‘Music was the writing tool to give me courage for this daunting task’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock

for logoMy guest this week is another returner to the series, which is rather appropriate as the concern of his book series is reincarnation. He is a composer, pianist and dance accompanist for musical theatre with the UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school. Last time he guested here he wrote about the hidden structures that tell stories. This time, nearly a year has passed and he finds himself questioning the role music is now playing in his writing life. So this is a slightly unusual Undercover Soundtrack, one of questions rather than statements. Nevertheless, you can expect some stirring musical choices. He is Stephen Weinstock and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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


2 interviews about teaching and writing – Venice, BBC Radio London

venice postThe organisers of my Venice masterclass, Henry and Janys Hyde, have just published this interview about the course. If you’d like to know a little more about my teaching approach, or indeed how I came to be doing this at all, this is the place to go. And if you’d like to come to another, let them know!

BBC LondonAlso, I’ve been on BBC Radio London this week, on Jo Good’s afternoon show. The day before I’d listened to Jo interview Candace Bushnell, so I made sure to wear feisty boots. Jo asked me about ghostwriting, tips for writers etc – some of which may be familiar to those of you who have hung around here for a while. Anyway, if you’re curious it’s here for the next 30 days. My section begins at 1 hour 10 minutes.

Oh, and these were my interview boots. Roberto Cavalli. I hope Carrie Bradshaw would approve.




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


How to write well in a language that isn’t your mother tongue

I’ve had this interesting email:

Since January this year, I’ve been attending writing workshops, and my novel is progressing well. But English isn’t my first language, and I don’t do any creative writing in my day job. I feel I’m struggling. My priority is quality, and I think I need expert help. Should I get an editor? What do you advise? Maria.

babel fish

It’s clear that Maria can express herself fluently – to the extent that she can work in a foreign country. (Certainly not something I could do.) So what’s missing?

I think Maria has already intuited it, which is why she feels stuck. She doesn’t yet have the flair that a fiction reader will be looking for.

Skills, craft and style

I think Maria’s off to a good start, developing her critical skills and craft at writing workshops. But this probably isn’t addressing her writing style.

Funnily enough, she’s in the opposite situation of most writers. The majority concentrate on honing their language and sentences, and have to be taught about the invisible mechanisms that make a novel work – characters, structure, pace etc. Here’s a post about that from my Guardian masterclasses.

It’s as if the machinery of a book and its language belong in separate mental departments. Indeed, I once had a ghostwriting assignment to rewrite a memoir by an expat who could no longer express herself in her original tongue. My role was to restore her to publishable English.

So, Maria, I wouldn’t worry about getting an editor yet. I think you could do a lot if you read authors in your chosen genre and study their styles. Develop your ear and your eye; notice how word choice and sentence structure makes you feel excitement, or tension, or fear or tenderness. The authors aren’t just writing what happens; they are performing the story with every syllable.

Spend a few months with this as your mission. Then go back to your manuscript – and you’re sure to find ways to express the story more stylishly. You could also try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase. This might let you explore finer nuances, which you can then search for in English.

Not just literary

Are you wondering if language is a consideration only for literary fiction? Not so. The best genre writers also have to be deft and dazzling. Look at the verve in the verbs of a thriller writer. Look at the meaning and menace in the sparse dialogue of a noir. Look at the warmth and propriety in a cosy mystery.

Also beware

Here’s another set of alerts. Notice which words and sentence constructions may be funny, or push the reader away. Use them only if you intend that effect. Writers who are still learning to control their voice often produce passages that sound unfortunately humorous, ponderous, melodramatic or detached. Even when their native language is English.


This method I’m proposing is not fast, but it will get Maria to a good place eventually. Here are some other posts that will help.
Reading like a writer, and a discussion on the same topic in an episode of my radio show.
How to develop something special in your writing.
Maria also mentions that her day job doesn’t give her much opportunity for creative writing, but there probably isn’t a day job that would give you the style you need to write fiction well. Here’s a post where I talk about that a little more.

Babel fish pic from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, courtesy of Jonathan Davies on Flickr

What would you say to Maria? Are you writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? Whether you are or you aren’t, how have you developed your style?

