Archive for November, 2011

‘Music is a trigger that lets me see a living person in my mind’ – Teresa Frohock on The Undercover Soundtrack

My newest guest on The Undercover Soundtrack is Teresa Frohock. Come over to the red blog, where she talks about bringing life to Miserere: An Autumn Tale

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Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until Christmas

On November 30th Nanowrimoers will be typing ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.

Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.

If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.

But I have things I want to fix right now

Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.

But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop

Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.

Revise in haste, repent at leisure

If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.

So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until Christmas.

(Thanks for the pic Svadilfari)

What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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New on The Undercover Soundtrack – Erika Marks

My latest guest on The Undercover Soundtrack is Erika Marks. Samba over to the red blog to hear about the music that smoked and smouldered through her New Orleans romance, Little Gale Gumbo

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Living the stuff of novels… the ghostwriter’s lot

Flying planes, beating up drug barons, underwater fighting… Today I’m at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books, musing about the curious business of ghostwriting, and pretending to have lived someone else’s life of high adventure…

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I self-published – should you too?

‘Are you glad you self-published your novel?’ said Stacy Green to me, in the secret passages of Twitter.

‘Totally,’ I replied. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Stacy replied: ‘I’m in the early query process and wondering if I’m making a mistake.’

‘Stacy, I think you should carry on querying.’

An answer that might sound like I’m being disloyal to the indie cause. But here’s my reasoning.

But why????

It’s early days yet for Stacy. Yes, querying is wearying, but it’s the way to tell if your novel is up to professional standard. Yes, it may take a ridiculous while before you get a reply – publishing turnaround is like sending messages to the distant reaches of the solar system.

I still believe everyone should try to get representation first, if they’ve never been published before or don’t have a ready-made audience.

Never forget, writing is a self-taught art. There is so much to get right in a novel and so many ways we can be blind to our book’s faults. This is entirely understandable. You remember when your novel was a scrap of paper with just one idea. You remember learning, from the bootsoles up, how to make it into a novel. You’ve quarried for depth, trampled the rough spots and polished over and over. You’ve developed brilliant and stylish marks of your individuality as well. Compared with when you started, you now feel like an expert – everyone does. Now, you need outside, experienced input.

You can of course hire an editor, and an editor who is a good fit for you can certainly give you a lot of help and guidance. You can trade with beta readers. But the final book is down to you. If you want to cut it in the marketplace, you have to try in the marketplace. And that generally means seeking representation – or publication via the smaller presses. (Although why would you aim small to start with?)

Rejections

Yes, you may be rejected because your book is unusual, or an unfashionable genre. But if you made the grade, the rejection will tell you this – even if it’s just a few short lines. They always do. If you’re getting form rejections or never hear back, you probably still need to do some work. And that tells you you shouldn’t self-publish. Of course it does.

Waiting for this feedback takes a long time. But while you’re waiting, get started on another book. You’ll need it sooner or later. And aren’t you itching to put all you learned into practice?

Me, me, me

I didn’t self-publish until my novel had wooed an agent. (I didn’t have an agent for my ghosting). She took my novel around the publishers, who said ‘it’s fascinating but we don’t know how to sell it’. At that stage, I could have left it locked behind the gatekeepers’ portcullis, or changed it into a conventional thriller (some of the feedback I got). I wasn’t having that.

Am I glad I self-published? More than I ever imagined. Every word of feedback from readers brings my novel to life and gives it a place in the world. For which, thank you.

But going it alone means doing all the selling. That’s no bed of roses. It is much harder for me to prove the book’s worth. If you have an audience amassed, no problem. Few of us do, so we rely on reviews to spread the word to new readers. Ideally we want to be reviewed alongside traditionally published novels that would be next to us in a shop. But it’s not a level bookshelf. Indies are still regarded sniffily in most quarters. (One review I did get, on For Books’ Sake, said My Memories of a Future Life was ‘so original and odd it’s in a class of its own’. I’m going to put that on a T-shirt, of course – but artistic pride aside, how does anyone sell a book like that? No wonder publishers wanted it tamed. Still, that’s my problem now.)

New authors, I urge you to test your book in the market first. If you get an offer and you don’t like it, you can always turn it down.

Indie publishing isn’t for people who couldn’t get published or represented. It’s for people who could.

(Thanks for the pic, Muckster)

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Catch up on the first seminar and sign up for the rest.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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New on The Undercover Soundtrack… Nick Green. And Vangelis

My guest today on The Undercover Soundtrack is Nick Green, author of the MG novels The Cat Kin and Cat’s Paw, from Strident Publishing – come over to hear how one pivotal song magicked up an entire novel

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Foreshadowing: how a sore thumb can prepare you for a brutal beating

I have a soft spot for hypnotists, as anyone who’s read My Memories of a Future Life will readily believe. Required viewing in our house is the illusionist Derren Brown – and part of the fun is how he puts a show together as a story.

In the first show of his latest series, The Experiments, he tested whether a nice ordinary bloke could be conditioned to assassinate a celebrity – and then, like the man convicted of shooting Robert Kennedy, have no memory of doing the deed*.

It’s a lot to believe, for both volunteer and viewer. There were the obligatory demonstrations. We saw the lucky chap develop super-marksmanship under hypnosis. He was put in a trance and did things he couldn’t remember.

But he could have been faking, of course. So before any of these demonstrations were done, the audience had to be primed to believe they could be true.

With some nifty foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing, sometimes known as prefigurement, is a way of suggesting developments that may happen later in a story so that the reader is more ready to accept them.

1 Foreshadowing amnesia

Derren mentioned moments of amnesia we all naturally have – driving a familiar route and not remembering the journey, or if you locked the front door. Hey presto, amnesia is something that could happen to us all.

