Friday, 31 December 2010

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.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

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.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

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.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Editing in Action

My most recent novel - Kissing Mr Wrong - came back from the editor with the request that I 'looked again' at the opening scene. It's a big party scene, with two plot-important conversations (A and B) interspersed with an inconsequential - but I hoped, funny - interchange (X). So the scene went, intro, X A X B. The editor wanted for the X scenes to be joined, or cut, or moved, or in some way changed as she felt the flow wasn't right.

I started a long email explaining why I'd chosen that configuration. There needed to be a run up to conversation A, and you couldn't have A and B right next to each other, so X A X B was the absolutely perfect order. As I wrote my justification, I thought as a concession I'd try XAB, but that obviously didn't work. I tried A B - no, it definitely needed the X in-between. AXB was on the surface the straightforward choice, but that would mean rewriting the intro, rewriting the X interchange, writing a completely new run up to the A conversation. As I wrote explaining why my first choice had been the right one, I could feel this new scene in action, how it would flow.

I looked at my long, long email full of self-justification and realised: I didn't want to change the order simply because it meant more work. After a short bout of internal wrestling I deleted the email and wrote another, shorter one. You're quite right, I wrote to my editor. I'll do it.

And I did. And it was better.

Monday, 27 December 2010

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, 26 December 2010

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.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

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.


Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Posting

Yesterday I had an interesting email from someone previously unknown to me. She wanted me to look at her script, plus her synopsis, character breakdown, notes and treatment. They were all attached and she'd helpfully included details of the computer programme she'd used, and how I could download the programme if I didn't already have it. She'd really like written feedback, but would accept a discussion over the phone, but it had to be over the next two weeks because she had a deadline she wanted to meet.

Strangely, I didn't feel like spending my Christmas holiday doing this.

I have heard anecdotally of people losing a sense of proportion when approaching agents and publishers - the manuscript shoved under the loo door at a writing conference is legendary - but it's the first time I've directly experienced it.

Stop! Think how you'd feel if someone did whatever it is you're thinking of back to you. Imagine you're running a busy office - would you really welcome a call to discuss a manuscript that only came through the letterbox the day before? Would you like to give feedback to the sales guy who just called to sell you something you didn't want? Or in my case, can you honestly say you'd be happy to give up your holiday for a complete stranger?

Hey ho. Over Christmas I feel like putting my feet up a bit, so I'm going to post some of my previous favourite blog posts over the next couple of days.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Men and Women - Mars and Venus?

I usually try to avoid gender generalisations - I think people are people, and the similarities between the sexes outweigh any differences.  Recently I was asked to take part in a debate about writing about sex, and was scouting around for examples of good sex writing.  A (male) friend suggested a passage from John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River so I had a look at it.  

The characters - former lovers - are talking in the front of a pick-up truck, and things are developing from there.  Yes, it's well written but I could have guessed it was written by a man, and appreciated by a man.  One of them (the woman) has her hunting rifle with her and where a woman writer might have written in detail about what she was wearing, John Irving gives us lots of detail about the gun.  I did wonder if it was an elaborate metaphor for something else, but came to conclusion that no, it was just a gun.  

There's no doubting that men like facts and machines in a way that women generally don't.  Similarly, women like reading what another male friend calls 'the soppy stuff'.  When I read War and Peace as a teenager I remember skipping all the battle stuff but lapping up Pierre and Natasha's story.  Perhaps that's where great literary works score - they have a balance between female and male appealing qualities. 

Hmm.  Right - off to put some facts and machines in the WIP! 

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Questions As A Pitch

Moving on from making the plot into questions, I also thought it clarifies the mind as to the over all theme or character arc by transforming the story into a question (or several questions).  

Will Elizabeth find true love, while sticking to her principles? (Pride and Prejudice)
Will Briony ever be able to make amends? (Atonement)
Can Jennet balance the demands of her husband, her children and her art? (An Equal Stillness)

Yes, it makes them all sound like a trailer for a B movie, but it does capture the essence of the books, the 'what it's really about'.  In fact, thinking about it, the blurb for Adultery for Beginners used the question format: Can an adulterous wife be a good mother? which neatly encapsulates the theme.  

Pitches are so hard to do - it has to be worth a shot at least!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Writing the Plot as Questions

I'm developing this technique and using it on my current WIP, so I thought I'd share it with you now and see if anyone else thought it was a good idea.

Put the plot into questions.  So, if the purpose of a scene is to get out of the room before the bomb explodes you write "Will they get out of the room in time?"  On a more mundane level, if a character is going for a job interview, the question is "Will X get the job?"

Immediately it adds tension.  We want the answer to be Yes - but it's more dramatic if No is a likely option.  So, all the way through the scene, No must be a plausible - in fact, probable answer. Every time it looks as if X is getting out of the room, or getting the job, something happens that makes it unlikely.  

Posing the plot as a question pushes you into making your characters really struggle to get what they want.  And as we all know, if it's easy for them, we don't want to read.  It's the struggle that makes it all worth while.

Monday, 20 December 2010

How's Your Hearing?

One of my favourite sayings is Positive People Planning with Purpose.  It sums up the qualities I think main characters need to have and I frequently trot it out in class.  So it was a bit odd when a student said, I've heard you say that for ages, but it's only today I've got what you mean. 

I've written about what PPP with P means before, but what I want to write about today is how interesting it was that she'd heard it lots of times, but hadn't heard it.  She hadn't understood how it applied to her work.  

Of course it's much easier to hear things that are said about other people's work - that's one of the reasons workshopping is so helpful.  I realised recently that my teachers back in school had been telling me lots of good stuff about how to write an essay, but I hadn't heard it until I was in the position of talking to students about essay writing, at which point a lot of things clicked.

It's hard to hear properly at the beginning. There's so much other clutter - nervousness on getting feedback, defensiveness, secret belief that you're brilliant for starters, and it could be complicated by your previous experiences at school and home.  Sometimes I've had to stop workshop discussions when I can see that the writer isn't hearing the feedback properly. It's amazing how often the writer has only heard the negative comments and not the positive.  

So learn to listen.  Sit quietly.  Try to be neutral at the start of a feedback session or class.  And then learn how to hear.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Maximising Your Secondary Characters

When I wrote the first draft of my first novel I had a flash-bulb moment when I realised that several minor characters could be combined to make one, more rounded character.  Since then I've always tried to use my secondary characters to the max.  

I think it's a second draft job.  In the first draft, the horrible, messy, dirty draft, you just write in secondary characters as and when you need them.  You might end up with several different people - a friend the main character has a argument with, the next door neighbour, a work colleague - all of whom have an individual scene with your main character.  

Can you combine them?  Could the main character have the argument with the work colleague?  Could they take over the story function of the neighbour, or vice versa?  The idea is have as few characters doing as much as possible, which leads to deeper, more interesting secondary characters, which leads to more for your main characters to play off. 

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Trials and Tribulations of a Writer

A very nice writer friend got in touch to congratulate me on being longlisted but at the end, in passing, commented how hard it was to hear repeatedly about the longlist on Twitter if you were a writer with a book that could have been on it.  I replied that sometimes I too find Twitter difficult as people report mega sales, wonderful reviews, incredible deals.  If there's lot of it about I tend to avoid the Twittersphere otherwise I can get swamped with writer envy.  

Being a writer is a great way of making a living but it can be horrible for your ego.  Whatever you may achieve there's someone who has either achieved more, or is keen to belittle your work.  I bet even JK Rowling gets twinges of writer envy when she looks at the literary review pages or hears her work being described as derivative.  (I wonder if, as a children's writer, she ever gets asked when she's going to write a 'proper' book.)

