Sunday 31 October 2010

Make Up Lessons for Characters

My make up routine is: collect my makeup bag from my room, take it to the family bathroom where the light is best, take out the makeup, use it, put the kit back in the bag, take it back to my bedroom.  I've done it like this for years - sharing the house with a daughter has taught me that makeup left out is makeup gone for good.

But this morning I suddenly realised that she's gone*.  No more do I have to worry about theft of my eyeliner pencil, or the 'I was only borrowing it, honest' disappearence of my mascara.  I can leave my makeup all over the basin, if I want, and the only person who will disturb it will be me.  I'm not by nature tidy, but having children in the house  has taught me to be so.  Now they've gone, will I revert to my old habits?

It's a relatively small change, but one I hadn't thought through before.  I often make my characters have different habits to my own - Lu in Kissing Mr Wrong is tidy, for example - but they reflect me and my observation of detail.  Some details I just won't be aware of, like the makeup issue, until they happen to me.    

The opening to my first novel Adultery for Beginners starts just after the characters have made love, and Isabel is stuck on top of the wet patch.  I can remember workshopping the first chapter with my writing group and the wide range of reactions it received.  I had never realised quite how many solutions there were to that particular problem.  One workshopper announced that Isabel was "sluttish" for not having organised herself better.  

I fixed that in the redraft, but it made me realise how we filter everything through our own experience.  One reader's normal may be another reader's sluttish.  As writers we can't cater for everybody's experience - that leads to bland - but we need to be aware that our way isn't the only way and get our characters to reflect that. 

*Off to uni, I haven't bumped her off or anything like that, despite occasional provocation. 

Saturday 30 October 2010

Celebration Time

After the delight of the birthday party comes the hangover...How on earth do I start year 2?

Last month I started working as the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Bristol, which has been really enjoyable so far.  I'm working with students on their writing, essays mainly, but there have been a couple of dissertations and even an agent package for sending out. 

So far, about half the students have told me that they feel a fraud, that they've got into Bristol by mistake, that everyone else knows everything, that they can't write.  Half the students!  And that's just the ones who've told me.  

I think we all feel like that.  I compare myself to other writer friends and feel they've somehow got "the secret".  They write everyday, they hit their word targets, their editors and agents love them, their publicists get better interviews... They sail effortlessly over every hurdle and setback, I set the bar low and miss it.  

I spent my blogoversary giving an interview to Penwith Radio, a great community radio station in Penzance run by some dedicated guys including the lovely Lewis, who invited me onto his show, and Timothy, Dave and David.  It was great to meet them all (that's also an in-joke for Lewis) but I felt a bit of a fraud because they appeared so impressed by my paltry achievements - the City and Guilds certificate in Brick Laying and my Countdown teapot seemed top of the list.  

And then I thought, isn't it time we learned to appreciate what we've done?  It's all too easy to feel small when a writer friend gets shortlisted for a competition, or gets an agent.  We judge ourselves so harshly, and feel that everyone else finds it easy. I think we're all muddling along, all feeling like frauds.  Being sensitive and vulnerable is part of being a human, and even more so if you're creative. 

So let's celebrate our achievements.  

Let's cheer when we finish a short story, which is more than most people ever manage, even if it doesn't go on to win first prize in a competition.  Let's allow ourselves to enjoy that warm glow when someone praises our work in class and not immediately chip in with 'I know it's rubbish really'. Let's be proud when we look at some writing done a couple of years ago and realise how far we've come since.  

We're all on the same road: you, me, JK Rowling, Anne Tyler, any writer you care to mention.  Some of them may be a bit further ahead and travelling faster, but it's the same road.  And as no one creative ever feels they stop learning and developing, let's celebrate the milestones and how far we've come already along the road.

And above all, let's stop feeling we're frauds.  We're writers! Hooray!

Friday 29 October 2010

My Birthday Blog - One Year Old Today

Well, here is is.  365 posts later, and I'm now a year old blogger.  It's been an interesting journey, and one that I'm not sure I've got the hang of yet.  

The Follower button doesn't work properly, for example, so despite blogging every day it shows up on other blogs as not having blogged for about 10 months.  The only good thing is the blog that it seems to have stopped on was called Writing about Writing about Sex, so a surprising number of people do click through to investigate.  If anyone knows how to fix this, please let me know. 

But the techie stuff aside, it's been interesting to have to think up something to say about writing in about 300-500 words every day.  Sometimes I'm bursting with ideas and have a mega list, other times I'm staring at a blank page.  A few times I've been burning to write something, but have decided it would breach confidentiality so toned it down to protect the guilty - and then decided it's too wishy washy and so deleted the lot.  

Overall it's made me realise how writing - doing, thinking, reading - is central to my life.  I don't much else, which I'm sure makes me pretty boring to most people on the planet.  Take me to the cinema, and afterwards I'm blathering on about character arc and motivation rather than whether Leonardo di Caprio is fanciable or not.  Go round an art exhibition with me, and I'm searching for narrative in the paintings.  (I have been told this is particularly annoying, but sorry, I can't help it.)

Perhaps some time over the next year I'll run out of steam, and go off and do something else.  Until then, happy writing everyone.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Rubbish is Good

I managed to startle a whole bunch of MA students yesterday by telling them to write rubbish. It wasn't what they were expecting to hear. But it was in response to a question about writer's block, and getting over the fear of the blank page. 'I look at it,' the student said. 'And I just know I'm going to write rubbish. So I don't write anything at all.'

But the worst bit of rubbishy writing on the page is worth more than the most perfect bit of prose stuck in your head. Stuff on the page can be improved, developed, tweaked,given colour and life and energy and style. Stuff in your head is - well, stuff in your head. It can't be read by anyone.

Give yourself permission to write badly. Accept you'll have to re-write - and I don't think there can be any professional writer who doesn't consider re-writing as part of their process. It's what we all do.

