Monday, 31 October 2011

Hints for Anyone Going in for NaNoWriMo

Tomorrow sees the start of NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.  The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel from scratch over the course of the next 30 days - that's 1666 words per day.  The aim is for quantity rather than quality. 

I think it's a good idea - if the pressure doesn't make you feel stressed, or a failure if you miss the targets.  Try to keep it as a fun thing, and not another chore.  

Here are my tips for keeping on writing:

1. Start with at least 3 major plot turns.  I did a class last week where everybody got 3 at random and had to outline a novel length plot.  Examples of the plot points were Someone reveals something, someone discovers something and someone succeeds at something.  Whatever it is, it has to mean a major change for the characters.  

2.  Use names well.  Jane is not as good as Mary Jane, which in turn isn't as good as Miss Mary Jane. Remember you're going for word count targets.  Ditto place names.  Kingston on Thames, anyone?

3. Don't waste any time looking up words in a dictionary or thesaurus.  The same goes for metaphors and similes.  Oh, and cliches are fine.  Use the first thing that comes into your head - it's about quantity, not quality.  

4. Description of what people are wearing can add a couple of hundred words easily.  Also describe locations in loving detail.

5.  Plot ninja is a new term for me, but it covers an event that acts like the literary equivalent of a ninja leaping out of a cupboard - the story spins into a new direction.  Get a store of plot ninjas before you start and write them out on cards.  Then, when you get stuck, pick one at random.  Examples might include: an unexpected letter turns up, the phone rings with an unwelcome message, someone turns up at the door, the electricity fails, the car breaks down.  When in doubt, introduce a new character (and a whole new set of clothes/personal habits/quirks to write about).

6.  Remember that dialogue can be as aimless as it often is in real life.  Long rambling conversations that go no where are just fine for NaNoWriMo.  

The overall idea is to release you from your inner editor and critic and just get writing.  At the end of the month you may have 50,000 words of tripe, but there will be some nuggets there - there may even be a story.  Use the month for having fun and giving it a go and seeing what happens.  And remember, whatever you write can always be re-written later on. 

Friday, 28 October 2011

Personal Habits and Writing

I used to smoke when I was in my teens, but gave up in my mid-20s and haven't puffed since.  So I don't think about characters smoking.  I've only once had a reference to smoking, when a character wishes they hadn't given up because now would be a really good time to have a cigarette.  

But I have written about diets and calories and all the paraphernalia about losing weight.  I made so many references in one book - I think it was A Single to Rome  - that my editor asked me if the main character had a weight problem as all she seemed to think about were calories.  

What can I say? I don't smoke and have a tendency to put on weight, and my writing reflects my preoccupations.  My characters are often stroking and touching things which reflects my own tactile habits, but rarely fuss about what they're wearing (unless it's a concern that they've got it wrong).  We had a discussion in class about using the five senses, and many of us (including me) said they had a poor sense of smell so rarely included that, whereas for others it was as important as the visuals. 

I do a certain amount of manipulation so my characters have habits and characteristics other than mine - more have had straight hair than curly, although I'm hazy about what using straighteners implies, so try to avoid too much hair description - but I'm sure my real concerns and preoccupations shine through.  When I read Caitlin Moran, and in particular her recent book How to be a Woman, I often feel like saying: not all women suffer from cystitis.  That's you, not me.

James Joyce once wrote that all fiction is autobiographical fantasy, and perhaps there's more autobiography in fiction than many of us would care to reveal.  But I think we just can't help ourselves. 

Thursday, 27 October 2011

What Does Explicit Sex Mean Anyway?

Think about real sex and fictional sex made me remember being taken to task by someone at a workshop I ran earlier in the year.  Someone had asked about writing sex scenes, and I'd done my usual no body parts, no instructions spiel.  At which point someone else perked up and said, 'But you write explicit sex.'

I was surprised, because I think I don't.  So I asked when had I written explicit sex.  He cited the beginning of Adultery for Beginners.  I frowned, because I don't think that's explicit at all.  In my opinion, there are no body parts, no instructions, the word sex (or any synonyms) isn't used at all.  I hope - as I hope for all my sex scenes - that if you know what's going on, you know what's going on.  If you don't know, you wouldn't be any the wiser.  

But maybe I'm wrong. With trepidation, I'm going to copy the beginning paragraph here, and see what you think...

Damn, Isabel thought, feeling a cooling trickle of stickiness on her inner thighs. Neil lay heavily on top of her, as if the effort had given him heart failure. The huffing and puffing seemed to have expelled all the air from him.  Perhaps he wasn’t breathing. His body, hairy, sweaty, still rumpled with sleep, swamped hers. She felt her arms and legs sticking out from under his body, flat as a gingerbread woman. The tissues were out of reach, supposing there were any left in the box. Damn, damn, damn, she thought. I only changed the sheets yesterday.

