Thursday, 30 June 2011

Flashback and Backstory 1

Flashback and backstory are often confused but they are two different things. Flashback is this:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different. She'd walked into the bar and seen Emilio glowering at a table in the corner, so she'd gone over to him.
'Hello, Emilio,' she'd said.
Emilio looked up. 'Dolores! What are you doing here?'
'I came in looking for Juan - have you seen him?'
'No. Have you seen Conchita?'
'Not since this morning.' Dolores licked her lips. 'How about buying me a drink?'
etc etc etc until
Dolores shook her head. Thinking about last night wouldn't make any difference. She began to slowly, sadly peel her false eyelashes off.

And this is Backstory:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different, so different from West Whimpering, the place she'd grown up in. She lived there for her earliest years. West Whimpering was a sleepy little town, and the inhabitants liked it that way, but Dolores had always yearned for something better. She finally left to go to the University of Watereddown to read History, but there she'd met Alberto and ended up in this one horse town. It was just like West Whimpering, but with rancheros, she thought, peeling off her false eyelashes.

Both have their place, which is often the dustbin in my opinion. At which point, if I'm teaching this in class, some students look aghast and clutch their manuscripts to their chest, fretting at the thought of ditching most of their work.

So, why don't I like them?

Flashback stops the action. If you look at the example above, what is Dolores actually DOING while she's having this long thought about the night before? Staring at herself in the mirror. It's hardly the most dramatic writing. But but but, the student stutters, there's lots of action in the bar with Emilio. Yes - but it's all in her head. What is actually going on in the narrative present? Nothing! Nada! Niente! Zilch!

Other negatives about flashback include confusing the reader as to where they are in both time (this morning or last night?) or location (the mirror or the bar?), and confused readers become non-readers in a surprisingly short space of time. Also, by definition, the action contained within the flashback has already happened and is now over. This makes it intrinsically less interesting, like listening to a friend's story about the dream they had last night. What is interesting is what is happening in the present story ie what is happening now.

But but but, the student stutters again. What about XYZ who does flashback brilliantly? Which may well be true. There are writers who handle flashback well. But is the student XYZ? Probably not. Most students use flashback as a means of writing themselves into the story. They have their character sitting on a plane, train, in front of a mirror and remembering back to the action, and it's just boring.

The simple solution is to start with the action. Start with Dolores walking into the bar. If you want to flag up that things are going to go wrong for Dolores, why not begin:

It all seemed so promising when she walked into the bar and saw Emilio sitting there.


This is going to be a great night, Dolores thought as she walked into the bar and spotted Emilio.

This is getting to be a long post. So, having finished off Flashback, I'll tackle Backstory tomorrow.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Writing Lessons From Cats

1. Cats choose who to approach for stroking. Writers should choose their supporters and feedback givers with equal care.

2. When cats are hungry they persistently mew until they get fed. Writers who don't send work out aren't mewing, and won't get fed.

3. Cats defend their territory against all comers including big dogs. Writers should hang on to the truth in their work, even when faced with negative Dobermans but....

4. Cats are flexible, and writers need to be flexible too.

5. Cats are meticulous about grooming their fur. Writers need to groom their prose with equal attention to detail (but they don't have to do the leg in the air bit).

6. Cats come in all shapes and sizes, and so do writers.

7. All cats are beautiful, from pedigree to moggy. Writers are beautiful too, whatever the genre and style of their writing.

8. Cats that lie around all day doing nothing become fat and flabby. Sadly, this is also true for writers.

(My thanks to Tootsie and Toasty for inspiring this post.)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Feedback: Problems and Solutions

I've recently come across some paid-for feedback I'd mislaid a few years ago. I'm pretty certain I mislaid it because I was so dismissive of the comments - they seemed to have made so many daft comments, what did they know?

But a few years have passed and I'm now less emotionally attached to the work - actually, I'd forgotten about those pieces. Reading them through, plus the feedback I can see that - despite my negative attitude at the time - ahem, they were right. They weren't works of genius. There were more than a few flaws.

Now, because I was so dismissive - which was could be seen as another term for defensive - I didn't recognise that there was quite a lot of good advice in that feedback. In fact, had only I been open, there were rather a lot of things I could have taken on board. My mistake.

But what I wasn't mistaken about were their solutions to the problems. The problems were there all right - and now I can see them - but their solutions don't work. At least, they don't work for me, they didn't then and they don't now. The unsuitable solutions gave me the ammunition I wanted to dismiss their comments. But, with hindsight (always so handy) I can now see that the analysis of the problems is accurate.

