Sunday, 31 January 2010

Problems in Synopses

Each of the following extracts were taken from three real synopses, but I've doctored them a bit to protect the guilty (of whom I was one...).

Q: Can you spot the common problem?

One blazing hot July, fourteen year old Jane and her recently widowed mother move into a new house and Jane falls instantly for the boy next door, John. But he's nineteen and a student at Oxford, and takes no more notice of her than he does the family's pet dog. After taking her GCSEs Jane wants to go to university but her mother is ill and Jane needs to find a job instead. She begins work as shop assistant in a department store, hoping to be accepted onto the management trainee scheme.

Bored and restless, Isabel takes a part-time job with Patrick Sherwin, who has recently moved into the area, living and working in a cottage belonging to his sister Mary. Almost to her surprise she starts having an affair with Patrick, who says that he does not want any commitment which she agrees to.

Sophie meets John, a stand-up comedian and together they tour the working men’s clubs of Northern England. John reacts to paternity in a major way and decides that he must bring up their five children, Megan, Morag, Michael, Sandy and Mandy, away from the dangers of the Big Wen. Sophie agrees to leave her job as marketing manager and the family move to the West Country where they hope to find paradise.

A: They've all got time slips, all of which were quite genuine and unnoticed by the authors.

1. There's an implied gap between 14 year old Jane's arrival, and her taking her GCSEs. Unless she's utterly brilliant that would be two years later, at sixteen. So what's been going on in the mean time?

2. This was from my first draft and it always makes me laugh (now). 'Almost to her surprise she starts having an affair...' So, she was walking down the street when - whoosh - she's having an affair? Like she slipped in something dodgy on the pavement. Again, there's an implied time lapse.

3. Two time slips here. Firstly, when did she produce those five children? Secondly, she was touring the working men's clubs a few sentences ago, so how and when did she manage to become a marketing manager?

None of the authors spotted the time slips, but when you read them it jars. So, ask someone else to check your synopsis before you let it go out.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Write From the Heart

It's been great getting such positive feedback to the Writing 'that sort of thing' post, both on the blog and in personal emails. But I was struck that some people felt guilty about what they wrote and that seemed both sad and, being a practical sort of person, unrewarding because if you don't love your writing, how can you expect anyone else to?

Depending on who you read there are two, seven or twelve basic plots and all stories fit into one of those templates. I write relationship novels. People split up, they get together, they have affairs, whatever. They're not original themes. No one reading one of my books would go 'Wow - I've never read a story like that before'. What makes one of my books original is me. No one will have ever read a story written just the way Sarah Duncan writes a story. If I'm lucky it chimes with enough people's experience to make them want to read more about my characters and see where my imagination goes.

So if I write what isn't 'me', if I pretend I'm someone else, if I try to write what I think someone else would like - whether that someone is my mother, my editor, my teacher, a literary critic - then I'm scuppered. I've got rid of the one original thing I have to offer. Me, and my take on the world. Write from the heart, write from your guts, write what you want to write. It's the only way.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Positive People Planning with Purpose

When I started writing I made lots of new friends. One of them was a woman who was working on an intriguing project of interwoven short stories. I found the theme fascinating and enjoyed it when it was her turn for workshopping. The stories were beautifully written, with lyrical descriptions and such interesting situations, they always triggered good discussions. Over a five year period those stories were always about to be sent out but somehow, nothing ever happened to them. It was as if the talking was enough for her, doing anything other than passively receiving comments wasn't required.

I've met other people like that, both in real life and in student writing, but it's rare to find a passive central character in published work. Let's face it, most of us can do procrastination and day dreaming at home, so the last thing we want to do is read about it. Instead we want to read about characters who do stuff, whatever that stuff may be. We want to read about characters who make things happen. Characters who are active. Characters who plan with purpose.

Suppose your main character is about to lose their job. Do they...cry in corner? Or start up their own business?

They discover their partner is having an affair. Do they...fall into depression? Or stalk the lover?

Their novel is turned down. Do they...rant and rage about how stupid agents are before ripping up the ms? Or reach out for the Writers and Artists Yearbook and send it out to six agents at once?

The second action is always going to be better for a story character, no matter how true to life the first action may be. (BTW Positive refers to the energy of the action, not how morally reprehensible it may be. Scarlett O'Hara is a Positive Person Planning with Purpose. Melanie Wilkes isn't.) Get your characters going. Motivate them. Don't let them be passive victims. If they dream of sailing round the world then they'd better start making it happen from the outset. It took about five years for my real life friendship with the passive writer to wither; it'll take about five minutes for a reader to up sticks and read elsewhere.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Writing 'that sort of thing'

I’m going to a friend’s house for dinner next Satuday, and she’s just sent me an email to check she’s remembered correctly that I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t. I don’t like blue cheese either. Or red wine – the very thought of it makes my mouth pucker with the remembered taste. I don’t feel ashamed about these likes and dislikes. I have no guilt that I prefer a chilled Pinot Grigio to a gutsy Merlot. It’s just my taste. My personal quirks are part of what make me myself and I see no reason to apologise for them.

