Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Using Index Cards I

I wouldn't be able to write a novel if I didn't use index cards. End of. I start a novel with a few ideas about characters, location and at least three 'big' events. A big event is one that changes the status quo - a kiss, a death, a revelation, whatever it is, the characters can't go back from what has just happened, they have to go forwards. I then start to write heading for those big moments - at this stage I'm guessing it's going to take me 15,000-20,000 words to get to each big moment. So I'm hoping for something like...

page 1...
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event A
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event B
15,000-20,000 words later Big Event C
15,000-20,000 words later, The End.

It may, of course, not work out like that in practice, but that's the rough scheme.

When I've got some words down I start to write out index cards, both for scenes I've written and for scenes I'm vaguely thinking I might write. So, let's suppose I've just reached A. I know that my next step is B. How can I get from A to B? I'll scribble some ideas down on index cards, one scene per card. I'll put down as many ideas as I can - I find this process sparks off lots more as you're doing it.

Then I arrange the cards out on my bed (as the nearest available flat space) and try to get them into a good order. If this happens, then that has to happen but this other scene will have to come before the first one to make it work. I fiddle around with the scene order, rewriting cards and adding stuff here and there until I have something I like. Then I type it up and that's my blue print. This is a bit from A Single to Rome:

Flat in Rome

Waking up, it’s all pretty mucky. Just got into bed. Claudio turns up with a viewing.

Natalie depressed, aimless in Rome.

Gets very miserable. The sun is shining but it’s raining in my heart.

Phones Michael in desperation. Chucks phone into Tiber. Thinks about chucking herself.

Claudio phones on landline. He’s bringing someone to look at the flat.

Natalie inspired to clean flat – it’s even muckier, she’s been subsisting on not much, not clearing up etc.

Borrows mop etc from Valeria. Valeria feeds her, offers her to come for supper that evening.

Claudio brings someone round to look at the flat.

It’s looking much better. Asks her for a date afterwards.

Supper with Valeria.

Clorinda also there. Mike is mentioned, Clorinda v disapproving. Establish Natalie can’t cook. Vanessa and Guy as super romantic couple. Clorinda hopes they’ll get back together. Discuss Claudio.

First date with Claudio. Meet up with his friends – she’s depressed, she can’t keep up with the language, she’s out of place. He makes a bit of a play for her, she tells him about Michael, he says M won’t be back. N cries, and is upset – what’s to become of her?

Clorinda hears her crying

NB turns up wearing white nightie – foreshadow ghost. Is very nice to Natalie, makes her cocoa, refers to once wanting space (something that relates to N, but also to her relationship with Mike, too proud, love is not love, hang on in there etc). Then says, contact Mike about a job.

Goes for job with Mike

he’s desperate, offers her something on the spot, that very evening.

It's not exactly detailed, but enough for me to write from - and if you've read the book you may realise that the book doesn't exactly follow this plan, but it's pretty close. Each one of bold heading was once an index card heading with the stuff following being the notes about that scene.

So I end up with a first draft. Then I read it, put the scenes on index cards again, and check for problems - which I'll write about tomorrow.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Your Writing Is Only As Good as Your Preparation

I was watching one of those house programmes, where the couple were doing up a flat to rent it out as a holiday apartment. They finished, the agent came round and duly pronounced on how much - or how little - it was going to achieve. The presenter tried to tell them it was because the decorating work they'd done was poor, but they were having none of it and said those immortal lines, 'He doesn't know what he's talking about.'

(I love it when people with no experience say that about experts who make their living from doing whatever it is. There's something v satisfying about it, especially when they're proved wrong later. Schadenfreude in action. But back to the post...)

Even I, with my tiny TV screen, could see that the standard of work was poor and said as much to a friend I know who is busily doing up a house. 'Ah,' he said. 'It's all about the preparation. If you skip on that, you'll always end up with a poor finish.'

I don't think the analogy entirely works with writing because while some writers plan extensively before they get started, others head off into the blue. What I do think is that at some point a lot of work is going to have to be spent on doing stuff that doesn't always seem obvious.

That may be planning, it may be research, it may be editing, it may be character development, it may be re-writing, it may even just be thinking. Whatever, actually doing the writing is a relatively small proportion of the time that should be spent on a piece of work to produce something that is easily readable.

