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Archive for category How to write a book
And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner
In writing the book, I’ve been pinning down the ultimate essentials – what a plot is, what it needs – whether you’re a genre author, a literary author, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two. Indeed, if you want to defy convention, are there some story and plot principles that still hold? I found there were. I also found that even an apparently loosely structured book followed a few simple patterns.
But honestly, Roz, you’ve been promising this book for most of the year.
Yeah, why did it take me so much longer than characters? As I wrote up the tutorials – starting from blogposts and mentoring notes – I found that each example spawned many possible discussions. There were as many exceptions as rules, possibilities upon possibilities for making a story rich, or exciting, or surprising, or heartbreaking. I have come away with this: although there are certain fundamentals, the department of plot and storytelling is much more tricky, finely balanced and infinitely varied than the department of characters.
You’d think it would be the other way around, because people provide the heart of a book. And aren’t they the most unique element of any story? No, by comparison, fictional characters follow a number of rules we already understand from life – those of how real people behave, are motivated and react. But a plot – what you do with your characters, themes and story metaphors – can go absolutely anywhere, especially in non-genre fiction. Good plotters invent new ways to use events and ideas. Writing this book has taken me on my own journey of understanding. I’ve ended up with a deeper appreciation of the infinite versatility of stories, and indeed a greater sense of wonder.
Or maybe it means only that I find plotting more difficult than creating characters. I wouldn’t be the first author with literary leanings who felt this. And in case this all sounds airy-fairy, let me assure you that the book is about practical advice and examples. Plus games, of course.
To whet your appetite, this is a post I was going to expand for the book and rework with prose examples, but eventually tackled another way. If you’re an old-timer here you might recognise it.
Midpoints on a continuum of change – Blade Runner
My memory does the very opposite of total recall (see what I did there?), so I hazarded that it was where Roy finally finds Pris and they discover they are the last replicants left alive. Or was it the scene where Rachael comes to Deckard’s apartment, they have a heart-to heart about the fact she’s a replicant and get romantic. Or was it both – as each significant story strand might have a midpoint…
When we checked we found the Roy/Pris scene is past the middle. The actual middle is the scene where Deckard’s boss tells him he will have to kill Rachael, even though she’s not one of the renegade bunch in his original brief. We’d both forgotten two other strong turning-point contenders – the scene where Deckard kills the first replicant, Zhora, and feels unexpectedly bad about it. Or the scene where Deckard is nearly killed by Leon and is rescued by Rachael (who has ventured into scuzzy places where nice girls never go). Midpoints galore, it seems.
Backtrack for a moment. What’s the midpoint anyway and why do we bother to identify it? It’s a moment where the story significantly shifts gear. Readers (and moviegoers) seem to have an internal clock, and generally like it if this shift comes roughly half-way through the story.
Here are some typical forms a midpoint can take.
• It can be a false victory – perhaps the main character has apparently got what they wanted and discovered it was a shallow goal or has got them in big trouble. (Deckard has after all just managed to shoot the first of the replicants he is hunting.)
• It can look like the original quest went horribly wrong and now they have to sort out a much more involved mess.
• It might be an echo of a scene from much earlier in the story, but done for different, more serious reasons.
Whichever it is, at the midpoint everything turns grave. It is a moment when the conflict and journey become internal as well as external. The character’s need is deeper, truer. The consequences become more significant. The characters pass a point of no return.
Back to Blade Runner
The reason we couldn’t remember the actual midpoint of Blade Runner is that there are significant shifts for the characters all the way through. The movie is a continuum of internal change. The characters are transforming inside all the time, discovering deeper needs, acting in the grip of impulses they have never before faced, getting into deeper trouble and discovering profounder joys – which increases what is at stake. Also, there are two protagonists. This is one of the reasons the story has such momentum. It builds and builds, propelling the characters towards what will be the most significant moment of their lives. And every scene has a sense of change.
If you build a story so that every scene commits the characters more drastically, unexpectedly and personally to their path, it will be engrossing.
The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?
