Archive for category How to write a book
I’ve had this interesting question:
My novel has plenty of story and character development but certain parts depend on the brilliance of the ideas the characters discuss. Some readers have said they could do without those parts, but others have told me they love the ideas.
Are you an editor who worships storytelling above all else and can’t stand portions of a book that slow things down? Or one who likes thought-provoking portions of a book even if they detract from the action?
What a provocative, chewy – and useful – question.
Every editor has a different idea of storytelling, pace, tolerance for philosophical materials that aren’t plot etc. So does every writer; so does every reader. This is my personal take.
Having said that, I’ve edited a lot of novels that do this, where the action seems to stop so that the reader can be given a lecture, where the characters appear to be mouthpieces for a philosophical or moral argument. I don’t think it works. I find it pushes me out of the characters’ world and makes me disengage.
You ask an interesting question about storytelling. Storytelling is much more than plot actions. It’s also your voice, the things you direct the reader to be interested in. Usually this is by sleight of hand, and by involving the reader in the hearts of the characters.
You speak of slowing a novel down, as if slow is bad. But not all parts of a novel have to move fast. Sometimes a slow passage is very welcome. Sometimes an entire book should be mostly slow, because that suits the material – especially for very interior books where we savour the detail.
Pace is not necessarily about being fast, although a well-paced book will hold your attention so well that hours will pass without you realising.
Pace is about balancing faster and slower, about judging what will keep your reader’s attention. It’s about judging what’s right for the tone and mood of the book. it’s also about balancing light and shade – humour and optimism versus darkness and peril or tragedy.
Passages that ‘detract’…
You mention passages that ‘detract’… I don’t like anything that ‘detracts’. Who does?
Personally, I see it as a failure of artistry. If a passage looks like it shouldn’t be in the book, it shouldn’t be in the book. I feel it’s your job as spellweaver to make everything belong. But we all have different tolerances. You might enjoy books that stop the action for long passages of philosophising in which the characters seem to have abandoned their own agendas. I find it looks preachy.
How not to preach
My preference is to knead this material into the story, to dramatise it – so that it doesn’t hit the reader as a lecture. I prefer to make it part of the texture of the characters’ worlds. The philosophical ideas become the rules of the story world – creating their moral dilemmas, their difficult choices, their obligations, their personality clashes, their lasting enmities, the things they aim for or fight for or want to break away from.
Certainly a great story can provoke thoughts, but the most skilful stories achieve this by provoking emotion too – a sense of right, wrong, difficulty, impossibility. The reader learns the ideas effortlessly, plays with them in their mind afterwards, and greatly admires the writer who planted these thoughts.
But you may not like that. We’re all different.
PS There’s a lot more about this in my plot book
Thanks for the pic Smackfu on Flickr
Guys, what’s your take on this? My way or Simon’s way? And if you have a question you’d like to put to me, I’d love to tackle it.
Meanwhile, If you’re curious about my most recent writerly toils, here’s my latest newsletter
Questions…. they’re the reason a reader gets intrigued by a story. And, at the author’s end, the writing process is an entire cycle of questions, big and small, some arising out of other questions. Some of the process is figuring out the right answers. Some of it is figuring out what to ask in the first place.
If that sounds like a conundrum, some of the most important questions are conundrums in themselves. Confused?
PS If you’re curious about the latest doings of my own creative pen, here’s my latest newsletter
The publishing world is moving faster than ever. Have creative writing courses kept pace? That’s the angle I’m considering this time in my series of interviews with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell.
If you want a career in mainstream publishing, will a course equip you for that?
If you want a traditional deal, will a creative writing qualification make that more likely?
What about the indie world – does a creative writing degree confer any benefit, advantage or prestige?
If you decide to be master of your own work, will a degree help you do it more wisely and effectively?
Now that authors have to do so much platform-building for themselves – whether indie or traditional – have the academic departments kept up with these new demands?
As usual, Garry is patient and thoroughly candid and the discussion can be found at Late Last Night Books. It’s part of a longer conversation:
Grab coffee and come over. As always, the comments system at Late Last Night Books is tricky to negotiate, but if you’d like to add to the discussion or ask a question, type it here!
How do we develop a sensitivity to language? Words are more than tools. They beguile, mystify, change hearts, fill the mind with shapes, colours, music.
