How to write a logline for your novel

What’s a logline?

It’s a sentence or two that illuminates the main theme or story question. Sometimes it’s included on the cover, but not always. Sometimes a subtitle performs the same function as a logline – not so much with novels, but common with non-fiction, memoir and even short stories.

Even if you don’t intend to put a logline on the book cover, it’s handy to have, because it’s a one-shot focused way to begin your sales description. And for all the times when somebody catches you on the hop with this dumbstriking question: what’s your book about?

So loglines are easy to define. And darned hard to write. Imagine your novel of 100,000 words. It’s a long and nuanced experience. I’m sure you’re screaming in your mind: how do I boil that down to one line?

Loglines are on my mind because I’ve been writing one for Ever Rest. More than 100,000 words, so I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

But I did, eventually. Here’s how.

First, I tried to identify the novel’s central theme or question. Unfortunately, there seemed to be many. My list went: Love, loss, friendship. Betrayal. The haunting power of music. The time-capturing power of music. (Lots about music.) The cruelty of places beyond our warm territories. (Lots about that too.)

This list was not going to give me a logline.

Also, it was looking at the wrong thing.

I wrote several loglines that were very unsuitable. At the time each seemed perfect. Then I’d look again and think, that’s not the best angle.

Some were even misleading. One logline I wrote, which I seriously liked for a while, sounded like genre crime. You can see a journal of them here, in my most recent newsletter, which shows how mistaken you can be about your own book. (Click on the link to the loglines story.)

So I started again.

Find the right question

I looked for questions. This was better.

One question proved to be very useful:

What are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive emotional flavour?

And

An event draws these people together. What predicament does it put them all in?

The people are, of course, the key. The main characters. Their relationships. Their biggest troubles. Their central problem, which presents differently on the surface, but deep down is the same issue seen through many windows. The things that, underneath, they need to finish.

A check

I also needed the logline to complement the cover and the title. Your cover designer will have picked one dominant emotion for the cover, so your logline should harmonise with it. Otherwise you’ll confuse your readers and confused readers don’t buy. (I haven’t yet revealed the cover for Ever Rest, so you’ll have to use your imagination for now. But I have ensured that cover, title and logline are in harmony.)

Then polish

Once you know what you want to say (a major task in its own right), rewrite the logline in emotive, teasing language. Aim for tension. Try:

Questions -‘Is it too late to tell the truth?’ Jill Mansell, It Started With a Secret.

Contrasts – ‘One library. Infinite lives.’ Matt Haig, The Midnight Library.

Conundrums and contradictions – ‘If your life now was another person’s past…’ My Memories of a Future Life (me!).

Also, learn from your comparison titles. These are books that give the reader a similar experience to yours, so study what quality has been isolated for the logline. Also look at their reviews – a perceptive reviewer might have picked words or phrases that exactly capture what you’d like to say about your own book.

Try it now. Take a book you read recently and consider: what logline would you write for this book?

PS My Nail Your Novel workbook contains exercises for writing various kinds of summary for your book, including synopses and pitches.

PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here (to see a very exciting announcement). You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Finding your personal magic – talking to @thecreativepenn about forgotten places, historic landscapes and Not Quite Lost

This interview was such fun. You probably know Joanna Penn for her legendary Creative Penn podcast, but here she is in alternative guise – Books and Travel.

She invited me to chat about my memoir Not Quite Lost so we took off our teacher hats and nattered about the pleasures of purposeless wandering, the charm of seasides out of season, and the way a low-key place can be personally magical if we just bring our imagination.

Do come over.

And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

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Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber

Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work.  So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.

Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?

Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.

Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…

Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.

Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.

Roz Give me the better version…

Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.

My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.

Roz Tell me about Winter Light.

Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.

Roz How did you ensure the details were correct? For instance, the alcohol and addiction aspects wouldn’t be handled in a 2020s way.  

Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.

Roz I love the post you made on your Facebook page, about your protagonist’s cherished concert T-shirts. And this, her playlist. Why was YA the most suitable approach?

Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.

I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.

Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.

