Thursday, 23 June 2016

Kill All Adjectives: Rules of Writing No.2

The Rule
Delete all adjectives.

She had beautiful shiny blonde hair with lovely sparkling blue eyes.  She wore a pretty pink frilly dress and dainty little white slippers. Like buses, adjectives often come in threes.  They clutter up your prose without adding much information, apart from the fact that you like cliches.

When to break The Rule

Description - Well chosen adjectives create pictures: "At that very moment he was toiling in the cool dark of his study, the heavy chenille curtains closed against the summer, lost in his work, work which never came to fruition, never changed the world or made his name." (Kate Atkinson, Case Histories)
Without the adjectives the description would lack atmosphere. None of the adjectives used are elaborate or unusual but they describe the study, and his work, with great economy.

Style - A sparse, adjective-light prose style is currently fashionable.  It wasn't always - think of those heavyweights like Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope.  An adjective-heavy style might suit your personal style or genre.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Feedback: Love It Or Hate It?

A while back I read Matthew Syed's book Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success. There was lots in it I found fascinating, but this quote from a head of HR in a prestigious financial institution struck me:

"When someone is given a new challenge, like giving a major presentation to clients, it is inevitable that they will be less than perfect first time around.  It takes time to build expertise, even for exceptional people.

But there are huge differences in how individuals respond.  Some love the challenge.  They elicit feedback, talk to colleagues, and seek out chances to be involved in future presentations.  Always - and I mean always - they improve.  But others are threatened by the initial 'failure'. In fact, they engage in astonishingly sophisticated avoidance strategies to ensure they are never put in that situation ever again.  They are sabotaging their progress because of their fear of messing up."

I've seen the same reaction with feedback to writing. Some love it, seek it out.  Others hate it, reject it.

I believe strongly that writing is something that should be enjoyed - it's an uncertain business if you're writing professionally, with no career guarantees - so no one should have to go through a process that they don't like or find upsetting, and especially if they're not aiming to write professionally.

The trouble is, that HR guy is right. In my many years of teaching, I can safely say that every piece of writing I've seen re-written after feedback is better.  And isn't that - regardless of whether we're doing it professionally or just for ourselves - what most of us want: for our writing to improve?

It can be hard, it can be painful, it can be threatening.  I've been upset for days (occasionally weeks) after hearing some feedback I didn't like.  And then I've rewritten. It's always better.

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Treat Your Writing Like You Would A Lover

At the weekend an artist friend was bemoaning the fact that, for various reasons, he hadn't been able to get into the studio to paint and was worried about what would happen when he finally did.  "It's like a relationship," he said.  'If you don't nurture it, the magic goes."

At the beginning of a relationship, everything is exciting.  You think about them all the time.  You can't wait for the moment when you're together again.  You speculate about what they're doing, what they're thinking when you're apart.  And when you're together, the world seems brighter, the colours better.  You don't have to make and effort to spend time together - all you can think about is meeting up, so any obstacles are brushed aside as easily as cobwebs.

A while later, and you've settled into your routine together.  The magic is still there, your heart still beats faster at the thought of them, but it's no longer that sick, giddy sort of excitement.  You talk to each other every day, they're No 1 in your head, but you don't think about them every waking moment.

A bit later on, the routine is in danger of becoming a bit...well, routine.  You tell yourself the magic is still there, but sometimes you're so busy, you forget to contact each other. If there's a problem meeting up, you don't do everything you can to get there.  Other things take priority in your life. A text goes unanswered, a bunch of flowers remains unbought.

There isn't anything wrong, as such, but this relationship is on a downward spiral.

Same with writing.

You've got to keep the relationship going by putting in the time.  You've got to spend time writing, and when you can't make it to the keyboard to write, you need to be thinking about writing.  Take your writing on dates e.g. writing conferences, subscribing to writing magazines, going to classes.  Make time to write - it may not be possible to write every day, but don't let days pass before going back to writing. Nurture it.

And when you hit a rocky patch, stick with it. Don't bail at the first opportunity.  Work hard to keep the relationship together, which usually means putting more time in.  

Treat your writing like your lover and nurture a great relationship.

Monday, 13 June 2016

He said, she said: Rules of Writing No. 1

The Rule:
Always use 'said' as the verb to describe the act of someone speaking.

Neutrality - 'said' is a neutral word,  it disappears to the reader so doesn't clutter the page unlike, say, expostulated.
Redundancy - "Why do you like cats?" she asked.  There's a question mark, so it's obvious he's asking a question.
Physical impossibility - "I love cats; they're so cute," he giggled.  Giggling makes a noise, but not one that forms itself into intelligible words.

When to break the Rule
Volume - you may want to indicate if someone is shouting 'he yelled' or speaking quietly 'she whispered'.
Tone - muttering is different in tone and attitude from whispering, or speaking quietly for that matter.
Information - 'I'll have another drink,' he slurred shows us his state of inebriation without spelling it out as in 'I'll have another drink,' he said drunkenly.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

5 Stages of Solving Your Writer's Block Problems

I came across this fact:  the word 'solve' comes from the Latin solvere which means to loosen. It got me thinking about getting stuck with writing, aka Writer's Block.