Writing is a business where you're expected to promote yourself and part of that is keeping your failures to yourself.  I learned that the hard way early on in my career when I had a dodgy moment.  I told a few people, most of whom were sympathetic but one writer went out of her way to loudly commiserate at a publishing function in front of a lot of people who didn't know.  It hurt.... I now keep my mouth shut if things aren't going to plan.  

I suspect others do the same.  It's therefore easy to think everybody else is swanning through the publishing world drinking champagne, and feel depressed as a result or succumb to a bout of writer envy.  But I think everybody has their ups and downs.  The person who signs with a top agent or gets a great deal - it may look easy but you don't know how many rejection letters they've received. 

The best thing is to try not to let it affect you.  We're not in competition.  Their success does not lessen your own chances. But, gosh, I know it's hard.  I've got four mates who all started writing at about the same time as me.  They haven't - yet - had success with their novels, though two have just secured agents (yippee!) but they have been hugely supportive to me without a sign of writer envy.  (Perhaps they're just nicer than I am!) Rachel, Sue, Linnet, Nancy - thanks and I wish you every success in the world.

Friday, 17 December 2010

YIPPEE!!! It's Award Time Again

The first inkling came in the morning with a Direct Message on Twitter:  
Umm - for what? I DM'd back.  Then waited anxiously until this turned up:
Oh God don't you know?  Forget I said anything. 

Forget?  How could I?  Could you? 

I paced around.  I looked at a couple of websites.  I DM'd my friend a couple of times.  No reply. I checked my inbox once or twice.  Or it might have been a hundred times.  Finally - finally! - about 5 hours later it came:

The longlist for Romantic Novel of the Year had been announced and for the second year running I had a novel on it.  Last year it was for A Single to Rome, this year it's for Kissing Mr Wrong.  I've seen the competition, which includes Katie Fforde, Jojo Moyes, Erica James and Nora Roberts among others, so I'm not holding my breath that I'll get onto the shortlist, let alone win.  

But right now...I'm basking in glory!  Yippee!!!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How Do I Know When I Should Stop Editing?

This is probably the question I get asked more than any other.  It's certainly the question I flounder most with answering.  Some people are far too quick and jump the gun with sending their work out, so it goes with hundreds of errors; others carry on tinkering and never send anything out because it's 'not yet perfect'.  

I reckon you're done when...

You're sick to death of your manuscript.
You no longer have a niggling feeling that something's not working.
Feedback from friends and workshop groups concentrates on teeny points.
You've done at least one major re-write which has involved restructuring.
Everybody you know has asked when you are sending it out. And that was over a year ago.

You're sending it out too early when...

You know there's something wrong with the text but don't know what and send it out hoping that no one else might notice.  
You know there's something wrong with the text but don't know what and send it out hoping that an editor will see past that.  Or better still, do the editing for you.
You've sent it out to your workshop group for feedback and haven't had it back yet, but send it out anyway.
This is your first draft.
This is your second draft.

How do I know?  I don't.  I stop editing when I stop feeling guilty. I feel there's nothing more that I can do and the text has to go out into the world ready or not. 

I think you have to keep in mind the reality of the situation: there is no such thing as a perfect text.  Person X may love it, person Y will hate it.  You may think it's perfect now; in a year you may feel quite differently.  In other words, if you reckon it's done, don't procrastinate by tinkering.  Send it out and see what happens. 

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Defining Moments

Can you think of a defining moment? Something from your past that typifies the sort of person you are? I was trying to think of an example for myself and came up with my older sister coming to visit me at uni and spotting a box which I had put newspaper and magazine clippings I thought were interesting. My sister pointed to it and said, 'Typical. We all think of doing that, but only you would actually do it.'

What I think is typical is that although I did indeed tear out the clippings I liked, I didn't go on to do anything with them, apart from throw them away at the end of the year, untouched and unread. Which sort of sums up how I feel about myself - other people think I'm organised, but I know I'm not.

I was inspired to write about defining moments when a friend told me a funny story about their performance in the school Nativity play when they were about 6 or 7. It was so funny and charming and character revealing that I immediately asked permission to 'give' the anecdote to one of my characters in the current book. I don't know yet if I'm going to use it, but that character is now clearer to me than before.

It's an interesting way of honing down the essence of a character. Is there an incident that defines them? You could either show it happening now or, if it's in the past, have them or another character describe the incident, the more specific the detail, the better. Use that incident to show their character.

Stuck for ideas? Think of some defining moments of your own and what they say about your personality and use them as a basis for the fictional characters to remember.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

5 Things To Put Into A Letter to An Agent

1. Demonstrate you've done some research, whether it's knowing a book the agent has represented, attending a lecture the agent has given, reading an article they've written, or reading an article about them. This kind of research makes it personal in a business-like way.

2. Demonstrate you know the market position for your book. That means being specific about the genre you are writing in, which might include authors who you feel are writing in the same area as yourself.

3. Relevant personal information about yourself. This falls into two areas.
a) External endorsement of your writing - eg anything published even if it's in a different area to your novel, competition short-listings, creative writing courses attended (especially if they are at a high level eg at MA level). This is the more important of the two, and if you don't have any publishing credits try to generate some asap.
b) Personal information where it is directly relevant to the subject of the book eg it's about a stock broker and you're a stock broker. The key word here is 'directly'.

4. A brief description of what you're selling. This may sound obvious, but I've seen several covering letters where it wasn't 100% clear if the book was fiction or non-fiction, or whether it was one book or a series, or even a book at all. "I am looking for representation for my 95,000 word contemporary women's fiction novel, ABC," then a quick description of the plot/contents.

5. Contact details that sound normal. If your email address is then you need a new email address. This is a business letter, and you should sound as professional as you can. Even if you are a fluffy bunnikins sort of person, now is not the moment to tell them.

And don't forget to put in the return envelope and postage....

Monday, 13 December 2010

5 Things NOT To Put In A Letter To An Agent

1. Don't include praise from other agents or publishers if they've turned you down. No matter how nice the rejection letter was, it was still a rejection. I'm sure we've all been in the situation when the object of our affections says: I love you, but as a friend. And we all know what we thought about that then. Same thing now.

2. Don't include any information that you wouldn't include in a letter to a bank manager. In other words, nothing about your personal life, your cats, your dog, your diet, your beliefs. It's a business letter. Be business like.

3. Don't rubbish publishing. Don't say it's a clique run by idiots who wouldn't know a good book if they saw one, even if that's what you believe. You want to be part of that world, don't you?

4. Don't make any spelling or grammatical mistakes, or typos, or use incorrect names. Is it Sarah or Sara? If you don't know, play it safe and check. Ditto Mrs, Miss and Ms. Some people feel very strongly about their title, so either check or leave the title out. And while you're about it, don't present your letter and manuscript in any other way except the conventional one. This is not the time to get creative.

5. Don't say your mother/husband/wife/children/grandchildren/best friend loved it. It's not relevant. Unless they're the head book buyer for Tesco.

5 things to put in a letter to an agent tomorrow.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Easiest Way to Self- Edit

That's a bit of a come-on title, because editing gets easier with practice and experience, but I think the most basic thing you can do by way of self editing is to read your work aloud. I'm amazed that people don't do this. I'm constantly talking to myself as I write, and then later when I edit. How else do you know what it's going to sound like?

