Friday, 29 April 2011

Royal Wedding Fever

Over the last couple of days I've heard a lot of Royal Wedding stories. There's the one that William is still getting over being madly in love with the girl he went out with when he and Kate were on their break - a potential Camillagate situation my informant told me gleefully. Then there's the one that Kate's already pregnant. Which sits strangely with the 'fact' that she's got anorexia. And then...

But why add anything? A nice young couple are getting married. There are going to be carriages and a lot of blokes in red uniforms and gold braid. The couple seem very happy together. End of story.

Except of course, nice is not a good story telling adjective. Neither is normal, or happy, or straightforward. We want a bit of story telling with our pageantry, and I have to admit I'm glad it wasn't my job to write up the Royal Wedding because there's not much story to write about. A lack of drama is great for real life but it's no good for entertainment, whether fiction or non-fiction (eg memoir or biography).

Anyway, I hope William and Kate will be very happy together and live their real lives with as little drama as possible.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

John Sullivan RIP

John Sullivan died at the weekend. He dominated television sit coms in the 80s with Just Good Friends, Citizen Smith and of course Only Fools and Horses, which is how I met him. He was a lovely man, very unassuming. I first met him at my final audition for the part of Vicky. Auditions are usually quite stressful situations but he was exceptionally good at putting me at my ease and I remember that one as being a joy, full of laughter.

He occasionally came down to see the filming, but generally he stayed in the background. Ray Butt, the director of OFAH, told me how John had been a scene shifter at the BBC but had told him all he wanted to be was a writer. John had finally shown him a script - and that became Citizen Smith. There was a sense of family on the set of OFAH. Most of the crew had worked together for years, gradually moving up the hierarchy, for example Tony Dow had started as an assistant floor manager, was the production manager when I was playing Vicky, then became the director when Ray Butt retired.

The scripts were so well written. There were lots of little details in the scripts that you probably wouldn't notice as a viewer - recurring phrases for example, or visual incidents that were never mentioned - but they added depth and rhythm. The lines were always easy to say, which sounds a strange thing to mention, but both then as an actor and now as a writer, I know that making dialogue sound 100% natural is actually very hard.

Lovely writing, lovely man. RIP John Sullivan.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Siren Call of the New Story

The first time I can remember it happening to me was during my MA in Creative Writing. I was about 25,000 words into a novel when I had a brilliant idea - for something else. I could see it all ahead of me - the characters, how the story would pan out, the layers and added meaning. It was The One, the book that would get me published.

I went to see my tutor to ask what he thought. We discussed both ideas and in the end he said he thought I should go with the new idea, because I was so enthusiastic about it. Well, call me contrary, but somehow, being told to go in one direction makes me immediately hanker after the alternative. The brilliant idea remained unwritten, the 25,000 words got added to and became The One, the book that got me published.

I'm writing about this now because I've just had a brilliant idea for a new novel. The only problem is, I'm half way through the rewrite of the current book and I simply can't leave it. But the new idea shimmers in the future: it calls to me.

I am older and wiser now. I don't need to ask someone else to know what to do. Every novel I've written has had a moment - usually at the 25,000 word mark - when another idea pops up and lures me into abandoning the old idea. The solution is to write the idea down with as much detail as you're holding in your head (which turns out to be surprisingly little when you have to put it down on paper). Then, when your current piece of writing is finished, you can go back to the brilliant idea.

I've only once been back to my brilliant idea, and that became A Single to Rome. None of the other brilliant ideas have ever been written up. When I go back and look at them I can see what the attraction was, but writing a novel and having ideas are two different things. Most of my brilliant ideas are just that - ideas. They're not stories. A Single to Rome was different because I woke up one morning with the final scene in my head. I wrote it down, then went back to the current novel.

Obviously a novel is a longer process, but I see students do this with short stories. They get so far with the writing, then drop it for another idea. The result is lots of unfinished pieces which can't be used. Remember this: the poorest idea badly written but finished is more use than the brilliant idea beautifully written and unfinished. Resist the siren call of the new story, and finish your work.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Using Conflict Lists to Get Characters Going

I've got a student who writes well, but without any depth.  Her characters think about and do what's required for the narrative at that moment, but don't inhabit a wider world. To push her to give her characters more than one thing to think about at any one time, I devised a conflict list exercise.  

We started with a character, a student. Then we went through the list coming up with suitable conflicts....