So why is reading different?

There can be no doubt there is an underlying feeling that what you read is not simply a matter of taste, as if you might judge someone’s intelligence or moral probity by their choice of reading material. I’m sometimes told by a reader how much they enjoyed one of my books, before slipping in a guilty let out clause that they ‘don’t usually read that sort of thing.’

Because, yes, I write ‘that sort of thing.’ I write – I hope – the sort of book you can pick up after a hard day’s work and be transported to a place that’s fun to be in. For a short time you can forget about the essay that needs writing, the bills that need paying, your overdraft, your shitty boss/colleagues/customers, your demanding husband, children or hamster, and instead become part of a world where characters may struggle and make bad choices but it will all come good in the end. Some of my novels are more romantic than others but they’ve all got happy endings, whether that comes with a kiss or not. I write popular fiction, and I don’t think writing unpopular fiction would be in any way better for me, or you, for that matter.

Maybe it’s a hangover from the Protestant work ethic that means reading cannot be viewed simply as entertainment, but has to be educational or improving in some way. The more difficult it is, the more educational or improving it must be. Weetabix without sugar, or cod liver oil come to mind.

I like to think my novels are the equivalent of fish pie: cheering at the end of a tiring day, neither empty calories nor exquisite haute cuisine, but tasty nourishment that slips down easily. Perhaps that’s part of the problem. We confuse the ease of reading with the ease of writing and therefore value the novel less, but it takes skill and hard work to write something that reads effortlessly.

I prefer to read books about subjects that appeal to me, and because I’m interested in relationships and how people work together in situations that reflect my own experience, I tend to read books by women with women characters placed centre stage. That’s not to say I can’t, won’t or don’t read books by men or women about other subjects, or books that challenge, or stretch me. Of course I do. But when I want to read for relaxation or sheer entertainment, I prefer women’s fiction.

There should be no guilt or shame attached to that choice. Choosing fish pie at home tonight doesn’t mean I won’t appreciate a gourmet meal at a five star restaurant tomorrow. It’s about preference, about personal taste. So, pass me that glass of Pinot Grigio, and happy reading.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Breaking Sentences with Speech Tags

He said, she said. Such simple words, yet they can be placed to make subtle differences to the meaning of your dialogue. "I believe Nancy is a good writer." That seems straightforward. Now read through the next three sentences...

"I," Sarah said, "believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy," Sarah said, "is a good writer."

Each sentence now has a different subtext according to where the break is.

"I - and this is my personal belief even if it's not yours - believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe - but on the other I could be wrong about this - Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy - but not Jemima, Jim and John - is a good writer."

The belief is altered by the stress on the sentence, and the stress is indicated by the last word before the break. There's another one...

"I believe that," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."

In this case the 'that' is acting like a drum roll, making us wait to find out, gripping the table with the suspense of it all, who exactly does Sarah believe is a good writer.

I think this is something we do naturally when we're speaking, so it's one reason why I always say my characters dialogue out loud, so I know where the stress is and therefore, where the break comes.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

There's no such thing as an Idea-o-meter

People sometimes tell me that they have a good idea, and why don't I write it up and we'll split the royalties. Quite aside from the issue of exactly how long it takes to write a novel, and that I have plenty of ideas of my own, implicit in the proposition is that there are good ideas, and bad ideas. I don't think this is true. All ideas are potentially 'good', and equally, all ideas are potentially 'bad'. It's what you do with them that counts.

A good idea is one that inspires you. It energises you. It drives you to get to The End, whether that ending is 1000 words away, or 100,000 words away. If your motivation dries up half way through and you never complete the story you were writing, then the idea wasn't any good to begin with.

Because I teach creative writing, a considerable part of my life is spent listening to other people's ideas. There have been a few occasions when I've thought 'oh, now that's a good idea', but it doesn't happen often. That's not to say that I don't hear good stories; that does happen often. But the idea - the germ behind the story - is usually fairly straightforward. Similarly, I don't think I've heard a single story where I thought the idea behind it was 'bad'.

There isn't some wonderful Idea-o-meter that tells you if your idea is good or bad. It's what the author does to the story that makes it work, or not work. You just have to write the story out and see what happens. If you get to The End it was a good idea after all.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Working Titles

Coming up with titles is so difficult.  Adultery for Beginners is the only book that picked up its final title early on in the writing process.  Since then it's usually the final stage in the process of writing and involves me suggesting long lists of titles to my editor, and her sweetly commenting that she thinks I'm not quite there yet.  

