Posts Tagged beginners

It’s live! New Nail Your Novel book shows you how to create characters who keep readers hooked and make you want to tell stories

nyn2covcompThree guesses what it’s about … but here’s the formal blurb…
How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?

How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?

I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.

Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories.

Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords and Kobo.

If you like more heft in your hand, the 200+-page paperback is in progress, and will proceed as fast as an index can be built and proofs can fly the Atlantic.
Ebook price  GBP £3.56  USD $5.50 (rough conversion estimate)

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One foot in another world: discovering what it is to be a novelist

freya hartas carl has the funk‘I’ve been working on a novel,’ he said, and worlds collided.

I have such conversations all the time, but never in that place. I was freelancing on the magazine where once upon a time I was a full-time sub-editor. It was a day of facts, punctuation, page proofs, libel-watching, house style, hard news and deadlines.

Then one of the desk editors told me he’d started a novel and we jumped universes.

First he told me he’d had a story idea. An idle ‘what if’ moment; an entertaining daydream. Then, purely to keep track, it became necessary to write it down.

One day he discovered a book that seemed made for this situation (not Nail Your Novel; we need to have words about that). Before then, he hadn’t known that author manuals existed. He hadn’t done writing exercises since his journalism training, but now he found himself drawing up character sheets and developing back stories.

Ideas continued to ambush him, raining out of the sky like the pieces from random jigsaws. He saw an outlandish person on the train. Big hat, fur coat and tarantula-tight jeans: exactly what his character would wear. Once transplanted into the manuscript, the character disobeyed the story plan and did something else. It’s now a crime novel, which my colleague didn’t intend, but the characters made him do it.

He’s a journalist. He finds the facts, gets the quotes and rattles out the words. This novel, though, is not playing ball. Although it follows him like a mental entourage, it only speaks and moves when he’s not at the keyboard or can’t grab a pen. Strap-hanging on the train, interviewing an expert. Even in the shower. He declared this with some outrage, as though the characters had snuck in and swiped the curtain. Which is pretty much how he regards the whole surprising business.

Writing has been my habit for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like when it was new. Of course we never stop honing our craft but these days my zone of discovery has shifted to marketing, finding where I fit and what new platform I need to learn. Although these tools and possibilities are fresh and exciting, it’s nice to be reminded how I got here and what it all comes back to.

Tell me: how did you get here?

Thanks for the drawing, Freya Hartas, used with permission

lbf kobo

Squinting to read it? Click the pic to enlarge

NEWS If you’re at the London Book Fair on Wednesday this week, drop by the Kobo stand where I’ll be Writer In Residence! This is a rather astonishing development and I’m still pinching myself, but I’ll write a roundup post afterwards where I can indulge the ‘wow’ moment and hopefully say something useful too. Navigate your way to stand Y505 in the digital zone between 2.30 and 3pm  on Wednesday 17th April (or instruct your nose to find coffee because it’s near the cafe).

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What if… 3 ways gamebooks teach us how to tell terrific stories

This week I’ve been proof-reading one of Dave’s gamebook series, which is due to be rereleased next year.

Gamebooks, for the unnerdly, are interactive adventures (sometimes called Choose Your Own). The story is printed in scene sections, out of order, which end with a choice – trust the blind beggar or not, decide whether to look for your enemy in the town or the desert. Although I’m not a gamebook fan (apologies to those who are), I’m finding the process rather interesting.

Choices and consequences

First of all, what happens in each thread depends on the character’s personality and previous moral choices. So if they’re captaining a pirate ship, in one version they’re jolly tars and in the other it’s mutiny.

Choices are crucial to good stories. Stuff happens – not because a god dumped events into the plot, but because characters did things, usually under pressure. In a gamebook these choices create a unique path through the adventure. But whatever kind of story you’re writing, the chain reaction of choice and consequence is an essential.

Experimenting with scenes

To proof Dave’s books, I’m not reading one thread at a time, but front cover to back – which is jumbling the story into random episodes. It also means I encounter each scene in many versions.

