Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Coffee and Petits Fours

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.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Pudding

And now we come to the bit that most people think of as re-writing, editing. This is the point when we examine every line and justify its place in the scene, and then having justified the line, we consider every word.

Reading out loud is a great help at this stage, checking that it reads smoothly. The big proviso is that you must read accurately - I notice that quite a few students read what they'd like to see rather than what is actually on the page. Words get cut, contractions are made which simply aren't there. (Contractions are things like I will becoming I'll - we do it in speech, but some people tend not to when writing. It depends on the writing style, but no contractions can make the writing appear very stilted.)

Two books I'd recommend at this point: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I've got a long line-editing checklist that I hand out to students, and I might post some chunks of it at some stage when I'm feeling waspish but a simple version is...

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

I could go on, but read the books and you'll come up with your own list.

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

Monday, 29 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Meat

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...

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Fish

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 Wrong changed to Briony in the subsequent drafts and got a life. She goes through her own development and her own story and her life has changed by the end of the novel. As a writer who is a former actor, I like to think that there aren't any duff roles in my books.

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

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

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Soup

The first course is soup, a lovely liquid mass. It's contained within the bowl, but can flow anywhere. Look at the cutlery and choose the spoon furthest away from the plate - you're working from the outside inwards, remember.

The reason I say go outside inwards is it makes no difference how beautiful any individual sentence is, if the whole thing is wrong, if the story telling doesn't work, if there are problems with structure, then no one is ever going to read that perfect sentence. So, the story, the structure, the shape has to be right before you start fussing over adjectives and verbs.

At this stage I like to put the story down on index cards, one card per scene. On the card you write the setting, characters present, the purposes of the scene and the main action. This is one I wrote for an early draft of Another Woman's Husband.

Setting: Don't actually know! next page, B's house somewhere. Also, not dated.
Becca and Lily. Becca dreaming of Paul, Lily wanting to go out late clubbing. Frank rings, wants Becca to go round and help. NB Frank last mentioned/seen when? Pages ago.

And a couple from Kissing Mr Wrong...

Setting: Lorna's place. Dinner party. L's invited Marcus for Alex. Other people there NB should have been mentioned in opening scene. Skiing trip mentioned - Alex will need to find the money. Lorna offers her job in the gallery.

Setting: ????? Alex and Lorna. Alex talks about a) career, she's gone adrift b) Marcus as perfect man c) what to do about photograph. Lorna a) tells her M's going to Glasgow b) suggests Gus as possible re photograph

Obviously, as I was writing out my index cards I realised there were some problems which would need to be addressed should the scenes remain in the next draft and made notes accordingly. But that's for a future stage. Right now I'm checking that it's clear what the purposes are for each scene and how they move the story on.

When I've gone through the whole of the novel I've got a stack of index cards. I lay these out on the bed (I work a lot in bed). This is the easiest way to 'see' the novel as a whole. I'm looking for various things, all concerned with structure -

* is the 'shape' of the novel right, with exciting stuff happening throughout (the cherries - see earlier post)
* is there a good balance between active and reflective scenes (ie pace)
* do scenes flow ie have I set actions up
* are there any obvious holes - a character goes missing for a while, a plot strand is unresolved
* is the timing right? eg if someone becomes pregnant in Jan, do they have the baby in the autumn? At this stage I work out exactly when each scene takes place and note any bank holidays or other events that may affect the story.

I move scenes around, I add them, I take them away, I combine them. Anything. It's a fluid process (it's soup!). When I'm happy with the shape of it, it's on to the next course.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Posh Dinner Re-writing: Napkins Ready

Have you ever been to a posh dinner and been presented with a vast array of silverware spreading in ranks either side of your plate? Re-writing is like dealing with all those forks and spoons without getting it wrong and spilling soup down your front, or using the butter-knife to eat your peas. The simple answer is to start from the outside and work your way in.

I'm a BIG fan of rewrites. I think the quality of the rewrites is the difference between getting published or not getting published. (I can hear the planners clattering away at their keyboards about to lay into me for wasting time and not being efficient enough to do a decent piece of work first time round but hey - this is my blog, right, and what I say goes.)

The first thing to do is put the book away for as long as you can manage. The longer you leave it, the more distance you have. The more distance you have, the more you read like a disinterested reader, and the more you're able to spot problems. There's what you think you wrote and there's what you actually wrote, and if you're too close you can't see if there's a gap.

When I did this on my first novel the gap was about four months, mainly because I was incensed that the world hadn't realised what a startling work of genius had just landed on their doorstep and turned it down. Cue metaphorical flouncing out of the room and mega sulks from me. When I did finally go back I was ready to concede that the world might have a point.

So imagine spreading your starched linen napkin across your lap, gearing up for the lovely meal ahead. You've been thinking about it for ages, you've got various ideas as to what you might expect to see but you're open to whatever turns up on your plate. You know it's going to take time to get through all the courses and you're ready for that. Psychologically you're prepared for it to take as long as it needs. Ready? First course coming up...

Thursday, 25 March 2010

5 Characteristics: Hard Work

For my MA we had to submit only 30,000 words of a novel to get the qualification. I remember walking with another student along to a reading the MA year group were doing as part of the Bath Lit Fest and asking how she was getting on with her book (that I greatly admired). 'Oh,' she said airily. 'I'm going to wait and see if anyone wants it before I write any more. I can't be bothered to do anything more on it unless it's going to be published.'

