Monday 30 April 2012

The Power of Words

Words are powerful things, as anyone who has been called names as a schoolchild knows - years later they still sting. Writers should know this too as we live by words, but you'd be surprised at how simple rephrasing can make a world of difference.

I wrote a picture book which I titled "I don't need a Mummy".  It featured a little bear who runs away from his cave to have an adventure on his own.  His refrain is that he doesn't need a mummy as he's grown up.  He manages his adventure quite well but then gets lost and needs his mummy - and sure enough, there she is.  It ends with him saying 'I love my mummy.'

No one was interested in it.

I showed it to an editor friend who said the title was negative.  Would any Mummy (who after all are the most likely purchasers of the book) buy that title for their child?  So I re-titled it "I love my Mummy" and sent it out again.  This time the publishers were interested.  Result!

Watch out for giving out negative messages.  Do you have to tell an agent you've been turned down by others or have been trying for years with no success?  Do you have to say that your big success was ten years ago and you've been in the doldrums since?  Do you have to concentrate on all the saddest elements of your story at the exclusion of the funny bits?  I've heard people defend this by saying they're being honest, but given you have limited space, why give them the negative rather than the positive?

Ask someone if you're not sure, and think about re-framing your writing so the positive is to the fore.  And if you're still in doubt about the power of words and how re-framing works, watch this inspirational video. 

Friday 27 April 2012

Agent Feedback

I was at a lunch with some other writers and the subject of agents came up. As it does.  One of the writers present was finding that their agent was difficult to talk to - they kept discussing books the writer might write, rather than the one they were actually writing.  The writer felt confused - did their agent like what they had actually written?  Should they change direction and do something different?  Or was the agent just passing the time by talking about what was hot at the moment?

Whatever stage you're at, published or unpublished, it's easy to get de-railed by throwaway comments.  The writer has to stay sensitive, but also develop a thick skin.  You have to really believe in your work, because otherwise you're vulnerable to being undermined, even by those who should be supporting you.

I've known writers be utterly demoralised by casual remarks made by parents, partners, friends.  They make them because they don't understand the writing process.  Agents (and editors) don't - or shouldn't - have that excuse.

For anyone feeling a bit bruised or battered by 'helpful feedback', whoever it may be from, I suggest having a look at this wonderful Mitchell and Webb sketch.  It sort of sums it up...

Thursday 26 April 2012

Beats: What They Are, How They Work

The bits that come between the actual speeches in a dialogue section are technically called beats, though I more often refer to them as inbetweeny bits. They take the form of either an action or a thought or emotion - he said, putting his teacup down or she said, thinking he was so boring.

Here's a scene excerpt from A Single to Rome.  Kimberley and Natalie have just been to a speed-dating evening. Natalie is getting over the breakup of her relationship with Michael.  I've doctored it so there are two beats for each piece of dialogue - two actions or two thoughts or one action/one thought. 

'So, what did you think? Did you meet the man of your dreams?' Kimberley said as they walked back to the car, high heels clicking on the pavement.
'You know Michael wasn't there.' Natalie pressed her fingers against her temples. Just her luck to get a splitting headache.
Kimberley glanced over to her. 'I quite liked a few of them. They weren't all bad.' She jiggled her car keys.
Natalie felt a pang of envy. Kimberley was always so positive. 'Which ones did you like?'
Kimberley put her head to one side and narrowed her eyes as if considering her options.  'Toby, he was nice, and Jerry. And Guy, and that one with the big hands, I think he was David - I got a bit confused in the second half.'
Natalie tried to think who she meant. A succession of men merged into one. 'Was he the shaggy one? No! Didn't you think he was a bit scruffy?
'I quite like that - I don't want them too prissy.' Kimberley giggled, and leant across to whisper in Natalie's ear. 'And you know what they say about men with big hands.
Natalie giggled too. She heard people say that many times before. 'But is it true?'
Kimberley raised her eyebrows and swung her car keys around on one finger. 'Only one way to find out.'

