An Update of Oddities and Sundries

Something new: I made a Facebook Page! Please head on over and like it if you feel so inclined. I’ve added a link to it in my sidebar as well.

Writing’s petered off the last few days after a strong start to the month. I’m blaming both the shockingly lovely weather and the fact that typing is mildly painful. A few days ago I sliced my finger. I also learned a useful fact: I really don’t like the sight of my own blood. I was fine for a few minutes, and then promptly collapsed into a chair. It was with a strange sense of detachment that I cataloged how all of my symptoms were cliches–rushing in ears? Check. Cold sweat? Check. Head swimming? Check. Shaky limbs? Check. Vision blacked out? Check. The cut is healing fine and it wasn’t that bad, but it made me grateful that I’ve been lucky enough  not to be severely hurt in my life. Also, I guess there goes my career as a surgeon or detective. Drat.

In writing news I’m just past the halfway point of the first draft in my WIP, and it feels pretty good. I wrote the first draft of Pantomime agonisingly slowly (15 months for 73k), and worried that I’d be slow with the second as well. I’m not as prolific as some people I know, but I’m steadily chipping away and mostly having fun. Here’s hoping I don’t jinx myself.

It looks like the sun has disappeared again in Scotland, so I expect I’ll get back into the pattern of my usual Vitamin D-deficient indoor life.

Recommended Read: The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

This is a beautiful little book that was an absolute joy to read. The unnamed narrator, a 28-year-old housekeeper and mother of a 10-year-old son, is sent to work for an unkempt retired math professor who lives in a cottage behind his sister-in-law’s house. The Professor is disabled—in 1975 he had a terrible accident that impacted his short-term memory, which only lasts 80 minutes. He still believes it is 1975 and not 2003. He’s taciturn and a bit difficult to work for, but the housekeeper feels sorry for him. The Professor cuts a pathetic figure—a small old man in a worn suit and moldy shoes, little slips of paper with messages to himself clipped to lapels and pockets. The most prominent note reads “my memory only lasts eighty minutes.”

Every morning, the Professor does not know who the Housekeeper is, and asks her a question relating to numbers—what is her birthday, her phone number, her shoe size? He finds meaning in all of her answers. The Housekeeper, a high school dropout, starts trying to learn more about mathematics in order to connect with him. But the equation of the housekeeper + the professor is missing a factor of the equation: the housekeeper’s son.

When the Professor learns that the Housekeeper has been leaving her son home alone, he is distraught and demands that he comes to the house after school. He writes himself a note to make himself remember. And when the boy comes, the Professor greets him warmly, even though he has no idea who he is. He nicknames the boy Root.

An unlikely family arises out of this. Even though the Professor has no idea how long he has known them, he cares for them. The language of mathematics overcomes the barrier of his memory. They learn about Euler’s forula, Fermat’s Last Theorem, prime numbers and amicable numbers. I have a rather limited grasp of mathematics, but it’s laid out more like poetry and I understood it all. It’s a gorgeously written book, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Yoko Ogawa has won many prestigious awards in Japan. The Housekeeper + The Professor has won the Hon’ya Taisho award, became a bestseller, and was adapted to film (The Professor’s Beloved Equation), which I plan to watch soon, if I can find it.

Congratulations to Wesley Chu, the Lives of Tao, and Angry Robot Books!

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome to the blog today one of my closest friends, Wesley Chu, who has just signed a deal with Angry Robot Books for his debut, The Lives of Tao. We both submitted to the Angry Robot Open Door Month in March, 2011. When we both learned we had gone to editorial, we started chatting first on the AbsoluteWrite forums and then on gchat. We now pretty much chat every day, egging each other on and setting writing goals, angsting at each other and how marvelous and strange it is to transition from aspiring to professional author. I’ll even be crashing at his pad this summer for Worldcon, so I’m reasonably certain he’s not an axe-murderer.

I’m so happy that his wonderful, funny, action-packed sci fi book (think Chuck with aliens) has found a perfect home with the loveable but cross Angry Robots, and that we’re now colleagues and stablemates as well as best buds. So here’s Wes with a little more about The Lives of Tao.