An agent won't read your work with more interest because it appeared fully formed on the page. An editor won't clap their hands in delight because you wrote in a linear way. A reader couldn't care less if you didn't need to use the spellchecker. A tutor's heart will sink if you present work saying you haven't rewritten because it's perfect as it is.

All that anyone cares about is the finished product. How you get there is up to you. Write rubbish, if it gets you writing. That's all that matters.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Am I Wasting My Time?

I get asked this question quite a bit. The questioner really wants to know if I think their writing is good enough to get published. How do I know? Lots of things get published that I don't think are particularly good, or interesting. Lots of things that I like, other people don't rate. Lots of books that are held up as literary 'greats' I haven't read (eg anything by James Joyce). Was Dan Brown wasting his time? I'm not a fan, and thought he'd certainly wasted mine when I read the Da Vinci Code, but lots of people think it's the best book ever. Who's right?

And time makes such a difference. I tried writing several novels in my twenties. I didn't finish them, but I bet they wouldn't have been publishable even if I'd ever managed to struggle beyond chapter 3. Now I expect whatever I write to get published. (Gosh, that sounds arrogant. I'm not saying what I write is great literature, just, it's of publishable quality.) But I think the real answer to the question "Am I wasting my time?" is another question:

Do you enjoy wasting your time in this way?

If the answer is no, then you are wasting your time. If the answer is yes, then carry on enjoying yourself - and that's never a waste of time.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Grass is Always Greener

So, you're writing this novel, story, play, script, poem and suddenly you get the most brilliant idea for something else. It's so much more interesting than what you're working on. In fact, it could be the break-through novel, story, play, script, poem you've been looking for.

You try to ignore the idea. It dances around the edges of your consciousness. You stick your head down and go back to work on your dull, boring, current bit of writing. The new idea shimmers and sparkles, plot developments stretch out before you. You realise that your new idea is so much better than what you're working on and then you start to play around with the new idea....

Stop! Don't be seduced by new ideas. Of course it looks shiny and wonderful and exciting - it's new. You haven't got to know it. Once, the idea you're currently working on was equally exciting. Puppies and kittens are cute, but they grow up. They don't stay at that gorgeous stage forever. When they grow up, they become less immediately appealing, and the drawbacks to pet ownership become more obvious.

Every writer knows what it's like to get a new idea. It usually means you've got a bit stuck on the old idea. I find the best thing to do is write the new idea down with enough detail so I'll know what was so appealing about it, and then close the folder. The idea is safe, waiting for when you're ready for it. Because you're not ready now - you have other work to finish. And then you need to transfer the energy to the old idea and get at least a rough draft finished.

All new ideas are as cute as puppies and kittens and, unlike puppies and kittens, you can abandon them when the cuteness fades and the need to walk and feed every day starts to pall. But what you'll end up with is masses of unfinished work, and unfinished work is of no use to a writer.

Monday 25 October 2010

6 Reasons to have Consistent Point of View

P of V, P of V, how I don't love you, P of V. Which is what some people must sing. Point of View has never been something I've struggled with, but I know that some people do. We all have blind spots - I don't see the appeal of Strictly Come Dancing, no matter how many times people tell me it's brilliant and addictive. Back to point of view.

"Jane picked up the carving knife" is from no particular point of view.
"Jane picked up the carving knife, her hands trembling" is also from no particular point of view - Jane could notice her hands were trembling and so could an observer.
"Jane picked up the carving knife, her eyes blazing," has to be from an observer's point of view because how could Jane know her eyes were blazing?
"Jane picked up the carving knife, thinking it was now or never" has to be from Jane's point of view, because only Jane can know what she is thinking.

It's really that simple. Where it gets complicated is when people like me ask that scenes are written from a consistent point of view. In other words, once we're in Jane's point of view for a particular scene, please stay in Jane's point of view, and not go into Jack's point of view, or the cat's, or anybody else's who may be hanging around.

Why bother?

1. It can confuse the reader. For example...

Miranda washed up the dishes, thinking Eleanor was incredibly lazy for not helping. Eleanor examined her fingers, admiring the expensive manicure she'd had done only yesterday. Billy was bound to fall in love with her now. Miranda slapped down the last tea cup. What a cow.
"Have you been watching Strictly Come Dancing?" she said.

Who is speaking? It could be either Eleanor or Miranda.

2. If you go backwards and forwards from one character to another, even if the reader can follow, it can feel like being at a tennis match and watching the ball going between the two players. At worst, you can feel almost seasick.

3. Even if the reader can follow easily, it takes them away from what is happening in the scene and a bit of their brain is distracted into working out something technical which should have been hidden. If their brain gets too distracted they'll put the book down and go and do something else.

4. Staying in one character's viewpoint means we feel we're in the head of that character, and if we're in their head, we're engaged with the character, the story and the writing. Which is what you want, isn't it?

5. I know that lots of best selling writers do change point of view within a scene but if you noticed then it means you came out of the story for a moment. Are you certain your story telling is so good that you can afford for a reader to come out of the writing and work out who is speaking now?

6. It's such an easy thing to spot. On a first page it shows carelessness at best, ignorance at worst. An agent or publisher may not bother to read on simply because of shifting POV. In class I have to admit it's wonderfully easy to give POV comments, and not strain the brain into coming up with something else, As a tutor, if I spend time commenting on POV - which is important for the above 5 reasons - I may not have time to get round to other comments, like getting all the easy jobs done on the To Do list and putting off the tricky stuff.

Just be consistent. If you start a scene in Jane's POV, stick with it, don't get sidetracked into Jack's (or Jill's). Write the next scene from Jack's POV if you want, and the scene after that from Jill's, but don't mix them up within a scene. Keep us in the POV character's head, and keep us reading.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Techie Terms

At one of my talks someone asked a question about foreshadowing, quickly followed by someone else asking what foreshadowing was. It made me realise how often I use technical terms without thinking which may not be understandable to others. So, here are some techie terms explained...

