Monday, 3 September 2012

Sometimes Flashback Is The Answer

I'm not a fan of flashback.  It too often means the story stops dead because flashback is essentially dealing with stuff that's already happened, so there's no suspense about what's to come.  New writers are particularly prone to either a) having a character staring at themselves in the mirror thinking about what happened the night before or b) having a character embarking on a long train journey and thinking back to the last time they went to Abersoch (or wherever).

But as I've recently used a spot of flashback in my current book, I thought it was only fair that I said how I'd used it and why.

The scenario:  The main character wants to do something, her partner didn't want her to do it, but she does it anyway.

It was important for the plot that the main character didn't really register her partner's wishes.  My choice was either: to write a short scene when they have a conversation discussing it or cover the relevant bit of the conversation in flashback.

The scene would normally be my preferred choice but I chose flashback because:

a) due to logistics, this conversation would have to be over the phone, and phone conversations are always a bit meh, and to be avoided.

b) there wasn't anything else really to do or say in the conversation, so it would have only had one purpose.  This is not good for a scene; a single purpose scene usually lacks depth and conviction.

c) it was important for the plot that the character didn't really register her partner's wishes.  In other words, she - my viewpoint character - wasn't paying attention.  I would have to write a scene where she was trying to do something else while having the conversation (eg check she'd got everything she needed in her bag before going out or check her makeup or try to put a pair of lace up shoes on while having a phone conversation).

The simplest solution was to have her remember the relevant bit of the conversation at a later date.  I chose the moment just before she was going to do the thing her partner really didn't want her to do which meant I could give her a moment of disquiet at the point when she was making the choice of whether to continue or not, while also making it clear that she hadn't taken on board his reservations at all.  And that she independently had her own misgivings - but then events over took her and she goes ahead (well, there wouldn't be any story if characters didn't do things they later regret).

So using a short burst of flashback (and I do mean short, just a few lines) solved the situation - and added value to the story as well (making it completely clear she hadn't taken on board his reservations).

Friday, 24 August 2012

How Much Does Good Grammar and Spelling Matter?

Writing is all about communication.  Grammar and spelling matter because they make communication easier.  When grammar and spelling are correct the reader reads exactly what you intended them to read. There are no ambiguities, no confusions.  The reader also reads without effort because they don't have to keep stopping to work out what the meaning might be and effortless reading makes reading a pleasure.

It could be argued that that's what editors are for, and it is - up to a point.  But publishing is being squeezed at the moment and there's less money to spend on editing.  If there is a choice between two manuscripts, one which will require lots of editing and one which won't, then they will choose the one that will be cheaper for them.

And you can't by-pass the issues of poor grammar and spelling by choosing to publish yourself. because readers can download sample chapters.  Would you choose to buy a book with lots of errors?  Even if the book was free, you'd be unlikely to want to spend your valuable time on it.

Good grammar and spelling matters, regardless of the quality of the story telling.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

My life at the moment is busy.  I've got deadlines to hit in my writing life, at home there's one house move done, another imminent. In short, my time is being squeezed.  It's been an interesting experience because it is teaching me to organise my priorities.  Chatting on social media is mainly out, as is reading other people's blogs.

Then there's this blog...well, you may have noticed it's been erratic over the past few weeks.  The thing is, I've made a personal commitment to it.  If I stop blogging 5 days a week I know I will go down to 3 times a week, then 2, then 1 then...the daily commitment is what keeps me going.  I may miss a day or two when under pressure, but essentially it's every day.

It's the same with writing.  If it isn't prioritised, if the commitment isn't made, then it's very easy to let a day, a week, a month - or even a year - go by without moving the writing forwards.  The answer is to put aside time on a regular basis - ten minutes every day, two hours every Saturday morning, every Thursday evening from 6-9pm, whatever suits you - and stick to that.

I used to walk my dog for an hour every day without fail.  Since he's gone, I don't know how I managed to find the time for that hour long walk, but I did (and was much healthier for it).  If it's part of your routine and if you commit to it, you will find the time for your writing.  So I'll keep on blogging - but hope you'll forgive me if it's sometimes later than usual.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

There is a joke in my family that should my sister offer to make you a cup of tea it is best to decline.  First of all she can't bear to wait for the kettle to boil and secondly she can not wait for the tea to draw so what you end up with is a mug of pale beige, lukewarm water.  Patience is not one of her many virtues.

Ten years ago, publishing would have been a horrible world for her to join because it involved so much waiting*.  Waiting for an agent to reply, waiting for feedback, waiting for a publisher to offer that elusive deal.  Then, should it happen, waiting for the book to go through the publishing process - it took nearly two years from the original offer for my first book to come out in print.

But now anyone can publish anything, whenever they want to.  Just download the files and in an hour or so your book is available for the whole world to read.

I don't have a problem with this as such.  But I do know that when I wrote my first book I was convinced it was brilliant and was distinctly miffed that the publishing world didn't agree with me.  'What do they know?' I stomped around saying as yet another rejection letter turned up.

Then, after a good six months of sulking, I knuckled down and re-wrote it.  In the end I changed 90% of the first "brilliant" draft and the second version was snapped up (with the publisher giving me sackfuls of money for the privilege) and went on to be published around the world.

There's nothing wrong with being impatient and going for it, bypassing the whole waiting process.  But just be aware that you may end up with lukewarm beige water.

*Actually, Annie is a published non-fiction author.  She's still impatient though.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Re-Writing Before There's Cash On The Table

Scenario:  You've written and re-written and polished your book.  You've got feedback.  You've re-written and re-polished.  You've sent the manuscript out.  An agent likes it but makes suggestions for rewriting the manuscript - do you do them? Alternatively, the agent has taken the manuscript on and sent it out, an editor at a publishing company is interested but wants changes to the manuscript - do you do them?

In other words, do you make changes BEFORE anyone commits to your work?  It's not unusual for people to do extensive re-writes and still get turned down.  

I think Yes  - if you really really understand the underlying reasons why they want the changes AND agree with them.  

For example, my Dutch editor said she wouldn't buy Nice Girls Do unless I made a story change.  She said that readers wouldn't believe that Anna would end up with Will because they hadn't already slept together.  She didn't care how I got them into bed together, only that sex had happened and that it was great.  I understood the reasoning, and agreed with her.  I made the changes - which meant whole chunks of new writing, not just tinkering - and liked the end result so much that that version is the one that was published around the world, not just in Holland.

So I understood the problem, agreed with it, and could see how I could change the ms to accommodate a solution which strengthened the novel.  The understanding is key.  

The problems occur when the agent or editor says something vague, like they want the character to be a little more positive.  You look at the ms, think your character is already pretty positive, but add a few more positive bits of dialogue.  In other words, you're showing willing with the idea of changing material but without really understanding what the underlying problem is.  Because you haven't understood, you can't deal with the problem - it'll be luck not skill if you get it right.  

If you don't understand, ask.  If you can't ask, then talk with writing friends - can they see what the agent or editor is getting at?  If you understand but disagree, again try to get a discussion going.  Put your side, listen to theirs.  It there a third way that will satisfy both of you?  I've re-written drafts and my editor has been surprised at the extent of the rewriting, but it's been the only way for both of us to be happy - and I assume the readership too, as the rewrites have always been better than the original.

