Monday, 30 November 2009

Research - Just Say No

I am not a fan of research for writers. In fact, writers should avoid research as much as possible. That's not to say that research doesn't enrich novels - as someone who has used backgrounds as various as symbolism in eighteenth century landscape gardens and the cue-scripts of William Shakespeare, I love the additional layers that research brings. It's just that I think research is a poor starting point for a writer. It's too seductive. You read and read around your subject, happily thinking that you are moving your novel forward. But the only way you move your novel forwards is by putting words down on the page and notes on the background don't count.

Research is best left until you've written the first draft and know exactly what you need. If you need to speak to an expert then you don't waste their time by asking questions when you won't use the answers. While you are writing your first draft, assume that the facts will be there to support your imagination and write what you'd like to have happen. For example, in Nice Girls Do I needed my main character to injure herself in such a way that it was impossible for her to move for a few days, but for her to recover completely after a week or so. As I was writing I made the assumption that such an injury could exist. After the first draft was finished I found my expert (thanks, Craig Davey) who told me that a partial lateral tear of the ligaments would give exactly the symptoms I needed for the purposes of the story.

Why do readers read novels? Yes, an interesting background adds to the experience, but essentially they are reading for the story. If they want to know about Stourhead or Stancombe (to name two gardens I used as background for Nice Girls Do) then they will read a non-fiction book about them and/or visit them. Too much research and there's a risk of clogging up the story telling process. So if you're writing and you're tempted to do a bit of research rather than write that difficult scene - just say no. Write now, research later.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Naturally Talented?

I saw one of my fellow students from my MA yesterday. At first I didn't recognise her - it's been ten years and we weren't particularly close. But I could remember her writing, how confident it was, how polished. I could remember how impressed I was when she shared her work in class, how much I envied her talent, and how far behind I knew my work was compared to hers.

I had similar feelings with the first creative writing class I went to. One student shone, her work far better than any one else's. I struggled with the exercises, especially free writing - there's something about being told to write now this minute that freezes my brain - but this student was brilliant. The words flowed, her imagination apparently boundless, flair and intelligence combined into delightful prose.

And yet, and yet. And yet I am published, and they aren't. I remember my fellow MA student, how she announced that she'd finish her novel if an agent or publisher was interested, but wouldn't waste her time otherwise. I remember the student I was so overawed by, and know that she - despite interested enquiries from agents and publishers - refused point blank to even consider changing a single word of her novel.

I remember them, and realise that sheer natural talent on its own isn't enough to make a writer. A whole raft of abilities are needed and close to the top of the list are the ability to finish work, and the ability to work with others. Which I find pretty comforting, to be honest, because those are things we can learn to do.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Self Publishing and Me

There's been a lot of comment recently about self publishing, what with the Harlequin decision to promote a 'self-publishing' wing of their business. For about ten years I made a haphazard living as a self publisher of careers books, first as a one woman band operating from the kitchen table, then as a small publisher employing six part-timers. What I learned was...

1. Publishing a book ie producing something you can hold in your hands is the easy part. You just pay a printer, typesetter, cover designer etc and they do the work for you. Companies such as Lulu.com effectively do the same, but get their money from a slice of the cover price.

2. Distribution is the problem. It's very hard to get into bookshops that either buy centrally or buy from wholesalers ie most of them. That's not to say it can't be done, but it requires hard work.

3. The paperwork can be tricky. Ebooks are easier, but you'll still need to keep receipts, send out invoices etc. Self publishing is running a business, even if it's only got one product - your book.

4. It is much much easier to make a success from non-fiction than fiction. Non-fiction means you can target a defined market. I published careers books; I sold them to careers officers at secondary schools. Fiction sells to...people who like reading stories?

5. Not all your friends will buy a copy, and neither will all their friends. Despite reading about success stories the chances are you will lose money on self publishing. At best you will break even. Sad but true. At least if you epublish you won't have 2,457 books stored under your bed.

