Archive for April, 2012
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 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.)
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.
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…
‘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
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
‘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.
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.
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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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.
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