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My guest this week says he is much concerned with reinvention. He’s spent his life setting himself challenges to embrace new careers, lifestyles, places to live – and the latest of those reinventions is being a novelist. His debut title is a story of 1970s Glasgow and required some daring imaginative reinventions – not least, writing in the voice and psyche of a 22-year-old woman. A soundtrack was essential – Tangerine Dream to soothe and order the brain; Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and David Bowie to restart the period – and provide other wisdom besides. He is Glyn Harper – writing as GD Harper – and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
authors, boring plots, characters and plot, how to keep your reader guessing, how to write a page-turning novel, is your plot a page turner, is your plot dull, linear plot, pace, plot structure, reversals in plots, story structure, writers, writing
In my last post I talked about publishing options in a changing world. Well, this year I’m reversing a couple of my own fervently held policies. So today I confess. (I’m an indie. I reserve the right to change my mind.)
Change #1 Putting print editions on IngramSpark
If you’re self-publishing, one of the main debates is which print on demand company to use. CreateSpace is free and has the most seamless interface with Amazon, which is where you’ll get the bulk of your sales because most of your marketing is online. But Ingram Spark has better distribution links with other outlets. And bookshops balk at ordering CreateSpace titles because the delivery time is slow and returns aren’t possible. So current wisdom is to buy ISBNs, print for Amazon only on CreateSpace, and print for other needs on Ingram Spark. (A lot more about this here. )
Why I didn’t put my books on IngramSpark
The Ingram Spark route isn’t free. You have to buy ISBNs (if you haven’t already). You also pay a fee for each book you set up. Revisions cost you more again. (However, if you’re a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors you get a discount and the revisions fee is waived. ) You’ll also have to modify the book’s print files. (The paper is thinner than CS, so your cover’s spine will be narrower. You might also need to tweak the title page with a new ISBN. None of this is difficult, but you might need expert intervention.)
The cost in itself isn’t that offputting – and it’s certainly not much compared with the cost of the book’s production. But it’s dumb to spend any time or £££s unless you’ll see a return – and that’s what made me dubious.
Although my book would be more easily available, how would it get seen? Just putting it in a catalogue won’t get it noticed by bookshop buyers. That’s like a tree falling over in a wood with no one to hear it. Shops don’t know about a book unless reps visit or the press makes hoopla. The bookshops I’ve been successful in are the ones I visit personally. All the rest of my marketing is online, and the sales funnel to Amazon. So, while I acknowledge that Ingram Spark offers better infrastructure, it’s for a market where I’m invisible.
What changed my mind
At the end of last year, I read this piece in The Bookseller. Ingram have acquired a network called Aer.io, which allows users to build storefronts and add ‘buy’ buttons for books in the Ingram catalogue.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of online bookselling portals, but usually you have to upload your book details yourself (or a publisher does it). Then, within a year, the venture goes the way of most start-ups, and vanishes. But Aer.io has a catalogue already – all the books already on Ingram, including IngramSpark. So every time anyone builds a bookstore with Aer.io, a reader could amble in from the internet and they could order my books. (BTW, I was directed to the Aer.io piece by the Hot Sheet, a publishing industry newsletter for authors from Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson.) Holy distribution, Batman! I’m making my Ingram editions as we speak.
Change #2 – a free book!
As you know, I have strong opinions about free books. Here they are.
Why I didn’t
See above. I didn’t think a free book would do much for me. My catalogue isn’t big enough to give a book away – although I have five titles, they’re for two distinct audiences. I can’t dash off a new one quickly – either the Nail Your Novels or a piece of fiction.
What changed my mind
It started with an email. Just before Christmas I was contacted by Goodriter, a daily deals site for everything authorly – books, courses, services for self-publishing, book marketing, copywriting, blogging, tutoring etc. It’s like Bookbub, but exclusively for writers (give or take a ‘w’). Goodriter invited me to contribute to a bundle of writer freebies.
I could see it was a great way to meet more readers, but did I want to give away a ‘proper’ book? Then I suddenly realised I could make an ebook shortie about characters as an introduction to my Nail Your Novels, which would be useful in its own right and an aide-memoir if you’ve read the big book. Anyway .. voila.
Once I’d sent the freebie to the giveaway, I had coffee with another author friend, who pointed out something I’d never realised about free books. They’re now such an established part of reading life that they find their way into retailers’ recommendation algorithms all by themselves, and get you visibility on lists where you wouldn’t otherwise be seen. ‘Put that book on Amazon, Smashwords et al,’ she said. As I was already half-way there, I did.
