‘Music to fill my mind but not fight the words’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, GD Harper

for logoMy guest this week says he is much concerned with reinvention. He’s spent his life setting himself challenges to embrace new careers, lifestyles, places to live – and the latest of those reinventions is being a novelist. His debut title is a story of 1970s Glasgow and required some daring imaginative reinventions – not least, writing in the voice and psyche of a 22-year-old woman. A soundtrack was essential – Tangerine Dream to soothe and order the brain; Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and David Bowie to restart the period – and provide other wisdom besides. He is Glyn Harper – writing as GD Harper – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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‘Freedom, broken ties and love outside of marriage’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Diana Stevan

for logoMy guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her latest novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’s on the Red Blog with the music that helped her write The Rubber Fence.

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Avoid this plotting pitfall when writing drafts at speed

Nail Your Novel - pitfall of writing at speedHusband Dave and I have recently been watching the Showtime series Ray Donovan. And sometimes, we’re finding the storytelling is rather uneven.

Interesting developments pop up that seem to promise a new and unexpected direction for the plot. Instead, though, they’re defused and then the main story trots along again, pretty much unaffected.

Here’s an example. Ray is a hired troubleshooter for the rich and famous, and has a few skeletons in the closet. In the first season he’s pursued by an FBI agent of formidable reputation; we’re told he always gets his man. This seems to be setting up a potent adversary. But then the writers then did their best to hustle him out of the story.

First they made him into a figure of fun by spiking his coffee with LSD. Then he’s shot by one of the characters. It’s clear the writers didn’t want to let him cause big trouble, so they got rid of him. (And in case you’re wondering, the shooting doesn’t seem to have had any consequences either.)

This seems to happen a lot in the Ray Donovan scripts. Interesting obstacles pop up that promise a swerve into a more serious gear. But they’re neutralised, and in a way that looks rushed or unbelievable.

For the audience, it’s terribly frustrating. If a serious problem arises, we want to see it cause lasting trouble. And we want it to have serious, unpredictable consequences. We don’t want it to be solved, and for everything to continue as before.

Tunnel vision

Last week I talked about rookie plotting errors, and this was one of them. Tunnel vision; not giving brilliant plot ideas enough development. No of course I’m not suggesting the Ray Donovan writers are rookies. But there’s another characteristic reason that this problem arises – when writing to a deadline. When a daily quota must be filled. And when the writer has to fit an overall outline.

In TV, a writer probably doesn’t have much leeway to alter the master series arc. They have to fit the show runner’s mission. But if you’re writing a novel, you’re the master. If you’ve made an outline, you can change it, even if you’re rattling the words out against a deadline.

Here’s a plan to examine a show-stopping idea without losing control.

  1. Acknowledge – stop and look that idea firmly in the eye. Might it upset your plans? A sure sign is if you’re already looking for a way to stifle its effects. Take a moment and let it breathe.
  2. Assess the consequences. Step away from your outline. Open a new file or Evernote tab or grab a pen. Make a what-if list – if you incorporated this development fully into the story, what would the consequences be? Explore them in this safe space.
  3. Run the comparisons. Make another list. In one column write the reasons to change. Perhaps a character’s motivation would be stronger. The setting might be used more effectively. In another, write the reasons not to. It might cause inconvenience – perhaps you’d have to rethink earlier passages. (Might that be so bad?) It might take the story into territory you’re not interested in or would be off genre. (That’s a stronger reason not to.) Be honest. Sit and mull.
  4. If you decide to keep the idea, adapt your outline – and sail onwards with a more robust story.

Thanks for the pic, Pixabay. Discreet cough… There are a lot more tips on outlining and on making the most of plot developments in the Nail Your Novel books.

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisAnother discreet cough… if you’re interested in ghost-writing, my course starts its live period tomorrow. The course will be available after that period as well, but for the next four weeks, you get to take part in a secret online forum and I’ll be holding live Q&A sessions where you can pick my brains. Learn more here.

