So You Want To Be A Writer? New radio show to get you started

tim fran and bookshop recording sept 034smlEvery week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.

So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.

If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered

  • giving yourself permission to write
  • establishing a writing habit
  • thinking like a writer
  • getting published 101
  • how to self-publish.

This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.


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Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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‘Tom Waits makes my brain chemistry change’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Trevor Richardson

for logoMy guest this week describes his novel’s main character as a folk-punk protest singer in a collapsing American economy in the near future. We all know how books can transform us into the characters we are creating, and my guest temporarily became a songwriter as this book was forming, despite being (as he says) completely unmusical in real life. Alongside the prose, he built a portfolio of the main character’s songs that marked the story’s adventures and friendships. Some were inspired by musically accomplished friends; others by playing Tom Waits, Deer Tick and Bob Dylan to keep the vibe. When his publisher, Montag Press, came on board, the editor suggested more musicians for the creative mix – thus proving his views of the novel were in harmony with those of the writer. Trevor Richardson is on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The gap in your narrative, the scene you’re avoiding – stop and brainstorm!

Hole in your narrativeI was editing a manuscript recently and came across a number of scenes that were summarised instead of shown in detail. In some cases this was a good call, but others made me wonder.

Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.

I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.

It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.

Mea culpa
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.

However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.

Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.

I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.

Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.

Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton

Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)

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‘Memory lightning’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nick Cook

for logoMy guest this week represents something of a milestone. When I was new to Twitter I remember stumbling across his tweets and his blog, where he was taking his first steps in building a presence as a science fiction writer. Meanwhile, he was working on his debut novel, and over the months and years I would catch tweets and Facebook updates about rewrites, and his search for an agent and a publisher. That persistence paid off; he found representation and then a deal with Three Hares Press. Hosting him here feels like the satisfying end of a long journey. He is Nick Cook, the novel is the first in the Cloud Riders series, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker

livehackedThis seems to be ‘back to basics’ week on this blog. On Thursday I scrambled out a fresher’s guide to ebooks in response to questions at a speaking engagement. And this podcast, recorded the previous week, seems to be the perfect complement. It’s with Nick Thacker, who has a regular show called Self-Publishing Answers, where he endeavours to discover the secrets to writing, publishing and selling successfully.

I’ve answered many of these questions before, but I found it interesting how my perspective on some of them has changed with experience. Especially book marketing. Normally when I’m asked about selling books, I find I run out of useful advice very quickly. I don’t buy advertising, I don’t game the charts and I don’t price strategically – all things that most indies do to get the best marketing advantage. The marketing I do is guesswork, whim and finger-crossing, mainly. Even so, I’ve noticed certain patterns that work – which I didn’t realise until I started discussing them with Nick.

We also chatted about the long-term mindset when it comes to writing – how it’s more important than ever to learn your craft and be patient before you publish. Nick confessed he’d learned a few lessons in that direction too. Anyway, if you’re looking for a bit of advice on writing, publishing and marketing, head this way and listen immediately or download. And he asked about ghostwriting too :)



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How to publish ebooks – the beginner’s ultimate guide

oldie day 008oldieToday I gave a speech at The Oldie literary lunch (which was very exciting!) and they asked me to explain about making ebooks. I promised a post to distil the important details, and save them from squinting at their notes and wondering if that scrawl really does say ‘Smashwords’, and indeed what that alien name might mean.

If you already know how to publish ebooks you can probably skip most of this. However, you might find some of the links and reading list useful, or pass them on to a friend. And if you’re here from The Oldie – hello again. Nice to have you visit.

How to do it

It’s easy. Really easy. If you can format a Word file, you can make an ebook.

It’s more complicated if you have footnotes or multiple headings that might need to be visually distinguished, or you want graphics (which might not be advisable) but it’s generally easy. Have I said that often enough?

Here’s my post on how to format for Kindle, in which you’ll see how I had to be dragged into the ebook revolution. But by all the atoms in the heavens, I’m glad I was. You’ll also see the original, grey cover of the book that now looks like this.

That post includes the notes about stripping out the formatting codes and rethinking the book as a long-continuous roll of text, not fixed pages. The Smashwords style guide is also explained. (You knew you wrote that silly word down for a reason.)

If you don’t have the Word file

If you’re publishing a book that previously appeared in print, you might not have the polished Word file with all the copy editing and proofreading adjustments. Often, the author sees the later proofing stages on paper only, and any adjustments are done at the publisher. If you can get the final Word file, that’s simplest.

