You know what your book means… but does the reader? Tackle it with two mindsets

5752324972_702a69b272_bHave 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-

  1. 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.)
  2. 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

n1 2Psst …. I talk about different mindsets for writing and revision in this little book …

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?

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Three steps to a smoother writing style

317528561_6f008366a3_zThis week Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to talk about writing style and voice, which you can see in a few weeks’ time. We got so involved in the subject that we didn’t finish her question list and this point didn’t make the cut. So I thought it would make a useful post.

Joanna asked me to pinpoint a few easy style fixes – so here they are.

1 Ditch the filler words

Look at this:

Paul had told me on the phone during our initial contact that he had been swindled several years before by a man who he had considered to be a friend.

Quite a mouthful for such a simple point. Give me my red pen.

What worries me here is the number of syllables. They slow the sentence in the reader’s mind. Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes those syllables are unnecessary speed bumps. Here goes.

Paul had [told me] said

Yes, there’s a difference between ‘told me’ and ‘said’. But is it important here? I don’t think it is, and I want to get to the main meat about the swindling friend. ‘Said’ will do that faster.

[during] at

No need to say ‘during’. ‘At’ is fine. One syllable saved.

our [initial] first contact

Wow, three syllables in ‘initial’. ‘First’ is just one. But ‘initial’ might fit better with the personality of the writer, character or narrative, so that’s an optional change.

 that [he had] he’d been swindled several years before

Your high school English teacher probably told you contractions had no place in printable English. Ignore her.

by a man [who] he had considered [to be] a friend.

Two more little words that didn’t have to be there.

2 Prune unnecessary detail

[on the phone]

Does it matter whether the statement was made on the phone or in person? Probably not. In any case, this detail is not really noticed when handled like this. If it’s important that the conversation was on the phone, I’d make the point in a separate sentence. So I’m stripping it out of here.

And so we have:

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

What didn’t I get rid of? The first ‘had’ – as the tense might be relevant. And the ‘that’. Although you can often remove a ‘that’, sometimes they are necessary for the sense. As this one is.

Paul had said at our first contact that he’d been swindled several years before by a man he had considered a friend.

See how much smoother it is? Now you can see the important stuff – about Paul being swindled.

Step 3 –jazz up your verbs

Verbs are your propellant. I was coaching a thriller writer and his main style problem was slow sentences. I showed him this passage from one of his favourite writers, Stephen White. This is from Kill Me. (I’ve emphasised the verbs):

He was leaning forward and gazing over the westbound lanes, his elbows resting on a fence, his right hand pressing a mobile phone to his ear….

Slick verbs can make a long sentence effortless…

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Many writers think a fast style comes from short sentences. But long sentences can read speedily too. The verbs drive it.

Notice also that there aren’t any adverbs in these passages. Adverbs aren’t forbidden, but there’s usually a slicker way. If you use an adverb, you add a second step to the thought. Sometimes you want that emphasis, but usually you’re better finding a dynamite verb.

Those 3 steps in summary

1 Cut the unnecessary syllables. Listen to the beat of the sentence. Make every syllable count.

2 Remove unnecessary detail so the point of the sentence can shine.

3 Rock your verbs.

Thanks for the pic, Nicholas A Tonelli on Flickr

Anything to add? Are there any style ‘rules’ you think are useful and any you think are questionable? Are there any you’ve had to ‘unlearn’?

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Conflict in every scene? Disasters in every act? Yes and no

15517166590_fabb8e02ee_oI’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.

I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?

That’s a good question with a lot of answers.

So let’s take it apart.

‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’

I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.

In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.

creative pennThe change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.

So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.

But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.

Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.

Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong.  And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.

Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.

So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.

And now to part 2 of the question:

structureShould each part of the story contain a disaster? 

First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.

And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.

Ben’s question

So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.

Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.

Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr

Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?

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Should you – could you – crowdfund your next book? Unbound uncovered

We’re in an age of new publishing models. And two of the emerging trends – crowdfunding and hybrid publishing – seem to meet in the organisation Unbound.

The principle of Unbound is simple. Raise enough money to publish the first print run. After that, the profits of any sales are split equally between the author and Unbound. Two editions of the books are made; a special, higher-spec edition for subscribers, and an edition for the trade.

When my friend Claire Scobie told me she was using Unbound to launch a UK edition of her novel The Pagoda Tree, I decided it was time to dig further. So as well as Claire (an Unbounder in progress), here are two fully graduated Unbounders – and clarifications from Unbound themselves.

