Monday, 11 August 2014

Six years of writing and it ain't any easier...

I gave up my day job on 15th August 2008. If you look through this blog you'll find the entry I made on that day.
Ah, how young and foolish I was, back in those days when I still had hair and some of it was black.
So, how's it all been? If you're interested in being a writer, or just plain nosey, here's a rough outline of my career so far.

There have been ups and there have been downs.

Much like life in general.

These are a few moments that stick in my mind.

1. Taking my youngest to school on their first day. I wouldn't have been able to do that if I hadn't had this job. I'd have been at the office, letting someone else take part on my kid's life. This is CLEARLY the best thing about my life as a writer, this huge opportunity to participate in my children's upbringing. Whether they like it or not.

2. School visits. There have been so many but one of the earliest was at a school in the US. I'd been signing my debut, DEVIL'S KISS, and this huge boy lumbered up. HUGE. Now high school kids are a lot bigger than me, on the whole, and this guy would have made the Terminator gulp. I sat there, slightly shaking, when he put the book down on the desk and told me this was the first book he'd ever read cover to cover and he loved it.

There are few moments in my career that have ever come close to that moment. I made a reader.

3. My first book deal. That was for DEVIL'S KISS and kicked off not just my career, but also that of my agency, GREENHOUSE LITERARY AGENCY. Now Sarah Davies is an awesome agent and I thoroughly recommend her to everyone but back then it was just her and me and neither had any idea whether this was going anywhere. My wife and I were about to order our Friday night curry when the call came in that DISNEY-HYPERION had made an offer on DEVIL'S KISS. No-one forgets their first book deal.

4. Bursting into tears at the Puffin marketing meeting. In front of about 100 people from all aspects of the industry. Booksellers, journalists, bloggers and the heads of the whole company. That was not a good day.

5. Making my audience burst into tears at a small bookshop in New Jersey. I'd written a blood-soaked, nihilistic YA horror story  and the audience was a bunch of six year old girls in fairy costumes. Don't ask.

Made lots and lots of new friends but there are times when I miss my old job as an engineer.

Engineering is maths. You can only be right or wrong in maths. In writing there is no such thing. It's utterly subjective. I've written five books but still feel I know nothing. I read books that are awesome and don't sell and then pick up books written hideously badly that are best-sellers. And everything in between.

The above piccie is my latest project. Here's how it's been.

1. May 2013. Have this idea for an EPIC high fantasy. Start writing it.
2. November 2013. It's finished, about 80,000 words. I love it. Everyone else hates it.
3. I chuck it ALL in the bin and start again.
4. May 2014 I've a new story. Very different from anything else I've ever written. It's a feminist high fantasy centred around the bad guys (and gals). It's very, VERY different. It's also 86,000 words long.
5. July 2014 send it to my agent after cutting it to 74,000 words. She has comments, all positive so I do a big redraft.
6. What you see in the piccie is my revising of the plot. I don't lay it out in much detail at the beginning because I want it to be fluid. But once I know I have the bones of the story I stick it up on the wall, chapter by chapter to see how it flows. Have I repeated myself? What scenes work, what scenes can be cut or combined together. WHAT IS THE STORY? This is different from a series of semi-connected events.
7. August 2014. Down from 74,000 to 68,000 words. I now park it.
8. September 2014. The plan is, but by letting it rest for three weeks, you gain an objective distance. I'll give it another going over, check spellings and grammar and then it's back to the agent. Then we shall see what we shall see.

Anyway, that's how it is for me.

Monday, 4 August 2014

HOC (Heroes of Colour) who KICK ASS

When I first created Ash Mistry, there was a lot of thought given to the other heroes of colour that were already out there. Like I said in last week's post, there are universal themes at work, and the ones I focused on were sacrifice (the essential quality of heroism) and doubt.

Doubt is weird, but critical. How do you know you're doing the right think? It's easy being a hero in a black and white world, where the bad guys have easy plans and twirl their curly moustaches and the heroes have white hats and no doubt over the righteousness of their cause. But I wanted to bring a bit of 'real world' issues into it. Just look at the newspapers or put on the news for five minutes and you'll see how confused the idea of 'good and evil' really are.

