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.


Emily Cross said...

thank you for this alison, its really helpful to hear how you went about being published etc.

Your advice and analogy on the writing process is so true for me - i thought i was doing something very wrong in the way i was writing my novel as i only seemed to know what 'may' happen in the next scene and did nothave extensive plotting or outlines as some have advised.
Coming across what you have said about the painting and the boat and what E.L. Doctorow has said

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

has made me feel a bit more comfortable that i may actually be writing 'properly' for me and not what is 'meant' to be proper.

Shadowjhunter said...

Thank you so much, Alison. I was not expecting to see such a well-written and detailed response! You truly are faithful to your fans: a rare diamond trait that I - and I'm sure I speak for others as well - appreciate in more than words can express.

I do believe persistence is the key to writing a good novel or series of novels. It is (very often) hard to press on with writing, as you feel like your own writing can never perform against the fantasy greats. It definitely feels like each time I start to write, a man comes to smother my inspiration-fire with his cloak.

I also agree with your opinion of deadlines. They can definitely be motivating in the aspect that someone is waiting and wanting to read the work you have put your effort in to creating. I write on many fan fiction sites and one characteristic that drives me to continue, is knowing that there are people who do like my work; who do appreciate the thought and effort I put in to creating a story.

I am glad that that found your way through the fog. In the end, I think that as long as there is one person still reading and loving the stories you tell, writing them is worth all the effort you give.

Thank you so much for your response, Alison. It means so much to me. Have a great New Year.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for asking an interesting question, SH! I'm not terribly good really, in terms of responding to fans - although I'd like to answer everyone, it gets impossible - but blogging comes naturally...

And Emily, one thing I do know is that there is no "proper" way to write. Everyone has to work out how they do it.

ladyminya said...

Hey Alison,

Congratulations on the success of your books! I just picked up "The Gift" this afternoon and was very surprised to see your name on the cover.

I don't know if you would remember my mother and I, but we used to baby-sit your kids a few years back, when your youngest was just a one-year-old.

I'm really excited to get into your book series, and to read more of your work. I thought I would stop by and wish you, Josh, Zoe & Ben a happy new year.

Take care!

- Andrée & Marcelle.

Alison Croggon said...

Of course I remember you! Many thanks for stopping by, and the very best for next year to both of you!

Rain said...

Thank you very much for this wonderful writing advice, Mrs. Croggon! It came as rather a surprise to me when I finally checked your blog again and I saw this post. I've been experiencing a "creative low" over the past week and your post here has truly helped and inspired me.

I am looking forward to getting The Singing in the mail this March and I will literally eat it once I get my hands on it! :)

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks Rain - I rather suspect I have written more inspiring pieces, since I've been very flat for weeks. But I can vouch for the fact that it's sensible. And I hope you do enjoy The Singing!

Tolley Family said...

I found your blog through your website. I have to tell you how much I LOVED your books. Even my husband is loving them. He kept commenting that you are a wonderful poet--so he wasn't surprised you were an actual poet. I am one of those readers that has so many questions about books and characters but I won't bother you with those. :) Anyway thank you so much for writing.

Emily Ruth said...

I now have a preorder of The Singing (*cheers*)!

But I was wondering if there was a countdown widget for it? Just curious :)

Thanks again for all you bring to the literary world!

bittersweet said...

hi! Im a 14 yr old girl from Singapore.Do you know when The Singing will be released here? I cant seem to find the book anywhere.By the way the other three books rocked!! I love your books!!

Shadowjhunter said...

Hope you're okay with the bushfires, Alison. I'm not too sure where about's in Victoria you are, but I wish you all the best anyway.

The bushfires came close to my neighbourhoob (the one in Upper Ferntree Gully). Very tragic and very frightening.

Alison Croggon said...

Very frightening indeed, SH. I'm glad you're ok. The fires are nowhere near us, nor any of my relatives, but it's been a little traumatising to be Victorian the past day or so, I must say! And you take care.

Rebel Duck said...

How ya'll doin'. I'm a 25yr old guy from Kentucky, USA. Back in September I was fresh out of new books to read (or at least new to me). I had read everything from the authors I was familiar with, and the librarians could not recommend anything that I hadn't already read. So, I searched the web for something new, and I stumbled upon your name. I have thanked the Muses for you ever since. With exception to Tolkien's LOTR, the Books of Pellinor have become my absolute favorite pieces of literature (and you placed a very, very, extremely close second to him). In fact, I loved you so much that I couldn't wait for The Singing to be publish here in the States, and I had the UK publishing shipped to me overseas. I know, I know, but patience is not one of my better virtues.

Everyone I tell about it has absolutly loved them as well. Since I first discovered you I have purchased three whole sets. Whenever I lent the books to someone they would tell their friends how great it was, and then they would ask me to borrow them. Before they were returned to me they would be promised to someone else. I ended up buying the second set that was only for me (no borrowing allowed). Then I later had to buy the third set because the first was being read so much that they were falling out of their bindings. So, to put it simply...EVERYONE HERE LOVES YOU.

