Thursday 31 May 2012

Cut The Boring Bits Using Summary

Real life is not the same as fictional life.  Real life is lived in real time, boring bits and all.  Fictional life is the edited highlights. Summary is a useful tool for this:

'Have you seen the new film?' Bertram asked.
'No, not yet,' Agatha said.
'Do you want to go?'
'Yes, sure.'
Bertram cleared his throat. 'What about Friday?'
'Friday sounds good.'
'Great.  Do you want to meet for a drink beforehand?'
'Yes, why not?'
'About 7?'
'That should be okay.'
'See you then.'

This is b-o-o-o-ring!  All they're doing is arranging to go out one evening.  Why not summarise to:

Bertram phoned Agatha and they arranged to go out on Friday.

Or, if you want something a bit more:

Bertram finally plucked up courage and asked Agatha if she'd seen the new film.
'No, not yet.'
'We could go on Friday if you liked, perhaps meet for a drink beforehand.'
Agatha liked, and Bertram put the phone down, not sure how he was going to last until 7 on Friday evening.

Other boring bits come when you go into great detail about what characters are doing that don't add anything.  This is sometimes called 'sandwich making,' as in 'Agatha went to the cupboard and got out the bread and butter, then went to the fridge and took out the ham.  She took out two slices of bread and spread them with butter, then carefully put a slice of ham on one slice.  Then she put the other slice of bread on top, butter side down.  Then she ate the sandwich.'

or in summary: Agatha made herself a ham sandwich.

Summary is such a useful tool.  It leaves you free to concentrate on writing the interesting bits which are the only bits really worth reading.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Advice For Writers: Don't Read Advice

This blog is all about dishing out advice to writers.  I hope it's helpful.  But there comes a point where you've got to stop reading about writing, and just get on with doing it.

Yesterday afternoon was free.  I'd written in the morning, then decided I'd have a quick scoot round the internet over lunch before returning to editing the never ending book.  I scooted.  I read lots of interesting articles about writing, from how to structure a novel to writing flash fiction.  I had a good time, because reading about writing is one of my favourite things.

But lo - when I finally looked up from my lunch time visit it was no longer lunch time, it was tea time and my lovely free afternoon for my own writing had evaporated.  So here's another thing I've learned about writing:

You can read all the advice you like, but at some point you have to get on and do some writing.  There's a time for reading and a time for action, and the time for action is probably right now.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Characters Need An Agenda

A scene that crops up frequently is the one where the main purpose is for Character A to meet with Character B, and for Character B to tell Character A something that changes their perspective.  So you write it - A bumps into B, they chit chat for a bit, then B tells A the relevant info, and A thinks differently.

That's fine.  But what I see writers forget is that A can't just stand there like a lemon waiting for B to come along and tell them the relevant info.  In other words, you as the writer have an agenda - that B passes on the info - but you've forgotten that A needs to have an agenda too.

If A doesn't have an agenda they can appear passive and one dimensional, which is a problem given we're usually trying to write active, multi-dimensional characters.  The solution is to give A their own agenda.

For example, A might be on their way to an urgent doctor's appointment when they bump into B.  They start the chit chat with B all the time wondering how quickly they can escape without appearing rude, then B starts to talk about something interesting, and the doctor's appointment goes out of A's head as their focus goes onto B's new information and what it implies.

It doesn't really matter what A's agenda is, what matters is that it's there.  In effect, A having an agenda of their own brings in some conflict to the scene which otherwise lacks it, and by doing so, A appears active and multi-dimensional.   What's more, you can usually add the relevant agenda with just a few additions so it's easy to do.  Result all round!

Monday 28 May 2012

10 Things I've Learned From Writing

1.  That the work you're proudest of gets slammed in workshops.
2.  The work you tossed off just before turning up is praised in workshops.
3.  You will think your work is rubbish and a waste of time, usually at around the 25,000 word mark.
4.  If you persist, writing gets easier.
5.  No one will respect your writing time unless you do.
6.  Writers are generally friendly and hugely supportive.
7.  You will never know what to say when someone asks "Have you written anything I've read?"
8.  Sometimes writing is easy, sometimes it's hard.  When you look back, you can't tell the difference in the work.
9.  There is always something else to do instead of writing.
10. If you start writing, the words will come.

Friday 25 May 2012

Networking For Writers

To my surprise I was listed as a top publishing industry tweep (aka Twitter person) by The Bookseller even though I don't think I'm much good at networking and am hopeless at technology. This makes me think that if I can do it, anybody can.