So, what's just happened, and what's happening now?  I think it's clear, but I also think that it is implicit rather than explicit - nothing is spelled out: if you've never been in Isabel's position I don't think you'd know what's going on. (In passing, I wonder how many men have, in real life, had the thought about sheets, compared to how many women.)

Implicit or explicit? Over to you...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Real Sex or Fictional Sex?

As I bid farewell to a friend the other day I cheerily said, 'I'm off to write a sex scene.'  Their response was, ' Will it be real sex or fictional sex?'  And I've been pondering the question ever since.  

My thoughts so far...

Real sex, if it's good, takes place in the present.  In other words, it's very hard to capture because while it's happening you're not referencing it to anything else past or future, or external to what is happening right here, right now.  So it's hard - if not impossible - to capture that and put it into words, whether you're trying to remember that wonderful night of passion while waiting at the bus stop, or recounting it to a friend, or putting it onto the page.  

The best you can hope for is for the reader to be so caught up in the experience they get a sense of what's going on.  But reading about sex is never going to be like having sex.  It can't be.  The most the author can hope for is to stimulate the same emotional and physical responses in the reader that they would experience if they were having sex.  

At which point the author has another problem.  What emotional or physical responses I personally experience may not be the same as those you experience.  What I like from sex may be quite different from what you like.  So if I write my real experiences of sex, you might be going mmmm or yuck or somewhere in the middle.  

So, I think you can't write real sex.  When I write about sex I'm deliberately vague as to what is actually going on.  No body parts!  No instructions!  What I'm hoping to write is something that makes the reader think back to good sex they've had, how it made them feel both emotionally and physically.  It's more like an impression, an outline for the reader to colour in by adding their own personal details. 

Now, some people might think that's a cop out, like photographing porn through a soft focus lens.  But I believe that, through having to do some of the work, the reader engages more readily and the fictional experience of sex can come closer to their own experience of real sex, without the distractions of the author's experience.  So I hope my fictional impression of sex recalls real sex in the reader's mind.  

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Be Careful of Your Default Settings

Last week I asked a friend to read my current work in progress (and it IS progressing, albeit slowly). She returned it and I waited for the feedback. She started with: "What's the pizza fetish about?"

I certainly hadn't been expecting that. What pizza fetish?

"Well," she said. "He goes for a pizza on p5, she's thinking about getting in pizza on p8, they're at a pizza restaurant on p10, her mates are heading off for a pizza on p17..."

Oops. My default setting when I think of food eaten outside the home is obviously pizza. Which is weird because I hardly ever have one, but it's obviously my default setting: when in doubt, let them eat pizza.

I think we all have our own personal collection of default settings, and it's a good idea to become aware of them. Character gestures - biting lips, running hands through hair, running fingers round the rim of wineglasses are all some of mine. Scene settings - my characters often settle down for tea in their kitchens, one of the dullest settings possible. Food - pizza, obviously, but also mushrooms and red wine because they're the two food stuffs I can't stand and I want to make it totally apparent that the characters aren't me. (If only it were that easy...)

One of my writing friends has a tendency to have her characters take long, long baths. Another has characters looking at their hands in minute detail as their fingers stroke things, or stuff nestles in their palms. I've seen short stories featuring Ron, Don and Ben, with the author blissfully unaware.

When the first draft is being written you're trying so hard to get the story down you grab at the first thing that comes into your mind. That's fine, but but you have to be prepared to go back and eradicate any sloppy gestures, settings or whatever you've given as a default position. So, expect no pizzas in my next book. It's going to be fish and chips all the way.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Depth Not Breadth

Recently I was looking at someone's short story and was struck by how many problems the main character had. Girlfriend problems, work problems, boss problems, family problems...he had the lot and they were cluttering up the main story which was nothing to do with girlfriend, work, boss and family. I asked why they'd chosen to give the character so much to deal with, and they answered that they'd wanted to make the character 3D by giving him lots of conflict in his life.

Well, yes. And no.

What was happening was problem overload, none of which was dealt with in any detail - it was a short story, there wasn't time - so it was coming across as a series of cliched situations. There was none of the specific detail that makes a character seem real. The writer had gone for breadth - lots of problems - but not depth, so the character appeared shallow.

I learned that lesson when I was writing Adultery for Beginners. I wanted people to feel sympathetic for my main character, Isabel, right from the start because she was going to have an affair (there was a clue in the title). So I needed her to have an excuse to stray from her husband, one that people would forgive her later actions. I knew they were going to be ex-pats; I'd been told that in Syria, there was abortion on demand, but you were also sterilised at the same time. That sounded like an interesting situation, so I gave her a backstory that involved her being pressurised by her husband to have an abortion because they'd already got two children.

But I couldn't really make it work. So I gave her a backstory that involved her having a baby out in Africa and it dying because the husband didn't take her concerns seriously. He was a civil engineer, so I tried to add into the scenario some issue around water shortages. That didn't work either. I tried a few other things, but all the time I was pushing ahead with the actual story.

