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My guest this week writes urban fiction imbued with magical realism and horror. His characters are drawn directly from soundtracks, from music that expressed their desperation, loneliness, fragility and streetwise sass – Sinead O’Connor to Madonna; Dead Can Dance to Suede and Soft Cell. He is Rohan Quine and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com
I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?
You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.
I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.
None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).
Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.
Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.
Last word on courses
Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.
What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.
Again – which course?
Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.
It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.
Should you try to work in book publishing?
Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).
Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.
We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.
Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.
What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!
authors, beginners, Beyond the Margins, craft books, creative writing, creative writing degrees, critique groups. Morley College, Ellie Jackson, English degrees, experience, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how do I become a writer? What writing courses should I take? Courses to become a writer, how to write a book, how to write a novel, MFA, morley college, Morley College London, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, novels, publishing, Randy Susan Meyers, Roz Morris, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life
Johannes Brahms reportedly referred to his third intermezzo for Opus 117 as ‘the lullaby of all my grief’. This week’s guest was studying music in summer school when she first encountered it, and was overwhelmed by its sadness. Life events interrupted her dreams of becoming a musician, but years later, when she was writing a novel about a ballet dancer, her research led her to the Brahms. She remembered the imaginative journey she had taken when she used to play the piece, and now it guided her creation of the main character and her story. She is Laura K Cowan and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.
Planning v pantsing
Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?
Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.
But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.
Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.
The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.
Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.
And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).
It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.
Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.
So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.
And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.
My tips for using an outline creatively
- Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
- If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
- Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.
But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.
There’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.
Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!
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My guest this week swears that if her chest hadn’t obscured her view of her guitar, she’d have been a rock star. Some of her early life decisions were dictated by the need to be connected to music, and when she wrote her crime novel set in a London burlesque club, she had two flavours of playlist – angry and dark. Fiction nearly became reality when she had a near-death experience at her book launch – which I was startled to hear because I remember when her cheerful invitations were circulating on Facebook. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale. She is Yasmin Selena Butt and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
authors, Black Glitter, burlesque, Cocteau Twins, contemporary fiction, crime fiction, crime novelist, crime novels, Death in Vegas, Desert Island Discs, drama, editors, entertainment, facebook, Garbage, Gunshot Glitter, Interpol, Jeff Buckley, London, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, near-death experience, Nine Inch Nails, PiL, playlist for writers, Portishead, rock star, Roz Morris, Skunk Anansie, Smashing Pumpkins, The Cure, The Pixies, The Smashing Pumpkins, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, Women Writers, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing to music, Yasmin Selena Butt
I’ve had a question from Tina L McWilliams: Besides Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc, a website is obviously essential. But what type? Some writers have simple ones, with their books, an author biography and so forth. Others – you and Joanna Penn included – have ‘education’ sites. Which I love, and return to regularly. (Thanks! Ed) So, could you discuss the importance and the time involved with both?
Why have them at all?
If you’ve got Twitter, Facebook, G+, you’re certainly making good connections. But you’re fitting a limited format with little room to customise. You need a place to invite folks to when they want to know more.
Also, you control your website’s destiny. A social medium might disappear – or your crowd might (MySpace, anyone?). But your site is yours.
How extensive does the site have to be?
If the site’s raison d’etre is to tell people who you are, you don’t need more than a few static pages – about you, your books, contact details. Perhaps a page of upcoming events if you do a lot of these (I don’t so I use social media for this). And voila: a website.
If you add a blog, you get noticed more. Search engines favour sites that are frequently updated. Human visitors like to see they’re on the blog of a person who regularly shows up, and notices when new folks call. There are a lot of dead, forgotten sites out there, so you need to make your site look alive.
Honestly? The ether is choked with sites about writing and publishing.
Here’s a reason not to: being distinctive If you write straightforward posts about ‘show not tell’ you might find it hard to be noticed – and that’s one of our goals, right? So your posts need to be individual. A lot of writers blog about their lessons and mishaps on their writing journey, so you might find it hard to reach further than immediate friends.