So the books are actually written using a working title.  It's ended up that I use something that makes me laugh and feel positive about the book whenever I see the title:  

Nice Girls Do was written as A Single Girl's Guide to Hedging and Ditching.
Another Woman's Husband was The Sex Life of Hamsters
A Single to Rome was Thirty Eight Bonks
Kissing Mr Wrong was Sexgod and Love Bunny

At the moment the new book is under a file marked Questbook, but I really think that's going to have to change.  

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Book Blurbs

The large print edition of Kissing Mr Wrong arrived yesterday.  It's always a bit weird seeing your work in print - did I really write this? - but as I turned the book over in my hands and started to read the blurb I felt even weirder.  Did I really write this?  became more of an urgent question as the blurb referred to two characters, Alex and Gus.  But the book that I wrote was surely about Lu and Nick?  

Then, dimly, I remembered back, back to when I started writing the novel and I had to give the publisher something to go on.  This blurb was it...The basic  story line is still the same, give or take a hamster, but the characters evolved into different people and therefore acquired different names.  (I'm at the same stage now with the new book, I'm working with Rosie and Tom, but I have a feeling that's not going to be their final names.)

Does it matter?  I mind, because I'm the author and I feel it reflects badly on me.  But will readers mind?  I think I'd find it unsettling to read a book and realise that the blurb didn't match the contents.  I've felt that way when the book cover shows the characters and/or setting at odds with the descriptions inside.  It's almost as if you're being cheated.  I don't want my readers to feel cheated, but I'm not sure there's anything I can do about it now.  Drat, drat, drat.

And to add to this writer's woes, top of my To Do list this weekend is to write a blurb for the publisher for my new book...  

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Why I Teach

A new term is in the offing, and I can't think of a single thing I'm going to teach my class. So, it seems timely to remind myself why I teach...

* It gets me out of the house instead of being stuck indoors all the time.
* I get to meet new people who are generally interested and enthusiastic
about my favourite subject: writing.
* I get to talk about my favourite subject and, because I'm the teacher,
there are fewer interruptions and glazed eyes (so unlike home...).
* It provides structure to my week.
* I love seeing students growing in skill and confidence.
* I love hearing about student success.
* I love the support everyone generously offers other students.
* I generally like thinking up class exercises, and seeing how they work out.
* Thinking up stuff for class stimulates me to think about the craft of
* I'm a better writer because I've had to analyse what I do so I can teach it.

Right. I still don't know what I'm going to teach next Friday, but I've remembered why I'm going to be teaching whatever it is.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Comparisons are Odious

I can't remember which character in which book says comparisons are odious, but they're spot on, whoever they are. One of the most odious comparisons a new writer can make is to compare their work with that of a published novel. It will almost certainly lead to despair, but it shouldn't. By the time my work is published it will have gone through several hands...

1) My four friendly readers.
2) My agent.
3) My editor, and sometimes I work with another editor as well.
4) The copy editor
5) The proof reader

That's eight or nine readers, and each time I'm going to be redrafting and fine-tuning. It's hardly surprising that published work is more polished than unpublished stuff. That's not to say we shouldn't aim for the work we submit to be as polished as we can make it - and the first three chapters should be so smooth you could run a silk stocking over them without snagging - but it'll only depress you if you make direct comparisons.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

7 Great Books for Writers

I've got over 400 books on various aspects of writing, and have probably read over 100 more. These are my favourite 7...

Stephen King - On Writing.
Interesting both for the autobiographical section and the practical section, even if you're not a fan of his genre.

Anne Lamott - Bird By Bird.
Thoughts on writing. She's more self effacing/less New Age-y than either Julia Cameron or Natalie Goldberg, and therefore appeals to me far more.

Robert McKee - Story.
Yes, he's a bit pompous and arrogant, yes, Story is often over complicated given he's basically writing about 3 Act Structure. But it's still essential reading in my opinion, especially good on sub-text.

William Strunk & EB White - The Elements of Style.
Succinct, precise, clear, short. The best £5 you'll spend, miles better than Eats Shoots and Leaves.

Renni Browne and Dave King - Self Editing for Fiction Writers.
Excellent book that does what it says on the cover. Good, clear examples.

Robert J Ray -The Weekend Novelist. NB First Edition Only.
This was the first creative writing book I bought, and it was an invaluable companion when I was writing my first novel. My copy is falling to pieces so I bought the second edition and - oh dear - he'd gone all academic and showing off his knowledge. I'm fairly experienced now as a creative writing book reader (let alone teacher and novelist), and I found it confusing and overcomplicated. Buy the first edition second hand if you have to.

