Search Results for: guys can read

Put through my paces by Guys Can Read: literary writing, storytelling and the brave new world of indie books

Today I’m back at Guys Can Read, the weekly podcast books discussion hosted by Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill. Luke and Kevin adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at. Kevin’s also just released his own rip-roaring fantasy adventure, Nikolas and Company: A Creature Most Foul, now available on Amazon.

I’ve been on their show a few times and was thrilled they wanted me along now that I’ve released My Memories of a Future Life. We started by talking about the novel but soon ventured into wider discussion. We nattered about aspects of literary writing that can get in the way of the story and characters. We talked about indie publishing – as a choice to connect more closely with readers, whether it’s risky for writers with an established career, and how readers and writers will in future be setting the publishing agenda just as much as commercial publishers.  Oh, and whether I get away with opening my novel with a whinge scene. Come on over.

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Back at Guys Can Read with one of my favourite novels

Those lovely dudes at Guys Can Read have invited me back to recommend one of my favourite books. I chose Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. This novel manages to pull off a trick I have seen done badly so many times – the story within the story. Why is it often done badly and how does this author do it well? Head on over to Luke and Kevin’s to find out – and also hear some other recommendations of thumping good reads.

As usual, I have way more to say on the subject, so on Sunday I’ll be discussing stories within stories, and fantasies within story worlds.

I’m taking questions about it now, so if you have anything you want to ask, leave a comment here!

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Ghostwriting and why I love Ian Fleming – interviewed by Guys Can Read

Today I’m very excited to be guesting on the books podcast Guys Can Read.Very, very excited, actually, as I’ve been evangelising about their show ever since I discovered them.

Guys Can Read is a weekly podcast by Luke Navarro and writer Kevin McGill. They adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at.

Kevin is putting his story instincts to good use on his fantasy novel Nikolas and Co, which you can read about here. Luke, meanwhile, sets himself challenges. Last year he read 52 books, and washed them down with yet more narrative in the form of 52 games and 52 DVDs. This year they channelled their zeal into Boys Can Read – a Skype school visit where they risked withering ridicule and worse to persuade a class of 28 MG boys to swap games for good old books.

If you love reading, if you live for fiction that leaves you provoked, moved, flabbergasted, shaken, stirred, touched, tickled, amused or amazed, then you’ll love these gutsy podcasts – whether you’re a guy or not. But I am extremely honoured to be welcomed as their first girl guest…

What did we talk about? A bit about writing, why I blog, but most of all, writers who give me major palpitations, especially Ian Fleming.

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Can authors get smarter with Amazon keywords and categories? Start here!

choosebookcategoryCategories and keywords on online retailers: choose them wisely and the algorithms will target your ideal readers – especially on Kindle. You can make a whole science out of it, but this piece on KDP explains the basics in good, plain English.

Essentially, you pick two categories, and then get yourself in several more specialised lists by including set keywords.

But this system has its limitations. At first writers of genre fiction had many sub-categories to choose from, but writers of literary, contemporary and general fiction found themselves in one immense category where it was hard to be seen. There were few ways to tell the algorithms ‘I’m non-genre but I have a flavour of romance, or loss, or my novel is set in Borneo’. Recently Amazon has made big improvements and refined the choices – find them here.

Despite this very welcome addition, the results haven’t been as good for me as when I unknowingly broke the rules. When I put other authors in the keywords, my sales soared.

Tsk tsk

I did it in all innocence. Reviewers had been comparing my first novel with Paulo Coelho, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, so I put those names in the keywords. My sales rose, readers seemed happy to have found me this way – so the comparisons must have been useful and valid. Then I discovered writers who did this were being sent warning emails so I removed them – and fizzled back down the charts.

lf3likemmlikeIt’s a real shame, because for me, this tactic was more effective than keywords about genres, subjects, settings, themes and issues. And surely the author and their style is a significant feature of any novel. With literary fiction, it’s the most important quality of all. It’s a valid way to talk about a book in the literary world – and yet it isn’t accommodated in the search mechanisms that writers can control. It’s a refinement that would be helpful to both authors and readers.

What’s more, now would be a great time to discuss and lobby for it. Here’s why.

We are connected…

Last week I was watching a videocast from the Grub St Writers Muse and the Marketplace conference. One of the panel members was Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, so I tweeted @Grubwriters with my point about author comparisons. Jon Fine was rather interested in the idea and replied that it was something they’d never thought of. So…. watch this space!

