Tuesday, 31 August 2010

But Even the Good Go Wrong...

Thinking about advice, and the comments after the last post, and a little niggle of doubt started to form somewhere in my gut.  I'm guilty of giving advice that hasn't worked for the writer and which has put them off.  

The first time I can think of, I completely misjudged the situation.  I was told that the story wasn't autobiographical and like a dimwit I took the statement at face value.  Oh dear.  I can't remember the details, but in the text the narrator appeared to loathe her parents which I commented on.  It did not go down well.  I stuck to my point; what was written on the page was loathing, and if the writer wanted it to be loving, then the text needed changing.  This didn't go down well either.  

Actually, most of the time when things haven't gone well, it's been when there has been a strong autobiographical element.  The time I asked, 'Your narrator is coming across as rather shallow and immature - is that what you intended?'  was another low point as the comment was taken personally (in a rather shallow and immature way, I suppose).

So I know that I'm guilty of putting people off.  I'm sorry if that's you.  My intentions were to be helpful and useful, and I think the advice I've offered has been good.  But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?   

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Who's Giving the Advice?

There's that old saying, those who can, do, those who can't, teach.  I obviously don't think that's true - I LOVE teaching, but I also write successfully - but I do worry sometimes about exactly who is doing the teaching.  

Recently I came across someone who is offering book doctoring services.  This person has never had a novel published, nor have they worked in publishing.  Their only qualifications are that they like doing it, and have worked on friends' novels to the point where they decided to charge for it.  

They may be brilliant - I hope they are.  When I was on my MA course I cheerfully handed out what I felt were incredibly insightful comments to fellow students.  With hindsight, I don't think the comments were that bad.  However, I recognise it was only later that I was able to offer anything truly useful as feedback, when I'd had enough experience of looking at manuscripts and working out feedback as well as writing my own novels and short stories.  

We all have to start somewhere.  But how can someone expect to offer something worth being paid for when their experience is so limited?  What really agitates me is that they're working for a well known literary consultancy which charges serious fees to would-be writers.  The answer has to be, if you're thinking of using a literary consultancy ask who is going to be giving the critique.  

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Which Comes First - Cream or Jam?

I'm being side-tracked at the moment by sun and beaches and cream teas.  Which leads into the riveting discussion about the order you put your strawberry jam and clotted cream on your scone.  Is it jam first, or cream?  

I've always been a cream first person - the cream = butter, and that comes first - but this afternoon I got seduced into trying the jam before the cream.  It looked aesthetically pleasing (and tasted delicious).  Perhaps there isn't a right, or a wrong way, only the way you've always done it.  

Bit like writing a novel.  To plan, or not to plan?  Does it matter how you write it, so long as you get it written?  The answer has to be, no one will care, so long as your work is good.  How you pronounce scone, on the other hand - now that does matter.  

Friday, 27 August 2010

When Bad Advice is Good Advice

I loved my main tutor on my MA course. He gave me terrible advice.  Of course, he didn't mean for it to be terrible advice, but it was - for me.  A couple of examples:  

Halfway through Adultery for Beginners and feeling it was heavy going, I asked him if I should give up and pursue another idea I'd had.  He said yes.
I'd never say this to a student.  I think every one who ever tries to write a novel gets to a point when it seems grim and ghastly and any new idea appears fresh and shiny.  But that shiny new idea will be grim and grisly too at the 40,000 word point. I'd advise anyone to push on through.

When I'd finished the first draft of A for B he said it had been a useful experience, and now I'd got one novel under my belt, I should now ditch it and write another one.
Arghh.  Writing a novel is a huge investment of time and energy, and you can always re-write and make it better.  I've turned round novels several times, cutting characters, adding plot.  I'm not saying it's easy, but it's a darn sight easier than starting another one from scratch.  And quicker too.  

That's just a couple of examples I can remember.  I ignored all his advice, stuck with re-writing A for B, and it went on to be published round the world etc etc.  So, I think you could safely say he gave me bad advice.  

But it was useful because it was consistently terrible.  I learned to do the opposite of what he suggested, and that was the right choice for me.  Sometimes we need to be pointed in a direction for us to know that that direction is wrong.  Bad advice can be very good at clarifying what we really think, at what our instincts say is the right choice.  I loved that tutor - he gave me really good bad advice.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Learning about Writing

When I was doing my MA I asked if we were going to have any talks on craft techniques.  'Oh no,' came the lofty answer.  'We assume that anyone on the course already knows that sort of thing.'

Well, I thought I didn't, but it effectively shut me up at the time.  Now I think, what utter nonsense.  Learning about writing is an on-going process.  There isn't a finite set of answers that you can work your way through, ticking boxes, and by the time you get to the end of the list that's it - bing! - you know it all.  

I'm always learning.  It's one of the things I like about writing.  There's always something new.  Every time I read a book, or go to a lecture or hear another writer speak I learn something.  Sometimes it's a new approach to something I already know.  Sometimes it's a reminder.  And sometimes it's something completely new to me.  I love it!  