That's so dull to read. If you try reading it aloud, you can hear that the rhythm is all wrong, it's like a toddler banging a spoon on a saucepan, on and on and on. It's monotonous. It even looks monotonous on the page, each line roughly the same, lots of short paragraphs after each other. And, while I'm not making any claims to write high literature, this does come across as exceptionally trite. This is I actually wrote.

'So, what did you think?' Kimberley said as they walked back to the car. 'Did you meet the man of your dreams?'
'You know Michael wasn't there,' Natalie said.
Kimberley made a tsk noise. 'I quite liked a few of them. They weren't all bad.'
'Which ones did you like?' Natalie didn't think there'd been anyone who could raise a spark of interest in her. But that was unfair: all her interest was directed at Michael.
'Toby, he was nice, and Jerry. And Guy, and that one with the big hands, I think he was David - I got a bit confused in the second half.'
Natalie checked her card as she tried to remember. David, David, David... 'Was he the shaggy one? No! Didn't you think he was a bit scruffy?' She wanted to say slobbery.
'I quite like that - I don't want them too prissy. And you know what they say about men with big hands.' Kimberley raised her eyebrows at Natalie, who laughed.
'But is it true?'
'Only one way to find out.'

Just looking at it on the page it looks better. The speeches are broken up, and there are several which have no attributions, no actions, no thoughts.

Attrib. Action.
Thought. Thought. Thought.
Action. Thought. Thought.
Action. Action.

It's a pretty random pattern, and is all the better for it. We need to know what the characters are doing and thinking, but if we get everything it's relentless, a bit like sitting next to some twit at the cinema who feels the need to give a running commentary on the film. The bits of dialogue without any attributions, or beats are like breathing spaces in the prose.

They also speed up the pace. Immediately after this passage comes a longish paragraph of Natalie's interior thoughts which slows the pace down again. Fast, slow, fast, slow - readers want the variety or they get bored. Most writers - all? - read out their work either as they're writing or editing, or both. They can hear the rhythm of the beats and instinctively are looking for variety. Listen to the rhythms of your writing. Listen to your beats.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Bland Writing

Having written about why we shouldn't compare ourselves to any other writer, good or bad, published or unpublished, I was reminded of talking with someone recently about their work. The writing was fine.  It wasn't badly written, the grammar and sentence construction good, there was pace and flow. The story situation was interesting, the description okay, the action had drama.  It was fine.  But...

It was bland.  There was no energy.  There was no edge.  And above all, the characters were neutral.  The writer put them through the motions in a competent way, but there was no flair, no verve in the writing.  It was all rather well bred, well composed.  It was polite.  Beige, I suppose.

And beige isn't interesting.  The worse book I've read recently (more accurately, part read) was The Shakespeare Secret.  It's not good, and I've written why elsewhere in the blog.  But no one could accuse it of being bland - if anything, it's the opposite.  It's so colourful and pacy, reading it is like being hit repeatedly over the head with a rolled up newspaper. Ditto other not-so-well-written books that have come my way.

So perhaps that's the answer to the bad writing conundrum.  It gets published because it's not beige.  Instead, it's a rainbow confection full of colour and life.  Not my cup of tea, maybe, but at least it's got energy.  Meanwhile, the beautifully behaved book that will never scare the horses sits quietly and politely in the slush pile.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

When Bad Writers Get Published

One of the complaints I hear often is about the quality of what gets published.  The sub-text is usually: how can this dreadful writing get published when I can't?  I don't have any specific answers to that, but some thoughts are:

a) different styles of writing appeal to different people.  Anita Brookner, for example, makes me want to scream because her pace is so slow, but lots of people love her.  I loved Horatio Clare's Running for the Hills and was thrown when several people whose opinion I respect said they couldn't get on with it.  (Too many sheep, apparently.)

b) different genres of writing appeal to different people.  I'm not a fan of science fiction or anything with too much technical stuff in it.  Other people love it.  Diversity is good and wonderful.

c) different people have different educational standards.  Ages ago I read a best selling author - sadly I can't remember who - who commented that his books were read by people who ran a finger under each line when reading.  Books aiming for a mass market readership are not going to be written with an obscure vocabulary or lots of literary allusions.  Cliches may be cliches, but they are also accessible and familiar.  