While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.

Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts:  50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?

Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.

Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.

Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.

The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.

Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?

Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.

Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?

Martha Characters are the story!

If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.

Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.

Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.

Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?

Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:

How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?

That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:

character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)

The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.

Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.

Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –

Roz Me too. Museums and galleries are like drifting through a beautifully curated dream.

Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.

Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?

Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.

Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.

My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.

Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.

Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.

With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?

Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.

I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.

Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.

In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.

Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)

Martha Woohoo!

Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…

Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.

Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)

How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?

Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.

The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.

The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.

And when we create, we make the world a better place.

Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.

Find Martha’s website here, her blog here, and tweet her @marthaengber

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast

I’ve just been a guest on Sacha Black’s Rebel Author podcast where we had a thorough (and sometimes rebellious) discussion about how to write convincing people. Ideas we talked about included how writers teach the reader what’s important to a character, and how readers want a book to take them to places and experiences beyond their own lives.

Drop in here, and wear your best rebel boots.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write a memoir about difficult times

I’ve had this question from Julia.

I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.

First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.

How to write the diary

You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.

You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.

Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.

Do this every day, or as often as you can.

Don’t edit

Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.

Add context

When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.

Don’t delete

This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.

This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.

Start planning the book

After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.

Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?

We are made of many memoirs

At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.

Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.

From my interview with Peter Selgin, author of The Inventors

Other aspects to consider

You need to be objective, honest and fair, which is hard – see this interview with Peter Selgin.

Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).

More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Should your book be first person, third person (or even second)? Ep48 FREE podcast for writers

Who’s narrating your book? Whose eyes is the story seen through? Sometimes we know by gut feeling which mode to tell a story in. It arrives to us as a first-person account and that’s that. First person also brings interesting limitations and biases, or even the suggestion of unreliability. (These can be interesting.) Sometimes, we want the reader to share more than one perspective or timeline, so third is the way to go. What are the advantages of each, and the pitfalls? Might your story change for the better if you include other viewpoints…. or close it down to just one? And what, pray, is the much maligned sin of head-hopping and how do you avoid it?

That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken

How do you get a career working with words? We all have our own routes. In a new occasional series, I’m interviewing people who’ve turned their wordy bookwormy passions into their profession. Today: Amie McCracken

Roz How did you get here?

Amie In a roundabout way to be honest. Though I have always been obsessed with story and books and reading, I went to college thinking I would become a journalist. I double-majored in creative writing and photojournalism. When college ended, I tried my best to find a job in magazines or a publishing house. Nothing panned out; instead I worked as a veterinary technician for my dad as well as a smattering of other odd jobs until my husband and I moved to Germany.

It was then that I started getting into the freelance editing world. It really is my passion, but it took me a while to figure that out and to find my groove.

Roz What was the first step and how did it lead to paid work?

Amie I have worked my butt off, a lot of it for free.

There really is no clear-cut way to freelancing. It takes a lot of networking (how I met you, Roz!) and putting yourself out there. I worked for a few small presses to begin with, had a few mishaps in working for the wrong people—a vanity press at one point, eek!—but gradually I have built my reputation and now writers come to me.

Roz Same here. I did a lot of things I wasn’t a good fit for, but while doing them I met the right people. It takes years, taking whatever comes along, and also jumping on opportunities.

Sometimes you have to be really cheeky. I became an editor with Cornerstones literary consultancy because I found one of their flyers, advertising their services. I wrote to them and said ‘I want to work for you!’ Fortunately, the cheeky pitch is much less embarrassing on the internet than it is in real life…

Amie I have done everything from editing calendars and textbooks to mentoring authors through the writing process to proofreading magazines. Last year I finally had to create a schedule because I was booking projects a few months in advance. And now I’m full up four months out.

I think I knew I finally made it when I felt comfortable saying no to projects that didn’t interest me. That is a place of power as a small business for sure.

Roz Tell me about the creative writing element of your degree. What foundations did it give you that you still use today? What did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Amie As an author, I still call myself a hobbyist. It has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t have the self-confidence to say I’m a writer or author. It’s purely because editing is my career, but writing is my creative outlet. I do not want to turn that side of my life into a business. Though I am very happy to help other authors do so!