Our players

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Salena Godden

Salena Godden @salenagodden is a long-established spoken word artist, poet and memoirist. She tops the bill at literary events nationally and internationally and has numerous credits as a guest and a writer for BBC Radio and Channel 4 arts programmes and documentaries.

Robert ll pic

Robert Llewellyn

Robert Llewellyn @bobbyllew  is a writer, presenter and an actor in the cult BBC science fiction show Red Dwarf. He presented Scrapheap Challenge from 1998-2008 and now produces and presents Fully Charged, an online series about the future of energy and transport. He’s the author of 11 books, including non-fiction, humour, memoir and science fiction.

claire scobie headshot mid-res

Claire Scobie

Claire Scobie @clairescobie  is the award-winning author of the travel memoir Last Seen in Lhasa and the novel The Pagoda Tree, chosen by Good Reading magazine as one of their Best Fiction Reads 2013.

Publishing background and experience

None of my panel are first-time authors (but first-time authors aren’t excluded, so read on). Salena has run the full gamut from indie to traditional. She self-published her own chapbooks in the 1990s, published her Fishing In The Aftermath poetry collection with indie publisher Burning Eye Books. And she crowdfunded her memoir Springfield Road with Unbound.

Robert Llewellyn had 11 books published traditionally and has been with a literary agent since 1990. He said he became frustrated by the restrictions and financial deals in the traditional system, but didn’t want to go it alone entirely. ‘I was very keen to self publish. I knew I had a large enough potential audience to make this viable, but I also knew that I’m not very well organised and would find it a real challenge to do on my own.’

Claire has a literary agent and has been traditionally published. Last Seen in Lhasa was placed with Random House UK. She’s based in Sydney, so she sold publishing rights of The Pagoda Tree to Penguin in Australia and New Zealand in 2013, but is now seeking wider exposure in English-speaking territories.

UPDATE 1 July 2016 – Claire has now hit her funding target – so you can regard her advice as officially tested in battle!

How are books chosen for Unbound?

Here I’ll bring in Georgia Odd @whengoddcries), editorial and marketing assistant with Unbound.

georgia‘We have a team of commissioning editors who both read submissions and scout for books and authors. The main things they are considering is the strength of the pitch – which might be the concept of a book, the writing or the author’s ability to crowdfund. The projects that work best have a great concept that can be easily explained in a line or two, and a clear audience who are already engaged with either the author or the topic.

‘We don’t always require a finished manuscript – particularly in cases where the author has a proven track record of strong writing – but with new authors we always ask for a substantial example of their writing.

‘We have a fairly even spread between fiction and non-fiction, and we accept any genres. If it’s a great book, we’ll take it on.’

Salena says she chose Unbound because: ‘We got on really well. You know the saying “Go where there love is”? There is a lot of love at Unbound.’

Robert says: ‘I loved the business model. I understood crowdfunding and I had enough of a following to launch the books. I don’t know how I got selected, it didn’t feel like being selected. It felt like we agreed to work together which was much nicer.’

Claire said she’d had her eye on Unbound for several years. ‘I like the philosophy of the company and the fact that it was founded by three authors who felt that readers were often left out of the equation. My agent pitched the book to them (although any author can submit directly). One of the co-founders loved it and my crowdfunding journey began.’ And Claire points out that Unbound offers a more equitable arrangement than most publishers. ‘Unbound splits a book’s net profit 50/50 (after costs/retail discounts) with the author. With traditional publishing, an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price.’

But can you bring your indie team?

It’s likely, of course, that authors who’ve already published their own work might want to bring their own editors or designers. Georgia from Unbound says: If an author does have an illustrator or editor they have in mind, we always have discussions about this, and the best route to take.

The campaign trail

Clearly, everything hinges on how much the author can raise awareness. And this effort shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve been watching Claire on Facebook and she’s tirelessly producing interviews, posts and following up any lead that might create more exposure. ‘I’ve run a focused Facebook campaign on my author page, sent out a lot of emails to family, friends, friends of friends, written blogs on various sites such as FB historical fiction sites or indie publishing sites, made contact with my old school and university and contacted former work colleagues. As I am based in Australia, I’ve received a lot of support from students who’ve done my writing courses and writers I’ve worked with professionally. It’s been harder to tap into some of those networks in the UK.’

springfield book cover jpegSalena says she was already well versed in selling and promoting her work. ‘I was in a band called SaltPeter for over a decade and we used to put out our own music, so I applied those cottage industry skills to the book, booking radio and gigs and promoting things.’ All the same, she says she remembers her funding campaign as full-on effort. ‘I worked my arse off. I hustled up hundreds of radio slots and gigs and events and festivals and talks and blog tours until I was sick of myself. When the book arrived I remember spending afternoons walking around book shops asking for it to be stocked; both indie shops and big chain stores too.’

