Archive for category How to write a book

Got a personal story to tell… should you make it into a novel?

mona-1This week I’ve been advising a writer who wants to gather his professional experiences into a daring expose of … well, I’m not allowed to reveal that. But there is malpractice, corruption and a lot of harm being done to innocent people. Publishers have told him they’re wary because he doesn’t have a platform as an investigative reporter. Others have suggested that he could make his experiences into a novel. And that was one of the questions he asked me. Should he?

Obviously, if you’re going to embark on fiction, there are certain mechanics to learn – storytelling, character invention, show not tell, arcs, dialogue.

But this kind of book comes with an extra challenge. If your material is a true-life account, or a memoir, or an expose, you also have to change your attitude to the content. You have to be willing to change everything – anything – in the service of the story.


If you’re drawing on real experiences you’re often wedded to the exact details. ‘What really happened’ is part of the authenticity. Its very unbelievability might be part of its extraordinary nature. Real life is often stranger than fiction – that proverb exists for a good reason.

In fiction, believability works in a different way. You have to persuade the reader that the situations and developments are real. In memoir and autobiography or any other kind of anecdotal narrative, we already accept that it is. We accept whatever is put in front of us.

People in fiction must be believable too. Fiction has to present its characters with great care, especially the main characters. We might have to alter them from our original concept. An antagonist might seem ridiculous unless they’ve given a quality that makes them human. A protagonist might seem drippy unless they’re given a chance to be wicked sometimes. To create the credibility of novels, you have to be much more willing to adapt as you work. And invent.

Legal aspects – will fictionalising get you off the hook, legally?

Probably it won’t. If you’ve been a thorn in someone’s side and you bring out a novel that seems to enact your conflict with them, you’re probably vulnerable to being challenged. Changing a few details – or a lot of them – won’t stop somebody recognising themselves, their organisation or their battle with you. And if you’ve improved on the real events to make a better story, you might have compounded the possible libel by suggesting they’d do things they haven’t done.

realBut people do make real life into stories, quite effectively and without getting sued. The trick is to use the real details as a starting point and present them in heavy disguise – here’s a post all about that. Look out for Dave and me in that pic.  (Ghostwriters do it too, for famous and infamous people who, ahem, write novels about their lives. If you’re curious about how that happens, step this way)

Assess your priorities – and perhaps adjust

You can still use fiction to expose an injustice or tell your unbelievable truth. Fiction writers usually want to probe for truths, anyway, even though they’re using invented people and events. Although fictionalising might involve compromise, you don’t have to see it that way. Aim instead to identify some core truths and then build a story that stays faithful to those. Your goal isn’t to be a chronicle; instead you’re communicating the deeper spirit, the themes, dilemmas, rights and wrongs.

Your turn! Have you tried to make real-life experiences into a novel? Do you know anyone who has, perhaps in a writers’ group? Any experiences, lessons or wisdom to share?

dscf8458FLASH SALE Congratulations to Sophie Playle and Mary McCauley, who won the paperback copies of My Memories of a Future Life in the prize draw. Thanks to everyone who entered … and if you weren’t lucky this time I have an extra treat for you. Until Monday 17 Oct, My Memories of a Future Life is 0.99 on Kindle. Hurry there now! If you’ve already got it, send your friends!


, , , , , , ,


Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped

seattle_bway_mambo_01I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:

Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?

There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.

In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.

First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?

This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.

Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.

More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.

So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?

This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.

This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)

strucWhere to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion

And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).

The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.

Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?

Yes and no.

Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.

Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.

Why no, again? Because all stories need change.

Thanks for the pic Joe Mabel

nyn3 2ndThere’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.




NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies

So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here.  Follow this link and go to Facebook.


Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.

, , , , , , , , , , , ,


How to write emotions and feelings

2489998092_a7374b8f7c_zI’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.

Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.

Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.

So how do we communicate these emotions?

Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.

I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.

But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.

Emotion in descriptions

Let’s examine a common maxim –  write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.

Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.

To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.

2804301013_857119e0fa_bInternal dialogue

How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.

Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)

This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.

But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’

Stronger doses – handle with care

A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.

Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.

So … to sum up

1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’

2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’

3 Use internal dialogue

4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile

Woody’s scream pic by Aldoaldoz. Neon scream pic by Cathy Cole.

