Thursday 30 September 2010

55,000 Words And You're Finished - What To Do

The standard length for an adult novel is 80,000-100,000 words and while you might just get away with 70,000 (or 110,000) you're not going to get one under 70,000 published as a first time novelist.  Sorry.  

If you're in a tutorial with me, what you will say at this point is that you like spare, minimalist writing, and I will say, so do I, but the publishers simply doesn't buy novellas from unknown authors. If you want to get published, your novel needs to grow...

1.  Missing scenes.  When I read short manuscripts there are usually scenes that are referred to, but not written.  Sometimes they're ones that seem vital to me as a reader.  You'd only need 5 new scenes at 3,000 words each to hit 70,000 words.

2.  Linear writing. If your novel goes straight to the point without much diversion it's going to be short. Try adding some diversions aka subplots.

3.  Minor characters.  Look for minor characters that could be developed more fully and given stories of their own.  In Kissing Mr Wrong, one of the differences between draft 1 and draft 2 was that Briony (a minor but vital character) got her own story which developed throughout the novel in parallel to the main one.  

4.  Sparse writing.  It's good for readers to have to do some work, that's how you engage a reader, but if they have to work too hard they'll give up and go read something else. Readers aren't stupid or determinedly dim, but reading is a form of entertainment, not hard labour. Sometimes you can over do the sparseness as you prune and prune.  It's about getting the balance right.  

5.  Description.  I'm not suggesting you suddenly shove great wodges of descriptive writing into your novel to get the word count up, but readers need a bit of description to help them imagine places and people.  Some manuscripts look more like film scripts as there is no description in the dialogue sections.  

6.  Internal thoughts.  There is a tendency for some writers to write in cinematic third person, ie no internal thought.  In my experience this is usually a sign of a writer who watches film and television, but tends not to read that much. The novel reads like a prose version of a film script.  This is a shame, as one of the fabulous qualities of prose is that it's the only art form where we know what another person is thinking.  Add thoughts, add attitude.  Your readers will thank you for it.

7.  This is a desperate trick, and one that I tend to use in the horrible first stages of the first draft when I am obsessed with word counts, but play around with names.  Mary Smith can become Mary Jo Fortescue Smith easily and will add to the word count without too much stress.  

I am an under-writer, in that my first drafts are usually around 60,000 words.  Each time I revise I feel I'm cutting like mad, but I also add all of the above (except No 7, that's a first draft trick) and my novels end up at around 95,000 words.  

Wednesday 29 September 2010

150,000 Words And Still Going - What To Do

There are some people from whom the words just flow.  They write and write and write and I have to admit, as someone from whom the words have to be cranked out with pain and difficulty, I am always a teensy bit jealous when I meet a student who cheerfully confesses that their novel is nearly finished at 150,000 words.  

But the sad truth is, you won't get a deal with a long novel as a first timer.  Paper costs money and it's twice as expensive to print a 150,000 word novel as a 75,000 word one.  (Most of those mega blockbusters that could double as doorstops were printed in the 1980s when paper was much cheaper than now.)

So you're going to have to cut.  This is going to hurt, but there it is.  It will have to be done. And to drop 1000s of words is going to require more than deleting a word here and there.

1.  Description.  Long descriptions of places, people and things are obvious targets for pruning.  Start by asking if you really need them in the first place, and if the answer is no, cut them out altogether.  If the answer is yes, then cut back - people don't read long descriptions any more.

2. Scenes.  Do you really need every scene that's in the book?  Write down the purposes of each scene eg introduce Character X, describe the house, give some information about X's backstory.  A scene that is short on purposes should be short on the page.  If it isn't, then cut  - or combine with another scene.

3.  Use summary.  Sometimes we write out scenes when we could actually use summary. In Nice Girls Do I wanted to describe the C18th landscape garden where the story is set, and had a scene where Will the gardener shows Anna, a garden historian, round.  Some of the garden is described through straight descriptive passages, the rest through dialogue between Will and Anna.  It was a very long scene - 16 pages in the first draft.  I realised that Anna, being a garden historian, would know most of the information anyway, so given she was the view point character I could put much of the information in her head as summary.  It's about 6 pages in the published version. 

4. Characters.  Do you need them all, and if they're important to the plot, do they all need to be described? You may have worked out detailed character histories for each and every one, but it's not essential for the reader to know all this stuff.  Think iceberg - 10% above the water, the rest submerged.

5.  Back story/flashback.  How much do you really need, and how much is you writing yourself into the characters?  Most of the time we don't need to know about what happened in the past and it just holds up the story.

6.  The opening chapters.  Have you started in the right place?  Where does the story actually start?  It's not unusual for the story to really get going at Chapter 3.  

7.  Too many sub-plots?  Perhaps one (or two) could go.  Always ask yourself what their purpose is in relation to the main story line. Remember that readers can't handle more than five or six main characters in a story.  Usually there are two or three who are centre stage most of the time, with supporting characters coming in and out of the main story focus.  

Most novels currently published are between 80,000 - 100,000 words long.  If yours is way over that, you're just going to have to be brutal. 