Robert has managed to be more laid back, and says he mainly raised awareness through Twitter. ‘None of my Unbound books have had traditional reviews. They’ve not been featured in the traditional press in any way I’m aware of. I do a great deal of public speaking and sell books after these events.’ Reality check: he has 130,000 Twitter followers.

So it has to be asked: what proportion of projects fail to reach their funding target? Georgia says: ‘The success rate is 66%. There isn’t an obvious difference in the success rates between fiction and non-fiction; it depends on how active the author has been throughout their campaign, and how effective they are at communicating directly with their audience.’

With knobs on

One of the features of a crowdfunding campaign is the extra rewards for higher pledges. So what do authors offer? And when they have to fulfil them, are they worth the effort?

Here’s Robert.

Robert L titles‘This was a steep learning curve. My assumption was that everyone would go for the cheapest option and no one would go for the most expensive. The most expensive options (tickets to exclusive events) were sold out within a couple of days. These involved complex and costly arrangements that were very stressful although we managed to fill 90% of our obligations to supporters. For instance, a picnic at William Morris’s house – there were so many takers we had to do it over two days. Since this experience we have wound down the top-level promises to events that are a little easier to set up.

Claire’s offering a range of goodies. ‘For readers I offer a double whammy of my first book and the novel for £75; for writers, I offer professional one-on-one mentoring sessions and a creative writing workshop in London; for general supporters, I offer the novel + a beautiful handmade Indian journal (which has been really popular.) I also offer ‘the story behind the book’ for £100 and some bigger pledges at £1000 for someone to be a patron. I think it’s important to have a range of pledges at different prices and for different sectors of your audience.’

All the same, Georgia confirms that some authors can be uncomfortable with the amount of self-promotion. But she provides some figures to help make the job more manageable. ‘The average book needs about 300 supporters. Authors have to be able to confidently pitch their book to their networks, including friends, family and colleagues. Some find it daunting to ask people they know to pledge money, so that’s something they have to really think about, and overcome if they’re to have a strong campaign.

The Pagoda Tree Cover_Claire Scobie_high-res‘The most effective way of driving pledges is through personalised one-to-one communication, usually via email. This does take a lot of time and effort, so authors find it helpful to create a plan and schedule. They then have to stick to it. It’s all about engagement, rather than broadcasting. If authors aren’t engaged with their fans, then they are less likely to see those fans pledging.

‘The campaign process has to be led by the author, as they are the best advocate for the book, and it is their network that will support the book in the early stages. But we do have resources we offer to authors as guidance and support throughout their campaign.’

Have you considered – or even tried – crowdfunding? Any thoughts to add? Questions? The floor is yours.

And finally, here’s where to find our people again. Unbound is here and is on Twitter as @Unbounders. Robert Llewellyn is most at home on Twitter where he’s @bobbyllew . Salena Godden is @salenagodden and her website is www.salenagodden.com . And Claire Scobie is, at the time of writing, in full campaign swing. You can find her on Twitter at @clairescobie and her Unbound campaign is here https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-pagoda-tree/

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Checklist for redesigning your book cover – and maximising the marketing opportunities

3nynsI recently changed the covers of my Nail Your Novels … and got myself a nice long to-do list as a result. But as well as refreshing the look of the books, a redesign is also a chance to smarten up the covers’ marketing potential. Here’s how.

Don’t miss the opportunity to tweak your sales wording

I’ve already blogged about changing the cover design to target readers effectively (the last time I changed the cover of book 1, as it happens). But revising the book doesn’t have to stop at the visuals. Since you published the title, have you had any standout reviews? Work them into the redesign – on the front as a teaser or the back as part of the sales blurb.

Indeed, could you add punch to the back cover copy?  Sometimes reviewers sum up our books much better than we can ourselves. A reader who really got the book might have written you a brilliant logline. Search your reviews in case.