Dialogue obviously should be read aloud, preferably with you doing the different voices to check that you're getting different rhythms of speech for each character. A common mistake is for all the characters in a story to speak with a single voice pattern, presumably that of the author. But you should read it all, dialogue and prose alike, with a pen in your hand. Does it read smoothly? Does it flow? Does it make sense?

It's the easiest way of checking for grammatical errors and repetitions because often what looks okay on the page, doesn't work when it's spoken. At the very least, reading aloud shows us where the punctuation should go. Listen, and you can also detect the rise of one's voice where there should be commas, and the fall when there's a full stop. If you don't believe me, try playing The Shopping Game with a friend.

For those who don't know it, you start "I went shopping and I bought - " and then you name something, for example, a chair. The next person begins, "I went shopping and I bought a chair and - and they name something, for example, a mouse. Then onto the next person. "I went shopping and I bought a chair, a mouse and a cat. " "I went shopping and I bought a chair, a mouse, a cat and a pencil, "and so on. The natural thing is to let the voice rise after each item on the list until the very last one when the voice falls. In other words, comma, comma, comma, full stop.

Perhaps because I used to be an actor, reading my work aloud has always seemed a natural part of writing, both as I go along and as I edit. I sit at my desk doing the voices and the fact my family often ask things like who I was on the phone to doesn't bother me at all. It's a habit, and a good one to get into.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Sex Sells - Or Does It?

We're always told that sex sells. Sex attracts attention. It's certainly easier to get media coverage if you have some sexy element in your writing, and media coverage helps to sell books. But, taking the erotica market out of the equation and thinking solely of mainstream titles aimed at a general audience...

I'm thinking of all the books that have been sold on the basis of their sexual content, from Memoirs of a Round Heeled Woman to One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and realising that although I know the titles and have a rough idea of the contents I haven't read them, and certainly haven't actually bought them.

In fact, the only book based on sex I have bought was written by a friend under a pseudonym, which was why I bought it. I may be wrong on this, but I think most people make their buying decisions based on good story telling - which may or may not include sex.

If anything, lots of sex scenes may put people off. I write fewer sex scenes in my books because I'm aware that quite a few people don't like to read sex scenes in novels. The number of people who have said they prefer my later books to my earlier ones because there's less sex in them has been one of the things about being a novelist that has surprised me.*

It's anecdotal but if you look at the best seller lists, there are an awful lot of characters who aren't having sex, or at least, not on the page. In fact, I'm struggling to think of a best selling author who does include a lot of sex in their books. Sexual tension, yes. Sex scenes, no.

So, I'm thinking that while sex attracts attention, it might not sell that well after all. Good news for those who don't want to write about sex despite all my blog posts this week.

* I told my friend Caroline I'd decided to cut back on the sex scenes in my novels when we were having a nice cup of tea at the very genteel Pump Rooms in Bath - where Jane Austen took tea - and just at the moment the trio stopped playing she said loudly, 'You can't give up sex, Sarah, you're far too good at it'. It took ages before I felt able to show my face there again.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Teasing the Reader

I was asked by a student recently if it was okay to have two characters be attracted to each other, to nearly have sex, but then decide not to at the last minute. Would the readers be disappointed?

The only answer to this was: Yes. No. Maybe.

If your novel is entirely about these two characters getting together and they don't, then the reader will be disappointed. I read a novel a few years back where the main character doesn't realise X is the man for her until near the end (despite lots of Unresolved Sexual Tension simmering between them), then finally at the end of Chapter 23 decides to tell him how she feels. I eagerly turned the page to Chapter 24 and read: The following year... What had happened in that following year was quickly summarised, and the book ended with every one happy except me, the reader. There had been all that emotional build up, and for nothing. The author had cheated me of the scene when the two characters got together.

On the other hand, if we'd had the scene and it had all gone wrong, X had revealed that he'd been interested but had got fed up with waiting and was now involved with Y I'd have been - not exactly happy (because I'm a sucker for a happy ending), but satisfied as a reader. In Adaptation Charlie Kauffman does much the same, and it sits naturally with the main character's story line. Joanna Trollope did something similar in The Men and the Girls and not only was it satisfying, it worked better than the more traditional ending.

So, in answer to the question, it's not compulsory to fulfill reader expectations; in fact, it can work just as well if we subvert their expectations and give them something different. What is compulsory is that we write the scene. It's not okay to cop out and write: The following year...

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Why Write Sex Scenes?

The good news is, for those who don't like the idea of writing about sex, it's not compulsory. Lots of stories exist where sex never gets a mention. But...

Sex is one of the big human motivations along with love, money and power. It's an important part of human life and that's why people have been writing about it since we started writing fiction. We may feel more relaxed about the level of explicitness nowadays, but writing about sex has always been around.

I write about relationships, generally about people getting together or breaking up. Sex plays an important part in relationships, so I include sex scenes in my books. It's important for my characters and where they are in the story. If I were writing about bank robberies or space travel where the main character motivators were things like money, power and discovery, I would probably write no sex scenes at all.

Sex is part of being human, so we should write about it - if appropriate to that particular story. But if it isn't appropriate then it shouldn't be there. Take Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. There are some fairly explicit sex scenes in that, and I've heard people say that they are inappropriate. But the scenes of WWI are equally explicit in their depiction of the horrors of war, so to me the sex scenes and battle scenes balance each other.

It's part of your judgement as a writer whether a sex scene is appropriate in your writing. And if not, that's fine. It really isn't compulsory.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

And The Most Important Rule About Writing About Sex Is...

Like any other scene, a sex scene needs to have purpose - and that purpose should more than just to titillate the reader. The main character might discover something about themselves or another person. There might be an emotional change within characters such as liking turning to love, love turning to indifference, indifference turning to hatred or hatred turning to lust. Characters reach out emotionally and physically, and perhaps their needs are met and perhaps they aren't, but the story will move on because of the emotional change.

Sex scenes are useful as story turning points - as Isabel says to herself in Adultery for Beginners, she would never be Neil's faithful wife again. She can't go back, so the story has to go forwards. Becca, in Another Woman's Husband, has been dreaming about sex with Paul, but finds the reality inconclusive and unsatisfactory and as a result begins to move away from him emotionally.

Scenes have many purposes: to convey information, to develop character, to add humour, to move the story on etc. Sex scenes should have just as many purposes as any other scene, because that's the only reason for writing them. Sex may be going on in a scene, but the mechanics aren't the reason readers are reading. They're finding out what happens next in the story. If nothing is happening, if nothing is changing, if all that is going on is mechanics, then you need to add some purposes. And if you can't think of any, then don't write the scene.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

10 Rules for Writing about Sex: II

Continued from yesterday...

6. Some words are sexier than others. Sibilant sounds work well - simmer, sizzle, shimmer, sensation. Hard edged words are less good. Khaki. Bitter. Nasty. Write a list of words you find attractive: verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatever. Then weave them into scene.  You can also use your vocabulary to control the pace - long vowel sounds will slow things down (glide, slide) as will multi-syllabic words (voluptuous, sensuous).  Speed the pace up with single syllables and short vowel sounds - quick, fast, hot, NOW!

7. Emotions, emotions, emotions. They say that the most sexually responsive organ in the body is the one between your ears. I can't imagine writing a sex scene without a heavy emotional content - even if that emotion might be anger rather than love. Sex without the emotions becomes a matter of mechanics. Pornographic, rather than sensual. Now, some might say this is the difference between a male and female perspective. They might even point out that nearly all the short lists for the Bad Sex in Fiction award over the past 18 years have been heavily male dominated. I don't agree. Even James Bond, that serial seducer, is emotionally engaged with his partners (in the novels).

