Undercover Soundtrack · Writer basics 101

‘The devastation left behind when someone dies’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Margot Kinberg

My guest today on The Undercover Soundtrack is mystery novelist Margot Kinberg. She says songs and the ideas she gets from them have always been woven into the stories she writes. Her novel B-Very Flat, which spins around the murder of a young music student, drew inspiration from JS Bach to Billy Joel to Andrew Lloyd Webber, influencing the way she developed her characters and understood their troubles. Join me now at the red blog for the full story

Inspirations Scrapbook · My Memories of a Future Life · The writing business

Everybody dance: we all go wrong before we get it right

Getting a novel right is trial and error, right? Do writers of shorter artforms have this trouble? Songwriters, for instance? I heard an interview this week with musician Nile Rodgers – which suggests his creative process has much in common with that of us long-distance literary creatives. Or my creative process does, anyway.

Finding the core truth

Rodgers talked about looking for the core truth of a song. In Chic, he said, ‘we had to define the deep hidden meaning, a song’s DNA, what it was about. We had to understand its core truth. Once we had that we could arrange it and change it to whatever we want.’

One of the first things I do when starting a novel is search for the core truth in my idea.

My inspiration is usually a character doing something bizarre, which beckons me to look deeper. I’m incubating a couple of these at the moment, searching for this core truth. Until I’m certain of that, I can’t get creative with the story and characters.

My Memories of a Future Life started with one idea – reversing the traditional reincarnation story. Not going to a past life, but a future one. What would happen, I thought? It could be a straightforward adventure, but that was too shallow – this idea bugged me at a profound level. So I quarried and worried and scrunched my hands through my hair, and eventually I hit this: when Carol chooses to fast-forward into a future incarnation, it’s because she can’t see any more life worth living now. That’s what this bizarre quest was – a search for life now. Once I had that core truth, I had a strong centre to build around.

Now freak

You know Le Freak, that joyful bid-biddly foot-itching disco anthem. You might know the story of how it was written. Rodgers and pals trudged through snow to a friend’s party at Studio 54 and the doorman told them to f—- off.

So they went home, picked up their instruments and started improvising. A cheeky guitar twiddle, some lyrics about schlepping across town in the freezing cold, all ending in a rousing cheer of ‘Ahhhh f— off’.

Rodgers’s partner Bernard Edwards said ‘we’ve really got something’. Rodgers said ‘you’re crazy, we can’t call it that’. They tried ‘Freak off’. No, it didn’t work at all. More head-scratching. Rodgers eventually said ‘what about “Freak Out” ’. Edwards said ‘hey my kids do this dance called…’

Okay, it’s no surprise that a song might be assembled with brainstorming. But pay attention to what Rodgers said next in the interview.

‘Do you think I’m smart enough to write “Freak out”? No way. I wrote “f— off” and we changed it. If I was smart enough to write a song about doing a dance I’d be a super-rich brilliant genius. No, I write some weird thing and then figure out what that means and then go back and rewrite. I’ve never been smart enough to get it right first thing. I’m a rewriter.’

First time? No

Writing is rewriting. Ideas don’t come complete. Inspiration is time and sweat and while we’re perspiring we feel we’re struggling and keeping up a facade of being smart. If – as seems inevitable in party season – someone puts this tune on, raise your hands for all of us who aren’t genius enough to get it right first time.

That idea that started weird and took a ton of figuring? It’s called Le Freak.

Thanks for the pic Thomas Faivre-Duboz

Have you got any favourite tales of ideas that needed a ton of figuring? Share in the comments!

Inspirations Scrapbook · The writing business · Writer basics 101

The three ages of becoming a writer

Was writing so easy when you started? If you’re bogged down by all the techniques you don’t know and it’s squashing the life out of your writing, this post is for you

I used to take singing lessons. I’d always loved belting out a tune, and being rather a perfectionist I wanted to do it well. I sailed through the basics and was sent to an advanced teacher. Then the trouble started. She had been a child prodigy and had been coached, much like a Russian gymnast, to do nothing but her art. So she was entirely intolerant of imperfection.

I’d open my mouth and she’d say ‘your tongue’s in the wrong place’. And I hadn’t even made a sound. Tongues, by the way, are not just the flappy thing you can see. They go all the way down your throat and have to be kept flat. Pretty soon I was so bamboozled by the invisible anatomy that had to be under conscious control that I couldn’t sing at all. Not even a good holler in the bath, because I had a weight of bad habits to eradicate. What used to be so natural became impossible.

I stopped. Gradually the desire to sing came back. I started experimenting with the techniques she’d tried to din into me. I built a singing technique for myself, enjoyed making musical noise again, fortified (and amplified) with what I understood. Now, as friends will attest, just don’t let me start.

The uncomfortable second age

I meet a lot of writers who are flailing in that uncomfortable middle area. They began with ideas to express, stories to tell and a joy of playing on the page. Then they learned how many undesirable habits they had and how much they needed to unlearn. Making a scene instead of summarising. Structuring properly. Making our heroes heroic and believable. Not using adverbs. Thousands of criticisms that tell them they know nothing about the activity that used to bring them joy. Pretty soon, they aren’t trusting any of their instincts – or even letting them speak at all. Or they’ve lost faith in the book they’re writing.

