Friday, 23 December 2011

T is for Totalitarianism

I often begin classes by announcing that they are not democracies but dictatorships: my personal fiefdom. It's meant to be a joke (and does usually get a rather nervous laugh) but it's also a truth. What I teach is about writing as I see it. What I say goes.

The trouble is, I might be wrong.

I don't think I'm wrong for me - though I hope I'm always open to new ideas - but I'm certainly wrong for some people some of the time. For others, I'm wrong all of the time. That's just the way it is. For every writer who plans, there's another who doesn't, and another who does some of the time, and then there are those who are just muddling through writing ideas on scraps of paper. There really isn't a right, or a wrong way to write, just your way.

But there are people around for whom a totalitarian approach isn't a jokey comment at the beginning of a class. They tell you what you should do in no uncertain terms. Do this, do that - and if it doesn't work for you, then you have a problem because it works for me and I'm published and you're not.

Well, phooey.

All I - or any other writer/teacher - can do is make suggestions for things that have worked for us, and we might know have worked for others, and hope it works for you. It seems to me it's always worth having a bash and seeing what happens because it's no big deal if one method doesn't work; there's always another to try. I'm perfectly happy when a student says "I tried to to what you recommended, but it didn't work, so I followed what someone else said and that was brilliant".* I want people to enjoy their writing, and how they get there isn't about me, it's about them.

Anyway, that's enough for me for the time being. I'm taking a break over Christmas and might come back next week and finish off the alphabet, but certainly normal service will be restored after New Year. Happy Christmas everyone, and here's to a great writing year in 2012!

*Actually, not being a saint, I'm not 100% happy, it's b****y annoying and don't ever, ever do it to me - OK? Or it's time in the gulags for you.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

S is for Self Promotion

At a writers lunch this week, one of us asked if you HAD to be on Twitter, Facebook etc. The others there, including me, had all been told to Twitter etc by their publisher, but once on, enjoyed it. We all had different strategies to stop it eating into our writing time - limiting the number of people one followed, using a timer, not having writing computer linked to internet, having internet 'cut out' software, using a Facebook author page rather than a normal account for spreading the word.

The next question was: did it make a difference to sales? Again, we all agreed that it wasn't about sales so much as raising one's profile in the industry, which led to journalistic commissions and offers to speak at libraries and lit fests.

And another thing we all agreed on (it was a very harmonious lunch) was that obvious self-promotion was a turn off. We simply stopped following anyone who appeared pushy. One of us - not me BTW - had a problem with a friend of a friend who was emailing to ask her to re-tweet his posts of self-promotion. Unfollow, we all advised.

All of us had gone further and taken against authors who relentlessly promoted their books. We'd also made judgements about who we liked or didn't like on the basis of their on-line media presence. It may sound crass to base your reading choices on the personality of an author, but we'd all done it. I had been going to buy one particular novel, and then decided against it because the author seemed such an opinionated, judgmental person on-line. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but their media presence made me not buy.

As an author myself, this makes me slightly uneasy - just because someone promotes themselves well, it doesn't follow that their book will be a good read. But hey, aren't all purchases based on flimsy things like a good blurb, or personal quirks of preference. I once did a first page exercise in class using the Booker Prize short-list where several students rejected one particular book because a sailing ship was mentioned in the first paragraph and they didn't like books about the sea.

Back to the lunch. Our advice can be summarised:

1. Engage with others, and don't just be Me! Me! Me! all the time.

2. Don't expect to see direct results in terms of sales.

3. It can eat time, so you need to set up strategies to make sure it doesn't.

4. You don't have to do everything; I don't 'get' Facebook, but love Twitter, it was the opposite for one of the other writers.

5. If you're writing for children, you may have to be inventive about how they follow you - there are age restrictions on some social media networks.

6. Don't do anything you don't like, but on the other hand, don't dismiss it immediately - it takes time to settle in.

7. If you blog, update it at least once a week or don't bother at all.

8. Group blogs, where you blog once a month, are useful if you don't have much free time (or much you want to say - not my problem, ahem).

9. On Twitter, get to grips with various areas like mentions, hashtags etc. I didn't realise about the mention facility at first, and spent hours scrolling through in case I'd missed someone talking to me.

10. Have fun!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

R is for Rights

Here's a brief run down on why rights are important to authors and how the money stacks up.  

You automatically have copyright on anything you write, be it your magnum opus or your shopping list.  You don't have to claim or register them in any way.  You wrote it, you own it.  Your words could be sold in a variety of formats - hardback, paperback, audio, large print, digital, serialisation, film, condensed etc - and each of those formats could be sold to all the countries in the world.   

Basically, what you are selling is the right to publish in a particular format in a particular territory for a particular period of time.  Usually, so long as the book remains in print, the publisher retains the right to publish.  If it falls out of print (deemed as the publisher having fewer than a certain number eg 250 copies in stock), after 6 months the author can ask for the rights back, and the publisher must hand them over.  

At that point the rights could be sold again to another publisher, or the author could self-publish - there are quite a few authors with a back list of titles which have gone out of print, so the rights have reverted, who are busily putting them out as e-books. 

If you are offered a deal by a Big 6 publishing house (ie the major international conglomerates such as Random House or Hachette - who own Headline, my publisher) the minimum they will ask for hardback and paperback rights in the home country.  A smaller publisher may only publish in a single format, therefore they may only want the rights in that format - it used to be commonplace in the days before conglomeration for an author to have one publisher for hardback and another for paperback. 

The publisher may also want the rights in other territories so, for example, USA publishers get Canada, UK gets Australia and New Zealand.  I once had a deal almost founder because both my UK and my USA publishers wanted the rights to distribute the English language version in Europe.  It was settled by the UK getting the EU countries, and the USA getting the non-EU countries.  

If you have an agent, they usually retain the world rights in the hope that they can make deals with lots of different countries.  Otherwise, you can sell the world rights to your publisher, and their rights department will do the selling in the same way an agent would.  If you're selling a picture book, because of the expense of printing in full colour the publisher will expect to recoup the costs by selling around the world, and world rights usually go to the publisher as a matter of course.  

Selling to a publisher in another country will mean a new contract and a new advance.  The size of the advance will reflect the size of the country - Germany will pay a lot more than Norway, for example.  This may not be ££££ but it all adds up.  

In exactly the same way as the rights to different countries, audio and large print may be included within the publisher, or retained for sale by the agent to specialist publishers. Condensed books used to be published by Readers Digest.  They printed awesome amounts of copies, and got huge discounts so the author got a few pence for each one.  Book clubs were the same - high volume but at a high discount.  This market used to be more important than it is now.

Nowadays, publishers are after the e rights as well.  The standard deal being offered by print publishers is 25% of the royalties.  A lot of authors think this is a poor percentage, given that the publishers aren't offering an advance or additional marketing for example, and the chair of the Society of Authors recently called for the % to be revised. It's worth pointing out that you don't HAVE to sell any of your rights - I've hung onto my e-rights, for various reasons.  A specialist e-publisher usually gives a higher % of royalties.  

Serialisation rights are relevant when the book is sold to a newspaper or magazine for them to publish extracts over several issues.  It's less likely to happen with fiction, unless you are a publishing superstar.  When you hear of a celebrity book being bought for £500,000 that's because the rights department of that publisher has already done a deal with a newspaper. Essentially, the newspaper is going to pay for the advance, rather than the publisher.  So a celebrity book can sell only a few copies and still make money for the publisher because the advance and at least some of the publication costs have already been covered by the sale of the serialisation rights.

You can, of course, do it yourself, but it's in the rights selling that an agent earns their keep. Agents either have branches in different countries or, more usually, have agreements with agents based there.  They're called co-agents.  The commission is usually 20%, ie 10% for your agent, 10% for the co-agent. Quite a few agents have come from rights - my own agent, for example, used to run the rights dept of a Big 6 company.  I'm pretty sure that my books are sold to so many countries (14) and in so many different formats because she's a demon at selling rights, rather than my writing having some fabulous global appeal.  (I wish!)

How the money stacks up...each individual sale of rights is unlikely to be the stuff of your wildest dreams but they add up.  I'm getting around £1000-2000 for most rights sales in different formats and the smaller countries, much more for the larger countries, and there is always the potential for royalties on top of the advance for each sale. It's very nice getting an unexpected royalty cheque from audio sales or Brazil, for example.  The most rights sales I've had from a book is over 20 (doing a quick count in my head), the fewest about 5 - and that's all on top of my original advance from my publisher.  

When you consider the potential for income within rights sales, it becomes clearer why most conventionally published authors are a bit arms length re e-publishing.  An author's income isn't just about the basic deal, it's also about the sales of subsidiary rights.  Include those in the equation and e-publishing doesn't look quite so wonderful in terms of income generation because it is only one format.  I'm a teeny fish in the publishing pond - consider the subsidiary rights deals some of the big fish are getting...

