writing tips

On Staying Silent: Review Etiquette

So…I had a little hissy fit last week. It was not my finest moment. Normally, I get a bad review and I react in one of the following ways:

  • ‘Damn, that’s a good point. Why didn’t I realise that before I submitted?!’
  • ‘Damn! THAT’S SO TRUE! WHY AM I AN IDIOT? CRAP!’
  • ‘Huh, that’s funny. I never noticed that. Better not do that in the next book.’
  • ‘Oh well, I wasn’t sure if that would work. That’s a shame.’
  • ‘Dude, I didn’t choose the title! That’s not my fault!’
  • ‘Dude, I didn’t choose the cover! That’s not my fault!’
  • ‘Dude, I didn’t tell you to read this book when you read one with a similar storyline last week!’
  • ‘Oh well, ya win some, you lose some.’
  • ‘Well…you really didn’t get what I was going for there…I’m not gonna question who’s fault that is, because a bunch of other people got it.’
  • ‘Oh…I wonder if you’re a writer who’s trolling…’
  • ‘Wow, I really feel like you know me and have purposefully tried to carve out my heart with a spoon- how can you possibly hate me this much?’

Last week, however, I was overwhelmed with the fact that I could answer a lot of the points this reviewer had made. That I could tell them I’d done the research, that in fact, yes this could happen. I wanted to tell them not to judge me on the title. I wanted to tell them that patting me on the head because 2 stars is actually pretty good due to their terribly high standards made me want to chow down on the living flesh of fools wandering in the woods at a full moon.

But I couldn’t. Because professionals don’t do that shit.

So what did I do?

I shouted at Twitter. In a series of 150 characters snippets, I shouted into the void. Not necessarily because I wanted to be heard, but because I wanted to justify myself. Reviewers have the power to determine sales of a book. They can create a buzz, share excitement and help authors become better writers. They can offer critcism because they read so much, but they can also be responsible for boosting a career when they’re a fan.

They also have the power and safety to destroy someone from behind a screen. To ensure a book never sells and never gets heard of again. To be snarky and sarcastic and even vindictive (and that is their right) because they have people who trust their opinions.

Do I think I wrote a perfect book? Hell no. Do I feel the really harsh reviews that tear things apart like scratchings against my soul? Not always, but yeah…sometimes. Especially if the reviewer forgets that writers are human. It’s harder to put something out there than it is to tear it down. There’s a lot more vulnerability in creation than there is in destruction.

Now I know what’s coming here- ‘Man the fuck up! You’re an author! It’s just part of the job!’ I’d like you to name another job where the people who pay your wages tell you on a regular basis that what you’re doing is perfect but is also shit and worthless and they hate you. In an ordinary job, you work to please your boss. In my job, if you do that, you’ll end up writing song-lyric-influenced-epic-wartime-love-story-between-a-werewolf- and-a-dinosaur-that-goes-back-in-time-to-save-earth-from-cowboys. Because every reader is my boss.

We have to write for ourselves. It is only in being marginally pleased with the result that we can put it out into the world less afraid, and with less excuses when the critics come to call.

Is the moral of this story to man the hell up and not care about reviews? No, I’ve met some lovely people through Twitter and the reviewing process. And their views do help make me a better writer. They also help me feel better when things feel a bit crap. So I didn’t shout out into the void when I justified myself to Twitter. I shouted out, and readers responded. And THAT is the moral of the story. Be upset by your reviews if you want, trust your own process, try to write for yourself. But know that somewhere out there is someone who loves what you do, and wants you to keep going.

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Workshopping at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

It has been a majorly busy week! I’ve signed on for a further two novels with my publisher, I got to see my new cover design for my soon-to-be-released Christmas novel (Driving Home for Christmas) and I was teaching creative writing workshops for children at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

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There are a few moments in life where you really feel like you’ve ‘Made It’ in the field. Obviously, I just wrote about how there are no big breaks, and what I love about this opportunity, like all of the other really awesome exciting things I have coming up in the next few months, have happened really organically. Sometime last year, after working a few summer festivals near Cheltenham, I enquired about workshops, and got a reply saying that the person I’d emailed wasn’t really in charge of that, and she’d pass it on.

I didn’t think it would go anywhere. And yet this week I was running workshops for four different schools, inside canopies and tents and a Waterstones Hideaway. It felt amazing to be part of something so literary! We created dragons with powers, mystical island settings, animal superheroes and crazy characters! It was so much fun, and it felt brilliant to be in the midst of such creative talent! Plus, Cheltenham is absolutely beautiful.