This is what a writer might do if a story pivoted on an event the reader might find hard to believe if confronted with it cold.

Imagine a story that revolves around mistaken identity. Before you see the actual mistake, the ground is prepared obliquely. So a man meeting his wife off the train might hug the wrong woman, fooled by her coat. Or two characters might talk about a situation where a friend got in the wrong car. You think the scene’s about something else – perhaps their friendship – but it plants the seed that mistaken identity could happen to anyone. So when later it does, it’s easier to swallow.

2 Foreshadowing the killer trance

The assassin in Derren’s experiment was activated when he saw polka dots. This was demonstrated in action a few times. But before all that, we were primed too.

While Derren was describing what witnesses saw when Kennedy was shot, he mentioned a woman in a polka-dot dress. It seemed like one of those details to make the story more vivid, as insignificant as what time it was or whether canapes were served. Until he introduced his visual trigger later in the show – polka dots. On a handkerchief. As a surprise picture on the inside of a restaurant menu.

Now we remembered they were associated with something sinister. And in the climax, they appeared on a dress…

And the sore thumb?

In Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven, a blacksmith remarks that if you whack your thumb in cold weather it hurts a lot more. Not long afterwards, on an icy cold day, Little Bill gets in a fight with English Bob. But this is more than Little Bill playing football with English Bob, we’re primed to feel the pain of the blows. Unforgiven is a world where everything is a struggle, where people are fragile. And a sore thumb tells us a kicking is really nasty.

*Derren Brown’s show was testing one theory of the assassination. The true circumstances are of course more complex than summarised by him or here in this post. This isn’t a post about that, it’s about storytelling. To check out more thorough examinations of the assassination, see this piece.

Skilled storytellers don’t leave your reaction to chance. More often than you think, they’re planting clues to finely control the way you feel.

As always, give me examples you’ve noticed! Or used in your own fiction

Starts November 14: How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, starting November.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon.

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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Imagine Desert Island Discs for novels – welcome to The Undercover Soundtrack… on the red blog

Imagine a novel could guest on Desert Island Discs. For those of you receiving outside the UK, Desert Island Discs is an immensely popular and long-running show on BBC Radio 4, where guests are asked to choose pieces of music that form a soundtrack to their lives.

After my recent co-post with Porter Anderson about undercover soundtracks to our novels, I am excited to announce a series…

Starting today, the red blog will be hosting writers who use music in the creation of their novels. I’ve got scores of them lined up to talk about special pieces that have guided them to a deeper understanding of a character, or helped populate a mysterious place, or clarified a particular, pivotal moment.

First up is Dan Holloway, founder member of the literary fiction collective Year Zero Writers and the literary project eight cuts gallery. His novel The Company of Fellows was voted favourite Oxford novel by readers at Blackwell’s. He’s talking about Songs From The Other Side of the Wall, and the music that helped him develop his rather individual characters.

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Put through my paces by Guys Can Read: literary writing, storytelling and the brave new world of indie books

Today I’m back at Guys Can Read, the weekly podcast books discussion hosted by Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill. Luke and Kevin adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at. Kevin’s also just released his own rip-roaring fantasy adventure, Nikolas and Company: A Creature Most Foul, now available on Amazon.

I’ve been on their show a few times and was thrilled they wanted me along now that I’ve released My Memories of a Future Life. We started by talking about the novel but soon ventured into wider discussion. We nattered about aspects of literary writing that can get in the way of the story and characters. We talked about indie publishing – as a choice to connect more closely with readers, whether it’s risky for writers with an established career, and how readers and writers will in future be setting the publishing agenda just as much as commercial publishers.  Oh, and whether I get away with opening my novel with a whinge scene. Come on over.

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Here be no dragons – fantasy stories in a non-fantasy world

We’ve been away for a few days and one of my holiday reads was David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (appropriately enough, as we stayed at an eighteenth-century hunting lodge by the name of Fox Hall). Written in the 1920s, Lady Into Fox is about a man whose wife transforms into a fox shortly after their wedding. They are devotedly in love and determined that this strange change does not matter. He dismisses the servants and shoots the over-excited dogs. She wears clothes, bathes fastidiously and continues to eat her favourite well-bred breakfast of ham and eggs. But her feral nature grows stronger. She forgets to walk on her hind legs and starts to chase ducks – and his struggles to keep her civilised grow more desperate.

Mention fantasy and most of us assume a story set in a world of mythical beings, dragons, elves, unicorns, vampires, magic-doers and medieval technology. But the fable, fantasy’s discreet cousin, is another breed entirely.

In Lady Into Fox, the world and its trappings are normal. There is a hint that the lady’s transformation may be a long-buried family trait; her maiden name is Fox and she has russet hair. That’s the only attempt at explanation; this happening is what it is. Nothing similar befalls anyone else, either. It seems the act of marriage has put this lady in a peculiar state of animal rebellion.

It reminds me (very obliquely) of Dean Spanley, the film based on Lord Dunsany’s novella, in which a clergyman may be the reincarnation of a spaniel. The mood is somewhat lighter and in Dean Spanley, the fabulous happening may be all in the minds of the characters. However, the author is teasing the audience to believe too. There’s a whiff of sorcery when a swami gives a lecture on the transmigration of souls. The Dean remarks that cats don’t like him. He has a weakness for Tokay, which gives him licence for almost hallucinatory flights of fancy as a young, gambolling spaniel. And finally we go along with the fantasy – because of what it will mean to the characters.

Fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a fantasy world.

Thanks for the pic, liz_com1981

While I unpack and catch up on emails chaos, tell me – do you have any favourite unusual fantasy or fable-type stories? Share in the comments!

 

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