There are two stages to feedback: analysis of the problems and suggestions for solutions. If the solutions are wrong for you, you don't have to act on them. But to use them as reasons to dismiss all of the feedback, well, that's wasting an opportunity.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Tips for Authors Giving Talks: Everything Else

1. If you make references to a book, website, address, there's bound to be someone in the audience who needs it spelt out in great detail, and then they're going to want to check they've got the exact spelling. Pre-empt this by preparing a handout with all the references/websites/info on it. Hand it out at the end (or they'll spend the whole talk reading it), and tell them this is what you're going to do at the beginning so they don't need to make notes while you're talking.

2. Another given in any audience is the person with the endless question. I've sat in audiences where the speaker has nodded politely as the questioner has gone on and on and on, and willed the speaker to shut them up. Don't let this be you - it's perfectly possible to move them on while being polite.

3. Always have more material than you need. I make sure I have a few extra points or topics which are disposable - if I'm running ahead of time I'll use them, if I'm running late I ditch them.

4. Wear something interesting. When I'm a audience member I get fed up when I feel the speaker hasn't bothered with their appearance. And if I drift off in an author talk I can always wonder where they got their shoes/shirt/bracelet from. Lots of authors have a signature outfit eg Jacqueline Wilson with her rings, Minette Walters with her trilby.

5. Establish beforehand what equipment you'll have, such as a visualiser (my favourite bit of kit), AV, power point etc. But come prepared for there to be nothing, not even a chair. It happens.

6. Don't trot out the same speech to every audience. Prepare afresh each time, and that way you won't get bored with the same material. Yes, you're going to be covering similar ground each time, but add new material, play around with what you've already done. It should be different each time.

7. Practice, practice, practice. Say your speech aloud - don't mumble it. Do it in front of the mirror, the goldfish, the baby. I'd be wary of doing too much in front of your nearest and dearest - they want to be helpful but criticism can be very deflating and lead to a loss of confidence, and confidence is everything in this business. One big speech I gave nearly got derailed when my nearest and dearest, on hearing the new thing I was planning, commented that I had to have balls of steel to think I could carry it off. This was disconcerting, to say the least. I went ahead and did it, but had a horrible flutter of nervousness in the seconds beforehand, which could have spoiled the whole talk. I've not done it since.

8. There's often someone in the audience who is distracting. I once had someone in the audience, right at the front, who was frowning and shaking her head all the way through. She looked as if she was occasionally muttering something in a bad tempered way. I tried to concentrate on the rest of the audience but out of the corner of my eye I could see this lady who looked as if she was disagreeing with everything I said. At the end she came up, and I braced myself to be told how useless I was. To my surprise she apologised. The audience member she'd been sitting next to, she explained, had been giving a very irritating running commentary on what I'd been saying and she'd been utterly fed up with her - not me.

9. Remember the 3 Es: Enthusiasm, Energy and Enjoyment. They go a long way in entertaining an audience. If you don't feel enthusiastic about your subject or you're listless then the chances are you won't enjoy it. Get your energy levels up by jumping on the spot before you go on, develop a mantra that gees you up mentally - if you're prone to sit there thinking 'it's going to be a disaster, I'm going to die' change the record to 'it's going to be great, it's going to be fun'.

10. Remember that you can always fake the 3 Es, and fake confidence. I'm a naturally shy person. I get anxious and self conscious at parties and retreat into my shell. But I do have an alternative persona that I can slip into, and she's never nervous, always has energy, is endlessly enthusiastic. She takes control and is boundlessly self confident. She's not me. But then, who's to know I'm faking it?

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Tips for Authors Giving Talks: Choosing The Reading

1. Choose a piece that is self contained and doesn't need lengthy explanations to make sense.

2. If you do need an explanation for the reading to make sense, then write it out on a separate piece of paper because the last thing that will be on your mind is exactly who is who and why they're there. You're bound to miss out the vital bit of explanation.

3. Choose a piece with as little dialogue as possible. This may sound counter-intuitive, because some of your liveliest writing will be dialogue based. But it's fiendishly difficult for an audience to listen to something that was designed for reading, and keep track of who is who. Even if you are as good as Martin Jarvis at doing different voices I'd avoid too much dialogue.

4. Go for something up beat. I once heard an author read out something horribly depressing which didn't reflect the tone of his novel. I asked why he'd chosen it, and he said it was a self contained scene. This is good - see 1 - but not at the expense of giving the impression that the book was a misery fest. There weren't many sales that afternoon.

5. Don't hesitate to edit your writing to get a useable piece. You've written a novel which is to be read, so the chances of having a section that is perfect just as it is are remote. Take out the bits that won't make sense if you haven't read the book, add little bits of explanation if it helps the reading flow.

