Is back story sabotaging your novel? Guest spot at Jane Friedman

friedmanI’m at Jane Friedman’s blog today, where she’s showcasing a section of the plot book that deals with back story.

Misusing back story is one of the most common problems I see as an editor. Writers bury their best events in the back story, and then struggle to think up enough spectacular ideas for the main narrative. Or they rely on secret, past wounds instead of character development. Or they set up secret traumas that are never used in the forward action. Lastly, they heap all the back story into the beginning of the book, stalling the action – the famous back story dump.

But back story is also important. It lets you write with authority. And there are moments when you can play it out and deeply enrich your readers’ experience. So how can you wield back story with panache?

Hop along to Jane’s blog to find out.

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I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

too manycooks hugo90A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.

…………………

I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

nyn1badgeMore about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

 

 

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‘A sequence of notes to transport you to a time and place’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Debbie Bennett

for logoMy guest this week says she was always secretly a rock chick, and has provided pictorial evidence to prove it. When she turned her creative impulses to writing, music helped create the mood and tone. She writes gritty crime with a heavy dose of psychological thriller, and drew on a aural landscape of Alice Cooper, Soul Asylum, Bon Jovi and Skid Row. She is Debbie Bennett and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Free book giveaways – when do they work? When don’t they?

5275640024_243d3bcfcb_zOnce upon a time, authors could get a great start if they made their book available free. Back in 2008 and 2009, I got huge traction for the original Nail Your Novel when I offered it free as a pdf. There wasn’t much free material out there, so it got attention. Indeed, as far back as the early 2000s, science fiction writer Cory Doctorow had been giving away digital copies of his novels on a Creative Commons basis, famously saying that his chief problem was to battle obscurity.

But times change. ‘Free’ soon became a deluge. If readers grabbed them in the digital equivalent of a supermarket sweep, they probably didn’t even remember they had them. In all likelihood, those books sat unnoticed in the bottomless vaults of their Kindles.

I flirted briefly with free when KDP Select started. Indeed, I organised a free event to coincide with World Book Night for Authors Electric, a group blog of published authors I used to belong to. We each gave away a book for five days, campaigned our socks off, tweeted until we grew beaks, watched the tallies mount in our KDP dashboards… and virtually nothing came of it afterwards.

Now, is a giveaway the way for authors to get noticed? I contend it is not for everyone.

Where free works

I’ll admit that I worry we give away our work too easily. If we create a culture where a book costs less than a sheet of gift-wrap and a greetings card, there’s something badly wrong. An ebook may not have material form, but it does give you more time and experience than something you glance at and throw away. And tellingly, the people who get cross with me for speaking out are the ones who say they refuse to spend more than a couple of dollars on a book, or berate me for not putting my books into Kindle Unlimited.

So that’s my rant done. However, free does work in some cases – where it adds value, rather than dilutes it.

Lest you think I’m waxing hypocritical, with my WordPress blog and Hootsuite account, let me state that I think free works very well with certain kind of services.

And certain kinds of book. In the kind of genre markets where the series rules, making the first book free can work very well. The authors who do this have plenty more titles to offer once readers are hooked. (Joanna Penn has had great results giving the first book of her series away free, and offering free books as incentives to sign up to newsletters – her post about it is here.) These authors are using free books in the way that WordPress and Hootsuite give starter packages free – to build long-term trust and familiarity. (When I want to upgrade my web services, WordPress and Hootsuite will be my first ports of call.)

Where ‘free’ may not work

But outside those genres, how do readers decide to try an unfamiliar author? Especially those who write the more individual kind of book, perhaps not easily pigeonholed? Usually, it’s by deciding if they like to spend time in that author’s company.

How do they do that? By reading something that sparks their interest. That could be anything. It doesn’t have to be a book. If you’re one of those authors, every post you write, every meaningful conversation you have on social media is already giving a sample of your voice, your personality, your tastes, your passions, the workings of your unique mind. The books you write will be made from that same material. If that doesn’t persuade readers you are fascinating and intriguing, giveaways and free books won’t make much difference.

