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Writing to Deadlines

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, June 13, 2016 13:46:58
Here's a post that went up today (13th June) on the Author Allsorts site:

There’s a famous joke, isn’t there, where someone claims they ‘love to watch deadlines flying past’. Now for me, that’s just not funny. It always makes me purse my lips in disapproval.

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I truly love a deadline. More than that: I can’t work sensibly without one. I think it comes from my initial training as a journalist, first in print and then for the BBC. Deadlines arrived several times a day: copy and audio/video clips were needed for the hourly news bulletins and longer items were required for the ‘appointment’ news programmes that are now falling out of fashion, such as the early evening news or the breakfast slots.

When I studied for my Creative Writing PhD, my supervisor told me I was the only student that had never missed a deadline. (She also called me a ‘fossil’ for taking notes in shorthand, but we’ll gloss over that). And when I moved into teaching, I was horrified to find the casual way that deadlines were treated – forgotten, altered and roundly ignored.

For me (and my army of controlling demons), a deadline is the only way to get things done. Without a cut-off point, my writing can take a phenomenal amount of time and will always be put to the bottom of the to-do list. Give me a deadline, though, and no matter how huge the task, I will meet it. It’s a matter of personal pride.

When I got my first publishing deal (for an adult crime novel), the contract said that the publisher would have first refusal on anything I wrote in the following twelve months. I chose to read that as ‘they will accept your next novel, as long as you write it in the next year’. It gave me enough of a psychological deadline to ensure I got through a first draft in less than six months.

Since then, though, the deadlines for my writing have not been fixed. As a result, I have no fewer than four partially-completed novels on the go. No matter how well-intentioned I am and how much I love writing, I am easily bored and I do flit from project to project, without a strict completion date. My own personal deadlines, usually, are not compelling enough for me to stick to them. They need to be externally-set and they need to have some sort of penalty built in: so a deadline set by a writing buddy, for example, would not be ‘real’ enough.

I have managed to complete a YA novel, because I (rather accidentally) attracted the interest of an agent and his deadlines were ‘real’ ones, in the twisted responses of my mind. I would meet them, rather than lose his representation. So what I need is someone to be on my back, with deadlines that feel authentic. Can anyone help? Is there, perchance, an app for that?

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Noir at the Bar

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, May 16, 2016 21:35:47
It's not often I allow a guest onto my blog! But this is experienced blogger and talented writer Vic Watson and I am delighted to give her the chance to talk about the upcoming Noir at the Bar event in Newcastle!

Noir at the Bar comes to Newcastle on 1st June and although I am new to hosting, the concept has been knocking around for about eight years. Having started in Philadelphia in 2008, the N@tB model spread across the US like a noir-y virus but I for one, am more than happy to catch it!

Noir at the Bar, ultimately, is about collecting readers and writers of crime fiction in all of its guises, putting them together in a bar and letting them mingle. Depending on which Noir at the Bar you visit, the set-up can vary. The Newcastle event, the first one in the north east of England, will feature a host of authors – both new and established – reading snippets of their work for the audience’s delectation. There’s no requirement to be published in order to read at N@tB. Similarly guests can read anything so, even if they have a book published, they can read from their Work in Progress if they wish. We’re a pretty easy going bunch.

In keeping with the spirit of the event, we hope that we’ll create a community of writers and readers. Writing doesn’t tend to be a particularly social aspect, but I’ve found, through visiting weekend courses like Crime and Publishment and events like Newcastle Noir, that writers actually relish socialising, especially with people who appreciate their work! We want to provide an opportunity for readers and writers to talk to one another as well as listen to some cracking work.

There’ll also be the opportunity for writers who aren’t on the bill to enter the wildcard round. One lucky reader’s name will be drawn at random and they will close the evening with their reading. How cool is that?

When picking the line-up for our initial foray into N@tB, I asked writers I’m familiar with from the region as well as inviting Tess Makovesky and Graham Smith, who appeared at Noir at the Bar Carlisle in March, to pass on the torch. Graham and Jay Stringer – who’s been responsible for the Glasgow incarnation of N@tB – were instrumental in helping me get the Newcastle chapter set up so here’s a shout out to them.

I also invited the Queen of Newcastle Noir, Jacky Collins, to co-host with me and I’m so thrilled to have her as my ‘partner-in-crime’.

The response we’ve received from people thus far has been incredible and just goes to show that there is a thriving community of readers and writers of noir in the north east. I think many of us have been out there on our own, thinking we were the only ones when, in fact, we just needed someone to get us together. We’ve been so popular that we’re already booking guests for Noir at the Bar NE #2.

Noir at the Bar is happening on Wednesday, June 1st at the Town Wall pub (Pink Lane, Newcastle). It starts at 7pm but space is limited so get there early to ensure you don’t miss out!