NB If having read this your immediate response is Trilogy! I would respectfully suggest you think again, for reasons I'll deal with another time.  

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The Author Photograph

I came across this post about cliched author poses on the web the other day and thought I had to share it.  I had some new author photographs done last year (the photographer was Mike Mills, he was v good) and now realise I've gone for a combination of cliche No 3 and No 5.  I read the post just after I'd read another post about hobby v professional writers (can you tell I've got a tricky scene I ought to be writing?) and it was talking about how "professional" writers planned their brand, from image onwards.  

I only wish I knew what my brand was.  I don't like the way authors - and books - are being treated like baked beans. The implication is that readers are a homogenous mass of baked bean eaters, and can't eat anything else.  Well, phoeee.  Most people I know read a wide variety of books, fiction and non-fiction.  They like the old favourites, but will try new stuff.  

And as an author, I find each book is different.  They're all in the same genre, but the feel of the book depends on the main character and what their situation is.  I've written two books about adultery, so perhaps that's my brand. Which would be unfortunate because I think I've said all I want to say about adultery for the time being.  Besides, if you said to a photographer, my USP is adultery, they'd want to have you posing in your bra and knickers. This would also be unfortunate, given that I'm not a 20-something model.  

As a reader, super glam photographs put me off - there's one author whose website has lots of pix of her lounging in leather trousers looking foxy, and it completely turns me off reading her books.  When my pictures were done, I wanted to look...normal, I suppose.  Oh no, I've just realised - my intended brand image is bland.  No wonder I have cliched author photos.  At least I went for a scarlet cardi.

Monday 27 September 2010

The Judge's Report

What follows is my Judge’s Report for the Wells Short Story Competition

A strong selection of stories with, remarkably, no obvious winners or losers. All the stories had merit, all the stories had flaws. Looking back at my notes the most frequently used phrase is ‘depressing’. A lot of people died along the way. I was also concerned that decrepitude seemed to start early for several writers – the seventy year olds I know are buzzing around with full lives, not waiting to be consigned to the care home.

Characters were often passive, resigned to their fates. I longed for the worm to turn, but alas, it didn’t always. The stories that were most successful had active main characters who moved the story forward. Many main characters were one-dimensional stereotypes who had no existence outside the narrative.

Another phrase that cropped up a lot in my notes was ‘weak ending’. Some stories simply stopped, leaving me checking if I’d missed a page. Others didn’t carry through the promise that they’d started with. A weak ending is damaging because that’s the last thing we read, so that’s what we remember. Satisfying endings are important.

Lacking focus, or confused focus was another frequent phrase. A short story is just that: short. It carries a single idea through to the end like a beautiful pendant on a fine chain, unlike a novel which is a multi-stranded necklace. Some stories had several ideas vying for dominance. Or they would start with one character and finish with another, the first character having been lost along the way. Where was the reader supposed to be looking?

Some stories were based around clever ideas: tricks, or twists in the tail. These made me smile, but an idea is never enough on its own to carry a story through, there needs to be something else – humour, description, prose style, characterisation – to sustain the reader.

So, how to choose a winner? It was hard, as every story had good and bad points. Which should I put higher, the funny tale that was clumsily written, or the beautifully written story that lacked purpose?

In the end I decided to go back to basics. Which stories had I enjoyed reading the most, regardless of any technicalities? And at that point it became clear. My winners are the ones that worked for me as a reader. Another reader would have made different choices and perhaps, on another day, so would I.

Sunday 26 September 2010

The Other Side of the Story

The flip side of the frustrating student is working with a receptive one. It is soooo satisfying working with another writer on their manuscript. You chuck in an idea, they play with it, perhaps use it, perhaps not. It doesn't really matter.

It's all about effectiveness. They intended the reader to get X from that line/paragraph/section/chapter. You, the reader, got Y. What would they need to do to get the effect they want?

The text might need a bit of rearranging. Too much of the game is being given away too early. Move that line, or take out that paragraph, and tension is increased. Sometimes it's about clarifying a phrase. Sometimes there's a stray word that's giving the wrong impression, or a place where an additional adjective would help understanding. An outside view is often good for the bigger picture - is a particular character necessary, are certain events too close together, is that the best place for a chapter end?

But above all, there is a sense of common purpose. We both want the writing to be the best it could be. I'm not 'the enemy', I only ask questions to clarify things. Does ABC work best? Would BAC be more interesting? What about CBA? Maybe ABC is best after all. It's such fun to play with another writer, letting the ideas bounce backwards and forwards. There aren't any right answers, it's not about getting another writer to do it 'my way', it's about firing up the creativity of the other author when perhaps they have come up against a brick wall or need to know how their work is coming across.

Luckily, the receptive student who wants to learn, who wants to listen, who wants to play is much more common than the negative student who sees the mildest comment as a personal attack. To all those who have allowed me to join your journey for a little while, thank you.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Writing Just For Meeeee!