Now I'm an old fart, so my list has grey hairs in it, but I thought I'd present it to you, but first, a little explanation.

This is not about the 'Asian/African/Eskimo experience'. This is not autobiographical. This is about the HUMAN experience. First proves my point, as it's a HOC written by the GREATEST WRITER OF ALL TIME.

All bow to William Shakespeare...

1. OTHELLO. So good that Shakespeare named a play after him. He's black, and a general of the Venitian army and totally BADASS. He's risen in power despite a culture of racism, only further proving how much more BADASS he is compared to everyone else.

The story is one of misplaced loyalty, betrayal and jealousy. In the end Othello harbours self-doubt, perhaps fed by the racism all around him, is he truly worthy of Desdemona or has he being punching above his weight? Deep down he doesn't believe he's good enough for her, and her true desires are elsewhere. It's how many of us might feel, that we have rewards and blessings we don't deserve and will travel down the path of self-destruction to prove we are unworthy.

Simply put, it's Shakespeare. Go watch it.

2. MOWGLI. Come on, I have to put him in. He is my favourite HOC and why I wrote Ash in the first place. The Mowgli of the Jungle Book (the books rather than the Disney cartoon though I love that too and quite immensely) is BADASS. He's a proto-Tarzan. Powerful, mischievous, surly like all kids and mystical. I won't talk so much about him this time (beound telling you to read him and you'll see how much Ash Mistry is descended from him) around but will mention his creator, Kipling.

I LOVE Kipling. I know he was an old Imperialist but that doesn't take away the fact he was a great, GREAT writer.

I think he knew the flaws of the Empire, even though he was part of it during its' greatest greatness. Read 'The Man who would be King'.

It's the flipside of the 'White Messiah' trope. For those who are unfamiliar about it it's the cliche that non-whites can't look after themselves and need a white person to sort out their problems. It's a left-over baggage from our colonial past where Western powers liked to believe they were bringing 'civilization' to the ignorant darker races. So it made conquering another country and slavery a moral virtue. Think Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, think Daenarys Stormborn in Game of Thrones, Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, Mississippi Burning and so on.

'The Man who would be King' is about two army rogues who head off into Kaffiristan (in the Pakistan/Afghanistan borders) to become rulers. They have no qualifications except a sense of their natural (white) superiority and at the beginning it all goes well. They conquer the backward tribes and become rulers until one bunch of natives realise they've been perfectly happy ruling themselves and throw our two heroes into a deep, deep ravine.

Read Kipling. He's brilliant.

3. SINBAD. I've noticed that there are a lot of HOC at the younger end of the publishing world. That's mainly down to fairy tales and 1001 Arabian Nights. We've Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba and Scheherazade. Tales of pure magic with demons, genies and rocs and heroes and heroines who survive just as much by their wits as they do by their sword arms.

So, despite having these great HOC when we're young, they steadily vanish as we get older. Why so? Shouldn't they be standing right beside Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood? There are plenty of Grimm fairytale adaptations aimed at older readers, isn't it natural that these Arabian heroes should be there too?

Moving to modern now...

4. Khalid out of Guantanamo Boy. If you're a fan of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (and frankly, who isn't?) then this is a book for you. It's grim, I warn you that. Khalid is your average British teen who ends up being in the wrong place at the wrong time and is taken to Gauntanamo Bay, accused of being a terrorist. His pain, his sense of himself and the bizzare world he's dropped into are all brilliantly revealed by the author, Anna Perera.

5. Sunny out of Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. I was given this book by an editor friend of mine after a LONG conversation about HOC. Then it was recommended (completely by chance) by Rick Riordan so basically I had to read it. It brings in a whole new mythology (for me, anyway) out of Africa and that's reason enough to be added to the list.

6. Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. Now we look at another heroine out of a mythology I'm not that familiar wit, China. Cindy's written a story with a BADASS heroine who definitely is all about wits, not brawn. To do her story justice, check out my interview with her, here.

That's all, folks. I'd like to thank all of you who've taken an interest in what's going on with promoting greater diversity within children's publishing. There's more to come so until next time...