Dibell, Scott Card and Turco - How to Write a Million.
Ignore the embarrassing title, this is actually three books in one, and two of the books - on Plot and on Character & Viewpoint - are excellent for craft techniques.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Writer's Block

It's the great writing fear, writer's block. The image is of the writer hunched over their desk, weeping into the keyboard as their hands lie idle, the imagination barren. I think writer's block is about fear: fear that it won't be perfect, fear that it won't get published, fear that someone might read it and see what you're really like. Here are some ideas for getting over block...

1. Write some description. Where is your viewpoint character now - what can they see, hear, touch? What are they wearing? Go into as much detail as you can. It doesn't have to fit into the plot, it's enough that you're writing, being able to use it at some point will be a bonus.

2. Don't get hung up on writing chronologically. If you fancy writing a scene near the end, do it and don't worry about the fact you haven't set it up properly. You can always go back and do that another time.

3. If you're finding a scene difficult to write, jump over it. Make a few notes - Jess buys a motorbike but her credit card is refused - and then carry on. The problem with the scene will almost certainly resolve itself later - perhaps Jess needs a car, not a motorbike.

4. Tell yourself you're just going to write for ten minutes about anything, and that's your quota. If you really can't think of anything to write about, start with the phrase 'I remember when...' and take it from there.

5. Stuck for a story line? Choose a fairy tale or nursery story. Re-write it with a contemporary feel or give it a twist - make the Big Bad Wolf the hero. Shakespeare was notorious for nicking plots from other writers and if it's good enough for Shakespeare...

Generally I think the best thing is to relax and accept that we all have off days and that creativity doesn't flow from some convenient tap that can be turned off and on at will. On the other hand, don't use this as an excuse for sidling out of writing all together as one day will slip into another and a month will go by without you writing a word. The best solution for writer's block is to develop a writing habit.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Finding Your Voice

I loved my MA. I'd started writing with short stories and carried on, experimenting with different styles and genres, happily going all over the place, sometimes ultra literary, sometimes more down to earth. I must admit, I never worried about finding 'my' voice, as I know many people do. I just assumed that as it was me writing, my voice would sort of turn up at some point.

Then, that Christmas, there was a Stephen King short story competition in the Sunday Times and I gaily decided to enter, despite having read only one Stephen King novel in my life. I felt that the essence of Stephen King involved sex, violence and assault by unlikely objects or animals. My short story, Slither, was about a sexually frustrated young woman who ends up being eaten by killer earthworms, all written up in a over-blown literary style jam-packed with symbolism and alliteration. It didn't win.

Some years later I was rooting around my files looking for a 'how not to write' example for class and came across Slither. As I read the first paragraph I realised that this would do nicely as a 'how not to write' example, so carried on reading. And there it was. Half way down page two. My voice. In between all the symbolism (and it's amazing quite what you can get from the humble earthworm) there is a short passage when the main character is having a pass made at her by a would-be lover. She's unmoved, bored even, as he rummages down her bra as if trying to find Radio 4 despite dodgy aerial reception. Then it goes back to the killer earthworms and their literary intentions and all is lost.

That passage is the first time I'm aware that my voice turns up. But the thing is, I didn't recognise it at the time. I carried on writing and a few months later started the novel that became Adultery for Beginners. So, I don't think you need worry about finding your own voice. It's going to be there. You just might not recognise it right now.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Romantic Novelists Association

When I was starting to re-write Adultery for Beginners I went to a 'how to get published' talk. At the end, the speaker advised those of us who were writing relationship novels to join the Romantic Novelists Association, not least because they gave excellent parties where you could chat to agents and editors. It sounded like my sort of organisation, so the next day I got an application form and sent it off. I've been a member ever since.

The first event I went to was the AGM and Summer Party. Not knowing anybody, I nervously chose a seat towards the back, surrounded by empty seats. Not for long. Soon I had a neighbour who introduced herself and, as the AGM proceded, gave me a whispered running commentary about the various issues being discussed. Then, at the party, she introduced me to an agent and several other members. Up and running, with a couple of glasses of wine inside me, I managed to chat to lots of people including five agents and a couple of editors.

At the time I thought I'd struck lucky, but experience has shown me that the RNA must be the friendliest and most supportive organisation ever. I think it must be impossible to stand alone and unspoken to at an RNA gathering. Unlike many other writing organisations, the unpublished are welcomed and encouraged, and there's an excellent feedback scheme for them. There are regional chapters, and an on-line chapter where everyone can contribute and all are treated equally, from the newest of new writers to the bestselling novelist. Throughout the year there are various meetings with interesting speakers and a conference, as well as the Summer and Winter parties and the annual Awards lunch.

