Thursday 31 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 7

I've eaten far too much over Christmas, so today I'm thinking about food. Food writers use all sorts of wonderful descriptions of food, and so should we - but writers can use their descriptions in more useful ways. Here's some dialogue from two characters in a restaurant...

A: Have you been here before?
B: No, never. Have you?
A: Once, a couple of years ago. It's changed hands since.

And here are some scenarios...

1. First date
2. Couple on the verge of breaking up
3. Young journalist interviewing mega rich businessman.

Write this scene out. You're only allowed to use the dialogue above, so you need to use the food and description to give the attitudes of your characters. So, the first date couple might be eating fresh, juicy strawberries and drinking fizzy champagne, the couple breaking up are stuck with limp lettuce and over-cooked pasta, and the mega rich business man is ripping apart his steak so the blood runs...Get the idea? Have fun!

Wednesday 30 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 6

Write the story of your name.
Why are you called what you're called? Do you have a nick name? Have you been called by another name at another time? What does your family call you? Do your parents/children have a special name for you? How does being called this name make you feel? Do you like your name? Would you like to be called something else?
Write the story of your name.

Now, look at a character you've already written. Write the story of their name.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 5

Choose a character - this could be someone from a WIP or a completely new character. Write down a few basic details eg name, age, sex and some background info such as where they live.

Now, write a scene where your character is getting dressed to go for a job interview, but before you start, think through a few questions...
what is the job?
are they currently employed?
are they qualified for this job?
how do they feel about this job?
are they likely to get this job?
what clothes do they wear normally?
are they choosing different things for this job interview?
When you've thought through the questions, write the scene. Your task is to convey as much information as you can through their choice of clothing and their manner when getting dressed.

It's said that people make up their minds about strangers within three seconds of seeing them. This exercise should make you think about how you present your characters to the reader.

Monday 28 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 4

Anna and Ben have gone for supper at Clare and David's house. They are all old friends and the evening has been filled with talk and laughter, delicious food and quite a bit of wine. They are now at the coffee stage. Anna, Ben and Clare are discussing their summer holiday plans - maybe they'll take a cottage together - but David is quiet.
Suddenly David pushes his chair back and stands up. 'I'm sorry,' he says as the others stare at him. 'I can't do this any more. Anna and I - we're in love. We want to be together.'

Re-write this scene in your own words, and from Anna, Ben, Clare and David's point of view in turn.

Think about the difference changing the POV makes to each piece of writing. For example, David might sit through supper feeling guilty, or obsessively watching Anna. Ben might have guessed something is going on with Anna, but not known with whom.
Another thing to think about is the best place to start the scene. For example, if Clare suspects nothing, then there's not much subtext from her POV to play with if you start very early on. But once David reveals the situation, there's much more going on.
Finally, how would it change if you use 1st rather than 3rd person? Or had an omniscient narrator?

There isn't a right or wrong answer here, but the choice of POV changes the way the scene works. Are you making effective choices?

Sunday 27 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 3

Here are the beginnings of ten opening lines to ten stories. Continue with the stories, writing at least a paragraph.

I had started to...
He walked down the...
After yesterday I...
The invitation said...
She polished the...
Tomorrow we will...
As the train passed...
In the morning they...
He was stopped by a...
The party was...

I find that if you're given an opening to play with it stimulates lots of story ideas - I hope it works for you.

Saturday 26 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 2

Gather together twenty bits of paper - index cards are perfect for this. Ideally they'd be divided between two different colours, ten of each, but not to worry if you can't manage this.
On each card of the first set write an abstract noun. (Abstract nouns are things you can't touch eg love, happiness, life.)
On each card of the second set write a concrete noun. (Concrete nouns are things you can touch eg chair, table, pen.)
Don't fret too much about choosing 'good' words, it's supposed to be fun. Shuffle each set of cards.

Select a card from the first set and one from the second so you end up with one abstract noun and one concrete noun. Now, put them together as a proverb - you can play around with the words if you like.

Let's suppose you got 'Life' and 'Chair'. Put together you might have....Life is like a rocking chair, if you stop rocking, everything stops. Or...Life is like a chair, it's easier if you have a cushion.

Work through the sets, shuffling every time you get bored. This is a good exercise to get you away from cliches.

Friday 25 December 2009

The Twelve Exercises of Christmas: 1

As some people may have next week off and fancy a bit of writing, I thought I'd suggest some writing exercises...

Choose a character - it may be someone from a WIP or a completely new invention. List some of their character traits eg shy, fearless, wild, scary, timid, angry, happy, egotistical, witty....
Now, write a quick scene where the character displays that characteristic. The only rule is you're not allowed to mention the trait (or synonyms), you can only show it.

Happy Christmas, every one!

Thursday 24 December 2009

What I want for Christmas

1. A publishing contract for the next ten novels so I know how the gas bill is going to be paid over the next decade
2. An unending supply of black gel pens because they seem to vanish
3. More shelf space because I have a book habit
4. More reading time because of the above
5. Notebooks that fit my pockets so I don't lose all those brilliant ideas I get while walking the dog
6. Discipline because it's something that is lacking in my life
7. Wide ruled paper pads because I like working ideas out using handwritten notes on paper
8. Index cards because you can never be too rich or too thin or have enough index cards
9. A film deal, so when people ask me I can say Yes!
10. A magic printer that never runs out of paper or ink, especially when there's something really important to be printed
11. A secretary who can do all my admin including my VAT return
12. The first draft of my next novel all done and ready for re-writing
13. I love my laptop, but I secretly fancy one of those really really wafer thin macs
14. A resident genie who knows how to sort out computer problems at the rub of a lamp
15. A year of Pilates classes to stop my shoulder from seizing up
16. Better eyesight as I don't like wearing glasses for reading and writing
17. Fabulous reviews on Amazon because I compulsively read them
18. Another year of lovely students and may they have lots of success in 2010
19. Faster broadband access so I can watch iPlayer etc without it stopping and starting
20. And world peace of course, but if that's not possible a bag of licorice comfits would do.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Perfectionism is the Enemy

When I had just started secondary school one of the English teachers - the cool one under thirty who wore mini-skirts and who we all wanted to impress - set this essay title: If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. I didn't understand what it meant, so when I got home I asked my mother. She snorted. Ridiculous! They've got it wrong - if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well. This was what I expected her to say, having been told off enough times for my poor standards regarding the washing up and tidying my bedroom.* Confused, I chose a different essay title.

But the original title bothered me. What could it mean? I didn't work it out until much, much later when I started to see people not even try, in case they failed. I'd encourage them to send their work to creative writing competitions or out to agents, only to have them demur and say things like: it's not ready yet. I spoke to a student recently who was frozen. Complete writer's block. She couldn't write in case what she wrote wasn't perfect.

But the first wonderful thing about creative writing is that there is no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. You can't fail, because there is no absolute standard of perfection. Everybody's had the experience of being recommended to read a book, only to discover it leaves them cold. For example, I love the opening to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, but I know it puts other people off. And The Da Vinci Code wasn't a page turner for me, more a yawn maker.

So write. Write what you like. Write lots. Try this, try that. Throw away what you don't like, keep what you do. If you've got something you want to say, say it, and stuff the way it's written. Give yourself permission to write badly. And if you're aspiring to get published (and not everyone is) then send it out when you've got to the point of tinkering round the edges. Don't wait until it's perfect, because it never will be. Write, write, then write some more. If writing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. Apart from anything else, the second wonderful thing about creative writing is you can always go back and edit.

*I gave up on domesticity early on, totally discouraged by failing against my mother's high standards. With my own children, I praised any domestic attempts to the sky, hoping to encourage them. It failed. They do as little domestically as I did. I don't know if this proves anything apart from no one wants to do the washing up.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Just Like Your Mother Said

One of the irritating things about growing up is that you discover yourself saying things your mother said to you. Once you rebelled, now you've become a doppelganger. My mother used to say Practice Makes Perfect to the grumpy teenage me, and it made me determined to do as little practice as possible. But grudgingly I have to admit that, as far as writing goes, practice makes...well, not perfection, but it does make it easier.

I can remember those essays at school when filling two sides of A4 seemed an impossibility. At university essays were supposed to be longer, though I'm not sure I ever achieved anything like the required length. My first short story was 400 words and I couldn't imagine how on earth it could ever be any longer. On my MA, I can remember gaily padding out my 3000 word essay with as many quotes as I thought I could get away with. (I only just managed to squeak a pass mark so I think they noticed.)

But now, nearly ten years of writing short stories and novels has left its mark. Give me a keyboard and I'll rattle off a couple of thousand words without a problem. Novels are about 500-700 words an hour, other writing - blogs, emails etc - is more like 1000 words an hour. Transferring words from my head to the page has become, with practice, a natural process. Writers write, and the more they write the more writerly they become. Just like my mother almost said.

