Archive for November, 2013

Could The Undercover Soundtrack help you reach readers? Post at the Alliance of Independent Authors

ucov alliYou know The Undercover Soundtrack? The Alliance of Independent Authors got curious about it and asked me to write a post. Why did I set the series up? What do I get out of it? What do the participating authors get, aside from a singular blogging challenge and another place to get their work seen?

I’m musing on these questions and others at the ALLI blog today.  And if you’ve been wondering if you dare ask for a spot, I talk about that too. Do come over. (Or if you’ve wanted to ask but are shy about doing so in public, email me on rozmorriswriter at gmail dotcom…)

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‘Sex, drugs, metaphysics and rock’n’roll’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, David Biddle

for logoMusic, dead rock gods, psychedelia consciousnesses and the CIA – this novel definitely had to feature on the Undercover Soundtrack. Its title came from a Jimi Hendrix song, and germinated when the writer was just 17 years old. It took him another 15 years to write, though, when an Elvis track kicked his imagination and gave him a vivid scene set in a bar in rural Missouri. The novel is Beyond the Will of God, the writer is Talking Writing columnist David Biddle, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years :)

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.

Honesty

This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)

 

What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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2 Tone Records and two cities riven by conflict – The Undercover Soundtrack, Catriona Troth

for logoCoventry and Brixton in the 1980s. My guest this week has drawn on reggae and the music of the iconic Two Tone label to evoke cities riven by racial conflict. Music was a strong part of identity and hers is a soundtrack of jagged horns and simmering beats. Her novel’s title echoes one of 2 Tone’s landmark tracks – Ghost Town, by The Specials. If you know it, I bet it’s started in your head – and hold that thought, because she returned to the track time and again to capture her characters’ tensions. She is Catriona Troth and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Social media: a message in a bottle

3928105188_3e98ca7eb3_zYou’ve seen this week’s Undercover Soundtrack? I want to tell you how I met its author, Dave Newell.

He emailed me out of the blue because he’d run across a comment of mine on a blog written by Nathan Bransford. It was a post about the difficulty of self-publishing literary fiction, and Dave – whose work is indelibly literary – was asking if I knew where those readers hung out on line.

The funny thing is, I left that comment more than two years ago. When I look at it I was talking about episode 2 of My Memories of a Future Life, which had just gone live. Oh, nervous days – I probably wrote it in the hope that it would lead ME to a secret vast land of literary readers. (It didn’t; I should probably work on that.) Probably no one else took much notice, and so it stayed there, falling under new comments and posts, sedimenting into the substrata of the ever-renewing, multiplying internet. Then two years on, Dave Newell typed a few words into Google and it led him there.

We struck up a conversation. I don’t know that I was much help with his problem, though we had fun talking. But I did offer him a guest spot on The Undercover Soundtrack, which I’m very glad he took. Especially as I then had an email from a fan of the series who told me how excited he was to discover this author. (I’m sure there were other converts too, only they didn’t email me to share.)

So does this story have a bigger payoff? Does it end with a hardback deal, an Amazon landslide, a red carpet? Actually no. But it does end with a special reader, who was charmed by a post by someone he’d never heard of. As Dave Newell leaped on a random comment by someone he’d never heard of, which had been made by someone visiting a blog hoping to find likeminded folk. A chain of strangers finding they have kindred interests; that’s rather nice.

Author platforms are also on my mind because this week I was a guest speaker at an online author marketing conference called Get Read. A message we heard constantly was that platforming is a long game, and we might feel like we’re getting nowhere, giving so much of ourselves and wondering if anyone notices. This episode reminds me to keep the faith.

It also reminds me that platforming is full of contradictions. That for all its widewidewide reach, it operates at a micro scale, person to person. That our blurts on websites and social media seem trivial but are actually eternal, and might be summoned to the top of a search by the right Google spell (just like bad party photos). The take-home point of my GetRead session was this: be yourself and stay gregarious. Anything you write might find a new reader, an ally, or a friend.

Thanks for the pic SergioDJT

It’s a bit of a different post this week, but I’d love to discuss this question. Has someone found you because of a comment, post or a tweet you’d long forgotten? Have you followed a trail and made a worthwhile contact?

