Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Seduced By Strangers

I saw him across the room.  Tall, dark and looking at me with definite intent.  Who, me? I glance around to see if anyone has noticed. My heart is thumping. I look at the stranger again, and our eyes meet. You're not free I tell myself, but my body doesn't seem to have noticed. Nor has my partner - well, we've been together for a while and I love him to bits of course, but we're having a bit of a rough time, we're working things through and I'm sure we'll get there in the end but - the stranger's looking at me again.  I feel drawn to him.  Almost with out thinking I take a step towards him and -


I nearly allowed myself to be seduced by a stranger.

I've got an idea.  It's a really really good idea for a children's novel.  It's for the 6-8 year old market, so it's not going to be long, just a few thousand words.  I could knock up a first draft in a week.  A week's not long to spend away from my current novel is it? The novel's going through a bit of a tricky patch, a break would do both of us good. In fact, it would be entirely reasonable to get that quick first draft done, and then I could go back to the novel, refreshed and even more appreciative of its charms...  


Writing doesn't work like that, at least, it doesn't for me.  Every time I dally with another idea I lose impetus with my novel.  The trouble is, those new ideas are just so seductive.  They look great, they're full of promises about the future, they're fresh and untainted by the drudgery of the daily word count.  But you have to remember that your current project was once a new idea too.  Once you were being seduced by it in just the same way this new idea is sneaking around your consciousness. 

Like a marriage, writing is more than just the initial attraction.  It's about the long haul, sticking together even when the going is tough - those treacle days.  It's about delayed gratification, putting in the hours when there is no prospect of reward on the immediate horizon.  It's about keeping the faith when the writing doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  It's about writing with hope and not allowing yourself to be distracted by flashy strangers.  

Some writers manage to play the field and have several projects on the go at any one time.  That's not for me.  I can't handle more than one project at a time.  That children's novel idea will have to remain untouched until this novel is finished. As a writer, I have to accept that serial monogamy is the only way forward.  

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Emotional Intelligence When Writing

At the weekend I watched The Social Network. It's about the founding of Facebook, and in particular the suing of Mark Zuckerberg by various people who felt that they had a claim in being one of the founders.  Mark Zuckerberg is shown as being highly intelligent, a computer genius and - as many people in the film point out - a complete asshole.  He's an asshole because he lacks any awareness of how other people feel.  He lacks any emotional intelligence.

I've met writers like that.  They have usually had extremely successful careers in something science or computer related. They've now retired and have decided to write a novel.  They write one.  They send it out; it gets rejected.  They methodically send it to every agent and publisher; everyone rejects it.  This, one suspects, is the first time these people have had a rejection.  They don't understand why.  

They lack emotional intelligence.  It doesn't matter if you're writing a scientific paper - in fact, empathising all over the place would be a hindrance - but it does matter in a work of fiction. Writing fiction is all about the ability to put yourself in someone else's imaginary shoes, understand how they tick, and then convey that to a reader.  

The saddest thing about an author who lacks emotional intelligence is that they lack the emotional intelligence to know it.  There's an example of this in action over on How Publishing Really Works where author John Streby reacts to Jane Smith's review of his self-published novel The Devil Won't Care.  

The worst example I've come across was a novel which had the hero having sex with a woman who had been brain-damaged, so now had the mental age of an 8 year old child.  She was portrayed as a trusting, simple, innocent child. I protested that that was like paedophilia.  The author didn't agree - the woman was in her 20s so well over the age of consent, so it was fine as far as they were concerned.  I don't know where the law would stand on the issue but I knew where I as a reader stood - it was morally wrong and definitely non-hero action.  

I'm not sure why people who lack emotional intelligence want to write fiction in the first place. I've heard one EI-less author announce that they didn't bother reading novels as they were a waste of time, which is a legitimate opinion, but doesn't explain why anyone else should waste their time by reading that author's novel. Another was writing short stories aimed at the women's magazine market, because this was a market that paid, but couldn't understand why stories featuring women who were washed-up, shrivelled shells once past 35 had never got published.   

There are definitely genres where EI can matter less - thrillers, for example. Plot, pace and setting can compensate for cardboard characters speaking wooden dialogue.  But overall, fiction needs some EI to work.  


Friday, 26 August 2011

Cherry Cake Pacing

On the few occasions I’ve made a cherry cake I’ve carefully followed all the instructions, stirred in my glace cherries (full of E numbers, but stickily delicious), carefully spooned the mixture into the cake tin, then popped it in the oven. Half an hour or so later the cake is ready. Then the first slice…and all the cherries have ended up in one glutinous lump at the bottom. It’s a bit like pacing a novel. The best scenes – the cherries – need to be distributed evenly throughout. The easiest way to check your novel for pacing is to use index cards, one scene per card. 

Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for. 

It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.

(Another one from the archives...)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Losing Confidence In Your Writing

I don't think there's a writer alive who, at some point, hasn't looked at their work and thought: That's rubbish.  

I do it all the time, throughout the writing process.  The flip side is I also get moments when I'm thrilled by my cunningness at plotting, my abilities to create new words (like cunningness), my nifty bits of description.  I ricochet from despair to elation and back again, like one of those pendulum games that used to be a fixture of every executive desk in the 1970s, eventually settling for: It'll have to do.

