‘Music is as crucial as the ramblings in my notebook app’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andrew Lowe

My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Suspense: storytelling’s big tease – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

I’m at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s blog today with a post about how to use suspense. I think I first mentioned it on this blog a few weeks ago, but actually I got the date wrong, so you might have been waiting a while for this.

Which is exactly how suspense works, of course. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Bargain! Don’t forget there’s a special offer on Nail Your Novel – Amazon have chosen it for a Book Of The Month deal, so the Kindle edition is just USD$1.99.

Bargain! again! – Read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.

Now, hie yourself over to the suspense department to read the post. I see you shiver with antici…

…pation.

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‘Dance gave me the rhythm of my novel’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Claire Scobie

My guest this week might be familiar to you. I  featured Claire Scobie a few months ago in a story about crowdfunding, when she was campaigning on Unbound to get her novel The Pagoda Tree published. I’m thrilled to say she hit her targets, and I went to the launch a few weeks ago in the very beautiful Daunt’s Bookshop in Marylebone. While her supporters chatted under its high glass roof, a violinist sat in the gallery and played sweeping, sultry traditional Indian music – the kind of music the novel’s protagonist would have heard as part of her daily life. Needless to say, it’s the kind of music Claire listened to as she wrote the story, about a temple dancer in Tamil Nadu in the 18th century. But Claire’s Undercover Soundtrack also includes some unexpected modern touches from James Blunt and Adele. Anyway, do drop by the Red Blog for her post.

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Fictional characters – a lesson from Seinfeld

Dave has recently been developing a sitcom, which has led to interesting conversations about the characteristics of the form. To get a feel for it, we have been watching Seinfeld – and especially the season where they write a TV show ‘about nothing’.

At the risk of sounding precious, this phrase ‘A show about nothing’ seems to be the key to the entire sitcom form. Not just Seinfeld, but sitcoms generally. And more widely – which is why I’m bothering you with it here – I think some of its principles could be used to make all fictional characters a little more lifelike.

So – in a sitcom we generally watch characters in everyday life, doing their thing. There aren’t any big changes in the status quo (and if there are any coming in Seinfeld, please don’t tell me as we’re only on Season 4). The pleasure and entertainment comes from watching the characters deal with endless small stories and challenges, which are mainly caused by their personalities. (Yes, even in Red Dwarf.) It’s essential that the characters become pretty exasperated with each other, but only up to a point – no matter what happens, they continue to rub along together.

The mad neighbour Kramer isn’t going to move to a different block (or if he is, he’ll be back by the end of the episode). George louses up the TV deal with NBC with some agonisingly inept negotiating, but Jerry continues to work and hang out with him.

Equilibrium of irritation

In Seinfeld, as in most sitcoms, an abiding principle is that life goes on, relationships go on (think of the 1970s BBC sitcoms like The Good Life). Sitcoms are about people being themselves and accommodating each other in an equilibrium of irritation.

Of course, certain characteristics are exaggerated for comedy, but even so, the sitcom is very true to life, and it struck me that we can use the ‘equilibrium of irritation’ to add richness to characters in a story that has a bigger dramatic arc.

Obviously your main characters will go through a big change, but there will be other aspects of life in the story that don’t. These are sometimes underdeveloped – usually because we’ve been looking at the big picture. But instead, they could cause strife that is colourful, charming, exasperating and human. This could give plausible complexity to characters, and depth to the ordinary grift of their lives.

Again, Seinfeld is deliberately amplified for comedy – the neighbour is madder than most neighbours the rest of us have. George is a walking disaster. Seinfeld world isn’t intended to be 100% realistic. But there’s one aspect that I find very realistic – the way the characters rub along day to day.

The magazine episode

Here’s an example. On a magazine I worked on, I had a boss who I’ll call Jim. Jim was often alarmed at my zeal for rewriting articles to make them zap. He warned me gently that if I did that, the reporters might become slapdash because they knew I’d do a final polish.

I’d get in a huff, saying ‘I can’t leave the article in that state – look at all that dull repetition’.