1.   Loosen up: stop being up-tight about your stuck-ness. Relax.  The world will not come to an end just because you can't think of what to write next, or can't motivate yourself to write another word.  It simply won't.  It might be inconvenient, especially if you're under contract, but world ending?  Nope.

2. Loosen up about what you're writing.  It's easy to get stuck because you're worried about getting it wrong.  Forget it.  One of the first things I tell people is to write rubbish.  Writing rubbish is a brilliant idea.  Everyone can write rubbish! Write lots of rubbish, and free yourself from the burden of perfection.  When you've done lots of rubbish writing, put it aside.  When you come back to read it, I bet it won't be so rubbishy after all.  Free and easy writing has a lot of energy behind it.

3. Loosen up about finding the right solution.  ANY solution is the right solution.  As Goethe wrote, "action has magic and power in it", so write down any old solution.  If you can think of three possible directions your writing could take, and you're frozen with the enormity of choosing which one is the the right one, then have a bash at writing all three.  The action of writing will reveal which is the right one.

4.  Loosen up about what is 'right'.  What's right for you may not be right for me, or it might not be right for me right now.  Loosen up about rightness.  There's no such thing as 'right' when it comes to writing. You may have a former English teacher/your mother/your father perched on your shoulder saying you're wrong but there is no 'wrong', just the same as there's no 'right'.

5.  Loosen up about your process.  You don't get extra reader Brownie points for the first draft being correctly spelt or punctuated. Sure, the final draft needs to be as grammatically correct as you (and an outside editor) can make it, but the road to that final draft is littered with spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical slip-ups, horrible characterisation, ghastly plot errors, boring stuff where you literally lost the plot.   And you know what - no one need ever see them!

The blank page IS scary.  But once you've made that first mark, it stops being blank.  Loosen up, and give it a scribble.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Genre Rules: Why Bother?

Following on from my post about being aware of the market, I was sorting through some of my boxes of papers and came across some handwritten notes about what makes crime cosy.  I suspect they're from a talk attended long ago as they're torn from a notebook, but as I didn't note the source I can't give a credit.  Sorry. But before chucking the notes away, I thought I'd write them down here in case they're of use to someone:

Amateur sleuth, probably female.  Very likeable.
Characters are "normal", relatable - they could be your neighbours.
Victim - not likeable.  They "deserved" it.
Village/small town setting.
Supporting characters - funny, eccentric.  Want to visit them.
Crime takes place off stage.
No violence, sex, profanity.
Connections between everybody.
Sex - always off stage.
Sidekick who is in police (for access to confidential stuff).
Fast paced, several twists and turns.
Emphasis on plot and development.

When I wrote my first novel, Adultery for Beginners, I sent it to a book doctor, and later changed several elements according to what was in effect  a list of rules/commandments.  They included:

Rural setting less popular than urban setting - I changed the setting from a village to a small city (Salisbury mixed with Andover in my head).
Characters relatable, not too well off - I changed this, dropping the main characters down the pay scale.
Strong character arc - I moved from 4 viewpoint characters to a single viewpoint because the other 3 viewpoint character arcs were weak. (The book doctor recommended beefing up the other 3 viewpoints.  Same problem, different solution.)
Male protagonist someone the reader could fall in love with - I didn't change him for the UK edition, but he was softer and more romantic for the US edition.

The change that taught me the most, however, came from my writing group.  They had identified most with a character who is a newcomer, whose first action in the story was to go into a room full of people she doesn't know, who all know each other. That one action made an unlikeable character into everybody's favourite (much to my annoyance and dismay).

Guess what?  In the next draft, the newcomer who goes into that room full of strangers was the main character.  That version sold. A lot.

Sometimes these lists of rules work.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Why Being Aware Of The Market Is Not the Same As Chasing It

Chasing the market is spotting that, say, lots of books have recently been published featuring unreliable narrators and deciding to write a book featuring an unreliable narrator.

What's wrong with that, you might think.

Well, several reasons.  First, and perhaps most importantly, is the speed of publishing. It usually takes at least a year, and sometimes as long as two years, from a publisher buying a manuscript to seeing it on the shelves.  So why you're seeing now doing well now was bought at least a year ago.  It doesn't mean that publishers aren't buying unreliable narrator books right now, because the market might not yet be saturated, but it will have moved on a bit.

Ah, you might think.  But I'm going to publish it myself, and skip the time delay of conventional publishing.  Which is great and, if you can write quickly, you'll might hit the market at the right moment.'s one thing seeing a trend and deciding to capitalise on it, it's quite another doing it.  Writing a book is hard enough, you have to have an inner certainty that what you're doing is the only thing you can be doing.  So if you deep down really want to write a book featuring an unreliable narrator then now may be your moment.  But if what you really want to write is, say, about wild ponies on the savannah then that's what you should be writing.