By the time I got to the end of the first draft I ditched the backstories because I didn't need them. I knew the characters so much better - deeper - I didn't need to bolt on some invented scenarios. They were ordinary, flawed people in a long term marriage who were tempted to stray. That was all I needed.

Giving characters extraordinary problems doesn't make them interesting, nor does giving them interesting hair, strange deformities or quirky habits that seem inconsistent with what the characters do.

Get to know them well through their actions, and their deeper character will reveal themselves. Go for depth, not breadth.

Friday, 21 October 2011

World Creation

All writers go in for world creation, it comes with the territory. What is contained on the pages is fiction, the product of the writer's imagination. So we all create worlds - that's part of the fun of it. Even novels set in the reader's own time and place are fantasy recreations of the real world.

World creation is also one of the reasons we read. We want to know what life was like in, for example, C18th Paris, or Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. We want to imagine pretend worlds, such as that created by Tolkien - how many visitors to New Zealand are really hoping they're going to end up in The Shire?

We like world creation as readers, and it's part of the writer's job to re-create a world, whether imaginary or real.

What sometimes happens is that the writer gets carried away by their world. Every little thing, every tiny detail gets given the same loving focus as the main features. If writers are sensible they keep the marvellous details out of their main works, and publish them separately eg The Silmarrillion by Tolkien, or Quidditch through the Ages by JK Rowling. Tolkien and Rowling are both wonderful story tellers and they know that too much detail weighs the story down.

So fantasy novelists have to guard against adding just the right amount of detail - enough to create a fantasy world, not enough to get in the way of the story telling. Any novel which involves research has to watch out for this too - social history is fascinating, but will your description of the manufacture of manglewurzel cutters add anything to your story?

And even contemporary writers have to guard against the temptation to describe every little thing in detail - I once read part of someone's short story that spent two whole pages describing a bureau and its contents, none of which was really relevant to the story but had taken up about 500 words. That's a high percentage of a short story to spend on 'creating atmosphere.'

So if your short story or novel appears to be endless, try going through and marking with a highlighter pen essential bits of action. Then be ruthless and cut the rest.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Never Ending Stories

There are some people who don't finish stories because they run out of steam. Others don't finish because they have too much steam! Words flow out of them as freely as water gushing over Niagara Falls - on and on, words, words, thousands of words. They never finish stories because there always seems more to say. In a workshop they say things like, 'It's already 157,000 words, and I haven't yet got anywhere near the end.'

It's not a problem I personally have ever had, but I've come across it often enough to know it's a real issue for some people. Short stories never finish, novels start spreading into two, three, four book series. What I think happens is one of two things: the writer gets event happy or falls in love with their world.

First things first: what do I mean by 'event happy'?

Let's suppose I'm being chased by a couple of baddies. I run into a deserted house, they run after me. I run to the roof, and manage to jump across from one house to another. I've got away - hooray! Oh no, there are some more baddies, so I start running again, down the stairs and into the street. I think I've lost them but - oh no, some more baddies. Off I go again, run run run, into a church, baddies close behind. I hide in the crypt, they go away, then I come out and into the street, when - oops, the baddies spot me and off I go again...

OK, that's essentially ONE event - Sarah gets chased by various baddies. Nothing has changed for me except the location where I'm running. Because nothing changes, the scene stays the same. This is although there is lots of action, lots of events. Nothing changes, so the story doesn't actually move on.

You see the same effect in some action films, for example, Quantum of Solace, the last James Bond film I saw, which was one darn explosion or car chase after another, with little meaning behind any of it. The second Matrix film was another example - lots of CGI, but no real point to any of it.

I've seen it in (unpublished) historical novels where our main character sits through various tea drinking meetings and social soirees, perpetually commenting on what people are wearing, drinking, saying, without the story moving on at all. I saw it in 'The Shakespeare Secret' which, despite relentless activity, never moved the characters on at all. And it turns up a lot in fantasy novels - recently an acquaintance complained of having to critique a fantasy novel which was nudging the quarter of a million word mark, and yet had nothing to say.

The solution? Change! Make things change for the main character on some deep down emotional level. Give them a choice to make that has serious implications. And finally, decide what the point is of all these words. That should give you an idea of where the ending is. For example, if the theme is 'Love Conquers All,' then go out there and make it happen.

I'll talk about world creation tomorrow.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Slow, Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow?

Down on Porthmeor Beach in St Ives last weekend the surfers were struggling to catch the waves. They were small and irregular - the surf was elsewhere. When the surf is good the surfers paddle their boards way out into the bay and wait to catch a wave. The really good surfers ride the wave for a while then drop back off it just before it breaks, so they don't get either caught up in the surf or washed far onto the beach - it's a long struggle through the waves to get out to the point where you started from.

