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Dear me: how fiction authors adapt to writing memoir

If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my newsletter you’ll have seen I’m taking a creative interlude to work on a collection of travel memoir pieces. It’s a new kind of book for me and it’s raising some interesting challenges, particularly as I’m used to the freedoms of fiction.

So I thought I’d gather together a few other fictioneers who’ve crossed into memoir to discuss the differences.

Let’s meet our novelists-turned-memoirists.

Jean Gill

Jean Gill @writerjeangill has published in a wide variety of genres – historical fiction, fiction in translation, teen novels and a goat cheese cookbook. Her memoir, How Blue Is My Valley, is an as-it-happens account of her first year living in Provence.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers, who you might recognise from The Undercover Soundtrack and this post about ghostwriters and their soul projects,  had two novels published by small literary publishers, and then a big bestseller with her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which kicked off a career as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. She has continued to write fiction, and her second memoir is an account of her hybrid publishing adventures: First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.

Jessica Bell

Jessica Bell @msbessiebell will also be familiar from The Undercover Soundtrack. She’s a musician, writing coach, graphic designer and publisher, has released seven books of fiction and verse. Her memoir is GO: A Memoir about Binge-drinking, Self-Hatred and Finding Happiness about her dysfunctional childhood, teen years and music career.

Real events

The most obvious difference between novels and memoir is, of course, real events. And this creates an artistic problem. Real life is messy; it lacks the structures that do much of a novel’s work. Personally I’m enjoying it; the need to stay within boundaries is a challenge. I asked my authors about the main challenges they faced with their material.

 

Joni: ‘The least interesting thing in a cancer memoir is the cancer. I had to distil the complex medical aspects of the story in a way that did justice to my experience while maintaining a compelling pace for the reader. I won’t even pretend I did that on autopilot. I had a terrific editor with an unsparing eye.’

Jean faced an additional challenge with her book because she was writing without a predetermined shape. It was a day-to-day diary of events as they unfolded. ‘Authors with any sense write memoirs looking back, so they can find patterns and resolutions. Instead, I was writing the book ‘live’ as workmen destroyed the house around me and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I haven’t kept a diary since the ones I gave up as a teenager with cryptic codewords.’

Jean says her approach paid off, though. ‘Fans have told me this is part of the book’s charm. The immediacy of all those first impressions, of being in love with Provence, is not filtered by artistic shaping. Moving to another country is always about what you take with you: physically, mentally and emotionally. I came to understand that from writing my memoir.’

How we come across

One of the hardest things to judge with such a personal book is how we’re coming across. As the writer, we know everything and the reader knows nothing, and I know I’m going to be relying on beta readers more heavily than usual. Joni and Jessica say they couldn’t have done it without editorial support.

Joni: ‘Beta readers and a good editor are crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to be edited and mentored by amazing professionals at Big Five publishers and prestigious small presses, so maybe I’m spoiled, but candidly, I was disappointed in the editor I hired to do First You Write. Even more disappointed in the copy editor. Fortunately, my beta readers were top drawer. The Midwives, my critique group at the time, was an amazing posse of well-read, widely published authors, including Barbara Taylor Sissel and Colleen Thompson. That crit group was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally and personally.’

Jessica says she also could not have done without a professional editor. She began by writing her book as vignettes, then attempted to fill the gaps. But I knew deep down that they were not satisfactory. When I invested in a professional editor, I discovered that many details were lacking. Because I knew my life so well, I didn’t have the same need, or instinct, to explore every fine detail like I do when writing fiction. When writing fiction, I am completely immersed in the details, and also creating those details for myself. When writing memoir, those details already exist. It’s so easy to not realize they aren’t apparent to your reader. The effort it took to dig them out was my biggest hurdle. I felt like I was constantly repeating myself, when in fact, I wasn’t at all. It’s really interesting how unreliable we are as writers of our own lives. I now know that I will still need that editor with my second, third, and fourth memoir.’

(Modest shuffling of feet: Jessica’s first editor was me. To slip into that role for a moment, I’ve worked on many memoirs and each time it’s a special privilege to be invited to help shape such personal material. I also happen to know that Jessica’s editor for the second version was Dan Holloway, so – a shout-out to him.)

Jean had an unexpected source of feedback when her memoir was being made into an audiobook: ‘If you want to know how you come across, nothing beats having to listen to the narration and having to explain to a top voice actor just how funny you thought that sentence was. Even now, the thought makes me hot with embarrassment.’

Real people

Inevitably some people in our memoir will be recognisable. What do we do about that?