6. Books are heavy. 2,457 books under the bed will strain your joists. I worked out that 500 of my books were the same weight as a baby elephant. No wonder the car died after carting a small herd around.

7. Self published books usually look amateurish (cartoon covers or illustrations by your partner/neighbour/child are a giveaway). It is worth getting them professionally designed. Ditto professionally edited.

8. Book marketing and publicity is a full time job and buying in expertise is expensive. That's why niche books for small markets work.

9. Discounts are high in the book business. 65% is not unusual for the chains plus you'll have to pay the p&p. And then wait for 30+ days to get your money. If you sell directly to customers then you keep more of the cash, but single copy orders eat time and energy.

10. Define what you want to get out of it. Make lots of money? Hold your book in your hands? See it on the shelves at Waterstones? Win the Booker? Work out what YOU really really want to get from this, and make that your target.

I loved self publishing and as a mum with a baby and a toddler, living in the middle of nowhere, it was the only way I could make some money. I averaged about £10,000 per annum from it and my children grew up knowing how to stuff envelopes with mail-shots and stick stamps on parcels (fun for all the family). I stopped when I realised I was spending most of my time managing others and hardly any of it writing. So I wound the business up and gave myself two years to get a novel published. But that's another story.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Publication Day

It's here.

For the last few weeks I've been living an extended version of a Stephen King film. I'm walking through an empty house, knowing that there's something exceptionally scary around the corner. The tension is mounting, I'm terrified but somehow I can't bring myself to turn around, I edge onwards, getting closer and closer, wanting to go back, my palms are sweating, my heart is pounding, feeling sick with apprehension, I stop, but now it's edging towards me, I can hear it creeping nearer and nearer, I can't move, I can't go back, it's here, it's here.

Yes, it's Publication Day. My nearest and dearest have been aware of the looming presence for several months as my blood pressure rises to explosion levels over innocent topics such as 'have you seen my bag?' Friends and acquaintances have been aware for the last few weeks as I bludgeon them to attend the launch party (it's at Waterstones! In Bath - tonight - 7.00pm. Do come!). I tell them again and again, by email, phone calls, face to face, forgetting who has said yes in my anxiety that No One will be there.

Then there are the Amazon ratings. Don't get me started - or rather, can someone stop me from obsessively checking the ratings. Get the right hour, the right day and it's gratifyingly low (No 1 is obviously best of all), get the wrong moment and you're down in the five figures. It changes every hour, up and down the scale, so at any moment a poor author may be thrown into despair or elation, driving them to return in a manner reminiscent of B F Skinner's work with pigeons and erratic reinforcement.

I'm aware that some people might read this and think, yeah right, but at least she's being published. I don't want to whinge, I know I've been lucky. But I also know that, while the step from unpublished to published can seem impossibly vast, the step from published to unpublished is a short one. The only thing stopping me taking that short step is the sales figures. A year's worth of work, hopes and dreams, tied up in one day. Publication day. Today. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Ideas R Us

It's one of the standard questions writers get asked: Where do you get your ideas from? The short answer is something like, Ideas-R-Us, where you can get a boxed set for £9.99 and the deluxe version (bestseller guaranteed) for only £19.99. The reality is that ideas are all around us, whether from something we hear from friends, or see on television or read in the papers or just from observation of daily life. Finding ideas really isn't a problem. Finding a good idea is another matter.

A good idea is one that matters to you. That's why it's no good telling me all about your amazing idea and suggesting I might like to write it up. The idea is amazing to you, so you should write it. It's not MY amazing idea, so I'm not going to spend the best part of a year slaving away - writing is hard enough when it matters. The next thing to look for is scope. When you think of your idea, lots of possible directions should come into your head. Some writers use spider diagrams for this stage - you know, those ones where you start with a word in the centre and radiate ideas, joining them with lines so the end result is a page of words all linked like a spider's web.