What I can do without is outside comment that it's rubbish.  It's a strange thing - I don't mind reading between the lines when my writing friends tread gingerly round the rubbish writing question - 'No, no, it's fine, I just wasn't sure you'd got the right approach...' Then, I'm quite happy to have a giggle at my own idiocy and get re-writing.  

But outsider comment is lethal, especially when that person might have a stake in it like an agent or an editor.  I once sent my agent a synopsis for a novel I was 20,000 words into.  She didn't like it.  I stopped writing immediately and started something new, not because I didn't like what I'd already written but because I'd lost confidence in it.  My editor occasionally volunteers to have at look at work-in-progress, but I refuse - I know my limitations and one negative from her would scupper the whole thing.  

So, how to cope if your outsider comments are coming from real outsiders, by which I mean people who you are writing to on spec, like agents and publishers? 

1.  Only send out work that you are as confident in as it is humanly possible to be.

2. Get a friend (or friends, even better) to vet your submission before you send out in case there's some major league problem you haven't noticed.  (I recently looked at one where they'd forgotten to put their contact details anywhere in the package.  Strange but true.)

3. Send out multiple submissions so one negative response doesn't derail you.

4. Send out multiple submissions so one positive response doesn't derail you.

5.  Put all comments you receive, both negative and positive, to one side for at least 48 hours until you've calmed down and can attempt to be rational about them.

6.  Ask a friend to read any comments.  Their take may be quite different from yours - I once consoled a tearful recipient of what was supposed to be the most soul destroying letter in the world.  It was full of nice, albeit slightly guarded, comments, and a request for more.  The teary writer had only registered the qualifiers and hadn't taken in the request for more.

7.  Build a support network.  It could be writing friends, it could be your mum, it could be your partner.  It could be people on Twitter, Facebook, it could be anyone.  But a support team is vital to keep you going in those dark moments when you know you're rubbish, your writing is rubbish, there's no point to carrying on. 

8.  Use negative feedback as a spur.  It's fine to wallow in misery for a short while after receiving a rejection, but far more useful is to grab your 'I'll show them,' attitude and use the energy to get writing again.  

9.  No one has to write.  It's not compulsory.  I make my living from writing, but there are other jobs I could do.  Tell yourself you can walk away from writing - but if a spark flares up inside you that you don't want to walk away, then use that spark to motivate yourself again.  

10.  I look back at stuff I've written and some of it IS rubbish.  And some of it is really quite good.  But it rarely coincides with what I thought was rubbish or good at the time.  You are not always your best judge, but time and experience can help to make you so.  

I think all of us writers have to accept that we can be both rubbish and brilliant at the same time and just because someone gives you a negative opinion today, it doesn't mean there won't be a positive one tomorrow.  Positive, negative, rejection, acceptance, brilliant or rubbish.  These are words we have to live with if we want to be writers, two sides of the same coins.  

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Sectioning a Novel

The outline extract for A Single to Rome I posted yesterday started with a big headline: Section A.  This post is all about how, and why I divide my novel into sections.  

It's not the beginning of a section that matters, it's how it ends.  Each section should end with an event from which there is no going back.  From this point the story has no choice but to move on.  Examples would be...

Somebody dying - there's not much chance of going back there. 
A married woman having sex with a man not her husband - she can never claim to be faithful again.
A revelation - "I am your mother!"
A realisation - I don't have to stand for this any more.
A complete change of location - In A Single to Rome, Natalie relocates to (there's a clue in the title) Rome at the end of Section A.

I recommend that writers have an idea of what at least 3 of their section ends are going to be before they start writing.  That will provide the novel's basic structure and make it easier for you to write as it breaks the novel into more manageable chunks.  3 section ends = 4 chunks of writing (the final section end will, of course, be The End). If your novel is aiming for 100,000 words, that's 25,000 per chunk.  4 section ends, and it's 20,000 each.  It's much easier to think of 20,000-25,000 words in one go than it is 100,000.

The starting point for the sections is 3 Act Structure.  Each act ends with a turning point (my 'you can't go back'), with Act II split into 2 sections with a turning point in the middle.

Act I
turning point
Act II Part I
turning point
Act II Part II
turning point

I'm a fan of 3 Act structure because I think it's a useful tool to help you write a novel, but it's easy to get hung up on the academic aspects.  Calling the acts sections helps to keep it more fluid, less technical.  Besides, you may end up with more than 3 turning points - I ended up with 4 in A Single to Rome, so technically it has 5 Acts (or a 3 part Act II).  

But I'm only interested in structure when it actively helps writers and because every writer is different I don't think it's helpful to be too prescriptive - which is why I'm not a fan of The Hero's Journey.  

An outline and thinking of a novel in sections help me.  Hope they help you too.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011


An outline is both less and more than a synopsis.   A synopsis gives the flavour of the novel, but concentrates on the main characters and events.  It's a piece of prose. An outline is more like a list of what happens.  It doesn't have any fancy writing but shows everything that happens.  

I never write a synopsis for my books beyond a brief paragraph to give my editor an idea of what I'm up to, but I do write an outline.  This usually comes after I've written the whole novel at least once, I've laid out all the scenes on index cards and done whatever moving around or adding of scenes to make the best shape.  Then I write the outline. 

Here's the beginning of one I did for A Single to Rome....

Section A


Michael leaves Natalie

He wants space, it’s unclear if they’re going to get together, he leaves the door metaphorically open.

Vee’s hen party/Natalie’s reaction to getting dumped.