8. Foreplay. I read Joe Orton's diaries as a wide-eyed teenager, completely amazed at the casual sex. And I mean casual - he might see a stranger he fancied on the tube, they did a bit of eyeing each other up, then at the next stop they'd get off, nip round a corner, have sex, then go their separate ways. Blimey - casual or what? But when you think about it, he spent quite a long time imagining the casual sex and looking forward to it. It was mental rather than physical foreplay. But mental or physical, you need to have a lead up to your sex. There's nothing unsexier than simply grabbing and shagging, in real life and in fiction.

9. Anticipation is everything. Why do more people book their summer holidays in January than at any other time of year? Because it gives them most of the year to think about their holiday and what's going to happen when it finally arrives. It's been estimated that people get more pleasure from imagining what's going to happen on holiday than they do from the holiday itself - which, let's face it, is pretty much bound to be a let down after all that yearning. In terms of writing about sex, the longer your characters take to get round to doing the deed, the better. It's sometimes referred to as UST - Unrequited Sexual Tension. You can overdo this - I've certainly read novels where I'm saying, oh, just get on with it.

10. Don't write anything you feel uncomfortable with. Write only within your personal comfort zone. Bit like sex itself, really, you can only relax and enjoy it when you're not anxious. Relax, have fun, enjoy yourself.

Monday, 6 December 2010

10 Rules for Writing about Sex: I

I seem to considered a bit of an expert on writing about sex - I've had several media requests recently for my thoughts on the topic - so I thought I'd share my rules with you too.

1. No named body parts. What do you call your sexual bits and pieces? There are the correct anatomical terms, which you might use in front of the doctor and if you were giving some sex education to your child, and then there are all the others. There are the ones you use with your friends, the ones you use with your lover, the ones you use for swearing, the ones that you use to yourself. They all might be different. What I can guarantee is that there is no term for any sexual body part that won't have someone going, yuck, how twee, or yuck, how crude. Much, much, much easier to avoid using body parts in writing, except for bits we all agree to use the same names for - arms, legs, hands, fingers.

2. No maps. You're not giving directions on how to get to a friend's house without using the A30. We don't need to know you turn left at the letter box after the pub. Any attempts to describe what is going where is asking for a reader to leave the story to try to work out what is going on....he put his left hand on her right thigh, she slid her right hand round the small of his back, his right hand clutched her left shoulder. It's asking for someone to try to emulate it at home, a sort of DIY Twister. Diagrams should also be avoided.

3. No metaphors or similes. It's all too easy to go horribly wrong. Cue Rowan Somerville who won the 2010 Bad Sex in Fiction award for The Shape of You which contains metaphors such as

"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her".

Molly Ringle won the Bulwer-Lytton Prize in 2010 (for a deliberately badly written opening paragraph) with the following:

" For the first month of Ricard and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss - a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he the world's thirstiest gerbil."

Metaphor and simile are doomed; what seemed a neat idea when it was just you and the laptop, will seem hilarious in print. The exception is when you are deliberately writing about bad sex. Then use all the gerbil imagery you like.

4. Stick in the present. We're writing about good sex here, and with good sex you don't do much thinking about what has happened in the past, or is going to happen in the future. With good sex you're thinking about nothing other than the immediate present. All conscious thought goes out of your head, and you only think about what is happening right now. (I think this is one of the reasons metaphors don't work; they're too conscious.) Concentrate on the sensations happening NOW - taste, touch, sound, smell, sight.

5. Get up close and personal. Remember that your characters are really close to each other physically (one assumes) so only describe visuals that are close up. My near sight's not that good, so for me it's all a bit bleary. Be 100% in your viewpoint character's head, let us see what they see, feel what they feel. The more in their head you are, the more chance the reader will be there too.

Part II tomorrow....

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Driving in the Darkness

It's dark when I drive home from the university. I use the motorway for some of the way, then drop down through twisting country lanes on the back way to my house. The headlights may be on full but they only show a short distance ahead, so I have to trust that I'm going the right direction - I can't tell on these winding roads and there are no signposts or other markers, just hedges to either side.

It seemed like a good metaphor for writing a novel. However much we may plan the book before hand, we're still writing into the darkness, only able to see a short distance in front of us at any one moment. We write, and we write, trusting that we will make it to our destination even though we can't see clearly where we are going.

Alan Bennett wrote in his diaries, "We don't know what we're writing until we've written it." We just have to follow the lights and carry on writing until we're home.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Reactions that Work for You

A student recently presented a piece for workshopping. It had already been workshopped before, and here it was in its shiny new revised state, having taken on board all our previous suggestions. It had taken time and effort and not inconsiderable amounts of ingenuity to get it to this position.

The response was mixed. We liked X but didn't like Y. A didn't seem as effective as the first time we'd seen it. B was the wrong ending, C would have been better. Several things that had been suggested at the last session didn't work as well as we'd thought they would - the original version was in fact better. Overall, the feeling was it was nearly there, but not quite.

Poor author.

I spoke to her privately afterwards and was impressed by her response. Yes, she'd have liked it if everyone had said it was marvellous just as it was. Yes, she was a bit daunted at the amount of work there was still to do. Yes, it was a bit annoying to respond to people's suggestions, and for them to turn round and say now that the first version had been better.

But - and this was what impressed me - it was better to know now so she could make it as good as she could rather than send it out when it was flawed. She'd rather work until there was nothing more she could do, to make sure she was sending out her best effort to agents and publishers. What a great attitude.

I believe it's the sort of attitude which gets you published. I think you need to be able to take feedback, even if you don't like it. I think you need to be able to persist with re-writing even when you're sick to death of working on it. I think you need the sort of pragmatism that says, better to know now when you can re-write, than get rejected for work that isn't your best.

I'd like to be able to wave a magic wand and guarantee that this writer will get published, but I can't. No one can. But I can guarantee that this attitude makes her more publishable than not.

Friday, 3 December 2010


What shall I write about today? I've not got a clue - inspiration has definitely left me. The blank post awaits my typing but I have nothing to say. There must be a million posts out there which start in pretty much the same way, a zillion newspaper and magazine articles. There are probably quite a few novels that begin like this - and an awful lot more that begin the first draft in the same way.

We have to write something, anything, to fill the blank page, and yet our fingers either lie idle or our thoughts stray into solipsism as we busily examine our empty navels.

On a weekly basis I subject my students to the same terrible situation. Write about this, I command, write about that. Their faces stare at me blankly.

'How long have we got?' one might ask, playing for time.

'8 minutes and 35 seconds,' I say brightly. 'Off you go.'

And off they go. Everybody writes something. It might not be long, or original or particularly inspired, but written it is. I want to say that again: EVERYBODY writes something. My students are a talented and lovely lot, but they are ordinary people. When put under pressure, they can always write.

We need to do that to ourselves sometimes. Turn up at the blank page and demand that you write something. It doesn't matter what, just get it down. Inspiration is as much about turning up as it is about good ideas.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Danger of Making Assumptions

I am writing this without wrist supports for the first time in ages. I am writing without wrist pain for the first time in ages. Yippedy-doo-dah! I am also writing this in the awareness that my quickness in making assumptions has led to me suffering wrist pain for ages, so it should be more Twittedy-doo-dah.