Try to get a discussion going and keep at it until you can see the way forward that works for you because if you try to write without your heart being entirely behind what you're writing, you will fail. 

And then what? Which version is better?  I've seen people re-write extensively and still be turned down. Then they send out the revised ms, and get more suggestions that lead back to the first version. That gets turned down too. The author is left confused, demoralised and derailed. Now they have three versions, and they have no idea which is best. Or even which is closest to their original vision.

So the answer to the original question in my opinion is simple - Yes, if you understand, and No if you don't.  

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Incomplete Sentences. Are. Irritating.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

4 Ways to The Perfect Title

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

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

3. Find a phrase or bit of dialogue in the book that seems to say it all. 
In my second book, Oliver tells Anna as he's seducing her that "Nice girls do." The book is about nice girl Anna going off the rails, so it sort of fits. They do, and she does. BTW My working title for this was A Girl's Guide to Hedging and Ditching*, which was using the combination of no 1 and no 2, as Anna is a garden historian. 

4. Ask other people to brainstorm ideas. 
I'm always amazed by other people's take on things - if I ask a class for a list of adjectives I can bet that none of the ones I thought of will be mentioned.  Book No 4 obviously needed an Italian theme, preferably mentioning Rome. I had the longest list of words but still couldn't find a title. At one point I collared a bunch of my son's friends and had an impromptu eight person title brainstorming session. In the end, my lovely friend Nancy came up with A Single to Go, which needed just a bit of tweaking to become A Single to Rome.

That's 4 ideas - any more out there?

*I loved this, but my editor didn't.  Another Woman's Husband had the working title The Sex Lives of Hamsters, which she didn't like either.

4th Place For Writers

Is the worse position in an Olympic final 4th place?  So near to a place in the history books and the admiration on non-sportspeople and yet so far you might as well have come 8th.  It's a bit like sending your novel to an agent who replies along the lines of 'I loved your book, but not quite enough to offer representation.'

Close, but not close enough.

As a writer there used to be only two choices for what to do next: Give up or carry on sending your work out to agents.   Now two more have been added to the list: publish via a small independent publisher or self-publish.

There's a lot of turmoil in publishing at the moment with change coming from several directions at once, and I think there is much for a writer to be concerned about this brave new world.  But one of the big plusses is that there are now more choices than settling for fourth place.  The medals are within your grasp.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Story Threading For Depth

One of the real joys about writing is when you write a section and realise that, without knowing it, you've set up the situation beforehand.  I love it when that happens.  But it doesn't always, and that's when you've got to thread through the different strands of the story. 

What do I mean by a thread?  To use Kissing Mr Wrong as an example, there are several threads to follow through.  These are the main ones:

Lu's career.  Lu's relationship with her mother.  Lu's search for the missing soldier.  Lu's relationship with Nick.  Briony's relationships.  Lu's relationship with her father.  

All the way through the story, I'm trying to keep each of these threads present in the mind of the reader.  Sometimes it's only going to need the smallest of mentions, sometimes they're going to need a bit of development in terms of plot to get them moving along, but they have to be there and be present.  

When I'm reading student writing I sometimes feel that each scene is concerned with only one thread at a time.  This is a mistake, as keeping as many threads as you can moving along at the same times adds depth for the reader. It's like painting only using black and white, when the full spectrum of colour is available to you.  

Friday, 10 August 2012

Being An Olympic Writer

As Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Bath University I work with students on their essays.  Many of those students are studying sports science or sports coaching, and several of the teams currently competing at the Olympics have been training at the university's facilities - a bit like a cabbie, I can say I've had the captain of one of the Team GB teams in my office.  It's been an education for me.  I had no idea before of the level of work these young people put into achieving their dreams.

Every aspect of their training is studied, every possibility of gaining an advantage is examined whether that's in training, diet, psychology.  They give up parties and going out.  They give up eating their favourite foods.  They get up at 4.00am to train.  Everything they do is geared towards their aim: winning.

A writer's dedication is on a different level.  As a creative, you can not work at the computer all the time; you need down time to refresh creativity, to meander around dead ends, to recharge the batteries.

But you do need to put the hours in.  And those hours need to be put in consistently.  You also need to be able to take the knocks of your work being judged not good enough and still get up and keep on writing.  And you have to persist.  It can take many years for your writing to start to come together and succeed in the wider world (if that's what you want to do, because success is going to mean different things for different people).

I believe that writing is open to everyone and everyone has the chance to succeed, so long as they keep on learning, keeping on writing, keep on reading, keep on trying.  The only way to guarantee failure is to give up.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Vocabulary For Pacing And Mood

Catherine meandered through the park.  Dogs panted in the deep shade of the cypress trees, tongues lolling and beside the still green pond ducks waddled, faintly quacking.

Cath skittered through the park.  Dogs yapped and scrapped around the dustbins, and beside the wind-ruffled pond, the ducks grabbed for the last crumbs of bread.

Same scene, different vocabulary = different mood, different pace.

Verbs are the most useful - compare meander with skitter, panted with yapped, lolling with scrapped.  They sound different, feel different in the mouth when you say them.  Meander is a slow word, skitter is fast although they have exactly the same number of letters.

The vocabulary you choose helps in controlling pace and mood as well as creating pictures; choose your words carefully.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Pacing Your Writing

I realise I've written quite a bit about the need for pacing, but not done much on what it is and how to achieve it.  Basically, the pace is the speed at which the reader is taken through the story.  There's an element of personal preference here - for example, generally I find Anita Brookner's novels too slow, but many thrillers too fast.

Things that speed the pace up:

Short sentences
Short paragraphs
Short chapters
Easy vocabulary that most readers will know
Lots of physical action
Lots of short snatches of dialogue

Things that slow the pace down:

Long sentences
Long paragraphs
Long chapters
Wider vocabulary that may have a reader puzzling over meaning
Reflective writing (ie a character thinking things through)

You can make some slow writing fast, for example, by including lots of movement in your description - so 'flowers lined the path' becomes 'flowers bobbed in the breeze along the path'.  And fast, action packed writing can be slowed down by writing out every physical action - a bit like seeing it in slow-motion on a film.

Non-stop fast, and you risk giving the reader motion sickness.  Non-stop slow, and you risk the writer dropping off to sleep.  Quite what the proportions are will depend on both your preference and your sort of writing - for example, a thriller is generally faster paced than a romance, but there are slow burning thrillers and breathless romantic romps.  

Either way, mix it up.  So, several fast scenes should be followed by a slower scene - perhaps a lot of action followed by a short scene of recap or reflection on the action.  This gives the reader time to breathe and gather their thoughts.  Similarly, several slower scenes need to be pepped up with a fast scene, to move the story along.

