My guest this week is one of those many writers who values silence – but is keenly aware that music is influencing what comes out on the page. She describes how music acts as a portal, letting her access moods and mental states in order to recreate them faithfully in her fiction. She describes trying to capture a state of longing and nostalgia, but without sentimentality and the soundtrack she shares here is such a treat: a Gershwin cover by Kate Bush; a Purcell lament sung by Alison Moyet. If you follow my show on Surrey Hills Radio you might hear me finding an excuse to give them airplay sometime soon. Anyway, this imaginative guest is wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes historical novels as Deborah Swift), and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Tag: Depth & Heart
‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Suzie Grogan
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.
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.
The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature
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.
Bereavement, a bid to exist, a way to control an antisocial persona: why we write
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?
‘Music was solace, understanding and escape’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jake Kerr
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.
Seven genre-busting novels – introducing Women Writing Women
You remember I posted recently about authors collaborating? Well, I wouldn’t advise you to do anything I wouldn’t try myself.
If you know me – and some of my friends – on Facebook, you might have seen some coy posts about how we’ll be revealing a big secret project.
Well here it is.
Seven writers of quality indie fiction are releasing an ebook collection called Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.
We’ve each of us proved our worth with awards, fellowships, teaching posts and commercial success. We’ve all self-published to keep our hard-earned independence and our artistic identity. Now we are teaming up to create an ebook box set of novels that feature strong, idiosyncratic female protagonists. And it will be available for just a brief period – from February to May 2015.
Power in a group
Now here’s where we can explore the power of the group. We’ve already been interviewed by The Guardian books pages, Books + Publishing (the Australian counterpart of Publisher’s Weekly) and have interest from the arts programmes of BBC Radio 4. If any of us had approached them on our own, we probably wouldn’t have got even a reply. But together?
We hope there’s more to come. Much more. These last few months we’ve been working behind the scenes, making contacts, sending emails. Certainly I’ll have a lot of learning to share about pre-launch campaigns. I am learning loads from these guys. (I should say ‘women’, but you know what I mean.)
So what do we hope to achieve?
To hit some charts, obviously. To reach readers who are hungry for strong literary fiction beyond the bounds of traditional genre tropes.
We also want to prove that fine, original authors are self-publishing as a mark of independence and integrity, and doing work of value and quality.
You might ask: is that still necessary? Does anyone still consider self-publishing to be ‘vanity’ or second rate? They clearly do, because this is one of the issues we’ve been asked about most frequently. And we have all encountered attitudes in the books world that demonstrate we are regarded as inferior. Try joining a professional body, applying for a grant or entering an award, or requesting a review. (Happily, we are already changing minds. Book bloggers who are wary of self-published books have welcomed us.)
Who are we?
Our coalition is:
Me, obviously (more than 4 million books sold as a ghostwriter, creative writing coach for The Guardian, literary author, editor);
Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Publishing by The Bookseller;
Joni Rodgers, author/ghostwriter of multiple NYT bestsellers, short-listed for Barnes & Noble Discover Award;
Kathleen Jones, widely published Royal Literary Fund Fellow and frequent BBC contributor;
Jane Davis, winner of the Daily Mail First Novel Award hailed by The Bookseller as “One to Watch”;
Carol Cooper, physician, medical journalist, and winner of the 2013 BMA Book Award;
Jessica Bell, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal and author of the bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series.
You’ll also know them all from The Undercover Soundtrack, except for Jane who doesn’t use music in her creative process. (But maybe we can change that!) Find our ‘who are we’ page here. And yes, you can see we dressed up for the occasion.
The collection is priced at USD$9.99 GBP7.99 – yes, that’s not throwaway pricing, but at roughly £1.15 per book it’s still a bargain. The box set (or e-anthology, if the word ‘box’ raises your hackles) will be available for just 90 days from February 20, though pre-orders have just opened now. Right this minute.