Mind:  Worried that she will fail imminent exams.
Body:  Hungover from party.
Emotions: Worried that boyfriend may be cheating on her.
Family: Parents want her to do well and become a doctor - she doesn't want to be a doctor.
Relationship: Boyfriend may be cheating.
Friends: Advising her to confront boyfriend.
Physical environment - natural: Can't study in the sunshine.
Physical environment - man made: Her laptop has broken, losing her notes.
Individuals in society: Teachers not supportive.
Wider society: Bank demanding she pays off overdraft.  

Then we tried one for a would-be writer...

Mind:  Reading too much negative material about downfall of publishing.
Body:  Back ache from poor posture over computer.
Emotions: Lacking confidence that the novel is any good. 
Family: Unsupportive - why can't she get a job?
Relationship: Won't look after kids at the weekend so she can write.
Friends: Writing buddy has just landed mega publishing deal.
Physical environment - natural: Rainy days mean kids need entertaining at home.
Physical environment - man made: Uses same computer as kids.
Individuals in society: Publishers/agents reject her work. 
Wider society: Cost of living has gone up, needs to earn money soon. 

I'm not saying that every character has to have every type of conflict, but working through a conflict list will suggest areas that the character could be dealing with as the story happens. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Characters Need to Do, Not Sit Around Talking and Thinking

A friend passed this saying to me "We judge ourselves by our intentions, others by their actions," which anyone who meant to get a loved one an Easter Egg but forgot will understand.  Even though one of the delights of reading prose is that we can know what a character is thinking, and therefore know their motivations, we will still judge the character by their actions.  

Characters who sit around and do nothing will be judged as not interesting.  This is especially true when we first meet them - after all, who wants to read about someone who does nothing?  It's very important that when your character first turns up they are doing something.  

But what?  The temptation is to show them doing something dramatic - rescuing babies from a burning building perhaps, or foiling some dastardly deed. I once read the opening to a first novel which started with a gin palace being blown up, killing all the occupants.  It was, I suppose, exciting but given that the only thing that defined the characters was the single quality of being in smithereens, it was hard to engage with them.  

Instead, show your character doing a straightforward action.  One of the best actions to start with is to show them making a choice, even if it's something as ordinary as choosing between Braeburn and Pink Lady apples at the supermarket, but any action will do.  The thing to avoid is the character talking or thinking about doing something.  To quote another saying: Actions speak louder than words.

Friday, 22 April 2011

The Sun is Shining - And I Should Be Writing

The sun has been shining and I'm by the seaside. The temptation is on these sunny days to give up work and be out there in the sun. After all, we don't always get many sunny days - last year, the weather around April/May was about as good as it ever got.

And then there's the freelance thing. Freelances don't get holiday pay or job security but they do get the perk of organising their working lives - and a perk is to be out and about when the sun shines while the office workers have to peer enviously out of the windows.

The only trouble is, it's very easy to let days slip away. A bit like dieting and giving yourself little treats for being 'good'. Before you know it, every day you get to eat chocolate and you're really not on a diet.

So even though the sun is shining, try to spend some time with your writing every day, even if it's just for ten minutes. Then, when it starts to rain again - as it undoubtedly will - you'll be ready to go.

(BTW that's obviously do as I say, rather than do as I do...)

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Why Writers Need to be Accurate, Even If They're Making It Up

I've been reading JL Carrell's The Shakespeare Secret and debating whether I can be bothered to finish it. I don't like slagging off other authors - whatever you may think of the writing/story telling, it took the author's time, effort and energy - but this is a book that lost my attention pretty early on for a very simple and fixable reason.

The story's main character is a Shakespearean expert on the hunt for a 'lost' Shakespeare play, so I started with every expectation of enjoyment. But within the first few pages the expert quotes "All that glitters is not gold." Without irony. Without any other qualification. I checked again - yup, that was being presented as a direct quote. A few pages later it was quoted again - it had now become a clue in the mystery.

I did a quick poll among my friends. All but one knew that there was something wrong with the quote, and one could say that the correct quote is "All that glisters is not gold." It's one of those famous misquotes, like "Play it again, Sam". A character, who is supposed to be a Shakespearean expert, in fact the whole story starts from the premise that she's the only person who can unravel the mystery because of her expertise, and she doesn't recognise that the quote is wrong?