It's beautiful to watch the good surfers. They have a rhythm and fluidity in the way they ride the waves. Short stories can read like a series of waves coming into the shore, each wave starting small then building up into a crescendo. A good short story will have a series of those waves running throughout the narrative, each wave separated rather than crashing into each other all in one whoosh, then leaving the surfer stranded without impetus.

It can be summarised in one word: pace.

You need the slow build up, then the crescendo - a moment of drama or tension. Then another slow build up, then another moment of tension, and so on. Sometimes the crescendos might be close together, sometimes further apart - you don't want the rhythm to be too regular or it'll become predictable. But that's the basic principle: slow build up; moment of drama; slow build up; moment of drama etc. Or, slow, slow, quick! quick! slow.

But - and this is where it gets complicated - you want the drama to be part of the slow bit. Imagine your character is going to open a box that may (or may not) contain a poisonous snake. They would slowly approach the box. They might listen for hissing. They might try the weight of the box. They might put on gloves. They might slide their hands over the box. They might imagine what will happen when they open the box and the snake flies out...

All this is slowly building up to the moment of drama when - quick! quick! the lid of the box flips open and the character sees: nothing. Tension drops, and we're back to slow, slow again.

What it isn't is slow, slow as we hear about the character's bus ride into town and how rude the conductor was to them because they didn't have the right change, and then they trod in a puddle on the way to the office, and the receptionist blathered on about what they'd done that weekend, and then they got to their office, scanned the threatening letter attached to the box and quickly flipped open the lid to discover a king cobra. Which bit them.

For the surfers, choosing the wave to ride is part of the skill. Choosing where to go slow and where to go fast is part of the skill of being a writer.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Two Projects at One Time?

When I was in my teens and early twenties there always seemed to be several New Year's Eve parties going on. You'd start the evening at one party, but it was hard to enjoy yourself when you had the sneaking suspicion that the other party was the really cool one. So after a while you'd hop on a bus and head off to the other party.

I celebrated quite a few New Year's Eves sitting on the number 22. And then, when I finally got to the right place, it would be just the same as the party I'd left - except I'd missed all the fun at midnight.

Over time I learned that it's better to commit yourself to one party and stay there, regardless of what you think might be happening elsewhere. For me it's the same with writing projects. It's better to stick with the one you've got, regardless of how enticing another project might seem to be, because it's better to be singing Auld Lang's Syne at a party than stuck on the bus while the rest of the world celebrates.

That first draft you're working on doesn't have to be well written, it doesn't even have to be competently written, it just has to be written, and written until you get to The End. That might mean some bits are pretty sketchy - they might only be in note form - but at least you've got there. And once you've got a first draft, you can always make it better.

There are of course some writers who can keep several projects on the go at the same time. There are also some people who win the Lottery every week. I think most of us know we're not going to win the Lottery, and I think you probably already know if you're the sort of person who can handle multiple projects and see them all through to completion.

I know I can't. I have to accept my limitations, and stick with the party I chose in the first place. I have to commit or I'll end up with lots of projects started and nothing being finished. And the sad truth is, an unfinished piece of writing is no good to anyone.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Totally Lacking Inspiration

Which is my current state regarding this blog.  When I do talks and people ask 'how do you manage to blog every day?' I always say, 'I don't know; I'm waiting for inspiration to dry up, but it hasn't so far.'  Well, today it has.  

So instead of coming up with some cunning technique about writing craft, or a bit of cheer-leading for the writing process, here I am, tapping away and wondering where on earth I can go next.  I often write like this, particularly when I'm starting a novel.  Off I trot into the blue, fingers moving while my brain is chattering: this is a daft way of making a living.  

And what happens is that, although inspiration may be lacking, somehow the words turn up.  Pages are filled.  Characters do things.  They start interacting.  They begin to be interesting.  Gradually the story draws me in and before I know it, I've written a few thousand words.  And then the next day I do it all over again.

There is a magic in just writing.  You trust that somehow it WILL happen, and off you go.  I see it often in my writing class.  People who have braved my wrath to tell me that they haven't written anything at all that week are told to write.  They bite their pens then, hesitating, start to write.  Then their heads go down and the pens scratch away, and suddenly I'm saying 'ten minutes are up,' and still they write on.  I quite often have to get firm and stop the class, and reluctantly they put down their pens.  

So next time you're not feeling like writing, next time you haven't got any inspiration, next time your pen/keyboard feels as if it's stuck in mud, just get going.  You may find that, through the magic of writing, you've ended up by writing something.  Something, perhaps, like this blog post....

Friday, 14 October 2011

Hooray for Libraries!

Last night I was speaking at the new Patchway Library. Yes, you read that right - in an age when we hear of libraries being closed left right and centre, it's a NEW library. Hooray!

And hooray for all the librarians who run libraries, and look after the books, and the book lovers and the reading groups and everyone else, even the people who've wandered in by accident.