Monday 21 December 2009

Should I send my novel out now?

I was asked this question recently by someone who was 40,000 words into their novel and itching to send it out. I asked my agent what she thought, and her response was along the following lines...

You receive through the post some great opening chapters. There's a space on your list, and this author might be the one to fill it! With the thrill of potentially having discovered a wonderful new author running through your veins, you call up and ask if they could send the rest. No, they answer. It's not written yet. Oh. Disappointment starts to set in. When will it be ready? In a few months. Oh. Then, a few months later, you receive the rest of the manuscript. You vaguely recognise the name, remember there was something disappointing about them and, with a grudging feeling of anticlimax, start to read. Worse, you then realise it's in a similar style/genre to the author you took on two months ago, and you don't have room for two novelists of that type. You put the manuscript aside.

If that isn't enough to put you off sending your novel out too soon, then I'd suggest a couple of other ideas that might, coming from a writing viewpoint. You've written 40,000 words. A novel is usually 80,000 - 100,000 words. Is it not possible by the time you come to The End you may:
a) have improved your writing style with regular practice so the beginning is now not as good as the ending.
b) have changed your original ideas, so the beginning you started with is no longer appropriate.
c) having written the whole thing, you've now got a much better idea of where you need to start.

I'd also add that I think it's much easier to write a synopsis and covering letter when you've written the whole novel and know exactly what it is you're trying to sell. In other words, the answer to the question is no!

Sunday 20 December 2009

Real Life, or Something Like It?

When I'm taking part in a workshop, a comment I dread hearing is: But it really happened. The trouble is that real life doesn't always make good fiction.

Real life goes on and on, whereas fiction is packaged into neat parcels: a novel or a short story.

Real life contains all the boring bits, the brushing of teeth, the walk to work, the ten minutes faffing around before making that call. Fiction cuts out all the boring bits (or should do!).

Real life takes time - a life time, literally. Fiction is the edited highlights compressed into a few minutes or hours of reading time.

Real life is full of coincidence, missed opportunities, inconsequential happenings. Fiction avoids coincidence, grabs every opportunity, and all happenings have consequences.

Real life may well see the good go unrewarded and the undeserving flourish. We may like to dream that Simon Cowell is unhappy deep deep down to balance his incredible success over the last decade, but to me he looks like a man who's pretty content with life. Happily, in fiction, the good can win and the baddies get their come-uppance.

Real life hampers the writer's choices as they worry about offending family and friends or getting it wrong. Fiction gives the writer free rein to do whatever they want or imagine.

Fiction gives the illusion of real life, but it is just an illusion. Writers make it up, and sometimes they make it feel more true than real life. Fiction isn't real life - it's better.

Saturday 19 December 2009

Never Say I'm Nervous

Show, don't tell, has got to be in the top three of writing instructions, along with Write what you know, and Kill your darlings. I think it's the most useful for a writer to remember when you're actually writing. So, maybe a character is nervous. How do you show this? Off the top of my head they could...bite a lip, fiddle with a sleeve, tuck hair behind ears, have a raised heart beat, feel nauseous, shake, repeatedly clear their throat, wipe a sweaty face, nibble a fingernail, clutch a handbag...That's ten actions without too much trouble that all show nervousness. Scatter of a few of these around and you're done. Job sorted.

But why does showing work, where telling doesn't? I think it's because we ask the reader to do some of the work, and the more work the reader does, the more absorbed they are. Imagine being in the audience of a third rate tennis match. You watch the game, but your attention wanders...perhaps you could go for an icecream at the next break, ooh, that woman's wearing a funny dress, I wonder if it's going to rain...Then the cry goes up - the umpire has had to retire and you - yes, you - are going to take over. Now you have to watch each point carefully, make decisions and without noticing, the next hour flies past.

It's the same with writing. 'Imogen felt nervous' only requires the reader to absorb the information. It's passive, attention may wander, the book may be put down. Compare it to: 'I feel fine,' Imogen said, clearing her throat and wiping sweaty palms on her crumpled dress. Now the reader has to pay attention, has to deduce that while Imogen may claim to feel fine, her actions show us that she doesn't. The reader has to be active, has to work, has to pay attention. This reader will read to the end and find it a satisfying, worthwhile experience - and that's what we all want, isn't it?

PS And if you're still not convinced think of this. The first version takes 3 words. The other is 16. Just think of difference to your daily word count!

Friday 18 December 2009

Yes, I really AM a qualified bricklayer

Tis true, and somewhere I have a City and Guilds certificate to prove it. I took the course because I wanted to build a very long, low retaining wall with three sets of steps in the large sloping garden of my previous house. I couldn't afford to pay someone to do it for me, so the only alternative was to do it myself. Which on the surface I suppose shows determination, persistence and a willingness for hard labour - all admirable qualities. But I know it really shows lack of confidence and a need for reassurance - I'd read a book and could see that what I wanted to do wasn't that difficult but had to get the support from a teacher that I could do it.

I think a lot of people - women especially - come to writing classes for the same reasons. They want to learn, but they also need the support of a group that, yes, they can do it. It's as if we need permission before we can risk ourselves. The first time I went to a writing class I was terrified, although if you'd asked me, I couldn't have said what dreadful things could possibly happen in the space of two hours in a community centre on a Friday morning.

Fear of the unknown holds us back from sharing our work, from sending it in to a competition, from sending it out to agents. We worry that if we reveal too much of ourselves through our writing people won't like what they see. We are frightened of the invisible editor on our shoulder - who may have the face of a parent, or a former teacher - who tells us that our work isn't good enough. Fear stops us from doing and achieving but we should feel the fear and do it anyway because, as I discovered, bricklaying may be hard physical work but it's actually quite easy.

Thursday 17 December 2009

I Heart Index Cards

Apparently if you go to film school one of the techniques they teach you is to plan your film on index cards scene by scene before you write a word of dialogue. For a novel you could use them at the planning stage, but I like to use them after I've written the first draft.

Take a card and write out what happens in each scene in note form, for example, Joe tells Abigail about the party on Saturday night. Abigail is upset and storms out. Then add any other important information about the scene such as Description of pub, first mention of Miranda's name, set up Abigail's important job interview. Find a large space such as the floor or a table (I usually do this on top of my bed, cat willing) and spread the cards out. Now you can 'see' your novel in all its glory.

Things to look for...Are the good scenes (the cherries - see blog post for Nov 17th) evenly distributed? Is there variety between mainly action and mainly reaction scenes ie it's not clumped into lots of action followed by lots of reflection? Are the main plot strands kept going? When using index cards for Nice Girls Do I realised that I'd 'lost' Will for a bit and quickly inserted a scene to keep him fresh in Anna's - and the reader's - mind. The other thing I use index cards for timing. Using a diary I make sure that major events such as public holidays actually turn up when they should do. This can be very useful - I'd got stuck on a bit of A Single to Rome until I realised that the May bank holiday provided a convenient excuse and worked the timing around it.

I've tried using different coloured cards for different characters or plot strands but it got too complicated for me and now I generally use cheap old white, with coloured ones for scenes that I need to add. I like using index cards so much that I'll do a set several times in the course of writing a novel, and then work from a fresh pile of stacked cards. I think they're wonderful - try them today!

Wednesday 16 December 2009

And The Winner Is...

Me! Well, that's what I'm hoping to be hearing next March as A Single to Rome has been longlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year. Of course I know I should be saying something self-deprecating and charming about how I'm honoured to be among such illustrious company, the wonderful books that have also been longlisted and all that (and I genuinely am thrilled to have been included) but deep deep down I hope that all their books will dissolve into the bathwater because I really really want to WIN.

Writing is not a competitive sport. It's for people who like sitting in small rooms talking to imaginary characters. And while most writers would admit to twinges of jealousy when they hear of a fellow writer getting an amazing deal or hitting the heights of the bestseller lists, in my experience we're a fairly generous and supportive lot. Perhaps we're so used to being at the bottom of the publishing pile we learn to look out for each other.

I never won anything at school, not even a runner up badge. I wasn't bad, but neither was I good. I was average, and average means years of sitting on a hard chair in the school hall listening to other people's names being called. Strange, isn't it. If you'd asked me yesterday I'd have said I wasn't particularly fussed about awards and prizes, those years having left minimal expectations. I don't expect I'll be getting the prize this time round, but oh - I am so pleased that for once I'm a contender.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

She knew that she was a Happy Thatter

The more that you write the more that you realise that you have some little quirks. I like that. Hmmm. Perhaps I should rephrase that. The more I write the more I realise I have some little quirks. Yes, I'm a happy thatter. Give me an opportunity and I'll give it a that. I don't mean to drop in thats here, there and everywhere but, like sufferers from Tourette's, I can't help myself. That is literally my problem.

