Friday 30 March 2012

What Defines Success As A Writer?

A few years ago I was on a walk with an artist friend who stopped to sketch the view. I sat down too, but instead of writing a descriptive piece, I decided to draw the view too. I hadn’t done any drawing since school, but it was a pretty fine sketch, though I say it myself. My artist friend was very polite, made a few kind comments about the charmingly na├»ve perspective and interesting use of shading and offered some suggestions which, should I ever sketch a view again, I fully intend to use.

I enjoyed myself doing that drawing. Success was about my enjoyment in the process, and satisfaction with the end result, however much the perspective was all over the place. It was absolutely nothing to do with whether anyone would give me some money for it.

Thousands of art classes take place every day and while a few of the artists may be wistfully thinking of selling their work for ££££, I bet most of them are just pleased to be spending time being creative. Why should writing be any different? Why does market place success matter so much to writers? Isn't it enough to enjoy the process?

I don't think using market place success is the right way to judge the success of your writing. What makes a published writer is a combination of many elements - determination, persistence, talent, luck, skill, hard work, imagination - but all published writers have one thing in common: they're writing what they believe in, not what they think will sell.

Sometimes, publication is a question of being lucky in writing the right thing for that particular moment. After the success of Twilight, there was a rash of young adult novels covering similar ground, currently dystopian novels are top of the YA best seller lists with The Hunger Games. But the market has already moved on. At Bologna - the international children's book publishing fair - last month, apparently no one was buying dystopia; instead they wanted adventure stories.

Enjoy the writing, and write from the heart. So long as you're writing what you really believe in and are enjoying the process (difficult and heartbreaking as it can be), you're a success.

Thursday 29 March 2012

How Do You Know When Your Work Is Ready To Send Out?

I was talking to someone yesterday who said they felt sick to death with their work. I said that probably meant it was ready to go out. There's no point in hanging onto work and editing it into the ground while you feel more and more fed up with it. If you can't think of anything more to do with it then get it out there and see what happens!

However, if you've got any inkling that all isn't well, then you should wait until you know what it is and have fixed it. I've sent work out that I've had a nagging suspicion wasn't quite right, and hoped that magically someone wouldn't notice but sure enough, it's come back with feedback that nails my nagging suspicion.

I also think you shouldn't send out if you've only just finished writing. Leave it for a week - a month if you can bear it - and then have a read. The longer the gap between writing and reading, the more you'll be able to see it with new eyes. When I do publicity for a new book it's usually been a year since I've last really looked at it, and boy - can I see things I'd like to change! Too late, of course, to do anything about it, but it's taught me that you really do see more if there's a long gap.

But if you've left it, come back and done another edit, and now you're sick to death of it - send it out. A half way house is to send it to friends or even to buy in some professional feedback. But get it out there and see what feedback you get. It's the only way you'll know.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

How Anchoring Works

Sometimes scenes get a floaty feeling. I'm a big culprit when it comes to writing floaty scenes in the first drafts because I'm concentrating so much on the dialogue and the character attitudes I sort of forget about where they are. What is needed are some anchors to stop the scene floating off into space.

Anchors are usually little physical reminders about the character's location in the real world. If they're in a pub, you'd have drinks, beer mats, rickety tables, sounds of glasses clinking, perhaps a log fire crackling, and so on. The trick is to thread the anchors through the scene. This scene beginning is from Another Woman's Husband.

'So you're now the child of a broken home.' Crystal stuffed a pile of exercise books into her pigeonhole in the staffroom. 'Join the club.'
'Do you think Bill would let me off lunch duty because of it?' Becca said. They were now five weeks into the term, with half term coming up. She wondered why she always seemed to have twice as much to take home as Crystal.
'Fat chance. You'd have to be suddenly orphaned at the bare minimum. One parent buggering off wouldn't get a look in,' Crystal said, collecting her coat from the hatstand. She flicked her hair out over her collar. 'I put it down to too much reading of Saga magazine. It gives unreal expectations of life past retirement, all trips to Cuba, and Petra by moonlight. I wish.'
'Speaking about expectations, what are you up to tonight? A date with David?' Becca gathered a stack of exercise books together, thinking about unrealistic expectations.
'You're so behind - didn't I tell you? He was all right at first but....