At first there’s shock, - how could he? Then plots and plans to get him back Natalie gets pissed, tries to pick up men, she wants someone to go to vee’s wedding with her.

Natalie’s plan

Make him appreciate what he’s missing.  Make him jealous.  Needs a bloke = and fast.

Work scene.

Tries to get colleague to go on date with her.  One of the colleagues suggest speed dating as way of meeting lots of new guys.

Then with client, Mrs A – they’re going to screw Mr A.  Xegesis idea.

Natalie goes speed dating.

Meets various blokes including Guy.

Work scene.  At the court.  

Judgement goes against Mr A.  He’s furious.  Natalie triumphant.

Arranges Michael to meet on pretext of keys

Goes on date with Guy, with Michael supposed to see Guy and be jealous.

With Vee on set of Celebrity DIY. 

After the date with Guy, Natalie thinks it’s worked – Vee tells her Michael has asked to bring someone to the wedding. Natalie invites Guy to be her date at Vee’s wedding.

Anyone who has read the book might recognise the scenes, though in the finished book the order was different, characters got renamed, I researched the correct name for the legal loophole etc. But each section shows where the scene is going to be, the main characters who are in it and what events are going to happen - events being my catch-all phrases for stuff including internal changes of direction as well as external changes.

I will read and tweak the outline until it makes sense as a complete novel, checking things like making sure the main characters are to the fore, while the subsidiary characters bubble along, or there aren't several similar scenes together. When all that is sorted I can really get to grips with the re-writing.  

The outline becomes a security blanket, although one that I can adjust and readjust as I go along.  I print it out and it sits beside me as I re-write, an overview of where the novel is going, where it's been, and what's coming up next.  I find it a very useful tool.

And I'm going to talk about why it's called Section A tomorrow. 

Monday, 22 August 2011

Re-Write? Or Write Another?

So your manuscript has gone out, and come back more than several times.  You've had feedback from friends, fellow writers, possibly some comments from agents, perhaps a book doctor.  Do you re-write - AGAIN - or do you put it in the bottom drawer, and start another?  You know that persistence is key, but does that mean persistence with this novel, or persistence in getting on and writing another?

I think this is a very hard decision to make and it's one that only you can find the right answer to, but here are some pointers to help you along the way.

1.  Have you put the manuscript away so you're coming to it fresh?
You need distance to work out what you're doing wrong.  The easiest way to get distance is to put your ms away for at least 4 weeks, more if you can bear it.  Up to you whether you start a new novel project in this time, but I'd definitely recommend writing something else.  

2.  Can you see what needs doing?
If the feedback you've already received doesn't make sense to you, then there's no point in fumbling around trying to rewrite.  You have to write with conviction; if you don't understand the fundamental problem you won't be able to correct it.  I'd be inclined to write something else in this situation and wait for time (and experience) to show you what wasn't working.

3.  Does what needs doing involve a lot of work?
I've been there.  I realised what needed doing would involve a major rewrite and put it off for several months because I didn't want to do the work before deciding to just Do It.  I've seen other people decide against re-writing because they didn't want to do all that work.  Your call, but I think if you understand what needs to be done, then it's a lot less work to fix that than it is to write another novel.  Plus you will learn a lot from the re-write, and maybe won't make the same mistakes again...

4.  How many times have you sent it out?
One of my writing friends has sent her novel out twice, and has had encouraging responses both times - but no acceptance.  She's now re-writing it, which I think is daft.  Another, even dafter friend hasn't even sent it out because she thinks it's not quite right yet, despite everyone telling her it's fine. (You know who you are - get on with it!)  I think you need to send it out at least 6 times before you can begin to judge where it stands in the market place.  Leave the novel alone until you've had that feedback, and get on with writing something else.

5. How much have you written before?
It always amazes me that people launch themselves into writing a novel with no previous writing experience, knock it off in a couple of months (or even weeks) and then think it's finished to a standard that someone else should give them thousands of pounds for it.  You wouldn't treat any other creative discipline in the same way, such as painting or pottery.  Get real!  Yes, it's possible you may have written a masterpiece without any previous experience, in the same way that buying one ticket might win you the Lottery jackpot, but it's not very likely.  And the chances are you won't understand why your work isn't up to the standard required which will lead to frustration.  Re-writing will teach you a lot, as will writing something new.  Going to classes, reading lots of novels (both in and outside your genre), joining a critique group will also teach you more about creative writing.  

There are plenty of successful novelists out there who wrote several novels before they got published - I personally know at least 4 novelists who are now doing very well who have 6 or more unpublished novels in their bottom drawer.  Writing something new worked for them. 

I was advised to treat Adultery for Beginners as a learning experience and start another novel.  I did an extreme re-write instead (in the end, about 90% was substantially re-written).  So extensive re-writing worked for me.

But - and this is the big but - I understood exactly what the problem was, and could see how I could fix it.  If you don't, writing another novel may be the learning experience you need.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Applying The Lift Test To Characters

Imagine you're going up to the 8th floor when the lift shudders, then stops. You wait but nothing happens. It looks like you're going to be there for some time. You turn to the sole other occupant of the lift and - well, who would you like to be stuck with? Do you want to be stuck with the person who drones on about how hopeless the situation is, or the one who thinks of an escape plan? Would you prefer the person who tells you at length about their very dull, static life, or the one who has plenty of interesting stories? And at a more basic level, would you like the one who is distinctly lacking in attractive qualities, compared to the one who is full of life and energy?