So don't chase the market.  The lack of a deep down drive to write will make a book hard to write, and - if you manage to finish - hard to find a readership because readers can tell if a book is written without that inner passion.

Being aware of the market is something else.

That means spotting that unreliable narrators are currently in, and thinking about going back to the manuscript you wrote some time ago featuring an unreliable narrator.  Perhaps the time delay will give you enough distance to revise it.

Being aware of the market also means being aware of wider trends.  Some years ago I advised a family friend that their novel would not succeed because no one would want to read about a main character going about his work as a specialist in intestinal worms in dogs.  It may be an important job, it may be even an essential job but I'd give the same advice now (and forever, I suspect).  It's just not the sort of job a hero should do.

Other trends have shifted - length, for example.  Ten years ago and no one was interested in novella-length fiction.  That's changed.  Overall, books generally are shorter - if I had a 120,000 word novel, I'd definitely start sharpening my axe with a view to getting it down to around 90,000 words. And I can remember about fifteen years ago being told that erotica didn't sell.

Each genre will have trends, and you should be aware of the trends in your genre.  If, for example, you observed that crime fiction seems to be getting less violent perhaps it would be a good idea to rein back the the violence in your WIP (perhaps I should stop sharpening that axe...).

So pay attention to the market, be aware of the trends, but never chase it and always write from the heart.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Do Writers Notice The Days of the Week?

Last week, a friend emailed to suggest meeting up today.  I was a bit surprised - wouldn't they be at work?  I carried on being surprised, until it dawned on me that today is a Bank Holiday.

If I am ever so unfortunate as to be knocked over in the street and taken to hospital I'm sure I'll be diagnosed as having concussion or dementia due to my confusion about what day of the week it is.  "Tuesday? No, can't be, it wasn't Game of Thrones last night...Wednesday?  Surely it can't be Thursday already?"

During academic term time I'm always nervous about forgetting which days are my university days.  I have lots of alarms set up to remind me twice on the days before and once in the morning.

Bank holidays, weekends...the concept of taking days off from work is a tricky one.  Outside the academic year I work from home and answer to no one for the hours I put in. I work Sundays, Saturdays, evenings, early mornings, birthdays, Christmas if that's what I feel like doing - or if a deadline requires.

The flip side is when the sun is shining,  I go to the beach or for a walk regardless of whether the rest of the world consider it to be a 'working day.'  Of course while I'm walking, in my head I'm plotting and planning and working out what I'm going to write or do next, so it does count as working. Sort of.

So as I'm writing this on a Bank Holiday morning I'm wondering, will anyone read it?  Will anyone check their computer because it's a Bank Holiday?  Or breathe a sigh of relief for the freedom to leave the computer switched off and work behind as they head for the beach or indulge in a very long lie-in?  Who knows?  If anyone is reading, whatever you do today I hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Learning To Inhale: Becoming An Effective Writer

When I first started writing I made great plans about my word counts.  I would write 2000, 3000, 6000 words a day! That way I'd write a novel in a couple of weeks - a month, tops.

Readers, it didn't work out that way.

Part of the reason was that, while I could write at that rate for one day, the next day I was shattered and wrote nothing.  The exception was when I went on a writing retreat, renting a cottage and doing nothing but writing.  Then my output was much larger, more like 5000 words a day, sometimes even topping 7000 - and still finding time to watch Countdown AND Bargain Hunt.

It took a long time for me to twig why there was this discrepancy.  It was because when I went to a cottage I did nothing else (apart from watch day time television).  I didn't have to wash clothes or tidy up or pick children up from school or feed them, or feed myself much for that matter.  I didn't have to worry about paying bills or where my car keys had mysteriously gone to, or whether the cat was going to be sick or anything at all.  All I had to do was plonk my bum on a seat and get typing.

But real life has to go on for most of us, and all the day to day stuff has to be done - demands to be done, in fact.  When I was at my most productive, both in terms of my own writing (books, blogs, articles etc) and teaching others to write, people sometimes said how amazed or impressed they were by my effectiveness.

Truth was, I did nothing else.  Writing, or teaching about writing, and day to day stuff.  That was it.  None of the other fun things people do like sing in choirs or go to concerts or pub quiz nights or social life or knitting or anything.  Just writing...I even stopped reading for pleasure.  I was productive, breathing out efficiently and effectively, but I'd forgotten about breathing in.

Mistake. If you don't breathe in, you run out of air. And if you run out of air...

My counterpart would be the person who intends to write, but never finishes anything.  They may not even get started.  They attend lots of classes and sign up for courses and read all the books.  They probably have a great social life or make beautiful artworks or help others or do any number of interesting things. They write wonderful novels and poems in their heads and tell other people about them with energy and enthusiasm.  It's just nothing gets out there.  It doesn't happen.  They're breathing in, but not out.

You need to breathe out to be a writer, but you also need to breathe in.  Don't forget to organise your life so you're doing both, even if it does make you less 'productive'. Just doing one or the other will not, in the long term, get you far.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Rules of Writing: The 7 Groups of Writers They Apply To

The Rules of Writing are a hardy perennial of the writing world, from Mark Twain's 'When you catch an adjective, kill it' to Elmore Leonard's 'Never open a book with weather'.

