‘Everyone is haunted by something’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

for logoNo matter how many of these Undercover Soundtrack pieces I post – and by now it’s nearly 300 – I still get a thrill from reading a new one. There is such pleasure in delving into the essence of a writer’s creative soul, to be reminded that what we are doing is taking the personal and making it an experience we can invite the reader into. This week’s is no exception. It begins with the writer’s mother-in-law having hallucinations that she is hearing opera – a typical occurrence for elderly women living alone with impaired hearing. Then we progress to a haunted child narrator, who is unabashedly the essence of her writer-creator. Her first novel was nominated for the Harold Ribelow Award and she teaches at UCLA. She is also a renowned psychic. Her name is Rochelle Jewel Shapiro and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Bring on the empty horses: handle synonyms with care

5232325286_09d118be15_zI have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.

In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.

This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.

In times of trouble

This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.

In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.

9780340839959Accuracy and gusto

This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.

In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.

Ear and eye

To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.

But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’

In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.

Choose synonyms with care.

Thanks for the thesaurus pic, Julie Jordan Scott

Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!

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‘Drumming is my heartbeat’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Wendy Storer

for logoThis striking phrase is a manifesto for a character who lives, breathes and seeks refuge in music. She is Daisy, an aspiring musician coping with a family member who is slipping into dementia. In the early stages of writing, her creator found that she would judge every piece of music she heard on whether Daisy would love it or not – and so the character was created by a series of instinctual responses. Memory is necessarily a theme here too, which became strangely real for the author as the music of her teens brought back the times she messed up at school, fell in love and wanted something so badly it didn’t seem possible. She is Wendy Storer and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Is my book paranormal or literary? And which age group is it for? How to categorise your novel

4245561092_00ff8217b6_zI’ve had this question from Alexandra:

I’m not sure which category my story would fit into. I had originally intended it to be for 9-13-year-olds (my protagonist is 13), but realised I was dumbing down my language in an attempt to suit the reading level. So I decided to write without thinking about age groups or categories. But now I’m close to the end, I still don’t know how to categorise it. Is it young adult with no sex or violence? Literary? Teen? Paranormal?

Let’s break this down.

Age of protagonist

Readers in any non-adult genre are fussy about the age of their protagonist. They usually like them to be at the top end of the range or a little older. But a 13-year-old main character doesn’t mean you’re writing a book for 13-year-olds. You might easily have a child point of view in a book for adults (Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; Michael Frayn’s Spies).


Certainly the language for child readers has to be appropriate for their age. If you’re feeling hamstrung and frustrated by this, it might be a sign that you won’t be able to keep it up for the whole book. But good writers for children won’t feel they’re dumbing down. They’ll find ways to get variety and style into their sentences so that it sounds natural.

Not just language and age

But age ranges aren’t just about language or the age of the protagonist. The real difference is the emotional development and interests of the audience. So pre-teens are interested in different things from teenagers and YA, and books for adults are different again.

Stories for pre-teens will be more adventure based, whereas stories for teens will be about the trials of that very turbulent time of life. You could even take one story event and make entirely different books out of it, depending on the age you write it for.

Take Geraldine McCaughrean’s White Darkness, which is about an expedition to the Antarctic with a mad, exciting uncle. If it was written for pre-teens, the biggest issues would be the survival situation. But the most compelling trials are emotional – disillusionment with a family member, learning who you are, dealing with relationships. Really, it’s a story of growing up, not of polar exploration. That’s what makes it a teen book.

So to work out your age range, identify the most significant trials the characters go through.

Literary or paranormfaint mmal?

And so to the second half of the question. Oh my, you’ve come to the right place! My debut novel, My Memories of a Future Life, has paranormal ingredients – regression to other lives – but it isn’t paranormal. This is because the paranormal elements are not my main focus. My curiosities in the story are despair, hope, how we live, how we heal and scare each other. I’m using ideas of reincarnation to create unusual pressures in the lives of my characters, but reincarnation is not my subject. My subject is the people and how these experiences are the making of them. Indeed, the paranormal element might even be psychological.