When an earlier bit of action or dialogue touches on the same ground as a more important bit of action or dialogue later on. It's like preparing the reader for what is coming. For example, in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Ella says that she'll come with them to Bolivia, she'll cook for them, clean for them, do everything for them - but she won't watch them die. Later on, when they're in Bolivia and the posse chasing them is getting very close, Ella says she's going to return to the US. We know, because of the earlier bit of dialogue, that she thinks they're going to die.

Characters who are similar to the main character and reflect (usually less desirable) aspects of their character or situation. Think of the sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Jane is more docile, Lydia more lively than Lizzie. Friend Charlotte is more sensible. All their fates could have been Lizzie's if she'd behaved like them ie lost Bingley (it's only through Lizzie and Darcy's actions that he comes back), run off with Wickham or married Mr Collins.

Telling us information, whether through dialogue or narrative. Thrillers often have lots of exposition - for example Day of the Jackal, which told us all how to get a false passport among other useful bits of info if you were planning a career as an assassin. Exposition is clunkiest when chunks of it are dropped into dialogue. "Hello Carruthers, it's years since I've seen you. Must have been last at school, sitting next to Jenkins in Geometry. He's done very well for himself, become head of MI5 now you know, married to that girl from the grammar school - Mavis, that was her name. You were friendly with her once, weren't you?"

Is when you go back in time and the next scenes are all in the past. "It had happened when she had been at Granny's, all those years ago. Granny had been helping her with putting on her boots, when Rufus had rushed into the room, shouting that the village hall was on fire. They had all run out of Granny's cottage, and hurried down the hill...." Use sparingly.

Is not quite the same as flashback, in that it's just information about a character's past, rather than showing it in a scene. "She'd not seen such expensive dresses, not since that summer she'd worked at Harrods when she was a student." Again, use sparingly. Readers don't usually need to know much history about characters, and if they do, try to show it through their current actions and dialogue.

Protagonist and Antagonist
The protagonist is the main character, the one who makes stuff happen. The antagonist is the character who opposes them. They're terms taken from Classical Theatre, as written about by Aristotle in Poetics.

Point of View. The subject of tomorrow's post.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Me - Good at Titles? Think Again.

I've been doing a lot of talks recently, and if the subject of titles has come up, people have kindly said that I have great titles and am obviously brilliant at them.


Yes, all my titles (except one) are made up by me and I'm pleased to hear they hit the right buttons. But if anyone thinks I've found it easy to come up with those titles, they're utterly wrong. Apart from Adultery for Beginners, all my titles pitched up after the book was bought and edited - in other words, they took ages to develop. Here's my process...

1. Look at other titles in the same area. With Adultery for Beginners, I had in mind Carol Clewlow's book A Woman's Guide to Adultery, which I thought was a brilliant title. I wanted something like that, though obviously my own. I played around with text book ideas, substituting adultery for maths, geography, whatever.

2. Find a phrase or bit of dialogue in the book that seems to say it all. Oliver tells Anna as he's seducing her that "Nice girls do." The book is about nice girl Anna going off the rails, so it sort of fits. They do, and she does.

3. Write a list (it may be a very long list) of words you associate with the book: place names, character names, adjectives, verbs, nouns... I knew what became Kissing Mr Wrong was about Lu's hunt for a mythical perfect man, so I was playing around with ideas about perfection and Mr Right. Then I turned it upside down - the book was really about her mistaken idea of who Mr Right was, and how she actually needed Mr Wrong.

4. Do the above, and then if you get stuck, ask around. Book No 4 obviously needed an Italian theme, preferably mentioning Rome. I had the longest list of words but still couldn't find a title. At one point I collared a bunch of my son's friends and had an impromptu eight person title brainstorming session. In the end, my lovely friend Nancy came up with A Single to Go, which needed just a bit of tweaking to become A Single to Rome.

5. And the one that got away? I called Book No 3 Another Man's Wife, after Becca the main character describes herself as such. My editor liked it, but sales and marketing didn't. They wanted Another Woman's Husband. I still prefer my version.

So, do I think I'm good at titles? No, not in a million years. I wish I was; it would save so much angst. I'm writing book no 6 at the moment and have absolutely no idea what the title is going to be.

Friday 22 October 2010

Nice Characters

There's been an article in the Guardian about the need for "nice" characters in novels, and how this is stultifying novel writing, as authors try to ward off the dreaded "I didn't like any of the characters" response from readers.

The writer of the article seems to think that not liking the characters equates to a desire for blandness, but I think that's missing the point. People actually like the sparky, the different, the unusual, the original. They like strong, vibrant characters - the very opposite to bland. Those characters can be seriously unpleasant, if they do it in a interesting or entertaining way.

I've recently read a novel where I didn't like the main characters at all. But not because they weren't nice - oh no, they were relentlessly nice in a rather smug, self-satisfied way. The only character I did like was the difficult, awkward sister, who actually seemed to have some personality about her.

We like to read about characters who are bigger than we are, who do the things we only dream of, who don't conform to the rules. Hannibal Lecter may eat your liver given half a chance, but he's also witty, cultured, intelligent and loyal. Non-confrontational we can do at home. Give us Scarlett O'Hara vowing never to be hungry again, and then going out and making sure it happens.

Nice characters? Not really. Characters we like to read about? Absolutely.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Why Exercise?

At a workshop the other day one of the participants didn't want join in, on the grounds that they "couldn't relate" to the exercise. I'd not come across that before - people who find an exercise hard, people who don't want to read out, yes, but not people who wouldn't even try an exercise because they couldn't relate to it.

The exercise in question was about developing plot lines. I gave three lines of plot, and the workshoppers had to join them up with plot events. A bit like being given C G J, and having to fill in a-b-C-d-e-f-G-h-i-J-k-l.

