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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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I get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.
Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)
First of all, what’s a beat sheet?
It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.
Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.
- Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
- Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
natural world & how people are isolated
- M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
- Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
true feelings, everyone’s doing this
- Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
- M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
- Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
- Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
- taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
- M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
- Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
- M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
- B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
- M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
- M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…
So that’s how it’s done.
Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?
Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.
First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)
We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.
Connecting us with the character
In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.
In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.
Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life
Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.
Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.
I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here
And more about Lifeform Three here
Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire
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Sandy’s nervous. It’s her first book launch. She says she’s keeping away from the internet today.
I’m nervous. Unlike Sandy, I mainline social media and will probably be checking Facebook and Twitter even more frequently than usual to see if anyone else is as excited as I am that…
WE’VE JUST LAUNCHED THE AUDIOBOOK of My Memories of a Future Life. Don’t worry, I will calm down soon.
You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
And that’s it! Back tomorrow with a cracking Undercover Soundtrack. R xxx
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This morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’
Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!
Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).
We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.
How do you take courage?
Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.
Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.
Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.
But everyone else…
What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?
First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)
And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.
Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.
Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).
What if you only have one book?
A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.
I do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.
In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.
If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.
It’s not all about sales
Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.
Stop this relentless positivity, please
So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.
But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.
This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.
Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC
Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!
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Usually I write from beginning to end with no gaps. This time, I’m writing the characters’ final scenes and retracing.
I usually can’t do this. I need the continuity from one scene to the next, so that I know what each character feels about their mounting troubles as the screws tighten. Indeed I was writing in this orderly way until I hit the half-way point, when a sudden epiphany left everything spinning. By three-quarters, the end was suddenly indubitable, and I was quite unable to concentrate until I’d written it. So I’m finishing the draft by mining my way backwards. The impulse is discharged, and now I can be logical and fill the holes.
Joss Whedon would agree with the new, impulsive me. I recently read an interview where he explained how he assembles his scripts from a series of ‘cool bits’, then gradually fills in where necessary. He says it helps him because he knows he has material he likes, and that keeps him enthusiastic to stitch it together properly. As most of us go through phases where we despair of our manuscripts, this sounds like a good way to keep positive.
On the other hand, the British scriptwriter Robert Holmes would agree with the old me. (We just bought a biography of him because we are devoted fans of original Doctor Who). Robert Holmes hated to plan or write outlines. One producer asked him to write a presentation with ‘a few key scenes’ and he replied: ‘I can’t write a scene before I get to it. I know some writers hop around like this. They’re probably the same people who turn cherry cake into something resembling Gruyere.’
Certainly when I was ghostwriting I was dogged about writing each scene in order. This was partly a discipline to make sure I didn’t avoid scenes I was finding difficult, or where I found a problem I hadn’t solved. And I still find that many good discoveries have come of forcing myself to find a solution on the hoof. But The Mountains Novel has required more discovery (see here and here about my writing methods). It also has more main characters than my other novels. Perhaps it is an ensemble piece, and so an organic assembly seems to suit.
Another reason this hopscotch back and forth feels right is because I know what my characters need. I wrote far enough in formal order to know how they are changing, what will be triumph for them and what will be tragedy. And in the revisions I’ll do more infilling, understanding and reordering.
Anyway, all this means The Mountains Novel is nearly an orderly draft from start to finish. I’ve been incubating it for years, referring to it by this working title, because I was nervous it wouldn’t mature. Its proper name is Ever Rest. I’m sure you’ll probably shrug and say ‘so what’, or wonder why I made an issue of hiding it. Maybe you’ll tell me you like the old title; some people already have. But this is a landmark for me. I now feel secure to declare it: my next novel is called Ever Rest.
Diversion over – do you write your scenes in order? Has any book you’ve written made you revise your working methods? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.
Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.
What stands out for me is this phrase:
‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’
So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.
(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)
Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?
Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.
It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?
Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.
With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.
Which brings me to my more practical tip.
I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -
- characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
- scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
- the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
- the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
- the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological
So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.
Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.
What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?
NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!
