Friday, 24 August 2012

How Much Does Good Grammar and Spelling Matter?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 August 2012

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 August 2012

Re-Writing Before There's Cash On The Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Incomplete Sentences. Are. Irritating.

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

4 Ways to The Perfect Title

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

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

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

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

That's 4 ideas - any more out there?

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

4th Place For Writers

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

Close, but not close enough.

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

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

Monday, 13 August 2012

Story Threading For Depth

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 August 2012

Being An Olympic Writer

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Vocabulary For Pacing And Mood

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Pacing Your Writing

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

Things that speed the pace up:

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

Things that slow the pace down:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

5 Reasons Why Not To Write In Chapters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 August 2012

Why Motivation Matters In Plausibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel IV

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

How To Re-Write A Novel III

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

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

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

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

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

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