The trick in writing is to weave fact and fiction together seamlessly, but in order to swallow the fiction, the fact must be accurate. And if it isn't? The reader can't trust the author on anything, and if you can't trust the author then there's no point in reading on.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Internet Diet Works Rather Too Well

Last week I posted how I'm trying to cut down on my Internet use - less surfing, more writing has been my motto recently. And it's working. This morning I got up, pottered around, started to think about the day ahead, all that stuff when it gradually dawned on me that I hadn't been on line at all yesterday, and hadn't blogged today. Oops.

It's interesting how disconnected one can become from things. This time last year, Twitter and blogging were dominating my life. But I've missed out the last 24 hours of computer use completely. Why? I've been doing other things - teaching, some clothes shopping, meeting friends, chatting with my children. I think it's called Real Life.

On the whole it's better to have a Real Life than a Virtual one. However, it's also easy to slip away from writing. One day goes by, then another, and soon it's been a whole week without writing. Then a month. The project languishes. The longer it's left to languish, the further away it becomes. It can get so far away that the guilt about not finishing turns into vague regret for things left undone.

I've been there. I spent the first 20 years or so of wanting to be a writer not doing much writing. Lots of first chapters and unfinished short stories are stuffed into a box file on the top of a cupboard, all of which were allowed to fade away. The good news is that the situation is easily reversed. You just have to put guilt, regret, whatever to one side and get writing. The more you write, the more you want to write and the easier it becomes (a bit like exercise, so I've been told). So here's my blog post for today, later than usual, but not forgotten.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Writers, Like Dogs, Should Be Let Off Leads

A friend came over at the weekend with his dog, and we went on lots of long walks. Since my dog died last summer I've been missing the dog walks and I was looking forward to walking a dog again. But it didn't live up to my expectations. This dog had a habit of catching a scent and following it, leaving the poor owner scouring the countryside for hours before eventually tracking him down. As a result my friend kept his dog on a lead all the time.

Now, one of the things I loved about my old dog was his sheer pleasure in running about and sniffing and generally having fun out on a walk. Dogs have a tremendous capacity for simply enjoying themselves which I find irresistible - no wonder people who have dogs are apparently happier than those without. The lead was one of those long ones on elastic, but it inhibited joyfulness. Basically, the dog had to stick to the path and not chase after rabbits or stick his nose down badger holes or do any other doggy things. Of course the dog didn't run away, which would have been annoying, but it also made for a less enjoyable walk.

We can be like that as writers. We know what works and stop taking risks in our writing. Or we write with half our mind on who might read our work - parent, lover, child or friend. Or we've had success with one type of writing and are now reluctant to try something else, even though the story we have nagging at our brains won't suit that form.

Sometimes I have to tell students I want them to fail, just to get them to push their boundaries a little further than feels comfortable. Maybe the writing they produce doesn't 'work', but they will at least have learned something about their process. More usually, they surprise themselves by its success and what they can do if they take a few risks.

Personally, I'd rather write with the risk of getting lost, rather than stick to the path all the time and I'd rather read untethered writing too. Take risks! The only thing you have to lose is your time.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Writers Should Vote For Focus

The "AV or First Past the Post" debate seems to be hotting up.  Over the weekend I listened to several discussions - among friends or at the pub.  I observed two things: a) no one really understood what AV actually did and b) no one could stick to the point.  An innocent "so, have you decided on how you're going to vote on 5th May?" descended into rants about MPs expenses, Margaret Thatcher, British colonialism, Rupert Murdoch and News International and a long and convoluted story about a train ride to Manchester.

What the discussions lacked was focus.  I see lack of focus a lot in student work.  It starts off well, with an engaging character or interesting situation but then the story drifts off elsewhere.  This is fine if you're, for example, John Irvine and are known for writing long discursive and digressive novels, but not so good if you're aiming for a 1000 word short story.  

The reader is left puzzled and uncertain where to look.  Who is the main character?  The person we started with, or the person who seems to have taken over the story?  Is our setting here, or there?  Is the story about X or Y?  The reader wants to engage, but they don't know what to engage with.  

Short stories should be about one thing, one person.  Nadine Gordimer describes them as a single, beautiful pendant hanging from a chain, whereas a novel is a string of beads interwoven to make a beautiful whole.  Both require focus to make them work, so when you're writing, don't let yourself get sidetracked.  Know what you're writing about, then write it.    