I prefer to play What If. What if this happened? How would I react? What might happen next? What would make it really tough? What if that happened? And so on. With A Single to Rome, I started with What if you thought you were going to marry someone, and then they dumped you? How would you feel? What would you do? Would you want revenge? (By the way, that's why my working title was 38 Bonks.) I knew I wanted to send Natalie to Rome because I'd been a student there and fancied writing about it, so why was she going? To escape, fine, but who was she going to stay with? How would she meet them? What if they had their own problems?

In answering those questions I was able to start writing, and in the process of writing the novel, ditch some of the original questions and ask new, more interesting ones (which is why it didn't end up being called 38 Bonks, although that stayed as the working title because it makes me laugh). Good ideas inspire good questions. Good questions inspire good answers. Good answers mean - I hope - good novels. It's either that, or this year for Christmas I'm asking for the deluxe idea set.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Matter of Focus

Last Saturday I watched films until my eyes ached and my bum was numb. This was not the result of a decision to watch the complete boxed set of Spaghetti Western DVDs I got in my stocking last Christmas, but because I went to Brief Encounters, the Bristol Short Film Festival. 'Short' ranged from 1 minute 3 seconds to 29 minutes, and made up about five hours of screen time. Some films were compelling, while others had me checking my watch. I tried to pin point what it was that made the compelling ones so absorbing, and came to the conclusion that it was a matter of focus.

Focus meant keeping one's eyes on what the story was about. There were sometimes multiple strands, but each was always turning back towards the central story. So in one of my favourite films, Light and Dark, a documentary about the alter egos of a film maker and an illustrator who happens to be autistic, everything came back to their relationship, both in real life and in their virtual life. There was no information on their lives outside this relationship - there didn't need to be.

In the same way, when we write, we need to concentrate on what the story is really about, and weave everything back to it. This is particularly true of short stories, where there's precious little space to allow any digression, but also true in novels. Everything must earn its place, even if the reader isn't aware at first why the digression is there. In The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, each chapter starts with the description of an apparently randomly chosen knot. But gradually the descriptions tie in with the story. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is narrated by over twenty voices, but each tells a separate part of the whole story and the focus of the novel as a whole is maintained.

Sometimes I scribble down the main story theme on a Post-it and stick it to the corner of my computer screen. Then when I get stuck it's always there to remind me: what is the focus of this book? And then I work out how to get my characters back on track and, by focussing on the main story, I find I can move on.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part III

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

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

7 things to look out for...

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

And there it is. Easy peasy.

PS Also easy peasy I discover is how to make links. My thanks to Peter Richardson for the info, complete with diagrams, and to prove I've learned the lesson, here's the link to his blog Cloud 109

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Torture for Writers Part I

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 20 November 2009

Writing about Writing about Sex

I've got a piece up on the Guardian's BooksBlog about writing about writing about sex:

Afterwards I realised that it was a piece written with the benefit of hindsight: This is what I try to do. But when I started writing, I hadn't thought any of those ideas let alone formulated them into something close to rules. Instead I was making it all up as I went along.

I've always been interested in writing about relationships, so sex seemed a natural part of that. I wrote what I imagined my characters might be doing and what their emotions were without thinking of what my potential readers might think. It was only later that I realised that some writers become hamstrung by their worries of what their mother/father/partner/children/neighbours/friends might think. It cripples their writing, and no wonder, if that bunch is forever peering over their shoulder and commenting on what they've written.

Writing about sex should, ideally, be like having sex. You shouldn't write about sex if it makes you anxious or unhappy. It's not compulsory. It's an optional but, in my opinion, important element of human relationships. It should be something that feels natural and comfortable to you and happens in a non-judgmental environment. Let's face it, it's difficult to enjoy sex fully if you're worrying about your spare tyre or stretch marks, the same way that good writing is inhibited if you've got the critics sitting on your shoulder.

But the wonderful thing about writing about sex - about all writing in fact - is that you can write without inhibition because no one need see it. You have full control. Your characters can do whatever you fancy them doing, and they'll never answer back. And after it's all over, if you don't like it you can press the delete button, and there - It's gone. Your mother need never know.