6. If you can't find a suitable section, look for two sections you could put together to make a longer reading.

7. Time your reading properly. That means, reading it out loud, including any preamble that you're giving. I think the ideal is about 3 minutes. 5 minutes is too long, unless you are very confident of your reading skills.

8. If you've got a long slot, it's almost certainly best to use two short sections, separated by your general talk. People aren't used to sitting and listening for any great length.

9. Don't feel inhibited about using a great section that doesn't reflect your book. I saw an author do the most fabulous reading which was utterly hilarious. It was the only funny bit in the book.

10. Watch out for sex. Something saucy always brightens up the audience's day, but will you be able to confidently read out a detailed sex scene in front of a bunch of strangers? Even the most confident of authors will lose their nerve.

And on Monday - heavens, I had no idea I had so much to say on the subject - I'll be doing all the things that haven't turned up already.

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tips for Authors Giving Talks: How Not To Be Boring

1. Involve the audience. Get them sticking their hands up, answering questions, waving pieces of paper, eating chocolate.

2. Be unpredictable. Bang tables, scream, jump up and down, run into the audience. This is also useful if you think people are nodding off - especially the screaming. That'll wake 'em up.

3. Be unpredictable early on. Everyone will be very attentive as they wait for you to do another unpredictable thing. Then they'll forget. Then do something unexpected again.

4. Pitch your material to your audience. Do research to find out what sort of things they're likely to be interested in. Are they a general audience, in which case celebrities or something local are usually good bets, or a writer/reader audience, who'd rather have something about the technicalities of writing.

5. People like the idea they're getting some inside info, so give it to them.

6. People need to hear what you're saying or they'll drift off. If you're not miked, the easiest way to pitch your voice so it carries is to talk to someone in the last row. You'll automatically adjust your pitch so you can communicate with them. If it's a dark auditorium there's usually an illuminated Emergency Exit sign at the back. Talk to that.

7. Keep your face up when you are talking especially if you're working from a script. I've had training at drama school on how to keep my face up when working from a text. You learn to hold the script up high then drop your gaze down, memorise a line or two, look up and say them, then look down again for the next couple of lines. It's a really hard skill to master. Much easier to work with index cards and bullet points, so you talk freely around your topics, only looking down for prompts. Watch out if you've been given a low lectern. The natural thing to do is put your notes on it, which means you have to look right down to see your script. If you have to work from a written text then copy it into a big font size so you can read it easily.

8. Vary your tone, vary your pace. Last weekend I was at my nephew's wedding and he gave a fantastic speech - you'd expect it, he's a politician. It started with a joke, then it went a bit general, then he did an emotional bit where he spoke directly to his bride of how much he loved her (not a dry eye in the house) then he brought it back to a general, but audience inclusive section. Brilliant stuff.

9. Jokes help. Self deprecation is good too. If something goes wrong, laugh. Be light, be playful. Even if your book is very serious, it doesn't mean that your talk has to be nothing but doom and gloom from start to finish.

10. If you're using a power point presentation, don't repeat what's up on the screen. That is soooo boring. Everybody reads the screen, then is bored as you repeat it. Better to have some good images up on the screen which you talk around.

How to choose your reading tomorrow....

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Tips For Authors Giving Talks: When Things Go Wrong

1. Plan your talk. Even if all you're doing is talking about your book and how/why you wrote it, plan what you're going to say. Write down any anecdotes you want to tell - I can guarantee you will forget them. You're also likely to get them in the wrong order, and that will throw you. Write down any important names or facts as you will forget them too. I speak as someone who has forgotten a) her name and b) the title of her book when giving a talk. And it was being recorded. Oops.

2. If your brain freezes, stop and look at your notes. Take your time to find a place where you can confidently start again; no audience will expect you to do it all from memory.

3. If your notes have mysterious got into the wrong order, stop, smile and say something like, silly me, I've got these mixed up, I'll just get them into the right order. Then sort them out and continue. So long as you look in charge, things can go haywire and the audience will still be happy.

4. Sometimes you can get very conscious of your hands. They seem to be just hanging there, like useless slabs of meat. The actor's trick is to press your thumb and middle finger together. This gives your hands something to do and stops you feeling self-conscious about them.

5. Making eye contact with the audience is good, but can unsettle you. You can find yourself locked into eye contact with someone in the audience. If you're a new speaker another actor's trick is to look at the audience members between the eyes. This gives the impression that you're making eye contact, without actually doing so.

6. If your mouth dries, lick your teeth. Amazingly, this works instantly.

7. If something goes horribly wrong, acknowledge it. Don't try to battle on, hoping that no one will have noticed. The chances are they will. Smile, apologise, sort yourself out, then carry on.