There were quite a few people on the course who felt the same way it turned out. I was amazed. And cheered, because at least I'd finished my first draft. It meant I was in the race instead of polishing my shoes on the side lines. However, because I'd done enough work to enter the race, I relaxed a little. Okay, a lot. When I sent the first draft out I knew that there were things that weren't quite right, but I didn't do the work to fix them. Deep in my heart, I hoped someone else would do the work for me. An editor perhaps, or the publishing pixies. Fat chance.

I don't think people really appreciate how much work goes into that first novel. I'm sure it's not a cost effective enterprise for most people, although deeply, deeply satisfying. My first draft was turned down. It took me two years to take my first novel from idea to a publishing deal and I worked harder on it than I'd worked on anything before. I worked on it when I didn't want to. I worked on it when I was tired. I worked on it when I was angry that no one loved it. I re-wrote and re-wrote, ditching about 90% of the first draft before the book got published.

The truth is, there are no publishing pixies. If you don't do the work, no one else will.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

5 Characteristics: Market Focus

Yes, there are books that cross genres. The chances are you haven't written one. Or rather, books that do cross genres have an initial target readership and then get marketed to other readers. JK Rowling is found on in children's sections, although there is a big adult readership. There are a couple of authors who are probably genuinely cross genre - Kate Atkinson's recent books are literary but also detective novels, and I'm not sure where they get shelved, but she started out as a literary novelist. If she'd started with the detective novels, she'd have been shelved under crime like Louise Welsh, another very literary crime writer.

But I digress. The point is that you need to know very clearly where your main readership will be. If you don't, how can you sell to agents, and then publishers, and the marketing and sales departments, then the bookshops? You may not like the idea of being pigeonholed but if you get published that's what will happen. Publishing is a business, it's not an airy little hobby that a few people in ivory towers are toying with.

I know of one writer whose novel was picked up by an agent and, because the main character in the novel was a teenage girl, the agent announced that they were going to try to place it as a Young Adult. The writer said to me, "Whatever - if it gets published they can call it what they like." But it hadn't been written as a YA novel and it showed - publishers were interested, made suggestions but no one liked it enough to offer. The writer did several rewrites for different publishers and ended up so confused she stopped writing. (The agent disappeared too.)

I think she should have either stuck to her guns and said it was an adult novel or - if she'd decided it was right to go for the YA market - rewritten it before submitting to publishers. As it was, it went out neither one thing nor another, and I think that was why it failed.

I'm not saying you should write for the market - you should always write from the heart, and write what you want to write - but once it's done, you need to know where your novel might sit within the market. If you don't know, the easiest way of sorting out your genre is to think of writers you write similarly to, and see where they're shelved. Then read their blurbs and steal phrases for your synopsis and covering letter and focus your efforts on the best market sector for you.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

5 Characteristics: Feedback

When you're writing you have a very clear idea of what the characters are like, from their attitudes and motives to what they look like. You can see quite clearly the places they visit, the roads they drive down. This one is charming, that one is self-deprecating, the other is witty. What a shock it is to discover that readers find the charmer a pain in the neck, the diffident one aloof and stuck up and the witty one a complete pillock. No, no, no, you cry. That's not what I meant at all.

It happens a lot in class, particularly with people who are new to the workshopping process. They like to explain what they meant by their writing. This is fine for class, but it won't work when they send their writing out. Afterall, they can't tag along, making sure the reader gets that that comment was meant to be ironic, not taken seriously, or explain the reason they suddenly turned left - it was the complicated one-way system.

More experienced workshoppers listen quietly making notes. They know what they meant by their words; they want to make sure that the readers understood that. Recently someone wrote something so subtly that everyone was baffled by what had actually happened. All it needed was a few extra words and all became clear.

Feedback gives you access to what readers get from your work, and the chance to make sure it tallies with what you want them to get. No one need ever know if you take feedback on board, there is no obligation to make changes, but you should at least listen to what people say. I'm a big fan of feedback and don't think I'd be published without it.

Monday, 22 March 2010

5 Characteristics: Networking

I am sure there are writers who never socialise with other writers, who never go on Twitter, Facebook or any other social media sites, who don't join writing organisations and classes, who simply write a book and get it published. I'm sure they exist. But it's so much easier to get published if you network. In my opinion a would-be writer ought to be involved with most of the following...

Writing classes - you meet other would-be writers who may become your critiquing partners. The tutor should be published, have regular contact with the publishing world and be also to pass on some inside info.
Writing magazines - sources of information on courses, agents, writing tips etc.
Writing societies - offer chances to meet with other authors, agents and publishers
Writing conferences - there are usually chances to meet with other authors, agents and publishers and have 1-2-1's about your work
Literary festivals - most festivals have speakers from the publishing world, whether agents or publishers. It's very bad form to thrust your ms under their noses; however, you can write to them later mentioning their talk.
E-newsletters - you can sign up to The Bookseller or book2book and get all the publishing news into your inbox.
Twitter - follow agents and authors, start making contacts.
Facebook - the same, although Twitter seems easier to make contact.
Blogging - establish a web presence early.