When I started getting pain in my wrists I assumed it was RSI from all the typing I did. Every other writer I know gets some RSI; why should I be any different? So I downloaded a few exercises for hands and wrists, bought some wrist supports and carried on. Some times the pain was not so bad, sometimes bad but nothing I couldn't live with.

Then I finished the first rough draft of the WIP and was having a major rethink about the structure which meant no writing. My wrists got worse, to the point of finding driving difficult, which was odd given I wasn't straining them by typing. Finally I went to the doctor who diagnosed....arthritis. Cue what feels like vast quantities of ibuprofen, cue pain free wrists. Cue also feeling a bit older than I did before, and a darn sight more stupid for making assumptions.

We make assumptions all the time. A writes faster than us, B writes better. C is more successful, D is making lots of money. It's all too easy to compare ourselves with others - but it's usually only what we assume is true of others. A boasts of a massive word count on Monday, and we assume it's true of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and beat ourselves up because we don't write that fast. But maybe A is pleased because they've been blocked for the past couple of weeks. We don't know.

Comparisons are dangerous because many - most? all? - of them are based on assumptions. Like my wrists, we'd save ourselves a lot of pain and grief if we didn't make them.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Hooray for all NaNoWriMo-ers

November is over and with it the end of NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. Some people will have written 50,000 words and got their certificate. To them I offer sincere and heartfelt congratulations for having the determination and discipline to see it through.

I was talking to an enthusiastic NaNo-er and they found the deadlines an encouragement. They wrote shedloads and had finished their 50,000 words about five days ahead of schedule. Good for them - it's a huge achievement.

Others won't have made it. To them I offer sympathy. When I tried NaNo last year it completely did for me. The deadlines were a stress too far. I felt guilty in parts I didn't know I could feel guilty about. I stopped writing.

Different strokes for different folks, horses for courses. But, word counts aside, we can learn a lot about our writing process from the experience. My speedy NaNo-er discovered that there was more time available for writing than she'd previously thought. I discovered I don't like additional deadline pressure. I also don't like being told what to do and always want to do the opposite. (I actually knew that before, so I should have known NaNo wouldn't work for me.) I know several Nano-ers this year who started writing in genres and styles they didn't usually write in.

Whatever your results, whether you made the word target or dropped out early, you can learn from the experience. Hooray for all those who tried, and good luck with your novels.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010


I'm currently reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farell which I've been enjoying until...There I am, reading away when, whoosh, she's gone too far and put in something improbable. It shot me out of the book world and into the cold reality of my world. It wasn't a nice feeling at all.

I'm back reading again, but with a wary eye. Will she do something unbelievable again? In a strange way, I now distrust the author, and the wonderful suspension of disbelief has vanished.

It's a funny thing, the contract between author and reader. We give them our time, and they give us another world for a few hours. Seems a good swap to me, and it's what I certainly want from a book, that sense of being absorbed into somewhere else, someone else.

But the relationship is fragile. A clumsy phrase can break it, a thoughtless shift in point of view, an improbability. The writer in me knows why she's done it - on a practical level she needed to shift the story to the next phase and didn't want to spend more time on the build up - but without the build-up it's improbable, and - there - she's lost me.

That's why your first three chapters need to be as perfect as possible. There must be no impediments along the way of getting the reader absorbed into your world. You want the reader to be reluctantly dragged away from the world of your book. Typos fret us. Grammatical errors do it too. The relationship is at its most fragile at the beginning.

I'll be carrying on with Esme Lennox because the improbability has come in the middle. I've already invested quite a lot of time in this relationship; I'll see it out to the end. But earlier on? That's when books get discarded.

Monday, 29 November 2010


You'd think from some of the sites that e-publishing was a universal panacea. Writers are going to overthrow conventional publishers and take control of their own careers and income streams.

There's no doubt that epublishing has become a cheaper, easier and simpler form of publishing compared to conventional print methods. No worries about distribution or holding stock, for example. But the two fundamental problems associated with ALL publishing are still there:

1. How do you let people know about the book?
2. How do you make them buy it?

Neither of these things are as easy as you'd think. Yes, letting people know is easier now there's social networking and yes, you may be lucky and things go viral, reaching out to millions at the click of a button. But they've still got to buy it. Try an experiment. How many books have been brought to your attention over the last week. And how many did you actually buy?

I must have had over a hundred books pass before me, some of them by people I personally know, and I haven't bought a single one. I buy a lot of books, but right now my To Be Read pile is already stacked high and I'm on a book diet. But whatever the reason, people do not buy every book they see or read about - common sense should tell us that. They buy...1%? I wouldn't be surprised if it was 0.01%. The method of publication makes not difference. Getting people to actually put their hands in their pockets and fork out their cash is hard work.

Books aren't like music downloads. How long does it take to listen to a single track? 3 minutes? 5? And how long to read a book? Several hours at least for most people, if not more. Even if people like the idea of your book they still might not buy it because they haven't the time to read it.

All the successful epublishing stories come from writers who either have previously established readerships or are publishing non-fiction - just the same as with print self publishing success stories. And yes, there are writers who have epublished and gone on to land deals with conventional publishing houses, but I wonder why - if their epublishing venture was so successful - they want a print deal? I'd make a guess it's because book marketing is hard work and unbelievably time consuming.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against self publishing - I've done it myself and with the right project would happily do it again. But just because the technology of publishing has moved on, it doesn't mean that the basic principles of selling books have changed:

How do you get people to know about your book, and how do you get them to buy it?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Prizes and Sales

A recent article in the Bookseller reported on the sales push winning prizes gave books. Some of the quantities are surprising - for example...

"Last year's winner of the overall Book of the Year, Christopher Reid's A Scattering (Arete), has sold 12,700 copies to date. The previous recipient of the award, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture(Faber), has sold 376,00 copies to date across all editions."

But then if you investigate a little further, it turns out that A Scattering is a collection of poems, and poetry collections do not sell well, even if they are the Costa Book of the Year.

Prizes are lovely to win (so I've been told) and sales pay the bills, and you can't take everything you read in the press at face value.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Organising Your Life Story

William Boyd was writing in The Telegraph a few weeks ago about the process of adapting his novel Any Human Heart for television. He decided that the novel, written as intimate journals, was too interior to transfer directly to the screen so instead he decided to re-order it by the women that the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, had loved. First Time, First Love, The Rebound, The Love of His Life and so on.

I was thinking that might be an interesting way of organising ones own life story, though it might be a bit less eventful than Logan Mountstuart's. I've seen people organise their story through shoes - first bootees, school shoes, tennis shoes, high heels, sensible shoes, wellies, slippers?

Memoir doesn't always have to be chronological. It can be thematic. These are the headings from Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie:

First Light, First Names, Village School, The Kitchen, Grannies in the Wainscot, Public Death, Private Murder, Mother, Winter and Summer, Sick Boy, The Uncles, Outings and Festivals, First Bite at the Apple, Last Days.

It's fun to write a list of how you'd organise your life. Mine would be in books, starting with Hairy McClairy and A Little White Horse. What about you?

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Perfect Writing Process

I've told several people this over the last few days, and they've reacted as if they've been given the secrets of the universe, so I thought I'd do a blog post on it. It's very simple:

There are no extra marks given for your writing process, all that matters is the finished product.

You can write 2000 words every day, including birthdays and Christmas.
You can write in splurges, 10,000 words this weekend, but nothing until next month.
You can write one perfect sentence at a time.
You can write mad and messy drafts which make no sense.
You can write two drafts to get to the finished product. Or twenty two.
You can write in an office.
You can write in bed.
You can write on a laptop.
You can write by hand.
You can write reclining on a chaise longue dictating your masterpiece to an amanuensis while drinking champagne and eating chocolates.