d) the more you write, the higher your standards become.  Once you become a writer you start to analyse writing in a way you didn't before hand.  You stop being a passive consumer and become a critic.  This is good, because it improves your own work, but I find it makes reading a less simple and straightforward process.

e) different people have different reasons for reading.  I read for relaxation and entertainment, rather than to set myself a challenge.  But other people have different priorities and for them the challenge of, for example, experimental writing is worth it.

f) different writing appeals at different stages. There are books that I adored in my 20s that I can't read now.  The sort of book I like now, I found boring in my 20s.  I'm reading a lot of non-fiction this spring, which seems to suit my mood.

g) and yes, there are lots of external reasons like celebrity and good connections and that produce book deals for frankly sub-standard books.  And there are certainly books that become best sellers for no apparent reason.

No one really knows why one book sells and another doesn't.  What appeals to me won't necessarily to you.  If you want to write you've just got to get on and write your own book and stop worrying about what other people are doing.

Monday 23 April 2012

Characters Need To Be Where The Action Is

I always write from one character's viewpoint.  I've tried multiple viewpoints but I get caught up in one person's story and that becomes the only story I want to communicate.

One of the problems with writing always from one person's point of view is that the character has to be where the action is most of the time.  It's fine to have a certain amount of reported action ie the main character hears about something dramatic rather than actually being there as a participant or witness, but if there's too much it will seem as if the story is taking place off stage.

The exception is with stories where there's a mystery in the past that a character in the present has to solve.  The detective story would be the classic example, but many historically based novels. such as AS Byatt's Possession, are also essentially mysteries .  The main character finds out what happened in the past through being told by other characters who were actually there when the action happened, or by reading previous narratives and accounts such as letters and diary entries.  The reader's attention is held because they are also working the puzzle out at the same time as the main character.  

Generally though, viewpoint characters should be present when exciting stuff is happening because they are the reader's window on the narrative world.  We're reading to feel we're part of an exciting world where stuff happens - we can do the ordinary at home.  We want a ringside seat at the drama, so don't let your viewpoint character get the drama secondhand.

PS Blogger has changed format which I'm finding hard to get around.  Forgive me if things are a bit disjointed while I get used to the new format.

Friday 20 April 2012

Don't Compare Your Writing to Others

Sometimes I read published books and feel demoralised. They're SO much better than my own writing. Sometimes I read my own published books and feel demoralised. They're SO much better than what I'm writing now.

And then I remember that to get to that final form I'd written and re-written and edited like mad. Then it went out to the friends who read for me (that's the stage I'm at now). Then it got re-written again. Then my agent saw it, and I incorporated her feedback (it's not usually much, as she hasn't come the editorial route). Then my editor. Then I re-wrote it. Then I had some more feedback from my editor. Then I did some more editing. Then a copy editor saw it, then a proof reader.

So, I shouldn't be comparing the stage I'm at now with the finished product. And nor should you.

Neither should you be comparing your work in progress with other writers, for example, in a workshop group. You're not writing their book, you're writing your book. Their book reflects them, your book should reflect you.

And the other thing it reflects is the amount of writing in-put the book has had, in terms of experience, inspiration and time. They might have been able to spend more time on that piece of work, or been in the process of writing it for longer. Perhaps they might be near completion of the story and are utterly certain about what's happening and where it's going, while you're still floundering.

So don't be demoralised by reading other people's writing if you think it's miles better compared to your WIP. Yours can get there too - if that's where you want to go. It might not be what you're doing, or what you want to do. I can admire and enjoy someone's magical realism writing, but it's not what I want to write.

It's a bad idea to compare your writing to others' work, or even your own previous work. I'll write about comparing yourself to people who get published even though you think you're a much better writer next time.

But for now, all comparisons are odious and may de-rail you. Just keep on going and write the best you can write right now.

Thursday 19 April 2012

When To Re-Write for an Agent - And When Not

An agent likes your 3 chapters and synopsis and asks to see more. Heart pounding, you send the whole thing out. They love it! Cue champagne...until they ask for some re-writes.

It's YOUR book.

Firstly, you need to judge the scale of what they want changing. Is it small stuff? Or big changes? Will it impinge on the theme or tone of the book? Do you understand the reasoning behind the change?