If not, try to get a PDF, which will have been used to make the book’s interior. You can copy the text off a PDF and paste it into a Word document. You’ll have to do quite a lot of clean-up as this will also copy all the page numbers and headers, and there will be invisible characters such as carriage returns. You’ll need to edit all of these out by hand.

Sometimes PDFs are locked. You can’t copy the text off by normal methods, but you can find a way round it with free online apps. Dig around Google and see what you find.

Another option is to scan a print copy. Depending on the clarity of the printing and whether the pages have yellowed, you may end up with errors and gobbledygook words, so again you’re in for a clean-up job. You’ll need a thorough proof-read as some scanners will misread letter combinations – eg ‘cl’ may be transformed into ‘d’ and your spellcheck won’t know that you meant to say ‘dose’ instead of ‘close’. But it’s quicker than retyping the entire book.

Ebook formats

There are two main ebook formats. Mobi (used on Amazon’s Kindle device) and epub (used on many other devices). They are both made in much the same way, and the instructions in my basic how-to-format post are good for both. PDFs are also sold on some sites.


You need to get a cover. Cover design is a science as well as an art. A cover is not just to make your book look pretty, it’s a marketing tool. If you’re republishing a print book, check if you have the rights to use the artwork. If not, you’ll have to get another cover made. Use a professional cover designer (see later). Here are posts to clue you in:

Where I nearly made a disastrous mistake with a cover

Writers who have changed their covers (including another version of Nail Your Novel, which, I’ll remind you, now looks like this)

nyn solo

Where do you get a good cover designer? See the books list below.

Hiring editors and proof-readers

In traditional publishing, a manuscript goes through a number of stages – developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading. If you’ve done this, go straight to formatting your manuscript. Otherwise, the following posts will help you understand what you need to do.

Are you ready to use self-publishing services?

Publishing schedule for indie authors – who to hire and when

Where will self-publishing get quality control?

How to find a good writing critique service

Daunted by the thought of an editor with an evil sneer and a red pen? Fear not, we respect you more than you know. 

Getting your book on sale

The main DIY platforms to sell your ebooks are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords (you’re getting used to that name now). Publishing on them is free and they’re simple to use. You can publish direct to ibooks, but that’s not easy unless you have a PhD in Mac. And a Mac. Besides, Smashwords (ta-daaah) will publish to ibooks for you. There are other platforms that act as intermediaries, for a greater or lesser fee, and greater or lesser advantage.

So before you spend money on self-publishing services, read this.

Beware of sharks. If you get what appears to be a publishing offer, read this.


Books to get you started

Written from an author’s perspective – The Triskele Trail

David Gaughran – Let’s get Digital

Alliance of Independent Authors – Choosing a Self-Publishing Service

Catherine Ryan Howard – Self-Printed (also covers print as well as ebooks)

And some other useful resources

Publish or self-publish? Advice for the 2014 writer

Useful podcast – How to self-publish an ebook and get a traditional book deal – with Sue Cook of The Write Lines

How much time should writers spend blogging and building websites to sell their books

And, er, that’s it. Any questions?

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‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland

for logoOn The Undercover Soundtrack, we’re used to writers using music to summon the muse. My guest this week goes one better. One of his main characters is a computer hacker, who limbers up by listening to Vangelis’s music for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise. In real life, the author has a lifetime’s experience in the IT industry and seems adept at opening files in people’s pasts – Dave and I used to play 1492 incessantly as background for our own writings. My guest did it again when his editor revealed she had trained as a musician, like another of his characters.  He is Ian Sutherland and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack – when he’s finished hacking the pasts of his production crew and blog hosts.

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Kill me now – what do I do about a negative review?

pillory redSome writers say they don’t look at their reviews. I don’t know how they find such sangfroid. If I know there’s a new review I have to pounce, and immediately. Inevitably, we’ll sometimes wish we hadn’t – like one of my regular readers this week, who sent me the anguished message you see in the title of this post.

After sympathy, we had a discussion that went in interesting directions, and I thought it might be useful here too.

My main question to him was this. Are you afraid the reviewer might be right? Have you got a good enough groundswell of opinions from people with sound judgement?

My correspondent replied that he knew he’d taken a risk, but wanted the final note to pack a punch. ‘That apparently has worked,’ he said, ‘and my book is being remembered – for better or worse. I have around twenty 5-star reviews and this is my first bad one.’

Twenty to one doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me. And we’re all going to get bad reviews.

I got off to an early start with My Memories of a Future Life. Just as I was gathering launch reviews, someone who’d read an advance copy sent me a furious, offended email. I’d passed muster with my trusted inner circle, but this was the first true outsider and it hurt madly. It doesn’t help that with self-publishing, there’s hardly any time for the writer to surface out of the book, so early reviews might hit us with no defences. So I was extremely relieved when the other advance readers were happy.