Jean says: ‘I changed the names of all but immediate family and I let my sisters read it beforehand, so they could raise any objections. They didn’t.’

I’ve also been contacting people who are recognisable and letting them read the relevant excerpts. And Jean brings up another principle that I’m following: ‘I considered every word I wrote from the viewpoint of that person reading about themselves. Ask me again in a year’s time as the book is being translated into French, so all the villagers will be able to read it. My hairdresser has promised to let me know if we need to sell up and leave the village.’

Jessica says she asked permission from family and close friends to reveal their true identities. And that was nerve-wracking – I remember having a conversation with her behind the scenes on Facebook as she gathered the courage to show the manuscript to her mother.

‘I’m very lucky they gave permission,’ she says. ‘For those I don’t have contact with (or don’t wish to contact) I’ve changed physical attributes, names, and certain characteristics. Sometimes three people have been merged into one character. People who know me and the people in my memoir will most likely be able to work out who is who; I don’t think there is any way to avoid this. The only thing we can do is change our characters enough so that they can’t be recognised by random readers.’

Joni had to write about her family in close detail during traumatic events, especially her husband, Gary. I asked whether that was awkward.  ‘I did struggle with this invasion of Gary’s privacy. He was supportive in a very unexpected way: he didn’t read the book. He said he wanted me to tell the story I needed to tell without feeling like he was looking over my shoulder. To this day, he hasn’t read it. The one concession he asked was that I decline an option on film rights, even though we desperately needed the money. Chemo left us bankrupt. Thanks, American healthcare system! When the film option came up, our children were still small, and I wasn’t in remission. Gary and I agreed that if I died, a movie could be confusing and unhealthy for our kids in later years.’

With that in mind, I think we need a brief feelgood interlude. Here’s a very soppy picture of Joni and Gary.

 

The difficult memories

Jessica had to steel herself to revisit some of the events in her book and was tempted to leave them out. ‘I had a really hard time writing about them. But my editor convinced me to bite the bullet.’ (Just call me Rozweiler.)

Joni also had to grapple with difficult memories. ‘My desire to help other women with cancer far outweighed any awkwardness. Cancer destroyed me physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and financially, and while I was in that crucible, I craved honest conversation about taboo topics like money and sex. To leave out the awkward and even humiliating moments in that story would have been a disservice to readers with cancer, and it would have felt dishonest to me.’

What to leave out?

And not everything belongs in your memoir. Joni says: If life is a sprawling country garden, a memoir is a cut flower arrangement. Choices have to be made, and some are difficult. Here again, I have to sing the praises of my editor, the late, great Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins. Throughout the process, Marjorie focused a single beam of light—the book’s reason for being—on every anecdote, character, sentence, syllable. Much of what I know and practise as an editor now, I learned from Marjorie as we worked through Bald in the Land of Big Hair and my subsequent novel, The Secret Sisters. She never told me what to do, but she always asked the right questions.’

That pruning process might not be straightforward. Jean says that at the time of writing, one of her children was very depressed, and she found her own feelings of helplessness overwhelming. ‘This memoir wasn’t about trauma or therapy so the details of my private life were irrelevant. But I felt silly writing happy little thoughts without acknowledging that pain. This is how I dealt with it. I acknowledged it for the only person who mattered to understand:

‘Happiness is an utterly selfish emotion. How can you be happy when someone close to you, isn’t? How can you be happy in the face of war, starvation, poverty… And yet. How does your misery change others’ lives for the better? Who is helped by your depression? Isn’t it from some kind of secure self that you can reach out a helping hand?’

We are made of many memoirs

But Jessica says each of us might have many memoirs in us. ‘Just because something has happened in your life, that doesn’t mean it has a place in the memoir. For example, to the disappointment of those who have gotten to know me online, this memoir doesn’t talk much about my writing career. That’s an entirely different story, unrelated to my child- and teen-hood, and love life and music. And then there’s my humorous and devastating story of running a café-bar in Ithaca, Greece. I realised these didn’t belong in GO. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is confident and ambitious. And they need their own book.’

So let’s sum up. Here’s the gathered wisdom on writing a memoir:

  • Beta readers and a good editor are crucial for helping us understand how we come across.
  • Seek permission from real people who will be recognisable, and if possible let them read the relevant sections. Change the details of others so they can’t be identified. Consider every word you write about another person as though they were reading it.
  • If your memoir is about difficult experiences, dig deep and remember that these details are part of the honest journey.
  • Not every experience will fit in one memoir. As with fiction, check that everything serves the story you’re telling. If it doesn’t, consider keeping it for another book.