Think of the pace as a series of peaks (fast scenes) and troughs (slow scenes) making a wiggly line which gets tighter and more extreme as you reach the end, a bit like the reader's heartbeat.  And of course, as with all heartbeat rates, the number one thing to avoid is flat-lining.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

5 Reasons Why Not To Write In Chapters

As a new writer, it seems pretty obvious: you write 20 chapters of 4,000-5,000 words each and you have a book of 80,000-100,000 words.  What could be be easier?  What could go wrong?

1.  A novel made up of consistently 4,000-5,000 words would be dull to read.  You want to mix it up a bit, a few short chapters here, a few long chapters there.  Keep the reader on their toes so they don't know what's coming next.

2.  Chapters can control pace.  Short chapters speed things up, long chapters slow them down.  A long chapter at a relatively action free moment will cause the pace to falter.  A series of super short chapters at a very exciting moment will make the pace so fast you risk losing the reader as they can't take it all in.

3.  If you've planned your novel out in chapters, you've almost certainly made the end of each chapter the end of a scene ie the action has peaked and fallen. Chapter ends are what keep the reader reading as they think, hmm, I'll just start the next chapter and see what happens - and then they're hooked.  Good chapter ends are often made by ruthlessly cutting scenes short so they end at a tense moment.

4.  Having your chapters planned out from the start makes you more reluctant to re-write and move scenes around.  All books need this to a certain extent and some - such as memoirs - often benefit from really moving scenes around so you go middle, beginning, end, rather than beginning, middle, end.  You won't do this if it mucks up your beautiful chapter plan, even though the story demands it.

5.  Chapters are a way of breaking a novel down into nicely manageable chunks for the reader - you yourself may read a chapter or two each evening before you go to sleep.  But you're not the reader any more, you're the writer and you want the reader to stay up all night hooked on reading your fabulous book. Thinking of it in scenes will help in this.

If this seems scary, make each scene you write a chapter, and then later combine them.  When you've sorted out the story you can play around with where the chapters should come for the most impact.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Why Motivation Matters In Plausibility

The other day I mentioned in passing to a friend that I'd been bodyboarding last week in Cornwall.  They did a double take, then roared with laughter at what they thought was my joke.  I was slightly miffed - why was the idea of me bodyboarding so unlikely? I mean, apart from my often announced detestation of cold water, dislike of active sports,  hatred of getting my hair and face wet, my advanced age and general unfitness... It has to be said I've only started recently (a good wetsuit has helped), but to many of my friends it is completely implausible and out of character.

In fiction, you could make this work but there are two areas to watch out for.  The first is plausibility and the second is motivation.

The plausibility comes in part from context -  the character moves to a new area, gets a good wetsuit, sees everyone else having a good time and decides to try it herself (pretty much my reasons for trying it).

Then there's motivation.  Why would a character change their habits?  As a writer, this is where it gets interesting.  You could use the bodyboarding as a sign that they were capable of changing their attitudes, or perhaps conquering a life long fear of water.  It could be a sign of refusal to accept the ageing process.  Or an acceptance of ageing in the sense of not being bothered if one's body doesn't look as great as the teenagers on the beach.  Perhaps it could symbolise a greater boldness towards life.

Whatever - it doesn't matter what the motivation is for the change, so long as it's there.

In real life we don't usually spend hours examining why we do things, we just go ahead and do them.  Characters similarly shouldn't spend hours in contemplating their motives, but the writer needs to know them because if they don't then nothing will appear plausible to the reader.

Friday, 3 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel V

And now it's on to the last stage of this lovely meal. The cutlery has disappeared and you're now going to add the finishing touches. Sometimes writing is perfectly OK, there's nothing technically wrong with it, but it can feel bland or dull - Janet and John writing, for those old enough to remember that reading scheme. I've written about adding Pzazz before, but this is it, your moment to check that your writing is as good as you can make it.

Look for opportunities to add colour and edge. It could be a bit of neat description or an amusing metaphor, a nifty bit of dialogue or a pacy bit of action. I go through my texts with a highlighter pen and mark all the bits I think add pzazz. There have to be at least 5 on each page and if not, I add some. Ideally, there are many more than that. They may be small, but the accumulated effect is of energy and colour. (I hope.) Here are a few of mine, all of which I know I added at this stage.

* He was wearing short sleeves, but the ghosts of leather patches circled his elbows like wreaths of pipe smoke
* A laugh dirty enough to plough
* Steve looked mildly surprised, not dissimilar in expression to a Hereford bull suppressing hiccups
* Dancing to the rhythm of the music (though not entirely with it), spiralling away like a drunken daddy-longlegs.
* A knife sat in an opened jar of peanut butter, like Excalibur waiting for King Arthur

Or you might need to up the pace by making a quick cut from one scene to another...

And then Briony split up from Jerry.
'To be honest, it's a relief more than anything else,' Briony said, apparently without a concern in the world, as they made their way through a group of French school children cluttering the pavement outside the Abbey. 'Jerry asked me if I was shagging Simon, and I said yes - was that a problem?'

As well as getting the pace going quickly it has the added advantage of some insider info - if you live in Bath you know all about parties of French schoolchildren cluttering the pavements.

And then when that's all done, sit back and bask in glory. And then get ready to send it out.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel IV

The previous re-writes were very much about getting the novel into its finished shape. Once I'm happy with the outside shape and feel, I'm now moving closer to the substance of the novel: the scenes. This is where the meat of the novel is.

Rather as I looked for problems with the novel's overall structure, I'm looking for problems with the scene as a whole - outside working in again.

* is it clear where and when the scene takes place (preferably contained within the first para)?
does the timing make sense, do people have long enough to go from A to B, or conversely, if A and B are close together, do they cover the ground quickly?
* are people active throughout or are there any bits when the characters are waiting for something to happen? Do I need to re-write to correct this?
* is it clear what the characters' attitudes are to each other, the location, the situation?
* are any patches of description too long? too wordy? too complicated?
* is there enough description of setting etc?
* if I have to describe a place or an action, is it easy to understand what's going on?
* are characters moving about, or are they static - worse, are they drinking tea? Could I move it to another location which would add a new dimension to the scene?
* if there is flashback, is it justified? Is it adding to the storytelling in an active way? Is there any way i could incorporate the information into the narrative?
* am I moving the story forward?
* is the scene anchored in reality or has it floated off?
* does the balance of white space to text work?
* is the scene too long or too short? Is there enough going on, or too much?
* does it end at the right place?
* would a reader want to read on?
* does the scene have the right pace, is there a good shape to it?
* does something happen? Or is it just events?
* are the characters plausible, consistent, believable, sympathetic? Would I like to spend time with them?

I go through every scene in this way and re-write until I feel I've dealt with all the queries, issues and problems. This may involve moving bits around, cutting and adding. That done, it's on to pudding...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel III

Now we're moving onto something with a bit more protein. I've decided roughly on the scene order and if there need to be any new scenes, or if some are being taken away, or combined. I'm now thinking about the characters.

The main character starts the process. I'm looking at their development - is it logical? Do they make any sudden jumps that are inconsistent? Have I explained where they're coming from? Do they have enough conflicts? Should I add another level of difficulty to their lives? They carry the story, so they need to be strong enough. If not, they need extra scenes to show how and why they're changing or behaving in the way they do.