I’ve written before about honing your prose, according to your genre. The full piece is here, but in brief:
- Strive to be understood
- Develop an ear
- Suit the genre
- Find books whose writing you want to study and savour
- Try many styles
Today I’m going to explore another tip. Read poetry.
My guest today is well qualified to talk about this. Joe Nutt has spent his career teaching English in schools, and is now one of the leading educationalists in the UK. He has written study books on Shakespeare, John Donne and Milton. He writes for the Times Educational Supplement, The Spectator, Spiked and Areo.
He’s now on a mission to open poetry to everyone, not just academic students, and is about to release The Point of Poetry, published by Unbound.
And since he’s raised the question with his title, I’ll ask that first – Joe, what is the point of poetry?
Joe There is something honest and pure about poetry. It’s as though there is almost nothing between you and the poet’s mind, just this thin piece of paper. They let you into their thoughts and their thoughts make you think for yourself.
Roz You certainly don’t have to convince me; I never think I’m writing well enough, so I have a row of poetry books beside my desk that I dip into when I’m working.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ve figured out a list of qualities for good prose and I’m going to ask Joe to prescribe a poet or poem for each.
First of all, the visual shape of words… A word that is perfectly shaped for its context
Joe There are some poets who seem to care deeply about the look of a poem on the page and that visual awareness can sometimes be seen on a much smaller scale, within individual lines or even just phrases. When you look at a poem by Thomas Hardy the neatness and order of its visual pattern is often striking. But ironically, perhaps the easiest poet where you can see the visual shape of words playing a part is Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Part of the reason is his extraordinary appreciation of the sounds words make when they combine. In his poem Inversnaid, for example, you have the line
Dagged with dew, dappled with dew’
where the letters themselves, the way they look, seem to demand your attention.
Roz The letters demand your attention… the shape of a letter, or the combination of letters.
One of my favourite examples is the word ‘feral’, which jumps into your eye as ‘fear’ and ‘snarl’. Words contain emotional shapes.
I’m especially aware of this when I’m editing another writer’s manuscript. A writer might choose a word that’s correct in literal meaning, but inappropriate in that other, visceral register, and usually in a comic way – they might describe a loud and sudden sound in a way that ruins the mood of their piece.
Joe That’s so true of such a lot of mediocre writing I see. One of the great advantages of teaching English, as I did for 20 years, and to many remarkably intelligent children, is you get to see the most common mistakes. You become extraordinarily familiar with people who are naturally struggling to express themselves. I think literary agents could learn a lot from experienced English teachers.
Roz Well that’s a discussion I’d like to have some day! For now, though, let’s discuss my next poetic essential: the fall of a line, word positioning for emphasis.
Joe Hopkins again offers a great window into this meticulous use of structure in a poem. He often repeats words in close proximity or uses words that are just one vowel change off. In the final verse of Inversnaid, which is only four lines long, he uses wet and let twice each, but ends the verse and poem with yet. Small shifts in sound but complete shifts in sense.
Roz Repetition: it’s a powerful device because it’s so noticeable.
Here’s another careful kind of structuring – the sentence that is oddly, but perfectly worded. Look at the delicacy of these lines in Philip Larkin’s poem Broadcast:
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.’
Now to my third point. What about metaphor? Nominate an example of an arresting metaphor?
Joe It’s difficult to think any poem beautiful without discussing metaphor and poets like John Milton erect monumental metaphors that can waylay an inattentive reader. But a much simpler one from The Point of Poetry would be from George Mackay Brown’s poem The Hawk. The poem is a little diary of one hawk’s eating habits and one of its victims is a chicken which dies,
Lost in its own little snowstorm’.
I once saw a sparrowhawk strike a pigeon in full flight, only a few feet in front of my windscreen, so I know exactly how that metaphor works.
Roz This leads me, so neatly, to my fourth point… The particular moment that seems to illuminate a truth about the bigger human experience…
Joe Lots of poets start with the natural world. Poets like Ted Hughes or Seamus Heaney, and when you become familiar with their work they frequently start with the local and specific, but move towards the universal.
Heaney’s poem Blackberry-Picking, which is in the book, takes what was certainly a common feature of my childhood, scavenging hedgerows for blackberries, and turns it into a powerful observation about how we yearn for things to stay as they are, but learn to appreciate the transience of pretty much everything.