2015-06-27 01.03.42If you have an ‘about the author’ paragraph on the back, should you update it? Perhaps you’ve published more books, or won a prestigious award.

What about your author photo? My Nail Your Novels had three different author photos according to the years they were published (and the hue of my hair), but with this reboot I decided to use a new image to make them look more current and uniform. 2015-06-27 01.03.18

I also found I had room on the back for miniatures of the other books in the series – a good visual way to let readers know they’re part of a set.

Read all the copy!

Even if you change only the fonts, you should proof-read all the cover material anew. Any time a change has been made, even if it’s just cosmetic (fonts etc) there’s a possibility for a letter to be deleted or a copy-and-paste to go wrong. If the new font doesn’t behave like the old one, you might find the copy doesn’t fit – check that the final sentence of your blurb or author description hasn’t disappeared into a mysterious limbo.

Read the spine too. Mistakes can happen anywhere. Especially there.

If you’re upgrading an entire series, be alert for copy-and-paste mistakes between the books! A designer who is working on several covers at once might paste an element in from another cover as a placeholder or to copy the style, and forget to type the correct wording. Check each book has its correct title and description, and not a pasted bit from another book in the series.

Picture and artwork credits

If you’ve credited the designer on the cover, you might need to update this. And if you’ve used photo library artwork, the T&Cs might require you to credit the originator – either inside the book or in a convenient place on the artwork. Sometimes, font originators need a credit (if they do, it’ll be in the T&Cs when you acquire the font). Don’t forget to credit your author image photographer as well. So: remove outdated credits and add new ones as necessary.

2015-06-27 01.04.52Inside the print book

I’ve already mentioned updating credits for the cover images and design. What about the design of the title page? My title pages continue the design from the cover font, so I updated those too.

If you have images of your books in the back matter, they’ll need updating.

In the ebooks

If you have image and design credits in the ebooks, don’t forget to update these. Or images of your other covers.

Other admin

My books’ facelift also generated a number of other itty bits of admin

  • Website headers
  • Blog badges
  • The books’ pages on my website(s) (why did I have so many sites?!)
  • Excerpts on preview services (I use Bookbuzzr)
  • Headers on Facebook, Twitter, my newsletter sign-up, G+ …. Everywhere, really. I don’t think I’ve found all mine yet. (If you spot one, let me know!)
  • Business cards, bookmarks, postcards, posters for events

And if you smartened up the back cover copy or logline, don’t forget to update your sales descriptions on Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Ingram … everywhere. But you don’t have to worry about your Amazon author page or the Look Inside feature – those update automatically but you have to allow a week or so for the changes to filter through.

Is there anything I’ve missed? I’m sure there is. Tell me here!

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‘Writing this novel has left me less guarded’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Isabel Costello

for logoWho changes in the course of a novel? We hope the characters do. Sometimes the author does too. My guest this week feels that writing her novel became an act of emotional honesty that left her in a new place. Music was a constant companion – a mix of Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Parisian-themed works too. She is novelist, short story writer and award-winning book blogger Isabel Costello and she’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack for Paris Mon Amour.

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Reading vs watching and The Night Manager – why I prefer the book

51qdfvUxcdL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I recently watched the BBC’s adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager, and of course went straight to the novel afterwards. I thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation, but I’m loving the novel more.

You might think that’s an obvious thing for a writer to say. But I’d like to think about why.

Let’s put aside certain practicalities. Obviously the book had to be reshaped to translate it to TV, and updated for 2016 (technology, current world events, making a key character female).

That’s not what I want to talk about; I’m interested here in the medium of delivery. The watching senses compared with the reading ones. Why do I find reading the novel is more special than watching the show?

Books are interior

A key difference is the organisation of Jonathan Pine’s back story. In the TV version this is streamlined into simple chronological order, but the novel shuffles the material to us in digressions. A character makes a remark and Pine is taken back to an earlier event. At first this seems quite digressive, but gradually you’re bedded more deeply into Pine’s buried layers, his stifled memories and his slow awakening into a new man.

415sjZHeUVL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This interority is something that’s difficult for TV or film to achieve, although Krzysztof Kieślowski is a notable example of a writer-director who does. But usually, watching makes us outsiders. So the BBC’s Night Manager is an adventure story – and a gripping one. The novel is that too, but it’s also more secret, troubled and private.