I've recently been to Venice. I stayed in a fabulous hotel I'd found on-line via TripAdvisor. Most of the reviews were complimentary - great location, lovely room, friendly staff - but one was huffy because the reviewer hadn't been able to fit into the shower. She described herself as being well-built. Well-built??? And you can't fit through a normal sized shower door??? I mean, I was there and I am not a skinny minnie, and I had no problems.

Some years ago I was in a group workshop situation. The student being workshopped was incredibly resistant to the teeniest of suggestions for change, even when the changes were for clarity of meaning rather than about style or content. It was incredibly frustrating. Finally I said, 'None of us understood what you meant by this phrase. Surely it's worth at least considering changing a couple of words so we can understand.'

'I write for me,' he replied grandly. 'And I am perfectly satisfied with my work.'

Which is fabulous, for him - I'd love to be that confident about my writing - but does ask the question, why bother to go on a writing course, why bother to workshop? I believe the answer is that what they really mean is, they want the world to fit in with them. If a reader is critical, well, that's the reader's fault for being obtuse, or insensitive, or intellectually impoverished.

I've tried writing poetry. They're not good poems, but I don't mind because they really are just for me. No one has ever seen them, or ever will. That's what 'just for me' means. If you put your work up for comment, then you have to accept that comments will be made. You don't have to change your work by one single word as a result of those comments, but in my experience people want to be helpful. If they say they didn't understand what was going on then it's not because they're stupid or insensitive. Your writing is unclear.

So don't kid yourself you're not fitting into the shower because the door is too small. It isn't, and you're not.

Friday 24 September 2010

Another Take on Short Story Judging

I was scooting around the web and came across this great post on short story competition judging, and why stories failed to make the short list. It's a long post, but worth reading to the end because all the points made are good ones.

This one particularly resonated with me:

4. Solipsism. One miserable person being miserable. This was the most common and depressing failing. Unrelenting monotony of one single, invariably miserable and oppressive viewpoint. No sign of concern or even mention of any other character, nothing other than one person’s dreary moaning. If you are not interested in other characters, at least make it funny.

I can remember one point when I started writing when I had a phase of writing this sort of story. I think I thought it was 'being literary'. Luckily, I bored myself so the phase passed quite quickly.

It's easy to forget that stories are essentially about entertainment. In short stories you can get away with miserable, unlikeable or irritating main characters in a way you couldn't in a novel, but they've still got to be entertaining. Stuff needs to happen. Change has to happen (and not of the sort, things were bad and then they got worse). We don't want to spend time with miserable people moaning in real life, so why do it in a story?

Thursday 23 September 2010

Subtlety in Writing

Anyone remember Alan Rickman playing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood? Was there ever a more over-the-top performance given by a classically trained actor? (So much more enjoyable than the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott version.) Alan received the BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor, and came up to make his speech. He clutched the award in his hands and intoned in that distinctive sonorous voice: "I shall keep this award always, to remind me that subtlety is not everything in acting."

And subtlety is not everything in writing. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the idea of show not tell, that we go all subtle about everything, even stuff that doesn't need to be subtle. I had this with a student last term. The character was doing...something to something, I couldn't quite work out what. It turned out that the mysterious object was a chair, and the character was sitting down on it.

'Why didn't you just say that?' I asked.

'I wanted to be subtle about it, to make the reader work and engage with my writing.'

Hmm. That's fine in principle, but this wasn't an important plot device or an allusion to motivation. Sometimes we can be too clever. Sometimes a chair is a chair, and just gets sat on.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Too Much Information

Some years ago I was asked to look at a friend of a friend's novel and innocently I accepted the manuscript. A few evenings later I settled down with a glass of chilled pinot grigio and began to read. It was one of the most awful things I've read, the account of a birth that goes wrong. Suffice to say that blood featured frequently, along with various other body parts.

But it wasn't the most awful thing I've read. That was the opening to another unpublished novel where the hero takes a gastric sample from a laboratory beagle. Even typing those words has given me a nauseous flashback moment.

I sympathise. It's hard. We know that the beginning of a novel needs to grab the reader's attention, especially if the novel is unpublished and has to somehow get itself off the slush pile. So we bring out the heavy stuff, the dramatic, the shocking and whoosh it all in front of the reader. Da dah! That'll get 'em!

But it doesn't, or at least, not in the way you intended. It's a bit like settling down for a long plane journey and the friendly person next to you pulls out their wallet to - you think - show you photographs of their grandchildren and instead - da dah! here's my abortion!

It's too much information, much much much too soon.

Later on in the novel, once we've got to know your characters, once we've begun to care, then we'll react as you wish to whatever horribleness you've got in store. But on the first page...? You're asking for someone to fling the manuscript down then bundle it back in the return envelope as soon as possible.

Tuesday 21 September 2010


I was recently asked by someone if I'd read a short story they'd written. It was a social situation and, put on the spot, I agreed. Oh dear. It was not good. But what struck me most was how dreadful the dialogue was, centering round a discussion about smoking: had they got a cigarette, no, they'd switched to roll-ups, oh really? yes, it was cheaper, and so on and on it went.