Sorry, this has ended up as a long post, and I've still only touched the surface.  I could have included a rant about Google misappropriating authors' rights, and it's worrying that so many people seem to think that authors only want to be read and don't want to be paid for their work and therefore won't mind when they help themselves to it (what authors usually call stealing).   

The chances are you won't need to know much more about rights because your agent will do it all for you.  But if you don't have an agent and you get offered a deal, read the small print carefully.  The Society of Authors will check contracts, and that alone is worth the membership fee - and a whole lot cheaper than getting a lawyer to do it, plus their rights department has all the expertise.  

Know what you are selling and don't passively hope it will turn out OK because you might not be doing yourself any favours.  Don't forget - you have rights!  Sell them, or hang on to them, the choice is yours.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Q is for Quest

The Writer's Quest (by way of The Hero's Journey)

Act I

1. Ordinary World - Limited awareness of problem
The writer decides to finally write that novel they've been meaning to do for ages.  It can't be that difficult - after all, 1000s of books get published every year.  

2. Call to Adventure - Increased awareness
"This isn't quite as easy as I thought," the writer realises, as yet another week goes by without much progress being made on the novel.  They start to read published novels with a sneaking sense of envy - what have they got that made them worth publishing?  How did that author make it to The End?

3.  Refusal of the Call - Reluctance to change
The novel is finished, and it's perfect.  It is - and there can be no doubt about this at all - the most wonderful and incredible book in the history of the universe.  A quick scan using Spellcheck, and it's ready to send out. 

4.  Meeting the Mentor - Overcoming reluctance
The novel is rejected by every agent and publisher in The Writers and Artists Yearbook. The writer finally signs up for a writing group and gets feedback on their magnum opus.  Some of it's good, some of it's not but no one seems to think this is the most wonderful and incredible book in the history of the universe.  This is a surprise.  The writer stomps home where another rejection letter is waiting for them.  

5.  Crossing the First Threshold - Committing to change
The writer turns up at the writing group again.  Perhaps they do have something to say worth listening to.

Act II

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies - Experimenting with first change
Some people in the writing group exclaim at how wonderful and unimprovable the novel is, others are more critical. The writer learns to give feedback and understand about things like POV and head-hopping, over use of adjectives, character consistency.  Gradually it dawns on the writer that some of those problems might be in their novel too.  They start to listen to the more critical members of the group a bit more. 

7.  Approach to the Innermost Cave - Preparing for big change
They get some external feedback from a book doctor.  It suggests making various changes, most of which are obviously stupid. They re-read those rejection letters.  Perhaps their novel isn't as perfect as they thought...perhaps there was a reason why all those agents and publishers rejected it...They re-read the book doctor's feedback - it's still wrong, but they start to think about what 'wrong' means and what 'right' might look like.  

8. Ordeal/Crisis - Attempting big change
One evening the writer decides to lose 3 sub-plots, and half a dozen characters.  It's not what the book doctor suggested but it feels 'right', even though it means cutting 50% of the novel. They do it.

9. Reward - Consequences of the attempt
The writing is flowing better now, the writer feels in command of the story line and characters.  They ruthlessly cut anything that doesn't fit in with the overall story, however much they think it was brilliant writing.  90% has gone from the original version, but they don't care.  


10.  The Road Back - Rededication to change
The writer joins writing associations, goes to writing conferences and talks, reads everything they can about writing, learns about the submissions process, makes contacts.  They realise that publishing is a big business which has to be taken seriously.  They now see themselves as professional, and cringe at their early amateurish attitude. All the time they are rewriting the novel, polishing it, leaving nothing that needs fixing.  

11. Resurrection (Climax) - Final attempt at big change
The writer selects a short list of 6 agents to send the new ms out to.  They polish the covering letter and synopsis, tighten up every phrase in the first three chapters, then put the submissions package in the post and cross their fingers...

12. Return with the Elixir - Final mastery of the problem
Two days later they get a phone call.  'I've read your novel.  I'd like to represent you...'  They sign with an agent.  A publishing deal follows.  They see their novel in the bookshops.  They have become a published author.  Life - ordinary life - doesn't change much.  They make a living from their writing, but still live in the same house, still have the same routines.  But they've learned so much more than they did at the start of the quest, about publishing, about writing and about themselves.

(Based on a true story...)

Monday, 19 December 2011

P is for Perfection

Perhaps, somewhere out there is a perfect manuscript.  If you ever see it, do let me know because, as far as I'm concerned, there is NO SUCH THING.  Yes, there are books we love to bits and can read and re-read with as much pleasure every time, books that make vivid pictures and create characters we believe are real, but perfect?  No.  

Reading is so personal that there can never be a perfect book for all readers: what I love, you may think is so-so, and your friend may not bother to finish.  This may seem obvious as a reader - you probably have direct experience of reading a book that a friend has raved about and wondering why.  It might seem so obvious that you may be wondering why I'm bothering to write about perfection.  

The trouble with the idea of perfection is that it can be crippling to writers.  First, it makes it harder to begin writing.  The book in your head is so perfect, it can come as a shock to discover it doesn't turn up as perfectly formed on the page.  It can also be crippling to discover that, if you manage to get something written, not everybody else thinks it's as wonderful as you do.  

Perfectionism stops you getting work finished, because then you have to DO something with it - and risk it being rejected.  So much easier to say you're still working on your ms, getting it perfect...

Here's my cure for perfectionism:

1.  Join as many critique groups as possible and submit work.  The sooner you stop being fussed by feedback (good, bad or indifferent), the sooner you'll get over the perfectionism issue.

2.  Join a book group or ask some friends for their opinions on books you love.  Take on board that not all books please everyone.  

3.  Write for your own pleasure, and not for any other reason.  That way you can't fail - if you like it, that's all that's needed - other people liking your writing too is a bonus.  

4.  Join a writing class which does exercises.  Approach them in a playful spirit - it's only an exercise after all.  Some you'll get 'right', others won't work for you, but that's not the point.  

5.   Work out if your inner editor has a face and/or name.  A lot of writers are nervous around writing because of a negative experience with a parent or teacher in their childhood.  If that's you, develop a method of telling your inner editor to shut up and go away - quite a few people find that simply saying 'shut up' is enough.  

6.  I hereby give you permission to write rubbish.  In fact, I think it's compulsory.  Think of it as creating the raw material for the piece you're working on, like a sculptor kneading the clay and making the maquette for the final bronze sculpture or an artist making preliminary sketches.  If you're in any doubt along the way, tell yourself that it was good enough for Raphael and his cartoons: it's good enough for you.  

7.  Never go back until you've written The End.  This is nigh impossible for former teachers, especially English teachers, who have the impulse to mark all work with a red pen, including their own.  It must be resisted.  

8.  Remember that nothing good was created without the risk of failure or making a fool of yourself.  

Finally, remember that in many areas such as recording music and typography, perfection can be achieved because of computers and digital methods. But us humans aren't perfect, and we don't like the chilly coldness of perfection.  We prefer the warmth of fuzzy edges, and designers and musicians are now finding ways of putting imperfection back into perfection.  

Truth is, perfection is boring.  So throw caution to the wind and write your ms with all the imperfect heart you can muster.  It'll be so much better for it. 

Friday, 16 December 2011

O is for Ordinary

When writing it's important to establish what the ordinary world is for your characters before changing their lives and so developing the story. Without ordinary world, we don't know what's at stake. It could be a good situation - a happy family, for example - or it could be a bad situation - people living under an oppressive state system - or simply a rather, erm, ordinary one - ordinary life as most of us know it.

It doesn't matter what your setting is, past, present or future, write what your characters consider to be every day life. Set up a happy family, and we'll care when something happens that threatens is. Set up an oppressive state system, and we'll care when the main character challenges it. Set up an ordinary life, and we'll care when it becomes extraordinary.

A bit like Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi intoning about there being a disturbance in the force, stories shift from the status quo, have some disturbance before settling back into a new status quo (which may be only subtly different from the old status quo, but it will be different).

The instruction to start in the middle of the action is misleading. Yes, stuff needs to happen, but it only has meaning if we know a bit about the people it is happening to.

In retrospect, I should have started A Single to Rome with Natalie coming home with the takeaway, a happy young woman with a successful career and a settled relationship, thinking about moving in with Michael without any hint that he might not welcome her. That way I'd have a) established Natalie as an essentially happy person and b) what she was about to lose. Instead, by starting with Michael dropping his bombshell that he needs space, Natalie was seen from the beginning as a miserable person who, for all we knew, deserved to be dumped.

Hey ho, we live and learn. I won't be making that mistake again - and nor should you after reading this!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

N is for Names

Imagine a character called Doris. How old is she? What's her background? What clothes is she wearing? What are her shoes like? Where does she live?
Imagine a character called Bert. How old is he? What's his background? What clothes is he wearing? What are his shoes like? What is his relationship to Doris?

