Posts Tagged how to write a book

From fragments we build a book – Ep 27 FREE podcast course for writers

Just before we recorded this episode I’d been chairing a roundtable at a writing conference. I was struck by how our books come together from fragments. Snippets of inspiration and research; structures that reveal themselves in pieces which we join together like a jigsaw puzzle; snatches of voice that suggest characters or perhaps the narrative tone of the entire work; the contributions from beta readers and editors later on; the way we might be pleased with certain parts but have to sweat over others. Books are long haul; they come together from so many directions. This creative process is what we’re talking about in today’s episode.

Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Ready for the red pen – how to prepare for comments on your book manuscript

I am at a nail-biting time. I’ve just sent the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest, to its first critical readers in the outside world. Soon I’ll receive their notes.

I’ve been through this process many times, obviously. I know roughly what to expect – both from my own experience and my experience mentoring and editing. It’s inevitable that:

  • some parts will be overcooked
  • some will be undercooked
  • and hopefully some are just right.

After six years working on this novel, I’m eager for comments so I can finish it properly. But that anticipation also comes with trepidation. I’m a perfectionist and I hate delivering a less-than-perfect performance. This first reading is a thoroughly necessary process for any writer, but also a nerve-racking one. Do we ever get used to it?

I asked a few author friends how they handle this sensitive time.

Carol Lovekin @CarolLovekin is the author of three Welsh Gothic novels, Ghostbird, Snow Sisters and, most recently, Wild Spinning Girls. Like me, she’s a writer who takes her time, excavating a book to find the real bedrock of the story – as she described in this wonderful blogpost.

‘My first experience of structural edit feedback was brutal reality disguised in kindness. One of the things my first editor told me was, ‘Your writing is lovely; the problem is, there’s too much lovely.’ In other words, we’re dumping a lot of this. Descriptive writing is my forte. It felt utterly heartless. Once the edit was done however, I barely recalled those passages I’d sworn were my ‘best bits’ and the result was mind-blowing. Janet encouraged me to defend my words when it felt essential, and crucially, when to acquiesce and trust her wisdom. She taught me how to be a better writer and I return to her training over and again, specifically to that comment about the ‘lovely’. You will do your best editing when you draw on the criticism, good and bad, from previous books. It’s a privilege to be asked to rewrite until you bleed superfluous words.’

Find Carol here.

 

Peter Selgin @PeterSelgin is a novelist, memoirist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, artist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. You might recognise him from this recent interview.

‘These days, I’m happy to be read closely by anyone, and realized that to have any reading, let alone one that is close and careful and comes with thoughtful responses however critical, is a gift. Yes, praise feels good, but so does respectful and constructive criticism, even when the criticism is large or global, still, I see it as a gift: someone has given me and my work their time and effort. The only thing that upsets me is when someone asks to read a manuscript of mine and then says nothing, or worse, doesn’t read it. This is, to my mind, an unpardonable sin to commit against a writer (especially when committed by a fellow writer, who of all people should know better). I can’t imagine having an author send me their work and then ignoring it or letting it sit for weeks and months. Of all responses we can possibly get to our works, none is crueller, more damning than silence. The silence says (my translation): your work is so egregious I cannot bring myself to comment, or worse: I could not bring myself to read beyond a few pages; or worse still: I didn’t bother to read your work at all, having anticipated its badness. For me, a verdict of, “I read every word of your [book/story/essay] and suffered greatly each one” is preferable to silence. Well, I’d say to myself, —at least they read it!

Find Peter here.

Marcia Butler @MarciaAButler is the author of the memoir The Skin Above My Knee and the novel Pickle’s Progress. (You might remember she wrote an Undercover Soundtrack about her memoir.)  Now in the final stages of edits to her second novel, Oslo, Maine, due out in March 2021, she says her process for getting reader feedback has changed.

‘I’m much more selective about readers in general and because of this I tend to show my work less and less. Most importantly, I trust myself more. I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of people to put eyes on my writing. But those who do, I select carefully.

‘In January I sent this novel to three people. Two were authors who have published numerous novels. This fact of being published is important because they’re wise to both what a book “should be” and the winds of the industry. The third was a dear friend I’ve known for 40 years who reads a ton. I knew he would be honest and thoroughly professional with me. They all came back with written comments. I also had conversations with all; one talk was lengthy.