Realistic, yes. I don't smoke, but I've certainly had those sorts of conversations about tea (I like it strong, with lots of milk, my sister makes dreadful tea, too impatient for the water to boil, etc), about biscuits, about teenage children, about the weather... Inconsequential conversations are the glue that bind us together in real life.

But they sure are dull to read in fiction.

When you're writing dialogue, ask yourself what information you are giving to the reader. It could be information about character, or information about the plot. It could be information about almost anything, but information must be there. Otherwise, cut it.

This is a section from Alan Ayckbourn's play The Things We Do For Love

Nikki Don’t you get lonely sometimes?

Barbara I have my work. I have Marcus to look after.

Nikki Oh, yes. The famous Marcus. Still the same boss then?

Barbara I suppose you could call him that. Technically. We’re more of a team really. The fact is, Marcus can’t move without me. He says these days I actually get his thoughts just before he does. It’s extraordinary.

Nikki How old is he?

Barbara (airily) Heavens, I don’t know. Forty-five – fifty. I don’t know. (Slight pause) I think he’s forty-eight. Next April. The sixteenth. He’s an Aries. Why?

Nikki Nothing.

Barbara Oh, don’t be so corny, Nikki. For goodness’ sake. He’s got this beautiful young wife. He has Miriam. He has three children. He’s got everything in the world he could possibly want –

Nikki And he has you looking after him at work. Lucky old him.

Barbara That’s my job. Anyway. Enough of me.

We get a lot of factual information about Marcus, but I think you'll agree we know a lot more about Barbara by the end of this section.

Monday 20 September 2010

The Importance of a Good Ending

Reading the shortlisted competition entries for the Wells Short Story Prize has been a real pleasure. There's been such a variety of subjects I've never once felt, ho hum, I've read this before and choosing the prize winners is going to be difficult. Right now, no one story stands out and I'm in a bit of a quandary.

But the competition is for a short story, and one of the essential elements of a short story is that it is a satisfying tale. And that means the ending has to work. The beginning sets it up, hopefully in such a way that I'm enticed into the world of the short story, and then the ending rounds it off so I put the story down with a satisfied 'ahhhhh'. Ideally what happens is something I don't see coming, but when it happens is exactly right that it couldn't have happened any other way.

What is clear to me that of the twenty of so stories I've read, well written though they are, more than a handful end suddenly as though the word limit was reached and the author just cut the story off. Others just fizzle out. A couple have been obscure enough for me to have to read again to check that I've understood what's gone on.

The ones that stand out in my mind are the ones where the ending is spot on. Think about it - the ending is the last bit you read, of course it's the part you remember most clearly. I haven't made my final decision yet, and everything could change, but I think the deciding factor is going to be not the beauty of the phrasing, nor the cleverness of plotting, but the aptness of the ending. I'm looking for, not the X Factor, but the Ahh Factor.

PS And not a single one has featured a domestic pet, so - phew - no personal factors to cloud my judgement.

Sunday 19 September 2010

Persistence Pays?

I've just been lurking on a writing forum, and there the discussion is raging about feedback - too nice? or too nasty? I've discussed my thoughts about feedback and when it is, and isn't, useful many times already, but one comment struck me. The writer didn't like the saying that if you persisted you'd get published, on the grounds that, while you might improve, there were no guarantees.

Fair enough. And you might get run over by a bus tomorrow, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't plan your next holiday.

If you don't stick with it, you'll never know. Yes, the stars may never line up in your favour, which is why you should enjoy the journey, but there isn't a timetable we all follow. Some are high flyers with their first novel, and go onto greater things while others flounder to achieve the same success. Some keep on writing with no success until suddenly they leap to prominence - Clare Morrall's Booker Prize shortlisted success Astonishing Splashes of Colour comes to mind, the publishing deal arriving 20 years after she started writing.

I had supper the other day with an author friend. We first met about eight years ago before either of us were published, although at the time she had an agent. In a few months I too had an agent, and also a publishing deal, something which eluded her. She kept on writing. Her agent dropped her, another took her on, then also dropped her. She kept on writing. Her persistence has been rewarded with a three book deal in both the US and the UK (and a new agent), and I hope the novels will be mega-successful; she deserves it.

But what if she'd given up, even a few years ago? We hear a lot about overnight successes, and some people do get published fairly speedily, but for some - most? - people success comes slowly not quickly. Don't be too hard on yourself, but relax, enjoy your writing and above all give yourself time.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Short Story Judging

Well, here it is. The big envelope has arrived from the Wells Short Story competition organisers stuffed full of short stories ready for me to read. They want it turned round quickly so it's my project for this weekend. Read, make notes, read again. Think. Have another read, making notes as I go along this time. Compare the two sets of notes. Third read.

Then decision time. And this is the most agonising bit of all. Because I know only too well what a boost winning a competition will give to a writer. I may have written about the importance of self-validation yesterday, but the truth is, a bit of outside validation doesn't hurt either.

It's not a decision to take lightly. Writing this now, before I've even looked at the stories, I can feel a cold chill in case I make the wrong decision. Did I say 'in case'? Let's face it, I know I'm going to make the wrong decision. Or rather, it's the right decision when I make it, but if I were to read the same stories in say two months time, I bet I'd make a different choice.