Here’s a reason to: getting your material shared If the content is useful or strikes a chord, it’s more likely to be shared. Certainly a lot of people want to learn about writing and publishing. And you might win fans for your gloriously whacky voice (like Chuck Wendig).
But consider this:
Who do you want your content shared with?
Most authors who blog about writing will only reach other writers. That’s fine for me because writing tuition is part of what I do (but it’s not everything – see below). If you’re blogging to help people develop a taste for your fiction? You might be better choosing something else:
- your issues, if your fiction is issues based
- your historical period if appropriate
- other books in your niche
- host other authors (like Jane Davis), campaign for better recognition for indie authors (like Paul Sean Grieve), start a blog series like David Abrams on The Quivering Pen with My First Time or me with The Undercover Soundtrack.
Blogging to promote your fiction? The dilemma for literary authors
I still haven’t sussed this myself. Partly this is because my kind of fiction doesn’t suggest bloggable ‘topics’. One book might deal with, say, musicians, reincarnation and despair (My Memories of a Future Life). Another might feature repressive regimes and ruined country houses (Lifeform Three).
Even so, those aren’t really my ‘subjects’. I can write the odd guest post about them, but not regular blogs. Ever Rest and my embryonic ideas are different again. My signature, if I have one, is thematic: ideas of the soul and memory, conditions of haunting. I have only realised this as I roam about in Novel 3. I could blog about those themes, but it might discharge my need to explore them in the books.
So subject and issues blogging isn’t going to work for me. But it might be good for you.
Make it regular
Your blog needs to look current. So make blogging a regular appointment. Include a calendar so visitors can see the pattern. A list of previous or popular posts will tempt them to stay longer. The longer people stay on your site, the better.
How frequently should you blog?
As often as you find manageable. Experts say that for SEO significance it should be several times a week, but that might exhaust most of us. And think of it from the reader’s perspective. How much time do you have to read blogs, even the ones you love? Once a week is probably plenty to keep you on the radar.
Which brings me to… what I do and how much time I spend.
Why do I have so many sites?
It was an accident, but it seems to work. Each site has a distinct purpose, and they’re all connected to one hub and to each other.
Nail Your Novel
This one you’re reading is my original site. More here about how it started, where you can also see charming screenshots of how my blogs looked in 2011 (eek!).
Post frequency: I put up a writing/publishing post once a week plus a trailer for The Undercover Soundtrack. Plus signposts if I’ve got a guest spot or devilishly exciting news like a launch. Overall, at least 2 posts a week.
Time taken: I can’t just slap a post out. I spend at least 5 hours of cogitating, checking examples to make sure I’m not making idiotic assumptions, finding pics. You don’t have to spend as long if that’s not your style. Later there are comments to answer, shares to acknowledge and other networking to do. Every few months I might tweak the sidebar icons, so that’s another occasional hour or two. I reckon my blog swallows a full day a week – at least. (Is that shocking?)
Post frequency: twice a week. One trailer to introduce my guest, written by me. One Soundtrack post. Although I don’t write these, they take time behind the scenes. I book guests well in advance (as you’ll know if you’ve featured!). When posts come in, I read them, write back with praise (of course!) and quite often ask for tweaks if I think this would make them fit the format better.
Time taken: about 2 hours per week, depending on resubmissions.
How it started: I’d built a blog for writers, but it wasn’t designed for introducing my fiction. When I launched my novel, I worked out a separate profile-building strategy and wrote this post full of bold plans. I reread it just now and added updates for what lasted and what proved daft or impossible to sustain. Mostly the latter. You might find it amusing.
Another reason to have a separate site was to claim the URL. There are several reasons:
- Easier for readers to find in a Google search
- A handy and sensible URL to put on business cards
- Allowed me to create a separate site with artwork in the novel’s livery (if I went self-hosted again I could have done this without making a separate site, but that would have been too disruptive)
- I can transfer it if I want
Roz Morris, author
I got this by accident. I broke the original Nail Your Novel site, so tried WordPress hosting. I found I’d been given a blog called RozMorris, which sat idle before I realised it even existed. Then I decided to use it as a hub for the others.
