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You’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrack.
Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.
To enter the zone
In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.
Start the time machine
Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.
To keep the pace
Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.
We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.
For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.
In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.
To calm the inner editor
Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.
How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?
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This post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
- then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.
But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.
2 It isn’t either-or.
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.
Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.
There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.
Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.
What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:
1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book
2 They might be fibbing (surely not)
3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.
I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.
And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.
Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair
What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments
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My new novel isn’t set in the world of music and none of the characters are musicians. It’s a quirky take on the future dystopia/utopia, with a smattering of Arcadia too – misty woods, abandoned towns, a forbidden life by night; the scent of bygone days; and an enigmatic door in a dream. Behind the scenes, though, music did all the early work for me. The first, rough outline came to me from favourite tracks by Boards of Canada, Peter Gabriel, Vangelis, Enya, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Hungarian electronica composer Gabor Presser. As I built the story I listened to them repeatedly, and now each of them represents a landmark on my main character’s journey. Join me on the Red Blog, when I’ll explain the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three.
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Writing mentors, writer’s block and the Wife of Bath – guest post at Jon Winokur’s Advice To Writers
In some ways, I have Chaucer to thank for all this. At school I wrote an exam essay in which I speculated about the plots you could make from the Wife of Bath, based on her character. I also have to thank my English teacher. If she’d been like the other staff, she’d have told me off for not answering the question. Instead, she urged me to take writing seriously – long before I thought that was possible.
Today, I’m guesting at Advice to Writers, a blog by Jon Winokur. Jon is co-author of a biography of Rockford Files star James Garner, and that makes him exceedingly cool and me very honoured. We do discuss more up-to-date concerns than Chaucer, though, including how you get from a theoretical dream to words in a reader’s hands. We’re talking mentors, writing routines and writer’s block – do come over.
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I first discovered this week’s guest when a Google fairy revealed she’d written a novel about reincarnation and music. I had to try to recruit her. She turned out to be even more suitable for the series than I could have guessed. Her mother was an opera singer. She wrote her first novel to help her son understand the stories of his ancestors in China through connections to music. Her second novel deals with ideas of past lives and ethnomusicology. Her name is Denise Kahn and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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Tomorrow (or maybe today or last week, depending on when you’re served this post) I’ll be taking part in a Book Industry Communication debate on the future of ISBNs. I’m providing the author perspective, so as part of my research I canvassed opinions to see what the mood is.
Much of the feedback centred on whether authors should buy ISBNs or use the free ones from CreateSpace, Smashwords et al. There were sound arguments on each side. But what emerged for me was the way self-publishers view ourselves. It’s a snapshot of our times that goes a lot further than a little piece of industry bureaucracy.
For and against
Julia Jones, one of my co-conspirators at Authors Electric, said she bought ISBNs ‘to behave like a publisher in every way’ – a view shared by many. Plenty of authors feel to have their own ISBN is more professional, lets you be seen and counted, and gives you control.
Other writers – among them author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn – feel having their own ISBN makes no difference: ‘I can’t see any benefit, or evidence that having a paid ISBN helps you sell more books’. As Joanna sells whopping numbers of her novels and non-fiction books, we certainly can’t argue with that. (I agree with her. Personally I’d rather put the money towards a better cover or more editing time.)
But it was a comment from Michael N Marcus, who writes and publishes books about self-publishing that hit a bullseye for me: ‘If you want to be known as an author, the ownership of the ISBN is unimportant. If you want to be known as a publisher, own the ISBNs you use.’
Now that’s a very interesting view. We’ll return to that in a moment.
But look, no ISBNs at all
Most striking was Dan Holloway, who publishes experimental fiction and poetry – both his own and that of others. He doesn’t use ISBNs at all – even for printed books. He says: ‘I write and publish for a niche, dedicated audience, providing an experience they can’t get elsewhere. I work with selected independent bookstores and galleries and send customers to them for my books, rather than having my books available everywhere.’ He’s not even on Amazon.