And so on. The bits in bold anchor where and when the scene is taking place ie the staffroom, end of the school day, five weeks into term with half term coming up. It's important to let readers know quickly where and when a scene is taking place, and to keep the reminders going through. If you don't, they just float away. Read it without the anchors and you'll see what I mean.

'So you're now the child of a broken home,' Crystal said. 'Join the club.'
'Do you think Bill would let me off lunch duty because of it?' Becca said. She wondered why she always seemed to have twice as much to do as Crystal.
'Fat chance. You'd have to be suddenly orphaned at the bare minimum. One parent buggering off wouldn't get a look in,' Crystal said, flicking her hair out. 'I put it down to too much reading of Saga magazine. It gives unreal expectations of life past retirement, all trips to Cuba, and Petra by moonlight. I wish.'
'Speaking about expectations, what are you up to tonight? A date with David?' Becca said, thinking about unrealistic expectations.
'You're so behind - didn't I tell you? He was all right at first but....

You can get away without anchoring for a page, max, but ideally you should be threading them all the way through. I know it's a problem I have, so I take particular care when I'm editing to make sure I've got enough anchors. Besides, you can then have fun with your settings. Be bold! Don't have people drinking cups of tea in kitchens, put the scenes in interesting locations instead and let the characters interact with them. Later on in Another Woman's Husband, Becca and Crystal have scenes in the thermal baths and the Georgian Pump Room in Bath which started as tea drinking in kitchen scenes. More fun to write, more fun for readers to read.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

When To Do Your Research?

Research is something most writers enjoy, whether it's researching a historical period, or a location, or some scientific detail and as a reader, I certainly enjoy learning something new. A bit like Joey in Friends one could say - "Research? What's not to like?"

But research can cause problems for writers.

1. When to do it.
If you start doing lots of research before you begin writing your story you may end up researching things you don't actually need in the end. You may have decided to set your story in Paris, for example, and duly set off to France for a spot of authenticity (it's a hard life, but someone's got to do it...) but in the course of writing you realise that actually the story works better set in a crofter's cott in the Hebrides. I think it's best to have a rough draft of the story already on the page before you start doing extensive research because then you'll know which areas to focus on.

2. Displacement activity
Another reason to save as much research as you can until after you've got a rough draft down is that research is simply the best displacement activity ever. You can easily justify a day spent researching something, compared to a day watching America's Next Top Model. You may scoff at my choice of example but the truth is that the outcome, in terms of words on the page, is exactly the same: Nil. I've known people spend years on research for their still unwritten story. That's not a problem of course if that's how they want to work and they don't have any time schedule in mind, but I think most people hope to be more productive.

3. Talking too much
Research often involves talking to interesting people about what they do. This is a treat, but it has the drawback that you end up telling people about what you're working on. The problem here is that if you talk about a project a lot it tends to lose a little impetus. Talk too much about it and the desire to communicate to the reader might dissipate.

4. Knowing too much.
When I was working on Kissing Mr Wrong I got an editorial note that was short but to the point: Too many cemeteries. The trouble was, I'd been on a research trip to the Somme and been intensely moved by the war cemeteries. I'd written it all up in great detail and taken thousands of photos, and I wanted to share the experience. But a novel isn't really the place for that. Yes, a bit of detail works, but if the reader wanted to know about the war cemeteries and memorials they'd read a history book. My editor was right - there were too many cemeteries in the novel and they had to go. (I have to admit that's been the hardest edit I've had to do emotionally as I was - am - passionate about them, although technically it wasn't too difficult.)

Don't get me wrong - I love research and sometimes you can't write anything until you've done some. Just, I think it's best to avoid getting to caught up in the research to the exclusion of the writing.

Monday 26 March 2012

Why Focus Matters In Short Stories

Over the past weeks I've been judging a couple of short story competitions. There have been several well-written stories which lacked focus or rather, had several different areas to focus on and I didn't know where the writer wanted me to look. Consider this story outline:

The story opens with scene between Character A and Character B having a row about a minor car accident. It then moves on to Character A going shopping for food for a dinner party Character A is throwing to impress the boss. The dinner party goes wrong, leaving Character A feeling sad/angry/relieved/whatever - The End.