None of it makes any difference to whether the final work is something someone else might want to read. It really doesn't matter how you get there. The perfect writing process is the one that's perfect for you.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happiness as a Writer

I caught Sister Wendy on television the other day. For those of you who don't remember, she is a nun who had an unlikely hit with a television series about art, ooh, ten years ago? She was wonderful enthusiastic and unselfconscious, but didn't like the limelight or being a celebrity and retreated back to her life as a hermit in a caravan in the grounds of a convent.

I don't know why exactly she was on television when I saw her - I'd put the television on to catch the weather forecast - but I listened to her briefly. Her young and shiny interviewers obviously couldn't believe that a person who'd been famous could be happy now they were out of the limelight.

'Oh yes,' Sister Wendy said, beaming rapturously. 'Happiness is concentrating on something you believe matters.'

How true.

It doesn't matter what it is. Making a meal for the family, playing the piano, working out at the gym. And writing. I believe writing matters, and I'm never happier than when I'm absorbed by it. With all the ups and downs, the disappointments and successes, writing is endlessly fascinating, endlessly absorbing. Writing makes me happy. I hope it does you too.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

What Really Happens with the Slush Pile

The other day I was chatting to a young man about publishing. He revealed he'd spent the summer going through the slush pile of a local publishing house. I asked him what he'd learned from the experience. His response?

1. That many of the entries were written by people who were simply mad.
2. That many entries hadn't thought about who might want to read the material, which was far to personal to be of more general interest.
3. That it was truly incredible how many people sent in manuscripts without any thought for the suitability of the publisher for their work.
4. That it was daft to have a 20 year old judging manuscripts with a view to possible publication.

I actually found that rather cheering. It means that a literate writer who decides to get published and bothers to do their homework re publishers, presentation etc will actually stand out. And I'm not too bothered by the 20 year old bit - he was a sensitive and intelligent young man who had the wit not to dismiss the work out of hand because it didn't immediately appeal to him. If anything, he gave the impression that he'd conscientiously worked hard to overcome any age related bias.

Overall, it's better to have an agent than go through the slush pile, but take heart - if your manuscript is well presented, it should stand out and at least make it to the next round.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

There's No Accounting for Opinions

A student read out two short stories in class and asked which one we preferred. We all plumped for Story 1, which was well crafted and had a v funny twist at the end. Story 2, while well written, lacked focus - and she agreed with us that the real central character was the one the story wasn't ostensibly about.

Then she revealed that she'd entered them in for the same competition and one had been commended. Yup, Story 2, the one we hadn't liked so much. Which shows that...

a) there's no accounting for taste
b) it's all opinion

A story entered for a competition has to get through the initial reading stages. The initial readers may not be writers themselves, they may not even read that much. I suspect this means that in the initial rounds there is a preference for

a) what is perceived as "literary" writing
b) the initial readers don't recognise that easy-to-read writing is actually very hard to write
c) humour is undervalued compared to 'serious' topics - the short list for Wells was surely disproportionally full of death and depression.

So, if you write humour, should you give up entering short story competitions? No, because the humorous short story usually stands out as wonderful relief in a sea of heavy writing. When I was entering competitions I noticed that the 2nd or 3rd prize often went to a comical piece.

I think the only conclusion you can draw is that entering competitions is a lottery because there's no accounting for opinions.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Creating Identification

A student read out the start of his novel in class a couple of weeks ago. It featured a policeman dealing with his first experience of a riot and was well written. It went down a storm. But what struck me was how cleverly he'd engaged the readers right from the start by having the policeman try out what had worked in training. In the training session the pretend rioters had run away. But in the real situation the rioters stood their ground and attacked back. They didn't react as they were supposed to do, and the policeman was overwhelmed by feelings of panic.

Now, most of us don't have direct experience of riots. It's interesting, but we're at one step removed from it. But I think everybody has had the experience of being shown how X is supposed to work, then having a go ourselves and discovering it's one thing when the instructor does it, quite another when we do it.

So, although the exact situation was different, we'd all been through the same general emotions. We could identify with the character, and wanted him to succeed - as we ourselves had wanted succeed when we were in the equivalent situation. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the riot, we were rooting for the character and his very human emotions, which were so like ours.

Put your characters in situations where they experience emotions we can identify with, and we'll engage with them.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Reading and Breathing

A student was talking about wanting to be a writer, but finding it difficult to work out what area they wanted to write in. I asked what they read. They looked at me goggle eyed. 'Oh,' he said. 'I don't have time for reading.'

I think you can't be a writer unless you're a reader too. It may be that you read less right now, but at some point I think all writers have been avid readers. It's how we learn. Just think: Jane Austen never read a How to Write a Novel book, but she still managed to write perfectly structured novels because she'd been a reader first.

You have to read. Reading is the breathing in, writing the breathing out. I don't think it matters much what you read, but I'd suggest that your favourite genre is where you should be writing. You'll have unconsciously absorbed the way the stories are told, the conventions and how some writers break them with success - or otherwise. And unless you understand what the reading experience is like, how can you write it for anyone else?

Reading, reading, reading. It's the greatest How to Write guide there is.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Over at the blog How Publishing Really Works, Jane Smith has declared it Copyright Day and has asked people to blog about it. So I am!

I feel very strongly about copyright. Put simply, what you write is yours regardless of what anyone else thinks unless you have specifically given away your copyright. If you write a letter to a friend, that's copyright. If you write a shopping list, that's copyright too. If you write an article and sell it to a newspaper who put it up on the web, that's also copyright even though it's freely available to read and print off.

Jane's declaration of Copyright Day came about because someone at a magazine in the US didn't realise there was a difference between being publicly available, and in the public domain. Public domain is when an author has specifically chosen to give away their copyright. The magazine editor was copying and using previously published articles without consulting (or paying) the authors. What happened next is on Jane's blog and so I'm not going to cover it here.

It is important to maintain copyright because without it, no author will ever get paid. Why would anyone pay when they could help themselves to the material for free? I feel particularly narked when people who are on salaries complain about paying for material, saying that writers should feel grateful that their work is being read. (This was one of the magazine editor's excuses for why they weren't paying writers.)

Well, hello? Plumbers won't work for the thrill of fixing your cistern, and the garage doesn't give petrol away for the hell of it. Writers have bills to pay too, just like everybody else on the planet. Copyright maintains writers. Support it.

If you want to know more about copyright, go to How Publishing Really Works. Nicola Morgan has also done a good blog post explaining the ins and outs of the law.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Reality v Realistic

I loved Ian McEwan's novel Atonement - though I've had many a discussion about the ending. My mother, normally a McEwan fan, was sniffy. She'd been a nurse at a London teaching hospital during WWII, just like Briony in the book, and pronounced that it was unbelievable.

I was surprised. After all, McEwan had done extensive research at the Imperial War Museum and was even accused of plagiarism due to the similarities in Atonement to No Time for Romance, a novel by Lucilla Andrews who had been a nurse at St Thomas' Hospital during the war.

My mother was unrepentant. 'I can see he's done his research,' she said. 'And I'm sure each of those incidents did happen. But it's unbelievable that they'd all happen to one particular nurse.' In other words, real incidents, but an unrealistic situation.