I expect my main character will be present in all of the scenes as I usually write from a single viewpoint, but if I was writing from a multiple viewpoints I'd be checking that everyone their fair share of the story-telling. When I did this process with Adultery for Beginners, I discovered that one character dominated the story telling. I decided they deserved to take centre stage entirely and took out the other characters' viewpoints. This involved a serious rewrite - I eventually changed about 90% of the scenes. Painful, but necessary.

But even though I write from a single viewpoint, I want to make sure that the secondary characters have their own story. I don't want them to be just hanging around for the main character to show up, they need their own lives. For example, Lorna in Kissing Mr Wrongchanged to Briony in the subsequent drafts and got a life. She goes through her own development and her own story and her life has changed by the end of the novel. As a writer who is a former actor, I like to think that there aren't any duff roles in my books.

I'm also looking for gaps. In Nice Girls Do for example Anna goes up to London to stay with her boyfriend Oliver, who she's completely besotted by, and everything else gets left behind including the lovely Will who isn't mentioned for pages on end. Now it's reasonable for Anna not to think about Will as she throws herself into Oliver's luxurious lifestyle, but I didn't want the reader to forget him. So I had to add a couple of quick scenes to keep Will, if not physically around, then present in Anna and the reader's consciousness. You'd do the same thing if, for example, you had two main story lines but one of them was on the back-burner for a while.

By now the index cards are getting a bit messy. If I remember I use one colour initially, then use a different colour for added scenes. I staple scenes together if I'm going to combine them, make lots of notes, rewrite the card if it's getting v untidy. Finally I've got a stack of index cards that I'm happy with. At this point I re-write the novel from start to finish using the cards to guide me. When I started writing novels I needed to do this process several times. When I'm happy with the shape it's on to the next course.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel II

The first course is soup, a lovely liquid mass. It's contained within the bowl, but can flow anywhere. Look at the cutlery and choose the spoon furthest away from the plate - you're working from the outside inwards, remember.

The reason I say go outside inwards is it makes no difference how beautiful any individual sentence is, if the whole thing is wrong, if the story telling doesn't work, if there are problems with structure, then no one is ever going to read that perfect sentence. So, the story, the structure, the shape has to be right before you start fussing over adjectives and verbs.

At this stage I like to put the story down on index cards, one card per scene. On the card you write the setting, characters present, the purposes of the scene and the main action. This is one I wrote for an early draft of Another Woman's Husband.

Setting: Don't actually know! next page, B's house somewhere. Also, not dated.
Becca and Lily. Becca dreaming of Paul, Lily wanting to go out late clubbing. Frank rings, wants Becca to go round and help. NB Frank last mentioned/seen when? Pages ago.

And a couple from Kissing Mr Wrong...

Setting: Lorna's place. Dinner party. L's invited Marcus for Alex. Other people there NB should have been mentioned in opening scene. Skiing trip mentioned - Alex will need to find the money. Lorna offers her job in the gallery.

Setting: ????? Alex and Lorna. Alex talks about a) career, she's gone adrift b) Marcus as perfect man c) what to do about photograph. Lorna a) tells her M's going to Glasgow b) suggests Gus as possible re photograph

Obviously, as I was writing out my index cards I realised there were some problems which would need to be addressed should the scenes remain in the next draft and made notes accordingly. But that's for a future stage. Right now I'm checking that it's clear what the purposes are for each scene and how they move the story on.

When I've gone through the whole of the novel I've got a stack of index cards. I lay these out on the bed (I work a lot in bed). This is the easiest way to 'see' the novel as a whole. I'm looking for various things, all concerned with structure -

* is the 'shape' of the novel right, with exciting stuff happening throughout (the cherries - see earlier post)
* is there a good balance between active and reflective scenes (ie pace)
* do scenes flow ie have I set actions up
* are there any obvious holes - a character goes missing for a while, a plot strand is unresolved
* is the timing right? eg if someone becomes pregnant in Jan, do they have the baby in the autumn? At this stage I work out exactly when each scene takes place and note any bank holidays or other events that may affect the story.

I move scenes around, I add them, I take them away, I combine them. Anything. It's a fluid process (it's soup!). When I'm happy with the shape of it, it's on to the next course.

Monday, 30 July 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel I

Have you ever been to a posh dinner and been presented with a vast array of silverware spreading in ranks either side of your plate? Re-writing is like dealing with all those forks and spoons without getting it wrong and spilling soup down your front, or using the butter-knife to eat your peas. The simple answer is to start from the outside and work your way in.

I'm a BIG fan of rewrites. I think the quality of the rewrites is the difference between getting published or not getting published. (I can hear the planners clattering away at their keyboards about to lay into me for wasting time and not being efficient enough to do a decent piece of work first time round but hey - this is my blog, right, and what I say goes.)

The first thing to do is put the book away for as long as you can manage. The longer you leave it, the more distance you have. The more distance you have, the more you read like a disinterested reader, and the more you're able to spot problems. There's what you think you wrote and there's what you actually wrote, and if you're too close you can't see if there's a gap.

When I did this on my first novel the gap was about four months, mainly because I was incensed that the world hadn't realised what a startling work of genius had just landed on their doorstep and turned it down. Cue metaphorical flouncing out of the room and mega sulks from me. When I did finally go back I was ready to concede that the world might have a point.

So imagine spreading your starched linen napkin across your lap, gearing up for the lovely meal ahead. You've been thinking about it for ages, you've got various ideas as to what you might expect to see but you're open to whatever turns up on your plate. You know it's going to take time to get through all the courses and you're ready for that. Psychologically you're prepared for it to take as long as it needs. Ready? First course coming up...

Friday, 27 July 2012

What Makes A Good Author Event?

Today I'm chairing an event at the Penzance Literary Festival - 2.00pm to 3.00pm at the Acorn Theatre - featuring two debut novelists, Liz Fenwick (The Cornish House) and Catherine McNamara (The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy).

It'll be interesting as the books are very different, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the approaches each author has taken.  But what questions to ask?  More to the point, what makes a good event from the audience point of view?

I like it when the authors talk about things you wouldn't get from an article.  I always like factual information, and for it to be funny.  I must admit, I like it when they're dressed interestingly, although that can be distracting from what they're saying.

But over to you - what makes an author event good from your point of view?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Starting A Novel With A Story Idea

Some people are planners and like to plot out their novels from start to finish, before they write a word.  Some are pantsers, writing into the blue without any plan, flying by the seat of their pants, and most of us will be somewhere in between.  It doesn't matter.  What does matter is that you need to start is an idea - but not just any idea.  You need a story idea.

A story idea suggests future developments.  So, you have an idea about a group of friends at a wedding - I choose  this because this is the idea I started off with.  The trouble is, a group of friends at a wedding doesn't suggest anything much in terms of story.  

You need to put in some conflict.  A group of friends at a wedding, one of whom is in love with the bride.  Immediately that suggests story development.  Who is the friend? Who is the bride?  Why does he/she love her?  Why is she marrying someone else?  Does the friend know the groom?  What is their relationship with the groom?  What is he/she going to do at the wedding?