Friday, 15 April 2011

Vulnerability - An Important Character Trait

The post on creating sympathetic characters triggered some comments about vulnerability and got me thinking. Is vulnerability the most important characteristic a character can have?

Start with baby animals. They're small and fluffy, but surely part of the appeal is their vulnerability. My fat, old cat was once a teeny kitten small enough to hold in the palm of your hand. I can remember feeling her little heart pounding against my palm as she met the dog for the first time. The dog - then an exuberant 2 year old Border Collie - must have seemed a giant to her wide eyes.

And what did that terrified scrap of tabby fur do? Hissed, and spat and fluffed up her bottlebrush tail. The dog could have killed her with one snap of his jaws, but she was having none of it. Vulnerability, combined with a lack of awareness of the vulnerability is surely a large part of the appeal of baby animals. The fluffy chick doesn't think it's cute, it just sets off to scratch more dirt. The floppy eared puppy scampers around the bigger dogs, oblivious to the potential danger. And this transfers to people. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol - a character defined by vulnerability - is not self-pitying but resilient.

From the reverse angle, there's something very appealing about strong characters having a vulnerable spot (a bit like the Athena poster of a muscle-bound bloke cuddling a newborn baby, which was nearly as popular as the tennis girl with no knickers). That moment when the tough commander breaks down, or the stern head teacher softens and reveals their human side is a film cliche, but memorable moments are made from the strong showing their vulnerability.

One of my favourite books as a child was Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutgers Van Der Loeff, and my favourite bit (which still has me welling up just thinking about it) is the scene at the end when John, who has shown such strength of character to get himself and his 6 younger siblings across the mountain passes on their own after his parents die, breaks down and reveals that despite all this, he is still just a child. Strong, but vulnerable. Vulnerable but strong. Gets me every time.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

My Internet Diet

I've been on an Internet diet for the last ten days. It was helped by having intermittant internet access, but I haven't read a single publishing article or blog, or been on either Facebook or Twitter, or any of the writing forums I'm part of AT ALL.

I haven't lost pounds, but I've gained words. Thousands of them, in fact. Perhaps not as many as I'd hoped, but still - a lot more than I've produced in a single week since the start of this year. Result!

And as a side product I'm feeling much less stressed by writing generally. Let's face it, the publishing industry is all over the place at the moment and no one knows where it's going to end up or when it's going to stabilise. What I've realised is that industry-ignorant writers who produce novels are better placed than industry informed writers who don't produce novels.

I've come off the wagon once. I went to a launch party for a friend, the fabulous Liz Kessler, author of the Emily Windsnapp series and there were several YA, teenage and children's writers there to gossip with. It was a fun evening, but I definitely had industry indigestion the next day.

Like any crash diet, you can't sustain it for ever so I'm back on the social media, but this time it's going to be controlled. No more endless reading of blogs and articles. From now on, my writing comes before others.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Don't Be Grotty, Be Writing

I had a grotty week a couple of weeks ago. There was all this stuff about e-publishing flying around and a lot of people were telling me either about authors who weren't having their contracts renewed, or about publishing people being sacked, or about the big name authors signing contracts for squillions, or about the market moving into historicals! crime! historical crime!

I read it all - every contradictory blog, every triumphant/despondant Tweet, every forum posting. I chatted to other writers who were hopeful/elated/suicidal. And it was the end of term and I was tired so ended up being confused and a bit hot and bothered about what I was doing. Or rather, what I wasn't doing.

Because while I was reading and blogging and Tweeting and posting on Facebook and chatting to writers and readers on line and in person, I sort of forgot what it is I actually do. Which is write.

The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it's easy for me to get overwhelmed by all the information out there. Perhaps other people handle it better, but there's so much going on I find it hard to draw a line between what is interesting to know and what I need to know. It's interesting to know about new developments and news (good and bad) in publishing, but do I really need to know them?

Or, to put it another way, do I need to know them more than I need to finish my novel? Umm....

So my message to myself is the title of this post: Don't be grotty, be writing.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

10 Shortcuts to Getting Published?

My beloved son is contemplating a career in law, which his old mother is frankly encouraging, imagining the rest of her life with free legal advice on tap, along with the champagne that he will undoubtedly supply when he's earning squillions. But I digress. He's thinking of doing an internship as a way of - yes! - getting a leg up (look, this blog is on the cutting edge of political stuff!).

Can writers get a leg up with an internship or are there any other quick solutions to getting published?