And hooray for all the books in all the libraries. It makes me furious when people speak of libraries as if they were luxuries. They are escape routes. Escape from lives that are boring or predictable, escape from lives that are limited and conventional, escape from lives that - for whatever reason - lack alternatives.

I escaped to other worlds where I could be someone other than a fat, bookish child. Every Saturday I pedalled to the library on the bike my father had fished out of a ditch. I had a basket on the front, and I filled that with library books every week - I had my own, children's card, and both my parents' adult cards - so I was entitled to 24 books to devour at a time.

I read and read and read. Anything, everything. My favourite children's books were about a ballerina called Drina, my favourite adult books were Westerns - I was so disappointed when I saw the film Destry Rides Again: my first experience of how the adaptation doesn't live up to the beloved book and fantasy (Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny - just the name was impossibly exotic, and you got to take something out from the Z shelf.)

Reading is the breathing in, and writing is the breathing out. If I hadn't read so much as a child, I wouldn't be a writer (this seems to be true for many - all? - writers). Without libraries I wouldn't be a writer, and you wouldn't be reading this.

So hooray for libraries, especially the lovely new one at Patchway and hooray for librarians, especially Emma and Carol who invited me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Bumping Off Your Main Characters

Over the summer I read two novels in which one of the main characters is killed off near the end. The first novel didn't signal this sudden death and it came as a surprise - a real 'I didn't see that coming' moment. The second novel told us almost from the start that one of the characters wasn't going to see old age. (I'm not going to say which novels, as they're both current.)

With the first novel it's easy to see why a writer would choose to kill off a character - it's an unexpected twist. The drawback is that, because the death comes close to the end, after the character is killed off, the book loses impetus and fades out a bit. This is because the unexpected death doesn't tie in with any particular theme - except possibly the randomness of life (and death). The writer in me suspected that the author used the death as a convenient plot 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, and the reader in me resented that.

However, I think bumping off a main character unexpectedly can work - if you get the timing right. Do it early enough in the book, and the reader realises that this book could go anywhere - Absolute Power by David Baldacci is a great, page turning example of this. (And in Executive Action, a daft film where Steven Seagal - known super hero - dies right at the beginning, leaving saving the universe down to Kurt Russell.)

With the second novel, I'm assuming the writer wanted to add tension to the story - yes, this character is going to die young, but when? how? The drawback for me was that, I disengaged with the character at that point. Put crudely, if she was going to snuff it, why spend much of my attention on her? And in plot terms, knowing beforehand actually reduced the mystery of the plot as it explained why and how two apparently loose ends were going to be tied up.

But it can be done well. At the very beginning of The Secret History by Donna Tartt we learn that one of the friends has been murdered by one of the other friends - but we don't know which one. The novel unfolds with this big question throbbing away underneath it: who dunnit? why? At the very, very end we discover the answer.

I've not killed off any of my main characters - so far. But when I teach I'm always talking about change being the engine for moving a story forward. The absolute removal of a character is about as complete a change as you can have and one which can, unless you're careful, stop the story completely. One to be handled with care...

PS If you want to know which novels I am referring to, email me and I will Reveal All.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

We're All On The Same Road

Term has started, and I've got quite a few new students to add to my regular attendees. Some have written lots, a couple haven't started writing anything yet, but at whatever stage, joining an established class can be daunting - possibly intimidating.

I know that when I first went to a writing class I was awestruck by the standard of the writing and felt very out of place, given my inexperience. But writing isn't a competition with other people. The only competition is with yourself: trying to be better each time.

I think that being a writer is like starting a journey. We're all on the same road together - you, me, everyone. Some of us are a bit further ahead than others. Some of us are travelling fast, others are going at a more leisurely pace. Sometimes people have a great patch and start zooming ahead, overtaking like mad, only to slow down and be overtaken in turn. Sometimes you can hit a patch when you think you've gone into reverse...

But whatever your speed, regardless of whether you're driving in fits and starts or going a steady pace, you are on exactly the same road as all the other writers. And like all the other writers, there isn't actually a final destination. The road goes on and on, and the writers carry on, hoping to improve their skills, their ability to communicate. The road only stops when you stop writing.

So, whoever you are, and what ever your level, don't compare yourself to other writers. We're all on the same road. All you have to do is enjoy the journey.

Anyone in Bristol/S. Glos area? I'm speaking at Patchway Library on Thursday 13th at 7.00 - Details here!

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Managing an Info Dump

There are times when you simply have to give the reader a wodge of information, also known as exposition, also known as an Info Dump. How best to go about it?

The obvious response is to include it within the dialogue - A asks B questions, B answers, giving A - and the reader - the necessary information. There can be several problems with this approach:

1. The amount of information needed means the exchange has to go on for pages - remember that dialogue plays out in roughly the same amount of time on the page as it would in real life.

