Friday, 28 January 2011

3 x When Computers and Writing Don't Mix

After my posts on index cards, I was interested by some of the comments about rewriting and plotting on computer. Now, I'm a dinosaur and always choose for the lowest tech approach possible, but I know there are lots of people out there for whom computers are a more natural way of working. However, there are three circumstances when I think computers really don't work.

1. Re-drafting
You've written your novel, and if you're technically minded you might have used something clever like a spreadsheet to develop it. At this stage I'd say dump the computer. Rewrites HAVE to be a time when anything goes, when you're shuffling the cards around and anything could end up anywhere. If you use a spread sheet, you're changing one element a time. It doesn't have the same 'suck it and see' facility. There's an organic fluidity about using the cards: Take this one away, what does the novel look like? Put this one here, not there, or what about over there? This needs to happen before that - or does it? It's harder to experiment when it's on the computer, it all looks so neat and tidy and well organised. But it's got to get worse before getting better.

2. Editing
For some strange reason, when we edit on the computer screen we miss stuff. Print it out and mistakes and typos screech at you, practically circling themselves with red ink. Always, always, always print out your manuscript to do at least the final edit on paper.

3. Note taking
OK, this one has caused me grief because I really really really want an iPad and taking notes was one of the ways I was going to justify it to myself. But I know it doesn't work like that. A bit like re-drafting, notes are an organic form, the imaginative part of the brain working, not the technical bit. Snippets of info get saved - ideas for titles, snatches of dialogue, plot ideas (and shopping lists). Now you can put them all neatly into your computer, but I bet you won't get round to looking at them. Whereas, what could be simpler or more absorbing than flicking through one of your old notebooks and seeing a ragbag of information?

Computers are wonderful tools and incredibly useful. But writing is an imaginative act, so don't get sucked into using them for everything.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

What To Call An Agent

It sounds really simple. You put together your first three chapters, your synopsis, your covering letter ready to send round to some agents. But then you have the problem of what to call them. Dear Ms Smith? Dear John Smith? Dear Jane? How formal, or informal, should you be with someone who you probably haven't met but are hoping to enter into a close business relationship with?

The simple answer, is none of the following. Andrew Lownie, of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency, has come up with a list of some of the ways he has been addressed by would-be clients....

Hi there!

Dear Respectful One

Dear Potential Partner

Dear Sir Andrew

My dearest

Dear Mr./Mrs.

Dear Mr or Mrs Agent

To whom it may concern

(You can find the complete list at his website). I'm seriously hoping you're laughing at this rather than blushing guiltily, but how should it have been done?

Dear Andrew Lownie

That's it. It's correctly spelt, and there isn't a title. This is particularly important when writing to women because of the whole Mrs, Miss, Ms business. A Mrs may be deeply offended at being called a Ms. A Miss may prefer the anonymity of Ms. They may be married, but use their maiden name at work, or vice versa. I was once told rather huffily by one editor that she was married so she certainly wasn't a Ms or a Miss, but she chose to use her maiden surname professionally so she wasn't Mrs maiden name either.

Another problem with titles is playing guess which sex as there are several names that can be unisex, like Val, Nick, Jo. And some names can catch you out. Leslie for men, Lesley for women you might think. But my middle name is Leslie, because I'm named for my grandfather and my father didn't know there was a female version. I've met another female Leslie in publishing, spelt that way for exactly the same reason.

So, no title is the best policy. And check, and re-check, the spelling. Is it Carol, or Carole? Katherine, or Catharine? Get the name wrong and your submission goes straight onto the 'no' pile.

Perhaps all this sounds too fussy. Perhaps you feel that agents are putting themselves on a pedestal way up above everybody else. In which case, why not just stick to my favourite from Andrew Lownie's list: Dear God's Elect. That should do the trick.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Creating Convincing Dialogue

I get Google Alerts so I know when my name gets mentioned on the internet. The only trouble is, my name is hardly unusual so I get alerts for a photographer, a legal big cheese and a Texan volleyball player, among others. I see the first two lines of the relevant post. This came into my inbox yesterday...

Sarah Duncan walked 4.46 kilometers in 51 mins. It was VERY cold & windy. Another neighbor came with us and she walks slower so we could not walk as fast as ...

I imagine she's about fortyish, with ash-blonde streaks because she's going a little bit grey. She likes to wrap a big scarf around her neck and dig her hands deep in her pockets, along with a tube of Lipsalve and tissues still in the packet. She wears sea colours: mid blues and greens. Her husband told her when they were dating that they brought out the colour of her eyes. That was more years ago than she cares to mention. Since January she has been walking with her friend from across the road - Patty - to try to get fit and lose some weight. They're doing OK, they've been surprised at how easy it is to build up their times over the distance. When they finished the walk, the neighbour wanted to join them again, and they smiled and said they'd let her know, but knew they wouldn't.