It's YOUR book.

I made major plot changes to one of my books to make a US sale. I'm not sure that it's better - the change makes the tone different - but I understood why they wanted it changed, and it didn't impinge on the important stuff of theme and meaning. I was happy-ish to make the changes (and very happy to cash the cheques).

It's YOUR book.

But what if you're not yet at that stage, and it's an agent who is wanting changes. I think it still applies: you have to understand what they see as the problem that needs to be solved. If you don't understand what that is, you won't be able to re-write convincingly. You also have to believe and agree that the 'problem' needs solving. If you don't, you won't be able to re-write with any conviction. Re-writing without conviction leads to unsatisfactory writing, and disillusionment and demoralisation.

It's YOUR book.

Re-writing just to please someone else is doomed to failure. In my opinion, if you don't understand why they want changes or you don't agree with their reasons, then you have to question whether they are a good match for you. You have to write from the heart, or it's no good. Your agent really has to believe in you, or they won't be able to convey that to someone else.

It's YOUR book.

However, if you do understand their reasons for wanting changes and think they're good, then go ahead and re-write. In my experience, re-writing when the author understands the perceived problems means a stronger more confident second draft.

It's YOUR book.

The main thing is that if you don't understand, or don't like the direction you're being steered to, then don't re-write. You're not a puppet performing for others, and you don't have to be represented by anyone. Nowadays, you don't need an agent or a publisher to see your work made available around the world. And above all, never forget that it's not their book and you ultimately call the shots because - and don't you forget it -

It's YOUR book.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Why You Need Credits

How would you feel if you were innocently walking down the street minding your own business when a complete stranger bounded up to you like an overgrown puppy, licked your face and panted: I'm wonderful! I'm fab, me! And then beamed expectantly, waiting for you to say...well, which do you think would be more likely?

a) I love you and must represent you immediately or
b) Get away from me you mad person or I'll call the police.

Now imagine you're an agent receiving the equivalent in covering letter form. Straight to the top of the Must Be Read pile? Or the Immediate Rejection pile?

So how do you say I'm wonderful without saying it? The simple answer is you get someone or something else to say it BUT it's got to be the right someone or something. So your Mum is not the right someone and nor are your children nor is anyone who has any personal connection with you, because of course they think you're wonderful, but their opinion doesn't mean anything in this particular context.

I'm not convinced an author or a creative writing tutor is much good either: 'Joe Bloggs suggested I write to you' doesn't mean much when it comes down to it. If Joe Bloggs really rated your work, they'd snatch it out of your hot sticky little mitts and personally hand it over to their agent/editor.

The person you want to endorsement from doesn't know you. They only know your writing and, ideally, paid you money for it. For example:

They gave you a prize in a short story competition.
They published your article.
They broadcast your short story.
They published your non-fiction book.
They bought 1000s of copies of your self published book.

The more credits you can build up, the more endorsements you're getting. When I was at this stage I deliberately entered every short story competition I could find to build up some endorsements. When I wrote my covering letter I was able to say I'd won or been short listed for seventeen short story competitions. (Which, thinking about it, also shows persistence and a degree of obsession that is very useful for a writer.)

I'm not saying that you HAVE to have credits, but credits mean someone else picked your writing out of a crowd. It will give an agent confidence in you and your writing.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

The Secret of Writing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer must put her bum on the seat and her hands on the key board if any writing is to get done.

Jane Austen famously described her writing as working on "two inches of ivory" but the main point is that she did her writing, regardless of scale. It may have taken time - First Impressions and Elinor and Marianne were written at least 10 years before they became Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility , but in the end the novels got written.

I wish it were true that there were magic writing pixies and wishing you'd written a story or novel would make it so, but the sad and sorry fact is that there aren't and wishing won't make any difference.

Bum. Seat. Connect.
Hands. Keyboard. Connect.
Hands. Pen. Paper. Connect.

However you do it, it has to be done. And that's all there is to say about it.

