitment. Anyone fancy a drink to celebrate?

PS: My big-big thanks to Peter for everything he's done to make Litopia such a supportive environment, and for giving me all these chances.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Scribd is a No Show - CEO Trip does a Bunk

Last night's Litopia After Dark tackled the big issues of Scribd's blatant book thefts. Having thrown down the gauntlet to Scribd CEO Trip Adler (a wee 26 year old), Litopia attempted to call Trip for the live show, but he was too busy cowering at the other side of his office, listening to the trill of his desk phone, hoping it would all go away.

The podcast went ahead on the subject and we really beat out the problem, searched for more illicit stuffs saved on Scribd's site, and still had no counter argument... there just isn't one.

Scribd has the opportunity to pick up the publishing industry's dropped mantle, but at the moment they're too busy making their money and pursuing their God-given right to the American Dream.

Intellectual Property can kiss their ass - I guess.

The issue isn't going away and what Scribd doesn't yet understand is that unlike the Pirate Bay, Scribd is hosting the illegal content. They're culpable.

Ooh-er! Watch and listen to Litopia as this story continues to turn its pages.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Evaluating Masterclasses - Part 2

Ken Follet’s talk on the history and development of the paperback thriller was a step beyond those of his contemporaries, providing nuggets of sound advice (namely, the ramping up of suspense or the change in the course of the story every 4 to 6 pages). However, the presentation was little more than a documentary. Even the Q&A session didn’t allow much of a two-way discussion. It was interesting and the ground work covered was clearly a “need to know” for those following in the footsteps of previous thriller writers, but it might better serve the general public as a one hour television programme.

Ken’s talk fell into the category of informative rhetoric, a category shared by the two agents (Ben Mason and Luigi Bonomi). Their formidable knowledge of the business and their statistical facts about professional publication were as brutally honest as Jim Crace. They shared advice that may be plucked from the pages of the Writers Handbook or the Writers and Artists Yearbook and discussed the steps from writing to publication. Guidance that, while essential to all new writers, I found had little significance to me at the time; having the good fortune to know a literary agent (who has answered all my questions) and currently being in no position to approach an agent, let alone publication.

Yet, they were of more immediate use to me as a writer (who would be looking for representation) than Robert Ronsson’s practical applicator masterclass on self publishing and how best to promote and market oneself. I don’t intend to self publish. So, while this talk was invaluable and its field of reference deep (information a writer looking to self publish wouldn’t find elsewhere), it was of far less importance to me.

Another practical applicator, Ann Lingard’s presentation on research, covered the collaborations between authors and the science community. It raised interesting points about the usefulness of SciTalk (her online project) and the importance and relevance of research to a manuscript as a whole. She explained that research should be used to enhance the world of one’s story not stultify it with detail. She discussed the creation of characters with a science background: they are human beings with human needs. The plot doesn’t have to revolve entirely or at all around their role. “A story about an accountant,” she says, “doesn’t have to be about accountancy”.

Ken Follet, too, discussed the level of research he has carried out for each of his books and how that provided an extra element for a readership to hang on: readers love to think they are learning something. However, his talk didn’t provide the moment of epiphany generated by Ann’s, which demonstrated how research can help us learn things about the characters. Where and how the character works can be a great way to show the character to the reader, providing the writer with many more scenes in which to develop their characters or themes – veritable gold dust.

By contrast, the hands on, tear-it-apart and look inside it, classes provided by James Roose-Evans (on playwrights) and Linda Thompson (breaking down a BBC script for ‘Casualty’) spent as much time on practical discussions as they did on anecdotes. These practical applicators could be argued as being limited in their appeal to one such as myself: not wishing to write for stage or television. But, that is to ignore the accessibility and opportunity presented by all the masterclasses, as I have mentioned above: ideas are transferable; media feed into each another.

When Linda spoke of ‘Casualty’ having one main plot and two sub plots, and that the themes of each mirror the others to create cohesion and synchronicity, her words were just as important when considering the use of subplots in a novel (mirroring subplots, in my opinion, not being essential though they do lend weight to an argument). And, when James suggested a playwright needs to know everything about his characters, not just from a background point-of-view, but also where they were before the current scene, and where they will be afterwards, he provided us novelists with insight: we have a vast number of considerations that may not reach the page but do provide depth (not just for the characters but for the scene and location).

