Oh yes it will. Or so my novel asserts. I’m proud to be interviewed today by Washington journalist Bill Thompson for his new site The Bookcast. He put me through my paces with all the big questions – reincarnation, hypnosis, destiny – and whether we seek answers from fiction. Oh, and whether any of my novel came from real life (mine).
Bill’s also looking for indie authors to interview – so if that’s you, head over to his site and drop him a line.
What does a thriller writer put in her headphones when she wants to drum up the characters of her childhood Brooklyn? Sinatra, Dean Martin, Coldplay, Bonnie Tyler… My guest this week needs silence for the actual writing, but reaches for music when she’s choreographing a scene or rekindling her creative momentum. Most of all, her soundtrack earths her story in the people and environs of her childhood. She is Dina Santorelli and today she’s on the Red Blog talking about the soundtrack to her thriller Baby Grand
I’ve had a question from Mark Landen, host of the website Criticular:
‘I’ve had an idea for my book that I’m loving, but it involves a dream sequence. Is that taboo?’
Listen. Can you hear that seething noise? It’s writers, readers and other lit-minded folk sucking their teeth. When bloggers list the top 10 things they don’t want to see in a book, dream sequences are consistently there.
But smart writers know nothing’s forbidden. What those lists really mean is ‘handle with care’. So how should we handle dreams?
First of all, why are dreams so attractive to writers?
It’s the chance to be more creative with setting, language, reality, whimsy, imagery. A very tempting opportunity to luxuriate in prose.
You can explore issues the character may not want to face in real life, either to give the reader clues or to prod the character to a new realisation (or strengthen their denial)
You can dredge up forgotten memories or show flashbacks
Where do they go wrong?
On a practical level, the reader knows dream sequences are not ‘real’. They also know your book isn’t either, but you persuade the reader to go with you. But an extra level of fictionality can be a step too far.
Dreams often don’t change anything in the story (depending on your genre, of course). Scenes that don’t result in some kind of change or new understanding feel static – again the reader might feel like they’re wasting time. If the dream does cause a change, it might stretch credibility – when did any of us actually do something because we had a dream?
There’s usually a better storytelling solution. If you want a flashback, why not use a flashback? Or, better, find another way to show the information? Many novice writers have a particular intention with a scene but aim for it too literally. Instead of a flashback, could you use the elements in a more organic way? Have a character find an old photograph, or learn something from a friend in a way that deepens their relationship or causes more trouble? Or instead of dumping the revelation in one place, could you dissolve it more thoroughly through the story, tease the information into a mystery, perhaps?
The too-creative dream
Dreams in novels can get too creative. In real life dreams are so delicious – a jumble of memories from the day’s events, minutiae you never knew you’d noticed, wonky input from anything you’ve ever forgotten. Possibly brought to you by TooMuchCheeseBeforeBedtime.com.
What makes them involving is the vast, surprising sense they make to you – and they probably make no sense to anyone who doesn’t have your exact history. Certainly to create such an experience for the reader would be a creative tour de force. But the effect comes from context. Without that it is no more than an indulgent digression.
The truest representations of dreams are usually found in magic realism – where they are, in fact, part of the real action.
Should you use a dream sequence? A checklist
Be aware that the reader is thinking ‘do I need to pay attention to this’?
And ask yourself: ‘is there another way?’
But sometimes a dream is just perfect. Here are two of my favourites.
Two divine dream sequences
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca starts with a long, languid dream. That’s two taboos in one, according to the list-makers. So why is it justified? Because it’s very relatable – a puzzled visit to the burned-out shell of the character’s old home, Manderley, which would be impossible for the character in reality. It’s a startling moonlit exploration of memories and feelings and the romanticism of it charms us. It also sets up a note of tragedy for the story to unfold. And the character tells you up front that it’s a dream – whereas a novice writer might make you wander through the moonlit house and then pull reality away.
My other divine second dream sequence is from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Scattered, absurd and vivid, it’s a real cheese dream. Characters fade into each other, a butler announces that the only way to get to the dining room is to ride the pony there, a discussion of buses turns into ‘mechanical green line rats’. It comes near the end of the book, so the figures are familiar and it serves as a poignant wrap-up, and also marks the disintegration of the character’s life. Better still, because all good storytellers find clever ways to reuse their material, it has an unexpected consequence in the real world (which I’m not going to tell you…)
Do you have a favourite dream sequence in fiction? Or do you want to nominate a stinker? Tell me in the comments
Thanks for the cheesy moon pic, Davedehetre on Flickr. And in case you don’t know Mark, you might be interested in his website Criticular – a writing and critiquing community for fiction writers. Thanks for a great question, Mark!
This time last year you might remember a certain note of monomania on this blog as I geared up to launch my novel. And perhaps creative chaos as I grappled with covers, blurbs and serialising the darn thing.
But I’d also been conducting a less obvious campaign – months of careful preparation to keep my credibility as I self-published my novel.
At the time it seemed necessary; a year on I don’t think we’re so stigmatised. That’s what we’re discussing in my post on Authors Electric today.
My guest this week is a multi-bestselling author of romantic novels, once dubbed ‘The Jilly Cooper of the Cosmo generation’. Her characters frequently express themselves with a lusty song or two and she writes to a soundtrack that never appears on the page. But, as you see from the post title, there are some choices that are not as suitable as you’d think… She’s Fiona Walker and she’s on the Red Blog sharing her Undercover Soundtrack
‘Try to nail something down in a novel,’ said DH Lawrence, ‘and you either kill the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail.’