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Editing 2: This Time it's Personal

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Mon, May 02, 2016 12:54:58
You may remember that I posted, a few weeks ago, of my utter joy at having finished the edits for my YA novel (working title, Halloween). At last, my least favourite part of writing was over and I could move on to the task that brings me most joy - writing something brand new.

Those edits were suggested by my very good and perceptive agent, who has had some really useful insights into the novel and where it needed to improve.

Once he had this revised version, he was able to submit it to publishers in the YA genre. It's a nerve-wracking process however it's handled, but I have to say that it's easier if an agent does this for you. He handled all the painstaking submission process. He also has the authority and the contacts to push a little if things go quiet, which is something unagented authors are rarely in a position to do.

There is good news and bad news, as the old joke goes. The good news is that a very respected publisher is showing an interest.

What's the bad news? They want some more editing done before they commit. Wah!

They're right, of course, in their observations and I found myself agreeing with them as I read their feedback. It's all about that rather tricky ending, which followers of this blog may know has been a struggle all along.

This is the first time I have ever worked with an agent and I am grateful too for his very clear-sighted advice on this extra bit of revision.

So here I am again. The dreaded editing, that I thought was all done, has loomed back into my life. Things may go a little quiet for the next week or two as I grapple with the rewrites and mutter my obscenities in private.

Wish me luck and inspiration!

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It's a No - Part 2

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, April 17, 2016 19:56:15
**NB: This is the second of a two-part blog post that first appeared on the Open College of the Arts website. The posts were inspired by the news that JK Rowling had shared her Robert Galbraith rejection letters. **

In the last blog post on the detested rejection letter/e-mail, I mentioned that the word ‘No’ comes wrapped in all sorts of sweet and sour coatings. Agents and publishers are practised at the art of rejection.

Writers, though, have no training in how to receive the bad news. We promise ourselves we won’t be hurt if someone doesn’t love our work, but deep down, we know it’s a lie.

In the last post, I said that there are different kinds of rejections: the photocopied standard letter or copy-‘n’-pasted e-mail, or the one that explains the reader’s thinking. So here are my suggested responses, whatever kind of ‘no’ you get.

When you first get the rejection, allow yourself to wallow, just for a day or two. Find a friend or partner willing to share a vat of wine or a bucket of ice-cream and listen to you rail about the cruelty of a world that doesn’t recognise your genius.

Then stop. What are the options? Give up? Or try again. (Go for the latter). Now’s the time to look again at that letter/e-mail and eke what you can from it.

If you have a standard rejection, then give yourself a little slap on the wrist. Possibly, you didn’t do your homework and you sent a romance novel to an agent/publisher who specialises in crime, or a vampire-zombie novel to someone whose website says they’re looking for something entirely fresh and surprising. Read about agents and publishers before you submit: there’s a lot of information available on their sites, so you can find out precisely what excites them.

Or, more likely, you didn’t take enough care with the writing. In your eagerness to get your work out there, you didn’t craft well enough and/or you didn’t bother proofreading. Whatever it was, your work didn’t get past the lowly pre-reader, so this is what it tells you: your manuscript is just not ready.

I couldn’t resist a smile when J.K. Rowling revealed that one of the rejections for the Robert Galbraith novel advised her (him?) to take a writing course. That’s exactly what I would have said and I stand by it: her style is pedestrian. That novel sold purely on the name, after it was revealed.

The good news is, if you are on the OCA’s courses, (or any other writing course) then you’ve already committed to improving your writing. You know that feedback you get from your tutors, all of whom are published authors? Listen to it. Apply it. And that will lessen your chances of those standard ‘no’s.

What about the rejections that do contain some feedback? First, be pleased: your manuscript was genuinely paid some attention. That’s more than around 90 per cent of the submissions to that agent/publisher will get. It also means you’re much more likely to find someone else who loves enough to take it on.

But treat with caution. The problem is the element of subjectivity. One agent may love your choice of first person point of view; another will tell you that your story would be better told in the third person. What to look for is a common thread. When two or more agents/ publishers mention the same issue – a problem with voice, for example or a weak ending – then they have certainly hit on what isn’t working with your manuscript. That’s the time to act, if you are serious about being published. Rejection, when it comes with solid advice, is a good thing if it makes you improve.

Rowling says she has kept all of her rejection letters in a box. I have an image of her opening them up every now and then and cackling as she throws another £50 note on the fire.
But should you do the same? It’s a personal choice, but I reckon it’s better for your general well-being if you don’t keep all those ‘no’s. Re-reading them won’t do your self-esteem any good; scoffing at them once you’re published is arrogant. Take any nuggets of useful advice and then send the letters to the recycling pile. And remember, rejected writer, that you’re in the most esteemed of company – just look at who went through this before you.