Something new writers find confusing are the vast number of writers who break The Rules.  'But,' they say when you point out an error in their writing, 'Dickens starts Bleak House with the weather, and it's one of the most famous opening passages in literature.'

Well, yes. And you'll find many multi-published, mega-successful writers who proudly proclaim that they have no idea what The Rules are and they never took a writing class in their life.

The truth is, The Rules of Writing don't apply to everyone. Here's my list of who they do and don't apply to.

1.  You wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more.  You wrote something else, it got published, people bought it.  This cycle has been repeated several - possibly hundreds - of times.  
The Rules DON'T apply to you - why should they?  You're doing just fine without knowing them. *

2.  You wrote something, it didn't get published, so you published it yourself and no one bought it, including your mum.
The Rules DO apply to you - go forth and learn them.

3. You wrote something, but got stuck with finishing it because you couldn't think what to write next. The Rules DO apply to you - you'll find writing easier if you learn them.

4. You wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more.  You wrote something else, and then got stuck.
The Rules DO apply to you - but concentrate on those relating to structure and character to get you un-stuck.

5.  You studied The Rules, wrote something, it got published.  People bought it and asked for more. You wrote something else, it got published, people bought it and asked for more.  Repeat.  Now you find The Rules restrictive.
The Rules DON'T apply to you - break with impunity.

6. You wrote something, it didn't get published, so you published it yourself, got your friends to buy it, had a massive marketing campaign and did well, despite the 1 and 2 star reviews.  So you wrote something else, and no one bought it, not even your mum.
The Rules DO apply to you - good marketing doesn't make you a good writer. Go forth and learn them.

7.  You studied The Rules, wrote something, it didn't get published. You studied The Rules even harder, wrote something else, got stuck.
The Rules DON'T apply to you - for the time being.  Write freely, write whatever you like without that imaginary editor/teacher sitting on your shoulder.

*If you're in group 1, I'd suggest that you're either an inveterate reader and have absorbed The Rules by osmosis, or you're incredibly lucky, like winning the Writing Lottery.

I'm sure there are other groups of writers to whom The Rules do and don't apply, and of course, writers can move between groups over time.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

You Must XXX If You Want To Be A Writer

There's so much advice available on how to be a writer.  I read lots of articles and think 'oh, if only I could do XXX, then I'd be a proper writer!'

Which is weird because most people would say I was a proper writer, having been published in 14 different languages and won awards and all that. But I read those articles and feel like a fraud.  Here are five reasons why:

1)   I have never taken to using a notebook.  I've bought them and lots of people give them to me as presents but somehow it's never worked for me.  Generally I forget to take a notebook with me, and on the occasions when I do have it, I write things down like great book titles or character ideas but then lose the notebook or forget what the scribbles meant when I find it a year later.

2)   I've never had a proper writing routine.  I have vague aims like 1000 words a day, but no 'I get up at 5 and write for 2 hours' sort of thing. Especially not the 'get up at 5' bit.

3)   Inciting incident, moment of despair, fetching the elixir... Well, yes, I know what they mean by it and yes, Hero's Journey can act as a useful roadmap.   But I only read about The Hero's Journey after I had my first best-seller.  I see the appeal, but trying to shoehorn my story into a formula seems the wrong way round to me.

4)  Character lists.  I've never done one of these that has actually helped with the writing or  developing the characters.  We did them at drama school too - I'm actually quite good at inventing details on the spot when asked and got lots of brownie points.  But help me be a better actor or writer?  Nah.

5)  The certainty of the writers in the efficacy of their advice unsettles me.  Nothing is certain when it comes to creativity. What works for you won't necessarily work for one other writer, let alone the rest of the writing world.  The way I see it, it's all a bit random.  Yes, working hard and persisting are important because you won't get to The End otherwise, but a lot of the rest is about personality and different tastes and individual circumstances.  There is only the right way for you.  And for me, it doesn't include a notebook.

NB And yes, I do get the irony given I offer writing advice on this blog.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Stay On The Bus

There's a story about Helskinki bus station.  Because of the location of the main bus station, all the buses travel in the same direction for the first three stops before branching off to various parts of the country.  So, for those first three stops it feels as if you're not getting anywhere.

Now imagine that this is a metaphor for your career. Each bus stop represents a year. We all start in the same place - the bus station - but we board different buses.  After three years however, it feels as if we're not getting anywhere so some of us choose to hop off the bus, go back to the bus station, and try a different bus.

You started on the writing romance bus, but that didn't work out so you go back to the bus station and try the thriller writing bus.  After a couple of years, that seems to be heading nowhere fast so you hop off the bus, go back and start again with romance. Or non-fiction.  Or short stories.  Or poetry.  Or script.

Stay On The Bus.

Three years might seem a long time, but in terms of a career it's nothing.  It took me five years from starting to writing fiction seriously (by which I mean, every week I wrote something) to getting my first book accepted for publication.  If I'd given up at the three year point, or shifted to a new genre, then all that previous work would have been lost.

