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Archive for category Life Form 3
There’s been quite a fuss about self-publishing on internet channels recently. Brit author Ros Barber swore in The Guardian that she’d never self-publish her fiction, which prompted a lot of us to reassert why we did. This post by me appears to join the general howl, but in fact it was commissioned several months ago.
It’s at the blog of Helena Halme (and in case you’re counting the nationalities, she’s Finnish). Topical or not, I wanted to make the case for self-publishing as a serious option for authors of independent mind and spirit, who can be their own creative directors. Do come over. It’s just a click. You don’t have to go all the way to Finland.
guest posts, Helena Halme, interview, interviews, literary authors self-publish, Ros Barber, self-publishing, the publishing world, why bestselling authors self-publish, why good authors self-publish, why I write
I think this is the first interview I’ve done about Lifeform Three. I’m at the blog of Chele Cooke, whose name you may recognise because she was an Undercover Soundtrack guest a week or so ago. Chele is holding a sci-fi festival at her blog this month, and has invited along a number of authors who’ve written in the genre, from epic fantasy to chrome-plated mind-voyages. The awesome Hugh Howey is coming tomorrow, so I must be warm-up for him!
Chele made us all answer the same questions. How we developed our stories, what our distinctive takes are and who we’ve been influenced by. Personally, I think of SF as the classic genre of the imagination, one of the finest ways to ask questions about humanity that can’t be asked any other way. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Come over for the rest.
authors, Blade Runner, Chele Cooke, fantasy, fiction, guest post, guest posts, how to write a novel, how to write science fiction, how to write SF, Hugh Howey, Life Form 3, Life Form Three, Lifeform, Lifeform Three, literary fiction, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, publishing, Ray Bradbury, Roz Morris, sci-fi, science fiction, SF, speculative fiction, syfy, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
Just a brief post as we all duck away for a thorough Christmassing. Lifeform Three is now up and alive on the Amazons and Smashwords. I’ve loaded it on Kobo and it should shortly be appearing there. Print proofs are in transit from CreateSpace, so in January I hope to have the feelable, giftable, signable, alphabeticisable, filable, decorative version … (Can you tell I prefer print books at heart? Our house hardly needs walls. It has bookshelves.)
I’m still trying to work out which Amazon categories would suit it best. If you pick your categories cleverly you maximise your chances of being seen by casual browsers. In one respect Lifeform Three is science fiction, but early reviewers are making comparisons with Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro – all very lovely, but it’s not what most people imagine by the term SF. It’s now possible to fine-tune your book’s categories on KDP by inputting keywords in your descriptive tags, so I’m going to be doing some experimenting in the next few weeks. In case you’re interested, here’s a handy link with a full list of those magic words that could get you wider exposure.
And Lifeform Three now has a website – an online home I can put on my Moo cards (also on the to-do list). At the moment it’s a mere page but I’ll be adding to it. So if my remarks about misty woods, whispering memories and lost doors have got you curious about the story, seek the synopsis on its website or at Amazon.
Amazon, Amazon categories, authors, book marketing, dystopia, fable, how to find readers, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Lifeform, Lifeform Three, literary fiction, literature, Margaret Atwood, My Memories of a Future Life, Ray Bradbury, Roz Morris, self-publishing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
Forget the alien on fire. Delete your sparkly apocalypse. Say hello to misty woods, abandoned towns, secrets in the landscape, a forbidden life by night, the scent of bygone days and a past that is itching to be found. Say hello to a door in a dream that seems to hold the answers. And this is science fiction? Oh yes, in a literary, unusual sort of way. You’ll see.
I’m quite excited now! I’ll let you know when it’s up. In the meantime, my to-do list is full of notes such as ‘fit the new cover into the artwork at the top of the blog without making it nonsensically crowded’, ‘update end material in other books’, ‘book myself a spot on The Undercover Soundtrack’…
authors, bygone days, cover reveal, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Lifeform Three, literary fiction, literature, misty woods, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, science fiction, self-publishing, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
I nearly made a big mistake. You remember a few months ago I blogged about the development process for the cover of Lifeform Three. Oh it was brilliantly nifty.
To save you reading the original post, I made dummies of different concepts and asked people to interpret what they said about the book. I thought this was a good way to teach myself the language of covers, which I’m not exactly fluent in.
But I have to confess there was one flaw. In my haste and certainty, I neglected one thing. I didn’t get the opinion of someone who’d READ the final version. Getting reviewer reactions was another thing I’ve left until the last possible moment. It’s because I like to do my ultimate edit when I’m making the paperback. If I see typos or edit to change line lengths, I want the print copy to be identical to the Kindle and ebook versions. Also, seeing it properly typeset is a great way to see errors or awkwardnesses you’ve got used to tuning out on your standard Word display. I wouldn’t recommend editing on page, though, unless you’re setting your own book interiors. An external designer won’t like all that faffing. (But you could change your font in a late editing stage and see what new horrors you spot.)