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It's a No- Part 1

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, April 10, 2016 19:35:36

**NB: This blog post originally appeared on the OCA website, March 2016, inspired by the news that J.K.Rowling had published two rejection letters. **

For an aspiring writer with a few rejections under their belt, the name J.K. Rowling is either an inspiration or a curse. The fact that the impossibly successful Harry Potter books were initially turned down by almost every UK publisher is something that can keep the weary author’s chin up. On the other hand, it’s what well-meaning friends always trot out when they’re trying to raise the spirits after another ‘no’ from an agent or publisher. Before my own children’s novel found a publishing home, I remember thinking that if anyone else mentioned Rowling’s name to me, I might just scream.

Recently, Rowling decided to make some of her more recent rejection letters, sent to her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, public on twitter – the names of the foolish decision makers redacted. One of them simply said their list was full, which I don’t think counts as a rejection letter, to be honest. But the other said that The Cuckoo’s Calling was unlikely to be a commercial success. (That verdict was actually correct – right up until the point when someone leaked the author’s real identity and the reading world went silly again).

The point of the exercise, claimed Rowling, was to give aspiring writers hope. ‘Even she’ can still be turned down. I’m going to put aside all my issues about whether Rowling can write well and stick to the point here: rejections. All writers get them.

We know this when we set out in the hope of being published, because everything we read warns us to develop a Teflon skin. What no one prepares us for is that rejection will come in many forms, some baffling, others maddening.

There’s the standard rejection slip/e-mail. This often comes quite quickly and it consists of a couple of sentences saying the book is not for that particular publisher/agent, but wishing you well with it. I’m afraid it means exactly what you suspect: they haven’t read the whole of the manuscript. They’ve got so far and realised that the novel or the writing style is not good enough or it’s simply not what that agent/publisher wants. End of, I’m afraid. Walk away and don’t look back.

If a reader in an agency or publishing house gets to the end of the manuscript, they usually do say a little more than the above, along with the dreaded ‘No’. It may be a line or two of feedback, such as that the subject matter has been done before or that the ending didn’t quite live up to the promise of the beginning. This feedback, whether you agree with it or not, is often valuable. Make a note of it.

Some rejections are full of praise. I have had these and they’re infuriating. They laud the humour and the quality of the writing and aspects of the plot. Then they say no, because of a small-ish point that you would have been quite happy to change, if asked. Several fellow authors agree with me that ‘the nice ones are the worst’ – probably because it feels like you were just a squeak away from a ‘yes’. It’s the same psychology that says it’s harder to cope if you come second in a contest than if you didn’t even make the finals.

I’m going to share a line that I’ve had twice before, though and I found it one of the most unhelpful kinds of feedback ever. It’s that the writing was great, but that the agent/editor ‘just didn’t quite care enough’ about the main character. This is useless to an author, because it’s an entirely personal thing on the part of the reader. All it means is, ‘This isn’t for me – meh! Dunno why.’ It doesn’t offer any crumb of information to help with improvement, so it leaves an author grinding their teeth with frustration. What to do with this one? Place it at the bottom of a litter tray and let Kitty give it what it deserves.

And what to do when the pile of rejection letters is almost as thick as your manuscript? I have some ideas. Look out for Part Two.

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That dreaded edit

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, January 10, 2016 19:00:08

I did it!

The dreaded editing is no more. (For now, of course).

It really was a struggle this time and it came as a surprise to me how reluctant I was to make certain changes, even in the face of good advice.

Because I regularly review other people’s creative writing, I know that often writers choose to ignore sensible suggestions for changes and revisions. I get quite grumpy if I spend time and energy coming up with improvements for a manuscript and then find that writers don’t listen.

Whenever a writer tells me, ‘I decided not to change the [whatever the heck it was] in the end because…’ I secretly think, ‘Because you’re too lazy.’ Or, ‘Because you’re too arrogant to listen to someone who knows their stuff. You idiot. On your own head be it.’

And then I politely respond with something like, ‘It’s your story and you’re entitled to disagree, of course. I can only advise.’ And hope they can hear the unwritten, deep and sorrowful sigh that accompanies my words.

I tell myself that I am not like that at all, of course. My journalism background has knocked out any pretentions I have about my writing, I allege, and I am quite happy for people to criticise it and suggest ways of making it better.

Until they do.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the wise agent who read through a draft of my YA novel (working title: Halloween, though I’m going off this a bit) had a number of ideas for fairly major changes, including an entirely different ending and that an important character should not die. When we chatted about it, I was completely convinced by his arguments.

When I physically came to rewrite, however, I found I wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t just that pulling out a strand from the ending turned the manuscript into a kind of word-based Ker Plunk, with other bits of the story tumbling down like marbles as a consequence. I found I genuinely, honestly, didn’t like it as much. The major character has been brought back from the dead and I can just about tolerate this. But the ending… oh, I really liked my original ending, in all its bleakness. Much as I see the case for the changes, the new version feels rather too cheery.