I admit I still have misgivings. I deplore the trend that pressures authors to give away their work. But the acid test is whether it pays me back in sales. That won’t become apparent for many months and I shall report. Watch this space.
And grab that free book before I change my mind.
Over to you. Are you breaking any of your own rules this year? We are among friends. Come and tell me.
advice for writers, Aer.io, authors, book distribution for indie authors, book marketing, buying ISBNs, CreateSpace, free books, free giveaway, Ingram Spark, Porter Anderson, print on demand, publishing, publishing advice, self-publishing, selling books, The Bookseller, The Hot Sheet
The sales problem
This time last year a main concern was how indies were feeling the pinch with dwindling sales. Did we think it could get worse?
Oh but it has. There are even more books for sale. Subscription services like Kindle Unlimited are changing the way readers perceive value. Authors who don’t enrol their books seem to get less exposure in the magic Amazon algorithms.
Does that mean it might be better to hold out for a book deal? Well, there are pros and cons, and the points I wrote last year still stand.
So what of traditional publishing?
Were we hoping that traditional publishing might enter a new era of enlightenment, with transparent, fair deals and true author-publisher partnership? Well it hasn’t happened yet. Publishers are feeling the squeeze too much to be generous and forward looking, or to embrace new methods of working. Authors still have to scrabble hard to avoid the contract traps of rights grabs, reversion clauses that never revert and discount sales that don’t qualify for a proper royalty.
A traditional deal might get you kudos or help with marketing, but this is often shortlived. Unless you strike lucky, it may not be as good as you could drum up yourself. I have a traditionally published author friend whose first book series won awards. His second series launched recently, and the only publicity was a tiny mention in the Sunday Times.
With a traditional deal, you’ll get editorial services (of course). But a lot of corners are being cut. Publishers are slimming their departments and farming the work out to freelances. Or maybe they’re not even doing that. Over Christmas I was talking to an editor friend who this year proof-read a batch of books for paperback release. They were already out in hardback, so this was supposed to be a just-in-case read. In book after book, she found appalling errors – inane grammar, impenetrable sentences, stupid inaccuracies and plot improbabilities. These weren’t unpublished manuscripts, remember; they were books that had been through the process.
I do, of course, know several authors who are happy with their publishers. All of them have one thing in common; without exception, they never tried self-publishing.
I’ve only just realised this as I write and it’s quite startling.
Let’s examine the comparison from other angles. I also know several authors who self-published first, then got book deals – and felt they were much better off as indies. Some of them halted the process, gave back the advance, and reassembled their indie publishing team. That’s still not looking good for traditional publishing. Let’s try to give it a better crack: I know several traditionally published authors who ventured into self-publishing … and decided they were happier without the extra burden.
Let’s examine that.
Ultimately: what do you want?
‘I want an old-style publishing deal because I just want to write…’
It’s probably unfashionable to say this, but many authors still hope for the old-style deal. There is undeniable satisfaction in having a book accepted. Also, you don’t have to learn the mysterious processes necessary to produce a book. And as for marketing…..
Hold it there. Whether you get a book deal or not, you will have to be your book’s ambassador. Always. Indeed, if your book is a serious contender for a publisher’s list, one of the things you’ll be judged on is your online reach. If you haven’t built one, you’ll be urged to start. The publishing deal will not let you ‘just write in peace’. You have to be a marketer as well as a writer, no matter which path you choose. The part that you can offload, if you wish, is the book production. Does this illuminate where the traditional publisher’s guaranteed contribution is?
‘I want top production values, with as much or as little control as I choose…’
It’s never been so easy to hire top production skills. And if you haven’t gathered your own team of professionals, assisted self-publishing is now a good option. In the past, many operators have been rogues, taking advantage of the inexperienced and starry eyed with overpriced and substandard services, sneaky rights grabs and unsuitable marketing efforts. (See here for a post about spotting unscrupulous publishing ‘deal’s and other scams. ) Some of them are still stinkers. But in 2015 I began to notice genuine contenders. These are like plugging your book into a well-run production department, with sales teams who’ll give you a fair crack in the bookshops. Some of them have a quality bar, so they’re halfway between a curated imprint and a self-publishing service. Qualifying for their list means you get that stamp of approval. (I’m building a list of assisted self-publishers I’d recommend, so contact me and I’ll introduce you to some good folks.)