The point of the exercise was not in the wonders or originality of the plot, but whether you could get from a to l, taking in CG and J in a coherent manner. I've set the exercise lots of times, and in my experience everybody can. Hopefully they gain confidence that they can plot, and can do it for their own novel.

Because that's all plotting is really. Moving the story forwards one step at a time in a coherent manner, a to b to c. Learning that is the purpose of the exercise. It's not about how well written or what genre the exercise is, the exercise has one function: a tool to practice what's being taught. No one is born knowing how to write, it comes with practice. Exercises are part of that practice, just as much as writing is.

And surely that's something that anyone who wants to write can relate to.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Silly Suggestions

I was giving a talk a couple of weeks ago and one of the questions that came up was about feedback: should you re-write according to an agent's comments? I asked a bit more about the suggestions that had been made, and whether the author had felt she understood where they were coming from. The answer was, Yes, some, but others were "silly".

I don't know what the comments were, but one thing I'm sure of is that they weren't silly at all. The business of publishing is a serious one, and if an agent bothers to give feedback - which they had no obligation to - then you can be certain that all their comments are serious rather than frivolous. This doesn't make them right, but it does mean they won't be silly.

The trick is to work out where the comments are coming from. Why do they seem "silly" - or irrelevant, misjudged, inaccurate, off-beat, ridiculous? What are the comments telling you about your writing? It's obviously not as clear as you think it is, not when someone has got it so wrong. What are their suggestions indicating you address? If you disagree with those suggestions, then ask yourself why? Work backwards and find out if there is an underlying problem.

I sent my first novel out, and one of the suggestions was to strengthen 3 of the 4 viewpoint characters. My reaction was to take the opposite route - ditch 3 of the 4 viewpoint characters, and concentrate on one viewpoint. That was the right choice for me, but it took a "silly" suggestion to make me realise what the underlying problem really was.

NB Sometimes agent suggestions are silly. One agent said that I was wasting my time with the novel and should give up. Maybe they were right and not so silly, but here I am, still writing...

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Happy Sandwich Goes Wrong

We're so hard on ourselves. We beat ourselves up for things that we would cheerfully dismiss in our friends and family, if we noticed them at all. I find most students are hyper-sensitive to criticism, not in a touchy way - huh, what does she know? - but in self-flagellating way - I'm rubbish, I write rubbish.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Last year I met one. This student had had some happy sandwich feedback on a piece of writing, and they'd only registered the nice top-and-tailing bit. In fact, the criticism had so not registered that they decided to submit the writing for another class exactly as it had been. And got me...

I obviously didn't use enough bread in my happy sandwich, and concentrated on the filling. Much of it consisted of technical points such as ungrammatical sentence construction, shifts in tense, inconsistent characters - things that are a matter of fact, not opinion. But there was some opinion in there too. It's sort of what I'm there for.

Oh dear. The student was not pleased. They showed me the first set of feedback (which raised the question of self-plagiarism but that was the least of the issues). I could see the first tutor had seen the same technical errors I had, had written them down there in clear prose. I pointed this out to the student, but the student instead pointed to the happy bit of the sandwich. That was all that mattered to them.

It wasn't a very successful session.

I've thought about it a lot, about the role of a creative writing tutor. Am I there to point out technical errors, suggest potential ways of improvement and help a writer move forward in their own way, recognising that their way may not be mine, and my opinions are just that, opinions. I've always thought that was it, but perhaps for some students that's wrong. They want bolstering up, confidence boosting, encouragement.

And given that getting published is so hard, is it wrong to encourage people to enjoy their work without regard to what is publishable? Except...if the course is part of an academic programme of study and not a leisure course, surely there have to be some standards that get applied. We can't all get prizes, not all the time. And it devalues the work those who want to improve, who strive to master technical problems, who put in the hours and are not content with acceptable.

The happy sandwich helps people accept criticism; this has to be a good thing. But I think as tutors we have to be aware that not everyone reads the sandwich in the same way.

Monday 18 October 2010

The Happy Sandwich

I first met the Happy Sandwich when I started teaching and had to give feedback. It's a method where you say something nice about a student's work, then give the criticism, then end up with something nice again.

It's about basic psychology. We hear someone say something nice about us/our work so we immediately think that a) they know what we're talking about and b) we're more receptive to their feedback. And then, in case we're a bit cast down by the feedback, the sandwich finishes off with something nice for us to go home with.

We do it all the time. That colour looks lovely on you, really brings out the colour of your eyes. Is it a bit on the small side? And I'm not sure about the waist - perhaps it would look better with a different belt? But it's a beautiful dress, you're very clever to have found it.

I, along with thousands - millions? - of teacher use the Happy Sandwich. In my experience, people are more quick to hear the single word of criticism and take it to heart, rather than the other way around. I'm keen for the good elements to be acknowledged - heavens, for many of us writing anything is an achievement in itself - and it's all too easy to leap in with negativity.

But sometimes the Happy Sandwich goes wrong...which I'll write about tomorrow.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Come In, Sit Down and Get On With It.

I was looking at a student's novel the other day, which starts with some long descriptive passages including a was all good background, but I suggested the story really got underway with Chapter 3, when we see the two main characters in action, and then being presented with a major problem for them both at the end of that chapter.

He defended his choice, and then I defended my suggestion. What had happened at the start of our session, I asked. Did he come to my office, and I told him all about my previous history, starting with where I was born and how many brothers and sisters I have? Or did he come in, sit down and then we got on with discussing his work, with the sketchiest of introductory pleasantries?

Stories need to start with the characters coming in and getting on with it, whatever it may be. There's no need to know anything about their background, and if a particular bit of information becomes necessary, then you just put it in as and when it's needed.

Come in, sit down and get on with it. It's that simple.

