Hit the ground running with your first pages – 5 book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at Litopia
Phew, this blog has been busy this week! Last Sunday I was the guest of Litopia, an online writers’ colony and community. Every week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five submissions are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox and a guest. This week, that guest was me!
The genres can be absolutely anything, so I found myself assessing a young adult fantasy, an urban American thriller, a travel memoir, an Irish literary character piece (aka ‘upmarket fiction’) and a humorous fantasy crime. We picked out issues such as where to put back story, establishing the tone with the writing style and the choice of events, trying to make a character too likeable… and lots more. It was a fun challenge, and also fascinating to see Peter’s commercial instincts in action. While I concentrated on elements craft, he was asking: ‘Are there too many of this kind of book already? How do you stand out in today’s market? Or is it right on trend?’
We had some technical difficulties, so for some reason the video is a whopping two hours long, even though the show was only one hour. I’ve set it up to start when we actually start talking…
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
Finished Nanowrimo? 5 ways to use the holidays to keep your new writing habits… without revising too early
You aced Nanowrimo.
You have a satisfying file of fifty-k words, itching for further attention.
Your creative mojo is in motion. You got a writing habit, and you’re loath to let it slide.
And holiday times are coming when you might find the odd hour to sneak off, keep your hand in.
It’s too soon to revise the manuscript. You don’t have enough critical distance. So keep it locked away and do these things instead.
1 Fill your research holes
As you wrote, you probably found gaps that needed more research.
Locations you need to flesh out with visuals, smells, sounds, practical details. Is that tourist attraction open in February? Did people in Georgian England clean their teeth? Also seek details beyond the literal – to resonate with your themes or the inner lives of your viewpoint characters.
First drafts are often rough about details of characters’ lives. You might add surprising richness if you look at their professions or think about their daily routines. (For professions, I heartily recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Occupation Thesaurus.)
2 MOT your title
Did you have a title? If you didn’t, start brainstorming. If you did have a title, is it still the best title?
3 Find comparison titles
At some point, you’ll need to identify which books are the closest to yours, which will be infinitely useful for introducing the book to the wide world. Literary agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, everyone needs to know what other books your book is like.
This is relatively easy if you’re writing in a genre or well defined tradition, but if you’re not, be tangential. Consider:
- human situations
- historical or geographical settings
- the nature of the story’s resolution
- the writing style
- the tone.
And … find unexpected comparisons
Just for kicks, take an aspect of your book and find a treatment of it that’s as different as possible from your own. Might it give you fresh and surprising ideas?
4 Write a summary from memory
This will do you good in many fab ways. You’ll need a summary when the book is eventually ready to meet the world. Writing this summary is a major undertaking (see here for how long it took me to write a summary of My Memories of a Future Life – the post is titled ‘I feared I’d never get the blurb finished in time for the launch’). Even if your revisions of the novel change a lot, it’s easier to update an existing summary than to write one from scratch under pressure. So start writing it early, when you have this downtime.
And do it from memory! Why? Two reasons – to stop you opening that text file and fiddling too soon. Also, the summary is in itself a reflective process of revision. When you tell the story to a new blank page, off the cuff, you’ll see anew how everything fits together. Or how it could with a tweak or several. You might see some completely new directions as well.
5 Or … divert your attention completely by starting another project!
But no peeking until January. Or even later.
Psst… My Nail Your Novel workbook has loads more activities for using this writing rest productively.
What your readers will never notice… a small point about reader belief and story logic (with a little help from Terrance Dicks, Rod Hull and Nina Conti)
In our house, we have a catchphrase: ‘Nobody will notice, Jon.’
We adopted it from Terrance Dicks, script editor of our favourite era of Doctor Who. He said it while discussing a cheeky plot bamboozle in The Sea Devils, for which I have great affection (excepting the cheeky plot bamboozle). During filming, it seems that Jon Pertwee (Who Himself) had concerns and Dicks reports the following conversation:
Pertwee: ‘But Terrance, how could the Master hypnotise the nurse, switch outfits with him and tie him up… all in 30 seconds?’
