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.