Of course, none of my thats are, strictly speaking, wrong. They make grammatical sense. They are correct English. But they clutter up my prose like nick-nacks on a Victorian mantelpiece. The speech rhythms are clunkier. Take the Anthony Trollope title He Knew He Was Right. How much more stylish that He Knew That He Was Right. One version works, the other doesn't and all that divides them is an innocent little that.

Most documents I write I have to run a speedy search and destroy mission for superfluous thats using the Global Edit facility. It takes ages, but I'm happier as a result, and my prose reads just that little bit more easily. (That one passed the that test.) One of my writing friends is fine on thats. Her problem is adverbs. Another has a fondness for exclamation marks. We all have our writing problems. I know I am a Happy Thatter. What's yours?

Monday 14 December 2009

Careless Talk Costs Books

Heart sink moments are plenty in a writer’s life, but one of my least favourite has to be the dinner party where the bloke sitting next to me, on hearing I’m a novelist, launches into a detailed description of the novel he’s going to write.  I listen attentively, because my mother brought me up to be polite, but what I really want to do is screech and tell him to stop because a) I don’t want to know and b) he’s ruining his chances of ever getting the novel written.

Writing a novel requires a lot of energy. 100,000 words or so takes a lot of typing even without the concentration on the story telling. Somehow you have to sustain your energy and enthusiasm for at least several months, if not several years.  Story telling is in part a desire to communicate.  If you’re doing that communication to all and sundry at dinner parties you’re dissipating the energy you need to keep going with your story. Worse, with frequent telling, you may become bored with your own story before you’ve got it written down.

So don’t tell anyone what it’s about. Keep that desire to yourself, communicate with the page, not chance met strangers. Because I’ve recently had a book out (A Single to Rome, absolutely brilliant, do go out and buy a copy - pleeeeease) I’m frequently being asked about what I’m working on at the moment.  In response I mumble something about how I’ve started a novel.  And what is it about?  More mumbling and staring at the floor until they go away.  I’m not being rude (honest, Mum), I’m guarding an essential part of my writing life.




Sunday 13 December 2009

Before and After

Before I was published I went to writing groups and talks about writing.  I found writing friends and set up workshopping groups.  I devoured every article or book I could read on How to Get Published. I researched agents.  It was a happy time, endlessly absorbing with, at the end of it, at some unspecified date, the prospect of publication. 

It was a bit like being pregnant.  Suddenly anything and everything to do with pregnancy – a subject which I had previously avoided – became endlessly interesting.  Every twinge was fascinating, every new development to be pored over and discussed with my NCT group.  Then, finally, the great day came and at the end of it I had a baby. After the euphoria had died down and I was left alone with my vulnerable little son I was suddenly struck with the awful thought: I’ve got to look after him for the next twenty years or so.

When you get published you’re taken over by the wonderfulness of what has just happened to you.  You sidle round bookshops rearranging the shelves so your novel faces out, and have your picture taken in Sainsburys against the book section.  You start a scrap book with every press cutting, every scrap of promotional material you can find lovingly stuck in with Pritt stick.  Enjoy it.  It will never be like this again.

I’m not being cynical, it’s just that once you’ve got published, it’s like holding the baby in your arms and realising you’ve hardly thought about what was going to happen next.  Because what happens next in writing is you’ve got to produce another book, and then another.  One a year for commercial fiction, longer for literary fiction. It becomes a job.  A fascinating job complete with an adrenaline rush – closer to a high wire act than the checkout – but it’s still a job.  So, even if you’re desperate for publication, take time to enjoy the process.  Believe it or not, one day you may be looking back wistfully at those happier, simpler times before you got published.







Saturday 12 December 2009

Get Some Attitude

   ‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, doing that stupid soppy thing with her eyes that makes her look like a pug about to be sick.  Pathetic.

   ‘Give it to me,’ I said, grabbing the jam jar from her. I’d show her.


   ‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, looking at me with big eyes shining like stars, so fragile, so helpless, for a moment I could hardly speak.

   ‘Give it to me,’ I finally managed, gently taking the jam jar from her delicate fingers, hoping that this time I’d get the lid off.


The dialogue is the same, the actions are the same.  The only difference is the narrator’s attitude. When I read I like to know how the characters are feeling about the situation, otherwise I might as well be reading a script. I want to feel I am in the scene, experiencing it through their eyes.  Their attitudes to life might not be mine, but this is how I’m going to understand them and, in understanding, get involved with their story. 

As a writer I find attitude is a useful tool, especially if I’m finding a scene difficult to write.  I stop for a minute and ask What is my viewpoint character’s attitude to this situation or these people? How do they feel about what they can see? Then I write the scene using character attitude to drive it, and the scene almost writes itself.  

Some people advise that you spend hours and weeks preparing detailed character backgrounds before you start writing but that's not how I work.  I don't need to know where a character went to school or what his first pet was. All I need to know is my character's attitude to life.   




Friday 11 December 2009

PC or not PC

I was reading the blurbs from my local cinema and came across this for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Cert 12A: Contains infrequent strong language, scenes of threat, hanging and smoking. It made me laugh that smoking had become something that we have to warn concerned parents of, but then I started to think about censorship when writing.

It's unconscious, but reluctantly I have to admit I self-censor my work. My characters don't smoke, mainly because I don't and nor do the majority of my friends, but I'm also aware that I believe - I haven't asked her - a habitual smoker wouldn't get past my editor. In Nice Girls Do, Anna gets led astray into a coke-sniffing party lifestyle, but I was careful to show the negative effects this has on her and not present it as a sensible choice.

Would I get away with writing about a character who makes what are seen as negative choices - sleeping around, drinking too much, taking drugs, eating to excess - and presenting them in a positive light? I think not. I did once write a scene for one of my characters where she gets drunk and sleeps with a stranger which I felt was true to the character's distressed and confused state of mind, but it didn't make it past the editor. She felt readers would be disgusted and unsympathetic. I ditched the scene. Is that being PC, or over-sensitive to reader sensibilities?

I'm not sure. In retrospect, I'd gone overboard on making the scene too negative an experience and perhaps a sexy dalliance with a handsome stranger would have passed without comment. So long as they didn't smoke, of course.

Thursday 10 December 2009

Reasons to do a Creative Writing MA

1. You think you will have an inspiring year immersing yourself in talking about writing, reading a wide range of books and writing, writing, writing. I loved my year, and would do it again tomorrow just for this. Completely self-indulgent, and it was wonderful.

2. You think you will make friends. There's something about the total immersion effect that makes friendships. I still workshop with three others from my course ten years down the line, and am in touch with many more.

3. You think you will learn about writing. Not so much the craft, as that doesn't seem to be taught except by the osmosis method, but the intensive workshop process that is at the heart of most MAs is the fastest way to learn to critique others, and by critiquing others, to learn to self-edit.

4. You think it will help towards publication. A tricky one this. I'm undoubted published because I went on the MA, but I don't think the course directly got me published. Certainly there were fewer agents and publishers buzzing around than one hopes before starting the course and in hindsight the advice about the real world was risible. But learning to workshop, discovering writing friends, and immersion in writing were all crucial in becoming published.

Overall I loved my course, but maybe I'm biased because I've been lucky enough to make my living from writing ever since. I know a lot of people who feel they wasted their time and money.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Reasons Not to do a Creative Writing MA

1. You think you will get published as a result. You won't. Each year a few students from each course will get a publishing deal, but there is no guarantee that you will be one of them. The majority won't get published. In my year at Bath Spa, I believe that Mo Hayder and myself were the only ones out of 36 students who were published (and she had a deal before she came on the course). No one has ever asked me whether I've got a Creative Writing MA, let alone what mark I got.

2. You think you will work with inspiring writers. Well, you may. And on the other hand, you may not. Not all writers can teach, and there are some duffers out there. I've heard horror stories of tutors who were too busy with their careers to turn up or mark work, and tutors who were so disillusioned and cynical about writing, their mission seemed to be to deter students not encourage them. You may also be taught by unpublished PhD students.

3. You think you will learn all about writing craft. Think again. Most - if not all - MAs seem to work on the osmosis principle ie that if you read enough good stuff it will rub off on you. This is true, but it also helps to teach craft.

4. You want to write commercial fiction. The MAs are oriented towards literary writing, the sort that wins prizes like the Booker or Whitbread. You may find the staff a bit sniffy if you want to write commercial fiction, and you may feel annoyed at the plaudits being rained on some 22 year old whose writing is (in your opinion) completely up itself.

Having said that, I loved my year and would do it all again because...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Idea or Story

When I was on my MA there was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow attached to the department who could be consulted about writing matters.* Our RLF Fellow was an experienced novelist and I went to see her about the novel I was hoping to write while on the MA.

I outlined my idea: a group of university friends who go out to Kenya for the wedding of one of them. The novel would be about their relationships and shifting friendships. The RLF Fellow didn't look impressed. 'That's an idea, not a novel,' she said dismissively. 'Have you got anything else?'