That's all made up. For all I know, she's a lapdancer with dark hair snaking down her back. But not to me. My version comes from those few lines and the clues: the precision of the distance, the capitalised VERY, the sentence construction - particularly the 'she walks slower'. I'm busy constructing a whole persona from those clues.

So as writers, we need to make sure the clues are there. The problem is, I don't think you can construct the voice to fit the character - at least, that's not how it works for me. I hear the voice first. I hear how they speak, their intonation, their sentence construction, their accent, if they use jargon, or a particular vocabulary. I hear them, and from what they say, I work out how they look and how they are.

Writing this post, I realise that's the same process a reader goes through. They read/hear the dialogue and pick up clues, just the same way I did for speedwalking Sarah Duncan. I don't know if other writers do it the same way, but it seems a good way to create convincing dialogue - hear it first, then write it down.

PS Absolutely nothing to do with writing, but my lovely daughter Isabel is entering for Miss Bath! She needs people to vote for her, so if any one felt inclined to do so, text 11Isabel to 84205 - the downside is it costs 60p per text.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Plotting with Index Cards

A couple of queries have come up about exactly HOW I use index cards.

I don't do anything complicated like plan out scenes using Excel, I start with three or four plot points and write to join them, making notes as I go along. After about 80,000 words and much gnashing of teeth I reckon I've scraped my way to the end.

That's when I use the index cards. I print out the novel, single spaced to save paper, and go through scene by scene. It's a scene per card, regardless of length - a scene could be just a paragraph, or 25 pages. (However, trying to squeeze all the info from 25 pages onto one little card might give me a clue there and then that I need to divide that scene into two/three/four separate scenes.)
I reckon there are about 50-100 scenes per novel. The set of cards I've just done, I started with lots of little scenes, but they've been rationalised into some meatier scenes ie I went from approx 100 cards to about 60 (I'm guessing the numbers). Some scenes have been completely cut, and new ones imagined.

On each index card I write the major points from the scene - it could be action, information, anything. When I first started doing this they were very neatly written. Six novels in, and it's all pretty much a scrawl. Still, I know what I'm on about, and they're a tool for me, not anyone else.

Then I sit down at the computer with a stack of cards beside me. I save the draft as Draft 2, and go through the cards until I get to the end. I move stuff I don't need to the very end of the text rather than cutting it, and I make notes to myself as necessary along the way marking them with XXX so I don't miss them at a later stage. Then I do the whole thing again. And again. 16 times for Adultery for Beginners (my first novel), 4 times for A Single to Rome, 3 times for Kissing Mr Wrong (but I was pushed to make my delivery date and did another complete re-write after my editor had seen it).

What I don't do is divide it into chapters - I won't do that for ages, it's the very last thing I do before sending off to my editor, although I'll have an inkling of where some of the chapter ends may fall.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Apples and Pears - Markets for Short Stories

When I started writing I wrote short stories, and it became very clear that there were two sorts of short stories: those that won short story competitions and those that were published in the women's magazines.  

They were not the same thing at all, as different as apples and pears.

When I started teaching I had a student who was determined to crack the women's magazine market because it was the only one that paid.  This is true.  He'd come to my class because he was getting rejected. He suspected a female conspiracy against him because he was a man.  Not true.  A good story is a good story, regardless of the sex of the writer.  

What became clear was that his inclinations were to write literary short stories, apples, if you like.  But the women's magazine market wants pears.  It makes no difference if you've got a juicy Braeburn, a crisp Cox's Orange Pippin, or a woolly Granny Smith - they're not pears.  

He refused to accept this, and stomped off in a huff. 

The same is true the other way round - if you're writing pears, they won't get placed in a literary short story competition.  Another student was having great success with the womags - hardly a week went by when she didn't report another sale - but yearned to win a short story competition.  It didn't happen for her, although she worked very hard at her writing.  

If you want to write short stories then you need to know your market.  How? Easy - read. Read, read, then read some more.  Apples?  Or pears?  Work it out, then apply to your own work. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Character Arc

When you think about it, what I've been writing about most of this week has been character arc, although I've put it in terms of plot.  Of course, character and plot are inextricably linked, and I expect now I'm going to talk about character, it'll end up being about plot.  Still, here goes.

A character arc is the development that takes place in a character's emotional life over the course of the story.  They start emotionally at A and end up at B.  With luck, they've also been through C, D, E, F, G etc on their way to B, but put simply, by the end they have changed.  Usually they have learned something about themselves and/or the way the world works.

