Friday, December 26, 2008

"Oh, what have I done?"

Shadowhunter asked me a few questions in the comments below:

I'm wondering if you have any tips or advice for aspiring Australian authors - or international for that matter - when writing and publishing a manuscript. How do you cope with writing and then sticking to that writing? Were there times when you were writing the Pellinor series that you thought: 'Oh, what have I done?'

And so I sit here in poses of thought. The truth is that every writer's experience is individual, and doesn't apply to everyone else. And I'm not at all sure that my experience would be very useful to aspiring writers, since as an author I have been, well, vague and feckless in the matter of my so-called "career". (The word "career" in connection with the word "writing" makes me think of a horse bolting, completely out of control, downhill).

For example, I sometimes feel embarrassed when people ask me about how to get published. I have never done the kinds of things that agents and "industry experts" advise you to do, and it all just seems to have happened anyway. For example, a poet is supposed to regularly send out work to magazines, in order to build up a "reputation" that then will attract a publisher. I haven't done that for about two decades, largely out of laziness and for other less admirable reasons, and for years have only sent poetry to those editors who ask for it. Nor have I ever sent a manuscript to a publisher. Publishers just seem to turn up when I've written enough poems.

Similarly with the Pellinor books, I never hunted for a publisher. Penguin Australia contracted me on spec, when I asked for some advice on what to do with this book I had just started... (But I could ask them to do that because they published my first book of poetry, and that came out of the blue too). I was very surprised, but the contract did mean that I was motivated to finish The Gift, which might otherwise have languished unwritten in a file marked "good idea". Deadlines are wonderfully motivating.

I have one piece of good practical advice. If you have a contract with a publisher, get a good agent. I have a wonderful agent who is worth her weight in gumdrops, and I couldn't manage without her. My business nous is about equal with that of Bernard in Black Books (look for the scene when he's doing his tax return). I can't even understand my royalty statements, except for the figure at the bottom. My agent takes care of all the stuff that makes my head spin. And negotiates better deals for me, of course. She is a Good Woman.

As for the actual writing... yes, I often clutched my forehead and thought, "Oh God, what have I done?" I was never sure until I actually typed THE END that I would ever reach the end of the story. (I can admit that now, since if my publishers read this, they won't have a fit. Having typed THE END four times, I feel a bit more confident these days).

The odd thing about writing is that once you finish, you forget how painful it was. (People say this about childbirth, but believe me, I remember that was painful - but I truly don't remember with the books, although I know it was very hard labour with all of them). There were, to balance out the days when writing every sentence felt like pulling a tooth out, also moments of exhilaration, and days when I emerged from the haze of creativity to tell my sceptical family that I was a GENIUS. But the best day of all was when I finished the series. I didn't get off that high for about a month. I suspect that might be the real addiction of writing novels: that wonderful feeling you get when you actually find out what happens in the story. Because you don't really know until you've written it.

I found that the main thing I needed to be was patient. Very patient. I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of a novel before I write it. (Not the plot, the shape, which is a different thing altogether). When I did get around to writing, I never looked ahead, past the page I was actually writing, because if I did all I saw was the 60,000 words I hadn't written, and it made me panicky. By the time I got to The Singing, I was also aware of the weight of expectation from the fans who had read the other books. That made approaching that novel very intimidating indeed. Before I could write it, I had to forget about all that and try to write the book that I wanted to write. I figured if I did that, I had the best chance of (a) pleasing myself and therefore (b) pleasing others.

My only trick was to write down how many words I had written every night. That was the measure that helped me know that, despite how it felt, I was actually getting somewhere.

The other thing I needed was trust, a faith that I wasn't wasting my and everyone else's time. This is wholly unsupported by anything, because you won't know whether the writing has worked until you have finished it. This is why writers often appear a bit foolish. You have to believe that, as William Blake said, if a fool persists in his folly, he will become wise.