Rather than having little regard for the messages and words of wisdom shared in some of the masterclasses, I understand that the presented knowledge feeds into each other. I’ve catalogued the discussions and will return to them when they become relevant to me.

That said, by far my most useful and informative masterclass has been the skills implementation of Jim Crace’s prose stripping. Hands-on writing-driven teaching holds, for me, the most essential learning elements. With Jim’s deep and extensive look at the inner workings of sentences, word choice and structural design, the relevance of his cynicism and realism from back in the January finally made sense. By getting the students to reconsider the way they critique and write, and their choice of words in any given sentence and then to apply that, he freed our understanding of the craft of writing in a way that the other masterclasses didn’t.

Skills implementation highlights something I have come to appreciate with regard to many of the questions I, and others, have posed to the agent I know. We cannot waste our time on decoration when the structure needs work. Neither my work nor my ability is yet ready for publication and I need to focus my attention there.

A masterclass’s effectiveness is dependent upon the mindset of individual students. Their variations of style are as important as what is said or shown on a slide. A set of stilted, classroom led lessons poring over cold hard facts and “how it has all been done before” does little to garner audience participation or memory after the event. Acting during James Roose-Evan’s playwright discussion, and stripping sentences of another student’s work with Jim Crace have stayed with me. And, while the practicalities and usefulness of each masterclass greatly differ, they each have their purpose and their place. Not just in instruction but in awareness and the suggestibility of how to open doors.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Evaluating Masterclasses - Part 1

This is the second essay from my NAW Professional Development Portfolio. Comprised of two parts, it is my personal view of the masterclasses I have attended - which means it is not a reflection of the quality or content but my perception of how useful those masterclasses have been to me and my learning:


The masterclasses have covered a wide range of discussions and skillsets. But, I have found that many aspects of these discussions have been rhetorical, anecdotal, or statistical in nature. Only a few have had practical analysis.

A second issue hinges on the timeliness of a masterclass and where the student is (in their own head). A student involved with reassessing their style or troubled by how exactly they should weight the pace of their narrative is not going to find a talk on the current trends and necessities of submissions to agents of any relevance – which does not diminish the quality of the talk itself. It does mean that areas of perceived irrelevance may lead to the listener overlooking an important message about core skills. Furthermore, much of what has been said that was not of a statistical and set-in-stone nature may be thought of as a one-off or very personal situation for the speaker.

The masterclasses I’ve observed may be categorised into one of the following types:

  • Anecodotal inconsequence (this is how I did it)
  • Informative rhetoric (this is how it is)
  • Practical applicator (this is how you can do it)
  • Skills implementation (try this for yourself)

However, there is always a message of some significance in every masterclass. While the categorisations above don’t necessarily make one more important than another, I have ordered the categories, as I perceive them, from least to most effective. The practical applicator and skills implementation types are more applicable to my current needs and mindset, which are: choosing scenes for their appropriateness and relevance to a story and maintaining brevity by avoiding irrelevant description that does not further the action or narrative.

Talks and classes falling into the category of anecdotal inconsequence may enthuse one listener but bore another. Their topics and situations are not directly replicated by, or transferable to, the circumstances of the students – but are unique to the speaker and their subject.

Barry Turner was one such speaker, whose positive and affirming discussion opened our course in January 2007. The encouraging tale he told of his own introduction to media and onwards into writing was interesting but indicative of the time at which he started out – the launch of television and radio. It had little or no significance other than anecdotally. Again, this by no means diminishes what Barry had to say for his “carpe diem” boldness really excited the students.

The next masterclass was the polar opposite of Barry’s. Jim Crace talked us cautiously through our intended directions and interests and mulled over the difficulties of our labours of love. His was a very sobering discussion, making it clear that we needed to be the passionate ones about our work, that we aren’t guaranteed success, and that some people may have the inclination to write, but not the ability. It ended somewhat bluntly with his admission that he would, in two books time, stop writing altogether! What were we to make of this? Do writers have a self imposed shelf life, only so much in themselves to lend to paper?