‘The main thing I look for is consensus on what is not working. Confusion in the plot. Timelines that need correcting. Characters not nuanced enough. Things like that. If two of the three mention the same problem, I know it is real and must be addressed. Happily, all of them said it was 90% there, which of course, is lovely to hear. However, I don’t in any way take praise as a reason to relax. Praise simply means I’m on the right track. I have since gutted the thing. The plot is the same, but I have changed literally every sentence and even some character arcs. I’ll continue to work intensively until submission. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the course of three books. I try to get my novel in as complete a version as humanly possible when I submit to the publisher. Then his or her edit suggestions tend not to be as heart crushing. (Been there.)

Find Marcia here.

Mat Osman @matosman is now on his second artistic career. You might already know him as a founder member of Suede, who are still touring, and he’s now published a debut novel, The Ruins. He says his background as a musician prepared him well for editorial comments.

‘As a musician you’re entirely used to the idea of collaborative art. Albums are made by a group of people, constantly altering and improving and rewriting and trying things different ways. I found with the novel that I actually missed that feedback. I think I came to the editing in a completely different state of mind from most authors. Musicians (and especially producers) can be pretty brutal so I’m used to being told ‘God, that was absolutely useless, try it again without the boxing gloves on’. So an editor saying ‘We need to make these cuts and changes to make it read better’ feels very unthreatening to me. I have a friend who is a film editor and it’s a fascinating process to watch – they cut and cut and cut until everything that’s left is doing a job.

Find Mat here. Pic by Theo McInnes.

Claire Fuller @ClaireFuller2 is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her longform works are Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons and Bitter Orange.

Now on her fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, she uses a writing group for feedback as she goes.

‘I share parts of the novel I’m working on every month. That does make sharing the whole novel easier because I’m used to getting feedback. Two or three friends from that group will read the whole novel, and before I send it to my literary agent. (And I’ll read theirs when they’re ready.) When their comments come back, I always feel a moment of anxiety – what if they hate it? But of course the comments are always mixed: some bits are working, other bits not. Then I have to let the comments sit for a day or two to digest them and let my emotions calm before I can look at them dispassionately and decide which ones I want to act on.

‘My agent is my second reader, and we usually meet for lunch to go through what she thought. If she books somewhere nice, sometimes I’ll think she must be happy with it, or if I’m feeling particularly insecure (when aren’t writers insecure?), I’ll worry that she’s taking me there to break the bad news! It’s never as bad as I think, and actually I like editing more than writing first drafts, so I’m happy to get feedback.

Find Claire here.

Me again.

As Claire says, it’s never as bad as we think.  And her point leads me to a final tip.

To get into the criticism-improving frame of mind, I decided to reread the feedback I had for Not Quite Lost, my last book. I meant to re-appreciate how helpful it was, how it showed directions I’d never otherwise have noticed. (Like Marcia, I gutted the book again afterwards. I’m a very thorough self-editor.) In so doing, I made an important discovery. In my memory, one reader found a big flaw, and I recall feeling embarrassed, because I’d made her read a misconceived mess. Now, reading her email again, I realised she was praising most of the book. At the time, I hardly saw. So that’s my tip. If you have been through this process before, dig out the critical reports you received on previous books. You’ll see how helpful they were – and you also might be surprised that they were positive and supportive too.

I’m still biting my nails, though. Wish me luck.

 

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’d like to know more about my creative life, including the full Richter scale of collywobbles about letting my manuscript loose, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write your book – a writing and publishing course in 9 songs. Ep 26 FREE podcast

It was Easter when we transmitted this episode. We were in holiday mood. A time to slacken belts, silence alarm clocks, wind down for a few days. Instead of ploughing into another brow-furrowing discussion about writing and publishing, we thought we’d recap the most important points from the series so far, presented with the music that best summed them up.

Oh all right, it was an excuse for me to spin those tracks again. Here it is, a set of 9 songs to tune up your writing habits.

My co-presenter is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to read like a writer – Ep21 FREE podcast for writers

How do you ‘read like a writer’? What do you look for? How can you learn to write from the books you read? Does it matter if you’re a slow reader?

That’s what we’re discussing in today’s episode.

Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

 

If you like that topic, also try this post (Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading) and this (Reading vs watching The Night Manager… why I prefer the book).

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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All about reading groups and writing groups – Ep12 FREE podcast for writers

In this episode we’re spanning the entire spectrum of the book-reader continuum. What makes a good writing group? What makes a good reading group or book club? How do you organise such a group? How do you find a group that suits you? Should authors visit book groups or does it cramp everyone’s style? We have the answers!