In Virginia Woolf's book To The Lighthouse, she has a character who is a painter. During the course of the book, she completes a painting of the lighthouse that features in the novel. There's a passage where she describes the process of creation, and it has stuck with me for years. At first, she says, you have the vision - you can see the whole thing, the landscape, the sea, the lighthouse, all in one complete picture. But painting it is like going over there in a boat. You can't see anything except the waves around you, and the wind keeps buffeting you in unexpected directions, and the spray gets in your eyes. You often feel lost. Completing the painting is like arriving at the lighthouse, and at last you can see what you've done.

That's certainly what writing is like for me. I just keep rowing that boat, until I get there.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

News from Holiday-land

Last week, we went for a family holiday. This event, by no means unusual in most families, last occurred in ours nine years ago. (That's the downside of having writers for parents. Of course, as we keep reminding the beloved offspring, there are lots of upsides...)

However, when we do go on holidays, we have good ones. As we did nine years ago, on that other legendary occasion, we went to Queenscliff, an old-fashioned and very pretty seaside resort on the Bellarine Peninsula, a shortish train trip from where we live. It's notable for its food and its spectacular Victorian hotels, all of which escaped the evils of "development" and then were restored when Victorian splendour became fashionable again.

There we rented a townhouse with a giant tv (and other more modest ones distributed about the house), and plenty of room for the six of us to read, or play games, or hit each other with cushions, or snooze. (It wasn't the building above glimpsed through the cypresses, which is one of those towered hotels, but it was right next door to the famous Queenscliff Hotel, where we had a most memorable lunch). We took up a bunch of books, dvds and games, and spent the week in glorious idleness.

The most important decision each day was where we should eat. If you like eating, Queenscliff is a good place to be. It's a bit of a foodie's paradise, bristling with specialist delis selling exquisite concoctions bewitched from the excellent local produce, and, of course, restaurants. As you might surmise, I'm not the action-holiday type, so it was a week short on thrilling narrative and very long on leisurely pleasures. And all of us agreed that the only criticism to be made of our holiday was that it was too short, and that we shouldn't wait nine years before we tried it again. I certainly feel more relaxed than I have for, oh, nine years...

Sadly, I am not a very good photographer. The picture above is of a beautiful sunset behind the Queenscliff lighthouse. Just looking at it makes me feel good, because I have the memory to fill it out, but I'm certain it won't have the same effect on you. But you can see, I hope, something of the charm of the place.

But anyway, to get to the point: while I was away, the news came through of an offer for the Pellinor books from Spain. They plan to publish all four through 2009/10, which is quick work! So the Pellinor Plot to Rule The World (very quietly) still proceeds apace...

Which seems a very good omen at this year's end. Prost!


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Checking in

Hello, Pellinorites. I see that I haven't written anything here, except answers to comments, for far too long. But now it's getting near to Christmas, I'm going on an actual holiday next week, and I've shut up shop on my theatre blog, which gobbles up all my blogging time. And I thought I should wave a hand and sprinkle some Christmas dust for my faithful readers.

Life has been jogging along quite undramatically. The US edition of The Singing is getting closer and closer, and the odd proofing query is still dribbling in (amazing, really, by the time the books get to the States, I calculate they've been proofed by about 10 people, including me...and there are still tiny corrections...) I keep getting boxes of German books, which are piling up in the garage. I don't know any German fantasy readers, so I'm not sure what to do with them. But what each box means, when it arrives, is that another print-run of the book has been released in Germany. Judging by the boxes, Pellinor readers in Germany are beginning to add up. As they are elsewhere. The Gift is now on its 12th reprint in the UK - I've lost count here. And apparently it's been sold to Portugal, with things in the works in France. So Alison's Plans to Take Over The World continue to move. Bwahahaha...

It's all very cheering, and it's all because of you readers. I am very grateful. Because the Pellinor books aren't a big advance, glamorously hyped series. These sales haven't been driven by publicity, but by word of mouth. Your mouths. I'm grateful to all of you.

So may you all have a brilliant Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah/Muharram/holiday/Bardic festival of your choice. And I'll be back in the New Year, hopefully with a new book. Not a Pellinor book. Just another one. That's the plan, anyway. It's about time I wrote something else. Wish me luck!