The chances are that you saw Doris and Bert as being elderly and not particularly well off (that's unless you live in Germany, where Doris is a much more up-market, younger name). They could be married to each other, or might be brother and sister. They live perhaps in council housing - they've certainly lived there for some time. Their clothes are conventional, sensible in colours like blue and grey. Doris might fancy wearing an orange scarf from time to time, but doesn't...

Names can be used as shorthand to signal things to the reader, such as age, class, nationality, education levels etc. You might want to play against that - a giant of a man known as Titch, for example - but you can go too far playing against type: if I read about this hairy hulking bloke called Rupert, I'd never be able to reconcile the conflicting images that are conjured up. My mind would snag on Rupert's name each time.

I'd also be wary of any name that was difficult to pronounce. I occasionally get to read student work featuring characters called things like Lan'Bxort. Again, my mind snags on that each time I read it. Another character whose name snags is Sir Leigh Teabing, chief baddie of The Da Vinci Code. Teabing? Who on earth is called Teabing? (It is, of course, an anagram of Baigent and Leigh, who wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail and sued Dan Brown for plagiarism.) It's not unusual to hear people say that they find Russian novels hard because characters are called so many different names, depending on who they are with.

Watch out for characters with similar names - Ron, Dan, Don etc - which potentially could confuse a reader. I have a particular propensity for this and have to be ruthless at checking having gone in for Pat and Patrick in the same draft, along with George, John, Jenny, June and Justine. Now, when I've finished a novel, I write out an alphabet and put down each character's name beside the appropriate letter, starting with the main characters and working my way through to the minor ones. This ensures that no two characters have similar names. It also means that minor characters get randomly assigned names that I don't remember - at an event this summer, someone asked me about a character called Crystal and I hadn't a clue who they meant.

For practical reasons, I'd also suggest avoiding long names (a bore to keep typing out - though useful if you're running short on the word count and have a character called Mary Jo Barlow Smythe) and names ending with S, because they can get tiresome when you have to add a possessive apostrophe, or pluralise them - the Davises stole Cerys's hat.

Some writers make the names a particular feature. JK Rowling does brilliant character names, such as Rita Skeeter for the dodgy journalist, Gilderoy Lockhart for the self-admiring teacher, Crabbe and Goyle for the schoolboy thugs. Scarlett O'Hara, from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, sounds both feisty and special from the start, in a way that Pansy O'Hara - her original name - would not have. And of course, Dickens was famous for his names, from Sir Leicester and Honoria Dedlock to Uriah Heep and Wackford Squeers.

But it depends on your writing, and your writing style which names you choose. In general, make them character appropriate and easy to write and say.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

M is for Moving

It's high praise when someone says a book moved them to tears. But what, exactly, is it that makes us cry? It isn't just a sad situation.

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, for example, is about people in a very sad situation, and yet it left me cold. I was furious at the father's fecklessness at drinking away any money he got instead of spending it on feeding and clothing his children, appalled at the pious self-righteousness of the Church, and irritated by the spinelessness of the mother.

You need four elements for people to feel moved.

1. A sense of the struggle.
If everything falls into your characters' laps, tiddley pom, without them having to make any effort for it, then I'm afraid most readers will switch off fast. A character who struggles and is then rewarded, however, we engage with. The bigger the struggle, the bigger the problems, the more we engage, and the more we feel moved when they finally achieve their goals. (BTW big, in this context, means something that matters to the character big time. It doesn't necessarily mean 'big' by any other standards.)

2. The darkest moment
The struggle will be highlighted if it looks as if the character is going to lose whatever it is they are fighting for. I'm not a fan of the Hero's Journey formula when it comes to being a useful tool for actually writing a novel, but it does remind us of important features such as the darkest hour, when the character hits rock bottom. Seeing them struggle out from the pit gives us readers hope that we too will be able to get out of our own darkest moments. That's why happy endings often have us crying away.

3. Character identification
Characters need to be like the readers in some ways. They need their good and bad points. If they live in places that are far from the reader's experience (the past, the future, another planet...) then their humanity mustn't be forgotten (even if they're actually aliens).

4. Specific characteristics
Certain things are guaranteed tear jerkers....

Triumph over disaster
Self sacrifice

Examples for me include A Tale of Two Cities, The Incredible Journey, Children on the Oregon Trail, I Am David, Lord of the Rings among many others. Films are too numerous to mention, but perhaps a less obvious one is An Officer and A Gentleman, in the bit when he gives up his chance of winning the top prize (self sacrifice) to enable his class mate to succeed (loyalty). And of course the end scene - endurance, love conquers all, triumph over disaster and virtue rewarded.

And the film that inspired me to write this blog, about the rescue of the Bonita by the RNLI 30 years ago. Astounding bravery, endurance, self-sacrifice and triumph over disaster - please watch.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

L is for Lycanthropy

Every other book that gets published seems to be about wolves. Or fairies, vampires, trolls, dragons, angels, ghosts... Sometimes I feel very dull for sticking to relationships between ordinary humans.

Relationship novels are also taking a hit, apparently, with sales dropping dramatically recently so sometimes I feel very stupid for sticking to writing about relationships.

Dull and stupid, yup, that's me.

If I was really clever I'd be writing about - well, obviously anything that I'm not writing about at the moment. There seems to be a flurry about the Holy Grail/Mary Magdalene/Freemasonry every ten years or so, so I'm sure that the fashion is about to come round again. Werewolves who are freemasons? That can only be killed with splinters from the True Cross piercing their heart? That sounds quite cool.

Truth is, I write about relationships because they interest me. I don't write about werewolves because they don't. If my genre goes out of fashion - and there's no special reason why my genre should be an exception - then I have to adapt to that and write to my other interests.

What I can't do, and shouldn't do, is write because I think something is currently fashionable. That would be daft. Firstly, my heart wouldn't be in it, so the writing wouldn't work. Faking it makes for awkward, poor quality writing.

Secondly, if I started to write a novel now, I wouldn't get it done for 6-12 months. Getting a deal in a new genre might take another 6 months. Then getting the book onto the shelves would be at least a year. Okay, if I went for e-publishing the lead times would drop, but there's still the time taken for me to write the novel and by that time the fashion would have moved on.

Thirdly, I believe that while fashions come and go, people will always want to read about other people. I think relationship novels will be around for ever, even though they may not be packaged by publishers as such. And if I plod away with my books, with luck I'll still be there when the fashion comes round again. L may be for Lycanthropy, but it's also for Longevity.

Monday, 12 December 2011

K is for Keeping the Faith

I heard a few weeks ago that a writer friend, Liz Harris, has had her novel accepted. I emailed my congratulations, and she wrote back, including this phrase:

"It's very strange what an acceptance can do. I've been writing for seven years, and the day before I heard from Choc Lit, it felt all of that seven years; the day after, it feels like only a day."

I'm thrilled for Liz, whose novel will be coming out in 2012. Also out in 2012 will be another writing friend's book, a memoir this time. I met her on my MA course back in 2001. She's waited ten years to get that deal.

To be an over-night success usually means years of toiling away at your craft or business. When I was acting, you knew that the very next casting might mean an instant change - it happened to me when one Monday I hadn't heard of Only Fools and Horses, by Tuesday I was auditioning for the role of Rodney's girlfriend, on Thursday I had the part, on Friday I was in wardrobe for a photo shoot, and the following Monday I was on set.

Writing's the same. One day you're unpublished, the next day someone has offered you a deal. Hooray! But when we hear of the success stories, we forget all those years that the writer has quietly kept the faith with their creativity, working at their craft, improving, learning to write better.

Keeping the faith is hard, especially as family, friends and work colleagues often don't understand. It's easier if you can be part of a community - I know Liz through the Romantic Novelists Association, which is very supportive and welcoming to new writers. Read books, join classes, subscribe to writing magazines - anything that keeps you connected to writing will help you keep the faith.

Friday, 9 December 2011

J is for Jargon

I'm a writer. I talk about things like POV all the time, I know what an ISBN is, and the difference between verso and recto. They're all bits of my writer-ish jargon. Most professions have their own language, complete with acronyms and the like. Put the right bits of jargon in the right character's mouth, and you've instantly added to their characterisation. Someone who tells you that they're outcome-driven is telling you a lot about themselves (or opening the kimono).

(I've always wanted to write a character who uses lots of business/office jargon and have a book called Ducks in a Row: An A- Z of Offlish by Carl Newbrook (Offlish being jargon for Office English) which yields all manner of goodies from Blue sky thinking to Running a flag up the pole. The nearest I've come to it was Marcus in Kissing Mr Wrong. It was a small moment of personal triumph to get 'athermal birefringent filters' into the text.)

The trouble with jargon is when it becomes incomprehensible to outsiders. I haven't a clue what 'athermal birefringent filters' are, but nor does viewpoint character Lu and it's not important to understanding the text. There's nothing more frustrating than being deep in a story and then getting dragged out by not understanding a particular word. Jactitation is a great word, but I don't imagine many people know what it means (restless tossing in illness, twitching or convulsion) let alone a jactitation of marriage (the pretence of being married to another). Every time the reader goes out of a story, you potentially lose them.