Twitter is best thought of along the same lines as a drinks party.  At this party it's socially acceptable to eavesdrop on conversations and join in if you've something to say even if you don't know the people talking, but generally the party operates on the usual lines: only the most socially inept people bang on about themselves all the time, conversations are about give and take, and no one likes being sold things at a social event.

At this drinks party you wouldn't suddenly tell people you'd just met all about your private life, nor would you feel obliged to speak to absolutely everyone present.  And you certainly wouldn't badger people just because you thought they might be useful for your career.

The sort of things you'd talk about would be things you thought might be either amusing or informative.  You might indulge in a bit of moaning about, say, a tradesman who hadn't turned up when they said they would or if things weren't going brilliantly, but you wouldn't start ranting or being mean.

In general, behave as you would at any real-life social event and you won't go far wrong.

Blogging is different.  With that you have to think about what you offer a potential reader, such as entertainment or information.  Blogs that are basically Me Me Me don't pick up many followers unless 'Me' already has a following.  I think it's quite hard for a writer to have an interesting blog unless they blog about craft because what else is there apart from your personal life?  I'm not happy with blogging about my own life - and frankly, it would make for dull reading as I don't do much except read, write, teach and trundle up and down the A30.

If I was unpublished so didn't feel confident about dishing out advice about craft (not that that stops some writers) I would concentrate on the business of publishing from a new writer's perspective and book reviews.

What I don't think blogging or Twitter or Facebook do is sell books, at least not directly.  They are about networking - building up contacts with people who are active in publishing (or whatever industry you choose to get involved with), which in turn raises your profile and that may lead to other things such as speaking at events or free books (especially if you do book reviews), or may help to find an agent or get an article published.

I started blogging and being on Twitter because my publisher told me I 'had' to, and then I found I liked it so have carried on.  If I didn't find it enjoyable I would have quietly drifted away.  There are lots of authors who have very successful careers without bothering and if I had a choice between writing a good book or spending time on social media, writing a good book would win out every time.

Thursday 24 May 2012

How Not To Approach An Agent

Once there was a man called Mark who was looking for an agent for his novel. He told his friend, Joe Bloggs, who suggested Mark could try his friend Ginny who was a literary agent.
So Mark rang Ginny up.
'Hi, Ginny,' he started. 'I'm a friend of -'
'My name is Virginia,' she cut in, and put the phone down.

Who do you think was rude - Mark or Virginia/Ginny?

Consider these points:

1.  To Mark, his book is important.  In fact, it's been the central feature of his life for some years.  He's thrilled to have finished it.  
2.  Ginny is deluged with manuscripts every day, and has been for years.  She already has all the clients she can cope with. 
3.  Mark has just retired and has time on his hands - that's in part why he wrote a novel.
4.  Ginny is in the middle of a busy working day.  She's waiting to get a call from an editor about an existing client's manuscript.
5.  Cold calling is annoying.
6.  Cold calling is especially annoying when they get your name wrong.

Mark didn't think what it was like to be Ginny.  He forgot that publishing is a business.  If asked, he might have imagined her day to be like something from an Ealing film - a large empty office with a leather Chesterfield sofa, an assistant called Emma or Felicity, the morning spent pottering around before a long boozy lunch and a book launch in the evening.   It really isn't like that any more, if it ever was.  Publishing is a meaner, leaner machine and no one has time to potter.  

So who was rude? In a lot of ways, questions of rudeness aren't really the issue here.  What I think Mark showed was ignorance, and in his ignorance he put his foot in it. He forgot that, although his novel was terribly important to him, it wasn't important at all to Ginny.  

What Mark should have done was a bit of research (via The Writers and Artists Yearbook or The Writers Handbook) and found out what Ginny's professional name was.  Then he could have contacted Ginny by mail or email and done it properly:

Dear Virginia Smith,
Our mutual friend, Joe Bloggs, suggested I contact you....

Publishing is a business, and the people who work in it take it as seriously as anybody else who takes their day job seriously.  I think we writers get so caught up in our stories that we sometimes forget that.  

Wednesday 23 May 2012

5 Elements Of A Good Title...

1) Easy to say, easy to spell, easy to find.
Who wants to look stupid when ordering or discussing a book?  Make your title easy to say. The spelling matters because if someone is searching on Amazon or Google and they get the spelling wrong, then the search engines won't find them.  You can help people find your book by using uncommon words.  My name, Sarah Duncan, is fairly common. If someone does a Google search for me, my website does come up first, but there are lots of other Sarah Duncans around, as well as things like "...said Sarah. Duncan, on the other hand..." If your title has lots of common words then it's going to be harder to find on search engines.