William Blake also searches for significant truths in his verse, even when he starts with just a single rose or a tiger.
Roz For my fifth point, I want to talk about economy. I love this poem by Simon Armitage, which plunges you into the middle of a conversation with the writer’s thoughts…
Before you cut loose, put dogs on the list of difficult things to lose….’
It’s so bold, so colloquial, so conversationally crafted. It’s also so macroscopically true, but that’s not what I want to discuss in this point. I want to talk about how swiftly it gets to the point. Do you have a favourite example of a poem that hits the ground running?
Joe Economy is the perfect word for poetry. The cost is low but the return is just huge. That’s really what distinguishes it from all other types of writing. Poets pare everything down to the absolute essentials.
I’m a great fan of John Donne and his love poem, The Feaver, is an absolute gem. You can’t read Donne’s poetry without feeling he was a man who lived a life of extremes. A brilliant apostate whose career and financial security were destroyed after he was imprisoned for falling in love with his boss’s young daughter. Who then married and brought up a large family with her, before losing her to death in childbirth and finally joining the Anglican priesthood, more or less at the command of his king. The Feaver begins with this dramatic plea
O ! Do not die, for I shall hate
All women so, when thou art gone.’
Roz Tell me what I’ve missed.
Joe I think one of the often undervalued joys of poetry is how much we gain from rereading it. I love rereading favourite novels but only after I’ve let years pass between readings. Poetry you can return to the next day and feel differently about it, still find something new.
Roz Your book is obviously a personal crusade. Tell me what made you write it?
Joe It came about as a result of my changing career. After almost 20 years teaching English I moved into business and was struck by how limited conversations are in that world. People often ask me if I miss teaching and I always say no, but there is one thing I really do miss, the quality of the conversation. The people were just as varied and interesting as those I had found as a teacher, but conversations in the hotel bar after a day’s work stuck to a few, narrow subjects. Work, occasionally politics, sport, films and TV – and if you were really lucky the odd book, but mentioning poetry was almost social suicide.
I realised then that the world was full of perfectly well-educated adults, who bought books and even read them, but who would never even think to glance at the poetry shelf in Waterstones. Somehow, even though their schooling had included verse, it had completely passed them by as something to read later in life. If they remembered anything at all from their school experience it was probably with regret or confusion. That seemed such a waste to me, so I set about writing a book specifically for metrophobes, to show them what they’ve been missing.
Roz I wonder why that is? I have a theory, though I can’t know if it applies to anyone but me. Here goes. I might be about to make an idiot of myself.
At school I studied TS Eliot and although I found his work haunting, it was more because of its linguistic novelty than its meaning. It was like breathing an unusual kind of air, but not something that spoke deeply to me. Now I’m much older, I feel I understand more of it – and I’m probably closer to the life experiences that brought it out of Eliot in the first place. At the age of 15, though, I couldn’t possibly be.
I think there’s a lot of poetry that comes from an older place that we maybe need to catch up to. Perhaps that’s also a case for giving poetry a second try when we’ve lived a little.
Joe As I was writing the book, I realised that it was also culturally very timely. I think we’re still barely coming to terms with the devastating impact technology has had on the way we now use language, in every area of cultural life. If I was teaching English today I would be very concerned to study the way technology has changed language use. It’s a bit like a binary weapon. The screen or the phone by itself is perfectly harmless, but combine it with a bit of social media software and all hell breaks loose. When you know a lot about poetry, at least you know how to defend yourself.
Roz Some examples?
Joe I think the entire concept of a ‘hate’ crime has come about this way. People have learned that technology allows them to weaponise individual words and that’s much more powerful than debate and argument which takes time, effort and intelligence. Politicians have weaponised that word ‘hate’. One of the things I was surprised by when I first left teaching for business (and a lot of my work was with technology) was the way some people genuinely thought less always means more. I’d find myself quietly thinking, ‘But some ideas actually require quite a lot of words, in quite complex structures’. I’ve done a lot of commercial bid writing for businesses and it’s funny how few realise it’s all about the quality of the writing. I once scored 7 marks for a question with a maximum possible score of 6. A US business employed me as ‘lead writer’ a few months ago because they actually got that.