Dicks (valiant in the face of a scorching deadline): ‘Don’t worry, Jon. Nobody will notice.’
We did notice, and Pertwee noticed, and probably all of Whovania noticed. It’s now a house phrase, chez Morris.
What the reader will never notice
There are some things readers will never notice. Suppose your character has to take a train to Birmingham. Do you have to explain the minutiae? Do you have to prepare a description of slogging to the station with a wheelie bag that keeps capsizing, watching the fields pass with the roar and rat-tat of the wheels, find words to describe that precise train smell? Certainly you do if that scene contains anything that’s important. But if it doesn’t, the reader will never notice they weren’t on the train with the character. Just write ‘she took the train to Birmingham’.
But they will notice this
But here’s a thing they will notice. If you sneak a plot impossibility past them, or a character inconsistency… You might manage to conceal it at the time, especially if you distract the audience, perhaps with humour, or you cover it in the general mayhem of a fast-paced finale. They might not see it immediately (or they might). But at some point they’ll think…. ‘hang on… that just doesn’t make sense.’
Emu and Monk
Storytelling requires us to suspend disbelief. We will do it readily and eagerly, if all is aligned. We’ll even believe something as obviously artificial as Rod Hull and his puppet Emu – we may not like it, but we are in no doubt that Rod is truly worried about what Emu might do, even though it’s obvious that Emu is a giant glove on Rod’s arm. That’s the spell of characterisation.
Continuing with ventriloquism (don’t try saying that fast), Nina Conti readily breaks the fourth wall. Her dummies tell us she has her hand up their bottom, they grumble about the voices she gives them. It glories in artifice, but something makes us believe in it as a singular mad world of its own. Though it’s daft and not-real, it has a kind of logic. Consistency.
That logic – and consistency – is important. Every story has logic: it’s one of the agreements made with the audience.
Logic and consistency – of fact and emotion – make the reader comfortable to commit to our creation, to put their minds in our hands. The reader knows it’s all made up, every character, every word of dialogue, every action taken, every mark on the page. We have to teach them our story’s logic and then play fair by it. We can make them believe anything if we set it up (see my post about plot holes and endings).
If we break the agreement, for instance like the madly impossible Sea Devils reveal, I’m afraid they will notice, very much. Jon was right, Terrance. But bless you anyway. This was the first book I ever bought with my pocket money. It’s still on my shelves.
Stop sign pic by Alexander Kovalyov on Pexels
There’s loads more about plot and logic in my plot book!
Also, I’m honoured that this blog has been selected by the freelance marketplace Reedsy as one of their best writing websites.
And if you’re curious about the mischief I’ve been making in my own writing life, step this way.
Where would you most like to go? Underground, overground, back in time, out of this world? I’ll have all of them, please. (That’s the mysterious Down St Tube station in the picture, abandoned and dark since 1932.)
Book blogger Davida Chazan (who you might remember was incredibly nice about Not Quite Lost) has devised this quirky questionnaire for authors she’s reviewed and today it’s my turn. As well as preposterous travel, expect brightest of times, darkest of times. and a book I wish I’d written. She’s also known as The Chocolate Lady, so one of her questions is, of course, answered by this.
And if you’re curious to know more about my weird and wonderful, here’s my latest newsletter.
Do you outline a novel before you write it or do you dive straight in? That’s the source of one of the great divides between writers, the ‘planners’ v the ‘pantsers’. To complicate matters, some pantsers are actually not as fancy-free as they appear.
And you might ask what counts as an outline. Is there a bare minimum an outline needs to do? Will an outline squash the creativity? Could you outline in a fresh way to give yourself more scope to be inventive? Does your outline even have to be in words? (Interpretive dancers, this is your chance to shine…’ I’m only half joking….)
Today I’m at the IngramSpark blog, because they asked me to talk about all the various and creative ways we can create outlines for our stories. There’s something for everyone. Do come over. There’s also a lot in my workbook, BTW.
And if you’re curious about what’s been going on in my own writerly lab, here’s the latest.