A lot of people start writing books. Right now, ’tis the season for starting all sorts of great things. It’s also the season to vow to finish the book you lost touch with.
How can you turn your good intentions into a finished work?
We have the knowhow!
My friend Joanna Penn has invited me to her Creative Penn podcast to address a problem many of her listeners have asked for help with – how to finish a book they started writing. Or even, how to start in the first place and keep the engines firing all the way to the end.
No excuses. We’ve heard them all. And we understand them. We’ve faced them down ourselves.
We bring you understanding. Tactics for the difficult times. A bit of tough love. And a plan to really make this happen and feel mighty proud of your achievement.
Today I’m at Joanna Penn’s now legendary podcast, The Creative Penn, talking about writing and publishing literary fiction.
We cover the writing process for a very long-haul book (ie Ever Rest), the research process, creative revision, how you battle on when you’ve lost your way, and how you design a cover for a book that doesn’t have established genre parameters.
We also cover another big question – if literary fiction isn’t the most predictably lucrative kind of book, and marketing is tricky, what are the guaranteed rewards? Hence the line about making honest art.
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Do come over.
This interview was such fun. You probably know Joanna Penn for her legendary Creative Penn podcast, but here she is in alternative guise – Books and Travel.
She invited me to chat about my memoir Not Quite Lost so we took off our teacher hats and nattered about the pleasures of purposeless wandering, the charm of seasides out of season, and the way a low-key place can be personally magical if we just bring our imagination.
I haven’t read Milkman so I can’t say if I’d agree with Marriott’s review, but I absolutely share many of his concerns. He finds the book ‘a tough read’, self-indulgent in style and not particularly elegant or original. He concludes:
Nowadays literary fiction doesn’t mean “good fiction” … it means fiction that adheres to a set of stylistic conventions … novels as status markers rather than life-changing entertainments’.
If this is what ‘literary’ now means, do we need a new name for the other sort? The ‘life-changing entertainment’?
Actually, that definition of literary isn’t enough for me. To me, literary is nuanced, intelligent fiction that might not conform to genre tropes and seems to be bigger, deeper, truer, perhaps more inexplicable than its plot and characters. (Yes: more inexplicable. You could disappear up your own omphalos trying to define literary. If you like that, here’s another occasion where I’ve had a go.)
Neither do they have to be difficult – see this interview where Joanna Penn is talking to novelist and TV dramatist David Nicholls about his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Nicholls talks of ‘the British literary tradition that feels modern, startling and original’. (If you want another highly readable gem from the Brit-lit tradition, try William Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil.)
All of this is a long way from Booker-lit, but unfortunately Booker-lit is becoming the benchmark for all literary. If you’re a writer of the other sort (like I am), what are you now?
And that’s why I’m fretting. If a new term is needed for literary fiction, what should it be? Contemporary fiction? Modern fiction? Upmarket fiction?
Psst .. If you’re feeling plotless in an uncomfortable way, try my plot book
Psst 2 … If you’re curious to know how my current novel, Ever Rest, is doing, this is my latest newsletter.
Well that headline was a mouthful, but these two posts share a common theme.
I’m at The Creative Penn today talking about the process of turning a set of personal diaries into a book for outside readers. We cover the thorny topics of writing about real people, staying faithful to the truth, organising material – and also when a personal account might be better left quietly in a drawer.
As usual with the wonderful Joanna, you can read a transcript, download an audio or watch us wave our hands and crook our eyebrows on video. And there’s an appearance of the actual diary that started it all (now looking rather tattered). This is the direct video link, if that’s your thing.
I’m also at Clare Flynn’s blog, with a more leisurely conversation about personal journeys – from my own writing journey, to creating the book, to a provocative statement from Anthony Burgess. He said all literature was mostly about sex. If you want to chew that over, step this way. Oh, and there’s also an ‘ahhh’ moment with a big old friend.
Hello! I’m slightly late posting this week because I knew I had this waiting. Joanna Penn invited me back to her podcast to thrash out a thorny topic – how to find your author voice.
We discuss what voice is, how to develop it, how character dialogue differs from narrative voice, how authors might adapt their style for different kinds of book, voice considerations for non-fiction, the value of experimenting and – that perennial favourite – why literary fiction might take so darn long to write. Plus side helpings of Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, so bring a picnic.
I’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.
I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?
That’s a good question with a lot of answers.
So let’s take it apart.
‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’
I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.
In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.
The change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.
So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.
But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.
Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.
Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong. And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.
Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.
So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.
And now to part 2 of the question:
Should each part of the story contain a disaster?
First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.
And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.
