The ‘Can-Do’ Kind of Attitude

In a lot of my cover letters, when applying for jobs, I write that I have a ‘can-do’ attitude. This is true, I do. I decide I want to do/learn/get/make something so I do/learn/get/make it. The most recent example of this is my youtube channel, I decided I wanted to learn how to edit videos so I dived into it head first (a few new videos are in the works!).

But this approach does not always work.

Over the last two days I have been avidly proofreading Jenny‘s manuscript, The Lightning Tree, ready for her to begin querying with agents. An almost 50,000 word feat which she completed in four months, writing for three hours each day, while living in Vancouver. The manuscript is sound, I found a few typos and maybe three sentences which needed a bit of tweaking but other than that it is more than ready to land in the IN trays of however many agents she chooses to query.

I have known for almost four years that her writing is incredible (three of those spent at university in Chester under the brilliant tutelage of Francesca Haig and the rest of the English Department – we heartily recommend and I am a massive suck-up), so had high expectations of her manuscript. Not only did she meet those, but she surpassed them.

What does this have to do with my ‘can-do’ attitude? Jenny has achieved something which even my ‘can-do’ attitude seems to shiver in fear from. I am writing a novel but like some other aspiring novelists, I get distracted. I thrive on deadlines and challenges and things with purpose, undertaking university work or ‘actual job’ work doesn’t make my attitude run and hide but this thing, this novel that I have embarked on out of love and imagination makes my attitude retreat into a corner, quivering and whimpering. It is the one thing that my ‘can-do’ can’t do … or at least has trouble with.

It was in reading The Lightning Tree, talking to Jen and thinking about the manuscript I am itching to finish but seem to be scared of that I formulated a plan. A completely ridiculous but perhaps so ridiculous-and-challenging-that-it-might-just-work sort of a plan.

I recently mentioned the Hot Key Young Writers Prize in one of my blog entries, and last night I made the decision that I was going to enter. This morning I sent off my first 4000 words, synopsis, bio and entry form – after a hefty edit of the start of the novel, which has been going on for a while. Now, I have until October to finish writing and editing the rest of it just in case I am long-listed. I had been considering entering for a while, so luckily, those words were ready.

But Emma/Elou/Memma/whatever-you-happen-to-call-me what about the other things, university/work/youtube/photography/anything-else-you-might-mention-that-I-happen-to-do? Well, I am nothing if not up for a challenge. See what I mean by so ridiculous-and-challenging-that-it-might-just-work?

So there it is, what do you do when your ‘can do’ is having a wobble? Something ridiculous and exciting all at the same time.

If you want to know more about Jen and The Lightning Tree, she’s just set up a brand new blog! I suggest you follow it. She can also be found on Twitter.

A blog-related update: while sharing a few blogs on twitter, I remarked that I felt like a ‘child catcher’ only nicer and with blogs instead of children. It is with that in mind that I have decided to start a feature, named The Blog Catcher (complete with a silly little banner, probably), in which I share the interesting blogs I read/stumble upon. These may not always be publishing and/or book related but they all promise to be interesting.

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The Trouble with Opening Chapters

June 20th saw the return of the Hot Key Young Writers Prize, a writing competition which looks for the best, undiscovered middle-grade and young adult fiction from 18 – 25 year-old writers. It seeks talent and imagination and in return offers the chance to snag a potential worldwide publishing contract and editorial support from the Hot Key editors. Exciting! If you’ve read this blog before you probably know that I love Hot Key Books but you may not know that I also write (unless you’ve taken a gander at my ‘about’ page).

From 2009 until 2012, I studied Creative Writing with English Literature at the University of Chester (a course I would recommend) with a view to become a published author/poet as well as to further my knowledge for my future publishing career. Writing has always been a big part of my life, from the moment I could hold a pen – I remember being given a Pocahontas notebook near its release date in 1995 and scrawling what I thought was a story about Pocahontas on its pages, having found it a year or so ago I can confirm that it is scribbling rather than writing but the act of (what I thought was) writing a Pocahontas story in pencil in that notepad is one of my most vivid childhood memories.

Once I’d gotten the hang of all 26 letters (with the exception of the capital ‘E’, which I modified by adding two extra lines to cure the loneliness of the one in the middle), I could very rarely be torn away from my stories. They started with animals, mostly rabbits, and then I moved onto an obsession with all things Victorian, writing a story about a young girl who finds an abandoned house and discovers, upon going through the door, that she has been transported back in time (clearly inspired by the brilliant Tom’s Midnight Garden), among many others. I have always adored writing.

When I was younger writing was free and easy and I didn’t have to worry about the importance of the opening or whether my syntax made sense, all I had to do was untangle the knot of ideas in my head and try to write it in my neatest writing (I always knew stories were worth more than just being a messy unreadable scrawl) but now that I am an ‘adult’ embarking on my ‘proper’ writing journey it’s less about getting everything on the page even if some of the details are muddled and more about getting it right and on the page. I struggle with that part.