Monday 16 April 2012

Making Story Problems Relevant

Most stories are about characters solving problems. Sometimes they're explicit (the detective must find the murderer before he/she kills again) and sometimes implied (the former lovers must learn to forgive their respective past actions if they are to love again). They might be small problems (your sisters are socially embarrassing) or big problems (the baddie's going to blow up the world unless you find the detonator), but what they have to be is relevant to the readership.

Think of books aimed at the youngest children. They're about problems like bed time, and the arrival of new siblings. A little bit older and the problems are about going to school or losing teeth. A bit older, and the problems shift to friendship groups and independence. Teenagers' problems are around things like peer-group pressure and sexuality. The problems are relevant to their readership - not many teenagers are worrying about paying their mortgage, not many pre-schoolers are thinking about their exams.

It's the same with adult fiction: the problems need to be relevant to the readership. Joanna Trollope's The Rector's Wife, featuring a middle-class heroine who took a job stacking supermarket shelves to make some money, became a best seller in a recession. The Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella became popular in a time when the economy was booming, and spending £1000s on shopping was fine. It seems out of date in these more austere times - I expect there are many books in the pipeline where redundancy and financial problems are central issue.

And of course there's the fantasy element, so the James Bond books featuring foreign travel and the high life were written at a time of austerity when travel abroad was expensive and difficult, and I can't help but suspect that the popularity of the Twilight series in part is down to the sexual pressures on teenage girls and young women today.

Problems don't have to be directly relevant - for example, not many of us live in a stratified society with limited life choices as depicted in Jane Austen's novels, but most of us still live with a limited social circle where we hope to make a good choice of a partner.

The more relevant the problem, the wider the readership. Most people aren't going to be interested in how I'm solving some structural problems in my current novel so I haven't said anything to my friends and family about it, but I have written about them on this blog as I think solutions to writing problems may interest my readership here.

Think about the problems your characters are solving in your writing, and work out how relevant they are to your readership. And if they're not that relevant, then now's the time to make them so.

Friday 13 April 2012

What To Do If You Lose Your Work

Yesterday I heard on the radio a news story about a blind woman who wrote longhand 26 pages without realising her pen had run out of ink and a kindly forensics officer spent 5 months of lunch hour time deciphering the indentations on the paper to give the woman a transcript.

In the papers the woman, Trish Vickers, is reported as saying "I could remember the gist of what I had written but there was no way I could have written exactly the same way again."

I'm very pleased for her that she has retrieved her work but, in my experience, work always improves when you re-write it from scratch. It would mean less work if you kept the same manuscript and tinkered around the edges (and believe me I'm all for anything that involves less work) but first drafts often need such extensive re-writing that it's best to start again.

That may of course be just my work, and I admit I write very sloppy first drafts, but there's nothing I've done that hasn't been improved by a re-write, and I've seen enough student versions of the same piece to know that re-writes always improve it.

Putting the original draft to one side and starting again is actually liberating. You have confidence and knowledge about the scene because you've written it once before, but now your memory chooses the best bits, the heart of the story, and you end up with something that's much much better than before.

I appreciate that I'm sighted and it's not as easy for Ms Vickers to produce work, but I can't help but think she'd have been better off re-writing those 26 pages.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Story Telling For All

Over the Easter weekend I've seen a lot of family, with more family visits to come this weekend. I've heard about new jobs and new hamsters and the prospect of wedding bells next year. Negotiations have already started about Christmas...

I've been struck how much we all tell stories - especially on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday. The stories may not be of earth shattering significance but they are part of the glue that binds us together, those tales of the rabbits eaten by foxes, the hamster that drowned in the loo, the horse that was nearly bought. 'Do you remember the day Dad did this? Do you remember when you went there? When I was young I loved to do that.' Story telling is part of our DNA, both telling them and listening to them.

As writers we can be comforted by this. Readers want our stories, however small. All we have to do is write them with enough truth, enough detail for the reader to visualise the story world and make it their own.

And if you're ever stuck for a story to tell, try sitting in front of the page and start writing the words, 'I remember...'

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Playing Fair With Readers

Anyone remember a TV programme called Through the Keyhole? The presenter wandered through some celebrity's house pointing out things like books or souvenirs and a panel back in the studio had to guess who lived in a house like that. One of the catch phrases was 'the clues are there.'

