My Memories of a Future Life · podcasts · self-publishing · The writing business

Put through my paces by Guys Can Read: literary writing, storytelling and the brave new world of indie books

Today I’m back at Guys Can Read, the weekly podcast books discussion hosted by Luke Navarro and Kevin McGill. Luke and Kevin adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at. Kevin’s also just released his own rip-roaring fantasy adventure, Nikolas and Company: A Creature Most Foul, now available on Amazon.

I’ve been on their show a few times and was thrilled they wanted me along now that I’ve released My Memories of a Future Life. We started by talking about the novel but soon ventured into wider discussion. We nattered about aspects of literary writing that can get in the way of the story and characters. We talked about indie publishing – as a choice to connect more closely with readers, whether it’s risky for writers with an established career, and how readers and writers will in future be setting the publishing agenda just as much as commercial publishers.  Oh, and whether I get away with opening my novel with a whinge scene. Come on over.

Writer basics 101

Spoilers – missing the point; a story is more than an ending

‘Research has found that giving away the best part of a story at the beginning actually makes it more enjoyable.’ So says a report in Scientific American, August 14 2011.

This study, which you may or may not have seen discussed around the blogoverse, found that revealing the end of a story made people enjoy the whole thing more. Vader turns out to be Luke’s father. Rhett walks out. Reader, she married him.

What’s going on? (Apart from a certain amount of literary vandalism.) And what does this tell us as writers?

The best part

The clue is in the statement from the Scientific American report – that the end was the ‘best part’. Here’s where they profoundly misunderstand what we get from a story. There’s a lot more to it than the ending.

Sometimes the ending is obvious anyway. If you think about it, we know Buffy will triumph at the end of each season. The question is how? What, in the course of getting there, will happen to the people she cares about? How will getting to the end change her, her life and her relationships? What reserves will she have to find in order to get to that end-point? What did she fail at, in the beginning, that makes this ending satisfying on a profounder scale than simply beating a bad guy?

A story is more than a mere outcome. The story is what happens along the way.

A real spoiler would give that away. It would home in on the aha moments where the narrative flips direction, or the main character has a realisation that turns everything on its head. When a story does this well, we enjoy them because we earn them, in step with the characters. The pleasure is making the discovery at the right time and in the right place. You could really louse up a reader’s day if you revealed those out of turn.

In fact, some endings sound positively lame, taken out of context. The ending-spoiler of Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan might be ‘Susan reached the end of the book and was suitably rattled’. Big shrug. So what? But read the book  as you’re supposed to, page by page, and you close it as disquieted as Susan. (If you want to know more about the book, here’s my review of it, on Guys Can Read.

The study participants enjoyed a story more after hearing the spoiler?

So we’ve argued with the definition of ‘best bit’. But why did the readers enjoy the story more if they were told the end?

Who knows? The researchers speculated that spoilers made the story easier to follow. But there are stories we enjoy again and again. Second time around we might see things we missed first time, and can also appreciate the moments where the writer foxed you into looking at one hand while they yanked the rug away with the other. Perhaps it shows how much readers enjoy dramatic irony, where they are more knowledgeable than the characters embroiled in the tale. And perhaps it shows that a great story sucks you in and hypnotises you into the journey, regardless of what you remember about it.

It’s not the end that matters most. It’s every moment of getting there.

Thank you, Phineas H on Flickr, for the photo

In similar spirit, I have an ending of my own to reveal – and not a moment too soon, judging by the emails that have been flying into my inbox. The finale of My Memories of a Future Life goes live at midnight, UK time – which means some of you American folks can get it before you snooze tonight. It’s called The Storm. You can find episode 1 here, episode 2 here and episode 3 here. For those of you who prefer print, there’s a print copy tunnelling through the works at CreateSpace to emerge at some point next week. And as always, you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here

Plots · Writer basics 101

Fiction within fiction – made-up worlds and stories inside stories

Stories within stories, dreams and made-up universes are all tricky because once you leave your story’s established world the reader may leave you too. How do you keep them with you?

Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.

I’ve just been reading Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, which I discussed recently on Guys Can Read. Tony and Susan does story-in-story with aplomb. Here’s how.

Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.

So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.

So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.

When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.

You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)

Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)

Second rule of stories within stories

Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.

Here’s the third rule of stories within stories

Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,

Fourth rule

Make both stories affect each other.  So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?

Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.

Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)

Interviews · Plots · podcasts · Writer basics 101

Back at Guys Can Read with one of my favourite novels

Those lovely dudes at Guys Can Read have invited me back to recommend one of my favourite books. I chose Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. This novel manages to pull off a trick I have seen done badly so many times – the story within the story. Why is it often done badly and how does this author do it well? Head on over to Luke and Kevin’s to find out – and also hear some other recommendations of thumping good reads.