, , , , , , , , , , ,


‘Even the bed is forgetting you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, AJ Waines

for logoMy guest this week is the author of Girl on a Train. No, another girl, another train. I first came across her work when she wrote very entertainingly about how her psychological thriller had been mistaken by readers for the much-hyped title by Paula Hawkins. And they were happy to have found her, for she gained many new fans. I then discovered she used to be a musician, and has played in all the major London concert halls, so I had to enquire whether music played a role in her writing. It certainly does – she has written a haunting, thoughtful post about the music that helped her layer her work with complexity, loss and betrayal, especially movie soundtracks like Blue Velvet and Let The Right One In. She is AJ Waines and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Venice masterclass snapshots: 4 hidden enablers for your story

hidden techniques for writersI’m just back from a few days in Venice teaching a writing masterclass (I know, it’s a hard life). In my lectures, one subject I found I returned to repeatedly was the hidden clues that make a novel work. Readers often don’t realise they are there, and that means they’re hard for a writer to spot.

Does that sound vague? Let’s have some examples.


Readers have a strong sense of whether surprises are fair. Sudden fatal coronaries, floods, falling trees and brake failures have to be used with careful judgement because they are convenient for the writer. They must be foreshadowed so that they seem inevitable and surprising but not arbitrary.

So if you wanted to warm the reader up for a car crash, you could plant a hint much earlier in the novel that one of your characters is often fined for speeding, or that it’s Christmas and drunk-drivers are on the roads. Foreshadowing mustn’t be obvious, so you need to disguise your intentions by making the scene appear to perform some other function – such as a couple arguing about who will stay sober for the drive home.

Enough secondary and background characters so that the world is populated

Some characters seem to exist in a vacuum. They have no connections to other people outside the main action. But if you add, as appropriate to your genre, a few colleagues, neighbours, extended family members, they seem to acquire more reality.

You also need extra people to make public settings believable. When you describe your protagonist walking down the street where they live, add a little life – a person hauling a suitcase out of their front door, perhaps. If the scene takes place at the dead of night, add a cat hunkered down on the parapet. If your characters meet in a coffee bar, give us a snapshot of the stranger sitting in the window, tapping on a laptop.
Here, you can learn from the movies – you’ll almost never see a street scene or a coffee bar that doesn’t have an anonymous random person doing an ordinary thing. Without it, the scene would seem strangely empty, artificial. The same goes for novels.

Scene set-up

Many writers plunge into a scene’s action too abruptly. Although it’s good to get the story moving, we can also be disorientated if we don’t know who’s in the scene, how many people there are and what they are doing. Include this in your opening so that the reader can load it in their mind.


With themes we have to use a light touch. I see manuscripts where the writer is desperate to point out their clever theories that make their story look universal and weighty. The characters have a lot of conversations, about the theme. They see it on newspaper headlines or their Twitter feed. Indeed, the characters might seem to be enacting a series of examples the writer’s theme, instead of following their real, human urges.

Themes work best when they are covert, not lit in neon. So the clever writer will nudge the reader to notice them – perhaps with their choice of language, names, a symmetry in the characters’ situations. It’s certainly there, and it has to be placed carefully – but it is hidden.


All these details are easily missed by readers – and this is their very nature. They are usually smuggled in. They do their work in disguise, under the waterline. Without them, the world of the story might seem unconvincing, a scene might be confusing, a plot surprise may seem arbitrary, or the novel may seem hectoring instead of engaging.

3nyns(Psst… there’s more about these techniques in my plot book and my characters book.)

Let’s discuss! Have you come across these techniques? If you have, how did you become aware of them? Are there any others that you’d add?

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


How should you credit your editor? Advice from a former publisher

Celeste_Holm_and_Oscar_from_Gentleman's_Agreement_trailerShould your editor be credited as a contributor to your book? What about your proof reader, copy editor? And where should you credit them?

Long ago, I ran an editorial department in a small publisher, so I thought it might help to give some guidelines.

Here’s my post about front matter, which explains all the fiddly stuff like title pages, half-titles, contents pages and so on. Today, I’ll concentrate on those editorial people you’d like to thank. And indeed, whether they would be better not mentioned at all.


If the book is a collection of curated material, eg short stories, poems or essays, it’s usual to credit the person who put it all together. Put it on the main title page, the cover and the spine – eg ‘edited by Roz Morris’. That would also go in the ‘main contributor’ section of the book’s official listing on KDP, Smashwords, CreateSpace, Ingram etc.

Non-fiction with many contributors

The rules are the same as for a collection. When I was a publisher, I had a number of titles that I conceptualised, outlined, found contributors for, edited and shaped. Individual authors were credited in their own sections, but I was the guiding force behind the work. So my name went on the cover, spine and title page.