 

Back to plots etc. Do you write using an outline or a daily quota? Do you find this sometimes hampers your creativity, or you feel you can’t use an off-the-cuff idea? Or do you have a method for harnessing these brainwaves and making the most of them?

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Avoid dumb plotting errors – post at Alliance of Independent Authors

alliIt seems there are certain pitfalls we all encounter when we’re plotting a novel. Creaky story metaphors; genre muddle; clumsy handling of ‘non-real’ material; tunnel vision; ignoring common-sense solutions to the characters’ troubles. This week I had the hot seat at the Alliance of Independent Authors blog, listing dumb things we all might do when building a story (whether self-publishing or not).

As I’ve dinged your inbox several times already this week because of the ghost-writing course launch, this will be my regular writing post. (And this seems a good moment to mention that, if Become a ghost-writer Roz Morrisyou’re interested, the ghost-writing course early bird offer expires on 17 May – more details here.)

 

So find out about those essential plot tweaks at the ALLi blog here, and if you’re thrashing about in the plot doldrums, you can find plenty more help in my plot book here.

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‘When I feel like a storm is raging’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephanie Carroll

for logoMy guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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How to become a ghost-writer – post at Jane Friedman

ghost - janeSo here’s the final part of the ghost-writing blogfest – and perhaps the most important. If you’re interested in becoming a ghost-writer, what’s involved?

In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.

Step this way for the insider track.

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One for them, one for me: ghost-writers and their soul projects

Most writers have day jobs. Some of us ghost-write books for others – here’s my own, suitably censored, introduction to my ghosting activities. And some ghosts are also building our own body of work. I thought it would be fun to talk to some of my nebulous comrades to answer some questions: how do we balance the two types of writing?

The players

Daniel Paisner

Daniel Paisner

Daniel Paisner   @DanielPaisner  –  you might recognise Dan from his recent Undercover Soundtrack. He has ghosted more than 50 books for the great, good, notorious or extraordinary – including tennis champion Serena Williams, Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich, and Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn.  He is the author of three novels: Obit, Mourning Wood  and A Single Happened Thing.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgersanother Undercover Soundtrack veteran.  Joni had a few novels published, then her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair  brought her offers from celebrities and other extraordinary people who wanted her to help them tell their life stories. Since then she has worked as a ghost-writer, book doctor and story strategist. Her own books include Crazy for Trying, First You Write, and Sugarland.

ager-po

Deborah Ager

Deborah Ager @deborahager1 is the founder of Radiant Media Labs, a consultancy to help experts turn their big ideas into books. Behind the scenes, she has an MFA in creative writing, writes poetry, co-edited the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (2013) and Old Flame: Ten Years of 32 Poems Magazine (2012) and is working on a novel set during the Great Depression.

Really me

The big question is this:  how different is their own work from their usual ghostwriting milieu? Do the two complement each other in any way?

Joni says she finds there’s considerable synergy and overlap.

Joni: ‘As myself, I write quirky, character-driven fiction informed by politics and travel. Right now I’m working on a screenplay to showcase five actresses over 40 in a story about strong, smart women. My little yop against Hollywood sex/age inequity.

‘My ghost-writing projects are all over the map, but there’s a lot of crossover in the big picture. Every ghost book I’ve written has taught me something that made me a better novelist. Some ghost projects are craft skill boot camp; others take me to places I never could have seen as a casual observer.’

‘I’ve seen things…’

I find this too. Here’s a post about the things I’ve learned to fake …   But that trivialises the true nature of the ghost-client dynamic. The ghost-writer does more than write about derring-do they’ve never done. We climb inside the client’s inner life. We truly walk the miles in their shoes. It’s a privileged, trusted position.

indexJoni also found that ghost-writing opened unexpected doors for her own writing.  ‘While I was working on a memoir with Kristin Chenoweth, I got to know Aaron Sorkin, who was incredibly generous with his time. Hanging out with him was like a personal masterclass in storytelling. He looked at an early draft of my novel The Hurricane Lover, gave me valuable feedback and encouraged me to explore the possibility of screenwriting. He gave me a stack of scripts and a long reading list, and the final draft of The Hurricane Lover was exponentially better because of that. A few years later, I got a call from a well-known director who was considering hiring me to do his memoir. As part of the vetting process, he read The Hurricane Lover. Though he ultimately decided not to go forward with the memoir, he was so impressed with the dialogue and story structure, he hired me to thrash out a story strategy and doctor some dialogue for a screenplay he was working on.’