An acquaintance recently asked me what I did apart from writing, what my hobbies were.  I felt very dull indeed when I said I didn't have any, I just read and wrote.  (I remembered afterwards I do Pilates, but too late to redeem my terminal dullness. And I go to the cinema a lot, but I usually analyse the scripts in a rather nerdy way so I think that counts as writing related too.)  Thing is, unlike the director of the MA, I think there's so much to learn about writing you could never learn everything.   But it's an awful lot of fun finding out. 


Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Weaving Story Threads

One of the real joys about writing is when you write a section and realise that, without knowing it, you've set up the situation beforehand.  I love it when that happens.  But it doesn't always, and that's when you've got to thread through the different strands of the story. 

Index cards can be useful for this.  You can either allocate a symbol for each thread, or choose a colour, and then go through scene by scene marking where the threads appear.  You see very quickly if there are any holes, and where you need to add a mention of a particular thread to keep it going in the reader's mind.  

Another thing to check is how quickly a thread appears, and if it gets set up properly.  For example, towards the end of Adultery for Beginners I realised I was using colour to show how Isabel was changing and asserting her own independence when she chooses to paint the walls in the house strong yellows, blues and reds instead of magnolia.  I added a scene at the beginning where Neil and Isabel go to choose a sofa.  The main purpose of the scene is for them to discuss her job offer, but I added that Isabel wants to have an adventurous colour whereas Neil goes for a dull brown.  I also added that Neil is keen on texture, and wants a luxurious chenille - a hint of his interior character which will also emerge later.  

Sometimes threads are about plot, sometimes about characters, sometimes they'll be images o symbols.  All need to be woven in carefully to make a cohesive whole.    

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Keeping the Energy for Your Book

I was at a dinner party a few months ago when the bloke next to me, on hearing I was a novelist started to tell me all about the novel he was writing.  I have to admit I glazed over - I like reading novels, not hearing about them - and I particularly lost interest when he told me he'd only written a couple of pages.  I hope he proves me wrong for his sake, but I doubt very much if that novel will ever get 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. I’m frequently being asked about what I’m working on at the moment, and I usually shrug and say, it's a novel.  If some one pushes, I say something about it being more of the same stuff. People give up at that point (if they haven't already).  It's not being rude, it's about saving your energy and enthusiasm for the important stuff, the words you're writing, and not the words you're saying.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Attitude for Writer's Block

  ‘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.  

It's really useful if you're stuck and don't know what to do next.  Just put them somewhere and describe it through their eyes.  At the very least it will get you going, and usually it's getting going that's the problem, not carrying on.  Try it, and see what happens...

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Summer Tricks for Writing

Oooh, I'm so late writing a post for today.  It's summer, and I've become a slacker. But, five novels down, I've learned a few tricks... 

1.  Little and often is best.  Even if there's only ten minutes available, grab it and write.
2. Anything you write can be made better, so it's worth writing rubbish.
3. If stuck, write description: what your character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell.  Where are they? What are they wearing?  How do they feel? What are they thinking?  It's usually good for a couple of hundred words.
4.  You often don't know what you're writing until you've written it.  The act of writing unleashes all sorts of imaginative ideas and connections. Don't think, write.

Which of course is what I should have been doing instead of lying on the beach.  Well, it is summer...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Where do you get your Ideas From?

I'm talking with Emily Barr at Penzance Lit Fest this afternoon, and when we were discussing it, she said the one question she didn't want from the audience was 'where do you get your ideas from?'

It's one of the standard questions writers get asked. 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.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Coffee and Petits Fours

And now it's on to the last stage of this lovely meal. The cutlery has disappeared and you're now going to add the finishing touches. Sometimes writing is perfectly OK, there's nothing technically wrong with it, but it can feel bland or dull - Janet and John writing, for those old enough to remember that reading scheme. I've written about adding Pzazz before, but this is it, your moment to check that your writing is as good as you can make it.

Look for opportunities to add colour and edge. It could be a bit of neat description or an amusing metaphor, a nifty bit of dialogue or a pacy bit of action. I go through my texts with a highlighter pen and mark all the bits I think add pzazz. There have to be at least 5 on each page and if not, I add some. Ideally, there are many more than that. They may be small, but the accumulated effect is of energy and colour. (I hope.) Here are a few of mine, all of which I know I added at this stage.

* He was wearing short sleeves, but the ghosts of leather patches circled his elbows like wreaths of pipe smoke
* A laugh dirty enough to plough
* Steve looked mildly surprised, not dissimilar in expression to a Hereford bull suppressing hiccups
* Dancing to the rhythm of the music (though not entirely with it), spiralling away like a drunken daddy-longlegs.
* A knife sat in an opened jar of peanut butter, like Excalibur waiting for King Arthur

Or you might need to up the pace by making a quick cut from one scene to another...