8. On the other hand, they almost certainly won't notice if something goes wrong from your point of view. Let's suppose you realise half way through that you've missed out an important fact, anecdote, point, whatever then either incorporate it as soon as you can, or leave it. No one but you knows what you were intending to include in your talk, so they really won't know what they've missed. I once acted in a Restoration comedy opposite an actor who gaily missed out pages of dialogue. We'd jump around the text like rabbits on heat, with myself and the other actors trying desperately to get back on course. I don't think the audience ever realised there was ever a problem and if it didn't make much sense, well, they just accepted that.

9. Track time. I take off my wrist watch and put it where I can see it. I like planning my talks on index cards, and reckon on one card per 5 minutes. It's an easy way of keeping track, and seeing if you should be speeding up or slowing down.

10. What to do if you run out of material? Ask for questions. I have been known to prime a friend. in the audience with a question I'd like to be asked. (I once did this when sharing the platform with a very famous author. Because I knew everyone had come to the talk for them, not me, I primed my friend Ginny to ask me a question, so I'd not be entirely left out. She asked her question first, and set off a series of questions that were all aimed at me.) Alternatively, you can start your talk by saying you're going to open the floor to questions at the end, so you want people to think of some really good ones. If there's one of those horrible sticky silences try 'A question people often ask me is....'

Tomorrow I'm going to be covering how to make your talk not boring.

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Tips for Authors Giving Talks: Confidence

Think back to when you've been in the audience at an author talk. How did you feel? What did you expect? The chances are you were hoping for a pleasurable hour, with maybe some information, perhaps a joke or two. I'd be surprised if you were feeling judgmental or negative in any way. If anything the opposite: you wanted the author to do well.

Remember that feeling when it's your turn to give a talk. All your audience expects from you is a nice time. They want you to do well. So, relax. You're not at school, having to do some ghastly presentation on the Battle of Stamford Bridge with a grim faced teacher marking you. You're among friends, even if you don't actually know them (yet).

The audience also doesn't want to be embarrassed by the speaker getting upset - if you've ever been in the audience when a speaker gets flustered you know how uncomfortable that feels, and how anxious it makes you. The first, and most important part of giving talks is to appear confident, even if you're dying inside. Appear confident, and the audience will be happy. It can be as simple as smiling and saying hello in a clear voice, but there are other tricks...

One trick to make yourself appear confident is to arrange the furniture eg chairs, lectern, mike to suit yourself. Take your time over this and don't let anyone, such as the person making the introductions, hurry you up. Make them wait until you're happy that all your notes are in order, your chair/lectern/mike are where you want them to be. If you're not happy, then stop, and ask that whatever is bothering you is fixed, then wait quietly until it is. This is sending out signals that you are in control of your space, and it will make the audience relax - you're the boss.

If the mike/visualiser/power point won't work, then smile to the audience and say something like, we'll just have to manage as we are. Again, you're in charge, but you're also saying we're in this together. It's the same as checking that everyone can hear you - yes, it's got a practical purpose, but it also makes you come across as a) part of the team and b) in control.

This post has been about confidence and how to fake it if you haven't got it. Tomorrow's post will be specific tips on what to do when things go wrong...

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Using Impact Words

Someone in my class wanted to go on an adjective diet, and of course, one of the classic pieces of advice to cut the adjectives and adverbs. But I think one should treat it more as a quality diet, as we're advised to do for eating meat: Use less, but use better.

So we should try to use words with impact. They come into 4 areas....

Words that express emotions - happy, passionate, concerned, thrilled, nervous, scared, terrified

Words that evoke physical sensations such as sounds and smells - whoosh, smack, clunk, crash, sniff, cold

Words that create pictures in a reader's mind - towering, looming, sparkling

Words that are filled with special meaning - midnight, secret, starlight, hidden, new, good, evil, hero, mission

The more impact words we use in our writing the stronger it will be. So characters don't walk across a room, they strut, stroll, cartwheel. They don't bump into things, they crash, smack or knock something. They don't have blonde hair or long legs, but have laughs dirty enough to plough.

Here's Angela Carter describing Puss in Boots: "A tom, sirs, a ginger tom and proud of it. Proud of his fine, white shirtfront that dazzles harmoniously against his orange and tangerine tessellations (oh! what a fiery suit of lights have I); proud of his bird-entrancing eyes and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice." (from The Bloody Chamber)

Okay, so we can't all write like Angela Carter, and quite a few probably don't want to. But we can all use impact words and give our writing some extra oomph.

(My thanks to The Mind Gym, which introduced me to the concept of impact words).

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - clickhere or contact if you want more info.