2. A can look like an idiot as they keep having to give little prompts: Go on, what happened next, and then? It's like those interviews on TV where you keep cutting to shots of the interviewer nodding away (these are even called 'noddies' in the business).

3. If A is also likely to know the information they look even more like an idiot. You sometimes see it on programmes like Time Team when one of the experts interviews another expert: So, when did the Romans leave Britain? Around the UK you can hear people shouting at the TV saying, You KNOW that.

So what to do instead?

1. Be up front.
Have A asked the initial question, then allow B to give all the information needed in a big chunk. Yes, people don't usually give long monologues in conversation, but there are occasions when people shut up and listen and it's often better than chopping the info into speech sized pieces.

2. Use summary.
'So, did the Romans use concrete?' A asked.
'They were masters at making concrete,' B said with a smile before launching into a long monologue about how Roman concrete was stronger than any concrete used until the end of the C20th, how they used special materials from volcanic regions to make the strongest concrete, and how the formulae had only recently been uncovered.

3. If your viewpoint character knows the information, then put some of it into their thoughts rather than in dialogue.
'So, did the Romans use concrete?' A asked.
'They were masters at making concrete,' B said, wondering if A was genuinely interested, or only being polite. Roman concrete was stronger than any concrete used until the end of the C20th because they used special materials from volcanic regions to make the strongest concrete. But would A be interested in all that? Or even some of it? 'They've only recently discovered the formulae the Romans used,' B said, watching A to gauge their reaction.

If you've decided against hiding the info dump in dialogue, there are alternatives:

1. You could have A read a newspaper/magazine article which contains the information. This would mean you'd have to write it through A's eyes.

2. You could print the newspaper/magazine article in its entirety. Then the reader decides what they make of it - you often see this when A is stupider than B, so B then has to explain the significance.

3. You could use the authorial voice to give the information. If you take this option, then make sure the authorial voice is nuanced just as you would a character's voice. John Irvine is a good example of a writer using the authorial voice to give information. Dan Brown is not.

I think I've used most of these techniques in my time - just remember that the reader needs to be entertained as well as informed.

Anyone in Bristol/S. Glos? I'm speaking at Patchway Library on Thursday 13th at 7.00 - Details here!

Monday, 10 October 2011

How Does The Money Work

OMG! You've got a deal with a Bix Six publisher! It's a one-book deal for £20,000 - break open the champagne and book the holiday of your dreams.


Sadly, while you should definitely break open the champagne, hold back with the big spending. A publishing deal doesn't mean you getting the money in one wodge, it's a staggered payment. Plus, your agent is going to be taking a cut from it, 10% or more usually nowadays, 15%. That's £2000 - £3000 gone immediately. You're now playing with £17,000.

This is likely to come in several stages:

1: Signature of contract
2: Acceptance of manuscript
3: Publication of hardback
4: Publication of paperback

There are variations on the stages: if your manuscript is already completed, Stage 1 & 2 are combined so there are only 3 stages; if it's only coming out in hardback or paperback, then again that's down to 3 stages.

So if it's 4 stages, that's £4250 per stage, 3 stages is £6333. Nice money, but it doesn't have the same woo-hoo qualities as £20,000. Especially when it may be spread out over a couple of years.

I signed my deal in October 2002, when I got Stage 1. I had to wait until January 2004 for Stage 2 for hardback publication, and May 2004 for Stage 3. In other words, the money was spread out over 20 months.

Let's suppose you've signed a £40,000, 2 book deal. Woo-hoo! Book A is finished, Book B is just a synopsis. It's October 2011, they've decided the perfect time for your book to be published is April. It takes about a year for a publisher to produce a book so that's not going to be April 2012, but 2013. That means that Book B is scheduled for April 2014. Because Book A is finished, it's on a 3 stage payment. Book B is but a couple of pixels on your laptop, so it's on a 4 stage payment. Here goes...

October 2011: Stage 1 (of 3) signature/delivery Book A = £6333, Stage 1 (of 4) signature Book B = £4250
November 2011: Nothing
December 2011: Nothing
January 2012: Nothing
February 2012: Nothing
March 2012: Nothing
April 2012: Nothing
May 2012: Nothing
June 2012: Nothing
July 2012: Nothing
August 2012: Nothing
September 2012: Nothing
October 2012: Nothing
November 2012: Nothing
December 2012: Stage 2 (of 3) hardback Book A = £6333
January 2013: Nothing
February 2013: Nothing
March 2012: Nothing
April 2013: Stage 3 (of 3) paperback Book A = £6333
May 2013: Nothing
June 2013: Stage 2 (of 4) Delivery of ms for Book B = £4250
July 2013: Nothing
August 2013: Nothing
September 2013: Nothing
October 2013: Nothing
November 2013: Nothing
December 2013: Stage 3 (of 4) hardback Book B = £4250
January 2014: Nothing
February 2014: Nothing
March 2014: Nothing
April 2014: Stage 4 (of 4) paperback Book B = £4250

Hopefully at some point in 2013 you're signing a deal for Book C and Book D, so more money will pitch up then. And other rights sales may help out, as will royalty payments if you get them, and PLR from the libraries. But I hope you can see why people say "Don't give up the day job" when you sign your first deal.