An antidote

While Joni finds her two writing worlds run in parallel tracks, Dan realises his fiction might be an antidote to his commercial milieu.

978-0-9847648-3-9Dan: ‘The stories and characters I’m drawn to in my fiction tend to be small, out-of-the-way, under-the-radar.  I look for moments where we live and work, quietly, where not a whole lot happens. What interests me are the ways we connect with each other, the ways we don’t, and the choices we make in the spaces in-between. What genre is that exactly?  I don’t know, but judging from my sales history this is not the stuff of page-turning, best-selling fiction.  Oh, well…

‘I’ve never really thought about this in just this way, but I suppose there is a connection.  The ‘celebrities’ I work with in my day job tend to be larger than life.  They live loudly, purposefully.  Meanwhile, the characters I choose to spend time with in my novels are somewhat smaller-than-life.  They live quietly, sometimes aimlessly.  I guess without even realizing it, this is how I balance the scales.’

One for them, one for me

One for them, one for me: in theory that’s how it goes. But ghost-writing isn’t nine-to-five. Commissions often come at short notice, and clients, agents and publishers are all clamouring for a book they can sell as soon as possible. How do my friends here manage this balance? Do they have a routine to keep their own books alive while meeting their ghost-writing deadlines? Or do they clear a few months to retreat and create?

Dan: ‘There is no such thing as routine.  The idea is to have two books going at once — one of theirs and one of mine.  But the reality is that almost never happens.  Deadlines extend, mutate, turn in on themselves. Projects overlap. I find that when I’m working on my own novel, I need to clear the decks — shut out all social media and other outside distractions. Very often, I’ll trade off by weeks.  I’ll go hard on a celebrity collaboration for a week, eclipsing my goals, just to have a free week to work on my novel. Last summer, I went away for three weeks to our house in the mountains, just to have that uninterrupted chunk of time.

41mXOkOLs3L._SX370_BO1,204,203,200_‘But I find I have to work to create those free moments. I don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike.  I have to schedule its appearance, and if it doesn’t show up in quite the form I was hoping, I just have to work with what I’ve got.’

Let’s hear from Deborah Ager, who spends much of her energy on her Radiant Media clients. Meanwhile, she is persevering with her own poetry, her editing and her novel:

Deborah: ‘Writing is a lot like exercise. My brain will become flabby if I don’t keep chipping away at the writing on a consistent schedule. Even if I only have a short time, I aim to write on a regular basis. It’s too painful to do it the other way.’

‘A good life vs a good living’

And sometimes, a good ghost can be a victim of their own success. Although it’s tempting to take every gig that comes along, Joni Rodgers established early on that she needed to pull back sometimes, for a more fulfilling balance.

Joni: ‘When I was debating whether to take my first ghost gig, my editor at HarperCollins said, ‘Joni, with your skillset and temperament, you could make a better than good living as a ghost-writer’.  Ten years and more than a dozen books later, I’ve realized a good life is more important than a good living. I’ve gotten very selective. For me, carving out time to write my own novels and screenplays is key both to my own happiness and to the sanity and balance I need to serve my clients.

