June 7, 2012

Second book syndrome

Filed under: Advice for writers,articles,ask an author,bloggery,growing up,how I write,Q&A — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 6:50 pm

Lee Weatherly asked how second book syndrome affected me:
“By ‘second book syndrome’ I’m talking about the difficulties that come with writing your first commissioned title – usually with your first book, you write it on your own time, there’s no real pressure, etc – then with the second book, suddenly you have a deadline and a publisher’s expectations. What was once just your passion is now your job, with all the stress that can entail; how do you make the shift? Also, if your first book does very well or sells for a lot of money, that can (perversely) just make the second book far harder to write.”

Rhiannon Lassiter replies:
Hex: Shadows coverWhen I was 19 I was offered a two book contract on the basis of one book part written and one yet to be decided. Second book syndrome kicked in while I was still at university and still very unsure of my own ideas. I suggested a second book in the same series, a sequel to my first, or rather the middle book of a possible trilogy. It wasn’t my aim was to push the company into contracting me for a third. Although I had a number of new ideas I also wanted to continue the story I’d started with the characters of my first novel. Ultimately what decided the issue was that the first novel was selling well and the publishing company seemed keen to continue with more. They published the whole trilogy, which continues to sell well to this day.

However, in retrospect, I made the wrong decision about that second book. If I hadn’t been working on my first degree at the time and struggling with balancing academia and creative writing; or if I’d been more commercially minded, or thought more towards future development – I would have decided differently.

Most professional writers come to writing as their second career. They have some experience in the job market already. They’ve had a different career path and made time for their writing on the side, squeezing their evenings and weekends until they had something they could sell and make enough money to afford to write part time or full time.

I started writing full time straight out of university. I was working on my trilogy and was feeling positive about more contracts ahead. But once my only job was to write and I’d locked myself into this particular idea I started to notice an artistic issue with what I was writing. I was having so many ideas for so many new novels and new ways to write but in this particular trilogy I needed to stay true to the style and concept of the original book.

By the time I started writing my fourth novel I felt I ought have been much more developed as a creative artist than I was. The novel I wrote then was at a complete and wild variance to my previous work. My ideas have always spanned a wide range of genres and as my writing career has developed I’ve had published books across a range about half as wide. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to sell YA and junior, fantasy, SF and contemporary fiction ideas. But I should have started earlier.

Several years later a friend of mine published her first novel and told me she’d been offered another contract and the option of writing a sequel to her first book. I advised her against it. I suggested she write something completely different in another genre to avoid boxing herself in too soon. That’s what she did, and after three more successful novels returned to the world of her first book from the position of being much more assured in her craft, with a established list of novels in different styles and a new perspective on the earlier work.

My friend and I have both achieved success in writing across genres and styles but if you don’t want to be stereotyped early, I’d recommend avoiding series fiction as your entry into professional writing. As a newly published author – as any kind of author – your mind will be seething with ideas; you need to allow yourself time to experiment with them.

Writing full time is not the best career for a new graduate with no experience of the rest of the working world. I was incredible fortunate in that I had the opportunity to do this. But I started with no experience in managing my finances and planning my workload. The way that writers are paid advances (on signature, delivery and publication) and royalties (twice a year after advances have earned out) means that financial forward planning is virtually impossible because it all depends on the market. Don’t take for granted sales figures that make it possible to work full time as a writer; the period in which your book is on sale in bookshops, being reviewed and noticed and marketed is fleeting.

Ultimately second book syndrome leads to third book syndrome and fourth book syndrome and so on. I know authors who have published hundreds of books; but managing publishers expectations and your own expectations of your work never ends. The lessons that you learn are to give yourself space and to be kind to yourself about your workload and rigorous when it comes to your art. Every writer has to learn that individually but I’d recommend gaining self knowledge of what kind of writer you are by stretching the boundaries of possibility as soon as you can. Whether it’s your work space (and I redesigned mine on a yearly basis until about three years ago) or the time you set aside or your style, or genre or whatever makes you individual, expand to your boundaries, learn them and break them.

The second novel is too soon for you to decide your identity.

