Archive for January, 2013

‘How could I make these characters living and lovable people?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nigel Featherstone

for logoMy guest this week  says he has simple requirements of a good story: he wants to be moved. And so when he writes he seeks to do the same. But he was struggling to get inside the skin of the mother-son duo in his latest novella I’m Ready Now – until some songs took him by surprise.  He is Nigel Featherstone, an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, creative journalist and founder of  an online literary journal – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Stuck or blocked? How to keep writing anyway

2558534957_b675fe77a3You’ve got a gap in your story. Or you’re revising and it’s clear a drafted scene won’t do.

Usually, the best remedy is to give up and do something else.

But Charlotte Rains Dixon reminded me in a comment here a few weeks ago that sometimes it’s good to push through. Even if you’ve run the tank dry. And sometimes deadlines mean you don’t have the luxury of a break.

Here are some ways I get my muse to pick up.

Seek inspiration

Behind your pesky page there’s a seductive internet. And you’re sitting there, annoyed with the way your creative day is going.

Do not open your browser. Surfing turns so easily into skiving.

If I’m trying to break a block I go to my reference bookshelf. Not the dictionaries, although The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought can provide a surprise or two. But beside these sensible titles I have a collection of oddities that friends have given me (probably because it’s easier than guessing what fiction to give a fussy novelist). Thus I am the lucky owner of Never Hit A Jellyfish With a Spade – How to Survive Life’s Smaller Challenges. The Z to Z of Great Britain. And Mirror Mirror on the Wall – Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales.  Any of these, consulted at random, can provide a wild card to astonish the imagination.

Poetry collections are handy too, to remind me to look beyond the surface for deeper significance. Especially if I’m asking myself if I’ve missed the real reason why a scene or event has to be in the book.

nynfiller2Diagnose the problem

It also helps to define a few parameters.

  • Work out what can’t happen – both for this individual story and for the readers of your genre as a whole. Then you know where you should be heading.
  • Ask yourself what matters in the scene. Why it’s important to the story and to the characters. (If it’s not, job done.)
  • Quite often if you’re stuck, your brain is telling you you’re trying to write the wrong thing. Are you forcing the characters to say and do things they would find unnatural? Should you listen to what they would rather do?
  • Are you stuck because the scene repeats an idea you’ve used elsewhere in the book? Now you know to make it different.
  • Are there hidden significances or issues you’re glossing over? That ‘stuck’ feeling might be your helpful writerly subconscious telling you you’re wasting an opportunity.

Still stuck? Push on anyway

Now this is what Charlotte was talking about. Write anyway. Yes it works. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by what comes out. It’s like having an interrogator refusing to let go.

‘What happens now?’

‘Bah, I don’t know.’

‘That’s not good enough, I don’t believe you don’t know. Tell me again – what happens now?’

When I do this, my first attempts are risible, and I keep deleting. But after a while I find the scent. I’ve often resorted to this in revisions, and written some of my best scenes because I stayed stubbornly in the saddle.

Desperate measures

You could follow the lead of science fiction author A E Van Vogt. When he was stuck, he would move to the spare room for the night and set the alarm to wake him after an hour and a half. When it went off, he would force himself to try to solve the problem, inevitably falling back asleep. He repeated this all night and in the morning, voila.

Which just goes to show what it can be like living with a writer sometimes. You can find other less unsociable tips in Nail Your Novel. :)

Thanks for the cat pic turkeychik

Tell me what you do when you get stuck and time off isn’t an option. Share in the comments!

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‘The mystery of enchanted forests and the thrumming chill of icy passes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Melissa McPhail

for logoMy guest this week began writing at roughly the same time as she started piano lessons. She says music and writing have always been natural pursuits for her, ways to help her grapple with a fundamental need to express the inexpressible. When she needed an aural companion for her epic fantasy series she found it in Bill Whelan’s rousing Riverdance. She is Melissa McPhail and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.

Photographs

Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!

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Enough of publisher hypocrisy – at Authors Electric

ae porkiesApologies to those on New Year diets. Early commenters at my Authors Electric post have already let me know they are distressed at my excessive use of pictures of pies. But they are artistically necessary.