Roz Was your degree useful for your editing work?

Amie The act of writing, and having studied it in college, has of course taught me a lot of skills as an editor. I think the simple act of immersing oneself in story, via writing, editing or critiquing others’ work, and reading, is one of the best methods of improving your own storytelling. In the same way that language is best learned by immersion, taking in the language through as many forms as possible, writing skills improve the more time you spend with stories.

There are skills I have built upon that continually add to who I am as a writer and editor. I believe that the voice of a story develops as you write it (and then is improved upon rewriting), and the same goes for your voice as a writer. It is like a fine whiskey, improving with age and as you learn to savour.

Roz You’ve published in a variety of niches. Sometimes you’re in science fiction territory with Devolution and Emotionless. Sometimes you’re overlapping with contemporary real life (Blink and your latest release, Leaning Into the Abyss).

Amie My novels Blink and Leaning Into the Abyss cross into the magical realism genre, and I would say that is actually my bent. Both Emotionless and Devolution dig deeper into the sci-fi worlds, but are very light sci-fi as I don’t explain complex technology or math like other true science fiction does. So for the most part I am a magical realism author.

Roz Tell me more about your affinity with magical realism. What magical realism novels first made you feel at home there?

Amie Alice Hoffman is my idol. If I could write as many varied characters and as prolifically as she does, I would be proud. Her writing is something to dive into and get lost in. Every sentence is crafted beautifully, and the magic is utterly subtle but permeates every moment.

Robin McKinley writes farther on the fantasy side, but the gentle build of her plots and the beauty of the magic involved always entrances me.

The same goes for Erin Morgenstern. Her stories are much more fantastical than I will ever write, but the depth and emotional pull of her characters always has me in pieces.

Roz What makes an Amie book? Do you have any recurring themes, character types you’re most interested in?

Amie My books tend to ask a major question. Emotionless questions what would happen if we could remove hormones from our bodies (I am type 1 diabetic and insulin is a hormone, so I wondered what would happen if I could remove the problem instead of fixing it).

Roz Ah, much SF comes from our own personal experience of science!

Amie My novel Devolution asks what would happen if humans stopped evolving and we had to rely on genetically modified babies to kick-start evolution again. Leaning Into the Abyss asks what life would look like with a major shift via a catastrophic event (the death of a groom just before his wedding). So my writing is heavy on theme and is brought to life by the characters.

Roz You also have a non-fiction book, Giving Birth To Motherhood.

Amie Yes, Giving Birth to Motherhood exists because I am a mother and went through a traumatic birth. It helps other mothers write their birth story while looking at it from a psychological perspective for the motivations behind actions and reactions. It is intended to teach mothers to heal themselves and find catharsis through intentional journaling.

Roz And you have a bootcamp for writers… Six-Month Novel.

Amie I started Six-Month Novel with a business partner (Charlie at Urban Writers’ Retreat) because we both felt there was a hole in the offerings. Charlie runs writing retreats, both for a day and residential, and I work directly with authors, but we wanted something longer term that allowed writers (and us!) to focus on completing an entire novel. We didn’t want it to be the same as normal writing courses; we had heard of too many people completing MFAs and then getting stuck. So we don’t teach how to write, we simply help you find the habits that work for you and then keep you accountable so that you can complete that novel you’ve been wanting to write for ages. It’s a programme that is intended for seasoned writers who feel stagnated or afraid to jump into their next project.

Roz How do you find time for your own creative writing? Do you have a routine or timetable?

Amie I’m a very self-motivated person. I was homeschooled, which for me bred ambition and taught me to get shit done. So when I have a project ready and waiting, I jump on it every moment I have. I do tend to work better with larger chunks of time, and my husband is amazing at giving me entire weekend days or even writing retreats that last a week or so.