Out and about
We’ve got a host of blog appearances planned. We’ll be sharing plenty of information about the hows and wherefores, the triumphs and pitfalls. We’ll also be talking about our publishing journeys, our inspirations, our methods. And our work – our unconventional characters and their relationships, our themes and topics like body image culture, abortion, prostitution, euthanasia, domestic abuse, same-sex marriage, bereavement, psychological recovery and rogue healers.
If you have a blog and your readership would be interested in us, we’d love to be mentioned – or interviewed if that’s what you normally do. If you want to tweet about it and like lists of pre-prepared tweets, find them here. And if you post a review, fill in the form on this link and we’ll send you a digital swag bag that includes a free book plus lovely links, delicious downloads and some playful surprises.
If nothing else, we hope to bust some barriers in 2015. We want to prove that indie publishing is a positive choice for writers of quality, to show that writers can make good publishing decisions and lead the creative process. And if you’re happy with traditional publishing, we hope to add more power to your arm, by demonstrating that authors should be included in business and promotion decisions, treated as partners and offered fair deals.
It’s going to be exciting. Check us out at www.womenwritewomen.com.
7 unforgettable books by award-winning #WomenInLiterature. Only $9.99! Avail. Only 90 days! http://goo.gl/D1fyqW #WomenWritingWomen
How to turn a short story into a novel
I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?
Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.
How much do you plan?
Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)
Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)
When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.
Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)
What to enlarge
So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.
Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.
Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start. Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.
A writer of two minds
Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.
The wonders of revision
Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.
There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?
‘Music: a space to make sense of life’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Sarah Yaw
My first guest this year says that when she was very young, she spent a lot of time in theatres, watching her dad rehearse with bands. She would fall asleep to the sound as he played bass for the likes of Don Cherry, Lou Reed and his own band, The Everyman Band. Later she became consumed by music herself, pouring her soul into the playing of the clarinet. Tendinitis cut her music career short and a teacher suggested she write, encouraging her to write in the voice of one of the authors they’d been reading that term. ‘Voice’ – it was that word that started it. She realised that writing was musical, a sequence of rhythm, tension and release – and so her first novel took shape (and went on to win the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize). She is Sarah Yaw and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Publish traditionally, solo self-publish or something else? Advice for the 2015 writer
Last year I wrote a post about whether I’d advise an author to publish or selfpublish. A year on, the landscape for authors is remarkably different – or perhaps not remarkable if you’ve been waiting for a bubble to burst.
Indie authors have seen sales plummet because of the sheer numbers of books available, and subscription schemes such as Kindle Unlimited have created a breed of readers who won’t shop outside a limited free list.
Might this mean it’s better to be traditionally published?
Not from what I’ve seen. My friends with trad deals aren’t having a good time either. Leaving aside royalties and advances (which seem to offer little financial reward for all the hard work writing), their books aren’t getting a decent chance for a long-term future.
A friend whose first novel won a major award in 2012 has just watched his fourth novel launch with no more fanfare than a tiny paragraph in a Sunday paper. His only other support was a training day on a social media course. And don’t even ask about rights grabs – where authors might wait years to reclaim a book to publish it themselves.
Tough times, my friends. So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.
Since my last post about this we’ve seen a growing trend for indies to work in collaboration, teaming up with similar authors to release box-sets of ebooks, finding partners to exploit other rights such as translations or audio (either via ACX or other means – here are my posts on my own collaboration with my voice actor Sandy Spangler). Collaborators might be paid up front or in royalty splits. Further back, indies have collaborated by teaming up to create products (like my course with Joanna Penn, now unfortunately nuked by EU VAT rules) or forming long-term collectives (Triskele Books, itself a collective, has been running a series on various well-established collectives ). Joanna Penn has a mighty post about joint ventures with other creatives.
And that’s just the start. I think the authors of 2015 will be watching out for advantageous ways to partner up and we haven’t seen the half of them yet.