2) Fits in with the genre
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society doesn't sound like it's a thriller or teenage vampire book, In Cold Blood doesn't say romance, Twilight couldn't really be anything but a vampire story. Titles need to match the genre.  Go into a bookshop and and look at the titles in 'your' section.  You're looking for patterns, for example, lots of one word titles or titles which contain place names. Are there puns or plays on words? Slightly risque?  Your title needs to fit in here.  

3) Has some originality or quirkiness
Would Captain Corelli's Mandolin have done as well as The Italian with the Guitar?  I think not.  Strong nouns are the answer here.  If I say "the book about the tractors", I bet most of you will know the book I mean. Penguin used that line to advertise Marina Lewycka's next book, which shows what a powerful technique this is.

4) Uses 'special' words.
There are some words that have more power than others. Lucky. Secret. Desire. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is one of my favourite titles ever (it's a good book, too), and all those nouns are special words.  Numbers and colours work well, although some numbers and colours are better than others - 12 Shades of Beige doesn't have quite the same ring.  

Deconstruct some of your favourite and least favourite titles and analyse what makes them work (or not).  Then try to apply the same principles to your own.  I think the 5th element is time - good titles rarely come  easily or quickly in my experience, but when the right one comes along it's easy to spot.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Look Out For A Negative Focus

I was listening to the radio and, as part of a discussion on something called Declinism, a psychologist said something like, "it's well established that people focus on the negative."  He went on to explain that this impulse to focus on the negative comes from our primitive ancestors; if someone was on look out duty while the rest of the tribe were gathering food, there was no need to pay attention to the lookout saying, 'there's no lion coming', but if you didn't pay attention to the look out saying 'there's a lion coming', then you wouldn't be anybody's ancestor.

I see this in writing.  Give someone 90% positive feedback, and they fret over the 10% that wasn't so good.  Do a class exercise and focus only on what you didn't get 'right', rather than what you learned. Get turned down once, and decide there's no point in carrying on.

I've done all of these things.  The last one - oh, the stupidity - in my early 20s I had an idea for a book and sent off what I thought was a non-fiction book proposal to a leading publisher. They wrote back saying it was a good idea, but asking for some more information.  I took this as a rejection, and never replied.  Durr.

I have learned to be a bit more positive, fortunately.  Get a rejection?  Statistically, it means you're nearer to acceptance.  Get some negative feedback?  Lucky you - you now know what to do to make your writing better.  Get depressed by all the bad news about the economy, epublishing, copyright?  Stop reading all those blog posts and articles and use the free time to do some writing instead.

It may sound a bit Pollyanna-ish/utterly nauseating, but you've got to have a reasonably positive outlook and enjoy the journey or else writing will simply make you miserable.  And no one wants that.

Monday 21 May 2012

Writing Rubbish

I tell students to write rubbish.  Always.  And quite a lot of the time they look a bit shocked.  But I mean it.  Write rubbish.  

I tell students to write rubbish because the worst bit of rubbishy writing on the page is worth more than the most perfect bit of prose stuck in your head. Stuff on the page can be improved, developed, tweaked,given colour and life and energy and style. Stuff in your head is - well, stuff in your head. It can't be read by anyone.

Give yourself permission to write badly. Accept you'll have to re-write - and I don't think there can be any professional writer who doesn't consider re-writing as part of their process. It's what we all do.

An agent won't read your work with more interest because it appeared fully formed on the page. An editor won't clap their hands in delight because you wrote in a linear way, starting at the beginning and working your way through until you get to The End. A reader couldn't care less if you didn't need to use the spellchecker. 

All that anyone cares about is the finished product. How you get there is up to you. Write rubbish, if it gets you writing. Write, write, write.  That's all that matters.  And then you can make it better.

Friday 18 May 2012

Extending Readers' Vocabularies

As a reader, I'm interested in my vocabulary being extended by what I read.  Recently historical novelist Liz Harris wrote a blog post about getting advice to moderate her authentic period language.  One of the phrases that it was suggested she changed was "poke bonnet".  Now, I might not have known before exactly what a poke bonnet is, and how it is distinguished from any other sort of bonnet, but I already had an image of that bonnet in my mind from reading other books - Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer - and was perfectly happy with it.  

Other words that Liz's advisers balked at were bean porridge and buck fence.  I don't know what either of those are, but I can make a guess that they're respectively something basic but nourishing to eat and a type of fence design.  Which is indeed what they are (go to Liz's post for further details).  Quibbling about the exact definition of bean porridge or a buck fence seems to me to be a nit-picking step too far, especially as the vocabulary evokes late C19th Wyoming, where Liz's book is set.  

