Tuesday, 30 November 2010


I'm currently reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farell which I've been enjoying until...There I am, reading away when, whoosh, she's gone too far and put in something improbable. It shot me out of the book world and into the cold reality of my world. It wasn't a nice feeling at all.

I'm back reading again, but with a wary eye. Will she do something unbelievable again? In a strange way, I now distrust the author, and the wonderful suspension of disbelief has vanished.

It's a funny thing, the contract between author and reader. We give them our time, and they give us another world for a few hours. Seems a good swap to me, and it's what I certainly want from a book, that sense of being absorbed into somewhere else, someone else.

But the relationship is fragile. A clumsy phrase can break it, a thoughtless shift in point of view, an improbability. The writer in me knows why she's done it - on a practical level she needed to shift the story to the next phase and didn't want to spend more time on the build up - but without the build-up it's improbable, and - there - she's lost me.

That's why your first three chapters need to be as perfect as possible. There must be no impediments along the way of getting the reader absorbed into your world. You want the reader to be reluctantly dragged away from the world of your book. Typos fret us. Grammatical errors do it too. The relationship is at its most fragile at the beginning.

I'll be carrying on with Esme Lennox because the improbability has come in the middle. I've already invested quite a lot of time in this relationship; I'll see it out to the end. But earlier on? That's when books get discarded.

Monday, 29 November 2010


You'd think from some of the sites that e-publishing was a universal panacea. Writers are going to overthrow conventional publishers and take control of their own careers and income streams.

There's no doubt that epublishing has become a cheaper, easier and simpler form of publishing compared to conventional print methods. No worries about distribution or holding stock, for example. But the two fundamental problems associated with ALL publishing are still there:

1. How do you let people know about the book?
2. How do you make them buy it?

Neither of these things are as easy as you'd think. Yes, letting people know is easier now there's social networking and yes, you may be lucky and things go viral, reaching out to millions at the click of a button. But they've still got to buy it. Try an experiment. How many books have been brought to your attention over the last week. And how many did you actually buy?

I must have had over a hundred books pass before me, some of them by people I personally know, and I haven't bought a single one. I buy a lot of books, but right now my To Be Read pile is already stacked high and I'm on a book diet. But whatever the reason, people do not buy every book they see or read about - common sense should tell us that. They buy...1%? I wouldn't be surprised if it was 0.01%. The method of publication makes not difference. Getting people to actually put their hands in their pockets and fork out their cash is hard work.

Books aren't like music downloads. How long does it take to listen to a single track? 3 minutes? 5? And how long to read a book? Several hours at least for most people, if not more. Even if people like the idea of your book they still might not buy it because they haven't the time to read it.

All the successful epublishing stories come from writers who either have previously established readerships or are publishing non-fiction - just the same as with print self publishing success stories. And yes, there are writers who have epublished and gone on to land deals with conventional publishing houses, but I wonder why - if their epublishing venture was so successful - they want a print deal? I'd make a guess it's because book marketing is hard work and unbelievably time consuming.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against self publishing - I've done it myself and with the right project would happily do it again. But just because the technology of publishing has moved on, it doesn't mean that the basic principles of selling books have changed:

How do you get people to know about your book, and how do you get them to buy it?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Prizes and Sales

A recent article in the Bookseller reported on the sales push winning prizes gave books. Some of the quantities are surprising - for example...

"Last year's winner of the overall Book of the Year, Christopher Reid's A Scattering (Arete), has sold 12,700 copies to date. The previous recipient of the award, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture(Faber), has sold 376,00 copies to date across all editions."

But then if you investigate a little further, it turns out that A Scattering is a collection of poems, and poetry collections do not sell well, even if they are the Costa Book of the Year.

Prizes are lovely to win (so I've been told) and sales pay the bills, and you can't take everything you read in the press at face value.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Organising Your Life Story

William Boyd was writing in The Telegraph a few weeks ago about the process of adapting his novel Any Human Heart for television. He decided that the novel, written as intimate journals, was too interior to transfer directly to the screen so instead he decided to re-order it by the women that the protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, had loved. First Time, First Love, The Rebound, The Love of His Life and so on.

I was thinking that might be an interesting way of organising ones own life story, though it might be a bit less eventful than Logan Mountstuart's. I've seen people organise their story through shoes - first bootees, school shoes, tennis shoes, high heels, sensible shoes, wellies, slippers?

Memoir doesn't always have to be chronological. It can be thematic. These are the headings from Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie:

First Light, First Names, Village School, The Kitchen, Grannies in the Wainscot, Public Death, Private Murder, Mother, Winter and Summer, Sick Boy, The Uncles, Outings and Festivals, First Bite at the Apple, Last Days.

