‘Things fall apart … hearts rip open’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Caroline Leavitt

My guest this week has earned plenty of praise for her first two novels and I’m thrilled to have her here as she launches her third. Her post is a thoughtful, intense journey through the backstage emotions of creating a book. The novel is set in 1969 and 1970, but interestingly she didn’t listen to the hits of the time. Instead she chose tracks that let the characters tell her what experiences they were living – a rich mix of The Smiths, The Beatles, Crowded House and Amy Winehouse. The book’s title – Cruel Beautiful World – dropped out of a lyric one day. She is NYT bestselling author Caroline Leavitt and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

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‘Choices, mistakes, consequences and childhood’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Leonora Meriel

When I invited my latest guest to the Undercover Soundtrack, she told me we’d met before, IRL. At a writing conference, she’d asked my advice about working with editors. A few years on and she has a novel with a very respectable endorsement from Esther Freud and Kirkus reviews, so it seems everything went well. The novel is the story of three generations of women in a village in the Ukraine, and she developed a playlist of music that would create the rich landscape of place and emotion she hoped to put on the page. Some of the music also gave her a mindset – the patience and purpose to refine every word, which was probably where she was when we met at the writing conference. I’m so chuffed to see her persistence paid off and to introduce her properly here. She is Leonora Meriel and you can read her Undercover Soundtrack on the Red Blog.

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On publishing another book when there are already so many

Didn’t I say in January that I had a book I would write quickly? A book based on my travel diaries. A book that should have required a quick spit and polish, then out of the nest it would go.

But no, the months have passed, and if you followed my newsletter you’ll have seen the progress through rough edits, reconcepting, purge of darlings, second purge of darlings, beta reader 1, beta reader 2, reader 3, reader 4, final polish, snapshots of typesetting on Facebook and final sigh of relief.

January to July: seven months to take a book from personal notes to publicly presentable. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but still quite fast by my usual standards.

I haven’t been doing it full time, of course. My usual freelance editing gigs have snowballed, and sometimes I’ve been fighting to protect a few hours for my book. Equally, it’s benefited from being consigned to the basement, cogitating. If I’d had an uninterrupted run, it wouldn’t be the book it is.

Finding a destination

‘Finding a destination’ is generally the biggest challenge of the bookwriting process for me. It’s what takes literary writers so long (which I posted about here).

It also doesn’t seem confined to writing, by any means. I recently stumbled across these lines in an obituary published in The Economist of the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani:

By her own account, she was “slow” …. she teased out solutions by doodling for hours on vast sheets of paper … the point, she said, was not to write down all the details, but to stay connected to the problem. She likened mathematical enquiry to being lost in a forest, gathering knowledge, to come up with some new tricks, until you suddenly reach a hilltop and see everything clearly.’

I’m a card-carrying slowcoach, and I see this same struggle in the Facebook feeds of writer friends. It’s the hell of book writing, and also, eventually the heaven. You did it. You persevered, you made a substantial something out of fat nothing; just a notion that took your fancy or kept you fretting. The fact that it took so long is, in the end, part of the triumph. You persevered with a possibility that no one else saw, shaped it in a way that no one else would. Finally, a stranger can take your trip and say ‘I never went there before’.

Plankton

So far, so personally rewarding. But we stumble over the finish line and into an immovable fact. This cherished, nurtured, shiny new book is a speck in a sea of plankton. There are not enough eyes to read all the books that are published. It’s the best of times to be a writer and the worst of times to try to make a living at it, or run a publishing company. The Guardian recently published this piece with a bleak view, which we can boil down to this: barring a miracle, hardly anybody will buy it.

So does the world need my new book?

We have so many already. Good books; great books. The human condition doesn’t change.

Certainly it doesn’t, and Chaucer still resonates now. I’ll read a book from the 1950s as readily as the 2000teens. Dave keeps urging me to read New Grub Street by George Gissing, which was published in 1891 and nails the creative industries exactly as they are today. But sometimes we want the company of contemporary minds. People might not change, but the world will always do things that are, for better or worse, unpresidented.

Even if your work is not tackling current issues, it still comes through contemporary sensibilities. Although authors primarily write for their own reasons – personal fulfilment, making a living – the world does still need them.

The duty we have now is to publish only what deserves to be. To use a reader’s time wisely and responsibly.

Still, why write?

But selling books can be so soul-shrivelling, particularly today. So why do we still write more? We do it because the long process of conversation with an idea, like Maryam the mathematician, is intrinsic to those who are creative. Even though it’s often agony to face a blank page. The writer in the Guardian goes back into her cycle, the way we all do – not knowing if she has the goods to do it again.

The selfish gene?

Is that primarily a selfish process? It must seem so. But at the least, it must make us wiser people. To understand our own themes forces us to see them from more sides than just our own. We might delve a long way in research to write a situation truthfully. To create a character who isn’t a stereotype, we might have to admire their flaws or be critical of their virtues. Our invented people teach us tolerance and generosity.

Even my travel tales – which were not invented –  had to be revisited with a more critical eye.

And so, for better or for worse, I have a new book. Because that is what I do.

Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction will be available on preorder soon -watch this space.

Still time to grab this bargain! You have until the end of July to grab 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! – Last chance to read my novels FREE and choose from hundreds more titles on subscription service Bookmate – exclusive code at this link.

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‘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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