Reading a novel is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a set of characters, if you think about the length of time it takes to read one. It usually takes me about eight hours to read a novel, and that may be spread out over several days or even weeks. So I need the characters to be engaging or I'll put the book down. 

When I'm writing, at the back of my mind I'm imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the lift for eight hours with my main character. Life may not be going well for them, but they don't, won't, can't whine about it. Instead, they're busy trying to work out an escape plan. Perhaps because we worry whether readers will like our main character there's a tendency to make them bland, and I suppose it's better to be bland than out and out offensive. But only just better. Instead, apply the lift test. The characters to write about - good, bad or plain ugly - are always going to be the ones who make those eight hours seem like eight minutes.

(I posted this about 2 years ago, but writing about The Hare with the Amber Eyes made me think of it.  So you've got it again!)

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Do We Have To Like Characters?

I've just finished reading Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes.  It's about a collection of netsuke - Japanese carvings - that the author inherited, and he uses the story of the collection to trace his family's history over the past two centuries.  It is a beguiling read and I enjoyed it, especially the tactile descriptions of objects and the places evoked such as Belle Epoque Paris and inter-war Vienna, but all the while I had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction, of unease.

It took time to put my finger on it, but I worked out that the feeling started when I realised that the collection - 264 netsuke in all - hadn't been lovingly assembled by a connoisseur but bought as a job lot by a staggeringly rich bloke as part of a massive accumulation of stuff.  de Waal writes beautifully, but it can't be denied that this is essentially the story of some very rich people buying a lot of expensive things. The family come across as stifled by the sheer quantity of their possessions, brains and imaginations stunted by all this wealth.  

Being fabulously wealthy doesn't, in itself, make for interesting characters, and doing nothing much with that wealth beyond spending it on themselves doesn't make for appealing people.  I once gave feedback on someone's novel which started with the main character being wealthy, but worrying about paying what would have been a relatively small amount to them.  It wasn't attractive, and I recommended either that the character wasn't so well off - or that the amount to be paid would have ruined them.  

We can't all be heroic or live dramatic lives.  This is a memoir and these people were real.  I tussle in my head whether it's fair to judge them for being, essentially, average?  For example, the great grandfather who is bored going into work everyday and would rather be doing something else, but continues through duty to the family.  Or his wife, married very young, who is only interested in dresses and socialising.  The daughter, desperate to get away from her family and escape via education.  

I'm sure most of us can recognise people in similar situations, which should give them an appeal, but there is still that nagging sense of 'So what? Why should I care?' 

As a reader I may tussle with that in a memoir, but as a novelist I can't allow my readers to feel like that about my characters.  So, given that we can understand their situations, what is it that makes me keep the family at arms length?  I think it's the lack of balance.  The family is wealthy, but they do nothing but the obvious with the money ie spend it.  There are no interesting projects to help others, no libraries founded, no good works done.  

Does it matter?  Yes, even though it is non-fiction.  For fiction, the balance would be essential. The rich man would have secret heartache, or perhaps an accident would reverse his fortunes.  The socialite would discover the kind of lives lived by most people most of the time and learn compassion and generosity.  The bored man would cast off his family duty and live his own life. 
The most appealing family members in The Hare with Amber Eyes were, for me, the ones who got away, who rejected the lives they'd been born into.  

'Like' is such a general word, it's hard to pin down what we mean by it. Essentially, would we have been happy to spend time in these real life characters' company?  For me the answer would have to be, 'they're all right, I suppose, but dull.'  And that's not great for any book, no matter how wonderful the writing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

7 Reasons Why You should Go For Multiple Submissions

Derek asked for my opinion on multiple submissions.  It's short:  YES!  Go for it!  And these are the reasons why:

1. Things get lost in the post, piled up in heaps, slip down the back of desks...You could be waiting indefinitely.  Ten years later and I'm still waiting to hear back from one agent.  (You're too late! Ha!)

2.  Assuming your ms has reached the agent, you could be at the bottom of a very big pile of unsolicited submissions.  The agent has to prioritise their existing clients so it's understandable that at times the slush pile is left to mature quietly on its own.  It can take months for an agent to read your ms, only to immediately discard it.

3. Have you ended up with your first boyfriend/girlfriend? Yes, some of us get lucky and never look beyond that first snog at the school disco, but for most it takes time to find our match. Similarly you want the agent who not just likes your novel but completely falls in love with it. The chances of finding The One on the first submission are as likely as on the first date.

4.  Most agents don't send back messages such as 'This novel is an abomination' if they don't like it, but there are a few who don't believe in holding back their opinion.  I have been at the receiving end of a letter from an agent that confidently stated 'You are wasting your time.'  Luckily I'd already had 2 positive responses from other agents so it didn't matter too much, but I think if that was my only reply I might have given up there and then.

5.  Do the maths.  If you send out to one agent at a time and each takes 6-8 weeks to reply, it's going to take 1-2 years before you've had a chance to send out to 10 agents.  If you're sending out to 6 each time, then you'll have clocked up 40-50 in a year.  (Gosh, that sounds depressing but...)

6.  Novels are of the moment.  You've written it, re-written it, edited it now.  If it does the rounds for several years it will be slightly out of date, perhaps a bit tarnished round the edges.  Better to get it out there as quickly as possible and see how it fares in the marketplace.