(Let’s pause for a geek check: I tweeted a question in my home in London at 7.30pm, watched it read out to a room in Boston where it was 2.30pm, and real live people started to talk about it, with voices and hand-waving… and a man from Amazon stroked his chin and said ‘maybe we could…’)

So I want to kick off a discussion here. Amazon are in the mood to get constructive feedback on this right now. There couldn’t be a better time to discuss it. I’ve shared my one tiny idea for improving the algorithms to help readers find our work; you guys no doubt have more to add. The questions begin!

1 Have you tried a category tweak that got you to more readers – Amazon-legal or not? Is there a category facility you’d like to see?

Jon Fine also said the categories problem was more widespread than Amazon. The industry standard for classifying books by subject, BISAC seems limited in its precision, although possibly it’s geared for booksellers rather than readers.

2 If you are – or have been – a bookseller, what’s your take? Would you find it helpful if the BISAC categories were made more flexible and detailed?

3 As a reader, how do you use search tools to find new books?

Let’s discuss! And change the world… 🙂


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Are you ready to use self-publishing services? Post at Writers & Artists

wa2Yes, I would usually have put up an original writing post this weekend, but I seem to have had a lot of posts on other blogs in the last few days. So rather than appearing in your inbox way too many times in one week, I thought I’d take a bit of a rest.

Today I’m back at Writers & Artists. They told me a lot of writers approach them for advice on self-publishing and self-publishing services, but it’s clear they’re not ready and would be better doing more work themselves. They asked me for a piece to help writers hone their novel before they pay for editorial services.

The number one problem I notice is that new writers try to publish a first draft – so this post is a newbie’s guide to revision and an insight into the secret graft behind a good novel. Many of you guys are more advanced than that, but if so, I hope you’ll know someone you can pass it on to. Even if it’s only your long-suffering family and bloomfriends, who are wondering why you haven’t ‘finished’ and published! Here it is…

Meanwhile, if you’d like to share how you revise a novel, or add your tips for getting it in perfect shape for publication, share them here!

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How to revise your novel if you can’t get into it – take time to dress the set again

When you left the draft, you were living and breathing the story. When you go back to revise, one of the biggest hurdles is recreating that familiarity. How do you take control again?

The email was headed: ‘Here’s that film you were in!’ Hereafter, the Clint Eastwood film in which I was an extra, has just been released, and friends are making my day by sending me links whenever it’s mentioned in the press. Yesterday I got an article about a chap in London whose house was used as a location. It had to double for another house already used in the film, and the crew added false tips to the railings, replaced the front door, recoiffed the pot plants and wallpapered the hall.

It struck me that that’s a lot like revisiting a novel to do revisions. To start with I feel I don’t know the story any more, or live inside the characters, or remember the geography of their world. I have to go through a mental set-building phase in order to feel at home there again.

But I don’t just tip into the draft. That keeps me on the outside, like a new reader, and I need to be inside, behind the scenes, taking control of it all. I need to dress the set again. Here’s what I do.

1 Never throw your notes away

From the moment I start planning a book I keep copious notes. About the world, the synopsis, the characters. In one novel I’m planning, there’s a discography of all the music that exists in the world. When it’s time to revise I read them all again.

So many writers I know throw away these files when they send the novel out or hand it to their editor. But it’s never too late for somebody to suggest another round of revisions. The only time it’s safe to throw away your notes is when the book is between covers.

2 Get out your soundtrack

I need no excuse to make soundtracks for my books. First there are the pieces of music I choose to help evoke the initial mood of the story (and are an excuse to browse the Listmanias on Amazon). Then there are the tracks that grab me while I’m working on the book – a talisman for a particular scene, a theme to connect me to a character. Each of my books has a soundtrack, and I dust it off when I need to reconnect with the book again.

3 Make a beat sheet – or read an old one

There’s an exercise I always do before a major edit. It’s called the beat sheet, which becomes an at-a-glance blueprint for revision. It helps me take charge of the book again because it focuses on the underlying purpose of each scene. Once I’m done with the revision, I keep the beat sheet because if I need to revisit the draft, the beat sheet helps me rebuild the set again.

Thank you, E Bartholomew on Flickr, for the photo. The beat sheet is one of the tools from Nail Your Novel, Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Read an excerpt in the widget on the right, and read Amazon reviews of it here

Guys, what do you do to rebuild the set for a revision?

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Gremlins hit Nail Your Novel Amazon listing – but you can buy from Lulu or from me direct

You're never too young to start; my god-daughter, Eliza Wallis, reads Nail Your Novel. No, she's not the gremlin that caused all the trouble (at least not this time)

I just received an email from a reader who couldn’t find the listings to buy Nail Your Novel – and discovered it has disappeared from Amazon.