And then Briony split up from Jerry.
'To be honest, it's a relief more than anything else,' Briony said, apparently without a concern in the world, as they made their way through a group of French school children cluttering the pavement outside the Abbey. 'Jerry asked me if I was shagging Simon, and I said yes - was that a problem?'

As well as getting the pace going quickly it has the added advantage of some insider info - if you live in Bath you know all about parties of French schoolchildren cluttering the pavements.

And then when that's all done, sit back and bask in glory.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Pudding

And now we come to the bit that most people think of as re-writing, editing. This is the point when we examine every line and justify its place in the scene, and then having justified the line, we consider every word.

Reading out loud is a great help at this stage, checking that it reads smoothly. The big proviso is that you must read accurately - I notice that quite a few students read what they'd like to see rather than what is actually on the page. Words get cut, contractions are made which simply aren't there. (Contractions are things like I will becoming I'll - we do it in speech, but some people tend not to when writing. It depends on the writing style, but no contractions can make the writing appear very stilted.)

Two books I'd recommend at this point: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I've got a long line-editing checklist that I hand out to students, and I might post some chunks of it at some stage when I'm feeling waspish but a simple version is...

* cliches (heavy heart, golden curls)
* autonomous body parts (her lips curved into a smile)
* active description
* strong verbs
* strong nouns rather than adjective plus weak noun ( a breeze rather than a light wind)
* check dialogue attributions
* be direct rather than passive
* use specific words
* name names and be consistent
* watch out for similar character names (I write as someone who once had Pat and Patrick in the same novel
* delete qualifiers - a little, very, just, kind of, sort of, quite, rather
* watch for repetition
* check grammar, spelling and punctuation
* vary paragraph and sentence length
* vary starting words (it's all too easy having a whole para filled with sentences beginning the same word)
* avoid unnecessary punctuation eg exclamation marks and italics, capital letters, underlining.

I could go on, but read the books and you'll come up with your own list.

If you're really lucky you have a nit-picky friend who'll happily edit your work. A friend like this will sometimes make you say 'thank you' through gritted teeth, but remember that you don't have to change anything and it stops you having to do as much work. Edit, edit, and edit some more until it feels like your eyes are going to fall out and go splat on the manuscript. But it will be worth it and soon pudding will be over and it's time for the last stage, coffee and petits fours.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Meat

The previous re-writes were very much about getting the novel into its finished shape. Once I'm happy with the outside shape and feel, I'm now moving closer to the substance of the novel: the scenes. This is where the meat of the novel is.

Rather as I looked for problems with the novel's overall structure, I'm looking for problems with the scene as a whole - outside working in again.

* is it clear where and when the scene takes place (preferably contained within the first para)?
does the timing make sense, do people have long enough to go from A to B, or conversely, if A and B are close together, do they cover the ground quickly?
* are people active throughout or are there any bits when the characters are waiting for something to happen? Do I need to re-write to correct this?
* is it clear what the characters' attitudes are to each other, the location, the situation?
* are any patches of description too long? too wordy? too complicated?
* is there enough description of setting etc?
* if I have to describe a place or an action, is it easy to understand what's going on?
* are characters moving about, or are they static - worse, are they drinking tea? Could I move it to another location which would add a new dimension to the scene?
* if there is flashback, is it justified? Is it adding to the storytelling in an active way? Is there any way i could incorporate the information into the narrative?
* am I moving the story forward?
* is the scene anchored in reality or has it floated off?
* does the balance of white space to text work?
* is the scene too long or too short? Is there enough going on, or too much?
* does it end at the right place?
* would a reader want to read on?
* does the scene have the right pace, is there a good shape to it?
* does something happen? Or is it just events?
* are the characters plausible, consistent, believable, sympathetic? Would I like to spend time with them?

I go through every scene in this way and re-write until I feel I've dealt with all the queries, issues and problems. This may involve moving bits around, cutting and adding. That done, it's on to pudding...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Fish

Now we're moving onto something with a bit more protein. I've decided roughly on the scene order and if there need to be any new scenes, or if some are being taken away, or combined. I'm now thinking about the characters.

The main character starts the process. I'm looking at their development - is it logical? Do they make any sudden jumps that are inconsistent? Have I explained where they're coming from? Do they have enough conflicts? Should I add another level of difficulty to their lives? They carry the story, so they need to be strong enough. If not, they need extra scenes to show how and why they're changing or behaving in the way they do.

I expect my main character will be present in all of the scenes as I usually write from a single viewpoint, but if I was writing from a multiple viewpoints I'd be checking that everyone their fair share of the story-telling. When I did this process with Adultery for Beginners, I discovered that one character dominated the story telling. I decided they deserved to take centre stage entirely and took out the other characters' viewpoints. This involved a serious rewrite - I eventually changed about 90% of the scenes. Painful, but necessary.

