Posts Tagged how to write a book
The organisers of my Venice masterclass, Henry and Janys Hyde, have just published this interview about the course. If you’d like to know a little more about my teaching approach, or indeed how I came to be doing this at all, this is the place to go. And if you’d like to come to another, let them know!
Also, I’ve been on BBC Radio London this week, on Jo Good’s afternoon show. The day before I’d listened to Jo interview Candace Bushnell, so I made sure to wear feisty boots. Jo asked me about ghostwriting, tips for writers etc – some of which may be familiar to those of you who have hung around here for a while. Anyway, if you’re curious it’s here for the next 30 days. My section begins at 1 hour 10 minutes.
Oh, and these were my interview boots. Roberto Cavalli. I hope Carrie Bradshaw would approve.
I’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.
I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?
What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.
First: expand your story ideas
A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.
Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.
I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.
You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.
Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.
Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).
And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)
Sometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.
So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.
Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)
In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.
As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)
And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.
You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.
Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?
I recently published a post about NaNoWriMo prep, and it provoked this interesting comment on Facebook:
I really hate this initiative! Shouldn’t we be learning to write novels that are better, higher quality, more considered, more rounded, better thought out, that TAKE MORE TIME!!! rather than just trying to whack one out in a month? We don’t need more books on Amazon, what we need are BETTER books if we are to promote reading in the twenty-first century.
So who is this firebrand? It’s Kevin Booth @Kevinbooth01, a writer, translator and editor, who writes contemporary fiction and arts-based commentary as himself, and eco-fantasy as K. Eastkott.
I don’t disagree with him. And yet I barefacedly, two-facedly, published a post promoting NaNoWriMo?
I think it’s time to discuss the good and bad of NaNo.
In a nutshell (or a nanobyte):
The good – NaNoWriMo can be the confidence boost to get you started. NaNoWriMo is a community; a race; a deadline. It’s an appointment to get something done, like a new year resolution, but just in time for the Christmas letter. Beginners use it as their first go at writing. Seasoned writers use it to get a first draft done, for yea, drafting always makes us as nervous. It’s like the London Marathon, open to all to use as we wish. Perhaps as a one-off special event, this year’s challenge; or a handy lockdown in a bigger writing plan.
The OhNo – NaNoWriMo creates the idea that you can rattle out a book quickly, without editing, redrafting, or, as Kevin says, thought. And woot, a lot of them get put on sale. Look at Twitter in November and you’ll see anguished messages from literary agents, imploring people not to send their NaNo draft in search of fame and fortune.
Here’s where I’ll echo Kevin. A month is not long enough to write a worthwhile book. When good work arises from NaNoWriMo, it’s been planned beforehand, drafted in the crazy race, then honed and tended for many more months afterwards.
And Kevin told me he’s seen too many writers – talented writers – use NaNo as the culmination of the writing process:
As an editor, I’ve seen that, however well-structured a novel’s plan is, when you tell your brain to slap those words down at speed, the grey matter has a horrible trick of blind obedience. And once words are stuck on a page, they become surprisingly difficult to budge. I’m not talking about bad writers here, but talented individuals who have a love of words and should know better—because sections of their work are brilliant. Yet they’ve failed to constructively revise those thousands of words written in haste.
That remark I just made about revising? I’ll repeat it. Your draft is the time you transform your ideas from notes into an experience for the reader. It won’t be perfect first go (unless you’re a genius). It will change as you write it. The first draft is an exploration, not a presentable product. You need a thorough and considered revision period afterwards. And a break, so that you can see what needs changing (I refer you to Kevin again, and my self-editing masterclass snapshots).
But it’s just a game
Fair enough, some people take part in NaNoWriMo just to have a go. There’s nowt wrong with that. We all do hobby projects in the privacy of our own homes, for the kraic, for the experience, for the bucket list, to enrich our lives, to express ourselves.
Where to share
This is the bigger question. What should we do with those have-a-go manuscripts, if the month of writing was quite enough, thank you? (Listen for those agents wailing in the wires of Twitter. That’s a warning.) There are plenty of places where you’ll be among like-minded writers – you can use Wattpad, or blog your book. Other options are no doubt available. You can immortalise it in print – Lulu, Createspace and Ingram Spark will let you do personal, limited distribution.
But please, don’t put it in places where the public deserves properly finished books – Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble et al. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that your NaNo splurge will be found among the millions, there’s a principle here.
No, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have just a few months’ experience under my belt and think I knew everything. And a story I was burning to release, and a career I was desperate to start. But we need to discuss where it’s appropriate to share our work. Is that a great unmentionable? C’mon. We’re all grown-ups here.
Encouraging people to read
Kevin mentions the question of encouraging people to read. And he’s right to. We don’t have to try to change the world, or lament that we have so many forms of entertainment that now compete with books. But with every book we publish, we have the chance to prove that reading is still a great experience. So let’s make our books as good as we can, as a matter of pride, and of respect for our readers, and for the joy of doing absolute justice to our potential (yeah, you know what I’m like when I get started).
