Archive for category How to write a book
My friend Henry Hyde is kicking off a series on his blog called Writing Insights, and I’m honoured to be his first guinea pig. He asked me questions about my writing methods, publishing decisions and advice I would have given myself as a beginner, which led to discussions of separation anxiety, misfit books and novels that take their sweet long time to develop. Do come over.
‘So you don’t find the blank page worrying?’
Creative writing teacher Jane Jones was interviewing me as part of her women writers’ summit (watch this space). Actually, we recorded it multiple times because of tech catastrophes so a lot of our discussion never got saved. (Moral: don’t use untried software. Also, Zoom helpdesk are the embodiment of patience.)
Anyway, one of Jane’s topics was how we start writing. I said I’d always felt at home talking to the page. When I was a kid, I simply loved to write – letters, stories, reactions to books I’d read. At the age of 13 I discovered science fiction fanzines and sent them articles and reviews, which I really hope have fallen into landfill. Why science fiction fanzines? Chiefly because they accepted copy from teenagers writing in their bedrooms. I was shy and awkward in real life, but in manuscript I was a right chatterbox. I could think in ways I didn’t in verbal time; be inventive, confident. The page was a welcoming place.
Which is when Jane brought up the subject of the scary blank page.
The young me, typing to the world, never had a moment’s stage fright. Because I always started with a purpose in mind.
And this is where we pinned it down. The frightening thing is not the blank page. It’s the blank mind. And I find the blank mind as paralysing as anyone.
So what can you do about it? Here are some suggestions.
It’s quite hard to generate good ideas to order. I’ve had many of my best inspirations when I’m not consciously trying to work on them. While making dinner or a packed lunch for the next day, or at the gym, or walking to the station, or writing something else.
Always keep a writing task on low simmer in your mind. Perhaps look at your notes for the next scene or story you’re going to tackle, or reread a scene you’re going to edit, but don’t actually try to solve any problems. Just present it to your brain, shrug and go concentrate on something else. We all hate unsolved problems. That’s why we have the phrase ‘preying on your mind’. Before you know it you’ll be getting good ideas without even trying. (Thanks for the pic Leo Hartas. More of his work here)
First thing in the morning
Some people like to write first thing in the morning as an exercise. What if you arrive at the page without a thought in your head? Did you have a dream? Write that.
For a bonus point, write it so that another person can understand why it was significant to you. Dreams usually make wondrous sense to us and none at all to anyone else. Your task in this exercise is to write your dream so that it reveals its meaning and resonance to everyone, not just you. Add context and questions, or perhaps some answers.
Voila. You just wrote a personal essay.
Books and websites of writing prompts are a veritable industry in themselves. Here are a few ways to grow your own.
Look through your photos and do this.
Nose around Flickr for people’s private photos. Set a timer so you’re not browsing for ever. Find a picture of an interesting place and write about somebody who just ran away from it.
Use music – go to my companion site, where writers talk about using music. Read any of those pieces and they’re sure to get you in the mood. Or, if time is short (or you might end up getting pleasantly lost instead of writing), pick a song title at random and write about that.
It’s dead easy to think of writing prompts to help other people conquer their blank pages. Drumming them up for yourself isn’t. Such is the nature of blank mind.
Sometimes we get stuck in a small way. We don’t know what our novel’s characters should say or do, or how to solve a practical problem. If you haven’t got time for the ‘prey on your mind’ tactic, tackle it head on. Start writing any old nonsense – and sense will usually emerge. (In Nail Your Novel 1 I’ve got plenty of suggestions for that.)
The biggest blank of all – the next book
The scariest blank of all, for me, is when I’ve finished a book. As I edit and shape a manuscript I feel increasingly at home. Every change feels meaningful and rewarding. Even if I have ideas for the next book, I don’t want to leave the current one because I don’t have that sense of familiarity. It’s like leaving a much-loved job for a new one with too many unknowns.
The other night Husband Dave decided to discuss next books. I said, of course, that Ever Rest will be my next book after this one I’m working on. No, he said, I mean the book after that. He reeled off a few of the ideas I’ve discussed with him and said ‘I’m looking forward to those’. I took a gulp of wine because I was not. I felt panic. I’d got a sketchy synopsis or two, but no real engagement with them yet. That work still has to be done and it feels like a lot of blank, a vast Arctic of it. Here is Dave, in wife-frightening mode.
So blank mind can also be a relative thing. It can be the contrast between a work that’s so detailed you know it as well as your own life, and something that’s mostly untrodden. Blank mind doesn’t have to be 100% unknown. If you’re going from 80% known, then 80% unknown can be plenty scary enough.
But that’s just part of the job of writing. We manage somehow.
What am I working on at the moment? This thingy on the left.
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Give me your thoughts on the blank page, the blank mind … if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island and he describes a moment in an Edinburgh art gallery when he saw a father talking to his son about the difference between early and later Goya. Bryson says:
The man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. He wasn’t showing off, you understand; he was sharing.’
Showing off. Sharing.
It seems to me that this distinction could apply, not just to art appreciation or father-son conversations, but to art itself.
It’s hard to pin down what makes a piece of art effective, but one explanation could be this – an essential quality of transparency, of real communication. Whether it’s painting, dance, acting or writing, you forget it’s being accomplished through words on a page, or strokes of paint, or somebody dressing up and pretending, or performing a much rehearsed sequence of moves. It seems to be there completely without artifice or barrier or skin.
Where does this sense of naturalness come from? One answer might be in this post I wrote a while ago, inspired by an interview with Michael Caine. He was being asked about his relaxed performance manner, and how he made it look so effortless. he said ‘the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation.’ Put another way, to be effortless requires … hours of non-spontaneous effort.