Thank you to my panel. Here’s where you find them

Jean’s blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @writerjeangill.  Jessica’s website is here and she’s @msbessiebell. Joni says she’ll be hosting a memoir writing retreat this autumn, her website is here or you can follow her on Facebook.

And if you’re curious about the book I’m currently working on, here’s my newsletter.

Bonus! Here’s an episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss the memoirist’s art.

Any insights to share about writing memoir? Or questions? Fire away.

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How do you discover the books you want to buy? Some thoughts about book marketing

long_room_interior_trinity_college_dublin_ireland_-_diliffWhere do you find the books you want to read? There are theories galore about how authors and publishers should advertise, use categories, keywords etc. But I often find myself a bit bemused by them.

Because I don’t buy books that way. These theories seem to describe a behaviour that I simply don’t recognise. But I do buy books. All the time. So where am I discovering them?

I don’t expect this post will set the world of book marketing alight. But I hope to illuminate some less acknowledged processes. And I’m curious to know what you do, so I hope you’ll join in at the end.

Facebook adverts

I’ve never bought a book that I’ve seen on a Facebook advert. Yes, I know that advertising is there to remind you a book exists, not necessarily to grab your £££ immediately. I know that adverts have to be seen a certain number of times before they get noticed. And that they work in conjunction with other forms of exposure.

But Facebook has never managed to show me book adverts that I find appealing. This must mean I’m giving it some very wrong signals. (How many other readers are giving the wrong signals, I wonder?)

I’ve certainly bought books by people I know on Facebook, but not because of adverts. I’ve bought because of meaningful contact – chatting to them, or an interview. More on that later.

Goodreads

I don’t browse for books on Goodreads. I go there AFTER I’ve read a book, to keep the karma going with a review, when (ahem) time allows. (For the last few months it hasn’t. I’ll be rectifying that soon.)

Bargain book newsletter services

BookBub et al. I know these are smart sales tools, but they’ve always seemed rather superfluous to me as a reader. First, I don’t buy books because they’re bargains. I don’t find a book more appealing because it’s on special offer. I want the right book.

Second, these newsletters are selling ebooks, and I’m one of those throwbacks who likes a solid version. To have, to hold and to keep. To remind me, by its bulk on the shelf, to give it attention. But I do use Kindle samples to check books out, so it wouldn’t be totally useless to me.

Still, they are popular and effective for authors, so I thought I’d better evaluate them properly. What gems might I find by subscribing as a reader? An excellent article by the Alliance of Independent Authors compared them in terms of value for advertisers, and rated BookBub, Fussy Librarian and Bargain Booksy top. Fussy Librarian got a special mention because it wasn’t just promoting bargains.

I subscribed to Fussy Librarian as a reader, asking for news of literary fiction. After two months of emails, I can report they – or the authors who advertise with them – are not remotely fussy about what they categorise as literary fiction.

long_room_interior_trinity_college_dublin_ireland_-_diliffAnd this is a problem when you shop in this category. It’s easy for us all to agree what’s meant by categories such as crime, thriller, romance, paranormal or YA. But literary? The term gets put on everything that might not fit in the other boxes (and so, in Fussyland, it seems to mean cross-genre or two timelines). Here’s a post where I attempt my own definition of literary, in case you haven’t had enough.  Meanwhile, several writers I know avoid the term altogether because they’ve learned their readers are put off by it.

But Fussy Librarian isn’t everything. I decided to try BookBub, the grandaddy of book email lists. And here’s where I was surprised. I have seen a few titles that I’m keen to know more about, so it will be interesting to see if my buying habits change as a result of BookBub.

So how do I discover books?
My sources are:

  • Newspaper review pages and the London Review of Books
  • Netgalley
  • Publishers’ lists (because of The Undercover Soundtrack, publishers send me their catalogues and I invite authors whose work appeals to me. What’s The Undercover Soundtrack? Sleeve notes here)
  • Recommendations from friends and my bookseller friend Peter Snell (our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, is here)
  • Blogs – the Literary Hub and David Abrams’s blog The Quivering Pen, which has interviews and a regular feature of upcoming titles. If you have a blog that showcases upcoming titles that correspond to my idea of literary, do let me know.
  • Amazon’s ‘people who bought this bought that’ algorithm. I could wander in there for hours.
  • Oxfam bookshops – a great way to find books everyone else has forgotten about. Especially non-fiction. Yes, I know that’s dodgy because the author doesn’t get a royalty. But often these are books that aren’t available anywhere else or I’d never have known to search for them.
  • For research, I use Library Thing – this is the only time I search for books by categories, tags and all that labelling, because I’m shopping for something specific. But my pleasure reading is all surprise finds.

books 0012My favourite way to discover books

This has to be blogposts or interviews. I’m most likely to go hunting for a book if I’ve enjoyed the writer’s company in another piece of prose. I’ll check their reviews too, obviously. If I read a really thoughtful review, I’ll often want to know more about the reviewer – especially if they have a book of their own.