It’s no wonder we hear people worrying that by learning craft they’re becoming robots obeying a formula.

The third age

But if we carry on, we come out into the third stage. One day, we find we’re kicking back and writing as ourselves again. We’re not thinking about rules any more. They’re not strictures into which we are trying to fit. They are tools we are going to use in our own way to make our individual novels. We know them as well as we know our mother tongue.

And, tongues notwithstanding, we’re singing on the page again.

Thank you, pink_fish13, for the picture.

I’ve said there are three stages to becoming a writer. Perhaps there are more. What do you think?

Creating a character · Uncategorized · Writer basics 101

Talking characters – Victoria and me

I’m back at Victoria Mixon’s for the second part of our weekly editor chats. Last week we hammered out plot. Today the subject is characters. We discussed techniques for developing characters, what makes a character with dignity and depth, whether to use all your research – and my dislike of what some of you call plaid and what I call tartan.

Hey, we’re all allowed unreasonable quirks. Take a highland fling over to Victoria’s blog and see what it’s all about… Thank you, Lee Carson, for the picture…

Inspirations Scrapbook · The writing business · Writer basics 101

How do you start being a writer?

I had this email today, and have to share it. ‘I am in my early 30s and took a degree in IT. I have had 3 jobs in the past 10 years and feel this is still not where I am meant to be. But it was drummed into me that you can’t get a career or financial stability as a writer. It’s all I ever do in my spare time. I borrow about 7 books from the library each week, I love to share what I see in the world with others. How do I take that first step? Jes’

Jes, you are starting the way all writers do, by doing it because you can’t help it and because meanings nudge you wherever you look. That’s what I did (you can read more about it here).

I’m sorry to say the naysayers about writing income are right. Most published writers don’t earn enough from writing to do it full time. But you can still do the day job and count yourself a full-blooded writer – that’s what the vast majority of published writers are already doing. So IT isn’t where you want to be – but it doesn’t have to define and confine you. It’s what makes your really important work possible. Here’s an excellent post on the mixed blessings of a day job from Joanna Penn.

As for careers? There are no guarantees that you will get a lucky break. Or that before then you will happen upon the right teachers. Or that when you do you will be receptive to learn. The only way is to start and see where your quest takes you.

But how do you take the first step? Keep reading, keep writing. Keep trying to find out how to make stories out of those half-understood murmurings, so that others can hear their importance too. And do you know what? You have already started.

Guys, how did you start being a writer? And what would you tell Jes?

Uncategorized · Writer basics 101

Nail Your Novel coming to Kindle on Valentine’s day

By popular demand, my book Nail Your Novel is launching on Kindle on Monday 14 Feb. I’m trying to muster as many people to buy it on that day so that it makes a decent thump in the Amazon charts. So, if you were hoping for a Kindle version would you buy it on the 14th?

Love to write? On Valentine’s day, Give your book a writing buddy to hold its hand. Ahhh.

Thank you, .bobby, for the picture.

Interviews · podcasts · The writing business

Talking to Joanna Penn about nailing your novel

Today I’m Joanna Penn’s guest at The Creative Penn podcast. Joanna’s interviews are essential listening for me – she’s an author, blogger and business consultant who has rejected the traditional publishing route because she found it too slow and difficult. Instead, she set herself the task of learning how to do it all herself.

Every week she interviews editors, marketing experts and writers about their adventures in publishing and book marketing and has built up a formidable following among all those of us who want to take charge of our publishing careers and make the very best of what the internet can offer us. She’s written a brace of books on writing, self-publishing and internet marketing. She’s also been realising a long-held dream to write thrillers and her first – Pentecost – is just about to launch.

I’m thrilled she wanted me to be her guest this week. Come and join us as we discuss ghostwriting, tips for writing a bestseller – and how to write your second novel. And whether I mind doing really nasty things to characters…


Gremlins hit Nail Your Novel Amazon listing – but you can buy from Lulu or from me direct

You're never too young to start; my god-daughter, Eliza Wallis, reads Nail Your Novel. No, she's not the gremlin that caused all the trouble (at least not this time)

I just received an email from a reader who couldn’t find the listings to buy Nail Your Novel – and discovered it has disappeared from Amazon.

After a good bit of hair tearing and digging in the Lulu help forums, I discovered Lulu has made ‘service improvements’ and many customers are up in arms because their Amazon listings have been unavailable for a week. Not only that, Lulu had somehow (and unforgivably) turned my listing to private access so that nobody could buy it.

So – if you’ve been trying to buy Nail Your Novel, or browse it on Amazon, I’m sorry you’ve had a frustrating time. The Lulu listing is now working – here it is – and I am shouting at them to get the Amazon one back. Not to mention my 13 five-star reviews, which you guys have written and I’m terribly grateful for – and would be gutted to lose.

You can still use the Bookbuzzr widget to read the first 15 pages (see the column on the right) and the link from there will now take you to Lulu. And if all else fails, I have some copies and will happily sell to you via Paypal (and you’ll get a cute little Nail Your Novel Moo card to use as a bookmark – although I’m afraid my cute little god-daughter is not included).