Friday, 7 October 2011

How Much Money Might I Get?

I was part of an industry panel recently and at the Q&A bit someone asked how much they might get if they sold their novel. There was lots of umming and ahhing, and the concensus was 'it depends' and 'how long is a piece of string'.

This is true - you might get offered anything from a few hundred pounds to a few hundred thousand pounds. But I thought it might be worth putting down some sweeping generalisations about money.

When my first book was about to be sent out to publishers back in 2002, my agent told me that she wouldn't accept less than £10,000 for commercial fiction, and £2000 for literary. Those figures reflect roughly the minimum expected sales figures for a first novel from an unknown writer published by a Big Six publisher (that's the major companies like Random House and Hachette).

At that time, however, there was quite a bit of money around so hearing about deals for new writers at around £25,000 - 30,000 per book (literary or commercial) wasn't unusual. I'm not hearing that for new authors now - half that seems common. Very occasionally there'd be a mega deal for a first time writer, up into 6 figures. Rare then, rarer now (although it does happen).

Outside the Big Six publishers, expected minimum sales are lower, and the advances also lower. There are several established publishing companies that routinely offer advances of around £500 per book. It's not a way to get rich quick!

The level of the advance will determine the level of marketing spend the company means to give your book. A high 5 or 6 figure deal means a serious marketing spend, including advertising, special deals at supermarkets. My first book went out to reviewers in a red foil padded envelope and included all sorts of freebies the highlight of which was a specially printed pair of knickers (this is TRUE!) and there was also a deal with La Senza and WH Smiths.

This level of spend guarantees good sales. However, even good sales can be disappointing if a lot of money has been spent both on buying and marketing a book. I've met several authors who were dropped after getting great deals because their sales didn't live up to the money spent.

At the other end of the scale, traditionally low advances meant no marketing spend. However, this may well not be true for some of the new independent publishers who make up for the low money up front by having imaginative and enthusiastic marketing campaigns. If my choice was between a new publisher or an established (but not Big Six) publisher, I'd very much be looking at the marketing plan, rather then the money offered up front.

After all, an advance is an advance against royalties. If the book sells well, you 'earn out' your advance and receive more money. A small advance means you'll earn out quickly, and get more money.

Then there are other rights. These include foreign rights - you'll get some money from every country your agent sells your book to: small countries mean small cheques, bigger countries bigger cheques - large print rights, audio rights, serialisation rights. (It used to be that hardback rights and paperback rights were sold seperately, but now most publishing deals are for both together.)

So, in answer to how much money you might get, it depends, how long is a piece of string, a few hundred to a few hundred thousand. But, like winning the lottery, you're more likely to get a tenner than millions.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Setting Writing Goals

I'm a sucker for management speak, I am.  So when I first heard about making targets SMART I loved it.  SMART stands for:

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-framed.  

So, instead of saying, I want to write a novel, you say: I want to write 2000 words a day of my novel so I have a first draft by Christmas.  

(BTW If you started this particular SMART target today, you'd actually end up with 140,000 words in your Christmas stocking. Now, that is an encouraging/scary thought.)

However, it's important to remember that some goals are not under your control.  I will never be a super-model, how ever hard I might want to be, because I'm simply too short and the wrong build, and no amount of wishing or hard work will make me taller or a slimmer-build.  

So when you set your goals, as well as making them SMART, make them under your control:

- Getting a publishing deal or agent isn't under your control, but sending out 6 submission packages every month is.  
- Writing 2000 words while your toddler is having a day time nap is, sadly, not under your control, but organising a baby sitter is.  
- Getting 1000 followers on your blog isn't under your control, writing good blog posts and commenting on other people's blogs is.  

Having goals that are out of your control is depressing.  Make sure achieving your goals is essentially up to you.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Is A Writer's Notebook Essential?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer must carry a notebook around with them at all times, preferably a Moleskine notebook as used by Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin.  

Um, no.  At least, not this writer. I have tried carrying around a notebook, and it's jolly useful for jotting down a shopping list.  I've also added brilliant ideas for books and articles, and amazing titles.  I've dutifully written down hilarious snatches of overheard conversation.  And then either I lose the notebook or I forget about it.  

If I do find it, I discover that the snatches of conversation make no sense out of context, or simply aren't funny.  The brilliant titles aren't that brilliant, and nor are the articles and book ideas.  

For me, carting a notebook around is adding yet another bit of stuff to my handbag.  That's not to say you shouldn't do it, because if it works for you then yippee and hooray.  But it doesn't work for me.  