Take The Great Gatsby. Nick Carraway, the narrator, comes East.  He's from the Mid-West, and thinks his cousin Daisy is wonderful with her rich husband and glamorous Eastern lifestyle.  Mid-Western values of honesty, hard work, thrift etc are forgotten as he gets sucked into a more sophisticated way of life.  But by the end he has changed.  He returns home, disillusioned by the East, emotionally scarred and generally sadder and wiser than when he started. That's his character arc.  

Isabel in Adultery for Beginners starts out as being entirely dependent on her husband, not just financially but also emotionally.  By the end, she is reaching towards financial independence, she is taking responsibility for her own life and actions, she is making her own future instead on relying on others. She has learned about self-reliance and self-determination, and when she establishes a new relationship it will be as equals.  

Often, when the novel starts we see our main character as having this virtue, that fault.  Over the course of the story we usually learn why they have those virtues/faults.  We learn what are the problems created by those virtues/faults.  We learn how they're going to overcome those specific problems and crucially, how THEY are learning not to make those mistakes again by recognising their virtues/faults and changing. 

In Adultery for Beginners, my editor said she wanted only a hint that Isabel and Adam were going to get together, rather than a full blown passionate embrace, explaining that readers could fill in the gaps for themselves. She didn't explain further than that - she may not have known why it was deep down the right thing to do.  Neither did I; I just accepted the situation and amended it.  

In retrospect I know why it was right for Isabel. Isabel at the beginning of the novel is impetuous; she behaves like a child wanting things now.  She rushes headlong into a relationship, and gets badly burned. But by the end she has grown up.  She has learned not to do that again.  She will take things with Adam slowly, and let the relationship develop at its own pace.  

I believe that one of the reasons we read fiction is to discover how other people deal with change.  Without change there is no point to reading.  In a novel the character will change on many levels, in a short story there will usually be space for only one or two changes.  But change there will be.  

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Plot, Plot, Plotting!

I've been struggling a bit with my current book.  It hasn't been coming together in the way I hoped despite several drafts and sessions with the index cards.  But I've just done another mega card session and - cross fingers - I think I'm there.

I posted earlier about one of the earlier plotting sessions and how I couldn't decide whether to start earlier, or feed that story through the plot as scenes of flashback.  Well - surprise surprise given my oft-stated aversion to flashback - I've decided against that.  But it still wasn't right.  The index cards were laid out on the table yet again and I stared at them until my eyes hurt.  It wasn't working.  Characters were having to make abrupt emotional about-turns - I love you, oh no I don't, I love you instead. (Sort of - I paraphrase.) Plus, there was a lot of misery and moping, which I don't like writing much.

Then - ping! - lightbulb moment.  Time was going to come to my side. Time, the great healer.  My story was going to spread over several years, not several months.  Characters had time to meet, change, do whatever they were going to do.  Suddenly it all fell into place.  I didn't have to explain how A had met B in the past - I could show them meeting.  I didn't have to explain how C once looked after D - I could show it.  When F behaves badly, it was because F was young and foolish, not older and more calculating.  When G gets taken in, it was because G is young and naive, not older and, frankly, a bit dim.

I looked at the cards again.  Same scenes, but now a very different flavour pervades the book.  And I'm happily re-writing again.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

What It's Really About

But following on from yesterday, one person's satisfying resolution is another person's confusion.  Take the ending of In Bruges.  Does he die, or not?  My boss at the American university where I teach asked me that, because he knew it was one of my favourite films.  I said it didn't matter, because that wasn't the right question.

Similarly, Jim mentioned the recent David Suchet adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.  More of less everybody knows the plot and who dunnit, so the suspense is inevitably lacking.  However, when the murder has been revealed, the credits don't roll.  The film continues...because it's not about Who Dunnit, it's about Poirot - his religious belief, his need for justice, his innate obedience to the command: Thou shalt not kill.  Who Dunnit? becomes the wrong question.

I write novels that fall into the Romance category.  Yet, to me, the books are never about Will the main character find love?  That's not the right question - because the answer is inevitably Yes!  My questions are more: In A Single to Rome, will Natalie find her way back onto the path she left when she was in her teens?  In Adultery for Beginners, will Isabel learn to forge her own path rather than relying on others?  In Nice Girls Do, will Anna develop her emotional IQ to match her academic IQ?

With In Bruges, the question isn't about whether he lives or dies, but whether he wants to live - and that's the question that gets answered.  'You mean it's about redemption,' said my boss.  'Ah.  Now I understand.'  

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Telling All, or Telling Nothing?