It's fun to write a list of how you'd organise your life. Mine would be in books, starting with Hairy McClairy and A Little White Horse. What about you?

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Perfect Writing Process

I've told several people this over the last few days, and they've reacted as if they've been given the secrets of the universe, so I thought I'd do a blog post on it. It's very simple:

There are no extra marks given for your writing process, all that matters is the finished product.

You can write 2000 words every day, including birthdays and Christmas.
You can write in splurges, 10,000 words this weekend, but nothing until next month.
You can write one perfect sentence at a time.
You can write mad and messy drafts which make no sense.
You can write two drafts to get to the finished product. Or twenty two.
You can write in an office.
You can write in bed.
You can write on a laptop.
You can write by hand.
You can write reclining on a chaise longue dictating your masterpiece to an amanuensis while drinking champagne and eating chocolates.

None of it makes any difference to whether the final work is something someone else might want to read. It really doesn't matter how you get there. The perfect writing process is the one that's perfect for you.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Happiness as a Writer

I caught Sister Wendy on television the other day. For those of you who don't remember, she is a nun who had an unlikely hit with a television series about art, ooh, ten years ago? She was wonderful enthusiastic and unselfconscious, but didn't like the limelight or being a celebrity and retreated back to her life as a hermit in a caravan in the grounds of a convent.

I don't know why exactly she was on television when I saw her - I'd put the television on to catch the weather forecast - but I listened to her briefly. Her young and shiny interviewers obviously couldn't believe that a person who'd been famous could be happy now they were out of the limelight.

'Oh yes,' Sister Wendy said, beaming rapturously. 'Happiness is concentrating on something you believe matters.'

How true.

It doesn't matter what it is. Making a meal for the family, playing the piano, working out at the gym. And writing. I believe writing matters, and I'm never happier than when I'm absorbed by it. With all the ups and downs, the disappointments and successes, writing is endlessly fascinating, endlessly absorbing. Writing makes me happy. I hope it does you too.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

What Really Happens with the Slush Pile

The other day I was chatting to a young man about publishing. He revealed he'd spent the summer going through the slush pile of a local publishing house. I asked him what he'd learned from the experience. His response?

1. That many of the entries were written by people who were simply mad.
2. That many entries hadn't thought about who might want to read the material, which was far to personal to be of more general interest.
3. That it was truly incredible how many people sent in manuscripts without any thought for the suitability of the publisher for their work.
4. That it was daft to have a 20 year old judging manuscripts with a view to possible publication.

I actually found that rather cheering. It means that a literate writer who decides to get published and bothers to do their homework re publishers, presentation etc will actually stand out. And I'm not too bothered by the 20 year old bit - he was a sensitive and intelligent young man who had the wit not to dismiss the work out of hand because it didn't immediately appeal to him. If anything, he gave the impression that he'd conscientiously worked hard to overcome any age related bias.

Overall, it's better to have an agent than go through the slush pile, but take heart - if your manuscript is well presented, it should stand out and at least make it to the next round.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

There's No Accounting for Opinions

A student read out two short stories in class and asked which one we preferred. We all plumped for Story 1, which was well crafted and had a v funny twist at the end. Story 2, while well written, lacked focus - and she agreed with us that the real central character was the one the story wasn't ostensibly about.

Then she revealed that she'd entered them in for the same competition and one had been commended. Yup, Story 2, the one we hadn't liked so much. Which shows that...

a) there's no accounting for taste
b) it's all opinion

A story entered for a competition has to get through the initial reading stages. The initial readers may not be writers themselves, they may not even read that much. I suspect this means that in the initial rounds there is a preference for

a) what is perceived as "literary" writing
b) the initial readers don't recognise that easy-to-read writing is actually very hard to write
c) humour is undervalued compared to 'serious' topics - the short list for Wells was surely disproportionally full of death and depression.

So, if you write humour, should you give up entering short story competitions? No, because the humorous short story usually stands out as wonderful relief in a sea of heavy writing. When I was entering competitions I noticed that the 2nd or 3rd prize often went to a comical piece.

I think the only conclusion you can draw is that entering competitions is a lottery because there's no accounting for opinions.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Creating Identification

A student read out the start of his novel in class a couple of weeks ago. It featured a policeman dealing with his first experience of a riot and was well written. It went down a storm. But what struck me was how cleverly he'd engaged the readers right from the start by having the policeman try out what had worked in training. In the training session the pretend rioters had run away. But in the real situation the rioters stood their ground and attacked back. They didn't react as they were supposed to do, and the policeman was overwhelmed by feelings of panic.

Now, most of us don't have direct experience of riots. It's interesting, but we're at one step removed from it. But I think everybody has had the experience of being shown how X is supposed to work, then having a go ourselves and discovering it's one thing when the instructor does it, quite another when we do it.