This means, therefore, that I’m a lot more influenced by gut feeling about the writer’s curiosities, thought processes and delivery. I’ll follow a good voice into any genre. I don’t read fantasy but I love Jack Vance. I don’t read crime but I love Barbara Vine and Dorothy L Sayers. I’m wary of horror, but I’ve been joyously sucked into the latest by Josh Malerman (who is coming up next week on The Undercover Soundtrack … that’s another place where I find glorious reads).

In short, I seek the quality that categories can’t measure. And this possibly means that if you’re a writer whose distinctive strength is nuance, your best marketing tool is an interview, a personal essay or a well-turned review.

Anyway, this isn’t a post that provides theses or theories, it’s a post of open-ended enquiry. Not a ‘how-to’; more of a ‘how-we’.

What are the last 5 books you bought? 

Let’s examine our book discovery habits. How did you find the last five books you bought? You don’t have to have read them yet. I want to see how you met them. And I hope you’ll teach me some new shopping tips.

Here are mine
513pixlvvol-_sx341_bo1204203200_A personal essay: I read this post and so I bought this. The piece is hardly about the book at all, but I feel I’ve been shown a piece of the author’s soul. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

41w0unqywel-_sx329_bo1204203200_An interview: I read this and was bewitched. I ordered this. The Next by Stephanie Gangi. She’s also coming to The Undercover Soundtrack soon.

41c5tvgtobl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Search by category + friend recommendation: This one’s for research. I was looking for accounts of bereavement and Library Thing did its thing. I haven’t read a Didion before, but she’s a favourite of a friend of mine. The irony in the title made it irresistible.  Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking.

51bdxkezzol-_sx325_bo1204203200_A friend: Another friend this time. He said: ‘You’ll like this. It’s weird and it really stays with you. I don’t know why. It just does.’ The Vegetarian by Han Kang

51j1yy-ja0l-_sx332_bo1204203200_Lucky find in an Oxfam bookshop: I would never have thought to search for this. But there it was in a display. A sane biography of the teenage idol I’ve never grown out of. Under The Ivy. The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson.

Over to you. Where do you discover most of your books? On line, by browsing in a shop? How did you discover the last 5 books you bought and what were they? Any opinions on FB adverts and bargain book newsletters like Bookbub? Your favourite tip for book shopping?

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Doing NaNoWriMo? Nail it with this resource kit

nanoI can’t believe it’s already October. And that means it’s just a month until NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide writing lockdown where scribblers of all levels undertake to write a 50,000-word draft in just 30 days.

So here’s a list of NaNoWriMo resources I’ve written on this blog and further afield.

1 NaNoWriMo – should you? No, you can’t write a publishable novel in one month – or very few of us can. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. And you can use NaNoWriMo to get a proper, publishable manuscript up and running. Here’s a post about that.

nano1

2 So how do you do it? Preparation is key. Yes, it’s allowed. Here’s a work plan I wrote for Writers & Artists.

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3. Most outlines focus on the story. Is that too constricting for you? Would you rather just write and see what happens? Here’s another angle. Plan your characters, wing the plot. As demonstrated at Romance University. (But suitable for the staunchly unromantic too.)

nano14. Yes, but HOW DO YOU DO IT? Three old hands share their NaNoWriMo tips.

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5. A little book. Allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. Use it to guide your research, firm up your story and road-test your plot. While you’re writing it will give you strategies to keep you focussed, creative and confident. And when you collapse on a pile of words at the other end, it will hold your hand as you sort out what to do next.

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6. So much to read! I should be planning my book!  NaNo advice can come to you in your headphones. In this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell, we discuss all things NaNo.

 

 

 

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Yes, social media DO work for writers – here’s how

warden abbey 2010 037 (2)Social media are an inextricable part of author life these days – and for some, the value seems dubious. Writers might flog themselves to blog, tweet until they turn blue, but months in, the magic hasn’t happened. Where are the book deals, the viral quantities of fame? Is it worth all the trouble?