Thursday, 19 November 2009

Workshop Woes

Your palms are hot and sweaty, your mouth is dry. The blood pounds in your ears so hard you can’t hear what anyone is saying. You think you might be having a heart attack. Vaguely, through misty eyes, you see the workshop leader nod in your direction and mouth your name. Yup, it’s your turn to read.

Sharing work is a bit like placing your precious baby on the ground and inviting all and sundry to bash its little brains out. But it has to be done because reading out work in a workshop is one of the quickest ways to improve. Firstly, what seemed all right when it was just you and your laptop now issues forth in leaden dollops. Did I really write this, you think. It’s dreadful. And I’ve just shifted Point of View again. Having an audience sharpens your senses; you hear what they're hearing, not how it sounds in your head. Secondly, there is feedback, ideally specific feedback. You’ll never improve if all the feedback you get is of the ‘that’s lovely’ kind. Ask why it’s lovely – is it the language, the characterisation, the detail…? Stuck with a bunch of ‘it’s lovely’ bleaters, you've got to ask questions as relentlessly as Jeremy Paxman interviewing a dodgy politician: which character did you like best? Could you imagine the setting? What mood did it create for you?

Then, having read, you can relax and listen to someone else. And, surprise surprise, it’s much easier to learn from critiquing another’s work than it is to learn from your own. Again, be as specific as you can. Is the third paragraph too long, could it be sharpened, are there too many adjectives? Is the structure right – does the piece open in the right place, does the ending work? Is the dialogue being used effectively or is it simply waffle? Practice being an editor.

We start as readers first, then become writers. Somewhere along the line we must also learn to be editors, and to work with editors. Workshopping shortcuts the process. The only problem is, somehow it’s always your favourite, most beloved baby that gets the worst battering. And that's really hard. But hey - welcome to the life of a writer.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Writing for Writing's Sake

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

It never occurred to me that success as an artist was determined by my ability to sell my work in the market place. Success was about my enjoyment in the process, and satisfaction with the end result, however much the perspective was all over the place. So when people ask me, as a creative writing teacher and novelist, if I think you can teach someone to write, I never know what to say. What are they really asking? Can you teach someone craft techniques so their skill improves? Yes. Can you stretch and challenge their abilities in an enjoyable way? Definitely. Can you make them a published author? No – you can only give them some tools to help them along the way.

I don't think using market place success is the right way to judge creative writing teaching. What makes a published writer is a big combination of elements - determination, persistence, talent, luck, skill, hard work, imagination... You can't teach "it" but no one knows what "it" is. What you can do is give a leg up to the talented, improve the untalented and generally develop skills and have a lot of fun doing it. I'm thrilled to bits when one of my students gets a book published or wins a short story competition but ultimately publication isn't what I'm teaching. For myself, I wanted to be published, as an endorsement of what I was doing, but going to creative writing classes was always about the enjoyment of the process. It still is.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Cherry Cake Pacing

On the few occasions I’ve made a cherry cake I’ve carefully followed all the instructions, stirred in my glace cherries (full of E numbers, but stickily delicious), carefully spooned the mixture into the cake tin, then popped it in the oven. Half an hour or so later the cake is ready. Then the first slice…and all the cherries have ended up in one glutinous lump at the bottom. It’s a bit like pacing a novel. The best scenes – the cherries – need to be distributed evenly throughout. The easiest way to check your novel for pacing is to use index cards, one scene per card.

Start with a big table or a clear floor. Draw a few imaginary lines, one for normal, one for exciting, one for incredibly dramatic. Now lay the cards out scene by scene, according to where you think they are on the scale (depending on your novel, the scale may be normal: scary: scariest, or normal: emotional: tempestuous, etc). When you done the lot, step back. Ideally the novel should follow the line of a series of hills and valleys, with the hills getting higher as the novel reaches The End. Of course, not every novel follows this plan – The Lovely Bones is one best-selling exception – but it’s a good one to aim for.