Saturday 16 October 2010

The Great Publishing Send Off continues

It's now over two months since I sent out 15 submissions to companies who publish children's picture books, an area notorious for not looking at unsolicited submissions. What's surprised me so far is I've only had one rejection which clearly said my submission hadn't been looked at as they didn't consider unsoliciteds. Of the rest...

Three other rejections saying 'it's tough at the moment/not right for our list etc'. Two were from editorial assistants and could have been written to anyone, one was from the named editor I'd sent originally sent out to - but the letter could have been sent to anyone.

One phone call from an editor saying she was going to take one of the stories to an editorial meeting, but that was a month ago and I've not heard anything since. I don't know if this is good or bad - I suspect the latter, but am hoping for the former.

I'm doing this anonymously, with no indication of my background. In contrast, an author/illustrator friend with a strong list of titles under his belt, has recently sent out a new text. I've read it, and it's great - much, much, much better than mine - and in two weeks he's had the same number of responses as I have had, with reverse results: four love it, one says 'not for us'.

It's so different if you've got a track record. Or a brilliant text. If you haven't got the former, then you need the latter. Hey ho, back to editing...

Friday 15 October 2010

November and NaNoWriMo Coming Up

For those of you who don't know, November is National Novel Writing Month - or NaNoWriMo. The aim is to over the course of the month to produce 50,000 words, an average of 1,667 words every day. Since it first started it's grown every year and is now a world-wide extravaganza of writing.

Not good writing, mind you, just writing. NaNoWriMo is not about quality, it's solely about the word count. You get a certificate if you reach the target, and that's about it.

So why do it?

One of the great things about writing is that it's a process. You start with some raw material and you then hone and polish them into something worth reading. Everybody has to do some editing; you're one in a million (a billion?) if you produce something worth publishing on the first draft. But you need the raw material to start off with. NaNoWriMo could be the spur that gets you producing the words, and there's certainly lots of support from other NaNoWriMo writers, both on the forums and in local groups.

I tried it last year. To be honest, I thought it would be a bit of a doddle because I'm quite good at regularly producing a couple of thousand words per day. I thought it would spur me on to produce those couple of thousand every day, instead of perhaps 4 days out of 7. I loved the idea of having 50,000 words to play with at the end of the month - what a Christmas present to myself!

What happened was it became yet another thing to feel guilty about, another tool to beat myself up with. I found I was producing less and less. 'YOU MUST WRITE' pulsed in my head until it throbbed and the last thing I felt like doing was turning on my laptop. December came as a huge relief.

I'm now a bit wary of the whole shebang. It suits some personalities, but not others. I suspect that those people who love it are the sort who find it quite easy to churn out thousands of words anyway. They can revel in the luxury of a copious output and know they will be envied. Those of us who love the editing, rather than the first draft bit, just get depressed because NaNoWriMo isn't about our sort of skillset. Tortoise or hare, horses for courses - enjoy, or avoid, it's up to you.

Thursday 14 October 2010

First Impressions

I started reading a new book last night, and already I dislike the main character. She goes to meet her boyfriend wearing the earrings he gave her for her birthday. They're silver; she'd hinted she preferred gold, but got silver. I'm guessing this was included as a not very subtle sign from the author that they're essentially not suited to each other, but it completely put me off the main character.


She and her boyfriend have only been together a few months. Her birthday came shortly after they met. I'm sorry, but I reckon hinting you want gold earrings at this stage is not a good character trait, and I don't like the way she's mentally complaining because she got silver. Later in the scene she's got to go to Norfolk for work, and wants him to join her for the weekend and meet her family. He finds an excuse not to come. She notes that he's turned down several opportunities to meet her family, also, he hasn't invited her to meet his. At this point my eyes are wide - meeting families? After a few months? It's one thing if it happens naturally eg the family in question lives near, you see them regularly, but making a formal visit...Pushy, or what?

And now, because I dislike her, I'm clocking up other reasons for dislike; the way she persistently snipes behind his back about a male colleague who is trying v hard (too hard in her opinion) to bring some work into the business; her smugness at being financially secure and the way she patronises her disabled, struggling-financially sister. Later, she goes onto what is clearly marked as private land and is outraged that people are out shooting. I'm afraid I wished she'd get hit, but no such luck.

First impressions count both in fiction and in real life, and it's very hard to recover from a bad start. Make a list of the characteristics you find attractive in people, and one for unattractive. Your main character should display a lot from the first list in the opening chapters. And if they do have some of the less desirable qualities, a bit of self awareness goes a long way. "She knew she should think herself lucky to have a boyfriend who bought her such a lovely present, and she did. It was just a shame that the earrings didn't suit her. Still, it was the thought that counted, and she wore them even though she knew they did nothing for her."

Well, that's how I'd have done it. Now, for all I know, the author may be setting her up as a character who is going to have to make some changes to her attitudes, but it seems a risky way of going about it - if I was reading this solely for pleasure I would have abandoned the book by now. And if this was a first novel, it would have been a doubly risky strategy.

Get a friend to read the opening chapter and ask them to make a list of adjectives to describe the main character(s). Re-write if there's any word on that list like smug, patronising, spiteful, mean, jobsworth... You may not have intended your character to be like that, but if that's the way they're coming across, then you will need to change it. And if you intended your character to be like that? All I can say is risky, risky, risky - and good luck!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Your Little Hobby

What's the best thing about being published?  Lots of things - but one has to be that you no longer need to justify your writing.  It has paid off, literally.  You have money in your mitts.  The money is almost certainly less than you dreamed of, but still, it's a cheque and it's really yours.  

But until that point - well, it's hard.  I don't mean hard like going down a mine everyday is hard, but it is hard to persist when no one else is taking your writing seriously. When it's called 'your little hobby'.  When I was on the MA at Bath Spa, several of my fellow students confessed that their motivation for doing the MA was in part to have justification for spending time writing.  They were dreading when it finished and partners/work colleagues stopped giving them the space they needed. 