7.  A positive response is to be cherished, even when it's a no.  You examine the comments the agent has made, wondering if you should apply their suggestions and start a re-write.  This can drive you potty.  Multiple submissions should give you several responses to consider.  If all of them are telling you the characters are weak, then you can be pretty certain that you need to look at them again.  If one says it's too long, but another says it's too short, you can make your own decision.  It's all opinion, but the wisdom of crowds means more opinions are likely to give the right answer than a single opinion on its own.

**** Please note, I'm talking about the initial submission ie 3 chapters, covering letter, synopsis.  It doesn't take much time for an agent to look at them and make a decision if they'd like to see more or not.  However, reading a whole novel with a view to representation is a completely different thing.  If an agent asks for the whole book you shouldn't send it out to anyone else for several weeks, and then give the first agent notice that that's what you intend to do.  

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Starter Finisher

If you watched The Apprentice, at the interview stage a former employer apparently described Inventor Tom as not being a Starter Finisher.  Tom looked startled by this, though it didn't stop him from going on to win.  I think Lord Sugar saw Tom as a Starter, with himself doing the Finishing.  

Wouldn't it be great if there was someone who'd do the finishing for all of us?  When I began writing I was brilliant at beginnings and had deskfuls of Chapter Ones.  I was useless at the Finishing bit though.  (I wasn't much good at the middle, either, to be honest but that's another story.)  

Writing short stories helped me.  They were, by definition, short and got me into the habit of finishing.  As I learned about writing and wrote more short stories, I got better about finishing them.  Gradually I realised any ending was better than none, because then you could DO something with them - send out to magazines or competitions, for example.  

Fast forward a couple of years and writing the first draft of my first novel.  I did it in one immense push taking 10 weeks - the school holidays were coming up and I knew I wouldn't be able to sustain writing AND childcare.  I didn't know what was going to be the 'right' ending.  Were my characters going to split up or stay together? I flipped a coin and gave it a 'they stay together' ending.  Later I rewrote and gave it a 'they split up' ending.  Even later I rewrote again and gave it a completely different ending.  

That turned out to be the 'right' ending for the story, but for the first draft it really didn't matter what ending I chose so long as it was there.  I see many students who can write really well but because they never finish any work they can't move on and do anything with it.  People sometimes ask me if I think their work will get published, and I say, 'Finish it first, then ask.'

Unlike Inventor Tom we have to learn to be Starter Finishers because no one will do it for us.  I used short stories to develop my Finishing habit.  Any other suggestions for getting to the point where you can write "The End"?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Save the Cat!

I'm currently reading Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.  It's written by an unashamed mainstream screenwriter and his shining examples are films like Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde.  He looks for the Save the Cat! moment in every film.  This is somewhere near the start where our hero does something that immediately puts us, the audience, on his side.  

I think novels need a Save the Cat moment too before we can relate to characters.  Of course, it doesn't have to be as dramatic as saving some old moggy; in fact, it's better when it's small scale, a hardly noticeable act of consideration for others, a tiny kindness, a gesture of love.  

I rooted for the main character in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson from the first couple of pages when he was polite and considerate to a near-stranger despite having just had some terrible news. I couldn't be bothered to finish The Shakespeare Secret by J L Carrell because I never liked the main character.  She never had a Save the Cat! moment - although she had plenty of 'I'm vastly superior to everyone around me' moments.

Several readers/reviewers have commented on Kissing Mr Wrong's Save the Cat! moment, when the main character is shown as being concerned for her gran.  It was entirely unconscious, but I'm now busily working out how the main character of my current WIP can have her Save the Cat moment. 

Has anyone any other suggestions for Save the Cat! moments in either their own work or other novels?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Choosing an Agent

You choose an agent.  An agent doesn't choose you.  Now, if you have a manuscript that has done the submission rounds to agents you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, yeah right, but it's TRUE!  You, the writer, choose the agent.

You choose who to submit to.  They then choose whether to represent you, but the first choice is yours. So, before you plough through the lists in the Writers and Artists Yearbook alphabetically, have a think about what you want from an agent and at least start with your first choices.

Things to think about...

1.  Size
A small agency (ie an agency with one or two agents, and therefore with proportionally fewer clients) is directly linked with the success of your career.  You earn, they earn, simple as that. Your agent is more likely to be at the end of the phone for you or return messages quickly.  A bigger agency may have so many clients (and probably administer the estates of dead authors) that the link is not as direct.  This is good when it means they can afford to carry you for a number of years before you start earning for them (for example, if you're writing quirky or very literary work, something that may be harder to place than work that fits a commercial genre). It's also good because lots of big name clients means the agency has clout and publishers will avoid offending them.  It's bad when it means you are the teeniest tiddler in their large and well stocked pond and have to struggle to get any attention from your agent because they're too busy dealing with their big fish clients.  A big agency will also have in-house departments which cover areas such as television and film and foreign rights, although smaller agencies will have deals with other specialist agencies so that shouldn't be a major issue.

2. History
Agents have usually worked in publishing or bookselling before they become agents.  In publishing they may have been in editorial or sales, marketing or rights.  Those who are former editors usually have a particular interest in, surprise surprise, editing and may want to work on your book before sending it out to publishers.  Agents from marketing/selling/rights backgrounds are less likely to want to edit but will be experts in their area.  You may like the idea of editorial support, or you may not.  It's a personal choice, but it's one you should think about.  