‘As a ghost, you have to bring on all the craft skills and industry knowledge of a successful writer, but you have to set aside all the ego stroking, histrionics and other pseudo-luxuries that might be afforded a pampered author. You have to be the grown-up in the relationship, putting someone else’s needs before your own, listening instead of talking, and keeping to a task schedule so you can deliver the goods on time. You have to be willing/able to subsume your own creative voice and choices in order to stay true to the creative voice and choices of the client. In the publishing process, which is invariably fraught for one reason or another, you are now the Sherpa instead of the mountain climber. You do the heavy lifting and trailblazing; your client gets to plant the flag and ski down to the base camp for champagne. If you’re not genuinely cool with all that, you’re not going to be happy as a ghost-writer, and it’s unlikely you’d be successful — because you wouldn’t be able to serve your clients at the level they’re paying for. But I’m a creative tyrant when it comes to my own soul projects.’

Accept no imitations

Let’s pause on that phrase: the creative tyrant. Amen to that.

As a ghost-writer, I am at the service of another person’s vision. I serve their audience and their publisher or agent. It’s fun to be the missing piece that pulls a book into the daylight. I thought I was easy with the commercial demands of publishing and the inevitable compromises of fitting a market. Until the moment I finished my first novel as myself.

At that moment, I discovered a deep-seated streak of stubbornness. I would take any amount of advice on what didn’t work, but I wouldn’t make the book fit a copycat sales agenda. I think I see that in Dan too, with his quiet explorations, which he publishes through small imprints.

And of course, some of us have embraced self-publishing. We can keep control, nurture and discipline a book for as long as we need to until it’s ready, and make sure it’s true to our hopes. Let’s hear again from Joni:

Joni: ‘I love serving my clients, but ghost-writing can be spiritually and creatively exhausting. I don’t see how truly top-drawer ghost work is sustainable if we fail to stay firmly connected to our mightiest artistic selves. I end up losing ground because I prefer (for creative and financial reasons) to publish my own work, but I won’t compromise on the publishing process, which is time-consuming. Net result: I have three novels and a memoirella collection in my self-publishing queue, waiting for the TLC they need before launch. I keep waiting for a lull on the ghost front, but it doesn’t seem to happen. But I’m not in this to half-bake the books I care about most.

Creative tyrants unite. Huge thanks to Joni, Dan and Deborah. Once again, here’s where to find them: Daniel, Joni and Deborah.

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisMight ghost-writing be a good career move for you? I’ll be exploring this tomorrow in a post at Jane Friedman’s site. Or if you’re already seriously toying with the idea, you can hop over to her domain right now and read about my course. Early birds get a substantial discount  – you pay US$149 instead of US$199.

Any questions? Even if you don’t ghost-write, you might find yourself balancing passion projects and artistic vision with more commercial work. If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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All aboard the ghost(writing) train… and get an early bird deal for my course

For the next few days, this blog will have a ghost-writing flavour. The reason? I’m launching my online course.

It looks something like this:

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisNow, if ghost-writing is not your thing, rest assured that this focus is temporary. So if you’re new here, or you’re worrying that the blog has taken an unwanted diversion, sit back and the posts on writing, writing life and publishing will be restored in a few days. There’s an Undercover Soundtrack on Wednesday as well. But I’m hoping that you’ll find a few interesting snippets in the launch posts for my course, even if you’ve got your hands totally full with your own writing.

Jane-Friedman-1And if the idea of ghost-writing DOES tickle your fancy, let me also mention that the course is supported and hosted by publishing industry legend Jane Friedman, co-founder of The Hot Sheet newsletter for authors and former publisher of Writer’s Digest.

You should also know there’s an early-bird discount. From now until 17 May, you can register at US$149. On that date, the course goes up to its regular price of US$199. Step this way

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‘The journey is more important than the destination’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Toni Davidson

for logoMy guest this week describes music as ‘a portable environment’. His work patterns have taken him all over the world and he might find himself writing anywhere from a station waiting room to a hotel lobby or a scorching beach. No matter where he finds himself, the music will put him back where he left off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his novels explore people who are lost, displaced or caught between cultures and he finds their soundtracks in the work of contemporary classical composers (including one of my own favourites, Olafur Arnalds). He is Toni Davidson and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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