Some novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)
With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.
1 Conduct a research interview
A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.
2 The like/don’t-like list
Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.
(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)
As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.
3 Write a synopsis
This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.
Psst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel
Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0
Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.
This week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.
It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.
What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:
- Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
- Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?
I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.
Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.
What about the sanctity of the byline?
In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.
Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.
Books are rarely solo projects
Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.
A quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.
In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)
Art v commerce
Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).
Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me) and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.
Books are not just books
And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.
Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?
I’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.
Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business
But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial. Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.
This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.
‘Let’s not lose the writer’
In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’
Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.
Matt Haig also said:
‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’
I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).
I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.
It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.
That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.
Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr
And, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.
My guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.
When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.
1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity
When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)
2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader
Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.
3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans
You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.
4 Show not tell
Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.
5 Decide what you want to emphasise
Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.
6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age
You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.
7 Home isn’t just a geographical location
It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.
8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character
A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.
9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene
Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.
10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone
Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.
Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?
If you’re exploring characters for your story, this exercise might help. Triskele Books is holding a creative writing summer school and I’ve contributed this snippet to uncover interesting tensions that make a scene sizzle. And once you’re there, you’ll find several other storybending assignments from seasoned fictioneers. Step this way.
Some of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)
And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…
‘Music brought me closer to that amalgum of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Goodwin
My guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on the Red Blog to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.
Have you ever had this type of comment in feedback?
‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’
If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.
What might that mean and how might it be useful?
First, an interpretation.
The writer phase
This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?
In the reader phase, that is your quest.
Again, how might it be useful?
You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.
So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.
Mindset for writer phase
Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.
Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.
Mindset for reader phase
Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.
Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.
This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-
- You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
- The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.
This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.
The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey
Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.
Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade
Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?