This was like an x-ray of my plotting and revision process. I make copies of each scene and write umpteen iterations looking for tighter tension, more resonant changes, more interesting (but honest) ways to keep the reader on their toes. In fact my outtakes are rather like my novel in gamebook form, with all its possibilities – what if she says this, what if the characters had met before in different circumstances, what if y had happened before x?

(In fact Dave said this experimenting was part of the fun – he could play each scene several ways instead of having to settle for a single one as he would in a novel. The pic shows his flowcharts. BTW, the print books are Lulu editions for proofing only. Yes, we know the covers are horrible.)

Exploring possibilities is something that writers are often scared by. Often they want to keep a scene the way they first imagined it. But the more we squeeze a scene to see what it can do, the stronger a novel will be.

Endings

Because the gamebook contains many journeys, there are also many ends – deaths that are daft or valiant, failures to complete the quest, heroic rescues, solutions where honour wasn’t fully satisfied. Usually only one ending hits the mark. (In gamebooks that’s traditionally the last paragraph, by the way.)

Finding the right ending in a novel usually takes a lot of false starts. But you don’t get there unless you try all the permutations of success or failure and the shades between.

Get the experimenting mindset

To get in the experimenting mood, grab a gamebook and read it in a way it’s not intended to be – from page 1 to the end. You’ll see the many ways an encounter can go, the options for a scene of dialogue, the possibilities for your ending. Once you’re loosened up, go back to your WIP and play.

(Here’s the titles that are currently available in the series I’m proofing for Dave, but gamebook fans can probably point you to other goodies.)

Thanks for the signpost pic Shahram Sharif

Do you feel able to experiment with your stories? If so, what helps you? Share in the comments!  

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How to self-publish an ebook and get a traditional book deal – guest spot on The Write Lines podcast

When I was first discovering blogs – and looking for a home for my own fiction – I discovered The Write Lines on BBC Radio Oxford. Presenter and novelist Sue Cook brought together experts from UK publishing to give advice, information and resources for new writers.

Fast forward through a few revolutions and the latest series (now a podcast) is exploring indie publishing – both as a leg-up to a traditional deal and a viable option in itself. Some of the authors whose blogs I was reading as the first series aired are her experts this time – including Nicola Morgan and Catherine Ryan Howard – and me. I feel like I’ve graduated. Exciting times…

In my episode I’m sharing a studio with indie superstars Mark Edwards (one half of the Edwards/Louise Voss partnership) and Mel Sherratt. You can either listen on the site or download….

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Nail NaNoWriMo – start now! 3 old hands share their tips

November is National Novel-Writing Month, when writers everywhere will handcuff themselves
to their keyboards and aim to get a 50,000-word draft finished in 30 days. Apart from clearing the diary and creating a big Do Not Disturb sign, what can you do to prepare?
And is it even possible?

This is a repost of a piece I ran a couple of years ago, but with NaNo rising as a buzzword again in the writerly ether, I thought it might be helpful. Tomorrow I’ll post some tips for getting your story into good shape before you start.

First of all, do established writers do this or is it just a game?

Certainly NaNoWriMo is not just an exercise. Many established writers use it to get their first drafts done.  Novelist Sara Gruen wrote her New York Times #1 bestseller Water For Elephants one NaNoWriMo. What you start in NaNo can go on to great things – here’s a list of all the NaNo novels that have made it into print.

How do you do it?

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have written a lot of novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months. And not just first draft, but revised and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times.

I have several friends who are NaNoWriMo winners. Here are their tips. And the key to success is not just what you do in November, but what you do NOW.

Prepare your story

Zelah Meyer is a NaNoWriMo powerhouse, having consistently delivered 50,000 words for the last five years. Some years, she even lost a week because real life inconveniently got in the way, but even so, she sailed past the finish line. This year she’s hoping to finish the first draft of her trilogy.

Zelah (left) says: ‘Do a rough brainstorm beforehand of where you want to take at least the first 5,000 words or so. I call it plot scaffolding and I’ll often talk to myself on paper about what could happen and where the story could go. I find it helps to know that so that I can avoid writing myself into a corner – but everybody works differently!