Foreign language is another form of jargon. All jargon potentially excludes readers, but using foreign words potentially alienates them. Your French/Greek/Latin/whatever may be fluent, but mine certainly isn't and I hate reading bits of foreign language in a novel which I don't understand. Providing a direct translation is convenient, but breaks the illusion that the novel is real life. Make the meaning of your foreign words clear from the context. These are from A Single to Rome.

'Buon appetito,' she murmured as she put a plate down in front of Natalie.

'Ciao, Natalie, come stai?' It was Teresa.
'Va bene,' Natalie said, pleased to have at least mastered the polite exchange of greetings in Italian, but then had to lapse into English.

Alternatively, have your characters translate for each other (and the reader).

'I used to be a lawyer,' Natalie said.
Bettina looked puzzled. 'Avvocato,' Claudio chipped in, handing out drinks.

Later on, I used the word avvocato without translation, hoping that it's stuck in the reader's mind.

Finally, don't forget that using jargon isn't rocket science.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

I is for Italics

There are several reasons why you might use italics....

1. To indicate a foreign word or phrase:

'I'm fed up with the lot of you. Basta!' Silvio said.

2. To indicate the title of a book or film:

'Have you read A Farewell to Arms?' Catherine asked Edward. 'I hear it's good.'

3. To show the intended stress:

'I thought it was you,' Tiffany shouted at Roland, indicating the car crash.

One to use rarely - it should be clear from the context where the stress should be.

4. To show a different form within the prose, eg a letter.

She took out her notebook and started to write.
Pool - bridge over? Or stepping stones? Rocks - check cleft. Pilgrim's Progress? Date? Reference? Seven steps down. Significant?
She sucked on her pen, trying to think what it reminded her of.

5. To show interior thought:

Everything desirable for men seemed related to size. Bigger car engine, bigger skyscraper, bigger boobs. She looked down at her own. Perhaps I should get a Wonderbra.

'Would you -' She caught her breath. Go on, say it. 'Would you like to come in? For coffee?'

BUT....both the above quotes were taken from the US edition of Nice Girls Do. Italics are liberally scattered throughout the book, none of which I put there, and none of which are present in the UK edition. I checked out a couple of the other foreign editions of NGD and didn't see much presence of italics. Different countries, different styles.

If you're working for a specific publisher they may provide you with a house style sheet to follow. If you're writing on spec, then read some books in the genre and try to get a feel for when/how much they use italics.

PS I was going to write about I for Imagination, but I couldn't think of anything to say.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

H is for Heartfelt

The thing is, every plot you can think of has already been done. There are various theories about the number of plots there are - depending on who you read there are 27, 12, 7 or 2. Shakespeare is credited with creating several of them, but given part of his genius was taking stories that were current and making them entirely his own, I'd take that with a pinch of salt.

So you can't write an original plot. You can't write original characters - someone else has already been there. Recognise any of these embarrassing things?

- A man whom one loves gets drunk and keep repeating himself.
- Parents, convinced that their ugly child is adorable, pet him and repeat the things he has said, imitating his voice.
- In the presence of a skilled musician, someone plays a zither just for his own pleasure and without tuning it.
- A man recites his own poems (not especially good ones) and tells one about the praise they have received.
- To have spoken about someone not knowing that he could overhear.

They're all taken from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, written over 1000 years ago in the court of the Heian dynasty in 10th century Japan. It's about as far away from us as it's possible to be, but we recognise it. There are no new characters, no new observations.

But. Yesterday I wrote: No one else can write a Sarah Duncan novel. What you can do that is new and fresh is write your take on the world. No one will have ever done that before. Write with authenticity and your writing will be unique. Write from the heart - it's the only way.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

G is for Generosity

One of my favourite quotes comes from Peggy Ramsay, legendary theatrical agent for - among many other playwrights - Joe Orton and Harold Pinter. She said,

"If you believe you have talent, be generous with it."

I like that quote. I believe I have talent, and I try to be generous with it. Instead of anally hanging on to work that's below par I believe that I not only can do better, I will do better. Cut cut cut. And then I re-write, and the re-write is always better. Being generous with your writing works.

I'm generous with myself, and don't beat myself up if I have a day when I'm not working. I allow time to recharge the batteries. I'd rather have a novel that took a long time but was as good as I could make it, than churning out one just because I knew it would be accepted for publication at something less than my personal standard. It has to be said that this isn't a good policy with publishers, who would like authors to produce novels to a regular schedule, but I believe that in the long term quality will win over quantity.

I also try to be generous with other writers. Quite a few people have expressed amazement that I give away the information in the blog for free. I accept that it may be total madness in this money grabbing world of ours, but there it is. And I try to be generous with helping others on the path to publication. The only time I've had a real fight with another writer was when one took me to task for helping more writers get published - increasing the competition, she called it. Grrr. How can it possibly increase my competition? No one else in the world can write a Sarah Duncan novel.

I don't believe I have limitless talent - if anything, I'm afraid that my talent is a small and rather weedy thing - but I do believe that it is there. So I try to be generous with it, to my writing, to myself, to others. After all, if it's good enough for Pinter, it's good enough for me.

Monday, 5 December 2011

F is for Funerals

A funeral appears to be a great way to start a novel. You gather all the main characters together at a time of emotional stress so confrontation and conflict are inherently likely. A death is the end of one life, but it's also the start of a new life for those who remain - what could be better for your novel than to explore the repercussions of loss? And then there's drama in the burning question of who inherits the money, and potential for discovering information about the one who has gone. Yes, on the surface, a funeral seems a great way to start.

But it isn't.

A funeral is by its nature a reactive scene. The action - the death - has happened off stage. And because we don't know any of the mourners, we don't really care about their reactions. The grieving widow, the bereft daughter, the relieved son, the grasping nephew...we don't know them so their reactions are a matter of indifference to us.

You can tell us what a great guy the deceased was or what a tyrant, and we're not that interested - they're dead, so we're not going to get to meet them further. Now, it may be that in your careful plan, the deceased IS going to play a major part, but I'm talking about the reader's experience. At the beginning they don't know that because they haven't yet read the rest of your story. They are reacting to what they're reading now without the benefit of being the writer with it all planned out.

Funerals are all about something that has gone. Even the future is framed by the past eg how will I manage without X? The reader wants a promise of what's going to happen in the rest of the novel. They don't want to hang around waiting for the story to start. If you're writing for film or television, you have a small window of opportunity while the viewer decides if they're going to carry on watching (no one walks out of the cinema in the first two minutes, so you've got up to ten minutes to hook them).

But it's different for books. The first thing the reader looks at before parting with their cash and time is the beginning, whether that's in the bookshop or as a downloaded sample. They won't buy if the opening doesn't grab them and funerals, as reactive, not active, scenes don't.

Plus, a lot of people read for entertainment and don't want to read about death and grief. Your novel actually may be a rip roaring romp, but the reader won't know that when they start reading, unless they've been given the book by a friend who gives a quick resume, or have read a lot of positive reviews saying that.

Other bad starts include having the main character waking up or staring at themselves in the mirror thinking about the night before (that's reactive - start with the night before, make it active), and characters setting off on journeys (you're going to have to explain why they go which makes it reactive, so start at the moment when they decide to go, which is active).

There are of course exceptions, and I'm probably going to be deluged with titles of good books that start with funerals. But I'm going to suggest that they work because the funeral itself isn't that important to the characters and the characters aren't reactive, they're active eg they're a gate-crasher or the detective investigating the death. So, Holly Martins turns up at Harry Lime's funeral in The Third Man, because he came to Vienna hoping Harry was going to give him a job. He has to be active, because the job isn't there and then things don't seem to be straight forward about Harry's death and - am I the only one humming the theme tune?

(Cue zither music....)

Friday, 2 December 2011

E is for Effective

There's no such thing as bad writing, or good writing for that matter. There is only effective writing. That's why feedback is so important. You may intend one effect, but you produce another. If you write something that you intend to be funny, and everyone thinks it's sad, then your writing isn't effective. If you read some porn and there's a stirring in your loins, then the writing is effective.

A writer such as Dan Brown is effective for people (and there are many of them) who want lots of action and aren't too bothered by characterisation or style. I like to get involved with characters, so I'm not keen on his work, but I can't deny that it's effective.

I think we can best produce effective writing by knowing what effect we're looking for. I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but not many people think about it when they start to write. Now, it's not helpful to be too self consciously striving for effects when you're writing, certainly not for the first draft.

But as part of the editing process you probably ought to spend at least a little time on thinking who your audience is going to be, what effect you want to have on them, and how you can achieve or heighten those effects. So, in my genre, while I hope people enjoy reading the plots and I hope they like the added layers of history, art knowledge or location that I usually put in, I know that most will be reading for the central relationship and how it develops. I need to make this relationship as effective as possible for the reader.