In my experience, both personal and that of students I've observed, there comes a 'Clunk' moment. Oh, your brain clunks. It takes a long long long time to write something good. It's not something that can be bashed out by next Tuesday. Craft skills have to be learned, through classes or practice or both. Time spent is key to getting a good finish.

And if you don't believe me, if you think I don't know what I'm talking about, can guess what I think about you!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Never Lose Your Writing - 7 Ways to Make Sure You Don't

Last weekend I managed to clear everything from my diary. I had nothing to do except write, and I was hoping to finish this draft of the never ending novel. I woke on Saturday morning and immediately settled down to write. After a couple of hours or so, I was gaily tapping away when my laptop froze.


What was I to do? I couldn't save what I'd done, I couldn't scroll the screen so I could read what I'd just written and I knew I hadn't saved it. Arghh! There is nothing worse than losing work you've spent time writing. And the situation was compounded by that lovely blank weekend - I didn't want to waste a moment of time because of a duff computer.

In the end I copied what I could from the screen - a few hundred words - turned off my laptop, then started it up again. The laptop was working normally and it had saved the document I had been working on so none of my morning's labour was in vain. I carried on and, after 11 hours (yes! 11!) I wrote the words: The End.

Losing your work is infuriating for everyone, for you for that wasted labour, for anyone else who has to listen to your tale of woe. You MUST take precautions to save your work. What you do will vary from person to person, but you need to get a system going. Some ideas....

1) Locate the Autosave or Autorecovery feature on your computer. Mine is set to save every 5 minutes so I should only ever lose 5 minutes work. Macs are usually pre-set to save, but it's optional on PCs - check it out.

2) Usually in the same menu as the Autosave/Autorecovery feature is one to create an automatic back up. Use it.

3) Get an external device such as a memory stick or an external hard drive. Get into the habit of regularly saving your work on to it. I was annoyed with myself because I hadn't saved my morning's work onto my memory stick as I usually do every 20 minutes or so.

4) I also regularly send work to myself as an attachment form one email account to another. It's easy to set up a Hotmail or Yahoo account just for this purpose. This means I can retrieve it should I need to from cyber space.

5) Print out a hard copy. People blanch at this one, as if reckless use of paper will ruin the planet, but let's face it, this is your precious work - it's worth a few trees (and besides, the trees used for paper are a renewable source like a crop of wheat or carrots.)

6) You can get devices that automatically save and store your work onto external hard drives. We're at the limits of my technological knowledge - I know these things exist, but don't use them myself.

7) There is similar software that will automatically store your work in cyber space. Again, not something I use but I know they're out there.

With luck, some lovely reader(s) of this blog will know more about 6 and 7, and will come up with suggestions. And are there any other simple ways to save work I haven't mentioned?

Whatever method you use, however, there really isn't any excuse for losing work. So, while I might make sympathetic noises to your tale of woe about lost work, I'm not that sympathetic. If you haven't got back up systems in place, do something about it - and now!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Speech Tags - and Why Using Said is Always Right

Back in olden times when I was at school, one of our favourite sources of snigger moments were the pages in Lord Baden-Powell's autobiography where instead of using 'I said' he uses 'I ejaculated'. We may have been young, we may have been silly, but we knew for sure that using the word ejaculated to refer to speech was not a good idea. (And especially when boy scouts are involved.)

So imagine my surprise to come across a How To Write book in the library recently that seriously suggested 100 alternatives to 'said', including the e word. Most of them were simply wrong. Take...

'Woody Allen is so funny,' she laughed.

Okay, now say those words aloud, at the same time as laughing. Try it. Then try snorting your words, or giggling them. It can't be done. You can laugh, or snort, or giggle, and then speak, but not both actions at the same time.

I'm all for adding colour to writing, but in the case of speech the only variations that work are about volume:

'Be quiet,' he whispered, or 'Stop that now,' she shouted.

In general, plain old said is safest. It's a word that disappears, like 'and' or 'the'. If you feel you've got too many 'saids' floating around in your writing then either look for ways to hide them (eg within speeches), or cut them completely (substituting actions if necessary). 'But don't be tempted to use highly coloured alternatives for said,' she ejaculated. Unless you want us to snigger.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Using Attitude for Characters

Attitude - that is, your character's attitude to life - is an important component in writing, but one that is sometimes overlooked.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Writers as Machines

When I first thought about writing, in my 20s, I could touch type quite fast and reckoned typing 1000 words in an hour was achievable.  Then work a 9-5 day, with a hour off for lunch, and another hour for breaks in the morning and afternoon.  That was 6 hours = 6,000 words per day.  5 days a week = 30,000 words.  There!  A 90,000 word novel in 3 weeks flat.  What was wrong with that?