So. I finished my interior and zapped it off to the people who’d asked for advance copies. One of them came back: ‘That cover is badly wrong for this book. Really.’ I have to admit it was not what I needed to hear. Not after many months of on-off cogitation with no concepts that would work (the designer’s a friend, though he might not be now). By the time I got the final version we were out of ideas. In case you’re wondering, it’s this: When I tried it on my cover group, I liked some of the reactions. Nature, rebirth, 1970s sci fi (it is in the tradition of Ray Bradbury, so that was good). I also had aliens (no), apocalypse (no), body modification (thrice no!) I thought that, bar a retune to quench the apocalypse, we were there.
Until my friend made his apologetic suggestion. And then proceeded to demonstrate, in a long email, that he understood my target readers better than I do. Darn, he was right. This is what makes writing so curious – especially literary fiction. You think you’ve controlled everything the reader feels about this event and that character. You’ve set it up with minute care. You’ve made sure the themes are catching the right amount of light. You get your images and language humming together, your gut instincts are satisfied.
But it’s as if you’re making a machine, and you really don’t know what it does until you set it going inside the mind of a reader. We’re used to getting feedback from critique partners and editors, but they’re so involved with the building of the book that they can’t judge it afresh.
Certainly my lot had no more distance than I did, and in any case my overall thematic impression didn’t come together until the final edits. And although a designer would be able to give you the fresh perspective by reading the novel, they usually don’t have time to (except at the most prestigious end of traditional publishing).
At least this is the virtue of being indie. If we’re not tied into a list or a corporate look, we can try completely different identities for our books. That cover is one way to interpret the book for a particular market, maybe. But it’s not what I need to emphasise. Blitz it from your mind. Here’s the real cover. You will hoot when you see how drastically I nearly went wrong. Crumbs. Thank heavens for wise friends. In the meantime, tell me: has someone stopped you making a big mistake with a book?
authors, book covers, book marketing, deepen your story, fiction, how to design a cover, how to write a book, how to write a novel, literary fiction, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, Ray Bradbury, Roz Morris, self-publishing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama
They talk about an exciting two-way process where they discuss images and typographical treatments. But you can’t direct a designer unless you know what your cover should say. And that’s my problem with Life Form Three, which I’ve decided I’ll publish later this year. Perhaps it’s yours too, especially if you have a novel you’re told is too original and doesn’t fit a genre. This is how I’ve solved it.
I decided to do market research. And it’s turned out to be incredibly helpful.
What I did
I picked an emblematic scene from the book and roughed out a cover to illustrate it. I sent it to friends, who I figured might like the book but in different ways. I included a few hyper-critical writers too, because I knew they would give me the truth.
I also found I got more honest critical comment when I asked friends to show the cover to their spouses and report back. If the spouse didn’t have to worry about hurting my feelings, they were far more brutal.
I didn’t ask: ‘do you like this cover’. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ doesn’t tell you anything. Instead my questions were: What is this book about? What does it say to you? (They’ll tell you anyway whether they like it.)
Do they already know anything about Life Form Three? No – and that’s the point. They are interpreters telling me what I’ve just said in a language I don’t yet speak. I thanked them for their feedback and explained that I wasn’t going to tell them whether their responses were on the right track or not in case I needed to use them again.
I repeated the experiment with another rough cover in a very different style, and gathered another bunch of useful responses. I added more guinea pigs who hadn’t seen the previous version.
What did it cost?
Nothing, except time researching images (which was considerable – so start well in advance). The pictures for the first cover were roughs from photo libraries, which they’ll let you download free to make dummy designs. The second cover was a detail from a painting I knew I could license. I can’t show you either of them here because I don’t have the reproduction rights. (Also, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea – my jurors have been sworn to secrecy!)
Did it work?
Totally. I was very surprised by some of the responses – and that showed how much I needed their feedback. And this brings me to another point. Don’t do a test if the results won’t influence what you do next. With both trial covers, I thought I was onto a good concept. When I tested them, I discovered flaws I couldn’t have thought of.
But after these two exercises, I have clarity. Even though neither cover was right, I know what the real thing should say and I can brief a designer. (And my guinea pigs are still in suspense…)
What kind of brief do you need to provide? A designer won’t have time to read your book. Send a synopsis that captures not just the events but gives a flavour of the storytelling style. Also list the target audience including age group, imagery and themes that might be of special significance or scenes that could carry the spirit of the whole work. Also explain why you chose the title, as the art should enhance it or create intriguing tension. And let the designer know if you want to leave room for blurb quotes and loglines.