After a good bit of hair tearing and digging in the Lulu help forums, I discovered Lulu has made ‘service improvements’ and many customers are up in arms because their Amazon listings have been unavailable for a week. Not only that, Lulu had somehow (and unforgivably) turned my listing to private access so that nobody could buy it.

So – if you’ve been trying to buy Nail Your Novel, or browse it on Amazon, I’m sorry you’ve had a frustrating time. The Lulu listing is now working – here it is – and I am shouting at them to get the Amazon one back. Not to mention my 13 five-star reviews, which you guys have written and I’m terribly grateful for – and would be gutted to lose.

You can still use the Bookbuzzr widget to read the first 15 pages (see the column on the right) and the link from there will now take you to Lulu. And if all else fails, I have some copies and will happily sell to you via Paypal (and you’ll get a cute little Nail Your Novel Moo card to use as a bookmark – although I’m afraid my cute little god-daughter is not included).

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3 fixes to make your first novel fly: 1 – hook your reader by the head AND the heart

Over the next 2 posts I’m going to look at 3 common problems I see in first novel attempts. Today I’m dealing with possibly the most important. How you hook the reader.

This week I’ve seen a number of posts by writers looking back on what they wish they’d known when they embarked on their first novels – literary agent  and writer Weronika Janczuk and writer Krista Van Dolzer. Speaking with my editing hat on, I find there are three major problems that crop up time and time again in the manuscripts of first-time writers – so I thought I’d talk about them here.

Today, I’m going to talk about hooking the reader.

No one is obliged to finish your book – or even read beyond the beginning

When we’re at school we’re taught that if we start a book we must read it all the way to the end. It’s usually a rite of passage when we decide we won’t respect that rule any more, but once we do, we never again stay with a book out of polite duty. We need to be made to read on.

Quite often, first-time novelists have thought of a story, but not about how they will actively reach out to the reader and persuade them to pay attention. They need to approach this on two levels – intellectually and emotionally.

Creating intellectual curiosity

You can reach out with mystery, intrigue, drama, comedy, and atmosphere. Perhaps a body is found in a mysterious situation; a noise is heard every night at a particular time that can’t be explained; a girl fancies the guy who’s going out with her best friend. These hooks generate curiosity, so that the reader thinks, what is going on, what will happen next, what is the answer?

But that’s the easy bit – comparatively.

Creating the emotional connection – engagement

This is much harder and a lot of first manuscripts miss this element. Good stories have a bolt of emotional recognition that binds the reader to the characters. They put you in the characters’ shoes.

Perhaps she is Everygirl, like the MC in the opening of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones:

‘My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. In newspaper photos of missing girls from the seventies, most looked like me: white girls with mousy brown hair…’

Sebold goes on to sketch a picture of a recognisable schoolgirl – good at some subjects, disastrous at others, who is just discovering the wider world. These details are not just scene setting, they are the emotional link to who she is – an ordinary girl like us, who was robbed of the chance to grow up.

Here’s another example, the opening of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver:

‘Even the dead tell stories.

Sig looked across the cabin to where his father lay, waiting for him to speak, but his father said nothing, because he was dead.’

With these few deft words, we’re in Sig’s shoes.

You don’t necessarily have to launch straight in with the plot. One of my favourite openings is F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Cut Glass Bowl:

There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age , when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly moustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents… After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard … the glasses were set in the china closet … – and then the struggle for existence began.  … the last dinner glass ended up, scarred and maimed, as a toothbrush holder…

It’s brilliant, a timeline for a marriage seen through a couple’s wedding presents, and so human. We don’t know who the characters are yet and we haven’t a clue what they are going to do. But on a different level, we know them very well. We feel connected to their problems and their dramas – and we want to read on.

Many first-time writers think about grabbing the reader intellectually – from the outside – but not from the inside. It needs just as much attention – if not more.

Part two of this post will discuss two simple plotting problems that I often see in first novels

In the meantime, thanks to Ell Brown on Flickr for the photo – and guys, share the novel openings that really engage you!

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Tell the reader your story isn’t real – and make them commit to it even more

Dare to push the reader away – and they’ll come back even more keen



We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.

But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.

I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).

Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.

The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.

Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.

It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.

There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’

Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.

We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.

In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.

The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.

Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.

If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.

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How to avoid exposition – the Dirty White Candy way

4 cups granulated sugar, 1 cup light corn syrup, 1 cup water, 1/4 tsp salt, 3 egg whites beaten, 1 cup crushed amaretti biscuits, 1tsp vanilla

If you simply must explain a process or procedure in your story, make it into a bit of an adventure. Like this recipe…

I wanted to do a festive post. Many blogs I follow offer recipes for brain-stimulating confections, Holly Cupala and jmartinlibrary to name but two. With a handle like Dirty White Candy it surely was my duty to create a signature goody. Especially as no one can tell me what the real stuff was.

