Month: March 2015

Is it hard? Hell, yes.

So, what can you expect as an average debut author. Forgetting the lucky few who land and end on the best seller lists, what’s the reality:

1. Work. It’s after 10 and I’m writing this. I’ve just finished critting an 80k word book. I have another waiting for me. I’ve been on twitter, on facebook, sent emails, chatted to booksellers, talked to my publisher and bookstore about accounts. All this is unpaid, fitted around guests staying with us, kids, trying to remain sane. At the moment, it’s demanding.

2. Doors heavy to open. I’ve been lucky. Amazing support. Bookstore support. Multiple outlets taking my book. Multiple events. But I’ve also had the zero responses to emails, downright rude responses to polite enquiries. You can’t expect doors to magically open. There are loads of authors asking favours – you have to work to be one of them.

3. Astounding support. From quarters unexpected, in humbling amounts. The goodwill is tremendous. It makes putting in the hours easy.

4. Bewilderment. I didn’t know anything about covers and blurbs six months ago. I had no idea what a copyedit looked like. Distribution was a feared word. I’ve muddled through most of it, asked questions, learned lessons for the future. But I’m still often bewildered.

5. A rollercoaster, ending with your book in your hands. That should happen to me in the next week. It feels magical. It is magical. It’s worth everything….

The Trouble with The Troubles.

I’m taking part in Absolute Write’s March blog tour and, in honour of the Day of Green, the blogs are about all things Irish. They’re really terrific and well worth a look at – the list of blogs are down below.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little serious one, since I’m a dour, serious Northerner.* What I wanted to talk about is writing about Northern Ireland (NI) in my books.

A little history, perhaps, for those new to my witterings. I have a sexy Space Opera coming out this month, which makes blogging about Ulster seem, perhaps, a little odd. (My sexy space pilots all sound and look like Liam Neeson, though.**) But like many young writers (I’m not really that young, but it sounds good, yes?) I have a few other goodies I’m looking for homes for, and two of those happen to be set in NI.

Lots of books are set in NI (although not much sci fi). Anyone looking a good crime read could do a lot worse than looking at some of the Belfast Noir stuff coming out by the likes of Adrian McKinty. And Colin Bateman always raises a smile – anyone who can write the line ‘Up your hole with a big jam roll’*** in just the right place will always get a laugh from me. Further back, for a YA perspective on the Troubles, it’s hard to look past Joan Linguard’s fabulous Twelfth of July series.

That last line sets something of my dilemma. A perspective on the Troubles. It’s the catch-all in books about NI, that the Troubles are there and impacting on the story. And that was something I didn’t want to do. I wanted NI to be more than the Troubles, to be a place where a story could be set without the constant references and looking back.

So I wrote my first NI-based book with that agenda in mind (note to self, never write with an agenda). The aliens invaded Belfast. We had a common foe and were united against it. Except that the agent who took me on for it immediately asked where the Troubles were in the book, because that’s what people would expect in a book set in NI.

Since then, the book’s had a couple of rewrites and now, firmly, the references to the Troubles are in there. The antagonist is an ex-paramilitary, the Peace Wall has been ruined by an alien smart-bomb, the murals have been repainted – we’re fighting for Earth now. The divisions are shown, the continued line between the religions. The themes don’t dominate, but they’re there and – you know what? (I’ll whisper this next bit.) The agent was correct. To show NI needs the Troubles. Right?

Um, well almost. The next book I wrote in NI is a fairy-changeling-with-shades-of-Rebecca-story, if you can picture that. It doesn’t reference the Troubles at all. It calls upon older myths, the sense of place, the bleak fairy landscape that doesn’t hint at pretty elves but the older, deeper myths. The landscape of John Hewitt, the poet of the Glens, of dark portals that lead to somewhere deeper and darker. There are fairy nests in sultry gardens, sea caves inhabited by the Shee.

It’s no surprise that Game of Thrones is filmed in some of the places I used – they carry the sense of a hidden tale, one that’s grim around the edges no matter how gaudy the image projected may be.

The Troubles aren’t needed for this book. They’re not impacting on the lives of my New Adults, born so long after they ended. And that, perhaps, is the point of this blog. (Frankly, I’m never sure. I have planning blogs better on my must-improve-list.) Should a point in history be the defining point of a land? If our stories can transcend the obvious, can they can become their own defining point?