It takes time to establish yourself.  Just accept that, and keep going.  Stay on the bus.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Why Writing To An Author, Agent or Publisher for Advice Is A BRILLIANT Idea

So, you've hit a problem with your writing.  Maybe you're not sure where to go next, maybe you thought you'd finished, but your feedback isn't great.  Now is exactly the time to write to a writing professional whose opinion you respect.

You might not know them, but don't worry.  This will solve your writing problem.

First, recognise that they're busy.  So busy that they won't have time to read your work, you've got to explain the problem clearly to them.  Write as much as possible - for example, if you're not sure where to go next in the story, you might write about the options you've considered, the pros and cons of each, the possible consequences, what each option will mean for each character, how it will affect back-story and so on.

Write lots about the issue - you want them to really understand - then re-write concentrating on stating the problem as specifically and clearly as possible.  Write your uncertainties, your hesitations, your thoughts.

Then write your question.  Again, this needs to be as clear and specific as possible.

Finally, don't send it.

When I've done this I've always found that, actually, I know the answer to my questions or problems. My real problem was that I was looking for an easy way out, a magic wand: do this, and all your problems will be solved.  But it doesn't work like that.

Writing down the problem specifically and clearly defines it.  Like the marvellous story in your head that doesn't translate to the page, the undefined problem is nebulous, uncertain, insolvable. Writing it down makes it concrete.  It's no longer a vague issue, it is specific.  You don't need to send the question or hear someone else's opinion because your way forward is clear.

You probably won't like the answer you're getting (it usually involves more work) and that's why you wanted the magic wand. Sometimes I find that just beginning to define the problem is enough, I don't need to finish my letter before I know the answer.

Next time you find yourself in a quandary try it - it really does work.

Monday, 9 May 2016

The Single Most Important Thing to Remember When Giving An Author Reading

Giving an author reading can be a daunting prospect, but actually it isn't.  Here's why:

Remember when you were last in an audience,  waiting to hear an author speak and read from their latest book.  What were your expectations?  

That you might have an enjoyable evening?  That you might learn something interesting?  That you might discover a new author to read?  They probably weren't much more than that - you almost certainly weren't expecting to have the secrets of the universe revealed to you.

And what would you have been doing if you hadn't come to the reading?

Watched television?  Gone out for a drink?  Read a book?  Got an early night? Again, I'm going guess that the alternatives weren't rivetingly exciting.  Normal things, probably.

And what did you feel about the author?  

If you didn't know them, probably not much - that they wouldn't be boring, maybe.

Now think about you, the author.

If this reading goes amazingly well, what is/are the best thing(s) that will happen?

Some people buy your book?  An agent/publisher/famous author/fabulous person wants to meet up and gives you their number?  The person you've been trying to chat up for ages is impressed?

All these things could lead somewhere good, but they're not exactly life-changing in themselves.

And now, if this reading goes incredibly badly, what is/are the worst thing(s) that will happen?

No one buys your book?  No career-useful person approaches you?  The person you've been trying to chat up for ages is still unimpressed?

In other words, you'll be at exactly the same place as you were if you hadn't done the reading.

Remember that it's all very low stakes.  The audience don't expect much, and won't be that bothered if you don't even meet those expectations.  And from your point of view, even if you forget your name and the title of your book (and I've done that on at least one occasion!) the stakes are very very low, both for you and for the audience.

The worst that can happen is nothing, and that's going to happen anyway if you don't do the reading. So you might as well stop being nervous and just get on with it.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

10 Lessons about Story Telling from Game of Thrones

1.  Keep characters in the forefront of people's minds by mentioning them, even if nothing particularly interesting is happening to them, e.g. Arya in Braavos.

2.  We like guessing where the story is going next, and we really like getting it wrong e.g. Eddard Stark's death.

3.  We will accept big, gaping holes in the plot when we are engaged with the story, e.g. Theon and Sansa surviving unscathed jumping from a high window, the direwolves coming and going.

4.  We will also accept any number of loose ends - Bran's story line, for example - so long as we believe the story teller is in control.

5.  We like audacity in story telling - like the Red Wedding.

6.  Detailed world building is good, so long as the focus is always on the story line developing - Daenerys's problems in Meereen came close to being boring.

7.  Sex, love, violence, the desire for power are all major driving forces so use them. Think big, not small.

8.  The story flows when the names of people and places are easy to pronounce, often because they're similar to 'real' names - Eddard, Catelyn, Joffrey, Theon, Braavos, Westeros.  Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few exceptions.

9.  Family relationships are always a good basis for story telling providing ample scope for conflict, drama, jealousy, loyalty, love, hate.

10.  Even when telling a sprawling story following multiple characters across many lands, keep the same central story line running through:  Who is going to end up on the throne?

Monday, 2 May 2016

10 Lessons about Writing Character From Game of Thrones

1.   Characters need to have both good and bad traits - e.g. most of the main characters, but especially Tyrion.

2.   We enjoy watching characters who do things - so Ramsay Bolton (happy torturer) is more interesting than his father Roose (whose torturing takes place off screen).

