Posts Tagged Fix and Finish With Confidence

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.

Stonehenge replica proved disappointingly small in This Is Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap were hoping it would be bigger

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.)

sidebarcropGo the distance

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.

ebookcovernyn3There’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?

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Publish traditionally, solo self-publish or something else? Advice for the 2015 writer

2015 writerLast 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.

Better together
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.

Recording a radio show with independent bookseller Peter Snell, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

Recording a radio show, surrounded by lovely wallpaper

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.

And finally…

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

plotglowThe 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.

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ISBNs: CreateSpace freebie or own ISBN? Pros and cons

tadsonI’ve had this question from Daniel Vertrees, who is making his first print edition, and it turned into a pros and cons discussion so I thought it would make a useful post.

Did you use one of the Createspace ISBN? I want to be able to sell directly (like book signings) and wonder if it is better to buy the ISBN?

A what?

The ISBN is a unique digital identifier for a book (oh here’s the Wiki entry). Traditionally, publishers buy them in batches of between 10 and several thousand, and allocate them to each edition of any book – even ebooks. If you’re UK based you can get them from Nielsen, in the US from Bowker. CreateSpace offers you the option of a free ISBN or you can input one you’ve bought yourself. If you use the other main indie publishing print-on-demand company, Ingram Spark, you need to supply your own ISBN.

Your own ISBN or CreateSpace’s? The pros and cons

There’s a lot of emotional talk about whether you should buy an ISBN or use CS’s. Here are a few myths dispelled.

Doesn’t the book ‘belong’ to CreateSpace if you use their ISBN?

No it doesn’t. It belongs to you. You have the copyright. However, you are restricted about where you can have the book with that ISBN printed. See below.

CreateSpace will be seen as the publisher of record.

Yes it will. I’m not sure this makes any difference to individual buyers who are browsing for your book. If they’re trawling down the book details, liking what they see, they’re unlikely to screech to a horrified halt if they see it’s published by CreateSpace. They probably won’t notice.

However, the CreateSpace name may deter booksellers from ordering. But that’s not because the name is associated with Beelzebub Bezos, self-publishing or any other giant imaginary stigma. It’s because CreateSpace’s distribution terms (through Expanded Distribution) are not as favourable as Ingram Spark (Lightning Source for indies). CreateSpace discounts are not as competitive and delivery times are not as swift.

However 2

In the past, indie authors who published via Lightning Source (now Ingram Spark, remember) found their books sometimes showed ‘out of stock’ notices on Amazon. This has caused much hair-tearing, and mumblings that the big corporations were having some kind of squabble with publishers caught in the middle.

So now, many indies are now buying their own ISBN, printing through CreateSpace to sell on Amazon, then printing the same book (with the same ISBN, remember) to distribute everywhere else. Best of both worlds.

It all sounds good – except for the cost of ISBNs. In some countries they’re free, in which case you’re laughing. In countries where they are not, you’re not laughing. From Nielsen, you’re looking at £144 for 10. The unit cost is lower if you buy 100 (£342) but that’s rather too painful for me. Allocating ISBNs used to be a big administrative faff (I used to fill in the publisher’s forms when I was in charge of an editorial department) but now it could surely be automated and free. Don’t get me started, but I’d rather use that money for something that would benefit the reader, such as better cover art. Also, publishing on Ingram has a cost too, they charge for changes and the set-up is more challenging.

More on expanded distribution

1 So far, all my print titles have used CreateSpace ISBNs. Despite the distribution factors, this doesn’t stop me getting bulk orders every month for the Nail Your Novels. I can’t tell where they’re going, but they are being bought in bulk, somewhere. Maybe I’d get more bulk orders if I had my own ISBN and an Ingram version. Who knows?

2 According to Bowker:

Without an ISBN, you will not be found in most bookstores, whether online, or down the street from your house. Buying an ISBN is your first step to insure that your book is not lost in the wilderness.

This is true, of course. But even if books are on databases, and available at competitive rates, they sell zip without publicity. Bookstores get some of their stock because customers ask for it. But much of their speculative stock is books they order because they are featured in the wholesalers’ magazines, which is arranged by publishers’ marketing departments, or because a publisher’s rep called. So even with a shiny Bowker-or-Nielsen ISBN, the world is not your oyster. How much of a publicity campaign can you mount? Put another way, without a shiny Bowker-or-Nielsen ISBN you may not be missing very many sales because getting noticed is the most difficult thing of all. (Sorry.)

Short version, please

Sorry, Daniel. If you’re getting your paperback made for Amazon sales and direct hand sales, a CreateSpace ISBN will be fine. Certainly if you’re new to making books, use CreateSpace as your training wheels. Also, there’s nothing to stop you making a new version with your own ISBN, and uploading to CreateSpace and Ingram later on. You can change the CreateSpace settings to take your book off expanded distribution, so that the copy that reaches catalogues is on bookseller-friendly Ingram. You can also, if you have a really neat mind, disable the old CreateSpace listing by making the book unprintable, which takes new copies off sale although the old listing will remain.

As for me, I usually use the Createspace ISBNs. But I’m trying a new tack for the plot book. I’ve made a deal with a small publisher to put the book out with their ISBN. They get the book for their catalogue, I do everything else. I’m initially printing through CreateSpace, then seeing if a non-CS ISBN printed with Ingram Spark will give me any advantage. It would be nice if I could eat my pessimistic words about ISBNs. I shall report. 🙂

Thanks for the printing press pic Tadson 

plotglowThe 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.
‘On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords….’ Is that too complicated for an opening scene?

Anything further to add? The Createspace/Ingram universe is changing all the time, the ISBN issue is one of the most divisive in the indie world – so comments and further discussions will be welcome!

 

 

 

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Why playing safe in publishing is riskier than ever

I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste‘. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’

Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.

I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.

Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.

The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.

It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.

One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.

Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.

But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.

(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)

Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…

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Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas

On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.

Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.

If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.

But I have things I want to fix right now

Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.

But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop

Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.

Revise in haste, repent at leisure

If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.

So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until after Christmas.

(Thanks for the pic Svadilfari)

What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?

nyn1 2ndI have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available here.

 

 

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How to wield back story with panache

How soon can you tell readers your characters’ backgrounds? Most writers are in too much of a hurry. Here’s how to deploy back story with confidence

We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.

That’s back story.

Here are the two main problems with back story.

  1. Most writers fling it in too early.
  2. Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.

Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.

So how do you judge when is the right time?

First woo your reader

Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.

In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?

This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.

Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.

So where do you put it?

I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.

Cut it all out

I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.

Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.

Make the back story part of the action

What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.

Leave it as late as possible

As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.

Use back story as bonding material

As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.

So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.

Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.

There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!

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