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‘Horrific stories beautifully told’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dave Newell

for logoI’m delighted that this week’s guest has included Olafur Arnalds’s album Living Room Songs in his Soundtrack. I discovered it from another guest here, and it got me like a snakecharmer’s pipe. While I’ve been mainlining it to brainstorm The Mountains Novel, my latest guest has been using it to create an environment of conspiracy, calm and sexual tension for his novel Red Lory. He says he puts music on to act as a metronome, guiding his voice while he concentrates on the  sentence formation and world-building. He’s also inspired by the way songwriters pack so much into a tight space, which drives him to make his prose more vibrant and potent. He is literary novelist Dave Newell and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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7 ways to cut a novel without losing anything important

2009_1101oct09chillingham0030‘Help, an agent has told me I need to cut 25,000 words from my novel!’ I get a lot of emails like this – from writers understandably wondering where on earth to start.

What is too long?

In commercial publishing there are accepted lengths for books, ranging from 70,000 to 100,000 according to genre and audience. These conventions are created as much by the economics of distribution as reader preference, but they are pretty entrenched and can be dealbreakers. And if you’re self-publishing a monster epic in print, you might start to understand how paperback costs escalate as those pages pile up.

Too long for who?

You’re right. A book should be the length it deserves. As a reader, that’s what I want. As an editor, that’s what I strive for. And here’s the good news: I usually find when I tackle a manuscript that there’s enough redundancy to fillet the wordcount easily and painlessly. When I edited My Memories of a Future Life for publication, I found I’d been a bit generous and meandering. My ruthless eye took it from 152k words to 102k. Yes, with all the important story elements still intact.

So before you sacrifice a subplot, extract a much-loved set of characters, look at this list. It might do all the cutting you need.

1 Have you crammed too much of your research in? You need a lot of research to get comfortable with a subject, geographical area, historical period or life situation, but you don’t need all that in the book. And I see a lot of writers who can’t decide what to leave out. Or they’ve got carried away inventing atmospheric details, and have brought the story to a standstill (like my friend in the picture). Whenever you’re introducing details for this reason, consider whether the story has stopped for them. Choose just a few to make your point, and keep the rest for deleted scenes to delight your fans – seriously, you will make good use of this material and it’s never wasted.

sidebarcrop2 Examine your descriptions for extraneous adjectives and adverbs. Often writers pile on several when one will do – ‘thick black hair’, ‘brilliant bright moonlight’. Sometimes they use a simile when a more exact verb would be crisper – ‘he threw panicky punches like a child’ might be better as ‘flailed’. (It might not be, of course. Fiction isn’t like instructions for plumbing a washing machine. Sometimes the luxuriant description suits your needs.)

3 Throat-clearing before the meat of a scene. Sometimes a writer seems to be warming up before they get to the important part of a scene. They might footle around with unnecessary details and internal dialogue. Of course, you don’t want to neuter all the atmosphere and panache, but ask yourself if you’re stating points we’ve already grasped, or if you could wind the scene forwards and start further in.

4 Watch for dialogue that is going nowhere. Often, characters dither and chit-chat before their dialogue gets interesting. Can you start at that point and still keep it natural?

5 Make your characterisation scenes do double duty. Scenes that display character traits, attitudes and relationships are very necessary, but they can be static. Can you incorporate them in a scene that also pushes the plot forwards?

6 Take out all the back story (don’t panic; we’re going to put some of it back in). Writers often cram in far too much back story. Like research, you don’t need to display nearly as much as you’ve prepared. Consider what the reader needs to know at each stage of the story and what you could reveal in more dynamic ways – eg scenes where characters bond by sharing a confidence.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersml7 Make a beat sheet. This is – and probably always will be – my pathfinder through a novel. Briefly, it’s an at-a-glance plan of the novel that shows the entire structure and the emotional beats. It has lots of uses, but if you need to shorten a book it will show where scenes are repeating parts of the story that you’ve already covered, or scenes that could be spliced together and achieve the same purpose. It’s explained at greater length in Nail Your Novel (original flavour)

NEWSFLASH This Wednesday I’m speaking at the GetRead online conference, which is all about marketing strategies for writers. Other speakers include authors Joanna Penn, James Scott Bell, Bella Andre, Chuck Wendig, Elizabeth S Craig, Barbara Freethy, MJ Rose, Therese Walsh, the literary agents Rachelle Gardner and Jason Allen Ashlock, book marketing experts and entrepreneurs Dan Blank and Kristen McLean, industry commentator Porter Anderson, and senior figures from Goodreads, Wattpad and Tumblr. It’s online, so you can join from your armchair. More here (and in the meantime, wish me luck – I had no idea it was so big!)

Back to important matters….

Do you have any tips for cutting without sacrificing story elements? Have you had to hack several thousand words out of a novel? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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