Today is an important day. Alongside other momentous events such as my birth, my first back flip, and the first time Eva the Airedale Terrier learned to shake her head on command, I became a published author. This morning, Angry Robot Books announced a two book deal for my The Lives of Tao series.

Laura Lam, my literary partner-in-crime and future New York Times bestselling author, asked me to guest blog on her site. This is a first as well (today’s full of them!) and I’m not sure where to start.

For the first time, humanity will finally learn the truth about the alien puppet masters that have been living on our planet, and how their civil war caused some of the greatest wars this planet has ever seen. For years, I told everyone within hearing distance about these aliens who were manipulating mankind’s evolution by inhabiting our greatest historical figures. Most people just smiled and asked me if I ever met Tom Cruise at a Scientology meeting.

How else do you warn a civilization with the attention span of drunken hamsters about the impending destruction of Earth by aliens no one can see? A person can’t just go to the local authorities and report the danger. We all saw how that worked with Kyle Reese. All it got was everyone at the police station killed.

So I did what any righteous freedom loving citizen of the United States would do if they wanted to be heard and respected. I tried to get on reality TV. When that didn’t pan out (Why didn’t you turn around, Ceelo!), I opted for the next best thing. I wrote a book. Labeling it as a fiction wasn’t a mistake. I do want people to read it after all. But make no mistake. This series will be the most important set of books you will ever read! Learn about how a silly Mongol conquered the known world. Discover the real cause of the Spanish Inquisition.

The first book in the Lives of Tao trilogy will be released April 2013 by Angry Robot Books. People say the Angry Robots are just mad and want to take over the world. I call them Earth patriots.

Congrats, Wes! You can find out more about Wes and the hidden war among us at his blog and on Twitter.

The Fervent Love of Books

A few days ago, I was organising my book shelf, and I came across my husband’s old, battered copy of Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb.

The cover was gone and the back cover held on by the barest thread. The spine was broken in countless places. The pages were yellowed and well-thumbed. And on the page that was now the cover, he has signed his name proudly and written a brief commentary about how much he enjoyed the book.

I held this fragile book in my hands and a smile spread over my face. Right next to it was a newer copy of Assassin’s Apprentice that still had its cover, but we will never get rid of this battered volume. It has so much history. It’s a snapshot from the past, to a teenage boy that loved a book so much he had to scrawl a commentary on it in black ink. And when I was a teenage bookworm, I was the same. Inside the front covers, I used to proudly write “If found, please return to Laura Richardson” and included my phone number or email address. If it was a favourite book, I underlined “please” several times.  I’d give it a swirly, John Hancock-like signature to drive home that this was my book.

I think a lot of young kids who liked to read did and continue to do this. Books are prized possessions but not especially well-treated unless they’re library books (and sometimes not even then). They enjoy reading them in public so people could see what they are reading, and if others ask them about it, they are delighted. With the carelessness of teens, they’ll read and dog-dear pages, break spines, crush them in their backpacks as they navigate school hallways. They are constant companions.

And if teens get that love of books, if they love a book so much they’ll mark them as theirs, then that’s something that will follow them into adulthood. That’s a love that I don’t think can die. And that’s why YA is so exciting, and so important. I loved reading when I was younger than 13, but 13-15 was when I really latched onto the fact that books and reading were a part of my identity and I developed a sense of what I liked to read. A lot of my beliefs and philosophies came from the fiction and non-fiction I read during those years and shaped who I am now, as an adult. Who would we all be, if we hadn’t read these books as teens? Would we be different adults?

I put the battered book back on the shelf, gently, and continued organising all of our other books that we proudly mark as ours.

Guest Post: Leading my Double Life – Amy McCulloch

I’m delighted to welcome Amy McCulloch to my blog today. Now, she says that she is no superhero, but do not be fooled–this is a woman who edits, writes, and runs very long distances clad in spandex. Sounds like a superhero to me! 

Amy is a fellow member of Team Mushens–we both have Juliet Mushens of PFD as our agent. Just yesterday she posted a great interview with Juliet here

This past week I (and it appears most of the world) saw Marvel Avengers Assemble at the cinema. I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with the superheroes because alas I too live a double life… Okay, I’m no superhero (trust me, an editor’s outfit is much more boring than a skin-tight catsuit ala Black Widow) but I do take on dual roles in the publishing world as both editor and author!