1. Get a creative writing MA
I've got one. My personal writing process needed me to take the year out to dedicate myself to writing, and that process ended up with me getting a deal a year later. So it helped my writing. It didn't help me get published.

2. Go to Oxbridge
No one has ever asked me if I went to university, let alone where I went, or what degree I got. I have been asked if I've had lots of affairs (after Adultery for Beginners came out) or taken drugs (after Nice Girls Do) so people do ask some interesting questions, but university? Nope.

3. Be blonde
Look at my photo....

4. Be young
Look at my photo....

5. Work in publishing
I did set up a publishing company, but it doesn't really count as it was only me in a cottage on Salisbury Plain. Having said that, it was a very good experience and I learnt a lot about how books are produced and sold which been useful knowledge, though it made no difference to getting published as a novelist. Recently I advised a student who wanted to become a writer not to do an MA, but get a job in publishing - publisher, marketing, agent, bookseller - to learn about the business and be paid for it at the same time, so I do think this one helps you once you've been published but it won't make any difference to your chances of getting published.

6. Have lots of contacts in publishing
See no 5. I knew no one when I started writing. I went to classes and conferences and met other would-be writers, and joined the Romantic Novelists Association, and gradually met people who worked in publishing - including my agent at a RNA party.

7. Be a celebrity
Well, I was one for about 15 seconds in the mid 1980s, and it did make a difference to the press coverage I got for my first novel as each and every one mentioned the Only Fools And Horses connection. But did it really make any difference? OFAH fans tend not to overlap with the sort of people who buy my books, so I'd say no, except it was an easy peg to hang PR on.

8. Write a good book
Says it all really.

9. Re-write the really good book you've written
Because it's never as good as you think it is. Sad, but true.

And finally....

10. Write a good book
It's not really a short cut, but it's the only way that will get you there in the end.

This post was inspired by one on Nicola Morgan's Help! I Need a Publisher which is not only a good post, but has also attracted some very funny comments and several recommendations on how to get rid of moths.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Making Characters Sympathetic

Recently in class a student read out a piece introducing a character. They were enjoying sitting in a high backed, winged armchair which protected them in part from the hustle of a crowded staff room. The writing triggered a memory of hiding under the rocking horse when I was little and believing no one could see me.  Immediately I liked the character and, judging from the class reaction, everyone else had had a similar trigger moment too.  

But maybe not, because the writing worked in other ways too. The character was shown as being a little bit vulnerable, and we warm to vulnerability.  We might admire people such as Madonna, but you couldn't really say you warm to her. 

And notice I said a little bit vulnerable.  Too vulnerable, and you've made your character spineless as a jelly fish and about as fun to read. Normal, human levels of vulnerability are what you're going for.  

Additionally, the character had a private, quirky name for the chair.  Quirky is fun, and most people like characters who are fun and have a sense of humour.  I think it was significant that the quirky name was a private one.  We're not that keen on people who self consciously think they are funny and tell you about it eg whacky names for the cat or the car. 

All in all, the author had written a character who, in a few lines, we were intrigued by, and sympathetic to.  Something we should all aspire to.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Problem Scenes

I've been struggling with a scene recently.  Writing it was awful; I sighed and huffed and puffed and thought about other careers I could do and was it too late to train as a brain surgeon or something.  In the end I followed my own advice and jumped to the next scene.

Oh, what a difference.  Suddenly the little birds sang in the trees and the sun shone through the window and my fingers flew across the keyboard.  Writing was easy!  Writing was the best job in the world!  Yippee!

Afterwards I thought about it.  Why had there been such a difference?  

My problem was, there wasn't a problem.  By which I mean, the viewpoint character didn't have a problem to solve.  Scenes normally flow between action and reaction scenes, and this was a reaction scene, but there was nothing else.  All the viewpoint character was doing was thinking about what had happened in the past.  There was nothing that moved the scene on.  

So, what should I have added?  The magic word here is change.  Something had to change.  It doesn't have to be big.  The character could have been given a piece of information and had to change as a result - whether it was her global world view or what she was doing on Saturday night was irrelevant.  Without change we don't move forwards, and writing is about moving forwards.  

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Exeter 21st May
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Rewards For Writers

Every now and then I'm asked to describe my writing day and it goes something like this:

Get up.  Do some writing.  Watch Bargain Hunt (there are a few raised eyebrows at this point).  Do some more writing.  Watch Countdown (add in a bit of sniggering) do a bit more writing. Watch The Chase (more sniggering, possibly outright laughter).