Friday, 17 June 2011

4 Character Fails

1. Characters display unattractive or dull characteristics
Spiteful. Petty. Mean-spirited. There are some characteristics that have no redeeming features. Patronising. Superior. Condescending. Give your main characters these qualities and you can guarantee you're going to turn readers off. Subsidiary characters can of course have these qualities, then we like the main characters for giving them their comeuppance.
Now, I can hear you all saying, but what about the character we love to hate? The character we love to hate usually has attractive characteristics in spades - qualities like energy, flair, wit, sex appeal. They may do bad things, but that doesn't seem to matter as much.

2. Characters who are nice
Bland characters are boring. Inoffensive = unmemorable. Nice people are good to know in real life but they make heavy reading. Quick - name a woman in a Dickens novel. Bet you came up with Estella, Miss Havisham, Betsy Trotwood, Bella, Sarah Gamp, Nancy, Lady Deadlock - all characters who aren't particularly 'nice' but are memorable. Anyone remember Dora? Nope, didn't think so.

3. Characters who react rather than act
Main characters need to do stuff, not hang around waiting for things to happen. We can all jog along nicely in our own little ruts in real life, but who wants to read about it? Your character might be in a rut at the start of the book, but once they've been thrown out of it (as they surely will, and hopefully pretty early on) they get going and start doing.

4. Bad first impressions
I am sure there are lots of gorgeous men out there called Geoff or Brian. Or Nigel. But it's hard to think of them as leading male characters. For the women, it's hard to get excited reading about Mildred, Doris or Blodwen. Names are important as they have all sorts of associations - Scarlett O'Hara was originally called Pansy, which doesn't have quite the same ring about it.
It's also hard for characters to shake off negative impressions if they're shown displaying unattractive characteristics (see no 1) the first time we see them. You know the saying that we make up our minds about someone within 30 seconds of meeting them? Same is true for reading about them, and it's very hard to shift those first impressions.

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - clickhere or contact if you want more info.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

6 Plot Fails

1. Uninteresting or off putting main problem or premise, either with nothing we can identify with, or in a boring setting.
I have read a self-published novel that features a hero who is a specialist in intestinal worms. It starts with him in the lab, taking a stomach sample from a lab dog. You don't have to be into animal rights to think yuck. And he wore a vest.

2. Problems solved immediately, or left so long that we forget about them.
Another self published novel brought this one to mind. The heroine kept having problems, but the solution was immediately to hand.
'Oh no, this door is locked!'
'Oh, I've just found a key - do you think it might fit?'

3. Too much or not enough conflict.
Recently someone told me at length about their novel. It featured terrorists and spies, explosions, family dilemmas, a child with a heart problem, a royal kidnap, a romantic sub-plot. 'And I've nearly done 10,000 words!'
The flip side is one where nothing happens. You realise you're on chapter 5 and the characters still haven't made it to the meeting they set up in Chapter 1, and nothing else has happened either. Usually features lots of back story.

4. Plot clusters
Two (or more) dramatic events are crammed next to each other. Dramatic events need room to breathe, they need space around them for the reader to get full enjoyment from them. Shoving them next to each other is like overstuffing a vase full of flowers, the impact is lessened for each event. 'Yes, I am your mother,' she said. 'And by the way, he's your father.'

5. Pace
Think of your novel like a car journey from A to B. Sometimes you accelerate, sometimes you slow down. If it was nothing but acceleration, you'd feel you were hurtling out of control, but if it was nothing but braking, you'd gradually drop off. Acceleration is action, braking is reaction. You need both to get from A to B comfortably, although usually the pace picks up towards the end.

6. Chapter ends
And talking of gradually dropping off, never ever ever have characters going to sleep at the end of chapters. You're just asking for the reader to go zzzzzzzzz.

Character Fails tomorrow....

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - clickhere or contact if you want more info.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

12 Dos and Don'ts for Authors Promoting Their Book

1. Do tweet and blog about your book, but Don't just promote - no one will care unless you connect with people.

2. Do come up with fresh angles for the media and Don't expect "author writes book" to make the news.

3. Do tell your friends and use your contacts but Don't become a bore - people switch off it's it's nothing but me me me.

4. Do use social media but Don't neglect traditional media such as local papers and radio - believe it or not, lots of potential book buyers don't use Facebook, Twitter etc.

5. Do suggest yourself for book signings and library appearances but Don't expect anyone to be as interested in your book as you are.

6. And if you Do a book signing, Don't expect people to automatically turn up - they won't, unless you do a lot of promotional work.

7. Do be professional and pleasant to everyone you meet and Don't be a prima donna - you need every ounce of goodwill you can get.

8. Do post/tweet about yourself but Don't put up anything you wouldn't be happy to see on the front page of a newspaper - it may feel just you and your mates, but it isn't.