If I were writing historicals, I'd be focussing in on the period detail. If I were writing crime, I'd focus on the violence/repercussions of violence. If I were writing a detective story, I'd focus on the mystery element, and so on.

Having focussed in on my area, I'm looking for ways to heighten the reader response. For me that means putting believable obstacles in the way of my central relationship, and working through the characters' emotional responses in some detail. That would be quite out of place in a crime novel.

And finally, part of being effective is realising that you can't be everything to everyone. There are cross-over novels, but there are many, many more which are aimed at a single audience. Be as effective as possible within your kind of writing and you won't go far wrong.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

D is for Dialogue

There are 3 aspects of dialogue to consider: technicalities, what is said (and what isn't) and what surrounds the speaking ie the context.

1. Technicalities:
Dialogue attributions.
He said, she said are always preferable - we hardly notice them when we're reading. The other attributions that work are related to volume eg he whispered, she shouted. Ditch all the others - people can't smile speech, or giggle it, and it should be clear from the words spoken and the context whether someone is for example answering, or replying or asking etc. (This is contrary to what you're taught in primary school BTW.)

'Right now,' she said, 'using "she said" is preferable to "said she".' Too many "said she" in your text will give you an old fashioned feeling.
Another fashion is in the use of quotation marks. Current UK practice is single quotes for speech, with quotes within speech given a double quotation mark.

'It's got to be like this,' she said. 'Start with a quotation mark and a capital letter, finish with either a comma, full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark followed by a closing quotation mark.'
If it's a full stop, then there shouldn't be a "she said" afterwards, as you're starting a new sentence. You can, however, have a new sentence that is: She smiled.
If it's a comma, then you haven't yet finished the sentence. You need to put a 'she said' afterwards.
If it's a question mark or an exclamation mark then you can treat them as either a comma or a full stop - in other words, they don't need a 'she said' afterwards, but you can put one in.

A bit of speech from a new or different character always starts on a new paragraph. If it's the same character speaking then you can continue the same paragraph.

If in doubt, get a good book on grammar. I like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White for this sort of thing, but there are lots around.

2. What is said (or not)
Good dialogue can do things such as pass on information, but it should always be characterised for the speaker. I did an exercise in class a few weeks back where I took an extract from a book and cut it into speech and actions. The students knew nothing of the characters, beyond there being two of them. They had to put the dialogue into the right order and tell me about the characters. I was impressed that everyone managed to do this and get the characterisation right, just from a few lines. They also managed to guess the relationship between the characters. That's good writing.

What isn't said is as important as what is said. People rarely answer questions directly:

'Did you sleep with Jack?'
'Who said I did?' or 'Why would you think that?' or 'Don't be ridiculous' are all more likely answers than a straightforward Yes or No.

Well, do you think they slept with Jack? If so, you've been reading the subtext that says answering a question with a question or an accusation would imply a positive answer.

Try this one:

'How much did that dress cost?'

Which is/are the most likely answer(s), and fill in your own subtext...

'Oh this old thing, I've had it for years.'
'It was in the sale.'
'Isn't it great - I'm going to wear it to the Christmas party.'
'It was quite expensive, but I'm going to get lots of wear from it.'

3. What surrounds the speaking
I think the actions that surround the speaking are actually more important than the speech itself. Consider -

She threw the coffee cup across the room. 'I hate you,' she said.
She twined her fingers in his hair, and breathed softly into his ear. 'I hate you,' she said.

The actions tell us about the intonation and intention behind the words more clearly than the words themselves do, even with the addition of some adverbs.

'I hate you,' she said angrily.
'I hate you,' she said seductively.

Actions can also be used to provide thinking space, to allow the character a change in thought direction. 'Let's go into town,' she said. She looked around at the bodies slumped in front of the television set. 'You're all losers.'

So those are the basic areas to consider when writing dialogue. Listen to people in real life, hear your characters speak, and you won't go far wrong.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

C is for Craft

Mozart was a genius. His talent flowed without apparent effort. But Mozart had to learn his craft before he started composing. Same with writing, but the road to creative writing craft is less clear cut than learning scales and arpeggios.

Now, you don't have to have creative writing tuition or read shedloads of How To books to learn craft, and there are plenty of people out there who have successful writing careers without a single bit of formal teaching. What those people do is what writers have done over the past hundreds of years: read.

Most writers (all writers?) are fervent readers. Read, read, read and unconsciously you pick up a lot of craft techniques. There are other ways of learning craft techniques. Most writers (all writers?) are listeners and eavesdroppers. Most writers (all writers?) are curious about people and the world around them. Most writers (all writers?) are communicators - that's why so many have early careers in professions like acting, teaching, journalism.

For some writers, reading, listening, communicating etc is enough. For others, formally learning craft - whether from a book or a teacher - is a short cut. By craft I mean techniques such as:

Chapter ends and pacing, to control the reader experience.
Ways to heighten tension eg sentence/chapter length, action
Using action to enliven essentially passive description
Dialogue as a tool to convey character and characterisation
Language to add interest and colour to prose
Editing skills
Reading aloud to learn about rhythm and cadence
Knowing when to dramatise and when to summarise

Find yourself a teacher who can and will teach craft (not all creative writing teachers can or do). Failing that, read some books. My favourite book on craft technique is Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Flair, talent, the stuff that Mozart was made of is something else. You get born with that. But we can all learn craft and, while we may not all be Mozarts (I'm certainly not) we can all be damn fine writers.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

B is for Baggage

We've all got it, even if we think we don't.  Baggage is the mind set we carry around with us, also known as hang-ups.  Sometimes it's good - an innate confidence for example that makes us persist in the face of rejection.  Sometimes it's not as beneficial - an innate confidence that makes us reject any feedback from others.  

I think writers benefit from acknowledging their baggage and learning when it's useful and when it's detrimental and how to maximise the former and minimise the latter.  

My baggage:  
I tend to stick with what I know and have to push myself out of my comfort zone.  When I'm writing I have to stop myself from trotting out the same situations/locations.  Now I often leave out those details on the first draft so I can spend some time thinking up different set ups from my first reactions.  When I'm teaching I often get the students to come up with words, or situations rather than coming with them pre-supplied.  I'm always surprised at the range of what they suggest.  

I was brought up with the idea that pushing yourself forward was bad.  I don't like self-promotion, either doing it myself or hearing it from others.  I vaguely hope that by being as good as you can be, somehow the magic universe will notice you.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still a believer in self deprecation and not shoving oneself to the front, but I've also learned that the magic universe doesn't automatically notice you.  You HAVE to get your work (and often, yourself) out there.  If this doesn't come naturally to you, you need to find ways to get round it.  I like chatting, so Twitter suits me, especially as overt self-promotion will lose followers.  I don't like parties and schmoozing so I avoid those situations even though networking is good for careers.

Confidence, lack of.  And the flip side of this is being overly impressed (and then depressed) by other people's achievements.  Letting what other people achieve affect you is daft, but it's an easy trap to fall into.  When I was doing my MA there was one person who became obsessed by other students' marks.  It visibly corroded her belief in herself and her writing as she grumbled and complained about X getting a higher mark for their writing than she had done.  I could suffer from this...instead I mentally stick my fingers in my ears and sing La La La when someone has just got some mega deal or sold shedloads in Tesco.  It's irrational - just because X has succeeded doesn't mean I won't, so there's no reason to skulk back to my laptop thinking 'what's the point in carrying on?'  

This post could go on and on and on, but I'd better stop for fear of boring you - which of course is yet another bit of my baggage...

Monday, 28 November 2011

A is for Action

Action is everything for a writer, both in terms of their writing and in what they do.  Action in writing is simply the stuff that happens - it's not necessarily all singing, all exploding, car chases, fights and the like, it can be interior stuff such as realisations or changes in attitude, as well as external actions like going shopping or meeting a friend.  

The sort of action you find in a novel determines the type of novel it is.  Something by Anita Brookner, for example, has very different actions compared to a novel by Dan Brown, but both are full of actions.  

But action in itself doesn't make for interesting reading.  It has to be action with meaning, action that carries change with it.  When you're starting out writing it's often easy to forget this aspect of action.  Characters may be doing lots of things, but they can be staying in the same place, whether it's on a action filled journey that is just one event after another, never moving the story forwards, or a character hanging about thinking things over but never moving on.  

I think it's also one of the reasons people get stuck at about 30,000 words.  The initial burst of energy gets them quite a long way along, but then the action begins to dry up.  Characters and the writing get stuck.  The solution is to move the action along through change.  Raymond Chandler is supposed to have suggested having a dame enter holding a smoking gun, Terry Pratchett suggests a naked woman bursting in brandishing a flaming sword.  Not necessarily advice to be taken literally (especially if you're writing a contemporary rom com) but the point is to change the situation dramatically.