I think the only solution is to become as sneaky as possible.  Don't tell people you're writing a novel, and you don't get asked ''got a deal yet?', which is infuriating when you haven't yet finished. At home, if you have partner/children around, slink off to your writing space and grab whatever time you can.  Don't ask it's okay, because that will just alert them that you're going, and you'll never get away.  Learn to adapt to your circumstances - a writer can't be fussy about the space they write in.  Write whenever and however you can.

And if your neighbour does ask about 'your little hobby', stamp on their feet, hard.  It may not make you the most popular person at the party but you will feel miles better.  And next time, don't tell them that you're writing.  

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Why Alexander McCall Smith Depresses Me

I was speaking on Saturday at Wells Lit Fest, and everybody was talking about Alexander McCall Smith who had been speaking the evening before.  He apparently wakes at 5 am, writes 1000 words an hour for 3 hours, then at 8 am goes back to bed for a little snooze before carrying on his day.  This is depressing enough but what really got me was that he doesn't revise his work.  Apparently he just writes it, as if taking dictation from some other place and boof!  there it is, publishable quality.  He publishes 3 or 4 books a year. Swine.

I try to be a nice person, but sometimes I have to admit I'm not really because, oooh, I'm so jealous. How I wish I was like Alexander McCall Smith.  I find writing hard work.  I find getting up at 7 hard work, let alone 5.  It doesn't just fall from my brain onto the page, and I then need to revise and revise and revise to get something that's worth publishing.  

Ah well.  I am never going to achieve that output.  I am never going to get up that early to write.  It simply isn't in me.  My loss.  And now I could go into a bout of self flagellation, but I'm gradually learning not to compare myself with other writers.  They write their books, and I write mine.  However early I get up, I will never write an Alexander McCall Smith book.  And, no matter how many thousand words he writes at unearthly hours of the morning, he will never write a Sarah Duncan book.  

Different strokes for different folks.  It's soul destroying to compare yourself with others, especially when you're at the unpublished stage and a friend gets a deal.  Don't do it.  Treasure your unique gifts.  No one else can write like you.  Write when it suits you, not according to someone else's schedule.  If it's 500 words a day, or 3000 in a whoosh at the weekend it doesn't matter.  If all you can manage is 2000 when you're on holiday, then that's okay too.  It'll take longer to get to the end, that's all.  Because it isn't a competition.  You are you, and Alexander McCall Smith is himself, and everybody must write their own way.

Monday 11 October 2010

How I Do It

I was at Wells Lit Fest giving a talk about what makes a good story.  After the event I signed books, then snuck into the audience for the next session.  A woman behind me tapped my shoulder and said she'd enjoyed my talk.  Then she added, 'What I really like hearing from authors is how they do it.' At that point the event started so I never answered her.  But, should anyone be interested, this is how I do it.

Day at writing cottage:
About twice a year I rent a cottage to write in.  There are no distractions, no internet so no email or Twitter.  I wake up and start writing.  After 1000 words or so, I go and have a shower and get dressed.  Another 1000 words, and it's breakfast.  Another 1000 words, and it's lunch and Bargain Hunt.  Another 1000 words and it's time for Countdown.  That's probably it, but I might do some more.  Total: 4000+ words.

Normal day:
I faff.  I procrastinate.  I go on Twitter.  I check my email.  I check my blog.  I check my stats.  I go on Twitter.  I can spend hours doing this.  I watch Bargain Hunt and eat my lunch.  Back upstairs, and time for some more faff.  Then, Countdown.  Then, feel horribly guilty at having to to tell my partner I've not written anything today.  Rush upstairs to bed, grab my laptop and start writing so at least I look busy if he comes home early.  He turns up.  I realise it's dark outside and I've done 2000 words. Total: 2000 words.

Teaching day:
I don't even try.  I'm usually so tired after teaching all I want to do is have a large mug of tea and curl up and watch Bargain Hunt or Countdown, but that's day time TV so I make do with re-runs of Poirot or Miss Marple. Total: 0 words.  

Which explains why going to the cottage is needed, and why I limit the number of hours I teach.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Cheating the Reader

I've just finished reading The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse. I was gripped for most of the book, avidly turning the pages, waiting for the denouement which was surely going to happen. I expected high drama, possibly violence - not graphically described, it's not that sort of book, but I reckoned at least one of the characters was going to die.

The pages diminished, my anticipation grew, we were obviously near the end and...then the author let me down. I don't want to give away the plot but the narrator isn't present for any of the dramatic events at the end. She gets told about them. What????? Was that what I read 374 pages for, to hear about the ending second hand?

Well. I was that disappointed. And it's a shame, because Lucie Whitehouse writes beautifully, and is good at creating tension. Up until the ending, I'd have recommended the book to anyone, but now...because of the ending I would only recommend with caveats. I wrote earlier about how the ending, as the last thing we read, colours our memory of the story or novel and The House at Midnight is a good example of a novel falling at the final hurdle.

I just wish she'd got her narrator there to witness for herself what happened. Not only that, but the newly-revealed baddie has run off and is never heard of again. No comeuppance, no final show-down - the characters left standing have to guess what happened.

As writers we ask people to give up their precious time to read our stories. The least we can do is give them a satisfying ending. I reckon that means three things:

1. It's narrated first hand, preferably by the main view point character.
2. Not all the endings need to be tied up, but the big plot questions need some form of resolution.
3. Promises made during the course of the story should be delivered.

In this case, my prediction was accurate. The ending was dramatic, was violent, and someone died. If only the narrator had been there to experience the events...

Saturday 9 October 2010

Format for Picture Book Texts

Picture book texts are a marriage between words and illustrations - there's a clue in the name. If you've written a text, you have to be aware of how it will appear on the page of the real thing. You have to be able to see it, the pages turning as a parent reads to a small child.