3.  Age
A new agent will have lots of energy, but may not have either contacts or experience.  They are more likely to be looking for clients.  An older agent should have the contacts and experience, but might not be as enthusiastic about their 100th client as their first one.  They will be looking to add to an existing client list so you have to fit into that list.

4.  Personality
Always meet an agent before you sign with them.  I've heard of agents offering representation without actually meeting their potential client and that worries me.  It's supposed to be a business partnership. They're not going to be your bestest friend ever or your therapist but you have to get on with them and trust and respect them.  Editors move around frequently so the relationship with an agent is likely to be the longest relationship in a writer's career.

Think about what you'd like ideally.  You may be wrong or your ideal agent may, sadly, not be interested in you.  But don't get into the position of writing to an agent asking for representation and then, when it's offered, getting cold feet.  Think first, then jump.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

On Chapter Endings

Learning to manipulate your chapter endings is vital if you want to write a page turner.  Most people read in bed and aim to read a chapter before they go to sleep. Ideally they come to the end of the chapter and it's so intriguing that they start the next one to see what happens next.  Having started the next chapter they 'have' to finish it, then at the chapter end they're about to put the book down, but think they'll just have a quick look at how the next one starts, and before they know it they're sucked into reading the whole book even though their eyelids are drooping and they feel sick with tiredness.  

Depriving ordinary people of sleep is part of your job as a writer.

How to do it?  Simple - each chapter needs to end with something that intrigues, puzzles, moves the story in a different direction, whatever.  It may be an internal revelation or an external event.  It might be a question or something someone says.  It could be almost anything, so long as it leads the reader on to the next chapter.  

Here's a scenario.  The main character, a servant girl, has been raped by a rich and powerful man.  She hasn't told anyone because of the shame and who would believe her word against his?  Then she's told by another servant that her best friend has just gone off to meet this rich and powerful man alone in his isolated house.  She realises that her best friend is in danger.  She tells the other servant what happened, and that the best friend is in danger.  Together they rush to the rich and powerful man's house.  They arrive just as the rich and powerful man is opening the front door.  They grab the best friend and all three run away.  He (along with his gang) chases them.  They out run the gang, and get back to safety.  There, the main character reveals what's happened in the past, and the three of them decide to report him.  They go to sleep, happy that the best friend is saved and that the main character will finally get justice.

Where would you put a chapter ending?

First of all, not where I've ended the scenario.  Think about how many picture books for small children end with main characters all settling down for the night.  It's not a coincidence that a surprise picture book best seller is called "Go the F*** to Sleep" as it reflects many parents desire at the end of a working day.  But I'm not talking about writing for small children.  Characters going to sleep at the end of chapters is almost asking the reader to put the book down and drop off. 

I think there are 3 possible places to put a chapter ending.  

1 - where the main character realises that her friend is in danger.  She has a decision to make - if she tells what happened to her she is shamed, and/or she may not be believed, but if she doesn't, her friend may well be attacked.  Which decision will she make?  Read on to find out...

2 - the main character has told the other servant what has happened and they both realise the danger.  They decide to try to rescue the best friend - but will they get there in time?  Read on to find out....

3 - they've rescued the best friend and are running away - but the rich and powerful man and his gang is chasing them.  If they are caught they'll all be in danger.  Will the gang catch them?  Read on to find out...

Which one is best would be up to the writer.  Basically, each alternative ends with a question (one which of course you would be writing more subtly than I have done here).  The reader must go on to the next chapter to get the answer and once they're on the next chapter you've done it.  They're hooked and, hopefully, sleep deprived.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Guilt, Guilt, Guilt

Right - hands up who feels guilty because you're reading this instead of writing?

Something no one tells you about when you become a writer is that guilt becomes a big presence in your life, if not your constant companion.  OK, I know there are some writers out there who clock on at their desk at the same hour each day, reach their word target (and a little bit more, just for the fun of it), then close down their computer safe in the knowledge that they've done their writerly bit and can now while away the remaining hours eating peeled grapes from the navel of a member of the Chippendales (or whatever it is that floats their boat).  They don't feel guilty.

I am not one of those writers. 

I feel guilty almost all the time.  It's awful.  It's childish.  If I'm not writing I feel I'm bunking off school - even if I've hit my word target earlier on in the day.  Even now as I'm blogging guilt is niggling away around the edges, although blogging is part of me being a writer.  (It's legit, okay?  No, didn't work, still feeling guilty.)

A writing friend told me how she feels guilty if she sits down with a book during the day.  Yup, me too, even though reading is part of being a writer, both to stimulate one's creativity, and to keep up with the current market.  Another writer friend moans that if she were a 9-5 employee job she wouldn't feel guilty at lolling around at the weekend, yet she does - despite keeping impressive working hours during the week.

Does anyone out there not feel guilty about their writing?  And if so, how the heck do you manage it?

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Does Talent Matter?

I saw one of my fellow students from my MA yesterday. I could remember her writing vividly, even though it was more than ten years ago.  It was confident, imaginative, polished. I was all too aware how far behind my work was compared to hers when we had to read out in class.  I was also aware that my talent, such as it was, was pretty meagre next 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.

Two writers with immense talent. And yet, and yet.... 