March 28, 2012

No Enid Blyton allowed!

Filed under: growing up,things I read on the internet,things Rhiannon does not like — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 8:40 am

Like Michael Morpurgo, I was banned from reading Enid Blyton as a child.

Morpurgo’s stepfather, an academic, believed her too superficial and, consequently, not good for him.
“But he was wrong,” says Morpurgo. “Her books were terrific page-turners in the way no others were. I had all sorts put into my hands when I was very little – I was offered Dickens at eight – that were not suitable for boys my age at all. But with Enid Blyton, I found I could actually get into the story, and finish it. They moved fast, almost as fast as comics, and there was satisfaction to be had on every single page. Were they great literature? Of course not. But they didn’t need to be.”

This comment from Morpurgo, in the Guardian, gives me deja vu. It seems as though only a couple of weeks ago I had at this question from the other side when I said that I found Dickens very readable as a child. I also read Brave New World at eight abd although I’m sure I missed nuances I understood it.

But Enid Blyton? The only appeal was that I’d been banned from reading her. My mother, author Mary Hoffman, didn’t think much of Blyton and wouldn’t have her writing in the house. But friends had it and the school library was full of the stuff so I naturally had to see what was being forbidden. I read the Faraway Tree (limp fantasy) and several the …of Adventure series: as in Island of Adventure, Castle of Adventure, etc. But they were clearly formulaic. One child loves animals and keeps ferrets down his trousers and owls in his hat which may or may not usefully save the day if a sudden need for ferrets or owls arises. I can’t remember much more than that -except that wherever the Location of Adventure was there were always caves involved.

My mother was also anti reading scheme books and from what I hear from a friend with primary school aged children those haven’t changed much either. I think even the Village with Three Corners is still kicking around in school libraries. Who else remembers Billy Blue Hat and Roger Red Hat? And did they seriously introduce a white turbanned character later on?

25 years on (oh dear lord I am old) I still endorse the Enid Blyton ban. I’ll go further and say that formulaic lumpen children’s fiction is like junk food. You can read it, you can enjoy it, but it’s lacking essential elements of literary nutrition. Take the Rainbow Fairies series. Yes, I know little girls love them. And, no, that is not enough for me to spare them my ire. Their appeal is a mixture of peer pressure and completism. And perhaps curiosity: why is there one fairy (Gertrude?) for Gerbils while another takes on all the rest of the small rodents.

I agree with Morpurgo and disagree with Gove, that demanding children read “good” literature is a sure way to turn them off the stuff. That said, a list of 50 great books sounds like a better thing to have forced on you than Messers Blue Hat and Red Hat. Despite reading fluently my junior school wouldn’t allow me to pass on to “free reading” until I had had every single reading scheme book ticked off in my reading book. A Herculean feat when the whole school was reading their way through the things (out of order) and some simply didn’t seem to exist.

Ultimately “free reading” is the goal. You should read what you want to read. No matter who calls it dross. (Including me.) Read Harry Potter and Twilight. Read Enid Blyton and the Rainbow Fairy books. Read banned books like Forever and Speak. Read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (which kids at my school passed around like Lady Chatterly’s Lover to avoid parental bans). Read Huysman’s A Rebours (the book that corrupted Dorian Grey). Read Gove’s list of 50 books (if he comes up with one) and all the other lists of books to read before you die. This is how you develop a critical faculty: by reading books until you know which ones you think are good and bad and, more importantly, why you think so.

There’s still no Enid Blyton in my house. But I wouldn’t bother to ban it. Why give it the allure of the forbidden? The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – there’s a novel to avoid, you’re probably not ready for it, it’s not all that great anyway, I’ll just put it on this high shelf out of your reach and leave the room…

November 26, 2010

Protesting against increased university fees

Our new insect overlords

I come from a time in the distant past before university fees. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the UK’s top universities without paying any fees myself. Now, in the harsh light of the year 2010, this seems like privilege beyond imagining. I certainly didn’t feel rich, I had £3,000 a year to live on (a gift form my parents since I didn’t qualify for grants) which paid for my accommodation (Class C rooms at class AA rates), my food (Tesco value range) and my books. But I left university with a degree and with no significant debt.