3.   We like anticipating what a character might do next - so while Cersei is depressed at the moment, you just know that she's going to wreak revenge at some point.

4.   Characters without much personality are disposable - slaves, soldiers and Myrcella.

5.  We can identify with the non-heroic much more easily than the heroic - e.g. Samwell, Sansa.

6.  Loyalty is one of the most attractive traits a character can have - look at Brienne of Tarth.

7.  We don't like characters who set themselves up as better than others and are then mean to them (especially when saying it's for their own good), e.g. the Sparrows, the Waif.

8.  We enjoy seeing characters grow and come into their own - Arya and Tyrion are good examples.

9.  Characters need to be consistent - Melisandre has ups and downs, but she is always true to her beliefs.

10.  Secondary characters can get away with being one-dimensional, like Hodor and Joffrey.

And an extra one:

11.  If people are really committed to your characters, they'll be waiting for them to come back from the dead, even when they've seen the body...

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The 20 Stages of Writing

1.    You had this great idea for a story about a guy called Sam.
2.    It was perfect in your head.
3.    You tried writing it down.
4.    It didn't look the same on the page as in your head.
5.    So you tweaked it a bit.
6.    And then a bit more.
7.    You tried changing his name from Sam to Ed.
8.    You changed his job too. And his car.  And his cat became a dog.
9.    And re-wrote it a bit.
10.  And then a bit more.
11.  Then you cut the first paragraph.
12.  And changed the ending.
13.  Then put the first paragraph back.
14.  With a new opening sentence.
15.  Then you got confused about it's and its.
16.  So you stared at the page for hours hoping that one or the other would look right.
17.  Then you changed the line.
18.  Then you put back the original name by using a global edit.
19.  Which meant you had to go back and sort out words like 'dressSam' and 'changSam'.
20.  And then you were sick and tired and bored and knew your writing was rubbish, tripe, garbage and you were an untalented fool who couldn't write and was useless and what was the point anyway because no one would ever want to read such a stupid, boring story.

Luckily, the reader only has one stage:

1.  They read.

That's why you're not always the best judge of your own writing.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Do You Need to Tie Up All the Loose Ends to Have a Good Ending?

One of my favourite films is Predator.  There's something v satisfying about seeing muscle-bound Arnie having to use his brain rather than brawn to defeat the all conquering alien.  But the bit I really like is at the very end when Arnie has the alien at his mercy and is about to deliver the final blow, then pauses and asks, "What the heck are you?"

The alien, all quivery mouth tentacles and dripping green fluorescent blood, pauses then taps the question into his handy arm pad.  The pad flickers - it's translating the question.  And then the alien laughs.

He's about to die, and he laughs. Then he pyrotechnically explodes, and that's basically the end.

What makes it work for me?  Human intelligence beats alien technology?  Humans are essentially compassionate while aliens eat people?  Perhaps it is those things, but I think it's more that, while the alien is beaten physically, his spirit refuses to accept defeat, laughing in Arnie's broad and baffled face.

And as a writer I think, how brave not to explain who the alien is, and how he came into the jungle.  It is a mystery, and we will remain as baffled as Arnie.

With my first book, Adultery for Beginners, the original ending went a bit further to give a very obvious happy ever after ending but my editor stopped me.  'We don't have to know exactly what happens,' she said.  'It's enough to know that the main problem is over, and a new and happier story is starting for the main character.'  

We don't have to tick all the boxes and tie up every loose end. Just, solve the main story problem (the predatory alien is dead) and hint about the direction the main character is heading in (Arnie's going home). Most of the rest can be left to the reader's imagination.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

How to Create Sympathetic Characters

John Aubrey* would have been a terrible man to do business with.  By his own admission, he should have given his younger brother a large sum of money from the sale of land but instead ran off with it and went into hiding.  And yet readers - well, this reader for sure, and I imagine many of his fans over the past centuries - not only forgive him but find ourselves nodding our heads in sympathy.

Aubrey knew he was a rubbish business man, he was aware of what he should be doing, but couldn't help himself from not doing what he should because there was always something far more interesting to research and study than knuckling down to boring business.

Let's face it, everybody does stupid stuff from time to time.  Sometimes we know full well it's stupid but we still rush in headlong.  Why?  There's bound to be some psychological name for it, but I think it's simply an essential part of being human.  If we only did sensible stuff, we'd never eat doughnuts.

So characters who never do stupid things, who are always perfect, who never ever get it wrong are characters we don't recognise as being human (even the ones that are aliens).

But in itself, doing stupid things is not enough for a main character - although it works for peripheral or secondary characters e.g. Father Dougal in Father Ted, Pike in Dad's Army.  

Main characters need to have some self-awareness - like John Aubrey. They know they shouldn't stay for another drink because they have an important job interview tomorrow morning, but...they're human.  They know they should rise above rudeness from their teenaged daughter, but find themselves snapping back.