The different stances of these two speakers seemed to say far more about their outlook on life, their journey to publication, and successes or setbacks than they did about the audience’s own future endeavours. In Jim’s case this had a greater sense of realism given his interest in the education of new writers. Whatever their positions, cynical realism or intrepid optimism, perhaps both messages were affirming and bookend every masterclass and lesson that followed: encouragement to strive for what we want to achieve matched alongside (not against) our egos stripped of all naivety. That this may be a good thing does not necessarily mean they were of any proactive assistance to the studying writer.

Working for a library service I have attended several author events and talks (Tracey Chevalier, Jodi Picoult, Salley Vickers, Colin Dexter, Lionel Shriver, Freya North, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Ann Widdecombe). All were pitched at a readership level, with interests in the writers’ origins and the concoction of characters and plot. The anecdotal inconsequence never focused any deeper than biography or research, i.e. never touching on the elements that comprise a certain paragraph: on changing subjects, using a metaphor to infer a character’s point of view, or relating a memory that provides synchronicity to the unfolding scene.

The anecdotal inconsequence of Catherine O’Flynn’s masterclass was symptomatic of those other writers. She has an innate ability to write without consideration for how she does it. She has a set routine that she maintains but she doesn’t appear to worry over the disparate skills necessary to juggle the creation of a story. As with the other writers her talk never entered into deep discussions on the complexities of maintaining reader interest, while levelling their narrative for clarity, pace, action and dialogue.

The masterclasses have covered a number of subjects, from self publishing to the expectations of an agent to the operations of the Times Newspaper. We have been handed the broad canvas of the industry’s workings as well as views of the many doorways that might provide access. However, I am reminded that, short of being a celebrity, the only thing that truly sells a manuscript to an agent or publisher is the manuscript, and thereby the talent of the writer – everything else is decoration. In my particular case – a single-minded view to becoming a novelist – the decoration, aside from being informative, is irrelevant. Counter to this is the argument that these masterclasses are meant to refocus my attention and reinforce the lesson that Jim, in particular, went to great lengths to explain: no-one can do it but me.

Though, again, that is not to diminish the masterclasses, since all the speakers that have taken the time to prepare and discuss their subjects with us have been supportive and they have been open to students contacting them at a later date.

Litopia After Dark Live With Trip Adler of Scribd

Tomorrow night (Friday 3 April) Trip Adler, one of the figures behind, "the YouTube for books, magazines and documents" that has this week found itself in the headlines accused of copyright infringement will speak live to writers from Litopia.

"We are delighted that Trip has accepted our invitation," says Litopia's Peter Cox. "Maybe he'll be able to reassure us that Scribd isn't 'Copyright Theft Central'. Maybe he'll be able to convince us that his website isn't getting rich by allowing its members to steal from writers' livelihoods. Whatever happens, we respect Trip's integrity in choosing to defend his company in this way, and I will guarantee him a very fair and polite hearing."

The debate will take place as part of the regular Friday broadcast of LITOPIA AFTER DARK. Broadcasting begins at 7:30pm London, and the show starts at 8pm London, 3pm EDT, 12 noon PDT. Guests on the show beside Adler, include Martyn Daniels, Vice-President of Value Chain International, and Redhammer clients Donna Ballman, a US attorney, and Dave Bartam.

Please help spread the word about this important event to other writers
- the chat room will be open for everyone's participation.

Click here to go to the Litopia UStream page where the broadcast can be

Late-breaking news will be served on Litopia's home page.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Julie Cohen - Masterclass in Character Development

Actually, this took place a couple of Fridays ago, and I'm only just getting on with the write up now - boy am I out of sorts.

Anyhoo, we here at Bracknell Library had the author Julie Cohen over for a bit of a conflab and spin through how she creates characters.

But first:

Julie is an American living in Reading and started out writing three books for Mills and Boon. As we all know, that's a very specific writing format to fit into, so good on her. Now she's written 9 of them and 4 (of what I'd call) proper books.

She's clearly set on her road of romantic novel writing (more specifically quirky-chick-lit) fairly well, but what does she have to impart to the unpublished author?