Right now, the average student graduating in July 2011 will find themselves with £21,198 of debt. Students graduating in 2014 may find that figure increases to £40,000 or more. And that’s based on an undergraduate degree only – not postgraduate or research work.

The rationale is that graduates will earn more and therefore will easily be able to pay of this monstrous burden of debt. Cue hollow laughter. Have you looked at the job market recently? Courses with a vocational aspect, professional accreditation or a clear path into a profession will stand students a better chance of graduating into a good job. But for most the future is bleak, especially in the arts. Unemployment is currently standing at 7.7%. For women the statistics are even worse. The number of unemployed women is at 1.02 million, the highest figure since 1988. And please note that this comes at a time when the government is introducing drastic spending cuts in the public sector, reducing Town and District Council spending by 40%. No public sector jobs for you hopefully graduates, and no civil services ones either with cuts affecting them almost as radically.

Our insect overlords seem almost surprised at the scale and scope of the student protests, as if they thought students wouldn’t notice or care about the increased fees. This morning David Willetts (the universities minister) said cheerfully patronised students: “”My real worry is that maybe young people are put off going to university because they think that somehow we are going to be charging them fees upfront. That’s not the plan… No young people or their parents are going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay to go to university. They will only pay after they have graduated. I don’t want any young person, therefore, to be worried about going to university, and some of these protests – they mustn’t put people off.”

Thanks for that, Mr Willetts, I thought it was the crippling burden of debt putting people off going to university. But now I understand those student are just confused and it’s the protests that are worrying people unnecessarily… Come off it!

And so much for widening participation. I actually found myself saying to a colleague “But doens’t the government want people form poor backgrounds without a family history of higher education to go to university… oh wait, it’s the Tories in right now.” Aimhigher, the national programme to get more working-class teenagers into English universities, will close in July 2011. David WIllets think’s it’s no longer needed and that “the universities [should] have the freedom and flexibility to decide how to spend their resources on promoting access.” Yeah, because with dwindling resources and no central support the widening participation programme will continue as vibrant as ever.

But let’s not blame the current cabinet of millionaires though. Born with a silver spoon protruding from every orifice, Cameron and co have no idea what it’s like for ‘ordinary people’ despite throwing that phrase around like a wrecking ball during the election. This is what the Conservative party is like.

I remember growing up as one of Margaret “there’s no such thing as society” Thatcher’s children. I remember the meanness, the hypocrisy and the sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. And now they’re back, like the Evil Empire in act V of Star Wars, and it’s at least partly #NickClegg’sfault. (That’s the last time I ever vote Liberal.)

We should praise and support the students for marching and for protesting an unfairness that will have the worst effect on people not old enough to have voted in the last election. And, to the students, while you’re protesting don’t forget that there will be another election (however hard the Tories try to push it back into the distant mists of the future) and when there is you can march again down to your local poll station and vote them right back out where they belong.

June 2, 2010

My favourite authors: Diana Wynne Jones

Filed under: bloggery,growing up,my favourite authors,recommended reading — Tags: , — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 4:08 pm

Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. I have still not, after twenty-odd books, written that book. – Diana Wynne Jones

I’ve been reading about Diana Wynne Jones on her official website, prompted by the sad news in Ansible that her oncologist fears she “has ‘months rather than years’”. I have loved Diana’s work for years. I still vividly remember reading Howl’s Moving Castle at age ten and laughing myself silly but even that wasn’t the first DWJ book I’d read. I’d found Witch Week a couple of years earlier but hadn’t made the connection. From age eleven I was following her work compulsively. My mother and I both loved Fire and Hemlock but I was particular found of her more sf titles: A Tale of Time City and The Homeward Bounders. I’ve recently been re-reading my collection of her books for the umpteenth time and noticed that the more I read it the better I like The Time of the Ghost and how clear it is to me as an adult and a writer myself how much of her own childhood experience she puts into her work.