NYN2 2ndThere’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.

I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.

, , , , , , , ,


Doing NaNoWriMo? Nail it with this resource kit

nanoI can’t believe it’s already October. And that means it’s just a month until NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide writing lockdown where scribblers of all levels undertake to write a 50,000-word draft in just 30 days.

So here’s a list of NaNoWriMo resources I’ve written on this blog and further afield.

1 NaNoWriMo – should you? No, you can’t write a publishable novel in one month – or very few of us can. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. And you can use NaNoWriMo to get a proper, publishable manuscript up and running. Here’s a post about that.


2 So how do you do it? Preparation is key. Yes, it’s allowed. Here’s a work plan I wrote for Writers & Artists.


3. Most outlines focus on the story. Is that too constricting for you? Would you rather just write and see what happens? Here’s another angle. Plan your characters, wing the plot. As demonstrated at Romance University. (But suitable for the staunchly unromantic too.)

nano14. Yes, but HOW DO YOU DO IT? Three old hands share their NaNoWriMo tips.



5. A little book. Allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. Use it to guide your research, firm up your story and road-test your plot. While you’re writing it will give you strategies to keep you focussed, creative and confident. And when you collapse on a pile of words at the other end, it will hold your hand as you sort out what to do next.


6. So much to read! I should be planning my book!  NaNo advice can come to you in your headphones. In this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell, we discuss all things NaNo.

Back tomorrow with a proper post. R x



, , , , , , ,


5 things I didn’t expect when I released my first novel

It’s five years since I released My Memories of a Future Life. I actually hadn’t realised it was that long ago, but Facebook has an algorithm that nudges you to repost old updates. And recently it gave me this:


Still, I wasn’t feeling especially retrospective until I happened upon this post by Caroline Leavitt at Jane Friedman’s blog, which talked about a few realities of author life.  And I thought: yes. Releasing that book marked a big change. A set of new and unforeseen challenges.

Model posed in ornate costumes: in black pressed pleats, with top hat; standing tip-toe on champagne bottle

Pic from Wikimedia Commons

1 Lovely reactions – which will wildly delight you

My Memories of a Future Life wasn’t my first book. I’d ghosted lots of titles (more about that here), so I was used to seeing my work bound between covers. I’d also published the first Nail Your Novel book, and knew how nice it was to get feedback. But fiction sets up a different kind of relationship. I received long emails and reviews – as if the book had started a thoughtful and personal conversation. I didn’t know this happened.

2 Upsetting reactions – your author friends will see you through

In her piece, Caroline Leavitt talks about bad reviews. We all accept we’re not going to please everybody, so we shrug and move on. But sometimes, a bad reaction really knocks you. Especially if it’s soon after the release, when the book is finding its way.

I had two.

The first was from a pre-release reader. It all started well. He wrote me emails while reading, chapter by chapter, saying how much he was enjoying the book. Then the end threw him right out of whack. It wasn’t what he was expecting. He sent a long, wounded email.

I was prepared for disagreement, or even dislike. I’d had the book rubber-stamped by people who wouldn’t let me get away with bad work. But still, my confidence was battered. This reader was genuinely upset and I didn’t want that.

My fellow authors told me: ‘Never apologise for your book’. Even so, I wrote back – which I shouldn’t have done and probably wouldn’t now. He replied, calmer, admitting there were complicating personal factors. Quite horrendous ones, as it happened. Still, I sneaked back to my blurb and description and examined them carefully, in case any of it was misleading.

The other upsetting reaction was a thoroughly scathing review. A blogger eviscerated it viciously. Again, I wondered what to do. Again, other authors held me down: ‘It’s dripping with malice. Some people do that. Stop being so sensitive. You don’t have to do anything.’

This time I heeded their advice. But I worried about that streak of spite, sitting on a blog for all to see, a stain on my book’s reputation before it had had much of a chance in the world. And I also didn’t do anything about the person who voiced plenty of critical opinions about the book but managed to reveal she hadn’t read it.

Two lessons here. 1 – other authors are your rock. 2 – you have to hope that on balance, you reach enough of the right people.

3 Your book changes you – a deep work of fiction is a work of personal examination

You mine yourself to write a novel like that. Your central characters come from your understanding of the people around you, and of yourself. Spending time with people in deep crisis, even imaginary ones, can change you. As do your antagonists. In order to make them rounded, I had to empathise with their point of view.