So, is the focus on Character A and Character B, or on the dinner party and the consequences? The reader feels cheated because they felt directed to focus on Character A and Character B as they were present right at the start, but Character B never turned up again and the accident had no purpose for the rest of the story.

What should have happened is that Character B has a crucial role later in the story - perhaps they could have turned up at the dinner party as the boss's partner and that's why it went wrong.

Nadine Gordimer wrote, "a short story is a concept that the writer can 'hold', fully realised, in his imagination, at one time." Everything in the story should tie in with the main focus - the under-lying concept - because, unlike in a novel, there simply isn't the space for digressions.

Friday 23 March 2012

How to Edit - Part 5

And now it's on to the last stage of editing, the finishing touches. Sometimes writing is perfectly OK in that there's nothing technically wrong with it, but it can feel bland or dull. This is 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 of editing.

* 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

And then when that's all done, sit back and bask in glory. Then start sending it out.

Thursday 22 March 2012

How to Edit - Part 4

Having examined the novel scene by scene it's time to move onto the sentences themselves. Every line has to be considered, every word justified.

Reading out loud is a great help at this stage, checking that it reads smoothly. The big proviso is that you must read accurately - I notice that quite a few students read what they'd like to see rather than what is actually on the page. Words get cut, contractions are made etc which simply aren't there. These are some of the things I look for:

* cliches (heavy heart, golden curls)
* autonomous body parts (her lips curved into a smile)
* active description
* strong verbs
* strong nouns rather than adjective plus weak noun ( a breeze rather than a light wind)
* check dialogue attributions
* be direct rather than passive
* use specific words
* name names and be consistent
* watch out for similar character names (I write as someone who once had Pat and Patrick in the same novel
* delete qualifiers - a little, very, just, kind of, sort of, quite, rather
* watch for repetition
* check grammar, spelling and punctuation
* vary paragraph and sentence length
* vary starting words (it's all too easy having a whole para filled with sentences beginning the same word)
* avoid unnecessary punctuation eg exclamation marks and italics, capital letters, underlining.

I could go on, but instead I'm going to recommend two books: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. They're both really helpful when editing.

If you're really lucky you have a nit-picky friend who'll happily edit your work. A friend like this will sometimes make you say 'thank you' through gritted teeth, but remember that you don't have to change anything and it stops you having to do as much work. Edit, edit, and edit some more until it feels like your eyes are going to fall out and go splat on the manuscript. But it will be worth it and soon you'll be on to the last stage.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

How to Edit - Part 3

The previous stages 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 the next stage...

Tuesday 20 March 2012

How To Edit - Part 2

At this stage in the editing process 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 Wrong changed 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 stage.

Monday 19 March 2012

How To Edit - Part 1

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? Editing 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.

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.

At our imaginary dinner party this would be like the soup course. Soup is a lovely liquid mass, 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
* 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 January, 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 stage.

Friday 16 March 2012

How To Find An Agent

(and the answer isn't under a stone...)

The initial moves which see an author being signed up by an agent are usually - though not always - made by the author, not the agent. For this reason you should first think about what sort of agent you want (see yesterday's post) and then do some research to find them.

I've heard of this research being portrayed as an onerous chore, but in my opinion it's just an extension of being part of the publishing world that you want to join. You're probably reading novels you'd like to have written and magazines about writing, going to writing classes and conferences any way, attending literary festivals and getting involved online anyway. It doesn't seem particularly onerous to keep your eyes peeled for an agent you'd like to be represented by while you're doing all those things.

Because that's where you do your research. Agents speak at conferences and literary festivals. Their authors mention them in the acknowledgments. They are quoted in magazines. Writing class members will discuss agents they've approached and what the response was. Look at their websites for their biographies to get an idea of their background in writing or Google for any interviews they've given - a brief biog is usually included. Ask online groups. Follow agents and publishers on Twitter and Facebook, subscribe to news e-bulletins from The Bookseller and book2book, get out there!

I didn't have any contacts at all in publishing when I started but I still managed to meet lots of agents at various writing events such as literary festivals, conferences and writing association parties. And a couple of years ago I set myself a challenge to find the background of 15 randomly selected editors, just to see how easy it was. Within 3 hours of Googling, I'd got the details of all but 2.