Anne Tyler, who is one of my favourite authors, keeps having characters wrap themselves in an Afghan.  Now, the context indicates a blanket of sorts rather than a bloke in a turban.  I imagine something made of crocheted squares in black and bright primary colours, with the squares sewn together using thick white wool.  I have asked Americans and been told that an Afghan, while cosy, doesn't look like that.  It doesn't matter.  I've got the general idea, I've got a clear image, and that's all that counts to me as a reader.

Choosing to simplify one's vocabulary just because a reader might not understand really is dumbing down to the lowest common denominator - people can always look a word up if they're not sure.  Same with writing for children.  Yes, the vocabulary used needs to be appropriate for the age group, but children can handle unfamiliar words; it's part of the learning process.  

The main reason I have a good vocabulary now is because I read a lot as a child and teenager.  Books were my vocabulary teachers, so heaven help future generations if we writers limit our vocabularies today.  


Thursday 17 May 2012

The Line Between Dumbing Down And Baffling Readers

Readers are at once intelligent but can also be surprisingly ignorant.  I know, I speak as one.  I feel a warm glow when I get some reference, but also become furious when some word I don't know causes a hiccup in my reading.  As a writer, I want to write so that lots of people understand what I'm writing, but I also don't want to use only the simplest of language. Where is the line between dumbing down and baffling the reader?

The answer is in the context.  If you use an unusual word, the context should make it clear what that word means.  I used quite a few Italian words in A Single to Rome:

'Ecco, Carciofi all Guidia.' Teresa placed a steaming dish on the centre of the table, a tumbled mass of golden brown artichokes.  Natalie inhaled deeply; the 'benvenuto a Roma' evening for Guy smelled delicious. 'Nothing but Roman specialities.  Eat, eat,' Teresa said, ladling out the artichokes onto a plate and passing it to Guy, the guest of honour.  She prepared a plate for Natalie.  'This is a traditional dish of the Ghetto,' she said, passing the plate to her.

Hopefully the reader has worked out that Carciofi are artichokes in Italian.  All Guidia is Jewish style, which hopefully the reader guesses from the reference to the Ghetto.  Benvenuto a Roma is explained earlier in the story, but I suspect most people could work it out from the context, especially as benvenuto is similar to the French for welcome (bienvenue). The next excample is from Another Woman's Husband (NB Lily is Martin's daughter).

Martin rolled towards her, the contours of his face catching escaped light from the street lamp outside.  He looked young, his face blurred with sleep and, in the planes and angles of his bone structure, Becca caught sight of Lily underneath, like a palimpsest of the two people who meant the most to her. 

A palimpsest is a manuscript which has been written on several times.  I accept you wouldn't get that if you didn't know it, but I hope the idea of layers is present.   So long as the context makes the meaning clear, there shouldn't be the hiccup in understanding that draws the reader out of the story. Therefore, you need neither dumb down nor baffle the reader but write exactly what you want to write.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Using 3 Cs to Describe Main Characters

If you write from a single view point, which is what I do, sooner or later you run into a problem: how to describe your main character in a natural way.  I don't know about you, but I don't sit here thinking, oh, I've just crossed my chubby thighs or mentally comment on my short curly hair as I run my fingers (long, with bitten nails) through it.

Even when I do look at myself in the mirror, it's functional - eg I'm brushing my teeth - and how I look is about the last thing on my mind.  I can not think of a single time I've stopped and addressed myself in the mirror with a detailed self portrait, except when it's the morning after the night before and I've caught sight of my blurry features and gone: I look so old, I'm never drinking again.  Which, while half accurate (and you can decide which half), is hardly a helpful thing to convey to a reader how I look.

So, if staring at themselves with a running mental commentary on their looks is out for main characters, how can a writer convey to the reader how the character looks?

Get other characters to comment on your main character.  This is from Kissing Mr Wrong:

Briony rang the number and after a bit someone answered. They exchanged pleasantries about the exhibition, then Briony said, 'I'm after a favour for a friend.  Lu Edwards - I think you met her briefly at the party.  Long hair, a bit hippyish.'  Lu frowned at Briony.  A bit hippyish? Just because she didn't wear black all the time like Briony.

Earlier it's mentioned that Lu is wearing a cheap skirt that she's customised herself with applique roses, which fits in with Briony's hippyish description.  Or this from Adultery for Beginners:

She hesitated at the door, not daring to go in and meet the other parents.  There wasn't a man in sight, she noticed, only mothers, and they all seemed to know each other.  Some were dressed casually, others in suits as if for work.  Isabel felt dressed too brightly, the colours bold and garish in the soft September light.  Without thinking she touched her earrings, bought on one of their Dubai jaunts, bright Bedouin beads strung on gold wires that chinkled softly as she moved.  She made a mental note to wear something beige next time.

