This is probably the most F of FAQs – how do you learn the basics for writing professionally. Is it necessary to take courses? What about all the famous writers who we know just did it themselves, made stuff up and wrote it down, following their inner star. Courses are helpful, but the good news is, we mainly teach ourselves. So how? And what should we be doing to do it well?
That’s what we’re discussing today in episode 2 of So You Want To Be A Writer. Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
I just discovered that Mixcloud, where Surrey Hills Radio archive the show I present with bookseller Peter Snell, has a function to share episodes on WordPress. Now you might be thinking I’ve posted a lot of audio and video recently, so let me reassure you I haven’t abandoned text. That would be somewhat absurd for a blog by a writer anyway, as prose is our instrument. Prose posts will be resumed, fear not.
But Mixcloud has these twinkling buttons, so here goes. The episode I’ve chosen is the special we recorded at Easter, where we ran through highlights of previous shows with the music we played at the time. For lo, one of the joys of working with a radio station is that they are licensed to broadcast music. (So you get the bliss of my music collection, for better or worse.)
We usually stick to two carefully chosen tracks that illustrate the topic under discussion, more or less. All right, sometimes it’s tenuous when I want an excuse to play something. Think of it as a ‘back to mine’ evening, with writing talk. But this episode we collected a few of our favourites together, so you get Symphony of Science, Grace Jones, Christopher Cross, The Eagles, Avalanches, Paul Weller, Nick Cave and a few other surprises which we’ll keep for you to discover. Hope you enjoy the trip.
Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Saturday afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
Can I free my book from Amazon CreateSpace? I want to seek a traditional deal. I published my first book a few years ago through CreateSpace. It’s a prelude to the one I’m now writing, and I am trying to find a publisher. Is there any way to free it from Amazon to match it to whoever I finally publish with? Sue
If you’re an experienced self-publisher you’ll know this is easy-peasy – so I’ll just say cheerio and see you next time. If not, read on….
Many writers might have an early book on a self-publishing platform, and now want to remove it. Perhaps to try for a traditional deal. Or to rework the material now they’re in a new phase of their writing life.
Here’s how to un-self-publish.
Do you have to ‘free your book’?
There are several aspects to this.
First: the rights. Big question: Are you allowed to unpublish the book and republish it elsewhere?
Let’s subdivide this further. Did you
use the publishing platform directly, setting up your own account?
use a middle man?
You published directly
The main direct platforms for print books are CreateSpace (which is now KDP), Lulu and IngramSpark. For ebooks, the main platforms are KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu and Kobo. There are also aggregators who send your books to multiple retailers – examples are Smashwords, PublishDrive, Streetlib, and Bookbaby.
If you have accounts with any of these, then you have complete control. You can remove the book yourself. Each platform has its own instructions.
So…. You don’t have to ‘free your book’. You are not under contract to these platforms. You simply used them as a printer. It’s not like a publishing deal. So you can do whatever you like with the book.
If it’s an ebook it will disappear from the sales channels.
If it’s a print book, the sales page will remain on Amazon but customers won’t be able to order it. There’s no way around this because it was assigned an ISBN so it forever exists in the limitless memory of book databases.
This might be irksome if you wish to bury the whole thing, but actually, it’s as good as buried. Only the cover, reviews and blurb will be visible to shoppers. In theory there might be second-hand copies available, though that’s unlikely. Even then, the system will probably help you as bots will know the book is scarce and will price the book at hundreds of dollars. (Really.)
So… although the book will look like it’s available, you can be pretty sure no one will buy it. But you can look at the page from time to time and laugh.
You went through a middle man?
If you went through a middle man, such as a publishing services company, they will have handled the uploading process through their account so you’ll have to ask them to remove the book. They probably printed through the exact same channels – CreateSpace, IngramSpark, Lulu or KDP, so the process at their end will be simple.
They might tell you the book can’t be taken out of the catalogues or off Amazon, but they’re referring to the situation I’ve explained in the previous section. The book will be visible but to all intents and purposes, not available (except for a handsome, bot-inflated sum of $700).
But… there are cowboy operators in the self-publishing world. Here are two hitches to be aware of.
Some try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere.
Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. This situation won’t trouble you if you’re going to reuse the work anyway, or bury it for ever. (Here’s a post where I wrote more about this.)
Once you’ve freed the book, and you want to seek a traditional deal, what then?
