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.
A friend has turned into a writer. Unbeknown to me, she’s been chipping away at a novel and her husband just sent this email.
Her novel is more or less finished!!! I may need to pick your brains about marketing! We also think we need to get it professionally proof-read. We tried doing it ourselves with Grammarly, but realise it’s way more complex than it seems …’
Ah bless. If you’re well seasoned in the author world, you’ll already be counting the many erroneous assumptions. Carts before horses. Running before walking.
But we all have to start somewhere. And even if you’re already wiser than my beginner friend here, you might know a writer who’s effervescing in a similar state of enthusiastic, ecstatic, multi-plinged euphoria. High on all those well-earned Es, they can’t possibly know what’s coming next.
So this post is a gentle reality check, a bit of tough love, a bit of hand-holding and a jolly, genuine thump between the shoulder blades to say: well done, welcome to the club.
Marketing? Proof reading?
Let me explain about those production processes.
This post is angled for self-publishers, but it explains all the work that a publisher typically does on a book. Including proofreading etc
And here’s another post about production processes
NB Do NOT rely on Grammarly! To proof-read a book, you need a knowledgeable human. Also, you need to develop good grammar skills etc yourself. This may seem unsympathetic, but if you’re not sensitive to grammar, spelling and language use, how will you learn the linguistic and lexical control to write well? Seriously, would you expect a person who is tone deaf to play a musical instrument to a listenable standard? Here’s where I rant about that
But even with all that natural prowess, you’ll still need copy editors and proof readers because they read in a highly specialised way. They look for the mistakes you never dreamed were possible.
Did you say ‘self-publish’?
Are you going to self-publish or try for a traditional deal? Is this the first time you’ve ever been asked to think about it? Here’s a post about self-publishing vs traditional publishing – the similarities and the differences. They’re no longer mutually exclusive either – there are many options in between. And as you might expect, you’ll need to spot the rip-off merchants who are eager for your £££s, so I’ve pointed to some tell-tale signs.
You’ve heard of crowdfunding? Here’s how my friend Victoria Dougherty is using crowdfunding to support a creative departure
Do people still send manuscripts off to publishers and literary agents? Yes they do. And you can. But before you send your manuscript anywhere, read on.
Before you can walk….
Now you know how a book is made. But first, is the book really ready? Have you rewritten it until your fingers are in tatters?
Here’s a post about beginning with a muddle and rewriting into glory (with a dose of disco)
When you decide to work with an editor (and I recommend you do at some point), here’s what they can do for you
How much should you budget for an editor? And how should you choose one?
If those costs make you boggle, here are some low-cost ways to boost your writing skills
Will your editor trample all over your style? No, a good editor helps you to be yourself
Have you looked for feedback and ended up in a pickle? Here’s how to find your way again.
Will your editor laugh at your naïve efforts? Au contraire. Here’s why they admire you and appreciate what you’ve already achieved.
You asked about marketing. It’s not really my sphere of expertise, and each type of book and writer will require different approaches. But yes, you do have to make time for it. Here’s a post about finding a good balance
If you’re going to get on Twitter, for heaven’s sake use your author name. Here’s why
Wait, I’m overwhelmed! There are so many books already out there….
Yes there are. But the world still needs new voices. There’s never been a person like you, with your experiences, your perspective, your curiosities. You might have the unique outlook and insight that a reader needs to hear.
PS If you’re curious about what I’m working on at the moment, here’s the latest edition of my newsletter
PPS You should start a newsletter.
A review in The Times of Milkman by Anna Burns, which has just won this year’s Booker, has me worried. (James Marriott: ‘Booker choice is all that’s wrong with literary fiction’.)
I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:
Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.
If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?
Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)
Literary novels don’t have to be plotless or weighed down by their meanings and value (see my post here where I tackle the ‘plotless’ question).
Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)
All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?
And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?
Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book
Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
Do you write with an outline? I was asked this by another writer at a book event last weekend. ‘I like outlines,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like them. I want to know where I’m going. But if I make a scene-by-scene breakdown, I find I’m not interested in writing the complete book.’
I thought it was worth a post.
Because I believe outlines don’t have to kill your interest in the book.
You could try the barest possible directions – an opening, a pivotal middle and a surprising but elegant solution at the end. Those three markers might be enough to keep you on piste and still let you explore.
Certainly I’m not a person who can tolerate boredom or predictability. If a writing session hasn’t confounded my expectations in some way, I’m disappointed. Yet I’m a fan of detailed outlines. Indeed, I find they don’t stultify or restrict at all. Au contraire.
I think it’s because planning is not the same mindset as drafting. Drafting is experiencing the story moment by moment – and that’s when the surprises come. Here are some examples.
- Immerse in a description and you discover certain practicalities that add more life to a scene.
- As you build a location, you realise it forms a resonance with what’s going on. You might then make your characters use it more frequently.
- As you flesh out a set-piece of dialogue, you realise it won’t work the way you assumed because there’s an interesting hitch in the characters’ attitudes to each other. Their reluctance to follow your orders – or vice versa – which you have not felt until this moment, opens rich possibilities.
- You might try to write a piece of action that seemed straightforward. But you realise you need more of a build-up. Or you know the character would do it but they need a stronger reason. Or maybe they won’t do it at all. Or maybe they do it and it’s not interesting enough.
All these moments seemed clear and logical in the outline. But everything might change when you’re with the characters breath by breath.
So I find that outlines are like a question. I think the character might do this? I put it in the plan and find out.
If the outline is most concerned with the ‘what’, the draft is interested in the ‘how’. And ‘why’. And whether the reader will care. If you like that kind of work – and I do – you might find outlines are not a hindrance but a stimulating provocation .
Here’s some provocation in action. Here’s where I wrote about a major twist I fell over in the first draft of Ever Rest. I had not considered it – even remotely – until I wrote something from the outline and decided it wasn’t enough. The characters had a sudden rebellion that kicked everything over. Amazingly, it worked very well with the rest of the book.
But why bother with an outline?
You might ask, why bother with the outline if it’s so likely to change? What’s all that planning for? I’m asking myself that. My gut reaction is that I need an outline or I’ll bolt madly off into my imagination and never finish.
But actually, there’s a good underlying reason. It’s structure.
Stories work by structure. Resonances, crescendos, misdirection, clue-planting. That’s what you’re really building when you work on an outline – a structure that is robust. And when you’ve done that, you understand what you can easily change, what the fallout will be and whether you’ll need other elements. There’s a lot more about structure in my plot book.
Your outline, your way
We’re all different. So this is the real secret. Write the kind of outline that gives you a star to follow, and makes sure you don’t forget the important steps, but still leaves you plenty to discover and enjoy.
Psst… There’s more about outlining in the original Nail Your Novel.
Psst 2… Outlining is one of the ways to nail Nanowrimo. Here’s my post of resources for that
Psst 3… If you’re curious to know how Ever Rest is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
You might remember an exciting post here in the last days of 2017 – the Triskele Big Five mentoring competition. Triskele is a publishing house owned by five authors (various posts about them here) – and in the months since that announcement they have been hunting for an unpublished manuscript to mentor. Once they’d gathered their entries and whittled them down to a shortlist, it was my job to choose the final winner.
I wrote in my original post that I anticipated a few challenges and lessons from the task – and I wasn’t wrong. Especially when I found the finalists were a widely varied collection of styles, genres and approaches. How to judge them?
Well, reader, I found a way – and it was all rather interesting. Pictured here is the winner, Philippa Scannell. Hop over to the Triskele blog for all the details … including my attempts to determine the winning formula.