Does it seem like I’m labouring this? That’s because I want to make the point about who is in charge of the final book.

Let’s talk about editors of novels, memoirs and single-author non-fiction.

Novels, memoirs and non-fiction – credit the editor or not?

Some indies put the editor in the front credits along with the author, or as an additional contributor. Do not do this.

If you’d like to mention them as a significant influence or supporter, a better place is the dedication or acknowledgements, according to how strongly you feel about them, obviously. The same goes for your proof reader or copy editor. But … and it’s a very big but.

Like this: BUT.

Please ask them first. Many editors have a policy that they do not want to be mentioned.

Now that might seem harsh. And they would surely find the exposure helpful, wouldn’t they? A mention in the credits would surely do them nothing but good.

Well no; it’s not as simple as that. The developmental editor, copy editor and proof reader are merely giving guidance. The final text of the book is down to you, the author.

This especially holds for developmental editors, who might give extensive notes for reworking. Some books leave my desk needing considerable revising, and I might not see them again. That’s fine; that’s my role. But I shouldn’t be credited in the published book if I didn’t see the final version. I’ve had editing clients who have added reams of extra material they didn’t let me see – and then wanted to publish the book with my credit. This is an extreme example, and most writers wouldn’t do that, but that credit might harm my reputation.

Equally, I see a lot of authors whose editors are very happy to be namechecked, and their supportive partnership warms everyone’s creative cockles. The bottom line is this: please ask.

Do we need a group hug? Here’s a post about why your editor admires you.

If the editor is happy to be named, where’s the best place?

The dedication before the book begins
Remember the reader has limited interest in your cheerleaders at this stage. Also remember, they have a blipvert attention span for your sample, and you should be getting them ensnared in the guts of your book.

If you want to explain at greater length what everyone did, the place for that is in ….

A longer acknowledgements section at the back
As the reader takes leave of you and your words, they’ll be happy to let you list your influences and influential people.

And check how your various folks would like to be described. A developmental editor from the book’s formative years might be described as ‘guidance and support’. Someone who had more direct control over the final book might be named by role – for instance your copy editor and proof reader.

But don’t feel obliged to mention us. It’s not compulsory. The bulk of the work, by far, was yours. Not ours.

Thoughts, theories? Have you named editors in your published books, and how did you handle it? Editors, copy editors, proof readers – what do you think?

, , , , , , , ,


‘Freedom and life force’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christine Tsen

for logoMy guest this week is a cellist and chamber musician who has just published her first poetry collection with Vine Leaves Press. She says music inspires her to write and to strive to express meaning in the cadence and feeling of words. Her soundtrack includes the classical standards you might expect, but also Evanescence and Josh Groban – and a moment when she saw the solo violinist Joshua Bell posing as a street musician. She is Christine Tsen and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Writers, stay true to your standards. Long night of the literary soul

3564583787_d0faf36e54_b‘There’s never been a better time to be a writer.’ I’ve seen this mantra frequently over the past few years in blogposts, conference reports and news items. And I don’t disagree there’s been a lot to celebrate.

But from what I see right now, this time is also tougher for authors than ever.

Indie authors feel it in their book sales. Hands up who is in a forum where the chief discussion is ‘what can I do about my dwindling sales?’ ‘Anybody else had a dismal month?’ ‘Should I drop my book’s price, put it on Kindle Unlimited, write something more popular, send out more emails, spend $$$ on a marketing course?’

The traditionally published authors I know are faring little better, with shrinking advances, ill-supported launches – even the authors who have awards to prove their worth.

Last week I was having an email conversation with a wise author friend. As we confided our worries and frustrations, I felt we were describing the state of the author 2015, and were probably echoing many other conversations going on behind closed doors.

So I thought I would open those doors. Come in. Come and see how authors are thinking about their careers right now. And see why, in spite of the rotten state of the book market, we keep the faith and stay true to our standards.

I have permission to quote my friend’s words, but he wanted to remain anonymous. So we’ll call him Oscar, in honour of the internet tradition of attributing everything to Mr Wilde.


Oscar: I’m looking forward to Ever Rest.

RM: It will be a while before Ever Rest is fit to show. When it is, I’m going to look for a new agent. It’s so desperately hard to get fiction noticed, especially if you write odd-lit like me. I have friends in mainstream publishing who give me furious pep-talks about how I’m on a hiding to nothing by publishing literary fiction as an indie. Even my own husband says it. And they’re right. I need a way to prove myself to the serious reviewers and opinion formers.