Comments on the post The Curse of Flashback suggest several books or films that give the ending away right at the very beginning, and how it affects our reading/viewing in a negative way.

Here's the opposite - the book or film where you're left going 'What happened?  Did they abc or xyz?'  You flick back through the pages to try to work it out, but it doesn't seem clear.  Two examples immediately came to my mind - Love Act by ME Austen, which ends just before the main character makes a crucial decision and The Great Indoors by Sabine Durrant, where I couldn't decide what had actually happened.  (They're both quite old, so if you can think of some more recent examples, please let me know.)

Now, I know some people like the unresolved ending but I'm not a fan.  That doesn't mean I want every single loose end tied up, but there needs to be a clear indication of where we're going.  After I'd sold my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, my editor asked for a few changes.  One of them was the ending.  She said that all we needed to know was that Isabel was going start dating again and generally be OK, we didn't have to know whether Adam was going to be her soul mate.  I changed the ending.  

It's like the ending of The Italian Job and Michael Caine saying 'I have an idea...' That works because we know that somehow he's going to find his way out of this impossible predicament.  Anthony Mingella changed the ending of the film version of The Talented Mr Ripley, but although different in feel, both the book and the film endings work because we know how Tom Ripley is going to carry on with his life - even though we don't know exactly what he's going to do. That's satisfying.  Confusion isn't.  

Monday, 17 January 2011

And Now I'm Even Dreaming Blogposts

Last night I had a terrible dream.  My daughter Helen (not my real life daughter - in fact, it was moaning Helen from The Archers) had a non-fiction book she'd written.  I mentioned the book to an editor friend who suggested a particular publisher might be interested.  I passed the info onto Helen, who duly wrote to the publisher.  But, sadly, the publisher had only the day before commissioned a virtually identical book on the same subject.  

The info pushed Helen off the rails.  She complained: the publisher had stolen her idea; the editor had stolen her idea; everybody was culpable of a great wrong; she was going to make them pay.  I tried to reason with her, but she was beyond reason.  She ranted and raved about the conspiracy she perceived against her for so long that in the end I woke up utterly exhausted.
OK.  It was only a dream but there was a core of truth**.  Some people really do believe that there's a conspiracy by publishers and agents against them.  I have met them.  They are full of grievances about how an agent didn't read the whole of the manuscript, or a publisher is obviously only interested in celebrities.  I have heard a man who I previously thought was quite normal state with confidence that the sole reason his book was turned down was that editors are young female arts graduates who obviously couldn't understand the science behind his novel.  That maybe true, but I have seen that book, and it has one of the least appealing first pages I've ever read.

Publishing is a poorly paid industry.  It's been hit by the recession and there have been job cuts.  Those who are left are usually doing two people's jobs.  They don't have time for conspiracies.  But nor do they have time to spare on reading submissions.  You have to grab them with your covering letter and, most importantly, your writing. Your first page needs to be brilliant, and so does your second, and third and fourth...

** And not just that Helen is a pain in the neck and it's a pity she didn't die rather than Nigel who never did anyone any harm and was an all round pleasant and cheerful chap.  BTW if you don't listen to The Archers this won't make any sense to you.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Other Side of the Dream

Over Christmas there were various family gatherings and at one I heard the following exchange between my older brother and my son, who graduated this summer and incredibly landed his dream job a week after his final exam:

David: How are you finding the world of work?
Nick: Not as much fun as being a student.

Surprise, surprise, being a 9-5, Monday to Friday office worker isn't as much fun as being a student, and - according to Nick - he was much better off financially as a student than as a tax paying, student loan repaying, rent paying, bill paying worker.  Of course, he's furthering his long term ambitions but part of him regrets taking up a job so soon after graduation when the majority of his contemporaries were having several months of travel and fun before looking for work.  

So, what's that got to do with writing?  When you're unpublished, all you can think about is being published.  The Land of Publication looks beautiful, a place where nothing bad can happen and the little birds sing in the trees all day.  Then, one day, it's your turn to cross the Great Divide and you find yourself there.  The grass is still green, but it doesn't taste as sweet, the little birds' tweeting gets on your nerves, the incessant sunshine is giving you a headache...

Getting published is never as you expect it to be.  For most of us it's a bit of a damp squib - our publishers don't appear that interested in our book, the press and reading public are equally indifferent.  Even if you get a glimpse of the spotlight it's usually a mad, demanding rush that doesn't allow you a moment's peace and squeezes out the time you'd normally spend on writing.  Oh, and the money never works out quite as wonderfully as you'd expected, what with commission and staged payments.  