Nothing, except it didn't work.  

Writers are not machines and there is more to writing than just typing words on a page. I have a lazy streak and sometimes I have to make myself write (I always enjoy it once I get going, just getting going can be a trial at times).  Other times,  the well of creativity has run dry. When my father died, I didn't write for three months, but I've had other fallow patches - usually after a big burst of creativity.  

You have to judge for yourself if you're being lazy, or just need a bit of creative down time.  Even machines need fuel to run.    

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

How To Intimidate A Writer

Alexander McCall Smith gets up at 5.00am every morning and writes 3,000 words until about 8.00am.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words every day without fail, Christmas and birthdays included.  John Mortimer wrote 1000 words a day before doing a full days work as a barrister.  Agatha Christie wrote two novels a year, every year.  So does Joyce Carol Oates, who also wonders what writers who struggle to complete one novel a year are doing with their lives. Georges Simenon once wrote a Maigret novel in eight days flat (admittedly, accompanied with plenty of Benzedrine).

Feeling intimidated yet?  Feeling guilty?  Unworthy?  Lazy?  Untalented?  

Yup.  Lots of writers work to a strict timetable.  Lots of writers have a daily target that they meet come hell or high water.  Lots of writers do it - but it doesn't mean that ALL writers have to do the same.  Nor does it mean that your work will be inferior if you only produce 200 words a day (that was Graham Greene's target BTW).  

Your circumstances may be different from, say Anthony Trollope who wrote 2000 words before going to his day job running the Post Office for the government.  He ordered his valet to wake him up and make sure he got up and started writing, regardless of what AT said at the time.  

Don't know about you, but I don't have a valet.  If there's getting up early to be done, it's going to happen by will power alone.  Sometimes it works - and sometimes it doesn't.  I try to get 1000 words done most days, and hope for nearer 2000.  When I'm on a writing retreat I can manage 3,500-4,000 words a day, because I've excluded everything else in my life.  

Word counts and targets are good, but they have to be your own, not ones you've taken from someone else.  Don't be intimidated because you know a prolific writer - maybe they will need to do a lot of re-writing to bring their splurge of words to the level you write at on your first draft.  You've got to remember you're not in competition with anyone else.  Just keep writing at a steady pace until you're done.  

Monday, 20 February 2012

What Border Collies have to do with Writing

I really miss my Border Collie, Tan.  Sometimes, when I'm leaving the sitting room, I think I hear his paws scrabbling on the wooden floors as he gets up to keep me company or hear the thump thump of his tail wagging in the mornings.  I miss him.  

I have mixed feelings about the daily long walk he needed though, which was an added commitment to an already full day.  However, it had to be done so I did it - and got fit in the process. 

Writing a novel is like having to walk the dog.  It should be done every day, for at least an hour, more if possible.  Some days, the dog has to make do with a quick scoot round the block, but you try to make it up with an extra long walk the following day.  

Novels don't have the same big brown eyed appeal that a dog has so it's easier to ignore them, but unless you do a bit every day - and the bit might only last 10 minutes - you lose touch with the work.  

Walk every day, and become fit.  Write every day, and get a novel written.  

Friday, 17 February 2012

Killing Your Darlings

I knew my first novel was a work of genius. It was obvious. So it was a bit disconcerting when my MA tutor suggested that, while writing it had been a good learning curve, it was time to put that book to one side and start another. Even more disconcerting was the experience of sending it out to agents. My sample chapters returned so fast the envelopes had scorch marks down the side.

I tried sending the novel to a book doctor. But when the report came they too didn't think it was a work of genius.  Humph - whoever wrote that report was clearly an idiot and their opinion was not worth considering. 

Rejection hurt.  A lot.  But above the pain of rejection I was genuinely baffled. How could they not spot the gloriously wonderfulness that was my novel?  I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all.

I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted concerning the four viewpoint characters had some validity. They wanted three of those viewpoints given more strength.  I knew that solution was wrong.  It was obviously wrong!  But how to deal with it?