A publisher probably won’t be interested in a self-published book if it didn’t do very well. Unfortunately! But if you’re substantially changing it, or re-presenting it as part of a bigger project, then it’s not the same work. When you query it, be clear about its history, and stress how your new use of it will be viable and different.
Lock up after you!
And don’t forget to block off the pathways to the book you’ve unpublished. Check through your blog, social media descriptions – anywhere you might, once upon a time, have laid a pathway for readers to find the book. There will be more than you think! Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest… unpick whatever you can.
If you have a blog or website, you might want to write a brief post explaining that you’ve now retired the book. If you have exciting plans for it, write about them. This will help make your site look current – readers are put off if they come to a site that looks unloved and out of date.
Where do you find the books you want to read? There are theories galore about how authors and publishers should advertise, use categories, keywords etc. But I often find myself a bit bemused by them.
Because I don’t buy books that way. These theories seem to describe a behaviour that I simply don’t recognise. But I do buy books. All the time. So where am I discovering them?
I don’t expect this post will set the world of book marketing alight. But I hope to illuminate some less acknowledged processes. And I’m curious to know what you do, so I hope you’ll join in at the end.
I’ve never bought a book that I’ve seen on a Facebook advert. Yes, I know that advertising is there to remind you a book exists, not necessarily to grab your £££ immediately. I know that adverts have to be seen a certain number of times before they get noticed. And that they work in conjunction with other forms of exposure.
But Facebook has never managed to show me book adverts that I find appealing. This must mean I’m giving it some very wrong signals. (How many other readers are giving the wrong signals, I wonder?)
I’ve certainly bought books by people I know on Facebook, but not because of adverts. I’ve bought because of meaningful contact – chatting to them, or an interview. More on that later.
I don’t browse for books on Goodreads. I go there AFTER I’ve read a book, to keep the karma going with a review, when (ahem) time allows. (For the last few months it hasn’t. I’ll be rectifying that soon.)
Bargain book newsletter services
BookBub et al. I know these are smart sales tools, but they’ve always seemed rather superfluous to me as a reader. First, I don’t buy books because they’re bargains. I don’t find a book more appealing because it’s on special offer. I want the right book.
Second, these newsletters are selling ebooks, and I’m one of those throwbacks who likes a solid version. To have, to hold and to keep. To remind me, by its bulk on the shelf, to give it attention. But I do use Kindle samples to check books out, so it wouldn’t be totally useless to me.
Still, they are popular and effective for authors, so I thought I’d better evaluate them properly. What gems might I find by subscribing as a reader? An excellent article by the Alliance of Independent Authors compared them in terms of value for advertisers, and rated BookBub, Fussy Librarian and Bargain Booksy top. Fussy Librarian got a special mention because it wasn’t just promoting bargains.
I subscribed to Fussy Librarian as a reader, asking for news of literary fiction. After two months of emails, I can report they – or the authors who advertise with them – are not remotely fussy about what they categorise as literary fiction.
And this is a problem when you shop in this category. It’s easy for us all to agree what’s meant by categories such as crime, thriller, romance, paranormal or YA. But literary? The term gets put on everything that might not fit in the other boxes (and so, in Fussyland, it seems to mean cross-genre or two timelines). Here’s a post where I attempt my own definition of literary, in case you haven’t had enough. Meanwhile, several writers I know avoid the term altogether because they’ve learned their readers are put off by it.
But Fussy Librarian isn’t everything. I decided to try BookBub, the grandaddy of book email lists. And here’s where I was surprised. I have seen a few titles that I’m keen to know more about, so it will be interesting to see if my buying habits change as a result of BookBub.
So how do I discover books?
My sources are:
Newspaper review pages and the London Review of Books
Publishers’ lists (because of The Undercover Soundtrack, publishers send me their catalogues and I invite authors whose work appeals to me. What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Sleeve notes here)
Amazon’s ‘people who bought this bought that’ algorithm. I could wander in there for hours.
Oxfam bookshops – a great way to find books everyone else has forgotten about. Especially non-fiction. Yes, I know that’s dodgy because the author doesn’t get a royalty. But often these are books that aren’t available anywhere else or I’d never have known to search for them.
For research, I use Library Thing – this is the only time I search for books by categories, tags and all that labelling, because I’m shopping for something specific. But my pleasure reading is all surprise finds.