Rewriting · Writer basics 101

How to write fights, games, races and chases – in three easy stages

Action scenes can be tricky to write. Here’s
a three-step plan to nail them

1. Write first, fix the pace later

‘He stepped back to avoid the fist that came at him like a sledgehammer. Then he grabbed the arm and twisted, but his opponent had already recovered his balance and the teapot was whizzing towards him.’

Writing action is slow. Dead slow. When you’re plodding through every blow, twist, feint and reaction your exciting scene becomes a dire trudge. But you need to get the details down because those are your raw materials.

I remember in one early thriller I wrote there was a cliff-top chase, which culminated in the MC diving into the sea. It was supposed to be spectacular but dear me, it crawled. In desperation, I took out every other sentence (yes, that’s how much I had to cut). Suddenly it had the pace I wanted – the slick, breathless scene I imagined when I put it in the synopsis. Now I could see what speed the choreography should be, I checked the details, swapped some in and out – and it worked.

2 You don’t have to show absolutely everything

You don’t have to show the scene blow by blow. You can give a sense of what the scene feels like without showing every step, every blow, every thrust and counter-thrust. As with every kind of description, telling details that give the emotional feel of the scene are the most important. For instance, this excerpt from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger:
‘Ten yards away, Oddjob hardly paused in his rush. One hand whipped off his ridiculous, deadly hat, a glance to take aim and the black steel half-moon sang through the air. Its edge caught the girl exactly on the nape of the neck.’

3 Make it more interesting than just a fight or a chase

Prose is an internal medium, and is much better for internal, or emotional, action. A scene that is just a set of physical instructions is never going to be as interesting as one with significant character interaction, or humour, or a development that matters to someone on an emotional level.

Screenwriter Jane Espenson said she always found it hard to write the fight scenes in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So she would design the scene about something else – an argument or a revelation between the characters. When that was established, she slipped the fight in around that.

Thank you, Simon Wicks on Flickr, for the photo

Do you find action scenes easy to write or hard? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!

Inspirations Scrapbook · Rewriting

How to revise your novel without getting stale – take a tip from Michael Caine

Do you hate going over your novel again and again?
Take a tip from Michael Caine and see it as
rehearsing your novel

Some writers hate redrafting. Analysing, dissecting and rewriting their work? A sure way to make themselves hate it.

But if you’re hoping to amuse a buying public, your first draft will probably not be good enough. I’ve written about this before in I had no idea novel-writing was such hard work.  Only the superhuman can get everything right on the first go. (I’m talking here about self-directed rewrites, before you show the novel to anyone else. Rewrites instigated by beta-readers, agents and editors are a different kettle of fish.)

So redrafting is a fact of life for writers. If you do it with gritted teeth, that’s a problem.

It so happens I love this phase. But I didn’t realise why until this week.

The penny dropped when I heard Michael Caine on the radio answering a question about giving natural performances.

He told the interviewer: I use one of the basic principles of Stanislavski. It’s called the method. That’s not looking at the floor and mumbling and scratching your bum. With the method, the rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation. By the time they say ‘action’, I’ve been through those lines 500 times.

This is exactly how I see my writing process.

The rehearsal is the work and the performance is the relaxation

When I am drafting, I am in a continual state of rehearsal. Dissecting, questioning. Inventing new ways to test my story. Taking the characters for little rides outside the story. Digging for fundamental truth. I keep the writing rough while I chop the order of events around, concoct new scenes and drop them in. I always use mybeat sheet. My current WIP, Life Form 3, got so darn difficult it needed its own tool, and so I rewrote it as a fairy tale.

Certainly this can be frustrating, particularly when the story is flagging, there are too many unknowns. There’s always a stage where I’m convinced I’ve ruined an exciting idea. That’s why it’s called work.

But what comes out of it is intensely creative.

Ready to roll

There comes a day when I feel I understand, with a big U, fanfares and fireworks. I know what the characters want in each scene, what they show other people, what they’re hiding. I know the character of the book – its world, its struggles, what voice it has. I am confident the reader’s heart rate will soar in the right places.

That’s when I’m ready to relax and tell the story properly – with the final, in-depth rewrite.

Final draft is the performance

Performance. You know what I mean. If you’re a writer you have an urge to perform in prose. You can’t just dash off an email to a friend, a comment on someone else’s blog, a report for work. Even a note to the milkman will always be a bit of a song and dance. Words are never just words, they are indelible. That’s what we really enjoy, right?

My final pass is the performance – the language, style, voice. With all the work I’ve done, I’m ready to grab hold of the reader and show them something special.

Part of the problem with revising is that you get stale. But if with each pass you are building something richer and better, it gets more exciting, not less. Crucial to this is to keep the text rough until everything is place. Then you can give yourself something to look forward to – telling the story. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Are you a method writer? How do you motivate yourself through redrafts?

You can read more about my beat sheet and other revision tools in Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from Amazon.com or outside the US from Lulu

Thank you, Tea, Two Sugars, for the picture