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A week or so ago I talked about making audio books with ACX, the self-publishing arm of Audible. From the author’s end it’s relatively simple – pitch your book, listen to auditions, guide the narrator and review chapters as they’re posted on ACX. But at the other end of the line, the narrator/producer is spending 4-6 hours on each finished hour you hear. What are they doing? When you listen to the files, what problems should you be alert for? And if you’re narrating and producing your own book, what do you need to know?
I put these questions to my narrator, Sandy Spangler.
Sandy: First I print out the pages of the text. Then I review them to refresh my memory and make notes about pronunciation or content/emphasis. Then I prep the ‘studio’ – which is my closet. I set up the laptop and hook up the mic and headphones.
Each chapter (or chunks if they are long) gets recorded in one go because the laptop needs to be outside of the closet, away from the mic or we can hear the fan. I hit record, then shut myself in with mic, headphones, and a glass of water.
Roz: You need studio-grade equipment to meet the quality standards for an audiobook. Podcasting gear won’t cut it. Equipment notes follow at the end of the piece. Back to Sandy.
Sandy: I monitor the audio as I go via headphones. Any time there is a mistake I do a retake and keep going so I don’t interrupt the flow.
Roz: Watch for these when you’re reviewing the uploaded files. Even with the most meticulous narrator, a repeated phrase or two can slip through. The finished quality is the responsibility of both of you!
Sandy: I usually catch around 98% of the errors. The tough ones are when I read a word incorrectly but it sounds right at the time (like make instead of makes) so I don’t catch it. Sometimes I can fix it while editing but sometimes I have to re-record the word or sentence. That’s a pain because it holds up the workflow.
The only time I come out is when I need to check a pronunciation – Roz has some pretty atypical words! Oedema? Nebulae? Roentgen??
Roz: Sorry about that…
Sandy: I record six or so chapters at a time, until my voice gets tired, then load them onto my main PC for editing. I splice together the chapters if they are in chunks, then compress the audio and equalize so the sound quality is good. Then I listen to each chapter and follow along using the printed manuscript to make sure it is correct. I try to fix any mistakes, and make a note of the ones I can’t. I also adjust the pauses between lines so it flows dramatically.
Roz: See the first post about establishing the perfect pause!
Sandy: I listen for the best takes and remove the bad ones, and cut out extra noises like mouth clicks and breaths. I usually end up listening to each recorded line at least twice, sometimes as many as five or six times. I spend more time on the dramatic passages because those feel important to get right.
Roz: This is like the writing process!
Sandy: Once a chapter is complete I run a range check to make sure it fits within the ACX parameters. I adjust the volume as needed, then export it as an MP3 ready to upload.
Incomplete chapters waiting for pickups get put aside until after my next recording session so I can drop in re-recorded lines. Sometimes the new lines need to be tweaked to get them to match the original recording – different days can sound quite different.
Sandy: Do your research before spending money on equipment. Get the best setup you can afford because when you are recording a solo speaking voice there isn’t much to hide behind, and there is only so much you can do in post-production.
Most audiophiles recommend a high-end microphone with a pre-amp to convert the analogue sound to a digital signal. The pre-amp is almost as important as the mic, so if you go this route you have to spend quite a bit of money to get a good sound. If you are planning on doing professional recording full time this is probably the way to go.
USB microphones have a built-in pre-amp, but traditionally sound tinny and aren’t warm enough for audiobooks. However, they have come a long way recently because of the huge rise in amateur voiceover work for video blogs and podcasts. The mic I bought is a high-end professional brand (Shure PG42) and tuned for voice recording. Since this voice project is a bit of an experiment for me, I wasn’t prepared to buy a full mic/pre-amp system, so I invested in one of the best USB mics.
There are some great resources out there for mic comparisons, such as this one. The other advice I would offer is to give yourself a crash course in post-production – for compression, equalisation and to remove mistakes and odd noises. There is a ton of great info on the web, such as articles like this …and video tutorials like this. ACX also has some very useful tips.
Oh cripes, two names that sound the same!
This really caused a hiccup, and made me rather unpopular with Sandy. Listening to her chapters, I discovered I had a Gene (the main hypnotist character) and a neighbour Jean. On the page, they are perfectly distinct, but in the ears… they sound the same. This gave Sandy some extra rerecording and messed up our schedule.