I'm not complaining; I'd rather be published than not and my route was relatively pain-free.  But I do wish sometimes I'd spent more time on the 'wrong' side of the Great Divide, time that could have been spent building up support networks and industry awareness, developing a work routine and even a bottom drawer of material.   Nowadays you'd also be thinking of building a social platform through blogging, Facebook, Twitter etc.

So if you're on the unpublished side and looking wistfully at the Land of Publication, don't waste your time dreaming of what it's going to be like.  Find out, and make the most of your opportunities, both now and for the future.  

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Essays and The Hooker's Tale

Womagwriter made the comment that the same principles about essay writing could be applied pretty much to article writing.  That's so true - and it applies to all non-fiction as well as a lot of fiction writing.  And the principles spread even wider...

On February 19th I'm giving a talk at the Get Writing Conference at St Albans.  It's called The Hooker's Tale - their title, not mine (sensationalist, moi?  Perish the thought!) - and is going to cover how to hook readers and keep them reading.  I haven't yet worked out what I'm going to say but this is how I'll go about planning it.

First things first - look at the title.  It's not about how to get an agent, or manuscript presentation. I'm concentrating on hooking readers.  Immediately that suggests I'm going to cover suspense, pace, first pages, chapter ends but before I get to the content I need to think about timing.  

It's an hour slot so I need to allow approx 10-15 minutes at the end for questions, and maybe 5 minutes at the beginning for a late start (my talk is in the afternoon to the whole conference so it's bound to start late.  So, the bit when I'm yabbering away solo is going to take about 45 minutes.  

Thinking about content, I came up with 4 ideas immediately.  I've thought of a couple more: reader engagement and problem/solution.  That's 6.  Could I talk on each for about 7 minutes? Yup, so that's a rough structure organised.  If I get more ideas for possible sections I'll add them in as I go along

If I were writing an article I'd be thinking of the readership - a Guardian reader is a different beast from a Woman & Home reader, for example - but as it's a talk I'm thinking audience.  It's going to be large - could be as many as 200 - and most are going to be would-be writers.  So the talk could be quite technical and specific but it needs to work on a large scale.  Audience participation would be good to get people involved - I don't want to see yawning faces.  

I'm starting to mentally go through my list of exercises and work out if I could make them large scale.  There's a great one I've done before with a large audience that'll fit into this talk nicely - we'll start with that perhaps.  And so I go on, writing ideas down on index cards, arranging them into an interesting order...

It's exactly the same process as I'd suggest for writing an essay or an article or a business report and it's not dissimilar for fiction - a short story needs to be fixed on its main theme for example and not lose focus and stray into irrelevance.  Come along on the 19th and see if it's any good!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Christmas Cracker Suspense Writing

My 8 year old niece loves Christmas.  At lunch she couldn't wait to pull the Christmas crackers and get us all wearing the paper hats, and she particularly liked reading out the cracker jokes.

"What do snowmen wear on their heads? Ice caps!"  
"What do polar bears eat? Ice bergers!"
"What do you call a man with a paper bag on his head? Russell!"

The trouble was she read them out just as I've written them, leaving us no chance to guess at what the groan-inducing answer was.  It was hard to keep the interest going as there was no opportunity to participate.  

Same with writing.  If you set up a problem and give the reader the answer immediately then you've missed on us participating in the story.  If we don't participate we don't engage.  If we don't engage, we stop reading. It's as simple as telling a Christmas Cracker joke.  

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

More Jam Jar and Pebbly Thoughts

Thinking about the big stuff - the pebbles - yesterday in the context of editing made me realise how hard it is to get any feedback on the essential elements like character arc, pacing and plot holes.  

Think about it.  Feedback is usually geared up to reading a few pages at a time - in my class there's usually a maximum of 800 words for class feedback, with a 2000 word limit for assignments.  That's about the same for most classes and feedback groups.  In the workshopping group I belong to we do workshop larger chunks, but usually no more than 10,000 words at a time.  

So, when we're getting feedback, what are we inevitably getting feedback on?  The sand and gravel - paragraphs, sentences, words.  This is tremendously useful, both for your own work and in learning how to edit, but it isn't everything.  

Perhaps, now so many of us writers are taking MAs and other writing classes, that explains how so many books getting published are one beautifully written page after another, and yet the stories don't seem to be as satisfying as they could be.  The sand and gravel get meticulously examined and groomed, but the poor pebbles are overlooked.  

It's always puzzled me that some people don't get snapped up by publishers when I've read their work and know they can write well. Perhaps a lack of attention to the pebbles provides the explanation.  