You can recognise a good idea because it suggests lots of questions that you need to answer.  And in answering the questions, you write a novel.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

10 Types of Character Names To Avoid

It's important to take care when naming your characters.  You want the reader to be absorbed into your fictional world and anything that pulls them out of that world, even if it's only for a second or two as they ponder your punctuation, is to be avoided if you possibly can.

1. Top of the list of character names to avoid is anything which doesn't have a straightforward relationship between the spelling and the pronunciation. I struggle with many Irish names such as Aibhlinn and Caoimhe even when I know what the pronunciation is supposed to be (ave-leen and kee-va respectively).

2. Tricky to pronounce ones comes next.  The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler is one of my favourite books, but is the main character's name Macon pronounced May-con or Mack-on? I've been told that there's a city in the USA which is pronounced May-con, so assumed it had to be that rather than than the French wine growing region Mack-on, but my American students struggle with it also. And what about La-a? This is apparently pronounced Ladasha. Yeah, right.

3. At least Macon is short. Rumpelstiltskin is fine for a short fairy story, but imagine a whole novel featuring him. Worse, imagine typing out Rumpelstiltskin hundreds of times.

4. But sometimes a character needs a long name, in which case it's a good idea to abbreviate it. I once knew a woman called Anastasia Rodrigues. She called herself Birdie, which was charming. Rumpelstiltskin calling himself Rumpy would be less so.

5. Russian novels defeat many people because the characters have complicated names with patronymics and diminutives used interchangeably.  It's best to have one name consistently used per character.

6. Then there are silly, famous or punning names. In my school year was a boy called John Thomas, and girls called Catherine Parr and Fanny Blood.   I have met a child called Courtney Salmon whose parents knew the pun and still went ahead with it, which is simply mean.  That's all in real life.  None of the names would work for fiction because the reader would either snigger, or wonder if the author had realised the pun whenever they read the name.

7. Inappropriate names. Names are often era specific and class related. There aren't many working class Ruperts, or upper class Chardonnays. My grandmother was called Maud, her sisters were Edith and Ethel, her brothers Harold and Claude, all of which are splendidly Edwardian names and would work well in fiction set in that period, but would sit oddly in a contemporary piece.

8. Which leads on to similar names. I'd advise against having Maud and Claude in the same piece of writing, speaking as one who discovered the hard way that having characters called Jenny, George, John and Justine was a recipe for confusion.

9. For practical, writerly considerations I'd avoid names that don't pluralise easily - Tolkein ran into this problem with the party at the beginning of Lord of the Rings: when more than one member of the Proudfoot family were in the same room, did they become Proudfeet?

10. And finally, to end with endings, especially names ending with s - Davies, Thomas, Jones.  These can be tricky even if you're confident of your ability to use apostrophes and extra s's correctly.

PS Sorry about the recent absence, I've had some internet issues.  

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dialogue Rules for Presentation

The first (and main) rule is Be Consistent.  In other words, while most dialogue is presented on an indented new line within quotation marks, 

   'Like this,' she said.

you might see dialogue presented with dashes and no indent

- Like this, she said.
- And here's some more, he added afterwards.

And there are other variations that I've seen, but the first version is most usual and the easiest to read.  So long as you are consistent - ie chose one method and stick with it - you'll be fine.  

When it's a new person speaking you always start on a new line.  However, if it's the same person speaking you don't always have to start on a new line, but can imbed the dialogue into the same paragraph.  

   'Have you eaten yet?' Meghan said.
   'No - what's for dinner?' Michael asked.
   'Boiled lamb and pickles,' she replied, wiping the carving knife on her apron.  The rain lashed at the windows, blown sideways by the unforgiving wind that whistled and whined down the chimney.  'Pickles are from the farmers' market.  They're good 'uns.'

Because the comment about the pickles comes attached to the previous bit of dialogue from Meghan, we assume that it's still Meghan speaking.  If it had been on a separate line, and indented (as below), we'd have assumed it was Michael talking. 

   'Have you eaten yet?' Meghan said.
   'No - what's for dinner?' Michael asked.
   'Boiled lamb and pickles,' she replied, wiping the carving knife on her apron.  The rain lashed at the windows, blown sideways by the unforgiving wind that whistled and whined down the chimney. 
   'Pickles are from the farmers' market.  They're good 'uns.'

Sometimes a character has a long, long speech and rather than have them ramble for page after page with no paragraph break, you need to give them a rest.  You indicate this by NOT closing the quotation marks on the previous paragraph of speech.

   '.. Boiled lamb and pickles, that's all we had to eat, in those days.  You youngsters don't know you're born, what with burger this and pineapple that. A juicy gherkin was as exciting as  condiments got in those days.
   'Mind you, I still remember that time I ate some piccalilli.  It was on a Tuesday, right after the farmers' market...etc etc.'
   'What fascinating stories you tell, Meghan,' Michael said, suppressing a yawn.

So if the first rule is Be Consistent, the second rule is Make It Clear.  If any reader ever has to work out who is speaking, you've failed in the dialogue presentation.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Dialogue Is Talk With Purpose

My sister is over from abroad, and I've been spending a lot of time with her and my mother - and jolly nice it's been too, as we chat about family things past and present.  I think anyone else listening to our conversations would be bored to tears, but for us they are serving a purpose - that of cementing family bonds in a pleasant way.  They are not intended to entertain anyone else, just us.

It's a distinction writers need to bear in mind.  Dialogue, as written in fiction, has a primary function of entertaining the reader (or viewer or listener).  Let's suppose you have a scene of a mother and her two adult daughters talking about family.  It's serving a purpose, that of showing how the family bonds are being cemented.  But once that's been established - and it should happen pretty quickly, within half a page I'd have thought - the scene will need a new purpose.

The new purpose could be anything - a hidden agenda for one of the participants, preferably a hidden agenda for ALL of the participants, which they're trying to promote.  Secrets, long established grievances, revelations for the future - all suitable purposes to move the story on and make it interesting.

In real life, we're quite happy to ramble on all weekend about family stuff, but no reader/viewer/listener is going to put up with that.  Dialogue in fiction constantly needs new purposes or it won't work.  

Friday, 13 July 2012

When You Need To Tell Not Show

It must be the one writing command that everybody knows - Show, don't tell.  And it's true that showing, not telling, is usually the right response.  However, not always.  Sometimes you're better off telling rather than showing.  An example is when time passes in the story with nothing much happening.

The next two weeks passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  She was at the point of forgetting him when the phone rang. 
"Hi, it's Godfrey," etc.  

The reader needs to know that two weeks have passed without Amelia hearing from Godfrey.  If we showed this, it would take quite a few pages to cover Amelia's two weeks.  Telling is more economical.

After the first kiss, all thoughts of going back were abandoned. They decided to eat at the pub, and spent the evening talking about everything and anything: pets they'd had when children, their favourite things to eat, their families - his mad mother, her dodgy brother - favourite films, bands, books. Everything Godfrey said Amelia thought was incredibly interesting, and by the time they were walking home hand in hand she was half way to being in love.