It’s about pace: readers need the contrast in fast and slow, between the heights and the depths, with the ordinary stuff connecting the best scenes like cake mix. If your cherries are clumped into a sticky mess, then spread them out. In cake making the answer is to dredge the cherries with flour before dropping them into the mix. For novels, the answer is some dismantling and rearranging. I love this bit. The hard slog of the first draft is over, and now it’s like cooking: necessity, pleasure and craft are all mixed up together and the result is…mmmmm.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Five Paragraphs Expanded

A few people asked me to expand on my format for a covering letter to an agent, so here it is, all to be fitted on one page.

1. Why you're writing to them. You've heard them speak or read an article they've written. Maybe they represent an author who you admire and hope to emulate. It should be specific which shows that you've bothered to do some research which in turn shows a professional outlook.

2. Brief summary of your book. Length, genre etc. Then a few sentences about the theme of the book. This equates to the scriptwriter's elevator pitch, where you imagine you're in a lift with someone who could buy your script, but you've only got a minute to sell it to them. Be clear about what it is you're selling.

3. Market position of the book. Essentially, who's going to buy it. This could be phrased as 'It will appeal to readers of...' and then name a couple of authors, rather then a demographic. Depending on the book, you might want to combine paras 2 and 3.

4. About yourself. Include anything that endorses you as a writer, such as articles published or short story competitions won. Also include any personal information that is directly relevant to the book, such as the book is about shenanigans in a school, and you're a teacher. Don't include anything else such as your friends think it's a wonderful book, or how very difficult it was to write.

5. Thank you for your time etc. I call this the 'I am not a loony' paragraph, so no demands that they get back to you within 48 hours, or copyright threats. Instead, pitch yourself as the ideal author, hardworking, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but also very open to feedback and direction. And don't forget the SAE.

The whole should be written in simple, straightforward language - you are after all hoping to have a long term business relationship with this person. Ask some friends to read it because, in your anxiety to get it right, it's very easy to come across negatively, and while they're reading get them to check the spelling and the grammar. And by the time you've done all that, you're probably feeling like giving up on the whole business and taking up watercolours instead. But persevere. Get it right just once, and you'll never have to go through this again.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Guilty Secrets

From my bed I can see the sun is shining on honey Bath stone and the sky is blue. Outside, the street is bright after the rain, scattered leaves in gold and scarlet across the pavement. Sunday morning, a time for lie-ins and breakfast in bed, luxuriating at the weeks end. Except for me. I am in bed with guilt.

Guilt, my constant companion. I should be writing. I shouldn't be enjoying the beauty of the morning, I should be writing. And if I'm not writing I should be doing something to promote my writing career - Twittering, blogging, arranging readings, writing articles and short stories, developing new ideas, building the brand...The list seems endless at times. I read about other authors, the ones with organised lives, the ones who have work routines, weekly, daily, even hourly word targets, the ones who seem to know what they are doing, the ones who never feel guilty.

I should be writing. I should be busily clocking up my 1000 words a day - 2000 if I was Stephen King - and then a fully formed novel would slip off my laptop in a couple of months, followed by another, and another. I should be a little novel factory, buzzing merrily along, fingers tapping on the keyboard, clickety click. Instead, I am lying in bed feeling guilty. I should be writing, even though it is Sunday morning and the first glimpse of sunshine we've had for days.

Guilt, my enemy, my friend. Guilt makes me hit my deadlines, guilt makes me write a novel a year. I should be writing. But I'm not a factory and it's a sunny morning. I think I'll take the dog for a long country walk.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Ten Year On

I saw my first creative writing tutor in the supermarket yesterday, and realised that it's exactly ten years since I started writing. As a child my dream was to live in a house of books, with enough money to buy any book I fancied, and enough time to read it. Becoming a writer was something that only occurred to me much later. I made various unsuccessful attempts throughout my twenties, at best getting to Chapter 3 before giving up. I had ideas, but none of them could make the transition from my head to the page.