The truth is, reading is a personal thing, and our tastes change according to our circumstances. My dear dog has just died, and my old cat is also ill. If there's an animal story in the batch, I'm pretty certain I'm going to have a stronger reaction to it now than I will in a few months time. So should I try to adjust for this when I judge? Or simply say to myself, this is who I am now, and I'm judging now.

In my opinion, if you're looking for validation, then being on the short list is enough. Don't hold out for the win to make you feel good, because the winning choice may be decided by something you have no control over, like the death of the final judge's dog a month previously.

Hey ho. I shall be opening the envelope this weekend with a mixture of excited anticipation and anxiety. Good luck to all concerned.

Friday 17 September 2010


My experience so far is that most as-yet-unpublished writers crave external validation. Obviously this also applies to other creative activities: the would-be actor wants to be cast, and then hear the applause of the audience, the artist exhibits at local shows and hopes their paintings are bought. However, people who take up acting or art as a leisure activity don't expect to be able to make a career out of it (although I'm sure a few harbour dreams of discovery). For most, the creative act in itself is enough enjoyment to continue.

There seems to be something different about creative writing. We know it is possible to develop a new career as a writer later in life, with Mary Wesley as the stellar example of a writer who was first published in her 70s. So publication becomes the aim, and often the sole aim.

I think that's a shame. Writing is how I make my living, and I have a love-hate relationship with it at times, but essentially I find it an endlessly fascinating process. Oh yes, the money and the fact that other people seem to enjoy my writing is very nice indeed, but I'd not be able to write if it was only about the money side, or external validation.

It has to come from within. I think all writers, published and unpublished, have times when they think their work is rubbish, tripe and utter drivel but somewhere deep down it seems worth carrying on, just for the interest of writing. You have to believe that your work, your creativity, is a worth while way of spending your time, and it doesn't matter what other people think. You have to be able to self validate. C'mon, people, all together now - because you're worth it.

(Sorry, couldn't resist...)

Thursday 16 September 2010

Perfect Days...2

We can go all technical about change and write it down like this.

Character is in an emotional state or a particular situation (the status quo)

They go through some story development ie a period of transition

There is a moment of realisation (James Joyce called this moment Epiphany)

The character is now in a new emotional state or situation (a new status quo)

This process of change drives story telling. In a short story you'd probably only have one 'change'; in a novel you would have many. But the basic mechanism is the same.

So, the perfect day I described yesterday is stuck in transition and never moves on. Which was good for me in real life, but would have made a very dull short story.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Perfect Days...1

Recently I was telling a friend about a wonderful day I had. Everything fell into place - an exhibition was wonderful, a parking space emerged just at the right moment, the film was great, a table was free at the restaurant we wanted because someone who'd booked hadn't turned up. It was a perfect day. 'You ought to write it up as a short story,' the friend said.

Which of course explains why I'm a writer and my friend isn't.

Because who in the world wants to read about someone else's great day? We want to read about a great day that goes wrong. Or a bad day that turns out to have been perfect because something so marvellous happens at the end, it makes all the bad stuff worth while.

It's about change. You start out in one state - happy, sad, jealous, anxious, whatever - and end up in a different place. It's a perfect day so it has to go wrong. It's a bad day, so it has to end up perfect. You go from A to B. The non-stop perfect day is like going from A to A.

But that's fiction, of course. In real life, my perfect day was A all the way, and very enjoyable it was too.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

10 Tips for Starting A New Novel

It's always a scary moment, that blank page or screen that you're thinking about filling with 80,000 plus words. My tips are...

1. Don't Panic. Whatever you write now can be cut later so it doesn't matter.

2. Feel playful. This is just a little part of a journey, the first step. It doesn't matter.

3. Have an idea of your main character's problem.

4. You only need an idea as this will develop later, possibly in unforeseen directions.

5. No one can hold a complete novel in their heads, so don't panic if you don't know what's going to happen later on.

6. On the other hand, it helps to have a vague idea of where you're going. This is a story about a woman who has an affair that goes wrong. So, you need a scene with her meeting her lover for the first time. Then you need a scene showing her at home. Then a scene where the relationship develops etc.

7. When in doubt, have them get dressed to go out to an important event. Be specific about what they're wearing.

8. Another scene that normally turns up at some point is something about the place where they live. If stuck, write about that.

9. Write a list of their possible conflicts with other people - friends, family, the tax man... - then write a scene about one of those possible conflicts.

10. Alan Bennett said, "You only know what you're writing when you've written it." So get writing!

Monday 13 September 2010

The Great Publisher Send Off - Update Part 2

Yup. The publisher who doesn't accept unsoliciteds was the one who rang me up. Yippeee!!!!

But there's another twist in the tale. This editor was number fifteen in my list not only because I couldn't find a named editor to write to, but also because they have a very small picture book list - the editor told me they only took on two last year. In fact, I had decided that I wasn't going to bother to send my material off to them, and it was only because I'd got the number fifteen in my head and printed off fifteen of everything so there was a set going begging, that I bothered to send the material out to them.