Put on the spot I dragged up an idea from the back of my brain. 'I was thinking about a woman who has an affair, then ends it, and her former lover blackmails her,' I blurted out.

'Ah,' the RLF Fellow said. 'Now that's a novel.' The novel attracted questions: who was the woman, why was she tempted to have an affair, who was the lover, why did she end the affair, and so on. In answering them I would discover my novel, and the process of writing Adultery for Beginners was certainly easier as a result. Now, when I start writing a novel I play around with characters and situation until I find the questions. And then I answer them.

* The RLF Fellowship scheme has changed since then and concentrates on helping all students with literacy rather than literary endeavours.

Monday 7 December 2009

"Goodness!" he ejaculated.

Back in olden times when I was at school, one of our favourite sources of snigger moments were the pages in Lord Baden-Powell's autobiography where instead of using 'I said' he uses 'I ejaculated'. We may have been young, we may have been silly, but we knew for sure that using the word ejaculated to refer to speech was not a good idea. (And especially when boy scouts are involved.)

So imagine my surprise to come across a How To Write book in the library recently that seriously suggested 100 alternatives to 'said', including the e word. Most of them were simply wrong. Take 'Woody Allen is so funny,' she laughed. Okay, now say it aloud, at the same time as laughing. Try it. Then try snorting your words, or giggling them. It can't be done. You can laugh, or snort, or giggle, and then speak, but not both actions at the same time.

I'm all for adding colour to writing, but in the case of speech the only variations that work are about volume: 'Be quiet,' he whispered, or 'Stop that now,' she shouted. In general, plain old said is safest. It's a word that disappears, like 'and' or 'the'. If you feel you've got too many 'saids' floating around in your writing then either look for ways to hide them (eg within speeches), or cut them completely (substituting actions if necessary). 'But don't be tempted to use highly coloured alternatives for said,' she ejaculated. Unless you want us to snigger.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Writing without Chapters

A chapter is a useful tool for the reader. It divides the novel up into easily manageable sections so the reader can spread out the contents over several days or weeks, perhaps a chapter before bedtime.

A chapter is a useful tool for the writer. It divides the novel up into easily manageable sections so the writer can spread the labour of writing the darn thing. It makes it easy to plan a book - say, three scenes per chapter of about 1500 -2000 words each scene, and twenty scenes - and there you are. Novel written.

Except it's not that easy. A chapter is not a useful tool for good story telling. A chapter is not a useful tool for rewriting. A chapter is not a useful tool for rearranging. Okay, I'm going to go headlong against those who like to plan out their novel before they start writing, but in my opinion a chapter is not a useful tool for writing a novel that works.

Writing by chapters inhibits creativity by arranging it into nice chunks. It's the Tick Box approach to writing, no deviations allowed. I've heard writers say that they couldn't possibly move this scene some place else, even though they can see why it's been suggested, because then the chapter would be too short. And rewriting is often out because it upsets chapter balance. And the amazing cliff-hanger which will have the readers turning the pages faster than a Zeotrope machine can't possibly go there because it is ordained that the chapter finishes six pages later on.

Sectioning the novel into chapters is about the last thing I do before it goes off to my editor. They may be between 1000-6000 words, but I'm looking for variety in length and brilliant chapter ends. As the novel gets towards the end, the chapters become shorter to help pick up the pace. Above all, the chapters go where it suits the story-telling and not the other way around.

Saturday 5 December 2009

Which books would you save from the flood?

According to when Waterstones Swansea was flooded they saved the books on Hitler. It made me wonder what I'd save out of the 10,000 or so books I have about the house. I think I'm going to let all the reference books go, even though it's taken me years to build up a decent collection. Of other non-fiction, the only book I'm keeping is Antonia Fraser's wonderful study of women in the C17th because it made such an impression on me when I first read it, and I hope I'd be inspired to rebuild my post-flood life by the stories of women such as Lady Brilliana Harvey.

On to fiction. There are books that I have loved desperately and passionately but - rather like former boyfriends - I haven't thought of in years and suspect they won't stand up to viewing today. Authors like Jean Plaidy and - gulp - Georgette Heyer, although I will have to save Venetia. Sadly, they will have to take their chances with the water, the exception being Elizabeth Goudge and The Dean's Watch, The Little White Horse and the Damerosehay trilogy. Of the classics a certain degree of literary honesty will be required, and Camus, Tolstoy and Woolf will be left behind, along with Dickens, who I've never really enjoyed. Austen will definitely be coming with me, and if there's only room for one, it'll be Persuasion. However, I'm hoping there's time to grab the complete works and Jon Spence's Becoming Jane, which I preferred to Claire Tomalin's biography.

Moving on to more recent reads, Anne Tyler is essential, though if space is limited it'll only be the books with a male protagonist as I find her women protagonists a bit wet and in the circumstances that's unfortunate. William Trevor's Complete Short Stories will sustain me with their gentle wit and intelligence as will Nadine Gordimer's. My groaning To Be Read shelf will have to be left behind, so I'll miss out on Steig Larsson who was next up.

And if there's only one book to save? Shakespeare's Complete Sonnets. The wisdom of the world in one pocket sized volume. Which books would you choose?

Friday 4 December 2009

Chapter Ends

I'll let you into a secret: I'm a bit obsessed by chapter ends. It's one of those little corners that seem to be left out of books on writing, but it's an important area for a writer to master. Think about it. Most people read late at night. They want to read a chapter before turning the light out. Your job is to get them to read another chapter, and another. And another, all the way until The End.

Watch soaps for masterclasses in how to get people tuning in the next day. There's always a sudden revelation, a question that must be answered or a dramatic situation to be resolved. When writing we might choose to be more subtle about it, but essentially the trick is the same. Make the reader read 'just a little bit' of the next chapter, and you've got them hooked.

Some writers do this naturally. JK Rowling is a good example, as I discovered when I read the first Harry Potter books aloud to my children. The chapters are long and it's hard to find a natural point at which to stop. Unless you want to read for an hour you end up breaking in the middle of paragraphs. Small wonder she gets kids reading; the books are compulsive page turners because there are no places to stop.

The worst thing is to end the chapter with them all going to bed and zzzzz-ing away - you might as well write 'put this book down now'. The exception is when you're writing a picture book, when parents are reading hoping their children will drop off at the end of it. So, if you want to write a page turner, pay attention to your chapter ends. Keep them reading.

Thursday 3 December 2009

How to choose an agent

How to choose an agent is the sort of statement that would have had me rolling my eyes in disgust before I acquired one because there's definitely a point when a would be writer feels that ANY agent will do. But any agent won't do, it's got to be the right one for you. Some things to think about...

1 Do you want an agent who does a lot of editing on your work before sending it out to publishers? Most agents will have worked at publishing companies before going over to the dark side. A former editor may be unable to resist the urge to edit your work which, depending on your point of view, may be a good thing. On the other hand, you might prefer the sort of agent who settles down happily with a stack of miniscule-print contracts and enjoys quibbling over percentage points, in which case a background in rights would be good.

2 Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond? In which case you want a small agency. Your agent's income will be directly linked to yours, so they've got extra reason to sell your books (and generally be nice to you!). A big agency may make you feel they're too busy dealing with their star authors to have time for you. The number of authors each agent represents is also relevant - see also 6.

3 But a small agency may not have as much clout as a large agency, nor are they likely to have the same range of experience ie they tend to specialise in one kind of writing. A larger agency however will have specialist departments in children's writing, television/film etc and may have offices around the world. (Smaller agencies will have agreements with other agencies to bring in the expertise when needed, so this shouldn't be a dealbreaker.)

4 Personality. Top of my wish list was the desire not to be frightened by my agent and some literary agents I have met are terrifying. But I'm easily scared. Some writer friends relish the formidable qualities of their agent. Others couldn't care less so long as the agent does their job.

5 Age. Young agents are enthusiastic and keen to make their mark, but they may not have either the contacts in publishing or the experience. On the other hand, they may be actively looking for clients. Older agents have shedloads of experience and contacts - and existing clients.

6 Money. No reputable agent should ask you for money up front. Full stop. As to the percentage, I'd prefer they took 15% and represented fewer authors. But you might be happier with 10%.

Think about what's going to suit you. Go to talks at literary festivals and conferences, ask other writers, join writing societies and groups and generally get out there and do some research before drawing up your 'hit list'. Only an idiot would go to all the expense and effort of getting a positive response from an agent and then go all wobbly at the thought of being represented by them. Don't be that idiot.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Does Size Matter?

Size is something that writers tend not to talk about except in reference to other people, as in 'Did you hear how big it was?' Of course you want to imply that you've got a whopper (while being suitably modest about your attributes) because size is linked to desirability, but you don't want to actually tell anybody your vital statistics unless it's so large it hits the headlines, in which case everybody knows. But does size really matter?