What did you promise the reader? Marketing

Not everyone will like your book, especially if you’re aiming for something unusual as my friend is here. Part of good marketing is targeting – as much as possible – the right readers. So check these.

  • Is your blurb misleading?
  • Ditto your title?
  • Does your cover send the right messages?
  • Does the beginning of your book promise something very different from what the reader gets (allowing for arty misdirection…. )

Nurse the bruise, then look at the averages. Note any consistent concerns and decide if your marketing apparatus could be better tuned.

Should you fight back?

No. Not unless there are libels or factual inaccuracies – which are usually hard to argue in fiction anyway. I’ve commented on Amazon reviews that said the proof-reading in Nail Your Novel was poor and hadn’t realised it was UK English. I intend merely to set the record straight, but often it’s made the reader withdraw the review.

What to do about the reader who’s genuinely offended or upset?

Probably you shouldn’t do what I did. I wrote back. A writer friend told me off for it, saying ‘never apologise for your work’. But his fury was flaming my inbox and I couldn’t ignore it. Actually, it turned out well. He admitted he had mistaken the genre in spite of everything I said – and even sent me a gift as apology. I resolved to be even more extremely careful never to mislead a reader.

What if there’s a problem with the book?

Be honest now. Pride and sensitivity aside, has the bad review touched an important nerve? If so, why?

Did you skimp – either on revising, or getting quality, useful feedback?

pilloryI’ll say this again: if you self-published, have you had enough competent appraisals?

Some people self-publish for the sake of fulfilment and completeness or to make a book for family or close friends. They’ll probably not be found by the general reading public. These remarks don’t apply to them.

But everyone else, listen up. I see a lot of writers rush to the market too soon. If you put the book up for the public, you won’t get a free pass. Get the book evaluated by someone who will tell you how to get to publishable standard. Although you might have learned a lot since you started writing, you need a professional to point out the flaws you simply cannot diagnose for yourself. (See my post about editors and how much they can surprise you with what they find. ) You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune – here’s a post about cheaper options than a bespoke development report. But all writers have blind spots, and if you haven’t had critique partners who have opened your eyes to them and changed you for the better, you’ve missed an important step.

Think to the long term. You will write more books and carry on learning. Make sure whatever you publish is something you’ll continue to be proud of.

Some experienced authors I know recommend novice writers use a pseudonym for their earliest work so they don’t pollute their real name. Get something out, satisfy your curiosity, test the water, learn the ropes. (Unmix your metaphors too.) Your early books may indeed be brilliant, or they may, with the benefit of a few years, be embarrassing. You can’t know how you’ll develop.

Could you withdraw a book that was a mistake?

That’s not as easy as you might think. With ebooks you can update the files but it’s difficult to make them vanish entirely. On Smashwords they’ll stay available to the people who bought them – although in direst straits you could overwrite with a blank file or a note of explanation. If you’ve gathered bad reviews, those will remain.

With print books, it’s even harder to hide. I changed the title of the characters book because I felt it didn’t zing enough. I asked CreateSpace if they could remove the original listing in case of confusion, but they said it wasn’t possible. It had to stay up, even if it was unavailable. And second-hand copies might still be sold on Marketplace. This made little difference to me (and some people still want the old one!) but imagine if this was your book that you wanted to bury. You can’t remove it, or its association with your name.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Sometimes we have to accept that a pie in the face is part of the job. If you look on Amazon I’ve got one or two stinker reviews for my fiction. I’ve had some that were malicious, and there’s little to do about them except make a cup of tea. If I get a remark that cuts seriously, I run it past my critiquing crew. I know they’ll tell me if it’s fair. Then I get on with the next book.

Thanks for the pics Frankie Roberto on Flickr

What do you do about bad reviews? Have you ever replied to one, or had a malicious one? Have you ever regretted putting a book out too early? Any advice to give? Let’s discuss!

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‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Alice Degan

for logoI find it so interesting how one novel’s soundtrack can absorb so many styles.  My guest this week has written a supernatural mystery wrapped up in a 1920s comedy of manners and her soundtrack is a glorious tour of classical, folk and madcap jazz. Even more interesting, she uses Thomas Tallis – as my guest did last week – but with such a different outcome. We all operate in our own key of creativity, which is one of the wonders of this series for me. Anyway, this week you can enter the classical, folky and knock-bones skelly-shaking jazzy world of Alice Degan – with her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.

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