Jim would say: ‘Just skim it to check it’s usable. We have a 120-page issue to get out, we don’t have time for fine editing and we need to leave the writing to the reporters’.

Fuming cloud over Roz’s head.

Jim’s other sub-editor, who I’ll call Wendy, had worked there for 10 years, knew all the routines, and worked according to Jim’s system. She skimmed the copy for obvious bloopers but didn’t wield the scalpel. But Wendy sometimes missed important mistakes and indeed Jim would often be exasperated at this.

And here we have the Sitcom of Jim. Life would never run smoothly. It had these two opposite characters, who created low-level strife on a weekly basis, and who he probably beefed about to his friends –  Roz who was going to upset the system and make the well-trained reporters think they could hand in rougher copy. And Wendy who knew all the systems but was slow and unreliable. And Jim just had to get along with us as well as he could.

The Sitcom of Jim had no arc or end. It was a set of personalities and values that aligned in some ways and clashed in others, and was utterly intrinsic to who we were.

The Sitcom of You

Life is full of dynamics like this, with families, friends, colleagues… All these people in our lives need certain amounts of circumvention and handling. There’s the close friend you can’t tell about your work troubles because they’ll simply tell you to get a different job. There are the old friends who can’t be invited to dinner with certain others because they irritate the bejesus out of them, or have politically incompatible views even though you love them dearly, or whose dietary preferences are too bizarrely restrictive to inflict on anyone else. (I note there’s a Seinfeld episode called The Dinner Party but I haven’t seen it yet – no spoilers, please.)

We are all playing the balancing acts of sitcoms in many areas of our lives, and these relationships will keep ticking along in the same constant way. This push-pull accommodation is the stuff of life. And in books, it’s often missing, especially with supporting characters – and so relationships might read as bland and undercooked.

The truth

Of course, you have to tailor this kind of material to fit with the tone. I’m not suggesting you add comedy willy-nilly, or deluge the reader with distracting trivialities. You may only need a very small amount of this kind of material. Indeed you might just keep it as developmental notes that let you write the characters with more knowledge, and keep it 90% under cover. Adjust to taste and the needs of your genre.

But this kind of material can create characters that live and breathe on their own, with independent life – instead of plot zombies.

And you never know – as with all developmental work, the sitcom jottings might blossom into something significant.

Thanks for the Seinfeld apartment pic Tony Hoffarth on Flickr

There’s a lot more about character development in the Nail Your Novel characters book.

And you might also like to know that Amazon has chosen the original Nail Your Novel for a special promotion. The Kindle edition is just USD1.99 right now. I’m not sure how long the promotion will last for as it’s controlled by them – so grab a copy now!

 

 

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‘Some of the best lyrical storytelling I’ve ever heard’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Victoria Dougherty

Pull on your boots. My guest this week had a radical change in music taste when she reached her 30s, and she hopes to convert you too – unless you’re already a fan of country. It started when she moved out of Chicago and found that the sensibilities of country singers were more in tune with her new environment. Not only that, she realised they were wry, witty storytellers, writing about characters complex enough to satisfy any novelist. Soon they were guiding the way her stories developed. So come to the Red Blog and join a twangly, poignant chorus of Dolly Parton, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, all on the Undercover Soundtrack of Victoria Dougherty.

 

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Two reasons to use your official author name on Twitter

Are you using Twitter to build your online presence? If so, what’s your handle? Is it your author name or a readily recognisable variant? If it’s not, you could be wasting your time.

I love Twitter. For discovering lovely distractions, uniting in the face of shocking news, tripping over quips that restore faith in the human spirit – and, in a professional capacity, for networking. I’ve had numerous good opportunities that started with a humble tweet. And when I meet a writer I might get on with, I naturally seek them out on Twitter.

But sometimes that’s not straightforward. Eventually after a bit of a hunt and a beakful of guesswork I might track them down and discover they have a name that’s many species away from the name they write under.

Forgive my blue-faced cheek, but this seems to be a mistake.

1 It makes you hard to find

On Twitter, you really want to be found. That’s how the Twitter world revolves. Somebody shares your blogposts, or talks about your work. They use your name, which brings others to you.