Then, many years later, I was trying to move to Bath. I'd enrolled my children in Bath schools but the house hadn't materialised, so I was driving them in, spending the day househunting, then driving back. But there weren't enough houses to fill a whole day of looking, so it seemed my opportunity to start writing. I went to class one morning a week and wrote the rest of the time. I can remember presenting my very first story. It was just over 400 words and I was thrilled and appalled. Thrilled because I'd actually finished something and it had a beginning, middle and an end, and appalled because it was only 400 words and I couldn't see how on earth I could make it longer.

The class was brilliant in giving me a focus. Each week I wrote and wrote and then listened to the feedback. I read even more and tried to copy what I saw real authors do. And gradually my stories became longer without me even trying, just because I was adding more depth, more detail. Ten years on I've written five novels and I now teach that same Friday morning class. But I always remember how difficult it seemed at the beginning, how impossible. It still seems impossible, to be honest. I just know that the answer is to write, and carry on writing.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Lift Test

Imagine you're going up to the 8th floor when the lift shudders, then stops. You wait but nothing happens. It looks like you're going to be there for some time. You turn to the sole other occupant of the lift and - well, who would you like to be stuck with? Do you want to be stuck with the person who drones on about how hopeless the situation is, or the one who thinks of an escape plan? Would you prefer the person who tells you at length about their very dull, static life, or the one who has plenty of interesting stories? And at a more basic level, would you like the one who is distinctly lacking in attractive qualities, compared to the one who is full of life and energy?

Reading a novel is a bit like being stuck in a lift with a set of characters, if you think about the length of time it takes to read one. It usually takes me about eight hours to read a novel, and that may be spread out over several days or even weeks. So I need the characters to be engaging or I'll put the book down.

When I'm writing, at the back of my mind I'm imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the lift for eight hours with my main character. Life may not be going well for them, but they don't, won't, can't whine about it. Instead, they're busy trying to work out an escape plan. Perhaps because we worry whether readers will like our main character there's a tendency to make them bland, and I suppose it's better to be bland than out and out offensive. But only just better. Instead, apply the lift test. The characters to write about - good, bad or plain ugly - are always going to be the ones who make those eight hours seem like eight minutes.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Slaughter of the Innocents

I knew my first novel was a work of genius. It was obvious. So it was a bit disconcerting when my MA tutor suggested that, while writing it had been a good learning curve, it was time to put that book to one side and start another. Even more disconcerting was the experience of sending it out to agents. My sample chapters returned so fast the envelopes had scorch marks down the side. How could this be? Could the world really be that blind to my glorious, shining novel? Distinctly miffed, I tried a book doctor. But when the report came it was clearly the work of an imbecile, and not worth considering.

I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all. I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted had some validity.

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

I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, and that book ended up being published around the world. Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Mathematics of Novel Writing

People often tell me that they'd like to write a novel but they don't have the time. Actually you don't need much time to write a novel, you just need a little basic maths. Ten to twenty minutes a day is about how long it takes most people to write 250 words*. Multiply 250 words by 365 days and you get 91,250 words. That's a reasonable length for a first draft. Now, all you need is ten or so minutes a day...

1. Do your novel thinking outside your writing time so when you get the chance you know roughly what you're going to write.

2. If you say something like, "I just want to do some writing, could you keep an eye on the children", you're in effect asking for permission. Sneak off without telling anyone and I bet it'll be ten minutes at least before anyone notices you've gone.

3. Leave your writing with a few notes about where you're going next. When you next get the chance they'll refresh your memory quickly so you use the time effectively.

4. If you get stuck on one section jump to the next bit you fancy writing; you can always go back later and fill in the gaps.

5. Give up watching television. Or Sudoku, the crossword, emails, Twitter - there are thousands of things that gulp down novel writing time. And if all else fails...