So, although the exact situation was different, we'd all been through the same general emotions. We could identify with the character, and wanted him to succeed - as we ourselves had wanted succeed when we were in the equivalent situation. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the riot, we were rooting for the character and his very human emotions, which were so like ours.

Put your characters in situations where they experience emotions we can identify with, and we'll engage with them.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Reading and Breathing

A student was talking about wanting to be a writer, but finding it difficult to work out what area they wanted to write in. I asked what they read. They looked at me goggle eyed. 'Oh,' he said. 'I don't have time for reading.'

I think you can't be a writer unless you're a reader too. It may be that you read less right now, but at some point I think all writers have been avid readers. It's how we learn. Just think: Jane Austen never read a How to Write a Novel book, but she still managed to write perfectly structured novels because she'd been a reader first.

You have to read. Reading is the breathing in, writing the breathing out. I don't think it matters much what you read, but I'd suggest that your favourite genre is where you should be writing. You'll have unconsciously absorbed the way the stories are told, the conventions and how some writers break them with success - or otherwise. And unless you understand what the reading experience is like, how can you write it for anyone else?

Reading, reading, reading. It's the greatest How to Write guide there is.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


Over at the blog How Publishing Really Works, Jane Smith has declared it Copyright Day and has asked people to blog about it. So I am!

I feel very strongly about copyright. Put simply, what you write is yours regardless of what anyone else thinks unless you have specifically given away your copyright. If you write a letter to a friend, that's copyright. If you write a shopping list, that's copyright too. If you write an article and sell it to a newspaper who put it up on the web, that's also copyright even though it's freely available to read and print off.

Jane's declaration of Copyright Day came about because someone at a magazine in the US didn't realise there was a difference between being publicly available, and in the public domain. Public domain is when an author has specifically chosen to give away their copyright. The magazine editor was copying and using previously published articles without consulting (or paying) the authors. What happened next is on Jane's blog and so I'm not going to cover it here.

It is important to maintain copyright because without it, no author will ever get paid. Why would anyone pay when they could help themselves to the material for free? I feel particularly narked when people who are on salaries complain about paying for material, saying that writers should feel grateful that their work is being read. (This was one of the magazine editor's excuses for why they weren't paying writers.)

Well, hello? Plumbers won't work for the thrill of fixing your cistern, and the garage doesn't give petrol away for the hell of it. Writers have bills to pay too, just like everybody else on the planet. Copyright maintains writers. Support it.

If you want to know more about copyright, go to How Publishing Really Works. Nicola Morgan has also done a good blog post explaining the ins and outs of the law.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Reality v Realistic

I loved Ian McEwan's novel Atonement - though I've had many a discussion about the ending. My mother, normally a McEwan fan, was sniffy. She'd been a nurse at a London teaching hospital during WWII, just like Briony in the book, and pronounced that it was unbelievable.

I was surprised. After all, McEwan had done extensive research at the Imperial War Museum and was even accused of plagiarism due to the similarities in Atonement to No Time for Romance, a novel by Lucilla Andrews who had been a nurse at St Thomas' Hospital during the war.

My mother was unrepentant. 'I can see he's done his research,' she said. 'And I'm sure each of those incidents did happen. But it's unbelievable that they'd all happen to one particular nurse.' In other words, real incidents, but an unrealistic situation.

That's one of the tricks of narrative writing. Real life, but exaggerated. (I'm using the term narrative writing because it's true of non-fiction just as much as fiction.) In real life, when drama comes, we try to go back to normal as soon as possible. In narrative writing, characters rush headlong from one crisis to another. In real life, we get home from work and settle down with a nice cup of tea for an evening's viewing in front of the TV. If a character starts their evening in the same way the author will either interrupt it with a crucial phone call or that's where the scene will end.

Real life, but without any of the boring bits. After all, we can do boring bits at home every day of our own lives. We don't want to read about them, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction. So, McEwan was right to load Briony's life at the hospital with as much drama as he could find in the archives. It may not have been real, but it was realistic - and more to the point, it wasn't boring.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Unbreakable Rule

I was giving feedback to a student whose work I've in the past enjoyed, but the latest submission was, frankly, not that good. Certainly not up to the standard I expected to see. What had happened?

He looked sheepish and explained. He'd had this bit of feedback and that. Someone else had said something. He'd taken it on board, then realised he was near the deadline for submission. Quickly he edited the text moving bits around, changing the order. Drat, over the word count. But he wanted to submit those scenes. Equally quickly he went through again cutting phrases he thought he could get rid of, then printed it out without reading through, and bunged it in the post. He was, he said, hanging his head, embarrassed to have submitted it.