It would be easy to embark on a list of examples from the murky world of identity and gender politics, but politics has never interested me; words do. Not only are they our only internal means of understanding anything, apart from touch and maybe music, they are our only external form of human currency. Everything we exchange with others, our closest family members and our fiercest public opponents, is priced in words.
Examples aren’t difficult to find. Choose the wrong word as an academic and you may find yourself denied both your right to free speech and a speaking engagement. Tweet or post one wrong word on Instagram or Facebook, even if you’re a teenager just getting to grips with the world and with words, and you may find yourself being interviewed by the police and banned from a platform, accused, tried and found guilty in not much longer than it took to type the offending word. Never mind that you sincerely thought you knew what the word means, or that the employee of the social media business who has to make the decision to ban you, will themselves have the reading age of a 12-year-old and be working from a checklist. Use a wrong word about your latest young adult novel and it will never see the light of day and fans will be demanding your apology. Reading poetry prepares and protects you from this. You know all the tricks, or at least many of them, because great poets are also great inventors.
Roz Final question. Do you write poetry yourself?
Joe Definitely not. I experimented a little when I was a lot younger but quickly recognised this was a skill I simply didn’t possess. I did once successfully write a few poems which you could read left to right or right to left, thinking that was really original and clever. A few years ago I came across a small modern volume of verse by a little-known poet, in which every poem could be read in either direction. They weren’t much good.
PS If you’re curious about what I’ve been up to, while furrowing my brow over volumes of poetry, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter.
Also… my Nail Your Novel Workbook is now available as an ebook! Meanwhile, do you have any questions you’d like to ask Joe or favourite poems to share? Let’s discuss.
Last year I got in conversation about this with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell – you might recognise him because he’s been an Undercover Soundtrack guest and interviewed me about Not Quite Lost. So I thought it would be good to write a proper, in-depth interview about it – and it turned out to be very long!
We’re publishing it in parts at Late Last Night Books. In part 1, we chew over the following questions, with actionable points at the end –
What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing degrees?
What experience level should a writer have so their work is enhanced rather than forced into a standard mould (the often-derided MFA novel)?
As writing is largely self-taught, do writers need formal teachers?
Misconceptions about creative writing teachers!
Thanks for the pic, Pixabay
And if you’ve taken a creative writing degree yourself – or considered it and decided not to – do share your experiences in the comments here. Also, post any questions you’d like us to tackle. If they’re not in one of the interviews, we can gather them into a special at the end.
‘Try to leave out the bits the reader will skip,’ said Elmore Leonard.
Sure, Mr L, but how do we identify them?
I thought about this recently when I read a manuscript that was heavy on technical detail. When I delivered my verdict – that many of these passages lost my interest – the author said:
‘I know what you mean – when I read other books on the subject, my eyes often glaze over at the technical passages.’
How interesting that he said that.
When editing our own work, one of the keenest senses we have is our gut instinct. Is it holding our attention? Or does it seem muddled, unconfident, lacking clarity? If we’re even just a tad dissatisfied, this means the passage needs more work.
This is a rule
There are few guarantees in making art. It’s hard to produce absolute formulae for what will work and what won’t. For every general principle – do show, don’t tell – there’s a valid anti-rule.
But this is one situation that does have an absolute rule.
Writer, if you are bored, the reader will be … oh do stay awake at the back.
This applies whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.
So you’ve realised a passage in your book is boring you. Hooray. Now what?
How to not be boring
First, examine why you’re including this material. Is it out of a sense of duty? Is it an element you’ve seen in other books with a similar readership?
If so, do you have to be like those other books? Perhaps you do, and we’ll come to that next. But first, consider whether you could delete. Yes. Whip it out. Nuke it.
However, it’s more likely that some of this soporific sludge will be necessary for reader comprehension, or to maintain the book’s authority. What do you do?
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You resolve not to be dull.
Realise this: you don’t have to try to be like the other books that bored you. You can offer something different or more interesting.
Channel your best bits
Look for other passages in your book where the narrative has a more lively spirit. That’s you at your best. Drink their energy. Often I find that an author who sends me to sleep in some sections is sparky and brilliant in others. They need to channel that all the time. Perhaps ask a reader to pick some out for you.