In this example, exactly what they talked about is irrelevant. What the reader needs to know is that they had an enjoyable evening talking about inconsequential stuff, that Amelia finds Godfrey fascinating and that she's half way to being in love with him. 

Similarly, it's OK to describe the room, for example, we don't have to 'show' that there's a table in there.  If the character makes a ham sandwich, then tell the reader they make a ham sandwich - you don't have to show them getting out the bread, butter and ham, then buttering the bread etc.  

Concentrate on showing the stuff that's important to the story - usually action - and tell the less important stuff.   

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Why I Wish I Could Be LIke Ernest Hemingway

Every day I do a lot of writing.  I write emails and blog posts.  I go on Twitter.  I comment on other blog posts.  I write lists.  I write down bright ideas and plans for an imaginary future.  It's all interesting, and it has to be done, but it doesn't count as word count.  The only thing that counts as word count is words written on my novel.

Why is it so easy to write the other stuff, and so hard to write our creative work?  I was reading about Hemingway and how he put his writing first, above anything, even when it wasn't getting anywhere and everyone was saying he should give up.  I find it very hard to prioritise my writing in the same way - there's always something that needs to be done first.

I've never had any inclination to shoot elephants or catch a marlin, but oh, how I wish I could be like Ernest Hemingway.  But, let's face it, that's like wishing I was a stone lighter, or could play the piano really well or speak fluent Italian.  I could do all these things - if I made them a priority.  Or as a friend once wryly commented, 'that's easy - no kids.'

And so I plod on.  And somewhere, around the cracks and crevices of real life, the book will get written, as it always has done so.  Inch by inch, not yard by yard, let alone mile by mile.  But I will get there. I wish I could be like Ernest Hemingway, so I could get there quickly, but so long as I get there, does it really matter how I do it?

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Tale of a Reluctant Reader

Today is my son's birthday - hip hip hooray!  He arrived three weeks late one hot July evening and his first six months were shaky, but once he'd settled down he became an easy child to deal with, except he wouldn't read.  He could read, that was obvious, as he would read his reading books but reading for pleasure was unknown.

What he liked were fishing catalogues.  Long car journeys were enlivened by him asking for quizzes.  I'd give him a page number, and he'd tell me what was on it.  'Pole rod, telescopic, £48' and so on.  That went on for quite a few years.  Still no books.

He liked being read to - I have read the whole of Lord of the Rings aloud to him - but he wouldn't read himself. Then one of the booksellers in Waterstones in Salisbury suggested trying this first novel which had just come out in in paperback by someone called JK Rowling. I read chapters 1, 2 and 3, but chapter 4 he did himself, and then we alternated chapters.  I was so delighted I bought the second Harry Potter book in hardback, and he read most of that himself.

But he was still a reluctant reader.  This continued throughout his school years, and into university.  I dedicated my second novel Nice Girls Do to him:  "For Nicholas, who lights up my life even if he won't read my writing".

Then, there became a change.  He read all of Evelyn Waugh, then Hemingway, then Roth.  Dickens - the works.  The reluctant reader had become the omniverous reader.

This May, he became an editor at a leading international publishing company.  It's ironic that that reluctant reader and writer now makes his living from reading and writing.  Blood will out?  I don't know, but I learnt 2 things: firstly, JK Rowling deserves every penny she has, and secondly, there's nothing like being handsold a book by a good bookseller.  

Happy Birthday, Nick.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Would You Write Differently If You Knew How People Read?

Guess what?  Not only does your e-reader give you books to read, but it can also supply data on how you read - where you stop reading, whether you go to the end, how long it takes to read.  This raises lots of questions about things like privacy, but I wondered: how will this affect writers?

If non-fiction tends to be put down after 50,000 words, will publishers only buy works of that length?  Will writers cut down on their word counts because they know 50,000 is the 'right' length, even though the subject demands it?

If we know that many readers skip the descriptions will we stop writing them?  If literary fiction is read more slowly, will even fewer literary novels get published as slow read = fewer sales.

What really worries me is that, as a writer, I don't see how you can write anything worth reading unless it comes from your heart and guts.  You have to believe, utterly, if the reader is to believe along with you.

All this data is head stuff.  It's like writing for the market, the tail wagging the dog.  The customer may always be right, but sometimes the customer doesn't know what it is they want until they see it - isn't that how Steve Jobs made Apple the company it is by giving people what they didn't know they wanted?

Many things have worried me about publishing over the last couple of years, but they've seemed all answerable by putting one's head down and just plugging away at writing the best book you can.  But this worries me the most because the best book you can write will be written with the potential customer saying 'add a bit of this, take that bit out'.

Mind you, I suppose it's like someone suggesting that they supply the ideas, you do the writing and you split the profits.  The answer (which I've never actually given, being too polite) is, go and write your own b****y book and leave me to get on with mine.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Rain, Tides and Tourists at the Seaside

It's the start of the summer season and St Ives is filling up with tourists.  This is a conversation my daughter and her friend had with some day trippers a couple of weeks ago as they strolled along the harbour front with the sea lapping at the walls...

Tourists:  What's happened?  We came last year and there was lots of sand, and the water was right out there (points out to sea).

Daughter:  Oh, it's all this rain we've been having, it's made the sea levels rise.

Tourists: Can't your government do anything?

Daughter's friend: They were going to put a plug in the bay to drain the water out, but it's been cancelled due to the recession.

Daughter: The whole town will be under water within ten years, what with global warming.

Tourists (obviously appalled):  That's dreadful.

I've never written anything based in St Ives before, but am going to have to now, just to include that conversation.  But will anyone believe that it could actually happen?

Fact is so often stranger - and funnier - than fiction which is why stuff you make up so often works better on the page than stuff that actually happened.  But somewhere there really are people who don't know about high tide and low tide...

Friday, 6 July 2012

Writing in First Person

When you begin writing, using first person often seems natural.  I struggled for a little while to get used to writing in the third person, but it's now my preferred form.  I wanted to write in third because I found it harder to write characters who weren't me when I wrote 'I did this', or 'I did that'.  I later found out that third person is more popular with readers and it's the most flexible form to use, so there are practical reasons for choosing third.

But there are plenty of reasons for choosing first too.  It's easier to capture a character's voice when you're writing in first, as everything has to be from their point of view.  Voice is particularly important in children and young adult fiction, where readers are less interested in areas such as style.  They want to feel that they are experiencing those things, living that life.  Having said that, many favourite characters, including Harry Potter, are written in third.

First person means that the reader only knows what the narrator chooses to tell them.  This allows scope for writing unreliable narrators, where part of the pleasure for readers is discovering that the narrator is fooling them (and also sometimes themselves).

Someone was recently quoted on radio as saying first person is essentially a lie as the narrator, by definition, has already experienced those events.  That can be part of the unreliable narrator, but sometimes the sense that the character is telling their story to the reader is part of the pleasure - I love the Mary Stewart trilogy about King Arthur which is narrated by Merlin.  Part of my enjoyment is in the way Merlin explains what's going on, and gives background that would be otherwise be hard to digest.  The books simply wouldn't be as good in the third person.