There is an unspoken agreement between an author and his/her readers that the author will play fair with them and give them the clues they need. This means that, should the main character be in a pickle and the only thing that will get them out of the situation is that they have all the skills of a judo black belt, the author will not suddenly reveal that the character actually won an Olympic Bronze medal in - yes! - judo.

Similarly, they will not suddenly win the lottery/inherit a fortune in the last chapter which solves all their money problems, or the detective suddenly reveal that Mr Bloggs is the murderer, if this is the first time Mr Bloggs has made an appearance in the entire story.

Nor will a view point character know information which they hide from the reader, despite the reader being led to believe they know the view point character's thoughts. Agatha Christie notoriously did this in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and her readership felt both shocked and cheated.

That's not to say that an author can't lead the reader down the wrong path - in fact, half the fun of reading crime fiction is guessing (wrongly) the solution. But it has to be possible for the reader to make a correct guess. Anything else is cheating. Ditto, in romance fiction, for the heroine to suddenly declare undying love for some bloke who hasn't featured on their radar before. I've been re-reading Pride and Prejudice and one of the pleasures is watching Lizzie realise her true feelings about Darcy, long before she acknowledges them to others let alone herself.

As the presenter said in the programme, 'the clues are there.' If they're not, you're cheating the reader.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Punctuation, Spelling, Grammar and All That Stuff - Why Bother?

There may be some people out there who think that getting the punctuation, grammar and spelling right doesn't matter. There are editors to do all that stuff, aren't there? And no one really cares about it - what really matters is the story or the ideas.

The current reality is that publishers are looking for manuscripts that are pretty much ready to go to press. The days of an editor laboriously working their way through a manuscript with the author have long gone. Yes, an amazing story or a stunning idea will make it through regardless of the quality of the presentation, but that's going to be true for only the most fabulous of tales. If an editor has a choice between two manuscripts of roughly equal story quality they'll choose the one which requires least work.

And people do care. The most common complaint about self published work is the quality of the editing. People don't like reading work with poor punctuation, spelling, grammar etc and they can, and do, complain. It doesn't matter how wonderful the story telling is if no one gets beyond the first few pages.

I think it's like dressing up to go to some amazing party. You've dressed incredibly carefully in your best clothes, then just before leaving you nip to the loo and set off with your skirt tucked up in your knickers/flies undone and shirt sticking out.

Finally, what does poorly presented work say about your attitude? It's easy enough to employ a copy editor, although the more mistakes there are, the more expensive it is. With luck you can find a friend who'll do it for you for free/alcohol/favours.

Either way, you have to try to make your work as perfect as possible. If you can't be bothered to make sure your work is the best it can be, then why should anyone else be bothered?

Friday 6 April 2012

Full Stops, Commas, Colons and Semi-Colons

It depends on your education, but the chances are, the younger you are, the shakier your grasp on the finer points of using the following punctuation marks: full stops, commas, colons and semi-colons; not necessarily because educational standards have slipped, but rather that they've changed emphasis.

(Goodness I had to work hard to fit them all in there.)

Here is a really rough guide - if you want/need something better, try The Elements of Style by Strunk and White or Brilliant Writing Tips for Students by Julia Copus.

Punctuation is really all about common sense and breathing. Common sense comes into play because you're trying to make what you write comprehensible and the longer and more convoluted your sentences, the harder they are to understand. Breathing is about how we speak because punctuation should follow our speech patterns.

When I'm working as an RLF Fellow I find many students whack in colons and semi-colons because they think it makes them look more intelligent if they have lots of long, long sentences that go on and on to the point of incomprehension. Trouble is, it doesn't make them look intelligent, just waffly and confused. I reckon you can write a whole book without using colons and semi-colons - and have proved that more than once - so most of the time you don't need to use them. But if you must...

Colons (:) often have a list following them, as in the following

...using the following punctuation marks: full stops, commas, colons...

Semi-colons (;) indicate a sentence fragment that can't stand on its own two feet and needs to hang around with a bigger, badder sentence to make sense. So,

Not necessarily because educational standards have slipped, but rather that they've changed.

doesn't make sense standing on its own, it needs the previous part of the sentence to prop it up.

