Search Results for: structure

How to write emotions and feelings

2489998092_a7374b8f7c_zI’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.

Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.

Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.

So how do we communicate these emotions?

Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.

I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.

But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.

Emotion in descriptions

Let’s examine a common maxim –  write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.

Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.

To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.

2804301013_857119e0fa_bInternal dialogue

How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.

Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)

This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.

But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’

Stronger doses – handle with care

A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.

Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.

So … to sum up

1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’

2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’

3 Use internal dialogue

4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile

Woody’s scream pic by Aldoaldoz. Neon scream pic by Cathy Cole.

NYN2 2ndThere’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.

I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.

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Time to stop and stare – refreshing the muse

foundling2I’m good at giving myself homework. Most of the books or articles I read are part of an organised research list. I’m bad at allowing myself downtime. Even when I decide to read for pure curiosity, the editorial spy is on alert, muttering in the basement. Why was that sentence so devastating? Why do I feel this way about a character?

I don’t mind that. It’s the way I’ve always read anyway. But sometimes I need a rest from my forensic brain. And from book agendas. The chance to just poke about, dawdle and wonder.

I’m fond of junk shops for the haphazard discovery of oddness. But I really can’t resist art installations.

Last week I went to the Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. More than 60 artists were riffing on the theme of ‘found’. A sleeping bag beneath a painting in the grand picture gallery. A cheap plastic mirror left on a chair, looking at first glance like an iPad, but when you peered over it, reflecting a royal icing ceiling.

foundling3

A year’s worth of tickets from a pawn shop, many of them for wedding rings. A stick that had been used to stir paint, and had acquired annular rings of colour, year on year. A collection of playing cards randomly found on streets.

found2

A crazy video where a woman described how several vegetables had fallen through her ceiling and landed on her bed, which she took as a holy sign. A bronze cast of a newborn baby, isolated in a room on its own, made even more tiny by the tall walls. A bottle found on the sea bed by a scuba diver, encrusted with organic structures. An unfinished painting from a garage sale, showing a pair of girls with blank faces. A sequence of sofas being sold on eBay, whose buttons and creases seemed to suggest faces. Two manila envelopes folded into an origami shape in the corner of the room – for no reason; just because.

Although these artists weren’t working in words, they were doing what writers do. They collected scraps of life and made them into things of fascination, or oddness, or absurdity, or poignancy. Or things that defied analysis, but were just themselves. And they showed it’s amazing what jumps into your mind when it’s off the hook.

Where do you go to stop and stare?

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The ethics of ghost-writing

282428943_322a2027b4_oThis week I was pulled into a discussion on Facebook about ghost-writing.

It began when novelist Matt Haig wrote an impassioned opinion in which he lamented the number of books whose true authors were not acknowledged, which kicked off a wide-ranging and emotional debate. One commenter introduced the term ethics and asked me to talk about ghost-writing from that perspective. As that’s far too long and gnarly for a Facebook comment, I thought I’d explore it in a post. Here goes.

What ethical considerations might there be? Looking through the discussion, they seemed to be:

  • Is it dishonest to pretend that anybody could write a book?
  • Does ghost-writing devalue the contribution of real writers, or appreciation of their skill, especially when so many genuine writers struggle to get published?

I’m going to tackle this in a roundabout way, and first, I think we have to be practical.

Writing is like any other accomplishment you can use commercially. I’ve always earned my living by the word. Long before I dared to be a serious fictioneer, I was writing articles, and editing books and magazines. Just because I can also use writing to make art doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put it to other uses. It’s not sacred and it won’t wear out. If I can write books for myself, why shouldn’t I also write books for others if appropriately rewarded? I don’t have many other options, anyway. I doubt I could even dig roads very well. Anyway, words are a tool of life and we use them for ordering pizza as well as making immortal prose.

What about the sanctity of the byline?

In magazine publishing and non-fiction, you soon learn that the byline hides a lot of other helpers. A person whose name goes on an article – or book – may not be capable of writing to a publishable standard, so an unnamed staffer will lash it into shape. This can frequently be a wholescale rewrite. The originator of the copy still gets the glory, though, because what matters to readers is their knowledge, experience and reputation. That’s the way it goes. The writing/editing staff are technical enablers.