I am, of course, talking about advances. Advances are what the publisher gives a writer on signing them up. It's not magic money, it's an advance against the royalties that the publisher is guessing you might make from the book. Until you've earned out your advance - ie the royalties you would have received exceed the money you've already had - you won't see a penny more cash. Publishing wisdom dictates that the amount paid out in the advance is roughly equivalent to what they'll spend on marketing: expensive books get big marketing campaigns. So you'd think that a big advance was good news (and if my publisher is reading this, they undoubtedly are) but they can be a double edged sword for a new writer.

Let's say you've got a six figure advance for a two book deal. This usually will be for the wonderful book you've written and a synopsis or outline of the fabulous book you're hoping to write next. You're thrilled, your agent is thrilled, the publisher is thrilled. You get on with writing Book No 2 while the publisher spends a lot of money on the marketing. Expectations are high. Book No 1 comes out and does quite well but you'd have to sell an awful lot of books to cover your advance and you don't sell that many. The publisher loses money. You hand over Book No 2 which you think is even better than Book No 1, but no one is thrilled any more. Book No 2 comes out with no marketing so doesn't sell (the publisher may even decide to cut their losses and not print it). Your name is forever tarred as the author who lost the publisher lots of money.

Contrast the situation with the writer who got a modest advance so Book No 1 doesn't have to sell that many copies before it starts earning out. It achieves those sales. Everybody is happy and looks forward to Book No 2, which also earns out, with sales a little bit more than Book No 1. The sales graph is on an upward curve, the author is a success and gets offered a new contract.

Over the last ten years I've met three writers who fell into the first category. None of them had got beyond Book No 2 and the advance money was long gone. They felt cheated. Bitter, even. All writing is like a high wire act, but if you have a big advance there's further to fall. Rumour has it that, with the recession, advances have got smaller and maybe that's a good thing for writers who want long term careers. Still, I can't see any writer turning down a whopping big advance. I certainly wouldn't.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Flashback - Work of the Devil

I am on a one-woman campaign to eliminate flashback from writing. I don't understand the when it usually makes writing soggy and dull. Don't do it! Writing is partly about controlling pace. Action and dialogue speed it up, reflection and description slow it down. Flashback stops the novel dead in its tracks, like forcing a speeding car into reverse. Why? Because it's already happened. When you read you want to know what's going to happen next. With a flashback you know. Think how many stories have an underlying Will they, won't they? premise. If you use flashback, you've lost it.

I recently workshopped a student piece. It opened with a scene of the main character on her way somewhere, then went into flashback for the rest of the chapter going over the previous 24 hours. It was well written, but the tension was lost - we already knew the character was going to get in the car and head off for her destination, because the writer had said so at the beginning. It's like telling the punchline before you do the rest of the joke. It doesn't work.

Worse are those flashbacks where the character settles down to have a jolly good reminiscence like some great-uncle at Christmas beginning with 'I remember those lovely holidays we used to have at Gran's...' For some reason, they're often inspired by train journeys and as the character drops off into a dream of times past, so do we.

Of course there are exceptions. Donna Tartt's The Secret History gains a lot of tension because we know from the start that a main character is going to be murdered by one of the others. But we don't know who murders whom until the end. Anita Shreeve's The Pilot's Wife uses flashback to unravel the story, but each flashback section advances the plot with information the reader didn't know until that moment. So flashback can work, but the chances are more likely that they're losing tension and pace. Don't do it!

Monday 30 November 2009

Research - Just Say No

I am not a fan of research for writers. In fact, writers should avoid research as much as possible. That's not to say that research doesn't enrich novels - as someone who has used backgrounds as various as symbolism in eighteenth century landscape gardens and the cue-scripts of William Shakespeare, I love the additional layers that research brings. It's just that I think research is a poor starting point for a writer. It's too seductive. You read and read around your subject, happily thinking that you are moving your novel forward. But the only way you move your novel forwards is by putting words down on the page and notes on the background don't count.

Research is best left until you've written the first draft and know exactly what you need. If you need to speak to an expert then you don't waste their time by asking questions when you won't use the answers. While you are writing your first draft, assume that the facts will be there to support your imagination and write what you'd like to have happen. For example, in Nice Girls Do I needed my main character to injure herself in such a way that it was impossible for her to move for a few days, but for her to recover completely after a week or so. As I was writing I made the assumption that such an injury could exist. After the first draft was finished I found my expert (thanks, Craig Davey) who told me that a partial lateral tear of the ligaments would give exactly the symptoms I needed for the purposes of the story.

Why do readers read novels? Yes, an interesting background adds to the experience, but essentially they are reading for the story. If they want to know about Stourhead or Stancombe (to name two gardens I used as background for Nice Girls Do) then they will read a non-fiction book about them and/or visit them. Too much research and there's a risk of clogging up the story telling process. So if you're writing and you're tempted to do a bit of research rather than write that difficult scene - just say no. Write now, research later.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Naturally Talented?

I saw one of my fellow students from my MA yesterday. At first I didn't recognise her - it's been ten years and we weren't particularly close. But I could remember her writing, how confident it was, how polished. I could remember how impressed I was when she shared her work in class, how much I envied her talent, and how far behind I knew my work was compared to hers.

I had similar feelings with the first creative writing class I went to. One student shone, her work far better than any one else's. I struggled with the exercises, especially free writing - there's something about being told to write now this minute that freezes my brain - but this student was brilliant. The words flowed, her imagination apparently boundless, flair and intelligence combined into delightful prose.

And yet, and yet. And yet I am published, and they aren't. I remember my fellow MA student, how she announced that she'd finish her novel if an agent or publisher was interested, but wouldn't waste her time otherwise. I remember the student I was so overawed by, and know that she - despite interested enquiries from agents and publishers - refused point blank to even consider changing a single word of her novel.

I remember them, and realise that sheer natural talent on its own isn't enough to make a writer. A whole raft of abilities are needed and close to the top of the list are the ability to finish work, and the ability to work with others. Which I find pretty comforting, to be honest, because those are things we can learn to do.

Saturday 28 November 2009

Self Publishing and Me

There's been a lot of comment recently about self publishing, what with the Harlequin decision to promote a 'self-publishing' wing of their business. For about ten years I made a haphazard living as a self publisher of careers books, first as a one woman band operating from the kitchen table, then as a small publisher employing six part-timers. What I learned was...

1. Publishing a book ie producing something you can hold in your hands is the easy part. You just pay a printer, typesetter, cover designer etc and they do the work for you. Companies such as effectively do the same, but get their money from a slice of the cover price.

2. Distribution is the problem. It's very hard to get into bookshops that either buy centrally or buy from wholesalers ie most of them. That's not to say it can't be done, but it requires hard work.

3. The paperwork can be tricky. Ebooks are easier, but you'll still need to keep receipts, send out invoices etc. Self publishing is running a business, even if it's only got one product - your book.

4. It is much much easier to make a success from non-fiction than fiction. Non-fiction means you can target a defined market. I published careers books; I sold them to careers officers at secondary schools. Fiction sells to...people who like reading stories?

5. Not all your friends will buy a copy, and neither will all their friends. Despite reading about success stories the chances are you will lose money on self publishing. At best you will break even. Sad but true. At least if you epublish you won't have 2,457 books stored under your bed.

6. Books are heavy. 2,457 books under the bed will strain your joists. I worked out that 500 of my books were the same weight as a baby elephant. No wonder the car died after carting a small herd around.

7. Self published books usually look amateurish (cartoon covers or illustrations by your partner/neighbour/child are a giveaway). It is worth getting them professionally designed. Ditto professionally edited.

8. Book marketing and publicity is a full time job and buying in expertise is expensive. That's why niche books for small markets work.

9. Discounts are high in the book business. 65% is not unusual for the chains plus you'll have to pay the p&p. And then wait for 30+ days to get your money. If you sell directly to customers then you keep more of the cash, but single copy orders eat time and energy.

10. Define what you want to get out of it. Make lots of money? Hold your book in your hands? See it on the shelves at Waterstones? Win the Booker? Work out what YOU really really want to get from this, and make that your target.

I loved self publishing and as a mum with a baby and a toddler, living in the middle of nowhere, it was the only way I could make some money. I averaged about £10,000 per annum from it and my children grew up knowing how to stuff envelopes with mail-shots and stick stamps on parcels (fun for all the family). I stopped when I realised I was spending most of my time managing others and hardly any of it writing. So I wound the business up and gave myself two years to get a novel published. But that's another story.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Publication Day

It's here.