(This is the first time I’ve come across a quote that put the words ‘nail’ and ‘novel’ together, so I thought it was worth a mention.)
Lawrence was talking about the influence of a story’s narrative voice, and how it has to be deployed with feints and subtlety. By coincidence, I’d just read his short story The Lovely Lady and badly wanted an excuse to talk through why I like it so much. So as the gods seem to be hinting, here we go.
(If you haven’t read it already, it’s here. It’s not that long and I’ll wait for you.)
How’s this for an opening?
The Lovely Lady is Pauline. ‘At seventy-two… sometimes mistaken, in the half-light, for thirty…. Only her big grey eyes were a tiny bit prominent… the bluish lids were heavy, as if they ached sometimes with the strain of keeping the eyes beneath them arch and bright.’
Pauline lives with her son, Robert, and her unmarried and distinctly less favoured niece Cecilia: ‘perhaps the only person in the world who …. consciously watched the eyes go haggard and old and tired….. until Robert came home. Then ping! … She really had the secret of everlasting youth… could don her youth again like an eagle.’ How interesting that she only turns this magnetism on for Robert. Never Cecilia. And how creepy.
Here we have characters we recognise by their familiar vanities – and an off-kilter situation. And it’s all accomplished through simple description. First, we’re shown Pauline (most frequently referred to as ‘the lovely lady’) in a way that lets us know how she sees herself. Then we see Cecilia’s view of her. There’s a lot of unrest here; an unstable situation that can’t last. Simple and masterful.
We don’t get Robert’s point of view. He is a mute adorer of his mother. And anyway this is going to be Cecilia’s story. Cecilia, by the way, is very quickly abbreviated to Ciss, or perhaps I should say reduced as the narrator informs us the diminutive is ‘like a cat spitting’. Tiny details that reinforce her true place. (But we want this to change.)
They all live in a house that is ‘ideal for Aunt Pauline’ – but living death for the other two. That is just as well because they don’t have the confidence to leave. Cecilia is ugly and tongue tied, and Robert, a barrister, is secretly mortified that he can’t earn more than £100 a year, in spite of his best efforts. (Notice the ‘showing’, not ‘telling’ – we don’t get a sentence saying Robert’s an underachiever. We’re shown what that means and how it makes Robert feel.) By day he is at work. When he comes home at night, the old lady keeps him in awe of her beauty and gay conversation.
It doesn’t help that Robert is ‘almost speechless’. Dwell on those words for a moment: ‘almost speechless’. They reach so much further than ‘quiet’.
The language drums out the unnatural state of this triangle. Ciss intuits that Robert is never comfortable ‘like a soul that has got into the wrong body’. The lovely lady is only seen by candlelight, when she is radiant in antique shawls. She made her fortune dealing in antiques from exotic countries. Are we treading into vampire territory here? Perhaps, but not literally; this is a psychological hold. The lovely lady steals Robert’s youth to keep up the illusion of her own. Meanwhile Ciss is always sent to bed early and can see the confusion seething in his soul.
‘Every character should want something,’ said Kurt Vonnegut. Ciss wants to marry Robert, but can’t see how to prise him away and fears her dazzling aunt will live for ever – or at least until Robert is a broken husk. Nudging the vampire idea again, but so obliquely. (And she’s Ciss now; never Cecilia. Her status is so insignificant that the narrator doesn’t use her proper name.)
This talk of the supernatural is also storytelling sleight of hand – seeding suggestions for what comes next. One day, Ciss learns something that may give her a means of escape.
From here, the old woman is no longer ‘the lovely lady’, a legendary and exquisite presence. She is Pauline. Not even Aunt Pauline. Ciss has glimpsed the reedy old woman under the brocades.
The relationships thicken
Ciss’s relationship with Robert deepens and she becomes Cecilia again – although he will not break away from his mother.
The final solution is bizarre, poignant and funny, but it works beautifully because of the structures and influences the author has been weaving while we looked the other way. The nailing that was done with the lightest touch.
My guest this week was stopped in her tracks one evening by a Springsteen song, which became a young girl pushing boundaries, which became a finely drawn portrait of a family in turmoil. Other songs came to define pivotal moments – and the novel itself went on to win awards. That novel is In Leah’s Wake, the author is Terri Giuliano Long – and she’s at the Red Blog today, talking about its Undercover Soundtrack
Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.
You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?
Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.
How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.
How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.
My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.
Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:
You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.
Are these considerations relevant to novelists? If you’re planning to be a novelist for life, yes. You should be concerned about the long-term potential, growth, and stability of your site.
Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost? The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.
How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.
I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.
Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.
This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).
How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.
Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.
Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!
Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)
You must self-host. You mustn’t use an off-the-peg theme. You mustn’t, on pain of ethernal damnation, have links in blue Times Roman.
There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?
Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.
In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.
You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?
Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.
Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.
With freedom comes responsibility
The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)
The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.
Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.
But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.
Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:
use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.
Buy a URL
I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.
Over to Catherine
Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…
How did you start?
‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’
What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?
‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)
‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’
What about SEO?
‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’
Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…
Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
Get your own URL
Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.
If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.
It was hard to choose a quote to introduce this week’s Undercover Soundtrack. Jennifer Scoullar’s novel about Australia’s Brumby horses and the people who live among them has a soundtrack of many moods – from the intensely spiritual to the raucously rocking. She has also dedicated Brumby’s Run to causes that protect wild horses. In the end, ‘fragile but powerful’ seems the best way to do it justice. Join me at the Red Blog for her Undercover Soundtrack