I am here to tell you it is. But you may be looking at the wrong things, or have mistaken expectations. Social media have been an absolute transforming force for me, and if the channels were closed tomorrow I’d be howling for their return. So I thought I’d quantify the ways I’ve found it so worthwhile.

Quick background. I’ve been on social media since 2009. My major haunts are Twitter @Roz_Morris  and Facebook. And I blog, obvs. I probably get most of my results from those platforms as they’re where I’m most consistently active, but I also have profiles in the outer reaches of Linked In, G+, Pinterest and Tumblr (see my sidebar).

Building useful contacts

Networking is, of course, the number one aim. Like all professionals, we make our luck by bumping into the right person. Unless you’re born into a clan of literati, you have to build your own black book. Before social media, that came mainly from real-time encounters – book launches, writing groups, courses, conferences. Now we can strike up relationships without being on a guest list. On the internet, a cat can look at a queen (and will probably be photographed doing so).

And it’s much easier to keep our contacts warm. Quick DMs, text messages, Facebook posts are much less effort than letters, emails or – gulp – face-to-face coffee. Indeed, as most of us perform better on the page than at a party, written encounters probably allow us to be more genuine.

But Roz, you might say. What about the numbers? We might have thousands of friends and followers, and thousands we befriend and follow. Setting aside the times we might use social media just because the contact is fun, is it working for our careers? In that clamour, is anyone actually getting anywhere?

I can only speak for myself, of course. But I know this: my career under my own byline has been entirely generated from social media (if that sentence makes no sense, here’s an explanation). Because I blog, tweet etc, I have sold enough books to make it worth writing more; been offered paying jobs, speaking gigs, editing work and spots on online courses; found supporters among influential figures in the writing and publishing world. And I’ve met fantastic people who have become more than colleagues.

annular rings

Social media work. But for most of us, the results are best measured in annular rings, not by weeks or months. But look back several years and you start to see a big change.

(Of course, much comes down to how you use it. What to blog about? This post has some ideas.)

But there are other benefits too, and you don’t have to wait for them to mature.

I'm not skiving. It's research

I’m not skiving. It’s research

Social media helps create a work environment

Non-freelances ask me how I stay motivated if I don’t go to an office. I think they imagine I’m running amok watching Breaking Bad or surfing eBay or strolling to the shops or idling away an afternoon with my horse. Personally I’m too much of an obsessive to skive, but if you are too tempted by the distractions of home, social media can create a circle of colleagues to keep you accountable. On Facebook and Twitter, if you look, there are plenty of writers sharing their milestones or their to-do lists. They just finished a draft. Got edits back. Wrote or approved a press release. Signed up for a course. It’s like mini-Nanowrimo community, except you can use it year-round, 24/7.

If you know how to set up lists on Twitter and Facebook, you can assemble a posse of virtual team-mates whose work ethic will spur you to achieve. (And then make a separate list of people to hobnob with in downtime.)

Social media are a tool for book research

Somewhere, one of your contacts (or perhaps more than one) can verify a snippet of research or point you to a trustworthy source. Of course, you might also get misinformed nonsense, but hopefully you’ll have enough contacts for a reality check.

Social media are a resource for reliable advice on publishing, whether traditional or indie

Thanks to social media, the author corps 2016 is a savvy beast. We’re more clued up about fair book deals. We have our eyes open about the pitfalls and pleasures of the many publishing routes. We have access to fantastic watchdogs like Victoria Strauss, the Alliance of Independent Authors. Other terrific places for advice are Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer and Jane Friedman – generous, knowledgeable professionals who are raising the general level of publishing knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

But there are so many platforms…

Well you don’t have to do all of them. Which platforms should you choose? I only know what works for me, so put these questions to social media expert Adam Waters in this edition of my radio show.

Although social media might seem ephemeral, they are actually permanent. Years on, you might feel a twitch on a thread, and hook a new person.

message

Over to you. What social media platforms do you like? How do you use them? What works for you and what doesn’t? If you look back over the long term, what have social media helped you accomplish? Any questions? Let’s consult the hive mind.

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I wish I’d written… Five novels that make me raise my game

Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.

……..

Night Work Nail Your NovelNight Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.

A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.

The Long View Nail Your NovelThe Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.

First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace,  The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.

In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.

Angel - Nail Your NovelAngel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.

 

 
Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:round

Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.