I wasn't internet aware when I was looking to get published so I didn't use the last four, although I use all of them now. Of the others, I joined classes, went to lit fests and conferences, did everything I could. By the time I was looking for an agent I'd already met about ten at various events and signed with one of them. I'm always amazed when people act as if I have a hotline to special info - I don't. I subscribe to the newsletters, read the magazines, and generally stay connected.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

5 Characteristics: Persistence

Persistence manifests itself in different ways. I know of two writers who got published with novel No 7. I also know that I would never have persisted that far. My form of persistence meant I was prepared to write and re-write repeatedly until I ended up with a publishing deal.

I persisted because...
a) I'd told myself that if I didn't write a novel in my MA year then I obviously didn't really want to write enough and should give it up. I have to admit that I got through all the taught modules of the MA without writing a word of my novel, only starting it in the last weeks of the course.
b) I'd got enough money to last two years. After that, it was the check out at Sainsburys. The thought of the checkout motivated me to write when I didn't feel like it, and to keep re-writing. I got my deal 1 year 11 months later.
c) I 100% believed that I was going to get published. I'm not sure how or why I believed that - there was no evidence back it up - but I did. It helped.
d) I was told it was very difficult to get published, which just made me even more determined to succeed.

Apart from a few lucky or well connected people, most writers have to persist to get published, and sometimes persist when all sane people would have given up and done something else. I don't know how you can make yourself keep on in the face of rejection, I just know it has to be done if you want to be published.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Let's Have a Fight, Right Here, Right Now

In real life most of us avoid conflict, but our characters should embrace it. Without conflict there is no drama, and without drama the writing is dull. But because we get brought up to smooth over disagreements there's a tendency to smooth over them in our writing too, even the little conflicts that we hardly notice - who took the last of the milk, where's my pen?

Big mistake. No conflict = boring to read.

So, how to add conflict? First think about the levels of conflict.

Conflict in your head - eg doubts, uncertainty, anxieties, negative personality traits.
Conflict with your body - eg ill health, physical disabilities.
Conflict with your family - eg domineering parents, disobedient children
Conflict with friends - eg rows over actions
Conflict with lovers - eg adultery, desertion, betrayal
Conflict with institutions - eg the tax office, the law
Conflict with individuals in society - eg policeman, traffic warden, doctor
Conflict with the environment - eg floods, cold weather, drought (natural) war, concrete jungle (manmade)

Now think about your main character. Going through the list, how many conflicts could your character potentially have.

For example, just thinking about the school environment a teacher could have conflicts with the rest of the staff from the groundsman to the head teacher, the staffroom tea/coffee rota, the education authority, lack of funding, Ofsted inspection, the school inspectors, exam boards, lost exam papers, marking, the government, nits, mumps, swine flu, poor weather, lack of heating, then there are the students, who may be needy, demanding, physically or mentally abusive, sad, super bright, gifted, challenging, abused, in danger...and I haven't even started on friends, family, lovers and life outside school, let alone the potential for inner conflicts.

Now I'm not suggesting that all these conflicts will have a large place in your writing, but they should be there supplying the grit that will create a beautiful pearl. Make your characters struggle against life, make life hard for them in every way, large or small, you can come up with. Isn't that why characters like Scarlett O'Hara, James Bond and Jane Eyre still resonate today? We follow their struggles and relish seeing them triumph in the end.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The Spice of Conflict

Some years ago a friend got involved in a pet project and roped in lots of people to help. I was one of them. Things were fine for a while, then we had a blazing row and have never spoken since. I hadn't thought about it until another friend told me that she'd seen a book about the project.

I rushed out and bought a copy, immediately flicking through to find the bit with the row, dying to know her take on it. What would she say? Would she slag me off? Would she admit she was wrong? (Ha!) Would she present a version I didn't recognise? Would I be suing her for libel? Would she express regret that the friendship ended? I found the place.

"A helper left, never to be seen again."

Was that it? Apparently, yes. I scooted backwards, searching for another helper I knew who had also jumped ship after a row, who the author had verbally referred to as Miss Psycho along with colourful descriptions of her shortcomings. But however much I looked, there was no sign of Miss Psycho or her misdemeanours. Everything was lovely.

Tactful, yes. Interesting to read, no. The whole book was an exercise in tasteful blandness, all the rough edges smoothed over, no dissention in the ranks, no stitching up of personalities. Now, that's probably a good thing for the author personally, but it's not good for the readers. The book was self-published, and I'm not surprised. Avoiding confrontation and strong emotions we can do at home. We need the spice of conflict when we read.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Don't Shoot Me

Yesterday evening I met with a friend who was feeling despondent about getting published. Her novel is good and I'm sure it will find a home, but she'd only had negative responses so far. I immediately pointed out I'd just blogged about the five characteristics you needed to get published. 'Persistence!' I said. 'Keep at it. Network! Get out there.'
She still looked discouraged. She was tired from work and handling rejection on top was too much.
'You want them to give you money, not just an advance,' I carried on. 'It'll cost them money just to print, distribute and market your novel. You've got to make the effort.'
It's a testament to her nice nature that she didn't hit me at this point.

I wish I could have said something better. I wish that publishing wasn't a hard-nosed business. I wish there were publishing pixies who waved magic wands and whisked contracts out of thin air. But there aren't. It's always been a tough business and in the current climate it's even harder. But people do get picked up, you don't need special contacts beyond those you can make yourself.