Meanwhile, let’s discuss! Which do you find more difficult – plot or character? I’d also be interested to know what you write – genre, non-genre – to see if there’s any pattern.
And merry Christmas.
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In this season of the notorious Zoella ghostwritten novel, I’m getting deluged with questions from people who know I ghostwrite. What’s it like? Who have I done? Well, I can’t tell you that because it’s a trade secret. Also because to divulge the details might get me shot. (Though I can give advice on how you get into it – here’s my recent post on that.) As the nation sings Zoella, Zoella, I thought you might like this piece on ghostwriting, originally penned for Authors Electric.
An acquaintance from my dance classes read My Memories of a Future Life last month and has since been seeing me in a whole new light. I can tell by the thoughtful looks he gives me as we wince through stretches and wobble through pirouettes; an expression that says ‘I never knew you had that weird stuff going on…’
After class the other day he said to me: ‘that freaky scene with the hypnosis in the underground theatre… you must have been to something like that?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s research and imagination.’ He looked a little disappointed.
I stomp on your dreams
Had that taken away a little of the magic? Do readers prefer to think they’ve been led through your rearranged memoirs than the fruits of your persuasive art?
Some clearly do. There’s a long tradition that people who’ve had extraordinary lives sit down to dash off a novel. Many of them are not writers, and so the actual words came from people of ordinary amounts of courage and glamour, in charge of something no more racy than a blank page.
I know; I’ve done it. This is the lot of the ghostwriter.
A publisher introduces me to an ‘author’, and I write the novel they would if they could.
A surprising number of writers ghost for others, leaving behind our literary egos to live on the page as someone totally different. (It’s great discipline and allowed me to develop a method for getting novels ship-shape to order – all boiled down into my writing books.)
No, I didn’t do Jordan or Madonna. For some reason, I’ve trended in testosterone, with a run of adventurers and special forces types. I don’t know why. I don’t have a Y chromosome, for starters.
I now have an arsenal of rather wonderful faked experience. Just as you never forget how to ride a bicycle, I’ll never forget how to fly a plane, microlight, glider, hang-glider, helicopter. Or handle guns. Or hotwire various vehicles. I’m a dab hand with plastic explosive. I can make you believe I’ve abseiled out of helicopters into thin air, tracked assassins through jungles and India’s most impoverished slums, humanely killed a fatally wounded rhino and inhumanely despatched drug bosses. And done a whole rainbow of hallucinogenics.
In real life, my passport rarely gets any outings. But between the covers I’ve out-trekked Michael Palin.
After all that, hypnotising someone in an underground theatre is child’s play.
Fake to fake
Once, I went to meet my publisher and arrived in time to see my ‘author’, giving a presentation to the sales reps. Behind him was a wall of advance copies, floor to ceiling like bathroom tiles. I stood at the back and watched while he enthralled them with titbits of the characters and plot in the book I’d built on my hard drive.
We were faking, both of us. He was faking being a writer. I had faked being the soul who lived the stuff of novels. I watched for a while, then like a good ghost, slipped out, unseen.
It always amuses me to hear that maxim, ‘write what you know’.
Any questions? You can ask whatever you like, but I may have to answer with a seraphic smile. Or tape over my mouth.
Thanks for the pic NIck_Blick
NAIL YOUR NOVEL PLOT BOOK Right now, chez Morris, the plot book is in the final throes of production. If you want to share my pain, er, pick up some handy professional tips, I’m currently formatting for print (part 1 and part 2). Then I’ll have to write the back-cover blurb (share the torture of that here). And if you’d like to know as soon as it becomes available, sign up for my newsletter.
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A proper post is in the works, but in the meantime…
Are you interested in an in-depth course on how to write and revise a novel? I have a multimedia course with Joanna Penn, but because of a law change in the EU we’ll be forced to withdraw it from 1 Jan 2015.
This is not a fake sale, it’s actually the end! And Joanna also has courses on book marketing, author-entrepreneurship and writing fight scenes. The good news is you can get 25% off all of them by using the voucher code: PENN when you check out.