Next, rewrite your lifeless passages with the same outlook and voice. Had you realised your persona varied so much?
Channel a muse
Here’s another approach. Look at other books whose style keeps you unusually entertained. We all have writers whose style perks us up, even if they’re describing the colour of their socks. Try and say it the way they would.
Write for an unforgiving reader
Sometimes it helps to write for an imagined audience. In this case, imagine a friend who won’t tolerate much detail about your pet subject.
I have several pet subjects that end up in my books, and I’ve learned to apply the Husband Test. Husband Dave has a shrug level of interest in some of my deepest curiosities.
One example is the remnants of demolished stately homes. I could keep myself amused all day with them, looking for the lines of old walls in a cow pasture, a front door step half buried in grass, an ornate gateway that seems to lead nowhere. When I wrote about a particularly enchanting site in Not Quite Lost, I knew it would be easy to lose the reader so I kept Dave in mind as I edited. How would I get him interested in them? Something in these buried remains felt universal and exciting to me. What was it? I had to reach beyond my own intrinsic interest (walls! doorsteps! gateways!) to a deeper level (the sediment of passing time! vanished people!).
Imagine your least indulgent reader. Write as though you had to keep their attention.
Thanks for the sleeping person pic Sean Kelly on Flickr. Thanks for the sleeping people pic: Pixabay.
Over to you! Is this a problem you’ve identified in your own work? How did you overcome it?
PS There’s loads more on how to keep readers interested in my book on plot
PPS Speaking of edits etc, here’s what I’m working on at the moment
I’d planned a post about self-editing. But then I thought – really, Roz? This close to the holidays, who cares?
Indeed, it’s more likely that the seasonal ding-dong is turning your routine downside up. If that’s merry and welcome, great.
But some of us (including me) get panicky about losing touch with our work.
This post is for you.
Don’t fight it
Resolve to do smaller sessions on your book. To stave off anxiety about your slower progress:
1 Figure out how much time you can regularly set aside, realistically.
2 Make a schedule.
If you do this, you’re in control. You’re making a plan you can stick to. Goodwill henceforth.
How to think small
Here are ways to think smaller while still making progress.
1 If you use wordcount targets, reduce them, obvs – then surprise yourself when your concentration lets you exceed it.
1.5 Or turn the limited time into a challenge. Use it as a chance to try a new approach – if you’re a slow and careful drafter, see what happens if you write fast, hell for leather, as a deliberate experiment. Sometimes, busting our habits can make us unexpectedly spontaneous and creative. Nobody need see the results if they’re bad. But you might just find you’re soaring.
2 Make a list of small but important tasks. We all have niggly stuff that we postpone. Consistency about character names, the plot timeline, pieces of research to check later. For me it’s place descriptions – I don’t have the mental space for them while I’m in the flow of characters and action. It’s great to have time to sort this out properly and not worry about anything else. Make a list of small tasks you can do in short bursts of time.
Embrace the break – and prepare for a smart restart
Or – accept that you’ll let your book doze for the period. And prepare for a calm and bright restart.
1 Make handover notes. The 2018 you to the 2019 you. What issues were you were working on? What was the next thing you were going to check, revise or fix? What new idea were you going to try?
1.5 Worried that you’ll forget why an idea seemed perfect? Here’s how to write down story ideas and remember why they were brilliant.
2 Annotate the manuscript with comments. I’m doing this with my own manuscript. Where I have an idea for a sequence of dialogue or a nuance, I write a comment at the appropriate point in the Word doc – eg ‘I want this to echo what xxx expressed earlier’, or ‘make sure I haven’t repeated this’.
3 Kick up your heels. Read greedily, anything that tickles your mistletoe. As I wrote in this post recently, my own reading tends to be constricted by my work, like a strict diet. But if I’m not worried about skewing my WIP’s tone and style, I read … anything I like the look of… like a normal booklover. It’s no bad thing to rejoin the normal world once in a while.
Speaking of which, here’s what I’m working on at the moment (my newsletter)
One last thing. The writer in the family often has a seasonal duty at this time of year. Yes, the Christmas letter. If you have to write one of these, here are some tips.
Do you have strategies for juggling holidays and writing? Let me know in the comments!
Wishing you a very merry and refreshing whatnot. See you in 2019 – or earlier if I get the sudden urge to tell you something.