Ghost-writing is not that different. Quite a lot of ghost-writers come from editing and journalism, because they’re already well adapted to this scenario.

Books are rarely solo projects

Here’s another truth. Even where the writer is really the writer, few books are solely the work of one person. Even when we cross from commerce into art.

16600055975_5f58168b7c_bA quick comparison. Where would musicians be without session players? The Beatles, in their most explorative phase, couldn’t have made their albums without a lot of hired help. And a hefty amount of production from George Martin.

In the book world, agents, MFA tutors, publishers’ editors – and even marketing people – might substantially influence the content. The style and expression may be fine-tuned by the copy editor and even the proof reader. While we would hope that a book with the author’s name on it will substantially be generated and finished by them, there might be a lot of other unsung heroes (or villains) in its genesis. (But lest you think I’m taking too much away from the author, read this – why your editor admires you.)

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Article on Abe Books: top 10 ghostwritten titles

Art v commerce

Also, consider that not all books are produced from a pure artistic vision. Some are designed from the outset to fit a marketing agenda, and plenty of people seem to like them. Some are adapted to fit a marketing slot (maybe to the dismay of the writer).

Indeed, not all professional writers want to ‘produce art’. They are happy to use their skill and get rewarded, like session musicians. Others have a scorching need to sing their truth. There’s room for both – and some of us do both (in case you think I’m selling my soul, here’s my manifesto for when I write as me)  and here’s a piece where three ghost-writers talk about making room for passion projects.

Books are not just books

And books are often used for all sorts of purposes beyond just turning a profit for a publisher. Especially non-fiction, which might be a calling card to further a career.

Which brings me to a major ethical question: making a chump look like a champion. Is that dishonest?

trumpI’m talking, of course, about Tony Schwartz, who wrote The Art of the Deal with Donald Trump. Here’s where he reveals the reality behind the myth. You might ask if he should have quit when he realised how much fabrication he would need to do? Well Schwartz’s experience is definitely extreme, but he wouldn’t be the first ghost-writer who had a very bumpy ride. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to make a competent book.

 

Since ethics are our subject here, you might ask whether Schwartz was right to speak out. No easy answers, I’m afraid. Opinions in my ghostwriting circle are very divided. Confidentiality is written in our marrow, even without non-disclosure agreements. We’ll all take secrets to our graves, like doctors or priests. One argument is that because Schwartz got a co-credit, he’s at least able to admit the fact of his contribution, if not the extent. Another argument is that even doctors and priests are allowed to break confidentiality if it would prevent serious harm. (Footnote: but see PatriciaRuthSusan’s comment below.)
Publishing is a business

But there’s one more ethical question we have to consider. Publishing is commercial.  Most publishers couldn’t survive without blockbusters. Publishers want books they know they can sell, and a writer who already has notoriety seems a safer bet than one who hasn’t. Some of those blockbusters will be written by – or helped significantly by – ghost-writers.

Weird Tales

You see Houdini’s name in the byline on this cover? The actual writer of this story is believed to be HP Lovecraft.

This shadowy art is propping up all those more ‘pure’ books – if not in specific publishers, in the wider publishing ecosystem. Books with a massive turnover keep an entire infrastructure in business – printers, agents, review outlets, warehousing, conferences, industry journals, ancillary services like Nielsen. Ghost-writing helps to create an environment where our genuine work can live. And that goes for the individual ghost-writers too, who can fund their art by hiring out their craft.

‘Let’s not lose the writer’

In his post, Matt Haig said: ‘The essence of so much art starts with words on a page. Writers are not second to reality TV stars and musicians and actors and comedians. We shape thoughts, we provide escapes, we offer comforts just as well as any other art form. So let’s not lose the writer.’

 

matt haig

Matt Haig

Absolutely. I’ve got obstinate views about artistic integrity. I’m the first to shout for people to write from the heart, guts and soul, and to hell with market fashions. But not everybody fits a publisher’s wish-list and we do have to earn a living. Often, it’s better paid to be a secret pen than to write your own books. And ghost-writing has brought me experiences I would never have had otherwise, privileged insights into the human condition (it’s not all Zoella). It doesn’t have to be cynical.

Matt Haig also said:

‘We want to know Van Gogh painted Van Gogh paintings. But with writers it seems like we are not allowed to care.’