Mu co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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All about character arcs – Ep 11 FREE podcast for writers

Today we’re talking about character arcs. What is a character arc? What do we mean by that? Why do stories have arcs anyway? How do characters help you to develop a satisfying plot and vice versa? Can you write about people who aren’t like you? How might you apply this to non-fiction as well as fiction?

Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books, especially my in-depth book on characters. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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Tools for writers, Word, Scrivener, good old-fashioned paper – Ep 8 FREE podcast for writers

Welcome back to So You Want To Be A Writer! This episode, we delve into the various tools a writer might use. And not just for the writing – for research, developing characters and plots, keeping track of what’s what in your story world. And a few apps that can stop you frittering away too much time in research rabbit-holes.

Now, I must introduce a caveat. I’ll explain it in beards.

Now. Pic by Monica Weller

Then, aka time of recording

So you see, a few wee years have passed since we taped the show. Certain writers’ apps were not yet invented, so if there’s one you want to shout about, do add it in the comments. But what hasn’t changed is methods – writers still have the same needs, the same problems to confront. And sometimes, there are times when the best tool is still a sheet of paper.

Asking the questions is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

PS If you like this topic, here’s when a computer-loving writer prefers a pen.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Stuck at home? Completely FREE course to help you write your book – Ep 1 Starting writing

Hello! As the world gets strange and uncertain around us, we’re all turning more to creative, imaginative activities. So you might like this completely free resource – So You Want To Be A Writer, a show originally recorded for Surrey Hills Radio about writing, reading, booklife, publishing, self-publishing and everything else wordy.

My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell, so between us you get the entire sweep of the books spectrum. From hammering an idea into publishable form (me), to the other end, the person who introduces books to readers who’ll love them. (And knows what they won’t like.)

We had a real blast recording this series, talking about the stuff we love, our lifelong experiences making and selling books, swapping our different perspectives, answering questions from listeners. Above all, we wanted to be helpful and practical – as I’ve always aimed for with this blog and my Nail Your Novel series. You might even like our music choices! (If you do – thank me. If you don’t, blame Peter.) With 52 hour-long episodes of focused advice, the series amounts to a free course in writing a book.

This is episode 1 – starting writing. You can stream it from this widget below, or go to our Mixcloud page and listen there.

 

PS If you like our show, and you’re curious about the book I’m trying to nail now, here’s my newsletter

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Finished Nanowrimo? 5 ways to use the holidays to keep your new writing habits… without revising too early

You aced Nanowrimo.

You have a satisfying file of fifty-k words, itching for further attention.

Your creative mojo is in motion. You got a writing habit, and you’re loath to let it slide.

And holiday times are coming when you might find the odd hour to sneak off, keep your hand in.

But:

It’s too soon to revise the manuscript. You don’t have enough critical distance. So keep it locked away and do these things instead.

1 Fill your research holes

As you wrote, you probably found gaps that needed more research.

Locations

Locations you need to flesh out with visuals, smells, sounds, practical details. Is that tourist attraction open in February? Did people in Georgian England clean their teeth? Also seek details beyond the literal – to resonate with your themes or the inner lives of your viewpoint characters.

Characters’ lives

First drafts are often rough about details of characters’ lives. You might add surprising richness if you look at their professions or think about their daily routines. (For professions, I heartily recommend Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Occupation Thesaurus.)

2 MOT your title

Did you have a title? If you didn’t, start brainstorming. If you did have a title, is it still the best title?

3 Find comparison titles

At some point, you’ll need to identify which books are the closest to yours, which will be infinitely useful for introducing the book to the wide world. Literary agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, everyone needs to know what other books your book is like.

This is relatively easy if you’re writing in a genre or well defined tradition, but if you’re not, be tangential. Consider:

  • themes
  • human situations
  • historical or geographical settings
  • the nature of the story’s resolution
  • the writing style
  • the tone.

And … find unexpected comparisons

Just for kicks, take an aspect of your book and find a treatment of it that’s as different as possible from your own. Might it give you fresh and surprising ideas?

4 Write a summary from memory

This will do you good in many fab ways. You’ll need a summary when the book is eventually ready to meet the world. Writing this summary is a major undertaking (see here for how long it took me to write a summary of My Memories of a Future Life – the post is titled ‘I feared I’d never get the blurb finished in time for the launch’). Even if your revisions of the novel change a lot, it’s easier to update an existing summary than to write one from scratch under pressure. So start writing it early, when you have this downtime.