The extract from Adultery for Beginners also uses comparisons to give an impression of how Isabel looks. If A thinks, I look thinner/fatter/happier/sleeker/untidier than X, and the reader knows how thin/fat/happy/sleek/untidy X is, they should be able to begin to imagine A.  I think most of us compare ourselves to others in real life, so it seems entirely plausible that characters do it too.  

Whatever method you use, it's best if main character description is drip fed into the story rather than ladling up a great wodge. I like to establish hair colour and length and basic body shape - tall, short, slim, plump etc - early on, along with a little characterisation through clothes. And that's about it.  I think minimal description means the reader can project their own image onto the character and that in turn helps them get involved with my characters.  

That's the theory anyway - and hopefully it works. 

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Meat Or Veg?

I'm just starting yet another revision of the WIP, having put it to one side for several weeks.  Coming to it with a fresh eye I realise that, while my word count is on target, it reads rather thinly.  In other words, there isn't enough 'meat'.

By meat I mean substance.  I'm working on the first section and the first thing I've done is write an index card for each scene saying what it's adding: character detail, plot information, description, relationship development and so on. There's a lot going on, but quite a few scenes aren't delivering very much or are going over stuff that's already been said.

Each scene needs to move the story along and add something new.  I've been writing fiction for over ten years - you'd think I'd know that by now and be putting it into action.  Apparently not.

First process:  Combine any scene that appears to be a duplicate of another.
Second process: Beef up scenes which are crucial ie give them more functions.
Third process:  Write better.

The first two processes are technical ones and only require time and a lot of chewing the end of my pen while staring at index cards to sort out.  The third process...well, I'm crossing my fingers about that bit, but with any luck by the end there'll be a lot more meat in the scenes.

Here goes!

Monday 14 May 2012

All Dialogue Is Communication

Sounds obvious, doesn't it?  All dialogue is communication. Of course it is, but sometimes as writers we forget to make our characters communicate.  They just do talking:

   'Would you like a cup of tea?' Jessica asked Maisie.
   'Yes, please.'  Maisie sat down in the armchair as Jessica went towards the kitchen door.
   Jessica paused in the door way. 'Milk and sugar?'
   'Just milk.  Thanks,' she added as Jessica went into the kitchen.

Jessica and Maisie are just talking.  There's no communication going on between them at all, and no communication with the reader. Yes, you could argue that Maisie has communicated her tea preferences clearly, but that's about it.

In real life, when we're talking, we're communicating all the time.  Even when we're apparently not talking about anything of particular interest we're busy communicating.  A discussion about books might be about intellectual point scoring or discovering someone who thinks the same way you do.  An exchange about a celebrity wedding might be angling for information on how someone feels about marriage or body image.

We might not be aware of it, but in real life we usually have a hidden agenda when we talk to other people.  An exchange about the weather at the bus stop may be looking for confirmation we're all in it together, tut-tutting over hoodies is dividing people into Us and Them.

So, characters have to communicate with each other, but more to the point, they have to communicate with us the reader. Often it's not in what the characters actually say, it's about how they say it, and what they think about it.

   Maisie Watkins!  Here, in her house!  Jessica put her hands behind her back to stop them shaking. 'Would you like a cup of tea?' she asked, using her politest voice, the one that made Peter roll his eyes.    
   Maisie gave a brief smile. 'Yes, please.'  Jessica clocked Maisie eyeing the sofa, before gingerly settling down in the armchair, her arms keeping well away from the sides. Damn, if only she'd have known Maisie was going to turn up she'd have done something about Tiddles - sprayed him with anti-moult spray or banished him from the house for ever or something.  
   Still, no time to think about that. Jessica paused in the door way, with what she hoped was a gracious smile on her face. 'Milk and sugar?'  
   'Just milk.  Thanks,' Maisie added.  Such charming manners, Jessica thought as she headed for the kitchen, praying that the milk in the fridge hadn't gone off. 

Same dialogue, but this time it's communicating to the reader a lot of information about Jessica, Maisie, and the whole situation.  

Friday 11 May 2012

Over Complicating The Story

All story telling is a matter of event selection by the author.  You're choosing all the time what to include, and what not to.  So, you include them getting on a bus, but you don't include the walk to the bus stop.  Most writers don't include the day to day minutiae of life - getting up, going to the loo, eating meals, washing hair, listening to the radio, watching TV.  In other words, you're making choices all the time, even if you don't think you are.