There are so many of her books I love. For sheer hilarity and imagination I don’t think books come much better than Archer’s Goon. I think overall I prefer the novels where she uses her own vast store of creativity to imagine beings who are mysteriously magical to the ones in which she draws on mythic themes and resonances. (Eight Days of Luke employed the norse gods, Hexwood an assortment of mythic figures and Fire and Hemlock and  Enchanted Glass the seelie court.) I do appreciate a good mythic reimagining but Diana can create powerful characters and strong ideas of her own without relying on borrowed power.  In her Chrestomanci series she created a central character, a surrounding world and an expansive multiverse which is iconic in the fantasy genre and has doubtless influenced a number of other YA writers.

My own writing has definitely been influenced by Diana’s work. The relationships and dysfunctions of families is a strong theme in her work and has become so in mine. I’ve also endeavoured to emulate her smooth transitions between the magical and the mundane: in settings, plotting and the way my characters think.

Having read Diana’s words quoted above about her attempts to write the ideal book – the one she wanted as a child – I feel a strong empathy with that impulse. I also have not yet written my ideal book although I feel that I am getting closer to it. But my conception of what the ideal book is comes from Diana Wynne Jones’s work. She and Margaret Mahy have set the standard I aspire to and drawn the map of of the fictional landscape I inhabit.

I have never met Diana but I feel as though I know her through how much of herself she has given to her readers. My thoughts are with her and her family in this difficult time and I hope very much that she will surprise the medical profession. With all that she has given us, she still has more to give. Meanwhile I’m returning to reread the rest of my collection and to fill in the astounding gap. I think there are two whole novels of hers I inaccountably don’t possess.

March 12, 2010

Gender traditionalism leaves so little for girls

The other day I posted about Disney’s worries that fairytale princesses are unappealing to boys. Another reminder came today that they are also unappealing to girls.

Viv Groskop writes in the Guardian about trying to take her 3-year-old daughter on a feminist journey:
Despite my best efforts, my three-year-old daughter Vera hasn’t exactly been celebrating her girlhood of late. In fact, influenced by her six-year-old brother, she can frequently be heard muttering, “Girls are boring. I want to do boys’ things.” I can see her point. Her brother’s life is full of Star Wars, pirates, football and other action-packed phenomena. Vera gets Hello Kitty. She clearly finds this unsatisfying, and the situation is coming to a head. “I am not a girl, Mummy, I am a boy,” she told me recently. “My name is Peter.”

While I don’t think the idea of taking a toddler on a three hour walking tour of London’s East End focusing on areas important to feminism is the ideal solution (I’m an adult feminist and I think I would view the idea with trepidation), I think it is important to recognise the problem.

Toys are becoming more segregated, not less so. An acquaintance of mine reported a trip recently to a popular chain store where ‘boys costumes’ includes doctors outfits and ‘girls costumes’ included nurses outfits. This in 2010, not 1950. My recent purchase of a mini fridge for my office came with a large label declaring it to be a ‘man’s gift’. I’m sure a full sized fridge would be a woman’s gift – after all, who is it who spends all their time in the kitchen.

Marketing is often not ambitious, it doesn’t aim to challenge preconceptions, it plays to cliches and stereotypes. Is it any wonder the little girls flock to the pink fairy wings and the boys to the blue footballs when every message projected at children is that this is what they should like. I think it’s harder to avoid gender segregation in toys now than it was when I was a child in the 1980s.

I don’t know what we do about it. I don’t have a daughter to dress as a pirate and play light sabres with. But those of you who do, please go out and get a tricorne hat and a light up sword today.

December 7, 2009

Living in Dreams

Filed under: About Rhiannon Lassiter,bloggery,dreams,growing up — Rhiannon Lassiter @ 2:00 am

I once wrote a novel called Waking Dream. For a long time (until Bad Blood) it was the novel I was proudest of. I think that’s because I live in dreams.

When I was little I didn’t have a lot of friends who “made things up”. Maybe that was just my group of friends but it was always a surprise to me when someone admitted to “telling themselves stories” or were willing to play a “make believe”  or “let’s pretend” game. It was surprise because most of the time my schoolmates and classmates and other contemporaries were alarmingly literal. After about age 10 it was virtually impossible to get any of my friends to play with dollshouses, action figures or the most basic of imaginative games. Approaching secondary school I found myself doomed to a life of gossip and chatting and no more make-believe.