6. Cultivate a reputation for IBS. Why not? Who will ever question, other than sympathetically (or possibly cautiously), the time you're spending in the loo?

If you really, really want to write a novel you'll find those ten minutes. It's just about the maths. A x B = C. That's all you need to know.

* As a guideline, this post is 300 words.



Alien Abduction and Agent Letters

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 November 2009

X Factor Writing

So Lucie has been voted off the X Factor, despite being the best female vocalist, while Jedward, unable to sing in tune 50% of the time, stay on. You'd have thought that a basic requirement of a singing competition would be to sing in tune, but Jedward's entertainment quotient presumably won the day. And you'd have thought that becoming an author would have the basic requirement of being able to write the damn novel, but it seems that's no longer the case.

When I think of how hard it is to write a novel, even how many hours it takes to simply type out 100,000 words - regardless of quality - yup, I grind my teeth when I hear some celebrity trilling on about how they 'wrote' their novel with the aid of their experienced ghost writer. But then I assume Simon Cowell, as a businessman, made his decision to reprieve Jedward based on what he thought would keep the most viewers still hooked on the X Factor and therefore make him the most money. Sometimes I think it's easy to forget that publishing is a business and authors are in the entertainment industry.

If celebrity novels make money, then that's good for everyone in publishing - authors included. IF they make money. And that's where the business plan may fall down. As publishers in the run up to Christmas churn out more celebrity offerings, perhaps they should remember that while Jedward didn't come last in the public vote, they did come next to last.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Reacting to Feedback

I don't usually read the sports pages but this caught my eye. It's a quote from an interview with Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager.

"The common denominator of successful teams is that the players are intelligent. That does not always mean educated. They can analyse a problem and find a solution. The common denominator of a top-level person is that they can objectively assess their performance. You speak to a player after the game and ask him to rate his performance and if he analyses well, you know he is the sort who will drive home thinking, 'I did this wrong, I did that wrong.' His assessment will be correct and, next time, he will rectify it. That player has a chance. The one who has a crap game and says he was fantastic, you worry for him. This is also true in life beyond football."

And it's true in writing. The student I found hardest to teach was the one who, when offered feedback on his work, responded: 'I'm perfectly satisfied with what I've written.' No criticism of his work was allowed; even the mildest suggestions were rejected. If you're writing solely for yourself then that's your choice, but if you want to be published you have to learn how to analyse your writing, recognise problems and find solutions. The process is one of constant feedback and adjustment, whether from editors, friends or readers. If you're perfectly satisfied with your writing and need no further feedback then I'm happy for you, but I doubt you'll be playing in the Premier League.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On Method and MAs

Many years ago I trained as an actor, then worked as one for three years. After I left acting I wrote several editions of a book called 'A Guide to Drama Training in the UK' which involved going to visit all the drama schools and interviewing staff and students. One of the questions floating around was: could acting be taught? Some schools taught using The Method, based on the methodology for acting developed by Stanislavski. Others expected drama students to pick up good practice by osmosis, giving them the chance to work with established directors.

Creative Writing MAs operate on not dissimilar principles. Students work with established writers (one hopes) and pick up good practice from them. I'm not aware that much craft is taught. When I did my MA I was surprised that there weren't any straightforward taught craft sessions. I was told that they expected students to come already knowing 'all about that.' But they don't. It's not taught.

If you read extensively then you do absorb the principles by osmosis. Jane Austen never had the benefit of reading Syd Field, for example, yet Pride and Prejudice shows a perfect understanding of Three Act Structure, including Syd Field's 'pinch'. Perhaps she'd read Aristotle's Poetics, but I think it's more likely that she simply read and read and read.