My favourite way to discover books
This has to be blogposts or interviews. I’m most likely to go hunting for a book if I’ve enjoyed the writer’s company in another piece of prose. I’ll check their reviews too, obviously. If I read a really thoughtful review, I’ll often want to know more about the reviewer – especially if they have a book of their own.
This means, therefore, that I’m a lot more influenced by gut feeling about the writer’s curiosities, thought processes and delivery. I’ll follow a good voice into any genre. I don’t read fantasy but I love Jack Vance. I don’t read crime but I love Barbara Vine and Dorothy L Sayers. I’m wary of horror, but I’ve been joyously sucked into the latest by Josh Malerman (who is coming up next week on The Undercover Soundtrack … that’s another place where I find glorious reads).
In short, I seek the quality that categories can’t measure. And this possibly means that if you’re a writer whose distinctive strength is nuance, your best marketing tool is an interview, a personal essay or a well-turned review.
Anyway, this isn’t a post that provides theses or theories, it’s a post of open-ended enquiry. Not a ‘how-to’; more of a ‘how-we’.
What are the last 5 books you bought?
Let’s examine our book discovery habits. How did you find the last five books you bought? You don’t have to have read them yet. I want to see how you met them. And I hope you’ll teach me some new shopping tips.
Here are mine A personal essay: I read this post and so I bought this. The piece is hardly about the book at all, but I feel I’ve been shown a piece of the author’s soul. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
An interview: I read this and was bewitched. I ordered this. The Next by Stephanie Gangi. She’s also coming to The Undercover Soundtrack soon.
Search by category + friend recommendation: This one’s for research. I was looking for accounts of bereavement and Library Thing did its thing. I haven’t read a Didion before, but she’s a favourite of a friend of mine. The irony in the title made it irresistible. Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking.
A friend: Another friend this time. He said: ‘You’ll like this. It’s weird and it really stays with you. I don’t know why. It just does.’ The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Lucky find in an Oxfam bookshop: I would never have thought to search for this. But there it was in a display. A sane biography of the teenage idol I’ve never grown out of. Under The Ivy. The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson.
Over to you. Where do you discover most of your books? On line, by browsing in a shop? How did you discover the last 5 books you bought and what were they? Any opinions on FB adverts and bargain book newsletters like Bookbub? Your favourite tip for book shopping?
My guest this week is a fan of BBC literary adaptations and describes music as a ‘necessary luxury’ in her writing process – magnifying the worlds of her characters, helping her to wriggle inside their plights and their conflicts. She is historical novelist VR Christensen, author of the bestseller Of Moths And Butterflies and she is flitting over to the Red Blog today with its Undercover Soundtrack.
As you might know, I’m fond of horses. For years I’ve been taking dressage lessons, with mixed results. One instructor used to yell at me: ‘you ride without feeling what the horse is doing’, but I recently started with a new instructor, who told me, to my surprise, that I had very good feel.
Here’s where this is relevant to writing – writers also need to develop feel. It’s how we know when our work is finished.
And to return to the saddle for a moment, how could I get two such contradictory opinions? Who was right?
Both were. Because, actually, I was ‘feeling’ all the time. I was noticing everything I should, but I didn’t know I was feeling anything important.
Applying this to writing, I remember – distinctly – a time when my writing turned a corner, when I learned to take notice of gut feeling. If a line was off, or a word was not precise or evocative enough. If a story moment was dull or predictable or wrong. If a passage was self-indulgent or a scene went on too long. I realised I had always felt and noticed these things, but I had not known I should trust them and act on them. The ‘feel’ was there. It had been all along. I just had to listen.
When we’re learning something – anything – a lot of it is mechanics and rules and principles. For writing, we learn what plot structure is, what character arcs are, show not tell, how to plant a theme, how to add subtext, how to present dialogue.
But alongside those technicalities there is another level, a more individual, inspirational level, which holds a work together.
This comes from deep in you, from the way you’re wired. If you listen to it, it’s where you develop your distinctiveness, your aesthetic, your style. It’s not learned, it’s already there. There’s craft, which is an exoskeleton, and then there is soul, which is how you are in your deep interior, a human being alive with questions and mysteries and curiosities. It’s how you have always been.
What should you learn to listen for? Here are some suggestions.
Is that word or line perfect for the feeling you want to give the reader? Sometimes, I go to the thesaurus and read lists of synonyms until I find the word that fits more truly.