It wasn't that bad. But it did show all the signs of a piece that had been hacked around. Non-sequiturs abounded, locations were never fixed, new characters suddenly popped up from nowhere. Confusion reigned in this poor reader's head.

Most of us are short of time. Most of us are rushing to meet deadlines. Shoving something in the post and hoping it will do is never a good option. It wastes your time and postage. It's frustrating for the reader. If you're in a workshop situation and getting feedback, you get stuck in the situation of nodding your head and repetitively saying, I know, I know, while the reader thinks, well if you know, why did you do it?

I don't think there are many rules about writing, and most of them can be broken. But this rule is one that shouldn't be broken. Never, ever, ever send work out without slowly reading it through aloud and checking it makes sense.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

What's the Alternative?

So there I was, half way through a nice little moan about how hard it was being a writer, how difficult it was to push on sometimes, how demoralising it was when you put all that effort into writing and it still didn't come out the way you intended, when my friend cheerily said, 'Oh well, you could always give up and do something else.'

And so I could. It's not compulsory for me to be a writer. I wasn't born with a little tag around my wrist marking me out as a writer, and only a writer. There are quite a few things I fancy doing - run a teashop, work in an art gallery, design and build my own house - that would be perfectly possible.

I could give up. I'd leave five completed and published novels, one nearly finished. Quite a few short stories published, about three waiting to be tidied up. A year's worth of writing effort would be abandoned, which might be a bit of a waste, but no one would die. No one would really care, to be honest. And not writing might make me happier, wealthier, a nicer person to live with.


When my friend suggested I could give up writing, my inner soul made a face like Munch's The Scream. I know several people who started writing fiction at the same time as me but have now given up, and all of them say they were much more contented with life when they were writing than they are now. So I think I'd better stop moaning and just get on with it. Because, seriously, what's the alternative? Not writing, that's what.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tightening Up A Covering Letter 2

Yesterday I looked at the novel description from a real covering letter I worked on with a student (who has given me permission to quote from it in the blog).

This is how his biography originally ran:

I am currently a second year undergraduate student reading Ancient history at the University of Blogville. My passion and study of history, including world religions, has helped shape my ideas and thought processes. This has enabled me to form a rich and realistic world to which the reader can relate. My book has been appraised and edited by the author ABC through the XYZ literary consultants. I have also worked closely with the novelist KLM at the University of Blogville. An article that I have written regarding my novel is to be published in the Blogville University Classics Magazine this December.

Okay, there are several points here.

He's made a big deal of the authentic background to the novel so he's right to say he's studying Ancient History, but there's too much detail.

He says he's had help from two sources - a literary consultancy and a novelist. Now, I think this is dodgy. The implication is, he can't write without extensive help and if an agent takes him on, will he be able to write another book without this level of support? And how much is genuinely his own work, and how much that of his helpers?

And the article he's written about his novel? For his student magazine? It manages to sound both a bit pretentious and inconsequential.

Finally, there's a typo - history should have been capitalised. A covering letter should be perfect.

And this is it rewritten:

I currently study Ancient History at the University of Blogville and this, along with my passion for fantasy, has given me a generous background knowledge upon which I have drawn to write my novel. An article of mine has also been accepted for publication.

He's addressed the main points. He's given just enough personal background to substantiate his claims about his knowledge of the setting. He's ditched the information about the help he's had with writing the novel, and he's gone for the simpler statement that he's had an article accepted. The first sentence is a bit long and clunky, but it's so much better than the first version.

When writing your biography remember to keep it relevant and straightforward. I hope this writer does well: he was a pleasure to work with.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tightening Up A Covering Letter 1

A student came to me with his agent package: covering letter, synopsis and first three chapters. They were pretty good - he'd read my blog! But not faultless. We discussed the package, and he went away and reworked it. He has very kindly given me permission to quote from both to show how a good covering letter can be tightened up.

This is the section describing the novel:

The main theme of the book centres on the twin journeys of two lovers caught in a war between ancient deities fighting for dominion of all humanity. Trapped within the destiny of their Realm, the lovers are driven down a path of deception and epic battles as they grapple with an adversary of their own creation. Their choices and varying situations are presented in a realistic yet fantastic world woven into a narrative delivered with great verve and emotion.

The novel is set in a second world based on our ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. This, along with a unique system of magic and the integration of republican democracy with autocracy, will appeal to any reader of fantasy fiction as well as adding a new flavour to the generic genre. The novel also has parallels with the romantic fantasy genre as it is written from the perspective of both lovers and follows their individual experiences and emotions.

I don't think this is bad - I like the use of strong verbs such as trapped and grapple - but it feels a bit generic. There are lots of big words such as destiny and epic, but I don't know what's going to happen or what the whole book is about. It feels a bit waffly.