...the shakier your grasp on the finer points of using the following punctuation marks: full stops, commas, colons and semi-colons; not necessarily because educational standards...

Commas (,) are used when you naturally take a little breath, for example between items on a list, and full stops are when you've come to the end of that thought. Say the following out loud, and you'll find yourself going up at the end of each item of shopping (=comma) and going down at the end (=full stop).

I went shopping and I bought an apple, a banana, an orange and a pencil.

I have a habit of using what is technically called the Oxford comma (also known as a Harvard comma - I only hang out at the poshest of universities you know). If you look at the opening paragraph again I've put a comma in-between 'education' and 'but'

It depends on your education, but the chances are...

Not wrong, but it would read more easily without the comma, especially as there are more commas coming up in the rest of the paragraph.

It depends on your education but the chances are...

Sometimes you need the extra comma for the sentence to read clearly -

I dedicate this book to my children, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck.

Are my children called Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck? An Oxford comma would make it clear that my children aren't called Minnie and Donald and I'm a Disney fan.

I dedicate this book to my children, Minnie Mouse, and Donald Duck.

Full stops (.) indicate the end of a sentence. I recommend my RLF students put in lots of full stops as two shorter sentences usually aid comprehension and make their work appear more confident and authoritative compared to one long sentence. It is not always desirable. It can make work appear abrupt. Or even, it is not always desirable as it can make work appear abrupt, but I'm sure you get the point. The opening paragraph to this post would undoubtedly read better if it wasn't one long sentence.

It depends on your education. The chances are the younger you are, the shakier your grasp on the finer points of using punctuation marks such as full stops, commas, colons and semi-colons. This is not necessarily because educational standards have slipped, but rather that they've changed emphasis.

Two extra full stops added, one Oxford comma, one colon, one semi-colon deleted, and I think it reads more easily. I am, of course, expecting to be inundated with comments saying I've got it wrong but until then,

Happy Easter everyone!

Thursday 5 April 2012

Is Your Book Worth Your Car?

Many, many years ago I had an idea for a non-fiction book. I thought it was a good one and approached a publisher who expressed some interest but asked a few questions about my background that I hadn't thought to supply - oh, how little did I know at the time - and that put me off. A couple of years passed...

And I found myself broke, unemployed and pregnant. I thought back to my idea, decided it was still good, and decided to print and sell it myself. I very carefully typed it out (I told you it was many, many years ago) and did the layout on the living room floor. I found a local printer who quoted for a short print run. Only problem was, I had no money to fund this project. So I sold my clapped out old car (a terracotta Ford Fiesta) and put all the money into the first print run and small ads in The Stage, Time Out and Private Eye.

Luckily I was right. It was a good idea and the orders flowed in. Due date for both baby and print run was the same but, equally luckily, my baby was 3 weeks late so I was able to send all the books out and cash the cheques and postal orders before going into labour. Happy days!

I was of course having to print using traditional methods - litho presses and plates. Now I'd have been able to produce my book electronically without needing to sell my car to fund the process.

But perhaps that's the question would-be self publishers should still ask themselves: do I believe in my book so much that I'd sell my car to fund it?

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Pace - The Final Frontier?

I've been watching Homeland on television. It's been very good at keeping the tension going with a new twist at the end of every episode. 12 episodes = at least 11 twists, with possibly one more are the very end, all spaced out at regular intervals.

It's a lesson we can all learn from - me particularly as I've just realised that I've squeezed two of my major story moments into the same scene. Tut tut - I should know better. Still, at least I know what to do about it, which is not to hope that no one will notice/mind, but re-work the story at that point so that the two exciting story moments will be separated by a time of reflection.

I see other writers doing this. They cram the exciting events next door to each other so the reader doesn't have time to savour the new developments. It's good to have exciting events, but the pace needs to slow down in-between or the exciting events are diminished. Action, followed by reaction. Fast, slow, fast, slow. Fast, fast, fast is as boring as slow, slow, slow.