But producing the book is just the start. The problem is getting noticed and building a readership. This is why it’s such a gamble to make a business out of an art, because no one can predict what will be successful. Thought of like that, it’s not surprising that traditional publishers try to keep so much and spend so little. It’s not evil; it’s survival. Perhaps the new, sustainable way to publish will be assisted self-publishing outfits who are choosy about the books they accept, who will build a reputation for their taste and let the writer take the financial risk. Endorsement may prove to be the magic dust that money can’t buy – even if authors foot the bill. Agent-assisted self-publishing looks attractive for that reason too, even though it makes industry purists blanch. (Just so I can say ‘I told you so’, here’s a post I wrote about agent-assisted self-publishing in 2011 )
As ever, I throw the floor open to you. What are your publishing plans for 2016? Have your views changed from last year? Are you a self-publisher who’s had a traditional deal and what are your experiences comparing the two? If it’s not too late for resolutions, dare I ask if there are any you’d like to share?
advice on self-publishing, agent-publishers, assisted self-publishing, authors, how to become an author, literary agents, publishers, publishing, rogue self-publishing services, self-publishing services, should you seek a book deal, vanity press, vanity publishing, writers, writing
Long ago, I ran an editorial department in a small publisher, so I thought it might help to give some guidelines.
Here’s my post about front matter, which explains all the fiddly stuff like title pages, half-titles, contents pages and so on. Today, I’ll concentrate on those editorial people you’d like to thank. And indeed, whether they would be better not mentioned at all.
If the book is a collection of curated material, eg short stories, poems or essays, it’s usual to credit the person who put it all together. Put it on the main title page, the cover and the spine – eg ‘edited by Roz Morris’. That would also go in the ‘main contributor’ section of the book’s official listing on KDP, Smashwords, CreateSpace, Ingram etc.
Non-fiction with many contributors
The rules are the same as for a collection. When I was a publisher, I had a number of titles that I conceptualised, outlined, found contributors for, edited and shaped. Individual authors were credited in their own sections, but I was the guiding force behind the work. So my name went on the cover, spine and title page.
Does it seem like I’m labouring this? That’s because I want to make the point about who is in charge of the final book.
Let’s talk about editors of novels, memoirs and single-author non-fiction.
Novels, memoirs and non-fiction – credit the editor or not?
Some indies put the editor in the front credits along with the author, or as an additional contributor. Do not do this.
If you’d like to mention them as a significant influence or supporter, a better place is the dedication or acknowledgements, according to how strongly you feel about them, obviously. The same goes for your proof reader or copy editor. But … and it’s a very big but.
Like this: BUT.
Please ask them first. Many editors have a policy that they do not want to be mentioned.
Now that might seem harsh. And they would surely find the exposure helpful, wouldn’t they? A mention in the credits would surely do them nothing but good.
Well no; it’s not as simple as that. The developmental editor, copy editor and proof reader are merely giving guidance. The final text of the book is down to you, the author.
This especially holds for developmental editors, who might give extensive notes for reworking. Some books leave my desk needing considerable revising, and I might not see them again. That’s fine; that’s my role. But I shouldn’t be credited in the published book if I didn’t see the final version. I’ve had editing clients who have added reams of extra material they didn’t let me see – and then wanted to publish the book with my credit. This is an extreme example, and most writers wouldn’t do that, but that credit might harm my reputation.
Equally, I see a lot of authors whose editors are very happy to be namechecked, and their supportive partnership warms everyone’s creative cockles. The bottom line is this: please ask.
Do we need a group hug? Here’s a post about why your editor admires you.
If the editor is happy to be named, where’s the best place?
The dedication before the book begins
Remember the reader has limited interest in your cheerleaders at this stage. Also remember, they have a blipvert attention span for your sample, and you should be getting them ensnared in the guts of your book.
If you want to explain at greater length what everyone did, the place for that is in ….
A longer acknowledgements section at the back
As the reader takes leave of you and your words, they’ll be happy to let you list your influences and influential people.
And check how your various folks would like to be described. A developmental editor from the book’s formative years might be described as ‘guidance and support’. Someone who had more direct control over the final book might be named by role – for instance your copy editor and proof reader.
But don’t feel obliged to mention us. It’s not compulsory. The bulk of the work, by far, was yours. Not ours.
Thoughts, theories? Have you named editors in your published books, and how did you handle it? Editors, copy editors, proof readers – what do you think?
My guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
air raids, authors, Britain, collective trauma, Depth & Heart, Desert Island Discs, Drake, First World War, Great War, Help for Heroes, Kenneth Branagh, mental health, Mickleden Press, Moody Blues, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nick drake, Pen and Sword Books, playlist for writers, post-war Britain, PTSD, Roz Morris, shell shock, Shell Shocked Britain, Shell-Shocked Britain The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, soldiers, soldiers' mental health, soundtrack, Suzie Grogan, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, war years, Wilfred Owen, Women Writers, World War I, World War II, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, writing to music
Quirky tales and the difficulty of leaving a book behind: My Memories of a Future Life featured at Triskele Books
JW Hicks collects writers of quirky books, and I’m honoured she’s chosen me for her collection on the fab blog of the Triskele Books collective. (You might recognise Jane as a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel Rats.) She’s prised me out of my writing cage to answer questions on whether I start with characters or plot, what ghostwriting does to your writing style, how I keep track of ideas, and whether I worry the ideas will dry up. (In fact, I confess to acute separation anxiety when I finish a book. I don’t want to leave it. Does anyone else get that?)
Anyway, it’s all there at Triskele – you can get there with a hop, a skip or a tricycle .… or you could ask a soothing voice to guide you there in a dreamy state. At your own risk, of course.
authors, character or plot, Depth & Heart, Fix and Finish With Confidence, guest posts, having ideas, how do you finish a book, how I write, how to write a book, how to write a novel, how to write quirky fiction, inspiration, interviews, JW Hicks, literary fiction, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, publishing, quirky fiction, Rats, Roz Morris, self-publishing, strange fiction, Triskele books, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, writing routine, writing style
I was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’
To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.
Not as mad as it seems
But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.
Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.
If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…
The Johari Window
Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:
- the things the character and everyone else knows
- the things only the character knows
- the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
- the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.
These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.
That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)
Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality
Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.
This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…
On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.
There are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.
authors, Character, character's hidden need, character's inner life, character's inner self, characters, deepen your story, Depth & Heart, fictional characters, Fix and Finish With Confidence, Guardian masterclass, horse personalities, horses, how to design a fictional character, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Johari Window, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, The Guardian, Write what you know, writers, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, writing what you know
Fear not, I won’t inflict every post on you that we release for the Women Writing Women campaign, but this is one that celebrates and explores creativity. Pauline Baird Jones invited us to answer the question: why do we write?
Inevitably, this led us all to search for where we started. And here you see something we all have in common – not just the group here but all of us on this journey. Carol Cooper did it to get into the best gigs at college. Jessica Bell did it because otherwise she felt she’d disappear. Jane Davis did it after a friend died. Kathleen Jones did it when she ran out of stories to read as a child on a remote farm. Orna Ross did it to give an overdramatic teenage personality a safe space to express. Joni Rodgers did it when blood cancer put her into isolation. And me? An overexpressive kid with something to prove, I guess, and too much shyness to be big in real life. Come over to Pauline’s blog and discover the full story.
And if you feel inclined to share, tell me here: why do you write?
authors, book marketing, box set, Carol Cooper, Daily Mail, Depth & Heart, Fix and Finish With Confidence, guest posts, how to make a box set, how to write a book, how to write a novel, interview, interviews, Jane Davis, Jessica Bell, Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, Orna Ross, publishing, Royal Literary Fund, Roz Morris, self-publishing, traditional publishing, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, why I write, Women, Women Writers, Women Writing Women, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama
My guest this week describes a journey – of looking for a life path, of circling around it many times until he found where he was meant to fit. He says he thought he wanted to be a DJ because he loved music, and indeed became a music industry journalist. Then one day he started writing stories – and realised this was how he wanted to use the experiences that music gave him. It was clearly a good move as he has been nominated for the Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon and StorySouth Million Writers awards. He studied fiction under Ursula K. Le Guin and Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria and is now contributing to Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams’s Apocalypse Triptych. He is Jake Kerr and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
Alonso Alegria, Apocalypse Triptych, authors, Depth & Heart, fantasy, Hugh Howey, Jake Kerr, John Joseph Adams, looking for a life path, male writers, music, music for writers, music for writing, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Nebula Award, playlist for writers, Roz Morris, science fiction, speculative fiction, StorySouth Million Writers Award, The Undercover Soundtrack, Theodore Sturgeon, Theodore Sturgeon Award, undercover soundtrack, Ursula K Le Guin, writers, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, writing to music
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- 5 things I didn’t expect when I released my first novel September 25, 2016
- Is your writing a hobby, an art, a business, a vocation, a profession? Let’s discuss September 18, 2016
- Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra September 11, 2016
- Time to stop and stare – refreshing the muse September 4, 2016
- Yes, social media DO work for writers – here’s how August 28, 2016
- Writing a slow-burn book? Three surprising ways to measure progress August 21, 2016
- The ethics of ghost-writing August 14, 2016