I've made many good friends through the RNA and if you've a writing question, whether it's about research, craft or support, there's always someone who knows the answer. The speaker was right. If you're writing a relationship novel - be it rom com, chick lit, hen lit, HMB, saga, contemporary women's fiction, romance - then you should join the RNA.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Unread Bookshelf

I have, by most people's standards, an awful lot of books. When I moved to this house it took two furniture vans, one for the furniture and all the other stuff, one for the books. At that point I had about 10,000 of them. On arrival I did a bit of a cull, and a couple of thousand went. I did another cull last year, and possibly another thousand went to charity. However, they had already been replaced by a handful more...

Looking round my office - a small room - I have five bookcases lining the walls, all with extensions so they nearly reach the ceiling. Each has eight shelves, each full of newly acquired books. I've just counted one shelf - 44 books. 44 x 8 x 5 = oh, I don't want to do the maths, it's too embarrassing. I have a book habit, OK? In the office, most of the books are on writing or books I've bought for research purposes or books I use as teaching examples, but there are a couple of shelves that house the unread books.

The unread books were mostly bought because other people recommended them, or I thought I 'ought' to read them. Some I've been given as presents, some are freebies from publishers. A couple are the third book on the 3 for 2s. The unread shelf is distinct from the to be read shelf, which is out on the landing, because I actually read from the TBR shelf. Deep down I know that I'm not going to make inroads on the unread shelf but still they hang around, worthy reads all, just not the choice of my heart. Perhaps one day...

Friday, 15 January 2010

What's in a Name?

I find naming my characters really hard. Somehow, I can't settle to my writing until I know their name, but until I know the character a bit better, I can't work out what they're called. It's important because we all have reactions to different names.

I have a class exercise about making good choices. The characters are called Doris and Jim and they go through various events. At the end of the exercise I ask people to describe Doris and Jim. They're elderly, usually pensioners. They live in a bungalow with a lot of china ornaments. Then I ask the students how they'd feel if the characters were called Jenny and Pete. Immediately their age drops. Now the characters have small children and they live in a terraced house. Rupert and Vanessa are older and very posh, living in a big house. Their children go to boarding school. Dolores and Jake, on the other hand - well, fill in how you see a couple called Dolores and Jake, but I bet it won't be the same as the others.

Names are powerful. If we give a character a name like Rupert, we are hinting at all sorts of background detail. There may be many dustbin men out there in real life called Rupert, but somehow it wouldn't ring true in a book. I know of a real life Marchioness called Tracey, but the name would give the wrong signals for the reader in a book.

Then there are reactions to names. Adam and Sam seem dependable sorts, Jenny and Rosie are nice people. I learned this on the first draft of Adultery for Beginners when one of the characters was called Jenny. My feedback readers said they rooted for her, and felt cheated when she turned out to be a baddie. So she became Justine in the re-write, a far more ambiguous name.

You may think that this is all stereotyping, and of course you'd be right. But as readers we can't help having an initial gut response to a name, so as writers we have to think about it. Oh, I wish I could fix my characters names in the new book I'm writing. I won't be happy until I do.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Take Six Agents

When I'd nearly finished re-writing my manuscript I sent out the usual package - first three chapters, synopsis and covering letter - to six agents one Monday afternoon. I had a connection with all of them: three I had met at a Romantic Novelists Association party the previous week (which is why I sent out before having fully completed the ms), one had been there but I hadn't met them, the other two I knew were attending the Winchester Writers Conference. This is what happened...

Agent No 1 rang me on Wednesday morning and asked to see the rest. Yippee!
Agent No 2 sent a letter on Thursday saying the novel wasn't for her, but added that she thought someone would take it on.
Agent No 3 sent a letter on Friday asking to see the rest.
Agent No 4 also sent a letter on Friday saying no one would want to read such depressing material, I was wasting my time and I'd just wasted hers. Yes, really.
Agent No 5 sent a letter on Monday saying she'd got two clients who were writing similar work to mine and she was having difficulty placing them, so she couldn't take me on.
Agent No 6 - well, I'm still waiting to hear from Agent No 6, but it's too late as I went with the fabulous Agent No 1.

It's one person's opinion after all, but if I'd only had Agent No 4's letter I might never have sent out again. It was bad enough reading it after I'd had a phone call from an agent saying they wanted to read the rest, I dread to think how I would have felt if it had been the only response. So, that's why I believe in multiple submissions.

PS I have since met Agent No 4 at a party. I didn't spit in her drink, kick her shins or say 'Yah boo sucks! That book you said was a waste of time sold to ten countries, you know nothing.' I just smiled sweetly and moved on. Which shows I'm either a nice person full of forgiveness or a coward.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Danger of Chunks

When I was on my MA we used to workshop our pieces once a week in a group. It was a brilliant way to learn, and I've carried on with workshopping both my own work and student work ever since. There's no doubt in my mind that workshopping is excellent, a fast track to developing as a writer. But sometimes I worry about the effect it has on writing.