This approach would probably annoy a fan of paranormal fiction. They want to lose themselves in a story that uses the paranormal events as the main fascination. That doesn’t mean they don’t want well-drawn characters with compelling arcs, or good writing, or innovative twists. But they want to see their liking for paranormal ingredients to be given due respect.

Here’s another example. I’ve just been editing a novel set in a historical conflict, but it’s literary, not historical. Why? The emphasis is more on the themes and the people than on the historical period; the period is merely a set of circumstances that give the characters their challenges. Why is The Time Machine science fiction, but The Time Traveller’s Wife is not?

Or both?

Could a novel be both literary and genre? In a sense, we are all on a line, and some authors fold the line over to touch. Like Ray Bradbury. He writes science fiction, but his stories are metaphors that also unwrap the human condition. Just when you thought it was clear.

Which are you?

So if you’re still puzzled, how do you tell which category and age group you belong in? By reading good examples of the genre.

It’s all a question of how the material is treated.

To sort out the literary/genre question, read books in the genre. Then read some literary or contemporary fiction that uses elements of that genre. If you’re wavering between children’s, teen or adult, read books for different age groups. Which treatments and approach pushed your buttons, gave you the most satisfaction? The odds are, that’s what you’ll strive to write.

Thanks for the pic LouisaThomson

faintnyn2More about characters, including child characters and teen characters, in Writing Characters to Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

Have you had trouble working out where to categorise your novels? Any advice to add? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star

serialmalayYou really know you’re in a world wide web when an email arrives from a journalist on a newspaper in Malaysia. Elizabeth Tai contacted me for a series she was writing called reading revolutions. She’d seen that I had originally released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, as a four-part serial on Kindle, and wanted to ask me how that worked and why I did it. We talk about pros, cons, cautions – and tips I’d give to anyone considering doing the same. Come on over…

And in the meantime, tell me: where’s the furthest-flung place you’ve had a surprise email from about your work?

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‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell

for logoMy guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print!

chapbkI could have called this post ‘pantsing – a capsule wardrobe’, but along with novel-nailing that might have been a metaphor too far.

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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Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

7345133320_0dd41c6fc1_cThis 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.

guar teaching w joanna

Teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass: pic courtesy of Joanna Penn

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.

LAF workshop

Workshop at the London Author Fair: that’s Dave looking thoughtful on my left!

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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‘Music that flows into the marrow of the soul’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Birgitte Rasine

for logoOnce upon a time, a schoolgirl resolved to never be a slave to music. She says she is glad this promise never lasted, because she cannot imagine having a creative life without music to guide and inspire her. Her latest work is a historical novel for young readers about the story of cacao, and features a heady soundtrack of Lana Del Rey, Cirque du Soleil and Manish Vyas. She is multipublished author Birgitte Rasine and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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7 stages of writing a book – video discussion at IndieReCon

7 stagesDo you need help to get your novel started or finished? Four of us experienced scribblers talk about how we stay creative through the tough times and reveal our secrets for drafting, fixing and finishing, not to mention keeping our confidence. Solutions include running, composing music, meditation and lying on the floor scribbling on sheets of A4 using the hand you don’t normally write with.

My co-conspirators are Orna Ross (who is the author of Go Creative, several literary novels and leader of the Alliance of Independent Authors), Kevin Booth (who’s a translator as well as an author and trained as an actor before he took up writing), and Jessica Bell (who runs the Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as having a parallel career as a singer-songwriter, which you might well know already from her appearances on The Undercover Soundtrack).

We’re forming the creative posse at IndieReCon, a free online conference for writers at all stages of their publishing careers. Do come over – and check out the other terrific events in the line-up. There’s info from all kinds of experts in publishing, writing and marketing.

Anyway, here we are, wrong-handed and full of ideas.

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