That's one of the tricks of narrative writing. Real life, but exaggerated. (I'm using the term narrative writing because it's true of non-fiction just as much as fiction.) In real life, when drama comes, we try to go back to normal as soon as possible. In narrative writing, characters rush headlong from one crisis to another. In real life, we get home from work and settle down with a nice cup of tea for an evening's viewing in front of the TV. If a character starts their evening in the same way the author will either interrupt it with a crucial phone call or that's where the scene will end.

Real life, but without any of the boring bits. After all, we can do boring bits at home every day of our own lives. We don't want to read about them, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction. So, McEwan was right to load Briony's life at the hospital with as much drama as he could find in the archives. It may not have been real, but it was realistic - and more to the point, it wasn't boring.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Unbreakable Rule

I was giving feedback to a student whose work I've in the past enjoyed, but the latest submission was, frankly, not that good. Certainly not up to the standard I expected to see. What had happened?

He looked sheepish and explained. He'd had this bit of feedback and that. Someone else had said something. He'd taken it on board, then realised he was near the deadline for submission. Quickly he edited the text moving bits around, changing the order. Drat, over the word count. But he wanted to submit those scenes. Equally quickly he went through again cutting phrases he thought he could get rid of, then printed it out without reading through, and bunged it in the post. He was, he said, hanging his head, embarrassed to have submitted it.

It wasn't that bad. But it did show all the signs of a piece that had been hacked around. Non-sequiturs abounded, locations were never fixed, new characters suddenly popped up from nowhere. Confusion reigned in this poor reader's head.

Most of us are short of time. Most of us are rushing to meet deadlines. Shoving something in the post and hoping it will do is never a good option. It wastes your time and postage. It's frustrating for the reader. If you're in a workshop situation and getting feedback, you get stuck in the situation of nodding your head and repetitively saying, I know, I know, while the reader thinks, well if you know, why did you do it?

I don't think there are many rules about writing, and most of them can be broken. But this rule is one that shouldn't be broken. Never, ever, ever send work out without slowly reading it through aloud and checking it makes sense.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What's the Alternative?

So there I was, half way through a nice little moan about how hard it was being a writer, how difficult it was to push on sometimes, how demoralising it was when you put all that effort into writing and it still didn't come out the way you intended, when my friend cheerily said, 'Oh well, you could always give up and do something else.'

And so I could. It's not compulsory for me to be a writer. I wasn't born with a little tag around my wrist marking me out as a writer, and only a writer. There are quite a few things I fancy doing - run a teashop, work in an art gallery, design and build my own house - that would be perfectly possible.

I could give up. I'd leave five completed and published novels, one nearly finished. Quite a few short stories published, about three waiting to be tidied up. A year's worth of writing effort would be abandoned, which might be a bit of a waste, but no one would die. No one would really care, to be honest. And not writing might make me happier, wealthier, a nicer person to live with.


When my friend suggested I could give up writing, my inner soul made a face like Munch's The Scream. I know several people who started writing fiction at the same time as me but have now given up, and all of them say they were much more contented with life when they were writing than they are now. So I think I'd better stop moaning and just get on with it. Because, seriously, what's the alternative? Not writing, that's what.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tightening Up A Covering Letter 2

Yesterday I looked at the novel description from a real covering letter I worked on with a student (who has given me permission to quote from it in the blog).

This is how his biography originally ran:

I am currently a second year undergraduate student reading Ancient history at the University of Blogville. My passion and study of history, including world religions, has helped shape my ideas and thought processes. This has enabled me to form a rich and realistic world to which the reader can relate. My book has been appraised and edited by the author ABC through the XYZ literary consultants. I have also worked closely with the novelist KLM at the University of Blogville. An article that I have written regarding my novel is to be published in the Blogville University Classics Magazine this December.

Okay, there are several points here.

He's made a big deal of the authentic background to the novel so he's right to say he's studying Ancient History, but there's too much detail.

He says he's had help from two sources - a literary consultancy and a novelist. Now, I think this is dodgy. The implication is, he can't write without extensive help and if an agent takes him on, will he be able to write another book without this level of support? And how much is genuinely his own work, and how much that of his helpers?

And the article he's written about his novel? For his student magazine? It manages to sound both a bit pretentious and inconsequential.

Finally, there's a typo - history should have been capitalised. A covering letter should be perfect.

And this is it rewritten:

I currently study Ancient History at the University of Blogville and this, along with my passion for fantasy, has given me a generous background knowledge upon which I have drawn to write my novel. An article of mine has also been accepted for publication.

He's addressed the main points. He's given just enough personal background to substantiate his claims about his knowledge of the setting. He's ditched the information about the help he's had with writing the novel, and he's gone for the simpler statement that he's had an article accepted. The first sentence is a bit long and clunky, but it's so much better than the first version.

When writing your biography remember to keep it relevant and straightforward. I hope this writer does well: he was a pleasure to work with.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tightening Up A Covering Letter 1

A student came to me with his agent package: covering letter, synopsis and first three chapters. They were pretty good - he'd read my blog! But not faultless. We discussed the package, and he went away and reworked it. He has very kindly given me permission to quote from both to show how a good covering letter can be tightened up.

This is the section describing the novel:

The main theme of the book centres on the twin journeys of two lovers caught in a war between ancient deities fighting for dominion of all humanity. Trapped within the destiny of their Realm, the lovers are driven down a path of deception and epic battles as they grapple with an adversary of their own creation. Their choices and varying situations are presented in a realistic yet fantastic world woven into a narrative delivered with great verve and emotion.

The novel is set in a second world based on our ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. This, along with a unique system of magic and the integration of republican democracy with autocracy, will appeal to any reader of fantasy fiction as well as adding a new flavour to the generic genre. The novel also has parallels with the romantic fantasy genre as it is written from the perspective of both lovers and follows their individual experiences and emotions.

I don't think this is bad - I like the use of strong verbs such as trapped and grapple - but it feels a bit generic. There are lots of big words such as destiny and epic, but I don't know what's going to happen or what the whole book is about. It feels a bit waffly.

This is the final version:

The book centres on two lovers. Thryn’s abandonment as a child in a society closed to outsiders fuels his strive for acceptance in a treacherous world. Nalani, as a strong and independent woman, yearns for absolution from her father when she is deprived of her home. Together, they are trapped within a war between ancient deities fighting for dominion of all humanity. Driven down a path of deception and epic battles, they grapple with an adversary of their own creation as the destiny of their Realm is revealed.

The setting of the novel originates from a unique blend of our ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome. This is coupled with an exclusive religion, system of magic and the integration of republican democracy with autocracy. It will appeal to the readers of authors such as Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and Garth Nix.

This is much punchier. I like the naming of the lovers, and their individual quests are stated. And rather than making claims about how it's going to appeal to everyone who reads fantasy fiction AND adding a completely new genre, instead he shows his understanding of the market by naming best selling authors. I'd read this.

I'll look at his biography tomorrow...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Funny How Life Turns Out

I didn't like writing essays much at school, and I didn't like it at university. In fact, one of my clearest memories is after my final final exam thinking: I will never write an essay EVER AGAIN.

Funny how life turns out.

As the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol I'm giving advice to students about writing. It could be any sort of writing but, hardly surprisingly, essay writing is pretty much top of the list. I've given quite a few lectures on the subject too.

What I've realised is that the process of writing an essay, or an article, or a novel, or a short story, or a screenplay is pretty much the same. You select information and order it in a logical way which leads the reader through from start to finish without losing them on the journey. You pitch it depending on your target audience. The length is dictated by the form, the content is dictated by the length - an essay or short story is about a single idea, the novel, feature length screenplay or dissertation is about several ideas.