Giveaways as prizes

Indeed, I have evidence that free giveaways with delayed prizes aren’t working any more. Every week I offer a guest spot on The Undercover Soundtrack. In past years, book giveaways got good uptake. Now, they hardly get any. The blog’s readership has grown enormously, but no one’s bothering to contend for prizes.

Perhaps it’s partly impatience. If a reader likes the look of a book from its Undercover Soundtrack, they don’t want to wait a week for the giveaway result. They buy it immediately. So who’s left to take part in the giveaway? The people who don’t much mind whether they read it or not.

Even giveaway campaigns to well-targeted readers don’t seem to produce much return these days. I recently donated copies of Nail Your Novel for a fellow writer’s launch campaign, which should in theory have resulted in more exposure for the series. I saw no increase in sales afterwards.

reversecov compI have, however, had great results when I’ve done a giveaway of something special – like the NYN notebook or the My Memories of a Future Life antimatter edition. But those were specially made prizes, limited editions. Readers will pitch up for a unique prize, but they seem pretty indifferent to an ebook they might or might not get.

Spend your free books wisely

I know this is contentious. But I see a lot of writers who think they’re not trying hard enough if they don’t give books away and don’t examine whether the tactic is working for them. I think we have to look hard at every free ebook we spend. If we get a worthwhile return, that was an ebook well spent, no doubt about it. If not, we should stop.

Thanks for the pic Constanca Cabral

So let’s discuss. Where do you think free works and where doesn’t it work? How has this changed over the years? Do you think authors are being pressured to do giveaways all the time?

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‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Suzie Grogan

for logoMy guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Quirky tales and the difficulty of leaving a book behind: My Memories of a Future Life featured at Triskele Books

triskeleJW Hicks collects writers of quirky books, and I’m honoured she’s chosen me for her collection on the fab blog of the Triskele Books collective. (You might recognise Jane as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel Rats.) She’s prised me out of my writing cage to answer questions on whether I start with characters or plot, what ghostwriting does to your writing style, how I keep track of ideas, and whether I worry the ideas will dry up. (In fact, I confess to acute separation anxiety when I finish a book. I don’t want to leave it. Does anyone else get that?)

Anyway, it’s all there at Triskele – you can get there with a hop, a skip or a tricycle .… or you could ask a soothing voice to guide you there in a dreamy state. At your own risk, of course.

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The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature

Lifeform Three Roz MorrisI was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’

To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.

Not as mad as it seems

But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.

Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.

If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…

The Johari Window

Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:

  • the things the character and everyone else knows
  • the things only the character knows
  • the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
  • the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.

These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.

That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)

Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality

Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.

This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…

On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.

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Bereavement, a bid to exist, a way to control an antisocial persona: why we write

why we write pauline blogWomen-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlFear not, I won’t inflict every post on you that we release for the Women Writing Women campaign, but this is one that celebrates and explores creativity. Pauline Baird Jones invited us to answer the question: why do we write?

Inevitably, this led us all to search for where we started. And here you see something we all have in common – not just the group here but all of us on this journey. Carol Cooper did it to get into the best gigs at college.  Jessica Bell did it because otherwise she felt she’d disappear. Jane Davis did it after a friend died. Kathleen Jones did it when she ran out of stories to read as a child on a remote farm. Orna Ross did it to give an overdramatic teenage personality a safe space to express. Joni Rodgers did it when blood cancer put her into isolation. And me? An overexpressive kid with something to prove, I guess, and too much shyness to be big in real life. Come over to Pauline’s blog and discover the full story.

And if you feel inclined to share, tell me here: why do you write?

 

 

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‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jake Kerr

for logoMy guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Seven genre-busting novels – introducing Women Writing Women

Women-Writing-Women-Box-Set-Cover_finalJPEGsmlYou remember I posted recently about authors collaborating? Well, I wouldn’t advise you to do anything I wouldn’t try myself.

If you know me – and some of my friends – on Facebook, you might have seen some coy posts about how we’ll be revealing a big secret project.

Well here it is.

