‘The distraction of silence’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Louise Marley

for logoThis week’s guest discovered by accident how music could be such a useful a creative partner. She found that whenever she got stuck on a scene or a character, the most distracting thing would be the silence around her. She began playing music purely so she wouldn’t hear it – and magical things started to happen. The novel she’s talking about in her post is a romantic suspense with a whiff of murder, and her first book was a finalist in the Poolbeg Write A Bestseller competition. She also writes short stories for the UK women’s magazines Take a Break and My Weekly. She is Louise Marley and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Indie authors: are you making these mistakes with your print books? How to look professional on the page

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Contents pages can go very wrong. See below

This Friday, around 50 indie authors (including yours truly) will gather in Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road to showcase their books as part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival. We’ll see some swish productions from experienced selfpublishers – but not all indie paperbacks look quite so slick.

Peter Snell, my bookseller friend and co-host of So You Want To Be A Writer at Surrey Hills Radio, is a staunch supporter of indie authors – but he often shows me paperbacks with rookie mistakes that scream ‘amateur’. So here’s our checklist of goofs and gaffes – and how to make sure your book passes muster.

Front matter
Some indie books launch straight into the text, which looks rather underdressed. Why?

Look at the opening pages of any print book and you’ll see the following:

  • a half-title page – this shows the title on its own, or the title and author name in the text font, or a brief (one-paragraph) introduction to the author and the book
  • a copyright page
  • a full title, maybe echoing the cover typography, with author name and the publisher imprint
    a page that lists other works by the author
  • contents page
  • start of text
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Half-title page of Lifeform Three, showing a teaser for the novel’s content and a reviewer’s reaction. This is the first page the reader sees, so a good position for endorsements and a tantalising summary.

You might also have a dedication page before the text starts or a foreword (which is an introduction not written by the author).

On the other hand, some indie books dither around too much before the text, with pages of acknowledgements and biographical material.
The reader wants to get on with the book. So front matter should be concise and useful – eg contents pages, of which more in a minute. Contents pages go very wrong.

Right or left?
Certain pages have to be on the right, others on the left. Here’s that order again:

  • half-title – right
  • copyright page – left
  • full title – right
  • other works, dedication etc – left
  • contents – right
  • start of text – right

Yes, that’s two rights. If necessary, insert a blank page so that the text starts on the right. After chapter 1, though, you can start new chapters on a left. You’d have to go through mad contortions otherwise. But if your book is divided into sections (like My Memories of a Future Life) you want those to start on a right.

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A well-designed and useful contents page

Contents pages
You don’t usually need a contents page in a novel. Does the reader need to know that chapter 11 starts on page 49? I draw your attention to Exhibit A at the start of this post.

If your chapters have titles of their own, you might list them to wet the reader’s appetite. But it’s not compulsory, and novels, memoir and narrative non-fiction don’t usually need contents pages.

Instructional and reference non-fiction, on the other hand, definitely needs a list of contents. Here’s an example of one that is helpful to the reader and also a good appetiser for the book. (It’s Reports from Coastal Stations by Geoff Saunders.)

Who’s the author?
Some indie books fail to give any information about the author. Readers like this context – who the author is, where they live, how many books they’ve written. If the book is set in a special world (eg the circus), this is where you reveal you were the offspring of trapeze artists before you ran away to study accountancy. If you’re writing non-fiction, readers need to know why you have the temerity to bother them with your opinions.

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Biographical details on the back cover of Lifeform Three

You might put this in the front matter, if you can keep it brief. Or it might be on the back cover. But don’t miss it out.

Speaking of back covers…
Back covers need to look properly furnished. Make sure you have

  • a punchy summary
  • an enticing quote, if possible
  • author details, and preferably a picture

Other sundry howlers that stop your book being taken seriously:

  •  white paper stock for fiction, memoir or narrative non-fiction (better to choose the cream-coloured paper)
  • squashed typesetting and tiny print – authors do this to reduce the pagecount and save costs, but it makes the book a chore to read (there’s more here on formatting your book for print)
  • narrow margins, either around the edges or in the gutters (the central margin). Again these decrease readability, and if the gutter is too narrow, you have to break the spine to read the book.
  • amateurish or unnecessary artwork. Tables and charts might be necessary in non-fiction, but probably aren’t in adult fiction. Maps and family trees might be helpful for certain genres of fiction, and facsimiles of handwritten notes or other ephemera might funk up a YA novel. But you might not need your aunt’s watercolours, unless a lot of your straight-talking friends agree they add to the book’s charm. (They usually don’t.) And covers are a whole subject by themselves. (More about covers here.)
  • lack of an ISBN – CreateSpace and Lightning Source require an ISBN, and CS will issue you with one if necessary. But Lulu or local printers will let you print without them. Most readers probably wouldn’t notice if your book lacks an ISBN, but it really, really annoys Peter, who is still reeling at the author who had regained the rights to her work and printed 1000 copies without obtaining an ISBN. (There’s more here about ISBNs.)
  • Peter also grumbles about books that are in a big or unusual format that won’t fit on his shelves. And cut-outs or holes in the jackets, because they catch on other books and get torn. (They probably also cost you more.) He does, however, approve of French flaps, which make a book more solid, though they’re not standard issue and most people won’t mind if you don’t have them.

So, to sum up. The well-dressed print book:

  • has a complete set of front matter that is concise and helpful
  •  follows the conventions of right and left
  • has a contents page only if necessary
  • gives information about the author
  • has an informative (and enticing) back cover
  • doesn’t cram the page with type

Have I missed anything out? Or do you have any questions? Head for the comments!
If you’re in or around London next Friday, come and say hello at the Indie Author Fair, which is part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival in association with the London Book Fair. Entry is free, though you need to register and print out a ticket. More here. If you’re further flung (and even if you’re not) you can take part in Indie ReCon, from April 15 to April 17 – an online festival of indie movers, shakers, experts, veterans, trailblazers, and the odd person who was surprised to find themselves volunteered. You’ll find seminars, live chats and roundtables and …. oh just click this link. http://indierecon.org/indierecon-events/ To wet your appetite, here’s a video discussion from last year in which a few authorly types talk about how we tame our creative muse.

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Whistle-stop tour through a ghostwriting career and beyond – interview at Whitefox

whitefI’d completely forgotten I’d written this interview until it popped up on Twitter today. Whitefox publishing services wanted to quiz me about ghostwriting, my first writing gig and any tips I’d give to writers who were thinking of self-publishing. If you’ve known me for a while the answers will be old hat, but if you’re one of the recent subscribers (thank you!) and are still curious, here it is. If you’re wondering about your publishing options, you’ll find some useful tips here. And if you want advice on weighing up publishing services companies, these posts should help you make sensible decisions. And thank you, Whitefox, for inviting me to your blog.

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‘Unending feelings of loss and loneliness’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Chrissie Parker

for logoMy guest this week has a historical novel with two timelines, each of them full of loss and turmoil. Music by Portishead, Jem and The Moxy defined the characters and their dilemmas, hurling her into their lives and channeling their emotions as she wrote. Modern Greek music by Elena Paprizou and Glykeria inspired the setting – the island of Zakynthos. She also writes short stories and poems and performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival 2013. She is Chrissie Parker and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Storytelling in literary fiction: let’s discuss

New_dress_DSC09958There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.

That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .

An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).

Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?

When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.

Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:

Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.

Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.

But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.

And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.

The conflagration spread to Twitter

And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’

Stop, please

It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?

It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.

Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?

This is something, as writers, we must avoid.

I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.

Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.

We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?

Brideshead Re-revisited

Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.

Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.

Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.

So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?

Again, I’ll let Dave speak:

In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.

Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’

So, er, what?

I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.

Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.

So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.

Thanks for the pic “New dress DSC09958″ by Владимир Шеляпин – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Anyway, the floor is yours.

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‘Everyone walks around with their own theme tune’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Nadine Matheson

for logoMy guest this week has a theory that everyone’s head is carrying a tune – a permanent soundtrack, a default earworm. Her own cerebrum is tuned to Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, which has special significance when she starts writing as she sees the process of plotting as the search for an escape. And her book centres on two characters who need this escape – sisters who were professional singers, who go through multiple misunderstandings before they find their equilibrium. (Cue Nina Simone: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.) The author is Nadine Matheson and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Does it serve the book? Killing your darlings is a mark of writing maturity

kill your darlings Roz Morris Nail Your NovelLast weekend I was teaching a workshop at Writecon Zurich and one of the issues we discussed was killing your darlings. I used the example of a very precious scene I deleted from My Memories of a Future Life. The full story, including the scene, is here, but briefly, it was inspired by a family heirloom and I was keen to include it. But at each revision round I sensed it repeated an emotional beat, tripped the reader up and made the story stall. When, finally, I swallowed my vanity and removed it, the story ran more smoothly.