Getting the opening right is arguably the most important part when entering competitions or querying, it is the first thing judges or agents and publishers will see of your work, if it doesn’t capture them you won’t have much luck. My openings can be weak, my opening sentences tend to pack a punch but the chapter that follows that sentence if often not the best it could be. When I write my opening chapters, I don’t know my story and they end up becoming rambling, info beasts; they become back story. Very recently I discovered the answer to that problem: I’ve started deleting my first chapters.

I am embracing the much used ‘kill your darlings’ approach (referenced both by William Faulkner and Stephen King or in the words of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ‘murder your darlings’) and it is working. I write better openings when I don’t think that they are openings.

Once I am a few chapters in, I jump back to the start, extract any paragraphs or phrases that appeal to me and then move the rest into a new document, using it only for reference and world-building. I would recommend this practise to anyone. Don’t think your opening chapter is working? Try getting rid of it, try starting with chapter two. You might be surprised at the results.

On Interactive and Enhanced Fiction

I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about interactive and enhanced fiction, how hard it is, how it’s reaching critical mass, how to rewire fiction and I am finding the commentary really interesting to follow. Despite my ongoing lack of iPad and my major project being a direct print response to digital in publishing, I am incredibly interested in these products and the struggles faced by the publishers who create them, as well as the opportunities they present.

I recently watched Neil Gaiman’s keynote speech (video below) from the Digital Minds Conference at the London Book Fair (which has provided me with a wonderful quotation for my major project report). It detailed the possibilities created by combining social media and digital publishing with the brilliant example of the A Calendar of Tales project, which culminated in an absolutely beautiful website with the author line ‘by Neil Gaiman & You’. It epitomises something which I think is really important in this new and very digital age: reader involvement, collaboration, community.

The project started on Twitter with Gaiman posting prompts and his followers responding. The responses led to stories which led to art. The Calendar created a community of artists and readers all driven by the concept of creating something. While this is not interactive in the same way as the products referenced in the articles I have been reading it was still an interactive experience – not an interactive reading experience but rather an interactive writing experience.

Another interactive writing experience, which I have mentioned briefly before, is Hot Key Books’ Story Adventure in which children were able to help write a book, with prompts and challenges. The idea proved really popular with schools across the country taking part. Both projects show the importance of reader involvement and not only that but show that the reading community whether children, adults, young adults or otherwise, love getting their teeth into the publishing process in whatever form it may take. Digital media makes this possible and even though I am still addicted to the printed book this can only be a good thing.

Perhaps the future of interactive fiction is not down the ‘choose your own adventure’ vein (though I have been thoroughly enjoying the Black Crown project) but rather in collaboration and community experience.

In this discussion of interactive fiction, I have not factored in enhanced fiction (which is also sometimes termed as interactive) with videos and audio and images. This, to me, is whole different world of digital media; its aims are different. The interactive fiction I have addressed above is all about the creative experience whereas enhanced fiction aims at creating an innovative and interesting reading experience. Black Crown is very game-like in its interactivity (there is a game developed by some of the Black Crown collaborators, Story Nexus, which works in exactly the same way) and in some ways it defies definition. Interestingly, these, like A Calendar of Tales, employ Twitter with the ability to tweet what you find as you move through the experience.

The cross-purposing of the term ‘interactive fiction’ is undeniably confusing so for the purposes of this and future entries, I am going to define my terms (as I, perhaps, should have done earlier):

  • Interactive Fiction: Fiction which is created by interacting with its audience or fiction where the outcome is dictated by choices made by its audience; in which the audience has the power to change the fiction with their interaction.
  • Enhanced Fiction: Fiction with added extras such as videos and audio (these can either be used to tell the story like The Numinous Place or simply add to the experience of the writing).

Enhanced fiction is not about the community, enhanced fiction is a singular experience and while it can be shared it can also be awkward to share (not unlike having someone read over your shoulder). Enhanced fiction is only just beginning.

As I have said, I am addicted to print but that does not mean I am against ebooks (in fact, I really enjoy creating them and having a career in ebooks would be brilliant). If I had to choose between a normal ebook (with nothing other than the text) and a print book I would buy the print but if I had an iPad (when I have an iPad) and was presented with the option to buy an enhanced version I would definitely buy both.

I adore Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, Maggot Moon is a brilliant book and one which I could read over and over. It is a book which, when I finally acquire my iPad, will be one of the first things I purchase in enhanced, multi-touch form (along with Hot Key’s other digital innovations). There is a lot of selling power in enhanced fiction.

Towards the beginning of this entry I wrote that reader involvement is incredibly important in this new digital age, especially true of interactive fiction but also true of enhanced. Enhanced fiction is a great way of getting readers involved without asking anything of them; they do not have to participate but they are able to become immersed in the story in a greater way than if they were just reading it. Videos, audio and images help to cement the story in the mind of the reader. You can hear it, you can see it. That is reader involvement.

I am incredibly excited about the future of fiction as the digital experience develops, I am excited for readers, publishers and authors alike. I want to be involved. It may be hard and there may be naysayers but it’s an experience too important to miss. Digital is important. Digital is incredible.