Time taken: a few hours to set up introductory pages. I’ve added other material gradually as I write it for other purposes – perhaps 20-30 minutes at a time.
Updating when a new book launches I set aside a few hours to add a new page, update pics and the main header, then all the versions of it on my newsletter head, FB page, blog head and sidebar, G+, Twitter biography… I’ve got a master list in my production schedule so I don’t miss anything.
So many sites!
I did warn you. If I was starting now, I’d have one blog and one author site for everything else. But The Undercover Soundtrack became its own entity, and I couldn’t graft Lifeform Three on without breaking it. I also couldn’t leave Lifeform Three as a poor cousin with no presence of its own.
So my web-web is like a house that’s been extended and extended as times change and the family grows. I don’t doubt it looks messy to purists, and especially when explained here. I’m anticipating comments of horror. However, I don’t think readers mind if the navigation is clear. I doubt they notice the different URLs. But they would certainly baulk if they had to learn a different visual grammar each time. Even though the artwork on each site is different, it follows the same core design so they find what they want quickly.
And yes, apologies. This post is a tad late. Because sometimes life gets in the way of blogging.
NEWS I’m thrilled to announce I’m teaching a Guardian Masterclass in advanced self-editing techniques for fiction writers. Of course, London might not be a manageable distance for you, but if it is, here’s where to find out more. And … psst … it’s one of the many good things that have happened because once upon a time, I started a blog.
Do you have a blog, a website or both? How much time do you spend on them? Do you want to suggest a way for me to streamline mine? Tell me in the comments!
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My guest this week says her first novels were fuelled by nostalgia and the past. She wrote them while living in a small market town in England, and harking back to her former homes in California and Ireland. Her soundtrack connects her back to those places and their people. Traditional emigrant songs that remind her of stoic characters in her family, while the gay anthem of La Cage Aux Folles is symbolic of friends in the LBGTQ community and her themes of loyalty and personal autonomy. There’s also a special place for the BBC shipping forecast, which she used to listen to in bed as a child, finding poetry in its strange names. She is Orna Ross – and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).
Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?
All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.
Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.
It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)
Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.
However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)
Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.
He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.
But also … he might have got it right!
The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.
Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.
Two ways to shift point of view
New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.
Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:
- Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
- Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.
(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)
What we leave out
One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.
All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.
Control is everything
Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.
Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.
Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.
Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one
Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!
NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
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My guest this week says music has always been a companion to his writing. He drafted his first book in restaurants, bars and cafes while travelling the world, and now he turns to music to settle into the writing mood. In his fiction he likes to explore the bittersweet, the unresolved, the questions, the dark side of a strength, and draws inspiration from the songwriters and performers who can break your heart in three minutes flat – while fitting the shape of a tune. He is David Gaughran and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Sandy’s nervous. It’s her first book launch. She says she’s keeping away from the internet today.
I’m nervous. Unlike Sandy, I mainline social media and will probably be checking Facebook and Twitter even more frequently than usual to see if anyone else is as excited as I am that…
WE’VE JUST LAUNCHED THE AUDIOBOOK of My Memories of a Future Life. Don’t worry, I will calm down soon.
You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
And that’s it! Back tomorrow with a cracking Undercover Soundtrack. R xxx
ACX, audiobook narrators, audiobooks, authors, entertainment, fiction, Fix and Finish With Confidence, how to narrate a book, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literary fiction, literature, making an audiobook with ACX, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, narrating a book, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, Sandy Spangler, self-publishing, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life
I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Thoughts circulating in a lyric or a music line’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Amanya Maloba July 30, 2014
- Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist July 29, 2014
- Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues July 28, 2014
- Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots July 27, 2014
- ‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones July 23, 2014
- Ghostwriting FAQs: should you get a ghostwriter, do you want to become one? July 20, 2014
- ‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman July 16, 2014
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