You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?
A few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).
1 You are not alone.
This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.
I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?
One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.
Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.
But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.
3 Accept that you might have to park a project.
Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.
4 Don’t give up the day job.
One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’
Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.
5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.
Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.
Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders
As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.
I’d like to bet that many readers of this blog went through a teenage phase where they wrote lyrics. Or is it just me? Well, it’s also my guest this week. He says the lyrics phase was superseded when the urge to create narrative took over, but music remains central to his creative life. It has formed many underlays for his novels, including the shorthand between friends, the backdrop to life events, the tunnel to the past. One major character came alive when he realised that music wasn’t a big deal for her. Funnily enough, a significant musical touchstone is Mogwai, who was cited just a few weeks ago by Philip Miller, one of his stablemates at the imprint Freight Books. There must be something in the water. Anyway, his name is Iain Maloney, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack
My guest this week says she would like to be able to play the piano to concert standard, but since she can’t, she uses words as her instrument of enthrallment. Pianos are central to the plot of her latest novel, a historical romance in which four nouveau riche fathers attempt to marry off their daughters by displaying their talents in a music recital. Mayhem ensues, con brio. She says her musical ear guides her writing; Bach helps her to listen to the cadence of words and Purcell reminds her, in the most emotional way, that writing is all about remembering. (Are you guessing that Dido’s Lament might be coming up?) She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow Katharine Grant and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
First of all, does it matter if your editor is American, British, Canadian, Australian, or any other flavour of English?
Not for developmental editing, because that’s about the substance of the book. The editor won’t be recommending line corrections or studying your phrasing or grammar (although they might remark on it).
But in copy editing and proofreading, your use of language will be under scrutiny. That’s where you need an editor in tune with your territory. (Here’s a post on the different editorial processes and the order to do them.)
You say tomayto…
In case you’re wondering, there is far more difference than spellings and vocab. I’m a thoroughly Brit speaker, and I couldn’t copy-edit or proof a US book. Or an Australian book. Each territory has its own grammar, usage and punctuation. When I read a blog or book by an American that I know has immaculate language, my red pen itches.
Which of the Englishes to choose for your book?
If you’re from the UK, should you make a separate edition for the US … and others?
If you’ve been traditionally published, you might know that separate editions are made for each territory, and the books are usually re-edited for local ears. (Indeed, the rights may be sold to completely different publishers.)
Sometimes this goes beyond spelling and language use. The title might be changed; English locations and environments might be changed, all to be more appealing to the market. I worked on a book that was changed significantly for America because it took place in an English school. The rewrite replaced cricket with baseball and other details to make it less foreign for US readers. (Usually I’d find that irritating. Surely kids know that pavements are sidewalks and bonnets are hoods, right? But the publisher had a good artistic reason; the book was about a demon trapped in an ordinary school, and the humour worked because everything else was absolutely familiar.)
In indie publishing, the platforms are set up so that your edition goes worldwide. On KDP you can exclude territories, but I don’t think you can on Smashwords and other platforms – which makes it difficult to produce separate editions. Indeed, I don’t know any indies who do this because they’d lose certain advantages such as cross-linking of reviews.
So indies have to choose their variety of English and stick to it. Some authors change the spellings to American but keep everything else UK. They use American brand names too – one conference attendee cited the example of paracetamol, and how Americans are confused if you don’t call it Tylenol. For me, mixing the Englishes is too weird for my pedantic editor brain, so I stick to Brit.
How much do readers mind?
There was an interesting response from other speakers.
Mel Sherratt (@WriterMels), who writes crime thrillers, said when she first published she was appalled to find reviews on Amazon US that complained her book was full of errors. Digging further, she found this was a response to her UK English. But other readers said they enjoyed the distinctive English flavour, which was appropriate to her setting, so she decided that Englishness was part of her signature.
Paul Pilkington (@PaulPilkington), who writes suspense mystery, said he’d also had remarks from American readers. so he puts a note in the front matter, explaining that his books use UK conventions.
With my own novels, I have more reviews from US than UK readers. No one’s ever complained about the pronounced Brit flavour. Nail Your Novel fared a little differently, but not significantly so. In about 150 reviews for book 1, I had one reader who mistook the UK English for errors. I actually did the unwise thing of replying to the review – don’t do this at home – and asked for examples. When I pointed out that they were all sanctioned by the Oxford English Dictionary, he removed the review. (As I said, tackling negative reviews is usually a hiding to nothing, but I think it’s justified where your competence is being questioned for a dumb reason.)
Thanks for the tomato pic epSOS on Flickr
Clearly, some categories of reader will be more forgiving than others of a non-US usage. We’ll all have our own comfort levels and solutions, and it would be interesting to discuss further. What brand of English do you use? Do you make concessions to other territories? Have you ever had negative reviews based on this and did it make you take action? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week says he needs silence to write, but not necessarily aural silence. Instead he seeks what he calls a ‘silence of the mind’, a cessation of chaos, so that he can tune his senses to his novel’s world and the feelings of his characters. Music by Bach and Joni Mitchell, among others, prepare the way for his latest novel – the story of a boy born in thirteenth-century Persia with four ears instead of two, and his path towards spiritual awakening and love. Stop by the Red Blog to meet literary novelist Michael Golding, and the Undercover Soundtrack for A Poet of the Invisible World.
November is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.
It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.
I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.
1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.
2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.
3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.
4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.
5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.
Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr
Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?