9. Do accept that you have to put time into promotion (even if you have a publicist) but Don't lose sight of writing your next book.

10. Do monitor your success through Sales Rank Tracking but Don't become obsessed by every upward (or downward) movement.

11. Do start a blog and set up a website but Don't then let them languish, they need maintaining.

12. Do expect to work hard to get any response and Don't expect instant results

and finally Do have fun!

There are still some places on the How to Sell a Novel day course in Bath on 3rd July - click here or contact if you want more info.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

I Owe My Writing Career to a Hamster

So there I was one Saturday morning, cleaning out the hamster and putting fresh newspaper down to line the bottom of the cage when I saw the ad for a short story writing competition. The closing date was on Monday.

By the time I'd finished sorting out the hamster, I'd come up with an idea for the story. Instead of cleaning the rest of the house I rushed off and belted out my story on the computer. I tarted it up a bit on Sunday, delivered it by hand on Monday. I was so excited, convinced that this was the start of my brilliant writing career.

Months passed. I forgot all about the story competition, and my writing career, brilliant or otherwise.

Then a letter arrived, with a cheque. I'd come second in the competition, and won £50. Suddenly my career was about to be brilliant again. I rattled off a load more stories and entered every competition I could find. I counted out the money I was going to win - plotting that we'd be able to afford a holiday this year.

We didn't go on holiday. My brilliant writing career stalled. I didn't win a single thing. And I suppose this is where personality comes in. If I'd won even one of those competitions I probably wouldn't have carried on. But because I hate being told I can't do something, it makes me more determined to succeed. I set off to write more short stories, enter more competitions, send off stories to magazines. At one point I was writing a story a day, scribbling frantically in gaps between the school run, work and rebuilding the house. (I can remember typing in the kitchen while the builders knocked a hole through the wall to make it open plan. Top tip: Brick dust jams the keyboard.)

And gradually I was shortlisted more often than not. I won a prize or two. Magazines accepted a few of my stories. I learned a lot about writing. And then I decided to write a novel.

But I sometimes wonder: would I have had the impetus to get started if I hadn't been cleaning out the hamster's cage? Do other people get started on this writing road with a chance incident - maybe an encounter that makes them think of a story idea, or something overheard? Perhaps a word of encouragement, or a lucky break, or even reading a book and think 'I could do this better'. I wonder....

Monday, 13 June 2011

Finding More Time To Write

Someone said to me last week, 'You must be brilliant at time management.' It was a bit disconcerting because I think I'm rubbish at time management. It's one of the areas I constantly berate myself about, as I'm a serious procrastinator.

But I have to admit it's not the first time it's been said to me, so I've tried to think what other people see in me that I know is not true. My conclusion is that it's because outsiders only see the things I achieve/do - the novels, short stories, teaching, blog, Twitter etc. What they don't see is all the faffing around that I tend to do in the privacy of my own home.

We can't do everything. A high achiever such as, for example, Barrack Obama is busy holding international meetings with heads of state, but he's missing out on other things - wasting time on a sunny day with a couple of mates out in the garden with a glass (or two) of wine, for example, or watching The Shawshank Redemption for the sixth time. Now, you might prioritise Mr Obama's occupations over mine, and his are undoubted more significant than mine, but I get more enjoyment from revisiting a favourite film than I would from any amount of high level meetings with heads of state.

It makes no difference how clever or focussed or anything we are, we can't do everything. If we choose to do X, we can't do Y. All we can choose is what we put high on the list. I put writing and reading and teaching writing high on my list. I put going to the cinema and art galleries and being with family and friends even higher. Everything else is, frankly, an also ran.

I don't have any other hobbies. I don't sing in a choir, for example, or play sport. I don't cook, except for special occasions. I do minimal housework - my domestic standards are low, I'm not interested in immaculate or perfect. I don't watch much television. My children have grown up so I'm not bound by things like the school run.

So, yes, I do lots of writing related things, because that's what I prioritise. My priorities might not be yours - I once tweeted that I hadn't ironed anything in years, and someone tweeted back, how sluttish. That's her opinion. Mine is, ironed clothes don't make you a better writer (or a nicer person).

If you don't have time to write, it's nothing to do with being a good time-manager, and everything to do with what you're choosing to prioritise. If you want to write, you will. Make it your priority, and it will happen.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Remember, Rejection Isn't Personal

A letter arrives from someone in Nigeria. They're supposed to inherit billions of dollars, but can't access it until they put in a couple of thousand pounds into an account. Sadly they haven't got the money but if you put the money up front, you can have half of the billions. What do you do?

You're walking down the street when a man sitting on the pavement asks if you can spare some change. What do you do?