It also means we have to get our ego out of the way. But this is a finely judged thing. We want our writing to hold the reader’s attention, so we have to be a bit bold. We need flair and panache. Characters who are memorable. Plot events that make us turn the page. For each of those qualities, we tread a fine line. A phrase might be startling and true, or it might strike a fake note. A character might be distinctive and unforgettable, or they might be unconvincing, or jar with the tone. Figuring out which is which is one of the eternal quests of honest self-editing.
Sometimes, we can get an answer by taking a long look at our motives. Often, deep down, we know if we’re keeping an image, line, simile, plot event or description that doesn’t belong. The reason is usually this – we’re pleased with them.
If that’s your conundrum, this question could be the clincher.
Was it showing off or sharing?
If you follow me on Facebook or get my newsletter, you might have seen this cryptic message:
Assuming you give two hoots, you’ll find more about it here. It all started with this.
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!
A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me.
Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry. He said this: they all had ‘a different quality of imagination’.
And Eno replied: ‘I think everyone has much more imagination than they give themselves credit for. But the difference is that some people take their imaginations seriously.’
Yes. One thousand per cent.
Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing up a publishing offer from a small imprint.
But lordy, it was a slog. I felt like I was rehashing material I’d already tackled exhaustively. Planet Earth did not need another article about how to publish wisely in 2017.
And then, by chance, out of my radio come Messrs Eno and Vine. Take your imagination seriously.
I thought that’s IT. That’s how I want to go into 2017. While we’re figuring out whether to self-publish or look for a deal, or mix a trad indie cocktail never tasted before, we must not lose sight of this.
What we do is about creation. Listening to what interests us, moves us. Growing as artistic, communicative beings, finding things that seem to peel back something we must say about our world and our lives. This is where the joy of our work comes from, where we make our distinctive contribution.
Eno said more:
‘It’s not just having ideas, but being prepared to push them through and try to make them work. Some people get discouraged very easily, but I think successful artists don’t. They get confidence in what they’re doing and they decide “I want to see how it works; I want to see what happens when I do it”.’
At a time when we’re all making resolutions, and resolutions to help us keep our resolutions, and tips for success, I’d like to offer this one. Who’s with me?
I’m still working on a hush-hush project, but I think this repost from 2012 might be helpful. On this blog I try to cover all your writing needs. Including the short but painful requirement to brag about your year’s achievements to your Christmas card list.
If smugness isn’t as natural to you as it is to Nina and Frederik in the picture below, you might need some help.
Let me confess: I’m a fan of round-robin Christmas letters.
It’s fashionable to diss them in the UK, but I disagree. Even if the missive is smug and airbrushed and claims the golden offspring can split the atom, it’s more meaningful than a card that only says ‘from Nina and Frederik’.
But since I approve of Christmas newsletters, that means I must compose one. And I don’t know what to put.
I spent this year writing, rewriting, talking to other writers and, er, working out what to write next. Sure, there was adventure and atom-splitting, but it happened on the page and in my head.
And that’s my update. One paragraph. How can I spread it out?
When in doubt, study the requirements of the genre.
Christmas letters need boasting, with bells on. Your friends will report a mighty throng of promotions, bonuses, and other unceasing achievements. Traditionally published authors can name-drop with the imprints they’ve wooed but indies also have a wealth of impressive material. Deploy the word ‘bestseller’. Normal folks don’t know how niches work or how chart positions soar and dip every hour. If you’re feeling really bold, trot out blog awards. The Happy Candy Sweetness Blogger doesn’t sound that far from the Costa.
Your newsletter-writing friends will list their accomplishments in karate, ballroom dancing, local politics, golf, the PTA. Fortunately as a writer, you are blessed with the ability to acquire unexpected expertise. Pick juicy subjects you’ve been researching but remember it’s family viewing. Please, no ’50 vile ways to murder with a drug overdose’, it’s ‘needlework’.
Forget how much strife it took to travel afar. Yes, you had to complete twice as much work first. Yes, the night before, you fell in love with your novel and couldn’t bear to leave it. Despite all this, you must say it was the trip of a lifetime (it certainly felt that long without a manuscript to escape to).
You can talk about your works in progress if you pretend they are your cats. The newest is adorable. The fat old thing who’s sprawled on your laptop for years has outstayed its welcome. Another has been forcibly stuffed under the bed and won’t be let out until June. Perhaps leave out the news that little Nanowrimo may be euthanased or chopped up to make something better.
Children and family
Open the study door and check if you have real children, husbands etc. (Hint – you may need to ask their names.) Mention them in the newsletter or the reader may fear disaster. Also, talk about your books that have fled the nest. If your fiction is taking a while to make its mark, report that it is on a gap year while it finds itself. Or finds anyone, really.
Use the Christmas letter as preparation
For a few mad days, there will be socialising. Oh mighty dread. Dialogue will not be editable and we will have to talk to characters we haven’t studied first. Penning a Christmas letter is good practice for your return to earthly form.
Merry Christmas. R x
I’m sneaking away from the internet for a little while, so there won’t be any new posts for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile I’ve cued up a few tweets of writing links to keep your muse simmering – which you can follow at Twitter or on the sidebar here if WordPress and the tweetwires are playing nicely. And here’s a post that deals with a timely writing matter… See you soon
On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.
Become a stranger to your story
We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.
To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.
Let the flavours marinate
Your manuscript needs to marinate…
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Novels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.
Crucial event is underplayed or buried
Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.
Big reveal… falls flat
Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?
Plot events make no sense
Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).
Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu
Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!
These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…