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Archive for category How to write a book
Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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This post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
- then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.
But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.
2 It isn’t either-or.
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.
Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.
There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.
Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.
What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:
1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book
2 They might be fibbing (surely not)
3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.
I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.
And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.
Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair
What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments
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This post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?
Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:
‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:
‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’
It happened I knew just the man…
‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’
Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…
‘But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
3 and 4-act structure
In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.
Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.
… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.
This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.
Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler
(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)
And in the meantime…
Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?
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I see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.
And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.
When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.
Mood to mood
It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.
One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.
This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.
We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.
This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.
But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.
Thanks for the pic petsadviser.com
NEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.
Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss
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I’d love a traditional publishing deal. I’ve submitted my manuscript to two agents, and while waiting to hear from them I have been offered three ebook contracts – but I’m not sure which way to go. Also, could you quote me a price for professional editing?
I answered the email at length in private, but some interesting issues emerged that I feel might make a useful post.
Wow, three offers!
Three ebook contracts already. Way to go! Some publishers are offering ebook-only deals to authors, and considering print if sales are good. But in the nicest possible way, I was worried about my friend here – because in this market, it seemed unlikely to get that many serious offers and not have secured an agent.
My correspondent sent me the details of the publishers and I checked their sites. I’m not going to reveal their names here as I haven’t contacted them or asked for statements, as you should do in a proper investigative piece. Also, they weren’t attempting to scam or con anyone. They certainly could publish her book. But she didn’t realise they weren’t publishers of the kind she was hoping to get offers from.
One site had several pages about selling tuition and support to authors. There was a mission statement page that included a point about ‘fees’. The others stated they offered services to authors. Publishers – of the kind that my friend here was seeking – don’t use those terms. These people are pitching for business, not offering a publishing contract.
If I were her, I’d wait to hear what the agents say!
But if you do want to use self-publishing services, here are a few pointers.
Some publishing services providers can try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere. Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. (I know regular readers of this blog who’ve been caught in these situations.) Some charge way over the market rate as well.
To get acquainted with the kinds of scams and horrors that are perpetrated on unsuspecting authors, make a regular appointment with Victoria Strauss’s blog Writer Beware.
Check the quality
Assuming no nasty clauses, you also need to know if the services are good enough. I’ve seen some pretty dreadful print books from self-publishing services companies. Before committing, buy one of their titles and check it out, or send it to a publishing-savvy friend who can help you make a sensible judgement.
Your best defence? The Alliance of Independent Authors Choosing a Self-Publishing Service will tell you the ins and outs.
Readers and communities
Obviously traditional imprints score here because they have kudos and reputation.
And the publishing services companies on my friend’s list were attempting to address this. They emphasised that they were attached to reader communities, or wrote persuasively about how they were in the process of building them.
This sounds good, and let’s assume they are genuinely putting resources in. But communities take years to establish, plus a number of these publishers seemed to be relying on their writers to spread the word. We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers. And if a community is in its infancy, you might be better buying advert spots on email lists such as Bookbub or The Fussy Librarian, depending on your genre.
Some of these companies may give you no advantage over doing it yourself. You might be in exactly the same position as if you put your book on Createspace and KDP and write a description that will take best advantage of Amazon search algorithms.
As a novice author, you might not realise how unmysterious these basics are. So don’t make any decisions without reading this post of mine – before you spend money on self-publishing services…. And try this from author collective Triskele Books: The Triskele Trail.
Wait for the agent… part 2
Basically, if you get a proper publishing offer, you don’t pay for any of the book preparation – that includes editing, formatting, cover etc. Which leads me to my correspondent’s final question about editing. This is one of the things a publisher should do! You only need the likes of me if a) an agent says you need to work with an editor to hone your manuscript or craft or b) if you intend to self-publish!
Do you have any advice to add about assessing offers from publishers or publishing service providers? Or cautionary tales? Please don’t name any names or give identifiable details as it may get legally tricky …
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‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
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Whatever kind of fiction we write, most of us want to give our prose that extra flair and sparkle. How do we learn to do that? How casual can we be while still looking ‘correct’? When is prose powerfully poetic and when is it purple, stodgy and even ridiculous?
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You could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.
1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to
You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.
This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.
Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.
You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.
2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices
I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.
Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.
Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)
So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)
3 Be precise with description
I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.
Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr
Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss
I’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?
Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…
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When I write a report about an author’s novel, it usually runs to at least 25 pages of detailed notes and developmental suggestions, plus annotations on the manuscript. Sometimes I’ve written 60-page reports. Although I make my responses constructive and helpful, and discuss strengths as weaknesses, I know it’s daunting to receive such a screed. I know my writers think ‘crikey, she needed to say all that? Did I get it so wrong?’
And this: ‘I thought the book was perfect. What kind of shambolic half-wit does she think I am?’