Action is also important in a writer's life.  If you don't DO stuff, then nothing will happen.  Doing means writing, then putting the writing out there (if being read by others is what you want).  Even if you're famous you've got to make some effort  (a celebrity once came to one of my novel writing classes, complete with an agent and a publisher, but was stuck at doing the writing - several years later, there's still no sign of a novel).  

Do it, without fretting too much about the end result.  Do it, get it done, and then fret - but do it first.  As Goethe said, 'Action has magic and power in it.'

Friday, 25 November 2011

Really, Really Wanting It

I find it worrying how many times you hear on reality talent programmes how the contestants really want it, it being whatever the prize is. They really, really want it. Really, really, really want it. You see this on X Factor and America's Next Top Model and - oh, anything that involves a judge deciding who to pick and who to drop. Sometimes the judge even says approvingly, 'A really wants it'.

I must admit my reaction is 'So what?' Sure, if A really wants to win, they'll perhaps work harder, spend more time on whatever it is they're trying to achieve, and that's good, but just wanting it? Is that supposed to out-weigh talent, and ability and skill?

I worry that 'wanting it' leads to a feeling of entitlement. 'This is what I want (and I really, really want it), therefore I should have it.' If you want to be a singer or a model then you're not going to get far without the support of people already working in the industry. Really wanting it, in real life, doesn't get you far unless you also have talent, ability, skill, persistence etc.

Until recently, that's been true for writing. You write a novel and yes, you've always been able to self-publish, but before e-publishing finances dictated small print runs and limited access to distribution networks. Now, e-publishing has taken those barriers away, and for good measure, Amazon and the rest will deal with all your invoicing and payments. All you have to do is the formatting, marketing and spending the money received.

I think e-publishing is great. I think it's creating opportunities for writers (although there are also some worrying signs that it could be financially disastrous long term).

But I do worry that feelings of entitlement might lead writers rushing in to self-publish before their books are ready on the grounds that they want publication now. Just because you feel ready, just because you want it really really badly, doesn't mean you are in fact ready for publication.

When I started writing fiction I had no idea of the amount of work that went into bringing a short story, let alone a novel, up to scratch. And I'd spent the previous ten years writing and editing non-fiction for my living. I was genuinely surprised that my short stories didn't automatically get short listed for every competition they went up for. Gradually I learned...

But I was still convinced that the first version of Adultery for Beginners was amazing, and was equally amazed that no one wanted it. No one even asked to read more. After a long period of sulking, I re-wrote and ended up cutting 90%. Yup, that's how good that first version was.

I've heard that feeling repeated by other authors. They look at their first writing (often because they're thinking of e-publishing earlier works which are now out of print) which at the time they thought was brilliant and shudder.

Self-publishing blogs you can read comments like: I'm going to e-publish when I'm finished because I don't want to go through the hassle of submitting, or I don't like people commenting on my work, or I can't be bothered with rewriting it. And the response is sometimes things like: good for you, and go for it, and conventional publishing is dead. Luckily there are also people who comment saying, are you sure it's ready? Because a writer may really, really want it, and think their book is ready, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

One of the great things about e-publishing is how easy it is to tell friends about a great book you read. It's also very easy to tell someone about a bad one. You and your book may be ready, but is the readership ready for your book? The question isn't about how much you really really want it. It's about how much the readership really, really want it.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pacing In A Novel

Learning how to pace your writing is an important skill, but the basics are simple: Sometimes go faster, and sometimes go slowly.

If you go fast, fast, fast, fast you begin to lose impact. It's like someone shouting all the time; after a while you switch off. If you go slow, slow, slow, slow, your readers will begin to drift off.
You need to go forwards in a mixture of fast and slow scenes, though not in such an obvious pattern as fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, slow which will become predictable. And as you get towards the end, the chances are that you'll have more fast scenes than slow ones.

So, what makes a scene fast? Usually lots of action and dialogue, and exciting things happening. A slow scene will more likely include a lot of internal thought and reflection on what's just happened.

If you're unsure, try listing your scenes on index cards. Then lay them out on the floor or a big table along an imaginary central line. Scenes above the line are fast (and the further above the line, the faster they are), scenes below the line are slow (and the further below the line, the slower they are). Ideally, your index cards should zig zag across the floor or table in a varied and unpredictable way.

This is an easy way to check your pace and see if there are any places where nothing much happens for a while (ie several cards together below the line) or if there are clumps of action and excitement (ie several cards together above the line). You can do it for each scene too, and it should show a similarly varied pattern.

And finally, you can check that all your best bits - the ones that you rate highest up the excitement scale - are spread out throughout the novel.

Everything needs to have light and shade and a change of pace to them. Think of a film like Die Hard. Yes, there are bangs and explosions and exciting stuff happening. But there are also sections where Bruce chats to the policeman in a reflective way, the calm before the next storm. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow or quick, quick, slow, quick, slow, quick - it doesn't matter what the order is so long as it is there.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Using An Egg Timer For Writing

When my children were small, every writing minute counted and I was quite ruthless about getting on with it when I had the opportunity. Now my time is less regimented by the school run, and I have a tendency to let the minutes and hours drift away.

It's been a couple of weeks now since I brushed the dust off my Swiss Army Egg Timer (not nearly as iconic as their penknife) and began to use it regularly. First and foremost, I use it to limit my on-line time. I can't say I've been particularly disciplined - I have a habit of setting it for 15 minutes, then when the time runs out, setting it for another 15 minutes - but the theory is sound, and I'm more aware about how much time I can spend on-line.

As well as using it to limit on-line time, and time spent on domestic chores, I've been using the egg timer for writing. I've been having concentrated bursts of just writing anything down connected with the book, such as ten minutes on what the main character is wearing right now or what her bedroom looks like. I may never use the information, but writing it down is triggering other ideas and thoughts, and I'm sure it will add to the depth of my descriptions. And hey, it's only ten minutes.

I've also been using the timer for my main writing. I find I have random pockets of time, perhaps half an hour before I have to go out. Before my egg timer I would faff around, perhaps doing something domestic or grabbing a cup of tea, or randomly looking at stuff on line. With my egg timer I now sit down and write, knowing that I'm against the clock. It's surprising how much you can get done in half an hour, and how those half hours add up.

It's the great cliche - I'd write a novel if I only had the time. Well, most of us do have the time if we limit all the other stuff. And I'm find my trusty Swiss Army Egg Timer a useful tool to help me do just that.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Workshoppers and Readers - Why You Need Both

I am a BIG fan of workshopping - giving and getting feedback is the quickest way to develop as a writer, in my opinion. But it shouldn't be used as the only method of working on a novel.

The problem is that workshops, by their nature, can only look at small pieces at a time - a chapter or maybe two would be the maximum. You can (and should) edit each section thoroughly but be careful of losing sight of the bigger picture. The question 'Does the story work?' can only be answered by looking at the novel as a whole, not in little sections.

So, you need to find some people who will be readers. It's a good idea if they can be different to your workshoppers so they can come to the story fresh. It's good if they're writers too, but they don't have to be, so long as they read your genre. That's essential. Ask them about the story, ask them about how the characters are coming across, ask them about pace. Don't ask them to do a line edit - leave that for your workshop group.

I know several people who have spent years workshopping their novels, when IMO they'd be better off sending it out to readers. I understand why people do this - no one wants to ask a friend (let alone a book doctor) to commit several hours of their time to reading your novel until it's as perfect as you can possibly make it - but at some point it has to be done.

The perfect pattern would be: workshop until the first draft is done. Then send it out to readers, to check the story as whole works. Then back to workshopping to refine the text. Repeat as required.

Think of your editing as beautiful embroidery on a dress. There's little point in doing the finest work if the fabric of the dress is poor, or the style is wrong. Getting that right is what a reader will help you to do, and the workshop will help with the embroidery.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Feedback is Personal And Shouldn't Be Taken Personally

We were doing some workshopping last Friday in class, and a discussion sprang up about a specific area in a piece of writing. What struck me was how personal to the feedback-giver some of the comments were - by which I mean, their comments on a piece of fiction were coloured by someone they knew personally in real life.

Other people had had a different experience, so their comments were different and so the discussion merrily rolled along. Of course everybody was right, even though their feedback was in conflict, because it was their personal take.

So, what is the poor writer to do? How are they supposed to react? Person X says one thing, Person Y says another, Person Z has a third take. There are several choices:

1. Ignore everyone because they're all saying different things. Fair enough, but it's not going to move you forwards.

2. Listen to everyone until your head aches through trying to reconcile all those different opinions. Not advised, you'll probably lose confidence in your own judgement, and even in your ability to write.

3. Decide whose opinion you most trust and go with what they say. Understandable, especially if you've found them to provide good feedback in the past. The drawback here is that this time they may be really commenting on how they find the person/situation in real life rather than your writing.

4. Listen to what the majority are saying and use that as your guideline. A good approach, if you can disentangle what the majority are saying.