I’m venting about publishers’ porkies. (In case that doesn’t translate outside the UK; it’s rhyming slang. Porky pies. Now you see.) As more authors choose to self-publish for career and artistic reasons, the publishing industry is maintaining the fiction that all those with talent shall be welcomed with open arms, and that writers can’t do without their nurturing support. If self-publishers are ever to be considered as equals by the literary community, this has got to stop.

More pie (much more) at Authors Electric. Do come over and say your piece.

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‘Songs to capture sadness, isolation and heartache’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stacy Green

for logoIt’s an extra pleasure to be hosting this week’s guest. For a number of years we’ve corresponded about agents, publishing options and writing questions, and many of her queries have resulted in useful posts. Now here she is with her first novel, a romantic thriller called Into the Dark, published by MuseItUp. If you guessed she needed a dark soundtrack you wouldn’t be far wrong. She is Stacy Green and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The long and the short of writing novels – guest spot at Beyondaries

beyondHow long does it take to write a novel? Years, months, a Nanowrimosecond? I’m riffing on this idea today at Beyondaries, the ezine of Port Yonder Press.

Port Yonder is one of those publishers whose remit I could have written myself. It looks for strong, original crossover books with award-winning potential. In charge is managing editor Chila Woychik, who recruited for her ezine a bunch of writers who like their rules thoroughly bent and kicked.

Among the other contributors is Dan Holloway, who often stops here with a challenging take on whatever I’m talking about. His video is about the music of words. Also at Beyondaries you’ll find Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick talking about finding poetry in the everyday, and Grace Bridges comparing Witi Ihimaera to Doctor Who. And of course, Chila herself on the stubborn, self-driven qualities that mark out a true creative.

If you fancy a trip beyond the usual, pull up at Beyondaries.

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How to find the right title for your book – a brainstorming workshop

book titles

Jane Austen’s unfinished masterpiece

I’ve had this question from Kate Calcutt.

How important is the title of a book?

Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)

The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.

If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.

But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.

Is this title okay?

Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.

I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.

Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.

Let’s get specific

So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.

Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.

So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.

I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.

nynfiller21. Dig out the thesaurus

Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.

Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?

Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.

2. Go for the familiar – and twist

Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.

In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.

3. Look in the text

The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.

4. Look at the genre

Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.

A shortlist

Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.

Repeat until satisfied.

You’ll find some more notes on titles in this post by Ray Harvey aka Journal Pulp.

Do you struggle to think up titles?  Do you have any tips? Share in the comments! And if you want to continue brainstorming Kate’s book – or if you think of a possible title share it here!

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‘I let the song dictate what I left unsaid’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Reb MacRath

for logoMy guest this week was an award-winning horror genre writer, but turned indie to try to write the sort of novel he loved to read. For several years he published nothing while he struggled with his new challenge – a high-octane blend of suspense, swagger, humour and romance. Looking for a way to humanise an unlikable hero he found a guiding light in Rod Stewart’s interpretations of American classics – a rocker thug who’d matured with surprising tenderness. He is Reb MacRath and he’s on the Red Blog today with the Undercover Soundtrack for Southern Scotch.

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How to strengthen a story idea

3974310450_ca7f340f7eI had this interesting question from Kristy Lyseng on Twitter: What would you do if you’ve tested your story idea and realised it wasn’t strong enough?

Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.

If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.

OMG I must write this

I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.

I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.

I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.

Make it fun

The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.

le moulin 2555As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.

If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree. :)

Where to take the idea?

Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.

I start new lists for

  • characters and what they want
  • themes
  • settings
  • dramatic events that fit with the idea.

Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.

Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.

When is the idea strong enough?

Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:

  • who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
  • what people are trying to do
  • how it will get worse
  • what the setting is
  • why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
  • a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.

You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -

  • increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
  • make it more difficult for them to get what they want
  • turn up the conflict between the characters.

You don’t have to get it all instantly

villa saraceno 131

Compost – for now

This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.

Partner it with another idea

Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.

Don’t be afraid to restart

Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)

Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

 

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