This is the final version:

The book centres on two lovers. Thryn’s abandonment as a child in a society closed to outsiders fuels his strive for acceptance in a treacherous world. Nalani, as a strong and independent woman, yearns for absolution from her father when she is deprived of her home. Together, they are trapped within a war between ancient deities fighting for dominion of all humanity. Driven down a path of deception and epic battles, they grapple with an adversary of their own creation as the destiny of their Realm is revealed.

The setting of the novel originates from a unique blend of our ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome. This is coupled with an exclusive religion, system of magic and the integration of republican democracy with autocracy. It will appeal to the readers of authors such as Trudi Canavan, Robert Jordan and Garth Nix.

This is much punchier. I like the naming of the lovers, and their individual quests are stated. And rather than making claims about how it's going to appeal to everyone who reads fantasy fiction AND adding a completely new genre, instead he shows his understanding of the market by naming best selling authors. I'd read this.

I'll look at his biography tomorrow...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Funny How Life Turns Out

I didn't like writing essays much at school, and I didn't like it at university. In fact, one of my clearest memories is after my final final exam thinking: I will never write an essay EVER AGAIN.

Funny how life turns out.

As the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol I'm giving advice to students about writing. It could be any sort of writing but, hardly surprisingly, essay writing is pretty much top of the list. I've given quite a few lectures on the subject too.

What I've realised is that the process of writing an essay, or an article, or a novel, or a short story, or a screenplay is pretty much the same. You select information and order it in a logical way which leads the reader through from start to finish without losing them on the journey. You pitch it depending on your target audience. The length is dictated by the form, the content is dictated by the length - an essay or short story is about a single idea, the novel, feature length screenplay or dissertation is about several ideas.

Every time I give a talk, I'm using the same skill base - selecting information and ordering it to make a satisfying whole. Same formula for a class, where exercises and readings take the place of quotes and citations. When I work on a novel, I'm asking myself if that bit of information about the central character is relevant, just the same way a student might wonder if they should include a particular reference.

All those years later after that final exam, I now realise I've spent the best part of my life doing what? Writing essays. Funny how life turns out.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Writing is Not Like Porridge

I know that there exist some people who actually like porridge but I am not one of them. I think it's horrid - taste, texture, colour, smell. Nope, I don't like porridge.

I've tried it, because I know it's very good for you, but eat a bowlful - no way! I'm a grown up, and don't have to eat things that I don't like just because they're good for me.

It's worth remembering this when you're writing. You may think you ought to be writing Scene A, because it's the one that comes next so you struggle on, each line feeling as stodgy as, well, porridge. Meanwhile, Scene B is tantalising you with appetising aromas and enticing visuals, but you won't allow yourself to be tempted by Scene B until you've finished Scene A.


Writing's not like porridge, and we're not children being told to eat our greens because 'they're good for us'. We should write the scenes we feel like writing. We don't get extra points for writing our scenes in a particular order, it's the final product that matters. So if you fancy writing Scene B, then go ahead and do it. The only person stopping you is yourself.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Index Cards Strike Again

I've been writing shedloads of the new novel. It's all coming along very well, but I'm starting to wonder about the structure.

At the moment I have a linear pattern. Essentially my main character starts in an okay state, things go very well, then very badly. That's the first section. The second section is all about her recovery process. The third and final section is when it all comes together and stuff gets resolved, and hopefully she ends up in a better place then where she started (I haven't written the ending yet).

Section 1 is emotional, Section 2 has more laughs. I'm not sure that the two are going to sit very well together, that an innocent unsuspecting reader won't feel there's a sudden gear change. What I'm toying with is having Section 1 run alongside Section 2, swapping from past to present.

Hooray for index cards! I've written out two sets of index cards out with one scene per card and laid them out on the bed (you could use a floor or a large table, I like to work in bed). On the left side of the bedspread is the linear form - Section 1 followed by Section 2. On the right hand side of the bedspread is the past/present form - Section 1 alternating with Section 2.

I can see immediately that each version has pros and cons. For example, the alternating form on the right would mean I could ditch some rather boring linking scenes from Section 1. In fact, I could ditch a mini-subplot that I'm not convinced works. This would be good. On the other hand, there's a BIG moment at the end of Section 1 and a BIG moment at the end of Section 2. Now they're plonked bang smack next to each other. This is bad.

Going back to the left hand side of the bedspread, I can see that the BIG moments are spread out. This is good. However, there is still that major disconnect between the sections that led me to try the alternative form in the first place. This is bad.

