- Email me
- Nail Your Novel: books
- FAQ: I’m a new writer: which book should I read first?
- FREE Nail Your Novel Instant Fix: 100 Tips For Fascinating Characters
- My writing process: the picture tour
- Nail Your Novel: A Companion Workbook
- Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence
- Reviews of Nail Your Novel
- Who’s tweeting about Nail Your Novel …
- Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
- Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel
- Who am I?
Posts Tagged Barton’s Bookshop
This was one of my favourite episodes. Until now, we’ve mostly concentrated on writing and publishing. But what’s it like to be an independent bookseller? What keeps them awake at night? What keeps the lights on? How do they decide which books to stock and promote? How do they see authors and the publishing world? How should authors approach them? How do they survive in a world of online giants? What goes into a good book event? What do they wish we all understood better about bookselling?
Usually it’s me answering the questions, but today I am definitely doing the asking. My co-host is, as ever, independent bookseller Peter Snell.
Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
#booksaremybag, Barton's Bookshop, bookseller, booksellers, bookselling, bookshop, getting into a bookshop, getting into bookshops, how should authors approach booksellers, how to run a bookshop, how to run book events, independent booksellers, So You Want To Be A Writer
Our show on Surrey Hills Radio just got this lovely write-up on a new website, This Is Wild. I’m not sure how we fit the wild agenda, but the interviewer has cited our enthusiasm for all things of publishing, our robust arguments about how you pronounce the Norrell of Jonathan Strange and our music collection. (Okay; my music collection.)
We talk about how the show began, and how the fans made our early episodes into a party on Facebook. (Chriss from Whoknowswhere and Henry in Hyding should also be on that list.) There are a few useful writing tips in among all that, as well as pointers for making friends with local bookshops. And if you prefer audio, you can listen to the whole interview on Soundcloud from the This is Wild site.
In other terribly exciting news, Lifeform Three has just been selected as one of just 200 self-published books to be promoted nationally in libraries across the US. It’s part of an initiative called Library Journal Self-e, and you still have time to enter their awards. And Lifeform Three brings us neatly back to the Surrey Hills, because this haunting landscape was one of my inspirations.
Barton's Bookshop, competition, guest post, guest posts, interview, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Library Journal Self-e, Peter Snell, podcast, publishing, So You Want To Be A Writer, Surrey Hills Radio, This Is Wild
You 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.)
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.
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.
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!
Alison Ripley Cubitt, authorship, back cover copy, back covers, Barton's Bookshop, bookshops, CJ Lyons, cover design mistakes, cover design tips, covers, Designs for Writers, how to design a book cover, indie authors, Peter Snell, self-publishing, what size should your book be, wrong book cover
Indie authors: are you making these mistakes with your print books? How to look professional on the page
This Friday, around 50 indie authors (including yours truly) will gather in Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road to showcase their books as part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival. We’ll see some swish productions from experienced selfpublishers – but not all indie paperbacks look quite so slick.
Peter Snell, my bookseller friend and co-host of So You Want To Be A Writer at Surrey Hills Radio, is a staunch supporter of indie authors – but he often shows me paperbacks with rookie mistakes that scream ‘amateur’. So here’s our checklist of goofs and gaffes – and how to make sure your book passes muster.
Some indie books launch straight into the text, which looks rather underdressed. Why?
Look at the opening pages of any print book and you’ll see the following:
- a half-title page – this shows the title on its own, or the title and author name in the text font, or a brief (one-paragraph) introduction to the author and the book
- a copyright page
- a full title, maybe echoing the cover typography, with author name and the publisher imprint
a page that lists other works by the author
- contents page
- start of text
You might also have a dedication page before the text starts or a foreword (which is an introduction not written by the author).
On the other hand, some indie books dither around too much before the text, with pages of acknowledgements and biographical material.
The reader wants to get on with the book. So front matter should be concise and useful – eg contents pages, of which more in a minute. Contents pages go very wrong.
Right or left?
Certain pages have to be on the right, others on the left. Here’s that order again:
- half-title – right
- copyright page – left
- full title – right
- other works, dedication etc – left
- contents – right
- start of text – right
Yes, that’s two rights. If necessary, insert a blank page so that the text starts on the right. After chapter 1, though, you can start new chapters on a left. You’d have to go through mad contortions otherwise. But if your book is divided into sections (like My Memories of a Future Life) you want those to start on a right.
You don’t usually need a contents page in a novel. Does the reader need to know that chapter 11 starts on page 49? I draw your attention to Exhibit A at the start of this post.
If your chapters have titles of their own, you might list them to whet the reader’s appetite. But it’s not compulsory, and novels, memoir and narrative non-fiction don’t usually need contents pages.
Instructional and reference non-fiction, on the other hand, definitely needs a list of contents. Here’s an example of one that is helpful to the reader and also a good appetiser for the book. (It’s Reports from Coastal Stations by Geoff Saunders.)
Who’s the author?