Thinking about it, perhaps I should have tried this angle. Imagine you've just left college and are looking for your first job. You've got some shiny qualifications, and you know you could do the job given a chance. You apply for interviews, along with thousands of other recent graduates. Most you never hear from again or get a standard rejection from. You smarten up your presentation, get some feedback on your CV, practice your interview technique, buy a better interview suit... it's discouraging but you persist because you want to get a job. It's that simple.

Would that have been better? Probably not. When you've got over the first flush of enthusiasm about sending out I'm not sure anything anyone says is going to help. But you've got to carry on if you want to get published. Perhaps the only helpful thing to say is enjoy the journey. Make friends with people in the same position and share your triumphs and disasters. Learn as much as you can. Enjoy the writing process. Start a new novel...

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Five Characteristics that get Published

Because I teach creative writing I get to meet and work with a lot of writers who would like to be published. Quite a few of them do get published and, while they are all very different as writers, I've noticed some characteristics they have in common.

1. They are persistent.
2. They network.
3. They listen to feedback, even if they don't like it and choose not to act on it.
4. They have a clear idea of which market or genre they are aiming at and what the requirements are for it.
5. They work hard.

The truth is, to go from unpublished to published your work has to be better than anything else that is out there. Above average isn't good enough, it has to be exceptional.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

No One Likes A Smart Arse

Rules for Heroes: 5 : Don't be too clever

When my son was at primary school there was a girl in his class who was good at everything. She was in the first team for netball and played county level tennis. She played the violin in the National Youth Orchestra. She was in the top sets for every subject. She was a very clever little girl, and loathed by everyone.*

It's hard to like someone who is so clever it all appears easy, and the same is true for characters. Detective writers have to get round the cleverness rule because detectives by definition need to be brighter than the readers so they can get the answer when we are still floundering. There are several ways to do it. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is not the narrator. That's Dr Watson, who is amazed at his friend's cleverness. If Sherlock Holmes was the main viewpoint character he'd be sneering at all us dimwits who couldn't see what was so obvious to him. Plus, as he'd get the answers in double quick time, the stories would be very short indeed. Because they're told from Dr Watson's point of view they last until Sherlock reveals all to him.

Other clever detectives have major character flaws - alcohol, gambling and social ineptitude are popular. They may be clever, but we're glad we're not them. Hercule Poirot is Belgian. Others make mistakes and go down the wrong path before coming to the right conclusion - I've always liked Inspector Wexford because he seems so ordinary, not intellectually clever but full of common sense and homespun wisdom.

Outside detective fiction, if main characters are high flyers, they often get brought down to earth by a more human element - think of all those fictional career girls who get babies dumped on them. They may be good in the boardroom, but they're useless with a nappy! Show me a scientist and I'll show you a character who is domestically incompetent. Call it Tall Poppy Syndrome or what you will, but very clever characters do not make heroes.

If they have to be clever to make the plot work, then they need time to come up with the clever solution. When Milo solves the impossible problem in The Phantom Tolbooth, the author (Norton Juster) specifically tells us that he'd "thought about this problem very carefully ever since leaving Digitopolis." Dick Francis made a career of writing about ordinary, unremarkable blokes who get swept up into exciting situations and manage to make the best of it. It may hurt to suppress your own natural genius, but your main characters need to be of mainstream level intelligence, just like the readers.

*Poor kid, it wasn't really her fault she couldn't make friends, we tried inviting her to tea but were told by her mother that the child couldn't come because she had a full schedule of extra classes and practice every evening. I hope later on she rebelled.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Read Me, I'm a Celebrity

I was going to stick up for Martine McCutcheon. Lots of writers are former actors - I am myself - and if you think about it, the chances are we're going to make better writers than, say, a former plumber or accountant. And then I read 'The Mistress', and all hope of sticking up for MM went out the window. It's AWFUL. Seriously. But it's not enough to say it's awful. Part of writing is learning to examine exactly what makes one bit of writing awful and another brilliant. So here goes...

The first six pages start with our heroine, Mandy getting into a taxi and going to her evening destination. She makes small talk with the taxi driver, and has a few reflective thoughts about her life at the moment.

Good points...
* The purpose of this scene is clear, to introduce the main character, which it does effectively.
* It's also good that Mandy jumps into a taxi, so the six pages that the scene takes have a forward movement as the taxi moves from Mandy's flat to her destination.
* Specific details are used: Mandy clutches a copy of Grazia, the taxi drives past specific landmarks such as the Natural History Museum and the Ritz.
* The pace is fast flowing even though there's a lot of reflection, because she's tempered it with lots of small actions in the narrative present such as checking her makeup and snatches of conversations with the taxi driver.

Not so good points...
* Lazy and often naff adjectives, for example the description of the taxi driver as "a sweet, cheeky chappie in his thirties with cute dimples".
* Telling, telling, and yet more telling - "Mandy loved her home", "she felt good", "she felt relaxed" and so on.
* Having convenient-for-the-writer thoughts..."thinking how thrilled she was that so many of her friends could make it. They were colourful characters of all them, with fast-paced lives, and pinning them down wasn't always easy."
* Having your character appear dim...Mandy "tried her umbrella, arms stretched out of the taxi. 'Eureka, it works!' she trilled, as if discovering a new invention."
* Cliches. It's a cliche to describe your main character by having them admire themselves in the mirror, but even worse if "her hair was as dark as ebony and it fell in shiny waves over her shoulders; her skin was flawless, even and gleaming, her dark long lashes framing her beautiful big brown eyes perfectly."
* The purpose of the scene is to introduce Mandy, which it does. However the impression I get is that she is dim, vain, self-obsessed, lacking humour or humility, self-satisfied. I'm not keen to read on about such a character.