I sulked a bit more. And then I came up with my own solution: what had been written from four viewpoints should be changed to a single viewpoint because, in truth, I was only interested in one of the stories I had interwoven. But that meant cutting about 50% of what I'd already written. I did some more sulking, and then went and sharpened my axe.

I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. I knew the book wasn't a work of genius as if had been before, but I suspected I might have something publishable.  

The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, along with the publishing deal.  That book ended up being published around the world. 

Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Self-Correction for Writers

My daughter bought a horse last year, an 8 year old, 16hh bay Arab.  She's hoping to train him in dressage, and has been taking lessons from one of the scariest women on the planet.  Occasionally I've sat in on the lessons - I say sit, but actually I'm bolt upright and watching my diagonals, such is my obedience to this woman with a dressage whip even though I am neither a horse nor a rider.  

One of the terms the teacher uses is self-correction.  This is when the rider learns to correct themselves.  It's essential because the horse needs training every day, and obviously the teacher can't be there watching at each session.  

I think the concept of self-correction is a useful one for a writer.  As I'm writing this blog post I'm constantly tweaking, choosing a different word, selecting a better verb for example or correcting my grammar, making it better, or clearer, or more effective all the time (I hope).  

It's second nature to me - I've been a professional writer for over twenty years.  If this were my creative writing, rather than a blog post, I'd be doing the same.  And then I'd write a second draft with more self-correction, and then probably a third.  At that point I show it to my outside readers.  

But our first reader is ourselves, and the more we learn to self-correct the easier the transition process will be from idea to page to readable page.  

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Letters to an Agent

Oh dear, it's happened again. For the third time in as many months, someone I previously believed to be a charming and intelligent person has shown me their agent letter and revealed their real self to be an arrogant and demanding, possibly litigious, definitely humourless, buttock-clenchingly, squirm-inducingly, utterly bonkers individual.

I don't know what happens. Agents are, in my experience, hard working people in love with books - they have to be, or they couldn't do the job. They're normal (although I'm sure I once spotted a dorsal fin), so why does it seem so hard to write a normal, straightforward letter introducing yourself and your book in normal, straightforward language? It must be the weight of the thing, summing up possibly years of hard work and hope in a couple of paragraphs. Well, five...

1. Why you're writing to them.
2. Brief summary of your book.
3. Market position of the book.
4. About yourself.
5. Thank you for your time etc (I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph).

Pop it all onto one page, and there you are! It's not difficult. Except it is. My first agent letter is the one thing I've never shown to anyone else, so ghastly and needy it is, I might as well have disembowelled myself and sent the contents by Parcel Post. My only excuse is alien abduction. The proof is out there.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Why I Write Romantic Fiction

It's Valentine's Day, so romance is in the air and I am, of course, a romantic novelist.  Except I'm not - at least, not in my head.  As far as I'm concerned I'm just a writer whose work happens to fit into the marketing category called romantic fiction, which is a much easier sell than the nebulous contemporary women's fiction, which in turn is a much easier sell than A Novel.  

I never set out to be a romantic novelist.  When I started I was writing short stories that appeared in obscure literary magazines and occasionally on Radio 4.  When I completed the first first draft of my novel and handed it as part of my MA, my tutor said, "And now you've got that out of your system, you can get down to writing a real novel."

I still haven't written a 'real novel'.  I'm just writing about what interests me. Generally it's about women, because I think they have less clear cut, and therefore more interesting, decisions to make about how they live their lives and balance work, children and relationships.  
I don't think people have a choice to make about what they write - and anyone who thinks they do have a choice has never tried writing a novel.  They write what they write, and usually that's what interests them.  If it interests them, the chances are it'll interest other people.  And if that means I go through life never writing a 'real novel' then so be it.  I'll just carry on muddling through and writing about what interests me.  

Monday, 13 February 2012

Drama Doesn't Have To Be Noisy or Fast

At the Get Writing Conference at the weekend I did a workshop for young people on creating story lines and was talking about pace and the need to get stories moving forwards. One of the students asked about this, citing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as an example where nothing happened ie there weren't any gun fights or car chases.

Now, that's not pace. Yes, a car chase is fast, but pace in writing is not about the rate of speed, it's more about the tension. The latest James Bond Quantum of Solace had its quota of car chases and explosions but I actually dropped off to sleep while watching it because it lacked any tension.