But even though I write from a single viewpoint, I want to make sure that the secondary characters have their own story. I don't want them to be just hanging around for the main character to show up, they need their own lives. For example, Lorna in Kissing Mr Wrongchanged to Briony in the subsequent drafts and got a life. She goes through her own development and her own story and her life has changed by the end of the novel. As a writer who is a former actor, I like to think that there aren't any duff roles in my books.

I'm also looking for gaps. In Nice Girls Do for example Anna goes up to London to stay with her boyfriend Oliver, who she's completely besotted by, and everything else gets left behind including the lovely Will who isn't mentioned for pages on end. Now it's reasonable for Anna not to think about Will as she throws herself into Oliver's luxurious lifestyle, but I didn't want the reader to forget him. So I had to add a couple of quick scenes to keep Will, if not physically around, then present in Anna and the reader's consciousness. You'd do the same thing if, for example, you had two main story lines but one of them was on the back-burner for a while.

By now the index cards are getting a bit messy. If I remember I use one colour initially, then use a different colour for added scenes. I staple scenes together if I'm going to combine them, make lots of notes, rewrite the card if it's getting v untidy. Finally I've got a stack of index cards that I'm happy with. At this point I re-write the novel from start to finish using the cards to guide me. When I started writing novels I needed to do this process several times. When I'm happy with the shape it's on to the next course.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Soup

The first course is soup, a lovely liquid mass. It's contained within the bowl, but can flow anywhere. Look at the cutlery and choose the spoon furthest away from the plate - you're working from the outside inwards, remember.

The reason I say go outside inwards is it makes no difference how beautiful any individual sentence is, if the whole thing is wrong, if the story telling doesn't work, if there are problems with structure, then no one is ever going to read that perfect sentence. So, the story, the structure, the shape has to be right before you start fussing over adjectives and verbs.

At this stage I like to put the story down on index cards, one card per scene. On the card you write the setting, characters present, the purposes of the scene and the main action. This is one I wrote for an early draft of Another Woman's Husband.

Setting: Don't actually know! next page, B's house somewhere. Also, not dated.
Becca and Lily. Becca dreaming of Paul, Lily wanting to go out late clubbing. Frank rings, wants Becca to go round and help. NB Frank last mentioned/seen when? Pages ago.

And a couple from Kissing Mr Wrong...

Setting: Lorna's place. Dinner party. L's invited Marcus for Alex. Other people there NB should have been mentioned in opening scene. Skiing trip mentioned - Alex will need to find the money. Lorna offers her job in the gallery.

Setting: ????? Alex and Lorna. Alex talks about a) career, she's gone adrift b) Marcus as perfect man c) what to do about photograph. Lorna a) tells her M's going to Glasgow b) suggests Gus as possible re photograph

Obviously, as I was writing out my index cards I realised there were some problems which would need to be addressed should the scenes remain in the next draft and made notes accordingly. But that's for a future stage. Right now I'm checking that it's clear what the purposes are for each scene and how they move the story on.

When I've gone through the whole of the novel I've got a stack of index cards. I lay these out on the bed (I work a lot in bed). This is the easiest way to 'see' the novel as a whole. I'm looking for various things, all concerned with structure -

* is the 'shape' of the novel right, with exciting stuff happening throughout (the cherries - see earlier post)
* is there a good balance between active and reflective scenes (ie pace)
* do scenes flow ie have I set actions up
* are there any obvious holes - a character goes missing for a while, a plot strand is unresolved
* is the timing right? eg if someone becomes pregnant in Jan, do they have the baby in the autumn? At this stage I work out exactly when each scene takes place and note any bank holidays or other events that may affect the story.

I move scenes around, I add them, I take them away, I combine them. Anything. It's a fluid process (it's soup!). When I'm happy with the shape of it, it's on to the next course.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Dinner Party Editing: Napkins on the Lap

Have you ever been to a posh dinner and been presented with a vast array of silverware spreading in ranks either side of your plate? Re-writing is like dealing with all those forks and spoons without getting it wrong and spilling soup down your front, or using the butter-knife to eat your peas. The simple answer is to start from the outside and work your way in.

I'm a BIG fan of rewrites. I think the quality of the rewrites is the difference between getting published or not getting published. (I can hear the planners clattering away at their keyboards about to lay into me for wasting time and not being efficient enough to do a decent piece of work first time round but hey - this is my blog, right, and what I say goes.)

The first thing to do is put the book away for as long as you can manage. The longer you leave it, the more distance you have. The more distance you have, the more you read like a disinterested reader, and the more you're able to spot problems. There's what you think you wrote and there's what you actually wrote, and if you're too close you can't see if there's a gap.

When I did this on my first novel the gap was about four months, mainly because I was incensed that the world hadn't realised what a startling work of genius had just landed on their doorstep and turned it down. Cue metaphorical flouncing out of the room and mega sulks from me. When I did finally go back I was ready to concede that the world might have a point.