Is that plot development or character action a little awkward? What should you change – the event? Or should you explore more deeply the characters’ reasons, both conscious and unconscious? Do you feel they’re doing the right thing, but you haven’t yet understood the reasons?
Is the pace dragging and do you want that? When you read a scene, does it seem to repeat a previous story beat, and is that irritating to you or pleasing?
Is something missing? Will the piece – or the book – flow better with an extra paragraph, an extra scene, an extra chapter? If you reorder some of the scenes, will everything click into place?
These are gut-level judgements, but if you learn to listen for them, they will start to speak up. You will start to write more by feel, and use your craft with originality, style and sensitivity. Listen also, for when the piece runs smoothly, when you can read a passage or a chapter – or the whole book – and feel everything is just right, just so.
How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.
Ian, how did writing start for you?
A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.
When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.
Have you done other arts?
I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.
Were your family in the arts?
If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.
You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?
After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.
The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.
Are all the interviewees writers?
I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.
Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?
One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.
I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.
What is your day job now?
In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.
Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?
The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.
All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.
Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.
Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.
In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.
Why that title? It’s quite brave…
The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.
How long was your novel in progress?
Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.
Do you have an MFA yourself?
My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.
Was it useful to you?
It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.
You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?
The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?
Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?
Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.
The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.
The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.
Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?
That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.
Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?
While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.
That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.
Wordcounts or not?
In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.
Travel or stay at home?
I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.
Fast or slow reader?
Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.
How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?
I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.
Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?
Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.
I’m aware the title of this blogpost might sound like old-fogey nagging, but it has a serious point. And, to reassure you, the cure is easy.
We learn storytelling from just about anything, and much of it without realising. TV and movies are a huge part of our lives and while they’re great teachers for some aspects, they’re not so good for others.
There are several common issues I see in novel manuscripts where the writer is thinking with TV/movie brain. So here’s how to reboot your prose brain.
Problem: lack of description
The writer doesn’t set up the scene with description. In a movie or TV show, the scene-setting isn’t dwelt on, so it doesn’t get noticed. It comes alongside the action and dialogue. However, prose needs to take deliberate extra beats to create the environment because the reader can’t see what’s around the characters. If we don’t show this, it creates a peculiar effect, like being blindfolded. I’ve read manuscripts where I thought the character was confined to one room in a kind of blank mind-jail, when actually he was staying in a nice hotel.
Some writers load the description at the start of the scene, then fail to keep it in the reader’s mind. They concentrate on the characters’ spoken lines and actions, but don’t keep the environment alive. This is disorientating for the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Readers need their inner vision to be fed – and their inner hearing too. Think of a radio play – it’s quite obvious there how the scene is ‘decorated’. If the characters are in a café, there might be a spoon chinking against a mug, a low hum of chatter from other customers. You barely notice it because it’s going on at the same time as the foregrounded action, but it’s been deliberately added to make the scene lifelike. There might be one or two moments where a character interacts with the environment in an aside – in the café they might make a remark about the cake they’re trying to resist.
And that’s how you keep the environment alive in a prose scene. Use it as part of the action. If a character’s sitting at a desk, they could tap their finger on it while thinking about what to say next. Make them react to it too – like the character longing for cake.
Use anything physical to bring the scene alive. What about their clothes? If a character is wearing a ballgown, the skirt material might rustle as they shift position.
Problem: lack of background about the viewpoint characters
I see quite a lot of manuscripts where we aren’t told enough about the viewpoint character. We see them doing things, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are there, how old they are – and this isn’t a deliberate artistic choice. Although we don’t want to overload the reader with the characters’ life stories, there are certain things we simply can’t work out.
In a movie or TV show, we get all this at a glance. In prose, we need to be told.
Reboot your prose brain Make yourself a checklist – ensure you sneak this information in somehow. Have you let us know your character’s life circumstances? How old they are? How successful? How healthy? How happy? What relationships they have? All these details provide important context.
Problem: lack of interiority and reaction
In movies and TV, we usually can’t get inside a viewpoint character’s mind. So if something happens that provokes a reaction, we have to see it expressed – physically or verbally. But if this is how you show reactions in prose, it looks quite empty. But prose has a delightful quality that some writers underuse – it can put us inside the character’s mind and heart.
Reboot your prose brain If your narrative style allows, remember you can let the reader experience the reaction in the character’s mind and heart. Don’t just show it on the outside with facial expressions and dialogue. You have a whole other register for communication – your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.
