Archive for April, 2012

Stuck on your novel? Write yourself a five-star review

No, I’m not telling you to go on Amazon or Goodreads and cheat. This is an exercise for the novel you haven’t finished yet. Especially if it’s giving you trouble.

I first suggested it in my purple writing book Nail Your Novel, as part of the section on revision, and it must have struck a chord because time and again it gets picked up by other writers around the blogosphere. Here’s KM Weiland and here it is most recently being passed on by Larry Brooks, at all stations from Jenna Bayley-Burke to Porter Anderson.

Since it’s proving so useful, I thought I’d take a more in-depth look at why we might do this.

But first, here’s what you do (from Nail Your Novel)

Imagine you are writing a blurb or a review and that you have understood everything the writer was trying to do. Be specific about the story, the themes and the mood…

When might you do this?

You could do it when you embark on major revisions, to firm up your ideas before you hack and slay. Or any time you’ve got in a muddle and lost faith. What you do is step back and write how you would like the book to work if all problems were solved. If you step away from the details and look at the big picture, you often find you are not as lost as you think. Whether you knew it or not, you have strong, specific ideas about what the book would be.

What should you put in it? Everything distinctive and exciting about your novel. This might be any or all of:

  • how the themes will work
  • the influence of the setting and what it brings to the story
  • the functions the characters might perform; perhaps whether they will be likable or not – and why that will be enjoyable
  • what the set-pieces are
  • why the big reveals will pack such a punch
  • the literary traditions the novel might fit into, if that’s your bag
  • the kind of readers who might enjoy it
  • if you’re planning a non-linear structure or something tricksy like two narrators, why that was a clever move.

You can probably see you have to do a bit of head-scratching, so this exercise is good for making you justify – and understand – your creative decisions.

The other times you might do this

The title of this post suggests you do it when stuck, but it’s also a very useful exercise to do it at the start, as a mission statement for what you hope the book will be. Especially in that first flush of enthusiasm when the idea is seductive and brilliant. When you’re courageous and undaunted – you simply know it will be good. It’s good to harness that for later when the honeymoon’s over.

Novels take so darn long to write that there usually comes a time when we’ve lost perspective. We confuse ourselves with infinite possibilities. We may even suspect we’ve ruined everything. If you wrote your ideal version review to start with, you have something to pull you back together. Even if the novel changes substantially in the writing, it’s useful to have a record of this early, optimistic vision. (It might have got richer, more sophisticated. Or you may find that fundamentally you’re still on course.)

Confidence

Most of all, this exercise gives us confidence. By confidence I don’t just mean feeling better; I mean clarity and boldness in the way we handle our material. We can pitch the mood, decide what themes to highlight, what word choices fit, what’s superflous. We can strengthen character motivations and plot. Novels that work well know where they’re going.

So if you’re feeling lost, write yourself a rave review. Spoil yourself and strengthen your novel.

Thanks for the pic Bidrohi >H!ROK<

Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence is available on Kindle and in print. Sign up for my newsletter!  Add your name to the mailing list here.

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‘I feared I’d never get the blurb finished in time for the launch’ – guest post at Jami Gold’s

1. Take 100,000 words.

2. Stuff that into three paragraphs or so.

3. Don’t leave out anything important.

Welcome to summarising your book for the back cover or for pitching to an agent.

A few of you may well remember the frantic email sessions last summer as we batted ideas back and forth for my novel’s flap copy. I proved that despite having written a reasonably lucid novel, I was entirely incapable of distilling it into a suitable blurb. I think it took six weeks, several false starts and wrong turnings – many of which I didn’t want to abandon because they’d been hard enough. Did three paragraphs ever cause such anguish?

Anyway, I learned a lot in the process, and today I’m at the blog of paranormal author Jami Gold, sharing all my tips.

One of those tips is to not become too attached to the wrong soundbite. Boy, I nearly hobbled myself there. You can see my blurb outtakes at Jami’s lovely blog, but in the meantime I thought it would be fun to share here some wrong blurbing that we’ve done.

Tell me, in the comments, the blurb or pitch you had to junk – and why it was soooooo wrong. I look forward to sharing your pain…

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‘Music to drum up teen feelings about life, adventure and parents who didn’t understand’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kevin McGill

My Undercover Soundtrack guest this week is Kevin McGill – one half of my favourite books podcast, Guys Can Read. To write his epic adventure fantasy Nikolas & Company, he needed to get back in touch with his early teen self – but his book’s soundtrack goes way beyond mere angst. There’s music for magic, mythology, mayhem – and even, ahem, ‘girl scenes’. I’ll let him explain all that, and more, on the red blog

Psst! World Book Night special… The Red Season (My Memories of a Future Life Episode 1)  is still free until 28 April… UK and US. Spread the word…

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It’s World Book Night – and The Red Season is free

Today and tomorrow – 23rd and 24th April – depending on your time zone, hundreds of thousands of bookworms are celebrating their love of reading with gifts in World Book Night (which you can find out more about here). At the Authors Electric blog we’re marking the occasion with a giveaway event of our own. One of the free titles is Episode 1 of My Memories of a Future Life – The Red Season, which you can find here (UK or US) – and while you’re at it you’ll also find nearly a dozen other fine books at the Authors Electric blog.

Edits forbid a proper writing post right now, as you probably guessed from all the moaning about sore arms. Anyway, I reckon with all those free goodies you’ll be knee deep in reading for a few days (and some titles are free for a few days afterwards so if you’re getting here late it’s still worth checking them out). There will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual on Wednesday and I hope I’ll be back with a writing nugget next weekend. In fact, if you want to suggest a topic, now’s your chance. In the meantime, happy World Book Night.