The Nigerian letter you probably don't even read, and the man in the street - well, you might give them a bit of change, you might make eye contact but shake your head, you might just hurry by. It depends on your mood and the circumstances, but generally we don't give serious sums of money to complete strangers simply for the asking.

When you're sending out your novel you're asking a complete stranger to give you lots of money.

Yes, really.

It costs money to publish a book. The editor, copy editor, proof reader, typesetter all need paying as do sales and marketing, publicity and other back up staff such as receptionists and PAs as well as the cover designer. If it's being printed, there are also paper and printing costs, plus the printing staff salaries. And that's before your advance gets considered.

Even if you're sending to an agent, you're asking them to commit to your project, a commitment that will take up time and energy and take away from other guaranteed paid work, on the hope that there may be a return.

The reality is, when you send your novel out you're asking a complete stranger to give you money. Their Inboxes and mailboxes are full of the equivalent of letters from Nigerians, the begging hands are out wherever they go. They can't give to everyone, in fact, they can't give to most people. It's not personal, just as when you walk past a Big Issue salesman in the street it's not a rejection of that particular person.

The amazing thing is that every day in publishing people are being given serious sums of money by complete strangers - a writing friend emailed me yesterday with news that she's just landed a deal with a publisher for her memoir. It could be you tomorrow. But if it's not, don't take it to heart. It really isn't personal.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Learning from an Olympian

A lovely, long boozy lunch on Sunday at a friend's house. My host happens to have won a Gold Medal at the Olympics for rowing. He doesn't usually talk about it, but this Sunday he told us about the experience.

Throughout the heats the Russians were obviously the leading team - they won everything with plenty to spare. So when it came to the final, my friend's team had nothing to lose and catching up, he explained, was easier than being ahead. They got to the half way point, realised that they were in second place, upped the pace and overtook the Russian team, going on to win by a length. Hooray!

It sounds straightforward, almost easy. Yet he had spent many mornings throughout the winter months for years beforehand practicing his rowing before he got a place on the team. He told me that when you're out there and it's cold and miserable and raining ice water and your body aches, a voice in your head is saying: Why are you doing this? You could be in the warmth, you could be in bed. You don't have to do this. But he kept plugging away, doggedly rowing before going to work. It's in your head, he told us. If you win in your head, you win.

The same as writing? You sit at the keyboard typing away, while a voice in your head tells you it's worthless, you'll never get published, you're just wasting your time, no one will ever want to read it. And yet you keep on. Because writing is what it's about. Writing, and more writing, and more writing. You have to put the hours in with no guarantee of reward.

The voice is quite right: you don't have to do this. But if you win in your head, you will win.

PS An Olympic gold medal is smaller than I expected, and less shiny. But, boy, is it heavy!

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

More Rhythm, But This Time It's Personal....

While I was thinking about rhythm in speech, I was reminded of something a friend told me about rhythm, and thought I'd share it with you.

Certain rhythms crop up again, and again. There's the famous iambic pentameters of the opening line of Rebecca - Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. And you can put certain poets to other rhythms...

Try Emily Dickinson. Poor, frail Emily...

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality


My life closed twice before its close;/It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil/A third event to me

Now try singing the lines to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Sorry, Emily Dickinson fans. You're going to have The Yellow Rose of Texas winging through your brain for the rest of the day. See where thinking about rhythm gets you.

(All together now...
Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortaliteeeee!)

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Rhythm in Prose

I always advise people to read their work aloud. It does several things:

1. Makes you realise if there are any grammatical errors.
2. Shows where there are clumsy sentences (where you stumble reading, you can be sure the reader will also stumble).
3. Gives you a sense of the rhythm of your writing, particularly when it comes to the dialogue.

Rhythm is something we don't often talk about, but it's there in everything we write. I write with a different rhythm to you, and you write with a different rhythm to your friend and so on. Our rhythm is as individual as our fingerprints - it's one of the aspects that makes up our 'voice' as a writer.

People speak with different rhythms, and this is one of the hardest things to get across in dialogue. You have to hear how your characters speak, and then transfer their different speech patterns to the page. If you've got a good ear you'll do it naturally, but other people have to practice - a good starting point is learning to listen.

Try saying both these phrases aloud: "That's enough" and "Enough already"

I bet you said them with a different intonation. They mean the same, but the different words give a different rhythm, which show a different accent, which suggests a different background. Read a Roddy Doyle novel, for example, and the Irish accent rings out clearly through the rhythm of the sentences. Listening and reading out are key in developing this for yourself.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Ebooks v Tree books

I really like my Kindle. It's a boon when you're travelling and I'm enjoying the sampling facility in particular, and flicking through the classics (must confess I've put Henry James to one side and moved on to less wordy stuff). But I don't like the reading experience as much as reading a book.