And yet I am published, and they aren't. I remember my fellow MA student when we graduated, how she announced that she'd finish her novel if an agent or publisher was interested, but wouldn't waste her time otherwise. I don't know what happened, but she told me yesterday she never bothered finishing the novel. 

I remember the other 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.  She was desperately disappointed not to be published, but couldn't see that her attitude was holding her back. 

I remember them, and realise that sheer natural talent on its own isn't enough to make a writer. Of course some talent is needed, and that's something you can't teach.  But to be published 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, speaking as a person with a small amount of natural talent, because those are things we can all learn to do.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Talking It Through

Every writer needs a writing friend they can talk their writing through with, someone to bounce ideas off, someone who will ask the right questions which stimulate good answers.  

I was inspired to write this post having spent time with my lovely writing friend Nancy (to whom Kissing Mr Wrong is dedicated).  I've been struggling a bit with the current WIP and outlined the story to her.  Two hours later, and I was fired up with ideas which filled five pages of notes just from having to explain the story to her and say where I thought the holes, blockages and other problems were.  

Nancy is brilliant to talk it through with because she never projects herself into my story.  She asks questions like, 'What if X is a teacher?' and leaves it there.  She doesn't launch into 'What if X is a teacher, and then they could do this, and then that could happen, and then this new character could turn up and then...'

Nancy says things like, 'Y seems to have 5 problems. Do you need all of them?'  She doesn't say, 'Y has too many problems.  You should get rid of that one, and then that would mean you could concentrate on this one which is much more interesting.'

Even better, when we've been talking and I say suddenly something like, 'Oh, a solution's just occurred to me, ' she doesn't say, 'What is it?' but hands me over a pen and paper so I can write it down before I forget.    

I should have known the value of talking it through from my Royal Literary Fund role, working with students on their essays.  Often, when a student is confused, I just ask them to tell me what they want to say.  They do it, and realise they're not confused after all.  They actually know all the solutions to their problems themselves.  I believe it's the same with counselling - you know the answers to your own problems, it's just a question of accessing them and a trained counsellor can facilitate that.  

Talking it through solves a lot of story problems, so long as you talk to the right person.  I hope you can find a writing friend who is as helpful as my friend Nancy is to me.  I hope I am as helpful to my friend Nancy when it's her turn to talk, and my turn to listen.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Dealing with Writing Hangovers

No, not the alcoholic sort - tho those happen to writers too I've heard - but writing ones.  This is what happens:  you start writing, your character needs a problem/career/best friend so you give them one and carry on.  

Much, much later on, and you're stuck.  The plot can't move on ahead or it's set off in more directions than a catherine wheel.  The reason behind your plot block is the problem/career/best friend - they don't fit comfortably with the current situation.  So you puzzle away, trying desperately to work out how you can get round the situation but not succeeding.  

You have a hangover!  Something you randomly chose in the past is now affecting your writing in the present.   

I've just been stuck in hangover hell, having made a character married.  This meant that further down the plot line he had to have a wife in tow. This wife was causing me problems - it wasn't plausible that she'd turn up all of a sudden, but she existed so neither was it plausible that she wasn't around.  Then - ping! Light bulb moment.  Just because the character was married in the first draft didn't mean he had to be married in the second, especially as I'd rewritten him pretty much from scratch.  The wife could go.  End of problem.  

Sometimes it's really hard to spot hangovers.  You get stuck in a particular way of thinking and it's hard to challenge yourself and ask, Why can't X do Y?  Why does Z have to be female?  Why can't A do that?  Why does B have to be a teacher?  Why does C have to be tall? Why can't D be unable to swim?

In A Single to Rome I struggled through the first draft with lots of hangovers and a hefty headache to match.  Then I realised that Teresa was doing two plot functions and could become Teresa and another character - Olivia.  Judith didn't have to be female, and became Bob (who hooked up with the newly created Olivia).  Natalie's original job got the chop and she became a lawyer, which both raised the stakes and solved a couple of plot problems.  

So if you get stuck, check that it's not because of some hangover from the past.  It may have been the answer to a problem then, but that doesn't mean it still is now.  Challenge your previous decisions and check you haven't got a writing hangover.  

And if you have, the solution is straightforward. You wrote it: you can delete it.  It's as simple as that.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Difference between Scenes and Chapters

Some people get confused by the word Scene and think it means Chapter.  As a reader, we don't see the scenes as such.  We only notice the space between scenes as a chance to maybe put the book down.  Chapters, however, are different.  We see them in every book we read, conveniently named and numbered.  I think that's why people get confused.  As readers they're used to thinking in chapters, not scenes.  

A scene is a chunk of writing within the overall story that is a complete bit on its own. Often it's contained within a specific location, or time span, but it always contains an event.  Using the 3 Little Pigs as an example, when the 1st little pig starts and finishes building a house made of straw, that's a scene.  Another scene is when the 2nd little pig starts and finishes building a stick house.  Another scene is when the 3rd little pig starts and finishes building a brick house.

A scene might be a few words, or a few thousand words long - or even longer, although it's unlikely to be much more than that.  Most scenes are probably between 500 and 2000 words, and the average novel probably has between 50-80 scenes.  In a manuscript you show them by leaving a space between each chunk of text.  (This is why it's so irritating when a ms is given academic presentation ie spaces between every paragraph, and no indentation of the first sentence of each new paragraph.  This post follows academic presentation, your novel shouldn't.)