It's not that difficult, you've just got to do it because you don't want to waste your time and energy asking for representation from someone you actually don't want to represent you.

Thursday 15 March 2012

What Sort Of Agent Do You Want?

You may feel the answer to 'What sort of agent do you want?' is 'Any agent who wants me!' but that's a given. You usually make the initial approach, so you need to think through some of the options.

First up, are you looking for a big agency or a small one?

The pros of a big agency are increased clout - very handy in these uncertain times - in-house specialist departments, usually handles big names and author's estates, so can take risks on some new comers. Cons are you'll be a little fish in a big, big pond and they may be relaxed about you making money as your income is less closely connected to their income overall.

Pros of a small agency are, you really matter to them so you're more likely to get personal attention, cons, they may not be able to carry you for any length of time if you hit a rocky patch, they may not have as much clout with publishers, they almost certainly won't have in-house specialisms - although they should have deals with specialist agents, so this won't matter too much.

Secondly, the experience and background of an agent. If they're new then they're likely to be hungry for success and work extra hard for you. On the other hand, they're unlikely to have the connections or clout of an established agent. If they're established, they'll have the connections and clout, but they're possibly less hungry and will have established clients to pay attention to first. The ideal is perhaps a new agent in an established firm.

Then there's the agent's own background. Usually they've come from either editorial or rights. Their approach will reflect this. My own agent has a background in rights and is a demon at selling them, but I think she'd be happy for me to say that she doesn't want to do much editorial work. That suits me, but it might not suit you.

Finally, there's personality. Do you like them? They're not going to be your best buddy-roo, but there should be mutual respect within a professional relationship.

Having decided what sort of agent you want, then how do you find them? And I'll do that tomorrow.

Wednesday 14 March 2012


You're writing a scene, and suddenly you go back in time to another scene: that's flashback. It is a useful tool for some writers, but it's a dreadful weapon of narrative destruction when wielded by those who don't know how to make it work.

Because flashback is in the past it's like going backwards, whereas stories should be all about moving forwards. If the story starts with the narrator talking about how they once drove over a cliff, we know they survived it otherwise how would they be there talking about how they once drove over a cliff? So the tension is lost, unless the flashback is adding something we couldn't know from the present narrative. In other words:

What works is when the flashback scene illuminates something in the present. We gain information from the flashback scene that we couldn't get in any other way and it moves the present day story on.

What doesn't work is when the flashback scene is just explaining. The scene where you explain why your character is in a bad mood. The scene where you explain why your character has fond memories of their grandmother.

The non-working flashback scenes often work like this....

a) The character is staring at themselves in a mirror one morning. They think back to last night - cue flashback with them walking into a bar the night before. The flashback happens - the night doesn't go well. The scene changes back to the present. The character stares at themselves in the mirror. The End.

b) The character is on a train. They think about their grandmother. Their eyes close - cue flashback. They are a child on a beach with their grandmother. They have a nice time. The flashback ends and the character wakes up in the present. They arrive at the station. The End.

These flashbacks (and I have seen many variations of them) don't work because nothing in the flashback illuminates stuff that's happening in the present.

What would have worked better is:

a) Start the story with walking into the bar. Whatever happens in the bar then happens in the story present. It happens. The End. This is putting the story into the narrative present.

b) The character arrives at the station and is met by their grandmother. As they talk, the character realises that grandma seems smaller, more frail than how she was on the beach all those years ago. They give grandmother a hug - they still love her. The End. This is putting the flashback into backstory, ie the information is woven into the narrative present.

Some of my favourite writers use flashback brilliantly. But lots of beginner writers don't, so be careful. Make sure that if you must have flashback it really is adding something to the story that couldn't be added in any other way.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Reading What You Ought To

Okay, I'm going to confess. I've given up on Henry James. I started reading What Maisie Knew because so many people told me I 'ought' to and struggled along with it. I liked the contrast between the innocent child's viewpoint and the machinations of the adults squabbling and lying and manipulating over her head, but it's wordy beyond belief and Maisie herself has no more personality than a mass produced rag doll. I am afraid that I will never know what exactly it was that Maisie knew.

Other books I've given up on include Finnegan's Wake, To The Lighthouse, Middlemarch, although I have read War and Peace it was a very long time ago, and I don't intend to have a re-read any time soon. More recently I've started, but not finished, Midnight's Children, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and The Raj Quartet.