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Just goes to show, that gradually working your way up, you can get somewhere. So let’s aim big: next year, I’ll be giving a talk, or reading from my book!

I’ll be sharing some awesome news about different lectures I’m giving, residencies I’m taking part in, and workshops I’m running too, but expect there to be an overwhelming amount of details and competitions about Driving Home for Christmas soon enough!

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Authentic Storytelling: Writing the message or telling the story?

 

Writers have quite a responsibility when it comes to the stories they spin. We are constantly looking for the message, the bigger picture. If the good little girl gets rewarded in love, we feel like we must be good to get what we want. If bad characters are punished, we feel we must believe in that punishment.

 

But what happens when fear of the message takes over your storyline? What if you have an ethnic minority character who happens to be the bad guy? Are you a racist? What if your gay character doesn’t end up with a partner but your straight character does- are you prioritising who gets happiness in society?

 

Every web we create sends out vibrations, saying that our belief system sits within these words. And that’s not always true. Sometimes I don’t give another character a love interest because I don’t have time, or I don’t want to end it in a triple wedding like a Jane Austen tie up. Sometimes, the bad guy is just the bad guy, because you want to make it more interesting, and give them a backstory. Not because you’ve decided all people of a certain race are evil.

 

But people will call you on this. They will expect absolute answers for every decision you’ve made, when really, some of them are just based on the fact that they felt right. A friend of mine is currently trying to write a villain who happens to be gay. Now, is there a way to do this without demonising gay people? Yes, of course. But is there always going to be one person with a foghorn standing there and judging her for the choice? Probably.

 

People are complex creatures with endless facets, constantly changing and evolving. To represent one of those on the page clearly is pretty much impossible. But in writing (as in life) reverting to labels never helps anyone. My friend’s character is not evil because he is gay, or gay because he is evil. He is an evil character that serves a purpose of evilness in the story, and also happens to be gay because…well, because he is. Just like how people are, because they are.

 

And what if you don’t have a message? Or worse, if the message doesn’t fit the genre you write in? When coming up with concepts for my new novel, I’d just watched two awful movies ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ and ‘Made of Honor’, both of which deal with the bullshit ‘We’ve been friends for years but now you’re getting married and I’ve realised I love you’ storyline. So I wanted to write a story where a girl and a guy live together, and are friends, and other people don’t get it, and keep waiting for them to get together. But they don’t. Because they’re friends. The message was there. Men and women can be friends, stop demonising it and making it all about romance because we all know that’s not true.

 

Except…well, no-one wants to read a story like that. Firstly, because it’s a story where nothing changes, and people want change, but also because people WANT the main characters to get together. They don’t care about the moral, or the message or what it means for society if we think our friends secretly want to shag us. If there’s a nice guy and a nice girl, and they get along, movies and novels tell us that they’re a possibility. And no amount of talking about the message will make that a satisfying read for people who have become used to the pattern of existing friendships in romcoms. I’m pretty sure we don’t do this in real life. We don’t look at a best friend of the opposite sex we’ve never been attracted to before, and suddenly decide they’ll do. And if we do, it’s more interesting to write about what takes that person to that point, where they are emotionally and how that affects the friendship.

 

My point being, we often feel like a story can’t exist without a message, but a message without a working story just feels like being hit over the head with someone else’s morality. Not fun. My chick lit books tend to work on the same theme, which is taking a chance and trusting someone. Do I do this deliberately? No, but I like writing emotionally distant and strongly sarcastic female characters, so the message comes naturally from how I enjoy writing. The message tends to reveal itself along the way, and if you’re already absolutely sure about what you’re trying to tell the world, well, just try and be careful you’re not hitting people over the head with it. Being able to enjoy a story, even if you don’t agree with it’s view of the world, is one sign of great writing.

 

Don’t forget my Writing for Wellbeing Workshop on 26th April, where we explore things like where our personal inbuilt narratives meet our characters on the page. If you want to explore how and why you write a little better, it’s the perfect opportunity! Plus, if you Quote: WORDPRESSCODE in an email to andrealmichael@aol.com when ordering, you get 10% off the ticket price! Bargain!

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Wine Dark Sea Blue- A Look Back at the Book Launch

So, it’s been a while since the book launch for Wine Dark, Sea Blue, and life is still getting back into it’s own little rhythm.