Indies who collaborate get
• shared marketing muscle, to connect with more readers
• shared expertise (editorial feedback, blurb and press release writing)
• shared contacts (editors, proof readers, designers)
• a shoulder to cry on, behind the scenes – and tough love when necessary too.
Does it sound familiar? Indie author collaborations are attempting to create the best of what a traditional publisher does. And this means we should…
View traditional publishing deals as collaborations
And so this means the smartest way to suss out deals from traditional publishers is to consider them as collaborations. What will they do for you that you could not do yourself? What are they asking from you in return? Is it reasonable?
No one I know writes a book to sacrifice it to a bad deal (see my remark about rights grabbing above). On the other hand, no one wants to turn down an opportunity that would be good, as far as can reasonably be forecast in a world of fickle readers and luck.
So this is what I’d say to the 2015 writer who’s asking my advice on whether to selfpublish or query traditional publishers.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the advance (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
Some (not all) are easy to source yourself or make good decisions about. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation – but see my remark above about the award-winning writer with his latest launch. Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly. This may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are traditionally published writers who sell enough to get meticulous attention from publishers, and others who get a tired, overworked editor who simply doesn’t have time to do the job as well as they’d like.
The more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner. If you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
2 Be aware of the limits of traditional print and distribution
Distribution of print books is an area where traditional publishers have a clear advantage – (however, the Alliance of Independent Authors is working on a print sales project for indies ). Books in a publisher’s catalogue get promoted by a sales team. You get the heft of their mighty reputation! Result!
But let’s have a reality check. Go into Waterstones or another large book emporium. Look along the shelves where the books are spine-outwards. How many are there? Which ones catch your eye? Probably none of them. They’re the store’s wallpaper. You’re already cover-drunk by the time you’ve passed the books on the tables or in the window or in special display boxes.
A book in a store needs more than a meek slot in the alphabetically-ordered shelves to be discovered by a casual browser, no matter how beautiful its title or cover. So even if your book is going into big stores, it’s unlikely to be found unless it gets special prominence – both in the store and in the wider world. For that, the publisher has to spend money. Independent bookstores are a different matter as the selection is smaller and more personalised, but you still have to hope your book gets emphasised by the sales reps or the store will never hear about it.
3 It isn’t either-or
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way. Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might selfpublish their backlist. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project.
Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals, where an author who is experienced in production keeps control of some stages of the editorial process. I like this model very much – it seems a good way to use everyone’s strengths.
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation. Take your time. Do it properly. You’ve got a lot to learn – about writing to a publishable standard and about publishing itself. The world will wait – but it won’t forget if you mess it up. See my post here about leaving enough time to use editorial feedback.
The selfpublishing world is maturing. Suddenly I notice there are a lot of us who have been in this game a few years now, building solid reputations and devoted audiences. I think 2015 will be the year of the exciting collaboration – with other authors, with translators, with artistes from other media (such as voice actors). Perhaps with editors too.
We’ll choose what’s best for each book. We’ll also get more expert at putting a realistic value on contributions, including those of traditional players in publishing, both imprints and agents, and with luck this will lead to deals that are fair and fruitful.
Writing may be solitary. Publishing – and selfpublishing – doesn’t have to be.
Thanks for the dancer pic Lisa Campbell
The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel is now available on pre-order. It will go on live sale on Twelfth Night, 5th January, and if you order beforehand you can get a special pre-order price.
Have you collaborated on selfpublishing projects – or struck an unorthodox deal with a publisher? Are there any success stories or cautionary tales you’d like to share? How do you feel about the prospects of the solo selfpublisher for 2015? Optimistic? Pessimistic? How do you feel about traditional publishing? Let’s discuss!
AFTERWORD Since I first published this post, Peter Snell and I recorded an edition of the radio show in which we interviewed two founders of an authors’ collective, Triskele Books. They gave us the lowdown on how they formed, how the collective works and the pros and cons. Listen by clicking the clever thingy below.