Just writing the words above makes me feel a bit guilty, as if I've failed some important test. And maybe for some people I have. But why? We can't read everything on the planet, and even if we could, why should we? Reading novels is about entertainment, and there seems to me to be no reason why what entertains me should entertain you, and vice versa.

It also takes no account of the life stages we go through. In my teens I started with Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, then gobbled down detective novels, followed by science fantasy before moving on to the complete works of Anthony Trollope in my 20s. In my 30s I read gardening books and lifestyle magazines - but I haven't touched either for years. I've changed my tastes over time and why not?

Being told I 'ought' to read something puts me against it. I'm sure I didn't like The Artist as much as other people seem to have done because all the reviews implied that you 'ought' to, so that put me in a resistant mood from the start.

I would agree that you ought to be kind to those weaker than oneself, or that you ought not to lie or steal or cheat, but reading isn't some moral decision. It can be informative, thought-provoking, mind-expanding and utterly absorbing, but it is, at heart, a form of entertainment. And there's no ought about it.

Monday 12 March 2012

Why Choose An External Narrator?

The usual choice for which character has viewpoint is to choose the person the important stuff is happening to. An external narrator is just that, an outside observer, so on the face of it a bad choice. But there are several good reasons why you might choose them...

1. Because while the obvious action is happening elsewhere, the really important stuff is happening to the narrator. In The Great Gatsby the action happens between Gatsby, Daisy, her husband Tom, and Tom's mistress, Myrtle. It's observed by the narrator Nick Carraway who apparently doesn't have much to do with events, he's just tagging along. But he's the one who is changed by what he witnesses and by the end is a different person. The Great Gatsby is really the story of Nick's internal journey.

2. When your main clever is just too clever for their own good. We might admire super clever people, but our human reaction in most cases is to knock them down. Ditto anyone who is incredibly talented/rich/beautiful. It's very hard to work up much sympathy for them. If we want to write about a character who is extra clever/beautiful/rich/whatever, it's easier if we use an external narrator who can be normal, and so readers can identify with them. Sherlock Holmes is fascinating to read about from Dr Watson's point of view, but I think we'd get very fed up with him if he was the viewpoint character. Too full of himself, apart from anything else.

3. When your main character knows too much. Sherlock Holmes again comes to mind - he works out the answer much earlier than anyone else, so if we were in his mind, the stories would be that much shorter. Gandalf, in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, has lots of adventures but remains a shadowy figure in the background while the hobbits take centre stage. Gandalf knows more or less everything already, so the story wouldn't be able to unfold if he were centre stage. And Tolkien wouldn't be able to spring the 'we knew it was an impossible task from the start, but if you'd known that, you wouldn't have been able to do it' line. An interesting example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where the narrator is actually the murderer, but of course, isn't revealed until the end. Christie's readers were appalled by her playing this trick on them as it didn't seem fair.

4. When your narrator is unreliable. The unreliable narrator may be knowing, like Barbara in Notes from a Scandal, or unknowing, like the butler in The Remains of the Day, but either way, the person who is learning and changing as they see events unfold is the reader, rather than any of the characters. As a reader I like an unreliable narrator, but they are tricky to get the balance right between what they reveal and what they don't.

Generally, the rule remains - point of view should be with the person who the important, exciting action is happening to. But in this case there are always exceptions to rules.

Friday 9 March 2012

Using the Omniscient Voice Isn't Wrong

I usually advise students to avoid the Omniscient Voice in their prose. This is because the current market prefers the 'up close and personal' feeling you get from using first or third person. But that doesn't mean using the omniscient voice is wrong.

The omniscient voice is when the story is told by an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. It's also called the authorial voice. The narrator knows what's going to happen in the future, what each character is thinking, what the implications are of actions and so on. 19th century novels use authorial voice a lot - "it is a truth universally acknowledged..." or "All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" can only be said by an omniscient narrator.