Some indie books fail to give any information about the author. Readers like this context – who the author is, where they live, how many books they’ve written. If the book is set in a special world (eg the circus), this is where you reveal you were the offspring of trapeze artists before you ran away to study accountancy. If you’re writing non-fiction, readers need to know why you have the temerity to bother them with your opinions.
You might put this in the front matter, if you can keep it brief. Or it might be on the back cover. But don’t miss it out.
Speaking of back covers…
Back covers need to look properly furnished. Make sure you have
- a punchy summary
- an enticing quote, if possible
- author details, and preferably a picture
Other sundry howlers that stop your book being taken seriously:
- white paper stock for fiction, memoir or narrative non-fiction (better to choose the cream-coloured paper)
- squashed typesetting and tiny print – authors do this to reduce the pagecount and save costs, but it makes the book a chore to read (there’s more here on formatting your book for print)
- narrow margins, either around the edges or in the gutters (the central margin). Again these decrease readability, and if the gutter is too narrow, you have to break the spine to read the book.
- amateurish or unnecessary artwork. Tables and charts might be necessary in non-fiction, but probably aren’t in adult fiction. Maps and family trees might be helpful for certain genres of fiction, and facsimiles of handwritten notes or other ephemera might funk up a YA novel. But you might not need your aunt’s watercolours, unless a lot of your straight-talking friends agree they add to the book’s charm. (They usually don’t.) And covers are a whole subject by themselves. (More about covers here.)
- lack of an ISBN – CreateSpace and Lightning Source require an ISBN, and CS will issue you with one if necessary. But Lulu or local printers will let you print without them. Most readers probably wouldn’t notice if your book lacks an ISBN, but it really, really annoys Peter, who is still reeling at the author who had regained the rights to her work and printed 1000 copies without obtaining an ISBN. (There’s more here about ISBNs.)
- Peter also grumbles about books that are in a big or unusual format that won’t fit on his shelves. And cut-outs or holes in the jackets, because they catch on other books and get torn. (They probably also cost you more.) He does, however, approve of French flaps, which make a book more solid, though they’re not standard issue and most people won’t mind if you don’t have them.
So, to sum up. The well-dressed print book:
- has a complete set of front matter that is concise and helpful
- follows the conventions of right and left
- has a contents page only if necessary
- gives information about the author
- has an informative (and enticing) back cover
- doesn’t cram the page with type
Have I missed anything out? Or do you have any questions? Head for the comments!
If you’re in or around London next Friday, come and say hello at the Indie Author Fair, which is part of the Indie Author Fringe Festival in association with the London Book Fair. Entry is free, though you need to register and print out a ticket. More here. If you’re further flung (and even if you’re not) you can take part in Indie ReCon, from April 15 to April 17 – an online festival of indie movers, shakers, experts, veterans, trailblazers, and the odd person who was surprised to find themselves volunteered. You’ll find seminars, live chats and roundtables and …. oh just click this link. http://indierecon.org/indierecon-events/ To wet your appetite, here’s a video discussion from last year in which a few authorly types talk about how we tame our creative muse.
Barton's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, CreateSpace, Foyles bookshop, Geoff Saunders, Indie Author Fringe Festival, indie authors, ISBNs, Lightning Source, London, London Book Fair, Lulu, making print books, Peter Snell, Reports from Coastal Stations, Triskele books
For every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.
Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.
‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.
What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series. Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.
Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.
Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.
Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.
Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.
Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?
Oh, and speaking of titles with a number…
Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?
1984, 1985, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Spaniard in the Works, Adventures In Wonderland, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Angels, Anthony Burgess, authors, Barton's Bookshop, Before I Fall, Breaker of Bones, Catch-22, Catherynne M Valente, charlotte bronte, country houses, Daphne du Maurier, David Nicholls, David Penny, East of Eden, Emily St John Mandel, Emma, Everything is Illuminated, Fahrenheit 451, fiction, George Orwell, Graeme Simsion, harry potter, Harry Potter book, how to choose a book title, how to find a title for your novel, how to write a novel, Jack Vance, Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, JK Rowling, John Irving, John Lennon, John Steinbeck, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Kill the Poor, Lauren Oliver, Lemony Snicket, Lewis Carroll, Marian Keyes, Memento Nora, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, One Day, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Owen Meany, Peter Snell, Philip Pullman, publishing, Ray Bradbury, Rebecca, Roz Morris, Station Eleven, Stieg Larsson, Surrey Hills Radio, The Book of Dave, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, The Philosopher’s Stone, The Planet of Adventure, The Rosie Project, titles, Trullion, Will Self, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Saturday afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
audio, authors, Barton's Bookshop, beginners, books, Depth & Heart, establish a writing habit, facebook, fiction, free audio, having ideas, how to start writing, how to succeed at NaNoWriMo, how to write a book, how to write a novel, inspiration, learn to write, learn to write a book, Leatherhead, My Memories of a Future Life, Peter Snell, podcast, Podcasts, preparing for NaNoWriMo, publishing, radio show, Roz Morris, self-publishing, start your novel, Surrey, Surrey Hills, Surrey Hills Radio, write a book, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, writing routine
I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.
Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.
What stands out for me is this phrase:
‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’
So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.
(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)
Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?
Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.
It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?
Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.
With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.
Which brings me to my more practical tip.
I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot –
- characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
- scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
- the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
- the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
- the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological
So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.
Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.
What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?
NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!
authors, Barton's Bookshop, book of the film, characters, deepen your story, fiction, film of the book, having ideas, how to plot, how to tell a cracking story, how to write a book, how to write a brilliant plot, how to write a novel, literary fiction, literature, Michael Ondaatje, movies, movies versus novels, My Memories of a Future Life, novel better than the movie, novels, Planning, Plot, polishing, publishing, revising, revising a manuscript, revising your novel, Rewriting, Roz Morris, storytelling, The English Patient, The Mountains Novel, Theme, writer's block, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing for movies, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
I’m slightly early with my post this week. On Saturday I’m an author in residence at Barton’s Bookshop as part of the national Books Are My Bag celebrations this week. After that, Morris HQ is on cyber-shutdown for the weekend as we celebrate a friend’s 40th. Just as I was wondering what (on earth!) to post about, this question popped into my inbox:
‘I have to give a presentation about my novel at college. Could you give me some tips on what to talk about? Thanks, Fahim’
Thank you, Fahim. Since I’m going to spend the day explaining my books to complete strangers (and hoping not to frighten them) I could do with thinking about this. So whether you’re wooing a class, an agent or just one interested book lover, here’s an express guide to pitching your book. It’s a brief post, but attention spans are short… ooh, tree mammal.
1 The novel in a nutshell
First, they want to know what it’s about. Orientate them with a polished one-liner that gives a clear idea of the kind of characters and the story – eg ‘it’s a novel about five friends at college who murder somebody and have to live with the consequences’.
2 Get the title in early
Make sure your one-liner explains the title, or makes the title intriguing. Your audience will probably remember no more than a couple of details. You want one of them to be the title and its tantalising promise.
3 Get personal
Tell them why it became your personal mission to write the book. If you have an anecdote about your initial inspiration, that helps pull the audience on board. Hint about where your research took you and why there’s much, much more than you could say here. Single out key characters with strong dilemmas; people are more memorable than themes. Weave in comparisons with other novels or films if they’ll help make your point more strongly, but they’re not essential.
4 Is there scope for a reading?
Obviously you won’t give a reading if you’re buttonholing an individual. But if you’ve got a bigger audience, it might be natural to round off your talk with an excerpt. If so, context is everything. It’s hard for listeners to plunge into the middle of action, or adjust their minds to a section of dialogue. Whatever you choose to read, make sure it continues the threads you’ve been tempting them with so far. Perhaps a tricky, cruel character, or the awesome difficulties of spending the night in the same house as a dead Mafia boss. You can find more tips here on choosing a passage to showcase your book.
It’s a national campaign to celebrate bookshops. If you’re in the UK, drop by your local bookseller and see if they’re breaking out in bunting, orange cake and sloganed T-shirts. Chances are, if you buy some books, they’ll give you a smart tote bag. If you don’t, they’ll probably set their pet authors on you…
Thanks, Fahim, for the inspiration. (And thanks Alexisnyal for the pic) Do you have any tips to add?
agents, attention spans, authors, Barton's Bookshop, book marketing, Books Are My Bag, express guide, how to pitch your book, how to sell your book, how to write a novel, initial inspiration, marketing, My Memories of a Future Life, personal mission, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, what on earth, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or in Google’s Confusing Circles, you might have seen me celebrating when a bookshop reviewed My Memories of a Future Life – on Amazon. ‘I was so impressed’ (it read) ‘that I persuaded Roz to hold a signing…’
That’s a bit astonishing in the current climate, and the Alliance of Independent Authors were soon wanting the story of what I’d done to get into their good books.
Much of it was luck, I have to say – I clicked with their tastes. And I’ve had a hit and miss relationship with other bookstores. But if you’re contemplating approaching bookshops with your print editions, you might find my experience useful…
And tell me here: have you approached bookshops or other retail outlets with your work? How did it go?
authors, Barton's Bookshop, books, bookshops, facebook, future life, getting into bookshops, getting into bookstores, good books, how I sold my indie book, how to get your self-published book into shops, how to sell to bookstores, how to sell your self-published book, how to write a book, how to write a novel, independent authors, indie bookstores, indie publishers, indie publishing, Leatherhead, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, Surrey, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
- Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber January 24, 2021
- How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast January 17, 2021
- How to write a memoir about difficult times January 10, 2021
- Should your book be first person, third person (or even second)? Ep48 FREE podcast for writers January 5, 2021
- How I built my career – writer, typesetter and editor Amie McCracken @amiemccracken December 13, 2020
- Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going December 9, 2020
- From bust to trust (the tale of a little horse) – guest post at Martha Engber @marthaengber December 8, 2020