5. Can you work out if there was a specific word that is triggering this feedback? This may sound strange, but I've done enough workshops to know that a single word can send readers into all sorts of directions that the writer never intended. For example, put a man in a vest* and as far as I'm concerned he's at least over 70. I will find it hard to shake that image off, however much dashing about the character might do.

6. Decide they're all idiots. You may be right! On the other hand, you may not be.

7. Did you have a particular reaction in mind when you wrote those lines? If so, are you getting those reactions? In other words, is your writing effective? Is it doing what you want it to do? If not, how can you change it to make it get the reactions you want?

Your reaction will depend on how you feel about your writing. That bit is personal to you. But you should always remember that feedback is coloured by the experiences, both in life and of writing, of the person giving the feedback. It is personal to them.

Feedback in my experience rarely says anything about you personally. I've only once come across someone saying something personal about the writing. It was on my MA, and someone wrote all over a piece of my work that I obviously had huge issues with my parents to deal with. Er, no - but I'm pretty sure the feedback giver had.

Sometimes, feedback says more about the giver than it does about either the writing or the writer. It's personal to them. Don't take it personally.

*apologies to American readers who think a vest is what we call a waistcoat. I think you'd call our vest a singlet. Bruce Willis wears one in Die Hard, so perhaps it's not just for the over 70s in the US.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Why Chapters Can Be Like Malteasers

A book has two potential actions attached to it: being read, and being written. Before we start writing we are readers (I hope - if you're trying to write a novel and you don't read, quick, quick, stop reading this blog and pick up the nearest novel in your genre).

So, our initial experience of books is as a reader, and as a reader we find chapters useful because they divide the text - which may well be over 100,000 words - into useful chunks. We need the text to be in useful chunks because it's rare one has the opportunity to read a book from cover to cover in one sitting. More usually we're reading until it's lights out time, or our bus stop approaches, or our name is called in the waiting room. Chunks make it easier to leave the text and start doing whatever it is we need to do next.

Chunks of text have other benefits for the reader. I heard on the radio recently a discussion about an author's books - I think it was Peter James, but I'm not sure - and one man was saying how much he enjoyed the books because the chapters were so short. It gave him a sense of achievement that he was reading so many chapters. The other man commented that when he knew the chapters were short he felt more like reading them, because he wouldn't get trapped. The first man agreed, but added that he often read more than he'd planned because of exactly that reason - because there was a let out clause, he would try the next chapter, get hooked, read on, try the next chapter, get hooked, read on etc.

Obviously to him, chapters were like Malteasers to me - only 16 calories each, so an allowable treat. Yeah, right - and whoever ate just ONE Malteaser? I can get through a whole packet in no time at all.

When we're writing we need to remember our experiences as readers. As writers we choose where to put our chapters with that in mind. One writer chooses lots of short chapters - they're probably only a scene long. My chapters are longer, perhaps containing several scenes, but I work hard at trying to create great chapter ends, ones that lure the reader into reading on.

I don't think it matters how you work your chapters. Just so long as you get the reader to eat the whole packet.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

3 Ways to Make a Depressed Character Interesting

A common story arc is to start a novel with a main character who is down in the dumps and to show their recovery from whatever it was that was depressing them in the first place. For example, a woman who's recovering from a bruising divorce will end up triumphant with a new life that was much better than the old one.

Triumph over disaster, hope springs eternal, never say die, the worm turns - they're all good themes to use for a novel. However, there is an inherent problem. A depressed main character can be, well, depressing to read. Once they're on the road to recovery their lives will be more fun to read about, but those beginning pages when it's established just how miserable/sad/downbeat their lives are can be miserable/sad/downbeat for the reader too. And that means the reader may never get to p 25 when it all picks up.

There are three solutions, and ideally you'd apply all at the same time.

One is to make the character self-aware. If your character lacks self confidence, then make them aware of that. Let them acknowledge how pathetic they're being, let us see them struggle to try to get out of the mire. If their well meaning friend suggests something, then don't have the character immediately stamp on the idea (it'll never work, I can't do that because...). Have them think about it in a positive way before being knocked back.

The second solution is for them to have some area of positivity in their lives. Yes, everything else in their life may have crumbled but their painting, garden, wood-working, whatever is still a source of pleasure and consolation. Make them skilled, knowledgeable or gifted in some way and show that there is some positivity in their life.

Thirdly, let them display positive qualities outside their depression. Just because the character's situation is sad, it doesn't exempt them from humanity. Actually the opposite applies - we may pay lip service about being nice to the sad and depressed, but not many of us actively go our of our way to spend time with them unless they are our nearest and dearest (and let's face it, we might well be staying with them out of duty rather than pleasure). So while the character may be sad, let them also be resourceful or ingenious. Let them be generous to others. Let them be loyal, brave and kind. Best of all, let them be funny...

Positive people planning with purpose is my motto, so while your character may be depressed work hard to make them depressed in positive way. Put bluntly, no one wants to read about someone who is moaning. So don't let them.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Writers Cheatsheet

Peter Halanz developed his Writers Cheatsheet when he was doing NaNoWriMo last year. He put everything he felt he needed to know onto one double sided sheet of A4. It's the distillation of things like The Hero's Journey, or Desmond Morris' 12 steps to intimacy, and is definitely worth downloading, especially as it's free.

My problem is that it's all very well reading lists such as Reaction Order (Cause, Emotional response, Action, Speech) but unless you understand them they remain just that: lists. You can follow the Seven Point System, and you might produce a novel, but it's still a system and novels are about so much more than systems.

Systems and lists are reductive. They make writing into a tick box process. But knowing that, for example, The healing/redemptive power of love, is one of the classic romantic plots won't make it any easier to write. Or, if it gets written, more satisfying to read.

Writing should be a creative process, not something that can be parcelled out in chunks like a time and motion study. I have a horrible feeling that sticking to a plan is a means of controlling the beast that is the novel, instead of letting it roam freely.

Part of the sheer joy of writing, in my opinion, is when one's subconscious pulls the proverbial rabbit from the hat and goes off-piste, or when suddenly a link occurs between two characters or situations, and the whole plot suddenly makes sense, like adding the right bit of the jigsaw puzzle.

Having said all that, I do think that using a ready-made structure such as 3 Act Structure can act as a useful security blanket when starting to write. Knowing the Male and Female Archetypes or the Six Virtues can give you a good place to start with character development. But as all children know, security blankets have to be ditched after a while.

So, use the Cheatsheet, and other systems to get you started. Just don't hang on to them for too long in case they stifle your creativity.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Competing in the Writing Olympics

Several of the Olympic teams are training at the university sports centre here in Bath. I've been going for my lunchtime swim and marvelling at the speed of the swimmers in lanes 5-8 compared to those in 1-4 (especially 1 - the slow lane, where I pootle up and down for 30 minutes). They swim fast!

Yesterday I asked the life guard exactly which team it was in training. 'It's the swimming club' she said.
'Not the Olympic team? Not the British team? Not the county team, not even the university team?' I said, clinging to my hopes that I was sharing the same chlorine as an elite athlete.
She smiled at my ignorance. 'The elite athletes come in at 5am for training, then again in the evening. They do about 4-5 hours a day in the pool, and then land-based training on top.'

Which explains in part why I'll never be much of a swimmer. 30 minutes is one thing, 4-5 hours is quite another, especially at 5 in the morning.

On the other hand, it perhaps explains why I'm a writer. Make that 4-5 hours a day of writing, and reading on top, and I'm definitely at the Olympic writing level of training. I suspect that if you want to compete on a serious level at anything - local politics, cake decoration, dog breeding - you have to consistently put the hours in.

But if it's your passion, then you don't mind the hours spent on it. You find the time. You squeeze every minute you can to write in. When not able to write, you think about writing. When relaxing, you read a book and part of you works out what the author has done and why. If you want to write at a consistent publishable level then you have to put those hours in. Simple as that.

And the great thing about writing is that it's available at all levels. Paddling up and down the pool a couple of times a week won't win me any races, but writing a little every now and then might well produce a story that will win a competition or get published in a magazine. And it will be fun and interesting along the way. Going to a weekly writing class or critique group or even taking an MA won't guarantee a publishing contract, but it's a first step along the way.

Write a little, write a lot - the Writing Olympics are open to every one. The only thing it won't do is help you lose weight and get fit but then, you can't have everything.

Monday, 14 November 2011

5 Reasons Why A Full MS Might Be Rejected

It's a question I've been asked a lot and it's a difficult one to answer. However I've been asking around agents and editors, and this is a summary of the answers given.

1. Structure...
Problems with the story line, or pace (usually too slow rather than too fast).

2. Good premise but...
It wasn't developed, or used familiar plots and situations.

3. The writing...
Unfocussed, language flat, nothing special about it.

4. Characters...
Caricatures rather than real people, didn't believe in them, inconsistent.

5. A good book but...
Didn't feel passionate about it, couldn't think where/how to sell it.

Agents and editors have to be passionate about the books they represent or they can't do their job - the agent to sell it to the editor, the editor to sell it to the sales and marketing team. An editor recently told me that she was being asked about each and every book she brought to the acquisition meetings: do you love it enough to stick your neck on the line for it? Lukewarm enthusiasm is not enough.