Thanks for the pic, Sebastian Antony

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RSI and when your books come back to haunt you – post at Authors Electric

I like to think I’m a decent human and would never hurt a fly. But in my books I’m vile.

It bothers me. I used to wake at night worrying about what it would really be like to have the troubles that Andreq and Carol have in My Memories of a Future Life. And what’s happening in Life Form 3 is definitely the stuff of nightmares.

So when I woke with the most debilitating RSI the other morning, like poor Carol, I thought I was getting my just desserts.

I’m at Authors Electric today, discussing authorly karma – and also what I do when I am (as regularly happens) struck down by repetitive strain injury.

(thanks for the pic Lizspikol)

Do you get RSI – and what do you do about it? How bad are you to your characters? Are you grateful you don’t have to live their lives? Tell me here – or come over to Authors Electric

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‘George Winston’s dreamy piano had to go’ – Andrew Blackman, The Undercover Soundtrack

Each novel we write stretches us in different ways. Andrew Blackman had previously always written to a background of swirling piano and josssticks, but when he started an urban tale of frustrated youth, he decided it was time to grit up. Cue a new era of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Supergrass, to name but three. The result, On The Holloway Road, won the Luke Bitmead award and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. Join me on the red blog to hear about its Undercover Soundtrack

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How to write great guest posts about your book – keep your stories about your stories

‘Do you know how I came up with the new ending for my book?’ said my client. ‘I dreamed it.’ She went on to describe a wonky version of what finally went into the draft I was reading.

‘Keep this anecdote,’ I said. ‘Write it down.’

‘Pah it’s just a dream,’ she said. ‘I was also inspired by this strange thing that happened to a friend…’

‘Write that down too,’ I said.

She thought I was mad, and no doubt you do too. But there will come a time when you will be scratching for things to say about your book and you need something beyond a story summary or a sketch of your main characters.

Awkward moments

I first realised this years ago at a friend’s book launch. I’d just finished My Memories of a Future Life and I got chatting to a publisher. I gave my prepared spiel and he nodded eagerly, wanting more. I’d run out of pitch, so I bumbled on about my favourite bits, aware that I was getting obscure, but I was so mired in the book I couldn’t see it as an outsider. What I needed was a crisp anecdote or two to keep him relating to it – perhaps about its influences or what inspired it. (He still asked to see it, though, so no harm done.)

Publicity is a long game of guest posts, interviews and maybe personal appearances. (At the moment, Dave is gearing up for the launch of his Frankenstein book app, and is grappling with interview questions. ‘What on earth do I tell all these people?’ he frequently says to me. ‘I thought it was enough to just write the story.’)

Blah blah blah

There’s only so much you can say about the novel without giving spoilers. And you’re going to be asked the same questions time and again about the writing of it, but that doesn’t mean you have to give the same answers. In fact, you shouldn’t. In each case you might reach a new audience, but the chances are, readers will see you several times before they decide to check you out. The more different – but congruent – stories you can tell about your book, the richer it will seem and the more ways you have to reel readers in. And the less you’ll bore everyone, including yourself.

And people who like stories also like stories about stories. I recently added an ‘inspired by’ anecdote to my Amazon listing for My Memories of a Future Life and sales have trebled. This experimental sample of just one seems to prove somethingorother.

What makes a good story about your story?

The very best are specific but don’t give too much away. It could be

  • novels that influenced it
  • favourite fictional characters that spurred you to write it
  • real-life experiences that fed into it – anything that gives you an insider view of the subject or events
  • real-life people who inspired it or helped with research – although be careful of libel
  • issues the novel raises

Or it could be something left field, like my series The Undercover Soundtrack on the red blog, where writers tell a tale about their book in the context of music that inspired them while writing.

But thinking of all this stuff – unless someone gives you a specific exercise like my Undercover Soundtracks – is time consuming. And, depending on how complex your novel is, you may not be able to name all its influences at the drop of a hat. I’m still becoming aware of forgotten seeds for both of mine. They emerge by chance in conversations, revisited films and novels I dimly remember. Now I realise I might have a use for these insights, every time I stumble on another, I write it down.

Keep your stories about your stories. You’ll be surprised how easily they’ll slip your mind, but they’re as useful to you as the ideas in the actual novel itself. And you’ll never have enough.

Thanks for the pic Ben Chau

Do you have a tale about your novel? If you can tell it briefly, the floor is yours…

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‘Highly original, delivered with aplomb’ – pick of the month at Multi-Story

My Memories of a Future Life is pick of the month at the Multi-Story blog – and here’s the bragging screen grab to prove it. They described it as ‘haunting and compelling… a novel that stays with you long after  reading’ – which was rather nice. You’ll also find, if you go there, a piece from my archives on the difference between writing fiction and writing, well, just about anything else. Reports, presentations, journalism, homework assignment may flex your lexicals, but they set you totally wrong for fiction. Find out how to shake off their disruptive influence.

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‘Music for telling the darkest secrets’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kelly Simmons

When Kelly Simmons was finding her way with her first novel, she put on the soundtrack for The Sopranos TV series and a new creative habit was born. Now, two thrillers finished, she still can’t abide music while writing her initial draft. But come the revisions, she puts on gritty, twisty songs that help her infuse her novels with humanity as well as violence. Join me on on the red blog for her Undercover Soundtrack

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Final edits – what do you look for?

When your novel is as familiar as the sight of your two hands typing, what do you miss?

I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.

Making sure we stay with the main character #1

There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?

Making sure we stay with the main character #2

The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.

Making dialogue bookish, not filmic

When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.

Culling the fancy stuff

Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.

For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.

Adapting my style for the demands of the book

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.

The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.

We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!

For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn

Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy

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