I found myself using that same instinct the other day with Ever Rest, which I’m revising. I’m recutting the rough first draft in a more dynamic order, now I know the characters more deeply. I’d planned a funky new use for a scene and was pleased with the possibilities – especially as there were some good lines about the characters’ histories. So I improvised a fill-in scene to prepare the way – then realised that had already done the job. Those nice moments weren’t even needed.

I have to admit, this was annoying. If I get excited about an idea, I want to use it, not discard it. But it was surplus to requirements and would spoil the flow. Rather like the dress scene. I liked it for itself, but it didn’t serve the book.

I sighed and parked the sequence back in the rushes file. It might be useful later.

DSCF3083smlBut the dress scene is lovely!

Back to the dress scene. I’ve also used it as an illustration in my Guardian masterclass – and quite often, a funny thing happens. One of the students will argue, quite strenuously, that I should have included it. Why? Because it was nice, they reply. And no matter how I argue about the overall good of the book, they lament that I took it out.

No matter that I tell them readers can find it on my website if they’re that curious; or that I acknowledge the narrator probably had that moment around the corners of the story. That there would have been plenty of moments of the characters’ lives I didn’t show. Real life contains a lot of monotony and repetition, but a storyteller needs to select what to include and what to omit. You get more artistry from discipline, coherence and elegance than you do from sprawl.

Be strict

The reason I tell the anecdote is to illustrate the kinds of battles we might have as we edit. We have to recognise when we’re trying to include a scene, character or description simply because we like it, and instead search for a more substantial reason.

Now obviously we are not building machines. We are creating works of art and entertainment. A scene, character or description might earn its place for many reasons aside from advancing the plot – thematic resonance, comic relief, helping the reader to understand a tricky situation. And our style is an individual organism that arises from our interests, gut feeling, personality and reading tastes, so the rules for my novels won’t be the same as the rules for yours.

But mature writers have this level of awareness and discipline that helps them edit wisely. I now find I’m catching myself far more often than I used to, examining my personal feelings about a scene, and it’s saved me from stitching in a passage that I’m sure I would have quarreled with later.

Or, in the words of Stephen King: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

ebookcovernyn3There’s a lot more about honing your story’s pace in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.

Have you struggled over a cherished passage in one of your books? Have you had feedback where you were urged to delete something, but found it difficult? What made you want to keep it? If you’ve been writing for a while, do you notice yourself becoming more aware of your reasons for keeping scenes? Let’s discuss!

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‘Armour and post-punk lullabies’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Guy Mankowski

for logoMy guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Demons, frustrations and betrayal’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Scott D Southard

for logoMy guest this week is making a return appearance to the series. Last time he wrote about how he’d driven his wife bonkers by playing certain albums that evoked the souls of his characters. This good spouse will surely be donning the earplugs again as his musical choice for his current novel is a striking album by Fiona Apple, which consists of drums, close-up vocals and percussive piano. He describes the pieces as having the feel of a therapy session, all raw emotion and obsession – and perfect for his characters who are all connected by an act of betrayal. He is Scott D Southard and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

And there’ll be a slight hiatus in my posting schedule this weekend as I’m teaching at WriteCon in Zurich. (This is tremendously exciting as it’s the first time anyone’s flown me anywhere to teach!) So I’m tied up preparing for that at the moment, but I’m anticipating some interesting issues to share afterwards.

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Lessons learned from making a contemporary fiction box set – guest post at Jane Friedman

janefboxsetWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlHow do you organise seven time-strapped authors to collaborate on a project? Who does what, especially the tedious jobs like proof reading? How do you decide on an image, a price,  a name, a thrust for the publicity campaign, how much to spend on advertising?

Indeed, how do you get seven individuals to agree on anything?

How do you get the attention of the press – and is that worthwhile? What’s the difference between a proper promotion strategy and flinging the book into the market to fend for itself?

As you know, I’ve been taking part in a box set release with six other authors. We started work, in secret, back in November. Now, Jane Friedman has grilled us about the lessons learned in making a nice notion into an actual live product. Do come over.

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