Okay, so obviously in their opinion no one worth anything watches day time television. But this is my reward system.  1000 words done?  Okay, you can switch off your brain with a dollop of TV before going back to the laptop.  

My viewing habits are carefully selected - I never watch anything with a narrative in it such as soap operas or dramas when I'm writing.  It's always quiz shows or game shows where there's no connection between one episode and the next.  

I think it's important to cultivate a reward system when you're writing.  Heavens, it's a hard enough business and the chances are no one else is going to appreciate your efforts on a daily basis.  For some it might be tea and biscuits, or chocolate.  Others might like a bit of box ticking and have elaborate spread charts that can be filled in.  Deadlines can be good, so long as they don't stress you when they're missed - the secret here is to have easily achievable ones.  

Other rewards could be nice notebooks and writing materials. The word 'pampering' makes me edgy, so spas and beauty treatments are useless rewards for me, but I do like taking time off to go to an art gallery or museum or just take a long walk.  I buy myself flowers when I hit milestones like the first draft done.  It doesn't really matter what you go for, so long as you build some system of rewards into your writing.  

As writers we get quite a lot of sticks thrown our way, what with rejection and negative feedback; we really ought to give ourselves some carrots...

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Exeter 21st May
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Does Gender Matter When Giving Feedback?

I was giving some feedback to a student last week when he said, 'You're always trying to make it more emotional,' which took me be surprise, because that wasn't what I meant at all.  I've had other male students say I was recommending that I should make their work more reflective.  Again, not guilty - in my opinion.  But obviously what I thought I was suggesting wasn't coming across as I intended.   

I thought for a little bit, and then said, 'Don't think emotional, think attitude.  What's the character's attitude to what has just been said? What does it make them think?  What are they going to plan to do next?'

I'm currently reading  Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation which looks at, surprise surprise, how differently women and men use language to communicate.  I haven't yet finished reading but already it's making me think both about how I give feedback, and how I write male characters.  (I expect I'll blog about this when I've digested it a bit more.)

What I have noticed when teaching is that there are more male students who tend to write action and dialogue, while women are more in tune with the character's internal monologue.  Of course, this is a generalisation and there are many students who buck the trend, althoughI think it would be fair to say that thrillers - which tend to be read by men - concentrate on action and dialogue, while romance - which tends to be read by women - concentrate on exploring the main character's feelings.

When I'm giving feedback, it's a question of degree.  I don't think the main character in a thriller should suddenly start emoting all over the place, nor that the main character in a romance should suddenly initiate some ass-kicking action. I think the extremes should be avoided - ie the novel that reads as a film script with a few he saids, she saids chucked in, or the one that rambles on and on with the main character hypersensitive to the nuances of what's been said but without anything actually happening.  

But I will be watching my language from now on.  I'm going to be judging which words are more appropriate - words like attitude, plan, thought, emotional, response, interior.  And I'm going to make sure that my thriller writers don't think I'm encouraging them to write what my other half refers to as 'the soppy stuff.'

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Exeter 21st May
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Guilt, the Writer's Companion

Okay, so there are some of you out there who write a couple of thousand words before getting the kids up and going to work. Proper writers start at 9, don't check their emails until they've hit their target, deal with admin in the afternoons and have time to go to the gym in the evening. Stephen King does 2000 words a day, every day, including birthdays and Christmas. Alexander McCall Smith does 3,000 between 5am and 8am.

I could go on, but the thought depresses me. I'm a guilty writer, you see. I procrastinate. I faff. I have a vague routine but constantly break it. I can't write regardless; if I'm unhappy or tired or upset, then forget it. I can be enormously productive (and on good days, gosh you should hear me crowing on Twitter) and staggeringly unproductive. I can waste hours fretting about all the hours I'm wasting.

And what I've learnt what?

You write your way, I write mine. Perhaps I'm not as productive as Author X, but then I'm not writing Author X's books, I'm writing mine. Actually, I know I'm not as productive as almost every other author on the planet - well, that's how it feels - but then, I can only do what I do. I trot along in my own way, trying very hard not to compare myself with others, and at some point a book gets written. My book gets written. It may not have followed a strict regime, but it will get done. And at the end of the day, that's all that people care about - the end result, not the process.