Think about doing a jigsaw puzzle (or a crossword, or a Sudoko puzzle or anything similar). You start with a great mass of pieces all jumble together and slowly, slowly, you begin to work out which bit goes where. There are small moments of triumph when you get the corners fixed, and huge satisfaction when that piece you could never find a place for suddenly slots into its rightful place. It's completely absorbing while you're doing it and when the puzzle is finished you sit back with a sense of completion and a happy sigh.

It's that sense of satisfaction, that 'ahh' moment that we're trying to achieve as writers. The story unfolds as things fall into place, and they don't have to be noisy or fast to have tension or absorb the reader.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Working with An Editor

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

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

As I wrote a length email to my editor explaining why my first choice X A X B had been the right one, I realised: I didn't want to change the order simply because it meant more work. After a short bout of internal wrestling I deleted the email and wrote another, shorter one. You're quite right, I wrote to my editor. I'll do it.

That's what an editor should do - poke/prompt/nudge/direct you into writing better. I did all the work (which actually was very enjoyable once I'd decided to go for it) and the book now starts intro then A X B. And it's much, much, better for it.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Being a Flexible Writer

I like doing Sudoku, the harder the better. The trick is that when one part of the puzzle appears impossible, stop struggling and move on to another section. Be flexible.

Flexibility is a useful tool for novelists too. When you get stuck in one particular section, move on to another which looks more promising. When I was writing A Single to Rome it was ages before I knew what Natalie, the main character, did for a living. So I skipped through the work scenes and came back to them when I'd decided - more than half way through. Similarly the characters Teresa and Olivia were originally one person. And Bob kept changing sex throughout the book before I realised he really had to be a man.

For me, the really satisfying moments in writing are the ones where the difficult piece that didn't seem to fit anywhere at all suddenly slots in and the whole picture becomes clearer. So, once I knew what Natalie's job was, a lot of other scenes fitted into place, and a lot of future scenes became clearer. It takes faith, of course, to believe that if you leave a scene half written or sketched in it will resolve itself later. Apparently, when Mike Myers is gets stuck he simply writes 'And then something amazing happens', and carries on.

I think you have to be flexible and trust to the magic of writing that something amazing will happen. Because it will, it really will.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Writing a Synopsis (III)

The last two blogs were about assembling the raw materials, this one will be about putting it all together. Synopses are always written in third person, present tense. Start with an opening paragraph that says what the novel is about and the story line. It should be clear from this what genre it falls into. Also make it clear if the structure is non-linear, for example, there are two or more parallel plots, or multiple voices. Let the reader have a good idea of what is coming.

Now write out the plot, concentrating on the most important story points and summarising the rest - 'After an unpleasant encounter at school, Jennifer decides...' The unpleasant encounter may have been worth a chapter to itself, but the important bit is the decision. Be bold, be brave, be ruthless. You can't get everything in (because then it would be the novel). It might inspire you to go to the cinema, as films often come with sharply written synopses covering the main plot points, the characters and the themes into one or two short paragraphs.

7 things to look out for...

1. Tone. The tone of the synopsis reflects the novel, so if the novel is humorous, so should the synopsis be.
2. Verbs. Use the most active verbs you can. Characters shouldn't go anywhere, they should rush, run, sidle.
3. Time. Because you're concentrating on the best bits, it's easy to make vast leaps in time that give the synopsis a stop-start impression, or completely lose...
4. Logic. Which can all too easily go out of the window as you cut, cut, cut. My first synopsis included the line 'Suddenly she realises she's having an affair.' What - she was just walking down the street when, whoops, it happened?
5. Genre shift. It starts out techno thriller, ends up as romance. Or vice versa.
6. The End. If the butler did it, say so.
7. Confusion. You need a willing volunteer for this. Get them to read it, and if they're confused at any point, you need to rewrite.

And there it is. Easy peasy.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Writing a Synopsis (II)

The thing of delight and enchantment that is your synopsis should be written after you have finished and polished your novel to the point where it will glitter in the slush pile like the Koh-i-Nor in gravel. There are three reasons for this:

First, you're hoping an agent will demand to see the rest on the strength of your initial submission so why start your relationship by disappointing them? (Especially when there's plenty of time to do that later on.)

