Not The Booker

I’m cautiously delighted to say that The Visitors has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. It’s been a rather bruising process to get this far. The longlist was very long, featuring a hundred novels. Not The Booker is infamously decided by public vote, which leads to all kinds of hijinks from authors, publishers and agents drumming up support. That’s a hundred clusters of psychic tension detonating online simultaneously. No wonder things get heated.

I was in Greece for the first two days of the week-long voting window, by which point there were already clear leaders. With five days to go, I started doing what most of the others had done, and announced my part in the longlist as loud and far as I could. I was fortunate that a lot of people who’d read and liked The Visitors voted for me, and I managed to reach the shortlist. I’m extremely thankful and humbled by the support for my book.

The shortlist holds some intimidating competition – genuine literary titan Donna Tartt, no less, as well as Louis Armand, Mahesh Rao, Tony Black and Iain Maloney. I’m a little concerned that The Visitors seems to be the only work of genre fiction on the list; I’m worried it won’t be deemed worthy enough. And now I’m actually up for review, there’s the prospect of this sort of evisceration at the hands of Sam Jordison, too. Ouch. All in all, I’m expecting dark things from the Guardian readers – which begs the question: why bother entering?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first time my agent and I went to meet my editor at Quercus, we discussed the importance of promotion and self-promotion. It’s simply a mandatory part of an author’s life, now – especially a debut author. Publishers are spread thin. They can’t afford to spend time plugging new writers, and that means new writers have to plug themselves.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’m not great at selling myself or my work. I feel embarrassed at intruding on other people’s time, and I despise arrogance so much in other people that I cringe at anything that could make me seem arrogant. It took months of goading by my wife before I summoned courage to introduce myself to my local library and local Waterstones. On both occasions, I fumbled through a minute of apologies before finding a way to explain who I was, that I had a book out, and that I wanted to say hello. They were perfectly nice, and keen to discuss running some future events, but the process leaves me feeling weird, and even a little cheap.

If I’m ever going to find a way to write full-time – or, being more realistic, to better balance my life and jobs around writing – then this is the sort of thing I need to do. As my Dad says – you’ve created a product, and now you need to sell it.

Books are products, for sure. I think stories are far more than that. Books are the vessels that carry stories, though, so maybe I’m splitting hairs. I know that I want to write stories, but also that I don’t really want to sell my own books, because it makes me feel so uncomfortable; I know that I want as many people as possible to read my work, and that selling my own books, and selling myself, is one of the only ways I can find to keep writing my stories. For most writers, that’s the binary pair of modern publishing.

When I try to reconcile these two distinct strands of my industry, I have to accept that all I want to do – what I wish for every day – is to write full-time and get these stories onto paper, into people’s heads, into people’s hearts. Whether I like it or not, that means playing the game.

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my money’s on Tartt or Black.

Weird days. Remember Remember have been helping:

 

Freedom

This is another post about editing. Until today, it hasn’t been going very well. A variety of things have built into a general malaise, and I’ve been struggling to get myself out of it. Yesterday, I read this from Matt Haig: “As a writer, you need to have a thick skin. But you also need to be a hypersensitive wreck to write in the first place.”

Well, for the last few days, I’ve been in hypersensitive wreck mode. I swing in and out of these phases. When a novel is going well, I’m buoyed up and float through life, with at least half my mind firmly in my story, and nothing else really gets in the way. But when it’s going badly, I obsess over and over again on all my many failings and how terrible the novel is, convinced that the universe is going to wake up at any moment and realise that I shouldn’t have made it even this far.

This is my half-term from college. Although I’d done a few line edits on The Visitors, I hadn’t had a chance to really get to work until this week, and it began really badly. I started by making the huge, ugly structural changes I was worried about, cutting and pasting and wreaking a sweeping destruction on the first third of my manuscript. And that left me really despondent. I won’t run through all my paranoias here, but I was really wallowing. There seemed an insurmountable amount of work to do, and part of the plot was now back to front. I convinced myself that I’d shattered whatever was good about it in the first place. I spent some time moaning on Twitter, and went to bed feeling very sorry for myself. At the end of the day, I listened to this about twenty times, trying to summon some strength:

 