All writing advice should be taken with a hefty dollop of salt.  Try everything, but don't feel you have to stick with it if it doesn't work for you.  Some of us need detailed plots before starting, others write into the blue.  Some of us need silence, others want noise when they write.  Some of us write thousands of words a day, others struggle to complete a few hundred.  

Who cares how you got there and what tools you used?  There isn't a 'right' way to write, there is only your way. All that matters is you get there in the end, notebook or not.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The 80:20 Rule and How To Make It Work For You

I was having a cup of tea with fabulous children's author Liz Kessler (I mean, she's fab, tho I suspect her readership is pretty fab too).  She was saying how she starts working at 8am, and goes straight through to 3pm.  Pretty impressive stuff.  Then she said that all the stuff she was busy doing was promotional work, such as answering fan mail, organising appearences at lit fests, speaking at schools, Twitter etc.  By 3 in the afternoon she was exhausted because she'd been working non-stop - but somehow she hadn't done a smidgeon of actual writing.  

Oh, how I agreed with her (while feeling faint at the thought about starting at 8 and going on to 3 - I mean, how could I possibly miss Bargain Hunt?).  I can cheerfully spend my working day doing the following:

Sorting out my blog - posting and comments
Reading other people's blogs
Commenting on other people's blogs
Reading articles on books/publishing
Facebook (tho I'm not very good at it)
Email - fan stuff, OFAH stuff, agenty, editory, publicisty stuff, organising meetings etc
Reading other people's novels
Reading other people's writing
Plotting and planning my brilliant career (Ha ha)
Writing articles for magazines
Writing short stories for magazines

All of it is relevant and essential to being a writer, and while I'm doing it I'm patting myself on the back that I'm busy at work, but none of it actually contributes a single word to my main project: the new book.  

Round about this time of year there's usually a helpful article in the paper about how women wear about 20% of their wardrobe all the time, and the remaining 80% never.  The article then goes on to advise decluttering and sorting clothes into keep, store, charity and chuck.  

I think it's all too easy for us writers to spend 80% of our time on all the peripheral stuff, and about 20% on the actual writing.  I made a conscious decision last Spring to declutter my working day.  My equivalent of keep, store, charity and chuck went like this: 

No Twitter until lunch time
No Twitter in the evening
Don't read all those articles about the death of publishing
Don't read everything about epublishing
Make notes about blog posts at the weekend so they're ready to roll when it's time
Post on the blog Monday-Friday rather than every day of the week
Make notes on future projects but don't actually DO anything unless the word target for the day has been reached
Set a timer for reading other people's blog posts - max of 30 minutes a day
Stop being neurotic about answering every email the second I get it
Minimise Facebook and don't get sucked into LinkedIn

Now mornings are for writing, and everything else has been shunted to the afternoon or evening.  I still haven't got an 80:20 split in writing's favour, but it's getting better - more like 50:50.  And has the world come to an end?  Nope.  

Any other good tips for getting the balance round in writing's favour?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Does Your Age Matter?

Someone who came to one of my recent talks said that they'd been told not to bother - they were too old to get either an agent or a publisher.  They wanted to know if I thought this was right.  My immediate reaction was No!

Firstly, several people who I know are OAPs have come to my classes and have received book deals from mainstream publishers.  I don't know exactly how old they are, but definitely beyond retirement age (I believe one lady is well into her 70s).  I've also heard from other first time 65+ authors who have recently had book deals.  

So age doesn't appear to matter - if you have written a good book.  Where I think age may count against you is if your book is borderline good, so you need to do all you can to counteract this.  The relevant factors are:

Career span - how many more books are you going to produce? Money is made from authors writing more than one book, so if you're older you need to stress that you've got more than one book in you.  One of my former students has had 9 books published and is busy writing number 10.

Marketability - yes, photogenic is useful, but so is a good story.  If you're older, you should have some interesting life experience that could be used for publicity (beyond OAP writes book, which has been done several times before).  Think about what you could use from your life story to sell your book.

Self promotion - like it or not (and most of us don't) authors are expected to do a lot of self promotion.  It's becoming a factor that sways decisions.  No one knows how old you are on-line, and there's nothing to stop you blogging/Twittering/building a social media platform.  If you say you're too old to do all that, then you may have to accept you're too old to get published.  If, on the other hand, you're prepared to throw yourself into promotion, then you're not to old. It's your attitude that counts here, not your physical age.  

Finally, why would you (or anyone else) mention your age on a submission letter?  It never occurred to me to give my age. I don't think either my agent or my editor know it now, and I don't know theirs.  It seems especially daft if you think it might deter an agent.  Why do it?  Yes, if they like your manuscript so much they want to meet up, then you'll have to reveal yourself, but by that stage they'll be pretty keen and it's unlikely to be an issue.  

I think the real answer is to write a good book that no one can turn down, and then you can be any age you choose.