The art of staying calm

Is it just me or do many writers seem a little uptight to you? Ninety-nine per cent of them come across as decent and pretty level-headed, but occasionally you run into one you’d be worried to share an elevator with, and I think this is down to the internet.

You see, the wonderful thing about the ‘net is that it allows writers to get much closer to their readers.

But there is a downside: It allows writers to get much closer to their readers.

In the bad old days, authors toiled for years without ever coming into contact with their fanbase. Now they can talk to them, directly, almost hourly if they want to. For most, this level of engagement is a good thing. But for a tiny few, it has given them the opportunity to respond, directly, to a bad review.  Years ago, if someone didn’t like your book and said so, then you’d just have to live with it. Hopefully, you’d take the criticism onboard, but aside from that there was little else you could do.

With readers leaving comments on Amazon, the slighted author now has the opportunity to really stick it to the uneducated pleb who dared insult his handiwork. And he can be really clever and witty while he’s doing it too because that’s bound to bring in more fans.

But you  see far worse from the writers I like to call ‘the unjustly unpublished’: a thankfully small group who seem to think that agents everywhere are conspiring to keep the public from discovering their literary genius.

Agents are human so, yes, they occasionally get it wrong, but seriously, if you’re sitting on a stack of rejections high enough to present a risk to air traffic then it’s time to a long, critical look at your novel – again. And remember, just because they’ve rejected this one, it doesn’t mean your next piece won’t be successful, unless, of course, you’ve spent the year in between rubbishing agencies online, in which case they’re not going to take you on, no matter how brilliant you are.

So before replying to any piece of criticism, whether it’s online or in a newspaper, just take a breath. Take several. Walk away from the keyboard, make a cup of tea, smoke, have a drink, look at this picture:

Do not return to your desk until you’re calm and at least halfway rational. Now, if you still feel hard done by, have at ’em.

Or, alternatively, you could thank them for taking the time to comment and then really show them by making your next piece even better.

How many submissions is enough?

I recently swapped words with a chap who’d sent his book to over one hundred agents. Now to me, that sounds like a lot, but as I sent mine to about twenty I’m probably a poor one to judge. It did make me wonder, though: when is it time to stop sending out submissions and try something else?

I suppose the easy answer is ‘don’t’, not until you’ve tried every agent interested in the sort of stuff you write. If that’s twenty, then send to all twenty; if it’s one hundred and twenty then the same applies. Whatever you do, make sure you have exhausted all your options before deciding on an alternative route to getting yourself published (and when I say ‘published’ I don’t mean one of those schemes that’ll leave you with several thousand copies of your unsold masterpiece laughing at you from the attic).

But dealing with those (relatively few) literary agents did teach me that genre is fashion, and fashion is king. If you write science-fiction then your options, especially in the UK, are somewhat limited; if romance is your bag then things are a lot more cheerful; write something where teenage immortals spend half the book draining blood from the population of a fictitious yet picturesque mid-western town, and you’ve probably got a runaway hit on your hands.

I set out to write a really good book and to that end I didn’t set out to restrict it to a particular readership. Some think it’s literary science-fiction, others think it’s a police thriller. It’s even been called a 400-page poem (not so sure about that one, to be honest). All very nice, but when an agent reads it, he’s probably thinking, Where would this fit in Waterstones? And if he isn’t sure, then he isn’t interested. Genre is important because that’s how books are placed. If you’re one of those lucky people who is genre-neutral then you could do worse than look to see what’s selling at the moment and slotting your next book there.

It’s the poets I feel sorry for, poor buggers. Where do they go to get their stuff published?

Things I wish I’d written #1

One of the nicer things about summer in the south is the craft shows. Take the car out to a field somewhere and watch folk doing amazingly creative things with odd bits of rock and large blocks of wood. And you know the best part? There’s always cake. Lots of it.

As writers we’re told that we should always carry a notebook to record flashes of inspiration as soon as they strike, but inspiration is often a visual thing, so I find a camera(phone) is just as important. Now I think about it, I actually take quite a lot of pictures at craft shows, not of the exhibits – the artists (ask them first, or at very least, buy something!) They’re such colourful people and are usually very pleased when I tell them I’m gathering characters for future novels. Their next question is usually, ‘I’m not going to die in the first chapter, am I?’ And of course, I don’t know…

Stone cutting by Fergus Wessel
Stone cutting by Fergus Wessel

A few years ago, I was at an event in Henley-on-Thames. I don’t remember much else about it, except it was raining, and I was wearing the wrong shoes. Anyway, tucked away in the corner of the field (quite far away from the cake), there was a stonecutting exhibition that was drawing a pretty big crowd, so, being the nosey sort, I went over to see what all the fuss was about.

And it was this. Definitely worth a few moments of anyone’s admiration, and not just because of the quality of the stone work. I’m not much of an artist, but I’ve always seen the similarity between writing and sculpture: You start out with something rough and then, over time, you chip away at it, cutting away the rough edges, polishing the uneven surfaces until they’re smooth to the touch. I imagine it was this notion of cutting away everything superfluous that drew Fergus Wessel to immortalise the words of An Orange Sleeve, taken from Garden of Bright Waters.

Again, I don’t know very much about poetry, but I know what I like:

  • Simplicity
  • Imagery
  • Rhythm

And I think these few short lines have it all: a whole world and a girl. A few short lines that inspired me to write an entire novel.