What a good thing I did. However, it just goes to show that you should never try to second guess a publisher's response. Just because you think X, it doesn't mean that they also think X. You never know. That's why sending out multiple submissions is a good idea - though I admit fifteen at a time is excessive, and I only did it as it was part of an experiment - six would have been more sensible. But then I would never have sent out to the publisher I've got a response from...

So. Don't be cautious. Don't be anxious. Don't fret about what they might think. Just DO IT!

PS Just in case anyone is thinking, it's all right for her, I used a pseudonym and my covering letter had no biographical material.

Sunday 12 September 2010

The Great Publisher Send Off - Update Part 1

You may remember about a month ago as an experiment I decided to see how easy it was to find out the names of editors and, because I already have an editor myself, I decided I'd do it for picture books as I had some stories I'd written a couple of years ago and not done anything with.

The result was, after three hours, I had a list of fifteen publishers who published picture books. Most of them did not accept unsolicited material, but I had the names of thirteen editors. Number fourteen had a special submissions department, number fifteen I couldn't find the name of an editor, got bored with the whole thing and gave up at that point.

I sent them all off, expecting either to not hear anything for at least three months, or for there to be an immediate turnaround from the 'we don't accept unsoliciteds'. Neither has happened.

I've had two responses. One is from a publisher who accepts unsolicited material where not only I had a named editor, I could drop in a reference to a talk they had given in my covering letter. The other from the publisher who doesn't take unsolicited material and I couldn't find an named editor.

One was a brief, standard thanks but no thanks letter that could have been written to anyone and was signed by an editorial assistant. One was a phone call from the editor telling me she liked my work and that my submission was going to the main editorial meeting.

Guess which response I got from which publisher....

Saturday 11 September 2010

Keeping the Story on the Right Track

I met a pilot recently, and he told me that planes don't travel in straight lines. You may think the journey from, say, London to Paris is a direct one, but actually it isn't. The pilot sets the course and they start, but soon the plane is wandering from the true course and the direction has to be corrected. Then it wanders again, and again is corrected. We may think we've travelled in a straight line, but in reality we've zigzagged across the Channel like this:

London /\/\/\/\/\/\ Paris

I thought it was a good metaphor for writing: A series of adjustments and corrections on the way to a finished piece of work.

It does of course help if you know where your final destination is. For a short story I would say it is essential because there isn't the space to make long deviations from the direct line, but a novel can be written without knowing the exact final destination, so long as you know roughly where you're heading.

So, as a writer/pilot, your job is to keep an eye on the final destination as you write, always nudging the story back towards it but being quite relaxed about not actually travelling in a straight line. Sometimes the adjustments and corrections are huge (I speak as one in mourning for 20,000 words just cut), but so long as we get there in the end, who will ever know? Only the pilot.

Friday 10 September 2010

Why All Wannabe Writers Should Watch the X Factor Auditions

The process of going through the slush pile is a private one. A single agent or editor at a desk reading covering letters, glancing at a synopsis, casting their eyes over the first few pages. No visible drama, no visible excitement. We can't be there. But we can watch the X Factor.

The situation is similar. Hundreds of thousands of wannabes turn up in the hope that their few minutes in the spotlight will change their lives. What we see on the programme is highly edited of course, but it is quite clear that the good shine out. What is also clear is how many completely deluded people there are out there:

People who don't practice before coming.
People who don't learn the words.
People who are aggressive.
People who can't sing in tune.

Then, when they get turned down:
People who blame the microphone/the audience/the backing track/the judges.
People who plead for a second chance, promising that they'll improve next time.
People who have a complete tantrum.

The people who shine are usually quietly confident. They perform a song that they've obviously practiced many times before. They've had positive feedback from people other than their immediate family. They are polite. They always sing in tune.

It's really not that different to writing. You should be professional as possible. You write and re-write. You've had sensible feedback from a variety of outsiders. You have belief in yourself and your writing in a quiet, non-pushy way. You're taking the opportunity seriously.

The good news is that, as the X Factor shows, there are enough delusional people out there who make the good ones shine even more brightly. The bad news is all the people they don't show on the television programme. The ones who weren't laughably bad, who were actually quite good but not good enough to shine. I suspect there are an awful lot of people who fit into that category.

But more good news! Unlike the X Factor, your writing life isn't based on just one audition and one panel of judges. You can send out, re-write, improve, send out again, and again. And more good news again - sometimes there are people who might not be able to sing with the best, or dance with the best, but who have a certain something that entertains the socks off us. Jedward, anybody?

Thursday 9 September 2010

It's Not You, It's Me - Rejection...

It's the classic line designed to make us feel good when being dumped: 'It's not you, it's me.' And we all know that it is really is about us and we're being rejected. But the good news is that actually, when it comes to publishing, it really may not be about you, it's about them.