I could carry on nit-picking, but life really is too short. Besides, the worst thing about the scene is that nothing happens. And this is the opening scene. It's like throat clearing before the main speech starts. For six pages a young woman travels by taxi to her destination and has a commonplace conversation with the taxi driver. It would have been so much better to have started with the second scene when she arrives at her destination, her 30th birthday party dinner. The whole thing should have been cut, cheeky chappie and all.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

I'd like to be a Professional Writer Too

Recently I followed a link to a blogpost from a writer I have to confess I'd never heard of. She sounded very impressive though, with lots of books to her names - she wrote under several pseudonyms, and in several genres. The post was all about planning books, which she rinsisted you needed to do extensively beforehand, particularly lots of character work. I felt exhausted just reading about it, especially as I'm not a planner and don't think lots of character work prior to actually writing helps with story telling.

And then I got to the paragraph that said all professional writers worked in this way. She sounded so confident, so certain, I found myself wistfully thinking that this was obviously what I needed to do in order to be a professional writer. Her argument was that a professional writer saved time this way because there was no need for time-consuming re-writes. People who didn't plan were losers. I felt very humble at this point, because I love doing re-writes; to me, that's where the book is created from the rather trashy raw material that is the first draft. I was obviously NEVER going to be a professional writer. I was a loser.

Except...I AM a professional writer, in the sense that I make my living from writing words which become books which get sold. So here's the conundrum; how can I possibly manage this when my working practices are, frankly, haphazard, slapdash and distinctly unprofessional? I don't like planning, and I spend (or waste, depending on your point of view) months on rewriting. Could it be that there is more than one way to write a book? And just because one writer is convinced that their way is the right way, and has no problem with declaring this loudly and forcefully, it doesn't automatically follow that their way is right for you.

I believe all writers are on the same road. Some are travelling more quickly than others, some are currently sitting in a lay-by, some are slow and steady, others are speed merchants. Some are in limousines, others in sports cars, I think I'm in an old jalopy held together with bits of string. But so long as we get there, does it matter how we travel?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Time Passing, Passing Time

One of the most quoted bits of advice is to Show not Tell. It's good advice, but there are times when you need to Tell not Show and one of them is when you have to cover a lot of rather unimportant ground quickly.

After the first kiss, all thoughts of going back were abandoned. They decided to eat at the pub, and spent the evening talking about everything and anything: pets they'd had when children, their favourite things to eat, their families - his mad mother, her dodgy brother - favourite films, bands, books. Everything Bertram said Arabella thought was incredibly interesting, and by the time they were walking home hand in hand she was half way to being in love.

In other words, the conversation would have very dull to anyone who wasn't involved, readers included, but we needed to know they enjoyed that first evening together talking about inconsequential stuff. As you do on the first date with someone you like.

Try this exercise. The situation is an interrogation. It goes on for at least ten hours (could be longer) and at the end the interrogated person finally lets slip some useful information.

Write the scene in a maximum of 20 words. Then try 100, then 250. Which is easier?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Object Impossible

I settled down to watch Mission Impossible III with my son the other day, thinking it would be a nice bonding sort of thing to do. OK, so I haven't watched MI I or II but I hoped it wouldn't be too hard to keep up. I needn't have worried because There Is No Plot.

Somebody has taken an object called The Rabbit's Foot. It's never established what it is, why anyone wants it, who the baddies are or what they're going to do with it should they get their filthy mitts on it, but hey that didn't bother the film makers. Instead there's an awful lot of running around waving guns, gadgets, explosions, people looking at computer screens with narrowed eyes, fast cars and slinky women in dresses with no backs, but - Oops, they forgot the plot.

Well, actually they didn't. At the very end, someone says cheerfully, oh yes, what is it we were trying to do? and some one else equally cheerfully says, it doesn't matter and they all go off and live happily ever after. So the film makers knew all along there wasn't a plot and didn't care, even pointing it out in a post-modern ironic sort of way. Something similar happened in the most recent James Bond film: lots of big bangs, oil tankers going whoosh, Daniel Craig without a shirt, the usual - but there wasn't a story.

Stories are not collections of random events, they are linked and have meaning for the characters. Cinderella searches for love, and finds it. King Arthur learns that even the best can be betrayed by those closest to them. The third little pig learns that persistence and diligence pay off, and the first and second little pigs learn not to laugh at others. The Big Bad Wolf doesn't learn, and gets roasted down the chimney as a result.

When writing always go back to two questions - what does my character learn from these events, and how have things changed for them? That's your story.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Planning a Novel

Everybody seems to be talking about novel planning at the moment - perhaps it's Spring coming and we're all hopping about grabbing twigs to build our novels. Currently I feel it's more like clutching at straws, but this is what I do...