Monday, 10 January 2011

Jam Jars and Pebbles

Have you ever heard the fable about the person who was asked to fill a jam jar with a mix of pebbles and gravel and sand?  They started by putting in the sand, then the gravel, then the pebbles - but they couldn't fit all the pebbles in.  

So the jar was emptied, the pebbles, sand and gravel sorted into piles and they started again.  This time, they started with the pebbles, then fed the gravel into the spaces around the pebbles, then finally the sand which duly trickled into the tiny spaces around the gravel.  Everything fitted neatly into the jam jar.  

It's a metaphor for editing.  We need to sort out the big stuff - the plot holes, the pacing, the character arcs - before we can start worrying about the paragraphs and sentences, let alone the individual words.  

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Essay Problems and Solutions II

So, you've got your structure, now to the writing.

1.  Shorten your sentences
There's a tendency to write long convoluted sentences which almost always read better when divided into two (or more).  Firstly, your writing sounds more confident when you make statements - the cat sat on the mat, for example, is a simple, straightforward statement.  Secondly, it's hard for the reader to hold a very long sentence in their head.  By the time they've got to the end they've forgotten the beginning.

2.  Cut the qualifiers
Academic writing is often about weighing up conflicting statements and leaving any judgements to the conclusion so it's tempting to add lots of qualifiers - maybe, might, can also, sometimes, possibly, perhaps, in certain circumstances etc.  All qualifiers weaken your writing, so they should be used sparingly.  

3.  Watch out for connecting words
Essays are about a series of ideas linked to follow an argument.  Linking or connecting words are useful, but you don't need them at the beginning of every sentence as the ideas themselves should clearly link. Moreover, therefore, also, on the other hand, despite... I have read sentences that start with a series of linking words.  Please - more is not better.

4. Use a dictionary
The English language is a wonderful thing, crammed with a variety of wonderful words.  Students often use good words, but not necessarily in exactly the right circumstances.  Do you really know the meaning of a word like crepuscular? If in doubt, check.  

5.  Clarity is everything
Academic writing can be obscure and jargon-filled, but that doesn't mean it's good academic writing.  Think of it this way:  you've got ideas which you want to communicate to the reader, so you want them to understand your ideas as easily as possible.  That means your writing needs to be as clear as possible.  The flipside is, confused writing = confused thinking.  

6.  Everybody re-writes
Students are sometimes amazed when I tell them that re-writing is what everybody does. I think they assume that writing should be like taking dictation from the heavens.  Well, apart from Mozart, that's never been true. Everybody re-writes, and their writing is miles better for it.

7.  Read through aloud
Another one every writer should do.  If you read aloud all those glitches, long sentences, lack of commas and so on become obvious.  And by reading aloud I do mean  out loud, not mumbling.  

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Essay Problems and Solutions I

As the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Bristol I spend a lot of time looking at student essays on a wide range of subjects.  I find myself saying the same things day after day to students on how to improve their essay writing so thought I'd put them down here.

1. Answer the question  
Obvious you'd think, but often students stray.  There should be lots of clues in the title as to what you're supposed to be writing about.  Look for Directive Words eg examine, analyse, discuss, compare, evaluate and Key Words - if it mentions the C16th, then don't waste time on the C18th.  If you only answer half the question, you can only pick up half the marks.

2. Balance the essay
Essay questions often contain several parts eg with reference to two or three examples, or something along the lines of: Discuss the effects of....Explain why this may be.  Each part of the question should get roughly the same space.  If the question is eg Discuss the roles of women in C15th France, then work out how many roles women had (religious, domestic...) and take it from there.

3. Work out a structure
If you're comparing two texts you have a choice.  Either look at text A for the first half, then text B for the second -  AAAABBBB Or look at each text for the same topic ABABABAB.

4. Do some maths
If your essay is to be 2000 words long, each part should get roughly the same length of page time eg deduct 300 words for the Introduction and Conclusion, and a two-part/example essay will spend approx 850 words on each part.  
It's a good idea to work out how long you can spend on each part as it can save time by preventing you from doing unnecessary research and reading.  If it's the Discuss the roles of women in C15th France in 1000 words, and you've come up with 5 roles, then you know you can't spend more than 200 words on each role. That's not much, so it's a waste of time reading extensively round each role and finding lots of examples - you've only got space for one or two.

Once you've sorted out what you're doing and how you're going to do it, writing the essay is much, much easier - and I'll look at that tomorrow.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Curse of Flashback

In my Christmas stocking was a copy of Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds.  Now, I love her work and Literary Life never fails to make me laugh, so I had high hopes as I settled down to read.  Oh dear.  Practically the first thing I learned was that Gemma B was dead, and the story is told through extracts from her diary as read by nosy neighbour Joubert.  In other words - it's flashback!