There are many possible ways a character could react to a plot event – you have to specify those reactions! Furthermore, you can show the complexity of the people you’ve created. You can explore mixed feelings and unexpected responses.
But what if you want to be economical and let the reader fill the gaps from their knowledge of the context? Yes, you can do that – but you have to teach the reader about the character first. So in the early part of the story you show the reader that, for instance, a character is secretly in love with another character. Much later, you can show the character being rejected and you might not need to show the devastation this will cause – the reader will know. But if you’ve never taught the reader what emotion a character feels about a thing or another person… the reader won’t know.
Don’t forget to go inside a viewpoint character’s reaction.
Problem: dialogue lacks an interior dimension
This is similar to the previous point. TV and movie dialogue does a lot with the characters’ actions or tone of voice. A writer might attempt to describe these in a dialogue scene – so we get reactions, gestures and expressions, but they might not mean a lot to the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Gestures and expressions can certainly be useful, but they’re not the most effective way to help the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Use interiority as well, as above.
Problem: dialogue has too many mundanities
TV and movie dialogue often has a lot of warm-up. Hello, how was your journey, sit over there, I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on, I was up at four this morning because the bairn wouldn’t sleep.
This human noise is necessary because we’re following the action in real time, it looks natural, and we’re also settling in for the real meat of the scene – perhaps seeing relationships, an environment (see my first point), getting a sense of anticipation. The actors’ actual words are quite mundane, but we’re not meant to be paying much attention to them.
However, this mundane dialogue doesn’t work so well in prose. I see a lot of scenes in novels that go:
‘Hello, how was your journey?’
‘I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on.’
‘Oh, thank you, I need caffeine, I’ve been up since four because…’
That’s four whole lines of not very much.
Of course, there are situations where this might be valuable – if there is something interesting for the reader to notice. For instance, if you’ve laid the ground for the reader to interpret awkwardness or tension, or to be very curious about every moment of this encounter. But many writers do this just to get a scene under way, because that’s how TV does it.
Reboot your prose brain Although you need some of this, and scene setting is important, you don’t need nearly as much as a TV or movie script would. You certainly don’t need to follow every step in real time – an artful condensing will work just as well. Use it, as I’ve said, if there is something the reader will enjoy noticing. Otherwise, pare down as much as possible.
Don’t just learn your storytelling from films and TV! Keep reading prose as well, to keep in practice with that medium – so you give the reader the best possible experience.
Elaina Battista-Parsons says she likes to write about what makes her weird, or gives her chills, or makes her happy. Thus was born a collection of essays and verse that became a memoir, Italian Bones In The Snow. Here, she talks about everything that makes her, and her books.
Your Facebook name is Winterwriter Battista. Tell me what it means.
Battista is my maiden name, and I really love it. I always have. As a kid, I’d love crossing the three ts when I wrote in script. Winterwriter is for my absolute adoration of winter. It’s when I feel most creative, most alive, and most in tune with everything.
What do people call you?
Where did you get your urge to write?
It began in third grade when I wrote about a trip to the Poconos mountains with my family and our close friends. I won an award for that piece.
Were you surrounded by arty people as a child?
There are a ton of creative arteries running through both sides of my family—no writers that I know of, but seamstresses, painters, sculptors, instrumentalists. My mom is excellent with sewing fabrics and cooking. My dad is a mechanical tinkerer. I was exposed to music of all genres growing up, all the time. We had a set of huge speakers in the living room. So yes, literally—surrounded.
Looking at your Instagram, you are a dervish of creativity. There are lists of stuff that shouldn’t go together, but when viewed in your excited handwriting they somehow do. I quote: First loves, first lusts, bread, cemeteries.
I don’t accept that things ‘don’t go together’. You can always find the common ground between bread and lust, LOL. Also, it’s all very spiritual. I mean, isn’t bread spiritual to everyone? No?
How does your creativity work?
My creativity usually begins with a memory of a feeling or setting.
Do you have a method? How do you get from feeling to finished work?
I wish I had a method. Instead, each project takes on a new form of being constructed. Italian Bones In The Snow flew out of my hands in a month or two, I swear as if my female ancestors took hold of the keyboard. I was just their conduit. My newer project is a full-length memoir. This project requires checklists, interviews, and daily word count goals. Less cosmic. It’s going to take much, much longer to get right.