Characters and reality

Somehow, I’m finding the characters on the page are more tangible than when they are played by actors. Le Carré’s descriptions seem more potent than seeing an actor physically embody a person. In a film, a character comes to you complete – with hands, voice, expression, stance, clothes. In prose, a character usually appears in fragments. Those fragments are the magic.

For instance, describing Richard Roper’s charm. An actor could play charm, but a writer can pinpoint the essence of that charm – and make us notice something about how charm works:

He let you know that you could tell him anything, and he would still be smiling at the end of it.’

The author is not a camera giving head-to-toe details; he is a judging, communicating intelligence who can show us what it’s like to be in a person’s presence, at a given moment. It gives you experience as well as observation. Describing Roper’s girlfriend Jed:

Her wit and language have a hypnotic draw. There is something irresistibly funny to everyone, including herself, about the convent-educated English voice enunciating the vocabulary of a navvy. “Darling, do we actually give a fart about the Donahues?” ’

Could a camera or an actor ever express that, and so precisely? And this, when Jonathan Pine is increasingly troubled by the siren Jed:

He watched her in fragments forced upon him. A chance view of her entire upper body in her bedroom mirror while she was changing…’

How would a camera say ‘forced upon him’?

I find this to be a wonderful paradox. A good writer can make a character more alive in your mind than a flesh-and-blood actor can. An actor seems to give just physicality. No matter how closely a camera observes their face, it’s happening at a distance. But a writer is inside your intellect and your feelings. With a well-turned line they can they give you the experience of being with a person – or indeed of being them. You’re passing a door, arrested by a glimpse of a girl undressing.

Feeling perceptive

The cleverness of a good author makes you feel a bit ennobled, better with words yourself. More intelligent, perceptive. Words are far, far more fun than watching.

Take a bad toupee. (Go on, you know you want to.) Le Carré describes it as ‘like a black bear’s paw’. Isn’t it far more fun to read that description than to see a bad toupee in a picture? In a million years, would you have thought of that line? When you read, you share the mind of someone who does.

And this.

Women with chiselled faces they never had when they were young, and tucked stomachs and tucked bottoms … but no surgery on earth could spare them the manacled slowness of old age as they lowered themselves into the pool…’

A good writer knows how to go ‘straight to the switchboard’.

Stop – isn’t that an excellent line? It’s not mine, it’s le Carré. A phrase used by Roper’s security guard when describing a technique of interrogation.

Interrogation. That’s a difference I should also mention: how you contribute so much of a book’s experience from your own grey matter. The pictures, places, sounds, significance. For Franz Kafka, books were ‘the axe for the frozen sea within us’.

Your own pace

And here’s another difference I like. You take a book at your own speed. Dawdle as long as you like over a page, a paragraph, a phrase. In a movie you obey the director’s clock, or the editor’s. In a book, the author sets the pace, of course, but you can adjust it. Linger over a passage you like. Skim the parts you don’t.

51NAwF7BkIL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I hadn’t considered how important that was until Husband Dave and I read the same book simultaneously. We found we had two copies of William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms so we did them in tandem, like a real-time book club. It was fun. We could say ‘I didn’t like the bit where…’ or ‘I’m hoping the character won’t do such-and-such’. I was aware, though, that I was reading to a schedule, so I didn’t let myself linger or dawdle as usual – and I felt rushed.

Reading a book you enjoy isn’t, actually, a hop from this word to this then this, like watching subtitles on a movie or the lyrics prompt on karaoke. It’s not a linear trot through the page from top to bottom, in order. If you want, it can be more like snakes and ladders. You can check a fact or a character name. Wander back to enjoy a favourite fragment again. You can take a book in your own time, your personal journey.

I love reading Nail Your Novel

Ultimately, a book plays with your mind more, yet belongs to you more as well. Perhaps that’s it.

Tell me your thoughts.

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Peter Shaffer, my earliest muse – how we create the infinite

I’m not good at nominating favourites. I find the question too complicated to answer so absolutely. For instance, a favourite book? Favourite in what subset of a subset? It’s like comparing apples to aardvarks. But I do have a few authors I’m wholeheartedly absolute about, and one of them is Peter Shaffer, whose death was announced today. I thought I’d dig out this piece as a tribute.

equusFirst published at For Books’ Sake, October 2011

We create the infinite: my favourite 3 fictional characters when I was 16

Francisco Pizarro. Dr Martin Dysart. Antonio Salieri.