(Thanks for the speedbump pic Andrew Rivett)
If you’re planning a NaNoWriMo novel, there are plenty of tips in Nail Your Novel. There’s also a discussion about it on this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
Have you done NaNoWriMo? What were your aims, and what became of the manuscript afterwards? Are you doing it this year? Whether you’ve NaNo-ed or not, what would you add, agree with, disagree with, protest about to your last breath? The floor is yours.
My guest this week has a novel that spans several lifetimes and puts a new spin on reincarnation – she blends thriller with romance and the supernatural with her story of neuroscientists who have unlocked the secret of reincarnation. She used music to conjure her kaleidoscope of time periods, from ancient China to the modern day, and some of her selections are astoundingly haunting – I’m astonished to discover the 1970s album recorded in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. Those among you who are reincarnation aficionados will have spotted the reference in the title of this post to the 1980s movie Somewhere In Time, and that was on her Soundtrack too. She is Gwendolyn Womack and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
We all have periods when our creative time is nuked. Day jobs, family responsibilities or out-of the-blue crises can make our writing goals streak away into the impossible distance. Even if writing is our chief occupation, there are platforms to build, decisions to mull. And if we self-publish we can add more exacting tasks to the list.
This year I’ve become more aware than ever how scarce my writing time has become. As well as editing work, I’ve got invitations to speak and run courses. I’m thrilled, and happily surprised as I never expected it. I consider myself fantastically lucky to be able to build a career on this art I’ve practised quietly for decades. But if my own novels take a back seat, my soul will shrivel. So this is how I stay on track.
You don’t always need big chunks of writing time. Instead, schedule micro-sessions. Can you set the alarm 20 minutes earlier? Earmark that to spend time with your book’s textfile, planning the next scene, honing the one you’re currently writing, creating your beat sheet if you’re in the revision stage (more about that here). Begin your day with a short stretch of clear, quality book time – and it will travel with you all the rest of the day. I’ve written more about that here.
Develop smart triggers for quick access to your book’s world. If you’ve hung around here for any period of time you’ll know how keen I am on music for this . At the moment, I’m gathering an Undercover Soundtrack for Ever Rest, and it keeps my enthusiasm stoked, reminds me of the book’s world, the characters and their mysteries.
Draw inspiration from everyday life
The more I am immersed in the book, the more I find useful material comes to me – the view out of a window will help me build a scene in a new location, the outfit of a guy on the Tube is how one of my characters will dress.
Baby steps keep your mission clear
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the little glitches that spring up as we write and edit. We can be just as disrupted by new ideas that suggest fresh possibilities. Suddenly our clarity has gone, the book’s getting out of control. The mistake is to try to muddle on with all those new ideas boiling around you. Instead, isolate a question you want to consider, brainstorm it, consider the consequences for one path or another – and when you’re ready, return to the main book. When I bump up against a problem with plot or characters, I scribble it on a scrap of paper and carry it with me so I can work it out without getting confused or derailing the rest of the book.
Remember editing is part of the writing
Some authors regard redrafting as a chore of corrections, a dispiriting process of confronting what we did wrong. And indeed, some authors still don’t realise they can self-edit at all. (I get emails from writers who worry their first draft is turning bad, and want to send it to me for a developmental report.) But revision is 1 – necessary and 2 – an intensively creative opportunity. Most novels get better from multiple visits. The more you edit, the more you understand what your book needs and how to streamline it. More here on this – revision is re-vision.
Find a buddy
I have a writer friend who’s also fiercely defending his writing time, while over-run by a busy career. For a few years now, we’ve been direct messaging on Twitter first thing each morning, a little nudge to say ‘I’m on my book – are you on yours?’ Find a buddy who’s also in danger of drowning, and keep each other accountable.
There’s a lot more on getting your novel finished in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.
And tell me – how do you stay in touch with your writing when time is scarce?
The life of a writer is a kind of madness. We have the pressure to produce. The expectations of ourselves and, if we’re lucky, our readers. We have, usually, the feeling that we can never do enough – can’t write enough words or books, can’t be in enough online places, can’t sell enough copies. We might also have the feeling that we’re failing in comparison to others, that we have too many opportunities we can’t fulfil well enough – or no opportunities at all because, as we hear every minute of the day, the market is glutted and nobody needs any more writers.
But writing and publishing are long games, and those of us who keep at it have to develop a resilience. Day by day by day, there’s a secret fuel that keeps us keeping on. Otherwise this would be a dumb way to live, right?
In my corner of the world, March has dawned bright and full of promise. I still can’t figure out how, as it seems just a fortnight since Christmas, but as we’re here I thought I’d share the things that put a spring in my step.