So you want to make sure that any stranger could find the ‘right you’. And thus you can be introduced to a new and eager flock. This is incredibly powerful – unlike other social networks, you don’t have to already be friends with a person to start tweeting to them.

It’s as easy as calling their name.

Here’s how it goes. I’ll look up Jane Austen and find @JaneAusten – but she’s an estate agent, unlikely to be my author. I ‘ll look down the list at the other users whose real names are all Jane Austen. Which one is mine?

I squint at the avatars and the biographies. If I’m lucky she might be @AuthorJaneAusten or @JaneAustenAuthor, in which case, all is good. But she might be @Bonnetgirl5, or @InventorofElizabeth. Or @WriterInFarthingaleLane.

Finding her handle has now proved quite the expedition – which is not ideal in our attention-deficit world, and especially not in the 140-character-squeezed bird-brain world of Twitter. If I’m on a slow connection, or using a fiddly device that won’t tolerate a lot of searching and footling, I might not persevere any further because Jane Austen has made it too hard.

2 The much more important reason to use your name

You know how comedians traditionally sign off a set with their name? ‘Thanks for being a great audience, I’m Joe Bloggs.’ It’s the last thing they do before they leave the stage – make sure you remember their name.

They’re not going to trust that you’ll look in the programme, or the sign outside the pub, or that you’ll remember how they introduced themselves at the start. Their last task before they leave you for the night is to TEACH YOU THEIR NAME.

This is one of the reasons you’re putting yourself about on social media, talking to strangers. To teach them you exist. To teach them your name as it appears on your book covers.

So why teach them @WordHoarder, @PagesBeforeBreakfastAtHelens, or @ToastAt10am? You may laugh, but these are name-forms that I see used by otherwise respectable authors on Twitter. Every day.

So can you change your Twitter name?

Yes, it’s easy. Just open your profile, type the new name in and see if you’re allowed to take it. Start at your profile page and look for your icon at the top. Hover over it and you’ll see ‘Profile and settings’ appear. Then look for ‘account’.

 

What if your name is taken? Yep, I have that problem. Read on.

Can’t use your actual name? Good solutions and not-so-good

Here are some of the tactics authors use to convert their name for Twitter.

By far the easiest thing to do is to put an underline in the middle. It’s as close to your real name as possible and doesn’t eat up many extra characters. That’s why I’m @Roz_Morris. Out there on the wires there’s another @RozMorris – who is actually rather quiet, but that’s another story.

Underlines in other places – beginning or end, or a double underline in the middle – are trickier for users to spot. A double-underline is hard to type reliably on some devices. If the underline option is already taken, you might be better adding something that makes it clear you’re the writer Jane Austen, not the vet or whatever. You could also preface with ‘author’ – @AuthorJaneAusten. Or put it afterwards @JaneAustenAuthor.

Initials – if you use initials I think you’re becoming harder to remember, but @AuthorJAusten at least looks professional. However, an initial is straying away from the name on the book cover (is she Jane, Jean or Josephine?). @JaneRRAusten gets both elements of the name in, but might be tricky to pick out from search results and autofills, or difficult to remember if typing from memory.

(Scenario: ‘oh darn, she’s JaneRR, not Jane like she is everywhere else – I always forget that’.)

Reverse your names@AustenJane – Just my personal opinion, but I find this is easier to recognise at a glance, and have no problem remembering it the proper way round. Maybe that’s just the way my brain works. Your grey matter may differ. But – another point in favour of this format – Hootsuite seems to include swapped names in search results quite readily.

Numbers – you could add a discreet number – @JaneAusten1. Again, this is a personal view, but I find this to be a good solution that doesn’t interfere with the readability or memorability of the name, and it doesn’t cause search problems.

Character names or book titles – I don’t think this is such a good idea. Certainly it’s useful for people to know your books. But social media are about people, not products. Readers would rather connect with a person, not a figment, although @MrDarcy would probably be a notable exception, especially if tweeted from @RealJaneAusten’s brain.