First person is also useful when there's an outsider narrator - Dr Watson, for example, or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.  Dr Watson allows Sherlock Holmes to be inscrutable and brilliant without alienating readers by his arrogance, Nick Carraway observes the entwined relationships between Daisy, Gatsby and Tom in a dispassionate way that would be impossible to write about from any of the main characters view point.

So there are lots of reasons why you might choose first person.  I'm sticking to third - I don't want to slip into autobiography.  But that's my point of view.  What's yours?

Thursday, 5 July 2012

It's Good When There Aren't Short Cuts. Honestly.

I've been having a big clear out of my house and went to the local dump yesterday.  As I drove out it struck me how lucky I was not to be rich, because if I'd been rich, I wouldn't have had that experience.  I wouldn't have experienced the banter between the staff, the good humour of the people doing their recycling, the feeling of satisfaction as cardboard goes into the cardboard container, the broken chair goes into the wood container and so on.

I can't claim that it was one of the best experiences of my life, but it added to my overall feeling of pleasure and satisfaction with life but if I'd been some rich celebrity, I'd have sent some minion to do my recycling and I would have missed out.

Some years ago I had a minor celebrity in one of my classes whose agent had suggested that they 'might like to try writing a novel.'  They even had a publisher eagerly waiting for their book. 'But it's hard,'  they moaned.  'I can do 5000 words but then... and I'm really busy with other projects.'  They were genuinely trying to write, but there are some who don't bother and others who have a go but need a certain amount of help from an editor or ghost writer and don't register how far the finished product differs from their original attempts (I've got several ghost writer friends who tell me it's not unusual to see their clients on the Good Morning sofa earnestly expounding that they wrote the book themselves).

The process of writing is hard, but enjoyable.  The process of getting published is hard, and the outcome is not guaranteed, but there's a lot of enjoyment to be had on the way - meeting other writers, making a group of friends experiencing the same process, learning about the way the business operates, becoming informed about the world that produces the books we love as readers.

Would I have missed that experience?  No.  There were no short cuts available to me - no agent suggesting 'why don't you write a novel?', no publisher waiting eagerly.  I didn't know any published writers or anyone in publishing, or really anything about the business.  But I've had a lot of fun, and my pleasure in writing has been enhanced a thousand fold by the difficulties along the way.

Things that come easily are rarely worth having and success tastes all the sweeter for the struggles along the way.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Why Great Ideas Need Some Thought

A friend had a great idea.  She was going to walk round the coastline of Britain, raise money for charity as she went, and along the way write a book about her experience which would then get published to critical and commercial acclaim.  It was a great idea - what could possibly go wrong?

It was a great idea.  The only problem was someone else had already had it.  It appeared that everybody had already walked the coastline of Britain, men, women, singles, couples, groups, people on crutches, people in wheelchairs, walkers with horses, dogs, donkeys - you name it, they'd already been there and done that and written books about it.

That's the problem with great ideas - they often aren't quite as great as when you first come up with them.  I've had a great idea for a non-fiction book for ages, and finally got round to putting the proposal for it down on paper.  My agent was cautiously encouraging, an editor made vaguely positive noises.  My library buyer friend was more robust. 'Do it as fiction, and I'll buy 20 copies.  As non-fiction, as it's you, probably 4, less if it's too academic.'

Hmm.  Back to the drawing board.  I'm having a re-think about my great idea and how I approach it.  But just because my great idea has turned out to be not quite as great as I first thought, that's no reason not to write it.  All ideas need a bit more thought and research than that lightbulb flash of inspiration might suggest.  What you need is a bit of fine tuning to make them your great idea, not some more generic great idea.

After all, if you've got an idea for a romance, a thriller, a memoir, whatever, you can bet someone else has already been there and done that before.  What they haven't done is your version of it.  That's original.  That's new.  That's fresh.  And that's why you are the one to write it.

And as for my friend, she did walk around the coastline, she did raise money for charity - over £25,000 - and she did write the book about it which she self-published.  I'd call that a great achievement.  Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

If A Job's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Well

I'm working on yet another draft of the never ending book.  I was telling a writer friend this and they sympathetically asked what the problem was. 'The writing,' I said cheerily. 'It's not good enough.'

They were taken aback by this - they'd assumed I was going to say something like, there's a plot problem in the middle.  Something specific, rather than a general 'not good enough'.  But that's the truth - it's not good enough (yet).

I read once that Richard Curtis's script editor wife reads through his draft scripts writing NFE in the margin.  NFE stands for Not Funny Enough.  He re-wrote until there were no NFEs.

If I let something I'm not proud of go through it might get published but I will know it fell below my standards.  And readers will know it falls below my standards because they're not stupid, and word of mouth will be not so good.  Then fewer people will buy the next book.

And yes, when you read about the sales that 50 Shades of Grey is getting, despite the clunky writing, it is tempting to cut corners.  But I would know.  And readers will know.  So I'll just have to carry on re-writing until it's good enough.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Addressing An Agent

On Twitter one evening one of the agents I follow was going through their slush pile and tweeting about the various manuscripts, and why they were being put on the 'read more' or 'discard' piles.  It was scary - so many manuscripts, and so many ways to end up on the discard pile.  

High on the list was getting the spelling of the agent's first name wrong.  In other words the writer failed at the second word they wrote, never mind the rest of the letter.  Wow.  

It may sound obvious but check on what the agent's name is and how they spell it by phoning up the agency and asking.  Then address them formally as:

Dear Joe Bloggs

There are two reasons you don't include the Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms.

First, you don't know their marital status.  Take a female agent called Jane Smith.  She might be married to Mr Smith now.  She might have been married to a Mr Smith, which is the name by which she became established in publishing so continues to use, even though she's now divorced from Mr Smith and is currently single.  She might choose to use her birth name, even though she's married to Mr Jones.  

Second, you might not know what sex they are and may cause offence by addressing a man as Ms Smith.  There are lots of unisex names - Jo, Val, Chris.  And there are names that can cause confusion.  My middle name, for example, is Leslie which is the male way of spelling it (my father didn't know there Lesley was the female spelling when he registered my birth).

So check the name with the agency and use the format Dear Joe Bloggs and you won't go wrong on the second word.  

Friday, 29 June 2012

Who Should Teach Creative Writing?

Anyone can teach creative writing.  You don't need special qualifications to set yourself up as a teacher, you just have to do it - or persuade someone to employ you as a teacher.  Nor do you need special qualifications to set yourself up as a book doctor, or editor.  All you have to do is persuade somebody to pay you to read/edit their manuscript.

So, if you're looking for a creative writing class, what should you look for in a teacher? In my opinion they should have at least one of the following three areas.

Publication record
Just because a writer has been published it doesn't make them any good as a teacher.  However, they will at least have some first hand 'how to' knowledge, both of how to write and how to get published.  Does it matter what they've published?  For myself, I'm published in novels and short stories and feel confident about giving feedback on them.  I've also had a film script produced and have acted, so feel able to offer some feedback on scripts - though not with as much confidence as with prose.  I don't read or write poetry, so I don't claim any special knowledge or insight there.  But there's a lot of crossover within the different types of writing so just because someone is, say, a playwright, it doesn't mean that they won't be able to give feedback on prose.

