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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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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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This post was provoked by a tweet. I was working on Nail Your Novel 3 and tweeted that instead of writing ‘the three-act structure’ I’d written ‘the three-cat structure’. Keyboard possessed by Blake Snyder?
Teddi Deppner (@tmdeppner), who you might have seen commenting here from time to time, rejoined:
‘I sure would like to see alternatives to the 3-act structure. Especially for non-movie, non-novel storytelling.’ She elaborated:
‘I want to write serial fiction that offers an experience more like an ongoing TV show (instead of a novel)… I wonder how comic book writers structure their stuff? Maybe that would be similar, too…’
It happened I knew just the man…
‘Not sure that I do use 3-act structure. I just write each episode as it comes, like a TV show. Structure emerges, not planned.’
Darn! There I am, writing about structure for my next book, and I’m nearly trounced by my own team. Dave has always been sceptical of writing ‘rules’. I persisted…
‘But does the structure follow the 3-act pattern?’
‘In retrospect, you can see a 3-act structure in each season.’
3 and 4-act structure
In case you’re scratching your head, here’s a catch-up. Briefly, the ‘act’ structure is all about where you put crescendos and twists in your story. There’s a general pattern that turns out to be most satisfying to audiences – a major change at roughly a quarter in, then another one at the three-quarter point. That’s three acts. It’s also good to have another change at the halfway point, which actually makes four acts, but some people don’t count that so they call it three. Why three? It’s beginning, middle and end. Simple.
Whether you call it three acts or four, it works so well it’s been translated into a fundamental formula. Some writers use it to outline before they start. Some use it to troubleshoot – if the story feels flabby, you can tighten it by restructuring to fit this shape. If you have a long-running story with characters and plotlines that mature at different rates, you can construct each of the arcs so they hit those markers.
… and back to Dave. As I said, he’s wary of the idea of storytelling ‘rules’ or ‘principles’, preferring to write by instinct. Indeed he told me that many years ago, a friend came back from a writing course with news of a wondrous formula – this three-act thingy. Dave had never heard of it, and indeed had already published several books. However, when he investigated further, he found he’d structured them with the major crescendos and twists at the quarter points.
This is how it is with writing – or any art. We all understand some aspects innately. For others we find it helpful to be shown a rule or a principle. In my case, I understood structure and pacing from the get-go. I struggled, though, with ‘show not tell’ and needed a good bit of nagging to grasp it.
Thanks for the pic, Sandy Spangler
(So yes, I am working on Nail Your Novel 3, which will tackle plot. It doesn’t have an official title yet, nor a release date, but if you’re interested, sign up for my newsletter. Other Nail Your Novel books can be found here)
And in the meantime…
Which writing rules do you find easy and which do you find difficult, either to grasp or to accept?
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I see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.
And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.
When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.
Mood to mood
It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.
One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.
This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.
We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.
This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.
But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.
Thanks for the pic petsadviser.com
NEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.
Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss
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‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
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My writing post this week has a science fiction flavour. And my Undercover Soundtrack guest will continue the theme with the music that helped her write her debut, also sci-fi. She says she uses music to create a consistent space to sink into a book, and for this is must be music she knows by heart. She draws on tracks that have been favourites since she was a teenager because they still make her believe anything is possible – which is a rather excellent way to start the creative day. She is Chele Cooke and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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You could argue that fantasy and science fiction are the genres where we can be most imaginative and inventive. But this very freedom brings responsibility. I see a lot of science fiction and fantasy authors who confuse the reader because they don’t cover a few very important bases. And I’ve had to address a few of these issues myself in my sci-fi fable Lifeform Three.
1 The logic of the world must be established – and stuck to
You need to establish, early on, what can be done and what can’t. If you have robots, for instance, what can and can’t they do? Are they benevolent? Of course, you don’t have to explain this if your story is a mystery, where the characters have to puzzle out the logic of the world, but otherwise you need to cover those bases as part of the setting description.
This particularly applies with stories of time travel and doppelgangers. One of the reasons readers enjoy them is that they must be cleverly plotted. To do this, you have to set limits and rules, and play within them. If, late in the story, you suddenly make up a new thing that the heroes can do, that annoys the reader. The very thing they wanted was to see how you would use your particular time travel physics in an ingenious way.
Staying with time travel, you must be time-travel savvy. Certain issues are always tackled – meeting yourself, duplicating yourself, leaving messages for yourself, saving your parents, changing history, fixing the lottery and so on. Do what you like with them, but readers need to see you’ve thought through these paradoxes.
You might not reveal all your world rules to the reader, but you still need to know them.
2 Consider the consequences of magic powers or devices
I see a lot of novels where characters have magic powers or gizmos that look far too potent. I was editing a manuscript where a character gets out of a scrape with a device that allows him to melt stone. But it never appeared again – which seems unlikely as it was so useful. Furthermore, the reader expects to see such things used more than once.
Also, the writer hadn’t thought about other consequences if such a device existed. Certainly, it wouldn’t be possible to keep someone a prisoner. Not only that, there would be other consequences in the society. Just to take one example, how would people make their homes secure? The writer hadn’t thought about this; she’d invented the gizmo on the spur of the moment to solve an immediate problem.
Star Trek used to do this all the time. They had a holodeck, yet the scanner on the flight deck was 2D. If you had 3D imaging technology, wouldn’t you use it on all your visualising devices? (No doubt someone will explain this to me in the comments…)
So make your technology (or magic faculties) consistent. And beware of inventing devices or magical powers that are too potent and far-reaching. (Unless you mean to do that deliberately, or want to invent Kryptonite.)
3 Be precise with description
I fell foul of this myself with Lifeform Three. In an invented world, you have to be more careful than usual with description. The reader will scrutinise every word to build the setting in their mind – and it’s easy to mislead them. With Lifeform Three, I had a statue in a dancing pose, and my editor got confused because I described the statue as ‘twirling’. ‘Can she move?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s just the statue’s pose.’ ‘Write a description that doesn’t suggest movement,’ he said. I changed it to ‘posed as if about to pirouette’.
Thanks for the pic The Hills Are Alive on Flickr
Those are my three top rules for writing science fiction, fantasy and time travel stories. Do you have any to add? Or gripes about films, TV shows or novels that have transgressed these rules? Let’s discuss
I’ve tweaked the title of the characters book. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?
Now back to comments. Time travel, fantasy and science fiction, writing rules thereof. Over to you…
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However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.
These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:
The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations
- because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.
In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)
The character has very little history, background or personal preferences
Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.
Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.
So how do we write an effective everyman character?
Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.
And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.
If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.
So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!
NEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?
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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 post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Reading revolutions: serialising a novel – interview at the Malaysia Star March 6, 2014
- ‘This song says it’s time to get serious’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Cantrell March 5, 2014
- Planning your story – a checklist for success: and win Nail Your Novel in print! March 4, 2014
- Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer March 3, 2014
- ‘Music that flows into the marrow of the soul’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Birgitte Rasine February 26, 2014
- 7 stages of writing a book – video discussion at IndieReCon February 25, 2014
- A conversation about story structure – and writing rules February 23, 2014
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