For the last few weeks I've been living an extended version of a Stephen King film. I'm walking through an empty house, knowing that there's something exceptionally scary around the corner. The tension is mounting, I'm terrified but somehow I can't bring myself to turn around, I edge onwards, getting closer and closer, wanting to go back, my palms are sweating, my heart is pounding, feeling sick with apprehension, I stop, but now it's edging towards me, I can hear it creeping nearer and nearer, I can't move, I can't go back, it's here, it's here.

Yes, it's Publication Day. My nearest and dearest have been aware of the looming presence for several months as my blood pressure rises to explosion levels over innocent topics such as 'have you seen my bag?' Friends and acquaintances have been aware for the last few weeks as I bludgeon them to attend the launch party (it's at Waterstones! In Bath - tonight - 7.00pm. Do come!). I tell them again and again, by email, phone calls, face to face, forgetting who has said yes in my anxiety that No One will be there.

Then there are the Amazon ratings. Don't get me started - or rather, can someone stop me from obsessively checking the ratings. Get the right hour, the right day and it's gratifyingly low (No 1 is obviously best of all), get the wrong moment and you're down in the five figures. It changes every hour, up and down the scale, so at any moment a poor author may be thrown into despair or elation, driving them to return in a manner reminiscent of B F Skinner's work with pigeons and erratic reinforcement.

I'm aware that some people might read this and think, yeah right, but at least she's being published. I don't want to whinge, I know I've been lucky. But I also know that, while the step from unpublished to published can seem impossibly vast, the step from published to unpublished is a short one. The only thing stopping me taking that short step is the sales figures. A year's worth of work, hopes and dreams, tied up in one day. Publication day. Today. Wish me luck.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Ideas R Us

It's one of the standard questions writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas from? The short answer is something like, Ideas-R-Us, where you can get a boxed set for £9.99 and the deluxe version (bestseller guaranteed) for only £19.99. The reality is that ideas are all around us, whether from something we hear from friends, or see on television or read in the papers or just from observation of daily life. Finding ideas really isn't a problem. Finding a good idea is another matter.

A good idea is one that matters to you. That's why it's no good telling me all about your amazing idea and suggesting I might like to write it up. The idea is amazing to you, so you should write it. It's not MY amazing idea, so I'm not going to spend the best part of a year slaving away - writing is hard enough when it matters. The next thing to look for is scope. When you think of your idea, lots of possible directions should come into your head. Some writers use spider diagrams for this stage - you know, those ones where you start with a word in the centre and radiate ideas, joining them with lines so the end result is a page of words all linked like a spider's web.

I prefer to play What If. What if this happened? How would I react? What might happen next? What would make it really tough? What if that happened? And so on. With A Single to Rome, I started with What if you thought you were going to marry someone, and then they dumped you? How would you feel? What would you do? Would you want revenge? (By the way, that's why my working title was 38 Bonks.) I knew I wanted to send Natalie to Rome because I'd been a student there and fancied writing about it, so why was she going? To escape, fine, but who was she going to stay with? How would she meet them? What if they had their own problems?

In answering those questions I was able to start writing, and in the process of writing the novel, ditch some of the original questions and ask new, more interesting ones (which is why it didn't end up being called 38 Bonks, although that stayed as the working title because it makes me laugh). Good ideas inspire good questions. Good questions inspire good answers. Good answers mean - I hope - good novels. It's either that, or this year for Christmas I'm asking for the deluxe idea set.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

A Matter of Focus

Last Saturday I watched films until my eyes ached and my bum was numb. This was not the result of a decision to watch the complete boxed set of Spaghetti Western DVDs I got in my stocking last Christmas, but because I went to Brief Encounters, the Bristol Short Film Festival. 'Short' ranged from 1 minute 3 seconds to 29 minutes, and made up about five hours of screen time. Some films were compelling, while others had me checking my watch. I tried to pin point what it was that made the compelling ones so absorbing, and came to the conclusion that it was a matter of focus.

Focus meant keeping one's eyes on what the story was about. There were sometimes multiple strands, but each was always turning back towards the central story. So in one of my favourite films, Light and Dark, a documentary about the alter egos of a film maker and an illustrator who happens to be autistic, everything came back to their relationship, both in real life and in their virtual life. There was no information on their lives outside this relationship - there didn't need to be.

In the same way, when we write, we need to concentrate on what the story is really about, and weave everything back to it. This is particularly true of short stories, where there's precious little space to allow any digression, but also true in novels. Everything must earn its place, even if the reader isn't aware at first why the digression is there. In The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, each chapter starts with the description of an apparently randomly chosen knot. But gradually the descriptions tie in with the story. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is narrated by over twenty voices, but each tells a separate part of the whole story and the focus of the novel as a whole is maintained.

Sometimes I scribble down the main story theme on a Post-it and stick it to the corner of my computer screen. Then when I get stuck it's always there to remind me: what is the focus of this book? And then I work out how to get my characters back on track and, by focussing on the main story, I find I can move on.

Monday 23 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part III

The last two blogs were about assembling the raw materials, this one will be about putting it all together. Synopses are always written in third person, present tense. Start with an opening paragraph that says what the novel is about and the story line. It should be clear from this what genre it falls into. Also make it clear if the structure is non-linear, for example, there are two or more parallel plots, or multiple voices. Let the reader have a good idea of what is coming.

Now write out the plot, concentrating on the most important story points and summarising the rest - 'After an unpleasant encounter at school, Jennifer decides...' The unpleasant encounter may have been worth a chapter to itself, but the important bit is the decision. Be bold, be brave, be ruthless. You can't get everything in (because then it would be the novel). It might inspire you to go to the cinema, as films often come with sharply written synopses covering the main plot points, the characters and the themes into one or two short paragraphs.

7 things to look out for...

1. Tone. The tone of the synopsis reflects the novel, so if the novel is humorous, so should the synopsis be.
2. Verbs. Use the most active verbs you can. Characters shouldn't go anywhere, they should rush, run, sidle.
3. Time. Because you're concentrating on the best bits, it's easy to make vast leaps in time that give the synopsis a stop-start impression, or completely lose...
4. Logic. Which can all too easily go out of the window as you cut, cut, cut. My first synopsis included the line 'Suddenly she realises she's having an affair.' What - she was just walking down the street when, whoops, it happened?
5. Genre shift. It starts out techno thriller, ends up as romance. Or vice versa.
6. The End. If the butler did it, say so.
7. Confusion. You need a willing volunteer for this. Get them to read it, and if they're confused at any point, you need to rewrite.

And there it is. Easy peasy.

PS Also easy peasy I discover is how to make links. My thanks to Peter Richardson for the info, complete with diagrams, and to prove I've learned the lesson, here's the link to his blog Cloud 109

Sunday 22 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part II

The thing of delight and enchantment that is your synopsis should be written after you have finished and polished your novel to the point where it will glitter in the slush pile like the Koh-i-Nor in gravel. There are three reasons for this:

First, you're hoping an agent will demand to see the rest on the strength of your initial submission so why start your relationship by disappointing them? (Especially when there's plenty of time to do that later on.)

Secondly, your novel is bound to change and evolve in the process of writing it, but should by some incredible chance you be taken on on the strength of the sample chapters and synopsis you're stuck with that story. It'll be like writing the rest in a straitjacket.

Thirdly, you (and they) need to know you have the stamina and discipline to write a whole novel. Unless you're a celebrity, of course, in which case the publishing pixies will be called out to assist your stumbling process. But that's another story.

So, you've written the novel. You are now going to write out the plot of your novel. This stage has three rules:

1 - It must be done from memory with NO consulting the mighty tome.
2 - Each sentence you write must start on a new line.
3 - Each sentence must start with the words 'And then...'

Following the three rules forces you to stick to the plot. You can't divert yourself into all the intricacies of the background or the setting because the sentences have to start with 'And then...' And because it's done by memory, and it's impossible for even the author to hold every twist and turn in their heads, you will concentrate on the more important plot points. And then...

And then, when you've done all that hard work, pick up a highlighter and mark out those key scenes which are the most important to the story. Mr Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth Bennett would be one, the Netherfield ball wouldn't. Frodo accepting the ring quest is, Shelob isn't, nor is Galadriel. It's tough playing Sophie's Choice with scenes but it has to be done.

And then, when you've done all that, your plot should be clearly defined. This, along with the work on theme and character, will be the basis for writing your synopsis into a wonderful piece of selling prose...tomorrow.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part I

If the covering letter seems hellish, it's nothing compared to the particular torture that is the synopsis. I have heard agents say brightly, 'Oh, I never read them, it might spoil the story.' To which one can only answer 'Why ask for them then?' before running them through with an unsharpened toasting fork. Because ask for them they do. So, as a writer desperately seeking representation, you will have to resign yourself to condensing all those months and years of hard work into a page or two of pithy prose.