Think of sport. There's a period when a player or team loses all the time, then they start winning. We need the contrast of the win, followed by a loss, to keep our interest going. If they carry on winning everything then it becomes boring - I gave up on Wimbledon because of Pete Sampras, then Roger Federer. Watching Jessica Ennis at the Olympics will be much more interesting because she got second place last month, not the predicted first. And would cricket be exciting without those long, long periods when nothing much seems to be going on?

So when you're looking at your writing, check that there is both a good balance and variety between the slow bits and the fast bits. That's what pace is all about.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

E-Pub or Hang On For a Traditional Publisher?

Alison Morton has written a blogpost about the dilemma facing her and many other writers: at what point do you give up on the traditional route of agent/publisher, and go for self-publishing?

There are some people who will always want to go the traditional route. There are some people who will plunge straight into self-publishing. Often, both these groups can be disparaging or dismissive about the other choice of direction.

I think the polarisation is unfortunate and not particularly helpful. Every writer will make choices dependent on their personality, their opportunities, their wallet, the free time available to them. What suits me may not suit you - and if we were all the same, what a boring world it would be.

I think each writer should instead ask themselves what really matters to them...

Prestige or validation:
You need a traditional publisher, preferably one of the Big 6. This may change in the future, but right now it's true. Having said that, your friends and family probably won't know any different, but you will in your heart and this is about what matters to you not them.

If you go into writing with the sole aim of making money then you are deluding yourself. There is a very small percentage of writers who make more than the national average wage, but writing is not the route to riches unless you are incredibly lucky. JK Rowling and Joe Konrath are exceptions, not the rule.

There are some self-publishers who are making serious money, easily as much as they would from going the traditional route. However, they are not in the majority and most self publishers consider themselves successful if they earn more than a few thousand. A traditional publishing deal will almost certainly be for more than a few thousand, and an agent should be able to sell other rights. But until you get a deal you're going to get nothing...

Getting the book 'out there':
Self-publishing without a doubt. You can be up and running via Kindle or Smashwords in a very short time. Print on demand (eg means you can hold your book in your hot little mitts even if it's the only copy that ever gets printed.

Again, self-publishing is the way. You have very little control in the traditional route. This way you get to choose the design, how it's marketed and promoted, what price it sells at - everything is up to you. You get none of this with the traditional route.

Writing time:
Self publishing means you have to do a lot of stuff in front of a computer screen that isn't about writing your book and, in the tradition of 'you don't get something for nothing', you have to do a lot more than you originally bargained for. Editing. Cover design. Typesetting. Book design. Admin. This leaves less time for writing.

With the traditional route all the technical and production aspects are taken care of, and a lot of the promotion (though writers are expected to do a lot of promotion themselves).

Personally I know that I'd quite like to have a go at e-publishing one book maybe, but I don't have the interest/patience to do much more than that. I certainly don't want to run a small publishing business. But that's my choice. No reason why it should be yours.

PS Sorry this is late - I completely forgot. Oops.

Monday 2 April 2012

Don't Talk - Write!

People quite often ask me about what I'm writing and I mumble something like, 'Oh, same old stuff.' Very occasionally they push me for more, and I get more mumbly and evasive.

The thing is, writing is about communication. I have a story that I want to communicate to other people. If I talk too much about it the urge to write it will diminish. That's the primary reason I shy away from talking about what I do. Better to say nothing.

The second reason for being coy is I write what I write; I can't write it differently because I'm me, not someone else. Whether someone likes what I'm in the process of writing should be irrelevant - yet I know that I will be hugely affected by a disappointed face. It might even put me off writing. Better to say nothing.

The third reason for mumbling is that I dread someone brightly saying, 'Oh, that's just the same story as one I read last week,' or, 'that's just like the plot of Eastenders/the Archers.' I know with my brain that there are no new stories and it's only your take that can possibly be original, but my heart isn't so sensible. It will shrivel up and lose all confidence in the story. Better to say nothing.

Workshopping is different because either it's a whole piece and therefore the story has already been committed to the page, or it's a fragment. Plus, I trust the people I workshop with. I know them, they're all writers and they know how to be critical but supportive at the same time.

Generally I advise all writers to keep their story telling for the page. Don't share with your friends or your partner even if they ask. Let them read it when it's ready to be read by non-writers, and not before. Don't talk - write!