Getting to see both sides of the publishing business has been a really fascinating – and sometimes painful – experience. When I first went out ‘on submission’ to agents, I made sure to use a pseudonym as I didn’t want the association to be immediately obvious, and I wanted to make sure agents felt comfortable giving their honest opinion without worrying about it affecting a professional relationship. Juliet Mushens (my agent), however, learned I was submitting from Twitter and asked me to submit to her directly – so there was no need to obfuscate my identity there!

When The Oathbreaker’s Shadow went out to editors, we made the decision to stick with my real name. Knowing what goes on the other side of the commissioning desk, as it were, both helped and hindered me – I didn’t stress as much about timings (boy do I know how slow editors can be!) but once I heard my manuscript was going into the meetings stage at a few different publishing houses, I was desperate to know more. Was it just the editorial meeting, or was it going to acquisitions? Were they circulating the manuscript or still just reading solo? Were they talking money yet or just debating the merits? I wanted to dissect the goings on so badly, but trust me – it’s pretty much impossible to really know what’s happening at that stage until it’s happened.

Now that my book is going through the various preparation stages for publication, I find my editor hat can be helpful, but surprisingly not in the ways you might think. It doesn’t help me at all when it comes to editing the book. Once I get past a certain point, my writer brain just will not switch off enough for me to be objective about my own work, which I think is pretty natural. It does mean however that I am very receptive to editing (at least I hope so). I know what an important part of the publishing process it is, and I’m not precious about my work. I know that when an editor takes on a book, it becomes as much theirs as it is mine – and it is their championing of it in-house that can make such a huge difference to the success of its publication.

I’m also really lucky to have some great role models, in whose footsteps I would be beyond happy to tread. Jane Johnson, my boss at HarperVoyager, is a brilliant editor (she was up for editor of the year at the Bookseller awards last night) and she also writes gorgeous books for Penguin, including the recently published The Sultan’s Wife. Nick Lake, the editorial director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, is another stellar editor/author package – his latest In Darkness is one of the most haunting books I’ve ever read. So really whenever I think it might be hard to juggle both full-time jobs, I take inspiration from my coworkers who are doing it with brilliant success. Luckily, the thing that editors and authors have in common is a love of books, so I can’t complain on that front – I get to work in a field I love either way!

Amy McCulloch is a commissioning editor at HarperVoyager, where she works on books by George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Raymond E. Feist, and edits new upcoming stars of SF/F like Blake Charlton, James Smythe and Janet Edwards. Her debut YA fantasy novel The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is coming from Random House Children’s Publishers in Spring 2013. Follow her on Twitter @amymcculloch or visit her at her website:

Writer’s Block

Yesterday I told a friend some tricks I use to try and bash my way through writer’s block. I thought I’d post them on here. It’s common sense, but I hope it helps kickstart someone’s creativity. I’m also posting it as a way to remind myself as I enter a tricky area of my WIP over the next few days. A lot of the time these work, but I’m also very good at ignoring them sometimes and mewling pathetically in the corner instead.

1. Switch mediums. If the blank screen is frightening, I switch to pen and paper. It’s easier to trick myself that it doesn’t count–that it’s okay if the scribbles are ugly because they’re just scribbles. It has the added bonus of not having the distraction of the internet.

2. Skip the damn scene. I’m a chronological writer, but I’m learning that sometimes there are points in the first draft where you don’t know the best way for things to come together yet. Sometimes I skip a scene for a few days and it’s easier to come back to it after the distance and spending time with the characters in the future.

3. Skip fiddly details. My first drafts have a fair amount of notes in square brackets. Sometimes it’s notes of things to research, but I don’t want to break the flow to do so. Or I’ll write notes about the actual writing, such as [hot damn, purple prose much?], as a humourous reminder that that paragraph really sucks and will need rewriting later on.

4. Write around the scene. If I’m really stuck, I’ll start writing behind the scene–why is this scene important to the book? What does each character want and need? What obstacles do they face? Is there a tidbit of research or a different setting that might bring it to life?