I have been assured by everyone it was a wonderful night. (Am I reminding anyone of Mrs Elton in Austen’s Emma? Where she flatters herself by saying how much other people enjoy her company?) To be honest, I was buzzing around like a bumblebee on crack, so I’m kind of depending on everyone else’s opinions here.

So the UEA INTO Launch started earlier in the day, with a wonderful speech from Professor Sarah Churchwell (Who you can find out more about here). It was so great to hear a writer and lecturer who didn’t know me at all really get what I was trying to achieve with this novel. To have someone who knows good writing understand my themes and narratives, and the point of my writing just made the day for me. 

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Then we went down to Dirty Dicks Pub, where festivities were about to begin! Opening the show was Northern Irish writer Louise Davidson, who has also helped me with work on The DumbSaint Project. It was then followed by a ‘thrown voice’ poetry show by Joe McBride and Joe Shefer, exploring the voiceless poet. We had a spoken word/sound art collaboration with Victoria Karlsson (using Joe McBride’s work- you can listen here). Poetry from Stairwell Books’ Rose Drew. Songs from the excellent Emma Weston, accompanied by Sam Weston. And then onto partying with The Elisa Jeffery Collective!

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So, my advice for a launch?

  • Pre-sign ALL THE BOOKS. Sure, it’s nice to write specific messages, but it’ll take time and make your life difficult.
  • Get someone else to deal with ALL the OTHER SHIT. You will not have the time to greet people, sign books, sell, check the state of the nibbles and make sure the band have leads etc. Get HELP
  • Themed cupcakes are always a winner
  • Provide entertainment but maybe not too much entertainment
  • Maybe trust that when you invite your friends, and they invite their friends, you probably will have enough people!
  • It’s your night! Take the time to enjoy it!
  • Merchandise is fun!
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Submitting to Submissions

Hey, mothers, here’s a question: Do people come up to you and tell you how ugly your baby is? No. No, they don’t. Because generally, when you’ve put a lot of time and effort into creating something, the average person isn’t inclined to come up and shit all over your achievement.

So, why are writers so scared to put their work out there? A writer friend and I have been discussing this recently. He finished his book, and wincingly told me he was going to submit it. My response ‘That’s awesome, wahoo!’ Because I say things like that, obviously. It wasn’t until I had to gear myself up for that same process months later that I realise what he was getting at.

So far, if I’ve shown it to people, it’s trusted friends and advisors, people who know what they’re talking about. Or people who are too polite to tell me if it’s rubbish. And if I leave it like that, then I don’t have to deal with the possibility that I might not be any good at this. It’s writer’s denial. It’s stranding yourself on an island and knowing that, yes, you created something, but no-one’s going to come rescue you unless you start putting the flares up and screaming at the top of your lungs. That analogy needs some work.

 

So, I’ve been doing so gradually, working my way up. I started with the Mslexia Novel competition, in which the book was longlisted. I recall it being some crazy number, from 700 submissions down to 100. So that means something. Then I entered it into a competition run by Bookline and Thinker, which I’ve yet to hear back from. And now it’s doing pretty well on Authonomy. But as The Walrus said, the time has come. Because, okay, I write for pleasure. But if I was just writing for me, I wouldn’t bother entering competitions or putting it on websites, would I? Books are written, and they are made to be read. That is their function.

There’s also the fear of seeming like a crazy person when you submit. You know the ones:

‘Hi there, this is my AMAZING book about THINGS AND STUFF. My mum really likes it, and the dog pissed on the first draft, so I think it’s lucky! Get in touch when you realise how awesome I am, and how I will make you millions. Well done for choosing me!’

 

Having belief if your art is important. Realising that you are one tiny person, and that in whatever you do, there will always be someone better and worse than you, is also important. It might be a matter of timing, it might be conflicting interests. It might be nothing to do with you at all, because the publishing market is having a hissy fit right now. But…what if it is me? What if I suck? What if I’ve spent four years and two degrees and a good portion of my life trying to do something that I am incapable of? These are just some of the questions that arise when you decide to submit. It’s not just a case of paying for some stamped addressed envelopes. This is the psychological shit, right here.

So what can you do? You can be prepared to respond badly. You can convince yourself you don’t care. You can bitch about the current titles offered by such a publisher. You can drink an entire bottle of whisky and tell yourself it didn’t do Hemmingway any harm. Or you can shrug, try and take on any criticism, and move on with your life. Maybe it’s just not your time right now. But be prepared.