1. They've just worked on a similar book which didn't sell well.
2. They've just taken on another author who's writing in a similar style.
3. They're having a really bad day.
4. They're about to go on holiday but they've got to get through the slush pile before they can leave the office.
5. They've just been made redundant.
6. The imprint you've targeted has been cut.
7. The first reader is an 18 year old on work experience.
8. They just don't get it.

There are a million reasons why your work gets turned down which are nothing to do with you and what you have written. That's not to say you can get away with sloppy writing or editing, but just to point out that actually, sometimes it really is about them, and not you.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

3 Things to Think about when Minor Characters Take Over

Something I hear from writers, both new and established, is how minor characters threaten to take over the novel. First, get a grip. They're not real people. They can't 'take over', any more than the book can write itself (I wish!). It's all about you and your subconscious mind popping out and onto the page. Minor characters can be great fun to write because they can be extreme. Extremely good, or extremely nasty, extremely boring, extremely wayward, it doesn't matter. We can get away with writing the sort of character we think we wouldn't want to write a whole novel about.

That's the first clue. We think we wouldn't want to write a whole novel about someone so extreme, and therefore our tendency is to make our central character, the one we want all the readers to like, too bland. They become over anxious to please, pawing at the writer with big love-me eyes. Irritating in real life, irritating to write. No wonder we start getting caught up in the character who doesn't give a damn what the reader thinks of them. So the first thing to check for is: is your main character too bland?

The second thing to look out for is active or reactive. Main characters drive the plot, not react to it. If your minor characters are providing the plot lines and your main characters are reacting to it, no wonder your minor characters are taking over. They ARE the main characters. So take a good hard look at your novel - who is driving it forward? If the answer is anything other than the characters you think are your main ones, then you're going to either have to change them to make them more active, or shift the story focus to your minor characters.

The third and last thing is related to the first two. Is your main character's problem interesting enough? Does it really matter to them, and to you? We are all the stars of our own lives and our problems are vitally important to us, but they're secondary to others. (Which is why it's so easy to dish out advice to other people - 'leave him!' or 'tell her what you really think'.) Your main character's problems have to be as real and important to you as your own problems are to yourself. Because if they're not, your reaction as a writer will be the same as listening to a friend talking about some problem they've got which doesn't affect you at all. Your attention will wander off to minor characters who seem more, well, fun.

So there we are. Three things to think about. I never said I'd be providing a solution to this one, just stuff to think about.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Relationships and Writing Styles

After my dog being ill over the summer, now it's the cat's turn. She's gone from being large and bolshy to being small and pathetically friendly. She purrs and is not in obvious distress, but something about her body language says she is not well. My son has left home and is working in London (did I mention he got a first? Not that I'm proud or anything), my daughter is off to uni in a couple of weeks, so if the cat goes I will be without dependents for the first time in years. It will be weird.

But it also got me thinking about the sort of thing I write: it's all about intertwining relationships. All my characters have relationships with friends, family and lovers, and the playing out of those relationships make up the story. Often the main character learns to be more independent, not to automatically accept the status quo.

Compare with the classic detective story. Miss Marple, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, Morse - they're not relationship heavy characters. They are loners, coming in to solve the crime and then moving on. It's unusual for the main character to come with too many dependents - Inspector Wexford's daughters are grown up and living their own lives for example. But often over the course of a story, relationships develop. If romantic there's often a 'will they, won't they?' theme being played out, but most modern detectives seem to make connections with others by the end, however tentative.

So, is romantic fiction about becoming less dependent on others? And crime about becoming more? And does our preference as readers reflect our own position? Will I, about to lose my dependents in real life, suddenly turn to crime? Or will I become even more romantic? I haven't a clue but already in my writer's heart I feel a restlessness, a yearning for change...

Monday 6 September 2010

Getting Back Into The Habit

The summer is now over, the kids are back at school, the holiday pix have been downloaded and the tan lines have faded.  Time to get back to writing...but it's not always that easy.  This is what I do after a long gap.

1.  Read through what I've written so far.  
2.  Feel faint with shock as I realise there's a) fewer words than I remembered and b) even fewer that I'm going to be able to use.
3.  Write a list of essential scenes.  This is even simpler than using index cards and usually fits onto one sheet of A4.  
4.  The break should have clarified my thoughts about anything that's causing me problems with the writing.  This might be unclear character wants, or a mistaken direction that needs correcting.  This sort of thing is always clearer after a break.
5.  I write all my novels as one long document.  If there's lots of re-writing to be done, I'll save the old version, then again as a new version.  That way, I feel more confident if I mash it around - I can always go back to the last version.
6. Start filling in the gaps on the A4 sheet.  I should end up with a list of scenes, some of which will have been written, some of which won't.
7.  Start writing the scenes which need writing.  

What I don't do is tidy the office, answer all my un-answered emails, file my tax return and generally clear the decks.  It's nice to feel on top of the admin, but really, writing time should be about writing.  It doesn't matter if a child interrupts you when you're in the middle of filing your old electricity bills, it does if you're in the middle of writing a crucial scene. Do the admin in the times you feel less creative, and get yourself back into the writing habit. 

Sunday 5 September 2010

Kill All Exclamation Marks!!!