So imagine spreading your starched linen napkin across your lap, gearing up for the lovely meal ahead. You've been thinking about it for ages, you've got various ideas as to what you might expect to see but you're open to whatever turns up on your plate. You know it's going to take time to get through all the courses and you're ready for that. Psychologically you're prepared for it to take as long as it needs. Ready? First course coming up...

I'm still having internet access problems, so rather than getting myself worked up because I'm missing a day, I've decided to re-post these ones on editing as I reckon holidays are a good time for everybody to be thinking about a rewrite, and hopefully by the time I've finished dinner, my internet connection will be up and running.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Is Advice Always Helpful?

Recently I've come across two instances of people giving a writer what they genuinely considered to be helpful advice. Both times they were being supportive: take no notice of that criticism, was the gist of it. You're a wonderful writer.

Hmm. I'm all for being supportive, and there are times when we need the back up from our friends and family regardless of the facts, but I don't think it's always helpful. There was a comment in the paper last week from Martin Freeman (the new Dr Watson) about this. He remarked on those people who auditioned for shows like the X Factor who had been told by their family they could sing, and then were cruelly exposed on national television.

In both these instances, although the supporters were being kind, I felt that some tougher talking would be better. Constructive criticism may hurt sometimes, but in real life we can't all win the race, we can't all get a certificate just for entering. Sometimes you need to know that what you've done isn't good enough. It's hard, but there it is.

And if you know it isn't good enough, you have the chance to make it better, and that's the great thing about writing. You can always make it better.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Is Talent Enough?

I didn't watch Britain's Got Talent until a friend emailed me with a YouTube link saying, you've got to watch this.  So I obediently did and, like millions of people, saw Susan Boyle's first audition.  I was, again like millions of people, totally captivated by it.  She has indisputably got talent.  

Her appearance on the programme has meant that her voice has been heard around the world, but she wasn't a complete unknown when she appeared.  She had sung locally, even cut a couple of discs, but her personality wasn't such that she could maximise on that.  Even with the support of Simon Cowell's team, it was touch and go if she could go further than the programme.  

Talent isn't enough.  Talent is required, of course, but you need more.  You need to be able to capitalise on your lucky breaks, and you need to be able to create them for yourself.  As Jimmy Durante is supposed to have said, the harder I work, the luckier I get.  When I was at drama school, the most talented students weren't necessarily the ones who got work on leaving.  It was a combination of factors: making contacts, following up opportunities, keeping aware of the industry and where the work was.  

Same with writing.  If you want to be published you have to develop a range of skills on top of the talent that you have.  If life was fair the brilliantly talented would get the rewards they deserved, but life isn't like that.  Which, speaking as a non-brilliantly talented person, is a jolly good thing!  Make the most of what you have, and don't worry about what anybody else is doing.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Romantic Myth of Writing?

Oh dear.  I was listening to the radio this morning discussing the Manchester Writers.  At one point the presenter studied the original manuscript for Howard Spring's Fame is the Spur and expressed amazement at how perfectly it was written out, with hardly any corrections - proof, he felt, of a different era when writers had to put pen to page with the novel already planned in their heads.  It didn't seem to occur to him that this might be a 'good' draft, the final result of many scrappy and untidy drafts.  

It's a lovely idea that - if you're talented enough - books simply flow from brain to page.  I wish!  Maybe there are some extraordinarily talented people around for whom that's true, but I simply don't believe it.  Yes, it's tedious writing stuff out by hand and I can see how now we all use computers, it may appear incredible that anyone writes out a whole novel by hand, corrects it, and then writes it out again, but it's what people used to do.  

Obviously you wouldn't want to do it too often, so pre-computer age writers were more careful about what they wrote, but I don't believe there were many single draft manuscripts about.  Those who wrote serials - Dickens, for example - didn't have the opportunities to correct their stories once they'd gone to press, but I think all writers take the opportunity to revise if they can. And if that means handwriting several drafts, so be it.

And if anyone says otherwise, well, writers lie!  We don't always want to expose our working practices, so smudge over the truth.  Perhaps it sounds better to some if a writer is taking dictation, as it were, from their subconscious rather than doggedly writing and re-writing until you've got something worth publishing.  Some writers may indeed wait for inspiration from their 'muse' before they put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, but none that I know of. 

Writing is creative, but it also involves hard work.  I'm not a very disciplined writer personally, but at some point I do sit down and actually write enough consistently to make a novel.  I don't wait for 'my muse' - if I did, I'd not be able to pay the bills.  

Sorry this has come late - I'm still without internet access at home - and have been reduced to writing this in a beautiful hotel with WiFi, sipping a delicious cup of tea while I stare out at the lawns stretching towards a verdant valley...

Wednesday, 11 August 2010


What's the point of having a blog if you can't have a little rant from time to time? I ban computer discussion from my classes as I find them terminally dull. Computers, like cars, are functional bits of kit that should get you from A to B without fuss.

And then they stop functioning.