It will take a lot of staring at the cards before I make a decision, but think about how much easier it is for me because I can see the novel in both forms easily in front of me. There's no doubt about it; index cards are a very useful addition to any writer's toolbox.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

My Mother's Chair

My mother has a fine chair. It's High Victorian, rather throne-like, with an upholstered upright back and a wide upholstered seat that you could imagine accommodating Henry VIII's backside. The chair legs are carved wood, and the armrests are wood below with upholstered tops, supported by carved wood posts. It's pretty splendid until your eye travels the length of the arm rest and, instead of the upholstery swooping over the end, it comes to an abrupt stop, and the final four inches are a nasty bit of cheap wood stuck on the end.

No two ways about it, it looks odd. I can imagine someone on the Antiques Roadshow shaking their head in sorrow and saying, "It would have been worth thousands without the arms, but as it is...who would have done a thing like that?"

My mum, is the answer. I think she bought the chair at an auction years ago. It needed re-upholstering so she had that done, but she had a cunning plan. She knew the ends of the armrests were the first place to wear out so rather than having those little caps made, she decided she'd find, then attach, some lovely carved wood finials. She instructed the upholsterer to finish the armrests four inches short of the rough supporting wood, wood that was never intended to be on display. Needless to say, 20 or so years later, those carved wood finials have never emerged.

So, what's that got to do with anything? In real life people do stuff that looks bonkers to outsiders, but it perfectly well thought through in their own heads and utterly justified. "It seemed a good idea at the time," is an excuse we all find ourselves making at some point or other. My mother's chair is a good example.

You can make a character do absolutely anything, and so long as you take us through their thought processes, their justification process, we'll believe in them. I sometimes think we read just to know how others justify their actions. Paedophilia, mass-murder, whacky upholstery. It all seemed a good idea to someone at the time.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

I'm having a brilliant writing splurge. 3000 words on Saturday, 5000 - yes, 5000 - on Sunday, 4000 on Monday. And it's got me all fired up to write more, more, more. How different it was only a few weeks ago when even the thought of writing was something to be avoided. Writing? What's that? Nothing to do with me, that's for sure.

But now - now I am writing personified. I LOVE being a writer.

And all because it's going well. I'm pretty certain it will fade - I have been in love with writing before; I know I have a fickle heart and can fall out of love quite easily - but at the moment, nothing will part me from my beloved.

And it's going so well because I wrote what I thought was going to be a tricky scene, and it seemed to work. Which inspired me to write the next scene, and the scene after that. Wheee! I was off.

It's vital to have success in our writing to inspire us. Success could come from ourselves - that tricky scene that just wrote itself - or from outside - a word of praise from a writing friend, a mention in a short story competition. It doesn't matter where or who it comes from, so long as we make sure the opportunities for success are built into our writing process.

The two easiest ways of building opportunities for success are to set writing targets and share our work with others. They have to be realistic - a 500 daily word count, not 5000 - or positive feedback in class rather than 4 agents vying for our manuscript. (Not to say that these things won't happen to you, but they're rare rather than regular events.)

Whatever your writing process, make sure you have those successes built in to encourage on the way.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Writing for the International Market

I came across this link to the Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2010, according to the New York Times, and was struck by how different they looked to UK covers.

Different countries find different things appealing. Adultery for Beginners was lapped up by the Spanish, who produced three different versions -hardback, paperpack and a smaller hardback edition especially for newstands - but they haven't taken any of my other books, whereas the Germans spurned Adultery for Beginners, but liked Nice Girls Do and the rest. The same happened with the audio rights, although I did finally sell the Adultery for Beginners audio rights and they came out this summer, ages after all my later books had made it into the spoken word.

Then there's rewriting. The Americans wanted the sex toned down in Adultery for Beginners. The Dutch wanted more sex in Nice Girls Do. The French just wanted everything shorter. Adultery for Beginners sold to about ten countries almost immediately and only one - Norway - renamed it, whereas Nice Girls Do became Under Blue Skies in all the European countries it sold to, though stayed the same elsewhere.

It's really difficult to have a genuine international best seller. There are plenty of examples of authors who are huge in one country never making it elsewhere. Nora Roberts, who the Washington Post described as the most successful novelist on Planet Earth, every now and then gets a push over here, but her books don't seem to 'take' among us Brits. Rosamunde Pilcher is a bestseller here, but way beyond that in Germany - I met a man last year whose sole employment for the past 10 years had been working with German films crews who were in the UK to film RP short stories.

So where does that leave a writer? Back where they've always been. You can't write for anyone but yourself. You can only write the book that comes from your heart. If you're lucky it will appeal to an outside audience, if you're very lucky it will appeal to an international one. But you can't force it. Just be happy if it happens.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Poor Little Me, a Character to Avoid

Fiona's comment on Playing What If got me thinking about my terrible tendency to write Poor Little Me. I can guarantee that the first draft of chapter 1 will begin with some character moaning on about how life is unfair, nobody likes her, nobody loves her, she's trying really hard but it's all going wrong, oh, oh, oh, poor little me. I'm not sure quite what it says about my innermost being but poor little me is, I'm afraid to say, my default setting.