Make your characters self aware; have them weigh up the options open to them. And then have them pick the least sensible one.

*The C17th antiquarian and writer, who I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago.

Monday, 18 April 2016

How To Get From Suck to Non-Suck via Pixar and the Writing of Finding Nemo

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, writes extensively about the creative process Pixar goes through to develop films in his autobiography, Creativity, Inc.   Stories start with an idea which gets pulled apart, developed, re-written, pulled apart again, re-written etc.*

"Early on, all of our movies suck...Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them go...from suck to non-suck."

It was a stressful, time-consuming process but worked.  A few films down the line (Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and 3, Monsters Inc etc) Pixar thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if they could skip all that angst and wasted development.

"This then became our goal - finalise the script before we start making the film.  We were confident that locking in the story early would yield not just a phenomenal movie, but a cost-efficient production."

Great idea, so they set it in motion.  The screen play was written, the film made.  Trouble was, it didn't work.  Test audiences found it confusing.  Industry execs were lukewarm. It was clear that what worked on paper, in theory, didn't translate to the screen in practice.

So they went back to pulling it apart and re-writing, pulling apart and re-writing yet again, and the result was Finding Nemo.  They've stuck to that process ever since.

If you want to write several books a year planning, and then sticking to the plan, seems essential - and well done you if you manage it.   I've always been in awe of the productivity rates of some authors.

But just because some people do it, you shouldn't beat yourself up if that's not your way of working.  Hey, you might not be producing 4 books or more a year but you're in the same company as Pixar.

*At a dinner party a few years back I was lucky enough to sit next to Doug Chamberlin who co-wrote the screenplay to Toy Story 2, and he told the the process was extraordinary and exhaustive.  He also said that Pixar never employed the same screenwriters twice, I assume because the re-writing process was so draining they reckoned no scriptwriter could go through it a second time. 

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
via Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Secret Formula for Writing Success

Before I was published I used to go to a lot of author talks about getting published.  I was always hoping they'd reveal the magic formula or, at the very least, some of the magic might rub off on me.

Now I'm published and give those talks myself and I can reveal - just to you - that Yes!  There really is a Secret Formula for Writing Success. To celebrate my return to blogging, I will reveal it to you.  It is:

A + B = Success!!!

It really is that simple.

Of course, there are complications, because with secret formulae there always are complications.  First off, what does success mean?  Well, it means whatever you want it to mean.  That might be a conventional publishing contract, or your mother/partner/child's approval, or shedloads of money and an appearance on TV.  It's entirely up to you to define what your success will look like.  As to the rest of the formula:

A = Get it finished.

It doesn't matter what you're writing, unless it's finished no one else can read it so getting it finished is essential.  The trick with this is to remember that Finished is not a synonym for Well Written. The writer who hands in their very first draft and has their readers applauding is rare; most that I know expect to write what is often called a Dirty Draft before they get on with the second stage.

B = Make it good.

"Good" here means making the writing as effective as possible - if you're writing horror, your reader should be really scared. If you're writing romance, your reader should feel all warm and fuzzy.  If you're writing a thriller, your reader's heart should be rattling along at the same speed as the pages get turned.

The formula only works when you put A and B together - no point in making it good, if it never gets finished.   And no point in getting it finished if you never go back to make it good.  The two go together.

There are lots of different methods to achieve A and lots of advice and exercises to achieve B.  But essentially that's all it comes down to.  A + B = Success.

Monday, 11 April 2016

A Problem For Planners From the 17th Century

I've been reading, and enjoying very much, Ruth Scurr's biography of John Aubrey which is written in the form of a diary.  Aubrey was born in 1626 and spent much of his life collecting information - folklore, surveys of buildings and monuments falling into disrepair, natural history: pretty much anything that took his fancy.

One of his ideas was to make a Book of Lives of his contemporaries, a collection of short biographies which would include personal anecdotes as well as simply listing achievements.

March 1680: "I have made an index for my Book of Lives: it includes fifty-five persons (I have done ten of them already, including four pages on Sir Walter Raleigh). It will be a pretty thing when it is finished.  I am so glad my researches for Mr Wood and my promise to write the life of Mr Hobbes have led me to collect these other lives.  I do it playingly.  This morning, I got up by 10 and wrote two lives....If I could get up by 7 a.m., I could finish my Book of Lives in a month."

Oh, how many hours of my life have I spent planning writing a book!  Just like Aubrey I've written out a list of chapters or ideas.  I've worked out a schedule of writing - if I write 1000 words a day, I'll be finished within 3 months, if I write 2000 I'll be done in less than 2.  When I first started writing, I even worked out a schedule based on 5000 a day - perfectly possible if I got up at 7am, or 4am or write through the night.  It's like NaNoWriMo - 1667 words a day for a month?  Easy! And it is easy, in October.

Also like Aubrey, I've gloated over the prospect of the finished book.  I've seen the cover, I've seen all those typeset pages, perfect bound.  I've written the reviews (glowing, naturally) and given interviews.  I may even have given gracious acceptance speeches after winning awards.