Do it early
I’m not going to publish Life Form Three until at least autumn, but I need the cover in advance because that will set the tone for everything else. The blurb and any publicity materials will be created to make sense of it. So it’s essential that the book’s outside is faithful to the inside.
Footnote: how the other half lives
Funnily enough, as I’ve been moving mountains for the right cover, a traditionally published friend is having a very different experience. I know indies are probably past the stage where we have to stress that our production processes are up to professional standards, but this left me reeling.
Out of the blue my author friend was sent a cover by the art director. He hadn’t been consulted about it. It would be worth getting his input too, as he’s been a bestselling children’s author for more than a decade and knows what covers have sold well to his readership. He tells me that when he signed the contract he emailed the art director and offered to send briefing notes, but was curtly told: ‘We don’t need your notes. We know what we’re doing’.
So did they? No. The cover they designed was catastrophically inappropriate. They didn’t ask about the the age group, so they made it look too juvenile. While the book’s competitors have slick images that look like computer games, this cover featured big typography (ie it was cheaper than proper art) and thumbnail graphics. Even the font gave the wrong messages – it suggested the setting was the wild west, whereas the book is set in ancient Persia. Now the author is locked in a dispiriting argument with the publisher about a cover he knows will be a disaster.
You know what? I’m glad I have control of my cover.
How have you decided what to put on the cover of your novel? How have you made sure it sends the right signals? Have you changed a cover so that it could find its true audience?
(I haven’t finished with covers yet. I may need jurors for Life Form Three Version 3. If you’d like to be one of the secret clan, email me or sign up to my newsletter)
Andrew Kaufman, arts, authors, Blood-Red Pencil, book covers, cover design, covers, Crime Fiction Collective, design, fiction, gaming, genre busting, how to design a book cover, how to design a novel cover, how to write a book, how to write a novel, illustration, Life Form 3, Life Form Three, literary fiction, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, non-genre, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, Terry Odell, videogames, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.
What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.
Genre and generalisations
How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.
But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?
Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.
Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms
But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.
Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.
Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?
Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?
When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:
- relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
- ways for characters to spoil things for each other
- a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character
I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.
Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.
Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!
If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter
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A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.
They were right
At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.
They were wrong
But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.
So how did I fix the book?
As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.
I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.
I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.
Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.
Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.
Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.
Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.
But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.
Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.
Thanks for the camel pic Loufi
In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss –
Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?
You can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print? 🙂
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Here’s a typical post I’ve been seeing a lot lately. ‘A few hundred words a day add up to several thousand a month – which will let you bank a good two or three novels a year.’
We’re not counting the first book, of course. Then, you were running not just before you could walk but before you even learned to tie your shoes. Your novels after that will obviously be faster, but how fast? Two or three novels a year? Whole novels, finished, filleted to perfection?
If a goal like that turns you hysterically italic, then relax. It makes my serifs curl too. Not all novels can – or should – be written fast.
I’ve done fast writing. One year when I was ghosting, I knocked out four entire novels. (There they are on the scales, plus the one I started next.) I had the characters, it was a well trodden genre.
My own novels take me aeons by comparison.
I had the idea for My Memories of a Future Life in the 1990s when I was hopelessly unable to do it justice. A decade later I wrote it properly, which took at least a year of mining and quarrying. It wooed an agent, I did more edits and I hoped for another round before it was published. In the end I became my own publisher – diagnosed the last tweaks it needed and nuked 50,000 words. A lot of that time, of course, was learning curve. But My Memories of a Future Life could not have been written in four months.
The novel I’m revising again, Life Form 3, took more than a year. If you’ve been knocking around this blog for a while you might remember my anguished posts when it tested my faith quite sorely. I’ve now got great notes from a publisher who identified some sticky spots that I agree on. And finding the solutions has taken me three months.
Although we do aim to finish our books, not fiddle forever, I worry that we are too obsessed by speed. It’s as if all writers are being encouraged to aim just for quantity – ‘I’ll have a pound of novels, please’. My writing pace isn’t unusual; I recently finished reading The Lessons by Naomi Alderman and was heartened to see a four-year gap between novel 1 and novel 2. She marinates even longer than I do.
You do what’s right for your material, your muse and your market. A thriller designed as an airport read is probably not going to get much better if you spend a year honing every paragraph. Series are faster too – you know your characters and where you’re going, so half the work is done for you already. A more literary, thoughtful work takes discovery. I sometimes worry that all I’ve got is muddle, and no model to tell me how to put it together. But with time, it comes.
If you’re well tuned to your audience and your genre, you can turn a novel out efficiently – but that doesn’t always mean fast.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? Do you feel pressured to write too fast?
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I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.
In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.
First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.
Spice it up
But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.
We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.
Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.
On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’
Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.
Do it in order first
If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.
Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.
In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.
If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.
Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
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