It can be a distancing voice, putting us at one remove from being inside the heads of the characters directly ourselves. But it also has its uses. I was re-reading The Hobbit, and was struck by how JRR Tolkien's omniscient voice added to the telling of the tale. It told where they made mistakes - "actually, as I have told you, they were not far off the edge of the forest; if Bilbo had had the sense to see it", poked gentle fun at Bilbo and his fondness for home comforts and food, went into amusing digressions such as how the game of golf was invented and filled us in on what was happening when Bilbo wasn't actually present.

So, the omniscient voice isn't wrong. For the right book it's just right.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Specific Is Always Better

Before you read on, I want you to write down two lists:

First, what would you do if you suddenly had lots and lots of money - a EuroMillions style win?

Secondly, what things really annoy you?

Go on, then come back when you've done it.

My first list would start with...
buying a new house and a new car,
buying each of my children a house and putting some money in trust for them,
giving family and friends a hefty chunk,
giving to charity,
travelling the world especially the Far East and South America. (And Whitby. I want to go to Whitby.)

My second list would include...
a bluebottle that won't fly out of the open window,
train doors closing just as you arrive on the platform and then the train sitting there for ages,
going into town to do something then realising I've left the vital thing at home,
people watching me park the car (especially if they mime turning the wheel),
a pen running out in the middle of taking down an important phone number,
not closing the washing machine door properly so the load that was suppose to wash during the day hasn't,
people saying something is "very unique",
call centres who don't speak English,
banks phoning up to sell you something but first insisting that you pass their security checks (hey, you rang me, not the other way round) and
...I could go on, but won't.

Now, I'm going to make a guess that your first list matched mine fairly closely in spirit, if not actually those things. I'd also guess that your second list doesn't match mine at all, but you nodded at quite a few of my annoying things because you find them annoying too.

Let's face it, the first list is pretty boring because most people want that (although possibly not going to Whitby). The second list is more interesting because a) it's much more specific and b) we recognise those things.

When we're writing we have to be careful to write the specific, not the generic - about characters, locations, moods, whatever. Generic is dull and boring. Specific is fun, and readers make connections because they recognise themselves. So, always be specific and your readers will love your writing.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Why 70% Royalties Might Not Be As Much as 10%

A friend has self published their book. It's non-fiction, and doesn't lend itself to e-publishing as it has lots of illustrations over double spreads so she's gone the print route. It's sold well and is making money, but she was grumbling to me about how she was having to chase up the various retailers for payment. Other grumbles included postage, and the need for invoices and delivery notes. It wasn't so much the cost of these things as the amount of her time they consumed.

OK, if she'd gone the e-publishing route, she wouldn't have had the same grumbles. But there would have been others. Different formats, the threat of piracy and Amazon pricing glitches for example. All of which have time implications, and that's before the big time-suck is included: marketing.

If you are conventionally published then I agree that they are asking authors to do more of their own publicity - too much, with too little support IMO. But you'll still have a publicist who will be dealing with the more conventional outlets such as reviews in magazines etc as well as promoting you on-line. You'll also have a team who will deal with all the other stuff involved with publishing, from editing to production to admin.

Now, basic maths tells me that 70% is more than 10%. But your 70% may have to fund some areas that you weren't expecting, whether directly (in the form of hard cash) or in terms of time spent. It's like thinking an advance of £20,000 is a fortune, when - if it's taken you a full time year or more to write the book - it's less than the national average wage, and even less when the agent's commission is taken out.

This isn't an anti e-publishing post, just Caveat Emptor. If something looks to be too good to be true - you get to keep 70%!!! - then it usually is.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Problems with Solutions

Something that happens when I'm workshopping someone else's work is when I see a problem and raise it with the author they say something like X has to happen because of Y. Or this character has to behave like that because later on they're going to do B.

I've been in this position as the author getting feedback and what I've discovered is that often the 'problem' was once a solution.

What happens to me is this. I'm writing, and I get stuck. I need to make a decision about something. It might be an event or a characteristic or situation, whatever - it needs to be fixed before I can move on. So I come up with a solution, it seems to work, so I carry on writing.

Aaaages later, and I've finished the draft. I get feedback, and the feedback says they don't like that solution. But, I whine. But it's got to be like that because of X so I can't possibly change it. The person giving feedback will usually back off at this stage and go on with doing more useful things while I do a little light sulking before getting back to work and sorting out the problem.