I talked in my previous post about the pronunciation guide. When you write this, check you don’t have two names that a listener might get confused!
Ooh, knotty word
Less of a problem, and certainly more amusing, was a word that didn’t translate well to a US accent. There’s a line where Gene, the hypnotist, is described as wearing a ‘knotty’ jumper. In Sandy’s voice it came out as ‘naughty’. I imagine comics letterers have the same problem with ‘flick’.
This might not have mattered, except that the knotty jumper occurs again in tense scenes that would be rendered farcical if the listener thought a character was wearing a ‘naughty’ jumper. We decided to stay the right side of serious and replace it with a less troublesome ‘rough-knit’…
In the meantime, do you have any questions or tips on working with audio? Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Share in the comments!
Stop press! Once your audiobook is finished, you’ll need to market it. Joanna Penn has some great tips in this post.
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Have you ever filled in one of those questionnaires that’s supposed to tell you what your ideal job is? Whenever I did, I usually found them desperately disappointing – but then they probably weren’t meant to send people to precarious, impractical occupations like writing. Except that one day, I filled one in that did. And it did it with one excellently judged question: ‘do you value the strange’?
Not only did this prove there is only one job I’m really fit for, it also summed up what drives me to write.
Today I’ve been invited to Writer.ly, who asked me to describe how I develop my novel ideas. Expect a lot of head-scratching, thinking, running, shopping – and writing of notes that no one will ever see but me. Come on over… and tell me if you also value the strange …
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Do you want to release your title as an audiobook? If you live in the US, you can go through ACX, the DIY arm of Audible, but ACX wasn’t open to UK authors – until now. For the past month, I’ve had both my novels in production as a test pilot, and now I can tell you what I’ve learned so far about offering a title, choosing a narrator and working with them.
Good question. ACX is a network where narrators and producers can meet authors who want their work released as audiobooks. Once you’ve hooked up, you can then use the site as an interface to create the book, keep track of contracts and monitor sales. In short, it’s genius.
You know how tedious it is every time you set up an identity on a new site? All that form-filling and profile-making? ACX requires minimal faff. Once you tell them who you are and what book you’d like to offer, it pulls the detail off Amazon.
- opt to narrate and produce the audiobook yourself, but to do this you must have professional-quality equipment and experience of sound editing, or the book won’t pass the quality check.
- pluck a willing narrator/producer out of the ether – this is what I did.
Pitching your book
Next to your book info, you can add notes to make your book more attractive to collaborators – your platform, sales figures and anything else that will convince them you’re worth working with. Which brings me to…
Making an audiobook isn’t cheap. An average novel is about 10 hours of narration (roughly 90,000 words) and is likely to cost $200 or more per finished hour.
You have several options if you’re seeking a narrator/producer on ACX
- pay up front
- pay a royalty share (which I did)
All the ins and outs of this are much better explained on the ACX site, so check them out there.
Choose an audition passage
When I talked to the ACX crew, they told me many writers put up the first few pages as the audition piece. This can be a mistake, because the beginning may not be typical of the book’s action. I looked for a challenging scene with dramatic dialogue as well as the narrator’s internal thoughts, which I felt would test the reader’s approach more usefully.
I added notes about the context of the scene and the style of the book – and waited for auditions.
And lo, they rolled in. (This was in itself a wonderful surprise.) Once I got over the novelty, I realised I needed to tweak my presentation.
Accent – & mistake #1 – ACX lets you specify the age, style and accent of the reader. Age and style were easy enough to choose, but accent caused me more trouble. I assumed this had to be British as, obviously, I’m a Brit, my characters are Brits and I write with British language. However, ACX is predominantly US, so that vastly reduced the available talent pool. Some of the voice actors did very credible Brit accents. Some couldn’t pull it off and sounded Chinese or German. Others ignored my stipulation – quite wisely as it turned out they sounded just fine in their natural accents. So I quickly realised accent was a detail that didn’t matter, and edited my directions. Indeed the narrator I chose is American.
Another reason to choose an accent other than your own is if the majority of your readers are in another territory. I sell a lot in the US, so an American accent might make them feel more at home.
Accent isn’t the only deciding factor, though.