I think in some ways they can. It’s one of the reasons I write genre fiction – to move definition beyond our own world and out into something that can mirror and shape our thoughts. It’s what the dear, great, so-sadly-late Terry Pratchett was good at. I’ve learned more about my thoughts on Ulster by writing about aliens than I did listening to any amount of news programmes. I’ve learned to feel the land in writing about it. I’ve learned that what defines a place isn’t always the obvious – although sometimes it might be – but what moves the story, and the writer, at that particular time, should be central. And that’s exactly how it should be.

*may not be strictly true
** only in my dreams
***must be said in a Belfast accent

Layla Lawlor

To Con or Not to Con

My lovely writing friend Juliana Spink Mills is on the convention trail this year and did me a nice guest blog about it. Juliana writes fab YA and MG fantasy and is a bit of a flash fiction demon. She’s just started her new blog here, about reading and wriitng and what not:

And, have at it, Juliana!

To Con Or Not To Con

So you’re a writer. You’ve written a couple of novels already. Or maybe you’ve been working on the one wonderfully rich doorstop epic since you were fifteen. Or you haven’t started yet, but it’s always been your dream and now the kids are finally in full-time education…

Whatever your case may be, if you’re a writer you will inevitably you get to that point where you say, “Well, now, self. This is all very nice, but what else should I be doing? Should I be learning more, and reaching out, and networking?” Because everyone says you need to network, and you hear it so many times that pretty soon you feel like a wannabe cable channel.

That’s when you begin to hear whispers of this magical thing called a CON. Conventions, sometimes called conferences, can take on a rather mystical air for the uninitiated. There are Agents! And Publishers! And Big Name Authors! “Maybe if I go to one of these things called Cons I will finally attain level-up status.”

Problem is, these here Con-things are expensive once you’ve factored in registration, travel expenses and accommodation. And many of us writer types would rather stay home in the comfy armchair with the cat than face a roomful of strangers. So is it worth the price and the pain?

I attended my first Con last year: the SCBWI Winter Conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I was a mess of expectations on my lonely bus ride down to New York. Would I meet interesting people? Make friends? Make professional contacts?

This year I got ambitious and signed up for three Cons, including the World Fantasy Convention. I’ve been to one so far: Boskone, held yearly in Boston by NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association). My verdict, so far?

I’d say go for it. In really, really annoying caps, like this: GO FOR IT. Not because you’re going to walk out of a Con with an agent and a publishing deal, because except in very rare cases that’s just not going to happen. Plus being polite and not pushing your pitches all over the place is considered a Very Big Deal.

So what can you get out of a Con? Here’s my Top 3.

1. Be open. A Con is a golden opportunity opportunity to learn new things. This may come from panels (like seeing Scott Lynch talk sidekicks and henchmen) or from conversation at the bar (like ‘what happens if your agent retires from the business?’)

2. Network. Yes, it happens. No, it doesn’t hurt. Sometimes all ‘networking’ means is connecting with other writers. You’ll gain a new twitter-buddy, like each other’s blog posts and soon enough you have one more friend and ally in the big, scary world of publishing. If I hadn’t gone to my first conference, I wouldn’t have met the members of my solid gold writing group.

3. Perhaps the most important of all. Push yourself past your limits. Cross those self-imposed boundaries. Dare something new and daunting and return home with a healthy baggage of higher self-esteem. You did it! You went, you conquered (even if rather timidly in the corner by the potted plant) and you learnt a ton of stuff.

And you may well find, in the days and months to come, that you stand a little straighter, smile in the mirror a little more and sit down to write with a little more swagger and confidence. Because you did it. You brushed shoulders with all sorts of people, the agents and the publishers and the Big Name Authors, and you came home realizing they really are just people like you. Doing their job, like you. And suddenly that dream, the dream of being a writer? It doesn’t seem so distant anymore.

Do some research. Look up conventions and conferences that are within reach of your budget and your time and travel limitations. There are a ton of them out there, and some are very small and friendly, just perfect for a first-timer. And maybe, just maybe, take a chance and step out of that comfort zone of yours.

The cat and the armchair will still be there when you get back. I promise.

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