You describe yourself as a writer across genres. Tell me about that. What do you write?
I swore my debut would be a middle-grade novel. I have written two or three full-length middle-grade novels, now sleeping on my shelf. Nobody wanted them. They need work. Then the first book contract I signed was with Inked in Gray Press. My young adult novel is called Black Licorice, and it will be in the world hopefully in January of 2023.
I also write poetry. Perhaps a picture book is somewhere in me too.
Italian Bones In The Snow is a book of memoir shorts, isn’t it? Talk me through it.
With Italian Bones there was more freedom than with a full-length memoir or a novel. I thank Vine Leaves Press for being so open to a collection as striped and asymmetrical as this.
How did you find a through-line to pull it together?
It’s arranged sort of sequentially, and sort of topically. It was like no other I have written. I wrote it fast and furiously, as mentioned above. Like I had to get it on paper, or I’d bust. It started as a series of random essays and word play, and then Melanie Faith, one of the most talented editors on Earth, helped me to see the common threads and sections. It’s divided into four sections based on concept, and many of the essays end in poetry. This collection is very accessible to people who don’t have time to read larger novels. It’s a quick, but with a salty bite. There is some chronology. I write about things that have moulded me: relationships, books, family, my mastectomy, Madonna, and music. To name a few.
You also work as a reading coach for students with disabilities. How did that start?
I have a private tutoring business where I specialise in teaching children with dyslexia. I’ve been doing that since 2005. I used to work in public schools, but our lifestyle works better when I work from home.
What other jobs have you done?
I began teaching in 2001 and remained in school systems until 2017. I’m also a three-level Reiki practitioner, but I don’t do that regularly, especially since Covid.
Have any of those jobs helped form you as a writer?
Everything helps me as a writer. Reiki gives me clarity. Teaching gives me joy.
Do you have any writing qualifications such as an MFA?
I do not! But I enrol in as many writing courses and workshops as I can, and those that work with my lifestyle. I have two daughters who keep us very busy. Currently, I am taking a fantastic creative writing class with Kathy Curto, author of Not for Nothing, Glimpses into a Jersey Girlhood.
You’re creative writing editor of Cordeliamagazine. Tell me about that role.
Yes! What a lovely group of young women who’ve created this space for pertinent articles, essays, and stories. I found them on Instagram, and I am so happy to be part of their very new literary magazine. The editor-in-chief sends me submissions. I review, mend, and submit them back to her for publication. I love, love literary magazines, particularly ones run and focused on marginalised voices. I can say the same about independent presses. What a supportive community.
You’ve had poems and essays published in various magazines. Do you have a method for finding publications that are a good match for your work?
Submittable and Instagram have been great resources for finding good fits. Growing up, I’d devour any brochure, magazine, or catalogue that arrived in our mailbox. Or any I saw in waiting rooms. I love the ‘publication’, so I enjoy having my work spread out around these wonderful places that are run by passionate people.
Any advice for writers who are submitting to magazines?
Don’t overthink your pieces. They’re meant to be shared, not hidden in the caverns of your laptop. Perfectionism is paralysing.
How would you describe your style? What are the fingerprints of Elaina’s work? Any constant themes and curiosities?
I like to write what I know about. My work is rich in imagery and sensory details. I like to write about what makes me weird. What scares me. What gives me chills. What makes me truly happy. Most of all, I write about things that can maybe inspire others to not feel alone or weird. Because all humans are. Both alone and weird.
What makes you weird. What makes you happy or scared. I want to linger in this answer. It’s a perfect description of the personal essay.
Okay, a quick one. Writing or rewriting?
Lennon or McCartney?
After watching Get Back for eight hours with my husband, I have a huge crush on John Lennon. What a stunning and beautiful spirit he was. But….without Paul, there’s no Beatles.
Cluttered desk or tidy desk?
You have a YA novel coming out soon -a different audience from Italian Bones and your short pieces. Did you have to adapt your usual approaches?
I wrote the YA novel first. I’ll be super transparent here. Fiction is significantly harder for me to get right. My editors at Inked in Gray are the reason it’s developed for me. I am a better fiction writer because of Dakota and Justine. Italian Bones was a totally fresh and new experience from that. I can’t compare any of the approaches. Like oil and water.
Why was YA the right decision for that book?
I began writing it to mourn and process the death of a dear friend. It took on a life of its own from there.