The problem is two fold. First, I want you to like my central character. Show the character as the underdog and - goes the reasoning - bingo! We automatically like them. Maybe, but in real life while we may offer sympathy as our friend moans on about how hard done by they are, unless there's something really dreadful going on, secretly we're thinking: Get a grip!

Same with characters. Making them put upon doesn't actually make us like them. Just as we avoid the real life heartsink friend when they phone, we don't want to read about books about moaners - even if by p15 they've got their act together and are now kicking ass. It's too late.

Secondly, novels are about people with problems solving them. Characters without problems don't work. If you're writing contemporary women's fiction, as I do, then problems are more likely to be domestic in scale rather than baddie makes a bid for world domination a la James Bond novels. Husbands, children, boyfriends, jobs, parents, lovers, pets, money - it's the stuff of most of our lives, and most of us will have a good moan about some aspect of it some of the time. So, make the character someone with an everyday problem at the beginning, and we'll like them, yes? Actually, no.

Because I know whinging moaners are my natural setting, I have to forcibly make my characters cheery and resourceful, constantly plotting and planning to improve their lives. I think I'm getting better at it. Although Natalie, in A Single to Rome, is first met getting dumped by her boyfriend, she is determined that she can get him back and plans accordingly. Lu starts Kissing Mr Wrong on a mission to get Marcus and find out about Jack.

So, bringing this post back to Fiona's What If comment, if I make my character not like her job at the start I can guarantee that my innermost self is getting all geared up for a quick round of Poor Little Me. It's best avoided.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Importance of Punctuation II

There's more than one "right answer", but here are two versions.

The love letter:

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we are apart. I can be forever happy - will you let me be yours?

The ending it letter:

Dear John,
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we are apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Importance of Punctuation I

I came across this from Anna Reynolds, a fellow RLF Fellow and thought it might be a fun exercise for the weekend.

Put punctuation into the following to make it first a love letter, then an ending it letter.

Dear John I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours Gloria

Friday, 5 November 2010

Playing Around with What If continued

So here's a possible route...

She likes her job
Colleague gets promoted/new boss comes in
She doesn't like the new regime
Starts job hunting
Finds new job hard to find
Clashes with new boss
Leaves job

This has lots of negativity inherent in it - she doesn't like the situation, although at least she's fighting against it.  Lots of conflict is good - I can picture some dramatic scenes. But her character isn't particularly confrontational, and part of her character arc over the course of the book is to wise up. Here's an alternative route...

She likes her job
Hears of new job 
Decides to apply
Gets interview
Gets job offer
Leaves old job
Starts new job
I month trial period
New company hit by recession, can't make post permanent
Old job has either gone to someone else, or not hiring because of recession
Now she's unemployed 

There are lots of potential scenes here as she goes through the job process, which is good as I can weave them in with the other plot strands.  I'm slightly concerned about timing - this process would plausibly take at least 2 months if not 3, but I can always get round that if the route is interesting. It's certainly more positive in feel than the first one, but there's less conflict.  Now I'm asking questions to see if there's potential for conflict.

How does she hear about the job?
Through an ad is the least interesting, through a friend has more potential for blame later on.
What makes her decide to take the job?
More money - always plausible.  More status, ditto.  There could be some issue at work also.
Is the job a change in career direction? Or is it a promotion?
If it's a promotion, she will have different feelings about the new job - success, moving up the ladder - than if it's a change of direction.  She's not that ambitious a person, so a new direction is more plausible with her character than going for promotion. 

I'm playing around with a couple of routes, seeing how they pan out, where they fit with the other characters, how the choices my character makes fit in with her personality.  I'm looking for a plausible route that gives my characters lots of potential action.  I thought I'd cracked it with one route, but then realised it wasn't consistent with another character's motivation.  

Hey ho - it's back to What If for me. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Playing Around with What If

I've come to a tricky moment in my current novel.  I've written a lot of it, then realised that I needed to start earlier, so I'm writing the beginning section at the moment.  This means I know where I need my character to end up but I'm not 100% sure how she's going to get there.  In this case, she needs to leave her job - but why? and how?

I'm playing What If.  

There are usually limited choices for characters at any one time.  So I'm going to start with Does my character like her current job, or not?  That's two options. I write them both down on a piece of paper.  Then I choose one of the options.  What if she likes her job?  Why would she leave it?

what if she was fired?
what if she was offered a better job elsewhere?
what if she was persuaded to apply for another job?
what if she did something dreadful and had to leave?
what if she had an affair with a colleague and was forced out?
what if she's inherited some money and doesn't need to work?
what if her family need her to return home?