'Goodness!' Mrs Oliphant said.  'I appear to have spilt my tea!'
'Surely not!' Gladys replied, peering at the tea cloth.  'I can't see any mark!'
'But there is!' Mrs Oliphant persisted.
'There isn't!'
'There is!'
'Well, maybe,' Gladys conceded. 'But it's a very small drip!!!'

It should be clear from the dialogue if something is truly dramatic, rather than using the exclamation mark to spice it up like chilli powder sprinkled on yesterday's mashed potato.  The conversation above is not dramatic, and no adding !!! will make it so.  If anything, it draws attention to the weakness of the drama.  

Sarah's Golden Rule:  Three exclamation marks per novel is the maximum allowed. 

Saturday 4 September 2010

Naming Things

I was at an art exhibition at the weekend, Trevor Bell at Eighty at the Millennium Gallery in St Ives.  It's a great exhibition, very exciting with lots of exuberant colour on big canvases.  I was particularly taken with one painting which to me seemed to radiate positivity.  Someone else said they found it menacing and angry, like being punched in the stomach.  I looked again.  I could see where they were coming from, but to me it still seemed happy rather than angry.  Then I checked out the title of the painting.  'Danger'.  

Well, that threw me.  The artist obviously intended it to be, if not actually angry, then dangerous.  There was another painting entitled 'Knife'.  That word, as both noun and verb, has negative, unsettling associations, ones that I didn't have originally on looking at the painting. (BTW the colour reproduction of the on-line catalogue isn't wonderful, the paintings are more vibrant and lighter in reality.) 

It's one of the things I like about abstract art, everybody can have their own individual emotional response to the work, and it's valid. But the naming by the artist affected my response.  When we write we have to be careful about the words we choose.  Knife - or Blade?  Are our characters drinking from mugs or cups?  Are they bone china or earthenware?  Brown like roasting chestnuts or dried blood? We create emotional responses in the readers with our choice of words, so chose carefully.  

Friday 3 September 2010

Problem : Solution : Problem

If you're stuck with your plot try this: think of it in terms of problems and solutions.  

Take Cinderella, for example.  She wants to go to the ball, but doesn't have any kit - that's her problem.  The solution?  The Fairy Godmother provides it.  But - and this is the clever bit - the solution comes with a problem attached.  So, the kit's going to vanish at midnight - Problem.  

Cinders goes to the ball, falls in love so forgets about the time - Problem.  Solution - she runs away, before telling the Prince how to find her  - Problem. 

The Prince wants to find her - Problem - but all there is is the slipper - Solution - but who does it fit? - Problem - get everybody to try it on - Solution - but the ugly sisters keep Cinders away - Problem - until she pushes herself forward/Buttons pushes her forward and tries it on - Solution.  

In real life we have problems, and our solutions usually sort them out for us.  I want to avoid X (problem) so I cross the road (solution).  However, in fiction, our solutions can't work out.  I cross the road (solution) and get run over (problem). Try looking at your story line.  If too many of your solutions work for your characters, then it's not going to be a compelling read.  

Thursday 2 September 2010

Anchors Ahoy!

When Adultery for Beginners was going through the editing process, I can remember my editor asking me to clarify exactly where and when the story was at the beginning of a section.  It was important, she said, that readers knew that information in the first paragraph or else they would subconsciously fret. It doesn't have to be as clunky as 'Next morning, back at the ranch...' but the information needed to be there.  

I was thinking about this having read one bit of student work which started with a long description of a place, but with no sense of where in time we were.  Was the narrator describing the place as it was last week, last month, last year?  Sentences began with indeterminate words like 'Sometimes the bar is full...' or 'Many times I've wondered...' The effect is to make the story happen in some floaty space.  It needs anchoring:  when is this happening?

It's quite easy to anchor your scenes.  Just add a few words like: 'Last Tuesday I was sitting at the bar when...'  or 'Tonight was different.  Tonight there was no one at the bar...'  Anchor your scenes, and then the reader can concentrate on the story.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Sentences Without Verbs or Subjects

I'm reading An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, which won the Orange Award for New Writers.  I'm enjoying it in a slightly abstracted way as I keep on getting pulled up by her fondness for sentences without verbs or subjects.  Like this.  It gives the writing a disjointed feel.  Distancing. An increased significance warranted. Or not. At times.

Maybe it's just my response, but I find it annoying and wish she wouldn't, given she writes beautifully most of the time.  There are the most fabulous descriptions of places and things - for example, this one picked at random describing a village in Spain: "Scarlet geraniums growing in old oil cans, the stripe of light and shade on a white-painted wall, a basket full of tiny silver fish" - so in general I forgive her the occasional clunk and carry on reading.  

But.  But, but, but.  Sentences without verbs or subjects haunt some student manuscripts.  It's as if they believe the randomly dividing up sentences confers additional weight to the story.  I long to confiscate their full stops and give them a fistful of commas instead.  Of course every writer sometimes uses broken sentences for effect, but it has to be a deliberate choice scattered sparsely or else it's simply irritating.  And an irritating story to read is one that remains unfinished.