Even my reading friends were too old to play out games. Instead we turned to writing shared world stories or sharing book recommendations. Everything in text because our school didn’t prmote drama. Then later at a school that did promote drama, putting on a play. But forever the world of make believe, true make believe, was lost to us by then.

The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of a king
But when does the wild rumpus begin?

Make believe exists in dreams and as much as I live in a world of fantasy, I exist in dreams. I have, at times, kept a dream diary. But it’s virtually impossibile for me to capture every aspect that incorporates the reality of dreams. In Waking Dream, the novel, I tried. But in using a pastoral arcadian quest story mythic resonance canvas I missed out so much of what dreams are about. The missed train, the unpacked bag, the doors in walls; there’s just so much I could have said in that novel and didn’t have the space for.

So, just to begin with, some dreams I’ve mentioned in places elsewhere:

The Tooth dream
In this dream there is a problem with my teeth, they are crumbling out of my mouth and although I try to put them back in they won’t go.
The Packing dream
In this dream I am staying somewhere on holiday and need to pack to leave. But the room is full of things belonging to me, I have no sensible packing materials, not enough cases, and then I realise that there are bookshelves full of books and tonnes of fragile ornaments and bits and pieces of stuff that I can’t possibly get packed in time. For bonus points I have my cat with me (and no cat carrier). For extra bonus points I have multiple cats.
The School dream
In this dream I am back in school or college. I am behind on lessons, I need to study, I am late for class but I don’t know what my time table is and I can’t find my way around the buildings. (This dream can be linked to the Moving House dream or the Bus that never seems to get anywhere dream.)
The Moving House dream
In this dream I have moved out of my lovely house and into much less suitable accommodation. I am living with a bunch of poorly-chosen people in a house where there are not enough rooms and some of us will have to share rooms or beds. Only then do I notice an entire wall of the house is missing and replaced with clingfilm or some equally unsuitable and structurally-lacking substance. (This dream is sometimes combined with the Gate Crasher dream)
The Gate Crasher dream
In this dream I am having a party and it has been gate-crashed by some people I either know but do not like or don’t know at all. They won’t go and when I try to get them to leave they laugh at me, they take over my bedroom and start using/breaking my stuff. I ask my friends to help but they think it’s funny.
Rooms opening into other rooms dream
I am in a house, possbly a new house that I’ve just moved into, and discover new rooms that I did not wot of through unexpected doors. This can be a positive thing unless those rooms are occupied by confused or aggressive strangers who did not realise their house connects to mine
Flying powers are failing and can only slightly float dream
Everyone loves to fly but sometimes my flying dreams don’t work and then I bob about ineffectually.
On a bus that never seems to get anywhere dream
For bonus point combined with Failing At University dream
People I know have been replaced by doppelgangers dream
Creepy dream in which the people I love behave inconsistantly with how I;d wish to believe they’d behave in real life.
Witch can see into my mind and is going to come and get me dream
See Ghost of a Chance, coming in 2011 from OUP
Not Enough Pies dream
In this dream I am making a quantity of food for myself and others. When the time comes to serve there isn’t enough to go around.
Eating Weird Objects dream
In this I am for some reason able to consume things one would not normally think of food. Last night it was a light-bulb. I don’t like this dream because it makes my throat feel sore and I can taste the lightbulb and feel the glass crunching when I bite it. It burns.

November 12, 2009

Living in the future

I’ve been thinking recently that I should make more blog posts about the things I talk about to my friends. I’ve not really got a purpose to this blog beyond telling people about me so one of the things you might be interested to know about me is that I like to live in the future.

Growing up with every kind of fiction and non-fiction easily accessible through my parents or my local library, science fiction was the genre I gravitated to. I fell in love aged about 13 and, although I’ve had good genre friendships and the odd fling, SF remains my one true love. Because I was born in 1977, my childhood happened last century. Isn’t that a weird concept? This can make me feel indescribably ancient but luckily anyone older than 9 was born last century too, and can share my experience. That’s one way in which I’m living in the future. Everything since 2000 is traditionally the territory of science fiction. We passed 1984 decades ago but now we’re about to pass 2010.