January 1681: "How much work I would get done if I did not sit up with Mr Wylde until one or two in the morning, or if there was someone to get me up in the mornings with a good scourge!  I think I could finish my lives in a week, if I were to stop wasting time.  Sir James Long has invited me to stay again....Next week I will buckle to finish my Lives.  I am sure I could do it in a week."

Aubrey never finished his Book of Lives.*

And that's the problem with making plans for writing.   They're deeply satisfying to make, but at some point you've got to write the dratted thing.

*Luckily for posterity, Aubrey made sure that his writing and collections of manuscripts were deposited in various university and museum libraries. His contemporaries criticised him for his attention to details "too minute" or trivial, but he said - rightly - "a hundred years hence that minuteness will be grateful".  Without his work, much of the detail of the past would have been lost.

John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr

Thursday, 7 April 2016

5 Reasons You Should Accept Feedback

1.  And this is the most important one...Does it sound right?  Do you get it?  Does it make you feel that the doors to Paradise have suddenly swung open and you can now see the light?   Yes?  Then grab the feedback with both hands and implement it.

2.  Sometimes feedback is right, but the solution is wrong.  People like being helpful, so they like giving a solution alongside what they see as the problem.  Sometimes they can't articulate the problem, they just know they have a solution for it.

For example, the feedback might go along the lines of:   "You could make your main character take a job at the local supermarket."  That's a solution.  The problem is something like, "The main character is a bit wishy washy and I find it really irritating that they sit back and expect other people to sort out their financial problems for them - they need to take some action that shows they are at least trying to support themselves financially."

That sort of feedback is golden: now you can work out what the action that they're going to take will be.

3.  Feedback is all about how a reader perceives the character and the situation.  This will almost certainly be coloured by their own experiences.  However, if several readers are pointing out the same issues, then you can be fairly certain that's a true response.  Act accordingly.

4.  Sometimes you're too close to see it.  Writers spend a lot of time in their heads.  We might appear to be going for a walk, driving the car, or doing the washing up but really we're busy writing stories in our head.  These stories are always brilliant - I'm frequently walking around with tears rolling down my face as the tragedy in my head unfolds, or laughing inappropriately because one of my characters has just done something incredibly funny.

The trouble is what works in our heads doesn't always translate to the page.  When we look at the page, we might see what we wrote in our head, not what we've actually written.  A reader can only read what's on the page, and not what's in your head.  A sure sign of this is when you find yourself explaining what's going on to a puzzled reader and how they have missed the point.  Stop!  It's your job to write clearly enough so they don't miss the point.

5. If we're honest with ourselves, we sometimes have little niggles about the work that we hope will magically go away if we don't think about them.  Perhaps, we hope, perhaps no one else can see that glitch in the story.  Feedback can good for confirming that those glitches do exist and somehow we've got to deal with them.  Sigh.  I wish it wasn't like that and the glitches would magically disappear by ignoring them but there it is.    They don't.

Monday, 4 April 2016

5 Reasons When (and Why) You Should REJECT Feedback

A former student got in touch with me about some feedback he'd had from his writing group about his planned novel.  He wanted to know what I thought of it (the feedback, not the novel) and should he accept it? So I had a think... and my answer was No.  Here's why:

1)  This was feedback about what he proposed to do i.e. his plans for his novel.  They were commenting on something that hadn't been written, so in effect were assessing its market viability.  Now, I'm sure the feedback came with the best of intentions, but the question has to be: were they qualified to comment on 'the market'?  Unless they were all experienced agents, editors or publishing marketeers, then I'd say no.  And it should be noted that even the most experienced agents, editors and marketeers get it wrong frequently.  Basically, no one knows where the market is going to be in two months time, let alone two years. It's pretty much all guess work.

2) The feedback was also concerned about plausibility: he was writing about a location he wasn't a native of, nor had lived in. Would any potential buyers accept this?  Well, why on earth not?  Yes, some authors are writing based on autobiography, but a lot - most? - don't.  And there have been many best sellers written by authors who've never set foot in their setting - what about Steph Penney and The Tenderness of Wolves, or Martin Cruz Smith and Gorky Park to name two.

3) Do readers know or care about an author's background if the story is good?  A successful novelist I know writes tender romances for Harlequin Mills and Boon. Does it matter that, despite the feminine name on the cover, the writer is a strapping male former paratrooper? Is JK Rowling a wizard for that matter?

4) Sometimes the feedback is factually wrong.  Too early to say in this case, but before I was published and in a similar feedback group, one of the group had written a story aiming for a specific slot on Radio 4. Using my knowledge as a former actress, I thought the dual narrative split between male and female narrators would cause problems for casting a sole reader.  Luckily the author didn't pay any attention to my advice, sent the story in and it was broadcast (with a male reader).

5) Writing a novel is hard enough work as it is.  If you don't write what you really, really want to write, if you don't write the book of your heart, if you don't write from your gut, then why write?

So, that's what I thought, and why.  But that doesn't mean my advice was right.  The only person who can decide is the author themselves.