First things first. Remove the toasting fork with a twist, then shove it straight back in, because there's no consensus among agents as to exactly what they want from a synopsis. One page or two, or ten? Single or double spaced? To include character breakdowns (to possibly accompany your own) or not? Look up the details for each agent you're sending sample chapters to check if they have any particular demands. If nothing stated, shorter is better than longer. One side of A4 is usually enough, maximum two pages, spaced as you wish but in a clear font such as Times New Roman in 12pt. Whatever length and spacing you go for, fill each page - the ones I've seen that go over to two sides, but only by one paragraph look as if you either ran out of steam or lost confidence in your writing.

Stick to the main characters - having workshopped lots of synopses I know that people get confused if there are many more than four names, I'd say a maximum of six before most readers lose the plot (literally). If pushed, use generic names for minor characters - waitress, chauffeur, teacher, children. Try a few telling character details: a leather arm chair of a man, a cool blonde with an eye to the main chance, rock n roll anarchist.

Pin point the genre. If in doubt, where will it be shelved in Waterstones? If still not sure or going for 'fiction', then who do you write like? Then go and look where they're shelved in Waterstones. That's your genre. One thing I can guarantee is that you haven't come up with a whole new genre. Crossover is a cop out. Now think about the theme - coming of age, redemption, the worm turns. Write a sentence on the theme. Now the plot - bored housewife takes series of lovers to escape humdrum life in provincial France. You might need a couple of sentences for this.

Tired? And we're still on the opening paragraph. We'll look at the rest tomorrow.

Friday 20 November 2009

Writing about Writing about Sex

I've got a piece up on the Guardian's BooksBlog about writing about writing about sex:

Afterwards I realised that it was a piece written with the benefit of hindsight: This is what I try to do. But when I started writing, I hadn't thought any of those ideas let alone formulated them into something close to rules. Instead I was making it all up as I went along.

I've always been interested in writing about relationships, so sex seemed a natural part of that. I wrote what I imagined my characters might be doing and what their emotions were without thinking of what my potential readers might think. It was only later that I realised that some writers become hamstrung by their worries of what their mother/father/partner/children/neighbours/friends might think. It cripples their writing, and no wonder, if that bunch is forever peering over their shoulder and commenting on what they've written.

Writing about sex should, ideally, be like having sex. You shouldn't write about sex if it makes you anxious or unhappy. It's not compulsory. It's an optional but, in my opinion, important element of human relationships. It should be something that feels natural and comfortable to you and happens in a non-judgmental environment. Let's face it, it's difficult to enjoy sex fully if you're worrying about your spare tyre or stretch marks, the same way that good writing is inhibited if you've got the critics sitting on your shoulder.

But the wonderful thing about writing about sex - about all writing in fact - is that you can write without inhibition because no one need see it. You have full control. Your characters can do whatever you fancy them doing, and they'll never answer back. And after it's all over, if you don't like it you can press the delete button, and there - It's gone. Your mother need never know.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Workshop Woes

Your palms are hot and sweaty, your mouth is dry. The blood pounds in your ears so hard you can’t hear what anyone is saying. You think you might be having a heart attack. Vaguely, through misty eyes, you see the workshop leader nod in your direction and mouth your name. Yup, it’s your turn to read.

Sharing work is a bit like placing your precious baby on the ground and inviting all and sundry to bash its little brains out. But it has to be done because reading out work in a workshop is one of the quickest ways to improve. Firstly, what seemed all right when it was just you and your laptop now issues forth in leaden dollops. Did I really write this, you think. It’s dreadful. And I’ve just shifted Point of View again. Having an audience sharpens your senses; you hear what they're hearing, not how it sounds in your head. Secondly, there is feedback, ideally specific feedback. You’ll never improve if all the feedback you get is of the ‘that’s lovely’ kind. Ask why it’s lovely – is it the language, the characterisation, the detail…? Stuck with a bunch of ‘it’s lovely’ bleaters, you've got to ask questions as relentlessly as Jeremy Paxman interviewing a dodgy politician: which character did you like best? Could you imagine the setting? What mood did it create for you?

Then, having read, you can relax and listen to someone else. And, surprise surprise, it’s much easier to learn from critiquing another’s work than it is to learn from your own. Again, be as specific as you can. Is the third paragraph too long, could it be sharpened, are there too many adjectives? Is the structure right – does the piece open in the right place, does the ending work? Is the dialogue being used effectively or is it simply waffle? Practice being an editor.

We start as readers first, then become writers. Somewhere along the line we must also learn to be editors, and to work with editors. Workshopping shortcuts the process. The only problem is, somehow it’s always your favourite, most beloved baby that gets the worst battering. And that's really hard. But hey - welcome to the life of a writer.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Writing for Writing's Sake

A few years ago I was on a walk with an artist friend who stopped to sketch the view. I sat down too, but instead of writing, I decided to draw the view too. I hadn’t done any drawing since school, but I really enjoyed myself and it was a pretty fine sketch, though I say it myself. My artist friend was very polite, made a few kind comments about the charmingly na├»ve perspective and interesting use of shading and offered some suggestions which, should I ever sketch a view again, I fully intend to use. It was a good day.

It never occurred to me that success as an artist was determined by my ability to sell my work in the market place. Success was about my enjoyment in the process, and satisfaction with the end result, however much the perspective was all over the place. So when people ask me, as a creative writing teacher and novelist, if I think you can teach someone to write, I never know what to say. What are they really asking? Can you teach someone craft techniques so their skill improves? Yes. Can you stretch and challenge their abilities in an enjoyable way? Definitely. Can you make them a published author? No – you can only give them some tools to help them along the way.

I don't think using market place success is the right way to judge creative writing teaching. What makes a published writer is a big combination of elements - determination, persistence, talent, luck, skill, hard work, imagination... You can't teach "it" but no one knows what "it" is. What you can do is give a leg up to the talented, improve the untalented and generally develop skills and have a lot of fun doing it. I'm thrilled to bits when one of my students gets a book published or wins a short story competition but ultimately publication isn't what I'm teaching. For myself, I wanted to be published, as an endorsement of what I was doing, but going to creative writing classes was always about the enjoyment of the process. It still is.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Cherry Cake Pacing

On the few occasions I’ve made a cherry cake I’ve carefully followed all the instructions, stirred in my glace cherries (full of E numbers, but stickily delicious), carefully spooned the mixture into the cake tin, then popped it in the oven. Half an hour or so later the cake is ready. Then the first slice…and all the cherries have ended up in one glutinous lump at the bottom. It’s a bit like pacing a novel. The best scenes – the cherries – need to be distributed evenly throughout. The easiest way to check your novel for pacing is to use index cards, one scene per card.

Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for.

It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.

Monday 16 November 2009

Five Paragraphs Expanded

A few people asked me to expand on my format for a covering letter to an agent, so here it is, all to be fitted on one page.

1. Why you're writing to them. You've heard them speak or read an article they've written. Maybe they represent an author who you admire and hope to emulate. It should be specific which shows that you've bothered to do some research which in turn shows a professional outlook.

2. Brief summary of your book. Length, genre etc. Then a few sentences about the theme of the book. This equates to the scriptwriter's elevator pitch, where you imagine you're in a lift with someone who could buy your script, but you've only got a minute to sell it to them. Be clear about what it is you're selling.

3. Market position of the book. Essentially, who's going to buy it. This could be phrased as 'It will appeal to readers of...' and then name a couple of authors, rather then a demographic. Depending on the book, you might want to combine paras 2 and 3.

4. About yourself. Include anything that endorses you as a writer, such as articles published or short story competitions won. Also include any personal information that is directly relevant to the book, such as the book is about shenanigans in a school, and you're a teacher. Don't include anything else such as your friends think it's a wonderful book, or how very difficult it was to write.

5. Thank you for your time etc. I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph, so no demands that they get back to you within 48 hours, or copyright threats. Instead, pitch yourself as the ideal author, hardworking, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but also very open to feedback and direction. And don't forget the SAE.

The whole should be written in simple, straightforward language - you are after all hoping to have a long term business relationship with this person. Ask some friends to read it because, in your anxiety to get it right, it's very easy to come across negatively, and while they're reading get them to check the spelling and the grammar. And by the time you've done all that, you're probably feeling like giving up on the whole business and taking up watercolours instead. But persevere. Get it right just once, and you'll never have to go through this again.

Sunday 15 November 2009

Guilty Secrets

From my bed I can see the sun is shining on honey Bath stone and the sky is blue. Outside, the street is bright after the rain, scattered leaves in gold and scarlet across the pavement. Sunday morning, a time for lie-ins and breakfast in bed, luxuriating at the weeks end. Except for me. I am in bed with guilt.

Guilt, my constant companion. I should be writing. I shouldn't be enjoying the beauty of the morning, I should be writing. And if I'm not writing I should be doing something to promote my writing career - Twittering, blogging, arranging readings, writing articles and short stories, developing new ideas, building the brand...The list seems endless at times. I read about other authors, the ones with organised lives, the ones who have work routines, weekly, daily, even hourly word targets, the ones who seem to know what they are doing, the ones who never feel guilty.