All writers should read widely, from the best to the worst, and particularly in the field in which they wish to write. But they can also learn craft techniques in a methodical way. These can be taught, but I suspect most MAs would prefer to stick with osmosis. I loved my MA course - osmosis is fun - but, just like actors learning to project and not bump into the furniture, craft should be taught as well.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Editing in Action

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

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

I looked at my long, long email full of self-justification and realised: I didn't want to change the order simply because it meant more work. After a short bout of internal wrestling I deleted the email and wrote another, shorter one. You're quite right, I wrote to my editor. I'll do it.

And I did. And it was better.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

The Sudoku Novel Method

My friend Nancy has tried her first Sudoku. 'I'm sure I'll find out all the short cuts and tricks if I stick with it,' she said. 'I'm just not sure I can be bothered.' It was on the tip of my tongue to burst in and tell her some short cuts, but decided against it - there was some serious gossiping to be done after all. But afterwards I was thinking about what tricks and short cuts I'd have suggested. I decided that the most useful one was to be flexible: when one part of the puzzle appeared impossible, stop struggling and move on to another section.

As I get further on with writing novels it seems to me that flexibility is a useful tool for novelists too. When you get stuck in one particular section, move on to another which looks more promising. Never let it become a drag on the soul. When I was writing A Single to Rome it was ages before I knew what Natalie, the main character, did for a living. So I skipped through the work scenes and came back to them when I'd decided - more than half way through. Apparently, when Mike Myers is gets stuck he simply writes 'And then something amazing happens', and carries on.

For me, the really satisfying moments in writing are the ones where the difficult piece that didn't seem to fit anywhere at all suddenly slots in and the whole picture becomes clearer. So, once I knew what Natalie's job was, a lot of other scenes fitted into place, and a lot of future scenes became clearer. It takes faith, of course, to believe that if you leave a scene half written or sketched in it will resolve itself later. But at least, unlike Sudoku, if you go wrong you don't have to rip it all up and move on to something else.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Be Quick!

When the weather's like this, the big decision of the day is when to walk the dog without getting drenched.  I peer out of the window trying to calculate the odds on it brightening up later on, while factoring in the last chance of walking in daylight.  

And at some point the novel will have to be written.  Like the dog walk, I know it should be done every day, but unlike the dog, the novel doesn't have big appealing eyes and a mournful face. Perhaps if it existed in physical form - a stack of paper beside a battered typewriter, or a series of notebooks - it would be less easy to ignore.  Because it's incredible how easy it is to spend a whole day intending to get down to writing the novel and end up going to bed without being a single word further along the line, especially when the deadline is months away.  

When my dog was a puppy I trained him to perform to the command 'be quick'.  It's especially handy on the late night walk around the block.  If only I could train myself to respond to the same command because just as the dog needs walking every day, so does the novel. Be quick, Sarah! Be quick!

Monday, 2 November 2009

To Plan or not to Plan

Changing the duvet cover this morning led to the same old argument as to the best method - I'm a 'feed the ends in, hold tight, then shake it down' person, t'other is an 'inside out and flip it over' afficionado. It struck me this is a little like writing a novel. Do you plan extensively, or simply go with the flow?

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

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

But, in the end, it doesn't really matter how you change the duvet cover, so long as the bed gets made.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

NaNoWriMo and writing tricks

Well, I've done it.  Joined NaNoWriMo, that is.  Not done any novel writing though, which doesn't bode well for completing in 50,000 words by the end of November.  It's strange: this will be my sixth novel but at this stage I can't believe that I'm really capable of writing 100,000+ words.  And looking up at the books doesn't help because once they're properly typeset and wrapped up in their covers they stop looking like mine.  

But, five novels down, I've learned a few tricks... 

1.  Little and often is best.  Even if there's only ten minutes available, grab it and write.
2. Anything you write can be made better, so it's worth writing rubbish.
3. If stuck, write description: what your character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell.  Where are they? What are they wearing?  How do they feel? What are they thinking?  It's usually good for a couple of hundred words.
4.  You often don't know what you're writing until you've written it.  The act of writing unleashes all sorts of imaginative ideas and connections. Don't think, write.

Which is, of course, what I ought to be doing instead of blogging.