The problem is that you only see work in chunks. On the MA I think I remember correctly that we could submit up to 2000 words - that's about eight pages - which is about the length of a short story or a scene or two from a novel. When I'm workshopping in class, the length has to be kept under 800 words. You can get good feedback from that, and I've seen writing improve dramatically as a result, but the one thing you can't get is a sense of the story or novel as a whole.

Seeing a novel in chunks, even a short story in two bites, means that feedback on overall structure and pace is in short supply. Good writing comes to the fore, and editing skills get developed but I wonder if the chunk method may be responsible for the number of writers who get praised for their writing in class and are then disappointed when they send out to agents. I don't know - it's just an idea, and I certainly won't stop workshopping. But if I'm right, then it would pay to get at least one opinion on the piece as a whole before sending out.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Never Drink Tea

Tea drinking should be banned from all novels, in my opinion, along with flashback. Flashback puts the action into reverse, but tea drinking - oh, tea drinking - seduces us into thinking something is going on when really it isn't. Avoid tea drinking at all costs.

Okay, so that's a bit extreme, and I must confess to having allowed a cup or two to pass my characters' lips. But it's a nasty habit that is best avoided. Think about it. Two characters sit down with a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and talk about their problems/what's on their minds. By definition, the scene is static. You're going to have to work very hard to get much action going on - fondling the sugar tongs, perhaps? A bit of kitchen table stroking? Consider what you could add to the flavour of your novel by setting the scene elsewhere.

For my most recently written novel, Kissing Mr Wrong, in the second draft I took some tea drinking scenes, whisked them away from their domestic location and set them: window shopping down Milsom Street in Bath; standing in the queue for the Banksy exhibition at Bristol City Art Gallery; buying samosas from the Guildhall deli; folding leaflets and stuffing envelopes for a mailshot. Same conversations, same scene intentions, but now lots of fun details to play with and for the characters to comment on.

Take your characters away from the tea cups and give them something fun to do. Giving up tea and coffee is good for your novel's health.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Writing about Me, Me, Me

It's a question that writers get asked a lot: is your novel autobiographical? I always reply with an emphatic no, and it's certainly true that I have never had an affair, been a garden historian or a lawyer, or generally done any of the things my characters have done. They are works of fiction, coming from my imagination rather than real life.

For me it would be inhibiting to write fiction based on real life events. You'd always be worrying about what the real people thought about it, and constricted by what really happened. Real life is so random, it's rarely the stuff of good story telling. Just because something 'really happened' doesn't make it more interesting or valid on the page. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.

But. But, but, but. It's disingenuous to claim that it's all made up. In truth I'm the central character, and every other character too. Sometimes I indulge in the aspects of my personality that I don't usually display, sometimes I try out aspects I don't think I have. One of my favourite characters is the horrible George in Adultery for Beginners - oh, how I loved being him, he has no redeeming features whatsoever. I use my experiences as background: I did garden history as part of my degree, cue Anna the garden historian; I spent time in Rome as a student, cue Natalie's escape destination.

I wouldn't want to write about my life because, for the most part, it's neither dramatic or particularly interesting. I had a happy childhood that I can hardly remember and my adult life has been fairly stress free. Joyce apparently described fiction as being autobiographical fantasy, which I like as a definition. Because, although I am making it all up when I write, it's also all about me, me, me.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Being an Active Seeker of Feedback

Right. You've selected some potential readers, handed over copies of your precious manuscript, and have arranged a meeting when they're going to give feedback. Stop. Think beforehand how you're going to react, because your behaviour will dictate whether the exercise was good, or a waste of everybody's time and energy.

The thing is, your friends love you. They must do, because they've just given you at least 8 hours of their time to read your manuscript. The last thing they want to do is upset you. So, if you give any hint that they have just skewered you right through the heart, they will back off and start murmuring platitudes. (The best one I've heard was some poor soul who apparently commented on the worst novel I've ever read that it was 'almost good and nearly interesting'.) It's like the friends and family you see supporting some pretty average singer on the X Factor; either they're seriously deluded when they claim their grandson/best friend/baby brother is brilliant, or they love them and don't want them to be hurt. If you really want feedback to make your novel better, you're probably going to have to accept with a smile some comments that make you want to die.

Come prepared for this, and prepared to steer your reader. Asking them if they liked it is just asking for the answer yes. Besides, you don't want to know if they liked it (unless they're prepared to offer money for it) you want useful feedback you can act on. So prepare some questions that will encourage them to expand. A possible list might include...

Which was your favourite/least favourite character?
What did you like/dislike about them?
Were there any places where the pace seemed too slow/too fast?
Could you understand what was going on and where all the time?
Could you picture the characters/locations?
Did the plot make sense - did you ever get lost?
Was there anything you particularly liked/disliked about the story?
If you had to sum up the novel in three words, what would they be?