Each What If suggests more questions, more What Ifs...for example, why would she be fired?  I write them all down, seeing where they lead me.

Then I do the same process with the other starting option: What if she doesn't like her job? There the prompt has to be, Why hasn't she left it so far?

what if she has no qualifications?
what if she's trying to apply for lots of jobs, but can't get interviews?
what if it's only recently she hasn't liked her job?
what if a work colleague has been promoted to boss and is now making her life hell?

I like this option the least, because it puts her in a negative or victim situation.  I'd rather my character was making positive choices.  On the other hand, I want her to move forwards so the last couple of options could work.  

On the first option, I'm aware that Natalie in A Single to Rome loves her job but gets fired, so that's not a route I'm keen on. 

I'll show a possible route tomorrow, along with the questions/possibilities it suggests.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Clearing Your Throat

Thinking about qualifiers yesterday reminded me of my beloved father.  He was an exceptionally polite and courteous man, right up to his sudden illness and subsequent death last year, when he charmed all the nurses on the ward with his politeness and consideration, only once showing any tetchiness after some ghastly, painful operation - which he immediately apologised for.  I think he had consciously decided at some point in his early life to be courteous, perhaps when he was a bright but poor boy, relying on scholarships to make his way in the world. Certainly, as children we were frequently told that good manners cost nothing but paid dividends.  

He also told me about what he called 'throat clearing.'  These were the courtesies that preceded a request.  I wonder if you would be so kind as to.... Forgive me for disturbing you, but I wished to enquire about... He said that you needed to put in a few words to ensure that you had the person's attention for the moment when you asked for whatever it was you wanted.  

There's a tendency to do 'throat clearing' in writing.  Those opening paragraphs that waffle on before the story really gets going in paragraph 3.  The characters who start every speech with Well, or Oh, or Hmm.  It's natural, because that's the way we are in real life. We come at situations sideways, clearing our throats before we get on to the nitty gritty.  

Trouble is, it's boring to read.  Write it in the first draft - first drafts you're allowed to do as much throat clearing as you like - but don't forget to delete in the next draft.  You want your writing to be as easy to read as possible.  That's only good manners. 

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Perhaps I should Ditch the Qualifiers

I feel that you should all do this.  Perhaps you might, in certain circumstances, maybe agree with me.  On the other hand, I think that sometimes - which is not to say, every time - there may possibly be a chance that you might do something else.  


Qualifiers.  They're unnecessary frills and furbelows clogging up our writing.* Just get on with it. Say it.  Be confident.  Don't hedge your bets with qualifiers.  We all do it - I know I'm a culprit, but I edit the tentative 'I think' out of the sentence before I show it to anyone.  (And sometimes the I know, but decided to leave that one in.)

This post was inspired by coming across the following in a student covering letter: I feel I have been a high achiever.  I feel???  Doesn't that imply that, while the writer feels they've been a high achiever, the actual high achievements they should have received have eluded them.  I have been a high achiever, implies straight As - which was the situation in this particular case.  

"It was a very large horse."  Was it really?  Wasn't it just a large horse? Or perhaps a Shire horse,  or bigger than a house, or ginormous, or vast or seventeen hands at the shoulder or anything apart from very large.  

I think qualifiers weaken your prose. Actually, it's not just me who thinks that, and I feel I can prove it by writing: Qualifiers weaken your prose.  I can prove it. 

Of course, sometimes you want to soften what you say so you don't appear a deranged dictator, which is when qualifiers come in handy. I think. But for the most part, don't be tentative, use strong nouns and verbs so the qualifiers are redundant.  Have courage and make statements. 

*I originally wrote 'They're like unnecessary frills...'

Monday, 1 November 2010

NaNoWriMo Starts Today! (For some...)

Today is the first of November, which has been designated National Novel Writing Month.  For those of you who aren't aware of it, the aim is to write a 50,000 word novel over the next 30 days.  

It's good for those who need deadlines and like working to targets.

It's bad for those who have quite enough guilt trips in their life and don't need another one.

It's good if you need encouragement to break free of the perfectionist streak - the NaNoWriMo novel is one where the style and content is irrelevant, because only achieving the word count matters.

It's bad if you feel a failure because your personal writing process doesn't fit with churning words out.  

It's good if it means your family/friends/work colleagues will give you more space to write because you can label what you're doing. 

It's bad if you can only write under pressure - the ideal is to develop a regular writing routine which will enable you to continue after November.  Bit like crash dieting v sensible eating and regular exercise.  

It's good if you have an idea buzzing around your head that you want to get down on the page as quickly as possible.

It's bad if it distracts you from your current work in progress (new ideas are invariably more attractive).

So, NaNoWriMo might be great for you, or bad.  Either way, watching this video will bring a smile to your face...