Lifeform Three by Roz Morris

Do not attempt if you are not Michael Morpurgo. You have been warned

I absolutely care. I agree a thousand per cent that the current of connection between writer and reader is special and trusting. And when many folk are breaking their hearts trying to get a book deal, these ghosted celeb books leave them spitting nails (if not nailed novels).

I get it. Really I do. I’ve queried all my books with traditional publishers, and I’ve had the red mist when they tell me ‘it’s very good but nobody knows who you are’. The best was this rejection letter for Lifeform Three: ‘only Michael Morpurgo is allowed to publish unconventional stories about horses’.

It’s sad and wrong that good writers can’t get the breaks they deserve. But if you use writing as a trade as well as an art, that doesn’t make you a lesser artist. Neither writers nor publishing can live on art alone. Publishing needs commercial and ghost-written books as its day job; just as most writers do. That doesn’t mean it’s done without care and professionalism or that it is not rewarding beyond the money; but it is done to make other things possible.

That’s the ethics of ghost-writing.

Thanks for the Superman pic Klobetime on Flickr

ghostwriter red smlAnd, ahem, if ghost-writing might suit you, I have a professional course.

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You know what your book means… but does the reader? Tackle it with two mindsets

5752324972_702a69b272_bHave you ever had this type of comment in feedback?

‘You’re grasping for a strong thematic purpose. The characters’ actions and the plot are full of significance. Somewhere there’s a strong message. But it’s too abstract or muddied to come through.’

If so, this concept might help. It’s borrowed from writing instructor Lynn Steger Strong, and described in this article in Catapult. Think of your work in two phases – the writer phase and the reader phase.

What might that mean and how might it be useful?

First, an interpretation.

The writer phase

This is the dreaming draft, the phase where you splurge everything you have, go exploring, invent your socks off, have dinner with your characters, test their mettle, immerse in your settings and themes, storm your brains. You figure out what you mean, what you’ll have happen, what you understand.
The reader phase
This second half is where you sell it to the reader. If the first phase took place behind closed doors, here’s where you think about all those eyes and brains seeking a connection with you and your work. For this, you need to make a mental shift. Get ruthless and assess every moment of the story on its own terms. For you, the text is already thrumming with meaning and richness. But will the reader get it?

In the reader phase, that is your quest.

Again, how might it be useful?

You need both phases. Why? Because you can’t explore and refine at the same time. If you do, you’ll shortchange the book. You won’t mine its full potential because you’ll be thinking with your critical hat, wondering what a reader would make of it. And if you don’t switch the other way and ask yourself, am I making sense, you might have a muddled mess. One mode is the accelerator and one is the brake. And we all know not to press both at the same time.

So that means there are a few crucial differences in how you approach the two halves.

Mindset for writer phase

Be fearlessly inventive. Every idea is precious, rich and worth exploring.

Don’t invite critical feedback except on isolated points. Eg to solve specific plot problems, or to find story models that suggest useful structures or character functions. For instance, if you want a downbeat ending, you might want to look for other books that made it work. Meanwhile, keep the bulk of the book to yourself. Lock the doors and simmer.

Mindset for reader phase

Playtime is over. You have a duty to your audience. In phase 1 you were fearlessly inventive. Now you must be fearlessly adapatable. The more you question what serves the reader, the better your book will be. Do you have enough context? Often a manuscript is obscure because the writer hasn’t let us understand why certain plot events are important.

Here’s another essential of the reader phase. You must be prepared to make drastic change. Think like a vandal. The lines you gave to one character might be much better if said by another. A scene might be better in another point of view, or later in the book, or used as back story.

This means a lot of precious material might have to die, and you’ll find yourself resisting. If so, examine why. There are usually two reasons-

  1. You’ll steer the book wrong, perhaps with a tone you don’t want or an issue you’re not interested in. (This is a good reason to reject a change.)
  2. The change will cause a lot of difficult unpicking, or stop you using other fascinating bits. Ahem. In the reader phase, nothing is sacred. All is material.

This is the stage where you seek critical feedback. Indeed, if you’ve successfully switched to the reader mindset, you’ll welcome every glitch they find – because it supports your mission to find everything that doesn’t work. And here’s the real strength of this approach – switching to the reader mindset makes revision much more positive.