So that's the first thing. Although you're not going to illustrate it yourself, you have to be able to visualise how the finished book might look. When the book is open, you'll be looking at two pages at a time, the left and the right page. That's called a spread. Books are made by printing on enormous sheets of paper which are then cut and folded into 32 pages. (Longer books are made by glueing those 32 pages together - if you check the spine you can usually see the folds.)

With a picture book the first couple of pages will be taken up by a title page, and the publishing information page, the end pages will be perhaps more information on other titles. You have between 24 and 28 pages to play with, which translates to 12, 13 or 14 spreads. You have to work out how your story fits into those spreads - you might find folding up some sheets of paper to make a dummy book is useful.

Then you present the text in spreads....

Fergus lived with his mother in a cave on the edge of the deep dark forest.
One summer evening, Fergus was busy chasing butterflies.
'Time for bed,' said his mother.
'No, it isn't,' Fergus said, jumping higher. The day was still bright outside the cave.
'Time for bed,' his mother said again, scooping him up.

But Fergus wriggled out of her arms.
'I'm not going to bed,' Fergus said. 'I'm going to find an adventure.'
And he ran from the cave out into the forest.

The trees were tall and made long shadows across the path, but the leaves danced and rustled in the breeze.
'I don't need a mummy,' laughed Fergus as he skipped along. 'I'm going to have an adventure on my very own.'

(Illus: Mother Bear is in the background, hiding behind a tree)
(Illus: Dusk is falling)

And so on, keeping each spread together ie don't split them between pages. Add a word count and your contact details at the end, and you're done.

Friday 8 October 2010

Illustrations Not Required

Although I write novels for adults, the Great Publishing Send Off (update coming soon) was with some picture book texts I'd written. I'd had a go because recently I've got to know a few illustrators - Lu in Kissing Mr Wrong was an illustrator - and become interested in a very different aspect of publishing. And also picture book texts are short, 1000 words max, which has a certain appeal to a novelist.

I'd thought about writing a picture book story before - I guess any parent who reads to their children does at some point - but hadn't done anything about it because I can't draw, and I thought you needed to provide the illustrations. But hoorah! You don't.

The only person who should ever include illustrations along with a text is a professional illustrator. If you've written a story, you simply send that in using the proper format, and the publisher will match you with an illustrator. This is an important aspect of the publisher's job - think of good matches, like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake.

What you need to do is present the text clearly, and give an indication of what the illustrations should contain if necessary. Necessary means if the illustration contains stuff that isn't in the text, but is necessary for the story, for example, if Red Riding Hood is skipping along the path into the woods in the text, the illustration might need to show the Big Bad Wolf hiding behind a tree. You put the information needed in brackets at the bottom, for example...

Fergus lived with his mother in a cave in the deep dark forest.
'It's time for bed, his mother said, but Fergus pretended not to hear. He was too busy having adventures.
(Illus: They're bears in a cave, Fergus is playing with his toys.)

And that's all you need to do. Simple. The number 1 is about formatting the text, which I'll do tomorrow.

Thursday 7 October 2010

Yes, They Could Be Serious

Many, many years ago I wanted to read a book about how to get into acting as a profession. Every book I could find was written by an old, already famous person, like Judi Dench. I'm sorry about the old, but I was still in my teens, and at that point age didn't equate with useful experience. I wanted something written by someone in their 20s, someone who was still climbing the ladder, someone who would know a few short cuts.

Fast forward a few years, and I was possibly that person. I was in work pretty much non-stop and earning good money, but no way could I call myself famous. So, I decided to write the book I'd wanted to read. Having written it - and I don't remember any angst about writing, so unlike now; that too must be an age thing - I knew that there was one publisher who published all the plays, so I wrote to them telling them what I'd written and why.

They wrote back - they were interested, but wanted to know a bit more about me: why was I the one to write this book? At which point I decided they were giving me the brush off and didn't bother to reply.


I simply can't believe I did that. But it is true. I think, deep down, I was worried that they would think I wasn't famous enough for them so it was easier to reject them first before they rejected me. Idiot!

Because now I know differently. These people - agents, editors, publishers - are so swamped with manuscripts that ANY flicker of interest is good. Every day they are besieged by thousands of voices going Me, me, me! so if they offer you some individual attention, be thrilled and flattered, even if it doesn't lead to the publishing deal of your dreams. Take it as a positive sign you're on the right track and don't be silly like me.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Some Thoughts about Self Publishing

I started my writing career as a self-publisher 20+ years ago. I did well, expanded the business until it employed 6 part timers. It was a good business for a stay-at-home mum as most of the work could be fitted around nursery school and Tumble-Tots. My babies grew up knowing how to stuff mailshot envelopes, to stick stamps on parcels and were on first name terms with the parcel collection man. Then I got bored, gave it up and became a fiction writer.

The trouble with self publishing is that the inexperienced person thinks producing the book is the issue. It's not. Producing a book is easy, it just takes time and money. It takes less time and costs far less than when I first started. Distribution is also less of an issue now there's print on demand and ebooks.

The big huge mega problem is SELLING the wretched thing. That means letting people know it's out there, and then persuading them to buy it. Then, when you've sold a copy, you've got to have a paper trail of some sort - receipts, invoices, orders, accounts. Publishers have whole departments devoted to these aspects: you have just you.

You will find it easier if you are writing non-fiction. If your book is about, for example, woodworking, the chances are you know there's a gap in the market for your book, that's why you wrote it. You will know all about which magazines, newspapers, TV or radio programmes are devoted to woodworking, you will know about woodworking societies, clubs, tool manufacturers. In other words, you know exactly who is going to buy your book, and how you can tell them it's out there.