In A Single to Rome, for example, Natalie wasn't a lawyer for several drafts, she was in marketing because at the time of writing the first draft I didn't know what she did, and randomly picked that career because I know a little bit about it. I clung onto marketing for ages, before I realised it wasn't working and changed it. Once I'd changed Natalie's job lots of other things fell into place and I had one of those whoopee! light bulb moments that make writing worthwhile and the next draft was easy peasy to write.

I've learned enough to know that nothing should be sacred. If it isn't working, it isn't working and it doesn't matter what it is, it has to go. All plots can be re-arranged, and just because something was a solution once it doesn't automatically follow that it's a solution now.

So, if you ever find yourself saying, I can't change X because of Y, pause, rewind, and ask yourself "Has a solution become a problem?" And then look and see how you can fix it.

Monday 5 March 2012

Ideas for Writers

One of the standard questions for a writer is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' The simple answer is that everything has potential as a story idea - what you had for breakfast, the funny incident you saw in the supermarket, your relationships.  It's all material, but at an anecdotal level.  To make it something other than an anecdote it needs something else.  

You can always ask two questions about stories: what's it about?  what's it really about?  What's it about is the anecdote bit, what's it really about is what transforms it into a story.

An incident I remember from primary school was being told off for talking, when it wasn't actually me, it was someone else.  That's what it's about, and a fairly ordinary experience, I'd imagine.  If I was writing it up as a story I'd have to dig a bit deeper for the what it's really about.  

What if the story became about friendship?  Let's suppose it was my best friend talking, who stood by and didn't say anything when I was punished - would our friendship survive?  Or perhaps it's about self-sacrifice - my friend might have had warnings about their behaviour before and they'd be in real trouble if they got told off again, so I claimed to have been the one speaking.  Or it's about injustice (I go on to be a campaigner as an adult) or scapegoating (how teachers pick on one child).  

In that example the what it's about doesn't change but the what it's really about could be all sorts of things.  Ideas are all around us, but it's up to the writer to work out what they're really about


Friday 2 March 2012

Let's Be Thankful For Our Freedom of Choice

Yesterday I was chatting to a former prison librarian. It was a scary place, she said, but the library was treated with great respect. In a place where what you ate and wore was regulated, when your communication with your family and friends was limited to when the prison officers chose, when every step you took was monitored, the freedom to choose a book - any book - was relished. Even prisoners who had no real interest in reading enjoyed selecting a book.

It made me think of how we get het up over who reads what and the way some sneer at those who enjoy books we don't consider any good. It made me think of the aggression some people on both sides of the discussion display over epublishing, and how any one who makes a different choice can lay themselves vulnerable to name calling - and worse.

We are so lucky that we can write what we choose, when we choose. We can choose to follow any publishing path, and the number of options is increasing not decreasing. We can read what we like and when we like.

Let us be thankful for our freedom to choose and celebrate, not denigrate, the wonderful wide variety that the world of literature and publishing offers us.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Using Index Cards II

So I've got the first draft of my novel written and I've written an index card for each scene. What next?

I lay the cards out on my bed (or table, or floor depending on what large flat space I have available to me) in the order that they're written and stare at them intently. I'm looking for...
  • gaps - where characters disappear
  • places where I need extra scenes (to explain, connect, add plot strand, whatever)
  • scenes which aren't doing much and should be combined with others
  • characters who aren't doing much and either need more to do, or get combined with others
  • too many exciting bits close together - too close, and each one will lose impact
  • too many quiet bits close together - too close, and the pace will fall
  • timing problems eg a pregnancy that lasts 2 months or 12 months
  • a sense of forward movement - continual small plot/character developments
  • does the story gel?
  • and anything else that strikes me
The great thing about using index cards is that you can easily see the novel (which is going to be hundreds of pages at this stage) and how it's shaping up. So I add what's needed, take out what isn't. This might involve wholesale cutting of certain sections, or writing whole new sections. Sometimes I might move sections around - the book I'm currently working on I've moved what was Section 3 to Section 1. When I've finished I re-write my scenes as a list (like the one from A Single to Rome I pasted in yesterday's post) and then use that to write the next draft.

And then I repeat the whole process, until I'm satisfied that I've got the right shape. And if that takes many drafts, then so be it. And then, and only then, do I start worrying about the actual words on the page.