Carol’s end point made me examine some of my own life. Her psychological journey felt like my own rite of passage, a memoir in parallel, even though it was all invented.

Hence the need to be talked down, from time to time.

clapham-lit-fest4 When the book comes out, that’s not the end

When I ghost-write, my contribution finishes when the book goes to press. But your own book needs constant shepherding and revisiting – and not just for promotion. I made an audiobook, which meant presenting it to voice actors, discussing the characters and approach – and finally, listening to the recordings chapter by chapter (which revealed how much of it I had completely forgotten). This year I was interviewed at the Clapham Literary Festival by Elizabeth Buchan, so had to brush up on it again.

Tip – keep a list of your old interviews so you know what you said about your book when it was fresh. Also read your good reviews so you can discuss the themes and bigger picture – I found my smartest reviewers identified these more readily than I could.

5 Your debut is a special time – enjoy it

‘Debut’ is a good word for releasing your first novel. ‘Inauguration’ would be a good word too. It’s more than just putting a book on public sale. It’s the beginning of a new order. Even though I’d written for years, been published under cover, taught and mentored, produced oodles of other books, nothing was like this. Releasing my own novel was like finally putting my feet down, having a voice in something I hadn’t been part of before.

3d-mm-smlAnd now a new look

Lately, Husband Dave had been dropping hints. Should My Memories of a Future Life have a new look, in tune with the style of Lifeform Three? I resisted long and hard. Getting a concept first time round was difficult enough. And if you’ve been round this blog for a while, you’ll remember that the cover of Lifeform Three was an epic undertaking.

But he was right and it’s now wearing its new jacket. I was going to sneak it out without much ado because, well, it’s just a jacket. But I didn’t anticipate how new it would feel, all over again.

Which is where we came in.


If you’ve released a novel, what took you by surprise? Is there anything you’d do differently? Any advice you’d pass on? And I think next time I owe you a writing craft post, so if there’s something you’d like me to tackle, leave it in the comments or drop me an email on RozMorrisWriter at gmail dotcom.

, , , , , ,


Is your writing a hobby, an art, a business, a vocation, a profession? Let’s discuss

van_gogh_-_starry_night_-_google_art_projectThis question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.

Here goes.

A hobby?

First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.

But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.

A business / profession?

Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.

If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.

An art / vocation

What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.

I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.

The crossovers

Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.

In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.

Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.

An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.


, , , , , , ,


Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson drunk and playing 20 questions in BBC Sherlock Season 3 Episode 2 The Sign of Three

A moment of uncharacteristic levity in the lives of J Watson and S Holmes

Your prose does more than simply describe what happens. It creates the experience in the reader’s mind – the atmosphere, the themes, the lighting, the mood. Imagine the book has a soundtrack, like a movie. In fact it does, because the ‘music’ is created by the shape of the words and the images they conjure. A writer’s distinctive style is often called their ‘voice’, and that voice speaks the book inside the reader’s mind. So we have to be very deliberate with every word.

But quite often, writers don’t realise they’re actually sabotaging their narrative by inappropriate word choices.

To hone your awareness, try this exercise

Pick a simple scenario. Let’s have a character waking up in the morning, climbing out of bed, putting on a dressing gown (or, if you prefer, a suit of armour). Write it in your normal voice. Don’t put on a character. Just imagine it’s you, being natural, explaining to a friend.

Now write it again – as a character with a skippy song in their heart. Infuse the text with vigour, optimism and joie de vivre. Smile at your screen. Don your headphones, dial up Pharrell … okay, that might be too much for some of you.


Now go to the dark side. Describe exactly the same sequence, but make it tense. Foreboding. This is someone who wakes up and doesn’t know where they are. Or has been startled out of sleep by a sudden sound. For this I recommend Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Loom, which appropriately for our setting has a picture of the morning tooth routine.


Many voices

Do you see how different they all are? Notice particularly where your natural voice falls on the spectrum of mood. Is that the tone you use in the narrative parts of your novel? Does it fit the material?

Of course, the examples I’ve made you write are extremes, but they demonstrate what a difference your narration makes to the atmosphere – and how you can change it.