If we’re going back to your manuscript being your baby, then would you send it on a plane ride by itself without knowing it’s being taken care of? Wouldn’t you wrap it up warm, and pack an extra bottle and do all that mother-type stuff that means you care about this little package of trouble more than anything else? What am I saying? Don’t send off half-finished, unedited bullshit. That is the opposite of being a good mother. Or writer. Be prepared, have a go, and if all else fails, I’m sure the whisky helps.

 

Happy Writing, and even happier submitting!

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Book Snobs, and the Acceptable Limits of Teen Paranormal Fiction.

You know the number one cited reason for buying an e-reader? ‘No-one can see what I’m reading.’

Yep, it’s true, thanks to e-books, you can now read whatever z-list celebrity biography or trashy romance novel you want, free from sniggering and judgement on public transport.

What is it with feeling guilty? Why do we need to define books as ‘guilty pleasures’ when really, if you’re truly enjoying it, you shouldn’t feel guilty at all? If you enjoy eating Marmite, and the people around you do not, (because they’re sane) do you define that piece of toast with the spread of your choice as a ‘guilty pleasure’? No, you assume they have terrible tastebuds, and enjoy your food.

 

We all take part in this world of literary snobbery, whether it’s hiding our paperback by breaking the spine (you people SUCK, seriously, why do you do that?) to bend the cover over, or by judging others when they tell you they’ve just finished the latest Twilight.

 

You can find this t-shirt at Fright Rags

I’m a big fan of ‘it’s what you are like, not what you like’ as a concept. But I’m probably still going to make a subconscious judgement if you’ve read (and enjoyed) Twilight. Why? Why on earth do I care if you want to read teen vamp literature written by a Mormon? Surely I should just be a good human being and be pleased that you found joy in the written word, that you found a means of escape from your dreary normal life, into a paranormal adventure.

 

But clearly, I’m not a good human being. Because I DO judge you. Just as you judge me. Which is why I only read Kafka on the tube.

 

Is it maybe that we’re looking to connect with others? Would a Twilight fan see you reading on the bus and think ‘you know, we’re connected, we are intertwined by our ability to get sucked into this world, and I consider you a friend, dear stranger’? (Well, no, because in their head they’re probably trying to figure out which ‘Team’ you’re on, and which is the best way to stab you if you say ‘Jacob’, but still). We see people with Harry Potter tattoos and we know they understand us.

 

Speaking of embarrassing reading...

There is something definitive about series, particularly children/teen book series that binds people together. Perhaps it’s that teenagers are prone to melodrama, and so the books seem more important, or maybe it’s because these series ultimately get turned into films and have a wider reach, again, making them seem more important. Either way, I’m going to make a bold statement: I think everybody should read teen fiction.

 

I think the themes that relate to teenagers can be understood by us all: fitting in, being outcast, wanting to be special, wanting to be loved and understood. And I think that teen fiction can be truly excellent, whether it’s standard or supernatural. The tone of writing makes it easy reading, but the subject matter makes us connect. Or it should, if you were ever a teenager. Maybe you were the high school quarter back cliche and you sailed through school without a second thought: Good for you, you’re boring and I’m sure your advanced years will only continue to be so.

 

This picture was taken using Instagram, and therefore everyone looks cooler. EXCEPT FOR THE BENT SPINE OF THE BOOK! MURDERER

Why did I write this? Because I was explaining to a friend about how much I was enjoying the second book in The Hunger Games series, and looking forward to the film. And I was embarrassed by this. Now, I get embarrassed by pretty much everything, from my ability to accidentally insult people then awkwardly backtrack, to my inability to talk to pretty men. But I am never embarrassed by what I read, because if I enjoy it, then to me, it has served its purpose.

So feeling guilty about reading something that was well written, excellently conceived and has left me wanting more made me feel…well, guilty for bowing to social convention, I guess.

 

So, let us rise up against a tide of injustice, and for now and forever let us say: ‘I shall not be ashamed!’*

 

I hope you’re enjoying whatever you’re reading right now, and if you haven’t already, check out The Hunger Games. It’s more than just your average teen fiction, it’s a comment on society! Honestly, even The Guardian says so!

*This does not apply to Twilight fans. You should be ashamed. Unless you’re reading it ironically, in which case, you’re supercool, obvs.