MASH Nail Your NovelMASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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

I’ve had this interesting email:

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

babel fish

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

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

Skills, craft and style

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

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

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

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

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

Not just literary

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

Also beware

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

Homework

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

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

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

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NaNo oh no? Let’s discuss the good and bad of NaNoWriMo

3435380297_d9af6286fd_zI recently published a post about NaNoWriMo prep, and it provoked this interesting comment on Facebook:

I really hate this initiative! Shouldn’t we be learning to write novels that are better, higher quality, more considered, more rounded, better thought out, that TAKE MORE TIME!!! rather than just trying to whack one out in a month? We don’t need more books on Amazon, what we need are BETTER books if we are to promote reading in the twenty-first century.

So who is this firebrand? It’s Kevin Booth @Kevinbooth01, a writer, translator and editor, who writes contemporary fiction and arts-based commentary as himself, and eco-fantasy as K. Eastkott.

Kevin Booth

Kevin Booth

I don’t disagree with him. And yet I barefacedly, two-facedly, published a post promoting NaNoWriMo?

I think it’s time to discuss the good and bad of NaNo.

In a nutshell (or a nanobyte):

The good – NaNoWriMo can be the confidence boost to get you started. NaNoWriMo is a community; a race; a deadline. It’s an appointment to get something done, like a new year resolution, but just in time for the Christmas letter. Beginners use it as their first go at writing. Seasoned writers use it to get a first draft done, for yea, drafting always makes us as nervous. It’s like the London Marathon, open to all to use as we wish. Perhaps as a one-off special event, this year’s challenge; or a handy lockdown in a bigger writing plan.

The OhNo – NaNoWriMo creates the idea that you can rattle out a book quickly, without editing, redrafting, or, as Kevin says, thought. And woot, a lot of them get put on sale. Look at Twitter in November and you’ll see anguished messages from literary agents, imploring people not to send their NaNo draft in search of fame and fortune.

Speed

Here’s where I’ll echo Kevin. A month is not long enough to write a worthwhile book. When good work arises from NaNoWriMo, it’s been planned beforehand, drafted in the crazy race, then honed and tended for many more months afterwards.

And Kevin told me he’s seen too many writers – talented writers – use NaNo as the culmination of the writing process:

As an editor, I’ve seen that, however well-structured a novel’s plan is, when you tell your brain to slap those words down at speed, the grey matter has a horrible trick of blind obedience. And once words are stuck on a page, they become surprisingly difficult to budge. I’m not talking about bad writers here, but talented individuals who have a love of words and should know better—because sections of their work are brilliant. Yet they’ve failed to constructively revise those thousands of words written in haste.

That remark I just made about revising? I’ll repeat it. Your draft is the time you transform your ideas from notes into an experience for the reader. It won’t be perfect first go (unless you’re a genius). It will change as you write it. The first draft is an exploration, not a presentable product. You need a thorough and considered revision period afterwards. And a break, so that you can see what needs changing (I refer you to Kevin again, and my self-editing masterclass snapshots).

But it’s just a game

Fair enough, some people take part in NaNoWriMo just to have a go. There’s nowt wrong with that. We all do hobby projects in the privacy of our own homes, for the kraic, for the experience, for the bucket list, to enrich our lives, to express ourselves.

Where to share

This is the bigger question. What should we do with those have-a-go manuscripts, if the month of writing was quite enough, thank you? (Listen for those agents wailing in the wires of Twitter. That’s a warning.) There are plenty of places where you’ll be among like-minded writers – you can use Wattpad, or blog your book. Other options are no doubt available. You can immortalise it in print – Lulu, Createspace and Ingram Spark will let you do personal, limited distribution.

But please, don’t put it in places where the public deserves properly finished books – Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble et al. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that your NaNo splurge will be found among the millions, there’s a principle here.

No, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have just a few months’ experience under my belt and think I knew everything. And a story I was burning to release, and a career I was desperate to start. But we need to discuss where it’s appropriate to share our work. Is that a great unmentionable? C’mon. We’re all grown-ups here.

Encouraging people to read

Kevin mentions the question of encouraging people to read. And he’s right to. We don’t have to try to change the world, or lament that we have so many forms of entertainment that now compete with books. But with every book we publish, we have the chance to prove that reading is still a great experience. So let’s make our books as good as we can, as a matter of pride, and of respect for our readers, and for the joy of doing absolute justice to our potential (yeah, you know what I’m like when I get started).