Round 1. Start with an idea of a background or two. It's got to be either something I already know about, or can access research material easily, or fancy doing some research on.
Round 2. Think of a few good plot points to use as markers. Woman starts affair, woman ends affair, woman blackmailed by lover.
Round 3. Start thinking about the answers to the questions the plot points pose - why does she have an affair? who with? does her lover have a partner? why do they want an affair?
Round 4. Start writing.

At some point I'm going to get stuck - it might be 10,000 words in, it might be 50,000 words in. But I know roughly where I'm heading for, and what plot threads I'm carrying.

Round 5. Get out some index cards. Write one for the last scene I've written. Write one for the scene I'm aiming for (which is the next big plot point eg they break up or he comes back).
Round 6. Lay the two cards out on the bed with a big space in-between and stare at them very very hard. What I'm doing, apart from scaring the cat, is trying to work out a logical way to get from one point to another.
Round 7. As I get ideas for linking scenes, I write them out on index cards and cautiously place them between the start and end point. Using index cards means I can shuffle the ideas around more easily or add bits. I might get ideas for extra scenes that come earlier or later, and they can be noted on cards as well.
Round 8. When I'm happy with my linking scenes, I write them up as a list and attach it to the end of my novel for reference.
Round 9. With the index cards by my side I get writing.

Write until stuck, at which point repeat Rounds 5-9.

I'll repeat this process until I get to the end of the novel. As I write more - I'm writing Novel No 6 at the moment - my forward planning gets scrappier and scrappier and the bedroom and office are littered with scrawled index cards. I do wish I was a planner - it would feel as if there was a safety net underneath me - but the two occasions I plotted out the novel from start to finish before I began writing, I completely lost interest and never finished them.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Anchors Away

Occasionally when I'm reading I find myself floating. It's not the relaxing power of the prose; the writer has forgotten to 'anchor' their writing and the characters have drifted off into space, a whirling mass of emotions and dialogue - rather as I imagine Saturn to be. Editors usually pick it up: the last time I can remember floating was in a Jane Green novel when the characters sat down for coffee then drifted off and after four pages of floating dialogue I was inwardly screeching "where are we?" All it needed was a few bits of coffee stirring, perhaps some slurping, or sugar being spilled on the table to keep the characters anchored into the narrative present.

Anchoring keeps your characters in the real world and helps make them believable. It adds detail and texture to the characters lives. It gives characters actions when there are pauses in speech:

'I was thinking of changing job.' Arabella neatly folded the beer mat into four, bent down to shove it under the wobbly table leg then resurfaced. 'A little bird told me you were leaving work.'

You don't have to keep repeating that they're in the pub, just scatter a few references here and there to gently remind the reader.

Another form of anchoring comes at the start of a new section. Back at the ranch...Later that afternoon...Over the next six weeks...The cottage the following morning was... My first editor said the information should always be in the first paragraph. I'd agree - as a reader I like to relax into the writing without having to think, where or when are we? Most writers add anchors automatically as they go along, but it's worth checking you're not letting your characters - and readers - drift away.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Too Many Cemeteries

I had nearly finished the first draft of Adultery for Beginners when school broke up for the summer, leaving me with two children to entertain when I was obsessed with writing. I rose to the occasion. I bought them a computer and gave them unlimited access on condition they let me get on with my novel. Not very commendable, but hey - I got that first draft written! And they became obsessed in turn with a game called Black and White where they were gods, built worlds and populated them with worshippers.

I've never played Black and White, but as a writer I understand the appeal. I spend my days creating fantasy worlds where imaginary people live in imaginary houses and do imaginary jobs. I can see my world clearly in my head, but I've never been one for making notes or drawing pictures of my world - I think the only time was in A Single to Rome where I drew out a complete floor plan of the Tea Museum to make sure that it was consistent throughout. For other writers the creation of a world is one of the joys of writing. If that's you, then be careful. It's all too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of your world, to the detriment of your writing.

There are two problems: firstly, you spend so much time developing your world you forget about writing the story, and secondly you can't resist sticking all your lovely ideas and plans into the story. It's a particular problem for fantasy and sci-fi writers where the creation of a whole new world is very much part of the genre. Think of Lord of the Rings. Tolkein had the sense to put all the elven lore he'd developed into another book, The Silmirillion. JK Rowling is another world builder, and equally put a lot of the more obscure elements of her carefully detailed world into books like The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Quidditch through the Ages.

Not everybody manages to separate the story from the world creation. My heart used to sink when I was teaching undergraduates and yet another slice of fantasy world came up, crammed with detail about the rituals of the Gar'an or the native folklore of the 'Mqardl that only the creator could love.

It's not just fantasy writers though. It applies to anyone who needs to research the background of their novel. Kissing Mr Wrong has a WWI background which led me to spend time on the Somme battlefields prompting the comment, 'Too many cemeteries' from my editor. Oh, how I hated cutting back on the cemeteries, but she was right to be ruthless. I'd written about too many because I'd been overwhelmed by the places myself, but they didn't add to the story. Instead I've put the information up on my website. It's the best place for it.

Monday, 8 March 2010

I was the Juliet of Putney

I wrote a week or so ago about Jilly Cooper and me, and how even as an utterly self-absorbed teenager I recognised how hard she worked. It stirred old memories, not least how she was a magpie around other people's lives. At the time she was writing a weekly column for the Sunday Times about her life and was obviously permanently on the look out for material.