Every time I give a talk, I'm using the same skill base - selecting information and ordering it to make a satisfying whole. Same formula for a class, where exercises and readings take the place of quotes and citations. When I work on a novel, I'm asking myself if that bit of information about the central character is relevant, just the same way a student might wonder if they should include a particular reference.

All those years later after that final exam, I now realise I've spent the best part of my life doing what? Writing essays. Funny how life turns out.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Writing is Not Like Porridge

I know that there exist some people who actually like porridge but I am not one of them. I think it's horrid - taste, texture, colour, smell. Nope, I don't like porridge.

I've tried it, because I know it's very good for you, but eat a bowlful - no way! I'm a grown up, and don't have to eat things that I don't like just because they're good for me.

It's worth remembering this when you're writing. You may think you ought to be writing Scene A, because it's the one that comes next so you struggle on, each line feeling as stodgy as, well, porridge. Meanwhile, Scene B is tantalising you with appetising aromas and enticing visuals, but you won't allow yourself to be tempted by Scene B until you've finished Scene A.


Writing's not like porridge, and we're not children being told to eat our greens because 'they're good for us'. We should write the scenes we feel like writing. We don't get extra points for writing our scenes in a particular order, it's the final product that matters. So if you fancy writing Scene B, then go ahead and do it. The only person stopping you is yourself.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Index Cards Strike Again

I've been writing shedloads of the new novel. It's all coming along very well, but I'm starting to wonder about the structure.

At the moment I have a linear pattern. Essentially my main character starts in an okay state, things go very well, then very badly. That's the first section. The second section is all about her recovery process. The third and final section is when it all comes together and stuff gets resolved, and hopefully she ends up in a better place then where she started (I haven't written the ending yet).

Section 1 is emotional, Section 2 has more laughs. I'm not sure that the two are going to sit very well together, that an innocent unsuspecting reader won't feel there's a sudden gear change. What I'm toying with is having Section 1 run alongside Section 2, swapping from past to present.

Hooray for index cards! I've written out two sets of index cards out with one scene per card and laid them out on the bed (you could use a floor or a large table, I like to work in bed). On the left side of the bedspread is the linear form - Section 1 followed by Section 2. On the right hand side of the bedspread is the past/present form - Section 1 alternating with Section 2.

I can see immediately that each version has pros and cons. For example, the alternating form on the right would mean I could ditch some rather boring linking scenes from Section 1. In fact, I could ditch a mini-subplot that I'm not convinced works. This would be good. On the other hand, there's a BIG moment at the end of Section 1 and a BIG moment at the end of Section 2. Now they're plonked bang smack next to each other. This is bad.

Going back to the left hand side of the bedspread, I can see that the BIG moments are spread out. This is good. However, there is still that major disconnect between the sections that led me to try the alternative form in the first place. This is bad.

It will take a lot of staring at the cards before I make a decision, but think about how much easier it is for me because I can see the novel in both forms easily in front of me. There's no doubt about it; index cards are a very useful addition to any writer's toolbox.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

My Mother's Chair

My mother has a fine chair. It's High Victorian, rather throne-like, with an upholstered upright back and a wide upholstered seat that you could imagine accommodating Henry VIII's backside. The chair legs are carved wood, and the armrests are wood below with upholstered tops, supported by carved wood posts. It's pretty splendid until your eye travels the length of the arm rest and, instead of the upholstery swooping over the end, it comes to an abrupt stop, and the final four inches are a nasty bit of cheap wood stuck on the end.

No two ways about it, it looks odd. I can imagine someone on the Antiques Roadshow shaking their head in sorrow and saying, "It would have been worth thousands without the arms, but as it is...who would have done a thing like that?"

My mum, is the answer. I think she bought the chair at an auction years ago. It needed re-upholstering so she had that done, but she had a cunning plan. She knew the ends of the armrests were the first place to wear out so rather than having those little caps made, she decided she'd find, then attach, some lovely carved wood finials. She instructed the upholsterer to finish the armrests four inches short of the rough supporting wood, wood that was never intended to be on display. Needless to say, 20 or so years later, those carved wood finials have never emerged.

So, what's that got to do with anything? In real life people do stuff that looks bonkers to outsiders, but it perfectly well thought through in their own heads and utterly justified. "It seemed a good idea at the time," is an excuse we all find ourselves making at some point or other. My mother's chair is a good example.

You can make a character do absolutely anything, and so long as you take us through their thought processes, their justification process, we'll believe in them. I sometimes think we read just to know how others justify their actions. Paedophilia, mass-murder, whacky upholstery. It all seemed a good idea to someone at the time.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

I'm having a brilliant writing splurge. 3000 words on Saturday, 5000 - yes, 5000 - on Sunday, 4000 on Monday. And it's got me all fired up to write more, more, more. How different it was only a few weeks ago when even the thought of writing was something to be avoided. Writing? What's that? Nothing to do with me, that's for sure.

But now - now I am writing personified. I LOVE being a writer.

And all because it's going well. I'm pretty certain it will fade - I have been in love with writing before; I know I have a fickle heart and can fall out of love quite easily - but at the moment, nothing will part me from my beloved.

And it's going so well because I wrote what I thought was going to be a tricky scene, and it seemed to work. Which inspired me to write the next scene, and the scene after that. Wheee! I was off.

It's vital to have success in our writing to inspire us. Success could come from ourselves - that tricky scene that just wrote itself - or from outside - a word of praise from a writing friend, a mention in a short story competition. It doesn't matter where or who it comes from, so long as we make sure the opportunities for success are built into our writing process.

The two easiest ways of building opportunities for success are to set writing targets and share our work with others. They have to be realistic - a 500 daily word count, not 5000 - or positive feedback in class rather than 4 agents vying for our manuscript. (Not to say that these things won't happen to you, but they're rare rather than regular events.)

Whatever your writing process, make sure you have those successes built in to encourage on the way.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Writing for the International Market

I came across this link to the Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2010, according to the New York Times, and was struck by how different they looked to UK covers.

Different countries find different things appealing. Adultery for Beginners was lapped up by the Spanish, who produced three different versions -hardback, paperpack and a smaller hardback edition especially for newstands - but they haven't taken any of my other books, whereas the Germans spurned Adultery for Beginners, but liked Nice Girls Do and the rest. The same happened with the audio rights, although I did finally sell the Adultery for Beginners audio rights and they came out this summer, ages after all my later books had made it into the spoken word.

Then there's rewriting. The Americans wanted the sex toned down in Adultery for Beginners. The Dutch wanted more sex in Nice Girls Do. The French just wanted everything shorter. Adultery for Beginners sold to about ten countries almost immediately and only one - Norway - renamed it, whereas Nice Girls Do became Under Blue Skies in all the European countries it sold to, though stayed the same elsewhere.

It's really difficult to have a genuine international best seller. There are plenty of examples of authors who are huge in one country never making it elsewhere. Nora Roberts, who the Washington Post described as the most successful novelist on Planet Earth, every now and then gets a push over here, but her books don't seem to 'take' among us Brits. Rosamunde Pilcher is a bestseller here, but way beyond that in Germany - I met a man last year whose sole employment for the past 10 years had been working with German films crews who were in the UK to film RP short stories.

So where does that leave a writer? Back where they've always been. You can't write for anyone but yourself. You can only write the book that comes from your heart. If you're lucky it will appeal to an outside audience, if you're very lucky it will appeal to an international one. But you can't force it. Just be happy if it happens.