Some writers, however, have a penchant for expanding stories.  For example, they want to include lots of detail about the characters past history, or the details of how they get from A to B.  Most of the time you really don't need this stuff - it's what happens when they get to B that counts, not whether they changed trains at Tooting.

It's something to watch out for particularly with short stories which are usually about one single idea or theme.  They don't expand; instead they're tightly focused.

The most successful short story I've ever written (competition winner, published in an anthology, broadcast on Radio 4, turned into a film) started out as a lengthy piece of writing over 5000 words.  It was inspired in part by a tour round a diamond merchant while on holiday in Amsterdam.  I wrote lots about the tour (which my characters took) and about all the diamond information I'd learned, but the story was actually about the relationship between a young couple.

To get from version 1 to the final, successful, version involved a lot of cutting, and what went was all the stuff set in Amsterdam about the diamonds.  None of it, although interesting (at least, I think so) had any relevance to the power relationship.  In fact, the diamond ring he gives her isn't important either, and in retrospect I could have cut that too and the story would stand. I also cut a girlfriend that the central character confides in, and details of their back story - how they met, their backgrounds etc.

The final version was under 2300 words because I cut anything that didn't add to my central question which I expressed in a single sentence:  if you really loved someone, what would it take for you to leave them?  Expressing it like this led to complicated emotions but a simple plot, and is why I think that particular story was so successful.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Recurring Characters

The golden rule for story telling is change.  Usually it's characters who change in some way - they grow up, they learn to trust again, they discover inner strength they didn't know they had.  The exception is recurring characters who come back story after story.

I was inspired by yesterday being the 350th anniversary of Mr Punch, who made his first appearance in an entry in Samuel Pepys' diary.  Mr Punch has changed in format - Judy was originally called Joan, throwing the baby out of the window has been watered down to sitting on the baby and the hanging scene has gone - but Mr Punch remains the same: self seeking, disrespectful of authority, anarchic, and all the funnier because of it.

Punch and Judy wouldn't work if Mr Punch changed his ways and became a new man who behaved himself.  Ditto most recurring characters.  Miss Marple will never stop knitting and listening to village gossip. Hercules Poirot will never shave off his moustache or assimilate into British society.  James Bond will never stop making double entendres.  Harry Potter may grow up, but he essentially remains the same character.

Recurring characters don't change.  Instead, their surroundings and supporting cast must change so our hero or heroine faces new challenges - which they surmount in exactly the same way as usual.  It's the familiarity that is so appealing.  The reader knows what they're going to get and, sure enough, they get it complete with catch phrases and familiar tropes.

Or, as Mr Punch would say, That's the way to do it!

Wednesday 9 May 2012

When To Stop, When To Keep Going

I've not been well the last ten days.  I've run through a complete symptom list: nausea on Monday, headache on Tuesday, ear ache on Wednesday and so on.  Because I've had a full teaching schedule I've ploughed on, hopefully not spreading my germs too widely (although if one particular student doesn't go down with the lurgy their immune system must be brilliant).

Now I'm just about coming out of it, but I'm tired and lacking energy.  (BTW did I mention there's been quite a bit of Poor Little Me going on chez moi?)  What with my cold and keeping on teaching, something had to give, and yesterday it was the blog; many apologies for its non-appearance.

But my writing has also taken a back seat.  I've not touched the WIP for what seems like ages and I'm beginning to get worried that it somehow won't be there when I get back to it.  There are reasons why I should take my own advice and write something every day....

On the other hand, there are also sometimes reasons why taking a few days off might actually be beneficial.  At the moment, I've finished a draft and I'm about to embark on a new one.  Having a time lapse helps get some distance so I can see the mistakes more clearly and, hopefully, know what to do to fix them.

And there are other times when being creative is impossible.  I stopped completely after my father died; there was nothing there, no spark, no energy, no life.  Major life upheavals occur, and only a machine could write their way through them.

Then there is laziness.  Complacency.  Denial.  I'd like to lose a stone, but I also ate a whole tub of ice cream yesterday evening.  It may have been my consolation prize for feeling grotty, but it doesn't get me nearer my end goal.

Writing doesn't write itself, more's the pity.  No one else can judge whether you need a break or if it's just a touch of laziness but at some point writing has to be done if you want to get something written.

Friday 4 May 2012

Characters Who Have To Talk A Lot

Quite often there comes a point in a story when one character needs to tell another character a lot of information in one go.