‘I ask myself a lot of questions such as “Why does nobody know that he isn’t really the lost prince/company CEO/etc?” I use the ideas I have to flesh out character back story and sometimes that will give me ideas for the plot.

‘If I decide that I need to go back and add in a scene, I’ll do that – but I never rewrite one. Instead I have a second document that I keep open called Corrections. There I make notes of changes I want to make in the re-writes and then continue as if I’d already done them.

‘I also find it helps to have a third document for any names I need to keep track of. This saves me from wasting ages scanning back through thousands of words trying to find out which town the characters were heading for or what you called the hero’s aunt.’

In real life, Zelah is an improvisational performer, and her experiences on stage have strengthened her approach to storytelling. ‘I ask myself: “If I were in the audience, where would I want the action to go now?” and “Which character do I want to hear from now?” Also, everything that is said changes you – both the person saying and the person listening. Everything evokes some kind of emotional response and that colours how things happen from then on.’
Prepare your targets

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (left), another NaNoWriMo veteran, says: ‘My one tip is stick to your daily wordcount no matter what – 1,600 words a day even if you’ve been run over by a steamroller. Nothing’s more disheartening than an impossible deadline,’
Zelah’s keen on statistics too. ‘I create a spreadsheet for the 30 days of November with how many words I aim to write on each day. I give myself a contingency of around 5,000 words.’

Prepare your research

If you go and look something up on Google, do you stop there? No; an hour later you can still be happily cyber-faffing. So do all your Googling, Wiki-ing and forum fact-finding before November. Don’t burn through your writing time by looking stuff up. If necessary, put a keyword in the text like [factcheck] and start a file for queries you will Google in December.

Find support

You don’t slog through NaNoWriMo on your own. That’s one of the beauties of it. The NaNoWriMo website is, of course, essential, and you’ll find hashtag communities on Twitter, and bloggers who will be wearing NaNo badges and blogging if they have any fingers to spare.

Ann Marie Gamble, another old hand, says: ‘The single best non-official resource I used was Doyce Testerman’s day-by-day blog posts. He described exactly what he was going through so I could think, ah, everyone feels like they are choking on Day 11 – it’s not just me being pathetic. Plus he has a wife and kid, so his coping strategies are more accessible to me than those of the college students in the local NaNoWriMo groups.’

Remember it’s a first draft

NaNoWriMo is about turning off your inner editor. If your draft sucks that doesn’t matter. All first drafts suck.

It is also about a definite goal. Ann Marie says: ‘Keep your eyes on your prize. NaNoWriMo is a chance to build writing habits and experience in finishing a piece. Don’t get sidetracked by questions of quality, plausibility, readability etc. Let your pen fly during this intense month and analyse later.’

Zelah says: ‘When I’m actually working, I remind myself that I’m not striving for perfection at this stage. I have a strip of paper saying “Quantity not Quality” taped to my monitor.

The message is, prepare, prepare, prepare.

  • your story
  • your research
  • your targets
  • your support groups

And that, my friends, is why NaNoWriMo starts now.

With all that sorted, just one thing remains. Simon C Larter (left) of the blog Constant Revisions says: ‘How do I convince my wife it’s okay for me to spend so much time writing?’

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? How are you preparing? Is it your first time? If you’ve done it before, do you have any tips? And if NaNo requires you to ramp up your writing routine, how, like Simon, will you convince your nearest and dearest to indulge you?  Share in the comments

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. And tomorrow I’ll be going through a workup routine to get your story sorted before you lock the doors.

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Letter to a writer who is losing confidence

‘My friend Lucy has always loved writing but recently she’s lost confidence. I’ve just bought her your book Nail Your Novel for her birthday, but I wondered if you’d have time to write something in it to give her a little encouragement? Yours, Diane

I had this lovely email a few weeks ago. I started to scribble a few lines and it turned into a bit of a campaign. So I asked Lucy and Diane for permission to reproduce it here

Dear Lucy

Diane tells me you’ve found yourself writing a novel. Somehow writing sneaks up on a lot of us like that. A bit of typing here, an hour or two musing about characters and a story, and before we know it we have a regular appointment with the page.