(Thanks for the speedbump pic Andrew Rivett)

If you’re planning a NaNoWriMo novel, there are plenty of tips in Nail Your Novel. There’s also a discussion about it on this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)

Have you done NaNoWriMo? What were your aims, and what became of the manuscript afterwards? Are you doing it this year? Whether you’ve NaNo-ed or not, what would you add, agree with, disagree with, protest about to your last breath? The floor is yours.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: key character disappears, how should I handle it?

guardI’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, how to flesh out a draft that’s too short and a problem of pacing if much of the plot concerns the fallout from one event. Today I’m looking at another interesting problem:

Important character disappears – how should I handle it?

Character departureOne writer had a key character who vanishes from the narrative. Her novel was based on family history and she had a character who was significant for the early chapters and then drifted away.

The character didn’t die, and didn’t have a formal farewell event to create a definite exit from the story world. There was just a period where they ceased to be involved. The writer was worried that this might look like a continuity problem or a mistake.

She was right; it needed to be handled carefully. This character would be important to the reader because she was a key player in early scenes.

The earlier a character is introduced, the more significantly they lodge in the reader’s mind. The original cast members of a book are like the first friends you make in a new and strange place. They are probably noticed far more than those you introduce later.

(This is why prologues can seem irritating, because they might set up people who don’t play a major part, or are never seen again. There’s lots more about handling prologues and character departures in the Nail Your Novel books.)

So if a key character will disappear, you have to be careful. The reader needs their attachment to the character to be acknowledged, and to be comfortable that the disappearance was intended. They mustn’t lose faith in your control of the material.

We explored ways to do this. By far the most obvious solution was to invent a scene that made a feature of the departure, but in this case the writer felt that would be inappropriate or untruthful. And she didn’t want to invent letters or phone calls from the missing character.

With that in mind, we moved on to ways to keep the character in the text, if they couldn’t be in the scenes. I suggested the writer add a friend who was close to the departed character, who could continue the association on behalf of the other characters (and the reader). A relative or colleague would work well too. This character could carry some of the presence of the original and keep them on the reader’s radar – for instance by thinking or remarking ‘Kate would have liked this’, or ‘if Kate were here she’d know what at do’.

(BTW, if you’re using elements of real life in your stories, you might like this recent episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)

What would you do? Have you had to withdraw a character quietly from a story and how did you handle it? Have you seen it handled clumsily or well, and what did you learn from it? Let’s discuss!

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‘Music for writing the 12th century’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Mark Richard Beaulieu

for logoMy guest this week has an epic sequence of novels, and an epic musical background for them. They span the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine – but if you were expecting a purely medieval soundtrack, think again. There are, of course, some historically appropriate pieces, but also a host of unusual tracks from Chris Isaak, Jon Hassell, Ennio Morricone and Peter Gabriel. This post is a musical epic all of its own, and listening to the choices brought me many new gems. One of them, CocoRosie’s Smokey Taboo, I liked so much that I found an excuse to shoehorn it into my radio show (here, in case you’re interested, though that episode is currently in production). Anyway, the author is Mark Richard Beaulieu, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack. Bring a packed lunch.

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A wrong cover and a revamp – case study of rebranding an indie novel

bookshop 12 april 023 smlYou know my bookseller friend Peter Snell, of Barton’s in Leatherhead? (He’s the co-host of our Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want To be A Writer.) Peter is a staunch supporter of indie authors, and he mentioned to me that he’d been talking to an indie writer I know who wanted advice on revamping her novel cover.

Oh you mean Alison Ripley Cubitt, I said. Her science fiction novel?

It’s not science fiction, said Peter. It’s a contemporary eco-thriller.

And therein lay Alison’s biggest problem.

So how did she end up with a cover that sent the wrong message? How was she persuaded to change it – because she’d made that choice for a good reason. And what did she change it to?

I thought this would make a useful case study. Publishers often rebrand covers if they keep a title in print a long time, and I’ve known other indie authors who’ve rejuvenated their books with new covers, aiming to catch the eye of different readers (here’s the post). And as we’re making our own decisions about everything, it’s inevitable that we’ll take some wrong turns – I’ve nearly chosen a disastrously misleading cover myself when I was releasing Lifeform Three. (Here’s the confession. You will howl.)

So thank you, Alison, for agreeing to share your process. (Alison writes with her husband under the name Lambert Nagle @LambertNagle.)

CoverRevolutionEarth2015dfw-ln-re-cover-3d

RM: How did the original cover design come about, and why did it seem like the right choice?

ARC: The photograph we used showed the terrible drought in the Australian outback and came from our extensive research. Although I knew it hadn’t been digitally manipulated, to potential customers it looked like the opening shot in a Mad Max film. We were naïve enough to think we could do the design job ourselves.