It can’t just me me who expected flying cars by now. And what about transporters, space ships, nutimats dispensing perfectly cooked food at the touch of a button… where are they? My science fiction beliefs were formed at the end of the 20th century and so more quantum wonders don’t play a part in my idealised SF future. It’s not about nanotech (although adult me is hoping elderly me might get to see it). My future is a Star Trek future of space ships, colonisation, Brave New Worlds and new civilisations. SETI is one of the first acronyms I learned. (More recently Adam Roberts has taught me not to dream of rockets but of spaceplanes; but again, I digress.)

Some things about living in the future have come true for me. I love laptops. I remember my mother’s first laptop: a chunky grey oblong which had enough processing power to run an early generation of word. That particular laptop continued to be handed on and around among family and friends for years, an old friend grown feeble. I had my first mobile phone as a student in 1996 and that was also a brick of a thing. Nowadays my laptop is a sleek silver ‘aluminum’ MacBook, although I still weep for my destroyed BlackBook. My phone is a shockingly out of date four years old because it’s one of the very last flippy phones: the Motorola KRZR, the ultra thin silver flip phone which I love for its Star Trek communicator vibe.

And Star Trek was created in the 60s: according to their paradigm, by 1995 Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban) had taken over one quarter of the world. That date, like other crucial dates in SF, I’ve watched passing with half-genuine surprise that the fiction events I know happened, failed to occur. We’re obviously down the wrong trousers of time.

My illusions haven’t been wholly shattered by the failure of neonazis, fascists, communists or greens to take over the earth. The Eden Project supplied me with huge biodomes; the Millennium Dome also jumped on the futuristic dome bandwagon (although it then branded itself as a dome of the Past). Architects are making promising strides towards houses with grass roofs, curved curners, wicker walls and reusing vernacular and historic building techniques (very Ursula Le Guin).

Netbooks are cool too – despite my tragic failure to buy one that will continue working for more than 3 weeks. (Hey, Apple, hurry up and build a product I can trust!) But I always wanted Penny’s book from Inspector Gadget and eBooks are no where near achieving the functionality of that shiny electronic computer book. I never understood the source of the contention between eTech and traditional booktech. I think book-shape is an ideal format for technology to take – in both form and function.

I like connectivity too. YouTube, Skype, Flickr, Facebook, LinkedIn… they suck me in with their cool ways of interacting with people. Social networking isn’t a black art – or if it is, everyone I know is practising it. My mother joined twitter and tripled the number of followers I had in three days. (That’s what you get for teaching your mother how to be a TechnoMom.) I meet fellow writers, academics, friends and fans on the internet and its endlessly cool to get messages from all of them.

And even when there’s no one else to interact online with I like my computer to be my friend. Yes , I am a Mac lover. All my personal computers have been macs. But I have a PC at work which I’ve befriended and we get along okay as long as we accept each other’s different lifestyle preferences. Should I even mention the Vista-running Acer laptop I got free from mymobile phone company which is offered tovisitors as the “guest” laptop? Already that’s taking me into console territory where I can tell you tales of pwning of a group of male classmates at MarioKart to their mutual astonishment, or gaining the interest of the non-reading kids at school visits with tales of my prowess at Grand Theft Auto (San Andreas).

I sync my mobile phone to my laptop, I use my laptop through my external monitor, I have two monitors at work where I also network to five digital signage screens, I have three different webcams (and yet I’m still a bit uncertain how to make video podcasts). I manage my calendar through Google and I use an iGoogle app for my Tweets.

I admit I’m almost never an early adopter (excepting ideas that never seem to come to anything) but I feel the pressure of the future endlessly pushing me forward into new technology. My nightmare is to become a person who can’t understand a video recorder – or whatever the current equivalent is. I want to live in the future. I have to live in the future – and so I try to push myself into the SF future wherever I find it.

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