Secondly, your novel is bound to change and evolve in the process of writing it, but should by some incredible chance you be taken on on the strength of the sample chapters and synopsis you're stuck with that story. It'll be like writing the rest in a straitjacket.

Thirdly, you (and they) need to know you have the stamina and discipline to write a whole novel. Unless you're a celebrity, of course, in which case the publishing pixies will be called out to assist your stumbling process. But that's another story.

So, you've written the novel. You are now going to write out the plot of your novel. This stage has three rules:

1 - It must be done from memory with NO consulting the mighty tome.
2 - Each sentence you write must start on a new line.
3 - Each sentence must start with the words 'And then...'

Following the three rules forces you to stick to the plot. You can't divert yourself into all the intricacies of the background or the setting because the sentences have to start with 'And then...' And because it's done by memory, and it's impossible for even the author to hold every twist and turn in their heads, you will concentrate on the more important plot points. And then...

And then, when you've done all that hard work, pick up a highlighter and mark out those key scenes which are the most important to the story. Mr Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth Bennett would be one, the Netherfield ball wouldn't. Frodo accepting the ring quest is, Shelob isn't, nor is Galadriel. It's tough playing Sophie's Choice with scenes but it has to be done.

And then, when you've done all that, your plot should be clearly defined. This, along with the work on theme and character, will be the basis for writing your synopsis into a wonderful piece of selling prose...tomorrow.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Writing a Synopsis (I)

If the covering letter seems hellish, it's nothing compared to the particular torture that is the synopsis. I have heard agents say brightly, 'Oh, I never read them, it might spoil the story.' To which one can only answer 'Why ask for them then?' before running them through with an unsharpened toasting fork. Because ask for them they do. So, as a writer desperately seeking representation, you will have to resign yourself to condensing all those months and years of hard work into a page or two of pithy prose.

First things first. Remove the toasting fork with a twist, then shove it straight back in, because there's no consensus among agents as to exactly what they want from a synopsis. One page or two, or ten? Single or double spaced? To include character breakdowns (to possibly accompany your own) or not? Look up the details for each agent you're sending sample chapters to check if they have any particular demands. If nothing stated, shorter is better than longer. One side of A4 is usually enough, maximum two pages, spaced as you wish but in a clear font such as Times New Roman in 12pt. Whatever length and spacing you go for, fill each page - the ones I've seen that go over to two sides, but only by one paragraph look as if you either ran out of steam or lost confidence in your writing.

Stick to the main characters - having workshopped lots of synopses I know that people get confused if there are many more than four names, I'd say a maximum of six before most readers lose the plot (literally). If pushed, use generic names for minor characters - waitress, chauffeur, teacher, children. Try a few telling character details: a leather arm chair of a man, a cool blonde with an eye to the main chance, rock n roll anarchist.

Pin point the genre. If in doubt, where will it be shelved in Waterstones? If still not sure or going for 'fiction', then who do you write like? Then go and look where they're shelved in Waterstones. That's your genre. One thing I can guarantee is that you haven't come up with a whole new genre. Crossover is a cop out. Now think about the theme - coming of age, redemption, the worm turns. Write a sentence on the theme. Now the plot - bored housewife takes series of lovers to escape humdrum life in provincial France. You might need a couple of sentences for this.

Tired? And we're still on the opening paragraph. We'll look at the rest tomorrow.

Friday, 3 February 2012

What Duvet Covers Have To Do With Writing

Changing the duvet cover yesterday led to the same old argument as to the best method - I'm a 'feed the ends in, hold tight, then shake it down' person, my other half is an 'inside out and flip it over' afficionado. It struck me this is a little like writing a novel. Do you plan extensively, or simply go with the flow?

Each method has staunch supporters. I once read an article about Ken Follett that said each novel started with a full synopsis - full being about 300 pages. Stephen King, on the other hand says that he sets out with an idea and sees where it leads him. I'm somewhere in the middle. I like to know a few key moments that I can aim for - woman falls in love, woman falls out of love, for example - but the how and the why and the what are all mysteries to be solved along the way.

I've only once tried fully planning a novel, and the result was that, although I loved all the planning and plotting, I never actually wrote it up. It lurks in all its colour coded wonder at the back of the writing cupboard, having absorbed all my writing inspiration into its perfect plan. For me, extensive planning was a substitute for actually writing a novel.