RM: I’ve found this is a classic indie mistake – to use a picture because it’s significant to the author. The reader doesn’t know your reasons and may get the wrong message.

Also, note the difference in typography between Alison’s covers. Her designer has used colours, contrasting fonts, different sizes, which all add up to a polished result.

alison

Alison Ripley Cubitt

RM: What made you decide to change your cover? Was there any feedback that made you consider it?

ARC: As I stood in a room with indie authors in Foyle’s bookshop at an author event earlier this year, I looked at their covers and realised that I’d been far too complacent. Luckily our stand was next to that of the delightful CJ Lyons (@CJLyonswriter). I asked CJ what she thought of the book and her response was, ‘it looks like sci-fi!’ I loved her honesty. With another book on the way, we decided it was time to look at the design.

RM: Peter Snell mentioned he’d given you advice. Tell me more.

Peter Snell is a real champion of indie authors. On my visit to Barton’s bookshop, I was able to compare our current cover with the thrillers on Peter’s shelves. This underscored that our cover wasn’t working.

RM: I’ve had the incredibly useful Peter cover-brainstorming tour. When I was figuring out what to do about Lifeform Three, he took me round the shelves and pulled out titles with similar themes and atmosphere to show me how this could be communicated by the cover. If you don’t have a friendly bookseller to hand, you could research the comparison titles online.

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Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop

Peter had a further point about the trim size of Alison’s book. She told me she’d chosen 6 x 9 because it was the most economical in price, but …. (here’s Peter):

PS: The trim size was too big for the pagecount so the book looked too thin, which made it look self-published. In a smaller format the spine would be thicker, making it better balanced in terms of look, weight and feel. It would also fit better on bookshop shelves. Also, the design needed to be repeated on the spine so that customers could find it if the spine was the only thing visible.

RM again: Alison, how did you find the new cover designer? How many ideas did you try?

ARC: I liked Eliza Green’s cover for Becoming Human, by Design for Writers. I filled in a detailed design brief, with information about the genre, target market and tone. I told them which book covers from competitors I liked and those that I thought were clichéd. They sent me a design that I loved. They got it right first time.

RM: How much did the new cover cost? And the interior redesign (for the new smaller size)?

ARC: We were given a 10% Alliance of Independent Authors member discount which brought the cost of the cover redesign to under £200. I have allowed a budget of £100 for the reformatting of the interior, So far, we haven’t had to spend that money, as we’ve done much of the work ourselves.

RM: How are you publicising the change to ensure your fans don’t get confused?

ARC: I am stressing to readers that the print version is a relaunch and not a new book so that they don’t inadvertently buy the same book twice. It’s easier with an ebook as a potential purchaser gets a message stating that they have already purchased it. We are kicking off the publicity campaign at a book signing at Barton’s in Leatherhead on July 11th.

RM: On the new cover you have a lot more supporting text – the series tagline, the review stars. This makes it look more ‘dressed’.

ARC: In the original cover, there was no supporting text. That’s because we did it ourselves! I was pleased that we were able to fit both the pull quote and the stars from one of our reviews on the cover. The series tagline was important as it tells readers that Stephen Connor is a character they’re going to see again in the next book.

RM: It’s a challenge to get a lot of elements onto a cover and make them look good. If you don’t know about typography, you can end up with an unholy mess. But notice how Design For Writers makes it all work.

ARC: We lengthened the synopsis on the back cover too.

RM: Many indie authors don’t pay enough attention to the look of the back cover. But it’s a chance to hook readers with an intriguing teaser, and quotes from reviews. Don’t waste this space.

RM: What about badges? The indie world is bristling with awards and rosettes. Alison mentioned to me that she had a Brag medallion and an Awesome Indies seal, but they’re not on the front cover. Alison?

ARC: We’re thrilled to have the badges but we didn’t include them on the cover as readers might miss some of the lovely design details.

RM: I’m in agreement here. I’m very grateful for my various awards, but they clash with my cover designs. But if you’d like to inc lude an endorsement, a good solution is to write it as a line of text.

To return to the start, Peter and I recorded an episode where we toured the bookshop, discussing covers and why they worked. Cover art on the radio? We are fearless. Listen to it here (slide the cursor onwards a little – the file includes the songs that were playing before our slot).

RM: I’ll leave the last word to Alison:

ARC: I would love to get feedback from writers who have had new covers made and to find out how it worked for them.

RM: The floor is yours – discuss!

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