Publishing experience
An editor or agent might not be able to write themselves, but they know what makes a good piece of writing.  Or certainly a sellable one!  They should also know about the business of publishing, probably far more than the average author does.  A good editor is worth their weight in gold and is probably more able to give feedback on a wide range of writing styles than a writer might be able to.

Teaching record
Teaching is a skill that not everyone possesses.  A good teacher makes difficult concepts easy, classes fun while being informative and so on.

Watch out for...

Experience and/or qualifications as an English teacher doesn't automatically make someone able to teach creative writing, especially if they're used to teaching at school level and you're an adult.

Be aware that just being regularly employed is not a mark of a good teacher. Sometimes they are judged by qualities other than teaching ability - I have heard of a writer who gets a lot of work at a particular university, despite getting complaints about his teaching style, because his students routinely get high marks which makes the university look good.  Who does the marking?  Why, he does, thus guaranteeing more employment.  Word of mouth is very important to guard against this.

The publication record that doesn't really exist.  Self publishing doesn't count, unless that's what you're aiming for. 

The cynical writer - type 1. They're out there, and can be bitter about publishing.  I've heard of a creative writing tutor telling their students that there was no point in even trying to get published, it was so difficult to get in.

The cynical writer - type 2.  They believe that teaching is a doddle, money for old rope.  I've actually heard a writer say that people were so grateful to meet a published writer, that's all you needed to do.

But don't let the fact that there are some not so good creative writing tutors out there stop you from joining a class.  You can learn something from almost anyone, and making a commitment to going a regular class will help motivate your writing.  Overall I think writing classes are great, no matter who is teaching!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Writing Believable Declarations of Love

I'm busy re-writing this love scene, so declarations of love are much on my mind.  Recently I've read some love scenes that didn't work for me.  My main problem was not that characters declare love for each other, it was the circumstances of how love was declared.

1.  The announcement out of the blue.
The reader doesn't see the announcement coming.  Now, this could work if the scene is in character A's viewpoint, and Character B makes the declaration.  But then you'd expect A to be surprised, even if they were delighted.  If they just go, 'I love you too,' without having any other expression (internal thoughts or external dialogue) it makes them come across as a) emotionally flat lining and/or b) extremely conceited as it comes across as if they expect people to declare love.  

2.  The characters who hate each other
I know, I know, it's a favourite from Pride and Prejudice onwards - they meet, they don't like each other, they fall in love.  But in P&P we see both Lizzie and Darcy's development, from his early crass declaration and her refusal, to his second proposal and her acceptance.  We know she has changed her opinion of him almost before she does.  This takes simply doesn't work if that morning the characters were at each other's throats but by elevenses they are cuddling up to each other and looking gooey eyed.

3.  The oblique declaration
When I was about 18, an old school friend I was visiting at university told me that we were destined to be together, and that later on we'd get married.  Perhaps I was suppose to blush, and agree thereby showing my own feelings.  Given there was no romance at all between us up to that point, and from my point of view felt there never would be, I smiled politely and didn't say anything. Not seen him since.  But he was young. Do adults go round making these sort of declarations without even having had some indications that their affections are seriously reciprocated?  I don't think so.  In other words, the reader should be also aware of it.  

4.  The immediate declaration
A close friend of mine walked into a university lecture theatre and was spotted by another student who turned to his friend and declared, 'that's the girl I"m going to marry.'  He managed to meet her, chatted her up, they went out with each other, and did indeed marry - and have been married for more than 30 years.  The point is, he didn't tell her about his feelings until they'd been together for some time.   Again, do sensible adults meet someone they like, and within a few minutes declare their feelings?  And if they do, do we as readers believe that those feelings are genuine and well founded?

So, what makes a believable declaration of love?  Well, the opposite of the above points, in my opinion.  Characters don't have to like each other from the start but the writer must give them time to change.  They ought to be circumspect in the timing of their declaration, and if they do behave impulsively they out to be aware of that (unless they are either 15 or it isn't going to be a realistic love at this time, though again it could develop in time).

And above all, the reader must be along for the ride.  What's the point of having a romantic story if the reader doesn't live it vicariously?

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Writing That Works For Others

I've been re-writing a love scene recently.  I thought it was fine, but my workshop group all turned up their noses at it.  They didn't find him charming, and thought she came across as naive at best, a fool at worst.  I stared at the scene, trying to see it through their eyes.  Which I could do, hence the re-write.  But I know at the time of writing I was so caught up in the excitement of the moment I saw only what I wanted to see, not what I'd actually written.

It's a situation that crops up a lot of the time.  Someone writes a scene that they can fully imagine.  It's utterly clear to them, you can see on their faces that they don't get why it isn't equally clear to you.  'But it's there,' they say, tapping the manuscript.

We peer at the manuscript together. Um, no it isn't.

The other tactic is to claim that it's between the lines.  'I don't want to spell it out for the reader,' they say.  'I like sparse writing.'

Fine - up to a point.  I have read manuscripts that have avoided stating things that really shouldn't be mysteries.  If the scene is about, say, a confession by one character to another, then there's no purpose achieved in making the reader worry about whether the scene takes place in a train or a moving car.   Why not say where the characters are?  By all means be subtle about the confession, and its implications, but the location?  Why choose that?

We as writers have to be aware that the reader only has our words to create the scenes we want to scroll across their imaginations.  They want to do some work - work which is genuinely spelled out makes for very dull reading - but they don't want to have to second guess their way through the whole thing.  Sometimes spades need to be called spades if it's to work for someone else.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Too Much Detail v Too Little Detail

Nice Girls Do was centred around an C18th landscape garden so of course I had to describe it, so the reader could get an idea of what it was like.  It was a complicated lay out within a steep sided valley, based on a real garden that I'd visited plus my own twiddly bits added on, and I wrote it all out in great detail - down here for fifty feet, along there until a sharp right hand turn, zigzagging down the valley, up six steps then along a bit then curving to the left...

No one in my writing group had a clue what I was going on about.  They were trying to visualise this 3-D description and getting hugely lost but more than that, they were struggling to remember all the details because that level of detail implied that it was all important information that they'd need later on.

It was a great lesson for me.  It didn't matter at all if the readers could visualise the garden exactly as I saw it, all that mattered was that they had a visual image.  I could have written, 'it's very overgrown and in a valley with a lake at the bottom' and that would have been enough detail for the reader to imagine the garden.

But not enough detail for the garden to seem real.  You need some specific details - the smaller the better - for a place or thing to seem real.  It's that specific garden, not any old generic garden.  The trick is to concentrate on atmospheric details - the scent of decaying leaves on the path, the play of sun light through the gently swaying branches - rather than any detail that involves measurement or the reader having to work something out - along fifty feet, down eight steps, north of the summer house.  

It's not really a question of too much detail or too little detail, it's more the sort of detail. Quality, not quantity.