The writer’s journey and the reader’s journey

Lynn Steger Strong talks about the length of a journey. The writer takes a long journey to create the book. We’re inventing, looking for sense, patterns, resonance, pivot moments, grace and charm. The reader, though, needs to get there instantly. Taking them there is the challenge.

Thanks for the pic Joao Trindade

n1 2Psst …. I talk about different mindsets for writing and revision in this little book …

Let’s discuss! Do you find your mind works differently when writing and revising? Have you received feedback that said your book was too muddled or obscure? How did you tackle it?

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Conflict in every scene? Disasters in every act? Yes and no

15517166590_fabb8e02ee_oI’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.

I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?

That’s a good question with a lot of answers.

So let’s take it apart.

‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’

I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.

In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.

creative pennThe change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.

So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.

But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.

Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.

Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong.  And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.

Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.

So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.

And now to part 2 of the question:

structureShould each part of the story contain a disaster? 

First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.

And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.

Ben’s question

So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.

Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.

Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr

Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?

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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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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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How to write a gripping, unforgettable plot – video podcast guest spot with Lorna Faith

lorna3Think of all the kinds of novels we might write … from a sensitive character study to a sprawling epic to a nailbiting thriller … are there any common factors they all have?

There are. They’re my secret.

Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).

Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.

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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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Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner

Nail Your Novel unexpected plot developmentsI’ve had this question from Elizabeth Lord: I have just finished your book Nail Your Novel and found it extremely helpful for the rewrite phase of my novel. You mention graphs as a way to see where plots are plodding and character arcs intertwine – do you have any examples?

What a good question! Diagrams coming up.

First, though, a bit of explanation. Readers get bored if the plot appears to be predictable – ie the characters start with a goal and proceed doggedly towards it, step by step by step. This is a linear plot and it looks dead dull, like reading the syllabus for an education course, not a story. So when the characters have a clear goal at the start, we try to introduce developments that upset expectations. They’re going on the Orient Express? Great. Make one of them miss the train. Now everyone has a new problem that matters far more.

The major changes diagram
So your first drawing exercise is to go through the plot looking for points where you throw in a development that changes the characters’ priorities in a significant way. Make a ‘didn’t expect that’ diagram.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 001

You want several of these developments, BTW, and they’ll probably be the main turning points in the story. Note also that they’re emotional. They’re about changing the characters’ goals – the things they want, the things that matter to them. So early in the story, they’re trying to catch a murderer. By the end of the story, they’re trying to stop the murderer killing their wife. Or murderer and detective are embroiled in a towering love affair.

The highs and lows diagram
Another helpful diagram might look at the main characters’ emotional state throughout the book. You want them to feel increasingly pressured and troubled, and you want their worst moment to be the climax of the book. So try a diagram where you look at their levels of joy and achievement versus despair. The joy part isn’t so important, although you want to give your characters a few breaks so that the disasters are more agonising – and also to show what matters to them. Make sure the despair increases in magnitude as the story proceeds.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 003

The un-convenience diagram
You can look for smaller reversals too. You might not realise you’ve made everything too easy for your characters. Every time they need to accomplish something, make it harder than they expect. Or make it backfire. You can check on this by going through your manuscript and drawing a little circle whenever you’ve thwarted your characters.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 002

If you have a lot of little circles, you’ll probably keep your reader gripped. If you haven’t, you know to throw some spanners into their spokes.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 004

Compare your plot strands at a glance
If you have several plot strands or main characters, you could combine them on one diagram and use different colours. Thus you will see, at a glance, how your character arcs intertwine and if you like the harmony of their highs and lows. Or you might spot a general lull where several characters seem to be having a successful run – in that case, it might be good to rework the story and introduce a setback or twist. If you’re the kind of person who has music manuscript paper lying around (how stylish of you), you could draw your diagrams on the staves, like lines for different instruments.

X-ray your plot
The serious point is this: these exercises are ways to extract and visualise important plot mechanisms that might otherwise be invisible to you, and help you fix problems with the structure and pacing. Have fun!

Elizabeth’s question was inspired by a section in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. There’s also a lot more about plot and structure in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Do you draw diagrams to assess your plot – or any other aspect of your book? Share them here!

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