Fiction is not so easy. It's a huge market potentially, but that makes it harder to reach. The newspapers and magazines which can reach this market are nigh-on impossible to get coverage - even traditional publishers struggle. Bookshops don't like self published works - you might get into your local bookshop assuming a) you have one and b) you're a regular customer and don't buy all your books from Amazon or the supermarket. Don't be deceived into believing all your friends and family will buy a copy. Some will, but surprising numbers won't, and you'd have to have an awful lot of friends to make it viable.

But my biggest reservation about self publishing is why I left it. I wanted to be a writer, not run a business. It was fun at first - ooh, the thrill of putting in fistfuls of cheques - but I didn't want to set up systems for processing payments and chasing unpaid invoices: I am not an administrator and have never wished to be one.

Self publishing is basically the same as setting up a widget-selling business, one where you also make the widgets. If you're thinking about going into self publishing you need to ask yourself: Do you really want to be a widget salesperson? Or do you want to be a writer?

Tuesday 5 October 2010

What is a Bahookie?

When my children were small one of their favourite stories was about a small dog called Sam who kept on getting into various forms of mischief. At no point was it said where Sam came from, nor was the story scattered with apostrophes. One of the stories concerned Sam trying to get through a hole in a fence. Now Sam was also known as wee Sam, or wee fat Sam. Trying to get through the fence, his wee fat bahookie got stuck.

Now, I don't know what a bahookie is exactly, but I didn't need the illustration to make a good guess as to which bit of Sam's anatomy was stuck. And you can't say "wee fat bahookie" in any other way than with a Scottish accent. Bahookie: it's such a great dialect word, and putting it in the text - one aimed at small children - conveyed the dialect better than any Och aye would have done.

Dialect words are precise. They say 'me duck' in Leicester as a form of endearment, but it's 'me ducks' in Nottingham not that far away. In Cornwall it's 'me cock'. What about cariad, dearie, love, my lover? All the same meaning, all different locations. Get the words right, and the reader will hear the right accent in their heads.

Monday 4 October 2010

Shall Us Do Some Dialect?

A friend was describing an excellent but eccentric plumber who was working on his house.  At one point, halfway through the working day, the plumber set down his tools and said, "Shall us go for a walk round the village?"

Say it out loud.  Shall us go for a walk?  

Now try this. Shall we go for a walk? 

Your voice will be different.  You can't simply can't say Shall us go for a walk? without a hint of a West Country burr. 

This is the best - the  only way - to write dialect.  Forget funny spellings, forget apostrophes, it's all in the rhythm of speech, phrasing, grammar - and use of dialect words, which I'll do tomorrow.     

Sunday 3 October 2010

Making Assumptions

Last month I chaired an event for the Penzance Literary Festival.  One novelist, Jessica Mann, was talking about the memoir she is currently writing.  It's about the 1950s, and how life is so much better now than it was then, even though many people hark back to the 50s as a Golden Age.  She explained how, as a young woman she'd believed she was free, but her assumptions about life were coloured by the prevailing mores and in reality she had been constrained by societal expectations.

We discussed whether one could get into a character's head if they lived at a different time.  Rosemary Aitkin, the other panellist, who (as Rosemary Rowe) writes crime novels set in Romano-Britain, said that it was impossible to write about accurately, the writer had to adapt it.  Real life Romano-Britons would have had a mindset about, for example, the place of women in society, that would be unacceptable to us now.  

Closer to home, I find it hard to understand the mindset of many young people, for example, about drinking.  I just don't get the idea of going out with the intention of getting wasted.  Looking the other direction, I know my mother's expectations of marriage were quite different from mine, and what I might consider to be a bad marriage, she might see as a successful one. 

If we want to write about characters other than ourselves we have to examine our assumptions about other peoples behaviour.  We don't have to understand them - I am never going to understand why cars matter so much to some men - but we have to know that they're there.

Saturday 2 October 2010

Motivation and Habit

I heard this on the radio the other day, can't remember where or in what context, but it struck me as being very true for writing. 

"Motivation gets you started, habit keeps you going."

We all need motivation to get any project going, whether it's learning Italian or going to the gym, but after the first flush of enthusiasm dies down, a lot of us drop out or give up.  Same with writing.  We get motivated to write a novel or a short story because we have a great idea, or some characters or a place we feel compelled to write about, but even the shortest of short stories will take more than ten minutes to write.  

We'll have to come back to it, and that's where habit comes in.  Sometimes I find I'm at the gym before I've almost realised it, my subconscious habits having propelled me along. (If I thought about it, I wouldn't go.) It's really important to develop good habits if you want to write.  

- Come in from work, and instead of sitting down in front of the TV with a cup of tea, take the tea to the computer.  
- The alarm goes off and instead of hanging on to every last second of sleep, you roll over, grab your pen and notebook and start to write. 
- Sunday morning, and while the rest of the household sits down with the papers, you're off writing.  

Whatever your writing style, develop a habit around it, and it will help you to finish your writing  projects.  

Friday 1 October 2010

Don't Read Dead Authors

It happens at least once a term.  The feedback is that a section is too wordy, too descriptive, and you're busily defending your work on the grounds that Dickens did it like that.  Trouble is, Dickens is a Dead Author.  He's not a good example for you to follow because he's not a new author getting his first book published now.  

Established authors are nearly as bad as dead ones.  If I pick up a new novel by Anne Tyler, Nick Hornby, Ian Rankin or Jilly Cooper, I've got a fair idea of what it's going to be about, where it's going to be set, what sort of people the main characters will be, and what the style of writing is going to be.  If the opening is a bit slow to get going, I'll stick with it because I know I enjoyed their previous books.  

The rules are different for the unpublished to the previously published.  That's just a fact. So you should read first time novelists, and as you're reading, you should be working out why were they chosen off the slush pile.  What are their special qualities?  I'm not suggesting that you should follow what they did (for lots of reasons but not least because the market will have moved on by the time you've finished writing your novel), but it will give you an idea of what the market is looking for and how much better you've got to be to get noticed.