Here’s the rub. Writers often use their ‘normal’ voice in the narrative parts of their novel, as though they were explaining to a friend, perhaps over coffee or wine. Without realising it, they’re being flippant, raconteurish or breezy. Their main character is being interrogated by the police? He’s ‘squirming’ in his chair. A cherished ornament is knocked off mantelpiece? It ‘topples and bounces’ to the floor. A character is in intensive care? They’re ‘encumbered’ with tubes. A character’s lover is shot by the police? Their blood ‘splatters everywhere’. It’s all rather jolly. They’ve got Pharrell in their hearts when they might be better with a gulp of YMO.

A tip

If you find it tricky to establish an appropriate tone for a serious scene, try drafting it in first person to get the mindset. Then switch back to general narration once you’ve established the mood and perspective.

But what about humour?

Of course, even the darkest stories need humour. Humour is part of life. But it’s better done through the characters – their thoughts, actions, quips, the ironies of their behaviour. It shouldn’t look as though the neutral narrative is telling the reader to find the situation humorous. If you describe a cop as ‘huffing and puffing’ as he chases a suspect, you’ve introduced levity. Is that appropriate to the action or would you be better to say his lungs were raw but he wouldn’t give up?

Let’s stay with ‘huffing and puffing’. If a humorous remark is made through the filter of a character, it’s entirely different.

Indeed, the humour can add an interesting layer. John le Carre uses this in The Night Manager. In one scene, the agent handler, Burr, has tapped the phone of his agent, Jonathan Pine. As Burr eavesdrops, he hears Pine get a call from the villain’s girlfriend.

Jonathan at first furious … but then less furious. And finally, if Burr read the music right, not furious at all. So that finally… it’s nothing but Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan … and a lot of huffing and puffing…’

Yes, this description is humorous, embarrassed, dismissive – but it’s in the mind of Burr. It doesn’t defuse the tension or make the incident trivial because it’s coloured by Burr’s feelings. Indeed, it shows his exasperation, his horror and disbelief that his agent is putting everything in jeopardy by having a liaison with the villain’s woman. (More here about the prose of The Night Manager.)

Your prose makes the environment

The prose is like a soundtrack for a movie, the lighting, the mood. Your natural outlook, your raconteur voice, may not be right for your fiction.

Main pic courtesy BBC

Is there a writer whose narrative voice you particularly admire for evoking atmosphere? Have you had to consciously modify your writing voice to suit your material? Even, have you altered your chosen genre because you discovered your voice suits it better? Let’s discuss!  

nyn3 2ndNYN2 2ndPsst… Lots of info on fine-tuning your story in my books on plot and character


, , , , , , , , , ,


Writing a slow-burn book? Three surprising ways to measure progress

600px-Arbol_de_PiedraSome novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)

With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.

1 Conduct a research interview

A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.

2 The like/don’t-like list

Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.

(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)

As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.

3 Write a synopsis

This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.

nyn1 2ndPsst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel

Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0

Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.

, , , , , , ,


The ethics of ghost-writing

282428943_322a2027b4_oThis week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.

It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.

What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:

  • Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
  • Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?

I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.

Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.

What about the sanctity of the byline?

In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.

Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.

Books are rarely solo projects

Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.

16600055975_5f58168b7c_bA quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.

In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Art v commerce

Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).

Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me)  and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.

Books are not just books

And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.

Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?

trumpI’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.


Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business

But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial.  Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.

Weird Tales

You see Houdini’s name in the byline on this cover? The actual writer of this story is believed to be HP Lovecraft.

This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.

‘Let’s not lose the writer’

In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’


matt haig

Matt Haig

Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.

Matt Haig also said:

‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

Do not attempt if you are not Michael Morpurgo. You have been warned

I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).

I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.

It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.

That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.

Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr

ghostwriter red smlAnd, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.



, , , , , , , , , ,


10 eye-opening tips to add impact to your storytelling

2013-04-29-eye2When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.

1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity

When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)

2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader

Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.

3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans

You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.

 4 Show not tell

Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.

5 Decide what you want to emphasise

Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.

6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age

You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.

7  Home isn’t just a geographical location

It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.

8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character

A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.

9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene

Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.

10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone

Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.

3 nynsPsst…. all these points are discussed at greater length in the Nail Your Novel books.

Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?



, , , , , , , , , ,