5. Step away, come back. Sometimes you need the distance–a day or two away from the manuscript, turning things about in your mind, living life, relaxing, and coming back to it fresh.

I anticipate reading this entry a lot over the next few days. Heh.

Guest Post: A Day in the Life of my agent, Juliet Mushens!

I’ve asked my fantabulous agent extraordinaire, Juliet Mushens of Peters Fraser & Dunlop, to share a day in her life on the blog today.  I know when I was hunting for agents, I was really curious as to what it was like on the other side of the desk. Juliet draws back the curtain and shows you the madness and wonder of being a literary agent. 

I check my email before I even get out of bed. According to friends I am surgically attached to my iPhone/iPad which I think is probably true: I have a terrible habit of checking it during lunch, at the cinema… Anywhere and everywhere. I flag any submissions and have a quick check to make sure there is nothing so uber-urgent that I need to deal with it right now. Sometimes there is, which makes for an interesting morning!

Once I’m actually in the office and caffeinated I properly go through my emails to make sure I’m on top of things. These emails can be about anything: an author struggling with a plot point, an author chasing up money, a publisher asking me my thoughts on a cover/publicity campaign/marketing campaign, submissions, queries from our foreign rights team or foreign publishers about rights, contractual negotiations, editorial notes on contracted manuscripts and anything and everything in between.

I always start the day with a very efficiently drawn up to-do list with ticky boxes next to everything but sometimes item 1 can take four hours… Or suddenly an urgent call comes in, or a really hot manuscript, or an editor pre-empts a book, or I have to leave now to go to an unexpected meeting. It can be a constant juggling act which is why I tend to read most submissions in evenings or on weekends as I want to give them proper time and consideration.

I represent an equal mix of fiction and non-fiction and a key part of my job is finding new non-fiction clients. I come up with a list of ideas every week that I want to follow up so one day a week I do my best to track down contact details, arrange meetings and find out if there’s a book there. Recently I sold two inspirational memoirs that came out of these brainstorms so it can be very rewarding albeit something that sends me all over the country – Northampton, Manchester and Somerset in one week was a record for me. With fiction authors I want to sign I will always come armed with a list of comments and notes on their manuscript, to make sure we are on the same page editorially. Sometimes a manuscript will keep me up all night reading it and I know I’m desperate to sign them so I’ll need to move quickly. I read Pantomime overnight and I had butterflies in my stomach as I knew that it was very special and I had to persuade Laura that I was the uber-enthusiastic agent for her!

I am passionate about editing with my authors and I will typically have one manuscript open in the background of my computer at most times as I structurally edit their work. Some authors go through one draft and some go through four or more – there’s no right or wrong way to draft and I love teasing out a tricky strand and the satisfaction when you both have that ‘aha!’ moment. A book called Held Up by Christopher Radmann comes out from Headline in July and we worked hard on it together and when I sold it it was intensely satisfying (it’s an amazing book). My acknowledgement in the book is so nice it made me cry at my desk, and it’s such a wonderful moment when you feel like you’ve contributed to the creative process in a positive way.

I also spend a lot of time at meetings. Sometimes with prospective clients, sometimes with existing clients, with publishers, foreign publishers, literary scouts, film scouts, celebrities, production companies… The list goes on. It’s a business built on personal relationships and I think that nothing beats making a connection with someone where you can find out what really makes them tick and the book they’d love to publish. And then I can try and find it for them! It’s also always a treat to see a book launched, or to get to have a gossip with my authors. I’m conscious that writing can be quite solitary so it’s nice to sit down and discuss next steps with books, or just celebrate a big deal.

I spend a few evenings a week socialising with editors, or at launch parties, at Creative Writing MA launches, or with my authors. And when I’m not working, or reading my authors’ books, I tend to have my head stuck in another book (I’m going through a gory crime phase at the moment). I’m very lucky to do a job I’m so passionate about: I love people, and I love writing, and the two of them combine to make my job very enjoyable… Even if it is sending me grey before my time.

So if you needed proof that agents are superhuman…there you go! Juliet is open to queries. To read more about what Juliet represents and her submissions guidelines, please go here. A huge thank you to Juliet for taking the time for this post.