Other authors can't imagine embarking on writing a story, let alone a novel, without having it plotted out in great detail. I remember when I was speaking at my first writing conference and talking about my non-plotting approach, immensely successful romantic novelist Kate Walker - who was also on the panel - was amazed with my levels of re-writing. She didn't have time for all that faffing around, she was too busy with the story telling.

My method does take time, but there you are - it's my method and so far it seems to be working out. In the end, it doesn't really matter how you change the duvet cover, so long as the bed gets made.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

11 Reasons Why 10 Minutes Writing Works

If you do nothing else, try to write for 10 minutes a day. Everybody, no matter how busy they are, can find 10 minutes.

1. Grab what time you can for writing - at a bus stop, on a long train journey, while waiting for the kettle to boil.
2. Don't ask permission - "Do you mind if I just nip off and do some writing...?" Go. Become sneaky if you have to.
3. If there are children in the house become doubly sneaky.
4. Lock yourself in the bathroom if desperate. It takes ages for anyone to wonder at how long you're taking.
5. Do not check your email/Facebook/Twitter first. Do the writing.

In your 10 minutes, write like mad. This should be easy because you do your thinking about writing at other times, such as when you're taking the dog for a walk, doing the washing up, or cleaning the floors, on the school run. But if it isn't coming...

6. Anything you write can be made better, so it's worth writing rubbish.
7. If stuck, write description: what your character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell. Where are they? What are they wearing? How do they feel? What are they thinking? It's usually good for a couple of hundred words.
8. You often don't know what you're writing until you've written it. The act of writing unleashes all sorts of imaginative ideas and connections. Don't think, write.

And the reason you're writing 10 minutes every day is because

9. It keeps your story fresh and to the forefront of your brain.
10. Getting started is the hardest part - do 10 minutes, and the next 30 will be easy.
11. Maths. Most people can write about 150-250 words in 10 minutes. Multiply that by days and you should have a first draft completed within a year on just 10 minutes a day.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

But It Really Happened - The Perils of Writing Real Life Events as Fiction

At some point in every term I know someone is going to give the feedback that an incident in a story is unbelievable, at which point the writer will say, 'But it really happened.'

The fact that something is true doesn't automatically make it believable. Firstly, truth really is sometimes stranger than fiction. Weird coincidences happen. People behave dramatically out of character. Chance strikes families for good or bad. Life is random.

Secondly, if it really happened - and to someone you know, or even yourself - then the chances are whatever you write will be coloured by your knowledge of the ins and outs of the character details, the location the event takes place in, the effects and repercussions that are relevant to the story today. You will probably write something that is utterly clear to you, but lacking in the information that will make it live for a complete stranger.

We need concrete detail. It's not enough to say Uncle Bob's house, because that means nothing. We need inter-war semi, chocolate box cottage, country mansion. We need to know if it's crumbling or in perfect order. What is it made of - brick? stone? What are the windows like? Do they let in much light, or are they small and dirty? We need all the information that we might use if you were making Uncle Bob's house up.

We also need meaning. Yesterday I was talking with my mother about Call the Midwife. I knew that my mother had trained as a midwife in Edinburgh after the war and wondered what her take on the programme was. It turned out she hadn't bothered to watch, so that was a bit of research lost, but she told me a story about going to a home delivery and, on her way back to the hospital, leaving the placenta on the bus, and having to collect it from Lost Property. Great story - to me, because it's my mother, because I've heard it before, because it's family history.

It's a lousy story, actually, because nothing happens. She just collected the placenta from a mildly startled Lost Property man and took it back to the hospital. There's lots of meaning for me, but none for you. If you were to fictionalise it, you'd have to find a meaning somewhere - perhaps she learns to be more confident, perhaps she learns the dire consequences of being forgetful, perhaps she falls in love with the Lost Property man, perhaps she's mistaken for a mad axe murderer, perhaps she's blackmailed by Satanists looking for suitable material.

Which leads to the next problem - inhibitions. You may be reluctant to embroider a story that features a real family incident starring a real member of your family. You may not want to tread on toes. You may feel that it's cheating, somehow, to alter the facts. And above all, you may not realise that what's a great story to you (because it really happened to you or someone you know) might not be a great story to me (because I have no connection with it).

So tread carefully round the truth. It's almost certainly unbelievable, but not necessarily in a good way.