Archive for May, 2014

‘Music to first escape life then reconnect’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Wayne Clark

for logoMy guest this week says he has to treat music with kid gloves. If he’s sitting at a dinner party and music is playing, he’s likely to get so distracted that he zones out of the real room. This is a familiar scenario to me too. And he’s definitely a writer who has found himself piecing together a novel from many of these moments of surprised distraction – where a track heard by chance perfectly fits the story problem his mind is mulling over. His novel is the story of a disillusioned man learning the way to feel alive once more, his name is Wayne Clark, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Writing your scenes out of order – and the real title of The Mountains Novel

writing scenes out of orderI’ve nearly finished the first draft of The Mountains Novel and am breaking what has been one of my holy writing habits.

Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.

I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.

Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.

On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’

Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.

Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.

ideas book cropAnyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.

Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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‘Black metal for reimagining a well-known legend’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Steven A McKay

for logoMy guest this week writes reimaginings of the Robin Hood legends. He uses music to conjure the atmosphere but says he has to avoid anything that’s too tuneful or he’ll pick up his guitar instead. He admits his choice of Scandinavian black metal is a challenging listen – but finds the fast drumming, screaming vocals and glowering noise is exactly right to shift him away from the 21st century and into a time of outlaws, campfires and battles. He is Steven A McKay and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The book versus the film – a tip to help writers fix an incoherent and sprawling plot

The English PatientI’ve had this question from Marco Viviani:

I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.

Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.

What stands out for me is this phrase:

‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’

So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.

(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)

sidebarcrop1 Coherence

Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?

Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.

It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?

Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.

With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.

Which brings me to my more practical tip.

2 Clarity

I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -

  • characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
  • scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
  • the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
  • the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
  • the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological

So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.

 

Time

Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.

What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?

acxheadedtoretail NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!

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‘Music for the inner wilderness’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Stormont

for logoMy guest this week describes her books as stories about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent characters who are steering their lives through choppy waters. She says she uses music as a short-cut to their inner wilderness, with signature songs that conjure their hearts and minds, even on the most uninspired days. She is Anne Stormont and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Music prepares me to face a blank page’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Carol Cooper

for logoI’ve long suspected that the music writers work to is not necessarily their favourite listening. My guest this week supports this theory. She says music is her creative Viagra, but that her choices sometimes surprise her – thus confirming for me that Undercover Soundtracks belong to a separate department in the mind. She describes her work as raunchy romance with a heartrending medical strand – she is also a doctor and the author of several health books, as well as a journalist for The Sun newspaper. Her musical colleagues include The Beatles, the BBC proms and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Carol Cooper is on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

Blogging break: I’m taking a short break from my dashboard this week – to work on a few projects and get the files finalised for my upcoming audio book of My Memories of a Future Life. The next post here will be an Undercover Soundtrack, but after that it will be writing and publishing as usual! In the meantime, here’s Carol’s post

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Can authors get smarter with Amazon keywords and categories? Start here!

choosebookcategoryCategories and keywords on online retailers: choose them wisely and the algorithms will target your ideal readers – especially on Kindle. You can make a whole science out of it, but this piece on KDP explains the basics in good, plain English.

Essentially, you pick two categories, and then get yourself in several more specialised lists by including set keywords.

But this system has its limitations. At first writers of genre fiction had many sub-categories to choose from, but writers of literary, contemporary and general fiction found themselves in one immense category where it was hard to be seen. There were few ways to tell the algorithms ‘I’m non-genre but I have a flavour of romance, or loss, or my novel is set in Borneo’. Recently Amazon has made big improvements and refined the choices – find them here.

Despite this very welcome addition, the results haven’t been as good for me as when I unknowingly broke the rules. When I put other authors in the keywords, my sales soared.

Tsk tsk

I did it in all innocence. Reviewers had been comparing my first novel with Paulo Coelho, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, so I put those names in the keywords. My sales rose, readers seemed happy to have found me this way – so the comparisons must have been useful and valid. Then I discovered writers who did this were being sent warning emails so I removed them – and fizzled back down the charts.

lf3likemmlikeIt’s a real shame, because for me, this tactic was more effective than keywords about genres, subjects, settings, themes and issues. And surely the author and their style is a significant feature of any novel. With literary fiction, it’s the most important quality of all. It’s a valid way to talk about a book in the literary world – and yet it isn’t accommodated in the search mechanisms that writers can control. It’s a refinement that would be helpful to both authors and readers.

What’s more, now would be a great time to discuss and lobby for it. Here’s why.

We are connected…

Last week I was watching a videocast from the Grub St Writers Muse and the Marketplace conference. One of the panel members was Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, so I tweeted @Grubwriters with my point about author comparisons. Jon Fine was rather interested in the idea and replied that it was something they’d never thought of. So…. watch this space!

(Let’s pause for a geek check: I tweeted a question in my home in London at 7.30pm, watched it read out to a room in Boston where it was 2.30pm, and real live people started to talk about it, with voices and hand-waving… and a man from Amazon stroked his chin and said ‘maybe we could…’)

So I want to kick off a discussion here. Amazon are in the mood to get constructive feedback on this right now. There couldn’t be a better time to discuss it. I’ve shared my one tiny idea for improving the algorithms to help readers find our work; you guys no doubt have more to add. The questions begin!

1 Have you tried a category tweak that got you to more readers – Amazon-legal or not? Is there a category facility you’d like to see?

Jon Fine also said the categories problem was more widespread than Amazon. The industry standard for classifying books by subject, BISAC seems limited in its precision, although possibly it’s geared for booksellers rather than readers.

2 If you are – or have been – a bookseller, what’s your take? Would you find it helpful if the BISAC categories were made more flexible and detailed?

3 As a reader, how do you use search tools to find new books?

Let’s discuss! And change the world… :)

 

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How to finish your novel: top professional tips – guest video at The Write Life

pepwupepwu2You started writing a book… but will you finish? Laura Pepper Wu of The Write Life Magazine invited me to her series ’7 Superstars in Writing & Publishing’ to answer that question.

I’m thrilled to be on this because her other superstars are steampunk author and marketing guru Lindsay Buroker, Bestseller Labs founder Jonathan Gunson, Writer’s Digest editor Brian Klems, prolific series novelist and podcaster Sean Platt, magazine journalist Linda Formichelli … and she’s rounding off the series with literary agent Rachelle Gardner! (I’m usually sparing with exclamation marks but I think such a well-connected bunch deserves one…)

In a 20-minute video Laura and I discuss drafting, fixing, beating writer’s block, getting better ideas and writing with CONFIDENCE! And if you scroll through you’ll find the other guys’ interviews too. Come on over… 

 

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