As usual, I have way more to say on the subject, so on Sunday I’ll be discussing stories within stories, and fantasies within story worlds.

I’m taking questions about it now, so if you have anything you want to ask, leave a comment here!

Interviews · podcasts · The writing business

Ghostwriting and why I love Ian Fleming – interviewed by Guys Can Read

Today I’m very excited to be guesting on the books podcast Guys Can Read.Very, very excited, actually, as I’ve been evangelising about their show ever since I discovered them.

Guys Can Read is a weekly podcast by Luke Navarro and writer Kevin McGill. They adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at.

Kevin is putting his story instincts to good use on his fantasy novel Nikolas and Co, which you can read about here. Luke, meanwhile, sets himself challenges. Last year he read 52 books, and washed them down with yet more narrative in the form of 52 games and 52 DVDs. This year they channelled their zeal into Boys Can Read – a Skype school visit where they risked withering ridicule and worse to persuade a class of 28 MG boys to swap games for good old books.

If you love reading, if you live for fiction that leaves you provoked, moved, flabbergasted, shaken, stirred, touched, tickled, amused or amazed, then you’ll love these gutsy podcasts – whether you’re a guy or not. But I am extremely honoured to be welcomed as their first girl guest…

What did we talk about? A bit about writing, why I blog, but most of all, writers who give me major palpitations, especially Ian Fleming.

Kindle · Writer basics 101

Kindle Nail Your Novel now on sale!

Some people would say it’s about time too, as for a while now I’ve been getting requests to put my book Nail Your Novel onto the Kindle.

What took me so long? Two things.

1 – I don’t have a Kindle

But I’ve been knocking around writing blogs for long enough to know that we like our own ways of reading. People who read on the Kindle want their books in that format and some of them don’t even buy print any more. At the moment I prefer paper and print, but other people prefer pixels.

2 – Design

I designed the print version of Nail Your Novel with sections and sub-heads, identified by typefaces – a legacy from my years in magazines. As the Kindle does away with typefaces, how was I going to make it look right? The very thought of it was nailbiting.

Until I happened upon this blog post by Cath Ryan Howard of the blog Catherine, Caffeinated: How to format your e-book without the migraine. She made it look so simple I thought I’d have a go. She also references the Smashwords Style Guide, which filled in the whys and wherefores and is so darn clear that it deserves a plain English award. It’s deesigned for epub, but the principles also hold for the Kindle. With these open on my desktop, I had most of what I needed. Even with my complicated format, it was easy peesy.

I’m not going to rehash their instructions as they’ve done the legwork and deserve the site hits. I’ll just mention a few points that weren’t covered, although most of these will apply to non-fiction rather than fiction:

Yes, bold and italics will work on the Kindle. Apply them as you normally would in Word with the toolbar buttons – they translate just fine.

Bullets don’t work on the Kindle. So I rewrote the bullet-point lists as numbered lists.

If you’re writing non-fiction you’ll need a hyperlinked contents page, and you may want cross-references to increase the book’s usability. I found this post from Foner Books answered my remaining questions. You do not need an index as there are no pages, but there are a few electronic markers you need to put in to identify the start of the book. You also need page breaks on a Kindle, which you don’t need on an epub book. The Foner Books post explains it all.

Without a Kindle, how could I check it worked? Fortunately the Kindle publishing system has a simulator. Upload your file, check  it looks okay, tweak as necessary, upload again. You needn’t worry you’ve published prematurely as you have to go through several more steps to actually launch your book on Amazon. As an extra, a friend converted my file to a format called Mobi and was able to test it on her Kindle. She gave me the thumbs up – and we were ready to go!

So…if you’re wondering about putting your book on Kindle, all I can say is do. It really is easy.


Particular thanks in my journey to this Kindle edition go to the people whose excellently written resources made it possible, and to Suzanne Fyrie Parrott of Unruly Guides and Kevin McGill of Guys Can Read. And there are many, many more of you who have given me such wonderful feedback on the book and have cheered me on in reviews and have spread the word. Thank you – I really appreciate it. (And thank you, .bobby, for the picture.)

What’s it all about?

Read about Nail Your Novel here and read Amazon reviews here

Read the first 16 pages for free here – although on Kindle you can get a sample anyway.

Read reviews from Sarah Peppel (Novel Inspirations from Nail Your Novel) New Book Blogger, listen to me talk about the book to Joanna Penn here. Also I’m going to be popping up in a few guest posts around the virtual town, so stay tuned.

And, one final time, here’s where you can buy it in the Kindle Store US and UK.

Although if paper is still your thing, you can find it on here, or if you’re outside the US on Lulu here.