So, right now at this moment, I am using a library computer, half an hour access at a time. It's not conducive to inspiration. And yet...

When I first got excited by writing - which is not the same time as when I first started writing - nothing would stop me. I wrote when builders dust surrounded me, I wrote sitting on a camp stool hunched over the laptop burning my thighs (I soon acquired one of those TV dinner trays which solved that problem), I wrote on the kitchen table tapping away with one hand while passing the ketchup with the other. Basically, I wrote regardless of my circumstances.

People do. They write in prisons, they write while holding down three jobs. They write when they are exhausted from dealing with the emotional demands of their friends and family. They get up an hour early and write.

If you are a writer, you write. No circumstances, certainly no computer problems, will stop you. You are a writer, you write. That's all there is to it.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

No Unsoliciteds - an Experiment

So I was teaching a course a couple of weekends ago and gaily telling people to always send to a named editor. 'How do we find out their names?' they asked.

'Oh, it's easy,' I cheerfully replied, never having tried it myself. 'You just Google them and do a bit of research.'

Hmm. I felt a bit guilty afterwards. I've been telling people for YEARS that Google will reveal all, confident that it will. But maybe it doesn't. So, an experiment. I've had a go at writing a couple of children's picture books that were taken up by a publisher, but got no further than the editing process when I pulled out. I hadn't done anything else with them since, but I'd been vaguely thinking I ought to get them out there. My agent doesn't handle children's fiction, so I'd be on my own.

Armed with an out of date copy of the Children's Writers and Artists Yearbook I decided to see how easy it was to track down a named editor. Answer...not that easy, but perfectly possible. It took me about 3 hours max to track down an editor at every main children's publishing houses - fifteen in total - and get a title of a book they had edited that I could refer to in my covering letter.

How? I started by Googling names in my 4 year old CWAY, plus either publishing or picture books. That usually brought up something. I particularly looked for articles about them or their authors. Quite a few had been interviewed on writing sites, and a common question was "which book are you most proud to have been involved with?" Bingo! Several others had spoken at writing conferences.

I could always get a list of picture book authors from that publishing house, so the other thing I tried was googling their name plus blog. Some people helpfully wrote about how they'd just had lunch with their editor Ms X.

So there we have it. Fifteen covering letters to named editors, all with some personal reference to a book they have been involved with that I think might be a bit like one of my stories. The next hurdle is that most of them claim they don't read unsolicited manuscripts. I will report back...

Monday, 9 August 2010

The Third Way

When I was starting I tried pitching my book about an adulterous affair to a publisher. She didn't actually yawn, but she might as well have done. "The problem with books about marriages in trouble," she said, "Is that we know there are only two choices - they stay together, or they don't. There's a limit to how many books like that you want to read.'

Owwww. Talk about depressing! Especially as I'd written an ending where they stayed together, but had then decided on an ending where they'd split up. She was right. Those were the two outcomes and a life doing something else like working on a supermarket checkout beckoned.

But I'm the sort of person that if you say 'can't' to, I become even more determined to do whatever it is. I therefore needed a third option. I thought for a bit - alien abduction? death? I couldn't think of an alternative to the stay married/separate choices.

Then the brainwave. What if the book ceased to be about the marriage? What if the book was about the woman's search for meaning and purpose in her life? She could do that whether she stayed married or got divorced. In other words, the bored publisher's comment became irrelevant. So I re-wrote with that in mind and Adultery for Beginners became, yes, a book about an affair, but that's not what it's really about.

I think - and of course it may be just me - that it's all too easy to fall into established patterns of thinking. The book events are about marriage, therefore the book is about marriage. But actually, it's usually about something else entirely, and as writers, it's our job to find the something else.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

More Talking

Thinking about yesterday's post, how dialogue is fuelled by emotion, I thought you might like to try this exercise.

A: Hello. Come in.
B: Thanks. It's been a long time.
A: Would you like a cup of tea?
B: Please.
A: Milk and sugar?
B: Neither, thanks. I like it black.

Tea drinking scenes! They should really be banned, not encouraged. How dull. How mundane. How static. That said, now have a go at writing up this scene, adding all the description and emotions, but without removing or adding any other dialogue. The dialogue may not be changed at all.

Write it with this scenario in mind...A and B are twins, but they fell out some time ago. Now, B has made contact with A and asked to meet up. What A doesn't know is that B is ill and needs a new kidney. A should be the perfect match. Remember, all through this rather banal dialogue exchange there is just one thought burning through B's mind: will A donate a kidney? Write it out, and see the difference knowing the emotional situation makes.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Why Are You Talking?

Seriously, why are you talking? What makes you talk? Think about it...

I'd guess the answer is, you open your mouth and utter when you have something to say. And that something to say is in response to another stimulus - your emotions. Even if it's a simply 'good morning' type of exchange with your neighbour or the postman, that's an emotional response - you want to be friendly or polite.