Well, she took us on a whirlwind tour of methods for creating characters - you know, fully-fledged, rounded, conflicted, interesting - that sort of character.

We covered eight ways (some longer than others), but first we had two postits and a coin. So, Julie went round the table handing out two alphabet letters per person, which took two loops. We each wrote down the two letters we'd been allocated on one postit and handed that to the person on our right.

Next we came up with a number between 1 and 100, wrote it on the second postit and passed that to our left.

Finally, we tossed the coin and chose our character's sex: heads for female, tails for male and if it landed on a body part or akilter, that meant a robot or asexual or something odd.

Which gave me D. R. A 73 yearold female.

Bear with me, this is just the setup.

I chose to call my character Deane Robards

1. The Basic Description

For this part we were asked to describe our character in anyway we pleased, as long as we used the words extraordinary and yellow. (The words are a way of getting your imagination working - they don't have to be included and they don't have to be extraordinary or yellow).

Deanne sits in an upright chair, keeping her back straight to fight the spasms - a result of her circus days. She has drawn on eyebrows and must constantly wipe her brow to stop sweat stinging her yellowed eyes. She sits quietly for the most part, on the porch of her terraced home, seemingly asleep to the world. But she never sleeps. Not even when it is time to do so. She sits on her porch, still and silent, and seemingly dead, but for an extraordinary ability to greet every passerby long before her ears should have registered their approach.
2. Showing

In this exercise we were asked to walk our characters into a room and get them to pick up an object (of our choosing).
Deane pushed the door open with her cane, let it swing wide and surveyed the bedroom. Everything was still. Everything was as it had been the day she found Bill. She stared at the bed covers, thrown aside by the paramedics and tried to imagine Bill as he had been, asleep, not dead. She couldn't do it. The dresser opposite was still a clutter of creams and curlers, the vanity mirror still tipped back against the wall so that shafts of light lined the ceiling. And her glasses... It was useless to try and see them from outside. The curtains were closed and she had no choice but to go in. She took it slow. Short hobbling steps. The cane used to be a big help, but these days the pains in her legs made it almost too difficult to walk. But she kept going, trying not to look back at the bed again and finally at the dresser she stopped and peered down. Had to push aside some of the mess with the cane. And there they were. She plucked them off the dresser and clutched them to her chest as she turned back to the door, avoiding the sight of the bed. From this angle, she remembered, it looked like an empty cadaver on a mortuary slab.
As you can see I was more interested in getting the character in there than picking up the object - boy does my mind wander - and I had to finish the exercise while Julie talked about the next one.

3. Symbolism

We were asked to consider the importance (emotionally) of our objects.

In my case, the glasses were needed so that Deanne could see if she'd won the lottery - her home was remortgaged to help her kids out (and they've deserted with her money), but she can't stay in the place where she found Bill dead. She needs to win the lottery so that she can pay off her debts and move out.

4. Setting

Obviously, this is about describing the place where the character lives... or rather, locates themselves.
5. Conflict

What does the character want more than anything? This is answered in the Symbolism. And what stands in their way? In this case, Deanne not having her glasses... and then not winning the lottery.

6. Good Quality Versus Worst Quality

Two qualities in a person create conflict.

I.e. A very generous person either: i) puts others first always, or ii) always wants something in return.

i) This leads to the character playing second fiddle to others and never getting what they want, or exhausted because they never have any "me time".
ii) This leads to a need in the character. An expectation that others will always play their part.

The good and bad quality are intrinsically linked helping to round out your character. The character must change the good part of their nature in order to remove/make better the bad part.

Check out Julie's little chart on this:

7. Voice

Obviously, this is about dialogue or writing in the first person. Getting a sense of the character, the way their mind works, colloquialisms, etc

8. Other ways
  • Put character in a place they don't belong
  • Meet a character with different goals
  • Meet a character with same goals but different methods
  • Give them an impossible task
  • They make a horrible mistake
  • They're forced to confront their past
  • They lose everything
  • They win something they don't want
  • They get unexpected/unwanted fame
The interesting thing about Julie is that whatever she writes as she gets a sense of character, she throws out once she starts writing the book, and never refers to her notes again.

I guess she writes fast enough so that it doesn't exit her frontal lobe before she's done.