Suitability for the material – While the narrator might be able to do a good job with the audition scene, you have to be sure they’ll interpret the whole of your book in the right way. A Regency romance needs a completely different approach from literary fiction, and I can imagine it’s a nightmare to realise your narrator simply doesn’t ‘get’ your book. If you have a contender, poke around in their ACX profile and follow up any websites where they demonstrate other books they’ve narrated. Also, ask them what they like to read.
Acting versus reading & mistake #2 – some books benefit from a reader who will do a lot of gutsy acting, including distinct voices for the main characters. But for most fiction, that’s too much. They’re journeys in prose and need a more intimate, subtle treatment, which might even sound flat to some ears. Listeners know they’re being read to. They don’t need rollicking declamation – or music or sound effects. And a good reader can make it clear who’s talking without bursting into different voices, so you actually need less ‘acting’ than you might think.
I made another mistake here in my original guidance notes for the audition. I didn’t ask for different character voices, but I did explain the book had sections in a different tone – the female narrator, and the future incarnation who was a male version of her. Thankfully, before it went live a friend pointed out that this might cause a lot of horrible baritone overacting, and that I should simply let the text do the work.
Ultimately, you choose a narrator on a hunch that they fit your work. One author I spoke to at LBF said he knew when he’d found his because the guy sounded like the ideal voice he’d have chosen – but better. That’s how I found mine too – although it was by a more roundabout route.
And here is Sandy Spangler – my narrator!
I had a shortlist of possible voices, including seasoned Broadway actors, but there was one question I couldn’t answer. When I looked into their backgrounds, none of them had narrated a novel like mine, and I was worried they wouldn’t get it. Then I remembered a friend who I’d heard do narration work – on a computer game, of all things. At the time, I noticed how she had an insightful, feisty quality that reminded me of Laurie Anderson. Even better, I knew her reading tastes made her a good fit.
I contacted her. She didn’t know about ACX, but she was keen to give it a go, registered and sent me an audition. Her reading was just right – inhabiting the material with well-judged expression and I knew the book would suit her personality. If you’ve been a subscriber here for a while you might recognise her from some of the goofy photos I’ve used on my posts. But her voice absolutely suits my kind of fiction, and if yours is like mine you might like her too (here’s her ACX page).
Here’s how we’re working.
Pronunciation guide – All books have peculiar words and names and you need to warn your narrator of these. We set up an editable file on Google docs. As I said, Sandy’s American and I’m a Brit, so we had to decide whether she should pronounce words like ‘leisure’ and ‘z’ in the UK or US version. I decided we could fiddle endlessly with this so I asked her to do whatever was natural. If we tried to anglicise everything there would be certain words we’d miss, or the stresses would still be American. And I didn’t want to get in the way of her doing the most instinctive job. So she says tomayto while I say tomahto. No big deal.
Pace - one of the first tasks is to approve the first 15 minutes of the audiobook. Sandy was afraid I might think she was reading too slow, but I felt the text suited a measured pace. ACX actually advise that you err on the side of slow because listeners can artificially speed the reading up if they want.
Pauses – you need pauses between paragraphs, scene switches, and maybe in other sections too. We spent an email exchange identifying exactly the right kind of pause for each.
Listen to finished chapters – You need to set aside time to listen to chapters as your narrator uploads them to ACX. We have a schedule and a chart where we tick off chapters I’ve approved or asked for modifications (usually these are pronunciations or stresses). ACX gives you a time code so you can pinpoint exactly where an edit is needed.
Next time, I’ll delve into the narrator’s side, including what exactly is involved in creating an audio book.
In the meantime, tell me: have you made an audiobook? Are you tempted to? Have you any tips to offer or questions to ask? Share in the comments!
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Self-publishing answers: from writing to finding your readers – podcast with Nick Thacker September 14, 2014
- How to publish ebooks – the beginner’s ultimate guide September 11, 2014
- ‘Hacking to music’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Ian Sutherland September 10, 2014
- Kill me now – what do I do about a negative review? September 7, 2014
- ‘Music is a ritual of invocation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Alice Degan September 3, 2014
- Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire August 31, 2014
- ‘The power of music and friendship’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Connolly August 27, 2014
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