So don't upset yourself by comparing yourself with others. Even if they have a terrific output, regular as clockwork, they're still not able to write the book you're writing. Carry on in your own way, putting in the time when and where you can. Your book, your schedule. And no guilt, please.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Exeter 21st May
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Monday, 4 April 2011

3 Ways to Tell Lies for a Living

I like watching magicians, particularly close up magic. I know it's trickery, but I want to believe in the tricks - that's part of the fun for me. I don't want the magician to falter or make mistakes, I want them to smoothly cheat and con me, preferably with a flourish.

Fiction is all about telling lies. Our readership is primed to believe our lies, just as I want to believe the magician. But our lies have to be believable lies. How to do this?

1. Be specific
There's a game you can play with a group. Write down two true things about yourself, and one lie, then read them out. The others have to guess the lie. We did this in class the other week, and the lies that were most successful were the ones that were filled with specific detail. Not, 'I go to Rome every year for my holidays', but 'I've stayed in the Albergo al Sole off the Campo dei Fiori in central Rome every year for the past six years.' The detail convinces.

2. Be consistent
I'm a qualified bricklayer. True. People are amazed, because it's unexpected - I don't look like a brickie (and of course, I'm not, I don't do it professionally and I got my City & Guilds certificate ages ago). If you were writing about a fictional character like me, you couldn't suddenly plonk the bricklaying fact into conversation unless it came with an explanation which matched the character.

3. Don't let the reader blink
Every time the reader has to check something they've read you've potentially lost them. The reading experience should be so smooth they hardly notice it happening. That means, no clunky sentences or incorrect words. No non-sequiturs. No confusion about who is thinking or saying something, or what anybody is doing at a particular time. Every time a reader is reminded that they're reading you might lose them. Edit, edit, edit. Get feedback, and edit some more. It's the only way to eliminate the glitches.

Writing fiction is like performing a magic trick. The reader wants to believe in the magic, it's up to you to practice until it appears easy.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Exeter 21st May
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/

Friday, 1 April 2011

What's Criticism For Anyway?

When you put your work out, it's like presenting your vulnerable new-born baby to the world, and inviting them to give it a good kicking. Even if they stroke its fluffy head gently, you're on constant alert to the slightest nuance that they don't think your darling infant is less than perfect. The first time I put my work out for comment the blood was pounding in my ears so hard that I couldn't hear a word of what anybody said.

And because you're so protective of your beloved, even if people say 9 nice things, you only hear the negative 10th one. Your baby can't defend itself from attack so you rush in. This is good if you're a mother literally defending her child from wolves, but not if you're an author faced with a bit of criticism.

Last week a blogger called Big Al reviewed a book he'd read. It wasn't a bad review, saying he'd liked the story telling, but that it had been spoilt by grammatical mistakes and typos. It wasn't one of the main book review sites so it possibly wouldn't have received much attention except that the author chose to respond in - ahem - a rather negative manner. A couple of comments followed. The author responded again. Big Al posted some examples of the sentences that didn't make much sense. Commenters laughed. The author responded again, reducing her comments to the admirably succinct, though inadvisable, F*** Off. And so it merrily went on, the whole thing going viral around Twitter and lots of people pitching in, and a good time has been had by all who haven't been involved.

What I have learned about criticism, from both receiving and giving it, is that people generally want to be helpful. They want your work to succeed. They will offer what comments they can to help improve the writing. They may be wrong or ignorant, but their motives are rarely bad. They don't want to hurt your baby, they want it to look the very best it can.

In fact, you should welcome criticism, not reject it. Your friends may think they're doing you a favour by saying your writing is lovely, perfect, wonderful, but the chances are they're not telling you that your baby has a great splodge of dirt across its face. You could wipe that dirt off easily, if you knew it was there.

And that's what criticism is for: to help you present your baby to the wider world in the best way possible. That's all. You don't have to agree with it but you should know that opinion is out there, even if it comes with a raft of personal preferences and prejudices - I've never liked seeing wispy baby hair tied up in little bows, for example, just as I'm not a fan of present tense narratives.

Once people get over their worries, giving and receiving criticism is a positive experience all round, and a very quick way to learn how to improve. I've seen this time and time again, both with my own writing and in class situations. I love getting feedback on my work - sure, it might make me wince at times, but I'd rather that than send my work out with a dirty face.

The bottom line is the more honest feedback you can get, the better your work will be.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/