Saturday, 17 September 2016

YA Shot - Chris Russell

Welcome to my stop on the YA Shot tour! Today, I wanna welcome Chris Russell, author of Songs About A Girl and one fourth of the band, The Lightyears (one of their songs is at the bottom of this post, FYI). When Team YAShot paired us up together, I got excited. Books and music are kinda my thing so having a musician on my blog is a HUGE deal for me. HUGE! So, after grilling Chris and going "Ok, but writing a book must be different from writing a song, right?", Chris went away and came back with this post.

I loved it, and am very excited to share with you guys. Plus to do this with YA Shot is awesome. So, before I hand you over to Chris, I just want to thank Chris for writing this post (I know he's very SUPER busy the past 2 months so having me emailing/tweeting him about this & Songs About A Girl) and to Team YAShot for pairing us up and dealing with my last minute emails.

So, over to you now, Chris!

A TALE OF TWO ARTISTS: The Musician, The Writer

I’m Chris Russell, author of the YA novel Songs About a Girl. My book follows an ordinary teenage girl who is swept up into the dazzling world of a chart-topping boy band, and unsurprisingly, music is a constant presence throughout the story.

I’ve been in a band since I was thirteen, and until I became a novelist, that was my main career. People often ask about the differences between being a musician and being a writer, and so I thought I’d have a go at summarising them, in three easy steps.

1. The Creative Process

In one sense, writing has fewer barriers to entry than music. To write, all you need is 1) an imagination and 2) the means to translate that imagination into words, on page or screen. You don’t need to buy an instrument, or spend years learning how to play it, or convince your long-suffering neighbours that, yes, they do indeed want to listen to the drum solo from “Whole Lotta Love” played ad nauseam until everyone dies. It’s also, by its very nature, a solitary activity. A novelist has to be at ease with isolation; in fact, she must positively seek it out. Silence and contemplation are a writer’s best friends. We revel in calm, and we bask in tranquility.

Being in a band forces you to collaborate, and that may be one of the greatest and toughest things about it. Many a time I’ve written a song - pored over it, fussed over it, tweaked its every emotional parameter - then passed it over to my bandmates only for them to tear it apart like a pack of ravenous lions devouring a gazelle. Nine times out of ten, however, it’ll be a better song for it. And you can’t be precious under those circumstances. You learn to take criticism, to value the opinions of others. So when I first started talking to interested editors about Songs About a Girl, they would very delicately ask me if I was open to a little constructive feedback on the manuscript, and I’d be all like HELL YEAH, BRING IT ON. 

2. Getting Discovered

Getting discovered in the publishing industry may not be easy, but it is remarkably fair*. So when I hear aspiring writers claiming that their successful peers must have got ahead through nepotism, it really grinds my gears. Pretty much every literary agent worth their salt publishes their e-mail address and submission guidelines online, and if you send your sample chapters to them, no matter whether you are the next literary prodigy-in-waiting or simply some hapless soul who has written a 944-page novel which is just the word BUDGERIGAR repeated over and over again in caps lock, they will read it. This is extraordinarily democratic. On the whole, talent rises to the top in this business.

(*The publishing industry clearly has huge problems with lack of diversity among its authors, but I don’t believe this to be a failure of the actual selection process. I think the issues go much deeper than this, right down to our education system - but that’s another blog post altogether.)

Getting an A&R man along to one of your gigs is hard. Very hard. You see, contrary to popular belief, while literary agents are interested in your platform, you don’t need ten thousand Instagram followers to get representation or a publishing deal - but to be of interest to a record label, you need buzz. And “buzz” is an elusive thing. It may be there one day, gone the next. Creating momentum as a band is a bit like steering a haulage truck along a mountain road: you have to build up speed to get anywhere, but the more speed you have, the more likely you are to crash and burn. It’s thrilling while it’s happening, but it’s scary too, partly because, yes, all the clichés you’ve heard about the music industry are true. It’s a total snake pit. And that’s part of the reason we love it… (Case in point: we once met a guy while we were on tour in America who claimed he could get us a support slot with Coldplay; one month later he turned out to be one of Pennsylvania’s most wanted criminals, and was banged up for massive corporate fraud).

3. Connecting With Your Audience 

It has never been easier, or more important, for a writer to connect with their audience. The sheer number of books being published these days means that, for most novelists, it’s simply not sustainable to sit in a remote turret churning out masterpieces, expecting them to sell of their own accord. You’re required to be out there, meeting readers and making connections. Personally, this is one of my favourite parts of the job. It’s so energising. There’s an extraordinary amount of love for UKYA, and it’s a real privilege for us writers to be able to experience that first hand. In this way, being an author in 2016 is closer to being a touring musician than it has been for quite some time - perhaps since Charles Dickens’ famous live tours in the late nineteenth century, which frequently had people fainting in the aisles.

I recently shared a panel with the fabulous YA writer Sophia Bennett — author of the equally fabulous Love Song — and she said to me that being onstage with a band and feeding off the energy of an audience must be an extraordinary feeling. And she’s right. There’s nothing else like it. It’s intoxicating, being in that moment; it’s somewhere between being drunk and high and in love and leaping out of a plane without a parachute. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges in writing about music is describing that exact feeling*. But hey, that’s our job. Which reminds me, I really must get on with that pesky sequel…

(*Sophia nails it in Love Song, by the way: “In this massive space, the quiet of the crowd was like a living thing…”. Magic.)

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