Noting each hour I’ve spent on my fiction. Those of us who write and edit as a day job often find our soul projects get pushed aside. That’s one of the surprising truths about the writing life. Emma Darwin posted about this recently, in which she talked about ring-fencing time for her own writing. I cherish the time I spend with Ever Rest each morning before I open the deluge of emails. Just an hour loads the book in my mind and keeps it ticking over while I deal with the day’s demands. Sometimes deadlines make it impossible, and if that continues for a few days I start to get twitchy. But a proper appointment with my own writing restores my equilibrium. Even if that’s an hour of filleting a paragraph over and over, hunting for the right tone, that was well spent. Page by page, it adds up to a book.
The sense that so much of a book is serendipity. I look back at my completed novels and can recognise where incidental details came from, and sometimes the big ideas too. So much of a book’s texture seems to have come from random remarks I heard, news headlines I glimpsed, a novel I happened to be reading or a film I saw when my own story was at a sensitive point. My books are made of a collection of happenstances and lucky discoveries. Which is a bit magical.
Finding an email, a tweet or a Facebook note about one of my books. Sometimes they’re from a stranger, or a name I recognise only glancingly. We are probably more widely read than we suspect. But every single remark is a genuine, welcome surprise – or at least confirms I’m not howling into the wind.
An afternoon reading for pleasure. My reading time is usually appropriated by work – manuscripts in progress, research to get ideas and to make sure my WIPs are properly informed (both non-fiction and fiction). So I try to make time for an indulgent read, purely for fun and curiosity (which is how the rest of the literate world probably reads anyway). Again, I don’t always succeed when the deadlines go wild. (If you like to explore more about how writers read, bookseller Peter Snell and I discussed it recently in one of our radio shows. Find them all here – it’s show no 21.)
A good sales day, of course, which is different for everyone, and seems to be more of a challenge now than ever. But they do happen. I’ve written before about how much harder it is to sell fiction than non-fiction, and how to take a long-term view, and how a sale of one of my novels delights me about five times as much as a sale of a Nail Your Novel book (but I’m still very grateful to have those, thank you very much).
The Undercover Soundtrack I started this series on the Red Blog and have kept it going now for four years. It’s fun. People enjoy it and it’s nice to be able to offer an unusual kind of showcase for other writers. But also The Undercover Soundtrack keeps me in touch with the essence of creativity. These essays ground us in the work we do. It’s not about communities, forums or sales. It’s the pleasure and struggle of sitting down with yourself, the long persistence of flying blind through an idea, seeking clarity, gathering substance, the process of gradually making something from nothing.
The wonderful web of writer support. Most of the time we all try to be upbeat on line. And there is much to do, and many opportunities to grasp, and many reasons to press onwards and upwards. But I’m grateful whenever one of my co-conspirators lends an ear for a moment of woe, or confesses they are having just the difficulties I am – when I thought I was the only one.
Thanks for the pic MadAdminSkillz
Over to you – what keeps you resilient as a writer?
The other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.
In some ways, I agree.
But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?
Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.
You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, if we’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell.
Actually, at two hours every day, that’s 13 and a half years – which may not be encouraging to know. But this figure does perhaps explain why some characters doubt the use of teaching when it comes to making writers. Indeed Stephen King says in On Writing: ‘to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’. And: ‘the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself’.
Time for T
Dare we mention the T-word? Talent? There, it’s said. What might talent be?
I guess we could call it the qualities that can’t be taught. Imagination, a grace with the written word, the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.
We should add the disposition to persist for 10,000 hours (or however much it might actually be) – because talent will only last so far. Before Picasso could have a blue period, he learned to draw properly so he knew what he was doing to his audience. Then he could mess around all he wanted.
So what am I doing here?
A writing teacher can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can’t do the work for you. In that case, what am I teaching?
1 Awareness – of how stories work on the intellect and heart, the invisible tricks that writers use, some of which they’re probably not aware of.
2 Methodology – ways to cope with the difficulties when we’re out of ideas, disappointed with our work. And how to organise the tons of material we have, changes of heart, brainwaves for new directions.
3 Critical thinking in ways that are helpful rather than destructive.
4 Ways to discover what we should be writing, and how to fulfil our distinctive potential.
5 The joy of creativity, of the pursuit of craftsmanship, the respect and wonder of what we can do with printed marks or pixels. I will always be amazed how prose seems infinitely richer than photographs or film. A great piece of writing is worth a thousand pictures.
6 We’re also sharing our own curiosity. I’m first a writer, then a teacher. I’m on my own odyssey with another ornery book and it’s nice to talk to those who understand.
If you liked this post, you might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss a tricky question – what, exactly is writing talent?
Over to you. Can writing be taught? What aspects of writing can’t be? What do you learn from writing teachers? If you’re a writing teacher, what do you teach?
In a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.
1 Trying to say everything in dialogue
Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.
Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.
If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.
2 Including too many banalities
Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….
Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?
Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:
Your Chablis, sir.’
Do sit down.’
This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?
As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.
This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.
As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’
So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.
4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics
We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.
If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:
He heard the Scots burr in her voice.
Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.
Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.
There’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…