This trio of unhappy protagonists crossed my desk many years ago in English class. An illiterate Spanish general. A burnt-out psychiatrist. A composer in the Habsburg court. Two are historical, but I met them in fictional form in three dramas by Peter Shaffer – The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Equus and Amadeus. Disillusioned antiheroes kicking themselves for bad lives, and confronted by startlingly peculiar chances for redemption; perfect for darkly brooding A-level students.

General Francisco Pizarro, leader of the Conquistadors, is on a mission to capture the city of the Incas for the glory of Spain and the Catholic Church. He’s an unusual choice as commander, being the illegitimate son of a pigherd – and illiterate to boot. His whole life has been driven by a need to prove himself, and to his men he’s a hero. But Pizarro sees nothing worthwhile in himself. He’s disgusted by the blood he’s shed and the Catholic faith he has killed for.

His mission to find the Inca city of gold is a work of spite, proof that a pigman can win fame and riches before he dies – but even that will be scant comfort for the fear that needles his soul. But as well as gold, he finds Atahuallpa, god-king of the Incas.

Royal Hunt of the SunPizarro is drawn to the dignified, aloof creature. Atahuallpa has absolute belief in his nature as a god, putting to shame the Catholic priests who are hypocritical, brutal and self-serving. The Inca king is almost Pizarro’s twin in circumstance. He was illegitimate and killed his own brother in order to take the kingdom. Self-made and brave, he is, in short, Pizarro himself – but complete.

Pizarro’s men sentence Atahuallpa to death. Pizarro fights to keep him alive, but Atahuallpa senses what his friend needs and promises to rise again if he is executed. With little other choice, Pizarro allows him to be strangled. When the sun rises we watch in fervent hope that it will revive him, but Atahuallpa remains still. The world shrinks back to flesh, blood and murder. A lifetime’s mistakes, gravitationally condensed as tight as a neutron star. We have seen something strange, transforming and ungraspable.

At the age of 16, I’d gobbled a lot of powerful stories but this was the first that descended on a bolt of lightning. Possibly it was because my school was obsessively religious. We were crammed to pass divinity O level, and made to sit it again if we failed. I got the grade as an academic duty but was disappointed with the subject and its blind spots – including the exclusion of all religions beyond Christianity. Then along came this play, where a man who needs a god meets a man who might be one. It turns out they’re nothing but men, but nevertheless we feel the power of the infinite.

At that moment I realised I too had an unshakeable belief – in human beings, what we create and how we scare and heal each other.

And most specially in the artists and writers who could give us such experiences.

Equus followed the same pattern as The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Dr Martin Dysart is another jaded, repressed soul confronted by a passionate, otherwordly innocent. His patient, Alan Strang, has blinded a stable of horses, driven by a profound, primitive worship he has fashioned for himself after a terrifying encounter with a magnificent steed. Dysart’s mission to treat Alan’s delusions and normalise him is how he has sterilised his whole life.

amadeus-flierAnd Antonio Salieri in Amadeus has dedicated himself to composing music. Along comes Mozart – uncouth, rude and effortlessly gifted – and much better at being alive. True to Shaffer form, Salieri destroys him.

Writing this post, I realise how many of those synapses are still smoking. My first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is about the phenomenon of past-life regression, where you touch into the life you lived before. The romantic in me wants reincarnation to be true, but the scientific half can see reasons why it isn’t. The story is set in the world of classical music, where players seem to be channelling the spirit of the composer. Also, if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the transcendental infinite, music must be it. I wrote that whole book without realising that Mr Shaffer was secretly at the controls.

Invented gods. Past lives. Future lives. Whatever the explanations, these are wondrous creations, and so is what we do with them. ‘Account for me,’ says Equus’s Dr Dysart, confronting what he’s seen. In my own accounting, I owe a great debt to Mr Shaffer.

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‘Music to fill my mind but not fight the words’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, GD Harper

for logoMy guest this week says he is much concerned with reinvention. He’s spent his life setting himself challenges to embrace new careers, lifestyles, places to live – and the latest of those reinventions is being a novelist. His debut title is a story of 1970s Glasgow and required some daring imaginative reinventions – not least, writing in the voice and psyche of a 22-year-old woman. A soundtrack was essential – Tangerine Dream to soothe and order the brain; Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and David Bowie to restart the period – and provide other wisdom besides. He is Glyn Harper – writing as GD Harper – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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