If you let Character A just talk and talk and talk, firstly, it's a fairly unnatural situation in real life. We tend to tune out people who just talk without letting us get a word in edgeways.  Secondly, what we do in real life we also do as readers.  I surely can't be the only reader who didn't realise that the long, long, long witterings from Miss Bates in Emma were actually funny because I just skipped over them.  (I learnt differently from seeing a wonderful performance of scenes from Jane Austen by Geraldine McEwan.)

So, how to solve this?

The answer is for Character A to do their talking and for Character B to interject things along the lines of 'Go on'.  Make sure that Character B's contributions are infrequent but when they occur are substantial, whether they're verbal or internal thoughts or physical reactions.  In other words, you don't want lots of one-liners scattered throughout Character A's speech.  

If you have a lot of one-liners, Character B starts to look like a television interviewer doing 'noddies' - those cuts away from the interviewee back to the interviewer nodding understandingly which are filmed separately from the actual interview.  

Alternatively, a lot of detective stories are essentially monologues from a series of witnesses interrupted by the detective going, 'And what happened next?'.  I randomly picked up Ruth Rendell's An Unkindness of Ravens to see how she solves the issue and the answer is to summarise wherever possible, and use indirect speech. For example:

"She was unable to remember much about 15 April.  Certain it was that she had been babysitting her brother that evening and Veronica had come in, but she couldn't remember times.  Veronica and she were often in each other's homes, she said."

The problem is compounded if what Character A is saying is unlikely to be interrupted by Character B - Character A is delivering a lecture, for example.  Character B is going to have to do a lot of shifting in their seat or observing things on the stage.  Better to summarise the lecture from Character B's point of view.  This example is from A Single to Rome.  Guy is giving a lecture on Roman concrete, and Natalie is in the audience:  

"He talked about the earlier assumptions that the Romans had 'got lucky' with natural volcanic deporsis, and how new studies in geopolymeric materials (a phrase that would never have tripped of Natalie's tongue as easily as it did off Guy's) showed that the most recent analyses of carbunculus (another word that had not troubled Natalie before) demonstrated that the Romans were using sophisticated artificial concretes rather than natural deposits."

When the information is coming from a letter or newspaper article it is usually written in italics to indicate to the reader it's a letter or article.  Break it up in one or two places, showing the reader that a)  Character B is still around and b) how Character B is reacting to the information.   In A Single to Rome Natalie writes a letter to her ex-boyfriend that goes on for two pages.  It's broken in 3 places by a section of Natalie's emotional reaction (not in italics) that each last for 3-4 lines.   

So, several different ways of dealing with the problem - and I expect there are more; any ideas?

Thursday 3 May 2012

Writers Doing Events For Charity

I had a rather heated exchange recently with someone who suggested writers should be keen to appear at an event for free a) to support the charity and b) for the publicity.

This makes me cross.

Take Reason a).

I don't like being blackmailed to support a charity for no reason other than it's a charity.  I particularly don't like being blackmailed to give my time for free when I am a freelance.  Writing, or doing stuff as a writer, is my only source of income.  If I give my writing time away for free, my income suffers.

This is annoying, but becomes extraordinarily annoying when the person doing the asking is on a salary. For all but the most local of events, an appearance means the loss of a day's income.  Are they donating a day of their income to the charity?  Is the printer and designer of the programme foregoing their fees?  Will the electricity board waive costs?  No, I don't think so.  Everybody else associated with the event is usually getting paid.  So why should the attraction - the reason why people are paying for their seats which means that everyone else is getting paid - do it for free?  Which leads onto....

Reason b).

What, exactly, do they mean by publicity?  In most cases this actually means having your name included on a programme which is going to be circulated around a mailing list.  If you're lucky you'll get a short biographical paragraph.  I accept that there is a cumulative approach to publicity and that it takes 7 (or 10 or 12, depending on which stats you read) mentions of your name for it to stick in people's heads.  But it has to be said that most events do not translate into book sales.

And even if they did, try doing this maths.  Of the book's cover price, only 7-10% will be sticking to the writer's sticky fingers.  So, if the average price is £7 - £10, the author might expect to see anything between 49p to  £1 before their agent has taken their cut.  If I sell 30 books, that's going to mean an income of around £15 to £30 at best, for what may well have taken a day.  It's not enough to live on....

Finally, what triggered the argument was the information that a famous author's fee for appearing at events was £50,000, or £30,000 for a charity.  This led to the comment that writers should appear for free because of a) and b).