But it was also Posy Simmonds so, initial disappointment aside, I read on.  And of course it's well written and beautifully illustrated, but I couldn't get into the story.  It was hard to invest in a character I knew was going to die, a bit like being introduced to someone at a party who then tells you they're moving to the other side of the country next week.  And there wasn't enough of a mystery about her demise to keep me intrigued.

In The Secret History by Donna Tartt we know from the start that one of the friends is going to die, killed by another but the novel shifts into the narrative present and the mystery of who dunnit and why sustains the story.  Sadly, this doesn't happen in Gemma Bovary which is always framed by Joubert's backwards looking narrative. I read to the end feeling slightly disappointed throughout.

I'm not saying you should never use flashback but you have to work so much harder as a writer to engage the reader, even if you're as brilliantly talented as Posy Simmonds undoubtedly is. Most of the time a straightforward narrative will work just as well so why make life difficult for yourself?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Toxic Readers

A friend started attending a new writing class back in September and over the holidays I asked how it was going.  It turned out she'd stopped going, along with most of the other students.  The problem was how the teacher gave feedback.  There was no alternative to her opinion.  The students had to do it her way or - well, there was no 'or'.  People who disagreed were promptly told they'd got no hope of getting published.  

This is complete nonsense.  One of the fabulous things about writing is that there are no absolutes. Stuff gets published that I think is poor writing, stuff I think is brilliant languishes on the slush pile.  I didn't find the Da Vinci Code to be a page-turner; millions agree with me, and millions disagree.  I've used the opening of Enduring Love in class as a brilliant example of suspense only for some students to find it boring.  

It's opinion!  It's taste!  Yes, there's informed opinion and informed taste, but that's no excuse for a teacher for insisting that their opinions and taste matter to the exclusion of anyone else's. And the same is true of any reader.  

I've been in situations where someone I've asked for feedback has given it, and then gone the extra mile in insisting on their opinion - it's easily done when one is passionate about writing and feels one 'knows' what the problem/solution is.   It's one of the jobs of a workshop leader to control and, if necessary, deflect a toxic reader but if the workshop leader is the toxic reader then you have a problem. 

If you're ever in a class or feedback group where you're exposed to a toxic reader, take a deep breath and keep quiet.  Don't argue - it will only entrench their opinion.  If you say as little as possible there's nothing for them to push against.  Keep telling yourself that it's your work and you can do whatever you want with it, that it's only one person's opinion.  And then get out of the situation as soon as you can.  Above all, don't take what one person says to heart, however published that person may be.  

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Anyone for New Year Resolutions?

Lose weight.  Get fit.  Write more.  

Those have  been my New Year Resolutions for, oooh, years.  Some years I achieve them, some I don't.  Frankly, in 2010 I more or less did the opposite, ending the year fatter and less fit than I've been for ages - and with fewer words written. Obviously what I should be doing is making my New Year Resolutions SMART. 

S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - Attainable
R - Realistic
T - Time framed

Lose weight isn't SMART because it's too vague - how much weight?  by when? 
Get fit isn't SMART  - how do I define being fit? 
Write more isn't SMART - more than what? 

And none of it addresses exactly HOW I'm going to get there: cut down on the alcohol and ice cream, start going to the gym again, do my creative writing first thing before I blog, email etc.  I spent a happy afternoon writing down some SMART objectives until it occurred to me that I could be spending the time writing or exercising - and I'd eaten half a box of Christmas Florentines while doing it.  

I think the answer is, if you're going to do it, you will, whether it's giving up cream cakes or writing 1000 words a day.  No special resolutions, just do it.  

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

I Heart Index Cards

Apparently if you go to film school one of the techniques they teach you is to plan your film on index cards scene by scene before you write a word of dialogue. For a novel you could use them at the planning stage, but I like to use them after I've written the first draft.

Take a card and write out what happens in each scene in note form, for example, Joe tells Abigail about the party on Saturday night. Abigail is upset and storms out. Then add any other important information about the scene such as Description of pub, first mention of Miranda's name, set up Abigail's important job interview. Find a large space such as the floor or a table (I usually do this on top of my bed, cat willing) and spread the cards out. Now you can 'see' your novel in all its glory.

Things to look for...Are the major scenes evenly distributed? Is there variety between mainly action and mainly reaction scenes ie it's not clumped into lots of action followed by lots of reflection? Are the main plot strands kept going? It's very hard to get a feel for your novel when it's several hundred pages of typescript; this method lets you look at it as a whole at one time. When using index cards for Nice Girls Do I realised that I'd 'lost' Will for a bit and quickly inserted a scene to keep him fresh in Anna's - and the reader's - mind.