I didn't mind being written up as 'the pretty girl across the road who has a different boyfriend in a sports car taking her out every evening' - I just wished it were true. I minded a bit more when I went out a couple of times with the boy next door but two, whose parents had put in a planning application that my parents had objected to. We were written up for the benefit of the nation as the Romeo and Juliet of Putney, immediately withering any romance that may have blossomed.

So you'll understand why I'm very careful when I 'borrow' from real people. Which I do - I think every writer does. What I borrow is always something small - a gesture, perhaps, or a snatch of remember conversation - and it's always for minor characters. I couldn't lift a real person, any more than I lift stories from real life. It was mortifying when people asked if Neil in Adultery for Beginners was based on my brother-in-law. They both had moustaches and similar jobs (hence the questions) but in my head Neil looked and was so different it never occurred to me others might see similarities.

I hope I'm sensitive to other's embarrassment, and if using real life people did work in writing fiction, then I still wouldn't use them. But there's actually no moral dilemma here. The fact is, real life doesn't work as fiction, and nor do real people. Reality is inhibiting, stultifying; you have to make it up to make it convincing.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Should I Re-write for an Agent?

There seem to be two kinds of agent: those who like editing (and were probably editors in their previous jobs) and those who don't. Those who don't are much easier to send out to - they make a decision based on what they see in front of them, yes or no, and that's it. Those who like editing make suggestions...The worst are those who make lots of helpful suggestions because while a rejection is miserable, suggesting re-writes leads to a quandary: should I or shouldn't I?

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.

Some changes are more intrusive than others. Plot changes are often quite easy to accommodate - I've done this several times for foreign editions of my books. I've also made character changes. But this was for someone who'd bought the novel. Would I for someone who hadn't paid up front? I'm not sure.

A former student has an agent (but not yet a publisher) and is constantly re-writing stuff for this agent, sending out her new novel 5 pages at a time for comments. This seems unhealthy to me. I asked my editor what she thought about their arrangement and she said she'd be very wary of taking on someone who a) needed so much editorial support b) hadn't got confidence in their own writing and c) might have lost their own authorial voice in the re-writes.

I have to say that my former student is thrilled with the situation and I hope it works out for her, but it's not one I'd be happy with. Unless all the feedback you're getting points in the same direction I think you have to have courage of your own conviction. It is YOUR novel after all.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Revenge of the Killer Rabbit

An exercise for the weekend...

Think of a small but memorable incident that has happened to you, perhaps in your childhood. If I was doing this exercise I'd write about the rabbit that ran into our garage when I was about eight, and how we ended up adopting it, but it bullied everyone - the cat ran away, the hamster died, and it wouldn't let us watch television - so my father decided The Rabbit Had To Go...

Now tear up some pieces of paper - A4 to four pieces perhaps - or you could use index cards or sheets from a notebook. You want to end up with about 16 or bits. Write out the story using one, perhaps two sentences per bit. So my story would go something like...

Piece 1 - My brother said there was a rabbit in our garage
Piece 2 - My mother caught it
Piece 3 - No one knew whose it was, so we adopted the rabbit

If you need more bits of paper it doesn't matter, if it fits onto only 8 pieces, then that's fine too. When you've done that, go back and add some details, some descriptions of people or places. If you run out of room, re-write on a new bit of paper Try to add some details that fix it in time and space so...

I was on the sofa watching Crackerjack when my little brother came in and said there was a rabbit in our garage.

Crackerjack sets it in the 60s/70s (and for those who remember, specifically: it's Friday, it's Five to Five and it's......Crackerjack!).

Done that? Now, look for places where you can add some direct speech.

'Quick, quick, come quickly!' my little brother said, rushing into the room. I looked up from the sofa where I'd been curled up watching Crackerjack to see him hopping from one knobbly knee'd leg to the other. 'There's a rabbit in our garage!'

When you've done all that, write it out as a continuous piece of prose.

When we write we normally think of the details and let the story take care of itself. This exercise pushes you to making the story move forward, because the initial stage is about nothing but the essential story line. So we start with the forward movement of the story, and the details get added as required, and then finally the dialogue comes. What you should end up with is a great little story with some sparkling detail, lively dialogue and a cracking pace.

Friday, 5 March 2010

'Boo!' she said suddenly

'It's wonderful you're reading this blogpost,' she said happily. 'I love talking about redundant adverbs.'

'Is that so?' he said worriedly. 'It's not going to be one of those ones where you go on and on and on.'

'Of course not,' she said reassuringly.

'Well I'm not so sure,' he said grumblingly. 'You'll be telling me next that you shouldn't go round making them up just by adding a -ly on the end of adjectives.'

'Or even participles,' she said grumblingly as well. 'Even if Spellchecker doesn't correct them, it's still not good writing style.'

'So can't I ever use them?' he said questioningly.

She smiled consolingly at him. 'Sparingly,' she said.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Gladiator Rules

Rules for Heroes: 4: Want what we want

I'm very fond of the film Gladiator, both to watch and as an example of scripting. Apparently they were floundering with the script and at the last minute William Nicholson was brought in to be the script doctor. He realised that a film about a bloke chopping and hacking his way through swathes of other gladiators lacked a certain something. The character wanted to survive his ordeal, which we could understand and sympathise with, but it wasn't going to put enough bums on the seats to recover the investment in reconstructing the Colosseum in CineCitta outside Rome.