She says you’re not always finding it easy. Well, I hope my book will hold your hand some of the way, but here are a few other things I’d say.

All writers doubt themselves

Will we have enough ideas? Will we be able to make the story work? Will our book live up to what we want it to be? And what is that anyway?

Writing a novel is a big job. You have a heck of a lot to get right. Plot, character, pace, theme, structure, description, logistics, language. If it’s your first novel, you’ve also got to learn the craft too. If you take it at all seriously (and thank goodness you clearly do), you’re bound to have wobbly times. Most professional novelists take at least 18 months to get a novel right – and they know what they’re doing.

Take your time and listen to your instincts. Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.

Your path won’t be the same as anyone else’s

… but reading about others’ helps. Writing is a self-directed quest, guided by the books you read and the book you want to do justice to. Plus, of course, whatever’s going on in your life – and that’s under nobody’s control at all. Enjoy your random, rambling learning process because it’s what will help you define your style, your way.

You often don’t realise how far you’ve come

Sometimes it helps to look back at what you wrote a year ago – or two – and compare it with how you’d do it now. Even, ask yourself what you did to make the difference – then you’ll see how your haphazard experiments are taking you somewhere.

Your style and voice

Have you got a style yet? Is your voice strong enough? This develops with mileage. There are no shortcuts, but until you’ve got it, play. Find a writer whose voice you adore and try ‘being’ them for a while, at least on the page. Most probably you won’t keep it up, but you might keep a new trick or a way of having fun with words.  One day, you’ll find you’re not writing like somebody else. You’ll have found the way to sound like you.

Top up the creative well

Read – and read actively. Not just craft books. Read fiction. Observe how other people make stories.

Read lots in your chosen genre, but go beyond that too – the techniques or traditions of another could give you fresh ideas.
Every time you read something that affects you, ask yourself why. Try to read the good stuff, of course, but occasionally find something with appalling reviews and read it to see what makes the difference.

Do you have an English literature degree? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t – most of them don’t teach you to write, or to read like a writer.

Notice the structure as well as the words

Novels are like machines. Under all the words, there is another force at work; the order of the events and the way you show them. Notice that as much as the pretty language.

Rewriting is completely normal

It takes time to get a novel right. We all have to look at what we’ve written and ask ourselves if it works. We all have to go through a scene multiple times in order to make it zing. We all have files full of stuff we’ve reluctantly deleted from our books because a nagging voice told us they didn’t fit.

Your first novel might not The One

Many people don’t get an agent or publisher – or aren’t ready to go public – with their first novel. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It also doesn’t mean it has to be wasted. Sometimes, after you have a few more novels under your belt, you can return with fresh eyes and finally do justice to your beloved characters and story.

Find others who are like you

All writers have blind spots, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Find yourself people whose opinions you can trust and who understand the kind of novel you want to write. This is unlikely to be friends and family. You need people who will give you critiques that will make your work stronger, but have the maturity not to shoehorn you into places you don’t fit. A critique group who writes genre such as paranormal or thrillers could set you on totally the wrong path if what you want to write is literary fiction (and vice versa).

Early on we need our trusted critics to help us grasp the basics. Much later, we still need them – perhaps because we’ve been pushing our limits and trying to do something ambitious.

Even the famous authors whose names are on the spines of your favourite books need guidance. The other day I heard an editor from Bloomsbury saying that several of her biggest-name authors had turned in manuscripts with significant problems. Sometimes it took several more drafts, with plenty of feedback, before the book came right.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to publish this as a post on my writing blog. Because, as I hope you can see from this, all writers are bumping along in the same enormous, haphazard sea. And whether experienced or emerging, we all need reassurance sometimes.

Thanks for the cliff-jump pic Mr Chris Johnson

What would you tell Lucy? Share in the comments!

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Should you publish your novel to build your platform?

Here’s a phrase I’m hearing alarmingly often: ‘I’m going to self-publish my novel and use it to build my platform’.

Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.

Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.

Non-fiction

You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.

But novels?

Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.

The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.

Successful self-publishers

There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn  – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.