Well today, I’d like to let you know how the editor sees your book.
My open letter to the edited
Although it may be hard for you to believe when you see the size of my report, I know your manuscript represents aeons more time than the hours it takes me to glide through with my editorial eye. I never underestimate the care you have put in – because I write novels too.
I know the painstaking research and life experience you’ve used to create the world and the plot.
I know you invented – from nothing – a long, twisty path between beginning and end, with carefully laid crumb trails, reversals and surprises. And that it didn’t all happen in one Eureka moment.
I know you’ve chosen every name after careful deliberation – and possibly many rejects. Ditto for the style, language, themes.
I know this manuscript is the result of many decisions and readjustments, made month after month – and that although you might have beta readers, the only thing you could rely on was your own spider sense. Although I might remark on research, locations, character back story and other material that does not fit, I know that you have reams more, which you were already disciplined enough to excise.
I never forget that the draft you give me doesn’t represent just enthusiasm, but also dedication – to persist when the problems were drowning the pleasure.
So yes, you get reams of comments from me, and they’re usually a shock because you thought you were done. But when I write them, I don’t feel like I’m telling you you’ve done it wrong. I feel I’m pointing out the details you didn’t have time, distance or expertise to see because you were already doing a superhuman job.
And so, when this editor sends you her notes, she also sends her admiration.
Thanks for the pic soccerlime
NEWS The print edition of Lifeform Three is now available! If you’re wondering what it’s all about, it’s been amassing some nice reviews, which you can see here, and I’ll also be sharing its Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog this week. Hope to see you there.
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I nearly made a big mistake.
You remember a few months ago I blogged about the development process for the cover of Lifeform Three.
Oh it was brilliantly nifty. To save you reading the original post, I made dummies of different concepts and asked people to interpret what they said about the book. I thought this was a good way to teach myself the language of covers, which I’m not exactly fluent in. But I have to confess there was one flaw. In my haste and certainty, I neglected one thing.
I didn’t get the opinion of someone who’d READ the final version.
Getting reviewer reactions was another thing I’ve left until the last possible moment. It’s because I like to do my ultimate edit when I’m making the paperback. If I see typos or edit to change line lengths, I want the print copy to be identical to the Kindle and ebook versions. Also, seeing it properly typeset is a great way to see errors or awkwardnesses you’ve got used to tuning out on your standard Word display. I wouldn’t recommend editing on page, though, unless you’re setting your own book interiors. An external designer won’t like all that faffing. (But you could change your font in a late editing stage and see what new horrors you spot.)
So. I finished my interior and zapped it off to the people who’d asked for advance copies. One of them came back: ‘That cover is badly wrong for this book. Really.’
I have to admit it was not what I needed to hear. Not after many months of on-off cogitation with no concepts that would work (the designer’s a friend, though he might not be now). By the time I got the final version we were out of ideas.
In case you’re wondering, it’s this:
When I tried it on my cover group, I liked some of the reactions. Nature, rebirth, 1970s sci fi (it is in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, so that was good). I also had aliens (no), apocalypse (no), body modification (thrice no!)
I thought that, bar a retune to quench the apocalypse, we were there.
Until my friend made his apologetic suggestion. And then proceeded to demonstrate, in a long email, that he understood my target readers better than I do. Darn, he was right.
This is what makes writing so curious – especially literary fiction. You think you’ve controlled everything the reader feels about this event and that character. You’ve set it up with minute care. You’ve made sure the themes are catching the right amount of light. You get your images and language humming together, your gut instincts are satisfied.
But it’s as if you’re making a machine, and you really don’t know what it does until you set it going inside the mind of a reader.
We’re used to getting feedback from critique partners and editors, but they’re so involved with the building of the book that they can’t judge it afresh. Certainly my lot had no more distance than I did, and in any case my overall thematic impression didn’t come together until the final edits. And although a designer would be able to give you the fresh perspective by reading the novel, they usually don’t have time to (except at the most prestigious end of traditional publishing). So now I’ve learned the value of keeping somebody back for this final stage, a reader who hasn’t seen the stumbling versions, who will test-drive the book and tell me what I’ve made.
At least this is the virtue of being indie. If we’re not tied into a list or a corporate look, we can try completely different identities for our books. That cover is one way to interpret the book for a particular market, maybe. But it’s not what I need to emphasise. Blitz it from your mind.
I’ll show you the new cover tomorrow. You will hoot when you see how drastically I nearly went wrong. Crumbs. Thank heavens for wise friends. (And if you’d like an advance review copy of Lifeform Three, email me on rozmorriswriter at gmail dotcom)
In the meantime, tell me: has someone stopped you making a big mistake with a book?
authors, book covers, book marketing, deepen your story, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how to design a cover, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literary fiction, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, Ray Bradbury, Roz Morris, self-publishing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life
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