I should be writing. I should be busily clocking up my 1000 words a day - 2000 if I was Stephen King - and then a fully formed novel would slip off my laptop in a couple of months, followed by another, and another. I should be a little novel factory, buzzing merrily along, fingers tapping on the keyboard, clickety click. Instead, I am lying in bed feeling guilty. I should be writing, even though it is Sunday morning and the first glimpse of sunshine we've had for days.

Guilt, my enemy, my friend. Guilt makes me hit my deadlines, guilt makes me write a novel a year. I should be writing. But I'm not a factory and it's a sunny morning. I think I'll take the dog for a long country walk.

Saturday 14 November 2009

Ten Year On

I saw my first creative writing tutor in the supermarket yesterday, and realised that it's exactly ten years since I started writing. As a child my dream was to live in a house of books, with enough money to buy any book I fancied, and enough time to read it. Becoming a writer was something that only occurred to me much later. I made various unsuccessful attempts throughout my twenties, at best getting to Chapter 3 before giving up. I had ideas, but none of them could make the transition from my head to the page.

Then, many years later, I was trying to move to Bath. I'd enrolled my children in Bath schools but the house hadn't materialised, so I was driving them in, spending the day househunting, then driving back. But there weren't enough houses to fill a whole day of looking, so it seemed my opportunity to start writing. I went to class one morning a week and wrote the rest of the time. I can remember presenting my very first story. It was just over 400 words and I was thrilled and appalled. Thrilled because I'd actually finished something and it had a beginning, middle and an end, and appalled because it was only 400 words and I couldn't see how on earth I could make it longer.

The class was brilliant in giving me a focus. Each week I wrote and wrote and then listened to the feedback. I read even more and tried to copy what I saw real authors do. And gradually my stories became longer without me even trying, just because I was adding more depth, more detail. Ten years on I've written five novels and I now teach that same Friday morning class. But I always remember how difficult it seemed at the beginning, how impossible. It still seems impossible, to be honest. I just know that the answer is to write, and carry on writing.

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Lift Test

Imagine you're going up to the 8th floor when the lift shudders, then stops. You wait but nothing happens. It looks like you're going to be there for some time. You turn to the sole other occupant of the lift and - well, who would you like to be stuck with? Do you want to be stuck with the person who drones on about how hopeless the situation is, or the one who thinks of an escape plan? Would you prefer the person who tells you at length about their very dull, static life, or the one who has plenty of interesting stories? And at a more basic level, would you like the one who is distinctly lacking in attractive qualities, compared to the one who is full of life and energy?

Reading a novel is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a set of characters, if you think about the length of time it takes to read one. It usually takes me about eight hours to read a novel, and that may be spread out over several days or even weeks. So I need the characters to be engaging or I'll put the book down.

When I'm writing, at the back of my mind I'm imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the lift for eight hours with my main character. Life may not be going well for them, but they don't, won't, can't whine about it. Instead, they're busy trying to work out an escape plan. Perhaps because we worry whether readers will like our main character there's a tendency to make them bland, and I suppose it's better to be bland than out and out offensive. But only just better. Instead, apply the lift test. The characters to write about - good, bad or plain ugly - are always going to be the ones who make those eight hours seem like eight minutes.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Slaughter of the Innocents

I knew my first novel was a work of genius. It was obvious. So it was a bit disconcerting when my MA tutor suggested that, while writing it had been a good learning curve, it was time to put that book to one side and start another. Even more disconcerting was the experience of sending it out to agents. My sample chapters returned so fast the envelopes had scorch marks down the side. How could this be? Could the world really be that blind to my glorious, shining novel? Distinctly miffed, I tried a book doctor. But when the report came it was clearly the work of an imbecile, and not worth considering.

I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all. I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted had some validity.

I sulked a bit more. And then I came up with my own solution: what had been written from four viewpoints should be changed to a single viewpoint because, in truth, I was only interested in one of the stories I had interwoven. But that meant cutting about 50% of what I'd already written. I did some more sulking, and then went and sharpened my axe.

I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, and that book ended up being published around the world. Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

The Mathematics of Novel Writing

People often tell me that they'd like to write a novel but they don't have the time. Actually you don't need much time to write a novel, you just need a little basic maths. Ten to twenty minutes a day is about how long it takes most people to write 250 words*. Multiply 250 words by 365 days and you get 91,250 words. That's a reasonable length for a first draft. Now, all you need is ten or so minutes a day...

1. Do your novel thinking outside your writing time so when you get the chance you know roughly what you're going to write.

2. If you say something like, "I just want to do some writing, could you keep an eye on the children", you're in effect asking for permission. Sneak off without telling anyone and I bet it'll be ten minutes at least before anyone notices you've gone.

3. Leave your writing with a few notes about where you're going next. When you next get the chance they'll refresh your memory quickly so you use the time effectively.

4. If you get stuck on one section jump to the next bit you fancy writing; you can always go back later and fill in the gaps.

5. Give up watching television. Or Sudoku, the crossword, emails, Twitter - there are thousands of things that gulp down novel writing time. And if all else fails...

6. Cultivate a reputation for IBS. Why not? Who will ever question, other than sympathetically (or possibly cautiously), the time you're spending in the loo?

If you really, really want to write a novel you'll find those ten minutes. It's just about the maths. A x B = C. That's all you need to know.

* As a guideline, this post is 300 words.

Alien Abduction and Agent Letters

Oh dear, it's happened again. For the third time in as many months, someone I previously believed to be a charming and intelligent person has shown me their agent letter and revealed their real self to be an arrogant and demanding, possibly litigious, definitely humourless, buttock-clenchingly, squirm-inducingly, utterly bonkers individual.

I don't know what happens. Agents are, in my experience, hard working people in love with books - they have to be, or they couldn't do the job. They're normal (although I'm sure I once spotted a dorsal fin), so why does it seem so hard to write a normal, straightforward letter introducing yourself and your book in normal, straightforward language? It must be the weight of the thing, summing up possibly years of hard work and hope in a couple of paragraphs. Well, five...

1. Why you're writing to them.
2. Brief summary of your book.
3. Market position of the book.
4. About yourself.
5. Thank you for your time etc (I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph).

Pop it all onto one page, and there you are! It's not difficult. Except it is. My first agent letter is the one thing I've never shown to anyone else, so ghastly and needy it is, I might as well have disembowelled myself and sent the contents by Parcel Post. My only excuse is alien abduction. The proof is out there.

Monday 9 November 2009

X Factor Writing

So Lucie has been voted off the X Factor, despite being the best female vocalist, while Jedward, unable to sing in tune 50% of the time, stay on. You'd have thought that a basic requirement of a singing competition would be to sing in tune, but Jedward's entertainment quotient presumably won the day. And you'd have thought that becoming an author would have the basic requirement of being able to write the damn novel, but it seems that's no longer the case.

When I think of how hard it is to write a novel, even how many hours it takes to simply type out 100,000 words - regardless of quality - yup, I grind my teeth when I hear some celebrity trilling on about how they 'wrote' their novel with the aid of their experienced ghost writer. But then I assume Simon Cowell, as a businessman, made his decision to reprieve Jedward based on what he thought would keep the most viewers still hooked on the X Factor and therefore make him the most money. Sometimes I think it's easy to forget that publishing is a business and authors are in the entertainment industry.

If celebrity novels make money, then that's good for everyone in publishing - authors included. IF they make money. And that's where the business plan may fall down. As publishers in the run up to Christmas churn out more celebrity offerings, perhaps they should remember that while Jedward didn't come last in the public vote, they did come next to last.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Reacting to Feedback

I don't usually read the sports pages but this caught my eye. It's a quote from an interview with Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager.

"The common denominator of successful teams is that the players are intelligent. That does not always mean educated. They can analyse a problem and find a solution. The common denominator of a top-level person is that they can objectively assess their performance. You speak to a player after the game and ask him to rate his performance and if he analyses well, you know he is the sort who will drive home thinking, 'I did this wrong, I did that wrong.' His assessment will be correct and, next time, he will rectify it. That player has a chance. The one who has a crap game and says he was fantastic, you worry for him. This is also true in life beyond football."

And it's true in writing. The student I found hardest to teach was the one who, when offered feedback on his work, responded: 'I'm perfectly satisfied with what I've written.' No criticism of his work was allowed; even the mildest suggestions were rejected. If you're writing solely for yourself then that's your choice, but if you want to be published you have to learn how to analyse your writing, recognise problems and find solutions. The process is one of constant feedback and adjustment, whether from editors, friends or readers. If you're perfectly satisfied with your writing and need no further feedback then I'm happy for you, but I doubt you'll be playing in the Premier League.