I imagined the photo that would accompany the post. Heaps of something yummy, mainly white, streaked with trademark ‘dirt’. Perhaps chocolate. Or coffee.

 I polled some friends. ‘Suggest a recipe that could be Dirty White Candy.’ Try divinity fudge with a twist, said one. How about bashed up biscuits instead of nuts? Perfect.

 Only, in order to take the sumptuous picture, I would have to make the darned stuff. And, as any of you fudgemeisters will know, this entails faffing with molten sugar and thermometers.

 I don’t have a sugar thermometer. I have never dabbled in such things. Years ago, chemistry A level put me off heating sugar vigorously. It’s a short step from caramel to tar-plating your pan. But I am an optimist. And I had set my heart on posting a festive recipe for dirty white candy.

 I am also not patient. I could have waited to buy a proper thermometer, but I wanted to do it right away. Besides, knowledgeable souls said a bowl of iced water might do. That’s all I needed to hear. After all, I have chemistry A level. Surely I could manage.

 I’m not saying I felt totally confident. I chose a pan I didn’t mind ruining. I read the instructions several times, even though they seemed simple. Put sugar, corn syrup, salt and water in a pan and heat until boiling. When it’s soft ball, dollop a spoonful into the beaten egg whites. Somehow, keep beating the egg whites with one hand and your volcanically hot sugar with the other. Steady the pan with your tail, if you have one.

 I started. The sugar melted and in seconds was bubbling violently. Cripes, it was a monster. I spooned gobbets into the iced water until one drop formed a tiny pearl. Hooray, soft ball. Or maybe beyond. (Wished I got that thermometer; black tar was possibly moments away). I whisked a bit into the egg white and it took on a glossy appearance, like meringue. So far, so good.

 Now I had to keep stirring everything, while testing for light crack, or something. Here my confidence got shaky, as did my multitasking. A spoon in each pan AND dropping stuff into water? That required three hands. And the testing instructions were alarmingly vague. It would leave streaks in the air when you pulled the spoon out, apparently. Even better, it would happen VERY FAST and if not turned out immediately would stick in the pan like a pot of set glue. As if the first stage hadn’t been fast enough. Eek.

 By now I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I dropped it into the water it looked the same. But wasn’t it supposed to change VERY FAST?

 Perhaps it had already.

 I lost my nerve, whipped it off the heat, whupped it into the egg whites, shook in the bashed biscuits, spread it on a tray and heaved a sigh of relief. Whoo, I made dirty white candy. No blackened disaster, and no glue.

 Except it didn’t set. It remained there like a big white splat. I had peaked too early.  

 ‘Um, what is it supposed to look like?’ said Dave.

 ‘Divinity fudge,’ I said.

 ‘And what does that look like?’

 ‘Actually, I’ve no idea.’

 (In England, we don’t have divinity fudge.)

 We prodded it. Ate spoonfuls (several in fact). We left it, in case it wanted time to think. It developed a light skin, like custard does, but that was as solid as it got.

 I’d come this far. Darn it, I wanted my signature candy. But in no way could I cut this up and display it on my prettiest plates, as cake gurus insist you must. Pretty plates wouldn’t hide the truth.

 I wondered about doing it all again. No; without a sugar thermometer there might be worse outcomes than a big white splat.

 Dave said: ‘Let’s smear it on ginger biscuits and make it look as though it’s worked, then you can take the picture.’ We did. It looked like sticky white stuff smeared on biscuits, (although it didn’t taste bad). I reckoned even if we didn’t have a clue what divinity fudge looked like, you guys would spot the subterfuge.

 We ate spoonfuls until our teeth felt like they were wearing socks. Considerable amounts remained. We squashed it into a bowl and stuck it in the fridge. Next morning it had not transformed. It reproached me every time I went to get the milk.

 In desperation I spooned dollops onto a baking sheet and shoved it in the oven at 200C. In 12 minutes they had swollen into golden cookies, light as clouds, and sticky within. Delicious.

 And so, after much ado, I can present to you, dirty white candy… the cookies! Happy holidays. Or as we say in the divinity fudgeless world, merry Christmas and a happy new year. It’s not what I set out to make, but hey that’s part of the fun.

 Stories are like that too. The best scenes or anecdotes, expositional or not, don’t turn out as anyone expects.

 How have you handled scenes that were in danger of being exposition?

And have you tried making my cookies 😉 ?

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