To me, what it said was that the famous author was fed up with reasons a) and b).  They simply didn't want to do events.  They wanted to write (or do whatever it was they wanted to do to enjoy their life).  If any event was prepared to pay the enormous fee then they'd do it - and who wouldn't?  

Having said all that I, along with many other writers, will do events for free for a variety of reasons from it being an expected part of the publicity for a book launch to the event being local so it doesn't take up much travelling time.  As a new writer you have to take what opportunities come your way to help the reading public become aware of your book.

But in general I think events should pay a fee, whether it's for charity or not.  And then the writer can decide if they want to hand it back to the charity.  That's their choice.  

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Give Characters Time To Think

I think, therefore I am, according to Descartes, and characters need to be thinking too.  You, as their writer, need to give them the time to think.

'I made a stew for this evening. Have you seen who moved in next door?'

This doesn't work because the character's dialogue shows that their thoughts have moved (from stew to next door) but the writer has allowed them no time to do it.

'I made a stew for this evening,' Clarice said.  'Have you seen who moved in next door?'

at least gives Clarice some time to change direction.  I think that because it's quite a change in direction, Clarice really needs a bit more thinking time:

'I made a stew for this evening,' Clarice said, tidying away her apron.  She moved to the kitchen window. 'Have you seen who moved in next door?'

Sometimes more thinking is required, such as making a major decision.  You may want to outline the character's thought processes as they go through the pros and cons.

Clarice could understand Bill's point of view.  Yes, she knew you had to speculate to accumulate, that he was going to invest in the future of the business and indirectly their future happiness.  But was buying a pig farm the only way to go? Wouldn't it smell?  And was Bill cut out to be a pig farmer?  She knew she wasn't.  A tea shop, on the other hand, would occupy them both - her making cakes and Bill dealing with the customers.  And people always wanted tea and cakes.  Everyone knew that, whereas vegetarianism was on the rise.

Too much thought processing can be dull for the reader - there's lots of action in the character's head, but not much elsewhere.  The solution is to give them something to do while they ponder.

Clarice pushed the trolley into the supermarket, inhaling the scent of freshly baked bread as she went through the doors - strange when the bread counter was at the far end.  She slammed a paper into the trolley, clocking the headlines about interest rates.  That was what Bill had been going on about.  They needed to invest their nest egg. But was buying a pig farm the only way to go? She sniffed a melon to see if it was ripe.  Wouldn't a pig farm smell?  And was Bill cut out to be a pig farmer?  She knew she wasn't. There was that delicious bread smell again.  It just went to show: people always wanted cakes.  Surely a teashop would be a better idea than a pig farm.

But you don't have to do it this way; you can summarise the decision making process.

Clarice pondered the pig farm idea over the next three days. On Friday morning she woke up, her mind made up.  'Sorry, Bill,' she said.  'It's no go.'

But whichever way you choose, make sure you've given your characters enough time to think.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Finding a Good Title

Titles are hard to find.  Good titles are even harder.  I'm reading Jeanette Winterson's autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. The title made me smile and I wanted to read the book - exactly the reaction most authors would want. (And it's well worth reading, by the way.)

But how to find a good title?  Here's how I've done it...

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

2. Find a phrase or bit of dialogue in the book that seems to say it all. 
Oliver tells Anna as he's seducing her that "Nice girls do." The book is about nice girl Anna going off the rails, so it sort of fits. They do, and she does.  Half way through the book, Jeanette Winterson's adoptive mother asks her 'Why be happy when you could be normal?'  

3. Write a list (it may be a very long list) of words you associate with the book: place names, character names, adjectives, verbs, nouns... Then go for a long walk
I knew what became Kissing Mr Wrong was about Lu's hunt for a mythical perfect man, so I was playing around with ideas about perfection and Mr Right. Then I turned it upside down - the book was really about her mistaken idea of who Mr Right was, and how she actually needed Mr Wrong.  Whenever I was walking the dog I was muttering titles.  One afternoon, within 100ft of home, I came up with Kissing Mr Wrong and knew immediately it was The One. And so it was.

4. Do the above, and then if you get stuck, ask around. 
Book No 4 obviously needed an Italian theme, preferably mentioning Rome. I had the longest list of words but still couldn't find a title. At one point I collared a bunch of my son's friends and had an impromptu eight person title brainstorming session. In the end, my lovely friend Nancy came up with A Single to Go, which needed just a bit of tweaking to become A Single to Rome.

5. Accept you won't always get the title you want
I called Book No 3 Another Man's Wife, after Becca the main character describes herself as such. My editor liked it, but sales and marketing didn't. They wanted Another Woman's Husband. I still prefer my version.