What he needed was a character want we could all really buy into. So, he added to the script the horrible murder of Maximus' wife and child. Now, while the character was still fighting for survival, he was also a father and husband after revenge.

Gladiatorial fights were specific to that culture in that period of history. A parent wanting revenge for the death of a child is universal throughout history everywhere. Hence Gladiator's amazing success across the world. We may know nothing of the Roman Empire, but we can buy into what Maximus wants.

When we're writing it's a good idea to check that what your main character wants is something that is going to chime in with what readers want. The more people can identify with the character's wants, the more people will want to read the book.

If a character wants a beautiful pair of shoes, then that's limited. But if they want a beautiful pair of shoes because they believe it will make them fit in with the in-crowd, or make the man of their dreams fall in love with them, or transform them from an ugly duckling to a swan, then these are all things that have a wider appeal. Make sure your characters want what lots of people want.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Short Story Competition Info

Rebecca asked about short story comps and where to find them, so here's a list of free web sites - there are others which you can subscribe to.

Lots of info for short story writers, including competitions although these are listed alphabetically rather than by closing date. Also carries a list of magazines that accept short stories from Granta to People's Friend and everything inbetween.

A calendar of writing competitions, listed monthly. The info comes from Sally Quilford who has lots of writing advice on her author site .

Site run about winning competitions - all comps, not just writing ones - but it has a list of writing competitions with the author's quirky comments.

Listings of jobs, courses, information and writing competitions. You can sign up for the fortnightly newsletter so the information comes to you.

The National Association of Writers Groups run a useful site which includes competition listings.

If you're thinking about writing for the women's magazine market this is a great resource.

You'll also find listings in the writing magazines such as Mslexia, Writer's News and Writing Magazine, Writers Forum and The New Writer. The New Writer sends out a monthly e-newsletter with competition info to subscribers.

If you're interested in a competition you can often find the previous year's winning entries on line which is useful.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

10 Ways to Make Your Work Exceptional

1. Page one needs to have something extra, something that will make the reader want to read on. It could be a plot hook or an intriguing premise, an appealing setting or fabulous writing. Whatever it is, make sure it's there.

2. And you need the same on page 2, 3, 4, 5....I see a fair amount of student work that is perfectly fine, just doesn't have that extra pzazz. Look for opportunities where you could add it. It may sound OTT but I go through my mss with a highlighter pen marking bits (phrases, metaphors, nifty dialogue, cunning transitions, description etc) I think add something extra. My minimum is 5 per page.

3. I also see a lot of student work that lacks edge or tension. Don't let things come easily to your characters, make them work for it. And don't let things come easily to the readers either. Only give readers information at the very last moment they need it. Keep 'em guessing, keep 'em waiting.

4. Characters without flaws are dull. Characters who complain are tedious. Characters who are nice are zzzzzzz.

5. All stories have been done before, it's how you write them that counts. Above all, keep them moving forwards, don't let them sag especially round the middle.

6. Pace. It's the contrast that makes it interesting. All fast pace is as dull as motorway driving especially compared with driving at 30mph on a housing estate with lots of free range children. Go fast, go slow, go fast again. Don't let the reader ever feel secure with your pacing.

You're probably bored with this one, but make sure your work is 100% mistake free. Check all spellings, grammar, sentence structure esp if you've done a lot of editing.

8. Also boring but essential, make sure the presentation is perfect.

9. Story, story, story. Beautiful writing is lovely to read, but without story telling it gets dull very quickly. What's going to happen next? How is this going to be resolved?

10. Confidence. This is a hard one to define, but it's the quality that makes you utterly believe that the author is in charge and knows exactly what's happening, how it's going to turn out. As a reader you happily let go and hand it over to the story teller to take you on a magical experience. I think confidence comes from re-writing and re-writing. If you don't believe, how can you expect anyone else to?

Monday, 1 March 2010

10 Facts about Agents

Fact 1: You don't need an agent to approach a publisher, and you don't need an agent to be published. However, most publishers won't look at unsolicited manuscripts. If they do, be prepared for a long, long wait. Or for your manuscript to be looked at by someone on work experience.

Fact 2: It is NOT an agent's job to carefully read every unsolicited manuscript that comes in through the door.

Fact 3: An agent's job is to look after existing clients and their work. That's why authors like having agents; they don't want to have to read the small print, or negotiate, or invoice or do any of the hundreds of things agents do for clients.

Fact 4: Every agent wants to discover a brilliant new talent, but just because you've written 100,000 words it doesn't automatically follow that they're brilliant.

Fact 5: Every agent gets fed up with badly written, rude, demanding, illiterate letters

Fact 6: Every agent sees far too many of the above

Fact 7: Every agent receives hundreds of manuscripts to look at a year - for some it may be thousands - and can rarely take on more than a couple of new clients in each year

Fact 8: The maths of Fact 7 means your work may be above average, it may even be rather good, but only exceptional work will get taken on.

Fact 9: It is your job to make your work exceptional, not the agents.

Fact 10: New writers are taken on by agents every year.

I'll write about how to make your work exceptional tomorrow.