Dan is a firm believer in direct selling: ‘We should be trying to get our fans to buy direct from our websites if we can to foster community – we want to nurture fans with stickability, who will become our bedrock over the years, and the best way to do that is to have a hub that exposes them to us, our ideas and worlds, and all that we have to offer. I buy all my music direct from bands, for example.’
You might think this is a recipe for obscurity. Au contraire, Dan’s ISBN-free books have twice received special mentions for the Guardian‘s first book award, been shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize, and been voted ‘favourite Oxford novel’ by readers at the Oxford branch of Blackwell’s.
Author or publisher? Or something else?
I keep coming back to Michael’s interesting distinction and I think he’s nailed something important. Certainly I put most effort into building an identity as an author rather than a publisher. Like Dan, I am most keen to find people who like my imagination and preoccupations, my way of thinking. Having said that, I like publishing and I want to publish myself; I enjoy the control and creativity. I can also, if needed, wave a CV that demonstrates years as a production editor/chief sub/editorial manager, so perhaps that’s why it’s no big deal for me and you should discount my view as I’m not typical of self-publishers.
Other authors feel ISBNs are an important part of their brand and image – one of many signifiers of their professionalism.
Now, more than ever, there is no ‘one right way’ to self-publish well. We’re all finding our own paths. You might be a Dan, a Julia, a Roz, a Joanna. Most probably you’re something else again. I’d love to know. Oh, and wish me luck tomorrow.
What kind of self-publisher are you?
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My guest this week says she discovers characters through songs – from the outline of their stance to the troubled depths in their souls. For her, this is when the book comes alive and she understands what pulls the characters together – and what will drive them apart. Certain songs became the mental habitats for particular scenes and she played them over and over until she had understood them fully. Her name is Adrienne Thompson and she describes her books as inspirational fiction with a twist – and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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As you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1 Finding the logic gaps
Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?
2 Characters fitting the plot
Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?
This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.
3 Is anything predictable?
Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.
I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.
5 Other rethinks
I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?
6 Reviewing my wrong turnings
While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.
You can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).
And – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!
Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?
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I’ve got a couple of slightly apparitional guest spots around the web today. I’m at Candace Austin’s Tumblr blog, Past Life Ponderings. Her novel is about past lives and she collects other authors who play with those ideas. She’s also keen to know about our own claims to former lives … come this way…
Still with the theme of shadows, I’m also at The Write Life Magazine. This time I’m talking about ghostwriting – how I started, what it takes to do the job and how you might break in. The Write Life is an online magazine, downloadable as an app or on PDF. There is a sign-up form but don’t be put off – it’s free and you also get essays about writers’ life-changing experiences, an interview with New York Times Bestseller Ingrid Ricks and a Q&A with memoirist Susan Shapiro. And it’s very pretty…
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All the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work.
While publishers are probably not short of new material, we know they watch the indie scene to see who does well. At the moment they pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?
For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But one thing’s sure. It’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.
Help with production
How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.
A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.
Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?
I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.
Help with promotion and marketing
I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.
We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.
What most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.
There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.
Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.
However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.
I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.
Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.
Help with development
It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. Or am I dreaming?
At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.
Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that.
Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.
UPDATE: To be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.
One thing’s for sure. The current standard publishing deal isn’t going to cut it.
Thanks for the dream team pic Permanently Scatterbrained
Let’s discuss this brave new world. Do you self-publish? If a publisher came calling, what would you appreciate help with? What do you want to handle yourself? What do you think would make you attractive to a publisher in return for their help?
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- How to write a novel: following the strange – guest post on Writer.ly April 16, 2014
- ‘Road trips require a soundtrack; so do some novels’ – The Undercover Soundrtrack, Linda Collison April 16, 2014
- How to make an audiobook using ACX April 13, 2014
- ‘A trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Warren FitzGerald April 9, 2014
- An easy way to make your plot plausible – control your novel’s timeline April 5, 2014
- ‘Tragedy and loss are cornerstones of my story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Allen April 2, 2014
- How many words do you write a day? And do you have to force yourself? How successful authors do it March 30, 2014
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