Of course, quite a lot of our dialogue in real life is about being friendly or polite, and there's also the desire to be helpful, to give information but some of it will be fuelled by stronger emotions. Jealousy. Anger. Love. Fear. Whatever the emotion may be, I'm pretty certain that you're not randomly opening your mouth and letting a stream of consciousness pour out. You have reasons for speaking.

Same with written dialogue. It's fuelled by emotion. Once you know what the characters emotions are, you'll know what they have to say. And because it's fiction, and not real life, most - all? - of the situations we show our characters in are going to be subject to the more powerful emotions. Bertie Wooster may be written to amuse and entertain, but for Bertie the absurd situations he finds himself in are often fuelled by fear. It's funny to us, real to him.

When writing dialogue I find it best not to think about what they say. Instead I think about why they're saying it, what emotion is driving it. And then, what they say just comes.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Writing for the Market?

I always say don't write for the market because there's usually a substantial time delay between you starting a novel, finishing it, getting a publisher and then out on the shelves. Even if you have a contract that process is going to take at least two years (a year to write, a year for the publisher to do their stuff) and in that time the market will have moved on.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be aware of market trends. I was giving feedback on a student's work where the main character is rich. Big house, no need to work, no money worries rich. This worried me. We're in a recession, people are losing their jobs, lots of us have debt...could we sympathise with a main character who didn't have money problems?

Yes, there is a genre of books about rich people swanning about in private jets and jumping onto yachts in the Caribbean, but outside that niche, I think most characters are, well, more like most of us. I may be completely wrong about this - and it's 100% the student's choice on what to do - but my instinct says it's harder to get sympathy going for a character who isn't having at least a bit of squeeze financially.

In Kissing Mr Wrong I thought very carefully about a character who argues against giving money to premature baby units - something which is generally considered 'a good thing' although there are lots of logical reasons why it isn't. He's not the main character though, and I then gave him a personal, emotional, tragic reason behind his logical ones, which the main character is then doubly sympathetic to. But I did - and do - worry about it. He couldn't be too unsympathetic about premature babies or the readers would take against him, and by association, my main character.

But that is, essentially, writing for the market. I'm writing with the majority of my likely readership in mind and I hope they will either agree with his utilitarian views or react as the main character does. But generally I write characters who conform to what I think is the majority viewpoint and I do think about my target readership.

So perhaps I should rephrase it: don't write for the market, but be aware of it.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Trying to Write

I'm trying to write. Honestly. Which is why I'm in my office sitting at my big computer doing a blog post instead of being in bed with my laptop writing a novel.

I'm trying to write. But I'm not really being honest. If I was, I'd be tapping away on the lap top, and not here. But because I'm 'trying' - trying to lose weight, trying to be honest, trying to get the work done - I'm hoping for a few points for effort. Let me off the hook - I'm trying!

I've heard students say this. 'I tried to get the writing done, honest.' And because I'm a mean, horrid person, I've put a pen down on the table in front of them.

'Try to pick the pen up,' I say gently. They pick the pen up, and I put it back down. 'I didn't ask you pick the pen up, I asked you to try to pick the pen up.' They look puzzled for a few seconds, then get the point. You can't 'try' to pick a pen up, you can only pick the pen up, or leave it.

I'm not trying to write. I'm either writing, or I'm not. End of.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

My Dear Dog Tan

My dear old dog has been ill since Easter with a stomach tumour. He was prescribed steroids and rallied, although he was getting noticeably weaker as time went on. I didn't know what to do. There was only one place he was going. It was a case of when, not if. I wanted to do the right thing by him, because he had been such a good dog.

So, what was best? A lot of people told me I would know when it was the right time, that it was obvious when a dog was miserable or in pain. But was that the right thing to do? Surely I wanted to avoid pain and misery. Therefore he should make the final visit to the vet while he was still wagging his tail and perking up his ears. I fretted. I worried. I was conflicted. It was so important to get this right.

And with my writer's cold eye, I watched my agonised twisting around the conflict I felt. I checked all those emotions, the wanting to do the right thing, coupled with the knowledge that a sick dog was a tie and I had a weekend away speaking at the RNA Conference with no one to look after him. That dilemma was solved when a dear friend offered to drive 200 miles to dog sit for me, but there were more dilemmas in the offing, more times away when he couldn't come with me any more. What was the right thing to do? Selfishly, I hoped I'd come down in the morning and find him cold in the hall. I hoped for it, I dreaded it.

If I had been a character in a novel I would have acted but, this being real life, I dithered. Last weekend he stopped eating properly. Treats like eggs and cheese were ignored, although on Sunday he scoffed a complete pack of bacon. He walked like a drunk, always in danger of the sudden collapse. On Monday morning he was so sad, and I knew it was time.