…but to little avail. I started today prepared for more of the same. Scared of going back to the manuscript, I farted around on Twitter, and on Facebook, and read the paper, and spent half an hour trying to read all of the internet. I’d made myself quite genuinely scared of the novel, and was looking for distractions to keep myself away from it. Then I remembered reading about something called Freedom. It’s a program which blocks the internet completely, and can’t be disabled without turning your computer off and on again. It cost $10, and I bought it. I installed it, and I set it to run for eight hours. Then I opened the novel, returned to the redraft, and tried to spend the day at work. Here’s how it went:

There are obvious breaks – between chapters, mostly – when I used to check my email. I couldn’t do that. Instead, I had to keep writing. I used to post updates about my progress, or lack thereof – I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t build a Spotify playlist. I couldn’t read my students’ blogs. I couldn’t add to my Pinterest boards. I couldn’t check my bank balance, or look at lenses I can’t afford on eBay. I couldn’t blog about how shitty I was feeling. I could only work, and so I did. I only stopped for cups of tea and to feed the cats. I checked my email at lunchtime on the iPad, but otherwise went without. And it was brilliant. Immersed in the novel, without distractions, I worked hard, fast, and well. I was coming up with good stuff for the first time in a week, building bridges between ripped sections, smoothing out the prose, and even discovering new connections to expand and consolidate the plot. More importantly, I was feeling good about again. That feeling is so important. Without confidence in your story, it’s impossible to write with conviction.

Strange to reflect that I needed technology to rid me of technology. Freedom truly gave me freedom to work. I know it’s daft to spend money on something willpower should do for free, but Freedom even removed the choice. Even after a single session, I believe it’s the best money I’ve ever spent on my writing. To be clear, I don’t have a motivation problem. When I’m in the flow of my story, I can write continually for hours without stopping. But when I’m as full of dread as I was yesterday, I seek any reason to avoid dealing with the thing that causes me dread.

This redraft is hard. I’m making big changes, and some of them have left me feeling a little divorced from the story. One of my characters has changed her name, and it’s taken me a full fortnight to feel like I know her again. As petty as it sounds, I worked with MS Word’s ‘Track Changes’ function for the first few sessions, and it was driving me distracted, churning out balloons and dotted lines for every tiny change. Thankfully, Jane at Quercus gave her blessing for me to move onto a plain document. I know it’s daft, but that’s helped a lot.

I suppose that demolishing parts of the story was always going to be demoralising, and perhaps it’s no surprise I’ve found it so hard to stay positive about the redraft. But now most of the destruction is done, and I’m starting to rebuild, I’m feeling better all the time. When things go well, it gives me a surge of confidence in what I do, and where I want the story to go. I’m not all the way there yet, and there’s still an awful lot to do, but – for now – I’ve turned a corner.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Here’s a picture of a steampunk sperm whale hot air balloon. Writers – get Freedom. It changes everything.

whale balloon

#StoryShop

For the last three years, I’ve kept my brain ticking over by writing ultra-flash fiction – also known as nanofiction and twiction, amongst other names – on Twitter. It keeps my imagination in good shape, and has also been useful in my wider work, as writing with the concision demanded by a 140-character limit has fed back into my longer stories. I try to write a new story at least once a day, and I’ve now written more than 1,300 of them…

I’ve been meaning to write a proper post about nanofiction, and flash fiction, for a while now – but that’s for another time; right now, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is in full swing. Over the last few years, the festival has curated a range of Twitter-based writing challenges, and this year is no exception. There is a daily prompt from the official festival using the #StoryShop tag, and associated companies like Jura Whisky are setting challenges too.

I like writing to themes – the tighter the better. Trying to deliver stories – journeys – inside 140 characters has taught me that necessity is the mother of invention; working to a theme often boosts that drive for invention. The best thing about these tags, though, is the sense of community they foster. I love seeing how other people have interpreted the same theme, and sharing and discussing their responses. There have been some belters at this year’s festival: here are my responses to ‘The Missing Duck’…

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…’The Return’…

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…and ‘The Undiscovered Map’…

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If you fancy giving it a go, check out #ThePush for story prompts outside the festival, and look for the #vss tag – very short story. Which, ultimately, is what it’s all about.