You're more likely to get honest answers to questions like these so be prepared to hear some things you don't like. But, even if you're in agony inside, remember that it's all useful information that you can choose to act on or not. Don't get drawn into an argument about how X was obvious, listen, make notes and then later on decide if you want to make changes. Writing is all about re-writing and good feedback is golden.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Be Careful Who You Show To...

The alternative to paying for a book doctor or reading service is to beg friends to read and give feedback. This has the advantage of being free, and can provide some really excellent feedback, but it also comes with draw backs.

First, choose your friends wisely. You are looking for someone who is experienced in giving feedback because I think it takes about 2 years to learn how to give and receive feedback in a non-emotional, supportive yet critical way. If you have such a friend, cherish them and feed them brownies at every opportunity.

Alternatively, grow your own. I read for, and am read by, four friends. The first I met on the first writing class I ever went on, the other three I met on my creative writing MA. Over the past ten years we've got to know each other's quirks - they all know I'm obsessed by chapter ends and structure, not so hot on line editing. Luckily, that's someone else's speciality, skewering the unnecessary adverb with surgical precision. We've all got strengths and weaknesses and no one has much truck with the 'oh that's lovely' school of criticism.

What you don't want is someone who promotes their own ideas at your expense. Blossom wrote in a comment a couple of days ago about a reader friend who'd taken exception to the background of a character and panned the novel on those grounds. I sympathise with how it threw Blossom completely. Our novels are our babies, and it's not nice to see them get a kicking, especially when it seems undeserved.

Nor do you want someone who doesn't read (or worse, doesn't value) your kind of writing. I once saw a novel that that started with an explosion on a motor boat in the South of France, then quickly transfered to Lancashire where it became a relationship novel. I asked why the explosion, and the author explained that her husband (who read only thrillers) had suggested it needed a bit more excitement and action. And you certainly don't want a reader who feels it essential to point out, with a superior little smirk, that your sort of writing isn't what they'd usually read (this happened to me early on).

So, having chosen your reader friends, you need to know how to get the best from them, which I'll write about tomorrow.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Book Doctors and Reading Services - Worth the Money?

The short answer is Yes. No. It depends.

What a book doctor or reading service can do is give you completely impartial feedback. They're not your friend, so they don't worry if they hurt your feelings when they reveal your novel is less than perfect. And their feedback will hurt if it's anything less than ecstatic. It's one of the reasons I personally avoid book doctoring as I want to be honest without upsetting people.

They should be experienced writers, editors or readers (you hope - see later on) so can give advice on the novel as a whole based on both their own writing and draft novels they've seen in the past. Because of their experience they should be able to pin-point problems and suggest solutions.

I used a book doctor on my first novel, Adultery for Beginners. The report identified two problems: 1) it was set in the countryside and, at the time of foot and mouth, they said editors were not buying country based novels and 2) it was written from four viewpoints and three of them were weak. The report suggested beefing up the weaker three and made suggestions as to how the plot might be changed to do this.

I did change the setting to a town - I'm not sure if their assessment was true as plenty of novels before and since have been set in the country. I took exception to the second point, thinking that the suggestions for 'improving' the plot were trite and cliched. However, after a long period of sulking, I did recognise that, while their solutions were wrong - for me - they had pin-pointed a problem. I re-wrote the book from one character's viewpoint, and that version was published.

I am concerned about who actually offers the feedback. If they are a writer or editor of your sort of novel then they should be able to offer useful feedback. A writer or editor in a different area may not understand the market for your genre. I also suspect that a lot of readers are unpublished MA Creative Writing graduates. I say this because after I graduated I received several round robin letters from companies recruiting readers via the creative writing department. So if you can, check out who is actually going to be doing the reading.

I don't think I would have been published without the report, because no one had ever given feedback about the weakness of the other voices which pushed me re-write. So, I'd say it IS worth the money, if you feel confident about the reader and their feedback and can make it work for you.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Creativity and Colds

I have been suffering over this last week with a cold. I don't think it was bad enough to be elevated to the lofty world of flu, let alone swine flu, but it has been bad enough for me to only want to lie down in a quiet room with the curtains drawn. All my plans for the start of the New Year have disappeared along with my concentration span. Reading more than a couple of pages at a time has been impossible, writing out of the question. Even writing this blog is a wobbly experience. There it is. I'm human. I get colds.

I'm human, not a machine. So why do I expect myself to be able to churn out X thousand words a day, regardless of what else is going on in my life? I'm a big fan of 'a little and often' and it's true that the more you write the more it becomes a habit, like brushing your teeth, but sometimes even writing a little is impossible. For every Stephen King, with his 2000 words a day, every day, there's a Jane Austen, who was miserable during the years she lived in Bath and stopped writing, only restarting when she moved to Chawton.