The other thing I use index cards for timing. Using a diary I make sure that major events such as public holidays actually turn up when they should do. This can be very useful - I'd got stuck on a bit of A Single to Rome until I realised that the May bank holiday provided a convenient opportunity and worked the timing around it.

I've tried using different coloured cards for different characters or plot strands but it got too complicated for me and now I generally use cheap old white, with coloured ones for scenes that I need to add. I like using index cards so much that I'll do a set several times in the course of writing a novel, and then work from a fresh pile of stacked cards. I think they're wonderful - try them today!

Monday, 3 January 2011

Take Six Agents

When I'd nearly finished re-writing my manuscript I sent out the usual package - first three chapters, synopsis and covering letter - to six agents one Monday afternoon. I had a connection with all of them: three I had met at a Romantic Novelists Association party the previous week (which is why I sent out before having fully completed the ms), one had been there but I hadn't met them, the other two I knew were attending the Winchester Writers Conference. This is what happened...

Agent No 1 rang me on Wednesday morning and asked to see the rest. Yippee!

Agent No 2 sent a letter on Thursday saying the novel wasn't for her, but added that she thought someone would take it on.

Agent No 3 sent a letter on Friday asking to see the rest.

Agent No 4 also sent a letter on Friday saying no one would want to read such depressing material, I was wasting my time and I'd just wasted hers. Yes, really.

Agent No 5 sent a letter on Monday saying she'd got two clients who were writing similar work to mine and she was having difficulty placing them, so she couldn't take me on.

Agent No 6 - well, I'm still waiting to hear from Agent No 6, but it's too late as I went with the fabulous Agent No 1.

It's one person's opinion after all, but if I'd only had Agent No 4's letter I might never have sent out again. It was bad enough reading it after I'd had a phone call from an agent saying they wanted to read the rest, I dread to think how I would have felt if it had been the only response. So, that's why I believe in multiple submissions.

PS I have since met Agent No 4 at a party. I didn't spit in her drink, kick her shins or say 'Yah boo sucks! That book you said was a waste of time sold to ten countries, you know nothing.' I just smiled sweetly and moved on. Which shows I'm either a nice person full of forgiveness or a coward.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

She knew that she was a Happy Thatter

The more that you write the more that you realise that you have some little quirks. I like that. Hmmm. Perhaps I should rephrase that. The more I write the more I realise I have some little quirks. Yes, I'm a happy thatter. Give me an opportunity and I'll give it a that. I don't mean to drop in thats here, there and everywhere but, like sufferers from Tourette's, I can't help myself. That is literally my problem.

Of course, none of my thats are, strictly speaking, wrong. They make grammatical sense. They are correct English. But they clutter up my prose like nick-nacks on a Victorian mantelpiece. The speech rhythms are clunkier. Take the Anthony Trollope title He Knew He Was Right. How much more stylish that He Knew That He Was Right. One version works, the other doesn't and all that divides them is an innocent little that.

Most documents I write I have to run a speedy search and destroy mission for superfluous thats using the Global Edit facility. It takes ages, but I'm happier as a result, and my prose reads just that little bit more easily. (That one passed the that test.) One of my writing friends is fine on thats. Her problem is adverbs. Another has a fondness for exclamation marks. We all have our writing problems. I know I am a Happy Thatter. What's yours?

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Get Some Attitude

‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, doing that stupid soppy thing with her eyes that makes her look like a pug about to be sick. Pathetic.

‘Give it to me,’ I said, grabbing the jam jar from her. I’d show her.


‘I can’t do it,’ Abigail said, looking at me with big eyes shining like stars, so fragile, so helpless, for a moment I could hardly speak.

‘Give it to me,’ I finally managed, gently taking the jam jar from her delicate fingers, hoping that this time I’d get the lid off.


The dialogue is the same, the actions are the same. The only difference is the narrator’s attitude. When I read I like to know how the characters are feeling about the situation, otherwise I might as well be reading a script. I want to feel I am in the scene, experiencing it through their eyes. Their attitudes to life might not be mine, but this is how I’m going to understand them and, in understanding, get involved with their story.

As a writer I find attitude is a useful tool, especially if I’m finding a scene difficult to write. I stop for a minute and ask What is my viewpoint character’s attitude to this situation or these people? How do they feel about what they can see? Then I write the scene using character attitude to drive it, and the scene almost writes itself.

Some people advise that you spend hours and weeks preparing detailed character backgrounds before you start writing but that's not how I work. I don't need to know where a character went to school or what his first pet was. All I need to know is my character's attitude to life.