He hadn't been able to get in the car for some time, and he was too big for me to carry so we walked down to the vet's surgery, just around the corner, taking our time. He sniffed walls and lamp posts diligently, and wagged his tail at a passing stranger who stopped for a chat. I wondered if I was doing the right thing, but then he struggled to climb the kerb when we crossed the road, he was so weak. At the vet's he lay on the floor with his head in my lap, and I stroked him and told him he was a good dog, the best dog, and then he gently, quietly drifted to sleep. My dear friend for 13 years. RIP Tan.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

3 Reasons why you should hit the Slush Pile Now

Are you going on your summer holidays? I'm off in September, but lots of my friends are away now, and will be over the summer. The publishing industry is pretty much the same as the rest of the country; many have children so have planned their holidays to coincide with the school holidays. Staffing levels are low, so you might have thought it was the worst time to hit the slush pile.

Wrong! This is perhaps the best time ever to hit the slush pile!

1. For every member of staff who have children, there are as many - if not more - who don't. Publishing is stuffed with people in their 20s who are as yet child-free. But, perhaps because it's a female dominated industry, there will be many senior editors who will be taking time off. Things do slow down in the summer because people are away so there's less work to do, but lots of staff will be at their desks throughout the summer months - and even if they go away, it's only for a couple of weeks. Time to hit the slush pile.

2. What do you do when you're about to leave for a couple of weeks holiday? It's only human nature to want to leave a tidy/empty desk. Editors and agents often make a big effort to clear a slush pile back log before they go off on holiday. Take advantage of it.

3. Going through the slush pile is a nice occupation for a literate young student on work experience. They can't do too much harm, and are quite capable of weeding out the complete no-hopers. When do students do work experience? Yup - the summer holidays.

If you're ready to go, don't wait until September when agents and publishers start getting ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair at the beginning of October. Get in there now!

Monday, 2 August 2010

Lessons from Toy Story 3: The Most Important Character Trait

Lots of people have said Toy Story 3 is about growing up, about leaving childhood behind. Well, yes, I suppose it is, but I think there's another, more interesting theme going on. It's about loyalty, specifically, loyalty to a group versus loyalty to an individual.

Loyalty is the one characteristic no main character can afford to lack. I think it's the one that readers value most highly. Even anti-heroes such as Hannibal Lecter display loyalty. And the real bad guys are usually the ones who should be loyal - to their friends, to their country, to their cause - and yet sell out.

What I loved about Toy Story 3 is the way Woody is conflicted. He loves Andy, and Andy is loyal to him: he's going to take Woody away to college with him, but leave the other toys safe in the attic. The other toys, not unnaturally, want to be played with and loved. They want to go elsewhere. Woody has a big conflict here: he wants to stay loyal to the group AND loyally go away to college with Andy. He will have to choose...

It's a great situation. Both options are "good" options, but he can't do both. The conflict drives the story. Sometimes he makes a choice, but circumstances draw him back to make the choice again. There isn't a right choice, and a wrong choice - both options involve someone getting hurt. It's a fabulous conflict, applicable in many situations. Superman has it - does he save the earth, or Lois Lane? Or Alec Leamas in John le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, who must choose between personal loyalty and loyalty to his country.

Often for the conflict to be resolved the writer must find a third way. Woody's conflict is resolved at the end in a very satisfying way, and so is Alec Leamas' although it has a very different feel. But what has kept us gripped is the big decision - which should they choose? Which would you choose?

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lessons from Toy Story 3: Twist in the Tale

I watched Toy Story 3 with complete delight - and as well as laughing, shed tears and bit my nails at various points. There's one bit that I watched with horror - real, genuine, fists in the mouth horror (what small children make of that section, I dread to think). Part of my horror was I couldn't see how the intrepid toys were going to escape. Oblivion was certain. And then...

...They were saved! I laughed with relief - hooray! And the reason I was laughing, the best bit was, it had already been set up. It was completely unexpected, because I'd forgotten about the set up, but the second I saw it I realised I'd been caught. It's like the magician's trick of directing your focus so you don't see him hide the card.

We love it. We love magicians, we love jokes that catch us out, we love getting the murderer wrong when we read detective stories, we love the twist-in-the-tale - so long as we don't guess it. I was very fed up - and it spoilt the book for me - with Salley Vicker's Miss Garnet's Angel because the blurb on the back promised me a stupendous twist I wouldn't see coming. But I did. It seemed so obvious to me, I couldn't believe it was the twist and thought I'd misread the ending. Yet another book using a similar twist - Nicci French's The Memory Game - had me gripped, even though the circumstances are fairly implausible, because it arrived as fresh as it does in Toy Story 3.

If you're writing a big reveal you need to make it plausible as possible, which means you need to set it up nice and early. You need to be consistent with the information you give out and not cheat by withholding stuff, but you also have to have enough exciting stuff going on so the reader doesn't have time to ponder the information you've given them. Give the set-up and then move very swiftly on to something new, something different so the reader gets distracted.
Remember: we want to be surprised, we want to be fooled. Set us up, and catch us out. We love it.