Roz That’s a great idea. And a great husband…

Amie I make sure and schedule things like that into my calendar. I’ve gotten very good at time-blocking since my son came along—when he is at kindergarten during the day, I focus on work; when he is home, I focus on him; and when he’s asleep, I focus on writing. I don’t really know how I’ve managed to get so much done. I’ve only published books since having my son five years ago. I often wonder what I did with all that free time before I had him! And really wish I hadn’t wasted it… Though I was building my business and travelled a ton and learned a new language and wrote a few first drafts and ok, I guess I wasn’t that lazy.

Roz I recognise what you’ve identified here. If I’ve spent days or weeks thinking or researching, I feel like I didn’t get anything done. But that time is necessary. Especially in the early stages of a book. It’s discovering the territory.

Amie One of the best things I’ve done for my writing in recent years was to learn a second language (German) and try to write in that language. It has opened up a whole other set of books to me, but has also pushed me to realize what language does on a fundamental, sentence-by-sentence level. I’m much more picky with my words now that I understand the impact language has on meaning and intention.

Roz Do give examples! I have a smattering of school French and German. While learning them, I was intrigued by the things they have words for that we don’t. Both languages have separate words for the two connotations of ‘know’. They feel that distinction is important, whereas we don’t. And genders – if you’re of a poetic bent, linguistic gender must add another dimension to your work.

Amie Most definitely! One oft quoted source is German fairy tales. In German, a girl is called das Mädchen. Das is the neutral gender, so technically a girl is it and in the case of ownership, you would use the equivalent of his with that noun. For example with Cinderella, “Es war einmal ein hübsches Mädchen, das war sehr traurig, den seine Mutter war vor Kurzem gestorben.” Literally: “Once upon a time there was a girl, it was very sad, because his mother was recently deceased.” This example, and other gendered nouns for humans, has led to some frustration in recent days when equality comes into the conversation. But it has me wanting to see if I can play with my English and really pinpoint the intention behind a sentence using the vocabulary while also keeping the implication instead of stating things baldly—showing not telling.

Roz Speaking of endless quests of learning, the arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to work on. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Amie Books! I read widely, including non-fiction books about writing, but I love dissecting classics as well as contemporary novels.

Roz Me too. I learn far more from novels than from craft books.

Amie I read for pleasure, but also to understand story on every level possible.

Roz Sometimes people ask me if reading analytically spoils the pleasure. I find it doesn’t. It’s part of the pleasure, the appreciation. I can analyse at the same time as enjoying. That means I’m a very slow reader. I can be trapped by a paragraph, perhaps because of its imagery or because of the way it delivers an emotion that’s been carefully set up earlier.

Amie I inhale the written word.

Roz I love the intimacy of it. Print into eye, into brain, into heart. A remarkable process.

Find Amie’s books here and her editing services here. Get her newsletter here and tweet her at @amiemccracken

PS If you’re looking for writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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From bust to trust (the tale of a little horse) – guest post at Martha Engber @marthaengber

This is an unusual kind of guest post as it’s not exactly about writing.

Actually, it’s not at all about writing, though it is on the blog of a fellow writer.

That writer is Martha Engber, best described as a words everyperson. Editor, playwright, novelist, essayist, writing coach journalist… the full (extensive) credentials are here, along with a link to her latest novel, Winter Light.

Martha asked me to contribute to a series she runs about pets. I think she was anticipating a cat or a dog. But readers of my newsletter will know my pet is somewhat larger…

No problem, said Martha, sportingly. Write about his quirks.

What emerged was a story about his quirks and mine, how they nearly undid us, and how… well, you’ll have to read it. As I said, it’s rather light on writing advice. But it’s super-strong on perseverence advice. And horses. Do drop in.

PS If you’d like concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win Martha’s latest novel, among many other beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member Jon Duffy.

Here’s a glimpse of the green room before we went on air, with thoughtful shuffling of notes.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included atmospheric writing that doesn’t go anywhere, a character who seemed in the wrong age group, a voice that might be confusing the reader, a curious choice of second person for the narrator, obvious and unnecessary dumping of information, what voice is, what resonance is, and how to navigate the huge range of writing advice that’s now available.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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