And do it from memory! Why? Two reasons – to stop you opening that text file and fiddling too soon. Also, the summary is in itself a reflective process of revision. When you tell the story to a new blank page, off the cuff, you’ll see anew how everything fits together. Or how it could with a tweak or several. You might see some completely new directions as well.

5 Or … divert your attention completely by starting another project!

But no peeking until January. Or even later.

Psst… My Nail Your Novel workbook has loads more activities for using this writing rest productively.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s been happening at my own writing desk. And maybe also beyond.

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The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending

It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem.  We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?

Here’s a handy test.

You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.

This is like story endings.

A good ending

First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.

When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.

It fails the arrest test.

Which is this:

It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events and character issues) that you later rely on ….  at the end.

Epic fail  

How do you spot this epic fail?

You may already be good at it.

We are in an era of long-running TV shows, which get cancelled or renewed at the last minute. Some writing teams can weather this with aplomb. Others collapse in a pickle of chaos. We’ve all seen a smart, richly written show that falls apart in a late episode and becomes unsatisfying, or ridiculous, or changes direction jarringly.

Behind this story implosion, there’s usually a script crisis. The showrunners might have planned a one-off series with an arc that finished nicely. Then late on, they’re told they’re being renewed and mustn’t wrap up after all. They can’t rewrite. The first episodes might even have been shown. So hasty rearrangements are needed at the end.

It happens the other way round too. The show is cancelled unexpectedly, so the writers must tidy up in a tearing hurry.

What the viewer sees is this.

  • Heaps of new stuff is tipped in at the last minute.
  • Things happen that haven’t been properly set up.
  • Characters behave in ways that are hard to understand and don’t fit with what we know about them.
  • There may be a lot more expositional scenes than before, which usually look contrived.

Golden rule

Don’t put anything in your ending that you haven’t seeded much earlier.

Back to evidence

Let’s stay with the arrest scenario and think about evidence.

Evidence is audience knowledge. And it must be revealed at the proper time.

Because a good, satisfying ending is built from knowledge and emotions the reader has gained throughout the entire book.

A health check for your ending

So here, in more detail, is the ‘under arrest’ test. Look for the following in your manuscript.

No new plotlines or characters

Any new characters or plotline that appear suddenly. After a certain point in the story, you shouldn’t introduce anything new. However, you can if you’ve paved the way for them (which means they’re not, actually, new). And you must be specific. If you add a long-lost cousin who becomes pivotal, we must know they might exist in the specific world of this story and that they might be drawn out of hiding. If you don’t make these preparations, it won’t look fair – even though most humans on the planet might have a long-lost cousin. (Though they might not all have had a long-lost Dalek.)

A new relationship or set of character feelings is revealed. He was adopted! She was always jealous of them! If you want to introduce a relationship surprise, make sure you’ve laid oblique and indirect clues. If a character does a thing that is surprising because they have a change of heart, does it make deep sense without lots of explanation? Or should you prepare more earlier?

Expositional scenes – how much are you having to explain? If you are giving long explanations, have you already got the reader insanely curious about these facts? Are they the subject of an ongoing mystery? If you’ve already primed the reader to want the answer, they’ll pay close attention to your explanation. If you haven’t, they’ll see it as an info-dump and you need to set it up much earlier so that they care about it all.

And if you need a long sequence of exposition, how do you handle it? Are you delivering it in the most interesting way? The most straightforward way is long speeches, which can look uneven – one person talks a lot, the other sits quietly, maybe drinking tea. Or you might convey it through thoughts and sudden realisations – which might also look dull and static. Instead, could you make these discoveries more dynamic? If a person is hearing the explanation, could it matter directly to them? Could some of the information be acquired by action rather than a long explanation?

Watch out for off-screen action you’ve introduced to fill logic holes. ‘I found this out because I phoned that guy you used to work with who I’ve never met before, I must admit, so a phone call is out of character for me…’ Yes, you should have written a scene shouldn’t you? Evidence, innit.

So… list everything the reader must understand to really ‘get’ your ending. A thread to be resolved, a thread to hang in a tantalising way, a note to sound your theme, a comedy twinkle or a note of sinister continuation. You could even write the ending you most want, then interrogate it with these questions to find out what to expand. Then you’ll have an ending that does your book justice.

Thanks for the justice pic Jessica45 on Pixabay

There’s more about endings in my book on plot and also in my workbook.

Endings are on my mind as I’m currently being fussy about the denouement of my current novel, Ever Rest. If you’d like to know more about that, here’s my newsletter.

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