An example. I recently applied to the Royal Literary Fund for a grant. I’d been assured by another sponsored author that they would consider a writer who had published two literary novels, but when I checked their rules I found they excluded self-publishing. Nevertheless, I wrote explaining my background, teaching credentials, why I’m indie (more about that here ). Their reply was ‘you haven’t commercially published sufficient work’ and they refused any further discussions. This is the hole we find ourselves in, trying to get indie-published work recognised.

Oscar: You’re a smart lady to be looking for an agent. I’m beginning to think the biggest part of the indie movement is to smack the big machines into better behaviour. They have the money and power to do what we cannot do.

The tides will turn. I watched it happen in photography. Just please keep doing what you’re doing. It’s needed. Without people like you, we could lose literary writing in this mess. And it is a mess. I can’t believe some of the things I’m reading from authors who make big money.

RM: Speaking of which, you’ve no idea how many people who say to me ‘can’t you just toss off a series to get some bestsellers’?

Oscar: I tossed off a series – and then I pulled the books. I felt dirty.

I have an agent friend. In 2014 he was flying high, making sales, getting high-profile assignments, negotiating foreign rights. He said all of that is over now. It’s hard to sell *anything* to a trad house because we’ve lost our attention span for long form. Everybody is on Twitter. No one has the time to read. He has always been a force of nature, enormously talented, confident that he can take on the world. This throws me for a loop.

I check in on Kindleboards now and again. Yesterday I saw an author who started out making $13,000 a MONTH on four poorly written books say she’s now ghosting for other indies to make ends meet. Another author posted about the publication of his new ‘novel’, which is 117 pages long with lots of white space (probably 15K words) and selling for $2.99. Everyone was fawning over him and his swift production.

I saw Joanna Penn remark that we aren’t in competition with each other, but with so many other forms of entertainment. People do *not* sit still for long, unless they’re binging on Netflix for hours on end. How are we to compete with that?

Some authors are doing exceptionally well. They crank out a book a month and direct it at a very young audience that does not yet know the value of a dollar. I know scads of young adults, and they read copious amounts of books, but they’ve got to be free. I nearly blow an artery when I hear them say how poorly written the books are, how many grammar and style errors there are – but they don’t care.

As for craft and quality, in one forum I saw people asking others to stop putting out junk. The remarks degraded, as they always do, to people defending the ‘raw’ writing their fans demanded. Many admitted to using no editors at all, claiming it took the edge off.

RM: [Unprintable. Gentle reader, don’t ask.]

Oscar: My agent said there are precious few of us left with the attention span and appreciation of finely crafted work, and we need to hold on to each other dearly. That’s all fine and well, but how much longer can we continue buying each other’s books?

But it’s not all doom. My partner and I are deeply involved with theatre and have watched that die a slow death, and even Masterpiece Theater removed ‘Theater’ from its name so people won’t get turned off by it. We hang on because it is an eternal artform waiting to be re-born. I believe the same is true for longform, literary novels. It’s a cycle, and the cycles are moving faster.

RM: Right. Who would have thought, five years ago, that Hilary Mantel would be a household name? Listen, while publishing sorts itself out, we write. Have a look at this interview where the musician Sarah Kirkland Snider is talking to Porter Anderson about the sense of connection and completeness we have when we create good work. That’s what it’s about.

Oscar: There is a passage from Nevada to Utah called The Virgin River Gorge. It’s at least a thousand feet deep and so beautiful it makes one’s heart stop. It was carved by a small body of soft water that moved slowly and peacefully because it was the only thing it knew how to do, the only path it could take. With time, it created the impossible and a majestic beauty and monument to the power of unyielding persistence.

Be the water.

Thanks for the pic MCD22

Do you have days like this? How has this year been for you in your writing and publishing career? My door is open.

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


‘Everything about the characters was held within these notes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jason Hewitt

for logoMy guest this week says that when he gives talks, he often says that writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. He describes how his lead characters are like the principal instruments, plotting the crescendos on paper beforehand (not unlike to an idea I sketched out in my first Nail Your Novel book – drawing the characters’ parts on manuscript paper, like a score). One of his novels is set in 1940 and music pervades the whole narrative, especially as the principal characters are musicians. There is music for each character’s mental signature, music for particular moments, music that helped him retune if he felt his grasp on the story slipping. And watch out for a track with a simply sublime title: And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound of Bees. He is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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

Leave a comment


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,129 other followers