The problem is that one person's opinion may not coincide with another person's, leading to conflicting feedback. However, if you fix the first 4 points, you are probably also fixing the 5th.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Using Speech Tags To Change The Stress In Dialogue

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 a straightforward sentence. 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 hand 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.

That is a word that I use too much (That is a word I use too much is more succinct) but it does have its place from time to time...

"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. And the stress ends up with Nancy. Having said that, the original sentence - I believe Nancy is a good writer - doesn't need the addition of a that - I believe that Nancy is a good writer.

People tend not to speak in a monotone, so changing the stress is one way we can indicate the rhythm of their speech patterns. It's a good idea to say your characters' dialogue out loud so you can work out which words need to be stressed, and whether you need a break to indicate this. Mind you, anyone in earshot will think you're bonkers, but I reckon that's a small price to pay.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Are There Really Rules For Writing?

Yesterday it was announced that Cat's Ahoy by Peter Bently, illustrated by Jim Field, had won this year's Roald Dahl prize for a funny book written for under 6's. Good for them - it sounds wonderful fun.

But the reason I'm writing about it is that it's written in rhyme, and picture book writers are warned to never write in rhyme. So what's going on - how does a book that breaks the rules not only gets published but also wins prizes?

The reason new picture books writers are told not to write in rhyme is a practical one. Picture books are expensive to produce and publishers aim to recoup the costs by selling them abroad. A text in prose is easier to translate than one in rhyme so foreign publishers tend to avoid rhyming texts. Therefore, a rhyming text will be less likely to recoup costs than a prose text - in other words, it becomes a riskier proposition for the publisher.

I think every Rule about writing is more of a guideline, but because the Rules are based on practical considerations you are usually better off complying with them than not. Take book length. We can all point to texts that are longer or shorter than the Rules say they should be - JK Rowling being a case in point. But while there are exceptions to every rule, the new writer should be aware of the reasons behind the rules (such as paper costs, reader expectations etc) and know they will be part of of the decision to publish (or not).

To take one of my personal rules, I actively discourage students from writing flashback. This is simply because it is rarely well done and is often either confusing or boring - or both. I have no problems with flashback well done, but I don't see it often so it's simpler to say there's a rule and if students choose to break it, make sure they're doing it for good reasons and doing it well.

Will breaking the rules make you unpublishable? No, so long as your work is still readable. But given that most of the rules are common sense aimed at improving readability - too many characters called very similar names is obviously likely to confuse the reader, or double spaced work is easier to read - it seems advisable follow them when you can.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Not Squished Yet

A funny thing happened to me on Saturday morning. From about 8.30am the phone in Cornwall rang, and kept ringing with calls for me. The same morning I also picked up quite a lot of emails via my website address. And there were unexpected DMs on Twitter. When I got back to Bath and retrieved my mobile (which I'd accidentally left behind) I'd had a string of missed calls and texts.

All were wanting to know the same thing: are you OK?

Thank you everyone who knew I usually travel between Bath and Cornwall at the weekends and got in touch about the motorway crash last Friday evening. Yes, I was on the M5 that evening, it was very dark and foggy, and fireworks were going off, but I didn't see any smoke. I was ahead of the crash by a short time, and on the southbound, not the northbound, carriageway, so oblivious that anything had happened until the first call on Saturday.

But it has made me think about how transient life is, and how vulnerable we are. Carpe diem! Seize the day! If we don't do it now, then when? Goethe wrote: 'What ever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.'

It made me ask myself why I was pussy footing around with this current novel, which has been in the making for so long. And yes, I've got a lot of demands on my time, but not much of it is top priority and certainly not compared to getting this novel written.

On Saturday afternoon I had a twenty minute chunk of free time before we were supposed to be going out in the afternoon. The Saturday before I would have read the paper, but instead I decided to snatch even that little bit of writing time. The twenty minutes stretched to over an hour, and I got a decent amount of writing done. Yesterday I wrote more than I have done for ages, and I loved it.

I don't know why it takes a 34 car pile up to shake me into thinking about what I really want to do, but there it is: it has. I'm a writer. That's all there is to it.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tell No One...

If I'm teaching a How to Get Published or How to Write a Novel course I always start by discovering what genre people are writing in, so I know if I need to include any genre-specific info.  Most people say they're writing contemporary women's fiction, or sci fi, or thriller - whatever - and leave it at that, but there's always someone who launches into describing what happens in the story.  Arghh!  No!  Stop!

You should never ever ever tell someone the plot of your novel unless they're an agent or editor and have just asked.  (And even then it shouldn't be a blow by blow description but a pitch - but that's for another post.)  

Why the sweeping embargo?

A friend of mine confessed that after their partner left them, they kept telling people they met their story.  Strangers at the bus stop, friends at parties, family didn't matter who or where.  After a while they started to notice people's eyes glazing over, and a little bit later they realised they were boring themselves, let alone others.  They stopped having the need to tell their story (which was probably a good thing for them - and those around them).  

Story tellers want to communicate to others.  More than that, they need to communicate.  Until they've communicated their story, they can't rest.  But once they've told their story enough times, the desire goes.  As a writer, you are a story teller.  But the form of communication you're using is words on a page, not speech.  

Writing a novel takes a lot of time and dedication.  You're writing 80,000-100,000 words - that's a serious commitment. If you tell your story to people, you dissipate the desire to tell your story on the page.  Eventually you may even become bored with the story you were telling, at which point you will stop writing altogether.  

So keep it to yourself.  If friends and family ask, simply tell them you'd rather not say.  If they persist, you could always say that you're hoping they're going to buy a copy when it comes out, so you don't want them to know the plot before.  Remember - tell no one...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Don't Give Up, Keep On Going

A few years back I went to a reunion of my writing group. We'd all done the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa together, and eight of us had continued meeting and critiquing work. But one by one, four had dropped out. So there we were, four actively writing, four not.

Of the four actively writing, two are now published. I'm one of them and was lucky enough to get a publishing deal a year after graduating. The other one had to wait nearly ten years for her publishing deal, but she's got there in the end. The third in our group has had so many near misses - representation by top agent, discussions with editors - that I'm sure the deal will be there for her. The fourth has extremely limited time to write, but is now nearing completion.

All the four who weren't writing said they missed it. They wished they hadn't stopped. They expressed sadness that their creativity wasn't being expressed. One said that she'd been at her happiest when writing...

We often hear about people like me who get published relatively quickly, and forget that for most people it takes much longer than that. They say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, so why do we think writing a novel will be any different?

I wouldn't recommend plugging away if you really hated writing - that would be daft. But I think if you're still enjoying the process then don't be too impatient. Enjoy your writing, allow yourself time to develop your skills and above all, be happy.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Platforms Are For Trains, Not Writers

There's been lots of discussion about platforms recently on the forums that I follow. 'You MUST have a platform', many blogs announce. 'You MUST use Twitter, Facebook, MUST MUST have a website.'

I've read people saying that publishers check out how many followers an unpublished author has before they'll consider representation and therefore unpublished authors MUST have a media presence or they won't get published.

Hmm. Well, all I can say is Piffle.

There's no MUST about it. Yes, if you like doing these things, by all means go ahead and do them. I know of at least one person who credits getting her agent to her media platform (and that led to a publishing deal). I suspect the quality of her writing was more important.

Put simply, writing a good book is how you get published. No one is going to spend money on a rubbish book however many followers someone has. Having said that, if you have thousands of followers you must be able to write well and have interesting stuff to say, so it may look as though:
thousands of followers = the publishing deal,
but I think the equation actually looks like:
good writer and interesting ideas=thousands of followers=publishing deal.
And I think you can also write it:
good writer and interesting ideas=publishing deal.

Social media is a powerful tool to reach people, but many authors are unconvinced that it actually sells books, especially if you're conventionally published. I was told by my publisher about two years ago that I MUST go on Twitter, Facebook and start blogging. This blog, and my Twitter account (@sarahduncan1) were the result. Personally, I like Twitter, so I do that, and I like blogging (most of the time!) so do that too. Facebook I can't get the hang of (not helped by them changing the format often), and LinkedIn is just a step too far...

I think it's made a difference in the sense that I've been asked to give more talks and write more articles over the past two years than I had before, and it's probably sold a few more books. But what I know has sold most books has been getting shortlisted for prizes, getting good reviews, and getting selected for retailer special offers. All those come from the quality of the book (tho it has to be said that the cover plays a huge part in being selected for the special offers).

If you don't want to get involved in social media, don't. Every day people who haven't got media platforms or any followers sign publishing deals. Yes, it may make you more attractive to a publisher - especially an e-publisher - because publishers like authors who are good at marketing themselves. But at heart it's about the book. Always.

So, if your choice is writing a great book or building a media platform, then writing a great book wins every time.