(That’s another option if you have the chops for it: Real. Or Himself.). Back to book or character names, think long term – do you want to build a presence for one work when you might one day something completely different? For instance, if, like me, you swerve into a completely different bookwriting lane with a travel diary (which is coming along quite nicely, now you ask). But build your platform in your name, and you can use it for anything.

Abbreviations@JaneAstn. The other day I came across an author who dropped some characters from her name to make a Twitter handle. It was infernally difficult to find her. What’s more, the result was so unintuitive that I kept mistyping – had she dropped the second r, or the vowels ….?

The abbreviations were probably logical, but people in the rush of Twitter don’t have time to learn the rules you used to create your name. Copying letter by letter is laborious and squinty. And anything that creates an obstacle might be enough to make a person lose heart in trying to contact you. Although Twitter and Hootsuite has an autofill option, you only have to misremember the contracted version to be tweeting the wrong person.

Cutesy or oblique versions of your name or anything that makes sense only to people who know you or your books – these are the most difficult of all. They’re fine if you only want to be found by your personal friends – and that’s how some people use Twitter. But it’s not ideal if you want to be visible to the wider public.

Once again: it’s easy to change your name! Red-faced relief…

And yes, I’ve flirted with less suitable Twitter names. For a while I was @NailYourNovel, because I was dividing my teaching side from my fiction-writing side. For my fiction I had a separate account, @ByRozMorrismore here about that, and why I stopped it).

My first Twitter name, though, was the epitome of unsuitable, and if you’ve been with me for a long time you can enjoy an in-jokish kind of chuckle. We live and learn.
Other tips to help good Twitizens

Anyone who mentions you on Twitter is doing you a favour. Help them to help you.

  • Make sure your description includes as much identifiable stuff about your writing as possible, not just who you read or how you take your tea. Make it absolutely obvious – if you put ‘changing the world, one word at a time’ people might think you’re just a sweet teenager, not an author.
  • Use a consistent headshot so that people who know you from your blog or Facebook recognise you instantly on the list of possibles.
  • Put your Twitter handle prominently on your blog and in the byline of your blogposts – change it in your blog settings). Like this:

But most of all, make us remember your name.

Thanks for the peacock pic Jamain. And in case you’re curious about Not Quite Lost, you can now get a sneak peek on Pinterest.

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Searching for places, emotions and characters – The Undercover Soundtrack, Gwendolyn Womack

My guest this week is another returner to the series. When she posted about her first novel, her preoccupations included memory and time, and they return again in this new work – a romantic thriller based around the twined stories of an ancient memoir and the world’s first Tarot cards. Music was key to creating these different lands and lives and her mental soundscape includes a tour through ancient Egypt, Milan in the 1400s and the modern seers Dead Can Dance. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Everyday chaos. Just another day in the genesis of a book

I had been intending to bring you a craft post this week as I’ve written a guide to suspense for Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s Writers Helping Writers blog. But I mistook the date because I’ve been immersed in my current book, but it should come out in the next few days.

Speaking of which, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is maturing nicely, which means we’ve reached the stage of gentle, hair-tearing chaos. I thought I’d share it with you, in case you’re going through book production chaos too, or to prepare you in case, at some point in the future, you strike an iceberg. And to reassure you that if everyone keeps their heads, it comes out right in the end.

At the moment, I have chaos in two departments. The inside of the book and the outside.

Inside

I’ve put the text through a thorough developmental thrashing, had scourging feedback from Dave, and sent it to two trusted readers, who are seeing it for the first time.

You could not receive two more different sets of responses. They both think it’s 90% fine, but their suggestions for tweaks show that they had radically different ideas of what the book would be. Expand the vignettes, said one. I love the vignettes, said the other. Add more of this element to fortify the climax, said one. Add more humour, said the other.

The bottom line: something is slightly off, and I have to figure out which set of comments is most in tune with my vision for the book.

Outside

Cover design is under way. I had an initial concept, got favourable feedback, changed my mind, got another concept, got favourable feedback about that, and also now conflicting feedback. (I’m not going to reveal the options here until I’m further along because it’s easy to contaminate a jury … and I might need you guys for a mass vote later!)

Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve got my foot on both the brake and the accelerator at the same time and have to figure out which one to choose. And I’m not a mite frustrated. It’s always the way that the things you thought would be easy are difficult, and the things you thought would be difficult are easy.

But I have to remind myself of this when a comment gives me headaches: everyone involved cares about this book. They have its best interests at heart. And I am lucky to have them.

More chaos

But wait, I also have chaos in a third department: publicity and marketing. I saw a post this week from Jane Friedman that said: ‘Don’t publish your diaries. You’re not Sedaris.’ Later, it reiterated: ‘Don’t publish essay collections or vignettes. You’re NOT SEDARIS.’

Why this prohibition? Because unless you’re a Person Of Significance, diaries, vignettes etc are impossible to sell. Jane’s advice is commercially sound (and is aimed at writers who are seeking traditional deals).

I already knew diaries etc are hard to sell, which is why I recently embarked on an important task – to find comparison titles.

Which brings me to chaos #3. I can’t find any comparison titles.

Book marketing folk say that there’s no such thing as a book that doesn’t have comparison titles, but so far I haven’t found one that’s a close enough fit, and I have gone cross-eyed browsing the stacks of LibraryThing, Goodreads and Amazon. I don’t think for one nanosecond that that I’ve invented a genre, but I’m feeling, rather like the title of the book, lost.

What did my critiquers say? Um, it’s not really like anything.

Big help.

But I do understand the market a lot better now. And I know what the book is not. It’s not unified by fashionable issues or whacky modes of travel (bicycle, barge, battered camper van). There are no backpacks. The territories aren’t exotic (jungles, tiny forgotten railway stations). It doesn’t contain wisdom for others, or a journalistic hook (conspiracy theorists, scandalous confessions). It’s not a book about moving to a country where lemons grow, or dragging a fridge there.

It’s quieter.

That in itself is surprising. In my fiction, I like the extravagant concept. But those stories are also knitted from quieter yarn, and that’s what Not Quite Lost is  – the kinds of people I’m curious about, what amuses me or appeals to my sense of whimsy, the scent of the mysterious in an ordinary place. While my novels are the bold performances with proscenium and drama, these are the small details. The props. The originals of the characters and places.

Not Quite Lost is like an artist’s sketchpad. An album of songs. In fact, I find those to be easier comparisons because its most distinctive qualities are not so much its content, but its style – things that are hard to translate into algorithms and categories.

I will continue to search for comparison titles. But in the meantime, if you can suggest any I’d be grateful.

Chaos is the rule

Just last week I went to the launch of The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (you saw her on this blog a few months ago when she was raising funds via Unbound ). Before the launch she confessed to some behind-the-scenes hair-tearing, when some of the book’s files got corrupted, erasing several rounds of refinements and corrections, which meant everybody had to start proof-reading again from scratch, and get it finished in no time whatsoever.

It happens, but we come through in the end.

Thanks for the swan pic USFWS Mountain Prairie on flickr

Are you going through book production chaos? Have you been through it in the past? Let’s swap war stories.

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‘A language to explain feeling and atmosphere’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Libby O’Loghlin

My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. They’re on the Red Blog with their Undercover Soundtrack.

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Kind ways to deal with damaged POD books – guest post at Alliance of Independent Authors

Any kind of merchant has to deal with damaged stock from time to time, but authors are usually shielded from this inevitable part of bookish life. Unless you self-publish, in which case you might be faced with this.

No, that wasn’t how the books arrived. They came to me slightly damaged, but in order to claim replacements, I … (deep breath) …. had to rip the covers off!

I confessed my distress on Facebook, and soon a crowd of authors were offering commiserations and creative uses for the dead books, so Debbie Young of the Alliance of Independent Authors asked me to write a proper post on the subject. Do come over, but be warned, it’s not for persons of a sensitive disposition. For instance, my English teacher from school, who would hyperventilate if she saw a crease in a book’s spine.

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