Seven writers of quality indie fiction are releasing an ebook collection called Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.
We’ve each of us proved our worth with awards, fellowships, teaching posts and commercial success. We’ve all self-published to keep our hard-earned independence and our artistic identity. Now we are teaming up to create an ebook box set of novels that feature strong, idiosyncratic female protagonists. And it will be available for just a brief period – from February to May 2015.

Power in a group

Now here’s where we can explore the power of the group. We’ve already been interviewed by The Guardian books pages, Books + Publishing (the Australian counterpart of Publisher’s Weekly) and have interest from the arts programmes of BBC Radio 4. If any of us had approached them on our own, we probably wouldn’t have got even a reply. But together?

We hope there’s more to come. Much more. These last few months we’ve been working behind the scenes, making contacts, sending emails. Certainly I’ll have a lot of learning to share about pre-launch campaigns. I am learning loads from these guys. (I should say ‘women’, but you know what I mean.)

So what do we hope to achieve?

To hit some charts, obviously. To reach readers who are hungry for strong literary fiction beyond the bounds of traditional genre tropes.

We also want to prove that fine, original authors are self-publishing as a mark of independence and integrity, and doing work of value and quality.

You might ask: is that still necessary? Does anyone still consider self-publishing to be ‘vanity’ or second rate? They clearly do, because this is one of the issues we’ve been asked about most frequently. And we have all encountered attitudes in the books world that demonstrate we are regarded as inferior. Try joining a professional body, applying for a grant or entering an award, or requesting a review. (Happily, we are already changing minds. Book bloggers who are wary of self-published books have welcomed us.)

Who are we?
Our coalition is:
Me, obviously (more than 4 million books sold as a ghostwriter, creative writing coach for The Guardian, literary author, editor);
Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Publishing by The Bookseller;
Joni Rodgers, author/ghostwriter of multiple NYT bestsellers, short-listed for Barnes & Noble Discover Award;
Kathleen Jones, widely published Royal Literary Fund Fellow and frequent BBC contributor;
Jane Davis, winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Award hailed by The Bookseller as “One to Watch”;
Carol Cooper, physician, medical journalist, and winner of the 2013 BMA Book Award;
Jessica Bell, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and author of the bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series.
You’ll also know them all from The Undercover Soundtrack, except for Jane who doesn’t use music in her creative process. (But maybe we can change that!) Find our ‘who are we’ page here. And yes, you can see we dressed up for the occasion.

WWW head shot bannersml
How much?
The collection is priced at USD$9.99 GBP7.99 – yes, that’s not throwaway pricing, but at roughly £1.15 per book it’s still a bargain. The box set (or e-anthology, if the word ‘box’ raises your hackles) will be available for just 90 days from February 20, though pre-orders have just opened now. Right this minute.

Out and about
We’ve got a host of blog appearances planned. We’ll be sharing plenty of information about the hows and wherefores, the triumphs and pitfalls. We’ll also be talking about our publishing journeys, our inspirations, our methods. And our work – our unconventional characters and their relationships, our themes and topics like body image culture, abortion, prostitution, euthanasia, domestic abuse, same-sex marriage, bereavement, psychological recovery and rogue healers.

If you have a blog and your readership would be interested in us, we’d love to be mentioned – or interviewed if that’s what you normally do. If you want to tweet about it and like lists of pre-prepared tweets, find them here. And if you post a review, fill in the form on this link and we’ll send you a digital swag bag that includes a free book plus lovely links, delicious downloads and some playful surprises.

Our hopes
If nothing else, we hope to bust some barriers in 2015. We want to prove that indie publishing is a positive choice for writers of quality, to show that writers can make good publishing decisions and lead the creative process. And if you’re happy with traditional publishing, we hope to add more power to your arm, by demonstrating that authors should be included in business and promotion decisions, treated as partners and offered fair deals.

It’s going to be exciting. Check us out at www.womenwritewomen.com.

7 unforgettable books by award-winning #WomenInLiterature. Only $9.99! Avail. Only 90 days! http://goo.gl/D1fyqW #WomenWritingWomen

WWW FULL BANNERaml

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