Friday 31 December 2010

Idea or Story

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 30 December 2010

Naturally Talented?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Writing without Chapters

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Editing in Action

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

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

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

And I did. And it was better.

Monday 27 December 2010

Five Paragraphs Expanded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 26 December 2010

Reacting to Feedback

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

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

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

Saturday 25 December 2010

The Mathematics of Novel Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* As a guideline, this post is 300 words.


Friday 24 December 2010

Christmas Posting

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 23 December 2010

Men and Women - Mars and Venus?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Questions As A Pitch

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Writing the Plot as Questions

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

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

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

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

Monday 20 December 2010

How's Your Hearing?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 19 December 2010

Maximising Your Secondary Characters

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

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

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

Saturday 18 December 2010

Trials and Tribulations of a Writer

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 17 December 2010

YIPPEE!!! It's Award Time Again

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

Forget?  How could I?  Could you? 

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

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

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

Thursday 16 December 2010

How Do I Know When I Should Stop Editing?

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

I reckon you're done when...

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Defining Moments

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 14 December 2010

5 Things To Put Into A Letter to An Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 13 December 2010

5 Things NOT To Put In A Letter To An Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 12 December 2010

The Easiest Way to Self- Edit

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 11 December 2010

Sex Sells - Or Does It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 10 December 2010

Teasing the Reader

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 9 December 2010

Why Write Sex Scenes?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 8 December 2010

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 7 December 2010

10 Rules for Writing about Sex: II

Continued from yesterday...

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 6 December 2010

10 Rules for Writing about Sex: I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II tomorrow....

Sunday 5 December 2010

Driving in the Darkness

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

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

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

Saturday 4 December 2010

Reactions that Work for You

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

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

Poor author.

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

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

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

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

Friday 3 December 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 2 December 2010

The Danger of Making Assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Hooray for all NaNoWriMo-ers

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

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

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

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

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