The 25% code is valid until 12 noon UK time 31 Dec. If you purchase, there’s a money back guarantee if you aren’t happy, plus the courses will be available to view online for another 6 months as well as being downloadable so you can keep a copy for yourself.
From idea to first draft, lessons learned from writing a first novel and from first draft to finished novel. Produced in video, audio and text transcript.
Was US$99 => Now $74.25. Save $24.75 Click here for more details.
Once again, this is a final sale and we have to withdraw the course on Dec 31st because of the law change.
If you have any questions about the EU VAT issue, read this article. If you have any questions about the course, email me on rozmorriswriter at gmail dotcom or leave a comment below. But act now to get some great tuition for your writing and publishing endeavours in 2015.
For every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.
Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.
‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.
What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series. Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.
Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.
Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.
Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.
Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.
Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?
Oh, and speaking of titles with a number…
Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?
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‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX
Today I’m at Jane Davis’s blog, reflecting on the experience of making Lifeform Three and My Memories of a Future Life into Audible books. If you’ve been following my audiobook journey for a while you may find the ‘how-to’ section is familiar material, but there are plenty of more reflective moments – so I hope they’ll encourage and inspire you if you’re considering an audiobook too.
I also want to introduce Jane Davis. I first spotted her when The Guardian newspaper featured our novels in an article about quality indie authors. I tried to drag her onto The Undercover Soundtrack, but alas she was too honest and told me that music hasn’t really featured in her creative process. So I’ll tell you a little more about her here. She secured a publishing contract when her debut manuscript won the Daily Mail First Novel Award, but has since gone proudly indie, following up with four other titles that deal with tricky subjects in thoughtfully honed prose. Her titles are delicious and hopefully will give you an appetite for more – I Stopped Time, A Funeral For An Owl, An Unchoreographed Life. There’s more about Jane and her books here.
So do join us at her blog for audiobooks, the inside experience.
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I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters and shifting point of view , dialogue and description. Today I’m going to look at passage of time (modelled here by Dave).
When is it?
One of the key questions when we come into any scene is this: when is it happening?
Movies and prose handle this in different ways.
Suppose your story features a man who’s refurbishing a derelict bar. In a movie, it’s shown with a sequence of scenes. In one, he is getting to work, pulling old cupboards off the walls and uprooting obsolete appliances. In the next scene, it’s clean, the floorboards are sanded and he’s opening for business.
Because film is an external storytelling medium (we watch it from the outside) we accept that this cut is telling us several days or weeks have passed. We know we don’t stay with the characters for every second of their experience.
But in prose, a cut like this might feel too abrupt. Because prose is internal, and we walk in the characters’ shoes, a sudden jump in time can feel like too much of a lurch. We need a linking sentence or two to ease the way, drawing attention to what’s changed. Many writers who are weaned on movies leave these details out.
A sense of time
As well as evidence that time has passed, we also need a sense of it passing. If you have other characters or storylines, you can cut away to them, then return to your bar, which is now finished. This might create the gap you need.
But if your story follows just one character, you need to create the passage of time in your narration.
If we watch a movie we’ll do this ourselves. We’ll assume the character spent a week or a month working on the bar non stop. In prose, we need you to add this element, even if it’s only two lines, saying ‘I had no time to worry about anything. I was sanding, sawing, painting, ordering crockery. I flopped into bed at night and rose with the dawn.’ Indeed this is the prose version of the movie technique of condensing a sequence of events into a montage. (See, there are some techniques that translate well!)
Prose fiction has to fill more gaps than a movie does. In prose, we need to keep the connection with the reader’s mind, rather than chopping the experience into pieces.
What examples of passage of time have you liked – both in movies and in prose? Let’s discuss!
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I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.
Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.
But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.
A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.
You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.
That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.
Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?
What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.
*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- And then there were three (NYNs)… Do you find plot more difficult than character? Plus the midpoint of Blade Runner December 20, 2014
- ‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth December 17, 2014
- Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot December 14, 2014
- ‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro December 10, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book December 7, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control December 5, 2014
- ‘We become readers in our listening’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, EJ Runyon December 3, 2014
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