I miss the way you can check back on something in previous chapters easily. I feel I'm skim reading more, though I'm not sure if that's a function of the page size being smaller so I'm turning the page more often, leading to a faster feel to the reading experience. (Or it could just be the Henry James...)

A friend tried out my Kindle at the weekend and sniffed that you couldn't see your bookmark get further towards the end. I pointed out the percentage read bar at the bottom but they were having none of it. The bookmark physically creeping its way through the book was important to them.

I'm not fussed by the bookmark (I tend to turn page corners down to mark my place) but I do like the chunky feel of a book, the sense of working my way through the pages, the feeling of achievement as you close the book for the last time. Don't get me wrong - I think the Kindle is an incredible invention, and I'm using mine a lot - but sometimes the packaging is an important part of the whole.

The market is changing so fast who knows what will be happening next year, let alone in the next ten years but I think both ebooks and treebooks will be around for a long time to come.

Friday, 3 June 2011

What Do Chicken Breasts and EBooks Have in Common?

So there I was at the supermarket examining the different packages of chicken breasts. There were value ones, and organic ones, freedom ones and free range ones, Red Devon ones and cornfed ones, and multipacks and skinless and oh, so many to choose from. Suddenly I realised that here was the answer to publishing and, in particular, ebooks and pricing.

When you're feeling well off, you go for the free range ones. When poor, the cheapest multipack. When you're going to impress a date it's got to be the speciality, named variety chickens that have been living exclusively on gold leaf, judging by the price. Sometimes you're not feeling so rich, but you're choosing quality over quantity. Sometimes there simply isn't a choice and you go with whatever is left on the shelves. Whatever, there is a choice of essentially the same product - chicken breasts - at a range of prices and quality.

I've heard a lot of people say that publishers "should get their act together" with ebook pricing - basically meaning, all ebooks should be cheap. But I think we've just got to think of it like chicken breasts. The newest/latest/most beautifully produced books are going to carry a premium just as the free range, organic speciality chicken breasts do. Want good editing or extra features? You pay extra for that. Not bothered? Then go for the value range.

I think ebook prices will continue to be variable. Some ebooks will be expensive. Some will be cheap. As consumers we'll choose what we value enough to pay for. Like buying chicken breasts, money will be one aspect, but not the only one.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

When Is The Right Time To Send Your Novel Out?

This is a piece of string question - the answer being, when it's ready. But how do you know when it's ready?

1. When you've done everything you can think of to the novel.
2. When you honestly have no niggling feeling in your stomach that there's something wrong somewhere.
3. When your writing critique friends are telling you to get on with it, it's good to go.
4. When deep down you know you're putting off the moment because you're worrying about rejection.
5. You're sick to death of it.

This is of course assuming:

1. You've finished it.
2. You've put it away, then come back to re-write with fresh eyes.
3. You HAVE come back to re-write - at least once, if not twice, thrice....
4. You've done some research on suitable agents and have a target list to send out to.
5. You've asked for feedback from writer friends.
6. You've had some professional feedback (if you can afford it, you really should get professional feedback).

You don't want to send it out too early, before you've re-written it, but on the other hand, don't wait until the right moment, or when it's perfect. The right moment will never come, and no novel is ever perfect. If you've done the work, let it go...

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Why I Don't Like Flashback

Classic student opening to a short story or novel: The first paragraph starts...Emma applied another coat of mascara and stared at her reflection in the mirror... And the second paragraph starts...It had all started last night when Emma had walked into the bar and seen Joe. 

Variations would have the character shaving, drinking coffee, looking at themselves in the mirror, settling down for a train journey while thinking about what happened last night.  It's a device to frame the story, a way of writing themselves into the situation.  What it does is lose the tension.  We, as readers start here, and then we're whisked there. But 'there' has already happened.  We know that Emma makes it home in one piece because that's where we started.  The writer set a bench mark for the narrative present, so anything else is flashback.  

As well as losing narrative tension, we have a lot of clumsy grammar - she had had, there had been etc. Plus, the action of applying mascara/shaving/drinking coffee is inherently neutral - it's like throat clearing.  Nobody's interested in throat clearing, we want to read the action.  And the action happened last night, which makes it about as interesting as hearing about someone else's dream. 

There are writers who do flashback very well, but there is always a purpose to it.  Clues are revealed to the reader which keeps their interest level high.  But generally, wouldn't it have been much better to start:  Emma walked into the bar and the first thing she saw was Joe.  

PS Can't find my glasses this morning - apologies for any grammar/spelling mistakes/infelicities etc, but it's all a bit blurred.