Relationships rock

Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.

So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.

And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?

You might as well, um, query with it.

Yes, query

Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.

If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.

‘But every agent has different taste…’

Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?

‘But it takes time…’

You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.

‘But everyone’s publishing…’

I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.

But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.

Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?

Build the relationship first

Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.

Thanks for the pic, Scottnj

While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.

So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments

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Can I trust my agent’s advice on my book?

Is the feedback you’re getting for the novel’s good or is it steering you to fit in with the market? This writer asked for my advice

I am in the fortunate position of having got (after plenty of rejections, redrafts etc) an agent for the first novel I’ve written. Which is great. But while the idea of my book is strong, the manuscript needed shaping. With my agent’s help, I’ve been redrafting for the last 15 months, but I’m finding it hard to differentiate between what is solid advice from someone who knows and what are tastes/suggestions that might take my novel away from what I’m trying to do. The suggested changes all ring true in terms of what will make the novel work/sell, it’s a much better book, and I know that what’s being said is mostly good advice, but I want to keep a tight hold on the heart of why I wrote the novel.

I presume this is something all writers have to go through once they open the door to the world, but I’m hoping you have some tips for gaining clarity and creating the best possible version of a story while not losing anything that’s truly integral.

I do sympathise. You’ve edited the novel for so long you probably can’t see where it should go. When someone else is contributing suggestions, you can feel like everything is whirling out of your control. Especially if that person might have different aims from you.

There are two aspects to tackle here.

1. Do you know what you want your novel to be?

You mention you’re worried about losing the heart of the book. Yes, absolutely. But it sounds to me as though you may not be entirely sure what that is.

Often if we’re writing a novel that’s unusual we feel there’s nothing else like it. But there are probably a lot of books like it in certain aspects. If you know what those are, it is far easier to have a meaningful conversation with an editor or agent – and it might also help you get clarity yourself. You can think about the novels that may have given you crucial inspiration. Also, look up Amazon tags for the subjects your novel covers – you can find surprising parallels this way

As well as this, work out which of your agent’s suggestions are raising your artistic hackles. This is similar to the situation I posted about a few weeks ago, where a writer felt her critique group was derailing her novel. The principles are the same – identify what is working for you and what isn’t.

2. Art versus market

Do you fear you’re being steered to write something that is more saleable but less artistically fulfilling?

First of all, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want. I know writers who welcome a lot of direction from their paymasters and are truly happy to fit in with what the market needs. Others decide they have different priorities.

For instance, my novel My Memories of a Future Life was wooed by the senior editor at one of the Big Six, who wanted it to be a murder mystery. Another publisher hinted they would take it if it was reshaped as a conventional thriller. Both urged me to rewrite because their marketing departments would back me after my success as a ghostwriter. But I felt the idea deserved more unusual treatment. My agent liked the novel my way too – and took it out just as it was. But although editors enjoyed reading it, their marketing departments found it too risky.

So agents are not always trying to shoehorn you into a commercial space. And no one can make you change your book or write what you don’t want to. (And if you do try to aim more at the market there are no guarantees your book will sell or be successful enough to lead to a career.)

What do you do?

You mention that your agent has been working with you for 15 months. That’s a long-haul commitment to helping you nurture the book and shape yourself as a writer. This is a good relationship so far, so make the best of it.

It may be that, as I said above, the agent is unsure what you want and is making stabs in the dark. Give them a chance by begin clear about your vision for the book. Then have a frank discussion about how they are guiding you and where they see you in the market.

Best of luck.

Thanks for the pic jcoterhals on Flickr.

Agree? Disagree? How would you advise a writer in this situation? Share in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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2 misconceptions of new writers

People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently

1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books

On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’

I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.

But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.

And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.

Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.

You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.

All because you did what other writers did.

2 The book is finished when you type The End

The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.

Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.

So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)

Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.

Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99.  Find more details and sign up here.

And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hop over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?

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I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

Critique groups are a great way to develop a critical sense and to experiment with what works. And to meet other people who are as dedicated to writing as you are. But too many cooks…

I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

nyn1badgeMore about handling critiques and major edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

 

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