Being a huge fan I have a question that I've been wanting to ask for a couple of months. Do you think that you will write more about the world of Edil-Amaranoh? Will there ever be another earthquake or maybe a tidel wave that will reveal more long-lost scrolls for you to translate from this ancient culture? Is there even the slightest chance that we may one day be able to read the "Books of Gent" or the "Chronicles of Den Raven" or even the "Tales of Turbansk" or the "Songs of Busk"?

Rain said...

I read about the fires and I immediately thought of you. Glad to hear you're not in any danger. And I hope for the best for all those living near where the fires have been.

Capt. Nemo said...

I, while trying to write my first fantasy novel, tried to read everything in fantasy, and that was why i picked up Gift, but to tell you it was more than a page turner for me. It told me of many other ways that fantasy can unfold, from the age old love to The Gift which is so difficult to explain. I read you speech on fantasy on your site, and it too helped me in some ways. By the way, you wrote something about shape being different from plot. How do you see the shape of a novel.

Hope you are safe.

bookraven said...

Hi. I'm Francesca, a 7th grader who is a huge fan of you're books. You are an AMAZING writer and my biggest role model. I'm doing a book report on you're book, The Naming, and part of it is an interview with the author. My teacher said we could make up the answers, but it would be really cool if you could answer them, if you have the time.

Are the people in you're books based off of anyone?

How did you come up with the idea to write the Naming?

Do you write all of the peoms that are at the begining of the chapters?

Which to you like better: writing poetry, or fantasy?

Do you have any tips for young writers?

If you could have done one thing differently when writing the book, what would you have done?

Did you make up The Speech or is it a language that already exists?

Are we ever going to learn more about the cave that the lion led Mearad and Cadvan through that was a short cut to norloch?

If you could have included more information about a particular charactor in the book who would you choose and what would you include?

How old is Cadvan?

Does a bard die of old age, or do they have to be killed?

Did Maerad's mother know that her lyre had the runes of the treesong on it?

In general, how much did Maerad's parent's know about Maerad's abilities and the fact that she's the chosen one?

How to you come up with a book title?

When you were a kid, did you want to be what you are now, and did you ever dream that you would write such amazing books?

Thanks. If you can't get to them, I'll understand.

Patrick J. Wood said...

Hey Alison! Thanks for the comment on my blog! I had not even realised until someone pointed it out to me :D

Also, I have a quick question. How many words would you call an 'average' chapter? I'm aiming at about 3500-4000 words, but I have no idea how many pages that would be in an average fantasy novel. I mean, I don't want the chapters too long or too short. Cheers.


Alison Croggon said...

Questions! And no time today ...Thanks Francesca, and I'll try to get to some of those - and some, like tips for writers, can be found on this blog. And SH, there's absolutely no "proper" length for a chapter. How long is a piece of string? :) It has to be as along as it needs to be. As long as it suits you...

Rain said...

*squeeks with joy* I just got The Singing in the mail! I am so excited! :DD

Northen Light36 said...

Hi Alison.

I doubt you remember me, but you signed my copies of the Pellinor novels in Fitzroy. Just thought I'd catch up on your blog.

Glad to hear you weren't caught up in the fires. Have to admit the first set came far to close to my parents for my comfort, personally. I love my parents and would do almost anything for them, but six cats and an excitable, large dog in a two bedroom flat for two weeks was an experience I'd be very happy not to repeat.

How's your new novel coming? Well I hope. My US penpal, Andrea, just finished reading the four Pellinor novels and enjoyed them greatly.


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Ann - and of course I remember you - my memory's not that bad!

Alice said...

Hello, Alison. I was just wondering if you would ever consider an audio version of the Books of Pellinor, and why? Also, if you would, who would you like to read them?

All hail the Crog-God!
From Alice =)

Tolley Family said...

I bought the Singing the day it came out and read and read and read! It was every bit as amazing as I had hoped! But I do have a few questions.

When exactly did Cadvan realize he loved Maerad?

I like to think the remained in a faithful relationship until the died. (I've been rooting for them since the first book!) Is that true? If so why did they never marry? Can you describe the relationship they shared? What did Maerad do after the singing? Did they have any children? Was Cadvan jealous of the WinterKing? Was he already in love with Maerad when she confessed her feeling for Arkan? And how did Cadvan know how to find Maerad when she was lost? Oh and what did Silvia, Hem and Saliman think of Maerad and Cadvan together?

Okay so there were lots of questions but I think you could follow my general line of inquiry. LOL I really do beg you to answer them. :) Thank you so much for writing such a fantastic series. I have left glowing reviews of your books on goodreads and have told everyone of my friends about how wonderful your books are! And they have all started reading them! Thank you again. :) And you would think from my post I was a young enthusiastic teenager but nope I'm a married woman in my 30's with two kids. :) Have a wonderful day and thank you again!

Shadowjhunter said...

Hey Alison! Check this video out on youtube. I think you will like it very much ;)

That is, if you havn't seen it already.

- Shadowjhunter