So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.
Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.
You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
What is plot? What ingredients are essential, regardless of genre? How do we use themes effectively, and subplots? What makes a satisfying ending? Author-entrepreneur and heroic podcaster Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to answer these questions and more – and as you see, at 33:47 you can be assured of authorly hilarity.
Last year I wrote a post about whether I’d advise an author to publish or selfpublish. A year on, the landscape for authors is remarkably different – or perhaps not remarkable if you’ve been waiting for a bubble to burst.
Indie authors have seen sales plummet because of the sheer numbers of books available, and subscription schemes such as Kindle Unlimited have created a breed of readers who won’t shop outside a limited free list.
Might this mean it’s better to be traditionally published?
Not from what I’ve seen. My friends with trad deals aren’t having a good time either. Leaving aside royalties and advances (which seem to offer little financial reward for all the hard work writing), their books aren’t getting a decent chance for a long-term future.
A friend whose first novel won a major award in 2012 has just watched his fourth novel launch with no more fanfare than a tiny paragraph in a Sunday paper. His only other support was a training day on a social media course. And don’t even ask about rights grabs – where authors might wait years to reclaim a book to publish it themselves.
Tough times, my friends. So savvy writers will be looking for smarter ways to publish.
And that’s just the start. I think the authors of 2015 will be watching out for advantageous ways to partner up and we haven’t seen the half of them yet.
Indies who collaborate get
• shared marketing muscle, to connect with more readers
• shared expertise (editorial feedback, blurb and press release writing)
• shared contacts (editors, proof readers, designers)
• a shoulder to cry on, behind the scenes – and tough love when necessary too.
Does it sound familiar? Indie author collaborations are attempting to create the best of what a traditional publisher does. And this means we should…
View traditional publishing deals as collaborations
And so this means the smartest way to suss out deals from traditional publishers is to consider them as collaborations. What will they do for you that you could not do yourself? What are they asking from you in return? Is it reasonable?
No one I know writes a book to sacrifice it to a bad deal (see my remark about rights grabbing above). On the other hand, no one wants to turn down an opportunity that would be good, as far as can reasonably be forecast in a world of fickle readers and luck.
So this is what I’d say to the 2015 writer who’s asking my advice on whether to selfpublish or query traditional publishers.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the advance (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
Some (not all) are easy to source yourself or make good decisions about. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation – but see my remark above about the award-winning writer with his latest launch. Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly. This may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are traditionally published writers who sell enough to get meticulous attention from publishers, and others who get a tired, overworked editor who simply doesn’t have time to do the job as well as they’d like.
The more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner. If you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
2 Be aware of the limits of traditional print and distribution
Distribution of print books is an area where traditional publishers have a clear advantage – (however, the Alliance of Independent Authors is working on a print sales project for indies ). Books in a publisher’s catalogue get promoted by a sales team. You get the heft of their mighty reputation! Result!
But let’s have a reality check. Go into Waterstones or another large book emporium. Look along the shelves where the books are spine-outwards. How many are there? Which ones catch your eye? Probably none of them. They’re the store’s wallpaper. You’re already cover-drunk by the time you’ve passed the books on the tables or in the window or in special display boxes.
A book in a store needs more than a meek slot in the alphabetically-ordered shelves to be discovered by a casual browser, no matter how beautiful its title or cover. So even if your book is going into big stores, it’s unlikely to be found unless it gets special prominence – both in the store and in the wider world. For that, the publisher has to spend money. Independent bookstores are a different matter as the selection is smaller and more personalised, but you still have to hope your book gets emphasised by the sales reps or the store will never hear about it.
3 It isn’t either-or
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way. Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might selfpublish their backlist. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project.
Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals, where an author who is experienced in production keeps control of some stages of the editorial process. I like this model very much – it seems a good way to use everyone’s strengths.
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation. Take your time. Do it properly. You’ve got a lot to learn – about writing to a publishable standard and about publishing itself. The world will wait – but it won’t forget if you mess it up. See my post here about leaving enough time to use editorial feedback.
The selfpublishing world is maturing. Suddenly I notice there are a lot of us who have been in this game a few years now, building solid reputations and devoted audiences. I think 2015 will be the year of the exciting collaboration – with other authors, with translators, with artistes from other media (such as voice actors). Perhaps with editors too.
We’ll choose what’s best for each book. We’ll also get more expert at putting a realistic value on contributions, including those of traditional players in publishing, both imprints and agents, and with luck this will lead to deals that are fair and fruitful.
Writing may be solitary. Publishing – and selfpublishing – doesn’t have to be.
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.