What to do? If I sent back a note saying, ‘I decided not to change the ending because…’ would this very patient agent suspect I just couldn’t be bothered or I am too stubborn to listen? Possibly.

So this is what I have done. I’ve written the new ending, as advised and called it Ending 1. So I can’t be accused of any of the above writerly sins of laziness or arrogance. And I’ve then added on the alternative Ending 2, which is more like the original, so that we can have another discussion.

And I am now about to Attach Doc and press Send. Even after four published novels, this part of the process never gets any less scary. Wish me luck!

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2015 Review: gloat-free!

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Thu, December 31, 2015 12:18:20

So… this is the time of year when authors write those posts that sum up how productive and successful they’ve been in the past twelve months.

Of course it’s a great thing to do, especially for well-established authors with a big following, whose readers are genuinely keen to know what they’re up to.

For the rest of us… well. I never know whether they’re a great marketing tool, interesting to readers or possibly to other/aspiring writers - or whether they’re just plain annoying.

Might they sound a bit like those boastful round-robin newsletters people used to put in their Christmas cards (before the days of social media!) or like a compilation of My Top Facebook/twitter Brags of 2015? Potentially, I fear.

So here’s My Year with all its shades of grey, white and black. It’s the sort of hands-up, honest post I’d like to read by other authors rather than a list of how relentlessly brilliant things have been (but maybe that’s just me).

1. I kicked off 2015 with huge optimism. I’d had a brilliant previous year, with the publication of a children’s and an adult crime novel, with two different and very wonderful publishers. ‘Things can only get better’… uh oh. Who remembers this track being part of the New Labour campaign in 1997? And we all know how that turned out. So…

2. I didn’t go to war with Iraq or introduce socially retrograde legislation like tuition fees. That’s the good news. But I didn’t quite live up to my writing potential either. Why? Lack of time, self-organisation and energy. Let me explain further…

3. I had (for which read: I still have) a list of exciting ideas for novels, some of which are part-written. But I also had (have) three jobs on the go and for the self-employed, that’s probably the minimum needed to bring home a living wage. It’s the reality of being one of the government’s army of Forced-to-be-Freelance-because-There-Are-No-Real-Jobs.

So time was a major issue: I found myself working seven days a week, usually until around 9pm each evening. No holidays. None. No, really. Not even a week’s staycation. Just work, January to December. For those of you who remember pictures of Florence (my wedding anniversary weekend) and California (a conference where I was running writing sessions), I took work with me and did some every day, because I had to. Working when you are somewhere lovely is still… working, even if it feels a bit nicer.

4. Lots of this freelance work involved reading other people’s creative writing. I’ve now come to the conclusion that this kind of close reading and critiquing uses a very similar brain muscle to doing my own creative writing, because whenever I did get a little rare breathing space, energy for my own projects seemed hard to muster.

Now I know it’s not cleaning sewers or coal-mining and that jobs like those are harder and grottier, so don’t get on my case, but I don’t think work has to be physical or dirty in order to sap your energy. So nothing got properly finished - and every time I thought I was heading for a quieter time to concentrate on my own stuff, another project came along that I was too skint to turn down.

5. Now for the positives (phew! – if you’re still with me): I did have a published novel in 2015, thanks to the paperback version of My Cousin Faustina coming out in April via ReadZone Books. Readers of this site may remember this was originally written as an interactive e-book with Fiction Express in late 2014.
I also was very lucky that Legend Press negotiated the audio and large print versions of my two crime novels, In Too Deep and This Little Piggy. So these made me appear productive, even if I didn’t feel like I was. But like the government’s NHS money, none of it was new.

6. I did attend some brilliant writing conferences and festivals. They’re not relaxing – they’re a kind of work, which is why they pay – but they are one of the nicest parts of being a writer. Thank you, Hexham Book Festival, Newcastle Noir, Crossing the Tees, Ilkley Festival and NAAF.

7. In the second half of 2015, I also got two new jobs that I love: teaching journalism at UCA in Farnham and creative writing programme leader for the Open College of the Arts. “All” I need to do now is crack that ‘work-life balance’ issue.

8. So what have I learned? Not writing my own new stuff makes me miserable. Setting my own deadlines is tougher than it should be. I need to find a way to carve out writing time, even if it’s hard. That list of writing ideas won’t go away.

The New Year may well be an artificial concept, but I don’t mind using it as inspiration. Things are going to change. Come on in, 2016!

9. And PS: a huge thank you to anyone who’s supported me in any way – by reading my books or liking my posts or above all, just being a pal. I promise to pay it back or forward as required.

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Christmas Reads

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, December 20, 2015 12:16:40
Here I am on the Author Allsorts blog talking about Christmas reads!

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