Creativity can be stimulated by stress and adverse conditions, but it can also dry up. As writers we have to learn to recognise when our personal creativity is lying fallow and not beat ourselves up because we're not writing. Writing is not a competative sport. If you finished that short story, then you finished it. No reader is going to care whether you took two days, two weeks or two years to write it. All that matters is that the work is good. Now, pass me the paracetemol...

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Why do novels get rejected?

I read a really interesting post this morning by Janet Reid. She's an agent and in the post breaks down why she rejected/accepted the 124 novels she asked to read in full over last six months or so. A lot of the reasons were solvable - slow pace for example, or structural issues. A few needed more editorial work that she had time to give. Others were good novels, but not right for her - these she referred to other agents. In the end she made two offers out of the 124.

It's such a lottery. What Janet Reid may see as being slow, another agent may see as being gentle or subtle. I didn't find The Da Vinci Code to be a page-turner, but I accept that I am a rare exception and not the rule.

If the odds are 124:2 (and that's for novels she asked to see on the basis of a few chapters), then we have to accept that individual taste is going to play a bigger part than we'd like. Not everybody likes everything, in just the same way that I don't like red wine or mushrooms, but love licorice and aniseed. We can't do anything about that. What we can do is make sure that the sortable stuff - pacing, structure, editing etc - is as good as we can make it before we send out. It is a lottery, but we can, with work, swing the odds in our favour.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 12

Finally, with a nod to the season, here are four words: Partridge, Pear, Ring, Drum.

You can use them as adjectives, nouns or verbs, but write an opening that includes all four words. And having started, then carry on and see where your imagination takes you.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 11

Think about the techniques we use to win arguments. This isn't an exhaustive list, but they include:

Deal making - If you do this, I'll do that
Pulling rank - I'm paying or I know more
Violence/bullying - My way or else...
Persistence - aka nagging
Deviousness - withholding information, white lies, flattery

A and B are planning to decorate a room, and have to choose the colours and style of furnishings. The trouble is, they both have very different tastes...

Write the scene, with each one trying to win the other over to their way of thinking, using as many techniques as they can. You'll get more out of the exercise if you make a few decisions about their relationship first, and remember, they are both determined to win.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 10

For this exercise you need a candle...

Light your candle, turn any other lights off and close the curtains. Once, long ago, this was how people used to write. In your head, go back in time, back to a time when there was only candlelight, it could be 100 years ago, it could be 1000 years ago, just go back into the past.

Still in your head, with the candlelight flickering, imagine the place you are in. What is it like? What are the walls made of? Wood, stone or brick? What textures are there - rugs, carpets, curtains, tapestries, furs...? Is the light from the candle reflecting off anything? Take a few minutes to really see the place you are in.

Now imagine what you are wearing. How do the fabrics feel on your skin? Are they heavy or light, rough or smooth? Are they cumbersome or streamlined? Restrictive or loose? How does it feel to wear your clothes? And now, move on from your clothes to your background - are you rich or poor? Do you have a job? How do you feel about what you do?

Try and fix this past version of yourself in your head then, when you feel confident, begin to write a letter to someone in the past.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 9

I did this one with my Bristol students about a year ago and the writing was fabulous.

Write the following scene. Two characters, A and B are talking to each other. They can be any place, and discuss anything. The only rule is, A and B are items of clothing.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 8

New Year's Day, and perhaps some people have decided to make a resolution to write 500 or 1000 or 2000 words a day. That works for some people, but not everyone, and it can mean writing (or rather, not writing) gets to be yet another source of guilt when it should be enjoyable. Hope you enjoy today's exercise.

A is quietly browsing in a bookshop when they observe B take a book and hide it under their coat. Quickly list 10 - yes, 10! - possible things for A to do next, leaving a space between each one. Now write alongside each of the list why someone might behave like in that way, listing as many reasons as you can. For example, if you've written A tells the bookshop manager, then what sort of person reports a shoplifter? They could be ultra law abiding, or like stirring trouble, or bored with their lives and want to see some action.

You should have a piece of paper covered with actions, and possible reasons. Choose one reason that you like the look of. Write down how you think A looks - clothes, hair style, what they've got with them. Finally, write down what A was doing in the bookshop in the first place.

What you've done is work backwards through the usual process. We often start writing with a character and then have to think of a scenario for them to take part in. But if you think about it, in real life we learn about people's characters through their actions. So, if you start with your character taking action, you get to know them much more quickly and descriptions like their clothes etc fall into place more easily.

Enough of the explanations - write this scene and see where it leads you, and if you get bored, try giving A a different action.