Chapters are usually between 1000-6000 words long, although they also could be only a few words long, or tens of thousands.  Novels generally have between 10-30 chapters.  

Scenes are all about the story telling.  Chapters are all about manipulating the reader experience.  Long chapters, and the pace feels slow.  Short chapters, and the pace picks up.  Where you put your chapters is very important, especially where they end.  You want a reader to feel that they simply have to carry on reading.  Consequently, although a chapter may neatly contain several scenes, the chances are that you'll cut the final scene to make it have an interesting chapter ending that compels the reader to start the next chapter.

A chapter is more likely to contain several scenes, but it could be made up of just the one. I think this is where the confusion comes. While a Scene may also be a Chapter, and a Chapter may be a Scene, they are two different things and have two different functions. As a reader you think in chapters, but as a story teller you want to think in scenes.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

How Do I Look? Me, Through Your Eyes

As I'm typing this I have no idea how I look.  For all I know I might have a funny little smile on my face, or my brow my be furrowed, or my jaw clenched. I might even look as radiant as the morning sun. (I wish.)

Similarly, when we're looking at the world through one character's POV we have to remember that while they can see other people's expressions they can't see their own.  

So you can have this: 
Joe didn't know what to say or do. Helen looked furious.  Her cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'  He felt his jaw tighten in response as he stopped himself shouting back. 

But you can't have this: 
Joe didn't know what to say or do. Helen looked furious.  Her cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'  A muscle flickered along his jawline as he stopped himself shouting back. 

So, how do you describe the viewpoint character? The answer is obliquely. (Not looking a mirror.  That's a cliche.)

She sucked in her tummy and tugged as hard as she could, but there was no way the zip was going up to the top.  
ie the character is plump

I ran her hands through my hair, wondering what it would be like to have hair as long and straight and blonde as Gwyneth Paltrow's. 
ie the character has short, dark, curly hair

She heaved herself off the chair.  
ie the character is large and ungainly

I hurdled the 5 barred gate easily. 
ie the character is athletic and probably tall

I squirted extra sunscreen on my head and rubbed it in.  
ie the character is bald.

It's not difficult to do once you get the hang of it.  The other thing to remember is that you don't have to describe your characters in minute detail.  If anything, less is more. You want to convey just enough information so the reader can create an image in their minds.  

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

When Feedback Goes Wrong

A friend asked me to have a look at their novel a while back so I did.  I like book doctoring, but don't like the fall out - people really want you to love their novels and it can be hard to accept that they're less than perfect.  I know this, so I'm exceptionally careful when giving feedback, as I thought I was in this case.

I met up with my friend recently and asked how the novel was going along. 'I've given it up,' she said.  'As no one was connecting with it, there didn't seem any point in carrying on.'  This was said while pointedly not looking me in the eye and, not being completely dim, I picked up that this might just be referring to me. Yup. It turned out that my lack of ecstatic enthusiasm for the work had convinced them that they should stop right there.  


I was amazed, as I thought I'd been quite positive, if not gushing.  I didn't say much more - it seemed best not to - but there were lots of things I wanted to say afterwards...

1.  You shouldn't ask for feedback if you don't want it.  Or warn me that you only want praise instead of asking me to be really honest.

2.  No one's work is perfect; there are always comments to be made.

3.  It takes me a lot of time to read, think, then give feedback.  I don't do it lightly so accept that if you're feeling disgruntled about my feedback, I'm also feeling put out that I wasted my time.

4.  Publication is a collaborative process.  You'll get feedback from editors, agents, copy editors etc.  You've got to get used to it if you want to be published.

5.  If you are dissuaded from continuing your writing because of one person's comments then you probably shouldn't be thinking of putting your work out in public - authors need to have a solid core of self belief.

6.  It's all opinion.  When I enthuse about a piece of writing it's worth just the same as when I'm less positive.  It's my opinion, no more, no less.  If I offer feedback it's what, in my opinion, could be done to improve the writing.  My opinion - though it pains me to say this - isn't infallible.  It might not work for you. 

I hope that once they've got over this, they will carry on with their writing.  It's good.  But it could be better - in my opinion of course.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Research Can Make Authors Ask Strange Questions

I expect most writers have to do some research for their books.  I always say you should do as little research as you can get away with when you're writing the first draft.  That means you focus on the story first, the research second. It also means you don't spend hours and days on the research without actually doing any writing.  

Of course, some books need more research than others. A Single to Rome meant three visits to the Eternal City (see the lengths I go to!), Kissing Mr Wrong meant a trip to the battlefields of the Somme.  

But the strangest bit of research I think I've ever done was for Another Woman's Husband.  The main character's husband trains for and runs the Bath Half Marathon over the course of the book.  Luckily there are lots of websites and forums and books about running so much of the research didn't involve me having to don trainers myself but there was one question I couldn't find the answer to.  

After watching the Bath Half Marathon one year I went to the pub afterwards.  At the next table were a group of runners celebrating their achievement and we got chatting. I explained about the book and they gave me lots of detail that you'd only know if you'd done the run.  But there was still the one question lurking, the question which was utterly vital for the plot.  

Finally, emboldened by a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio, I asked the question:  'How soon do you think you could have sex after running the race?'

I wasn't thrown out and they gave me an answer - tho I'm not 100% sure how accurate it was, given they were young men talking in front of their mates.  But short of asking them to prove it... 

Anyway, it remains the most embarrassing question I've ever asked.  What about you?